September 2008 Transcript: Rob Miller and Jenny “JP” Pfafflin, Bloodshot Records

AJ: Welcome to First Monday Podcast, I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria. Anyone walking up to the Bloodshot Records office is greeted by their own reflections in the window, followed by a skeleton band hanging just out of reach, as if their brand of outlaw country could somehow defeat the only certainty in life besides taxes.

AJ: A little beer can go a long way to getting Bloodshot co-founder and co-owner Rob Miller and new media publicist Jenny Pfafflin to drop some anachronisms, and saddle up to the truth about a record company’s place in online music.

Joy: We spent a memorable happy hour in their front office located in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood, rush hour traffic passing us by as we swapped stories about a lifetime of great music and pondered the future of what each of us holds dear.

[“John Peel”, Paul Burch]

Rob: Well, let me say that everything I’m saying is predicated upon the belief that the music industry as it was ten years ago needed to be smashed. That, the power was in the hands of a few. They were treating, the major labels were treating their customers like suckers, and it’s so easy to see, it was easy for me to see at the time, but I’m hoping, you know, the suits can see in retrospect how they set up an antagonistic relationship with the very people they were relying on to survive. By charging $18.95 for a CD’s as CD costs actually went down, prices kept going up.

And everyone was at the hog trough just having a great time, it’s like auto companies, you know, with, with their Hummers for a long time. And then when it all collapsed everyone was quick to blame downloading. So you have a whole generation of people who treat major labels with hostility, rightfully so. Unfortunately as the pendulum swung all the way over to let’s just get as much as we can for free all the time, anytime, music has no value, you’re kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Joy: What’s the impact of the Internet on record companies. Specifically how does the Internet affect Bloodshot Records?

JP: Well, I mean, I think, there’s two folds to that. There’s the exposure of artists and then there’s the actual business model. As far as like sales are concerned, I think the Internet has done leaps and bounds for giving artists exposure, just because of the the consolidation of the music industry and the consolidation of radio stations and outlets that if you’re not on a major label, you’re not going to be played on mainstream radio at all. So you can distribute your music via the Internet and get exposure that way. And hopefully that turns people into fans and hopefully that will bring people out to shows. On the flip side, then you always you know you have the so-called freeloaders the people who are just downloading music and then consuming music and then just moving on to the next thing. So I think that also has affected music labels as well in the more kind of business sense of it.

AJ: So does Bloodshot incorporate an online business model?

Rob: We’ve had to, yeah, absolutely.

AJ: What does that include?

JP: As far as digital distribution we’re on eMusic, iTunes, Rhapsody, we’re dabbling a little bit mobile distribution too. And then, because of that, we’ve incorporated online promotions into our, into our day to day plan as well.

Rob: The great thing about the Internet, is that, it was very democratizing. It allowed people in Bismarck, North Dakota who might not ever get to see a band have access to their music and interact with fans of that music. But what everyone seems to forget is that with democracy comes a certain amount of responsibility, and for people to just go online and think that everything there is true and everything is there for them to just take speaks to that lack of responsibility, and you know the Greeks invented democracy and they knew it wasn’t for everyone.

AJ: So do you think major labels are obsolete now between the rise of so many independent labels as well as online distribution?

JP: No, because major labels still have a hold on all the radio that you listen to. And they’re still major money machines. I think they’re more in the business of entertainment, for lack of a better word rather than the music business.

Joy: I took a look at your website and you’re on Flickr, you’re on My Space and all the different social networking sites. Has your online efforts made an impact on your sales?

JP: I’d say it certainly hasn’t hurt us.

Rob: It’s, it’s hard to say what is a sale and what is making up for a lost sale. You almost treat a sale on iTunes gratefully because you know it’s possible to get it free elsewhere. You try and educate your audience to understand what the economics of this is. And if you love and support independent bands and labels and music and the lifestyle, that you can’t just take it. There’s got to be some mechanism by which it can survive, and, I don’t, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. We’re dealing with someone who loses an album sale at a show, that’s — well it used to be a tank of gas, now it’s a third of a tank of gas — and you know, it’s a very real impact to small independent artists, and that may mean the difference between them being able to go back to Wichita, Kansas next time, where they may only have fifty fans, but if they have seventy-five fans, but only half of them buy the record the economics of it just starts to fall apart, and I think the smaller cities with the smaller clubs are the ones that are starting to suffer.

Joy: Would you go so far as to say don’t go to iTunes to download music for $9.99?

Rob: I would say go to Fina which is Thrill Jockey [Records]’s comparable site.

I can’t say don’t buy stuff digitally, that’s just the guy with you know the horse and buggy going, “Don’t go to that car, ooo, devil, devil-vehicle,’ you know you can’t do that; that ship has sailed as it were, to use an even more arcane metaphor.

But to be fair, iTunes as far as legal you know downloading, iTunes is very fair and to follow up on that we are very fair with our artists, what they get. I can’t speak for other labels. I certainly can’t speak to what major labels parse out from that, but it’s a very fair price what they give the labels and we are very fair with what we pass on to artists, so I really can’t say anything too bad about iTunes other than I don’t think it sounds very good. Not iTunes specifically, but digital downloads.

[“Redneck Tailgate Dream”, Split Lip Rayfield]

This is a much broader discussion about what does art mean in our culture? What it ultimately means or is it just like a double cheeseburger at the drive-thru, we just have and enjoy for a little bit...and then it’s gone.

Joy: In part one of our Music 2.0 series we spoke to University of Michigan professor Robert Frost. His article proposes a new online music business model abolishing record labels and setting up a stie that choses music based on other music the user likes or dislikes, similar to the online radio site Pandora.

JP: I think his idea of what a record label is then pretty naive. We just don’t put out records, we also help bands. We do in-house promotion. We’re hitting up radio, we’re hitting up print, we’re hitting up online blogs, we coordinate retail, we’re getting our those records out into the places like Wichita, Kansas and into the, you know, into the last of the indie record stores that might be out there. We’re getting their records online, on Rhapsody, on iTunes, on eMusic. We’re working with their booking agents to make sure that we get posters for these bands out to the clubs, so kids know that this band is coming. I mean there’s so much more than, than a record label than just putting out a record.

Rob: And I’m really shocked that somebody would say that that’s the answer, because that’s reducing something emotional and visceral like music to a math equation, where you put something into Pandora, and go I like this this and this. This isn’t calculus, there’s not a right answer. But to say that I’m automatically gonna like that, is really creepy and Big Brotherish to me. Music, literature, art, are not math. It’s not simple addition. It’s matters of the gut and the heart, and there&#!46;s just something so cold and calculating and untrue about that.

Joy: I’ll clarify one thing. Part of his conception, part of his model is that there would be peer reviews available for user to read before purchasing music.

Rob That again, is the responsibility that comes from a total democracy, you have to be able to trust and assume that everyone on there does not have a hidden agenda, isn’t having a bad day, isn’t just being snarky for the point of being snarky, isn’t just throwing in a zinger because it’ll look good. You can’t read everyone’s review without pause. And everyone wants to be the first one to talk smack about Vampire Weekend or - [Laughter]

Jenny: That was a good, good reference.

Rob: There’s no room for like quiet reflective criticism anymore. Who’s got the patience to read that. We don’t let albums, music, art, literature creep into the culture anymore. We have to make our immediate decision and let some anonymous guy behind a computer, who knows what their agenda is, who knows what their background is, who knows what their ability to construct a coherent sentence is.

AJ: Money is always a difficult thing to talk about -

Rob: You’re not charging me for this, are you? [Laughter]

AJ: What kind of difficulties are artists facing while trying to make a living wage in the digital era?

Rob: I would say broadly that the middle class of musicians has eroded much like it has everywhere else in this country. It’s harder for somebody to make a decent living selling tens of thousands of records - ironically, given the broad nature of the Internet, there’s fewer places for people to get heard by a lot of people. Art, music, is not a meritocracy, people aren’t just going to go, “oh that’s better than that or those 17 thousand other songs, let’s listen to that one.”

I would like to go back to “how are artists making a living” based on what Frost said -

AJ: Frost says, quote, unquote, “Well first the structure I should mention in passing. I read that musicians for a CD that costs 17 dollars getting maybe 20 cents a track to about 80 cents or a dollar, maybe if it’s a superstar, a buck and a half per CD. Most of the money of course is a good chunk of retail markup -

Rob: Okay, that is damning everyone for the practices of the top two or three or four companies. That is how they do business, yeah it’s kind of a weird, you know you think of Irish labors coming over and enforced servitude in the 1700s, that’s kind of what being on a major label would be. But to say that is the way all labels operate is just patently untrue.

[“Deep Red Bells”, Neko Case]

Rob: What we’re seeing now given that people can’t make money on record sales that you’re seeing an uncomfortable and I find it to be insidious and I’m surprised there’s not more backlash from both fans and artists but everything is dripping with corporate sponsorship. And last year there was that stink about Pearl Jam saying something bad about the Bush administration and all of a sudden the audio clipped out at the live feed.

And then Band of Horses, they were getting just excoriated on their website by their fans for releasing something to Wal-Mart only, some Wal-Mart exclusive. These are some kind of uncomfortable things that artists are going to have to increasingly do with huge corporations in order to just survive and I was on a panel a couple of months ago and I found myself defending the band doing that because I’m looking at an auditorium of 300 college students who not five minutes before no one had raised their hands when somebody asked them if you’d bought a record in the past couple of months, how dare they then turn around and start blogging “sellout” to the band.

Jenny: Yeah.

Rob: What choice does that leave people? So you’re going to see these artists who want to get like maybe one song out and they’ll go, “well maybe it’s okay if we play at the Halliburton Dome because that’s the way we can afford to do it,”. And that to me is the real, the back door the slow insidious creeping in merging of corporate and art that that simple fact of not actually paying for an album will lead to it’s slow, it’s a slow slope, but it’s one we might look back on in ten years and go, “dear God how did that happened?”

[“Behind Me Now”, The Silos]

But what everyone seems to forget is that with democracy comes a certain amount of responsibility, and for people to just go online and think that everything there is true and everything is there for them to just take speaks to that lack of responsibility.

AJ: Do you think the prevelance of people downloading music, just going online and taking it rather than purchasing a real copy is causing the erosion of brick and morter stores?

JP: I mean, I think that has something to do with it, I think, you know, the rise of big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and Best Buy, Wal-Mart even has a music section, Target, you know, I think that has something else to do with it too.

Rob: It used to be you’d go to a music store to buy music and the cool stores would take the profits from the 300, “It’s a Jessica Simpson Christmas” CDs that they were gonna sell and use that to have their own like independent cool. I mean that’s what, when I, when I worked in a record store twenty years ago, that’s what we did and every store would make, they would have to sell the new Kanye record and they would make money off of those and that would provide the cushion to bring in the Black Flag record, to bring in the, the oddball stuff.

Now, you have places like Wal-mart and Best Buy bringing in the mainstream stuff at lost leader prices, they actually lose money when you sell them. And, so those mainstream people who used to give their money to the local record store are now just going to Best Buy, and throwing down their money for two, three, four, five dollars less, who knows, and then, that takes away that cushion for the independent store and the independent chain to survive and then they just go away.

Every time you spend money, you’re kind of voting what kind of society you want to live in. No one’s putting a gun to your head and saying go to McDonald’s, I mean, if you don’t want a McDonald’s in your neighborhood, don’t go to it, and it’s the same thing with record stores. If you want your we’ve got Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Chicago’s very lucky we have several viable independent stores. If you want them to stay there, then don’t go, “eh, well, go to Best Buy and save two bucks, who’s it gonna hurt?” It has ramifications.

[“Liquor Store”, The Meat Purveyors]

Joy: When you think about the future of Bloodshot, do you factor in how technological changes in the distribution or production of music might affect that future?

Rob: I still think of that question in terms of a member of this society more than a business man. I still wonder what we’re going to value just how ephemeral and disposable everything is becoming. What’s going to happen to books, what’s going to happen to magazines, what’s going to happen to the visual arts, music? The business part of it will figure itself out whether we’re around or not, but as somebody who reads and writes and enjoys music and looking at pretty pictures what’s that going to say about our culture? That to me is the big question.

AJ: This was a tough interview for me because I’m coming here also as a fan, not only as a fan of the music but often times I find myself being a fan of a label.

JP: That’s why labels survive. I did the same thing, I was a teenager in the mid-nineties, I bought the entire Sub Pop catalog, the SST catalog, I mean I bought my things by label, I didn't, you know once I heard Unwound I was totally entrenched in all the Kill Rock Stars stuff so...

Rob: And that’s how we built our business. You know as a kid I was just, Dischord, SST, and then I started exploring Stax, Volt, Sun Records and all those you look at the label and you go, alright I’ll give that a try.

Joy: Are you a dying breed?

JP: I don’t think so. That’s where you have the appreciators separated from the people who are just merely consuming.

Rob: That outlook though is getting more and more marginalized so labels do mean less and less because they’re you know look at the word “label”. It’s a label on a record that you’re holding you know it’s like dialing the phone, it’s going to become a quaint anachronism.

[“Shooting Star from Texas”, Wayne Hancock]

AJ: I have to admit, the little audio freak in me is so happy you’re pressing vinyl again.

Rob: Yeah we’re going back into vinyl and it’s cute but it’s still a fetish market it’s not making up for everything that you’re losing everywhere else.  I love vinyl too and like I said when I put on that Justin Townes Earle vinyl at the test pressing I thought this is how the record should sound and anyone who can’t tell the difference between this and the mp3 that they're downloading should have their ears taken away.

Joy: You guys have been great and we’ve covered a lot of ground today, do you have any closing thoughts?

JP: I guess closing thoughts are five years from now I’m pretty confident that Bloodshot will still be here, it just might have to rethink it’s business model in order to adapt to all the emerging technologies and the way that music is put into people’s hands.

Rob: And my closing thought would be that this goes far beyond the survival or nonsurvival of one label or any label or even the concept of the label. This is a much broader discussion about what does art mean in our culture? What it ultimately means or is it just like a double cheeseburger at the drive-thru, we just have and enjoy for a little bit...and then it’s gone.

[“Hot Dog”, Detroit Cobras ]

AJ: After all was said and done, we headed back out onto Irving Park Road feeling mildly star struck, and waved adios to the Bloodshot “banditos muertos” hanging in the window.

Joy: It’s funny how a discussion about something as cold and distant as digital zeros and ones, or the bottom line of a music business can remind you that at the forefront of it all are people singing and playing their hearts out.

AJ: They draw in fans like us over and over to that one special album or the anticipation of their next live show, all with the help of each stakeholder in the chain of music distribution. The Internet might be the new player in music distribution, but any fan can tell you, it’s always been about the music, not the method.

The Bloodshot artists featured in this episode were Paul Burch singing John Peel, Split Lip Rayfield singing Redneck Tailgate Dream, Neko Case singing Deep Red Bells, The Silos singing Behind Me Now, The Meat Purveyors singing Liquor Store, Wayne Hancock singing Shooting Star from Texas, and Detroit Cobras singing Hot Dog. All tracks can be found in the Bloodshot Records Sampler Number Six available for free download for a limited time on our website.

And if you like what you hear, please support these artists.

Finally we’d like to thank Rob Miller and Jenny Pfafflin for taking time out of their busy schedule to sit down and talk to us.

Every time you spend money, you’re kind of voting what kind of society you want to live in.

Joy: In this month’s review section Jennifer Kelley takes a look at the Diggnation Podcast.

Jennifer: Hi this is Jennifer Kelley, and this week I’m reviewing Diggnation

Diggnation isn’t, by strict definition, a podcast. It’s really an Internet show, based on stories from the social bookmarking site Digg.com. It just happens to have a downloadble, subscribable audio feed. And yes, you sometimes do get the sense, as a listener and not a viewer, that you are missing something by not seeing the occasional screenshot or bit of physical humor.

While Diggnation calls itself a tech-slash-web show, it’s not entirely focused on technology. Actually, to say that it’s focused on anything is a pretty generous statement. A mash-up of the McKenzie brothers’ “Great White North” cable access show sketch and Lars Frederiksen’s Rancid Radio program on XM radio — taking beer drinking from the first and casual, liberal cussing from the second — Diggnation bobs and weaves from open source software to small dogs to concept cars to the iPhone.

So how does Diggnation qualify for a technology podcast review? While Digg stories can be about anything from a Bob Costas interview of George Bush in Beijing, to RickRolling, the majority do focus on technology, the internet and tech-culture. I would say that Diggnation is a definite must for any Boing Boing, Kottke, StumbleUpon or Digg subscriber. If you love the random, the serendipitous and the accidental happenstance of the internet, Diggnation is definitely for you.

Each episode, hosted by Digg founder Kevin Rose and actor Alex Albrecht, begins with a hearty discussion of the beer of the week. Since the show now has over one hundred sixty episodes, you can imagine that the beers drunk and discussed these days have become eclectic and international.

While there is generally an agenda for each show, Kevin and Alex riff off of each other so frequently, expertly and thoroughly that any given show can find itself pointing off-topic so completely that the listener will be hard-pressed to remember the topic that spawned any of the conversations that followed.

The cable-access feel definitely rules this show, from its mediocre sound-quality to the “I’m just listening to a couple of guys talk” feel. But the quality is there in the substance of these improvised discussions — Kevin and Alex know their stuff and the listener comes away a little wiser and a lot more entertained.

For First Monday I’m Jennifer Kelley.

Joy: Coming October 13th we kick off our Openness 2.0 series which was made possible by the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

AJ: This five part series will be spread out between now and next May 2009 where we will examine the state of Openness and discuss the Openness movement. I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria thanks for listening and we’ll see you guys next month.