10 questions for Sam from an old acquaintance who remembers fondly working together and truly regrets losing contact for so long. Pleases me beyond words to find you and Projekt still releasing material of outstanding quality.
These ten questions from deadhead of forallandnone.com (ex Music From The Empty Quarter) will be posted in three installments, beginning in November of 2018 and finishing in January of 2019. We’ll start with some Projekt-related questions where deadhead asks…
1 The obvious starting point after all these years is how the devil are you and what’s been happening in your life since we were last in touch in 1995 (when we were all full of energy and young!)? Being a daddy with a well established and highly regarded record label must be wonderful!
Sam: Well, right! The first thought that entered my mind when you asked “what has been happening,” is that I have a son who is now 16. That’s far more interesting to me, vs. the highly regarded label or the music, honestly. Having a kid is a wonderful, humbling, self-revealing process. I guess anything can turn out to be a teacher; learning how to be a parent, and how to be comfortable with myself so I can be a good parent, is a process I didn’t expect to experience as part of fatherhood, but I am very happy for it.
As far as Projekt, at the end of 1995 the label had 62 releases, and now I am working on release 357. I’ve been busy putting out a lot of music on Projekt, and not quite alot of my own work, over the years. When we were in touch, it was before BlackTape’s Remnants of a deeper purity was released. That was the band’s 6th album and To touch the milky way is our 12th. It took 10 years to create the first half of the discography, and 22 years for the second half. Definitely having a kid in 2002 and putting my focus on him slowed things down. Now I live in Portland Oregon and my son’s a junior in High School; I have more time to make music. And less stress about money, because Portland is a great and reasonably priced place to live.
2 How has the running of Projekt changed since back then?
Sam: In 1995 I was in Los Angeles with around 4 employees, at the peak in 1998 in Chicago there were 11 or 12 employees, and now it’s just me working out of my house. That’s the way it was in ’93 when we first connected. It’s pretty nice not having to deal with managing a large staff. Shea helps out a bit with web-related stuff, and Joe runs the webstore out of Philadelphia. I have purposefully made my life simpler, by not trying to be a big label anymore. Being a realistically small label that afford me enough time to make my own art is a much better place to be.
Over the years, there have been 86 artists on Projekt, and there are over 400 releases still in print (a bunch of those are on the digital side label). And anyway, I’ve realized something I didn’t notice in the 90s: the top-5 artists generate about 85% of the income, anyway. Now I can work smarter, and focus on the success, which makes a lot of sense in the current record industry.
3 Do you actively seek new artists or just concentrate on your firmly established acts?
Sam: I’m no longer seeking new artists for Projekt. It’s not economically feasible to do what the label used to do: sign new bands, start new careers. It was great, a lot of great music came out in those decades. But nowadays I’m just working with the top-7 or 8 acts. That keeps me plenty busy.
4 With such a large back catalogue of quality material has it made sense to reissue and possibly update titles, especially with the resurgence of vinyl and Record Store Day?
Sam: Record Store Day, bah! Screw them! Just a bunch of hipster wankers deciding what they think is cool. No thanks. Yes, yes! I say that because they rejected Remnants of a deeper purity a few years ago, so I’m being a sore sport (laughs). But yeah, sure, it would be nice to reissue more things on vinyl. The problem is the cost. Most albums were created for CD format, they can’t fit on a single LP. That means making a 2-LP set, and then it’s got to be nice and classy. And boom! I’m investing $5000-$8000 into a release. That’s a big risk. For me, personally, I Kickstart BlackTape vinyl releases. This way I know I have enough people interested in the album to make sense doing the vinyl.
Stay tuned for Part two, with more questions about Black Tape For A Blue Girl…
5 Black Tape For A Blue Girl, your own project being such an integral part of the label, does it provide you personally with an essential creative outlet?
Sam: Yes. BlackTape is the creative outlet that matters to me. I love the acts I work with at Projekt and I love their music, in the end running the label is the day job, and making my own music is the way I express myself. I’ve been making a lot of music the last few years, though I always feel I should be making more. The new album is finished, and I’m really excited that it’s getting out to everyone now, and I am taking a bit more time to read the reviews, and savor the comments from people who are writing me, to enjoy this part of the release as well.
6 The process for each BTAFBG release must be extremely stimulating; writing, playing, photography/artwork, having total control of the whole project? How do you decide on which vocalists and additional musicians will work with you on specific works?
Sam: I look at it like I’m a film director: I have the script, I have an idea in my head of the character and how they should tell that story, and then I look for who best fits that roll. That said, I like working with the same people album to album when it makes sense. Sometimes there’s a drastic change in style and the band is all new, and sometimes people continue on. It’s really about what makes sense for the album I am working on.
On To touch the milky way, I think Michael pushed himself out of his safe spot, and took on some songs that he wasn’t entirely sure about when I first sent them to him; but it worked out wonderfully, I always thought he could do it. I had imagined that sort of monochromatic color for the melodies, they’re subtle. And Michael does that subtle really well. So once he dived in, he was golden!
7 It must be costly recording and producing Black Tape material, do Kickstarter campaigns provide the necessary funding?
Sam: The recording & producing itself is not costly, because I record at home. I don’t have to pay a studio for those hundreds and hundreds of hours of studio time. However what is costly is my time. I need to be sitting in that chair for those hundreds and hundreds of hours, and time is money that I am not earning working at Projekt. My patron area brings in some income that goes towards the recording, in so far as buying plane tickets, paying the musicians, fixing gear. But to actually create the deluxe packaging I envision for Blacktape, I crowdfund through Kickstarter. I have to tell you that it’s really rewarding to know there’s these people out there who like what I do enough to contribute money up front so that I can make the album. Their trust is really wonderful. I’ve run 10 Kickstarters so far. Contrary to what people say, crowdfunding is not seeing diminishing interest. Each one I’ve launched has new people backing the projects, as well as regular supporters. I love it!
Stay tuned for Part three, with more questions about Projekt, streaming & the future of the music industry…
8 Since I’ve been out of the sales loop for many years, am interested to hear how the label’s sales compare with back when only physical material existed and the rough percentage levels between cd, vinyl and downloads?
Sam: Oh lord! Are there even CD sales anymore? What I see is that a band that used to sell 5,000 CDs is lucky if they sell 300 these days. There are some artist who do a lot better and some that do a lot worse. The industry is all about streaming these days. Streaming is around 70% of digital income, and digital income is between 65% and 95% of what I pay, based on the artist. CDs and LPs are a very, very minority part of the income.
Back in the early to mid 90s, CDs were 100% of the income. I only did LPs on the first two BlackTape album. There were some CD + Cassette releases, and I think 1989’s Ashes in the brittle air might have sold in the 800-1000 range on cassette. But that was the peak. I think the last cassette was in 1996 or 1997. The last LP was in 1987. Until the rebirth the last half decade.
8a Streaming? does that actually pay?
Sam: Yes. But it takes a lot of streams to add up to money. Projekt had over 70million streams in 2018! A few artists on the label get millions of streams a month, and that adds up to. It’s not much per stream however, so for smaller bands it doesn’t add up. That’s always been true. Small bands don’t make money, large bands do. It’s up to the band to get a hold of their career, and decide what to do to get more people interested in their music. I think that’s the problem, though: we like fringe music. Most people in the fringe don’t think about strategies to get people to hear their music.
8b Could you give an idea of how you promote each release? Do you have certain strategies, online and offline?
Sam: I think every day you have to re-envision the music industry. I feel that I am at a transition from some old thinking, to some new strategies. But I don’t know if anything is good enough to really discuss. I like talking with people from other labels, to brainstorm. To ask hard questions, and see if they have interesting answers.
9 Finally, how do you envisage the future of the music industry and will your own creative being thrive live long into a ripe old age? I hope so.
Sam: Thanks. Honestly, every year for the last 10 years has had less income coming into Projekt. I was pretty sure the music business was ending. I was kind of looking forward to that, “Ah! More time to make my own music now!!” But then 2018 turned things around and it’s the best year since 2011. And that’s because of streaming. So I have to recant all my bitching about streaming being so bad, and killing the music industry (I spent a lot of time talking about that in the early 10s). The top two artists — Voltaire & Steve Roach — are still generating 66% of the label’s income. That feels even more dramatic now, because the label has so many more releases than 10 or 20 years ago and you’d have thought more artists would be in the 10 or 20% range by this time; ie: the label’s royalty payouts more evenly dispersed. But nope.
For me, I’ve decided to stop releasing small bands I enjoy; it takes time and doesn’t bring in enough income to make sense anymore. I would rather refocus that time and energy on making more of my own music. ‘cause we’re all gonna die one day, and when I get there what I will remember (aside from my son, and people I love) is art that I created.
I worked with a lot of cool artists over the years, and Projekt released a lot of cool music; success! Now it’s time to focus on priorities.
Which is a bit of the theme of the new Black Tape For A Blue Girl album: questioning the life you’ve been living, checking in and making sure you haven’t gotten off onto a tangent away from the priorities that make you feel like yourself. So yeah, I’m looking to make more of my own art, while still working with the top artists at Projekt. And yeah, sigh, probably releasing more vinyl.
It was nice to catch up with you again after all these years!