Dec 06

Projekt 40th anniversary interview @ OBSKÜRE

This is the original English version of Sam’s interview that appears in French magazine Obsküre (Read it here in French.) Sam discusses the history of Projekt, how the business has worked out over 40 years, and some of his proudest moments:


Q: 1983-2023: this year marks the fortieth anniversary of your label, Projekt. How do you feel about this achievement, and how do you look back over the years?


SAM: It’s amazing that Projekt is still here 40 years later. Few businesses make it this long, so it’s quite a surprise. It is great to survive as a business focused on art. I am fortunate to earn my living running the label. I love paying the artists their royalties; it’s nice helping all these great artists get their music to the world.


Q: Can you tell us the story behind the creation of Projekt? What was the starting point?


SAM: In high school I ran my fanzine (Alternative Rhythms) writing about alternative / punk / college rock / electronic bands. Many of them were local bands in South Florida where I lived. Back in 1983 there was no easy way to hear the music I was writing about. The options were to see the band live, or buy their cassette or LP. I decided to put together a cassette of some of the electronic bands I liked that I was writing about. Their releases were obscure and hard to find, and who wanted to spend $5 on music you had not heard before? My idea was to put a bunch of the bands together on one tape to expose people to the music. Pretty much the idea behind Projekt today: I release music I enjoy and hope people will discover these artists, and grow to love them.


Q: How did you perceive the music scene in the early eighties?

Most of the music that people listened to was (bad) pop music. Pretty much the same as today (laughs). I was into the weird music, underground indie stuff that most people had never heard of. With the fanzine, I was hearing more and more music not on major labels, often self released. Attrition was one of the first that was doing exactly the musical style I found interesting. My favorite artists back then were Soft Cell, John Foxx, Marc & the Mambas, Eno, Tangerine Dream. In fact, I’ve made a Spotify playlist of music I listened to in the ’80-84 era. One of the acts on there — Futurisk — was a great South Florida minimal synth / electro-punk group; I wrote about them in Alternative Rhythms. Jeremy released his music on 7” single. If Projekt had been a few years further along, and a bit more established, I definitely would have loved to release his music on the label. Finding “unheard” bands and promoting them and getting their music heard has always been one of my favorite parts of running Projekt. Whether it was LYCIA or Aurelio Voltaire back in the day, or new acts Arin Aksberg, DELREI, and VEiiLA, it’s really enjoyable to be in a position to think, “I like this! I want other people to hear it!”


Q: Projekt has made a name for itself on the alternative music scene with its darkwave and ambient aesthetic. Why did you choose to highlight these two seemingly distinct worlds?


SAM: My band Black Tape For A Blue Girl encompasses both genres. These were styles I was connecting into. As BlackTape got more attention in the late-80s and I met artists and music writers and Projekt gained distribution, it made sense to bring additional artists onto the label. The label became known for the ethereal, goth, darkwave sound in the early 90s with Thanatos, Love Spirals Downwards, SoulWhirlingSomewhere & LYCIA. When I started releasing Steve Roach & vidnaObmana in the mid-90s the ambient side of the label began to blossom. Now that sound is where the label is focused. There are still some vocal releases, but I’d say 85% of the new albums are electronic-ambient.


Q: Questions that will undoubtedly be difficult for you to answer: which Projekt artists have had the greatest impact on you? Which albums are you most proud of having released?


SAM: Projekt has 415 releases and the Archive digital side label has roughly 300 more. That’s a lot of music. These days Projekt puts out around 50-60 albums a year. I wouldn’t want to pick one and seem to be ignoring the others, so this is just off the top of my head here. The album I’ve listened to the most often for pleasure is Steve Roach’s 1984 Structures from Silence; it now has been on Projekt longer than on the original label. I’m very proud to have that one on Projekt, it turns 40 in 2024! I’m also proud to reissue Michael Stearns’ classic albums such as Planetary Unfolding from 1981. But as I said, discovering new music is really the thing that keeps it all interesting for me. It has been so cool to be the label that first release LYCIA, Aurelio Voltaire, Unto Ashes.


Q: Forty years is almost half a century! There have obviously been ups and downs. Could you tell us about a particularly happy episode, and perhaps a harder one. And a few tasty anecdotes along the way?


SAM: The hardest was the early 2000s. Projekt had gone deep into debt in the late 90s, and I had to downsize the staff from 10 to 2 to get things under control. I caught up on past-due royalties, dealt with the debt and put things back on track. It was fortunate I downsized when I did, because 2002-2007 was a hard time for small labels as unlicensed digital ate away at CD sales. Many labels didn’t have the ability to get out from under their debt, smothered by returns from stores and/or stores going out of business without paying their bills. I was fortunate to start early at fixing Projekt’s financial problems.


As far as ups, I’d point to 1996’s Projektfest in Chicago. It was a two-day concert with 1000 people in attendance. 97’s fest had 1100! It was so great to have all those label fans in one place. Those were the peak days of Projekt’s fame. I have to give a lot of thanks to Patrick Ogle, who was Projekt’s publicity guy at the time. I’ve known Pat since high school, we have the band Thanatos together. Pat pretty much conceived the fest, and was one of three or four people who got it all together.


Q: That sounds amazing. Are there any special events organized to celebrate this 40th anniversary?


SAM: No special events. No special releases. Continuing at my job of putting out a lot of great music. And doing interviews like this one.


Q: I’ve seen on Facebook that you’d like to see the Projekt faithful get involved in perpetuating its memory, expanding the label’s Wikipedia entry and so on. For example, would you like to see a major publishing project evoking Projekt’s history, a bit like Martin Aston’s book on 4AD?


SAM: I have no interest in spending a few years of my life putting together a book about Projekt’s history. That is too much work, and I need to do my job to keep the money flowing to all the artists. If somebody wants to write a book, have at it (laughs)! Peter Ulrich (former Projekt artist) has a book about Dead Can Dance, the early 4AD era, etc. Projekt is mentioned a bit in there. Writing a good book is a big job.


As far as Wikipedia, yes, I would like our entries expanded. There’s so much more to include on the Projekt Records page, the Black Tape For A Blue Girl page, and any of the artists’ pages. It would be nice to connect with an editor to help fill those out.


Q: You remastered your 1984 electronic Round Trip debut this year, and your name is irrevocably linked with that of black tape for a blue girl? What do you think about your career as a musician?


SAM: I’ve gotten very good at creating music, and achieving what I set out to do. The Cleft Serpent (BlackTape, 2021) is a perfect album. It says exactly what I want it to say, and Jon and Henrik did fabulous jobs contributing to my vision. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours to make an album like that! Creating music with lyrics, a theme, a story, it all takes time. I flesh out the concept, live with it, make sure the plot makes sense. Do all the recording, writing, design. When I feel like I have something new to say which can match the albums I’ve already created, I’m sure I will head back into the studio. I have no rush to make music for the sake of getting something done.


Q: As a label owner, how do you see the music industry evolving? Over the past forty years, we’ve seen the emergence of the CD, then its death, the digital revolution and streaming platforms, piracy, the return to favor of vinyl and cassettes…


SAM: The full answer to that would take hours (laughs)! Streaming is the key to all of our survival in 2023. Vinyl and cassettes are fun, but as far as “profit” they are a bit of cream on the top. Even the acts who have the best physical sales still earn around 95% of their royalties from digital. I know, I know! This doesn’t sound as romantic as you might expect. Keep in mind that I’ve been at this for 40 years. It’s my job. I have pretty good business sense, for an artist. So a lot of your questions get me into a logical business perspective. I know maybe you are thinking more about the beauty of the physical format, which I definitely do appreciate. It’s that my job as the label boss is to see where the industry is headed, not to get stuck in where it was. I keep up on what’s going on, to make sure I can do the best job for all the artists I work with.


Now, for Black Tape For A Blue Girl, crowdfunding at Kickstarter is my primary business model. I fund super-deluxe LP, CD and MiniDisc editions with the generosity and support of the people who love the music. I like making my beautiful color-vinyl releases. They are so sweet to look at. I’m the only act on the label that relies on crowdfunding. Aurelio Voltaire is out playing live, spreading his music and entertaining his fans; while also doing a ton of streams on the music. YouTube, Spotify, everywhere! Steve Roach is creating a lot of new music, and doing major concerts a few times a year. Pandora and iTunes are two of Steve biggest streaming sites.


The Projekt Bandcamp page is incredibly successful for the label’s acts. Like I mentioned earlier about the first cassette, bandcamp is now the main way I expose people to the variety of artists on the label. Projekt releases all new albums at Name-Your-Price for the first month, which gets a lot of people to hear the music. And it brings in income for the artists as well.


Free is people’s favorite price point (laughs).


How an artist brings in fans and sales is a bit different for each of us. I think that’s the answer to “how do you see the music industry evolving?” Every artist has their own thing that works for them. There’s no right answer. But there is a wrong answer: Only thinking about what worked in the 1990s, or thinking that one strategy will work for everyone.


Q: What can we wish you for the future?


SAM: A long life with good health. I wish that everyone gets to do the things they love, with the people they care for, and are able to do it for as long as they want to.

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