Interview: John Vanderslice on the Future of Media and Music
John Vanderslice's spring tour with St. Vincent begins tomorrow night in Portland. Garrison Reid caught up with JV before the tour to discuss the current condition of independent music, and to get an explanation of a specific mention on a recent tech podcast.
As a podcaster and serious Apple geek, This Week In Tech's MacBreak Weekly, a podcast which discusses Apple issues, product rumors and product recommendations, has become a must-listen. Nearly each episode, hosts find their way into conversational "ratholes" on a variety of tangent topics. Merlin Mann is a frequent guest on the podcast as well as an editor of multiple blogs. Most recently, Mann has begun The Merlin Show, an amazing new video podcast of interviews. Since it began last month, the podcast has featured Mann's friends, including John Vanderslice and John Roderick.
At some point during February 17's edition of MacBreak Weekly, Mann alludes to a prior conversation with Vanderslice in which John mentioned that for his next record no money will be spent on print advertising. This past month, John Vanderslice was generous enough to expand on Merlin's allusion. Vanderslice is one of the absolute smartest characters in the music industry, from his work at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco to his holistic approach to making, promoting and living within the indie music world. Here, in this exclusive, Vanderslice offers no shortage of insight on the latest affairs of media, survival and the music industry.
Garrison: Why do you think a better executed mix of media selection is so important for bands now? Is this selective media planning merely a financial, and marketing, necessity, or is there something larger at stake?
JV: When you initially emailed me, I was sure I could respond to these questions quickly, but the more I thought about these things, the longer and more complicated my responses became. Then I realized: bands have to come up with a new marketing plan on each record. Things are changing quickly, and if you think these things don't matter, wait until you get your quarterly statement from the label. That's your money they are spending. Sometimes to great effect, sometimes not.
I have a permanent band now -- 3 amazing musicians that need to get paid. So I think about these things way more than I used to. So for me [the decision to go print-free is] mostly financial. I'm not an anti-advertising purist, I am completely at peace with selling art. If Vanity Fair emailed me and said: "we'd love to give you a pull-out three page ad spread for free because we want to break the record for most ad pages this month!", who would turn that down? But is it worth $17k? A quarter page ad in glossy magazines is very expensive, and it's very tough to tell currently if that ad is going to motivate someone who isn't interested in what you do anyway, right?
That's why print media is problematic for music. You can't hear the music. On the web, it's a given. You can listen, and you can listen right away. This matters more and more when there are dozens of great records coming out every week -- from every country, in every genre.
Why are labels struggling so? Why are traditional media marketing and advertising initiatives falling so flat?
You can't buy your way into sales and that's why the majors are hurting. I'm still confused as hell but it's not "why doesn't the model work?" it's "what's the new model?" It's evolving much faster than a record cycle.Are "consumer journalists" in this modern era of media and communications as knowledgeable as traditional critics? How does one's knowledge play into the big picture? Do we live in a wiki-world where an author's resume, or expertise, no longer matters?
So the 1/4 page, 4-color ad that costs the band $2,000 is basically a notice to fans: THE RECORD IS OUT! Why can't you do that on the web?
I love magazines, I subscribe to tons of them. everything from Dwell to Wire to Harper's. I just don't think print media is an efficient way to sell art.
The limitation of a print ad carries over to a review. If your record is reviewed in a block of fifty other reviews, who actually sees it? Who actually remembers it? If people don't know who you are, the words are totally disconnected from the music. Much more than say reading a book review on a subject you know nothing about.
One reason why this equation is so different now is the immediacy and directness of the web. When you go to SixEyes, you are reading the thoughts of Alan Williamson. There are no other mediators: no editors or designers, no lead time, no ad or marketing departments, no overhead and no deadlines. He is beholden to nobody. The birth of credibility!
Click the read more link to read the rest of Garrison's interview with John Vanderslice, and to download a couple tracks from Scott Solter's remix of JV's Pixel Revolt...
JV: At some point, the question has to be: Does spending this money do anything for my career in the long-term? Have you ever bought a record because of an ad or a print review? NEVER! You buy a record because someone you trust tells you the new Field Music or Lil' Wayne record is good.
The goal for any band should be fostering a career, and on the scale of me and my label, and my band mates, and my manager, that means recouping.
If you aren't profitable,
1. Your crew is going to eventually give up on you.
2. You will lose your autonomy and you'll start doing weird things to make money.
3. You'll have to work. This is a big mistake!
The music will eventually suffer, and therefore your career will eventually suffer.
So that's where the financial considerations come in. You have to get ready for the death of the cd. It's happening, and it's going to hurt everybody. You better start thinking critically about the budget and where money is being spent. The numbers on CD sales are spiraling down, and it's not a market anomaly. It's a trend, and it's going to keep trending in that direction.
All that said: my interest in new media is not just because it's cheap! I consume it. It's how I start my day, and it's how I find out about new bands -- like St. Vincent, who we're taking on a U.S. tour in the spring. It's how I found out about Black Fiction and Annuals and tons of other bands. For me, the key is making a good record. After that, it's getting love on the web and touring your ass off.
YES! The reason people go to blogs is that they get to know the individual voice of the writer, and they respect that person's aesthetic leanings.In your decision to go print-free, what reactions do you foresee from your choice to avert/abort traditional methods? Do those potential reactions worry you?
I'm not sure if an author's resume matters, they earn credibility by being good. I don't know anything about Dodge at My Old Kentucky Blog, other than that he lives in Indiana. That's it! But I love his site, and I listen to what he writes about. Same with David Gutowski. Same with Ryan at Catbirdseat.
We all know that some of the traditional print critics have been pushed around by their employers. Who's gonna push around a blogger? Without freedom, art is DOA!
I don't worry about stuff like that. You make many, many decisions when creating a record. All of which can excite or piss off people that pay attention to you. After a while, you just trust your own instincts.What has Barsuk said about this decision? Does your label support your methodologies?
And who knows if we can follow through with it 100%? I've had tons of ideas that were great on paper...
Barsuk is a very smart and progressive label. Every time I talk to Josh, one of the owners, we have very interesting conversations about the future of records and record labels. They are changing as well.The MacBreak podcast goes on to describe a possible future where a non-label, perhaps a company like Apple, has a role in pushing and publicizing artists. Instead of the release schedule that's beneficial for the label and for their full roster, this option puts the power in the hands of the artists themselves. If you, an artist, could directly publish, say, the iTunes Music Store, would you?
Well sure, why not? If that becomes a reality, digital distro and file sharing is here to stay. There are so many ways to reach music fans. Of course, the easiest way is to make a good record! Currently, you can actually just make interesting music and find fans, without any mediators or gatekeepers! amazing...What would that do for the future of published music? How big of a concern is this for labels?
Oh man, I am very happy I don't own a label right now. Labels are going to survive, but there's a feeling everyone's stumbling in the dark looking for the light switch. Now, I'm not so crazy to think that "the industry" is going to lose here. There's no question the powers that be will find a way to make all these changes work, and they'll find a way to continue to make money. But this little pocket we're in is quite interesting and I think this shift, which might be brief, has moved power and influence around in a way that will be very formative in whatever new power balance comes from the new media and new technologies. I do believe that indie labels have benefited from all these changes. The majors seem paralyzed in fears over digital distro, DRM and P2P.What does that mean for fans? The fans could get music as the artist deems it worthy for us. Would that allow for the creation of better music OR do the label's precautionary steps/meddlings elicit the creation of better music?
I have my own problems, I run a recording studio filed with old analog gear that's quickly turning into a "museum of recording technology." The landscape is changing for everyone.
It'll be way better for fans. There's amazing music coming out every week now. You'd have to be a corpse not to see that. You do want pure democracy in art. You may get more shit but certainly get more beauty. Isn't that always better?
Think of how arbitrary the 10 song/ 40 minute LP format was, solely based on the limitations of vinyl. maybe as iTunes becomes more important, the iTunes EP will have more weight? It seems that songs could be released in smaller packets more frequently. Anything is possible right now.
John Vanderslice Trance Manual (Solter analog remix)
John Vanderslice Exodus Damage (Solter analog remix)
John Vanderslice & St Vincent - 2007 Tour Dates
FRI 4/6 - Portland OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
SAT 4/7 - Seattle WA @ The Triple Door
MON 4/9 - Salt Lake City UT @ Kilby Court
TUE 4/10 - Denver CO @ The Hi-Dive
THU 4/12 - Ames IA @ The Maintenance Shop
FRI 4/13 - Chicago IL @ The Lakeshore Theater
SAT 4/14 - Grand Raipds MI @ Calvin College
SUN 4/15 - Athens OH @ Ohio University
TUE 4/17 - Philadelphia PA @ Johnny Brenda's
WED 4/18 - Hoboken NJ @ Maxwell's
THU 4/19 - New York NY @ The Mercury Lounge
FRI 4/20 - Boston MA @ The Middle East
TUE 4/24 - Baltimore MD @ Sonar
WED 4/25 - Washington DC @ The Rock and Roll Hotel
THU 4/26 - Carrboro NC @ The Local 506
SAT 4/28 - Charleston SC @ The Map Room
SUN 4/29 - Columbia SC @ The (ART) Garage
MON 4/30 - Athens GA @ The 40 Watt
TUE 5/1 - Birmingham AL @ The BottleTree
WED 5/2 - St. Louis MO @ St. Louis University
THU 5/3 - Springfield MO @ The Randy Bacon Gallery
SAT 5/5 - Denton TX @ Dan's Silverleaf
SUN 5/6 - Austin TX @ Emo's
TUE 5/8 - Phoenix AZ @ Modified
WED 5/9 - San Diego CA @ The Casbah
THU 5/10 - Los Angeles CA @ Largo