Wolfgang’s Vault is one of the Internet’s greatest treasures for music lovers. The site hosts thousands of concerts that are available for free streaming, as well as vintage memorabilia that includes t-shirts, posters, photographs, tickets, and other items of interest. Thus far, only a limited number of the shows in the Concert Vault have been available for download. That’s about to change tomorrow. Last week, I had a chance to speak with Wolfgang’s Vault President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Johnson from his office in San Francisco.

Concert VaultLet’s start with a bit of the history of Wolfgang’s Vault. How did it come into being?

Wolfgang’s Vault began in 2003 with the acquisition of the Bill Graham archives. Bill’s real name was Wolfgang Grajonca. That’s how the site got its name. Our founder, Bill Sagan, originally acquired these assets from Clear Channel as they were spinning off Live Nation. The Bill Graham archives contained the collection of what he had amassed over his 30-year career in the music business, and then ten years after he died. Bill Graham was one of the early inventors of the rock concert, and in this archive was posters, tickets, handbills, you name it, from classic shows and classic venues like the Fillmore East, the Fillmore West, Winterland, Graham’s Day on the Green shows. There were also audio and video recordings of some of these legendary bands like the Grateful Dead, Santana, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence, the Who. It was just a who’s who list of what was out there.

Bill Graham was one of the first to present certain artists. On the site you can get Elton John playing his first show on the west coast. It’s just an amazing, awesome raw show. In addition to that, we’ve acquired another dozen or so archives that include different collections of both memorabilia, vintage posters and photography, and recordings. So we have the recordings of the King Biscuit Flower Hour, Silver Eagle Cross Country, which is the country version of King Biscuit, the Ash Grove, which was a club that was open in L.A. from 1958-1973 with just amazing early folk and delta blues performers, and the Newport Festivals. It’s just a huge array of music spanning 50-plus years, and about 20 different genres of music.

In addition to all the great music, your site has that memorabilia that you mentioned. When someone visits Wolfgang’s Vault, what will they see and hear? Give me an overview.

We’ve got about 3,000 concerts on the site right now, which range from 1963 up until 2009. The focus and the roots of this were in classic rock, but we span a ton of genres. You can stream all this stuff for free. So that’s all available to a user when they come to Wolfgang’s Vault. We also have this massive memorabilia archive that includes literally millions of items. Some of them are posters from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that were used to advertise these shows. Graham was a big believer in promoting his shows through this great artwork, and he commissioned artists like Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Lee Conklin and others to create what really are works of art, and promoted the shows through them. These now have become very valuable collectors items that you can find on our site. The posters range from $15 to $15,000.

At the beginning you encountered some resistance, in the form of lawsuits, from a small group of musicians whose music is on the site. Have those issues been resolved?

Everything from those early publicized lawsuits is behind us.

And you have all the necessary agreements in place to go forward?

We do. We own the copyrights to all the master recordings that we have and we pay everywhere that we need to both contractually and from a broad licensing agency standpoint like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

So artists do get paid as a result of what takes place at Wolfgang’s Vault?

Absolutely. We’re paying for every stream that is played, and for every download.

Eric Johnson

November 3 is a big day for your company. You’re calling it “Crackin’ the Vault Day.” Tell me about it.

We’ve been adding shows to the Concert Vault every week since we started. We had about 300 shows the day we went live with Concert Vault in November, 2006, and we’re over 3,000 today. We’ve been making as many of those available for download as we could. We have signed some deals and we are in a position now to offer another huge group of shows for download. We have about 390 shows available right now for download. That number will jump to over 700 on Tuesday, November 3, and then we’ll be adding another huge chunk over the coming months. So you be seeing five to ten new shows a week being added for download over the next several months, and we hope to keep that going as we go forward. Our hope is to get everything available for download. It includes some really amazing stuff.

People will now have an even greater opportunity to purchase downloads, but will they still be able to stream the concerts for free as they’ve been doing?

Absolutely. You can stream all the shows for free. We’ve got an iPhone app where you can stream shows. For download, we’ll be offering everything in two different formats. We’ve got a 256kb mp3 download, and a flac download, which is just a little bit more. We’ve had a lot of requests for the lossless format. We’ll have both of those available for every show we’re selling.

There is twice as much music available for download in the Concert Vault then there was a year ago. This is the result of the acquisitions you’ve made. How does that process take place? How do you find things to acquire?

It depends. Some of these are large collections of recordings that were done, using King Biscuit as an example, for radio shows. So there was a huge collection of concerts that made up part of the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Silver Eagle Cross Country was the same thing on the country side. Others are smaller, and a bit more obscure. There are club owners like Ed Pearl at the Ash Grove. He had this collection of recordings from his shows that he kept over the years. So they come from different sources, both big and small, and our process is really a big mix of people internally who are looking at all different aspects. A lot of it is just listening to make sure that we’re getting high quality recordings. So we commit a lot of time from our audio engineers to look into what we’re potentially buying.

Describe the process of transferring the music that you acquire into the digital domain.

You can imagine that as the stuff goes back now 50 years in some cases that the tapes are in different forms, and the cataloging is sometimes in disarray. It’s a ton of work sometimes just to get an accurate list of what we have, and then going through the transfer and mastering process is a long and expensive process that requires people to listen to every show several times, and do a lot of work on tracking the shows and queuing what’s going up on the site. It is simply a very expensive process. To get these things from these old boxes onto the site takes a lot of time and a lot of really talented people to do the audio engineering work.

The acquisitions themselves together with the work needed to prepare the music for the site requires a lot of financial investment. What makes that investment worthwhile for Wolfgang’s Vault?

I think it’s a number of things. One of which has always been Bill Sagan’s desire to make this music available to fans, but also to make it work as a business. We’ve got three basic parts of the business, which are e-commmerce merchandise sales, the digital downloads, and then advertising. So we’ve been able to make this work through a combination of internal investment and cash flow from the business to keep this going. There are elements that are a labor of love, and there are elements that are building the business.

In addition to making available all of these new downloads, what else can we expect from Wolfgang’s Vault in the future? I know you have a lot of video to present.

We have some video on the site. We’re doing it on a very limited basis right now, so on the home page we’ll feature a couple of videos during the week. We have of newer video available on Crawdaddy!, which is our editorial site, from SXSW, Noise Pop, and a handful of other festivals that we’ve recorded in the last three years. We’re still formulating a plan for how to work with all the video archives we have, dating back to the late ’60s.

You mentioned Crawdaddy! You were able to purchase the rights to the seminal music magazine that was created by the great writer Paul Williams. Unfortunately, Paul is not in very good health these days.

I’ve had the good fortune of spending some time with Paul. Really a wonderful person and it’s very sad about his current state. We acquired the rights to the name from him and he remains an Advisory Editor. Jocelyn Hoppa is and has been the Managing Editor since the relaunch. Our general goals have been to stay true to the ideals that Paul set forth in the original Crawdaddy! — write about music we love, and support long-form journalism. We get to integrate some new media on top of that. I’m really proud of the work our team does, and I think we get some really good writing about the classics as well as introducing new bands.

You got involved as a sponsor for the annual San Francisco music festival known as Noise Pop. Do you have any plans to do more of this sort of thing?

We’re a big believer in supporting new music. Our partner site, Daytrotter, has a lot of new music. So we’ve put a lot of dollars behind that. For Noise Pop specifically, we were a premium sponsor in 2008 and 2009. We actually recorded all of the festival, so with very few exceptions we have three and four camera video shoots of every band that performed, and all the video is in hi-def. That’s from 2008 and 2009. We also have a fair bit of stuff from 2007. We’ve done sponsorships at SXSW and some other smaller events that we’ve done locally. We don’t believe that great music stopped in the ’70s. We think there’s some really cool stuff out there that is great for the site, and great for the bands to get the stuff up and promote it.

On a personal level, are there any shows on the site that you think are great, and that you wish more people would have a chance to listen to?

There are bands that are too often overlooked among the legends on our site. I’m a big fan of Delta Spirit, and there’s a great set we did from Cafe Du Nord in 2008 at Noise Pop. I’m such a sucker for a lot of the big bands among the older stuff.

That’s all right, tell me what your favorite from the older stuff is.

Well, there are a couple. There’s a great Creedence show from the Fillmore West in ’71, and Dire Straits in San Antonio from 1985.

Thanks for your time, Eric, and good luck with your rollout.

Thanks, Ken.

Go to Wolfgang’s Vault