On the grand spectrum of things a person can do with his money, “starting a record label” ranks somewhere near “setting it on fire,” so we’re always very happy when an indie imprint finds success — for instance, Detroit’s Suburban Sprawl Music, home of Javelins, the Word Play, and Desktop, a new collaboration between label honcho Zach Curd (who also records for Suburban Sprawl as a member of the Pop Project) and Keith Thompson of the Electric Six.
Desktop came together earlier this year, releasing an EP of synthified pop jams that meet, in the words of the duo, “somewhere between Stevie
Wonder, New Order and ’80s Detroit techno.” And then they went and gave it away for free at their website. Naturally, we were intrigued — both by the EP and Desktop’s marketing plan — and jumped at the opportunity to interview Zach Curd, especially when Desktop agreed to provide Popdose with an exclusive Desktop track, a cover of Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo” (download). We had a wide-ranging chat that covered the band, the music, and the state of online music marketing in general — and it’s all right here. Read on!
Okay, let’s start with the obvious: How did Desktop come together? Having heard some of your earlier stuff, the new project’s sound is an unexpected twist.
The Detroit indie music scene is super tiny (and the non-“DETROIT ROCK” scene is even smaller), so I knew of Keith’s projects (Johnny Headband, Electric Six), but hadn’t met him. We met at a show in January 08, and agreed to make some music together. We initially had the intention of working on stuff together in real life, but I’m pretty busy doing Suburban Sprawl stuff, and Keith is also kind of perpetually on tour with E6, so it ended up being an Internet thing.
Yeah, the dance music angle is different from both of our bands, and I guess seems like a twist to non-me people. For me, my musical influence trajectory kind of makes sense. Starting at age 15 (I’m 27 now): hardcore punk > proto-punk > garage-rock > psychedelic music > progressive rock > Steely Dan > various yacht rock > disco > house and dance music. I’m also super into Top 40 stuff, so I think that pops up every now and then in both The Pop Project and Desktop. As you can see, Steely Dan is the linchpin. The Dan is always the linchpin.
I dare you to make t-shirts that say “Steely Dan is the linchpin.” (And if I’d known you felt that way, I would have asked you guys to do a cover of “Peg”!) So once you decided to turn this into a Web-powered supergroup, how long did it take the EP to come together? And how did you decide how to determine the division of labor, so to speak?
Hahaha. The four people on earth who would buy that shirt would love it.
The EP took a little while, actually — “Liberty” and “Too Much” went pretty quickly, but we didn’t get around to finishing “Fired Up” for a number of months. I recall SXSW planning and craziness was my “problem” and Keith’s “problem” was a few European tours with E6.
There hasn’t been a standard method for how we’ve approached tracks. Keith came up with the “Liberty” and “Fired Up” backing tracks. He sent over mp3s of 1-2 minutes of music, I cut up the tracks into “song form” and came up with the vocal arrangements. I overdubbed an instrument or two sometimes, like the rhodes solo on “Fired Up.” After I did my contributions, Keith replaced my crude edits with real editing. “Too Much” I started, and sent to him. Everything was mastered by our friend Jon Weier from a Detroit band called the Dead Bodies. Jon is helping with mixing lately too.
Oh, and also! How great is “Glamour Profession” on Gaucho? That was the Steely Dan track that led me into the dark world of disco.
You mentioned Suburban Sprawl. I ran a label in the ’90s, and although recording, manufacturing, and distribution costs were higher then, it was also probably a little easier to sell music. I admire Suburban Sprawl’s ability to make a go of it, and the giveaway nature of this EP makes me wonder: what’s your philosophy for dealing with the Wild West nature of the Web? I mean, you aren’t dealing with piracy on a Sony or Universal level, but it’s still got to be a concern. Music is much more of a casual commodity for a lot of people now — how do you find the listeners who still really need it?
Around the office we often talk about how awesome it would have been to run a label in the ’90s. Remember when NSYNC sold like 2 copies per person of No Strings Attached when it came out? That is insane.
You’re right about costs, they’ve come down significantly, even over the course of subsprawl’s lifetime. And you’re right about it becoming harder to sell music. At least CDs. The problem with CDs is that they’re not as special as they once were, I think. Again, that’s likely because of costs going down, but mp3-dom has to have had an impact too. Again, you’re right about us not being in the piracy trenches like Warner or anything, but it’s always a little tough to see Javelins on sendspace or wherever. They could really really use that 10 dollars! So could I! But you’ve just gotta hope that it comes around. Maybe someone who downloaded a Javelins record will come see them on tour and buy a shirt. They probably won’t, but maybe they will!
There’s gotta be some sacrifice on the customer end of things, though, because if all you do is take take take, there won’t be any more Javelins albums! If people stop buying stuff completely, the only bands that will get to exist will be trustfund bands. So one of my problems with filesharing is the shortsightedness of the act. Yes, you get to hear Dirty Projectors RIGHT NOW, but Dave Longstreth would like to eat, I’m guessing. I guarantee you he’s not doing as well as you think he is.
Like every indie on the planet right now, we’re experimenting with lots of different stuff. We’ll soon be launching a fan club, we’ve been doing these free releases (the Christmas compilations; Quack — our parent company — released the newest record by Office for free; Desktop), and of course we’re playing around with vinyl right now. I can’t pretend to know the answer to the the problem of the Web, but we’re trying to just make things easy for the customer. One way is to make the digital version free and release a limited physical copy in conjunction. So right now my answer is that Free Digital/Limited Edition Vinyl combo. The vinyl demand is there, I know this because I wait patiently myself for new records to come out on vinyl, then I special order them at the record store. I had to wait easily a month each for 808s and Heartbreak and the new Major Lazer record, but when they finally came in, it was an EVENT.
What’s insane is that those are major label acts with huge distribution avenues available to them, and I still had to wait a month. That was eye-opening, because obviously the majors are having a tough time right now too. Another eye-opening thing is seeing how people still buy our records on iTunes, even when they are freely available on the Web. To me that makes iTunes kind of serve as the modern day record store. Feature page of iTunes = endcap/listening station at the record store.
How do you find the listeners who still really need music? Ultimately there’s no substitution for hard work, so I think part of the solution is a very old idea: convincing journalists to write about our music, and then hope readers are captivated enough by the description to check it out. Also, having a good end-product is massive. It’s got to be good music.
You actually probably run into similar “value” issues with Popdose, no? Getting people to care about a website is probably just as hard as getting people to care about bands they’ve never heard of!
Well, it’s funny that you brought the conversation around to sites like Popdose, because we’re part of the problem as much as we’re part of the solution. I mean, I guess in a way we’re no different from the radio stations that I used to tape REO Speedwagon songs off of when I was a kid, but back then, you had to put some effort into making your free copy of the song. These days, all you need to do is point your browser at the Hype Machine — or, God forbid, your favorite Bittorrent client — and dive in.
Broadband and mp3 technology have been boons for music lovers, but they’ve also helped create a culture of — well, not disposable music, because the labels did that themselves when they started spending too much on stars’ contracts to pay for quality A&R staff. But a culture where most music feels disposable, where a lot of people just sort of blindly acquire and forget about songs. I have more than 90,000 songs in my collection, and my relationship with music is far, far different from what it was when I was 10 and obsessing over the same handful of LPs and cassettes.
Then again, as you say, we’re trying to make people care about bands, some of which they’ve never heard of — and that wasn’t really happening under the old model. The only way you heard a band that wasn’t in heavy rotation was by being proactive and getting lucky with a listening booth at your favorite mom & pop record store…and now they’re all gone.
We’re digressing, though. Let’s get back to Desktop, and how this whole “free EP” experiment is working out for you. Have you been able to track the effectiveness of your promotional campaign? How many copies have you “sold”? And how, if at all, is the response going to change the way you promote things going forward?
Totally. I pretty much restrict my music buying to iTunes and vinyl now, which sounds snobby, but I just wanted to get back to obsessive music consumption. Getting excited about something and listening to it over and over again until I’m even more excited about it.
Regarding the free EP experiment, we’ll see, I guess. Desktop is serving two purposes, because this EP is basically an introduction to a new act, and I can experiment with a new sales model at the same time. We only have 200 copies of this EP, so the overall profit from physical sales will be pretty small. Since the run is so small the turnaround is fast, so that’s a positive.
Preorder sales are fine, considering it’s a genre I’ve never touched before, so we’ve been seeking out blogs/publications we’ve never had a reason to contact in the past. Some electronic music press folks are genuinely into it, while some others aren’t, probably because it’s still a pop record deep down. The writers who obsess over, say, trance are probably not going to give us much credit, which is expected and totally fine with me.
So to answer your question, the effect of giving it away for free seems to be positive. I think I’ll have a better idea once we do our next thing (probably another EP). Debut releases are often a crapshoot. Regarding changing how we promote stuff, Desktop might change that, it might not. I think it really depends on the band. Keith and I don’t have any immediate plans to play live or tour, so that’s a huge factor to consider. Some bands sell nothing in release week, but do really well on tour. That was something we thought about before making it free. Does making the digital version free maybe make up for the fact that we probably won’t tour? That makes sense to me.
I suppose we should talk about the musical content of the EP, shouldn’t we?
My favorite track is “Too Much” — I love the way it goes off in another direction toward the end, and I think it might be the only song where you can really hear the Steely Dan linchpin coming out. Two questions: One, how in the world does a jam like that come out of an Internet collaboration, and two, what are the odds of getting more of this kind of thing out of Desktop?
It’s cool that you mention that’s your favorite track. I’m getting a lot of positive feedback on that song in particular from friends. As far as how it came about, I can try and break down how the track grew.
I recorded the basic track (the synth percussion loop that starts the song and continues throughout/rhodes/vocals) and sent it Keith’s way. He added the bass, all of the synths, the beat and some random stuff like panting and palm muted guitar. He also added the cymbal crashes. This one doesn’t have any editing as far as “move this section here, and this one here” like the others did.
What I do like is how the song is sort of a ballad, but it stays in dance territory. I’d love to make more songs like that actually, so I’d say the odds are good. Jessica 6 (Nomi from Hercules and Love Affair’s newish project) have a gorgeous ballad called “Not Anymore” on the B-side of an uptempo dance jam, so maybe this will turn into a mini-trend that only nerds notice.
Desktop started as a side project, and you’re obviously both very busy. What’s next for the two of you?
Keith heads back out on the road soon with both Johnny Headband and Electric Six. The E6 tourdates look particularly insane, 10/14-12/19. Full US and UK tour.
The Pop Project did the music for five Dickies commercials not too long ago, so we’re picking up more commercial music gigs. Bandwise, we’re in writing mode. Hopefully we’ll have a new record done in a shorter period of time than the last one. And, the next time you’ll hear from me regarding Suburban Sprawl will likely be our annual holiday music compilation, which we put online for free every year.
As far as Desktop goes, we’re still working on new material, but we’re not sure of any sort of larger plan at the moment. The idea floating around in my head right now is doing a “mixtape” in early 2010. We just finished a remix for O’Spada from Sweden. I’m not sure when/if that will see the light of day. Also starting work on a remix for an Ann Arbor band called My Dear Disco.
Okay, now let’s bring this puppy home. You guys were good enough to record an exclusive track for Popdose, a cover of Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo” (download). We talked about you doing a cover, but why this particular song?
I basically forced “My Boo” on Keith because it’s one of my favorite songs ever. What I love about it is that it’s so tuneful for a Miami Bass booty jam. Most of that stuff isn’t as “pretty.” It should also be noted that the video features both huge ass cordless phones and huge ass cellular phones. On our end, we had been talking about fitting autotune into something of ours for a while, so this seemed like a great opportunity to finally do that. It took a few revisions by starting out super-super slow and ending up Dance Dance Revolution fast.
Thanks for letting me blab for so long!