How to Start a Record Label, with New Amsterdam Records

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Ed. note: We love New Amsterdam records, so we're thrilled to be teaming up with them. This Thursday night from 6-8 pm, mental_floss is co-hosting a party at the Galapagos Arts Space called Pollinate with a whole bunch of exciting arts groups. The Wassaic Project will feature stunning sculptures from new artists, Hotel St. George press will dazzle audiences with a few short readings, and New Amsterdam is going to be spinning fresh, new sounds the whole time. We'll be there handing out FREE magazines (and enjoying the beers on tap as we do!). If you're in the Brooklyn area, drop by. (For more info on this launch party and New Amsterdam's month long Undiscovered Islands festival, be sure to visit here). Now back to the interview.


A New Type of Label

When the dot.com bubble burst in 2001, many sites that survived—and even prospered—had something in common: equal weight given to the brand/url/business, on the one hand, and the User on the other. A perfect example can be found by looking at the difference between Britannica Online (launched in 1994) and Wikipedia (launched in 2001). The former is Web 1.0, the latter, Web 2.0.

Picture 5.pngYoung entrepreneurs who've come of age in the Web 2.0 world don't even consciously think about this division. They just create sites and organizations that give the user a lot of freedom, a lot of space to play, to help shape the organization itself. (Just think about all the young folks who got involved with Obama in the digital space to create their own fundraising and rally events, dinners, and blogs on or via his site.) So, it makes sense that when classically trained composers Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider and William Britelle teamed up to form their own record label, they made a point of creating a 2.0 Web site.

Formed in 2008, New Amsterdam calls itself "a haven for trained musicians whose work slips through the cracks" between genres. New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson says New Amsterdam is a "virtual coffeehouse" "at the center" of the indie classical scene in New York. They've already released 11 albums by artists such as big band leader Darcy James Argue and violist Nadia Sirota. But just as importantly, their Web site doubles as a social networking space, allowing musicians to create a profile, upload music, video, pics, even blog, all for free! And if you're now thinking MySpace, think again. NewAmsterdamRecords.com has an aesthetic and a style that perfectly represents and presents the community it serves, a trillion miles away from the eyesore and chaos of MySpace.Today we had the privilege of interviewing New Amsterdam co-founders Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle, so if you're interested in new music, or the record business, read on, read on...

DI: What motivated you guys to start the label?

JG: It's simple: there weren't any other labels for our scene! All these artists were doing incredible work, as performers and composers, individuals and bands, but they were still using live concert recordings as their calling card. When people did make studio recordings, they were doing so in a way that did not take advantage of the basic techniques that everyone outside of the classical world considers standard. That's fine for some kinds of music, but there was a clear need for a label that would aggregate the scene, and eventually allow people to take their art in new directions. This has actually happened much sooner than I personally expected, as people are starting to write works for albums, directly, instead of for the live performance. That's very exciting to us.

DI: But what's the philosophy, or guiding principal behind your choices?

JG: I'd point to three things. First, we're looking for artists whose work is a reflection of truly integrated musical influences. In other words, we don't want classical-goes-rock or electronic-music-with-some-violins - we want music where people are being as personal and honest as they can be, while opening themselves up fully to all the music that they love. That is the road to making music that's genuinely new, in a lasting and non-superficial way. Second, the music has to be great, or "awesome", as Bill likes to say. Fortunately, when people go in those personal and honest directions, they're more likely to make work in which they are deeply invested. If you look back at great artists from any era, they were almost all like snowballs, pulling in the world around them as they went, musically and otherwise, in the service of their own art. Those people are all over the place, today, but the most famous examples are people who happen to be working in non-classical fields. That's going to change, and it's already happening. Third, we're looking for albums that are meant to be artistic products, in and of themselves, and not a reflection of some live ideal. Almost all music is supposed to be heard live, of course, but we think that if you're going to make an album, you should think of it as a project that is distinct from the live experience.

DI: I understand that you don't give your artists advances against sales. Presumably, you're giving them a big chunk of each CD/download sold, then. So what's left for you guys? What's the business model here?

WB: Basically, our business model is that of a traditional non-profit. We are providing a much needed service to the community (the commercial release, promotion, and live presentation of sophisticated, engaging, unrepresented music) and, in exchange, we ask donors who believe in our cause to provide us with funding. Right now, the label's percentage from CD sales, live performances, and licensing helps cover costs while we continue to fundraise. Part of our business model from the outset was "lean and mean". We never want to become a big clunky organization that can't react quickly to new technologies and artistic movements. Therefore, we try to keep costs down as much as possible and keep our infrastructure to an absolute minimum. The kind of music we represent comes out of a very small and somewhat isolated (commercially speaking) community, so we don't need crazy amounts of overhead to represent our "scene". From that angle, I guess you could say we're a community oriented boutique label.

DI: What's involved with getting a new label like New Amsterdam off the ground?

WB: I feel like, in some ways, we're still getting it off the ground- and we'll probably always feel that way. Right now we're dealing with distribution and booking, trying to either find companies to partner with that truly understand our brand, or (far more likely) building programs on our own. Until the indie classical community has booking agents, publicists, publishers, and licensing houses that are willing to invest in our scene - and a means to have records in stores across the world - we're still not really competing with the big boys. We've been lucky to find a few like-minded folks that have begun to specialize in our kind of music - steven swartz and dot dot dot music and lawson white and good child music publishing are two - but there are still HUGE gaps in our infrastructure when it comes to competing in the global music marketplace. However, I have no doubt that as we continue to develop a clearer and clearer brand identity, opportunities will continue to present themselves. After all, it's only been a year!

DI: Lots of people start their own labels all the time—Madonna, Ice T, even Elijah Wood. But they've all got distribution companies, parent companies (Elijah Wood's label is called Simian Records, but it's distributed by Yep Roc Records, for example). As you guys hopefully become more and more successful, and the larger, for-profit outfits come-a-calling, do you think you'll take the plunge and change your OS?

WB: Definitely not. I like Ice-T but I feel like our career paths differ slightly.

JG:Let's just say we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

DI: Talk a little bit about the technology behind the social networking part of your Web site. Obviously a lot of planning and programming went into it. Who designed the back end and what's so cool about it?

JG: Tristan Perich and Kunal Gupta are these crazy geniuses who I imagine have their mitts in about a thousand different musical scenes. These guys are designing their own programming language, which you'll have to ask them about, and they have used New Amsterdam as a guinea pig for its development. They could probably tell you many more things that are cooler than I even know, but from our perspective, it's amazing to have everyone be able to link up to one another so organically. If you post a track that's your composition, which I performed, and you list me as a performer, then the mp3 appears on my page as well as on yours. If you have a show, and you're playing my piece, and list me, then it appears on my page. This is an exact analog to the real relationships that we have, in real life - remember real life?

DI: Maybe you can do a little bragging here and tell our readers why it's different/better than MySpace.

WB: Not being overrun by sexual predators and horrible bands named "Atomic Death Ray" that send you 12 messages a week is a big notch in our column.

JG: That's true. Also, like I was saying, we have a network that specifically shows how different artists are related to one another, musically - not through some meaningless "friend" system that has now become a total joke to everyone. We're still developing the nuances of how this will work, but for me, the idea is to recreate something close to my experience when I first got into jazz, years ago. Like, you're 18, and having your first epiphany with the classic Coltrane quartet, so you look for anything with McCoy Tyner in it, and you somehow wind up with Hank Mobley's "A Slice of the Top". And then you're like, wait, who's this Lee Morgan character? So you get Tom Cat, and you're like, Art Blakey is obscene! So you've learned about all these great players through their genuine musical connections, which can take much less time these days, because of the Internet. Here we've made it even easier, by letting listeners explore the scene on one site. But the artists themselves have tremendous control and flexibility about how they want to represent themselves, which is important.

DI: Have any of the users who've uploaded their material caught your attention? Is that part of the construct here? Is the site, in a sense, a talent scout?

WB: There have been a couple things, but, to be honest, the site is really meant to reflect the living, breathing, real world community, so we're aware of most of the composers and performers on our site before they actually create user pages.

DI: How do you and your colleagues divvy up the work? Who decides who gets what jobs on any given day?

WB: We've tried to divvy up tasks in an official way in the past, but we always end up basically working on everything together. We have a very healthy work environment and we basically all just do what ever we can to move things forward.

JG: We're also all working composers, so sometimes one or more of us is really busy. The fact that we're all in the same boat makes it easy for us to pick up the slack when someone's in that position. For example, Sarah's in the midst of a big project right now, so that's why Bill and I are answering these questions for now. Next week, maybe I'll be unable to do so, and you'd be talking to Sarah.

DI: I remember making a demo tape in 1992 of some of my music for Michael Tilson Thomas, who I was assisting at the time. He looked at me and said, "You know, most composers are putting everything on CD now." Of course, today, we can all send out linkage, or even mail our demos on cheap mp3 players. How's the composer going to send out his demo in 2020? What's your crystal ball telling you?

WB: I want to come up with some crazy device out of a Philip K Dick novel, but my gut tells me that there won't be any huge changes in format over the next ten years - though hopefully the age of listening to myspace pages on crappy computer speakers will give way to another golden age of home audio equipment. It seems all the developments in music technology in the last 15 years have had to do with convenience. I for one don't like to have too many choices. I don't have an ipod and I still listen to cd's. The idea of having a contraption with all my music on it is terrifying to me - I had an ipod for a year or so and I don't think I ever listened to something for more than 15 seconds.

JG: The step that I'd like to see is to make the digital experience less cold. Everyone complains about the loss of cover art and other "warm" features from the record to the CD and now to mp3s. But people have to interact with a computer in order to get digital files, and a computer has the possibility of being much more dynamic, in some ways, than those basic forms of music transmission. Very few people have really explored this - there was that weird Neon Bible site, and a few sites along those lines, and of course some electronic music gurus like Brad Garton have really done some interesting things, but it's not a widespread phenomenon. As people get better at using the internet, and as file transmission becomes even faster, I hope that we'll see some cool stuff. And I hope that New Amsterdam is a leader in that, of course.

DI: Speaking of CDs, will they ever go out of style? Everyone said downloads would kill it, yet here you guys are releasing eight new ones every year.

WB: A lot of people still like CD's. Especially people that identify themselves as "serious" listeners. About half of our sales are physical cd's - and we're a web-based company!

JG: I think we should bring back those really tall CD boxes from the old days. Those were kind of amazing.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part 2! And check out past On Music posts here.

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May 5, 2009 - 3:45am
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