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the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

Magnatune & AD Music

in Music , Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A couple of days ago, on a whim, I bought a download album - or whatever one calls them these days - ''Touch" by a band (l assume) called "Falling You". I bought it from Magnatune, a company which if you don't know about, you certainly should. Actually I have a kind of history with Magnatune, or at least with the people behind it. Magnatune is the brainchild of John Buckman, who discusses why he started the company on the website:
When my wife was signed to an Indie record label, we were really excited. In the end, she sold 1000 CDs, lost all rights to her music for 7 years (even though the CD had been out of print for many years), and earned a total of $137 in royalties paid (some of it paid to her as CD copies of her own CD which she then gave away for promotion
Well, I was a co-founder of this Indie record label, and I'd like our story to be heard as well. John's comments sound harsher here than they are if seen in context, and he is not being unfair. There are a few details to comment on though - it is true that we had the rights to the CD - without this, we wold never have secured the publishing advance which helped to pay for manufacturing, distribution and promotion. It isn't really true that it was out of print, as we still had stock and so did the distributors - we just couldn't sell it. And I'm surprised that John says we sold 1000 - as far as I know it was closer to half that. 1000 would be a pretty good result, all things considered. Anyway, here's the story. Back in 1991 or thereabouts, I signed Jan Hanford, now John's wife, to AD Music, the independent record company I founded with David Wright. We manufactured and released Jan's album "Vespers" and did our level best to promote it. We paid for everything except the recording costs. The significant thing for me is that I think this is a strong candidate for the first ever such deal to be made entirely on the Internet: as far as I recall, we first "met" on either Usenet or a music mailing list. All discussion was entirely by email, and I didn't speak to or meet with Jan until some time later. ''Vespers" was one of four titles we released at the formal launch of the company (another was the wonderful and equally problematic to market "The White Sail" by Chris Harvey, which I'm delighted to see is also on Magnatune - although that's a pretty old photo, isn't it, Chris ?). AD Music was operating in a small niche market, British electronic music (or synth music, or ambient, or whatever), a terminally unfashionable genre associated with single men, bad science fiction, and extremely bad clothes, at least in mid-90s Britain. With AD Music, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to take the best music we could find out of this area, and to reach a wider market. We wanted to keep the core audience, but to reach out to the mainstream. We established several basic principles, including good design and professional packaging, and especially ethical and equitable dealings with artists. AD was genuinely run by artists for artists. Contacts in the music industry thought our revenue splits were crazy, much too in favour of the artists. We did require that artists sign up for 3 years, but this was actually because we had the philosophy of developing their careers, not just selling their music, which I believe to be one key differentiator between AD and Magnatunes. I guess John Buckmann would say that our mistake was trying to work within the industry instead of outside of it. He'd be right, to some extent, but in the mid 90s this was not really an option, especially not in Europe. Although we had some pretty bad experiences, these were balanced by some very good ones. The whole team at Notting Hill Music, our publishing partners, were wonderful, and treated us with as much respect as their megastar clients. In the early days, the help and support of Klaus D. Mueller was critical and allowed us to build a level of credibility way above our weight. Certainly we were aware of the Internet option. Some voices within our ranks were vociferously in favour of it. But we held fast to the idea of a physical product, at least as a base, and I still believe in that. Alongside all this, in my "day job" in the late 90s, I was working with the very first satellite broadband internet systems from Eutelsat and Hughes. We were developing and building proof of concept services and demonstrating them at large shows such as Internet World and Cable & Satellite. One of the services we built was HiFi quality music preview and download. Taking full advantage of the synergies, obviously I used AD Music as the source, and the title in heaviest rotation was Jan's Vespers. Nevertheless, I was skeptical about the true value of this channel. To me, we were losing a lot of the mystique and culture associated with the physical product. Not only the qualities of a tangible artefact such as the artwork, and the sleeve notes, but also the thrill of the chase looking for a special, hard to find record or CD, the random chance of finding something new & exciting, and most ironically, given the current Web 2.0 hype, we were losing the whole social aspect of showing and sharing record and CD collections. Ok, this was pre-iTunes, pre-MP3 even, but to me at least, losing the visual and physical aspects of exploring, buying, and sharing music was unthinkable. Somehow this download idea, and the instant gratification which comes with it, kills something of the romance. It was clear that we could not sustain our ambitions by selling to a small market sector, so we attempted to get into mainstream distribution channels, into shops and major online retailers in the UK, the US, and worldwide. We had some success at this, but we also encountered some very nasty business practices. The majors have economies of scale on their side, not to mention all the money they don't give to artists. We also pushed very hard on the music publishing and licensing side with Notting Hill, and that, I think, is a strategy that Magnatune would agree with. But we got CDs into mainstream shops, including "Vespers". In the town I lived in at the time, Guildford, at least two main stores stocked "Vespers" without any direct intervention on our part, but still it didn't sell. Why not ? It got good reviews, which it deserved, and was well promoted. Yet this, and the Chris Harvey title were our worst sellers. What did they have in common, apart from excellence ? Well, this may sound harsh, but both had very weak presentation, and both artists were very reluctant to participate in promotion (albeit in different ways). Whilst we had strong ideas at AD about packaging and presentation, we also allowed artist to have the final veto. Both Jan and Chris insisted on using their designs (actually with Chris it was just a graphic), and despite misgivings, I conceded. So we ended up with strong music from unknown artists packaged in totally anonymous designs. Anonymous is maybe unfiar - certainly they were tasteful - but they did not scream "look at me, pick me up, read me, buy me" at all. They may have worked for established artists, but not newcomers. And, again, I still maintain that personality and image counts. We also could not persuade Jan to record a follow-up, which we felt we needed to build her as an artist. She had a different view, and she was also tending to go in different directions artistically. Whilst we were very much stretching the boundaries of our typecasting, we could not really release Jan's "24 Preludes" - even if if she wanted us to, which I'm not sure she did. Of course, I've looked at Magnatune's statistics to try to find some correlation with what I'm saying, but unfortunately I can't - it seems that both artists sell well there, and I'm pleased that this is the case, especially as both were my "pet projects" at AD (or lost causes as some would put it). However, I've got two Magnatune albums on my iPod, and despite the fact that I mentioned one of them at the start of this rant, I actually have to look at the iPod to remember what they're called. Maybe it is because I've got a memory like a sieve, but maybe also because I have nothing tangible to associate them with. Magnatune will sell you a burn-to-order CD, and they allow their artist total freedom to sell through other channels. But they do not, as far as I know, help with promotion, management, touring, or all the other things that we believed were part of the package. They are essentially selling a service to artists, and one side effect, for me at least, is that the artist's identity is lost in the Magnatune identity. I don't think about having a Bjorn Fogelberg CD, I think about "that music I downloaded from Magnatune". Does it matter ? Does anybody else care ? Probably not, but it matters to me, and it mattered to AD Music. AD Music as a limited company lasted about 10 years. We were drastically under-funded, despite having a well-regarded business plan, and various investment promises failed to materialise. The label still survives, run in a rather different form by David and Elaine Wright (who did the most of the work attributed to "we" above) as a private company, and I am still nominally involved, but I take no active part at all. For me, the highlights were the live events, especially the launch concert at Derby with Klaus Schulze - really, nobody believed we could pull that off - but also the Code Indigo concert at Guildford where we tried hard to drag Chris Harvey out of the shadows. If were to do it all over again, I guess I'd do pretty much the same thing, although maybe I'd have made more of our contacts with Johh Buckmann, I'd have insisted on a redesign for Vespers, I'd have forced Jan to go on stage at Derby, and, well, I'd probably have ended up making a complete mess of things as ever. I guess the Magnatune way is the way of the future, but I'm a little sad to see the mystique and romance disappear from music. I can't really imagine Nick Hornby writing about a guy with a 60Gb iPod. The total sum of my reward from AD Music was a lot of good times and meeting a lot of great people. It also cost me a great deal of money, contributed to a failed relationship, and killed my music career stone dead. But that's all in the past. Oh, and "Touch" ? It's pretty good. But I'd love to know a bit more background :-)