All or nothing! – the rise of the donation based record label

In my scene, fairly priced or even free music doesn’t come around particularly often. If you want to get a Black Flag CD, you go to your nearest record shop, hand over anywhere within the region of £15-20 and weep when you return home to find out that your American friend can get the same album for about £7. The price of a punk album on iTunes or Amazon MP3 is roughly thirty three per cent more than a chart album would be. For a genre that’s all about equality, the fans sure get a rough deal when dealing with conventional methods. Which is exactly why I was aghast when I stumbled upon Quote Unquote Records and discovered that I could get the latest Bomb The Music Industry! album for free. It wasn’t just BTMI! tracks either that were on offer for my eager mouse click, it was a whole host of bands. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of most of them, but hell, it was free, it didn’t matter! I was poised and ready to dive into this wonderful ocean of free music when my survival instinct kicked in and I figured I’d better look out for sharks.

There were no sharks, but there was a Paypal button next to each album with the heading “suggested donation” and a figure. I was confused. Do I have to pay the man? Or can I ultimately get it for free? A little research later and I realised that I’d found myself a donation based record label. The idea of a morality system intrigued me; how many people would actually pay for the music if they didn’t have to? The front page explains how these are touring bands, they need the cash, and so on and so on. How many people would pay attention to that though? What else is on offer?

On that day, I clicked the Paypal button. I paid my $5 or $6, whichever it was. There have been other occasions where I have not. There are labels which offer their music up entirely for free, such as If You Make It. There are others who provide a download and donate option but who also deal in physical copies. One such label is Rumbletowne Records, the label started up by Matt Canino and Erica Freas of RVIVR. Formed from the ashes of successful punk band Latterman, RVIVR are all about trying new things (as is evident from the excellent and unexpected brass section on latest EP Dirty Water) and awesomeness, so Rumbletowne Records seemed like a natural progression. The record’s site describes Rumbletowne as “an experiment” and a “means to broadcast badass punk rock to more people who may crave it, on our own terms.” Badass indeed. On their recent European tour, I went to a RVIVR show in somebody’s front room in Leamington Spa, and I truly got a feel of the DIY ethics the band hold dear. I tried to interview the band after the show, but you wouldn’t believe the amount of equipment it takes just to play in a living room. It wasn’t an entirely lost cause though – via email, I spoke to Erica about the tour (“It was awesome. We had a lot of fun and didn’t go into debt”), the label and a lot of the issues surrounding a donation based label.

Donation based record labels have their main appeal through the instant availability of music, via the internet, and also for bands to get their music out into the world. As Erica said, “the internet is the ‘most effective’ vehicle for the distribution of music, though you have to wade through a lot of shit to find the good stuff.” So although the internet may be the most effective method of getting music out there, it’s not for everyone. The internet, after all, is a virtual playground and jungle in one – there may be wonderful fruit, ripe for the picking, and cute little monkeys (or lolcats) but there’s also tigers in the form of torrents, quicksand in the form of adware and a constant rain cloud that is iTunes and its overpriced store. Sometimes, you’ve got to seek out some alternative methods. Erica noted that “live shows are fun, you can play for people who have never heard of you and sometimes they’ll notice that they like it. For other people, it’s better playing the recording in private, on repeat with the lyric sheet in hand.” For Rumbletowne, this is perfect, particularly as a label which also specializes in both CD and vinyl, the punk’s merchandise of choice. I’ve always been curious about how vinyl seems to be having a resurgence in recent years and Erica thinks that vinyl’s new popularity could be “a backlash from the rise of MP3s” and with digital distribution becoming so popular, the CD is becoming “obsolete.” She said “for some people it is important to be able to hold an object in your hand. Liner notes, lyric sheets and cover art are not part of the MP3 experience. If done right, records sound better than a digital file.”

It begs the question – would Rumbletowne survive without the support of physical distribution and touring? Erica was fairly vague about how many donations actually get through as opposed to LPs being bought, and whether people actually donate the guideline amount or not. Or even whether people donate at all. It’s still new territory – Rumbletowne only came into its current state of being in 2007, and other donation based labels only began shortly before then. But, it’s those who do donate that count, and Erica states that those are the only ones who will get the full experience – “Of course many people download and don’t donate. And then there are dozens of wonderful, generous gems who DO choose to donate and we are thankful for them. The point of the website is to make the music available; you can download anything we’ve put out in other locations on the internet anyway. If you download from us though, you are getting a more quality version of the album, in the right song order with a little bit of art or lyrics.”

It’s certainly worth bearing in mind. Most downloads on the internet are awful radio rips, obscuring the real sound of the song with sycophantic DJs and obnoxious adverts. However, the sort of music that is found in sites like Rumbletowne and Quote Unquote isn’t likely to be put on the radio. Therefore, is the donation based label the future for independent music? “We modeled our website off of a conversation with Jeff from Quote Unquote, he encouraged us to copy his design. Anyone who’s interested is encouraged to do the same with ours as well”, says Erica and since Quote Unquote’s inception, there has been a massive spike in websites offering free music to the masses. Interestingly, the majority of these are associated with the punk genre. With punk’s obvious association with the DIY aesthetic, it’s truly no surprise. When I asked Erica what she thought about the proposition that donation based labels are primarily a ‘punk thing’, she didn’t necessarily think it was restricted by genre – “We don’t know about it being ‘punk’, it’s more comfortable to decide to make your music available for free/donation download if you’re not trying to be “professional” or make a million dollars. We’ve got this good music, there’s maybe a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand people who would be interested in hearing it. That’s not that many people, why make it hard for them? Make it easy! Punk!”

This was where I began to see the limitations in the donation based record label. The majority of bands who put out their material on labels such as these are smaller, independent bands who don’t do it for the money, but just to get their music out there for people to enjoy. A lot of these bands are great, but they aren’t usually what you’d consider to be popular music. For example, one of Quote Unquote’s first releases was by a band called Pegasus XL, who put out extremely experimental, atmospheric pieces that include a little bit of heavy synth, a little bit of singing and a whole lot of crazy. I loved it upon first listen, but it certainly wouldn’t fit in on a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation. Would many of these bands sell a decent amount of records were they not collected on these labels? Most of the albums aren’t polished to perfection like most chart releases – they’re generally rough around the edges and occasionally indecipherable. It’s the heart of these records that really shines through, but in today’s competitive industry, that just isn’t enough. But isn’t that just punk rock? It’s been done before; Ian McKaye and Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat fame created Dischord Records in order to actually get their music into the public sphere. In that respect, donation based labels are just the next logical step
forward – getting new music out, whatever the cost.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the record label as a concept is slowly becoming stagnant. My Passion, one of Kerrang!’s new darlings and one of the hottest bands in British rock music right now have self-released all of their records, despite being approached by several record labels. In doing so, they’re free to work to their own terms. While they’re certainly demanding that their music be paid for if it is to be enjoyed, their hard work and clever marketing has seen them rise to spectacular heights and is setting a precedent for many other new bands in the UK. Currently, the donation based phenomenon is an American one but hopefully, innovative souls from other countries and those who are working independently will catch on and try and spread the word. Is it because we’re not as internet savvy as our American friends? Maybe. Is it because we’re too afraid of leaving behind the physical format? Unlikely, due to the massive slide in CD sales in recent years – Taylor Swift’s latest album has just become the lowest scoring number one of all time in America, selling only 52,000 copies. Are donation based labels really the answer?

Jeff Rosenstock, the guy who started up Quote Unquote and the entire movement in the first place seems to think so. Jeff reckons that donation based labels are just the first step into getting into a band and that if people find out about a band they like through one, they’ll continue to support that band. This quote, from the Quote Unquote site, helps to reassure those of us on the fence – “While some people who are very uncomfortable with embracing a new technology swear that this is going to kill rock and roll, I have seen first hand that it helps bands increase their audience and allows fans to discover tons of great bands. Then, usually at a show, people will buy a CD or something if the band is really good.” I can certainly say that this is my experience of donation based labels. The amount of music I have discovered and fallen in love with thanks to the internet and labels like this is huge. And if I like it, I buy it. Morally, it’s a difficult thing to grapple with. You’re offered music for free, with nothing to make you pay and every reason to just take it. However, knowing that you are supporting new and fantastic music is like nothing else.

So does the donation based record label work? Erica left me with this sentiment – “Hmm… don’t quit your day job. It’s a lot of work, it’s interesting, we’re still learning and making mistakes. It’s worth it.”

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