In 2007, along with Peter Rojas (Gizmodo, Engadget), Elliot Aronow founded one of the most important music Web sites the Internet era has seen: RCRD LBL. The robust music hub, which boasts both a strong presence in the U.S. and abroad, aimed to take the best characteristics of the music blogs that had been popping up like springtime daffodils (DRM-free audio, personalized discourse) and merge them with the for-profit professionalism (and legal soundness) of traditional taste-maker record labels like Factory Records in the 1980s, Rough Trade at its peak, and Sub-Pop starting in the 90s.
Shortly before we went on break for the winter holidays, we sat down with Aronow (pictured) at a cozy NoLiTa café to rap about his company (he currently serves as creative director), his past experiences and how they set the stage for RCRD LBL's founding, and the struggles the music industry is facing at present and what his Web site is doing to change the complex and convoluted landscape for the better.
Let's start by talking about your MySpace collaboration. Then we'll go back to the very beginning.
We started up a program with MySpace called The RCRD Of the Day, where we'll be upstreaming music we get from RCRD LBL. We're debuting stuff on the MySpace homepage as well as myspace.com/rcrdlbl. It's exciting for us because it [brings us] a new audience. We're taking what we're already good at and exposing it to new people.
When you think of MySpace music you think of MySpace bands―
I think of it as a service where pretty much every band in the world has a page, so if you want to check something out, you can do so in just two seconds. Us bringing a little curatorial sense to that is good… ultimately, there's only so many bands you want to hear every day. We're trying to reign it in to the Illuminati of [what's out there].
I don't know what percentage of the population would be classified as audiophiles, but it's probably small―like one percent or five percent or something. Even before the Internet that was sort of the case. I used to subscribe to CMJ―I don't know if you read it too―
I was more of a fanzine guy. I was really into HeartattaCk, which Steve Aoki used to write for… it was this super sincere D.C./West Coast hardcore scene thing. I wasn't really into the college rock thing. But anyway―continue.
I'm really encyclopedic with my music knowledge.
Okay, so you'd assume that ESG's “Moody” is a record everyone knows about.
I guess. Maybe.
Right… and that's just not really how the world works. That's why this MySpace thing is so fun. Because guys like you and me, we spend so much time really deep in the DJ and band worlds, and, like, once you drive 50 miles away from Chicago or New York or any of those major cities, you see where things are actually at. That's why this is exciting. We've been able to put up the occasional Nora Jones remix and it's no big deal. No one's going to take away our credibility because we're still putting up weird, obscure German techno 12″s. It's funny because it shows you inter-personal and small things can seem. Records that are played out, most people haven't even heard of.
Right―”played out” for a DJ would mean he's heard it too many times in one week whereas for a normal consumer it would mean they've heard it too many times in a summer. I get tired of stuff way faster that, say, my girlfriend, and she barely has a grasp on New Order.
I think the term is “over it.” [Laughs.]
Ugh―I'm so over it.
Yeah, and their first records were so much better. (Just wanted to give you a good sound bite there.)
Okay, so maybe now would be a good time to go back to the beginning. What was the genesis?
Well, when I moved to New York in 2002, I met a gentleman named Peter Rojas, who was the founding editor of Gizmodo and Engadget, which were really two of the most successful blogs to come out of the first era of blogging. Pre-YouTube. Pre-Facebook. Very proto. I was hanging out on Ludlow St. and I was wearing this pin on my lapel for this old San Diego hardcore band and Peter was like, Oh! Are you into that stuff!? Peter and I became fast friends… we'd hang out and buy clothes and bro out.
In 2004 I was working for Gnarls Barkley―right when the project started―as their behind-the-curtains online marketing guy. This is going to sound funny, but back then, before people were really using MySpace, we built this Gnarls Barkley page. All these 16-year-old girls would [message me] and ask if “Mr. Gnarls” could come and play their sweet 16. Crazy shit. Through that, I got to know Downtown Records. Josh Deutsch, the CEO, called me up and… he was interested in trying out some Internet stuff. Pete and I were kicking around this idea [for a music Web site], which acknowledged that most people don't want to pay for music and [therefore would necessitate] our finding a way to let brands and advertisers make it possible for us to give away music for free. We knew a lot about music but nothing about the music business, which is why partnering with Downtown was perfect. Like, before I started RCRD LBL, I didn't know what publishing was.
It can be so confusing.
And I had to know about it to start the site. I mean, before RCRD LBL, I knew the terms, but I had no idea how anyone got paid to do anything.
So Peter and I―two kids who grew up on labels like Rough Trade and Warp and Factory―[set out] to make this thing with a really powerful identity. Today you'd call that your brand, but back then it was just [about creating] something fresh and cool.
We asked ourselves “what are blogs really good at?” and figured it's their ability to have a very authentic and trusted voice. Then we asked ourselves “what are labels really good at?” and it's [similar]―it's about being trusted―but it's more [decidedly about loyalty]. Like, when I was buying records, it wouldn't matter what I bought as long as I liked the label. I bought everything on Factory―even the stuff that sucked.
I think a lot of labels tend to be quite monolithic… so even if you like what they put out, they don't allow for a channel of communication like blogs do. It's not like conversing with a friend.
That was kind of the goal [of RCRD LBL]. Since shows like 120 Minutes weren't on the air anymore and mainstream alternative media (Spin was losing its edge), I was wondering how kids were finding out about stuff! And whether you were an 18-year-old [audiophile] in college or a 35-year-old guy who's into music but doesn't want to be “that guy” anymore, I found that everyone was congregating around blogs. It seemed like a very natural format. You go every day… there're always new songs… you can download and listen to everything… So it seemed as though instead of people building stuff out and expecting [and audience] to follow, people were throwing stuff out there every day.
With RCRD LBL, we figure that… most people just want, like, five things that are relevant and cool on a daily basis.
Was the founding of RCRD LBL at all a response to what was going on with music blogs at the time? Like, if you go to The Hype Machine and search for Hot Chip, a billion blogs will pop up, all of which are making available “Take It In.” There's absolutely no point to being one of those billions since they're all putting out the exact same thing. In that case, voice doesn't really matter―maybe one guy writes a little better and another guy a little worse―because it's all pretty much equivalent since you're providing readers with something they can find at a myriad other sites. Was being reactionary to that part of your founding mission?
Not at all. We just wanted to do something that was better. I think what drew both Peter and I to blogging was 'zines. Like, weirdo people, putting their ideas on the Internet for a small but very devoted following. Peter took that idea with Engadget and… built it into something that millions of people started liking. And, like, 99.9% of blogs don't make any money… people make them because they're into it. We just wanted to start something that was thoughtful and well put-together and a product of our sensibilities.
Also, it's [a fallacy] to think that the blogosphere is [partitioned]. That people [only] like Stereogum or Pitchfork or Brooklyn Vegan or Interview magazine's cover story or whatever. [Liking one] doesn't mean you can't like others.
One of the things that draws me to the sites I frequent is the difference between, like, the teacher in a class and the friend in a class. So, like, the Pitchforks of the world, they have this teacher/curator sort of roll, which isn't what you'd be getting from interactions with a friend. With blogs, everything's random and authors use templates that Google has already made and nothing has to be done according to any schedule. You guys, though, right the line. You have deadlines―
Well, we're running a business! We have relationships with all the labels we do business with. That was one of the difficult things about getting it off the ground. We knew we wanted to make it legal―and we had to make it legal for legal reasons [laughs]. I think we succeeded, though. We've shown labels, and even major labels, that you can work within the blog space―you don't have to be a major media channel. There's a lot of people that are just fans of bands and want to check out music. There's certainly a way to market a record to people without making them feel like they're criminals.
Going back to your original question, though… I think of us more as a download site with cool editorial around everything as opposed to a blog. I do think that “blog” has a―
Grass roots vibe to it.
Yeah! Like, I think back to what Stereogum was a few years ago: Scott [Lapatine], in his bedroom, writing a ton of stuff. Because we don't do newsy stuff or review record―we only put up [MP3's] we like―I think of it as a free, cool iTunes.
Having that pure a mission statement is key because a lot of sites start tacking on more and more features. Like, you add news and events and interviews and… it's just so important to that one-sentence breakdown. For RCRD LBL it might be, “Exclusive new MP3's delivered daily” or something along those lines.
Right. We started right after the first wave of blogs ended. Brooklyn Vegan was jumping off and Stereogum… it hadn't been acquired yet, but it was about to be. Peter and I, neither of us wanted to be the CNN of underground music and, like, I was reading Pitchfork every day to find out who was touring and who was sleeping with who and what Ryan Adams did last night… but, for us, we just wanted to do something that was really pure and just about free music that's good and legal.
Sticking to your guns like that is admirable because a lot of the time with the Web, you get caught up with the notion that you can keep adding more and more to your core package. It's not like having a magazine where you are confined to, say, 100 pages. Web sites can go on for an infinity and can have boundless add-ons and widgits and features and whatever. Pitchfork is great in that they, too, have stayed so steady over the years. They provide five record reviews, five days of the week. Period. There's news and track reviews and other fun stuff like that, but the brand's cornerstone is the 25-per-week reviews.
And isn't that what you want? There's too much of everything! I mean, I went through a period where I was running the site on a very breakneck schedule, posting up to 13 records a day. It got to the point where it was like, “You know what? It's great that we can do this so we can show people [what we're capable of], but I myself don't have enough time to listen to all this stuff, so how can [the average reader] do it?” So we pared it down to four or five artists per day. Trying to be too exhaustive doesn't benefit anyone.
A lot of the time, I think some of the fault falls on the reader. If you look back to before the Internet―
Woah. I was born in '99, dude.
Well, back then, authors, musicians, and other creative types weren't stressed by some need to continually pump stuff out between book releases and album releases and so on. Now, though, fans demand it and the artists cough up the goods… you make yourself think that your career's on the line because you're not active on a daily basis.
It's true. It's one thing that's a little weird about bands today. You go to see someone who's playing their first or second show and it's already this big deal. I mean, I get it―maybe the band is really awesome. I'm sort of the opinion, though, that some of that will slow down in the next few years. Unfortunately, there's not much room to maneuver [within that system]. Like, if you play a few shows and get “found”… there's not much more to do… and a label won't feel as though they have a stable, set thing to sell to people.
Exactly. A few months ago, I finished Ripped by Greg Kot, one of the WIRED editors. It's good. One of the main points he brings up is that there are so many intrinsic problems with that sort of business model. Like, you look to the past and find all these bands that made it only after they had produced two or three or four albums. They had so much breathing room.
I think that's why producers have been making a lot of interesting music over the past five years or so. Almost all these guys cut their teeth as club DJ's. When I was working at The Fader in 2003, we were covering Hollertronix, which was one of Diplo's first parties with Low Budget. And, like, he was a club DJ! Mark Ronson was a club DJ! A lot of these people making big-hit records these days cut their teeth by figuring out what works musically and what's good [in clubs]. I find that indie bands lack that living-by-your-wit sensibility. It's like, We go into practice and take a couple bong hits and play a show and Brooklyn Vegan or RCRD LBL loves us and plays us for a week, but… [that's] not very process oriented.
Right―and after that spike of fame, what's next?
Well, “famous” is [relative]. Like, how famous is Beirut, really?
Vampire Weekend or something―
But they're great. They deserve it. They knew what they were doing right off the bat.
I agree, but―
I love Vampire Weekend! You can quote me on that.
I love them too, but―
This is a fake argument, by the way. This isn't a real argument. [Laughs]
It's just bizarre to see how dramatically their audience changed between the CD-R album's release and the height of the tour they went on in promotion of the XL Recordings release. At a show in L.A., I was surrounded by bros. I feel like when you approach a band's promotion in that fashion, you wind up convoluting their identity in so many ways.
I mean… but the record doesn't have a bad song on it. They're all cuter. They dress well―and differently from everyone else at the time. To me, that's where music takes on another, much more interesting dimension. That's what makes the Libertines or Vampire Weekend versus some thousand other guys with half-baked ideas and a few guitars.
Oh, man… I miss the Libertines…
I managed to see them three times when they did their first American tour. Unreal. Saw 'em at CBGB's. I was there. [Laughs]
What's your typical relationship with a record label?
Well, we have a very small group of labels that have been with us since launch. Ghostly International, Modular, Warp, and a few others have their own blogs on the site. For the most part, outside of those original 10 or so labels, everything's pretty basic. It's like, “Hey―we like your label and your music. Do you want to do something with us?”
So what's the main sell to them? Your traffic?
Well, I think we're different in that we don't do record review and we only feature stuff that we like, so if something's on RCRD LBL, that means we dig it. Because of that, we're able to co-promote a release in cool and effective ways. We realize that, off the bat, it's in our interest, too, to promote [music we get from all these labels]. That's part of the reason for us having a Facebook and MySpace and Twitter―we send out releases and all through those channels. Labels come to us because we want to work records the same way they want to. Like, if I'm going to do something with Hot Chip, I want to raise as much awareness as possible to, obviously, get people to my site, but also [support them]. Like, no one ever has to roll the dice with us, like… “Alright, I'm going to give this song to RCRD LBL―hopefully they don't pan it.” That's why we're so strict about rejecting stuff.
The review is―
The fact that you see it on the site. Implicitly, it [indicates] the song's worth your time and that it's good. There's no, like, “Well, track five is kind of weak… “
What are your thoughts on streaming versus downloading?
My only thought is that people want to put their tunes on their iPods. That's the way that most people interact with their music nowadays. Even in the digital era, I personally don't use any streaming services. That's not the way that I enjoy music. I'm much more [likely] to get something on Beatport or iTunes or eMusic than I am to subscribe to some service where I can stream a bunch of stuff. People like to own stuff, and, like, I love having a [digital] music collection. It's not the same as when I had rare 12″s, but I think it's awesome when someone asks you to come over and to bring your hard dive as well. That's how people want to interact with music. I've always felt that ownership of music―regardless of whether you've paid for it or not―is important. To have something that you can have and do what you want with is still ingrained in people's minds. I don't think the day will come that people will say, “You know what? I don't even want to have this hard drive,” and, like queue up a bunch of streams. Think about it―on the subway… in your car… going to the gym―these are all ways that people interact with music, and I think that, despite some advances in mobile technologies, [streaming] isn't a great experience. People want to have stuff. People like stuff.
You feel like a participant. When you're streaming stuff, you don't feel as though you're really interacting with what's on the other end.
People just either want to have music on their hard drive to claim ownership or whatever… or they want to have it to put on a play list or run it through GarageBand to [mess around with] or something. We've always tried to make RCRD LBL run in line with the way we saw things going [in the music world].
One of the things that nice about the online space is that you need to be really thoughtful about what your audience wants because they're going to respond very quickly about whether they like something or not. That's why we have this curatorial sort of roll. Like, there's a big difference between my version of what's great versus “how do we serve this audience with the most relevant, interest stuff all the time?” When you step back from the world of editors and DJ's and whatever, you realize that not everything is as exposed as you think. It's good to see people that have been at it for a while finally blow up.