PropertyOfZack Label Talk : : Jason Tate

by Zack Zarrillo - Feb 15, 2011


Words cannot express how pleased I am to finally be posting our brand new Label Talk with Jason Tate, founder of AbsolutePunk is a home for countless individuals who either are a part of the site’s community or just visit to catch up on news, but the role that the site has had in shaping much of the current music scene that we live in can’t be measured for bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and Say Anything. Jason Tate is one of the more respected members of this industry and he and I discussed his views and opinions on the present and future of the music industry, different business models like Kickstarter and Bandcamp, and the future of Please read up on and enjoy it, it’s easily one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever done for the site!

Alternative Press recently published a very interesting article regarding the income of bands and it showed just how misinformed fans might really be about their favorite acts. Articles like these certainly raise attention to misconceptions, but they often loose their awe after their initial shock. Do you think stories like these can or will ever raise enough awareness to truly make a difference in how true fans support their favorite bands?
I suppose if the stories were to reach enough people, theoretically, it would then raise the awareness to a point where it may make a difference. However, the ingrained belief seems to follow something along this line: rock stars are rich, I am poor, I have to work hard for my money, they play in a band and would do it for free. I think in the past few years we’ve lost a lot of great bands simply because they can’t afford to continue making music and touring. The internet is great and creates an environment where a lot of music and artists can thrive; the flipside is that some are viewed as disposable. Hopefully we see recording costs drop and all the people saying “I’ll buy a shirt next time they’re in town” actually follow through – that would be a great start.
More and more bands in the past two years have jumped on the reunion wagon. 2010 was certainly an interesting year in terms of trends with original members rejoining bands, and permanent reunions. What are your opinions on bands doing reunion tours considering many of them seem to be fueled by the current economic climate? Do you think it’s dishonest for musicians to play music that matters to so many for purely economic gain? Many people feel like the bands are almost taking advantage of their fans in situations like these.
Well, that’s quite a leading question [Laughs].
The truth is, I really don’t care what their motivation is. If they’re motivated by money and they release a shitty product, I won’t buy it. If they’re motivated by money and they release some great songs – win/win. At the end of the day I am more concerned about the music than the motivation and economic situation of other people. I think a lot of us make decisions based on our economic situation on a daily basis. We could have a lengthy debate on just how healthy that is in society – however, it is a reality. The outcome of the music is more important to me – I think that most of the time authenticity does show in the final product. And if it doesn’t feel right to me, or I don’t like the tunes, I won’t listen.
Is it a legitimate concern to fear that the more giant reunions are overshadowing new bands that have large potential considering that one day the smaller bands will obviously be the ones leading the scene?
It would be nice to see some of the “giant reunion” bands taking out some of the smaller bands on tour to help pass the torch, and give them the same helping hand many of them were given early on in their careers. Sometimes it’s hard to take that risk on a tour though – but I hope more do. And take a risk on something new and different … that’s my opinion.
I read a story not too long ago about how labels have essentially cut their A&R departments down to nothing because they can’t afford to “develop” an artist anymore because of the average listener’s attention span. Do you think explanations like blaming short attention spans is a fair justification for a single-based mainstream music world, or could it just as easily be put on artists for not being able to create a solid 10 song record?
I think if they’re using the excuse that it’s the listener’s attention span that is causing the problems, and that’s why they can’t “develop” an artist anymore – they’re still just as blind as they’ve always been. Our parents bought singles back in the day from their local record shops, that’s something that’s always been around in the music world.  Ok, maybe it is our attention span – because I can only handle 30 seconds of any song talking about bringing milkshakes to the yard, or tik toking, or doing the Helen Keller. There will always be the music listener that just listens to what is played for them, and then there will be the music listener that searches for something more. My goal is to find that first person and introduce them to the band that will turn them into the second.
Have you given any thought to what the state of major labels will be in 10 years time, or if they’ll even still be around?
As long as it costs what it does to record and tour, there will be a need for something like a label. In 10 years I think we’ll have fewer “majors” – and hopefully we’ll have more things like “Kickstarter” and Bandcamp and Purevolume (and and Rdio/Spotify like services to bring the music to listeners. I don’t really have much faith in the major labels to be honest.
What about your thoughts more in general? You’ve been around for quite some time and have seen a great deal of changes in the industry. What are your thoughts on the present and future?
Well, let me preface this by saying I come from a technology background. I obviously love that space; it’s what I do. So that’s where my first thoughts go – and that’s where I look for solutions. Someone with a different background and passion may search elsewhere and find different (or better) solutions. That’s why I see solutions in technology. I see simplifying the process for bands to record, for bands to put their music online, to fund tours and recording, to be able to take credit cards at concerts, to be able to maintain a relationship with their fans, and to be able to reach new listeners.  The present sucks because it’s a weird combination of the “old way” and the “new way” – and that state of flux leads to uncertainty – and I, personally, believe that “new way” is going to constantly be changing. That’s the mindset the industry needs to be in if they wish to succeed.
You’ve been a big pusher of Rdio, which is the closest service that America has compared to Spotify. Do you ultimately see cloudbased music streaming to be the next major step in terms of music technology? Do you think that could help or further hinder the industry in any way?
Without being privy to seeing exactly what the artists are getting paid from it, I really can’t answer this with full conviction. I want to believe that’s the next step. I want to believe that someday I won’t have to store anything on my hard drive and yet be able to access it anywhere and play anything. I want to believe that when I stream something my monthly subscription will pay the artists I am listening to.
Kickstarter, a service dedicated to essentially ask fans for funding in order to pay for a bands new album or vinyl pressing, seemed to be extremely popular in 2010 and will surely continue to be this year. What’re your opinions on sites like these? Do you think it’s right for bands to ask their fans for money, especially when they can’t guarantee happiness with their final product?
Funny, these three questions in a row are all services I mentioned earlier - we seem to think alike. I love sites like these. It puts the power in the hands of the fans to give directly to the artist and support them. If someone helps fund a project and they don’t like the outcome, at the very least they can look at from the perspective that they helped an artist they once loved (theoretically they liked the last release enough to help with the next). It’s like a pre-preorder, and I think it shifts the power more into the people’s hands who I think it should be in: consumers and the artist themselves. I hope more bands go this route in the future.
Bandcamp is another huge service that saw massive growth in 2010 with artists like Sufjan Stevens and favorites, Man Overboard taking advantage of perks they might not see from sales on iTunes. What are your thoughts on Bandcamp?
Bandcamp is poised to be what Myspace should have been – we’ll see how they scale and what features they add. I think it’s a great service; however, they need to be careful one of the big players doesn’t come along and just offer what they’re doing on a mass scale. Amazon, Google, iTunes … you have to believe they’re thinking of different ways for artists to sell their music. Name your own price on Amazon MP3? Tell me you’re not a little excited to see if they could pull it off.
Switching gears a bit: You’ve been hard at work for months coding the new version of AbsolutePunk. You obviously don’t want to rush the launch before it’s completely ready, but do you have any sort of deadline for yourself to get it up by?
It needs to be perfect, and I would love to see it ready for full launch by the end of this year.  I have a lot to do. It really is a complete rethinking of the website and how it works from top to bottom. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be.
Can you talk about the main goals you’re trying to accomplish with the new site design in terms of simplicity and fluidity?
The main goal is to create a website that gives the user what they’re looking for.
The current website is a duct-taped combination of a bunch of stuff I wrote when I was 15-20, pieced together with all kinds of stuff, and it’s sometimes a shock that it works at all. It’s extremely outdated. So, we’re going to bring it into the next decade.  The goal has been to look at how people use the website currently, combine it with how I think people want to use the website and can’t, and put that together in a simple design. Think Twitter and Purevolume mixed with some flourishes.  The question I ask constantly is how can we make this better, how can we make this easier, and how can we tie it together.  The goal was a pleasing design, but the simplicity of it matters far more to me than the design.
What’s your regular day like for The site has a large staff that mostly takes care of news, interviews, reviews, and other similar features, but can you discuss what goes on behind the scenes even beyond coding the new version?
The morning is spent with coffee and emails. Reading, answering, preparing for the day. Press releases sorted and posted, news posted, features/exclusives/contests posted and dealt with. If there’s extra time I get caught up on my extensive RSS feed reading. Then I try and hit the gym for an hour (this is my lunch break), grab some food, and it’s back to work – this is where the bulk of the day is spent, coding things, fixing things, and watching the website to see how things are going (what stories are popular, being promoted, being talked about, etc.). I try and participate as much as I can. I try and handle the important emails that come in through the day – but I do a final sweep of the inbox at the end of the day (6ish) as well. Right now the bulk of the day is spent in PHP code working on the future of the website. Before (and after that’s done) it was spent on promoting the website and seeking out stories to post about. That’s what will happen when we launch the new site as well. I have very lofty goals for where we want to take the website, and the kinds of stories we want to cover.
The music world is a much different place than it was when AbsolutePunk was created. It’s obviously your career, your passion, and at the end of the day, your source of income, but with all the shifts (for better and for worse) in the music industry, has it ever gotten tough to wake up in the morning and continue to want to run to the website?
I think with every relationship and passion there are highs and lows. You can love your job, your partner, and your friends – and still hate them on some days. Sure, there are days that make me want to bang my head into the wall. There are days where I feel frustrated.  But they are few and far between. I love music. I love technology. I love business. I love the rush.  
To follow up on that question, have you ever been concerned with the fact that one day this type of music just won’t interest you? Your taste has obviously grown and changed in the past 10 years, but there is just no way to tell what anybody’s taste will be in the following 10.
I’m not really concerned that music won’t interest me. Clearly my musical tastes today are different than they were when I was 15. I listened to Mest at one point. Enough said, right? The beauty of is that it can change. It can reflect my tastes, our staff’s tastes, and the user’s tastes all at the same time. Now it’s my job to put the tools together in a way that lets a user tap into the stream they want to follow. The artists, the users, the staff member, the reviews, etc. The experience can be tailored.
Considering that will always be your future, is there a “5-year” or even “10-year” plan for the site?
Of course.

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