An Interview with Sam Rosenthal of
by Dave Aftandilian
I still remember the day that Projekt won my heart. It was late night or early morning in Chicago, a couple years into grad school and a thousand miles away from all my college friends. As was not uncommon for me at the time, I had been up drinking cheap gin most of the night, and was sitting watching the gray fingers of dawn steal their way across the city while Lycia's A Day in the Stark Corner played quietly on my stereo. Mike van Portfleet's bleak and utterly desolate vision resonated so strongly with me that day that when "The Morning Breaks So Cold and Gray" came on, the tears started streaming down my face. Somehow, I felt he knew what I was going through, the loneliness and the desolation, but also the painfully bright beauty of the darkness.
Projekt and I have come a long way since then. I no longer drink cheap gin, and Projekt released its 100th recording this past June. To celebrate, Projekt founder Sam Rosenthal put together a compilation called Projekt 100: The Early Years, 1985-1995, commemorating the days when Projekt was young. This CD contains never before heard tracks from Projekt's first two artists, Black Tape for a Blue Girl (Sam's band) and Lycia, as well as unreleased mixes from Attrition, Eden, Loveliescrushing, and Soul Whirling Somewhere, early mixes from Thanatos and Terrace Of Memories, an unreleased track from O Yuki Conjugate (whose Peyote is one of my favorite Projekt releases), and a rare mix from Love Spirals Downwards.
|Sam Rosenthal of Projekt Records and Black Tape for a Blue Girl|
One of the first and still one of the finest gothic ambient/ethereal/darkwave labels in the U.S., Projekt sold more than 100,000 units even before they inked a major distribution deal with Alternative Distribution Alliance in 1997. How? It's all about quality music, as well as supportive fans and "stick-to-it-ness," as Sam Rosenthal described to me in this recent e-mail interview.
When did you start Projekt? What made you decide to found your own label?
I began Projekt back in 1983. I was making a fanzine in Florida (Alternative Rhythms), and I thought it would be cool to put out a cassette of some of the electronic bands I was writing about. I had no plans to "found a label." I was just putting out a cassette! I was making my own electronic music, so it seemed like a cool way to get some of my songs out there.
What do you consider Projekt's greatest success? Biggest disappointment?
Hmmm? I must say that neither of those two things really cross my mind, except when you just asked about that. I just go on from day to day and month to month. Let me try to think about this... I think the biggest disappointments are the result of having unrealistic expectations, like "wouldn't it be great if Projekt artists made enough money from their royalties so they could quit their day jobs and be musicians full time?" That would be nice, but it isn't realistic because we are still an underground thing. But like I said, I don't really think in those terms. I'm just pleased that I can continue to release music that I enjoy, without a lot of meddling hands in the way.
How many artists are on the Projekt roster? Any recent/new signees you'd like to tell us about?
I don't even know the answer to the "how many" question. I would have to go count. My guess is somewhere around 20. As far as recent signees, in April I released the debut from Tallahassee's Mira. They have been doing really well, and people have been picking up on their sound, which is compared to Slowdive or early Love Spirals Downwards. I've also recently released debuts from Unto Ashes and Audra. Each band has a different sound, but I have to admit that they all have something a bit catchy about their melodies. I think that this is important to me, these days. I've had my fill of noisy, melody-less bands...now I want things that stick in my brain. Not like Top 40 pop, but at least with something that is memorable.
Projekt albums have maintained a consistently high standard of excellence for the ten years or so that I've been listening to your releases, which I consider a remarkable achievement. How do you do it?
I guess I act like a filter. I only sign bands that I actually like, so you are perceiving my "tastes," even though they are varied in scope. There is a lot of really bad music out there, and I have been subjected to a lot of it. That means I have very little patience for music that isn't up to a certain level, regardless of what genre it's in. That filter weeds out the stuff that I wouldn't want on the Projekt roster.
One of the most interesting new directions Projekt has taken in recent years is the founding of the Projekt: Archive series. Can you tell us a bit about the series -- why did you start it, and how do you decide which artists and albums to release in it?
Projekt: Archive is a side label for releasing music in the genre that is out of print. Recent releases have been from Area, the Arms of Someone New, Jeff Greinke, and Judgment Of Paris, which I think is an excellent band that deserves more listeners. I guess that is the premise behind the label as a whole: to bring back records that have been unavailable, that are important or groundbreaking in the various facets of the darkwave sounds. How do I decide? I release music I like! (laughs)
Many small labels don't survive more than a couple of years. Why do you think Projekt has been able to stick around so successfully?
Probably because I have determination and stick-to-it-ness, sometimes disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Projekt is starting its 18th year. Can you believe it? It has gone through a lot of changes. From a cassette label to vinyl to CDs to major distribution.
I think that now is the time for getting back to the basics. I have been spending a lot of my time working on the Projekt Web site and the e-mail list (if people are interested, they can sign up from the front page of http://www.projekt.com). I have been reconnecting to the fans and meeting a lot of people. I think that the music industry is about to hit the wall. There is going to be a major collapse, beginning with the chain stores buckling under the weight of the Internet. This is going to be like the supports falling out from under a house. The majors are gonna be knocked down a few notches. Really, it's karma. The majors have been mistreating the artists and the audience for too long. This is inevitable. I am looking to the future, about three years down the line, and looking at how to prepare Projekt for the new world that I think is just around the corner.
So why do you think the majors are headed for a big fall? How will you keep Projekt from being caught in the crossfire?
Why? Because they have been ripping off artists for so long. It's about time for karma to come back and kick them in the pants. You can't keep taking advantage of your artists and not expect that someday there will be turnaround. The slaves will rise to kill their masters!!! How do I keep Projekt out of the crossfire? That's a toughie, isn't it? I mean, we aren't on a major and all of my artists get royalties, but we are in the stores and available through major label distribution, so we have exposure, here. It's a process of keeping a very vigilant eye on what is going on, on the "business" side, and keeping the good music flowing.
I notice you have a link on your home page to downloadable MP3s from Projekt artists. You also mention above that you think the Internet is going to hit the chain stores hard, and that you're devoting a lot of your time these days to working on the Projekt Web site and e-mail list. Do you think the Internet will help or hurt small labels? What are some of the opportunities and pitfalls? How are you positioning Projekt to take advantage of the one and avoid the other?
I think the Internet has already helped small labels to an amazing degree. It has made their music much more available. Not just because there are so many avenues to sell CDs online, but because MP3s make it possible for fans to discover new music. This is what scares the majors. People will discover all the great music on Projekt, and start wondering why they are digesting the pabulum that they've been spoon-fed for so many years. The R.I.A.A. isn't fighting Napster and MP3.com for altruistic reasons. They don't care about artists getting their royalties. They are just the pit bull to attack for their masters -- the major labels -- that are afraid of the people who read this interview discovering all the great music from indie labels!
Yes, I subscribe to conspiracy theories.
One of the things I like most about Projekt's releases -- aside from the music! -- is the beautiful artwork on the covers and liner notes. How do you decide which art to use? Or do the artists do most of the choosing?
It's a little bit of both. Sometimes the artist has a pretty definite idea of what they want. Sometimes they are pretty vague and I get to make suggestions and come up with a design that captures the music. For me, it's all part of one big thing. The cover and the music are a complete thought, rather than the notion that a booklet is just a place to cram the thank yous, and who cares what it looks like. That is another aspect of Projekt that I think will help us make the transition into the new era. We provide something that fetishists can enjoy. Pretty booklets, nice paper, lots of good smelling ink.... You can't download that, can ya?
If you had to pick your top five favorite Projekt albums, what would they be?
Aw, that's a bit unfair, isn't it? Since Black Tape for a Blue Girl has more than five albums... But if you were to remove the ones that I played on: Lycia's Ionia, Love Spirals Downwards' Idylls, Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana's Well Of Souls [on this interviewer's list of top ten dark/tribal ambient albums of all time], Audra's Audra, and Fayman/Fripp's A Temple in the Clouds.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about starting their own label, or for artists trying to locate the label that's the best fit for them?
For people starting a label: have realistic expectations. Don't press 2,000 copies of the first CD you release, press 500. You don't need a garage full of CDs you can't sell. For bands: don't expect that the first two songs you write are gonna get you signed. Write a bunch of music, play live, work up something special[sigma] then go shopping.
Any new directions/plans for Projekt coming up on the horizon?
Continuing to expand the Web site, and watching out for trouble in the real world!