Artists: own your masters and streaming can work for you. That’s the message we heard in our recent conversations with Traci Thomas and Jack Stratton. Thomas, a music business veteran, works at Thirty Tigers, where she manages the likes of Jason Isbell and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Stratton, a relative newcomer to the industry, is the mastermind behind the virtuosic and subversive Los Angeles-based funk/soul outfit, Vulfpeck.
Thomas has quietly established herself as one of the best managers in the business. She played a huge role in Isbell’s 2013 resurgence with Southeastern, a commercial success that topped a variety of critical year-end charts and received praise from the likes of John Prine and Bruce Springsteen. Not to mention Isbell’s 2015 release, Something More Than Free, which hit number 1 on the Billboard Rock, Country and Folk charts, and was nominated for two GRAMMYs this year. As for St. Paul? Within two years of partnering with Thomas, the band released a hot-selling album, Half the City, performed on CBS Sunday Morning, and toured with the Rolling Stones.
Vulfpeck first made international headlines with its Sleepify album, a silent record that was streamed 5.5 million times and raised $20,000 on Spotify before being pulled down by the service. The release was intended to fund a free tour for the band, but ended up drawing attention to the platform’s payment structure. Stratton has no qualms with bucking the system. He releases the band’s music through their own label, Vulf Records. He funds the projects using Kickstarter. (The latest campaign raised over $55,000. The goal was $1.) 95% of Vulpeck’s limited marketing outreach is via their cult following on Youtube, Reddit, and social media. (Their recent Colbert performance was shared on Facebook over 5k times.) And even though they’re a fantastic live band, they don’t really tour that often.
But Vulfpeck owns everything, so they can grow at their own pace. Stratton said on a podcast last year that he told his band, “We could be a fraction of the size of some of these groups we love, and still be getting the same amount of money after the split.” Thirty Tigers’ forward-thinking release model also allows the majority of its artists to control their masters, and so take a bigger piece of the pie. Thomas says the arrangement is extremely beneficial as we move into a streaming-dominated landscape. (“For my artists that own their masters [streaming] has affected their bottom line greatly.”) Read on to hear more from her and from Stratton. One manager leading the charge in the world of Americana, and one whip smart upstart trying to funk the system all up.
Indie record labels have always played a role in championing music that might otherwise be overlooked by the majors. Has the rise of streaming services like YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music leveled the playing field at all? Is it easier or more difficult for left of mainstream artists to gain exposure under the new model?
Thomas: I don’t know if they’ve leveled the playing field per se but I come from the mind set of the more the merrier. The streaming services offer everyone additional avenues to get their music heard. If you’re in a position of owning your own master then it’s definitely a win. I think it’s easier but everyone has to continue to be creative and most importantly only put out quality material.
How has streaming and the constantly evolving digital space changed your approach to releasing your artists’ music? Does an artist really still need 3 months to set up a record?
We’re not all Adele and can’t withhold our music from streaming services on release. I don’t think it’s changed the way we release our artists’ music. Yes, I think to properly set up a release, it’s still smart to have that 3 month window … we’re all not Beyonce either.
Curated playlists on streaming sites have also gained influence as a marketing tool. How do you incorporate playlists into your promotional strategy? Do you see the power of playlists increasing as we move forward?
Our digital marketing team is alway asking for playlists from our artists and pitching for such curated playlists. Some are good at doing them … some are not. I don’t know that I’ve seen the needle move with those artists that make the playlists.
We’ve seen a lot of misinformation being thrown around regarding streaming payouts and streaming in general. How is the shift from ownership (sales & downloads) to access (streaming) affecting your artists’ bottom line?
Most artists don’t fully understand how the payouts work or they wouldn’t keep signing to labels. For my artists that own their masters it has affected their bottom line greatly.
Do you think streaming will produce a viable recorded music business? What needs to happen for it to work most effectively?
Yes, streaming services aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. For it to work more effectively they need to increase the payouts for songwriters.
Vulfpeck has had a lot of success using Kickstarter to fund your releases. A lot of artists turn their nose up at the platform. Why do you think that is? Will you continue to utilize crowdfunding as the band grows?
Stratton: Kickstarter is fantastic. It is backwards that it’s uncool to raise money on Kickstarter and cool to take an advance from a corporation. People who think it is uncool should look inward. I will use Kickstarter for future releases. It also happens to be the cheapest method of doing preorders (cheaper than iTunes and Bandcamp).
Youtube has been another great platform for Vulfpeck, especially considering your videos appear to be produced for next to nothing. How does Youtube stack up as a promotional tool vs. revenue source for Vulfpeck? How can the platform improve?
Promotional. That said, hosting large videos that playback reliably would be expensive. Youtube is fantastic. I don’t know what it could do to improve. In fact, better is stay a little janky so that it doesn’t wipe out all the real music services.
You made a lot of noise with your Sleepify album, which you released as a way to raise money for a free tour, and to draw attention to Spotify’s payment structure. What benefits and challenges does streaming present for a band like Vulfpeck? What are some realistic changes would allow the system to work for artists of all shapes and sizes?
I wrote a short article about their payment structure. I don’t think any changes will be made. Spotify is fantastic. I go back and forth. They don’t seem to care about independent musicians. I’ve tried to get in touch a few times. We own all our rights, so getting plays on Spotify is good for us. If you don’t own your masters on streaming you will never make money. As far as changes, get the word out to musicians to keep all their rights. That would change the backlash against Spotify.
It seems like the most press you’ve ever gotten as a band is for that “album.” But you sell out of pretty much any physical product you manufacture and seemingly all of your live shows. What’s does the overall Vulfpeck marketing strategy look like?
Our marketing strategy is very Jewish. There is no outreach. It is my view that Vulf fans already exist and will find us. This approach has led to a fantastic group of fans. I want Vulf to be it’s own thing. Like Radiolab or Tim & Eric.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of running your own label in 2016? What would it take for Vulfpeck to sign a traditional label or publishing deal?
I enjoy running the label. It’s just me. If you have a working knowledge of Gmail and Excel, you can achieve incredible productivity alone. What type of deal would we sign? I have no idea. Once you get a taste of owning everything you can’t go back.
This interview originally appeared on Songspace as part of its All Together Now series, which interviews artists, as well as leaders from labels, management teams, publishers, and streaming services about building a faster, smarter music industry.