Jerry Lucky: So Shawn...what were you up to before the launch of ProgRock Records?
Shawn Gordon: While I'm an extremely driven person, I also don't tend to over think things, I'm a great believer of things happening naturally, whether that is business or music, I find my instincts are almost always correct. That said, I took over an internet radio station, progrock.com in the summer of 2002 and what I rapidly found out was that a lot of people were doing extremely good music and really had no way to get it out. This is before CD Baby became the 800 pound gorilla it is today, but the situation is the same. Despite CD Baby having like 100,000 titles, no one single title sells more than a few dozen copies on average.
Now to backtrack a bit, I've been playing music since I was 5, I did piano, guitar, trumpet, drums, orchestra, you name it, and I did it. Of course the goal was to always "make it" and I was in a lot of good bands, but we never did what was really required to "make it". I did end up almost signed with this one label, the A&R guy was also a DJ and the result of that was my girlfriend ended up babysitting his kids and I was his sidekick on his radio show because I could do so many voices. So anyway, I was always good at computer programming, and I'm talking about going back to the mid-70's and punch cards and TRS-80 and pong games and all that. So I ended up in computer programming until I "made it" as a rock star. So after 20 years, a marriage and a couple kids (all of whom I'm still with and love tremendously) I had this opportunity with the radio station and then decided to use my skills with eCommerce and my software company to start a record label. The whole idea was to just leverage the radio station and the label but somehow in the first few months I ended up with the first Frameshift project with James LaBrie and had to scale things up and we've grown rapidly ever since.
JL: You’re also a keyboard player? How does that fit into the whole scheme of things?
SG: Well, the best part about it is that I've gotten to play some keyboard solos on albums with some of my favorite people. I've about 95% done with an album of my own that has me on guitar and keyboards, Michael Sadler on vocals, Kurt Barabas on bass and guitar, Mark Zonder on Drums and some other friends helping with guitars and loops. The project is called "Psychic for Radio" and will be out in late 2008, so the best part is that I know my album will be put out by a label :). I've got several other innovative and elaborate projects I'm working on, but I can't really say more at this point, but they will blow peoples minds.
JL: As a prog fan, what were the bands that inspired or even influenced you?
SG: Absolute #1 influence was Genesis, my 2nd favorite is Saga. Before that I really
just listened to classical, but in the late 70's a friend of mine turned me on to
JL: At a time when the music business is in such turmoil what led you to launch the label?
SG: Well, as I mentioned, I don't always think things through, I have good instincts and I move fast, so when I make a decision, I typically execute it quickly. What a lot of people don't realize though is how drastically the industry has changed just in the last few years. I'm seriously thinking of starting to write some regular columns on the music industry in general for our genre because it is pretty stunning out little musicians seem to understand. They are (rightly) focused on finishing their albums, but then they are done and suddenly they don't know what to do. Where my strength lies is in being able to be creative and to quickly adapt and find ways for musicians to be as productive and profitable as possible given the current climate. The dinosaur labels are dying, those of us that want to survive have to be quick and nimble and creative.
JL: So you decide to launch a prog label was it a situation of “build it and they will come?”
SG: I was naive and thought people would just run to us on their own. I quickly figured out that this wasn't happening and I did my best to let people know what was happening with us. I dare say that we went from an unknown to a relative powerhouse in a fairly short amount of time; we also broke a good number of bands that no one would have known about otherwise.
JL: What was the initial reaction to your idea?
SG: Let's be honest, pretty much no one cared until I put out Frameshift with LaBrie, so you could say that was a strategic investment, but it is also a damn great album and some of his finest vocal work put to record.
JL: You also run Mindawn…tell us a little about Mindawn…and did that come before setting up the label or after?
SG: Well, I'm a programmer and software designer as well, so when iTunes first came out I tried to get my label on there, I followed all their protocols (this was before 3rd party digital propagation services) and they never got back to me, so I said to myself "screw this, I'll do it myself". So with 3 people and 2 months, we had Mindawn up and running. It was platform agnostic, CD quality, answered every pirate argument and we managed a deal with the University of California system in our first few months because we impressed them so much. Because of my own background, Mindawn has a prog "bent", but we have a broad range of material. I'm not interested in having the latest Brittney Spears album on there, you can get it anywhere, I want to cater beyond that.
JL: Explain…or perhaps better yet..SELL us on the idea of Mindawn? As a guy who doesn’t do any kind of downloading…what’s the process, how easy is it? Essentially..what’s in it for me?SG: Digital downloading isn't for everyone. What Mindawn offers is first, a way to avoid the Apple lock in, but after that, we have actual CD quality audio, not "near" CD quality. You can also listen to any song up to 3 times, in full, without paying for it (this combats the pirate argument about previews). There is no DRM, you can do anything you want with the audio (although we prefer you don't put it on a pirate site), but we treat you like a customer first, not like a criminal. Overall it is very simple to use, once you've gone through it once, you'll realize how easy it is, and when you're talking about a CD quality download for just $8.99, that's a darn good deal. For musicians, they have total control on their content and how it is presented and they can change it at any time, just login to their account and do whatever they need to, without waiting for someone on our staff to respond to a change request. Anyone that has joined the service (label or artist) has been really pleased with how it works and the level of control they have.
JL: You’ve been quite outspoken about the current state of illegal downloading. I’m guessing it's hit you personally?
SG: Oh yes. When I've sold 2,000 copies of a title and I can go to various download services and see 30,000 downloads, we know for a fact it is hurting sales. It is just common sense, there is no way that less than 10% of those downloads are people who kept the album. I have a lot of nieces and nephews in their 20's and I've had frank conversations with them recently about downloading, and none of they honestly realized the problem until I explained it. Just because stealing is easy, doesn't make it right or legal. Would you go to a music store, steal a CD, go home, listen to it, and if you liked it, go back and pay for it, or if you didn't like it, return it? Hell no! This is the big lie of pirates, they all think someone else is buying it, so their stealing it isn't a problem.
JL: A fellow at work pointed out a blog site he goes to and I noticed a little button on the site that said something like “Don’t Support ProgRock Records”.
SG: This one cracks me up like you wouldn't believe. The banner says "Say No to Progrockrecords.com and Mindawn.com - Shawn Gordon Kills Music". This is put up by people who pirate music. I've invested something like a half million dollars to put out music, so who is actually killing music? The basic fallacy of pirates is that their actions result in more sales, this is demonstrably wrong and has been refuted more times than there are fish caught in the ocean. In reality, once I started helping with the "prog against pirates" campaign, all my sales went up, both digital and physical. What's especially ironic is that I'm not the one that started the campaign, I joined later when some of my pre-releases ended up on pirate sites in September 2007, but somehow I got pegged as the face of the campaign. The anti-piracy group that I'm part of is about 40 labels and artists that actively take these pirate sites down, and there are others that aren't part of our group that I see doing the work as well. I think Martin Orford (who is part of our group) said it best when he said "I don't care if I have a million fans that download it for free, I'd rather have one that paid for it".
JL: Let me ask you a blunt question…is this a “Pandora’s box” that’s been opened that might be difficult to close?
SG: It's absolutely a pandoras box, however all we're doing is pissing off the people who steal our music anyway, so why should we care about their feelings? Seriously, when I bought albums, it was because I heard 1 song on the radio I liked, now pirates claim they need to hear the whole album a dozen times first. That's a load of crap. Do you go to the store and start eating stuff and then tell them you aren't going to pay because you didn't like it? No one is guaranteeing that you're going to love the whole album, and as a matter of fact, in a later you question you asking me about desert island CD's and one of them is Spocks Beard. I hated that album when I first bought it, I was pissed off that it wasn't what I expected, but I ended up leaving it in my car CD player by accident and listened to it a bunch because there was nothing on the radio and it turned in to one of my favorite albums. I mean seriously, we're talking about the price of lunch for a CD, the CD will give you a ton of enjoyment, the lunch is an hour. People don't give a second thought to $5 for a coffee at Starbucks, but heaven help us if we spend $15 for a CD.
JL: I’ve read with interest some of Nick Barrett’s (PENDRAGON’S) blogs how the seemingly innocent downloading of their new stuff is really hurting them. Are prog fans that insensitive?
SG: Originally I thought they weren't, but they absolutely are, at least some of them, and I've been in heated discussions with some of them. I've had people cursing me and physically threatening me because I told them that stealing was wrong, and this was people in their 40's and 50's - how scary is that. Sales are down, it's a fact, and when you take bands like Pendragon, IQ and others that have sales to compare it with from 10 years ago, you can write some off from glut on the market or lack of interest, but you can't attribute 80% of the decline to that. The difference with stealing from a prog band and say Madonna, is that stealing 10,000 units from a 30,000 seller is much different than stealing 50,000 units from a 5 million seller. It is still wrong, but in the one case, you WILL force the band out of the market. I know at least 2 dozen well known prog bands that are likely on their last album because of piracy. I cannot stress this enough, PIRATES ARE KILLING PROG.
JL: Let’s get back to ProgRock Records. Who was the first signed and how did that come together?
SG: Hmm, interesting question and one that required me to look back at our press releases to verify. Technically Little Atlas was our first signed artist, they were referred to me by an old drummer of mine actually. I signed Cerafim, Dreamship, Spyral, Chain (Henning Pauly) and Aaron English all around the same time. How they all came to the label and their stories with the label are pretty drawn out, mostly positive, but everyone has their quirks.
JL: For aspiring bands looking for a label…what should they be doing to catch your interest?
SG: Oh man, I blogged about this earlier in the year because I am SO tired of a band emailing me and saying "we sound like King Crimson and Genesis, you should check us out.". Let me tell you what is wrong with that. They aren't telling me if they have a new album, if it is done, if artwork is done, have they printed it, what are direct links to songs so I don't have to hunt around for them, etc. What a band needs to do, very clearly, is say "Hi, we've recorded an album, it's totally done, we're just finishing artwork, we're looking for a label, here are some links to our songs, etc.". Of course, everyone’s story is different, but that is an example. Make it easy for me, I get a dozen submissions a week and as long as I don't hate it in the first few minutes, that means several listens, which is 3 hours of time per album, you figure my hourly rate, and that's pretty damn expensive just to decide if I want to talk to you. You've got one chance to make a good impression, so make it good.
JL: What’s the toughest thing about running the label?
SG: Dealing with musicians that have absolutely zero clue about how the industry works and think that by just putting out an album there will be a million people who buy it and it will be stocked in every store. Now we work with pretty much every store in the US, however it is not at all reasonable to assume that every store can stock every release that comes out, so most of them will put it on their list of available items so if you can't find it, you can order it. You'd be amazed at the artists who have been in this industry for decades that don't understand this basic principal. I am lucky though that about 98% of my artists are great to work with, even my heroes from days of yore that I managed to sign.
JL: When you’ve had a lousy day…what is it that drives forward to keep going?
SG: This is actually good advice for anyone doing anything. Don't think too far in advance, it can overwhelm you. You wake up in the morning, you think about taking a shower. In the shower, you think about what to eat for breakfast, etc. Overall I love what I do, however I've had a handful of bands that I'd love to meet in a cage match (they are that bad). I've gotten better over the years about evaluating people and personalities and I've managed to reduce the problems, but every once in a while you get that band that is so out of touch with reality that you want to ship them to Mars. That's when a nice bottle of Scotch finishes the day off right :)
JL: Last question, if you were stuck on a desert island…what five albums would you like to have with you and why?
SG: Boy, this changes over time, certainly two of them are Spocks Beard "Kindness of Strangers" and Pain of Salvation "Perfect Element Part 1". I'd also go with our 2 Frameshift albums "Unweaving the Rainbow" and "An Absence of Strangers” which leaves me one more and I have to pick between Saga and Genesis, which isn't easy, but I'll go with Genesis "Selling England by the Pound". Why? I'm not sure, other than they are albums I've been able to listen to many times over the years and really enjoy every time I hear them.
JL: Thanks Shawn…on behalf of prog fans everywhere I wish you the best.