Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Piracy, Music Distribution, and the Future of Metal

An Interview with Chris Bruni

Profound Lore is, in my opinion, the metal label right now. They dominate end-of-year lists with their releases, like Agalloch's The Marrow of the Spirit, Salome's Terminal, and Dawnbringer's Nucleus. They seem poised to do it again this year with the likes of Krallice, Mitochondrion, and SubRosa, among others. Chris Bruni (who IS the label) has been compared to a museum curator with the care he takes in his releases. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions on piracy, alternative distribution methods, and all in all, the future of metal. I also discuss the results of my last poll.

FMA: Where does the profit come from in an indie metal label? I know Profound Lore was founded in 2004, but how do you think that has changed in the last decade or so?

CB: Using the term “profit” within the context of an indie metal label is a misnomer. Putting “profit” and “indie metal label” together is incidentally an oxymoron. But I guess that all depends on how one manages their funds. Technically profit merely comes from CD/merch or whatever sales. If a single unit gets broken down after all production costs, supplies, and of course shipping, once can easily calculate some sort of profit, depending on how much that item is sold for. But if we are talking profit here, say for a single release, essentially that comes after costs are recouped through sales.

One thing I do know is that over the last decade, in a general sense, profit within the metal scene has decreased. I personally went into this thing thinking that if I can get by in making a living off this without having to work a regular day job, then in a way, that is success.

FMA: Do you think piracy affects your bottom line? And, if so, to what extent?

CB: I’m sure it does. This is obvious and if it weren’t for piracy, I’m sure myself and my bands would be way better off. But it’s hard for me to tell because when the label started taking off, the whole piracy/mp3/downloading phenomenon was already going full force, so I kinda got caught within it even when the label started. So I really didn’t experience the whole time when people actually bought CDs and when labels were actually selling shitloads of albums.

FMA: Do you think piracy makes any difference to the average metal artist? Is it positive, in terms of exposure leading to ticket and merch sales, or negative?

CB: That’s why a lot of focus these days, for bands to sell albums or for bands to try and make a stable living (I use this term loosely btw) from music, is that for them to do so, they must tour as much as they can. If someone downloads an album and then likes it, which in turn makes that person check out the band live when they roll into town, by paying for a ticket and even buying a t-shirt or the album on vinyl at the show, then that is a positive effect on the artist in which the artist will definitely benefit from. And that is also why there has been focus on band merch these days too. I mean, you can’t download a t-shirt or a hoodie.

FMA: I would guess you already know this, but just in case you haven't heard of ROMS: It's the Russian equivalent of SoundExchange. In Russia they have compulsory licenses to distribute music, just as we have in the US for radio play and cover songs. So, in Russia, the Beatles were available for electronic downloading years ago. (You can find an article on it here.) Have you received any payments from ROMS or had any dealings with the organization?

CB: These Russian organization’s are sketchy to say the least anyway (I hear they are there just to take your credit card info) and no, I nor any of my artists have received payments from this. This is something that I guess is out of our control. I don’t know of anyone at a label who has attempted to actually contact one of these websites in Russia and tried to actually confront them. If so, I doubt their attempts went anywhere.

FMA: Do you have any opinion on ROMS and/or the sites that take advantage of the Russian copyright laws?

CB: Not really. I mean what else can you expect coming out of a place like Russia, a place where corruption is essentially everywhere.

FMA: What do you see as the future of metal music distribution--online music downloads, streaming subscription services, or something else?

CB: Hard to say admittedly because who knows how far it can go with digital distribution. In a way, this method allows bands to take more control over their own material while at the same time, taking a chance with it and experimenting more with their means of distributing the album via a digital method. I think the most interesting experiment bands and labels are using more and more, that’s becoming even more common, when it comes to digital distribution is providing an album via a pay what you want/donation method. And I think there will be more of these kinds of digital distribution sites popping up more and more, more underground digital distribution sites that will try to undercut sites such as iTunes etc. especially with sites such as Bandcamp and whatnot becoming more popular.

FMA: How much of the cost of putting an album on the market could be cut out by digital-only distribution?

CB: Technically, a lot of costs can be cut if an album has solely digital distribution, mainly of course there would be no physical pressing costs and no shipping costs involved whatsoever. So right there that’s several thousands of dollars not needed if an album will be distributed only by a digital means.

FMA: Assuming that 9-15 cents per song is obscenely cheap, and knowing that $10 per album is (to many people) too expensive for online music purchases, where is the ideal price point? And what price point, if widely adopted, could kill piracy (if any)?

CB: I think music piracy will always exist, especially in a genre like metal (and its various levels of underground), no matter what. In this sense, any kind of ideal price point is irrelevant. It all boils down to ethics I guess.

FMA: Do you think the major labels have screwed the pooch by doing to little, too late? I.e., did they wait too long and keep prices too high on digital distribution to combat a culture of privacy?

CB: Not sure exactly. I think the major labels needed to be a bit more innovative with the technology at their disposal (I guess like the video game industry, an industry where sales are at their all time high and an industry who have really taken measures to combat piracy and is by far way more successful than the music industry in this). And these major labels, who always seem to be in a state of panic, need to act more accordingly in these times of desperation.

FMA: You've said things which suggest that artists can continue in an environment with rampant piracy, even if they're not as well off as they should be, but it can cripple a label. How do the fans benefit from having healthy labels?

CB: Simply, the fans will benefit from the healthy labels that release quality stuff, and in that turn, if the fans support said healthy labels, said support will allow these labels to grow even more and to meet the fans needs even more.

FMA: Would it be safe to say that, from your perspective, illegally downloading an album is equivalent to buying from a (possibly technically legal) Russian service? And is it also equivalent to simply streaming songs of Youtube with no intention of buying?

CB: Well if people just want to depend on streaming songs off Youtube and they want to experience the music and albums in the lowest quality possible, that's their prerogative I guess. And yes, I do believe Illegally downloading an album is equivalent to buying from a Russian service (in which the label nor the band sees any return anyway whatsoever). I'd rather have someone "illegally" download one of my releases off a blog for free instead of paying for something off these Russian websites.

FMA: I recently ran a poll, "How do you get most of your music?" Respondents were allowed to select more than one answer. These are the results:
- Brick and mortar store: 12 (37%)
- Physical format, from an e-store: 12 (37%)
- Digital format from a mainstream store (iTunes, Amazon, etc.): 7 (21%)
- Digital format from a source I THINK is legal: 5 (15%)
- Subscription service (Spotify, Pandora, etc.): 1 (3%)
- Free streaming off the 'net (Youtube, Internet radio service): 6 (18%)
- Piracy: 12 (37%)
If these results are to be believed, then a clear majority of people are still paying for their music in a way that supports the artists and labels. Do the results surprise you, confirm any of your beliefs, or bring anything new to light?

CB: I think in this day in age, these numbers seem somewhat reasonable, although admittedly I didn't expect the brick and mortar physical store to be on par with the physical format from an e-store or an online mailorder site/distro as I do think the future of retail music buying does lie in online sites like and through mailorder from various labels and respectable distros. 


  1. Now that even the smallest bands can have direct access to their fans via Twitter, Facebook, etc., they can market themselves via websites and YouTube (among other video sites), and everyone has cheap access to digital distribution, I've often wondered exactly how record labels still make money. Interesting interview.

    Oh, also, hi, Kelly! How have you been?

  2. Thanks, and I've been fine but busy.

    In a future post I plan to explore the question of whether labels are still necessary, although a recent article on Invisible Oranges already addresses the issue to an extent. (It's from the perspective of an artist, rather than a fan.) And, again, it's hard for me to find time to delve into these issue posts.

  3. Thanks, Kelly - that was a great idea for an interview, and on an interesting topic.

    A few months ago, I'd have shared Chris' surprise over how well brick-and-mortar shops did in your survey. But since I discovered a great little store near me (Rapture Records in Witney, England) - which, incidentally, stocks most Profound Lore releases at a good price - I've shifted from mostly mailorder to largely 'brick-and-mortar' shopping. What the shop stocks has also had a huge impact on which records I buy, as I now make a lot of on-a-whim purchases that I'd never dream of doing online. (For instance, I bought the Castevet record without even checking out a sample mp3.)

    Don't know how representative I am, though. I wonder how many people have access to a decent record shop but still choose to buy most of their music online.

  4. Very interesting interview. And as Rob said, I find that most of my actual purchases now are done in a brick-and-mortar store since I've found a good one nearby. There's something concrete in the experience of going and browsing through a store in person that Amazon, for all its marvelous selection, simply can't match.

  5. Nice interview. I prefer doing my shopping at stores because I like browsing through the selection and letting some album cover catch my eye. That appeal simply is not present online. When I do buy online, I prefer to order from labels like Hell's Headbangers, Moribund Cult, and other small labels. I do occasionally buy from Amazon as well.

  6. This is one of the most thoughtful articles I've seen here in a while. What some people don't know is that independent record stores often pay more taxes than say, bigger retailers like Best Buy or FYE, which get a tax subsidy from the cities where their stores are in. The tax rate really varies from city to city, but this has been going on for years. This was one of the reasons why Small Business Saturday was introduced a couple of years ago as a day to help support local businesses after the big box shopping glut of Black Friday. So when people support independent record stores, the sales taxes collected go further back into the city's economy, and that also keeps these people working at these stores employed. if you're ever in Chicago, visit Reckless on Milwaukee Avenue, they carry a good selection of Profound Lore releases on CD and vinyl, and chances are, Chris Connelly, formerly of Ministry, might be plucking out the vinyl from the back area for you. ;)

  7. "This is one of the most thoughtful articles I've seen here in a while."

    I don't know whether that's a compliment or not. In any case, I try to include as much of this thought-provoking stuff as I can, trying to do at least one "issue" kind of piece per week. But it ain't easy and I don't always succeed.

  8. I meant it as a complement of course, because it goes beyond the usual metal review and actually plucks other interesting source content, such as your mention of these Russian music sites. Seeing that Russia is currently a hotbed for identity theft these days, it's good for people to be aware of these sites and how shady they can really be.

  9. Well in that case, thank you.

    I wanted to find out more about the Russian web sites because I'm trying to predict where the future is for music distribution, and their laws present some unique ideas (that may work better in a country with less corruption).

  10. It was good to see that you received some definite answers on the Russian Music sales. Profound Lore clearly does not receive any benefit from them nor knows of anyone else that does either.
    On a separate topic, CB had a different take on the past price-point for major label albums. I completely believe the labels screwed their customers as hard as they could for as long as they could. To some extent people felt justified when Napster changed the industry. The labels were simply asking too much for a cd you may or may not like.