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Sep 21 2004

Harvey Danger Interview Part Two

Today information leafblower is proud to present Part Two of our interview with Harvey Danger's Jeff Lin.

I’ve heard rumours of a King James Version re-release on Barsuk records. Care to comment on this?

We were working towards re-releasing KJV on Barsuk, with an extra disc of unreleased B-sides and other recordings to boot – things were looking pretty good, but then Warner Bros. canned the entire staff that had agreed to the licensing deal so right now it’s not clear when or if it’s going to happen. I’ll let you know if it does happen, though

(photo by Ryan Schierling)

Have you and the band been working on new material? Are their plans for a tour?

We’ve written a few new songs that we’ve played the couple times we’ve played out. Currently our focus is going to be on writing new material and recording material for a new album. We’re going to be working with producer Steve Fisk, and we’ve booked time in October. As far as future plans go, it all hinges on how the material turns out. I think if you look at the history of the band and how we’ve worked, we always work best when we focus just on the music-making process. We stopped working in that way when the commercial success hit (there were so many other distractions, other issues that came up), so I’m excited to see what happens now. Everything else follows from the work, and I think we’re back to a point where there’s much less distraction so that bodes well.

Have you been listening to much music during your time away from the band?

For the first two years after we took the break I didn’t listen to hardly anything at all. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of NinjaTune stuff. I’m going through an Amon Tobin phase right now. What’s interesting to me about “electronic” music is the wider sonic palette they employ. If you’re in a rock band often it’s a given that there’s going to be a voice, a guitar, a bass, and drums. Maybe you’ll run some of them through effects or something, or maybe there’ll be some embellishments somewhere, but you always start from the same baseline. Sample-based music starts from a different place altogether and it’s instructive to see how the really skillful artists put stuff together. Since there’s usually not a single focus (the way that vocals are always the focus in rock music), there’s a lot of more subtle shifts in the music. Hopefully I can learn something from that.

How do you feel about the state of the music industry right now?

I think the music industry is in the middle of a radical transition. I think it’s easy to forget that the music industry as we know it could only exist because of technological invention (cheaply produced playback media). In the same way that technological invention gave rise to the current industry, it’s going to reshape the same industry. The major labels can fight it but it’s like fighting the tide; the change is inevitable.

There’s a book by Clayton Christensen called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” that goes over how companies fail to make the transition when disruptive technologies make it onto the market. He goes through industries as diverse as hard disks, microprocessors and excavators, and explains why the giants of each industry perish when the next technology comes along. It’s quite a good book. In short, what happens is that the companies are set up entirely to make money in certain scales of economy; then when a disruptive technology comes along, what happens is that it is actually less profitable and so it makes no sense for the company to pursue this smaller, less profitable “niche” market. But what happens then is that the niche market grows, and at some point the original market disappears completely, at which point the company is forced to make the transition to the once-niche market. Most of the time they don’t make it.

The analogy doesn’t follow exactly for the music industry because of the nature of music, but there are an awful lot of similarities: You have these huge corporations that operate on gigantic scales of economy, where any album that sells less than 250,000 copies loses money. You also have a dearth of any sort of real A&R or artist development, so everything is very singles-oriented, but at the same time you have the growth of broadband and filesharing networks. At the same time you have companies like Apple and the iTunes music store that are happy to sell songs at 99 cents (or cheaper) since they don’t have to carry the overhead, and their main profit centers are elsewhere.

Throw into this mix the fact that kids are growing up downloading music instead of buying CDs – that’s how they’re used to getting music. Even those of us that grew up buying CDs are using them less and less; I own tons of CDs, but I can’t tell you the last time I played one, since I rip everything onto my iPod anyway. Extrapolate all these trends, add in the fact that most major labels are technologically clueless and it’s clear that the current music industry has a limited lifespan.

How do you feel about downloading and legal online music stores like the iTunes Music Store?

I think the iTunes music store is brilliant. I’m a pretty big fan of Apple and specifically their approach to things – it’s very innovative and creative. Contrast that to a company like, say, Microsoft, which is very reactive and focus-group-driven. Apple will always lead the way and others will follow. I think you’re seeing that now. I remember when people dismissed online music purchasing as unworkable, but now that Apple’s done it right, tons of other people are emulating them, as you can see.

The other thing that’s interesting to note is that Apple looks on iTunes and the music store as a way to sell more iPods. This is a very different approach than the labels, which look on singles as a way to sell albums. Especially with the consolidation of major labels into major corporations with different product arms (look at Sony), I think you’re going to see companies with different agendas promoting different distribution methods for music and movies. I mean, the other day I bought a Big Mac meal at McDonalds and got a code to download this Queens of the Stone Age song that’s been stuck in my head. How all this is going to stabilize is unclear right now, but it’s going to be really interesting to watch.

As far as filesharing and downloading is concerned, people are always going to do it. In a way it’s a challenge to the artist: producing just one catchy song isn’t going to be enough; now you have to produce works that are deep enough to sustain people’s interest beyond just one song. But for those who do rise to the challenge, the same technology that allows people to download your music for free (not always a bad thing either) is also the same technology that allows an artist to retain and build a sustainable fan base -- without outside support -- over the course of years, even a career. Personally, I think this is a very good thing.

Is it better to be on an indie right now, rather than a major?

I’d definitely say the advantage is swinging to the smaller indie labels right now, but that’s kind of a gross generalization. Again, the problem with the major labels is that a “success” for them is an album that sells at least 1 million copies; contrast this with an indie label, where a big success100,000+ copies.

In general, I think the problem with most record labels attempting to transition into whatever the next thing is, is that the traditional CD-selling is so ingrained in their mentality that it’s hard for them to imagine doing things in a completely different way. This is the case for most industries that are being remade by the internet: newspapers try to put a version of a newspaper on the web; tv stations try and put tv on the web.

On the other hand, the problem with technology companies attempting to get into the record business is that they fail to understand that music (or any sort of creative work) is fundamentally different from other technological industries – you can’t substitute one thing with another; if people want the Beatles, you can’t swap in the Monkees and think people are going to go for it just because it costs half as much. Contrast this with another “content” industry, news – most people aren’t going to mind if you substitute a Reuters story for an Associated Press story.

It seems to me that there’s space in the industry for a business- and technology-savvy label to set up shop on a scale somewhere between the independent labels and the major labels. It’s going to require a complete rethinking of the basic mechanics of distribution, promotion, and even the relationship between the artist and label – but it needs to understand the quirks inherent in this business. The indie labels seem to understand the target market and the artists better, but the problem is always that they lack the business acumen and are chronically under-capitalized to take advantage of their position. So I guess basically I think technologically-savvy, well-capitalized indie labels will be the “majors” of the future.

What was it like to be in the middle of a major label bidding war?

We actually decided to forgo the process of a major label bidding war. When "Flagpole Sitta" was added to the local radio station (KNDD-FM in Seattle) rotation, London Records immediately flew us out and made several overtures. Within the next couple months, as the song spread to more stations, things got crazier -- (HD lead singer)Sean and I would get all manner of phone calls from A&R reps from different record labels at our repsective jobs. it was really crazy -- but we'd pretty much decided that we were going to stick with London Records since they were willing to 1) put out the existing album as it was, and quickly (one of our concerns was other labels would want the song re-tracked or want us to add "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo" to it, which in our minds was a song for our next album), and 2) they seemed like they understood what we wanted to do as far as the second album was concerned, and that, to us, was what we really wanted out of a major-label deal -- to be able to go into a big studio and record an album proper. Personally, that was what I most wanted out of the deal, to be able to make a big-budget studio album, to do the kind of thing we'd only read about in books and magazines. You can always make money, but the opportunity to go and record like that, with those resources -- that's the kind of thing we would daydream about when we were starting out.

Now, in hindsight (and even during the process), a lot of people thought we should have held out and gone for the bidding war, the big-money deal. I can only speak for myself, but I've never regretted that decision -- on the one hand, we passed up a lot of money, and others make a pretty good argument that a better/bigger label would have resulted in more sales of Merrymakers; on the other hand, there are never any guarantees, and we did end up with a No. 1 single and a gold record, as well as the chance to record the second album the way we did. Plus I got to meet some really cool people at London -- some of whom are very good friends to this day -- and that's not something you can put a price on.

What band would you like to see reunite?

I would say Portishead, but I don’t think they’ve broken up, I think they’re just taking their time (and more power to them for that). So I’d have to say My Bloody Valentine. I’ve always been really curious what Kevin Shields’ next step was going to be after Loveless came out. You can really chart the evolution of their sound from the first couple EPs through Loveless, and I was pretty excited to see what was next. Unfortunately, it seems like he was also aware of the amount of expectation as well, and it seemed like it was a real mindjob, so it seems like he took a side step. So the rumors that they might be doing something new is very welcome.

- Harvey Danger play the KNDD EndFest at White River Amphitheater (near Seattle, WA) on Sept. 25th.

- Buy King James Version through the iTunes Music Store.

- Download the exclusive Harvey Danger Xmas song Sometimes You Have To Work On Xmas (Sometimes). This song is previously unavailable in any format. Many thanks to the band for letting me offer it to everyone here, and cheers to Jeff for taking time out of his hectic schedule to do this interview.

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