Can Music Collectives Fill the Gap Between Labels and DIY ?

A new, old trend may help musicians better navigate the new industry landscape

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Sasha Arutyunova

Dan Knobler and Jon Seale of Mason Jar Music

Over the past 15 years, Michael Starita has gotten to know many sides of the music industry. He’s been a performer, an engineer, a producer, a studio owner. So he has a good understanding of how the business works—and how much things have changed. Used to be, someone from a label would see you perform at a club, sign you, produce the record and take care of the artwork and manufacturing and distribution and publicity. Artists these days, Starita will tell you, face a lot more challenges.

“Labels have backed away, and that’s created a complete DIY [do-it-yourself] environment,” he says. “A lot of artists now, on top of being an artist, have to wear tons of hats, from being a manager to a booking agent to a graphic artist to a producer.”

Recognizing the problem with that model—a good singer is not necessarily a good producer—he added another item to his CV, launching the Bay Area Music Collective (BAMC), which began to offer its services to artists this past January.

In doing so, he’s joining a larger trend of trying to use so-called collectives to fill the gap between old-fashioned labels and one-man-bands. It’s a model that has long been popular with artists—for example, the Elephant 6 collective is known for successful bands like Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel—but it’s less immediately clear what a business-side collective means for these new music-industry upstarts. That’s partly because they’re not in agreement either. The idea of a collective, a bunch of like-minded people working together to help each other, sounds like some sort of hippie fantasy—but a new wave features a wide array of business models that don’t look like that at all.

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Here’s Starita’s version: the members of his collective come from the industry side of the San Francisco music scene–vendors and studios. What he can offer to artists is his network and knowledge. Unlike a stereotypical collective, BAMC has a clear leader in Starita. And unlike a traditional label—or a traditional collective, for that matter—BAMC doesn’t pick and choose which artists to work with; Starita tries to pair everyone who comes to him with the producers or studios or graphic artists he thinks best matches their particular sound.

It’s a full-time job—while he makes no money when artists work within his network, he charges for services like financial consultations and branding help. Though the BAMC is just getting started, Starita says the artists he works with are happy to be just musicians again, and that the industry people in the group see the need for his client-finding services too. “It used to be that you had a few artists that you would make a lot of money off of,” he explains, “and now you might have 50 artists that are making less money.”

Another version of a collective can be found at Brooklyn-based Mason Jar Music, which hews more closely to what one might imagine the word to mean. For one thing, co-founders and NYU classmates Dan Knobler and Jon Seale share quarters in Mason Jar’s combination workspace-living space. The equipment they use, while not co-owned, is available to all of the collective’s members to share. Creative projects are also tackled collectively. That’s part of their business model, in fact: the high price of real estate in the area means that combining house and studio allows them to afford to live and create; likewise making use of talent and equipment belonging to many people.

Mason Jar offers a wide range of services for artists, much like BAMC, but in-house rather than through a network. They film glossy Americana-tinged videos, produce records, arrange music for orchestras, provide musicians to play said music and just recently made their first music-centric full-length film. They’re also making money. Not every member of the collective does it full-time, but Seale and Knobler, who founded the organization when they were going into their junior year of college, live off it. “By the time we graduated, I would say, it was already sustaining us,” says Seale.

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Not that Seale and Knobler are necessarily anti-label. Their decision to cultivate a community and stick to a distinct aesthetic—a look and sound that was less popular when they started in 2007, but one they admit has been a boon in a post-Mumford world—was inspired by their appreciation of labels like Motown and Stax. They just don’t think labels are filling musicians’ needs these days.

“More and more artists these days aren’t seeing much of a value in the idea of a traditional label,” says Seale.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a label because we’re not releasing the bands’ music but we are kind of, in the way that a label used to, helping them figure out who they are,” adds Knobler, who also says that he hopes the artists with whom Mason Jar works go on to sign traditional record contracts if they want to. The purpose of a label these days, he says, is to take already successful bands to the next level of fame. Mason Jar Music can help them get big enough that a label might be willing to invest; that’s much harder for artists to do on their own. In that view of the music landscape, collectives aren’t so much a third way as they are a middle step.

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Still, says one music industry executive who offers another option, despite the warm-and-fuzzy sound of “collective,” people who want to jump on the bandwagon should be careful.

George Howard has been an arts consultant, music distributor, independent-label president and music-management professor. He’s now the COO of Norton, a company that owns several music-related businesses that are not collectives but also fall in one way or another within the space between DIY and major labels. Howard says that collectives still need working business models, something he sees missing from many idealistic attempts to work with the new paradigms of the industry (not specifically BAMC or Mason Jar). “The problem with [collectives], and this is going to sound really harsh, is that they tend to lack just by their very nature any real clear and decisive leadership and they tend to lack business experience,” he says. “You have a beautiful intent but you lose a clear vision.”

Still, as the music industry continues to shift and look for new revenue sources, it may be aspiring collectives’ best shot at success. In any case, Howard says, their very existence performs an important function.

“They’re saying, ‘You guys need to pay attention to us, and if you won’t pay attention to me individually perhaps the sum of the parts will be greater than the individual if we bond together,'” he says. “I don’t want to sound glass half empty. I would love to see people do more of that. I think there’s power in that.”