Emerging Ideas in Global Distribution: An Interview With Six Degrees’ Bob Duskis

While the remix has become an essential component to albums, the concept — taking an existing form and reforming it — is indicative of the music industry in general. In reality cultures have remixed each other, and themselves, ever since cultures began. Today’s adaptations to the fluctuating recording industry is but the latest in a series of steps that businesses are taking in order to service their consumer base. The concept of evolution may take many forms, but at root it engulfs and digests all facets of our world.

And this world is something Six Degrees Records set out to explore ten years ago. Launching as an imprint of Island Records after co-founders Bob Duskis and Pat Berry broke the unforgettable Anokha compilation in America, 6D set up shop in San Francisco and started releasing the tastiest in globetrotting electronica. Their roster has included luminous releases by Bebel Gilberto, Karsh Kale, Banco de Gaia, Niyaz, Ojos de Brujo, Cheb I Sabbah, and many more. Always proving to be ahead of the pack, their latest endeavor is setting ground for digital distribution.

A few months ago I started receiving physical EPs of a digital-only service called Emerging Artists. Some of the names were familiar: I knew Jef Stot and Zaman 8 circulating about the scene, and while the name Do didn’t mean much at first, seeing the duo of Omar Sosa and Greg Landau instantly set off bells. Others, like Rara Avis and MNO, became welcome additions to my iPod.

Intrigued by this move, I reached out to Duskis to inquire about how he’s adapting to the remix of his label. An excellent speaker, most likely due to his years of working in radio, his lifelong goal of synthesis continues with his weekly Traveler Radio Program: “I want to return to the days of freeform radio where you can put a world track next to a rock track next to an electronic track.” The Emerging Artists series is another step in this direction, proving the label is, as always, leading the charge.

How did the Emerging Artists series come about?

I was noticing the sales trends over the last couple of years, and watching our consumers gravitate toward digital sales. We’ve always been aggressive in that world, and our consumer has clearly been embracing it more and more. It seemed like this was a viable avenue to do something digital-only. Marketing is so challenging that it has become harder to work what we call “baby bands” — new artists that don’t have a lot of name recognition, that haven’t toured before, that come to us without a base.

We found ourselves making decisions not just based on whether or not we like the music, and we weren’t happy with that. With the growth of the digital market, we thought this could be an interesting farm team, where we are not putting out full records but five-song EPs. It’s a different concept, where we can get the music out there on an international level in a relatively quick way, and have the material to be able to work for third-party licensing. Without the added cost of a big advance, printing up all the physical CDs, shipping them all around the world, and a lot of the baggage that comes with developing new artists, it became a viable way of presenting new artists. It turned out we had a pretty serious backlog of musicians that became the first wave of records.

Well as you said, you’ve long had a stake in the digital game.

We were actually the very first independent label on iTunes. After they secured the majors, they had to bring aboard all these independent labels, and had to come up with a system for processing all this metadata. They were developing a new process and we told them to use us as a guinea pig. One day about ten Apple employees came into the conference room with a bunch of G4 computers. Karsh Kale’s Liberation was the very first independent record on iTunes.

Bob Duskis

Digital distribution forces you to reconsider how to sell the music you’re providing.

We don’t think of ourselves as a record company anymore. We consider ourselves a content provider. Music is most of our content. The trick is how do we get this out there and what do we do with it? It’s not just putting out CDs and digital download sites. It’s licensing a track to the Buddha Bar and Café Del Mar and the thousands of clones around the world. It’s getting into a movie trailer; it’s getting into commercials. We just got a big campaign for Cherry Coke for the Real Tuesday Weld, for his track “I Love the Rain”, which has been running on American Idol for the last six weeks. Thirty million people watch that show each week. Our music doesn’t generally get played on commercial radio. So when we get such an opportunity it offers a lot for us, and the artist.

Online presence certainly levels out the playing field.

There is something very democratizing about the Internet. It hasn’t happened yet where Universal Records gets more exposure than Six Degrees Records on the world or electronica pages of iTunes. We get just as much of a feature and attention. The consumer is moving towards a digital-purchasing model. We can sit and whine about it, as the majors have been doing for years, and fight our own consumers and engage in a ridiculous losing battle. Consumers don’t want DRM sound files. If you don’t embrace your buying base, you’re going to go out of business. It is a time of tremendous opportunity. This is an exciting time for independent labels willing to take a step ahead of the game.

How has the shift toward digital sales affected the label?

Every record has been very different in terms of breakdown of physical and digital sales. But in the last six months we are really seeing a rush towards digital. It’s not 50/50 yet, but it’s moving in that direction. We don’t think of the music just in terms of being limited to this physical product that has to go into this deeply damaged brick-and-mortar environment. The music is a vital, living, breathing thing that can be exposed in a variety of ways. We market online much more than we used to, and a lot of times we get more response from a well-placed banner ad on the right music blog than a full-page ad in a magazine that’s been around for years. With every record we release, with very few exceptions due to publishing issues, we set aside one track as a free download. KCRW also has a “Song of the Day” [Today’s Top Tune] and we’ve given them quite a few of the tracks.

How has that worked for those albums?

People were taking the music anyway. I feel like we’re controlling the message a lot more. The interesting thing is one of the first times we did this was with “Manifest” from Karsh [Kale]’s last record. We were still up in the air about it. We ended up giving it away, and “Manifest” ended up becoming the number one paid downloaded track from that record. Clearly what happened was that by getting it out there it was coming back as people buying it as well. The challenge is getting it to people’s ears. Once it’s out there, they will seek it out.

Of course, there is a flip side to this story.

When the label and the artist agree to give away a track, that’s one thing. When a music blog is occasionally giving away a track and people are getting exposed to artists, that’s one thing. When there’s students at colleges and people around the country setting up file-sharing services, where they’re giving away thousands of free downloads, that’s not fair. I am very concerned that the next generation feels that because they can get music for free they should, and feel justified doing so. If nobody pays for eclectic music — this is never going to put Eminem and Kelly Clarkson out of business — this sort of mentality will put Karsh Kale and Ojos de Brujo out of business. We have to survive on the goodwill and honesty of our consumer base. I don’t care if the consumer pays a fair fee every few months, or on a song-by-song basis, but I do care about the artists being compensated for their craft. I don’t believe in a utopian society where everyone should get music for free, because that’s going to stop creative musicians from doing it.

With the focus and digital buying power so spread out, it seems like you’re going to be spending more money in accounting fees

than PR.

It used to be that we got one big check each month from our distributor, and a couple little checks from licensing to compilations and such. And we survived on that one big check. Now that physical retail is so deeply damaged, we survive on lots and lots of small checks. We get one from Sound Exchange every month, which monitors airplay and Internet dealings. We get another from iTunes, the eMusic check every quarter, and licensing for films and TV — that’s a huge part of business. Quite frankly that’s kept us in business some months. Six months down the line there will be something else, and then six months after that. It’s our job to find those things and target them as they happen.