I Fight Dragon’s Project Atma Interview

Back on 4 May I backed a Kickstarter project for the first time ever – I Fight Dragon’s Project Atma. Anyone who’s been following my last.fm posts knows that I really like the Chicago-based band. I first discovered I Fight Dragons when listening to a web comics podcast that featured “No One Likes Superman Anymore” from 2009’s Cool is Just a Number EP as the closing song. I have no idea if they had permission from I Fight Dragons, but it was quite fortuitous for the band as it led to me buying Welcome to the Breakdown and Kaboom! (and participating in this Kickstarter) As I’ve said before, the band is the inverse of Anamanaguchi. They are a rock band that uses Nintendos and Gameboys to create extra background instruments (whereas Anamanaguchi tends to have the instruments take the background to the chiptunes). Here’s one of the songs of their new album, Kaboom!

I remember all the excitement the band had for their first full album on a record label – Kaboom! so the Kickstarter left me perplexed.  What happened? After all, most bands’ major goal is to be “discovered” by a record company.

I knew that record deals weren’t all they were cracked up to be – it’s one of the biggest excuses given online for people who don’t pay for music. “After all the artist barely gets any money off each CD sale!” I was curious because the fact that I Fight Dragons was going to Kickstarter seems to be validation of the patronage model I’d been advocating. I’d been taking a look at what MC Frontalot and Jonathan Coulton had been doing – giving away lots of MP3s, not caring too much about people taking music without paying, and making a living by touring. Plus, I Fight Dragons had proven they could make a record when they made Cool is Just a Number on their own. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things about how the record industry has worked until now – bands have to prove they can make a record on their own and build up a following. Nowadays a band would see that as proof they they DON’T need a record label. But that wasn’t the case as recently as 2009. Also, recording an album is not cheap – at least if you want a professional producer. The Front and JoCo have much simpler sounds – rap and folk music – than the rock and roll of I Fight Dragons. So I figured Kickstarter would be the perfect way for a band to make a new album – you already know how many people at a minimum are going to buy an album so you can make sure the financing makes sense. I also has a great side effect of building up a huge excitement level for the new album because fans go from passive fans to backers. I know it worked on me:

But would this really work? Or was it just more ignorant rhetoric we were spouting on the web? I really, really wanted to know. Luckily when I reached out to the band, they were willing to be interviewed by little old me!

It’s a Binary World: It’s only been four years since your self-released “Cool is Just a Number”, but the music industry has radically changed since then. Take us back to four years ago. Why did you want to pursue a record deal rather than continue to self-create and self-promote?

Brian Mazzaferri: You know, it was indeed a very different time back then. We put out Cool Is Just A Number completely on our own, and spent a year self-promoting it and basically doing everything ourselves. Honestly it grew to a point where we couldn’t handle it all from an administrative standpoint, and there was an offer on the table that was exciting. Obviously it didn’t work out in the traditional sense, but I think our time on the label was well spent and that we learned a lot as a band and got a lot out of it. Honestly in 2013 the tools for self-creation and self-promotion are so much more powerful than when we started in 2009 that it’s much more exciting and possible to be doing everything by ourselves now than it was back then.

IaBW: You mention in your Kickstarter video that the record label didn’t seem to want to support you despite getting a heavy radio rotation for “The Geeks will Inherit the Earth”. And you don’t even mention in the video that “Money” was featured on WWE or that “Save World Get Girl” was featured in the Nintendo 3DS store. Many people (including Courtney Love in a Salon piece) have written about how the record industry system tends to only be great for multi-platinum artists while the rest are left saddled with debt and left to wither away. Could you talk a bit on what happened with Photo Finish/Atlantic and why IFD chose to separate?

BM: Honestly, it’s really not much more complicated than what you just stated. It used to be that the labels were the gatekeepers to a music career, but as time has gone on they’ve become less and less relevant. Look, at those larger levels Major Labels have a HUGE amount of overhead, tons of staff, fancy offices, expense accounts. This means that for them, a record isn’t a success unless it has a hit. A record that sells a few thousand or even 25,000 copies just doesn’t make an impact on their bottom line, since their operations are so expensive, and going to radio in the first place also costs a LOT of money. Thus, they’re very conservative about what they take to radio, and they just weren’t interested in taking us there. It’s their decision since it’s their money, but frankly once they told us they weren’t interested, we really didn’t have any motivation to stay on the label any longer, so we fought our way off. Plus, with the rise of things like Kickstarter it’s becoming more and more possible for bands to fund their own recordings, and terrestrial radio becomes less influential every day, so honestly I feel like we’re going to work a lot better as an independent band than we did as a label band.

IaBW: Is it inspiring/vindicating in 2013 that acts like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have shown that you can get on the radio and TV without a record deal. (Although they did need to form some sort of promotional agreement with a record company)

BM: I think Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are a huge huge inspiration, primarily because they didn’t sign a traditional deal. Most of the acts in the past couple years that have broken via the internet have used that momentum to cash in with a big traditional music deal, which has ultimately locked them into a dying system. The fact that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis kept it to a much more limited distribution and promotion deal is wonderful and really smart on their parts.

IaBW: That said, do you even believe it’s as important to get on radio nowadays? Is there still a legitimizing factor or can Pandora, Spotify, Youtube, and other sources provide the fanbase needed to sustain a band?

BM: I think it’s all about context and goals. If you want to be a mainstream star, you’ll still have to get on the radio eventually (at least for now), but ultimately the much more exciting thing to me is the number of artists who are working outside the metrics of mainstream success and are making really exciting music and building viable careers using the new tools like Kickstarter and YouTube and working in a different, more fragmented paradigm. It’s still a pretty new frontier, and I feel like that’s where the real thrilling stuff is happening.

IaBW: Moving on to the Kickstarter, (for full disclosure I’m actually a backer) it seems to me to be an almost perfect way to produce an album. The whole reason the record company system evolved to be the way it is today is to shoulder the risk that a new band might not have enough of a fan base to make it profitable. So they give out a loan for the recording costs and promotion and arrange for touring. But with Kickstarter you know ahead of time how many people you’re going to sell it to (at a minimum) and you can at least have costs covered as well. (At the time of this interview that’s 2,813 backers) I know you’re just about to start the hardest part (creation and delivery), but so far how well do you see this as a viable model for producing your albums going forward?

BM: I think Kickstarter is the best thing to happen to music since sliced bread (if I may mix metaphors). It’s really great for any creative medium, but especially music since artists have chafed under the yoke of the industry for generations. It was a necessary evil, and once that stifled lots of great music from ever getting heard. The internet in general blew off the shackles a decade ago, but there weren’t really great tools to take advantage of this new freedom, and so lots of people languished. Kickstarter is an incredibly powerful tool and I feel like this year people are discovering it in a big way, which only increases its strength as it is legitimized. That said, I don’t know that kickstarter will be around forever, but I love what they’re doing and would do it this way again in a heartbeat as opposed to a traditional industry deal.

IaBW: This is the first Kickstarter project I’ve ever backed, but soon thereafter I backed the Jonathan Coulton/Greg Pak Kickstarter project as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that projects now seem to require stretch goals – more and more things are offered to the backers as more money is pledged. If this is to be a viable model for new I Fight Dragons albums going forward, what do you feel is the best way to balance rewards with the band actually making enough money to continue as a band. For example, a limit was reached on how complex the record could be because the costs would exceed the pledge amount. Or does this model require bands to make up the difference in t-shirt and concert sales?

BM: I think it’s important to remember that Kickstarter is seed money. You don’t eat your seeds, you use them to grow crops. We’re not actually keeping any of this money for ourselves, but we’re using every cent of it to create new awesome things that we actually own, and ultimately that’s how we’ll make more money. Right now, all of our music is owned by our old record label, which is a horrible way for things to work. In the future, it will all be owned by us, and that makes a huge difference financially even though we’re not going to be taking any of this kickstarter money home personally.

IaBW: Thank you for answering my questions. It was recently unveiled that if the pledges reached the $110k level that there would be a documentary produced that would cover some of the topics we talked about here as well as the process of making the album. I would love to have a followup after viewing the documentary (if that funding level is reached) to see how your thoughts and opinions have changed at the end of the process.

BM: I’d be happy to do it! We’ll have to see if we get there first though 🙂

Before I continue I want to thank Brian again for taking the time to answer my questions thoroughly and not getting caught up in the fact that I’m not working for Rolling Stone or some other prestigious music industry site. It really means a lot to me.

Now, as to his answers – I think the most important answer Brian gave was for the penultimate question about whether the Kickstarter could support the band. I think his seed metaphor is quite apt. I Fight Dragons is growing multiple things. I think it’s growing more dedicated fans. While it’s the $2000 pledge level that gains someone an executive producer credit, in a way we’re all producers in the sense of financing the project. This is something that would have been very hard for the band to do without us and I predict a large portion of the 2.8k backers will become more dedicated fans than they were before. I Fight Dragons is also growing, as Brian said, ownership of their music. I think one of the biggest bits of BS with respect to the record company system is that they own the rights to the songs. I would understand them taking a stake in the songs, but to outright own them when they didn’t do anything creative is just dishonest. And it’s those rights that can pay off in the long tail as the band gets paid for songs appearing in TV shows, movies, Pandora, and other places.

I would say at this point in the Kickstarter experiment that it appears artists with the right expectations for Kickstarter will be able to find this to be a viable option going forward. As I mentioned, by having backers pledge money ahead of time, the band can be sure that production costs will be covered. They don’t have to go into debt (or as much debt) in order to produce music. I would like to see what happens with the band going forward to see if Brian’s vision can be vindicated. I truly hope it will be.

I Fight Dragon’s Kickstarter has four days left. The project page is here if you would like to jump in.

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