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Digital Love: Anthology Recordings

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Dusted's Doug Mosurock speaks with Anthology Recordings head Keith Abrahamsson about his groundbreaking label, selling mp3s and a boatload of sweet upcoming reissues.

Digital Love: Anthology Recordings

Though it might be a point of contention between a small field of participants, it’s probably safe to say that Anthology Recordings was the first branded digital reissue label in the history of the Internet. And that’s a pretty significant claim for 2007, the year that music’s presence experienced the most high-water marks since the heyday of Napster, or the introduction of portable MP3 players. Anthology fired up at the beginning of last year; soon after, both Other Music in NYC and England’s Rough Trade shop, long recognized as trend-setting retail operations, began to sell MP3 content online. RCRD LBL, a mitigation between the traditional record industry and a popular corner of the blogosphere, appeared by year’s end with free, ad-supported music downloads from independent labels and unsigned artists. Radiohead set a precedent for a band of their standing by offering up their latest album In Rainbows for whatever hundreds of thousands of their fans were willing to pay, months before an official release. That wasn’t the only milestone: Apple’s iTunes store handily became the US’s largest e-tailer of music, and the second retailer overall nationwide, just behind Wal-Mart. But that didn’t stop Amazon from launching its own MP3 store and their subsequent undercutting of Apple’s 99-cent-per-track price point.

The list of accomplishments for the year prior is staggering, and something that the music industry, both internally and externally, had been working up to for a number of years prior. More examples could be named, of course, but they all point to the same scenario: online sources are coming closer to making the sale of music online an established and legitimate concept, detracting from the wilds of random bloggers, and generating revenue for the artists affected. In that sense, when Anthology opened its doors and I got a chance to interview Anthology’s founder, Keith Abrahamsson, about the project, I sensed that the vagueness of the answers given to my questions, as well as some of the bravado that came along with it, might not last. But Anthology was a far different organization then than it is now, and the lessons learned came along at a pace that would have crippled a similar organization of what’s commonly thought of as “the dot-com era.” There’s likely a sizable percentage of the populace who believe that most online ventures are destined to fail, due to well-publicized mistakes of the past. Those who cannot adapt to change in this market will not last, and the second time I spoke with Abrahamsson, the strain of running this business was starting to show.

And yet, here we are, a year later, and Anthology is fast becoming the most respected name in digital reissues. What happened? “I think the hurdle we were faced with back then was simply growing pains,” said Abrahamsson in a recent interview. “Since September of last year, a lot has happened. We’ve put a ton more records up, turned some focus to editorial, and the level of awareness on the site has grown by leaps and bounds.” Citing recent attention paid by NPR and Wired, among others, the response has been a bit overwhelming for his shop, which still consists solely of himself and one part-time employee. “In all honesty, we’re still growing at a pretty rapid pace and it’s still tough to deal given the size of the company. However, we’re on the brink of raising some money and will be hiring more staff over the next two months.”

Anthology’s first few batches of offerings consisted solely of hand-picked releases by artists such as On-U Sound dub experimentalists African Head Charge, cult proto-metallers Sir Lord Baltimore, Swedish drone pioneers Pärson Sound, and Walter Schreifels’ pre-Quicksand outfit, Moondog. A more varied selection of titles couldn’t be found, and the efforts to release this quantity of product physically would have crushed just about any brick-and-mortar label around, to say nothing of the nearly 200 releases that make up Anthology’s catalog at press time. While the one-at-a-time approach to curation might have gratified artistically, it offered very little in the way of synergy with either new, physical product or the organizations behind them; a lot of work for efforts of micro-specialty audiences and a new, untested online presence under which to sell them. “I think when we started, it was more about trying to promote individual artists and releases, and that was cool, but not as successful. We were also doing a lot less volume of releases then,” Abrahamsson says.

He’s also stated that Anthology doesn’t cater to record collectors, but rather those who want to hear rare music they’ve read about without dropping serious coin on an original copy, and who want to support the artists in question by paying for a release rather than searching for an illegal download or gray-market reissue – a corner of the online marketplace that was almost completely unrepresented until Anthology’s unveiling. While labels had been hedging a precarious bet with the physical download for years, Anthology was able to eliminate the cost of manufacturing, distribution, and warehouse costs altogether, and broke down the higher costs associated with import releases in the same shot. This allows for more accurate accounting and a quicker break-even point with its associates, meaning that revenue is likely to flow back to the artists at a more rapid rate.

Many of Anthology’s recent additions have been culled from a refactoring of effort, one which focuses on building relationships with existing reissue imprints as an exclusive or primary distribution arm for matching digital content. Sundazed, Vampisoul, Repsychled, Soundway, Lion Productions, and Sunbeam Records are just some of the labels providing material, and the legitimacy of their efforts resonates within Anthology. “I’d say that one of the most satisfying developments for me has been that we have people coming to us now,” says Abrahamsson. “Labels seek us out, and we get a ton of email from customers asking about making certain records available. We still do the majority of the leg work ourselves, but it’s nice to know that our reputation has gotten out there enough that people feel inclined to send us ideas.” Even without exclusive rights to some titles, he feels the project has already made its mark. “I think there’s a lot of sites fighting for the same market share, and even though some of our titles may cross over to places like iTunes, I honestly don’t believe that people go there searching for that kind of stuff.

“Over the past year, we’ve put a lot more focus on branding Anthology as a whole, and we seem to have been a lot more successful with that. We’ve had some really broad press coverage, which has been great and brought in a ton more traffic and returning visitors to the site. And since the site is ever expanding, we’re able to keep putting new spins on the press angle – so that has definitely been the biggest thing for us in the past and will be moving forward.”

His logic looks to be holding true, as there’s no shortage of releases on Anthology’s horizon, and that has as much to do with their efforts as it does the industry’s softening focus on how to best cooperate with the working business models Abrahamsson helped to establish. Of his upcoming slate, he offers nothing but optimism. “We’re working on new label collaborations with Dexter’s Cigar, Village Thing, ESP Disk, Lyrichord, Light In The Attic and many others, and we might even get to tap a major label archive or two in the near future. As for other projects, we’re currently sifting through ten discs worth of unreleased material from Bobby Beausoleil and the Orkustra, and we might even try to put this project out on vinyl. We have a couple of [Baltimore blues/psych/hard rocker] George Brigman albums lined up. We just finished baking the masters for Tape #1, which was a cassette-only release of a No Wave comp featuring Mofungo, Information and Blinding Headache. We’re doing several Davy Graham records, The Hat and Folk, Blues & Beyond among them. We’ve got power pop group Milk ‘n’ Cookies’ discography coming very soon, and it looks like we’ll also have some of the great Alpes w/ Catherine Ribeiro albums available sometime soon as well. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Looking back, Abrahamsson says that there are a few things he’d change should he have had the chance to start over. “I would probably try and do it with more manpower. In terms of the volume we’re attempting to do now, it would make life a lot easier and free me up to focus on some other things. Other than that, I’m pretty satisfied.” Aside from rerelease.net, a more recent site that resembles Anthology in its infancy, his efforts run virtually uncontested in the online music sales community, but he suspects that might not last for long. “It takes a bit of patience and a little bit of money to get things rolling, but [digital] is a great way to release records if you don’t have the capital to produce something tangible. Probably the most important thing for me was finding an IT guy that was capable of building out the backend. Once I had him in place, as well as a capable web designer, I was really able to execute the ideas and aesthetic of the site.”

By Doug Mosurock

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