The Passenger
The New Moguls
How Pitchfork Media And Fresh Tracks Music Will Cost Industry Reps Their Jobs
By Graham Webster

“Oh, this’ll be great,” said Brian Schwartz, the band’s manager. “He’s the only one who hasn’t seen this.” I was sitting in a low-ceilinged cellar with Rose Hill Drive, the band I turned into a trio when I left at the end of 2000. Brian looked like he was just a little excited to see my reaction. Jake Sproul sat cross-legged in an easy chair below an aging beer ad on a mirror, rested his hands on his knees, and started singing scales and arpeggios through flubbering lips. I probably smirked. “He thinks he’s a motor boat,” his brother Daniel, the guitarist, told me with the deadpan sarcasm we often used together. “Acid casualty.”

There was an opening band playing upstairs, recruited by the people at Chicago’s Fresh Tracks Music, a 7-year-old company devoted to finding and promoting new artists. Down the block from the Fresh Tracks office in Lincoln Park is Wise Fools Pub, where we sat as I watched my old friends get relaxed - and eager to get on with the night.

Nate Barnes came downstairs and started warming up on an octagonal drumming practice pad somebody found somewhere along the way. Upstairs, he’d been wading through the Valentine’s Day crowd - couples, desperate single yuppies, music fans and a few Chicago-style music moguls, who were there thanks in part to the Fresh Tracks hype. Daniel joined in, tapping rhythms on the low, round table scattered with plastic water cups and an ashtray. Jake joined in and took a moment away from his bass-less bass warm-ups - slapping whole fingers against his palm in quick succession. He told me, his former bass player, that he’d found this rapid finger flopping to be the only worthwhile exercise. It’s all he ever did to get ready, aside from the motorboat lip-loosening.

During dinner (Chicago-style pizza) Brian had been talking strategy. The question seemed to be which major label would offer the right deal. After giving a drum warm-up a shot himself - Brian stopped a moment and seemed to conclude an internal monologue. He said Fresh Tracks Music had done well by them. “I’m gonna do everything I can to keep doing business with these guys,” he said.

Upstairs there were drunken calls for an encore, then the opening act, a local band called Simmering, was finished. Now, the crowd was ready to be worked into a rowdy boil. They moved their instruments and amps onto the stage. Without a sound-check, the skeptical-looking sound man adjusted the levels for three guys from Boulder, Colo., none older than 22.

By the end of the set, the sound man and just about everybody else I saw had changed attitudes from skepticism to excitement. I’d seen these guys do that to people before, and that’s how Fresh Tracks found them.

Kip Schaumloffel co-founded Fresh Tracks with his friend John Wanzung seven and a half years ago after the Olympics in Atlanta. The idea was to take “beer of the month” clubs, where members get a couple of six-packs of new microbrews mailed to them every month, and do it with new bands. The first month, they mailed out a CD by a young band no one had heard of called Creed. Early on, they also worked with Sister Hazel. “We didn’t break these guys,” Schaumloffel said, “but we were there. We knew we were looking in the right place to find great new music.”

More recently Fresh Tracks has featured Jack Johnson, Slightly Stoopid, OAR, Dispatch and String Cheese Incident, to name a few.

With the changes in the music world wrought by the mp3, broadband, the original Napster, its followers and rampant record industry consolidation came a change in the way Fresh Tracks exposes new artists. If fans were getting their music online and listening to it on mp3 players, Fresh Tracks had to take advantage of the change. It gave them a chance to get ahead of other artist development companies - to go beyond “beer of the month,” and put new music on tap in people’s homes.

“How do we harness that energy and make it into something that’s going to truly help artists?” Schaumloffel and his partner wondered.

“What we did is we’ve created a system that allows for financial compensation without placing the utter, complete burden on the individual music fan. It places the burden of supporting art on the community as a whole, and hence we created the Fresh Tracks Community.”

People pay a monthly fee of $4 to join the community and download entire albums from about 75 artists in a range of genres. Rose Hill Drive, which hasn’t yet recorded their first full-length album, offers a set of songs in the form of a demo disc. With no advertising, the community has grown to about 1,000 paying members from all over the world.

Fully half of the membership fees go to the artists, split up according to how many people download their music. Soon, artists will also get bonuses if a new member indicates that they heard about the site from the artist. And notably, members are buying physical CDs from the site - apparently, some of them want the album art too, not just the music.

The artists are hand-picked from the hundreds of acts Fresh Tracks hears about through seven years worth of industry contacts. But how do they find great music?

“Radio was doing a great job of that, MTV - that’s up for debate,” Schaumloffel said. “But radio has an awesome responsibility, and that was the one way people found out about music, and it’s gotten so bland. ... And so how do you find out about music? Everybody’s like, ‘The Net has opened up all these different channels.’ We’re like, ‘No, the Net’s diluted it.’ It’s made people become so fragmented that it’s impossible for an artist to sustain themselves without having a real common platform that elevates them. You gotta be elevated, and that’s what we’re building this as.”

I asked Schaumloffel how they found Rose Hill Drive. He said he and Wanzung had decided on their next mission: “to find the next coming of Led Zeppelin.” A couple weeks later, Wanzung was in Boulder visiting the people at Freeskier Magazine, a Boulder-based publication Fresh Tracks works with. Someone told him to check out Rose Hill Drive, and after seeing a show, he came back to Chicago and told Schaumloffel. Later, at the end of the band’s first cross-country van tour, the band stopped at Schubas, a bar and music venue favored by lesser-known but well-loved performers.

“So I was like waiting, chomping at the bit to see them, and when that Schuba’s show came around, I was like a 12-year-old school girl,” said Schaumloffel, who hadn’t heard them live yet. “I was so embarrassed after the show.”

Schwartz, the band’s manager, said Fresh Tracks has helped Rose Hill Drive gain exposure.

“What they’re doing for us is really just helping to get the word out,” he said. “They have a strong street team and they were very helpful in getting fans out to the show in Chicago.”

Help getting the word out online and on the ground is one of the advantages bands affiliated with Fresh Tracks enjoy.

Endochine, an unsigned band based in Austin, Texas, has seen a noticeable response since joining Fresh Tracks, according to Trevor Hance, the band’s manager.

“I think they’re great,” Hance said of Fresh Tracks. “We use two or three different online distributors, and they’re probably my preferred.”

He said Fresh Tracks is the only place to download Endochine’s (pronounced EN-do-sheen) new album, and even though he said they have a strong fan base in Texas, the band has found new listeners through the Fresh Tracks Community. “Some people have actually said, ‘Yeah, we downloaded some stuff from Fresh Tracks and it was really good,’” he added.

Hance said he notices the effects of the artists being hand-picked, unlike some new music sites that take submissions from anyone: “They believe in the bands they work with.”

Sometimes just talking about new music online can make a difference. Ryan Schreiber started indie music’s most respected (and probably most derided) review Web site when he was a 19-year-old music fan with no writing experience, living with his parents in Minnesota. Eight years later, Pitchfork Media has its first office in Chicago, and its first paid employee. Compared to the primped storefront office Fresh Tracks keeps down the block from Wise Fools Pub, Pitchfork is a decidedly indie operation.

The buzzer next Pitchfork’s door in Rogers Park, a couple miles north of Fresh Tracks’ office, doesn’t do anything. There’s no sign. I look confused while I consider how I’m going to get upstairs to meet Ryan, and after I exchange glances with a guy smoking a cigarette on the street - that couldn’t be him, could it? - he asks, “Are you here for the AA meeting?” I use the phone in my pocket to call Pitchfork’s unlisted number, and Ryan lets me in.

The two-room office is uncluttered, but half of one room is stacked with U.S. Mail cartons full of CD’s the site will never review and Ryan can’t sell - almost a year’s worth of useless submissions. He’s holding a can of Diet Vanilla Coke. More than a dozen empties form two neat rows on his desk in the other room. We plop down on a couch to talk, in a room with an electric organ and a coffee table weighed down by music magazines, but not a Rolling Stone or Spin in sight.

Ryan is, well, unexpected-looking. I had pictured a skinny little whipper-snapper decked out in Chicago hipster gear. I expected to feel distinctly uncool in his presence. In fact, Ryan has a round face with fluffy black eyebrows and a nearly-full head of black hair with a few silver strands moving in. And he’s wearing jeans and a regular old cotton sweater. He doesn’t do the Chicago party scene, though he’d almost certainly be welcomed. You might call him a workaholic. He’s a die-hard music nerd with a daily army of 80,000 readers.

“I just started it in like ’99 out of my parents’ house, out of my bedroom,” Schreiber said. “I wasn’t planning on it being, you know, anything huge. It was like a vanity thing almost, you know. And it sort of got more serious.”

Now he’s pushing 30, and he’s the man behind about 15 staff reviewers, 20 newswriters and a dozen miscellaneous staffers, who collectively produce five album reviews a day, single song reviews and a daily digest of punk and indie music news. Schreiber was clear that even as he passes the age of being young and “with it” by default, he won’t be left behind.

“A lot of people get to my age with music and they’re just like, they think the old stuff used to be better, and I’m not like that,” he said. “I think that new music has just as much merit as old music, and I think that as long as fucking people are making music, there’s going to be new music that’s as relevant as anything else. You can go back 20 years and go like, ‘In hindsight this was a genius record.’ They’re gonna be able to do that with the stuff now, too, except for we’re saying it now instead of 20 years from now.”

At times, Pitchfork plays a role remarkably similar to Fresh Tracks, albeit in an almost completely separate sector of the music world. Jamie Stewart, front man for the group Xiu Xiu (that’s SHOO-shoo), can sound emphatic, terrified, tearful or in terrible pain when he sings. On the phone from Seattle, he sounded like a regular guy.

“They kind of got people to start paying attention to us at all after their first couple of reviews,” Stewart said, adding that one of their label-mates, The Books, has gained just as much after good reviews on Pitchfork. “They have become tremendously popular,” he said.

Eighty thousand people read the site each day, and 500,000 unique visitors stop by in a month. For a headquarters of underground music, Pitchfork stands well above the surface.

“The fact of the matter is that, in February of 2004, is influential. And they’ve earned it,” Travis Morrison, front man for the now-disbanded Dismemberment Plan (whose 1999 album, “Emergency & I” won album of the year on Pitchfork), wrote in an e-mail. “The current incarnation of Pitchfork is probably the only rock publication, on-line or off-, that is successfully tinkering with the form to reflect the new realities of listening to pop music.”

Both Pitchfork and Fresh Tracks are part of an online corps of promoters, reviewers and lively message boards that have stolen bits of clout from corporate radio, MTV and the mainstream music magazines.

It’s a new way to bypass the traditional routes to success in popular music. So take those new bands touring in vans seriously, and watch the online platforms where mainstream insiders elevate the next big thing, or where underground nerds prod at new genres and aesthetics in pop music.

Watch for artists to appreciate what online music hubs do for new names. I thanked Xiu Xiu’s Stewart at the end of our short talk about Pitchfork. Stewart paused: “I kind of owe these guys.”