Business Interviews

Q&A: John Beeler, Asthmatic Kitty

By | Published on Sunday 31 May 2015

John Beeler

At the end of March, Sufjan Stevens released his seventh studio album, ‘Carrie & Lowell’. But weeks ahead of the release the album leaked onto file-sharing sites. This is a common occurrence for record labels, of course, but the way in which Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty, of which the musician is a co-founder, responded to the leak seemed very unusual.

Under a post on Reddit alerting users to the leak a comment from the label appeared. “Let us know what you think!”, it began. Links to pre-order the album in physical and digital formats were added to, but the label added: “If you can’t afford it – don’t worry about it! Enjoy the music!”

Coming shortly after Björk’s label One Little Indian rush-released her latest album, ‘Vulnicura’, in the wake of a leak, CMU Editor Andy Malt spoke to Asthmatic Kitty’s Label Manager John Beeler about the company’s very different approach to its music becoming available ahead of release.

AM: Is this response to a leak something you’ve done before?
JB: It’s standard operating procedure at Asthmatic Kitty Records. We don’t issue takedowns on leaks or shares. It just doesn’t make sense to us. Why chastise fans of your music? People who are able will find a way to support the music. Besides, we’re too busy doing other things to worry about so called piracy.

We do visit download sites and usually leave a comment pointing people to a purchase point, and thanking them for listening. We have pre-order links up and ready, and we have those up early. We always have plenty of purchase points well before a record comes out. In some ways a leak can even help move things forward, like ticket sales, or building buzz about a record. People are generally good people and they’ll find a way to support music.

AM: Did you discuss other possible options before going this route this time?
JB: Not much discussion really. Keeping it cool and sticking with the plan is generally how we handle leaks.

AM: Another response to leaks, such as with Björk’s latest album, is to rush-release it on iTunes. Why not go down that route?
JB: What I learned from watching Björk’s label One Little Indian is that the story became more about the leak and less about the music.

We’ve surprise released music before – we did that in 2010 with Sufjan’s ‘All Delighted People’. But Sufjan wanted the story here to be about the music, so we opted instead for a ‘regular’ album campaign. Releasing music early would have made the story about the way we released the music, not the music itself. I’m cognizant that even answering these questions in some way reframes this as about the way we’ve handled it, and not about the music.

Thankfully, the music on ‘Carrie & Lowell’ speaks for itself. I can’t speak to what other people will hear when they listen to it, but I hear a remarkable, personal, tender but strong album that will stand the test of time. The leak is a flash in the pan in what will be a long life for this album. There’s no need to respond in a panicked state to something like a leak when you have something as good as this record.

Of course, it’s always easier to judge these things from the outside and I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same decision in One Little Indian’s shoes. No doubt someone is criticising the way we’ve handled this, and I welcome that. That critique is how we as an industry iterate and evolve and it’s a good process.

AM: Are leaks just a thing to be expected now? Do you take any steps to stop or delay them?
JB: I remember hearing about the Bon Iver album leaking [2011’s ‘Bon Iver’ was briefly released on iTunes a month early – the error was corrected, but the album quickly found its way onto torrent sites]. And a confession: I downloaded that super early leak of Radiohead’s ‘Hail To The Thief’ back in the summer of 2003. Leaks aren’t a new thing, so I can’t believe anyone would be surprised by a leak.

I can’t prove it except anecdotally but I think that less people care about leaks than they used to thanks to Spotify and streaming services. There are so many ways you’ll know you’ll get an album that I don’t think there are as many people downloading early leaks as there used to be. There isn’t really a “Napster” to make it easy anymore.

That said, on this record we did use watermarks, and that probably prevented it from leaking earlier. Do I wish that ‘Carrie & Lowell’ hadn’t leaked? Absolutely. But since it has, I’m happy people are listening to it, and that they get to experience what I’ve been listening to for months.

The downside of a leak, to me, isn’t lost revenue. It’s just less fun. I love it when we all experience something like this record at the same time.

AM: Obviously, with Sufjan as a founder of the label, you have quite a unique relationship with him as an artist. Does that impact on the way that you plan the marketing around new records?
JB: Not really. Sufjan’s role is that of absentee landlord – but in the best way. We can play our music really loud and we don’t have to mow the lawn every week.

AM: In the past you’ve collaborated with other labels on some of Sufjan’s releases, would those partnerships ever impact on your attitude towards leaks or other forms of file-sharing?
JB: It hasn’t so far and I can’t predict a circumstance where a partnership would change our attitude towards leaks or file-sharing. Generally speaking we partner with labels of similar size, and that usually means that none of us have the time to worry too much about leaks. In my experience us smaller labels are too busy trying to sell records.

AM: You said you don’t issue any takedown notices at all. Some labels now do this on an industrial level. Do you think that that’s a bad use of resources?
JB: Occasionally we issues takedowns on YouTube videos that use AKR music where we feel it is inappropriate or for an unapproved commercial or political purpose. Otherwise, yes, I believe takedowns are a poor use of resources for Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Here’s my philosophy on this: There are three possibilities when someone downloads our record from a file-sharing site.

1. They were never going to buy the album in the first place, either because they can’t afford it, or because they simply didn’t like the record.

2. They were going to buy the album, but didn’t because they could get it for free.

3. They got it for free, and they are going to buy the album eventually.

You don’t lose any money that you would have had otherwise with groups #1 and #3. No harm, no foul.

But it’s not a zero sum game with #2. The value of a human being hearing the music and getting excited about it is precisely what all these social media consultants are getting paid to do. You could even say that file-sharing can lead into a guerrilla digital street team. It’s so easy to buy music these days that people will find a way to support an artist, whether it’s a show ticket or an LP purchase or streaming on Spotify or Rdio or whatever.

Besides, music pirates as a group are music fans and it’s in their best interests to sustain music, and I think they do. A study in 2009 showed that music pirates are actually ten times more likely to spend money on music than the average person. Another study from 2012 showed that people who file-share spend 300% more than the average music lover.

All that aside, I think that streaming services like Spotify have decreased file-sharing to the extent where it is no longer a mainstream activity. In my opinion, the money and time spent taking down file-shares could be better spent engaging fans, and upgrading the people in group #2 to group #3. I believe it’s important to approach music with a positive, non-withholding attitude. We don’t need to grovel, but there’s a way to be thankful to have listeners. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there that we’re happy just to release the music and let the business end take care of itself. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

This interview appeared in the April 2015 edition of the CMU Trends Report.