SpearTalks: Ryan Catbird

Posted on March 14, 2008 Under Music

Several months ago, I wrote an embarrassingly impassioned post regarding a music blog. It was a sappy, raison d'etre-style diatribe, involving too many adjectives, too many hallelujahs, and way too many myspace references. I don't think I was drunk when I wrote it. Anyway, being blessed with a good editor, the post had hardly left my email box when it was returned with a gentle reminder that “We're not in the general habit of publishing love letters," and “Could you please cut it down to about 200 words?" [Ed note: Think slobber-soaked, pre-teen romance; that’s about half as sloppy as that love letter was. -H]

I did cut it down, and you can still read the slightly saner post here. However, in all honesty, I still have shamefully strong feelings for the music blog Catbirdseat, and equally strong feelings for Catbird Records, the related indie record label whose pure love for music represents just how closely sound is analogous to art.

We chatted with the man behind both Catbird Records and Catbirdseat about how it is that he runs such un-average enterprises, and decided we were right all along: Ryan is the cat(bird)s pajamas.

Joshspear.com: Which came first "“ Catbirdseat or Catbird Records?

Ryan Catbird: Catbirdseat begat Catbird Records, and I think ‘begat’ is definitely the right word there because the relationship remains a very much Parent/Child one. Catbirdseat.org came to life in 2002, essentially as a means for me to share my listening habits with my friends (who were always asking, “hey, what are you listening to these days?”). Of course, over the years it grew and changed in a number of ways. The most drastic change, I think, came in mid-2005, when, after a long phone conversation with a very persuasive ad exec (Hi Heather!), I finally instituted advertising on the site. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when every site on the internet was NOT crammed chockablock with flashing adverts – and I had always had a sort of internal ethical struggle about putting up ads, since I come from a very old-school/indie/DIY school of thought (WWIMD*)? So when I did finally cave and bring on the ads, it was really only because I realized that I could effectively “Robin Hood” all that ad revenue, and just funnel it all directly into releasing albums by great bands that I thought deserved wider notice. To this day, Catbird Records relies on ad revenue from Catbirdseat.org advertising to stay alive. I wish I could tell you that Catbird Records was self-sustaining, but cripes, everyone knows the state of the music industry today (Hint: It Ain’t Good). So I like to describe Catbird Records as an “ad-supported model,” because, in a not-so-direct way, it really is.

*What Would Ian Mackaye Do?

JS: And before you were blogging/running a record label, what were you doing?

RC: Before, during, and up until just a few months ago, I was working in my professional field, which is that vague online media area which no single name seems to quite accurately describe, whether it’s called “Interaction Designer,” “Web Developer,” “Graphic Designer,” “Web Designer,” “User Interface Specialist,” “Information Architect,” “Interactive Producer,” or others. And it’s not that I’m a dilettante, it’s just that in my work, I’ve never JUST done design, or JUST page coding, or JUST Flash work, and so on. When I went to school, I began in the Fine Arts Dept., where I dropped out just before finishing and transferred to Design, where I dropped out of after getting way too interested in this intriguing “World Wide Web” thing that had just come out. In the end, I ended up with a degree in Telecommunications, which was the closest I could get to a “Multimedia Studies” degree at that time. After school, I worked for a big ad agency’s interactive dept. for a few years (hooray for the first Net Bubble!), until eventually splitting off with some friends to form our own interactive firm, where I worked from 2000 until around September of last year. I eventually “cashed out” my stake in the firm when I moved to New York at the end of 2006. You know those “tech people stock payouts” you read about in magazines? It’s sort of like that, but just lower the numbers by a factor of 10. But anyway, that’s how I’ve been able to get by for the past few months without working. But I think it’s about time I got back out there. Anybody hiring? Here’s my LinkedIn Profile!

JS: Your record label, as compared to other record labels, functions in a very non-traditional way. Can you tell us about that, and how you make it work?

RC: Well, you’ll recall that I described the unique funding process earlier, that’s one thing. I think the most key concept for Catbird Records, though, is “stay small.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere before, I’ve been approached with “possibilities for more collaboration” by everyone from the “big indie distributor” to the “great already-established indie label” to the “major label with the corporate offices that look just like you imagine.” But I just haven’t found any reason to move things to a “next level;” I mean, I certainly don’t want to have to worry about selling CDs in order to put food on my table, that’s for sure. I feel like taking that on at this point in time would be like decided to start an air-conditioner factory on the eve of a new Ice Age. So for now, I keep things small, and if a release sells, then it sells, and if it doesn’t sell, well, no big deal. Even a release that doesn’t sell so great at the very least puts a little bit of money into the artist’s pocket and gets their name out there. And keeping everything small and DIY ensures that I get to continue scratching my personal creative itches through the design and fabrication of the packaging.

JS: The mission of Catbird Record's currently seems to be this: Produce very limited edition runs, often handmade, of very good music. That said, what happens when you take the obsession with bright lights and huge profits out of a record label?

RC: I touched on some of this in the last question, but the short answer? As a business model: it sucks. As a creative outlet: it rules.

JS: You still only sell your music in CD format "“ will you ever go digital as well, or would that damper all the fun you have handmaking those pretty CD cases?

RC: I was staunchly opposed to doing digital releases when I started, but that was 2005, and things are quite different now. These days, I don’t have a problem with releasing digital, and a few Catbird releases are in fact available digitally. Would Catbird ever go all-digital? That I don’t know… the problem I have with the all-digital model is that I think the ease of entry into that can contribute to a lowering of the standards of what gets released. If it takes essentially no monetary investment, and essentially no labor to release an album, what’s to stop you from releasing 5 albums, 10 albums, 100 albums a day? And that doesn’t serve anyone; it just dilutes things more and more. The last thing people need today is just MORE music thrown at them– what people need today is more filtering; more people helping them to find the good stuff in the ever-expanding sea of choices out there.

JS: What sort of process do you go through in hunting down new bands for your label?

RC: I’ve got no good single answer for this. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I “hunted” for a band. What usually happens is that I’ll just hear a song, but it could be practically anywhere– it might be on a blog, Myspace, in my inbox*… and then, generally, sometime between instantly and 24 hours later, I end up contacting the band and saying, “Hey, want to do this?”

*Actually, a quick glance at the roster reveals that so far, there have been 3 bands via Myspace, 3 bands via blogs, and the rest all through much stranger and/or convoluted methods.

JS: We know from some of our own experience how sensitive readers of music blogs can be. Does your email box get kinda nasty every so often, or are your readers generally nice?

RC: I get very, very few negative emails; maybe 1 every 6-9 months, and almost always from someone who’s just misinterpreted a joke I’ve made on the site. I like to think that the Catbirdseat actually has a much more selective audience than lots of the other music sites. I mean, I’ve never chased traffic numbers or tried to garner ever-increasing pageviews or anything… I’d rather have just 10 readers that I respect than a million that I don’t.

JS: How is 2008 looking so far, musically speaking?

RC: Only March and it’s already surpassed 2007’s quality, for sure. Then again, any year that brings a new Destroyer record is a good year to me.

JS: The best music blogs that you can recommend, other than your own…

RC: All my boys from back in the day, who are still going strong: Largehearted Boy, Said The Gramophone, and the rarely updated but still-my-favorite Popsheep

JS: Anything new coming up that we should know about?

RC: The new Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin album, Pershing, is great fun… Destroyer’s upcoming Trouble In Dreams is amazing… and on the Catbird Records front, even though I swore I was going to take a break, we’ve already put together 2 releases this year, with at least 2 more just starting to gear up. Guess I can take a break next year.