November 9, 2009

Circle Into Square

Circle Into Square
One of my favorite things to happen with independent labels in the last few years is the bundle: in addition to the music you get a bunch of cool physical extras and the added bonus of a legit download. Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” download promotion which let you choose your own price for the download and offered a deluxe version of the album with extras, is one of the first creative marketing enterprises that comes to mind. The “free download” sticker on LPs which was a rare novelty 3-4 years ago is now an expectation. Indy labels like Circle Into Square (CIS) are coming up with even more creative solutions for a world spoiled on blogspots and rapidshare uploads. Tom Filepp (aka Cars & Trains) manages CIS with good attention to detail and a keen eye for aesthetics. His approach in combating torrent lords is unique not just in that it blends a label with an online distro, web zine, and hosting for mp3s, but that it is backed by some cutting edge software development and implementation.

What is Circle Into Square and what is its function?

Well, Circle Into Square is a couple of things really. The primary idea behind it is the label aspect. Essentially it’s a means for some of us artists to come together and share resources. It’s an established label, but stuff like funding and manufacturing is taken care of by the individual artists, while we share contacts in distribution, promotion, and whatever else we can help each other out with. Working together gives us a lot more clout as a group, gets our music out to a larger crowd, and helps us to build a nice collaborative environment where we can work with each other, lending instruments, savvy, and remixes where we can. It started out pretty small, but has grown a lot and it’s been really exciting to have a bunch of positive, supportive, and actively creative folks involved. It’s a nice approach, you just see so many labels going under these days, it’s great to have a decentralized setup where it’s not just one person making all the decisions, and writing all the checks.

We have our own physical and digital store which gives us a huge tool for getting our music out there while cutting the red tape and middle men when we can/need to.

We’ve since branched out a bit and are in the fledgling stages of launching a magazine format where we’ve been doing interviews and editorials. It’s been a slow process but we’ve gotten some great interviews and writings, sitting down with folks like Ben Cooper from Radical Face, Sole of Sole & The Skyrider Band, and so forth. We’re always growing and trying to get new people writing pieces for us all the time.

Why did you start the label?

I originally started the label out as a front for my own music (I make music under the name cars & trains). I found that folks just don’t take you seriously if you say “Hey, I’m so-and-so from some-such-band”, so getting distribution and press and just dealing with vendors in general was such a crap shoot. It was sort of like a light bulb got switched on, the difference in people’s responses. The more and more I built it up the more I realized I should be sharing the resources I had been building with friends and artists that I respected what they were doing. For my day job I am a web developer/designer. So I literally built the Circle Into Square site from the bottom up. You can imagine I’ve put thousands and thousands of hours into the software that goes behind it. The more I worked on it the more I really wanted to share the wealth with other folks. So I slowly started getting people involved, whether friends, friends of friends, or just folks I met along the road. Now we’ve got nine artists on the label, and it’s exciting to see where we came from, to this large collective entity that is great to see working day to day.

In what ways have you tapped into technology to distribute music, specifically with regards to the store section on your site?

Well, I think specifically offering digital downloads is great, it’s something other labels seem to just be jumping into. Even then though it seems like a lot of them are working through middlemen, so just having that resource has been great.

One of the things we do that I love doing, is bundling our digital goods with physical ones. Basically, if you buy a CD, you instantly have access to the mp3 download of that album as well. It gives people that instantaneity they look for these days, but gives them a good deal and an excuse to still grab the physical copy. It also lets us use different packaging. Say for instance for the last cars & trains release “Rusty String Deluxe” (a re-release of my last album with a bunch of remixes and new songs), one of the packaging choices was a T-shirt– so if you bought the T-shirt you could instantly buy the mp3s. It’s definitely not an original idea, you saw folks like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead doing it, but I think it’s sort of a unique thing for a small independent label to be doing.

We also have download cards we put together in house so folks can redeem those to get downloads, whether they’re getting the cards with a vinyl they bought at a show, or if we’re just giving out cards for free downloads we give out for fun/promotional purposes… We try to do free downloads from time to time as well.

What are your thoughts on the pros and cons about digital music?

Well, I think it’s great and has the potential to be bad, too. On the pro side once again you’ve got that instantaneity, that instant gratification… it opens up a lot of avenues for people to find your music that wouldn’t have otherwise. The potentials for distribution and how easy it is to store, pass along, etc, is pretty great.

On the flipside, you have a few downsides that are pretty apparent. The biggest one obviously is the pirating angle… it makes it so easy to grab albums for free. These days you see it so much, when you’re trying to google a band and the first 20 results are on filesharing sites. That really bums me out, and a lot of it has to do with so many sites being so far behind on the technology. Simplistically, just thinking about how Amazon didn’t start selling mp3s until the past year or two. What the hell they were thinking, I have no idea. But a lot of it is just businesses working along the lines of the old business model for the music industry, that hasn’t changed in twenty, thirty years… now in a short time it has changed drastically and folks are not adapting quickly enough, or not at all. So we have all these huge labels and distributors going under because they’re operating decades behind the average consumer.

On the illegal downloading tip, it’s also just so much easier for folks to warrant downloading something, because it’s not some physical thing you are taking, so the repercussions are very abstract and intangible to them. The average person is not going to walk into a store and walk out with a CD or record without paying. You’re just so far removed from any idea of the source, so it makes it easier to do it from a conscious standpoint. It’s kind of a bummer but a lot definitely harks back to the industry not adapting to the consumer’s needs.

The other downsides are of course not having that big beautiful artwork you get with a vinyl record, and that higher audio quality. I’m a big audiophile, so even just hearing high quality 320KB/s variable bit rate mp3s, you notice that quality degradation. It’s gotten so common that you hear low quality mp3s and it’s so acceptable to pass music along that way. The whole audiophile thing aside, I actually am sort of sensitive to frequencies in the 8khz-10khz range… when you get these mp3s that are 128kb/s or lower, what they do is roll off some of the frequencies. First things to go are usually the low and high ends… so you get this rough aliasing on the cymbals of drums on these hyper-compressed tracks, and it’s super grating in the 8khz-10khz range… so I wonder how much of a psychological effect that sort of thing has on people, when they hear that sort of thing all the time.

You recently released a digital sampler of some Fake Four material. What other digital releases do you have planned?

Yeah, we actually also double as Fake Four Inc.’s online store… so that is not actually a CIS release. We do have a lot of great stuff coming out soon though. In past we’ve released records by The Harvey Girls, ID & Sleeper, have co-released a Boy In Static record with Fake Four, and of course my own cars & trains stuff… We’ve got a new EP by Seattle based Big Spider’s Back dropping on November 10th, and a record by San Francisco based Ill Mondo coming out the next week, November 17th. Soon after we’ll be releasing a new record by the San Franciscan band Skating Club. It’s a really nice mix of music, across the gamut. We’ll be showcasing a lot of these guys in a free CIS compilation I’m putting together. It’s exciting because they’re all great albums, have been getting wonderful press, and are all very enthusiastic folks.

What are your plans for for the future?

I’m hoping to keep pushing it, to really develop the magazine more fully, and just keep rolling, putting out records, and adapting as much as we can to make it as great as possible.

Shouts/Final Thoughts?

Definitely want to thank you for asking me to do this of course… always love doing interviews, and think you guys have a great site running here. I’m going to take advantage of this to mention that I’ve got a new cars & trains record coming out… Ceschi Ramos of Fake Four is actually putting this one out, which is kind of funny to mention after revving up CIS so much. It’s one of the beautiful things about Circle Into Square though, the flexibility. I’m really looking forward to it, working with other folks to put out a record of mine is a relatively new thing to me, and I’m glad Ceschi is doing it because I’m a big fan of his music, think we’re on the same page on a lot of stuff… and obviously respect him and his crew a lot. The bottom line is it’s close to home since we’re acting as Fake Four’s online store anyways, so you’ll know where to find it. It’s called “The Roots, The Leaves”, and will be out on Jan 26th.

Be sure to check out Big Spider’s Back and Ill Mondo, their records are early in November. Big Spider’s Back has been getting a lot of attention in press this week, which has been really exciting (most recently featured on Pitchfork’s Forkcast). Ill Mondo’s record is featuring the MC Neal Rames, and has some amazing guests like Percee P, Prince Po, and Sean Price. Thanks again!

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