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Keller continues to explain that there is much more to Buddyhead 2.0 than just some software upgrades and new graphics. The Web site is now the main portal to the record label. Back in 2000, Buddyhead branched out into a record label of the same name, releasing music by bands The Icarus Line, Radio Vago, Modwheelmood, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Your Enemies Friends, Murder City Devils, Shat and more. But by 2003, the growing decline of CD sales made it nearly impossible for the back-pocket indie to sustain itself.
“I definitely learned the hard way how not to run a label, as far as losing money goes,” Keller admits. Initially, fans were buying Buddyhead imprints, but once the downloading craze kicked in, Buddyhead’s then-distributor, Lookout Records, was pressing more CDs than it could sell. Everything came to a head one day in 2006, when Keller ended up with eight massive wooden pallets containing an entire back stock of Buddyhead CDs on his apartment lawn. “My landlord was losing his mind!” Keller recalls, still amazed. “I had to go to Home Depot to hire a bunch of guys to come move them.” Around this time Buddyhead decided to stop signing bands, and Keller lost interest in running the label via traditional methods.
The Buddyhead Records owner can certainly testify as to how hard it is for a small label to survive in L.A., but with a newfound business savvy that comes from hard-learned pallet-to-lawn lessons, Travis Keller welcomes the direct-to-audience marketing capabilities the Web site now has. Buddyhead integrates the label with an online record store based on digital music-delivery software developed by Topspin Media, one of L.A.’s most talked-about start-ups.
Los Angeles is in the middle of an Internet start-up whirlwind, bolstered by a growing legion of new social media and Web entertainment companies. Buddyhead.com is one of about 40 artists’ Web sites Topspin Media has been working with for the last year to perfect its Web-based music-delivery platform. Keller cites former general manager of Yahoo! Music and current Topspin CEO Ian Rogers as one of the main reasons he was excited about the industry again, and why he believes Topspin software will likely become the standard delivery model for music, the grind ’em up and spit ’em out major-label machine replaced by a service that enables every musician and band to be its own label, every artist its own boss.
Inside the ground-level loft space of Topspin’s Santa Monica offices, young software developers and marketing strategists hover over computers and talk quietly in front of dry erase boards scrawled with punchy, multicolored business goals. A skateboard rests in one corner, framed concert posters hang on the walls, and a dog pile of empty Hansen soda cans, with a few beer bottles tossed into the mix, overflow the trash. The environment is surprisingly relaxed. Ian Rogers greets me warmly but quickly, with only a few minutes to talk before heading to another meeting, and we discuss how a Web site like Buddyhead fits in among Topspin’s roster of other clients, who includes major artists the Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Arcade Fire and Beck.
“The world has long been moving in Buddyhead’s direction,” Rogers says, “and now is such a great time for it to resurface. I truly believe that for labels — and Buddyhead is a label, as well as a Web site — to be successful they have to be brands. Universal’s not a brand. Even Interscope isn’t a brand — nobody buys Interscope because it’s an Interscope Record. Sub Pop, Matador, Epitaph ... those labels are. If Buddyhead has had anything, it’s always had a point of view. And having a point of view is really meaningful in the future, because when people have access to everything, nobody wants middle of the road.”
Rogers sees Travis Keller as a pioneer of online opinion and taste, who lacked only a 2.0 Web platform to create a successful blend of music-review Web site and boutique record label. The Topspin software has given Buddyhead the tools necessary to stay in contact with its audience, manage core fan e-mail, stream video interviews with artists, and directly distribute music releases via online downloads.
As for the future of Buddyhead and whether it has the ability to be successful in an era in which the Internet and media circus are different from the one they originally thrived under when Buddyhead was first launched in 1997, Rogers says, “The good news is that Travis has a monopoly on Travis. In a way, Travis has the same problem an artist does. All he can do is express himself and hope that enough people care [about his art] so that he can support himself. The challenges are just doing it in a way that it can actually be a business. It’s not like someone is going to come along and build a better Buddyhead — there’s only one, that’s a fact. And he can disrupt anybody that’s out there — if people would rather read Buddyhead than Spin, it’s no harder to get to Buddyhead.com than Spin.com.”