The Thursday Agitation: Ryan Catbird

For seven years, the man known as Ryan Catbird has been writing about a particular corner of whip-smart indie rock — including, in recent days, Royal City and Golden Triangle — at his blog The Catbirdseat. Through an affiliated record label, he’s released music from the likes of Manishevitz, Moviola, and Jason Zumpano. Even more interestingly, however, is his role in a new collaborative site called MBV, which brings together work from five music bloggers, including Largehearted Boy and Matthew Perpetua’s Fluxblog. With a lot of recent discussion about the evolution of media, Ryan’s work, both creating a new destination for music coverage and through his discussion of print-on-demand models for media, is helping to shape the debate in interesting ways.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Where did the idea for MBV come about?
Last year I started noticing a total spike in the number of “entities” (for lack of a better term) suddenly becoming interested in music blogs. I won’t name any names, but there are a number of organizations out there now approaching music blogs with nebulous offers of “partnership” or “working together.” They say they can “help grow” the blogs; help to “promote” the content, and so on. But in fact, the only thing these companies are actually proposing is to slap some ad banners on your site, and to siphon off your content to re-use on their site. They have no real interest in “growing” the music blogs they deal with; no interest in the health of those blogs, no plans for the blogs for the long-term. They simply want to leech for as long as they can, to grow their interests. They appear to offering to bring these blogs into a carefully-tended private garden, but in reality, they’re just practicing slash-and-burn agriculture.

I noticed that this was happening. And the thought occurred to me that if, in the future, music blogs were indeed going to be something “important” moving forward, why should that future be defined by the clueless, just-don’t-get-it heads of these large media companies? If music blogs are going to be an important part of music’s future, well, hell, I can’t think of anyone better suited to define that future than me and my MBV kin. We’ve all been at this 6, 7, 8 years now — and our experience, our perspectives, our contacts, our audiences — this is all stuff that some biz guy from the music-focused Social Network du jour can’t touch. And I believe that we can accomplish a whole lot more working as a team than we can working as a vast army of little “one-man shows.”

And do you find that more people are reading you there or on the Catbirdseat?
I don’t know who’s reading more where, but I can tell you that after 4 months, I’ve gotten the traffic on MBV to the same level as The Catbirdseat, which has been around for 7 years.

Do you find that the presence of MBV changes the way that you write?
There’s really only a minor effect. Of course, the criteria for posting to the two sites differs… The Catbirdseat is, always has been, and always will be a site where I write about the music that I really like a lot. It’s a very subjective view of things, based very specifically on my tastes. With MBV, though all of the subjective tastes of the entire team come through, the majority of the daily posting I do there represents a much more holistic view of the “indie music” sphere. I post about items that are not necessarily specifically relevant for me, but rather, stuff of interest for the greater community as a whole.

As of a few years ago, Catbird Records was funded via ad revenue from the blog; is this arrangement still working out?
That was true in a literal sense for a very short period of time, owing to the totally anemic ad revenue the site generates. And being that I’ve never held any ambition to try to actively “grow” the site, that’s been a constant since the ads were first implemented. It remains true in the sense that the “digital pennies” that do trickle in go into the greater pool of funds that are used on the Catbird Records projects– you know, those funds that come out of my pocket.

You’ve been a pretty staunch advocate of print-on-demand technologies for media. Do you see this being used more on a mailorder basis, or — given the recent press for the Espresso machine — being something that people will interact with in stores?
Yes, I think they can be used in stores just as much as they can be used to fulfill mailorder. The point is that we have the technology now to do this, and it has so many upsides: less cost, less waste, less everything. Whether we’re talking about books, magazines, DVDs, CDs — these are all things that, for the most part, have a pretty standardized format. A CD for example: you’ve got a case, a disc, and a booklet. Book: bound pages, a thicker cover. It makes much more sense to me for a store to keep a stock of “blanks” of different products, and when the customer comes to the register, holding the demo copy they picked up off the shelf, the clerk can just fabricate a copy on the spot.

How has running Catbird Records affected your perspective on the current environment for artists?
It’s been incredibly valuable and educating to experience things from a label perspective these last few years. I feel like I’m able to see a lot of things in the music sphere from all sorts of different angles now. I’d say the one big thing that I’ve come to realize in recent times, something that I try to convey to the artists, is that you’re no longer “selling an album.” It’s great to put all your hard work and energy and money, if you’ve got it, into creating an album– but you can’t look at that as the end goal now. It’s not “make an album, then sell the album” anymore, it’s an ongoing, neverending process of simply “being an artist,” and putting out an album is just one small part of the overall thing. And that overall thing includes things like the old stuff, such touring, getting reviews and interviews, and new stuff like communicating with the fans online, posting new songs and videos, keeping a blog, and so on. And whether you decide to commit fully to that, or to just dabble and release albums every once in awhile, one thing is certain: you shouldn’t *expect* to make money from selling your albums. If you do, that’s great– but your primary goal should be to take the long view, and focus on just getting the music to as many people as you can. I mean, isn’t getting your music heard the whole point?

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