Tim Owen from Jade Tree on websites, chat rooms and selling records online / Indie Labels on the Web: Jade Tree

Tim Owen and Darren Walters started Jade Tree back in 1990 for the same reasons that many people start small labels – they were interested in putting out a couple of records that they liked and that nobody else was interested in releasing. Over the past 9 years, Jade Tree has grown immensely, from a part-time hobby into a full-time record label, representing bands like The Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil, Kid Dynamite, and Joan of Arc.

While we could have talked to any number of indie label owners, we decided to interview to Jade Tree because of their significant presence on the Internet. Jade Tree’s website is comprehensive and functional without being cluttered, and its message board has become a magnet for indie and punk fans. In this swiftly-changing Internet culture, where a lot of small bands and labels have given away their rights to their music by posting it for free on massive digital download sites, or have let CDNow or Amazon act as a their mailorder department, a site like Jade Tree’s is an impressive example of what a label can achieve if it maintains control of its content. I talked to Tim a week before Christmas, 1999.

K = Kristin Thomson
T = Tim Owen

K : When did you put up your website as it is now?

T : Gosh, it seems like it’s been about a year, but it may even be a bit longer than that.

K: I notice that you’ve got a lot of functions on there – label history, band pages, tour dates, mailorder, photos, digital samples, news, links, a message board – a variety of things that people can access. What are the strongest functions?

T : The message board, as of late, attracts a lot of people, but a lot of people go to the news as well, and then to the tour section and look at the tour dates for various bands – those are sort of the day-to-day things. Then if people are buying things retail they can visit the e-store. New kids getting into puck rock will be checking out the label’s history or the band pages or photos, trying to fill themselves in as to what’s going on, but as far as traffic goes, the message board gets a lot of it.

K : Right. Now, we’ll talk about the message board later, but first I want to ask you about mailorder via your e-store. With the layout and the shopping cart, you make it really easy for folks to use. Have you seen a marked increase in mailorder based on web traffic?

T : Oh, definitely. I mean, I don’t really deal with that end of stuff, but just seeing the volume that’s coming in and knowing how often we’re having to re-press records and re-order t-shirts and stickers, it’s like night and day. Before we had merchandise and before we had the webpage, mailorder was steady but it really wasn’t that heavy, and now it’s probably quadrupled. Our monthly mailorder sales are up 500%.

K: Just in mailorder? How does that break down: online orders versus orders that come via snail mail?

T : It’s hard to say, since we still get a lot of letters and stuff, but I think it’s about 50/50. Now that we’ve added the shopping cart and priority mail…You know, the whole thing about the web is the serve-yourself, quick-return experience. I think that’s increased the percentage of orders as well because you can get on the site, order it from home and have it in a matter of days.

K : That’s amazing. The shopping cart is really excellent – did your web designer write that code for you?

T : Actually, we’re really fortunate in that we have a bunch of friends who have a background in this stuff. Before Jade Tree went full time both Darren and I did a lot of other jobs – Darren was a teacher and I was doing photos because we both went to school for that. After college Darren was working for a computer software company in Delaware called Swifty with a good friend he’d known for a long time. This guy ended up writing all the code for our shopping cart and he said he used Amazon.com as a model for it. Our web designer worked at Swifty as well, but he was way more into the design and graphic side of things.

K : He must be a fan as well, since you can tell from Jade Tree’s layout that he really thought it out.

T : Yeah, the guy who did the shopping cart was into punk rock but now he’s older and married, but the guy that’s our web designer is like, Neurosis t-shirt, dreadlocked, skateboarder – totally a crusty punk kid – so he’s fully into what’s going. Now he does a lot of work with other labels like Victory Records and Hopeless Records, who got in touch with him after seeing the work he did for us. He’s totally punk rock. He hooks us up and does a really good job.

K : Just from my Simple Machines experience I’ve noticed that sometimes implementing things on the label’s end to try to make it easier for fans and customers actually makes more work for yourself. Do you think that your use of the web has made your job at Jade Tree more complicated?

T : I guess the only factor that it has added is growth, and obviously that’s something that people hope for a “business”, but we’ve been able to adapt. Fortunately we didn’t have a set path when we started this – it was kinda like, “let’s put out this record and take it from here”. We didn’t have a big vision that we needed to fulfill by the end of a certain time or after a certain number of records. So it’s kinda cool how, each day, things fall into place and we’re headed, hopefully, in the right direction.

I think the website has given us a lot more to do and think about. Of course, it’s technology so there are a lot of positives and negatives, but the efficiency and visibility as well as the ability to transfer and process information and get it out there, those are definitely good. Lots of new people from around the world can access information about what’s going on here and learn about bands and, as far as the record label goes, I think that’s a good thing. Before, European fans might have been lucky to learn about some bands if they made it over to Europe or maybe in a fanzine, but now they can just get on their computer and search for any band name or label and find some kind of information. So I think, obviously, it’s positive. It’s only helped our visibility and our growth, and it’s brought in a lot of new people that we would have never met before. We’ve made a lot of friends and it has created a lot of opportunities for us.

K : Are your CDs available through any other web sources?

T: CDNow and Amazon.com and those places are supplied through our distributor, Mordam. We also do projects with smaller sites like Insound. I like working with them because they come from the same background as us and I know they’re interested in staying below the surface but still creating some visibility above.

K : I know you’re probably way ahead of some other labels in providing digital song samples on your website. I think there’s one from almost every record you’ve released?

T : Some of the newer releases have two or three tracks up there. We started with RealPlayer samples but now that we’re getting into the whole MP3 thing we haven’t figured out what we’re going to do next. We don’t know if we should offer free MP3s or what because, as you know, that’s a hot debate amongst label owners right now. We’ve decided not to do a deal with any of the various digital download companies out there. We don’t have plans to do a deal with a major label, and we look at them as one and the same. It’s all motivated by money and sooner or later one of these digital download companies is going to be bought by a Microsoft or an AOL and we don’t want to be in one of these deals and subsequently involved with some Fortune 500 company.

K : I absolutely agree with that. I think it’s really smart of you guys to maintain control of your digital download rights, especially now considering that nobody really knows what this is going to look like in a couple of years. It’s funny because the main purpose of The Machine project is to encourage people to think about maintaining their own websites and digital downloads, and trying to give people some tools so they can pursue those things. But, I’m in a number of discussion groups that talk about the issues of royalty payments and artist’s rights and that idea is hardly ever considered. Lots of people talk about reforming these massive companies and forcing them to pay artists for digital downloads, but they have to remember that these companies are not interested in the music community – they’re interested in generating traffic and having big numbers on paper that will impress Wall Street.

T : The scary thing to us is this Gold Rush mentality. The streaming technology is evidently 3-5 years down the line, so why are they willing to throw six figures at a small label like ours? If they’re offering us that much I can’t imagine what they offered labels like Epitaph and Lookout and other bigger independents that have done those deals. Since it’s not a physical record I don’t think some of these labels are thinking about it in a non-physical, and non-tangible way. They’re saying “a digital download, what is this going to mean to me?” because the technology is so new they’re not thinking about it in any other terms. If it was a physical record it would be the same as us talking about doing a distribution deal with some company that could promise that it would have them in all the chain stores. But people don’t buy our records in chain stores, they buy them in mom & pop stores. Making a deal like that would kill our “audience support”. So it’s the same thing online. Why do a digital distribution deal that’s totally focused in the wrong area? I mean, it’s the internet which means more accessibility, and those big MP3 places could generate more visibility and you could get more hits and more downloads, but it all seems kind of shady. Just from talking to a number of the reps at some of these digital download sites that have been courting us, I got somebody at emusic.com to admit, “yeah, it probably is going to get bought by Microsoft or something in a year or two.” [For a related article see: Is Emusic a Takeover Target? ] It’s been kinda scary to see all these labels signing away rights at the drop of a hat on contracts that they probably haven’t really read. With all this happening, it just made sense for us not get involved with anyone.

What’s going to happen now is that Mordam is collectively going to broker non-exclusive deals with all the digital download sites, trying to carry the mentality the Mordam’s always had of “strength in numbers” to its next logical step. It’s like saying, “Here, you distribute our stuff, but you pay us for each download.” Our site will link to Mordam’s and the downloads will go through there.

K : I know a bit about the Mordam deal already (see Slim Moon’s interview for more), but I assume you’ll be able maintain anything you want on the Jade Tree website once the Mordam site is taking care of downloads? I mean, you won’t have to remove your digital samples at some point, right?

T : Oh no, no. We can do whatever we want on our site. We can sell stuff for whatever price, we can give away whatever songs we want to, we can even choose not to do it. That’s the good thing about Mordam – we’ve got this autonomy and control. There are certain things they’re suggesting on the MP3 front, but we’re able to make our own decisions. It makes sense for Mordam to handle the accounting because we’ve never had to question them. We get a check very month and we know we’re not being ripped off. When it’s some big company that doesn’t even know us that wants to get us on a plane to see their corporate headquarters, I’ve got to wonder about that.

K : It’s silly to predict, but there is the possibility say, five years from now, we could be able to stream entire albums. Would you try to do this straight from Jade Tree’s website?

T : I don’t know. We’d have to evaluate where we are at that time. Right now that’s really scary to us because there’s this fervor and hysteria about it all, people saying, “you gotta get on the bandwagon now, man.” I have yet to purchase anything online myself. I mean, I still go to record shops to buy physical, tangible records, CDs that have artwork and packaging, something you can hold, read and look at. The idea of these downloads with no information or quality packaging to go along with it is a scary thought to me. But it’s being marketed to this Generation Y crowd of 12 to 15-year olds that may not even know what a record player looks like.

K : That’s interesting. When we did a chat on Insound a few weeks ago we asked that question in the chat room: “Which would you choose, a physical CD or a downloaded version of it” and people overwhelmingly favored physical CDs. That was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought there would be more folks in favor of digital downloads considering this was an internet-savvy crowd participating in the chat.

T : If you’re going to spend the equivalent, or $1-$2 less, for downloading an entire album, I’d much rather go buy a copy that had real artwork and packaging. That’s what it’s all about.

K : Okay, I have one more question and that’s about your message board. It’s quite active, but you took it down for a while. Do you want to talk about that?

T : Sure. As with most message boards there tends to be an inflow and outflow of a few dumb, ignorant kids. A couple of months ago it got pretty out of control as far as our message board was concerned, so Darren and I decided to pull it down for a month or so. It may have had something to do with timing, with the simultaneous release of the Promise Ring’s new album and the second guitar player Jason’s coming-out. I don’t know how specific or generalized the comments were but there we so many ignorant, and I can only assume, young kids getting on there and using terminology that is not acceptable in this day and age like “that guy’s a fag” or talking with their friends or whoever, that it was just a waste of time and space. It just seemed that the kids who were on the message board weren’t using it for its intended purpose and just posting sexist, racist and homophobic comments that were aimed at people we didn’t know as well as at Jason and the Promise Ring. So, we felt it was important to make a statement and send a message to the kids out there that these things need to be thought about. Obviously, these kids are the age when these ideals and opinions are being formed so we were very concerned that, in this day and age, there are people in this society that still have this caveman mentality.

Our friend Norm Arenas (Texas is the Reason, Anti-Matter fanzine), helped us draft a statement and we put it up in place of the message board. We thought we were going to get a lot of negative feedback because we were punishing everybody based on the actions of a few. But, surprisingly we got a lot of support. The label has never had a political side that’s been visible to the public, so since this was the first address I think it had a big effect on a lot of people. I thought a lot of kids would be like, “f— you” or “why are you doing that” or “this is stupid” but everyone reinforced that they supported the statement that we were making and the fact that we were addressing the issue. Since then it’s drawn so much attention in the gay community – which was not the intended purpose – but it’s kind of cool that it has because it has exposed a lot of people who aren’t involved in this music community to what we’re doing. In fact, The Advocate did a whole story about the message board and the effects of it, and I was interviewed live by Gay BC Radio , which is like NPR for the gay community. It definitely had a big effect.

Basically, we had to draw a line. We had to say, “This is our record label, this is our webpage and we’re not going to put up with that”, and lot of people embraced our statement. Since then it’s been good. It’s back to way it was before, with kids using the message board to talk about music.

K : Thanks, Tim!