Mike Gregoire, Chuck D’s web designer/developer, and Netlabel/Creative Commons music visionary, talks about getting good artist controlled music out by over the internet and his work with Chuck D.
The SPITslam Group (Kate G): What went into the design for SLAMjamz website? Did you and Chuck collaborate?
Gregoire: When I began working on the new website, the baseline goal was to carry over the functionality of the previous version but give it a fresh and modern look. I began by developing a design mockup to nail down exactly what I was thinking, so that Chuck & I could fine tune the design and features based on what his expectations were. After a few months of collaborating, we arrived at the site as it is today, minus a few features and tweaks that have been implemented since it was launched.
The SPITslam Group: Do you have an education in design?
Gregoire: I do. I went to Maine College of Art (MECA) and majored in graphic design. While there, my primary focus was on design for print. However, on the side, I taught myself web development… beginning with HTML and quickly moving on to programming with PHP (one of the earliest web oriented programming languages). I’ve always believed that modern designers should be cross-trained. Meaning that they shouldn’t be restricting themselves to any particular medium and should be able to transfer their skills to print, web, video… or whatever new mediums come along.
The SPITslam Group: How did you hook up with Chuck?
Gregoire: While I was still attending MECA, I regularly frequented Public Enemy’s web forum . . . “The Enemyboard.” One day, Chuck posted there that he was looking for virtual A&R volunteers to help out with SLAMjamz. I reached out and volunteered for that, but also volunteered my design services in whatever capacity I could help. Chuck decided to give me a shot at designing a couple covers for digital singles. He liked the work I did and continued to send digital releases my way. Then around 2001, unbelievably, he asked if I’d be interested in designing the then forthcoming Public Enemy album Revolverlution. Since then I’ve been incredibly lucky to continue my working relationship with Public Enemy, Chuck D and his various companies, both as a print designer and a web designer/developer.
The SPITslam Group: Your company, blocSonic, spotlights new and original artists heard on the net, and I understand that the music from these artists are open-sourced for for-profit DJ performances, radio broadcasts and in online DJ mixes. Tell me about how you came to this idea, is it truly free with no strings attached, what do you and the artists get out of it?
Gregoire: Well, blocSonic’s (http://blocsonic.com ) releases are not exactly open-sourced. Technically that’s a little different. Our releases are all licensed under a Creative Commons (“CC”) license. CC licensing is sort of an addition to regular copyright. Basically, depending on the type of CC license that is used, a certain number of additional rights are given to the listener/downloader/user. Those rights usually include the right for the downloader to share the CC licensed music in a non-commercial way. In our case, most of our older releases are licensed with a CC-BY-ND license and grant the downloader the right to share the music in a non-commercial way but cannot create any derivative works with it. Since 2015 we’ve switched to a CC-BY-SA license which allows for downloaders to not only share the music, it also allows them to create derivative non-commercial works. In all cases, a CC license requires the downloader to give credit to the licenser/artist/label if they do anything with the music in a way that the CC license allows them to.
In addition to those rights, we at blocSonic have also explicitly given downloaders the right to use ANY of our music in for-profit DJ performances, radio broadcasts and in online DJ mixes.
How I came about licensing the music in this way goes back to the reason why I launched blocSonic in the first place. Back in the early-mid 2000s, I began discovering a large amount of what’s called “netlabels”. Online labels that strictly release their music online in a digital format such as mp3. Many of these netlabels were releasing their music under a Creative Commons license so as to make clear to downloaders that they could share the music. In fact, sharing/spreading the word is encouraged. Without the budgets and connections to promote their music in traditional ways, netlabels depend on word of mouth for getting the music into listeners’ ears.
I began blocSonic with the idea to share and spotlight my favorite music from this netlabel/CC music community through a compilation series. Our netBloc series was launched in January 2007 with netBloc Vol. 1: The Opening Salvo (http://blocsonic.com/releases/bscomp0001 ). Then in late 2008, I began considering releasing original blocSonic releases. At the same time, an artist that had been featured on a netBloc release, Just Plain Ant, asked if I might be interested in releasing his album Dig Deep (http://blocsonic.com/releases/bsog0001 ). It was then released as our first original release in February of 2009. Since then we’ve gone on to release 50 volumes of the netBloc series and added a number of other release formats to our catalog.
The SPITslam Group: Where do you see netlabel music in 5 to 10 years?
Gregoire: From the start with blocSonic and our netBloc series, I’ve felt that netlabels and CC licensing are not only culturally important, but also politically important. For far too long the major music industry had free reign to control all aspects of the music business with little that artists could do, if they wanted to be heard. With the emergence of the internet and the influx of independently created and distributed music, it’s absolutely no surprise that the major music industry is shaken. Where the industry was previously only competing with the movie industry for our entertainment dollars, they now have to compete with innumerable DIY music artists / labels that give their music away and an ever-growing gaming industry. So while everyday folks are getting the squeeze on their limited income, there are more places for that limited income to be spent on entertainment. People are spending money on music more sparingly and efficiently than was previously done, that’s why streaming is so enticing to some.
So, to answer your question, I think that netlabels are here to stay and will continue to play an important role for DIY artists getting their music heard, not to a mass market, but to a very specific niche market. Over the past decade I’ve seen netlabels come and go, however, there are new ones springing up on a daily basis. Some netlabels have transitioned to commercial labels, leaving their CC licensing past behind.
At blocSonic we’re currently working on a plan to transition to a hybrid business model. By 2017 we’ll continue to release free CC licensed music, but will also release commercial CC licensed music in both digital and physical formats.
We’re sticking with the CC license model for our commercial releases because I believe that fans will share your music whether you allow them to, or not. However, if you specifically allow them to, they’ll more often than not do so with attribution, so that others can decide to find and purchase the release.
In my opinion, such a hybrid label is the netlabel of the future… and perhaps a model for the music industry of the future, in general. However, we still need to develop stronger independent distribution channels. To make this happen, I’ve now partnered with Chris Cory, Music Manumit’s (http://www.musicmanumit.com/ ) Doug Whitfield, producer/director David ‘C-Doc’ Snyder (http://blocsonic.com/artist/c-doc ), and The Scallions’ (http://blocsonic.com/artist/the-scallions ) Shawn Franklin.
The SPITslam Group: You mentioned C-Doc. Chuck uses him for many of his projects. Tell me about your connection with him.
Gregoire: I’ve known C-Doc virtually since back in the Public Enemy “Enemyboard” days. However, his connection to blocSonic didn’t start until a few years ago when he approached me about releasing music. I was surprised, as I had no idea that he was following what I was doing with the label. It turns out he was a fan and wanted to be a part of it. At first he did some remixes for Garmisch (http://blocsonic.com/artist/garmisch ) and BADLUCK (http://blocsonic.com/artist/badluck ) and then in 2012 re-released his group LOWdown’s (http://blocsonic.com/artist/lowdown ) dumpTRUCK EP (http://blocsonic.com/releases/bsxe0006 ) with previously unreleased music via our Xtended Edition format. Since then he’s gone on to be an integral and important part of what blocSonic does, bringing with him his extensive musical expertise and talented collaborators. Just checking out his blocSonic discography (http://blocsonic.com/artist/c-doc ) will reveal as much.
We have yet to meet in person, however I think in many ways we’re quite like-minded and he understands the role that blocSonic can play in the future. I guess that’s why I asked him to be a blocSonic partner that will help shape what we do in years to come.
The SPITslam Group: I understand that you tried to learn some of the traditional instruments, but that was not your path. With the development of electronic instruments, things changed for you. Tell us about your music and your style. What kind of music do you like?
Gregoire: Well, my tastes are rather eclectic. I listen to everything from hip-hop to pop to metal to electronic to jazz. However, my heart and soul belongs to hip-hop. As a teenager in the early 80s, the first time I heard Run-DMC, Whodini and the Fat Boys, I was hooked. To me, that music was the future… and at that moment in time, futuristic music was what it was about. Synths and programmed beats were invading our airwaves in pop music, however, hip-hop with its rhythmic rhyming over beats was just so new and fresh to my young ears! I listened to anything I could get my hands on. I had a friend in school who had family in New York City and whenever he’d go there he’d bring back recorded tapes of albums and radio shows. At least at first, that was one of the few ways I knew of that I could hear it in Maine. Eventually the music filtered into our local music stores and I was finally able to get my regular fix!
With that in mind, I guess it was inevitable that the music I make would be rooted in hip-hop on some level. My music (http://blocsonic.com/artist/mgee ) tends to be rather melodic over a bed of big thumping beats.
The SPITslam Group: You’ve designed album covers. Tell me about your favorite cover you designed.
Gregoire: My favorite cover is always changing. I guess the same can be said for anyone who creates anything. Your favorite work is always your most recent work. Once you’re done creating something, it’s the past. You can always look back on it and be happy with the experience of having created it, but the journey is done. Your connection with it is never as strong as when you’re creating it. I guess if I were to pick a favorite, it would be my recent cover for Awesome Dre’s forthcoming A.D.E.P., which will be available soon at RCSMusic.com, iTunes and Spotify.
The SPITslam Group: Tell me your thoughts on the importance of an album’s cover.
Gregoire: We all know that saying… “don’t judge a book by the cover”, right? Well, while that notion makes sense, you would like people to judge something like a book or music release by its content instead of its cover; it’s just not realistic. The way that I look at it, the cover, to some degree, speaks to the quality of the content. The more effort placed into developing a cover that truly represents the content, the more likely the content was also attended to with care. In addition to that, the cover is the first thing someone sees . . . especially in this age of thumbnail cover images competing for our attention. Visual sensory plays a very important in the digital age. If an artist/writer hasn’t taken the time to present their work with a quality cover, the chances are much, much higher their creation will be ignored . . . even if their creation is of a high caliber and deserves to be heard/read.
The SPITslam Group: Anything else you want to add?
Gregoire: I’d just like to add that I appreciate all the opportunities that Chuck and his companies have and continue to provide me. I’ve gained an incredible amount of experience doing what I love because of the chance that he originally took in me back in the early 2000s.
Kate G is Kate Gammell for Update Reports on The SPITdigital SLAMjamz Recording Label Group