In a day and age where indie record labels appear and then wither away in a matter of months, it is an amazing feat that Sam Rosenthal’s Projekt Records has been going since 1983. Best known for its darkwave and gothic rock records, Projekt is also home to Rosenthal’s own much-loved band, black tape for a blue girl.
We here at Spectrum Culture selected black tape’s Remnants of a Deeper Purity as one of the 13 Best Goth Albums of All Time. We caught up with Rosenthal one evening via Gchat at his Brooklyn apartment. We talked about his new erotica novel, the general state of the record industry and goth music. We are proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Sam Rosenthal.
David Harris: Just to set the scene…what’s everyone listening to right now?
I just started playing Steve Roach’s Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces. Before that, I was watching a Buster Keaton short on YouTube, so there was some goofball “Silent Movie Music.”
Cedric Justice: It is dead quiet in my house.
DH: I have on Ike and Tina Turner. We’ll start here: Sam, you recently published an erotica novel called Rye. How does erotica tie into your previous art, especially your musical output?
There’s a sexual aspect to some of the songs, sure. But erotica is a different sort of thing from what I usually do. Over the course of writing, though, Rye evolved into having a plot and characters who have a desire for connection, understanding, love. So, in that sense, it relates to what I’ve been writing all along.
DH: When you mention it evolved, what did it start out as?
It began with, “I’ll try to write some erotica.” And that’s usually a format with short stories that are primarily sex. Not much character development and plot. Or, if it has those things, it’s just really bad. So Rye grew from “just sex” to being about a lot more things. Matt has a desire for a family. It talks about how to get beyond the labels we use for ourselves, and be comfortable with reality as it is. And he’s figuring out how to do that within a polyamorous relationship, and taking care of everyone’s needs.
DH: “Erotica” has a negative connotation to people who appreciate “serious” literature. Somehow that Fifty Shades of Grey book came out of nowhere and suddenly the country is hot for it, pardon the pun. Why do you think there is such a taboo around erotic fiction?
The taboo is that “polite people don’t talk about sex.” America is all about its love of violence, and it’s titillations. But real sex is still too much for people. Fifty Shades of Grey is a poorly written book that America loves for some reason. It’s strange that this is the book that people decide is worth reading. But you never can predict “pop culture” in the US. Certainly not the quality of it….
DH: Why did you decide to go the self-publish route? Did you try to shop Rye the traditional way or did you know that Projekt was going to put it out from the beginning?
I really wasn’t interested in sending it out to publishers so they could tell me all the things they think I should change to give them the book they want. I’ve never done it that way with music, so why do it that way with a book? It’s not mainstream work, so I didn’t expect a mainstream publisher to want it. I worked with my editor and am very happy with the way Rye turned out.
DH: Did you learn anything about yourself sexually via the writing of the book?
My characters learned a lot about themselves, and I learned who they were over the course of the book. I think the author is there within all the people we create. To different degrees.
DH: Every novel is a journey. It is said the best novelists let the characters guide them as they channel them.
Yes, I agree. I really didn’t have an idea of what the story was about. It just evolved as the characters came into the story. Like life.
DH: Was it hard to suppress the shame we are taught in this country about sexuality during the writing of it or the marketing of it?
Oh no, there was no feeling like I needed to suppress anything. My parents were most likely atheists, so I didn’t get the standard amount of shame in my upbringing…. As far as marketing. Well, it depends on where I am marketing. There’s the more PG version of the conversation, of course. I’m going out and doing readings at sex-toy stores, bookstores, kinky coffee shops. And I get to read whatever words I want. I kind of have to hope the audience knows I’m reading a first-person story, not my autobiography (laughs).
DH: Has that happened? Any strange propositions?
Alas, no. What’s the world coming to when there’s no strange propositions!
DH: We live in a Puritanical society, man!
Maybe it’s because I live in Brooklyn. I just don’t feel a lot of repression here.
CJ: You mention polyamory in your book. Do you find polyamory to be a popular thing within the Goth scene? Is it limited to Goth – or is it just a prevalent urban thing? It seems pretty prevalent in Portland and Seattle at large, but even more prevalent in the sexually unrepressed goth scenes.
I don’t know if I saw much poly in the Goth scene when I was going to clubs and stuff. I actually didn’t find Goth any more or less sexually adventurous than any other scene. There’s a phrase people use, which is ‘sex-positive.’ And I think a lot of Brooklyn is a sex-positive community. My editor (who lives in Indiana) says that this concept ends, when you cross I-95 heading West. So maybe it’s more of an East Coast thing like the last three miles before the water.
DH: How do you define sex-positive?
The opposite of what you were saying about puritanical. People who have a positive attitude towards sex and sexuality and alternative forms of desire, passion, relationships. I think the under-30 attitude is really, “I don’t give a fuck what other people do.” And that’s a healthy way to go about it. Why are people so obsessed with other people’s bedroom?
CJ: Let’s hope that attitude plays out in the Supreme Court this week…
I hope so too, but either way, America is changing about this. And in 10 more years, people will just be completely done with the culture wars. So many kids are growing up who never cared who was gay and who was straight. So we’re just waiting for more old people to check out….
CJ: I hope that’s the case. Part of my attraction to the Goth scene was indeed its sex-positive attitude. And that was 20 years ago…We were ahead of the curve.
Goths were outcasts, so they were more likely to leave people alone. And not judge. But, that said, I think that Goth can be a fashion scene, and then I get judged. Because I just don’t care to dress the part. Maybe this is a NYC-Goth phenomenon? Because I came into the scene via The Cure (and though not Goth, The Smiths). And they were the bands for the outcasts and the introverts. And it was a chance to find other people to hang out with. I was listening to Fripp & Eno in high school. Playing this droney noise on my portable tape deck. And all the others were listening to Van Halen and 38 Special…. so I never really fit in, anyway.
DH: Sam, what do you see as the state of Goth, circa 2013? When we made our list, we tried really hard to include recent music so it wasn’t all 80s music.
Well, I run a record label, and about 1/3 to 1/2 the releases are dark/goth/ethereal. So I think there’s great music being made in 2013. It seems that most clubs, and fans, still think about the 1990s. I often get Facebook messages, “Oh, I didn’t know your label still exists.” And Projekt has released 220+ CDs since the mid-90s. It sort of makes me sigh.
CJ: That segues to my question a bit. What is the volume of sales now vs. 2000 vs. 1992?
Okay… We have to preface this with the fact that the music industry has collapsed in the last 10 years. The thing I like to say is, “Free is the new price point.” It seems that nearly every fan wants music for free. Whether on Spotify or via illegal downloads on torrents. The musician is expected to work for free, for the enjoyment of the audience. And I find that a hard business model to sustain. Sales are perhaps 10% of what they were 15 years ago. Meaning an equivalent stature band (not the same band) sells 10% of what they did in 1998.
CJ: So, what is/was the size of the market for Goth CDs or records at peak? What about MP3s? Have those eclipsed disc sales?
This is going to make you cry – but if we can sell 10 copies of a non-Projekt CD through our website, Shea and I are impressed. And if we can sell 25, we’re getting out the party hats. Back in the early 90s, I probably sold 1000 copies of each Faith & the Muse CD through my mail-order catalog. We sold 2000+ copies of the Heavenly Voices box set. It was great.
DH: Do you blame the fans or the greedy music execs or both?
Music Execs have NOTHING to do with it. I attribute it to what the internet has done to how people perceive value. Music was valuable to me growing up. I wanted it, I was willing to work at Wendy’s to pay for it. But now, people see music as something that should come for free on their expensive smartphone with the expensive data plan.
CJ: Over the years, how has Projekt transformed for you? Is this now a side project or a full-time job? It doesn’t sound like you can make a living off it anymore. Could you at a certain point?
David Lowery has a great quote, “Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!” … I’m on a music panel with David next week, in Chicago. However, to be clear, Projekt has been my full-time job since 1992. And it is still my sole source of income. I employee two people. But I’ll be quite honest, the ambient side of the label sells a lot more music than the Goth/Darkwave side. I have 50+ albums from Steve Roach. We talk on the phone everyday and are always working on new releases for Projekt and his Timeroom label. Earlier you asked if downloads have eclipsed physical sales. As far as total income goes, yeah. More money comes from digital sales vs. physical sales. I have no problem if people prefer to get music digitally. My problem is when they expect it to be there, for free, on their devices. Because that’s not an ethical model for supporting the art. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very loyal fans. I interact with a lot of great people on Facebook who love my music, and Projekt’s music. Back in the ‘90s, people would send fan letters. Now we interact in real-time. Which is rewarding.
CJ: What are the next three or four albums that you’ll be releasing on the label?
The next few are Steve Roach: Future Flows. And Lovesliescrushing: Ghost Colored Halo. There is also a new album from Mellonta Tauta: Rainbow Melodies. You might remember them from the Hyperium days? They are an Argentinian band. This is the first album in 20 years!
CJ: Wow… How many Lycia albums sell a year? They’re my favorite band…
DH: I was actually looking for a copy of the Lycia CD that we picked for the list, but they seem to go for $50 used! So there is a collector’s market out there.
Well, Lycia is no longer on Projekt. And there are only a few titles left in print on Projekt. So I cannot say how many they sell, anymore. I know that in the ‘90s, the three big acts on Projekt were Lycia, Black Tape For a Blue Girl and Love Spirals Downwards…. The thing is that Mike re-released Burning Circle as a single CD with half as many songs. So anyone who loved the original two CD version has to go and buy it on eBay or Amazon. And that jacks up the price.
CJ: So, let’s dive into that digital-music elephant in the room… What is your typical medium mix now? According to Wikipedia, you were originally okay with free distribution of some music, but it seems that, well, the industry has transformed some. Can you tell me more about how a musician signed to your label can make any money through the new business model?
Well, I am still okay with free MP3s, when it is done on the artist’s or label’s terms. If I want to give away an album, then let me make that decision. In fact, I give away the early Blacktape albums on my Bandcamp page (http://blacktapeforabluegirl.bandcamp.com). The funny thing is my original stance in the ‘90s was: people will hear the free track, and then go buy the album, MP3s are great, they bypass the lack of radio play. I had faith in humanity (rolls eyes). But then people proved me wrong. Once they got that taste of free, so many people decided “why should I ever pay again?”
CJ: So, other than the piracy angle, how does the legal distribution of music filter down, money-wise, into your pocket and the artists’ pockets?
Money filtering into pockets… that’s the question. And the answer is, “I’ll get back to you on that one” (laughs). The rules are definitely changing, and we’re all trying to figure out how to make it work.
CJ: What about Spotify?
We earn some fraction of a penny for each play. It’s something like $0.00012. But don’t quote me on the exact rate, because it changes. But let’s just say it ain’t much. Erik Wollo told me that he has a track that got 192,500 plays on Pandora, and it earned him just shy of $13.00. Tell me how that works out, okay?
CJ: Well, the angle I took was to avoid the music and distribution angle and go straight for performance. Is there more money in that? And will there be a ProjektFest 13?
Cedric, the thing is that the performing aspect doesn’t really make a profit for most bands. I know that with Blacktape, it was just a little better than breaking even. It’s fun being on tour with the right set of people. An experience not everyone gets to have…. but it’s not the solution, especially not for smaller bands. I saw my friend Curtis Eller play here in Brooklyn last week. It was a free show. There were about 30 people, and they passed around a tip jar. I saw people putting a dollar in. A freakin’ dollar. How’s he gonna feed 4 people and cover gas with yer dollar!?!? (sighs)
CJ: How did it work out with BMI and ASCAP?
BMI is great, ASCAP never pays the small guys. BMI collects a good deal of money, when something gets in a TV show. Every period I receive a bunch of money for VidnaObmana for some Giant Squids TV show that airs in Canada. I publish his music via my publishing company, and transfer the money over to him in Belgium.
CJ: Is there any way to turn this around save for government support or intervention?
I know many musicians who’ve decided they are retired. They are very talented, but just so burnt out on the whole idea of losing money to make art. When you’re 20, you have a burning passion to create. But I gotta say when people enter their 40s, they also have a burning passion to pay the rent and take care of their family. But let’s talk about something other than money. Because it’s sort of just a bother!
CJ: Let’s transition to culture. I’ve been following you since like 1992. When I was a baby-bat…
Wait, let me say one thing before your next question. My attitude is you make something out of what you have. Griping won’t make things better. So we can gripe here. But I move forwards. Suffering is an inability to accept reality.
CJ: When I was a baby-bat, I remember the mail-order catalog. Back then, you lived in Orange County, then you moved to Chicago and now you’re in NYC. So, you’ve been all over the country. I know that Goth has a global core, but each city has its own flavors. What are the different flavors in each of those cities and what have you learned about yourself in each of those cities? What do you think about the cohesion of the global scene? The last Convergence I went to was sort of amateur hour and I pretty much stopped going. But there must be a thriving community somewhere?
You know, about the different cities, I am mostly indoors at Projekt, working on the computer. Designing covers, answering emails, putting together compilations. Dealing with the business side and interacting with the artists. So what do I REALLY know about the scenes in Los Angeles vs. Chicago vs. New York? A Club DJ or an artist who loves going out to the clubs would be able to answer that. Me, I work. And I had a kid 10 years ago. So I can tell you more about the quality of the Ice Hockey Rink than I can about the quality of the Goth scene. I often think this is a disadvantage. In that I am not on the pulse of the scene. But what can I do….
CJ: Goth is an aging scene and I think the youthfulness is regressing… how are you handling it and how do you think the vast majority of Goths are handling it? Are there 20-year old Goth bands knocking on your door to be signed anymore?
I just got a Facebook message a few hours ago from a band looking for a label. But they sounded more appropriate for Metropolis, so I suggested that. There are still bands out there… and I do sign new ones, such as Adrian H and the Wounds. Or, a few years ago (Okay, seven years ago, cripes!) Katzenjammer Kabarett, from Paris. They are definitely younger. But still, the youngsters now turn out to have been born in 1984. Which isn’t as young as they once were…
CJ: And as a follow up to the child thing, I find that those without children tend to keep doing their thing, but those with children… for lack of better terminology “merge” with the mainstream a bit more. Do you have a similar take? Do you think people hold onto Goth as an identity, or is it something else more core to who you are as opposed to an illusory identity?
I think a lot of people “age out” of the Goth scene. They move on to the next thing. For some people, it’s a phase. And for some people, it’s an identity they keep. I don’t think there’s any one answer. But along with the artists who would like to pay their rent, and their kid’s college, I know the same thing happens on the fan side. And people don’t have the time or money to keep at it. But for me, it’s not about needing expensive boots. It’s about digging the music.
CJ: You must know that you’re sort of an icon for me. And you seem really down-to-earth. I know the community is small, but it is still really great to talk to you. I appreciate all you’ve done for me and all the music you’ve brought into my library. Being that loveliescrushing and Lycia are two of my favorite acts in your catalog, who else should I be listening to?
Hey, I’m down to earth because I’m just some guy who happens to do this thing. And I go to work, and create. I was thinking about this: I don’t get my identity from being an artist. Or being that guy in that band. Because I know it’s what I do, but not who I am. So I think that all the drama has been removed from this, and it’s just about having a good life.
CJ: We all have some normalcy to us, don’t we? The human condition…
I ask my son, when something is going on, “Are you making other people’s lives more wonderful?” And I know that might sound like the inverse of Goth. But I really want to have fun, and not have drama. And so it’s just about living…. Who else should you be listening to? I released a CD from Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud. They’re a French band that’s sort of like Sigur Rós. It’s a great CD! The new KatzKab is really fun. Kind of Soft Cell + Lena Lovich + B-52’s (or something like that)…
CJ: I haven’t received a sampler in years. Have I not been paying attention? Do you still put those out?
We don’t do the free samplers anymore. We now put up free digital samplers on here. As far as non-Projekt bands, check out Spiritual Front. The album ARMAGEDDON GIGOLO is great!
DH: We got in touch because of silly 13 Best Goth Albums list we put together. And I’ve seen it is a hot topic. People are literally fighting over it on some message boards. When I say silly, I think ranking things is fun, but silly. It could have been 13 Goth Albums We Love. But people love to rank and quantify and argue.
All lists are subjective. If you had polled 10,000 Goths (and nobody stuffed the ballot box) then you might have a more scientifically accurate list.
DH: Exactly. So now I am going to be unkind. Sam, if you were going to make your personal top “Goth” albums list, what would be on it? No need to rank them.
Geez, I dunno. What’s Goth? : )
DH: RIGHT! That is what we ran into. So… let me re-phrase. The best albums that you, Sam Rosenthal, consider Goth.
If you ask me my favorite albums… Here’s a not-on-Projekt selection. Devo: Are We Not Men. Bowie: Hunky Dory. Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express. Spiritual Front: Armageddon Gigolo. Sigur Ros: ( ). John Foxx: Metamatic. Marc Almond: Mother Fist. Nico: Desert Shore. Nicki Jaine… I don’t listen to most of the Goth on your list. The stuff that’s more “rock band” structured stuff. I came into the scene from the 4AD side. Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance. Those would be my fave “Goth” bands….
DH: DCD got bumped off our list.
The funny thing is – and this is probably a sin – I never have owned an album by The Sisters, Nephilim, Mission, only one or two by Siouxsie. Only best-ofs from Bauhaus. It was rock ‘n’ roll. And nothing wrong with that. But Within the Realm of the Dying Sun by Dead Can Dance. Now that’s got feeling!
CJ: DCD was more ethnic or tribal.
DH: We actually got a ton of complaints about leaving off Nephilim
Well, depends on what period of DCD. The first four are dark and bombastic.
CJ: I had Vision Thing by Sisters of Mercy, but no Nephilim and no Siouxsie until my wife moved in…
Spleen & Ideal is great too.
DH: That was the one that was shortlisted but didn’t make it.
CJ: I got into them during Labyrinth.
Yeah, Labyrinth is already “late period” DCD for me. When they changed into world music. Growing up, I also listened to Brian Eno’s rock and weird and then ambient stuff. So I grew up on experimentation. I mean, Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets is still a great rock, proto-punk album. John Cale – Nico – Eno – Bowie…. what they were all doing in the first half of the ‘70s was great, weird, pop stuff. But I want to also say that the most recent Marc Almond album, Variete, is really good.
CJ: So, David and I met due to Spectrum’s Playlist on the Cure. Could you even venture a favorite Cure album nomination?
The Cure: Faith. Pornography. Disintegration. In that order. For fun side of the Cure: Head on the Door, The Top and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me.
DH: I actually find with the internet, it is harder and harder to keep up with everything that is coming out.
CJ: I agree with that, David. It’s so open-ended. Maybe Sam should start send out mail-order catalogs again! We’ll just go back to that, okay?
DH: Be willfully iconoclastic!
I am going to send out my podcasts on cassette. How about that? Projekt has a podcast that we never get around to doing. But there are three or so on iTunes.
DH: Hey man, cassettes are making a comeback
Yeah. There’s a comeback the world doesn’t need.
DH: Like Betamax.
Hey man, Betamax was the best! So much better than VHS. I shot & edited my early videos on Betamax. And speaking of videos. I just finished my new one, Marmalade Cat. It was remixed by Steve Jones (of the ‘80s band AREA). I like making videos. What I’ve hated is how slow the computers are with these massive HD files. So I got the newest Mac, and was finally able to edit a video without wanting to snuff myself…
DH: Well, we should let you go.
Wait, you can’t wrap it up with me wanting to snuff myself. That’s way too Goth.