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Project Independent Roundtable Interview

Project Independent has had an incredible year. Headed by CEO Jeff Totten, the National Band Search Program has recently nailed down a new distribution deal with Century Media Records. This is a major victory for the underground scene because this will allow the next Project Independent compilation CD comprised of top unsigned U.S. metal acts to finally reach the masses and yet not sacrifice the original appeal of its grass roots approach: to find the best of the best burgeoning talents working hard to make a name for themselves directly out of the hottest club venues in cities from coast to coast . I recently conducted this roundtable interview with Jeff Totten himself, along with Florida area promoter J-Rock of The Rock Solid Pressure Showcase, Erik Ulrich of I.R.A.T.E, Greg Bowman of Level Nine Entertainment and Rick of the Texas-based thrash metal band Grain to get a deeper perspective from all of these forces involved on the good, the bad and the ugly of this impressive band search program.

Rocket: We all know what a great success the very first I.R.A.T.E. headlined Poject Independent Tour was this year, along with the band's debut full-length "Brothers of the Same Struggle" that was marketed in a 2 disc package format with a compilation disc of top underground metal acts from all over the country. I want this roundtable discussion to cover the good, the bad and the ugly of what's happened and what is to come in the future. My first question is for you, Jeff. Now looking back in retrospect what would you say was the programs biggest weakness and how have you made the needed adjustments for the next round of touring?

Jeff: That’s what I love about you man! You just come right out with it don’t you? No sugar coating. No hugs and kisses… just a swift kick to the nutsack!

Rocket: Would you rather address the programs strengths?

Jeff: No man… I’m just busting your balls. I could sit here and hype Project Independent until I’m blue in the face, but I won’t. That’s a job for the bands and promoters. As much as I had hoped for this thing to be perfect, the bottom-line is that it just wasn’t. We had problems, but they’re problems that have all been addressed and fixed.

Rocket: Give me some examples of these so-called problems.

Jeff: We began this in the Spring of 2006, and we kept our promotion confined all areas west of the Mississippi River. Our goal was to go National in the Fall of 2007, however, due to the overwhelming response by promoters and bands in the Midwest and on the East Coast, we decided to go ahead and incorporate the entire U.S. this last time around. We just weren’t ready for that kind of volume and some aspects suffered. We have made several changes to our program, the biggest being that we no longer associate ourselves with the “battle of the bands” title. We don’t like the idea of bands competing with one another. Our program will now be comprised of “showcases” not competitions. As far as the judging process is concerned, the categories will remain the same, but we will no longer allow guest judges to be on the panel. All bands that are selected will be selected by Project Independent personnel only, and the reason for this is simple… We have a distribution deal with Century Media, and the better the product, the better the support, and no one knows the needs of Century Media better than we do.

Rocket: Let’s talk some more about your distribution deal with Century Media. Jeff, what is the upside to uniting with such a major force in the metal business? I mean, that's obviously a great name to be partnering up with and it is going to certainly help you cover major ground now. And what do you say to the detractors who will claim Project Independent has now sold out?

Jeff: Our Century Media deal is perfect for us, and any of these so-called detractors, need not apply. Our contract with CM is non-exclusive, meaning that we can take our product to whoever we want and whenever we want. This is a deal between Project Independent and CM solely for the purposes of distributing product. The artists that are a part of Project Independent neither give up the rights to their music nor are they expected to hold their own contracts with CM. Basically it’s all of the benefits of a label with none of the bullshit, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

J-Rock:That was a great answer! My answer would be “Fuck-off”! Just because you’re with CM doesn’t mean your selling out. 16 year olds always talk of selling-out but once they reach their 20’s, they often change their tune.

Rocket: Okay, J-Rock. Since you’ve decided to chime in, this next question is for you. You’re a well known Florida metal promoter. Can you first briefly tell us about your background in the music business and then please follow that up with what your current intentions are in working with Project Independent.

J-Rock: My background is pretty extensive. I began my career in the music biz back in the 80’s as a touring musician working with bands like Cinderella and Britny Fox. After years of touring, I got into rock journalism and then spent 3 years working for Sony A&R. In 2002, while working for Sony in New York, I began a program called Rock Solid Pressure, which was basically a program for scouting and providing opportunities to bands… very similar to what Project Independent is doing. I’ve recently relocated to Florida, where I have a nationally syndicated radio show and host annual Rock Solid Pressure Showcases.

Rocket: Tell me more about these showcases.

J-Rock: I hold them once a year, usually late September or early October, at Lillian’s in Lakeland, Florida. It’s between Orlando and Tampa. I select 20-25 of the best metal bands from across the United States to come out and perform in front of label reps and industry pros. This last one that we held had 2000 people in attendance and 4 of the bands walked away with label deals. In regard to Project Independent… I love the whole concept, and I’m the guy who doesn’t agree with a lot of what’s going on out there. Project Independent presents a win-win situation for everyone involved. Their heart is in the right place, they offer this at no cost to the bands, and they follow up with everything. I’ve experienced 4 decades of metal music and trends, and Project Independent is all about selecting Grade a choice 100% metal. I saw Grain perform while they were in Florida, and I’ll tell you this… they are one of the best bands that I’ve seen in quite some time. If Project Independent can make a practice of discovering these bands on a consistent basis, then the “higher-ups” will have to continue to take notice.

Rocket: Let’s talk more about some of the acts you are currently working with and will any of them be part of Project Independent Tour 2007?

J-Rock: Unkempt is the first band that comes to mind. They’re the Florida champs and will be 1 of the artists on the Spring 2007 compilation. From there, I hope to see them become the Fall 2007 Featured Artist. It seems as though metal music keeps getting more and more generic, and metal really needs a break from the norm. Cookie Monster vocals were fine when they first emerged, but now it’s seems as though each and every band out there is following suit. We need diversity. We need bands with dynamic singers. We need theatrics.

Rocket: J-Rock mentioned “label deals’. Erik, this question is for you. As the lead vocalist for I.R.A.T.E., you’ve gotten a taste of record labels. Give us your take on record labels, and compare those experiences to those of Project Independent. What has being involved with Project Independent meant to your band and if you were running the show yourself out at the venues, what specific changes would you personally make to try and get it to be a more successful experience for everyone involved?

Erik: I have come to the conclusion that label deals equal money and money equals control. Control comes in a lot of different forms, marketing, promotion, content, etc. As an artist working with a label, you are expected to give up a certain amount of control in exchange for money or services. This being said, I don’t think that there is 1 right way to approach these types of situations. That’s explains why each and every record contract is different and unique. I see things this way… If it makes sense, then you do it. If it doesn’t, then you don’t. As far as I.R.A.T.E. is concerned, we’re looking for a label deal, and if the right situation presents itself, then we’re all over it. We know exactly what we want and exactly what we’re willing to give up to get it.

Rocket: Let’s say you sign with a label, then what becomes of your relationship with Project Independent?

Erik: Nothing changes! Project Independent is a tool… a learning experience. Project Independent is a crash-course in how the music business is run, but there is only so much that Project Independent can provide. The rest is up to the bands. We were the very first band to capitalize from Project Independent. Unfortunately we were involved at a time when the promotion was still growing. We will never experience the short term affects that future featured artists will, but at the same time we were the first and that’s something that we will continue to benefit from more than any other band, and being innovative means more to us than anything else. In regard to the things that I would change… I wouldn’t change a thing. My relationship with the Project Independent staff is a very close one, and they are constantly asking me these same question. Therefore if I do have an opinion, I’m sure that it will be heard long before the mediagets a hold of me. The most important lesson I’ve learned by Project Independent is that the harder you work the more you prosper. Project Independent rewards bands for their hard work.

Rocket: Rick, you play drums for Grain out of Texas and have been a part of all of this. In your mind, has Project Independent lived up to all its hype? I mean, those of us in the business know how many promoters out there talk a good game but really deliver nothing at the end of the day in terms of profits. Most simply lose their asses off never to be heard from again. And I'd also like to know if Grain plans to continue being involved in 2007.

Rick: I’m with Erik! He nailed everything right on the head, 100%! We are just like them in regard to certain things. We were all guinea pigs through this whole process. We did the West Coast dates of the Fall 2006 Project Independent Tour with I.R.A.T.E. and that tour was cool because it was our first. Having guys like I.R.A.T.E. with us, made it a whole hell of a lot of fun. We didn’t make shit on that tour, because we had to split the money between two bands, but fuck man, that was fun. Now this last tour we did on our own and it was a lot of work. The four of us and Trey loaded up the van, threw our gear in our trailer and said, “Fuck it”. This tour kicked ass, but in a different way. We actually made good money to tour! We were a band that used to tour the same 10-12 cities over and over. Now we’re able to use the contacts that we’ve made to book our own tours and book them pretty much wherever we want.

Rocket: So you would recommend Project Independent to other bands?

Rick: Hell yes! What do they have to lose? We toured, we sold cds, we sold merch and we made money. Money that will allow us to buy new gear, pay for studio time, buy new merch… whatever we need it for. More importantly, we made great contacts with venues and promoters and made thousands of friends. Hell… I don’t see why this trend wouldn’t continue.

Rocket: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Rick: Yeah. Gear hook-ups. Project Independent hooks each band up with gear before they go out on the road, and this was awesome for us because we just had our gear stolen. We got all kinds of shit, and if Project Independent didn’t provide it, they hooked us up with the manufacturers and they gave us great deals. Without that we wouldn’t have shit.

Rocket: Trey, you’ve been awfully quiet. You are the Tour Manager for I.R.A.T.E. and I just want to thank you for all the hard work you do, brother man. Everyone around you talks up a storm about your great character. I wanted to know from your perspective with the last Tour do you think people that came to the shows really walked away satisfied with the experience? And how do you gauge that exactly? Are you and the band actually talking with the fans at any given point to get feedback on maybe a band that shouldn't have been on the stage or just provide deeper insight from the fan's angle on what they think about the Tour overall.

Trey: Just for the record, I’m the tour manager for Project Independent, not necessarily I.R.A.T.E. although I have worked with I.R.A.T.E. quite a few times.

Erik: Oh, I see how it is. Project Independent comes along and you just up and bail on us? Hahaha.

Trey: Damn bro! It aint like that at all. I just didn’t want to take credit for something that I shouldn’t take credit for.

Erik: Hahaha. It’s all good. Truth be told, Trey is our tour manager if and when he’s available. Unfortunately he’s not available that often anymore thanks to Project Independent. Thanks fucker! (directed towards Jeff) We’ve been touring for about 5 years now, so we know the importance of a tour manager. If these bands are going put for the first time, then having Trey with them is perfect. Good for them.

Rocket: So Trey, you go out with each and every featured artist as their tour manager?

Trey: Hey man, don’t go volunteering me for shit now. I’ve gone out with I.R.A.T.E. and Grain and I’m down to go out in the future, but I have no idea how many of these I’ll do.

Jeff: If it’s not Trey out there in the trenches with these bands then it will be someone else. Either way, Project Independent will supply a tour manager to the featured artist. Somebody who’s been there, done that. Somebody who can kind of watch over them, maybe smack them around a little bit when they get out of line.

Rocket: Jeff, let's talk more about the Century Media distribution deal you have recently secured for the next Project Independent compilation disc. Does this mean that the purchase price is going to be higher than last time? And secondly, we know Tower Records is going under, so what are some of the other big name retailers that will carry your product?

Jeff: Let me begin with the Tower Records thing. For those who haven’t heard, Tower Records is bankrupt. The reason is simple. No one buys cds anymore. Bands sell more cds at shows these days than in stores. This is why Project Independent will still manufacture cds, because we want our bands to have product while they’re on the road. We print up 2000 copies of each release. 1000 copies go to the featured artist, and each compilation artist receives 12 copies per band. Of the remaining copies, approximately 500 go to retail and catalog sales and the other 250–300 copies are used to initiate press opportunities and set up promo for their tour. Let’s face it people, we’re not here to sell albums… we’re here to sell bands. As far as the purchase price is concerned, we can’t control that. What we can tell you is that our sale price to the distributor is $8.50 per copy. We encourage the bands to sell them for $10.00.

Rocket: Man, you haven’t said 1 word all night. (Referring to Greg Bowman of Level Nine Entertainment, a national sponsor for Project Independent)

Greg: Who, me? Nobody who’s ever met me will believe that I kept my mouth shut this long, but I’m happy to just sit back and soak all of this in!

Rocket: You've had a lot of activity this year managing Ninetail, who are easily one of the hottest unsigned metal acts around. How did you get involved with Project Independent and what's the experience been like for you personally?

Greg: I’ve been a believer in Project Independent since the first night Jeff called me! At the time, Level Nine Entertainment was just getting started. I’d been managing Ninetail for little more than a year, and had just started working with From Dissension. As a matter of fact, Jeff called during our first official meeting. As soon as he described the concept behind Project Independent, I was sold, and just weeks later we hosted a Central PA Showcase at ChampionShip Records in Lemoyne, PA and a State Showcase at The Silo Nightclub in Reading, PA. Notice how carefully I’m using the word showcase? That’s because I know exactly what Jeff was talking about when he explained the new terminology. The battle of the bands mentality definitely reared its ugly head after our PA State Finals, when some people questioned the integrity of the judging panel – but now that the judges will be Project Independent personnel, the only drama that unfolds will take place on the stage!

Jeff: I told you man, we’ve had our share of problems… but they’ve been addressed and hopefully corrected. Now we’ll just have to wait for the next set of problems to come along so that we can fix those too.

Rocket: So… what can fans expect the next time around with Project Independent Tour 2007 and its’ compilation recording. Is there anything they didn't get in 2006 or maybe got at a marginal level that you are now going to improve upon greatly?

Jeff: I would like to see corporate money behind this. Now I know that scares a lot of people, especially when we’re talking about a product as defiant as metal. But as long as certain controlling rights aren’t relinquished, then we will be fine. The key here is to utilize corporate dollars without incorporating corporate bullshit. We have a couple of ideas that we’re throwing around, but nothing that we can go into right now. I’ll I can tell you is that a lot of people are providing all of the support that we could possibly ask for, and as long as we can maintain our support network, we’ll be making great things happen. Aside from that, I am looking forward to the personal satisfaction of watching the caliber of the bands that we work with get better and better each time out. Watching bands mature through this process is simply amazing and definitely the most personally rewarding part of this whole program.

Rocket: That seems to be the mutual feeling by everyone here. So Greg, in what capacity is Level Nine Entertainment going to be involved with Project Independent in 2007?

Greg: Though working with Ninetail and From Dissension has kept us extremely busy, we’re gearing up for even more. Look for Level Nine to add more bands to it’s booking, management & promotions roster in the very near future, and keep an eye out for the new line of promotional materials that Level Nine has been creating for Project Independent. Now that Level Nine Entertainment is a national sponsor of Project Independent, we’re looking forward to offering our services to bands and promoters all over the country! Keep your eyes peeled to www.level9ent.com for more info.

Rocket: And J-Rock… What are your plans for future involvement with Project Independent?

J-Rock: Well, my radio show does endless promotion and constantly airs Project Independent artists. In addition, I hope to have Jeff show up to the 2007 Rock Solid Pressure Conference and talk to everyone about Project Independent, and maybe have a few of the Project Independent bands perform as well.

Jeff: I told you, man… if it’s in September then I’ll be there. If it’s in October, then you’re assed out.

J-Rock: Everybody heard that right? September it is! Now you’d better fucking be there.

Rocket: Okay, guys, last question, and Jeff, this one’s for you. What is the one thing that first time bands joining up with Project Independent need to be the most aware of when throwing their hats into the ring? The second part to this question is… what has been the biggest typical misconception from outside promoters getting involved?

Jeff: Man… that’s a great question. I think that we have a pretty good program here, but I’d always like to do more. I did a lot of touring in my day and I know exactly how hard this life can be. When times got bad, I’d ask myself what the fuck I was doing. Each member in every one of these bands has asked themselves the same question… “What the fuck am I doing, wasting my fucking time with this?”… and everybody’s answer is different, but regardless of what drives us, that drive that we all share originates in the same place… some deep pit inside of us. That drive is what makes us special, and that same drive is what will make Project Independent a successful launching platform for metal bands in the future.

Rick: That was beautiful man!

Jeff: Why is the drummer always the biggest smartass in the band? I think that bands need to understand that we are not a record label. The artists that we use must have a professional recording and we don’t finance or arrange for recording the bands. We can help, but it’s not our responsibility. We don’t provide a van or a trailer either. As much as I would love to secure a sponsorship with Chevrolet or Ford or something and give each touring band a brand new van… well we ain't there yet, but Project Independent is still a fresh idea. Give it some time. Project Independent was simply created to provide opportunities, but there will always be drama. People bitching about the bands that were chosen, or the way that the votes are calculated, or why did this band play first, or why did that band play last… whatever. I would like to think that our bands and our fans will kick that superficial shit to the curb and just see this for what it is… an excellent opportunity. If that happens, then we’ll be ok, and the bands will make out just fine. And to the promoters. Don’t underestimate the potential of this promotion. Promoters see the $750 price tag that’s attached and their first instinct is to pass. This promotion runs 2-3 months, twice per year. If promoters haven’t paid for this event with local sponsorship before the doors are even opened, then they shouldn’t be promoters. Several of the small local promoters that we’ve used have made enough money on one Project Independent event to pay their bills for 6 months. The opportunity is out there for all of us to come together and create our own industry and networking is the key.

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