INTERVIEW: Delvian Records has been called aggressive, brash, quirky, fanatical and a secret weapon for indie artists. Company president Benjamin van der Wel talks with Scott G (Delvian recording artist The G-Man) about music, marketing, mojo, media, and the madness of running a record label.

Scott G: Some people say you have to be a little bit crazy to run a record company. So, how mad are you?

Benjamin van der Wel: Totally mad but we trust it’s in a good way! In the past, the business of music has always been one that’s attracted the opposites: sensitive artists bearing their souls to hardened, insensitive businessmen-accountants looking through them to a horizon fabricated entirely out of the bottom line. We’re quite pleased to be something quite different from that old scary vision.

You’re actually running two companies, Delvian Records and the Gate Media Group. Let’s start with Delvian. How is it different from other indie record companies?

Benjamin van der Wel Well, the biggest difference is that we don’t take away an artist’s intellectual property, especially their copyrights and performing royalties. Usually when you sign with any label, they take ownership of everything you do and are entitled to. We think that is fundamentally unfair, outmoded and frankly ridiculous. Delvian works with an artist, not against them, to get them into distribution, find them airplay and help them with their careers. Sure, it sometimes goes a little slower than the old way, but the artist gets to keep control of their lives, creative and otherwise.

How do you select your artists?

We’re fortunate that we get a lot of mail! Our past successes and unique business model are very attractive to those artists that want to advance without signing their lives over to accountants. Obviously being happy as a smaller company, we can’t work with everyone we’d like to. But we end up with a diverse group that is usually a joy to work with and see advance. In fact, one of the artists longest on the label, Gentle Thunder, was nominated this year for a Grammy Award — not bad for a “little indie label!”

What are your distribution arrangements?

We’re part of the digital revolutions and also part of the traditional CD sales methods. As excited as we are to be in on the start of digital music and downloads, we also know that about 95% of all music sold in the United States is still on CDs, so we’re going to keep selling them as long as people are still buying them. For our artists, we set them up on iTunes, Real’s Rhapsody and make sure their titles are available in almost all major retail stores nationwide. From that point, it depends on the artist’s plans: are they touring? Do they have a specific market they’d like to go for? Essentially, we put everything into place and then customize retail plans based on the artist’s ideas and goals.

You received a lot of press when you were one of the first two indie labels to sign a deal with iTunes. What was that like?

That was so cool it blew our minds entirely! We knew that meeting at Apple was something special when it started by Steve Jobs walking in and saying hello, then leading the meeting himself. It really felt like one of those incredible moments when you just know you’re witnessing history being made. It was a pleasure and privilege to be there. At the time Jobs said iTunes was to be “all about the music,” and so far Apple is doing pretty well by that. The promises they made that day have held and if this is the future of music we’re pretty happy with it.

The Gate Media Group is the parent company of your organization. Tell us about The Gate.

The Gate started decades ago when a bunch of long-time indie music folks got together one evening and came to the conclusion that things could be done much, much better in terms of CD manufacturing. At the time, there were few manufacturers out there that did much but ape the major label models, which meant low quality, bad designs and poor service. We figured that we could do a much better job starting fresh, without all the baggage of old-line ways, methods and equipment. We certainly had the talent and experience so we took a very, very deep breath, emptied our bank accounts and just went for it. Since then we’ve added a lot of other services, features and new stuff like DVDs, printed CDRs, poster printing — you name it, we can do it and do it with not a little style.

How do you compare the Gate with your competitors?

We usually don’t do much of that because over the years we’ve watched them copy our websites, attempt to duplicate our offerings and play catch-up with us. We’re flattered, actually. They can try, again, to ape the models of the big corporations. We’re not aiming to be a Microsoft and be big by “Volume! Volume! Volume!” while putting out questionable products, but rather to be more like Apple, happy to have a good market share, to be an innovator in new products and services and to be seen as a leader in the industry.

How did you guys meet? Was it really one evening?

Yes it was! One of those moments that sneaks up on you in its significance. There we all were, grumbling about the state of things and, most fortunately, someone said, can’t remember who, something like “Well, why don’t we do something about it?” That was in Los Angeles sometime in 1994.

Are you personally involved with any of the bands on Delvian Records?

Since we’re a smaller label, we’re involved personally, to some extent, with all our artists. But we like to be involved as much as we’re needed and wanted. Some artists come to us with a very clear path and everything in place, others need a lot of advice and counsel as to how to proceed. And as you know, in music, its hard not to take things personally! Music is such an intimate experience of the artists’ minds and being that anytime you’re involved in a real way, you can’t help but being involved personally. That is if you care at all about them. We do. Very much so.

What do you love about music?

How much time have we got? [laughs] Well, if I had to pick one thing, I’d say it is those moments when I get a new CD or someone sends us their demo and when I pop it in the player, that indescribable something comes alive in their sound. That deep eternal and eternal movement, that dance. That something that can raise the hairs on your neck or cause an entire room of people to pause and listen in a kind of awed wonder. Those moments are amazing.

What do you like/dislike about the music business?

Honestly? Well, the fact that it has to be so much about “business” and so little about “music” sometimes. At its best, music is a gift to the world, but in our current culture, it’s a commodity to be bought and sold. And as such, the rules of commodities apply whether we like it or not. That’s the philosophical side! The practical side is adjunct to that: the old major music labels. They’re not adapting to the 21st century very well and in not doing so, they’re causing everyone else a lot of problems. Those big ships leave a mighty big wake wherever they go, even if they’re obviously way off course!

What do you see for the future of music?

The transparency the internet has brought to all information in general is helping people to rediscover what they really like in music in particular, not just what is in power rotation on a radio station. They can search whenever they want for new and different kinds of music. I think we’re also hearing a general rise in the overall quality in what is available, thanks to recording and production becoming possible on laptops and such. The whole digital revolution is making, in our cash economy world, the creation of music much more affordable for many people. So when talent and inspiration combine with a much lower cost to make it, the sheer amount of musicians and artists that can create is going up, practically immeasurably.

Are dance clubs and what they play still influential in the whole music scene?

To a certain extent, yes, especially in the dance and electronic genres, where you’d expect that. But we’re also seeing clubs having more specialty nights and playing a wider range of music. We think it’s still a great way for new music to get out there. And while more people are deciding what to listen to by scanning samples on their iPods or iTunes, there will always be a pretty big group of people that likes to go out and listen to new music at clubs. iPods are wonderful but clubs are somewhat more social! Besides, it’s a lot easier to find some company for the night if you’re able to see them gyrating next to you. Cool new music is especially helpful in that aspect.

What should we look for from Delvian Records and/or The Gate Media Group?

We’re continuing to do what we do well, which is making and distributing music. We’re also watching closely how music is being put in physical formats such as the new DVDs coming out. A lot of artists are now interested in releasing double sets, one CD of music and one CD or DVD of music videos or other visual accompaniments to music. We’re happy to help this trend come alive, the combining of pure sound and vision for what many see as a more total experience. And of course, we’d be happy to have another artist or several nominated for more Grammy Awards!

What do you think about all the talk of change from albums to single song downloads?

This is a very sad, weepy cry made public only by the old major labels. We’re happy that, finally, people can buy what they want and now artists can structure their works as they want, too. If an artist feels an album is a complete unit, it can be made available only that way. Or they can make a few songs or all available for single downloads. We think it’s all good. I should note that it is having the effect on artists to really push for an entire album of good listening instead of having a few “filler” tracks in there to flesh out a contract, the real reason it was done that way for so long. The lawyers required it.

Any thoughts on DRM (or the end of DRM)?

This was brought up at that first iTunes meeting and what was said then I still think is essentially valid. Basically, Apple decided most folks would be happy to download music with some DRM on it and there would always be a smaller number who would find any DRM not so good and attempt to evade it. They decided to go for the larger “legal download” audience and let the others do what they’ve always done. They were proven right for a long while. Their recent decision to now give artists the possibility to offer DRM-free music at a slight premium seems like a good idea. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. In any outcome, though, we think that the easier it is to get music to people the better. Sure, artists would like to be able to make a living doing what they love to do (who wouldn’t?) and I don’t know if a totally DRM-free world would make that possible. But it is still very early in the world of downloadable music and we look forward to seeing what happens.

[tags]Benjamin van der Wel interview, Delvian Records, Gate Media Group, indie music, independent record label, music distribution, digital downloads, gman, Scott G, DRM, music industry news[/tags]