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At the risk of under-complicating things, the music industry works like any other business: You create things that people want and then you let them buy them from you. In an era when the bloated infrastructure of the music industry as we have known it for the last 50 years is imploding — and as shiny whizz-bang start-ups, technologies and gimmicks launch, crash and burn at an alarming rate — it's refreshing to see a back-to-basics approach succeed.
Such is the case with Ann Arbor's exclamatorially monikered multimedia company, Quack! Media. Over the past few years, Quack! has evolved from a company producing educational films into a new media incubator for DIY-friendly efforts spanning publishing (Found Magazine), animation (Adult Swim), event promotion (working with the Red Wings) and music (a roster of seven active bands, plus the entire catalog of the acclaimed indie label Suburban Sprawl). In the case of the latter, the bands associated with the label — all of them based in Detroit, Ann Arbor and the suburbs, generally working the indie-rock and pop end of the musical spectrum — have achieved the sort of modest-to-phenomenal success that allows them to be, again, modestly, "working musicians."
So how do they do it? Well, Al McWilliams, the 28-year-old Quack! founder, relies on what he calls "constants of commerce."
"The thing we always talk about here — it seems very simple but many people have lost it — is that if we make things that you want, you'll purchase it from us at a cost slightly more than what it cost us to make. If we do that, we will have a successful business.
"There are business models that don't adhere to that. I'm always hearing about Internet businesses whose goal is, 'We're going to get users.' OK. And? Step 5? Profit!" he laughs.
"Who knows where the music industry is going? There are so many guesses out there right now and some of the guesses are fueled by unseen forces," McWilliams says. "You never know whether it's 'successful' because it does a good job or whether there's venture capital behind it that invests in dot-coms.
"But if I hear the word 'revolution' used again when not referring to an armed uprising ..." he laughs. "I'm always, like, 'Really, you guys? So yours is going to be different than the last 30 people who have called and told me that?'
"What we've focused on is the concept that's been around since long before we started. On one end are the constants that never change — you have people who want good music. On the other, you have people who make good music. So there needs to be a system that connects those two points. No one in 1935 went out and said, 'This is how it will work in the future and it's a revolution.' Channels were implemented and it grew — but then it became too big and people took advantage of it and it imploded upon itself. But it will grow back."
So when it comes to the actual marketing of music, Quack! takes a deceptively simple but grounded approach: Have an idea, set your goals and create a good time.
"When we sit down at full band meetings a couple times a month with everyone, we ask them what their plans are and how we can maximize them. We're pretty much into trying almost anything right now," McWilliams says.
"We're currently giving away the Hard Lessons' Arms Forest record on their site to promote their shows. For a limited time only. But you have to sign up for our mailing list to get it. So there are two very specific goals attached to that. We're going to get people to come to a show and we're going to build the e-mail list."
In other words, no goal, no go ...
"A lot of the times, it's like, 'We have this idea!' and there's no direct concrete goal attached to it. We don't do those. Let's figure out a goal to attach to it or just wait for another idea."
Quack!'s 10 employees and the bands with whom they meet are invited to add ideas sans goals to what they call the "Doin' Stuff" list in the office.
"I love a lot of the niche blogs," says McWilliams to illustrate his point. "But there's no goal for that. And that's awesome if you're a dude doing it as a hobby. But what we do — this is not a hobby. I could have a train set in my basement and build this sweet-ass mountain and when your train gets to the top the mountain explodes. That's sweet. But there's no goal to it."
"Some of the biggest disagreements we've had have been when a band wants to do something that's really cool but they still have to come up with a reason to do it. No matter how cheap it is, it still has to have goal."
But, he says, Quack! and its artists' roster are both still small enough where metrics and measurement are pretty simple.
"Let's say we have a show on Friday night. We want people to come to it. So we're going to do X, Y and Z to accomplish that. And then you show up on Friday. It's a very easy metric. Either there are people there or they're not," he chuckles. "We learn something from every single experiment."
Those "experiments" have allowed Quack! to grow slowly and organically, not looking to force lightning to strike and get rich quick. A recent example is the limited release from laptop dance duo, Desktop. The duo makes 100 records. If they sell 50, well, they're in the black.
The other part of the equation McWilliams and company both recognize and foster is the amount of competition for people's time. To that end, the other part of their philosophy is to just create a good time. Again, seems simple. But one look at the sprawling listings for shows competing for the same core audience that has to be chosen on any given Saturday, including equally compelling shows at, say, the Magic Stick, the Lager House, the Belmont, Small's, Painted Lady, UFO Factory, the Magic Bag... and on and on (and that's without crossing 10 Mile Road) points to the need for — gasp! — entertainment synergy.
Quack!'s most recent major project is a case study in trying to elevate an evening out by bringing together sports, music and design. It's called "Open Skate" and it's a co-production between Quack! and the Detroit Red Wings. Over the next month, Quack! and the Wings are co-presenting, essentially, Red Wings parties with awesome music at an affordable price (or even for free in some cases) and the opportunity to get Wings gear designed by local artists — that means unique designs you might really want to wear.
"When we look at Red Wings hockey and rock shows in Detroit, we don't really see a difference," McWilliams says, without the slightest trace of irony.
"It's entertainment. It's a great time. It's a fun night out. So the product you're delivering is simply a great time. Think about it: You go to the game, you have some Molsons and you met a few people. You go to a rock show and you have a few Molsons and you meet a girl. It seems logical to us to mix that and, luckily, the Red Wings recognize that and they got behind it too."
"If you go to a game now and they lose, you're just bummed. We want to have it so that if you go to a game and they lose, you're still OK because you're going to an afterparty with 20 people that sat in the same section with you that look like you," McWilliams says about the mix of hipsters and hockey.
"It's actually a selfish way to get the 20,000 friends that I'd like to have in Detroit to go to a hockey game with me," he laughs. "Selfishly, I want to meet a girl at a hockey game who's not 50.
"The idea is that TV, sports and music are not separate industries. They never were. It's not a new thing. People have X amount of free time and X amount of free dollars. Any way that people can get the most out of both is a great way work. And especially in Detroit, if you ask a young person what's important to them, they'll often say music and hockey."
So in the Quack! world, no idea is a bad idea if it has a goal. One sets those goals, works hard, creates entertainment, informs people about it ... and then, hopefully, those people will buy that entertainment from you. Sounds simple enough.
"Yeah," McWilliams laughs. "If I were to write a book about it, it would be a very short book."
Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.