Indie Beat: Nicolas Jaar on Building a Label for Digital Natives

Nicolas Jaar (Viktor Sekularac)

Perhaps as compelling as Nicolas Jaar’s music -- subtly emotive, restrained yet expansive -- are his ideas about the form itself. The 23-year-old artist/producer made waves in 2011 with his debut album cum minimalist electronic manifesto “Space Is Only Noise,” tested limits with a subsequent 5-hour improvised set at MoMa PS1 featuring interpretive dance and live saxophone, and raised eyebrows with a compilation album last spring released in the form of an aluminum cube -- all before graduating in May from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature.
Tomorrow, Jaar celebrates the release of “Psychic,” the first, original, full-length album by Darkside, a collaboration with guitarist and fellow Brown grad Dave Harrington. But for subscribers to Other People, Jaar’s new digital-only subscription label that is releasing “Psychic” in partnership with Matador, the album has been available to download for over a week.

Backbeat: Nicolas Jaar Tours Globally, Launches Arts Collective, Changes Face of Music In Between Semesters

Other People operates like a cross between a weekly magazine and a music fan club, offering subscribers exclusive access to original music before it’s available anywhere else. For $5 per month or $50 per year, members receive a small batch of new and exclusive songs from Other People artists every Sunday. The current “issue” of Other People is available to stream for free on the label’s website, but back issues and downloads are only available to subscribers. Other People isn’t ordinarily focused on releasing full-length albums, but on occasions when it does, subscribers receive early access, with physical and digital distribution to other platforms like Best Buy and iTunes coming weeks later.
Before he skipped town on a European tour, we caught up with Jaar to talk about why labels are in need of reinvention, taking inspiration from Saturday Night Live and why he wants Other People to release everything from hip-hop music to podcasts.
Billboard: You’re a young guy with a burgeoning career as an artist. Why get into the business side of things and run a label?
Nicolas Jaar: I started my first label [Clown and Sunset] when I was 19, four years ago. The idea was simply that I wanted to put out my own music and not hand it over to anyone else. After four years of doing that I realized what I was really interested in was just connecting with people and having that connection be as direct as possible. And I guess that’s still what excites me now.
With Other People I’d say that’s the main concept. We give our subscribers and just normal listeners new music every Sunday. This doesn’t mean that we give them albums or EPs every Sunday -- we give a minimum of two songs and a maximum of four songs per Sunday. In the end we have the same amount of output as a normal label, but we’re spacing it out in order to create a community of people based around this ritual of enjoying something together every Sunday.
So that’s kind of the idea. I’ve been working on this for a year-and-a-half, but I feel like now is the perfect time to start trying this out because I feel like people are excited to listen to things together and to feel like they’re discovering things at the same time as other people.
What do you think it is about this moment that’s ripe for that sort of model?
Well on the streaming side, I think there’s something about streaming that in a way just makes sense right now. Because we’re all connected to the Internet and therefore the idea of ownership is a little more loose. So I think there’s something in a way that’s very humbling for music to say “Yes, it’s OK, you can just stream me and that’s enough.” Because it is enough. The only thing that music is is listenable.
So to me, right now, the idea of ownership of music is not as interesting as the idea of being part of a group. So that’s why with Other People we have members, and they’re also the only people in the world who can download the songs.
And why take a serialized approach to releasing music as opposed to just giving your subscribers full albums or EPs?
Right, well the first idea was... look at Drip.FM, for example. It’s a subscription model of what a normal label does. I guess what I wanted to do was create a new model altogether. I thought it would make sense to approach it more like a magazine where each week you get a new issue with artwork and some great songs.
I also think that things are moving so fast these days that it’s exciting to be able to put out two or three songs every Sunday and have the leeway to say “OK, we thought we were going to put out these three songs, but something just happened and to celebrate this or to talk about that we will put out these other three songs instead.” And so we can be much more contemporary with our choices and it ends up being less bureaucratic. Things are planned six months in advance, but they can also be completely changed from week to week. That’s exciting to me.
And finally I like the idea that we’re telling a story. People will hear a story being told issue by issue through music. To me that’s very exciting. I like telling stories via my albums and via my mixes and via my live performances, and I don’t see this as any different. It’s the idea of curating a story that spans the entire year.
When you release a full album broken up into parts, as in the case of the recent “Trust” compilation, will that album then be available to purchase as a whole elsewhere?
Yeah, so there are three ways of getting “Trust.” For fans who choose to sign up for the subscription service, they get first access digitally via their subscription. And then there will be a physical version released two to three weeks after the Other People version is sent out. And then a month after the Other People version, it will be available on iTunes and other digital distributors. So that’s the idea, unless the artist doesn’t want to be on iTunes, which is an increasingly common statement being made by the artists I work with.
So do you have a distribution partner for the physical releases?
Yes, we’re working with Word and Sound. But the distribution will depend on the release. For example, with the Darkside album we struck a deal with Matador in the U.S. and in Europe for distribution. We did that just because Darkside is a bigger project and we wanted to harness a label that has bigger physical infrastructure than we do.
So in each case you’ll pick a distribution partner depending on the project.
Exactly, which I think allows us to be as free as possible.
The Other People website does feel like its own sort of self-contained universe. It has a kind of otherworldly vibe and aesthetic that suits the music. What were you going for as far as how the site should feel to members?
I don’t know, I basically wanted it to be as minimalistic as possible and as much of a blank slate as possible. So the organization of it is very simple with just a black menu bar at the top and numbers 1 through 52 on the side for each issue. And we have an art direction team that creates the big scrolling image, which is the most important part and takes up basically the entire site. That image will change every week.
Who all works on the label? Justin Miller [formerly of DFA] is general manager, right?
Yes. So I do art direction and curation and own the record company, Justin is the label manager, we have someone who handles physical production whose name is Nicholas Imbert, and then we have a slew of designers and artists and photographers that are helping out on a kind of freelance basis. For PR we have a person in Europe and a company in the U.S. [INFAMOUS PR] that I’ve been with for the past five years.
And who works on the sort of back end technology side? Those are big files you guys are sending.
Yes, exactly. We work with Version Industries.
The 52 numbers on the homepage kind of visualize the promise that subscribers will get something every week. How much music do you have lined up currently? Is that going to be a challenge to keep up with?
We have at least between 30 and 40 issues lined up already. And there’s no stress, really, because music comes in all the time. I don’t want to be thinking eight months ahead -- I want to be thinking five months ahead. One of the most important parts about this is being current and thinking in the moment and improvising.
It’s a funny story because I really had this idea when my girlfriend took me to see Saturday Night Live. I went to see it and I thought there was something very poetic and special about the fact that it reoccurs every Saturday. And it’s based on curation because there’s a slew of characters who come back every week but there’s also a guest host each week who keeps it fresh. To me there’s something very important and beautiful happening there and that was really my biggest influence for this.
So far the artists that Other People has released seem to work within a similar mood, even if they don’t actually sound the same. What are you looking for in the music that you want for the label?
You know, the curation of my last label was a little more strict, and I wanted to say something very specific with the sound. For this, although the first release does have a kind of very consistent sound, Other People is a label that will have hip-hop, punk rock, noise and dance music. The point is not to be constrained by sound. That’s why the website is an open canvas -- it’s the same for the concept of the label. If it’s good music, we will put it out. That’s the only meter. It has to be good and worth people’s time.
From an A&R perspective, where are you finding the artists?
For right now it’s friends from around New York. Because we live here we get to do a lot of A&R here. I get to see a lot of shows and a lot of people send me music, which is nice. Very little good stuff comes from online, sadly. But we listen to everything that people send us and I have interns listening to things and they know the kinds of things to send over to the label manager and myself. But the truth is there’s nothing like passing by a bar and hearing a singer/songwriter who’s been playing there for two years in a row and you just decide to pair them up with a producer and see how it goes. I like it being a very physical and human process.
What’s next up on your release plate?
We have a couple of podcasts that we have lined up, and two stellar releases from friends here in New York. The first one is High Water, which is the project of Will Epstein, a great singer/songwriter from New York. And then after that we will have a release by Visuals, the project of Andrew Fox. He will be releasing a four-song EP that was actually produced by Darkside. Dave and I had our hands in producing that.
Wait, podcasts?
We’re working with a couple of people to do little radio shows where we can kind of just put two people next to each other and have them talk. There’s something beautiful about that. And then Dave from Darkside is also a DJ so he made a mix of some records that belonged to his father and that he likes. Will from High Water has also made a podcast of his inspirations so that people that are a part of Other People can see where he comes from and why his music sounds the way it does.
With an ambitious undertaking like this and making music and going on tour, how do you see your time being split going forward?
I’m lucky that I have two people [Miller and Imbert] to whom I can delegate basically all the day-to-day work. What I do is mainly musical. I would say 99 percent of the time I’m a musician and one percent of the time I’m curating things and working on the other side. I’m not the one who implements, I just have some ideas. So I’m lucky that I have a very good team behind me that takes care of business everyday.
Lastly, what did you observe in the established music industry that you learned from or wanted to do differently?
What I realized is that there’s something classic about the idea of an album and giving it to people, and there’s something classic about the idea of an EP -- people know what these things mean. But these formats were created in order to fit into physical constraints -- a CD is 60 or 70 minutes long by default. I think now, with the Internet, there is a different set of constraints. And I think taking advantage of those different constraints in the digital age is very important.