Interview – Tuff Gong Worldwide’s Sandi Hemmerlein

Bob Marley founded the Tuff Gong label in 1965 in the hopes of distributing his music free from the constraints of corporate label politics. Ziggy Marley created Tuff Gong Worldwide as a way of realising his father’s dream, and now owns and manages not only his own music, but his entire career. Tuff Gong Worldwide has established itself as one of the leading entities in the reggae community, so M3 got in touch with the label’s general manager Sandi Hemmerlein for some top tips on how to survive in the music industry…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Sandi Hemmerlein – I co-manage Ziggy Marley (with a team of two other managers) as well as every aspect of his business, including his record label, music publishing company, touring, merchandising, and his charitable organization, U.R.G.E.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
For singles, I love MP3s, but for albums, I’m still quite attached to physical formats, mostly CD. I have racks of them at home. I love browsing the liner notes, reading the lyrics, looking at photos and other artwork. As an executive, I know how much work gets put into putting that packaging together, and as a consumer, I appreciate it. (I sometimes bring CDs on road trips though I prefer to listen to the radio in the car if I can get an FM signal to come in.) I also still have a soft spot for vinyl though I have to acknowledge my frustration over having to flip the record over after twenty minutes.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
I think the accessibility of individual songs ups the ante for the artist to make good albums. The most downloaded tracks off an album are typically 1) the pop singles (the “hits”) and 2) the first couple of tracks on the album (say, tracks 1-3). The fan has a short attention span and doesn’t give many songs a chance on their own. You have to, first of all, make a great record, and secondly, develop as an artist so that people care about the art that you make and invest in you and all that you do, rather than just one good song that’s gotten popular. You can’t sell albums off a hit single anymore when fans can just buy the single.

Ten years ago I used to have the “Three Single Rule” – if there were three great hit singles off a record (say, Gwen Stefani’s solo albums), I’d buy it, thinking that was an indication that the album would be good too. But in the digital age, through streaming services like Rhapsody (or now MySpace Music which is streaming full albums for free) or music discovery engines like Pandora, the fan has smartened up and can’t be fooled by a mediocre (or bad) album with a couple of good songs on it.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Fifteen years ago I would go to the record store (Tower, Virgin) every Tuesday (or, while living in London, Monday) and listen to all the new releases on a listening station and buy the ones I liked. Who does that anymore? Where could they if they wanted to?

The record store has a fatal flaw: you cannot sample everything you see. In a clothing store, you can try everything on (and, in the case of a chain like Banana Republic, even get it altered if it doesn’t fit you quite right). Music retail is high risk consumerism with often low pay-off. The most successful retailers who (still) sell music have managed to make it a lifestyle environment – a place you want to hang out, listen to music in the overhead, and maybe shop for other things, see a free performance, get an autograph, etc.

That being said, it feels like a tragic loss to me. I had two different music retail jobs early in my career, and one of them remains my favorite job I’ve ever held. I don’t remember the last time I visited a record store, though I think it was probably Amoeba in Hollywood. The last CD I bought at a store and not off Amazon.com was at Target, where I tossed the new Feist album into my shopping basket full of bras and Easter candy.

Similarly, do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has led people to place more importance on the live experience as the ‘authentic’ way to hear music?
Isn’t it funny how the music industry has reverted back to the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, in the 1950s when the concert was *the thing* and the record was merely a souvenir?

People love attending concerts because of two major reasons: 1) access to the artist and 2) a shared experience. Today’s music fan is used to being able to touch, feel, smell, and talk to their favorite celebrities, either as a “fly on the wall” through gossip media, blogs, paparazzi, etc., or directly or more or less indirectly via social media (Facebook comments and replies, tweets, etc.). At a concert, at least you’re in the same room as the musician. It’s a personal, one-on-one experience with them, even in a sold-out stadium full of other fans. And therein lies the dichotomy – you are more “with” the musician at a concert than you are in your bedroom at home alone listening to a record, and so each of the 20,000 fans standing or sitting in their own seats are all individually alone with the artist, together. It’s a couple of hours of commonality that you don’t get listening to the radio or an MP3 player or a stereo.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
Copyright is still enormously relevant but the digital age begs the question of defining ownership. You can own a piece of plastic, but you can’t own the music that that plastic allows you to experience. But you own your experience of it.

In the digital age, ownership boils down to a digital file which is easily reproduced and shared. Do you own that file? Or is it just a representation of something? By paying $0.99 for access to that song, do I become some kind of shareholder in the artist’s career? (Unfortunately, not yet, but maybe you should.)

Streaming services complicate it even further because the only ownership is over the sound recording and the underlying composition. The fan – the listener – is merely renting the content when they listen to it.

But that doesn’t mean that access should ever be free. You don’t get to live in a vacant apartment for free just because it’s there and there’s room for you. You don’t get to take food home from an all-you-can-eat buffet.

What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
It’s a difficult issue because there’s such widespread disagreement on it, and many different members of the music industry are operating at cross-purposes. Some artists in certain genres are aggressively giving their music away to anyone who’ll take it, encouraging bootleg recording because of their virality and power to render a certain type of act cult status. Other artists and companies – particularly a small, independent one such as ours – needs to focus a bit more on return on investment merely so we can just keep doing what we’re doing. (It’s a bit ridiculous, but at times, our business goals must be to simply break even, not even to profit.)

Obviously piracy and counterfeiture (especially internationally) is a huge concern when we are a business trying to make money by selling products that are not cheap to make or market. But for decades now, our industry has been on the defensive rather than the offensive in trying to address these issues, and now drastic measures – essentially creating a digital police state – are being considered which don’t even seem that they will provide sufficient deterrence to work.

What do you think are the main challenges facing an upcoming musician in the 21st century?
Cutting through the clutter. Everyone wants to be a star. Some have talent; some don’t. Some without talent make great records. Some talented artists make terrible records. But sometimes a terrific artist who releases a terrible record (Jewel’s “Pieces of You,” for instance, for which Atlantic had to rerecord every single they released, and which spawned a number of hits that weren’t actually on the album) manages to break through because of luck, access, exposure, sufficient budgets, who knows? But it is not a merit-based system by any means. It’s not even a rolling admissions process where the early bird gets the worm. It is random. Entropy. Chaos.

What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I honestly have no idea but I am very curious to find out.

Finally, what does the future hold for Tuff Gong Worldwide?
I don’t like to call us a record company or a management company. Those are subsets of what we do. We are essentially a branding agency. An artist like Ziggy gives a marketer so much to sink their teeth into because he’s talented on many levels – as a songwriter, recording artist and performer, but also as an actor, voiceover artist, public speaker, and now creator of comic books and even a natural food line. It’s his job to come up with the creative ideas, and tell us what he wants to do, and it’s our job to figure out the best way to approach and execute those ideas, and to connect them all together. I don’t see how a career musician can get away with just making records and playing shows now. They have to employ a business savvy to every aspect of their career. They have to interact with fans online. They have to be entrepreneurial. And we are lucky in the case of Ziggy, because as an independent artist, he has the freedom to pursue those interests that are meaningful and organic to him. There’s no one holding us back. There are no toes to step on. There is no waiting around for someone else to help us. If we don’t know how to do something, we go learn it or we hire someone to help us. And a healthy balance of self-sufficience and delegation means there’s nothing we cannot do IF we set achievable goals and remember why we do what we do. We’d love to continue setting a good example for the independent music community, and for up-and-coming artists. We set out to educate about the history of reggae music and preserve its legacy for generations to come, not only through Ziggy’s own art but also with him acting as a curator of content through museum exhibits, radio shows, books, concert festivals, and more. We’re going for longevity.

For more information about Tuff Gong Worldwide, you can visit their official website and Facebook page.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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