Drinking and Shrieking
ClubCastLive.com Drags Austin Clubs Online and Into the Spotlight
"There's a lot of really good bands in Austin that don't have distribution. They might have a CD cut, out of which 1,500 copies reside in their drummer's parent's garage. What we want to do is give them a vehicle to sell that CD and to be heard. We want to be instrumental and helpful about getting the word out about these bands." That's the gauntlet thrown down by Jason Wright, executive vice president of Austin's newest entry into the burgeoning world of Webcasting, ClubCastLive.com. I'm speaking with Wright in the ClubCastLive offices, along with president James Weiss and director of publicity Steven Phenix, who has got to be the quietest PR man I've ever met. Just down the hall are the offices of ClubCastLive's parent company, World Net Box Office, the heavy-hitting entertainment portal company that spun off the new site six months ago when it became apparent that the venture would need its own specific domain. Of course, that doesn't mean WNBO's sprung for seating arrangements yet; like many Net-specific ventures these days, the ClubCastLive offices are a sparsely appointed warren of scattered beanbags and piles of techie gear. Monitors thrum in the background, but the feeling here is one of zealous expectancy. Things are happening, even if all the public knows of the company comes from those huge yellow placards dotting the area around the Hyde Park and Hancock neighborhoods. That's going to change, though.
Briefly, ClubCastLive is seeking to bring Austin's live music scene to the world at large via the Internet, using a new, freshly tweaked form of streaming MP3 technology which not only sounds as good as your Aiwa, but doesn't require massive outlays of cash and upgrades to T1 lines to handle. And instead of combining audio and video as a number of other sites do, ClubCast focuses entirely on live audio, broadcasting nightly from 15 different venues around town, from Babe's on Sixth Street to the Carousel Lounge, from punk rock stalwart Emo's to breakout dance 'n' DJ club Twist. The plan is to spread the gospel of the Austin music community as far and wide as possible and to help out struggling artists in the process by allowing them to sell their music through the site as well as link their own pages off of it. The venture is barely six months old and only recently went online full time, but Weiss reports that feedback from bands and fans has already been phenomenal.
"Right now," allows Weiss, speaking like a true zealot, "we're not making any money off of this and we won't be making any money for quite a while. In the long term it becomes a promotional vehicle for bands. To do that, when a band sells a CD, if we get 15-20% off that, that's great. In the long term, we'll bring money into the company through people who see it as a promotional vehicle for the bands, as a way for them to get heard. They'll invest in the company because they know that the more eyeballs you get to the site, the more popular the band will become. We can also provide services long-term to clubs and to bands. We've been able to develop something that's really cost-effective, and hopefully any band that wants to get on can be broadcasting really quickly. This is really just a chance for the bands to be seen and heard."
Weiss, who until recently spent his time overseeing a "DreamWorks-affiliated" production company in California, and Wright, a former stockbroker, explain ClubCastLive's origins this way: "At one point somebody looked out the window and said: Look, there's all these bands, there's the Internet, what could we do to help all of them get along and use the Internet to do it? What we really wanted to do with WNBO was help support independent artists. And this was the best way to do that using the resources that we had."
Surprisingly, bridging the gap between the Net and local musicians hasn't appeared to have been much of a priority until ClubCastLive arrived on scene. Although several media sites in town offer such things as comprehensive band and venue listings, and outfits like Rob Campanell's InterneTV regularly broadcast the odd DJ set, no one had yet to take the proverbial guitarist by the Strat (or for that matter, the DJ by his Technics) and force a union that, by everyone's admission, has been ignored far too long in a city known for its vital tech industry as well as its vital musical scene.
"Part of the mission statement at WNBO," says Wright, "was to be a bridge between those who create and those who appreciate and this gives us a very focused way to be able to do that in a market that means something very personal to us, living here and enjoying Austin music as we do. It all dovetailed in very, very nicely. This was actually a component of the original business plan that was written for WNBO. We knew that what we could do was something that would be very valuable to musicians and very valuable to people who love live music. Which is pretty much all of Austin." ClubCastLive now has its initial run of 15 clubs hooked up to their servers and plans to add more in the future, though for now, averaging "50-60 live bands every single night" seems like a solid start. Running from the mikes onstage, through the soundboards, and out into the ether of the Net (or in the case of Twist, miking the area directly above the dance floor, which could presumably make for some interesting overheard conversations), the ClubCast gang are the only show in town when it comes to consistent live Austin music on the Net. While there are other sites out there, "the vast majority of streaming music sites stream music at a fairly low bit rate," says Wright, "so that the quality that you get is about what you'd receive over an old radio.
"People that love music," he continues, "want the best quality that they can get, and we offer the option of being able to receive the stream in CD-quality. And it is live. Most people who are out there doing the streaming music are doing it with prerecorded music. There's lots and lots of dance and trance and hip-hop that's out there now, but very little of that is live."
Adds Weiss, "The current major competitors in this field go around and pick one or two types in each town that they go to, wire up the club, and then usually do video and audio, which is not something that we really believe in just yet because the technology doesn't support good enough video to make it worthwhile.
"What we did was say: Look, a top club in one area is great, we're all for that, but a lot of the great bands have to come up, and much of the lifeblood of a music scene is dozens of clubs which are perhaps not getting the attention they deserve, unless you live there. For us, what we really wanted to do was to do 20 clubs, in Austin, 20 really solid live music clubs, even if they're dance or techno, because even then they'll have live DJs. We want to do clubs that relate to the lifeblood of the town."
As for the bands, Wright has extended an open invitation to one and all. Essentially, any band that wants to get in on the deal need only give ClubCastLive a call to set things up. Whether or not live Net broadcasting can make or break a band is questionable, but Wright points to Reckless Kelly and KLBJ's on-air work together to hammer home the point that this kind of recognition makes some sort of dent in a band's publicity.
"If you talk to Reckless Kelly about whether or not KLBJ inviting them into the studio some 15 times last year helped their career," he says, "they'll tell you point blank it made their career, especially here in Austin. If you're putting out good music, if you're putting out something that people dig, if you can get it out there to them, they're going to respond."
As far as band feedback thus far, well, there certainly haven't been any complaints. Dexter Freebish's Charles Martin notes that although his computer's buffering isn't exactly state-of-the-art, the feed he heard was just fine. "As far as my take on it, I'm for it and I like the idea of being able to sell CDs of the live shows over the site and splitting the profits with the bands. Good idea. I think it just allows the artist to get more promotion than they might have normally. "
What's good for the artist is good for business, and for Austin as well, one would think. Promoting the music scene here to an almost unlimited audience around the world is bound to make some sort of impact, but again, it's too soon to tell if ClubCastLive will have out-of-state music fans flocking to Donn's Depot to hear the bands they'd previously only heard in their bedrooms and offices, buffered or no.
Says Wright, "Steven [Phenix] and I were at the City Council meeting where they were discussing whether to continue funding for the Austin Music Network, and Danny Crooks of Steamboat got up and said that he knows absolutely, positively that AMN has increased business to his club. And the reason for that is that people who were perhaps not familiar with Steamboat that get the cable channel now could see what kind of bands were at the club. We really want to expand on that and provide a vehicle for people to find out more about the clubs, and not just people in Austin, we want to expand that internationally, because Austin has a tremendous amount of tourism. And part of that tourism is built around the music industry. We want people to be able to say "when I go to Austin, I'm going to Emo's' and know what they're talking about."
Which brings up the question of whether anyone in the music industry is paying attention, and if so, will they come calling?
"We hope so," says Weiss, adding that there have already been a couple of calls made from Nashville (with no result) and a "couple of indies," with unknown results. The notion of some faceless A&R man lounging at his mahogany desk deep within the bowels of the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles, gritting his teeth as he listens to the River City Rapists live at Emo's, is oddly appealing. Talking to Weiss and Wright, you get the feeling that these are two guys who wouldn't mind subverting the dominant paradigm a bit.
As Wright puts it, "One of the reasons that we want the bands to be active in this and understand what we're doing is that if a record label calls us to find out what's up with a particular artist, we want that artist to be able to say, "I'm already doing this. I know how to do this. I don't need to sign one of your 13% contracts when I have access to the Internet and I believe that I can get more out it that way.' So many artists find record labels a bad deal. Much of the time they are a bad deal. At least we can say to the artist, look, you can do it this way."
On the club's side of things, Andy Boone over at Twist says the site's impact is, thus far, negligible. "We haven't really seen anything yet," he says. "But then, we haven't really presented it to our customers yet since we're rebuilding our Web site. We're hearing that we're getting a lot of European hits [to the ClubCastLive site], which is really cool, but I don't know that this is going to directly impact the amount of business that I do in the club. I think this is the direction that things are going in, as far as entertainment, and I'm just looking to be in on the ground floor and learn as much as I can. The DJs love it, though."
Where ClubCastLive is going to be in a year's time is anyone's guess right now, but Weiss and Wright and the entire crew are chomping at the bit to make an impact on Austin's music scene and drag it kicking and screaming into the 22nd century. Or would that be drinking and shrieking? No matter. Even if only one elderly Croatian couple decides to mark the city on their summer holiday planner thanks to a late-night listen to Terminal 46 at the Back Room, well, that just might be enough.