"We live in a repurposed culture," Dave Sitek says. "Old materials transform into new mediums." He would know: As a founding member of Brooklyn-based indie rock band TV on the Radio, Sitek’s been responsible for creating the new, and as a producer, he’s crafted remixes that repurpose the compositions of artists from Beck to MF Doom to Nine Inch Nails.
Now, Sitek’s got a new project that combines both his enthusiasm for transforming raw materials into something new, and his passion for creating those original materials. Sitek’s record label, Federal Prism will release the raw materials for new, unreleased tracks--"stems"--and allow fans to have at them. Via SoundCloud, fans, remix artists, and aspiring producers will be able to access the stems for songs from all of the label’s artists including TV on the Radio, CSS, Freddie Gibbs, Kelis, Scarlet Johansson, Stardeath and the White Dwarves, and more.
Federal Prism--which is a partnership between Sitek and music industry vet Jeff Bowers--launched in October 2012 with the announcement of a series of limited-to-500 12-inch vinyl records that Sitek would personally record, mix, produce, and release. At the time, Sitek declared that, "Somewhere along the line, music became 'content’. . . It’s my full intention to bring it back to music again!" But that curatorial approach to music was just the first step in Sitek and Bowers’ eventual vision for Federal Prism. They’re not just pressing records--they’re actively looking to change the way that people consume music.
"There are all these different ways that people listen to music, and some of it trickles down to how they purchase music, and some of it doesn’t," Bowers explains. "What Dave and I decided we want to do with our roster is this: Some people have done these kind of remix contests, like Beyonce and Asher Roth and a few other artists. So what we decided that we wanted to do was establish a strategy for the entire roster where we would actually let people remix and get into the music before they even purchased it." What that means in practical terms is that, before any of the music that Federal Prism puts out is even available commercially, it’ll be accessible to fans who want to take their turn playing with it, repurposing it, and making something new out of it.
"It’s not just about how people are listening to music, but how people are interacting with it," Bowers says. Federal Prism’s goal, he says, is to legitimize that process for fans who’ve otherwise been relegated to either working in the shadows or being invited to participate in limited ways as part of a marketing campaign.
"There are a lot of things that have been done before, and what we’re trying to do is more of it than everyone else," Bowers explains. "Lots of people are doing these one-off remixes that are kind of a construction to take a rock star and get them closer to the fans. There are all levels of appropriation going on anyway in music culture--it’s already going on. We’re giving people a proper outlet to do it. Before, people were chopping up bad mp3 streams. We’re actually giving people the real stems." And that quest to legitimize the creativity of fans who are hungry enough to create something new with the music that interests them goes beyond just access. "If it’s legitimate enough," Bowers says, "We’ll put it out with them."
Sitek himself will be involved with that process, personally selecting remixes he finds noteworthy to host on Federal Prism’s curated SoundCloud page--and he and each track’s original artist will also choose at least one remix to release through the label itself.
Still, when Sitek talks about the label and his hopes for what these remixes might look like, he doesn’t talk in terms of concrete expectations. "It’s certainly my hope that the remixes will bend the mind," he says. "We also have no idea what else could come from this. We did this with a sense of wonder. Passing out crayons would be a silly model to expect concrete results."
Using SoundCloud, though, makes getting those crayons in the hands of the people who want to play with them much easier. For one, it’s a big part of how people are already interacting with music. "What we’ve learned from SoundCloud is that they’ve kind of established themselves as the biggest music site on the web, outside of maybe YouTube with music videos," Bowers says. "But their level of engagement is different. They’re not just reaching listeners, but they’re reaching a lot of young producers. And this is the venue that our artists use to communicate with one another on music development, writing-remixing-sharing--and how they also share music with fans. So we are already daily users."
For its part, SoundCloud considers ventures like this one an important part of the evolution of its platform. "By Federal Prism simultaneously making track stems available for each song, in parallel with the release of new material, they’re offering the SoundCloud community--that includes loyal and new fans--an opportunity to engage with the track on any level they chose to," SoundCloud’s head of music partnerships, Ted Suh, says. "Fans can listen, share, comment directly on the waveform--but also become a creator, too, should they wish to remix it. It’s this type of engagement that allows for artists and fans to interact on a global scale in numerous ways."
For companies like SoundCloud and Federal Prism, the idea of harnessing that sort of community has obvious appeal. And Bowers says that it’s something that the artists the label works with understand intuitively, as well.
"When I talk to them about it, I don’t talk about it being a sales promotion or a marketing device--though I’m sure it’ll turn out to be both of those," Bowers says. "All of our artists were more interested in allowing streaming with this level of interactivity with offering stems than they were in just being on a streaming site. It’s about participation. It’s about creating a music experience, rather than just us putting out a song."
Ultimately, the ability to interact on a global scale that SoundCloud’s Suh talks about is what Bowers sees as the creative appeal to the artists themselves. "All of our artists are working very hard, a lot of them in multiple mediums," he says. "And I think they feel like they’re contributing to a global art-music project."