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Big players have gone subscription. But what about a boutique label? That’s the different distribution DFRNT has chosen. And whatever the model, his latest EP is simply gorgeous. Matt Earp unearthed this one and reports back.

The interplay between free vs pay-for music in the digital world takes new twists and turns every year. Everyone from the majors to first-time producers eventually have to make decisions about whether to “sell” their music or give it away, and then decide what exactly the concept of “selling music” even looks like in 2014. As a group, subscription models have been a fertile ground for novel business experimentation – everyone from Spotify to individual artists have played around with different ideas for how to make them work. A particular one I’ve loved and covered previously for CDM is Drip.FM, Ghostly International’s service for exclusives from itself and a raft of its label friends. So I was excited to get the announcement that DFRNT was working on a similar idea on a much smaller scale for his label Cut Recs. The new Cut subscription service has been running since March in its current form and the latest release is the super gorgeous 5 track EP from highly underrated Dutch producer fedbymachines. I thought I’d use the occasion of its release last week as a chance to dive deeper into the world of Cut Records.

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DFRNT is Scottish-born, Riga-living Alex Cowles. Cowles is probably one of the harder working men in his corner of the digital music universe. As an artist he’s made a ton of music that sits on the more lush, cinematic end of the dubstep universe, blending its polyrhythms into dub, techno, and house. (Patience was a favorite release of 2013). He ran the recently defunct but seminal Echodub label that set a standard for his sound, but just ended it to launch his latest label Brightest Dark Place. The man’s a workhorse – his Insight podcast is at over 100 episodes, he both DJs and performs live, he designs great websites, writes for a couple publications himself, and publishes not one but two hilarious sites on the side – Music Descriptions and How To Send Me Music. You, me and everyone else only wish we were this much a renaissance man or woman.

His baby for the last several years has been Cut Records – a second label he launched purely to give away lush, complex music from artists he rates highly for free. His quality control is through the roof – many of its releases and artists have become dear to me over the years. And it’s a truly international crowd, with all sorts of tunes coming from Mexico, England, Canada, The UK, The US, France, The Baltics and beyond. But “free” ain’t exactly free – after 17 releases, he was having trouble paying the server bills and mastering costs, to say nothing of his long standing desire to actually pay artists for their work. So he hit on the idea of switching Cut to a subscription service in March of 2014.

From the press release announcing the move:

 Popular netlabel Cut is shifting from providing releases on a “pay what you want” basis, to a $1 per month subscription model.

For the last 3 years, owner, Scottish-born Riga resident DFRNT (Alex Cowles) has been curating a selection of electronic music releases featuring talent such as KRTS, Thefft, Essáy, Lung and Rain Dog as well as his own productions as DFRNT.

Citing rising costs, Alex has announced that in order to return to a more regular release schedule, and maintain the standard of music he is switching to a $1 a month subscription.

“We hope those who have not donated in the past might consider subscribing after enjoying all our releases so far. $1 isn’t a huge amount, and at just $12 a year you’re paying around the price of a single album for at least 12 quality releases.” 

Subscribers will get “at least” one release a month, but despite selling the benefits, Alex realises the subscription model is not going to be favourable with everyone:

“This is not a decision I have made lightly, and I don’t expect everyone to be happy about it, but in order to move forward, to continue to release good music, to regularly provide listeners with new and exciting artists, and to keep our little corner of the music scene alive, it is a decision that has been made with as much of everyone’s best interests at heart.” 

Find the official announcement at http://cutrecs.com/new-cut-records/, and subscribe to Cut on the new website at http://cutrecs.com/.

An ambitious move. Especially considering that if you subscribe now (for a paltry $1 a month), you also get access to the entire Cut Recs back catalog for the cost of your dollar. (If you don’t want subscribe, you can now pay for the tunes direct at Cut’s Bandcamp site.) Now that the new service is four releases deep, I wanted to check in with DFRNT to see how it was going. Cowles reports:

So far, the switch to subscription has been OK, but I was expecting it to do better. We had a mere 1% signup rate from our mailing list, so of the thousands of people who were happy to get free music in their inbox, only a few were willing to support it by this means.

However, some small-time promotion, and getting the word out on Facebook, plus a reminder to the big list got us up to a slightly more manageable set of subscribers. Still not enough to go wild, but enough to cover mastering costs on the releases, and get an email out to those who are subscribed about new releases.

I’m disappointed that I can’t build it up as much as I’d hoped – we’re getting very little traction in terms of press and PR. Nobody seems bothered that we’re trying to do something relatively new, so in that respect, it has become more difficult. Free music more or less spreads like wildfire, but as soon as there’s money involved, people switch off.

I’d like to build the service, so that we can get, let’s say 1000 subscribers. That’s a major milestone as far as I’m concerned. Then we can afford to pay artists up-front for their music, pay for mastering, pay for solid Press and PR – and really build things up from there – being able to guarantee an artist 1000 people effectively “buying” their release (as well as giving them a good advance) is probably better than many independent labels can do these days.

SO it’s fair to say that the venture is in untested waters, setting a price point and doing this sort of subscription service. It’s impressive that it can all be run by one man but it’s unclear yet whether a subscription fits in with the Cut listeners’s ideas about their methods of music acquisition. When Cowles asked for feedback on the switch, a fan posted a comment to the effect that the price point might actually be too low – that $1 could be perceived as more of a hassle than it’s worth and debase the “value” of the product, whereas $5 or $7 a month might make the subscriber think they were really getting something worth paying for. I’m not exactly sure if that’s the case or if something else is going on, but there’s certainly no script for what Cowles is doing. At any rate, I’m happy to see him try it – especially if he conducts his experiments using people like fedbymachines, a truly nuanced, clever artist whose Abyss EP is his best yet – equal parts atmosphere and bass-y shimmer that’s surprisingly good to dance to.

fedbymachines

So check out Cut Records and give your thoughts about subscription services in the comments.

  • http://www.shifted-sound.com Matthew Alani

    Really interesting idea, I don’t think the price devalues the music but maybe if it was billed as a years worth of music for $12 it would get better traction? I know it’s saying the same thing a different way but it just sounds like better value to me.

    Cool to see people breaking new ground, I really hope this succeeds.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Heh, I like the way you put that. ;) So I think they’ll welcome the advice.

    • mattearp

      Funny. I actually asked Alex the same thing – and he said basically that he was worried that if all the money came up front he wouldn’t be good at spacing out production and payment – that a regular amount coming in each month would in turn set the right amount for each release. Perhaps it’s just a semantics thing…

    • http://www.shifted-sound.com Matthew Alani

      Yeah that makes sense, I guess it makes things clearer for him with regards to how much he can spend on each release. As a consumer I feel like it would be less hassle to just pay one amount and know I’m getting a years worth of releases though, kind of like a season pass sort of deal.

    • http://www.soilsound.com/ SoilSound

      Good idea. There’s actually a point you can reach where a super bargain becomes an albatross. A really good deal can be viewed as so cheap that it can’t possibly be of good quality. A great bargain may also be viewed as having a “catch” somewhere down the line.

      There’s some nice work here. I appreciate what Alex is trying to accomplish. I know it’s hard work trying to gain traction. I’ll be subscribing.

  • abluesky

    I subscribed. i think more media outlets need to get the word out there with that stellar soundlcoud preview playlist.

  • haszari

    Wow, good job cut/DFRNT – I am so on board with this. Thanks for bringing it to our attention Peter!

    I was very intrigued when I first heard about drip.fm, but didn’t like how tricky it was to access back-catalogue (is that still the case?), and the cost was probably a bit high for me, especially on a per-label basis. However, cut’s approach & pricing sucked me in immediately, and hardly impacts my music budget. And a what a back catalogue!

    • Big Mister Doom

      This.

  • Big Mister Doom

    Just dropping in to say – this seems like a brilliant service at an astounding price.

    I have been user and huge supporter of Drip.fm since 2012. A subscription to a label you trust is like having a well curated flow of music at all times. I’m into it. Drip.fm has brought me some really interesting stuff I would have not bought previously – thats the genius of it.

    Having just listened to a handful of stuff from this label… wow. For $1 A month!? Amazing. Consider me a huge supporter. Lossless too – finally people are getting it!

  • mattearp

    Great to see all the positive reviews – just heard from Alex that there was a definite and noticeable bump in subscriptions to Cut this week. Small but appreciable. Press has real results, the best thing you can do after subscribing is spread the word and poke your local media outlet! Just heard the next release coming from Cut, it’s great as well.