The idea of disruption is big these days. It seems everyone is trying to disrupt something: the mattress industry, healthcare, taxi services. You don't have to look far to see advertisements talking about new, better, and different ways of looking at established products and services, especially when it comes to what and how we pay for them. The music industry also is no stranger to innovative people looking at better ways of getting music to fans more effectively and, with any luck, with greater financial returns.
Locally, Phoenix is seeing a tremendous revitalization of the music scene and the local music industry. There is no shortage of talented bands, and it seems a cool new record label pops up every few months. There is a handful of really good local recording studios cranking out consistently great-sounding music as well, and the Valley's promoters seem to have plenty of local and national shows to spread around at numerous venues. It's a good time to be a musician and a music fan in this town.
Depending on your perspective, it might just get better.
Enter Jordan "Squirrel" Tomaeno, 22, and Zach James, 23, founders of ReThink Records, a Tempe-based label poised to turn the music industry on its collective ear. The main idea behind ReThink Records is this: "Music is great. The music industry sucks." The ridiculously fast-talking Tomaeno is fond of this saying and more than happy to back it up with a steady diatribe against the industry he is firmly rooted within. The irony does not escape him.
"Trying to juggle all of the business side while creating great music is asinine," says Tomaeno with a sly grin.
"[The] way the industry works is that it is basically an investment company," he continues. "Music is a high-risk investment, [and the] costs are huge. In order to recoup your costs, labels are taking a higher percentage. The last contract I saw was, like, 8 percent to artist and 92 percent to the label until costs were recouped . . . Nobody has come out with anything different. And that's what we pledge to do, is come out with a new way of doing things."
James and Tomaeno are rethinking the way a record company operates by providing an array of services to their artists for an upfront fee in order to allow artists to concentrate on doing what they do best.
"[I always saw] artists going around and working their butts off but not getting anywhere. I want to see that change," shares the soft-spoken James, a longtime fan of the local scene.
"I've been dedicated to Phoenix musicians since I was a small child. I have a desire to improve this scene. It's always been there . . . It's always been happening. It's always been a big part of my life to get more involved," says James, who remembers seeing local favorites Captain Squeegee and the Soap Suds at the Nile Theater when "the Soap Suds" was still part of the name. For James, who has a background in jazz trombone, guitar, and bass, among other instruments, the biggest challenge for ReThink Records is explaining what he and Tomaeno, whom he met in Prescott while the two attended Yavapai Community College, are doing.
"It's so utterly different than what other people are doing. It's hard to explain. It doesn't just come from how we do it . . . The way everyone else is doing it is damaging to musicians and to companies," James says.
This damage comes from the massive amount of debt often incurred by labels and artists in the production of albums, debt that can inhibit a musician's artistic freedom and can hinder the dissemination of music in a cost-effective way.
Tomaeno also has a musical background, although in addition to his time dabbling on piano and playing guitar, he has a fascination with audio recording. The appeal of recording led him to asking his parents for recording equipment for Christmas when he was 13 and his eventual career at Tall Cat Studios in the West Valley as an intern, engineer, and finally lead engineer before leaving to form ReThink with James.
The frustration of seeing artists come into Tall Cat and make great records that received little to no attention from music fans and the music industry was almost too much for Tomaeno to bear.
"I had amazing records come in . . . Musicians would come in and record a beautiful record and then it would walk out the door and I'd never hear a damn thing about it again and nobody would," vents Tomaeno.
Tomaeno is fond of mentioning his do-it-yourself background, and it is easy to see how his affinity for taking charge is going to be vital to any success ReThink Records enjoys. Both he and James talk at length about the importance of allowing ReThink's slate of artists to concentrate on what they do best — writing, recording, and performing their songs — while Tomaeno and James are handling duties like booking shows; setting up, mixing, and producing recording sessions; and generating publicity through ReThink Records' growing list of local partners, which include Awe Collective, Cartel Coffee, and the aforementioned Tall Cat Recording Studio.
Artists who sign with ReThink will receive a variety of services for a monthly fee, which start at $500 a month for the "local" package. There also are regional and national packages, but Tomaeno and James did not disclose the price of them. According to Tomaeno, "A lot of times, musicians are coming out of the gate swinging and they don't have any idea how to do everything involved. We think the most important part, though, is content properly curated, and that's where we come in."
James and Tomaeno come back to this fact: Without excellent content, any work they do to promote, manage, or mentor an artist is wasted.
To those who may be skeptical of the idea of paying up front for the type of expenses many successful artists and bands incur on the back end, the reasoning is simple.
"Instead of starting out with some huge promises, we allow people to grow organically," Tomeano says. "We're able to cut these costs. It made more sense to charge the client for these services on the front end while they maintained rights to their music on the back end. It's in reverse. So, someone would start out theoretically with the local package, and when they are able to monetize their efforts and can afford the next package they would move up, but not until the music is creating a profit enough to support it. That's how we create a debt-free music industry."
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Tomaeno clearly wants to be "the" guy for ReThink's small artist roster, which includes the talented 18-year-old Jade Sandra, who was the first artist to sign up with ReThink. The relationship, according to Sandra, has been good so far.
"I worked with Jordan for about a month as a producer. I didn't have anywhere to go after I released the [first] album, and [Tomaeno] was there for me. Things are working out really well," says Sandra, who is scheduled to perform at ReThink's launch party at the Rebel Lounge.
In addition to Sandra, whose voice allows her to bridge the gap between wistful emo and modern pop music, her fellow ReThink artists Sam Era, Kirsin, E-Scott, and Tucson's City on Stilts will also be performing to celebrate the label's debut.
"We're going to showcase our artists, give a little toast to everyone who came out, and we're going to reveal our sweepstakes giveaway," says James, as a lucky winner of ReThink's first sweepstakes will receive a free six-month deal from the label.