interview: mike dixon of people in a position to know on kris kristofferson

willie nelson @ dpac

(This is not a photo of Kris Kristofferson. It is a photo of Willie Nelson. I have no photos of Kris, so I substituted best I could.)

A few months ago, I backed a project on Kickstarter — a double LP of Kris Kristofferson covers. The Kickstarter was successful, the digital download of the record blew me away, and last week the gorgeous wood-cut-cover double LP showed up in the mail. When I was sending my address to Mike Dixon, the man behind People In A Position To Know  and the Kristofferson project, I asked if he’d like to answer a few questions about Kristofferson, crowdsourced funding, and limited run vinyl. Below, he expands incredibly thoughtfully on all those subjects, and more.

Enjoy, and check out the gorgeous work Dixon does with PIAPTK.

How did you decide to produce this project? What spurred your decision to feature Kris Kristofferson? What is, to phrase it badly, your own relationship with Kristofferson? Was he a part of your childhood?

To be completely honest, I was pretty late to the Kris Kristofferson superfan game (if such a thing actually exists). I grew up in Texas, so I’ve always loved classic country, and Sunday Morning Comin’ Down was always my favorite Johnny Cash song, but I never really dug deep into Kristofferson’s repertoire. But, I do have very vivid memories of wearing out a VHS copy of a sci-fi movie starring Kristofferson called “Millenium” when I was 10 or 11 years ago. However, having watched it again recently, that movie doesn’t quite have the cinematic value (to put it generously) I assigned to it in my youth.

I knew Kristofferson’s story/legend, and liked a lot of the tunes that Dylan, Waylon, Willie, Elvis, etc had recorded of his, but, aside from passively listening to Jesus Was A Capricorn on scratched up vinyl while I did dishes or cooked dinner, I didn’t give him any more attention than some of the other fringe country guys.

Everything changed a few years ago, when I went to see Kris and Merle Haggard in Portland. He only played 9 or 10 songs, and to call his voice weak and rough at that show would be an understatement. But, the incredible depth of lyricism and the deliberateness of the arrangements was really moving. The way he painted such vibrant mental images and distilled all that emotion down into 3 minute songs blew my mind. It would not be hyperbole to call what I felt a religious experience. It was the exact same way I felt when I was 14 and discovered Kerouac or The Smiths. Now that I’m a cynical, jaded, 34 year old, those moments don’t come often.

I’ve always loved well-done tribute albums, and had always intended to do one at some point. I walked out of that theater absolutely convinced that this was guy to do one for.

How did you identify artists to produce covers? Was there a general call, are they all people you knew previously, or did you approach bands individually? Did they get to pick their own songs, or did you assign them?

Most of the bands were artists I’d worked with before in some capacity, or were friends of mine. The original idea was extremely modest, I was only going to make 100 copies of a single LP. A passion project that I could get out of my system without much investment. I emailed all of the bands that I’d worked with before and asked them to pick a song. At least half of them said “Sounds interesting, but I don’t really know the guy’s stuff. Can you recommend some songs?”. I actually felt really proud that I was able to turn a lot of my favorite artists and songwriters (and their fans, in turn) onto him. I gave them some ideas, but ultimately, they chose their own songs.

As I started getting tracks in, I realized that the project was going to be much more than I originally intended. Bands that I already loved were really outdoing themselves, and I was getting too many to fit on a single disc. It eventually blossomed into a double LP with 3 sides and an etched 4th side. But, at the very last minute, one artist pulled his track the day before I was going to launch the Kickstarter. So, I had to put the Kickstarter on hold and try to find a replacement track. I sent a text to every band in my phone begging for them to give it a try. That track being pulled turned out to be the best thing that could have possibly happened, because within two weeks I had gotten tracks from R. Stevie Moore, Karl Blau, Simon Joyner, Advance Base (Owen from Casiotone For The Painfully Alone) and Little Wings. All artists that are not only personal favorites of mine, but who also have a larger following than many of the artists that were already on the tribute.

The Kickstarter was wildly successful, to the point that you produced an extra 7″ for backers at above a particular level. Had you used crowd-sourcing on any previous projects? Is it the wave of the future, or will it eventually fade out? Is Kickstarter changing what it means to be in a band and record music?

I didn’t raise quite enough to completely pay for everything, but I almost doubled my initial goal, and was pretty overwhelmed at the response. I was definitely expecting to have to throw in some of my own money at the end in order to just have the $4000 goal get funded. But it hit my goal within a week and just kept going. And it’s really important for me to give thanks where it’s due, so I asked Wooden Wand, one of the more popular artists that I work with to record an extra Kristofferson track for a bonus flexi disc and gave one for free to everybody who pledged at the physical product level.

I was pretty skeptical of Kickstarter at first. I kind of felt weird about asking people to pay for $50 to get an album and a button and t-shirt ($12 total cost) in order to pay for a record that I was going to turn around sell for 100% profit afterwards. But after a while I realized that for bands, anyway, it’s not 100% profit, even if the cost of the pressing is paid for via Kickstarter. The band had to pay for studio time, or recording equipment. They had to buy instruments, they spent years and years toiling away learning to play. They go out on small, crappy, money-pit tours, playing to nobody, trying to get heard, when they could be at home working a job and earning their rent money. And I think that people who pledge to Kickstarter understand that. They want to support artists/projects that they love, so that those artists can keep making art. People are very conscious of the fact that they no longer support the artist by buying cds the way they did in the 80s and 90s. And I think people feel like not buying as much (or any) music isn’t that big of a deal because very little of their $15-$20 was going directly to the artist anyway. But, I do believe that people desperately want to support artists, as long as they know that it is benefitting them directly. And I think that is where Kickstarter comes in. You get to give a little extra, and get a little extra. The artist themselves drive the project, and people seem to respond.

I do feel like it is something that can only be done once per artist, or should be done very rarely, for very special projects. The Kristofferson Tribute had a LOT going against it from the outset, which is the main reason I chose the crowdsourcing route. 1) My label doesn’t sell a lot of records to begin with. I have a tiny, but loyal, fan base, but outside of that, I’m pretty unknown. 2) Most of the bands are still up and coming, and have relatively modest fan bases. 3) It was going to be extremely expensive. Two LPs, gatefold jackets, $2000+ in songwriter royalties, etc adds up really quickly. 4) Vinyl compilations do not sell well at all. 5) Kristofferson is not a household name in indie rock.

I would have realistically probably sold 50 copies of it, had I released it as I have all the other records I’ve done. If you do the math, that would have left me about $10,000 in the negative, which is something I can’t afford to do. So, I felt that Kickstarter was absolutely perfect for this project.

I presented it as a one-time personal favor to help me release my passion project, which wouldn’t have been possible without help. And, because of that, I had not only my regular buyers, and the fans of the artists involved but, my friends from high school, my mother in law, co-workers, random strangers, friends of friends, etc come out of the woodwork and donate $10-$500. I know for a fact that a lot of the pledgers don’t even have turntables and have never bought a single one of my records before.

I was also very surprised at the volume of pledges that Kickstarter themselves generated. I had initially considered doing a similar thing, but on my own, basically a glorified preorder. I was kind of hesitant about giving Amazon and Kickstarter almost 10% of the money that was generated. But, in retrospect, I am extremely happy with how it turned out and feel like it was money well spent. Not only is Kickstarter established and reputable, but they also work really hard to get your project in front of people. The tribute was a staff pick, promoted on their Twitter/Facebook, appeared as a “Recommended Project” when somebody pledged a similar project. I would guess that about 25% or more of the pledges came directly through Kickstarter from people who had never heard of PIAPTK or any of the artists.

I think that it has really changed the way that artists can release music. This was just one of the ways that the market adjusted to the shift in buying patterns. Obviously, the old model wasn’t working anymore, so both the artists and the audience are continuing to adapt and try to find a viable way of doing it, and Kickstarter is definitely part of that.

As far as how long it will last, I have noticed a growing backlash against Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing sites. Some of it comes from artists overusing it and having two or three Kickstarters a year, but I think that most of the problem stems from project creators who don’t uphold their end of the bargain. I’ve pledged to several music and film projects that never sent me my items, and from talking to people about it, I guess it is increasingly common. As far as I can tell, Kickstarter doesn’t have much in the way of buyer protections in place, which means there is very little accountability for the project creators if they take the money and run. I’m afraid that if crowdsourcing sites don’t figure out a way to manage that, it could really hurt the model in the long run.

Tell me a little about PIAPTK Records — you’ve been producing limited run, highly specialized vinyl releases for almost 20 years. That definitely predates the current vinyl resurgence; how did you get started in that business? Do you have a favorite release from your back catalog?

Actually, PIAPTK has only been around for about seven and a half years. But, it certainly seems like twenty! And I’ve probably put out more records than a lot of 20 year old labels. I started a cd label in college and released 5 or 6 albums, but it wasn’t until I moved to Olympia in 2005 that I really took off with PIAPTK. I’ve collected records since high school, but never looked at it as something that I could afford to do. The setup cost is just way too high. But, I met Lance Hahn (RIP) from J Church at a show in Olympia right after I moved here, and he told me about Peter King in New Zealand. Peter is the OG of lathe cut records and would do 20 copies for you if you wanted. So, instead of paying $1000 for 300 records that you would never sell, you could pay $100 for $20 records, make some nice packaging, get your money back quickly and put it back into another record. I started having lathe cuts made, and eventually built up to pressing 300-500 run records through a plant. Now I’ve gone back to mostly doing lathe cuts again, but now I cut my own on 2 Presto 6N lathes that I’ve finally figured out how to use. I also do them for other people through LatheCuts.com. But, I would still recommend Peter over myself any day. Nobody can beat his fidelity and options when it comes to lathe cuts. He’s an amazing guy, and turns out an incredible product.

I started the label specifically to release my own music and that of my friends. I also wanted some kind of art project that had a practical application. So, running the label, I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to letterpress and silkscreen, as well as experiment with strange formats. I’ve released turntable playable records made out of CDs, Laserdiscs, X-Rays, Picnic Plates, even one made out of chocolate (which was just a prototype, but was delicious). I’m an extremely curious and active person, so PIAPTK has given me a great creative outlet and a way to constantly increase my skills and knowledge, largely through trial and error.

The Kickstarter page for The Rising Cost of Livin’ High and Lovin’ Hard says that you’re getting ready to pack your family into an RV and only take “travel jobs”. What’s the deal with that? (It sounds really awesome.)

I’ve been teaching high school for over a decade now. My wife left her job when we had our baby (who is now two) and decided that she wanted to retrain as an Occupational Therapy Assistant. So, when she graduates this summer, she is going to sign up with a travel medical company that places you in 13 week positions all over the country. We will travel, live in a RV, and I’ll just be a stay at (motor)home dad. I’m turning PIAPTK over to my good buddy, Carlos, who will run mail order while I’m out. I’m also training him on how to use the lathes so that he can keep up some occasional releases. But, PIAPTK’s days are numbered as far as its current incarnation goes. Once I am living full time in a 180 sq foot shed on wheels, I won’t have the access to art supplies and storage space that I have now. What I will do as a creative outlet is still the elephant in the room. I need SOMETHING going on. But, it will be nice to try something new.

Any parting words? What’s your next project down the road? Any advice for people who might want to follow in PIAPTK’s footsteps?

I’ve got a few new projects that will be coming out soon; some new releases from Golden Boots, a split from Great Lakes and Floating Action, and a 2×7” boxset from Little Wing’s side project, Be Gulls. As far as starting a label, the best advice is: have a lot of money, time, patience, and very low expectations. It’s the same as gambling. If you only bet what you can afford to lose, then you will never be broken hearted and bankrupt. Running a label is like playing music… it is a hobby that costs money. There is a 10% chance that you can turn it into something that will pay for itself, or even be profitable, but if you are banking on that happening, you will probably disappointed. If you want a profitable business, find some other industry. Go into with the idea that it will be fun to put some art out into the world for other people to enjoy the way you do, and you will probably be happy with the outcome.

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