Wednesday, July 08, 2009

It is what it is, it was what it was

This past weekend, we celebrated Independence Day, our country's birthday, on the 4th of July. This comes one day after July 3rd (of course), which is a much less significant birthday - that of Rebuilt Records. I spent much of my time this past weekend away from the world, and most of my thoughts revolved around freedom, independence, and that pursuit of happiness our forefathers declared to be an inalienable right. At some point in the six years since Rebuilt became my full-time activity, I feel like I misplaced these things. And so it is a bit poetic perhaps that here is where we end Rebuilt Records.

I remember July 3rd, 2003 pretty well because I was scared to death. Jana and I arrived that afternoon in Corona, California at the Fireproof house that was to be our office and home. Our furniture and other personal items wouldn't arrive for another week or so (after our moving truck drivers took a "small" detour up to Sturgis, South Dakota for bike week), and so we spent our first night there alone in the dark of our living room, eating In-N-Out burger (because that was the only place we knew to get food), and sitting in office chairs because those were the only things we had to sit on. We sat out on the back patio, listened to the neighbors get drunk, and wondered what in the world we had done.

I kind of miss that feeling. It was scary in that we had committed to do something we had no idea how to do, and we'd essentially put ourselves up to be the ridicule of our families if it didn't work out. But I felt so alive, so free. It was a different world then - literally and figuratively. Musically, the Internet hadn't yet helped make buying music passe´ or leveled the playing field for independents, and there was a very real need for Rebuilt to help artists raise money to record quality albums. As you no doubt know, things today are a bit different. Today, artists can use something like Kickstarter to raise money on their own and manage their own careers through free or next-to-free tools available online. It’s a good time to be an artist and a bad time to be a label.

From the beginning, we wanted Rebuilt artists to have the freedom to grow, create, live healthy, balanced lives, and to take whatever time they needed, but this also created a tension for the label. Rebuilt was born on the notion that for most artists, incessant touring and living on the road is not a healthy way to live, but on the other hand, the label needed our artists to sell enough albums to cover our expenses and pay a few bills. What were we to do, push our friends to “work harder” and “sell more?” Were we to take an increasingly popular stance and sign our artists to 360 deals, essentially collecting money we didn’t earn from every stream of income (like door money from shows)? As we move into a world where music is free, artists will need as much income as they can muster to that they can grow and develop their art into something sustainable. Others certainly feel differently, but we felt to do so would be to become exactly the opposite of what we wanted our label to be.

At the end of the day, Rebuilt was an organization that lived and died on the sale of its recordings, and pinning the blame on “downloading” or “the internet” or whatever is completely asinine. Sometimes the world just changes. I imagine there were a lot of angry scribes in the world when Gutenberg rolled out the movable-type printing press and effectively wiped out their “industry” essentially overnight. But in doing so, he also played a major role in ushering in the Renaissance (look it up). In an age where we’re hell-bent on bailing out all kinds of things, I am of the opinion that sometimes old models need to die off to make room for new and more effective ones. In Rebuilt’s case, we saw no way to retrofit an old model into a new world, at least not at the expense of the people we were actually trying to help.

Certainly, the fact that people are choosing to buy less music these days is a large factor in our decision to close Rebuilt's doors, but that's more of a symptom than the real ailment. While I can deal with losing money (understanding that Rebuilt was always a risk), I became aware that I was in pretty bad shape elsewhere. I was bitter at the way things had been, angry that I didn't do a better job, and hopeless that it would turn around. In truth, I had become a slave to this thing I loved so much. Having no foresight to set boundaries (and not even knowing how), I was never able to break my livelihood from its livelihood. Financially speaking, when Rebuilt took a hit, so did my family, and since we operated as a nonprofit, there was no real way to get back any money we put into it. It follows, then, that as our income from album sales dropped, the financial pressure on the company (and on us personally) only continued to intensify.

Over the last few years, I had come to resent Rebuilt for the ways I had allowed it to drain not only my personal finances, but also my joy, my spirit, and my willingness to want to serve and help others. For a while, I tried to push my nose to the grindstone harder, to raise more money and find some folks to help out; but as the expenses mounted and the income slowed, I found that I just had nothing left when I "hit the gas." This was not how I wanted to live. This was not freedom.

And so freedom is what we have granted our artists. Effective August 1st, all master rights will transfer to the artists themselves and all remaining recoupment debt will be canceled. Our artists are free to do what they will with their recordings with no further obligation to Rebuilt Records. We will continue to offer remaining stock for sale via Rebuilt’s online store as a one-stop outlet for the label’s catalogue and to help pay down our outstanding debt on these recordings, but apart from this, our artists will receive 100% of the income derived from the sales of their recordings. This seemed like the right thing to do - our own little “year of jubilation,” if you will.

Six years ago, we sat in that empty house in Corona because we felt God had asked us to, not knowing how or when it would end. It was a wonderful leap of faith that has changed the course of my life forever. Rebuilt continues to teach me about commitment, community, giving, and service.

In looking back on the days since California, there are certainly things I would do differently. This is to be expected, I guess. And depending on the day, I go back and forth on how I view these six years, whether they were success or failure, accomplishment or defeat. But I feel pretty strongly that each one of our artists is better in some way for having been a part of Rebuilt Records, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to float alongside them in their journeys. Even six years ago, we made a promise that we would "ride the wave until it hit the beach," and here we are. Just as we felt God calling us to California, it is clear to my heart that he is asking us to put Rebuilt to rest.

Thank you to so many who gave and gave and gave to the vision of Rebuilt Records – financially and otherwise. Because of you, Rebuilt raised nearly $130,000 that went directly to help make the 14 albums baring the Rebuilt hammer. Through your support, our good friend and artist Paul Reeves built a professional-class studio that will continue as a place to document artists’ work and care for them as they grow and develop. Your support helped to encourage the discouraged, and your emails, letters, phone calls, and attendance made us all feel that what we were doing mattered. I could never say thank you enough.

I’ll end here by raising my glass to Jon Black, Micah Dalton, The Goodfight, Paul Reeves, Natalie Moon, and David Herndon, to our family of dedicated donors, and to all who continue to support independent artists; here’s to finding the next wave. It’s been a pleasure.