Music entrepreneur Ari Surdoval describes himself as “totally pro artist,” so it should come as no surprise that when he decided to create a way to discover and support music—Hereit.org— it would be aimed specifically at helping independent artists.
Surdoval, a songwriter and guitar player, began visiting Nashville in 2002 before moving to Music City in 2004. Over the past decade or so he has worked as Managing Editor at Performing Songwriter, been an Editorial Director for Gibson Guitar and BMI Director of Communications. Currently his time is split between development for Hereit and working as a freelance writer.
NEKST: How did Hereit.org start?
Ari Surdoval: The idea first came to me while walking my dogs through the Nations neighborhood of West Nashville. I was at one of those pivotal life-times—married, a new son and between jobs. After a lifetime of kicking around in bad bands, playing guitar and writing songs at home I thought maybe building out this idea in my head—Hereit.org—could become a career springboard. It was based upon the principles of the local food movement, that food produced locally is healthier to eat, with less preservatives and chemicals. There’s also a multiplying effect when you spend money locally that benefits your community. I wanted the design to be minimalistic and simple, so I took cues from the functionality of Craigslist, the design and tone of the Fender Telecaster plus other disparate elements to create a community-minded, locally-focused music perspective. The development process—going from ideas and influences to an actual functioning website was a bit of a nightmare and in some ways mirrored a musician’s experience.
NEKST: Tell us more…
Ari Surdoval: Building a music site may seem deceptively simple, but it required filtering decisions about elements like location, genre and how they will interact, inform each other and build playlists. Bootstrapping was like a yard-by-yard ground war of progress each day. About a year and a half into the development process I was on the verge of giving up. I took a job as Director of Communications, BMI which offered an vantage point to see the dangers of media consolidation and the impact it’s having on artists. I became even more convinced of the viability of Hereit and why it needed to exist. By buying songs directly from independent artists, you make it more possible for those artists to continue to make music, and you strengthen and sustain the viability of original, local music everywhere.
NEKST: What has the launch phase been like?
Ari Surdoval: Currently we have about 200 songs from perhaps 150 artists. About four weeks ago my phone started to blow up because Hereit was getting inundated with “likes.” I soon got an email from one of the founders of Third Man Records saying, “We love the site and put it on our Facebook page.” It went out to over 120k people. I watched the site explode with thousands of hits from people in different countries. After so many years of development this was a tremendous validation. Currently I’m getting advice about how to grow the site. Very early on I made the decision that Hereit would not take advertising or use data capture, those were lines in the sand. So the only path for growth is if artists like it and choose to use it. It’s a grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign.
NEKST: You have strong artist advocate feelings?
Ari Surdoval: Ideologically and emotionally I’m in it with the artists because they are the financial hub of the wheel. Especially here in Nashville I find it interesting that so many conversations are centering around streaming rights. People invite Google here to give talks about the amazing revenue opportunities their products offer, but for most artists it means that maybe in a hundred years you and your family can split a pizza.
NEKST: Are you concerned that digital downloads are losing sales momentum as a format?
Ari Surdoval: Viewing the transition away from albums, physical product got smaller by size and less significant until it mostly vanished. But there was also a parallel process associated with physical product of having to go to a store to get your records. It involved interacting with other human beings and having conversations. It was participatory and that also got eroded. Ultimately there was a narrower role to play for people who loved music—the consumer. That is a very marginalized role especially for something that speaks as passionately and powerfully as music. So how does one rebel? You steal it, devalue it or transfer your loyalty elsewhere. You transfer your money to a data plan, you line up for the iPhone. There is no shortage of money going into music, but it is going into these things that don’t help artists. The concept that these services provide free music is outrageous.
NEKST: So Hereit’s role is to help fans and artists reconnect and discover each other?
Ari Surdoval: If you are the artist and I am the fan there has got to be a tool that allows me to give you money for a song. I grew up listening to punk rock and blues. Both those genres are so shaped and formed by the actual physical location of where the music gets created. I learned about what it meant to be from Minneapolis; Athens, Georgia; or Los Angeles. LA and NY punk, was so vibrant and connected to location. The sound of Chicago blues was shaped by the diaspora of African Americans moving from the oppression of the South to the opportunity of the North. At the same time the mass production of electric guitars was happening and 24-hour shifts at steel factories. These diverse physical and financial forces created the extraordinary sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Little Walter’s amplified harmonica. We think of cyberspace as a location, but even from the most crass marketing perspectives people like things from specific places—like German beer or Italian suits. Flip open the book at SXSW and next to each of the band’s names is the city where they are from. So as the Hereit development process labored on I worried because curating by location and genre seems so “common sense.” I thought surely someone would beat me and get it done first. But nobody did.
NEKST: Why local bands?
Ari Surdoval: There is a perception that local bands are the guys that didn’t make it. But in fact, they are often the people that could not be commodified enough for mass consumption and/or wouldn’t play along or compromise enough to become palatable to a very small number of corporate-controlled radio programmers. As media consolidation intensifies the great tributaries of American music are being completely scattered to the winds. Right now Nashville is having this “it” moment of musical notoriety. But where can I go to hear the dozens of incredible bands there are even in one East Nashville neighborhood? Where can I click “Nashville indie rock” or “Nashville punk” and buy those songs and give my money to that band without some website taking 40% of it. Media consolidation has locked out the vast majority of music forcing artists to migrate to digital sites many of which are predatory and take very large cuts of the artist’s money.
NEKST: What about music discovery?
Ari Surdoval: A problem with today’s music discovery is that it lacks relevance. Location and genre create two factors of relevance. It also becomes relevant when something has been liked. At Hereit there are no staff or editor picks—ways that some sites gin extra fees from artists. Playlists are crowdsourced to be the most liked within the past 24 hours. A fourth element of relevance is artist recommendations. I can’t tell you how many times I discovered the music I hold most dear because an artist I like recommended it. All four elements go into our process. If you don’t value music or care about these things, well congratulations because it is the golden era, the golden age of not giving a shit about artists. Media consolidation has stuffed us with plastic monstrosities of auto tuned, bleached, photoshopped music that perpetuates the idea that music is created in a disposable hot dog type factory. What’s incredible is there is still so much great musicianship, so much good music. So you don’t have to choose to be either the Twinky or the Twinky-eater. Artists aren’t dummies, they know it is going to be a grueling, challenging one-in-a-million kind of existence. They aren’t looking for a silver bullet, they are just looking for a fair deal and that’s what Hereit is—a fair deal.