Pilot Light: On global artistic collaboration with Lightning Records' Seth Olinsky

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As more artists find a space for their music not with large, omnipotent record labels, but in collectives, internet self-releases, and through small, niche distributors whose funds are straight from pocket to pressing, a change in the industry is happening. Due almost entirely to the accessibility of any band's music on their Bandcamp or Soundcloud, listeners have a greater capacity for detachment from any investment in an artist—knowing an artist's label and creating listener-friendly communities where both musicians and their labels can prosper is becoming a severely antiquated ideal. While artists shift heavily toward autonomous or independent distribution, the people who should buy their records have a better opportunity than ever to just, well, not. What would be the impetus to buy a physical product when you can hear it at your leisure through the cloud for free?

Seth Olinsky—co-founder of Akron/Family and multi-instrumentalist behind the moniker Cy Dune—has grand plans to shift this mindset. After spending years witnessing the different ways record labels connect with listeners by way of their roster, he decided he'd take up a role away from the guitar and behind the desk as a founder of a LA-based record label Lighnting Records. The model for Olinsky's project is less traditional than most—funded initially by a subscription-based Kickstarter, Lightning offers listeners not just an interactive platform to experience new music, but a physical one, as well. A subscription, whose perks vary based on increasing price tiers, can afford you everything from a monthly cassette delivery to a bag of hand-roasted coffee to a quarterly journal written by artists and writers in Olinsky's limitless creative Rolodex. Featuring collaborations with Shinji Masuko of DMBQ/Boredoms, Greg Saunier of Deerhoof) and Guardian Alien, among many others, Lightning Records is already well on its way to forming an amorphously wide global community.

I caught up with Olinsky on the phone Monday night about the motivation behind his project (co-helmed with partner Ali Beletic) and the importance of listener and artist collaboration and investment. With twenty-two days to go on the Kickstarter, Lightning was only shy roughly $600 of their $12,500 initial goal, and there seemed no doubt that they'd reach it before long.

What was the thought process behind starting the label and the Kickstarter?

I had the idea to start a record label for a long time, and I sort of had one associated with the band, but I was intrigued by the idea of trying to figure out a new way to approach being a record label. When I started working with Ali on it, we brought in the idea of other arts and combining our other interests—surfing, coffee—and it started to take shape and that felt new and exciting. It was more experience-based and less about the debate of how to figure out records or CDs and how to sell these things, but more about how to craft and create an experience for people, and it seemed the root of it was trying to find a new way to present the experience of music and these other art forms for people.

What were some of the early brainstorming meetings like—was it just the two of you?

First we were thinking about that phrase that is on the Kickstarter, about the transcendent power of rock and roll. It’s definitely like that for me in many respects. A few years ago, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith and it really reconnected to me to this almost childlike sense of the really moving spirit of rock and roll music. It’s something I’d lost touch with since I was younger. There’s that root inspiration in there, this idea of being something moving and stirring in rock and roll music. That was one of the launching pads into this, not to just start a genre label that only puts out “rock and roll” music, but trying to find that spirit in different types of music and different art forms and coffee and whatever. Trying to participate more in that lineage, of that spirit, by getting people together to do things and have happenings and parties and concerts. In some ways it’s about exploring being a record label from curating experiences, rather than trying to sell tapes or records or whatever.

Did you ever think that the idea was too big? It’s very ambitious.

I think that on some levels, when you run these ideas by friends, or you try to tell them something like this, when something’s a little different or pretty big, I think it’s really easy for people to tell you to focus on one thing. As we developed it, I think we went back and forth a little bit on following one thing or editing ourselves here and there. I talked to a lot of different people who’ve run labels that I’ve been on. I talked to [Sam Valenti], who runs Ghostly International because he has incorporated art into Ghostly recently. We talked to a lot of different people who have experience in different fields and who could be advisers to the project in some way. Sam from Ghostly actually gave one bit of advice that I really liked, which was “Bake the idea in early.” If you want to incorporate art and coffee and music all together, put them in there early and let them be part of it. For us, we were more in the spirit of trying to put all of it in the beginning, and let all of the ideas be the seed, and let them grow. I feel like that that’s really worked so far in the sense that the people who are getting the idea are inspired by the idea and want to participate. It’s creating its own moments. There are some that seem crazy, but I think the people who show up for it are excited and want to participate.

If I could go back to that feeling you described of being inspired by rock and roll. It's a very youthful feeling. How do you think this project will breathe that life back into people?

If you think about high school kids organizing punk rock shows, sure, a part of it was about the music, and I think a part of it was about having a local venue, and maybe they sold tickets and gave a little money to the band, but I think the impetus behind that kind of thing was a lot more multi-faceted and socially-oriented than it was about the band. I feel like that was more of a social happening. Everybody sort of had a role and was participating in this thing. For us, it’s more trying to get back to that experience. We’re casting a wide net so we can all have these roles. There's something about people getting together to do something together that brings that vibrant feeling that those small little rock and roll shows had in our youth. I think a lot of it is about trying to mobilize people and get them involved.

I think that feeling is very locally based, when you’re able to bring people together like that in a live setting. How do you see the label using that on an international or a broad level?

That’s part of the impetus behind this first series, this 20 Artist Series. We're trying to create this broad global network of artists from Shinji in Japan to a bunch of friends in New York to all these people spread out, and what I envisioned by going broad like that, is putting this network of people in touch. All of a sudden they can work with each other or collaborate or tour or set up shows. It’s tying a bunch of people together that I’ve gotten to meet through touring. It creates this global camaraderie. I’ve been thinking about trying to start a label for years and years and years, and whether it was a classic label like Dischord, which is D.C./Arlington area, or Chess, which is Chicago, or Stax, these very regional labels. Those are some of my favorite labels and I’m very inspired by them, but I feel like I’ve moved around so much in my life. A big part of my influence has been from years of living in New York and now I’m in LA and obviously because I’ve toured so much, I’ve met all these interesting artists all around the world. For me, it’s trying to figure out a way to create a community out of that global inspiration. How do we find a through line to connect all of them?

Do you think there’s a possibility of reaching too broadly?

Human creativity functions really well with boundaries. There is one side that’s really exciting when you don’t see the boundaries and you just go for it, but sometimes I think that you can feel like without boundaries, it’s hard to be creative. One of the challenges we will face is how to bind the idea together and make it cohesive and make it work for people and present it in a successful way. We definitely acknowledge that. Part of the acknowledgment is by saying what we’re interested in and focused on is an experience and a spirit and a willingness to experiment and try new things, as in we sense the possibility of something new, and we want something different. We’re not sure exactly what it is, but we feel like it has these things, these elements, and we want to go out and try to find them. That’s the first specific goal that we have, is to set out in search of something.

The Kickstarter page prominently advocates for featuring the counterculture. What would you put under that umbrella?

I was trying to bring together the inspiration that we see from all these elements of different musical counterculture, which we’re in touch with directly, but then through other subcultures, like surfing or dirt bikes or sculpture. We just moved from Tucson, AZ to LA, and when we were in Tucson, there is this huge poet culture because of the poetry program at the university there. We met all these poets who were touring through and who would do these poetry readings in the desert. For us, having moved around, Ali and I lived in Brooklyn in 2007, and we lived in small town in Pennsylvania, and we lived in Portland and Tucson, [and we met] all these different types of people in all these places. Poets are striking on one kind of idea, and guys building effects pedals are striking on another idea here, and I think participating in a lot of different subcultures, you start to see how some of the ideas are different and some of the ideas are the same. It’s more about trying to expose those different cultures to each other. You know, friends that are architects who specialize in certain desert architecture in Tucson can show the ideas from their craft as a way to influence musicians in New York who have a much more urban experience. It’s about trying to open up some of the ideas from these different cultures and let them influence the different people and then expose music fans to different kinds of architecture and let the people who are doing architecture see what’s happening in Bushwick, NY.

Logistically, is it just you and Ali, as far as making everything happen?

Right now, we’re at the center of it. We have the twenty artists lined up for the first music series, and we’ve started announcing our contributors for the journal. We’re slowly reaching out to people and trying to expand that network to friends and friends of friends, that find ways for people to participate in this thing in different ways. Kickstarter felt like such a great way to start this off, because it was such a way to get all these ideas out there and start this thing, then do it next year. A year from now, it’s going to be that much more understandable to people when we’re finally able to show what we wanna do, as opposed to just proposing it.

Have the responses you’ve been getting positive so far?

Yeah, the responses have been amazing. I definitely have had a handful of projects that feel like you’re really pushing this thing up the hill, trying to get it accomplished. But with Lightning, it’s been a very blessed experience, which is an odd word. There’s this momentum behind the idea, that every time I tell it to someone, especially the artists, they’re like “Oh yeah, you should do this.” We’re doing coffee with an old friend Chris Owens who is one of the cofounders of Handsome Coffee out here in LA, which is this very popular coffee brand, he was just into the idea right way. There are all these people that seem just, it’s like they’re coming from a very similar place at the same time. It feels like a lot of the artists have really been surprisingly in line with the same ideas at the same time. It feels like there hasn’t only been a positive response, but there’s this similar momentum that’s in the air. It's hard to process.

On an abstract level, why do you think that is? What is it about something like this that draws people in?

There’s a lot of different viewpoints on that. I think for me, it’s easier to talk about it from my own perspective. As I was first coming up with Lightning and I was writing to different advisers and people like that, I also wrote to artists. One of the artists that I talk to is a friend named James, he’s in a band called Wooden Wand, and he’s very prolific. He has probably released stuff on, like, twenty-five different record labels over the past ten years. He's worked with very big labels like Nonesuch to very tiny bedroom labels. He wrote me a response that was very thought out, and talked about some of the good and bad points, but in the interview, he said, “Ultimately, you’re an artist. Probably what you want and what you need, it’s probably what most artists are wanting and needing at this point.”

From my own point of view as an artist, I feel like the way that the music industry has gone, it sort of presents music in not the most romantic and inspiring in the world. For musicians in bands, it’s exciting to put out a record in the world, and it goes on the internet and people read about it and you get to go on tour in the circuit and meet people and there’s something very fun and exciting about that. I’m not trying to put it down in any way. But like I said, in reading Just Kids, there’s something very childlike that is a commonality with a lot of musicians and probably a lot of artists that inspired you to pick up a guitar or play a song or play a show with your friends, you know what I mean? I think that that sort of root inspiration is really easy to lose track of. For me, it’s trying to find a way to emphasize that and that experience, instead of valuing that just as much—if not more—than ratings we’re gonna get online, or this larger marketing structure. How do we get back to having experiences with people in real time? Of course I need to live and I want to set out to find ways to help support my friends and artists and what they’re doing, and I want this to make money so that people can work as artists. But I think there’s something about even just trying to get back to that root feeling, that pure artistic inspiration and spirit, there’s something that people are attracted to about that.

Do you think there’s something enticing about the physical element that comes with this project?

I’m not committed per say to one medium. It’s not like I set out to start a vinyl-only label or a tape-only label or a digital-only label or a coffee-only label. To me it’s at the root you have this creativity and this music and these artists and I really believe in the artists so I want the artists to make music and I wanna share that with this people. I think tapes are a really awesome format right now. They really support more artistic statements because you make them very easily and share them with people and I think they encourage more fun, experiential listening. We’re also offering music with coffee and we came up with the idea for the subscription and the journal because we were trying to find a way for people to get the music and interact with it.

Another thing about digital music or the abstraction of music, is that you start to lose the story of the artists, too, so with the journal, it’s this great way to have the artists write something themselves about their music. it helps tell the story and invite the listener into the world that these artists are participating in and creating from and give them a window into that. I think once you really start to participate in someone’s story, you really open up to a much more multidimensional way of hearing what they’re doing, as opposed to just a flat listening with an “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” I think with most music or most art, I think there’s a much more humanistic or complex way of hearing it than just the “I like this” or “I don’t like this” maxim. I think once you start to understand the people and the story and the narrative and how it connects to different ideas in the world, I think you get a much more rich experience

Do you think that Lightning Records will move to a live component as well with music or art shows? To build that community in a more concrete way?

I think that’s definitely a major goal for us and something we want to do next year is connect these dots by getting out and doing shows with these artists. There are also visual artists that we’re collaborating with and poets who we’ll do poetry readings with and we want to bring these people together. With the coffee roast, we were just working with Chris today, we want to go out and do sort of “destination roasts” where we do an overnight thing and go out to the desert somewhere and roast the coffee and people come out and participate in the experience.

That sounds awesome.

We want to have these happenings that have music, that have art, and I think that’s in some ways even more of a root of what this is. It’s really tied together, trying to make this an experience for people, have their records and the tapes and the journal, and have all these things, and be part of the experience as well. They’re all tied together. It’s not just a record and a live tour. It’s an interrelated experience—an ecology in a way.

I know that there are only twenty-two days left in the Kickstarter, but you’ve almost reached your full goal. [Ed note: As of Wednesday, Lightning reached its $12,500 goal.] What will happen if people continue to contribute, do you have bigger ideas or other things you’ve planned to pursue with it?

I mean the main thing we’re at now, we had a few people donate really generously. We’re trying to get more subscriptions because the idea for us is to do the journal with the subscriptions, so we’re trying to reach a certain number. This is the first way to build up that base level so that we can then reach out and have these happenings around the country. For now, we’re focused on spreading the word. It’s been really cool. Someone got in touch the other day, and bought a gift for their young kid who had just moved home to be a coffee roaster, who was really passionate about music. It’s been cool, we’ve been finding a lot of people who are really relating to it from whatever angle they’re seeing it is. I’m really excited about it. It’s off to a great start.

I realized that when I turned it back on me and stopped worrying about what this person wants or what this person needs, it helped in finding a solution, or a goal, and it’s definitely in the direction of what I want as a fan of music, as a fan of art. I remember moving to New York in 2002 and being confused. I think there’s this very natural urge to look back at CBGB’s or to look back at the beatniks and want to participate in something like that in your own lifetime. It’s really easy to romanticize the past and get lost in the present. If we want this, let’s just get together and we’ll go out there and get it. The people that show up will want this too, and this open invitation is a thing. The people that show up are the people that want that thing, as well, and it's up to you to build it.