Two and a Half With Volker Kahl

By Headphone Commute, March 2008

What is happening? First, Radiohead releases In Rainbows on donation basis. Then, The Flashbulb uploads his own album, STAVL to bit torrent (see my full interview in Conversations With Benn Jordan). Then, Nine Inch Nails repeats the donation-based approach with a twist - offering an ultra-deluxe edition of Ghosts I-IV for $300 limited to 2500 copies. Within a day, the album sells out (that's a hefty sum of $750k for those without an abacus). And now I see that Volker Kahl has released ALL of his previous albums to the public, embracing the collapse of the industry as we know it. Being a huge fan of Kahl's most recent releases under the Kattoo moniker, I couldn't pass this one by, grabbing his older Beefcake releases (in collaboration with Gabor Schablitzki), and of course, donating in the process. I immediately embraced myself for breaky, crunchy IDM goodness over ambient atmospheres and orchestral pieces, and was rewarded with every track! This album was difficult to track down for a very long time, especially since Thrill Beat Construction packaged it in a miniature canvas tote bag, and chances are that you haven't heard this 2001 release! Well, now is your chance! If you are a fan of Hymen releases, Gridlock, Architect, Somatic Responses, Venetian Snares, Hecq, Wisp and Jega, you probably will melt into this cinematic masterpiece, and hopefully reward the artist accordingly.

I was able to track down Volker Kahl and get his view on the current state of the industry.

What finally prompted you to distribute your music digitally on a donation basis?
The old music business model is nearly dead, especially in the independent sector, where CD sales for most artists is the only way to ever earn anything. For the major labels it's different - besides the CD revenues they make profits in TV and radio. It is difficult for an independent label to break through into that market - to get airtime on major stations or work for television. Therefore, most independent artists like myself, can't tap into the broadcast royalties or become a member of any recording industry trade group (which only collect fees and offer no advantage anyway). It is sad, but the CD publishing market has no real future, because the group of people that buy physical product decreases from year to year. It makes no sense to invest money and energy into music production if all of the profit goes back into the cost of manufacturing. If an independent artist sells 500 copies in 3-4 years, he may be considered lucky. But that is ridiculous and not much hope for the future. In addition, it is most likely that any good album will get pirated and distributed over bit-torrent, peer-to-peer, and file sharing sites. In less than a week after the release, you can find your music even through Google. Type in the artist and the album name, and within the first three results you can find a site that offers a "free copy". Since the people will obtain the music for free anyway, why not get it directly from the source, and instead thank me, rather than the self-proclaimed zero-day couriers that take pride in stealing music and measure it as an achievement.

Was it easy to obtain back the digital distribution licensing from Thrill Beat Construction and Hymen Records?
Haha ... What a question! That sounds a little bit strange for me. Maybe you are not aware that deals with indie labels are often not based on written contracts and are rather agreed upon in a virtual "handshake". There is no real big financial gain for the labels. And besides, I always remain the owner of all the rights, and can do with my music whatever I want.

I asked because I think some labels would be upset if they were trying to stay in business and sell your music, while you were giving it out for free. I know it usually works on a handshake, but I'm impressed and proud that someone like Hymen is OK with it. I think all labels should treat artists and music the same way, and not as business strictly counting the profits.
I did not have any problems with Hymen. The last Kattoo releases were actually a label collaboration. If you look on the CD covers you will always find the logo - that's my label, and I own all the rights ;). For the older Beefcake releases, the label can't earn any more profit - all of the CDs are sold out, except for maybe a small batch somewhere. Plus, I don't think that opening up my music practically "for free" affects any sales. People who want CDs will still buy them. And as the amount of copies declines in the market they become even more valuable for true collectors. At this point it is possible that I will never release another physical CD. But that's just fine. Look what happened with Drei - after Beefcake dissolved, people traded the CD on eBay for over 100 dollars. Crazy.

What can we expect in the future from Volker?
That I can't say. I've been thinking about this for a while, but so far to no avail. Investing time and money into music production feels like a kamikaze enterprise these days. Maybe I'll produce another Kattoo album and publish it exclusively over my site on a donation-basis, like the others, to see if this really works. It's possible that I may abandon my music career altogether, and put my creativity into other, more gainful things. I really don't know. At this moment, all my time goes into a real paid job, like everyone else. And I must admit, at this point it doesn't sound like a bad choice - much more profitable than making music *laugh*.

I wish Volker the best of luck, and hope that it works out for him. I would be very sad to see Kattoo go, and would mourn the departure as another great artist in the world of electronic music.   |   |   |

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