InterviewsLabel Interviews

A Different Drum: an interview with Todd Durrant

Existing for over a decade and with an extensive catalogue of quality music in the synthpop field, A Different Drum is a reference name in the American and international synthpop panorama, both as an online store and as a record label in its own right. Started out of a genuine love for the music genre that it focuses on and having become the driving force for the establishment of an American synthpop scene during the 90’s, A Different Drum continues its active support of synthpop musicians, both established and new, from all over the world.

Todd Durrant1 – How and why did you come about starting A Different Drum?

That is a long story, but to sum it up into a “short version”, A Different Drum was originally a retail, physical store specializing in any music outside of the mainstream, including many imports and unique styles. One of the underground music styles that the store sold was “synthpop” since it had become independent and hard to find in the early 90’s (at least it was hard to find in the USA).

A Different Drum began selling synthpop online from our store, and as that part of the business grew, I began to focus more and more on that specific genre. Synthpop had always been my first pop music love, so it was fun to turn my attention onto the music that I love. Since many of the bands were releasing music on their own labels, and there was not really an organized marketing effort for the genre in the USA during those early 90’s, I decided to start a label to create some kind of home for synthpop in America. Thus, the label side of the business was born in early 1996. The physical store eventually was closed, and the business moved entirely online.

2 – When you started A Different Drum, were there any labels that you could say were a reference/inspiration for your efforts?

There were a few small, similar labels in other parts of the world that were doing the same thing that I was trying to do in the USA, like October / Energy Rekords in Sweden, Memento Materia in Sweden, or Strange Ways in Germany. They were helpful and inspiring. But my real inspiration was probably Mute Records because they have been a pioneer for innovative pop music for many years, and have remained relatively “independent” despite their large success. Also, they seem to have such integrity that the bands who worked with Mute in the early days are mostly still faithful and dedicated to their original label. You don’t see that often in the music business – usually the artists and labels seem to be in arguments and try to work together among huge philosophical differences. I believe that a label and the artist should be close partners and friends.

3 – Almost mandatory question, how did the name “A Different Drum” come about?

It is a popular saying to “march to the beat of a different drum” or “dance to the beat of a different drum”. It means that a person does something different than the norm. When A Different Drum started as a store that sold underground music from around the world, we certainly did not conform to the musical mainstream. As a label, that is still the case– we continue to release music that is generally not part of the mainstream, so we still “march to the beat of a different drum.”

4 – Since the inception of A Different Drum, are there any events in the history of the label that you’d consider as particularly relevant, from difficulties and setbacks to successes?

There have been setbacks and successes that stand out. For example, we have been happy to see our music included in the popular XBox video game “Dance Dance Revolution” for a few years now, and have had a few other people involved in independent film show interest in using our music. It is always nice to see the music used in ways that will expose it to more people. I’ve also had fun working with established bands who have helped to increase A Different Drum’s exposure to a larger audience, like working with Alphaville or Real Life, etc.

The setbacks are usually based on the difficult challenges of the music business. For example, we’ve had some very bad distribution relationships before, where distributors would take a large number of CD’s to sell to retail stores, and then not pay us for that inventory. It seems that labels are always fighting an uphill battle for distribution, and some companies take advantage of independent labels. But, I’ll also say that there are a few companies that have done great things for independent labels, giving them access to distribution that would not otherwise be possible. It’s just hard to tell the crooks from the heroes until after the deal is done.

We’ve also had licensing deals with other labels that have been disappointing. Often those deals have resulted in nothing– no licensing royalties, no increase in sales or exposure, and a loss in our ability to export the release directly. We’ve had a couple of honest label partners before, but usually our licensing efforts have been disappointing. These days, we’re happy to simply export the CD’s directly to people who want the music in other countries. Of course, I’m always open to licensing ideas and proposals, but I’m very cautious now, due to past experiences.

5 – So far what would you consider as special highlights (or successful) releases and artists in the history of A Different Drum?

There are many successful releases in my mind. Some of those are not backed up with sales figures, but to me, they are still successful if the band reaches a new audience, gets positive reviews and feedback, and continues to build on that reputation. For most of our label bands, they make their first releases with A Different Drum (we sign a lot of new artists), so we know that their initial sales will be small. But it’s a success if even 500 people buy an album from a band they’ve never heard of before, and the band can continue to build on that foundation.

6 – Are there any releases in particular that you would recommend as good ‘introductory material’ to A Different Drum?

We put out quite a few compilations which are meant to be such introductions. For example, the “Synthpop Club Anthems” series is a low-priced introduction to the high-energy club tracks and mixes. The “Synthpop for a Darkened Room” compilation series is a low-priced introduction to the more emotional, mellow side of the label material. The “Space Age Electro Pop” compilations are a general introduction to label artists in all their different sounds. The “ADD X Chapter 1” compilation is a fun way to look at the early music from the label, which we released as a 10-year anniversary release in 2006.

7 – Looking back, do you have any regrets with the label? If you could go back and change something, what would it be?

There would be a couple of large, very expensive releases that I would reconsider. I think they were great, innovative releases, but in the end they were too expensive to produce, and not enough fans were interested enough to buy them.

8 – An obvious question, but what is A Different Drum’s ‘relationship’ with the Internet? From promotion tool and digital sales to file sharing and piracy, how has it affected you?

Well, we work primarily on the internet, as a label and as an online store. So, the internet is critical. Most of our releases are available as legal digital downloads from the usual established sources, but we will also be opening our own digital store for the label material. When it comes to technology, you have to embrace it and move forward as a business.

Concerning piracy, it always existed and always will. There will always be people who would rather get something for free, even if it is illegal, instead of paying for it honestly. There is nothing we can do to stop file sharing and piracy. Nothing we can do will stop a crook from stealing, if that’s what they want to do. Plus, it’s not always a bad thing for friends to share files, if their intent is to show their friends some new music that they might enjoy. In fact, it probably helps our sales when friends share files for songs that they like, because the person who hears the music might actually want to buy the product if they like it.

We use free Mp3’s to promote new music, and we welcome technology as a partner. We want honest fans to be able to buy the music in any way they prefer (though I’d personally never pay for an MP3 because I’m a physical collector). We like potential fans to have a way to hear new music easily and freely, if they want to explore. We just hope that people who love the music will show their support by paying, so that the bands and labels can continue to make more music in the future.

9 – Slightly related to the previous question, how do you see the concept of ‘netlabels’ and, as a labelhead, what is your perspective as to the future and evolution of physical media (CDs, vinyl, etc)?

I’m not sure what you mean by “netlabels” unless you mean some label-like entity that only releases music digitally. I don’t see a whole lot of need for them, since pretty much any band can digitally release their music even without a label partner. Labels should be able to offer something to the bands that is difficult or inconvenient for them to do themselves. If the label really doesn’t provide any marketing and distribution help that the band can’t do themselves, then there is no longer a purpose for that label. I think that bands come to A Different Drum (and other labels) because they feel we can use our established market and fanbase to help them build a reputation and we can get their music into different retail venues.

Concerning phyiscal product, it will continue to exist. The market may grow into a mix of digital and physical products, but as long as there are collectors, there will always be a market for physical products. People like to hold a collection in their hands and put it on their shelves. Personally, I would never consider myself the “owner” of an album unless it was sitting on my shelf. Having the file on my hard drive just doesn’t feel the same to a collector. Sure, the Mp3’s are great for convenience and for casual music fans who just want specific tracks for their listening pleasure, but for the collectors, if they can’t touch it, it just isn’t real. For that reason, I think that the physical releases will become more and more “collectable” and will include extras in both packaging and content that will not be availably digitally, because the labels know that they are selling physical releases to people who see value in the little “extras”.

10 – Perspectives for the future, what lies in the horizon for A Different Drum? Can you share some long-term goals and where would you like to see the label heading to?

The label will continue to introduce new bands, as well as continuing to support the bands we’ve been working with. We will continue to mold our product to the market, based on demand, adding a digital store (selling real high-quality MP3’s instead of WMA files like most other stores) and we’ll continue to release products that we feel show diversity and strength in the scene. We’ll continue to work with other independent labels to promote the scene.

11 – What other labels/artists would you recommend at the moment and why?

It may sound odd, but much of my current music exposure is only within the “scene” because I spend so much time working with specific artists and styles. So, I don’t get a lot of time to listen to a lot of music outside of work– at least not as much as I’d like. Looking outside of A Different Drum’s own label, I’d say that I’ve recently enjoyed the “We Collide” album by Mesh, the “Relocated” album by Camouflage (though I still think “Sensor” was more solid), and I’ve enjoyed recent releases by And One and OBK. I like Dimbodius and think they should be as popular as Coldplay (who I also enjoy). Sometimes in my time away from work, I enjoy listening to a little jazz and classical, or even folk music, just for a change of pace. There are only a few music styles I just can’t get into, like rap, heavy metal, or even harsh noisey industrial.

12 – Thank you for your time, do you have any final comments?

Well, I’d just like to thank the readers for supporting independent artists. It really makes a difference to the bands when people listen to their music, send them comments, and show support by purchasing a CD (or download) now and then. These guys make music because it is in their hearts and souls– they can’t escape it. So it is a real pleasure to share that music, and even better when it finds a sympathetic, supportive ear.
Best wishes in 2007!

Relevant links

A Different Drum

— interview by Kate Turgoose & Miguel de Sousa (January 2007)

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