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Interview: Ghostly International

Donald Bell speaks with Jeff Owens, label manager for the Ghostly International record label.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct this interview with Jeff Owens, Label Manager for the Ghostly International record label. To give you some context, Ghostly International is an independent electronic music label based out of Ann Arbor, MI. They've been releasing music since 1999, and their latest release, Matthew Dear's Asa Breed has been drawing praise from tastemakers such as Pitchfork and Filter.

Photo of Ghostly International office.
Ghostly International headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI. Donald Bell / CNET Networks

From my perspective, Ghostly is a unique example of an independent record label that is quickly adapting to today's bizarre and demanding music marketplace. Their music can be found everywhere from iTunes, to Borders, to MySpace. Ghostly also interests me because they are a rare combination of a cutting-edge music label that is still heavily invested in releasing their music on vinyl. In fact, their Spectral Sound sublabel has the distinction of selling the majority of their music in either vinyl or MP3 formats, with just a handful of releases on CD.

It's amazing to me that in the past thirty years we've seen the dramatic rise and fall of music formats like cassette tape and MiniDisc, yet vinyl, a format that my grandparents used, is still alive and well in the age of the MP3. As a digital music technology writer, I find the tenacity of vinyl particularly intriguing because the medium embodies everything that an MP3 is not--it's analog, it's bulky, it degrades over time, and it requires a tremendous infrastructure to manufacture and distribute. Oddly enough, I suspect that vinyl has endured precisely because of these characteristics, not in spite of them. As the music world becomes increasingly digitized, vinyl's renegade appeal will only become more entrenched.

I also talk to Jeff about Ghostly's strategy in the digital download marketplace. While we were off camera, I was surprised to learn that subscription music services aren't such a good revenue stream for independent labels. The incentive for a label like Ghostly to have their music available on an all-you-can-eat site like Rhapsody or Yahoo Music Unlimited, is the visibility it gives the label and their roster of artists. While subscription music revenue might not pay the bills, Jeff mentioned that licensing Ghostly's music for commercials, TV, and movies, is turning out to be an important source of income. For example, a recent commercial for the Hummer H3 features background music from Ghostly artist Matthew Dear.

So in review: the music industry is in shambles; DJs still buy vinyl; and running an independent label is harder than ever.