Opening the door on a CD-less music label

Warner's all-digital label is run by the man who discovered The Doors. Now he hopes to pioneer a new kind of record business.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Forty years ago Jac Holzman left a deep mark on popular music with the release of The Doors' first album on his independent Elektra music label. Today he wants to do the same with Cordless Recordings.

Holzman's Cordless label is the first all-digital music label operated by a major record company, the Warner Music Group, launching Thursday on the Web and on digital music services such as iTunes and RealNetworks' Rhapsody.

Jac Holzman
Jac Holzman

Music from the label's first six bands is being sold only online for now, in three-song "clusters" instead of full albums. Instead of big tours, the bands will be promoted on blogs and sites like MySpace.

More eyebrow-raising from the traditional big labels' perspective, artists get to keep ownership of the master recordings they release under Cordless. If they want to release their music elsewhere after a short contract is up, more power to them.

If that sounds a little like an indie music label, it's not an accident. The 73-year-old Holzman says he's trying to infuse the new venture with the spirit of the independent labels he created and managed for 20 years, even if it exists in the arms of a major corporation.

"Independent record making is a process and a point of view and a flexibility," Holzman said, noting that he and his partners have already agreed to sign bands just hours after hearing them. "There's a nimbleness that larger companies, where decision mechanisms have become cumbersome, have lost."

The Cordless Recordings label is an ambitious experiment in several ways for Warner Music, which has increased its focus on digital distribution since being sold by parent company Time Warner in late 2003 and going public earlier this year.

Warner's new owner, Edgar Bronfman Jr., has repeatedly highlighted for investors his belief that digital markets are responsible for the industry's growth, and recently told attendees at a big gathering for the mobile-phone industry that it was "the music industry's most important conference." (Shelby Bonnie, the CEO of News.com parent CNET Networks, joined Warner Music Group's board earlier this week.)

Cordless Recordings is a bet that relatively inexpensive Internet distribution and marketing may give labels a cost-effective way to nurture bands over time, instead of spending as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars to record and market a first album.

It's also an experiment with patience. The idea is to release short three-song clusters online every few months over the course of nearly two years, allowing musicians to grow artistically and build an audience, an approach that differs radically from betting everything on a single 12-song album.

"It seems like a smarter way of spending money," said Larry Little, co-founder of Los Angeles-based From the Future Management, which represents bands including The Posies and Film School. "It sets the band up in a position where they don't necessarily have to deliver right out of the gate. Today, the pressure has been to have a hit right away."

Cordless calling
For Holly Brewer, singer in the band Humanwine, contact with Cordless came as a surprise.

The group, which plays an eclectic mix of music that Brewer describes as "punk rock Mary Poppins," is one of the first six bands to be released on Cordless. She says a friend passed an MP3 of their music to Holzman, and the label called not long afterward.

The band members hadn't heard of Warner's digital plans but were impressed by Holzman.

"He's really what people say about him," Brewer said. "He's honestly beyond making a legacy, and he just wants to put out good music. He's probably not nearly as dangerous as he was 20 years ago."

Holzman came to the project almost by accident. His roots stretch back decades, to 1950, when he started Elektra as one of the first independent record labels in the country, ultimately signing The Doors as his most lasting band. He sold Elektra to Warner in the early 1970s and has been in and out of the company since, serving as Warner Music's Chief Technology Officer in the early 1990s before leaving for another start-up.

His return to Warner came shortly after Bronfman's purchase of the label nearly two years ago. He met with Bronfman, who showed him a list of potential digital ideas and asked if he wanted to be involved with any of them.

Holzman liked the idea of a digital-only label and has worked since to put the infrastructure for Cordless in place.

The first six bands are all young and relatively new to recording. Along with Boston-based Humanwine, they include Jihad Jerry & The Evildoers, Breakup Breakdown, Dangerous Muse, Nozzle, and Koishii & Hush. There's no common thread, other than that Holzman and the others helping to run the label liked the music, the executives said.

They aren't likely to make an immediate significant impact on Warner's bottom line. But that's not the point, or not yet. Cordless is an experiment for both the label and the bands on it.

For bands, which will get only a small advance that will cover some recording costs, it's a bet that the Internet can help build their reputation without having a CD available in Tower Records or other stores. In return, they get the extraordinarily rare right to keep permanent ownership of their music.

On the label side, it's an attempt to reach out to a music-consuming world that is increasingly deserting radio and record stores for iTunes and MySpace.

"The scene today is one of some confusion," Holzman said. "Nobody knows which way to jump or where it's going to go. But we intend with Warner and Cordless to point the direction we want to go. Whether anybody else follows is another matter."