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December 9, 1998
Earlier this year in a non-descript New York office space, in a move that has all the workings of rivaling Amazon.com for independent and underground music fans, three young men plugged in the online music retail machine they had dubbed Insound. Part record store, part message board, part record label and part fanzine, the company has cut a wide swath in the few months that it has been operational. A good deal of Insound's visibility has come with marketing agreements with other, more established online music sites like All-Music Guide and Epitonic, as well as web-based publications such as Rocket Fuel and Lost At Sea, but perhaps the more notable part of their burgeoning success owes itself to good old-fashioned word of mouth. Much like the independent music community it mirrors and represents, Insound has tapped into the expansive network of artists, musicians and everyday people that can spread good news like wildfire from coast to coast and over the ocean. There are already hundreds of thousands of music titles available for order at the click of a mouse, and the site's scope is rapidly expanding to include everything from interactive multimedia and videos to magazines, books, and apparrel. LAS recently caught up with Matt Wishnow, one of the three founders of Insound, to talk about the startup, the direction the trio's business model is headed, and a few other random tidbits.
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LAS: What prompted you to start Insound? How easy or hard was it to get off the ground?

Matt Wishnow: Christian, one of my partners here, and I had talked about working together since we were in college. After college, I met Ari while working at Elektra Records, of all places. Ari and I were both pretty big fans of a lot of post-punk college rock and early 90s indie rock, so we started talking about that. Basically, the two separate conversations I was having with Christian and Ari quickly became one conversation. After whittling down some mediocre ideas, we came up with the germ of Insound.

Regarding the launch, yeah it was really a long and difficult process. Most companies that are looking to sell music and provide music content online have a lot more money and resources than we have. We found that anything that could possibly go wrong indeed did. After about four months of planning and preparation, we had a site and idea that we were ready to debut. We launched a few months ago, on March 1st, 1999.

When I first visited Insound I was expecting just another online music catalog and was amazed to find so much more than that. When you started out with just an idea were you already planning on the Zinestand and the chats and the photo gallery and the Annex, or did those things come about later?

The chats, zinestand and photo gallery had all been planned for many months prior to launch. The Annex came later as we realized that there were many labels that were under-represented online. We are continually finding out that all of our long-term plans are happening more quickly than we imagined.

Are there any more facets to Insound in your grand Scheme of Things that we have yet to see?

Oh yeah. In July we are launching indie record (and collectible) auctions in conjunction with Skylab Commerce and we are also creating a video gallery for all of those cool videos and documentaries that have never seen the light of day. I know that MTV2 would play Pavement, The Blues Explosion or Stereolab, but so many smaller bands have made their own videos and their fans have never seen them. We want to digitize and archive that stuff. Also, we will become more pro-active in terms of our promotional support for bands. We are starting our "Tour Support Series" this month in which we'll be producing singles and EPs for bands to sell on the road as a means to make extra money. We would like to actively engage the market and have bands and labels feel like they are a part of Insound.

Obviously the Internet has revolutionized a lot of things in the world of music. Simply being able to go online and find and order an artist's entire discography with a few clicks of a button is pretty amazing. But Insound has taken that a few steps further by allowing people to connect to other online resources and even interact with the bands themselves. What further enhancements and changes do you think the Internet will bring about in the next few years?

Because there is such overlap between the avid music fans in our community and the musicians who are flourishing in this community, we want to increasingly provide services that bring the two groups - fans and musicians - closer together. We are planning an extensive city-based resource for fans and musicians who are looking to find out what is available to them in terms of music and music-related resources across the country. Basically, we feel that a virtual inventory is only the simplest way that indie bands can benefit from the Internet. Ultimately, the internet is also an equalizer in terms of promotion and marketing as well, so bands like Macha and Pedro the Lion, two of our current favorites, can be treated with the same weight online as major label artists get treated offline.

What is your take on Internet music sights like Epitonic? Isn't it possible that they could eventually eliminate sights like Insound and even record labels by making the whole material medium of recorded music obsolete? Obviously it isn't going to happen overnight, but look what happened to the 8-track. A classic and somewhat corny example, but it nonetheless serves to show that the demands of convenience and capitalism are constantly changing things in the music world through technology.

We love Epitonic! They have taken a similar approach to Insound, in that they work one artist and one label at a time and serve bands that are neglected by traditional media outlets but still have strong followings. The one point that we always make note of is that online retail is actually very far from our actual business model. We are focused every day on improving our community and content aspects and for doing things in our community that have never been done before online. So, to that end, we are not married to hard product. In fact, I think that Insound's success so far has been based on everything about the site that is not retail oriented. People love the zines and the chats. Retail is just a small piece of the puzzle. However, the truth is that music fans, especially avid collectors, are very loyal to product. That's why the 8-track comparison is not entirely applicable - the 8-track was replaced by a superior - in terms of form and function - piece of product. The MP3 format offers a better means for distribution, but is not specifically a superior product to the compact disc. I think MP3 is great but, when I want to feel connected to a band and other fans of the band, I still like going out and buying the album.

There is a huge potential for growth on the Internet, especially for sights like Insound, which are in high demand right now. How do you balance the desire for growth and expansion with a desire to remain in touch with the everyday people in the music scene?

Granted, it's a tough balance because the site and its audience grows every day, but we try to attract visitors one person at a time. What we have realized, though, is that it is more efficient and fruitful for us to talk with one person who then tells fifteen friends about us than it is for us to tell fifteen people ourselves. We just try to remain focused on what we know and like and hope that, by providing services and content that like-minded people are looking for, Insound will grow organically. So far, so good.

Insound works in the self-described realm of "indie, emo, punk, garage, noise, electronic and essentials," but I have found stuff by some artists who really seem to stretch the definition of those genres. There are Alanis Morisette albums in your catalog. Obviously what is in your catalog is your own choice, but is there a point at where you would draw the line? I'm assuming there is - just for kicks I did a search for Celine Dion and didn't find anything.

In our main store, we do fulfillment from large distributors who carry hundreds of thousands of titles. We work through them because we want to offer access to the back catalogue of influential bands like The Feelies, Mission of Burma and even The Rolling Stones. Additionally, we want to provide an option for people who are simply looking for an online alternative to mass-merchandisers and prefer to shop in a content-rich environment. If we can get a Pearl Jam fan to try listening to Burning Airlines, then I am happy to have provided the service. That said, all of the content and navigation is designed for the avid indie rock fan.

For all of my friends here Germany who are wondering; what is Kraut-Rock?

Kraut-Rock is a vague term that refers to a drone or electronic-oriented Rock-hybrid influenced by German bands like Can and Kraftwerk. Pretty much any band that is willing to play a single chord for an extended period of time - including Stereolab and Ui - has been tagged with this term at some point.

Speaking of genres, how do you go about classifying the musicians into the various subdivisions? I feel bad enough when I refer to Braid or Sunny Day Real Estate as an "emo" band, because I know they aren't really emo bands, but as it stands the term serves to give the best idea of their sound without splaying off into even more absurd/obscure labels. There are a lot of such bands that are also "post-punk" and "punk" or "math-rock" or what have you. It isn't such an easy or necessarily fair task, but especially for a retailer with a catalog as large as Insound, there has to be some sort of organization and categorization just from a logistical standpoint.

We use the All-Music Guide databases to set up our site architecture and then we try to edit the content and carve it out so that it helps people navigate the site on the basis of genre and related artists. Unfortunately, sometimes we do not agree with the way All-Music classifies certain bands. That said, I'd rather people explore the relationship between Braid, for instance, and certain definitive "math-rock" bands than have Braid be conceived of as exclusively an "emo" or "post-punk" band, because none of those labels is entirely accurate.

Who/what sells the best in your catalog?

We sell a lot of Fugazi and Burning Airlines. Thus far we have sold a lot of Aspera Ad Astra and Built to Spill as well. We tend to sell the stuff that we feature on the homepage.

With access to such a massive collection, who are some of your personal favorites?

Currently we are listening to Tristeza a lot. I listen to Yume Bitsu each night before I go to bed. But we also put on Wire and The Rolling Stones every now and again.

SEE ALSO: www.insound.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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