The Gigaom interview: Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza on how “we live in a streaming world”

There is better than a good chance that while relaxing on a beach somewhere or sipping a martini in your favorite lounge you have heard music that makes raise your eyebrow and ask ”what kind of music is that?” That kind of eclectic sound — a beat blend of Asian, Middle Eastern, Reggae, Bossa Nova, dub, electronica and chillout — is something Thievery Corporation has pioneered.
Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and Rob Garza formed the group in 1996 and captured music fans’ imagination with the release of their 1996 debut Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi. They have released eight studio albums; the latest of them being Saudade, which hit the stores on April 1, 2014. (They have also released 18 compilation albums as well.) They also started a label, Eighteen Street Lounge Music (ESL) and have introduced many genre-bending acts such as Ursula 1000 and Nicola Conte.
I have been listening to their music for almost two decades and recently I caught up with Rob Garza, who has moved to the Bay Area. The topic of our conversation was their new album, the Bossa Nova inspired Saudade, which is perhaps one of the more important releases of 2014.
Our chat wasn’t long — about 30 minutes — but we covered a whole series of topics. Of various topics, his comments about Internet culture, streaming, Spotify and label economics were the ones that were most illuminating. Here is a highly edited version of our conversation.
Om: Thank you for making time. The first question I wanted to ask you was about the creative process and the Internet — how it has changed and influenced folks like yourself.
Rob Garza: Back when we started, the internet was no were near as large as it is now in terms of music. Now everybody is using it. Back then you would actually have to go to record stores. Music was one of the ways of traveling through time and distance. Whether you go back to 1977 in London, to the punk movement or mid ’60s in Brazil to listen to Bossa Nova.
Music was a major form of that type of traveling and communication. Now it’s almost, people kind of take it for granted you can go and Google and find all the most influential Bossa Nova records, and kind of be an expert within a day or two, not really but you know what I’m saying.
I think it’s changed everything, how we make music, how we listen to music. How we consume music, how we take pictures, how we write and communicate with each other. It’s a very different world.
Do you think because of the friction to get information has gone done and out ability to get more information quickly has gone up, do you think that has given you a better ability, to understand newer music forms faster, or has it taken away that ability?
What I mean by that, when I listened to the Rolling Stones the first time, it was really expensive to buy a record when I was a kid in India. I was emotionally and financially very vested in the record and spent a lot to time trying to understand that music by listening to it again and again. Over a period of time I developed an emotional bond with it. Now, I find it much more difficult to form a bond with and artist or a song, or album in that sense.

It’s very interesting, how we value music these days. In some way’s music has lost a lot of its value, and the emotional bond that you would have with a record back in the day.
You would put it on, you would read the liner notes, you would spend the afternoon with it. You maybe listen to it a couple times and you would try to understand this particular piece of art. Now what people do — I’m even guilty of it — you have every song that you’ve ever loved on your iPod or iPhone.
I go through and I’ll listen to 30, 40 seconds of 30 different songs without getting to have, that emotional bond that I would if I actually put on a piece of vinyl, and just sit in a room and listen and connect with the whole experience of, say an album, which is kind of a foreign concept today because a lot of it is built on popularity on iTunes or Spotify, which songs are more popular by a particular artist.
That kind of connection doesn’t really exist the way that it did back in the day. With this new record, I think that we wanted to kind of explore a form of music, that’s very inspirational to us and just really dive into it. We wanted to dive into it as a whole album, rather than just one or two songs on the B side of a record.

Thievery Corporation (Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) in Washington DC

Photo of Rob Garza (left) and Eric Hilton (right) by Andrzej Liguz

One of the things which I found about this new album was that I had to listen to it at least 20 times before I actually started feeling it. I got so used to listening to tidbits of your songs, in a sense; one song somewhere, another one as part of somebody else’s playlist on Spotify, that I forgot how an album really sounded like.
Most people don’t listen to records that way (any more) and that’s the reality. Let’s say I’m a person who’s never heard of Thievery Corporation and I hear a couple songs. What am I going to do? I’m probably going to go to iTunes, pick out probably the three or four most popular songs. Download one or even a couple of them and that’ll be my experience with Thievery Corporation. Very few people probably are going to go and buy the whole record and listen to the whole record back to front, front to back, the way that we used to.
Do you think we can have an album experience in this culture of snacking, this culture of Spotify? Is there room for album listening?
There is, but it’s in the minority. Most people just want to…did you use the word snack, snack on things? That’s a good way to put it. People are just snacking. “Oh, I want to try a little bit of this. Oh, I want to try a little bit of that.” The information is just moving so quick that, in a way it’s a little rebellious to kind of make a record that’s just a soft listening, beautiful record.
Especially when we look at it, like last week it was number one on the iTunes electronic charts all week, and there’s nothing really electronic about this album, so I thought that was kind of funny.
You have an incredible vantage point. You are an artist yourself, you work with other artists; you also have a record label. You are constantly on tour. Can you talk a little bit about impact of things like Spotify, iTunes and all the digitization of music? There’s a lot of people who don’t care much about Pandora and Spotify.
Rob: It’s great that people can explore different artists, find music on Spotify, YouTube, things like that. At the same time, do I think that it’s sustainable for the music community? I don’t think so, because a lot of this money just goes back into the pockets of the tech companies. Before, it would go to major labels some things like that.
I’m not defending major labels, but at least major labels would take some of that money, and invest it to find and develop new artists, and trying to give artists a career. That’s the one…for me kind of missing link in this whole equation is that, that money goes to Google Play or goes to iTunes or goes to Pandora or Spotify.
The royalties are miniscule. Also, those companies don’t make it a habit to invest in new music, new art and new talent. It keeps a lot of resources from coming back into the community.
If you look at something like Spotify many record labels are investors in the company. So from that standpoint the money is all going back into the labels. You can say the same for Beats Music, which is owned by the music industry insiders. So, if you were to tell, for instance, the Spotify CEO what he should do in order to make the life of artists better?
The first thing to do is to be open to having a discussion to figure out what is, beneficial to everybody. What makes it win-win. What makes it more fair for people. It’s so difficult for artists today, to have a career unless you already have your, I hate to use the word “brand,” but unless you’re already an established artist, it’s more difficult than ever to make a career, or you’re able to live from making music. First, be open to discussing all of this and hearing what the artists have to say.
If you were to ask them, to do just one thing that changes a lot for the artist, what would be that thing, in your opinion?
The biggest thing people will say about Spotify is how minuscule the royalties are compared to when people were actually purchasing the music. It’s a totally different business model. You’re never going to put that genie back in the bottle, getting people to go and buy music.
We live in a streaming world…trying to increase the royalties…I hear where they’re coming from in terms of trying to increase the volume. Then if you increase the volume, more artists will get paid. I’m not sure I totally have an answer to that [laughs] question. That’s the million dollar question.
As a music lover, it used to be a lot of friction in buying your music. Internet for all its faults exposed me to a lot more music. A lot of your artists have become part of what I have acquired and I listen to often. Before that, one had to think twice before buying a CD. The internet has increased the size of your audience. There’s a lot more people who are aware of you, your group and your label worldwide, right?
It’s interesting you bring that up. One of the things that has happened through that…It’s not so much the awareness that has triggered it, but we’ve basically, essentially shut down the record label ESL.
We’re putting out Thievery records, but we’re not working with any more artists, because we’ve gotten to the situation where…Let’s put it this way. Back in the day, we knew any artists we signed, and put out the record, it would sell at least 5,000 copies. Right? You give artists an advance. There was some money to be made through selling CDs and through licensing, and touring.
Now, a lot of these artists…I don’t know if you saw that thing with David Lowery, from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, where he talks about how, he had a million plays on either Spotify or Pandora, one of these streaming services. Basically, he earned less money than he would have made selling a t-shirt at one of his concerts.
Those are the kind of economics we’re dealing with. When you run a small independent label, at a certain point, it becomes like trying to squeeze a dry lemon. It’s a lot of work, and you’re not getting a lot of juice. In one way, it’s allowed people to learn more, about these different artists that we have on our label. Even when we were dealing when it was just, iTunes was the only thing on the block, it was a lot more beneficial and sustainable for artists.
Wow. I did not know that you had shut down, essentially, your record label, which is too bad, because you were the global sound, curator from my standpoint. Always had a lot, of interesting groups on your label. What a shame.
Yeah. It’s tough too, because these are your friends. You’re coming up to them, and they’re, “What did we earn this last six months?” Here’s the $100. Here’s the numbers to show it. You do that enough times and you’re like, “I don’t really want to be in this part of the business, because it’s kind of depressing.”
All photos courtesy of Thievery Corporation.