Thursday, February 24, 2011

RockTunz Web Store - Adding Colors to the Rock Palette

Owner Ric Levine reveals his story of how his love for prog-centric music inspired his latest venture

     A new  leading edge, up and coming rock music web store -

What inspired you to create RockTunz? Were there any specific events that led up to this venture?
[Ric Levine] If you can dub my 40-year love affair with progressive rock and metal, and the joy I get from turning people onto it as ‘specific events’…then, there you go! :-)  You know, progressive rock – a.k.a. “prog” – has been around for over 40 years now, just about 4-5 years less than The Beatles. But, if all you read was the mainstream press, you’d be hard-pressed to think that it deserved any more recognition than, say ”Chopsticks” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Yet, despite what the critics have said, prog occupies an important part of the pop music culture. In fact, it’s at the
heart of the foundation of the successful Classic Rock Radio format. Don't believe me? Turn on the radio and it won’t be long before you’ll hear Pink Floyd, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, Kansas, Rush - the list goes on. It could even be argued that The Beatles and Led Zeppelin had their progressive tendencies. On the metal side, there’s Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, to name just a few. So, I felt a strong need to fill this void and devote a site to the great independent and unsigned artists who create the music they love and the small labels who have the passion to distribute it.

What past experience in your life do you believe qualifies you and your partners for this type of business?

[Ric Levine] I grew up in the ‘60s in New Jersey and listened to rock radio from New York, where the jocks were these
great personalities who’d just keep you glued to what they were saying and playing especially the music from the British Invasion (led by The Beatles and Stones, of course). And, lest I forget, my parents forced me to take clarinet lessons in 4th grade. That led to concerts, marching band parades and pep band at football games through high school. Sadly, it did not lead to any dates with cheerleaders. In ’65, my family relocated to the L.A. area where I discovered, what was then, free form FM radio. In addition to the Top 40 hits, I fell in love with groups like Simon & Garfunkel and the Moody Blues, arguably, one of the first progressive bands because they combined rock with classical music (which my parents exposed me to).

But, it was 1970 (my junior year in high school) when a buddy put on a record by this band called Jethro Tull and their third album, “Benefit.” I’d never heard
anything like it and I loved it!! Within the next year, I found myself at a NAMM show, listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” on a pair of quadraphonic headphones. Holy crap!!! I was blown away and learned that they were going to be in concert at the old Long Beach Auditorium. I immediately bought a ticket with my hard-earned McDonald’s earnings. I’ll never forget the feeling as I left the show, walking to my car as the fog shrouded the lights in the parking lot, I could feel my head spin around!! That show, that music
, altered my listening habits for the rest of my life!! ELP, Genesis, Tull, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and, of course, Pink Floyd. I couldn’t get enough!! Typical for the time, my dad didn’t quite share this enthusiasm so, I had to sneak all my new purchases into the house when he wasn’t looking. LOL!

My enthusiasm was fueled by the ton of great shows I saw in college (’71-’75) but, I’d have to say that 1974-1980 were my “wonder years” because this is when the professional seeds got planted.  In late ’74/early ‘75, I worked at a record store in Isla Vista (CA), the vibrant little student ghetto adjacent to UC Santa Barbara, where I went to college. I became close with a fellow clerk who just happened to be a Yes
It wasn’t long before my initial resistance turned into borderline fanaticism!

In January of ‘76 – about seven months after graduation - I got hired by and, was soon managing, three record stores in the Santa Barbara/Ventura area. This was back when new vinyl sold for just $2.99! Other than working behind the counter (and making suggestions to anyone who’d listen), I handled all the music ordering and was given the task of starting and maintaining a Used Records section. One’s trash is another’s treasure and I got first crack at all of it. I
was a kid in a candy store and hit the music mother lode! Most, of course, was resold but somehow
…an album or three wound up in my collection at home. Go figure. :-)) A good chunk of those records were brought in by the DJs who worked at the local rock station in Santa Barbara, CA (KTYD-FM). They’d come in to trade in the free promo records they got and look for new stuff to play and own. I became friends with a number of them, turned them onto a bunch of music, got on the air a few times, too. And another seed took root. I even got to play on the station’s softball team The Flaming Media Pigs! LOL!

But, it was one jock in particular, Guy Guden, who
really opened up my eyes and ears. Guy did a late-night gig (midnight-6am) he called “Space Pirate Radio,” where he combined European progressive rock and electronic music with original comedy bits (a là The Firesign Theater). After a few great chats in the store, he invited me to hang out in the studio which I did a lot! As he was doing his intro, he’d kill all the lights in the studio, light a few candles and pour a glass of wine for each of us. I can only describe the atmosphere he created as magical!
And, to say that he introduced me to a new and incredible world of music would be an understatement. Bands from France, Italy, Germany and, of course England (prog’s birthplace) made their way into my soul and my collection. What great memories! :-)

After a couple of years at the store, I spent the next two selling stereo equipment, using my records to demo the gear and expose people to prog. Not only did I sell a lot of gear, but I had customers come back in just to ask me about more music! In the overlap between these two gigs (like I said…a
lot happened!), I met a customer who was a late-night DJ at the UCSB station. We both loved prog and he said I could bring in some records to play on his show. I jumped at the chance and, next thing I knew, he needed someone to sit in for him. As luck would have it, he had to leave town and I got to take over his show, using the records from my collection to fill the void he left behind. When I moved to San Diego in ’79, I continued as a jock on the UC San Diego station for a couple of years. Even promoted one concert while I was there. And while this was happening, I got hooked up with the little-known (at the time), College Media Journal. My first assignment was to review a 14-hour progressive music festival in L.A. followed by my first interview (backstage at the infamous Roxy Theater) with a chap named Phil Collins. I wrote quite a few articles, interviewed Peter Gabriel, and, for Relix Magazine
(another national music mag), wrote a review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” which became one of their cover stories. But, I had to pay the bills and a couple of non-musical jobs were necessary, including one that led me back to L.A. in 1984 where the music bug struck again.

After scribbling some notes on a napkin, I locked myself in my Pasadena apartment for a weekend and came out with the blueprint for what was to become
the first multi-media music magazine. I called it Cymbiosis because it was a symbiotic merging of a magazine and a cassette tape (you remember those, don’t you?). On the tape was the music of 5-6 progressive (and some New Age) artists; in the mag were articles and interviews with those artists, as well as other articles, album and concert reviews. After four issues, the cassette was upgraded to CD, which was just starting to gain popularity and traction. Sadly, Cymbiosis suffered a premature demise (mostly because retailers didn’t quite know what to do with or how to market it) but, not before we had subscribers in 22 countries and were named on of the Top 25 magazines of 1986 by the esteemed Library Journal, a magazine that U.S. libraries use for ideas on what to put on their shelves. We also got a lot of great press via the Associated Press (AP), including a write-up in USA Today.

I kept my hand in writing for a variety of publications after that but again, responsibility called, this time by a wife and daughter. A career in business telecommunications took hold, but prog has always been an itch needing to be scratched.

The success of iTunes and Amazon certainly provided much of the impetus, but, it was what they
weren’t focused on – progressive music - that really provided the springboard for RockTunz.

And, throughout all the many trials and tribulations of this two and a half-year plus roller coaster, is my partner and fiancée, Tamie. Since I turned her onto prog over eight years ago, she has taken to it like no one I’ve
ever met. So much so that she’s made just as many new musical discoveries as I have. The student has, many times, become the teacher! She’s been in the financial services industry for virtually all of her professional life and has worked at one L.A.-based credit union for over 23 years now. In that time, she’s elevated herself to VP of Operations and has almost two-thirds of the 100-plus employees reporting to her. Without her business expertise, emotional support and love for this music, RockTunz would not
be possible!

What separates you from the competition in this business? Why would both musicians and consumers choose RockTunz over other similar sites?

[Ric Levine] Other than being a rabid fan, I’d have to say it’s our focus on the unheralded (and mostly, unknown) independent and unsigned artists from all over the world who create music out of love for the craft instead of the desire for that #1 hit. The word must be getting out because rarely a day goes by when we’re
not contacted by a new artist. We’ve added a dozen new artists since our launch this past November, not to mention the deal we just inked with a prog metal label that distributes its own and 20 smaller labels. Our access to new artists and their catalog just mushroomed!!

As far as RockTunz itself is concerned, we feature
90-second song samples
(rather than the usual 30-second snippets), biographies, reviews, interviews and a ton of videos. Sure, all this stuff can be found on the various artist sites, webzines and YouTube. But, now consumers and soon-to-fans won’t have to Google their fingers off, RockTunz will be the place to go. And, if we don’t have it, we’ll find it.

We’ve also created a unique search engine called The Rockommender, which essentially mirrors what I did as a record store clerk, DJ and writer. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve yet to see anything like it on other sites. But, more on that later.

Could you please tell us about your Center Stage feature on RockTunz? How you do you determine what bands are featured there?

[Ric Levine] Well, we certainly don’t need to rehash what MTV did for the music video or the
overwhelming success of YouTube. The public’s voracious appetite for music videos is what inspired me to put our Center Stage video player on our Home Page and, it’s basically the first thing visitors see. And they’re not just performance videos. We also have promos, interviews, behind-the-scenes sessions footage, even our first video album review. Stuff that fans have loved and craved for years…, front and center.

The quality and content determine what gets put on the Center Stage. Since I’m the sole arbiter at this point, they have to tickle my fancy in order to make the grade.

How does an artist get listed in your Top Tunz section?

[Ric Levine] At this point, it’s still up to me. Most of the time, they’re tied to the bands featured in our “So…What’s New?” section, giving visitors immediate access to a variety of styles and genres. As time goes on, the Top Tunz will reflect what our customers are buying and reviewing.

What is the purpose of The Rockommender function on RockTunz and how does it work?

[Ric Levine] As I mentioned earlier, The Rockommender is our search engine and an online version of what I used to do as a record store clerk: assessing people’s tastes and “rockommending” new music based on those tastes. As I’d be ringing up a customer’s purchases, I’d look at them and, if the timing and the vibe were right, I’d bring the customer out to the stacks and put new records in their hands. Being the manager, I could also tell them that if they didn’t like it, I’d buy it back from them. Believe it or not, I never had to issue a single refund. Needless to say, that one-on-one created a steady stream of repeat customers! Pandora has been doing the same thing for some time now, but on a
much more sophisticated level. From what I’ve learned about the original Music Genome Project, they will “look” at up to 400 different attributes of any given song and/or artist in order to determine how they form a listener’s “station.” Being completely self-financed limits what we can do, but, then again, we didn’t have computers at my stores in the dark ages, yet, somehow, we made it work.

So, the Rockommender offers guidelines, based on more popular “reference” artists, genres or country of origin. Say you like Genesis, Yes, Floyd, Metallica, Dream Theater, Yes or Rush. Find them in the “If you like this artist” column, click on it and, voila!, your Rockommendations appear. In addition to the more popular bands, we also have those who are more recognizable to prog fans. It’s important to note that these suggestions will
many of the characteristics of the band(s) you chose; they’re not intended to be sound-alikes. Besides, why duplicate when you can enhance or push the envelope a bit?

People are
always on the lookout for new tunz. That’s what drives the business. All it takes is a gentle nudge in one direction or another to aid them in their hunt. I mean, what do so many of us do after seeing a cool new movie or eating at a great new restaurant? We tell our friends – or they tell us as soon as possible! We love
sharing our latest finds. Just look at the mind-boggling success of Facebook and Twitter! :-)

Are you planning to add any new features to RockTunz in 2011?

[Ric Levine] Yes! Among them are text and social networking alerts tied to a customer’s choices in the Rockommender and a visitor’s forum or discussion board.

What we’re most excited about, though, is something we’ll most likely call “Tunz from the Vault.” Musicians and bands tend to write and record a
lot of material that, for one reason or another, never makes it onto their CDs. Maybe there wasn’t enough room on the CD, or a tune didn’t fit into the CDs flow or concept. In the last few years, many of those songs find their way onto remastered or reissued CDs as bonus tracks. But, CDs still have their limits. “Tunz from the Vault” will give fans a chance to discover these hidden gems; and artists the opportunity to rework and resurrect old ideas and maybe even collect a few extra bucks instead of dust. In addition to the downloads and CDs we sell, we’ll also be offering DVDs both as downloads and physical product.

Do you have specific short term and long term goals for 2011 and beyond?

[Ric Levine] The most immediate goal is getting our name out to the music-buying public and letting them know they have a cool niche alternative to the mega-sites. We also want to reach those fans of more mainstream bands - like the ones I mentioned earlier - and show them how their current favorites can lead to new ones. That’s where The Rockommender comes in, too. That’s his
job and why we pay him the big bucks!

The potential for RockTunz is quite staggering and exciting! Podcasts, live concerts, streaming live behind-the-scenes action. Who knows what this new-fangled technology will allow us to do! - is open for business, and is generating a buzz in and out of the music community. The web store focuses on all styles of rock (prog, classic, alt, hard rock, and metal) and has numerous features you won't find at other popular music web stores. Recently, Ric Levine, the man who single-handedly built RockTunz aside from some programming assistance, spoke with publicist Sandy Serge about his RockTunz web store - its inception, creation, features, and continual growth over the past years.

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