Usually when you’re surfing the web looking for information, you’ll start
at one point, then click to other links, then to other references, winding
your way though sites gathering the bits of data and information you need
to answer your questions. But once in a while, you’ll find a site that
answers ALL your questions in one spot, like
Since launching in 1995, rftc.com has grown and grown, with massive databases
cataloging almost every show, stories from fans, tour dates, photos, gossip,
merchandising, discographies, and side projects. The site became an instant
magnet for Rocket’s cult-like fanbase — a textbook for the uninitiated
and a bible for the diehard. To this day, the site has about 6500 unique
visitors a month. If you haven’t visited, we encourage you to take a look
We interviewed Bill in late January about the creation of rftc.com and,
more generally, about the valued role that the internet can play in the
independent community. I dragged Bill away from his interactive media
K = Kristin Thomson
B = Bill Litfin
K: As you know, The Machine’s goal is to investigate the new tools and services that bands and labels can use via the internet. We wanted to talk to you in particular because you’re involved in something that didn’t really exist before — internet-based fan sites. I mean, people have run fan clubs in the past, but the internet seems to take the notion of the fan club and allows you to build something much broader and with a lot more potential than the typical fan club could ever imagine. Is the internet an entirely new way to express these interests, and what are the benefits of it?
B: I think it definitely is. There’s an immediacy to the internet that you can’t get anywhere else. Because of the nature of HTML, you can go in, make changes to a page and instantly the entire world can see it, whereas with a fanzine or any kind of fan club literature you’ve got to go through desktop publishing, have it printed and then distributed — there’s no immediacy to that. There are fan clubs out there — even other Rocket ones — where you might get just one piece of mail or a postcard in the span of a year just because, chances are, the band is doing it themselves and they’re doing it on their own time, and they’re trying to make a living otherwise. Whereas the web will allow bands and labels that run their own sites to post their information immediately, even timely information. You see bands that do tour reports from the road with pictures and images and, if a band is on an East Coast tour or a West Coast tour and you’re a fan in the midwest who can’t see them, it gives you a feeling of intimacy with the band that you can’t get otherwise. That’s really special for the web user and the fan.
K: How and why did you actually start the Rocket from the Crypt website?
B: I’ve actually been a fan of Rocket since Circa Now! came out. I worked at a record store in Cincinnati, OH and I remember that album coming in as a promo in ‘93. I played it to death, to the point that the manager of the store just gave it to me and said, “Just take it home. I don’t want to hear it any more.” I hadn’t been a fan before — but I knew there was some connection between them and this band Drive Like Jehu — and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is going to be one of those bands that puts out an album and then I never hear from them again.”
Then I moved to Columbus, OH in 1995, which was on the heels of them putting
out The State of the Art is On Fire and Hot Charity. Immediately following
those they put out Scream, Dracula, Scream and I found out they were going
to be in town on that tour. I had moved to Columbus to take a job at another
interactive company. At the time the web was still considered a bit boutique-y
— nobody was doing anything real yet, but at this company we were allowed
to have a personal website, so… You know, I think one of the first things
people do when they come to the web is look for things they like, so they’ll
type in a band name or something they collect into a search engine, so
I typed in Rocket From the Crypt, given the timeliness of them being on
tour, and nothing came up. Well, the San Diego Rocks site came up, which
was something but — and not harshing on
K: It must have started snowballing almost immediately. Considering the amount of information that’s on the website about old tours, side projects and show reports it must have take some collaboration with other fans and the band to get that information. Can you tell me about that?
B: I started just doing it on my own but some people at work said I should try to contact the band and see if they would support it. So, through a mutual friend I got a hold of Greg Jacobs (aka Ribeye), their old manager. I told him what I was doing and that they could support it, or not, but I was going to keep doing it regardless. So I sent the band some printouts and they said it was cool and that they would support it, but they didn’t want it to be “official.” They thought they might lose some credibility with that…
K: Hmm…that’s interesting. I’m sure that opinion changed after a while.
B: Yeah, it did. It was early enough in the life of the web that they didn’t want to appear geeky or anything.
The first thing that got the snowball going was creating the
K: But how did you collect all the dates of the shows they’d played as well as the bands they played with? I mean, it goes back to 1992.
B: I started doing that about three years ago by going through
the tons of press information and old tour itineraries that
K: So how much email do you get in general, in your role as an assumed conduit to the band?
B: I get a lot surrounding rumors and stories, mostly because I think the website has taken on a life of its own. It’s become this kind of be-all end-all to some people who think that the band is more involved with the site than they actually are. I get questions addressed to the band and we get people emailing that want to set up shows with Rocket. The most asked question is, “When is Rocket coming to…” insert town here. That gets frustrating because you get tired of writing, “look at the tour dates section. I post them when I know them.”
K: Well, how do you get *that* information? Does their booking agent forward dates to you?
B: Sometimes I get it from their management, sometimes I get it from the band. The last dates they did on the East Coast were sponsored by Gigmania so I got those dates from them. I knew they were doing some dates in January, but I got a call from somebody at Gigmania who told me the actual dates. You know, the band tries to keep me informed as best they can but the website is not their primary focus.
K: Just from browsing the web myself I’ve seen a huge variety of representations of bands on websites: either there’s specific web pages that they run themselves, or there’s somebody who runs a site for them, or the label takes on the responsibility. I’ve got to say that the Rocket site is probably the most extensive site I’ve ever seen that’s dedicated to one band. Have you come across similar sites that have that much depth?
B: Honestly, no, but it’s the product of probably four or five years of work and we haven’t really thrown much away. I mean, the last time we changed the way the site looked was almost three years ago, but now it’s so big that it would take forever to change the way it looked. There are enormous sections of the site that are dynamically generated out of database content — even the whole War Stories thing is in a database…
K: What do you think the site has done for the band? I mean, they have a definite following and they try to maintain a certain image, and I think the website helps to bolster it. Being a Rocket fan is like being in a club, and all the cool kids know about it, and the website is *really* cool because there’s so much information there for fans.
B: Rocket, whether they intend to or not, have a special connection to their fans that a lot of other bands don’t have and, I think it’s like you said, they are a “major label” act but they don’t act like it. I’ve seen Rocket numerous times and they’ll stop to talk to anybody, whether it’s a kid who’s seeing them for the first time and is completely overwhelmed to somebody’s who’s seen them six or eight times, and chances are they’ll recognize that person. I’ve seen them in half a dozen cities and they’ve got friends everywhere, even if it’s just a handful of people they see when they are on tour. They will talk to anyone anywhere though… one of the most approachable and personable bands you will ever meet. I’ve seen Speedo put people he doesn’t know from Adam on the guestlist for the next night without a hesitation. “Hey,” he’ll tell me, “we don’t know many people in this town… why not make some friends?” They are the everyman’s band.
K: There’s plenty of tools that the internet can offer bands and small labels, and I think it’s all a matter of how far you’re willing to take it. rftc.com is almost an extreme example of the best and most efficient uses of some of the tools available. If you had to boil it down to a few things, what do you think are the best new technologies available on the internet that bands and small labels should take advantage of?
B: Well, websites in general first, but if you just want to talk pure technology, then MP3s.
K: Why’s that?
B: It’s more or less a portable format, because you can email or FTP it to somebody, or put it up on a website for somebody to download. It’s become a de facto standard without being a standard. Windows has the WMA format, AT&T has the a2b format — these are other formats that just haven’t caught on. I know there are a number of sites out there that are trying to make progress the “selling” of MP3s, like emusic.com…
K: Do you think that’s going to work?
B: I think it will eventually. I also have a friend who has another site called orangealley.com that’s trying to do something different with licensing. They’re trying to dance between the 99¢ download and also offering licensing things that discourage piracy.
K: Are they using a secure format, then?
B: No, it’s a scenario where there’s parallel systems. You can download an MP3 for 99¢ and get a license to play it for personal use, but you can also choose to pay $2.99 for an MP3, which gives you the option to legally make and distribute as many copies as you want of the song. It’s legal bootlegging, so that service is called ‘BootLegal’ license. When you give a copy of a song to a friend, if they keep it and enjoy the music, they should go to the website and pay the 99¢, and you as the original downloader gets a kickback. It encourages honesty because of money. If it passes on and somebody comes back and re-registers it, you as the original downloader gets a kickback, and the artists get their fair share.
K: But the thing that scares me about MP3s is the notion that may begin to take hold that all music should be free to download. If this precedent gets set it will make it very hard for artists to be fairly compensated.
B: I think, if unchecked, that’s the direction it will go. There’s certainly people ripping MP3s illegally and sending them to their friends. But I look at it as the glass is half full. If somebody sends me an MP3 from a band I’ve never heard and I like it, I’ll go and buy the CD. I have tons of CDs that I’ve gotten that way. Certainly for an indie band that doesn’t get regular radio airplay, even in a market like Columbus, OH that’s supposed to be “indie-friendly” although it’s not. For example, I have friends all over the world who send me MP3s and if I like it I spend the next two weeks trying to track down the CD. But I think the whole viability of selling MP3s is something that’s worth waiting out to see what happens because, in some way, shape or form the industry is going to have to move to allow digital delivery of music. Whether it’s through MP3s or some other format that’s going to emerge in the next six months, we just don’t know yet. More or less it’s up to the people to decide, you know, whatever people are willing to do.
K: Right, but that’s the weird part. I think people will always take the less cumbersome path. Is it worth the hassle of charging 49¢ on your credit card to download a song? They might just say, “well, it’s 49¢ but I’ve gotta type in my information and it takes so much time, and I don’t feel like doing it.” Until we get to the point that a micro-payment plan is built in and that the charging becomes almost invisible, I think the money collection is a burden that most people are not willing to accept, considering that this entire process started with huge amounts of music being available for free. But there’s plenty of other scenarios that are starting up — subscriptions, licensing things….
B: Yeah, the guys at orangealley.com have a great idea, but will it ever catch on? We’ll have to wait and see. I mean, are people willing to pay a little more for a song if they think that they can get a kickback by giving it to a friend and getting that friend to pay for it?
K: If you were going to give advice to a band or a small label that was setting up their website, what would you suggest are the most essential components to incorporate?
B: Well, I think letting people hear the music is important. If you’re a band or a label, a news section. And, if your news is updated frequently, it will give the users the impression that there’s a lot of things going on. That’s a frustration that I have as a user, you know, you go to a website that you really enjoy and the information never changes….
K: Yeah, and the news say, “Happy Halloween” or something…
B: And getting back to something I said earlier, the immediacy of the web is something that’s not being taken advantage of in that case. So, the music and the news…You debate the whole “links” thing. Some sites have great collections of links, and it can help some more unknown bands and small labels “place” themselves by who they link to. So, that’s a toss up because links pages in the past year have become the like the Surgeon General’s warning on websites…the thing that everyone has but nobody bothers to read.
K: But what about links to a supplier, like to CDNow or another retailer that’s selling your stuff? Myself, I think the personal connection between the band and its fans should be cultivated instead of being farmed out to a faceless e-commerce site. But what do you think about that? I mean, I’m used to the idea of maintaining that connection, by doing mailorder and so on, but a lot of bands just don’t have the time or the interest in doing that.
B: Right. There’s incentive for a webmaster to make those e-commerce links, because all of those sites have affiliate programs that pay you for click-thrus to them. I put one up at one time on the Rocket site to see how that could benefit me and I think, to date, I’ve gotten about $6 in credit, which is humorous. We do have all their merchandise up, which the band sells themselves through Speedo’s Army. For them it’s typically t-shirts and vinyl releases, and I’m sure that part of the site is woefully out of date because their merch folks haven’t sent me information in a while.
K: That also changes so fast with them…
B: Back to the website essentials. I think for a label, a list of the current and upcoming releases is important, especially for somebody starting out. You may have only a few things to post, but if you’ve got stuff in the works you certainly want to be talking about it. For a band, a discography section.
K: How about a mailing list?
B: A mailing list is good, both the email and the snail mail version,
but it has to be something you’ll want to keep up with. You know, I’ll
submit my email address to a lot of small labels mailing lists and sometimes
I get a lot of email —
K: Really? That’s cool. I think that just reinforces the idea that we’ve already talked about — the incredible power of information-sharing and collaboration in building the website. On rftc.com I see that you can now link to guitar tablatures, and there’s so much band history and information about side projects. I’m sure, over the years, you’ve probably gotten thousands of emails that contain information that feeds into the website and pushes the content forward. Would you agree with that?
B: Oh yeah, conservatively I’d guess I get about 1000 emails a year concerning the website, but that’s including people saying, “When is Rocket going to play?”
K: Last question. Why do you think websites are important things for bands and labels to build and maintain? What are the lasting results?
B: Well, aside from rftc.com I’ve got the
K: …meaning that these were callers who had a preconceived notion
about Jade Tree based on visits to their incredibly professional
B: Well, that the website is a tool the in arsenal that you can use to make yourself appear very professional and very legitimate.
K: And you can turn it around the other way. I’ve been to a lot of major label band sites that look pretty bad, and it makes the label look uninformed.
B: It probably has to do with the target audience for the music. A major label that’s got a zillion different genres of acts has to speak to everybody, whereas a small indie that’s pidgeon-holed into garage, or emo or whatever, can really speak to its following really succintly. In that case, a little bit of effort into a website goes a long way.
K: Well said. A little bit of effort does go a long way. Thanks, Bill!