By Dale W. Eisinger
The headquarters of one of the longest-running independent record labels in America– and certainly the longest in its genre – is hidden in a squat orange warehouse on Fourth Avenue at First Street in Gowanus. The graffiti-scrawled space houses Projekt Records, run by Sam Rosenthal since he founded the brand in 1983.
With asymmetrical black hair, a small, wiry frame, and strong, jutting features, Sam could play the part of a late-90’s emo kid, perhaps without the naïveté. Then again, who knows? His label has consistently released music into a niche market of dark and introspective listeners. Often, both the music and the audience are described as Goth, a term somewhat negatively associated with mall-core, if not for theatrics or want of a more practical worldview. In critical circles, arguing the more juvenile of Goth, emo or death metal is like naming shades of gray – obsessions with new-Romantic motifs the three share seem to have run their course. But Sam, and by extension Projekt, happens to be more pragmatic about his business than Goth implies. And besides – it’s only a label.
“Goth was an appropriate description of who was listening to it. But the music itself… it’s always been more the mood,” Rosenthal said on a cold Tuesday in January from the Projekt office, cluttered with old Projekt promo posters, boxes and boxes of CDs, and even a box of Projekt-embossed coffee mugs.
A father of one – Sasha, seven – Sam dresses all in black: a two-toned striped hoodie, a Projekt T-shirt, jeans, and Chelsea boots. In a way he’s fitting a role, but a decidedly different one. Projekt is known as the premier independent American label putting out Goth, but the term isn’t all-inclusive. He rifled around for others, post-punk and coldwave among them.
Really, there are numerous sides to Projekt’s sound and one term alone doesn’t give any of them a fair shake: there’s the drifting, zoned-out ambience, led by Steve Roach and As Lonely As Dave Bowman; the straightforward dark rock by Autumn’s Gray Solace, Melodyguild, Mira, and others; the subtle new wave in the electronic etch of Android Lust and others. Rosenthal also coined the terms darkwave and dark cabaret, performance genres non-existent 25 years ago. Today on Projekt, Voltaire and Rosenthal’s own band Black Tape For A Blue Girl lead the charge in that department.
And you’ve probably heard none of that.
That’s the strange dichotomy of Projekt – while nothing in its catalog stands out to most these days as even familiar, the label is still trucking right along. In the midst of a critical minefield, a genre known more for style than music, and a catalog of relative unknowns, the label is in as good a place as ever, at least as far as putting out music goes.
Even with a massive downturn in sales at the end of the last century, the label has more recently gone through exponential growth. In 1999, Projekt released its one-hundredth recording; in 2009 the label put out number 230. So after nearly thirty years of operation, there is no sign of letting up. Again: you’ve probably not heard much, if any, of it.
“I often think I’m the only one who has heard everything on the label,” he said.
After 27 years at the helm of Projekt, it’s still hard for even Sam to pin down the label’s ethos.
“It’s been more diverse than what other people think. The ambient fans sort of think of it as this ambient label. The Voltaire fans think it’s a Goth label with some weird ambient stuff,” he said.
Projekt began as an avenue to release Sam’s own music, which he described in the beginning as “mopey and non-mainstream,” insisting there wasn’t a name for the sounds that interested him back then. His band has put out 10 proper full-length releases of orchestrated, melancholy rock, driven by theatrical vocals and dark waves of synth. Couple this with insistent arpeggios on a couple acoustic instruments—mainly piano and guitar—and you’ve got the bulk of much of Projekt’s sound.
But then there is the swirling, electronic ambient, lulling the listener into hypnotic states. And the big wall-of sound shoegaze that appears from time to time as well. Projekt’s records can be listless, unidirectional at times, but when trying to relate this darker side of personal affect, epiphany isn’t the most important aspect; these artists seem content at the bottom of the manic wave.
“I’ve been doing this for my entire adult life. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Rosenthal said.
What began as a hobby for Rosenthal in college quickly turned into his full-time job. He distributed Projekt Records out of his house in Los Angeles while pursuing his film degree. The label grew organically, and before long he had a couple employees. Projekt advertised free catalogs in the back of Spin and other magazines, amassing a database of some 40,000 interested listeners. Soon after, he had an office. And not long after that again, Projekt began its trek east, landing in Chicago in the 90’s.
“In Chicago it kind of went crazy. I had eleven employees and lots of expenses and I found myself all day being in charge of the employees then working all night to get my own work done.”
Now, with declines in sales in the wake of a collapsing music industry, Sam has two employees. One of them is Shea Hovey, who runs promotions and is a formidable presence. A taller woman with neon-pink bangs and tufts of blue gracing her face, tendrils of silver and azure tumble from her head like electric dreadlocks. She is pierced to the nines and strikingly beautiful in an unconventional way. Shea runs most the electronic correspondence directed at the label – its main way of now conducting business. They still send out CDs the old-fashioned way in labeled boxes the postman has to pick up.
Rosenthal predicted the collapse of the major labels in a 2000 interview, saying back then the big labels were too caught up in profit and not focused enough on artist relations. This led the RIAA to the wrong course of action against Napster and other file-sharing sites that hit the scene around that time – a huge part of Projekt’s loss has been illegal downloads.
“Now a band that used to sell 10,000 maybe sells 2,000. But it does keep the music flowing, keeps it coming out,” Sam says. “And legal digital sales have been growing to make up monetarily for the difference. Obviously less units are being sold, but artists are still being compensated that way.”
Even still a little timid about what he does and the success he’s culled over three decades, Sam admits he had a different idea about how downloading music would benefit record sales.
“I had more of a utopian belief in the positive benefits of it,” he said. “I thought digital was a great thing because people would hear the music and they would love it so much they would run out and buy it – not so.”
Ultimately, his prescience in the fate of the industry led him to Brooklyn to completely downsize his operation.
“Projekt is the easiest now in Brooklyn, even though it’s probably the most expensive place to live. I mean I live three blocks from here. I walk my son to school next to the Gowanus Canal. It’s all sort of like a small town because I really stay in a small area.”
Above the Projekt office is its distribution warehouse, an expansive space lined with thousands and thousands of cataloged CDs. They are stacked ceiling high in some spaces, all packed neatly into cardboard boxes and labeled meticulously by hand. There’s an old Apple IIE crammed between a couple boxes (the office now uses iMacs) and an entire room is filled with freeze-dried coffee (the last tenant left it, Sam organized it). At the back of the warehouse, there’s a smaller room with a covered window letting in shafts of blue light. A solitary leather jacket, Motorhead-style with big lapels and a clunky zipper, sags on a wire hanger, looking eerie in the gloom. Sam picked it up in Mexico years ago, and hasn’t worn it in ages.
“It’s just not long enough – I can’t stay warm as I’d like.”
And somehow, that’s the perfect metaphor for the entire operation: while there could be another level of stylistic posturing going on, in the end, Sam just wants to get done what he needs to get done. Yes, Projekt tends to be a label pigeonholed for something beyond its tunes. But defining success to Rosenthal is as simple some days as choosing the right jacket, letting nine employees go, or knowing when to cut your losses on the retail market. He is Projekt Records, and Projekt Records is him, plain and simple.