Brian Tappert and Marc Pomeroy talk exclusively to iDJ about the building of one of the world's biggest digital music retailers
Set up in 2004 by Soulfuric Records bosses Brian Tappert and Marc Pomeroy, Traxsource has gone on to become one of the biggest retailers of digital downloads on the whole gosh-darned internet. It's also built itself a reputation as the connoisseur's choice of online music store, an all-killer, no-filler shopping destination where generic EDM, brostep and house-by-numbers are conspicuous by their absence.
Yet while rival Beatport and parent company SFX Entertainment's ups and downs are seldom out of the dance music press, surprisingly little has ever been written about the site itself, with Marc and Brian generally opting to let the music do the talking instead. Now, though, with Traxsource's share of the download market growing week-by-week, they've decided to break their silence. And we're delighted that they've chosen this very publication as their vehicle for doing so.
So here, in Marc and Brian's own words, iDJ proudly presents: the Traxsource story...
Let's start at the beginning. When Traxsource started, you were already running one of the world's top house music labels. So what made you decide to open a download store? And did we hear that Axwell was something to do with it?
Brian Tappert: "Originally, Traxsource was conceived simply as an outlet for our records and our artists. Back around 1999/2000 I was travelling a lot to DJ, and Marc was travelling a lot, and we'd run into all these situations where we'd hear our own records three or four months before anyone should have them, when there were only a handful of test-pressings around. All these kids were playing records they shouldn't really have, and it came to our attention that the internet had produced the file-sharing situation.
"So it kind of just started as a sick feeling - it was like, we're a fledgling independent label, how are we going to survive? We tried everything, including selling CDs, but the distribution network didn't really support that. So initially we were trying to solve a problem, which was that there was a digital demand that we couldn't fulfill.
"Axwell was a young artist at this time, and he was much more clued-up about the internet than Marc or I were. And he said, 'Don't worry, somebody smart's going to figure out how to make money with these MP3 things'. And that began a long dialogue in the office between Marc, myself, Sheldon Prince and Axwell, trying to figure out that that could possibly look like. And that conversation took several years - about four or five years, in fact."
So once you decided to do it, how did the site get built?
BT: "Fundamentally, it was an evolution. We began with the concept of, how do we sell our label's music to our fans in a digital format? And it evolved over the course of those four or five years into a fully-fledged store. The challenges were countless, because you have to remember there was nothing to look at, there were no digital stores online. So we really were starting from a completely blank canvas and the challenges were vast."
Marc Pomeroy: "The truth is, we had no idea what we were doing! We had to learn everything. But Brian and I like a challenge, so we did our research and we wanted to do something which was true to how we liked to shop for physical vinyl. So one main focus was how do we build that, but online?"
But in terms of actually building the website, with all the HTML coding and so on, did you get someone in to build it, or send yourself off to coding school, or...?
MP: "Actually, we were already doing some coding and stuff during the Soulfuric years, but when Traxsource was being planned we brought some technical people in that filled in the gaps of what we didn't know how to do. One of those people is still our Head of Development today."
BT: "Marc's always been a very self-taught kind of guy. I remember when I first met him, back in 1992, he had this huge computer in his house. I didn't know anyone who had a computer, but he had all these big, thick books on programming, and he was working on this... thing for years. Then one day he was like, 'It's done' and it was this 3D rendering. That was what he did for fun. So don't believe him when he acts like he doesn't know what he's talking about!"
Now let's skip forward… how big's the Traxsource set-up today?
BT: "We're actually still pretty lean and mean compared to other operations. Me and Marc are still very hands-on, and always will be. I think we have 15 full-time people, plus a handful of freelancers and people who work for us part-time, like attorneys and accountants and people like that. But the core is 15 people and a lot of them have been here a long time - like Sheldon Prince, who's our longest standing staff member and our Director of Operations, he's been here since 1998 or 1999. He started with us when were running Soulfuric."
MP: "In terms of numbers, we have over half a million registered users now. We get around half a million unique visitors a month, and we have over 2.5 million tracks available to purchase on the site."
2.5 million! That's quite mind-blowing... which is where we talk quality. The perception seems to be that Traxsource is "the househead's dance music retailer". Is that a business strategy, as such, or just a function of your own taste in music?
BT: "I think about this all the time, and I think it's simply because that's who we are. When you're making records, the best record is the one you make for all the right reasons. And that's really what Traxsource is: we made it for the right reasons, so we make our musical choices for those same reasons. I don't really have any answer to that beyond, we do what we do because that's all we know how to do! And sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't."
MP: "I think it's just a result of how we've curated and populated the site over the years."
But there is an application/vetting process involved if a label want to sell their music on the site, isn't there?
BT: "Yes, we have a very intricate system combining technology and an A&R team that handles triage, basically, of all incoming music. It's pretty complicated but it's been developed over the years and it works pretty well. At the end of the day, we're not trendy in any way, we're just about quality and consistency. We see ourselves as a music store with the heart of an independent label. That means we have a very clear musical point of view and we select music to sell on the site in exactly the same way an independent label would choose what records it's going to release. We consider the people who handle the content A&R people, that's their job title. It's still a very analogue process – we listen to everything. Well, nearly everything, which is where the technology comes in."
So what are the red flags that would stop a track getting on Traxsource? Are there whole genres you wouldn't stock, for instance?
BT: "We've actually been trying to bring in more genres. But at the same time, we recognise that we can't sell everything, so we try our best to find music that fits with what we do. Saying that, it's impossible because many labels have such a wide range of content, and quite often to get one record you have to take on the whole catalogue. It's not like a record store where you could say, I'll take this record but not that one; when you do business with a label digitally you have to take everything."
What genres would you like to do more of, then?
BT: "Ha ha... after what genre a particular track is, this is THE most debated issue in the office! All I can say for sure is watch the site for massive improvements coming very soon to techno, drum & bass, electronica, minimal and more."
But you don't really do EDM to any great extent, do you?
BT: "That's putting it mildly! I would say we're the anti-EDM and always have been. It's just not our thing."
Are you never tempted? Because there's a lot of money in the EDM pot…
MP (firmly): "That's not what we're about."
BT: "Marc and I always say that if you're going into this business to make money, you'd be better off running a hotdog stand. It has to be a labour of love or it doesn't last. The whole EDM scene became about making money and greed and excess. And where we come from, in house music? It has nothing to do with that, it never did. House music celebrated freedom and togetherness, it has nothing to do with making a quick buck. So EDM just doesn't fit with what we do."
WHAT MAKES TRAXSOURCE SPECIAL
So if we talked about points that differentiate Traxsource from other online retailers, the first one would be a 'quality over quantity' approach?
So what would be the other factors? Let's talk about user experience, for example…
BT: "Well I think there's two parts to that: one would be musically and the other would be technically. We've covered a lot of the music points already, but basically if you like quality house and techno, then you don't have to look very far on our site to know we're the best, because everywhere you look on our site you're going to find great music, period. Technically... I'm going to let Marc handle that. What are our advantages, Marc?
MP: "Quite a lot, actually. Everything we've done with our infrastructrure is based on high-level music and ensuring that very thing you just mentioned is apparent. Even in how we portray the site... the music is always highlighted, there's not much screaming about the Traxsource brand, so when you go there, your first impression is it's all about the music. Also, as I said earlier, we wanted a record store like the ones we used to love, and everything about the site is geared towards that as well. That's why, when you go there, it's very easy to find the best stuff."
And related to that, of course, is genre classication. Certain other sites are notorious for their sometimes slapdash approach to how things are 'filed' or 'racked'; how do you ensure Traxsource does a better job of it?
BT: "Our A&R team works extremely hard to make sure our site stays orderly. It's no easy task, and there's often much internal debate about what is deep, what is tech and so on. Ultimately, we all view this task from the Traxsource point of view, meaning we try not to allow our own personal biases get into the equation. If you asked 100 DJs what genre a track is you're likely to get 100 different answers, so the question is very subjective. But for us, the question is always answered by choosing what makes the most sense to the customer."
What about the other stuff around the retail? There's a radio show, for a start...
BT: "Absolutely. Traxsource Live is our radio programme and our events... brand, though I wouldn't even call it a brand, really, it's just one leg of what we do. The radio show's just over a year old, we do it weekly for two hours and it's syndicated to around 40 radio stations and reaches 12, 13 million people a month. We have guest DJs every week, usually tied in with a strong release on the site, and usually either myself or John Julius Knight does the first hour.
"And as far as the events go, we're doing our very first event, a beach party, in Croatia this summer with Defected. We're finalisng the line-up now and it'll be artists that are important on the site. We'd like to do maybe four to six events a year, places like Miami, Amsterdam, Ibiza and BPM."
And you have editorial content on the site as well. Who's in charge of that side of things?
BT: "Currently that falls under our marketing manager, Magnus Bohlin. He's a Swedish guy living in London, he's been with us about eight months now and he's doing a wonderful job. The news site is stronger than ever, we have many freelance writers and photographers that we use and I'm really happy with the content we have right now."
One thing we notice you don't do is force endless 'recommendations' down users' throats…
BT: "Well, there's the Hype Chart and the Essential Collection every week, which are hand-selected recommendations. We've messed around with algorithms, and we do have a section that says Traxsource Recommends which is generated algorithmically, based on what you've bought and what you've listened to, and on related artists and labels. But the most important recommendations are the Hype Chart and the Essential Collection and they're hand-selected by our A&R team.
"Everyone has the algorithmic recommendations, but they don't really work that well to be honest. We really believe that the most important recommendations you're going to find are the featured releases – our curation is what separates us from the pack."
And what you're also not doing is streaming. Any plans?
BT: "No, we have no plans to go into streaming and we don't believe it's the future. If you read the headlines, it's very clear that no-one's making money from it. If anyone can show us a business model that makes sense, not only for the company providing the service but also for the record labels and artists, we'd be happy to talk about it. But so far we haven't seen that."
MP: "You see story after story where not only are sites closing down, the artists themselves are kicking off because they just can't make any money. A lot of that has to do with the business model, a lot has to do with the integrity of the company actually doing the streaming."
Could Traxsource not do it better, though? Many would say the trouble with Spotify, Apple Music et al is that they're run by computer geeks, who see music as a value in a data table, to be served and monetised. What if someone ran a streaming service from a music lover's point of view?
BT: "Yeah, that's great except there's no business model! If you want to look at the most successful example of a streaming site look at Spotify – the best they've done is lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year! It's not a business that actually makes money: the only winner is the company that can lose the most amount of money for the longest period of time. And I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like a smart business move to me!"
Okay, so we'll scratch 'streaming' off the list! What about physical sales? Some online retailers do physical mail order as well as downloads - why have you not opted to go down that route?
BT: "To be honest, being a physical store is not a business we would like to be in. We got into the retail game in order to solve a very specific problem for our labels, which was to fulfill the digital demand for the music we love. Being a retailer was a secondary result."
Given all the hype about the 'rebirth of vinyl' can you see that changing at any point?
BT: "That's a very romantic notion, and it's hard to say, but I don't think so. There's already plenty of great places to buy records and after living through vinyl's heyday we see this resurgence a bit differently. In a way it's the result of the digital world we live in today. People - younger people, especially - have been fed a devalued, low-bitrate experience for so long they have rebelled. And we get it, we lived it and understand, and we'll always cherish the memories we have along with our collections. But we have no plans to start selling mail-order vinyl, no."
Finally, what's going on with Soulfuric? Because as far as we can see, you haven't really done much with the label for a few years, and yet it never really closed either…
BT: "That's about right! It's interesting because lately there's a lot of interest in the catalogue all of a sudden. I think it's the nature of the times. So we've been talking to a powerful independent label about putting together a giant compilation, with all the best Jazz N Groove, Soulfuric, Urban Blues Project, Cleptomaniacs and Soulsearcher material on one big album. And it's pretty exciting, because when we started digging through it all, it was pretty impressive listening to it as a package."
So could you see Soulfuric coming back at any point as a regular, 'we put out a 12-inch a week'-type record label?
BT: "It's possible, we just need to put the right infrastructure in place and find the right partners. But right now it's starting to make more sense musically than it has for many, many years. We were releasing music up till about 2008-9, but then it started to feel like it was a struggle to balance everything, so basically the Traxsource monster ate Soulfuric! But now, with the musical winds shifting back, you might see a bit of a resurgence. We actually have a couple of remix packages planned that I'm talking to some of our favourite producers about, and we're in talks with people that could help us relaunch the brand, because I think the time could be right."
MP: "But I can honestly say that Traxsource demands all of our focus, and we wouldn't want to do an injustice to Soulfuric by giving it a half effort."
BT: "Yes, that would be the biggest challenge... what you loved about Soulfuric, what our fans loved, was a result of the fact that we put everything we had into it. So the challenge that we face now is to try and find enough hours in the day to do Soulfuric at the same time. They both demand every bit of our energy. I think in many ways, Marc and I run Traxsource the exact same way we made records, and the exact same way we ran the label. The only difference is now Marc is off in a room with a different type of keyboard!"
Words: Russell Deeks Pic: Diego Martinez-Conde
To check out Traxsource's Ibiza Hype Chart, click here