Exclusive: Interview with Friends of Friends Founder Leeor Brown

Music marketing guru and impresario Leeor Brown founded the Friends of Friends record label in March of 2009. It has already provided a window into the future of the record label industry, releasing digital-only content coupled with 100 percent organic T-shirts custom-designed by well-known artists. Friends of Friends Volume 1 features music by Daedelus and Jogger, and a t-shirt designed by husband and wife art-powerhouse, Kozyndan. FoF’s Friends of Friends Volume 2 features tunes by Larytta and Bauchamp, and a shirt by Tatiana Rihs. Flavorpill sat down with Leeor Brown for a Q&A about the Little Label That Could, and the past, present, and future of the music industry.

Flavorpill: How did Friends of Friends get its start?

Leeor Brown: I work for a company called Terrorbird Media, and have access a lot of awesome artists and deal with a lot of different labels on that level. It’s been something I’ve always wanted to tackle, and eventually, it got a lot easier to release records. I’d have to say I attribute it mostly to Daedelus, though. Once the idea hatched with us, he really kicked me in the butt, and if it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t have happened. He definitely pushed me along and really loved the idea, and wanted me to make it happen. That was pretty much it. I just wanted to take all this stuff that I’d learned through marketing and whatnot, and with all these artists I had access to, I wanted to get them out into the world and allow people to hear them. The goal was to try and do it in a different way.

FP: How did you come up with the name of the label?

LB: The “friends of friends” notion had been in my mind awhile. I’d originally wanted to do just digital-only singles where I would invite someone to do a song, and then have them invite someone else to do the other half. It expanded into the idea of doing an EP, and I realized we had to have a visual element, so I figured what better way to do it than to have the two people on the release invite a designer — make it even more “friends of friends” and tell an entire story at once?

The whole idea was to think, “How did I come across records before I was doing industry stuff?” and it always had to do with labels I trusted, with artists who I trusted — like if they were making guest appearances on other people’s records and things like that. And also, just the visual element of the release — all those things kind of went into my decision to create the label as I did.

FP: Who are some of those labels that you trusted?

LB: I’d say one that has a lot to do with what I’m doing is Ghostly International. One of the things I heard Sam Valenti say once really intrigued me: the idea that electronic music isn’t a genre, it’s a way of making music. And I feel like my label aesthetic would be similar to that,. We’re really into electronic stuff, but nowadays, everything can be considered “electronic music.” I think another label that I’ve been a huge fan of would be DFA — their incestuous nature, the way they kind of work together. They’re all homies, they’re all a team, but on top of that, they try to find really cool stuff they like from overseas to bring here. It’s kind of the same idea that I’m trying to run with as well.

FP: Describe the process of signing an artist, from start to finish, for those unfamiliar with your label.

LB: In the early stage, we wanted to tell a very precise story as to what a Friends of Friends release was. It would be me having contact with a friend of mine — in this case, the first release was Daedelus, and the second release are my homies Larytta, who are from Switzerland. I go to whoever I want to invite and I say, “I’m putting together a project — Friends of Friends. It’s may not be a huge money-making opportunity, but it’s definitely an opportunity to get your stuff seen, to put out a release in a unique and different way, and to do something really fun and cool and have an awesome artistic outlet where you can do more than just make songs.”

So ultimately, I invite them in. They are then essentially the curator of the release, and invite someone to do the other half. For the first three EPs, we’re doing six songs — three songs from the friend I invite, and then three songs from the friend they invite — and then they get together and invite a designer to do a limited-edition t-shirt design. The shirts come with a seed-paper download card with little seeds in it, so if you plant it, it’s biodegradable and actually grows a little plant.

I wanted to do something that was unique, but also waste-free, because the old music industry was just so wasteful. It just seems so ridiculous now, to look back and think about how many CDs and fliers and posters and all this crap was just being thrown around to promote the releases, where we haven’t actually burned up one CD promo. Every bit of promotion I’ve done has been completely digital. So the whole idea was to try to keep it as waste-free as possible.

FP: So you don’t release anything on vinyl or CD?

LB: No CDs for sure. Vinyl is something that will happen. I’m actually a vinyl nut, I absolutely love vinyl. Initially, when I started the label, I was in a very heavy debate as to whether I wanted to do T-shirts or vinyl — the t-shirts being more expensive. Ultimately I went with the t-shirts because it made a real impact, and I thought it was a unique idea that people hadn’t been doing. It was right on the cusp of what was happening in the industry. So I figured I’d launch with that and see if we can get some people noticing it. I feel like it definitely worked out.

For some of the releases coming up, I have a different scheme. I’m actually putting out a full-length in February, from a producer named Ernest Gonzales from San Antonio. This project is going to be our first proper full-length, and we definitely went above and beyond for this one. We are putting together a whole compilation of cover songs — different artists are covering every song on his record — and we’re also getting artists to do their interpretation of every song on the record. There will actually be a .pdf art booklet that comes with the digital download as well, and a book that’s going to be available for purchase. It’s going to be a limited run of actual books that will come with a download code, so you get the album and the covers album if you buy the art book, and then there is also going to be vinyl this time around, where you get the .pdf art book, the covers album, and the album itself — all if you purchase the vinyl.

FP: You’re more than a music label, offering a way of life through selling apparel, décor, and more. Was this a reaction to the digitization of the music industry, or do you think it’s something you’d have done even if you were physically selling the music primarily on vinyl or CD?

LB: I believe that at the end of the day, I would have started a label of my own, just because I really do love music. I love working with the guys that I work with; I’ve always wanted to help out these artists. It’s kind of why I got into PR to begin was, to try to help the people I really believe in get out and do good things with their music. For me, I do feel like I would have done the label anyways. It just wouldn’t have been able to happen in the same way, just because of the financial nature. There’s no doubt that the innovative side of the label is coming as a direct reaction to the digital movement.

The t-shirt idea was a direct reaction against all the stuff that’s happening with digital, ’cause you can’t download a t-shirt. If you want to go find the music, it’s available everywhere for free. I’m not stupid, I know how it goes — I could name five sites that have it there for free right now. But if you want to support the artist, then you can either buy the album on iTunes for $6, or you can buy the shirt for $30 and get all of the stuff. We’re also trying to give different tiers, too — you can either buy the book, or the vinyl, or just the MP3s, just to give people ways to support the artists, because that’s really what it’s about.

If we’re talking about the general sales conversation, it just seems so dated, because it’s a record-label concept. It’s not about artists and the movement. Like you said, it’s more like a lifestyle. I think of Friends of Friends, hopefully, as something that can build into a lifestyle-type thing, because all we’re doing is throwing shows and releasing music in ways that we would have liked to buy them, so it’s kind of an extension of that.

FP: Who are some of the artists you are most excited about to have on your label?

LB: I have a release coming out September 15, Friends of Friends Volume 2, so it’s our second proper release. [Larytta] is a Swiss duo that I am in love with. I did PR for their album Difficult Fun last year, and it felt like it was the most criminally slept-on album of last year, by far. I just think that people missed out on that record for no real reason. They’ve got a very quirky, hot-shit vibe — just a little less smooth, a little quirkier. There’s just something about them that I’ve just been in love with, so the fact that they agreed to be the second release kind of blew me away.

I’m putting out a release with this kid named Shlomo out of LA. I know, it’s hilarious. I think his first EP is going to be Shlo Motion, which is hilarious, too, because he makes really wonky beat stuff, kind of like Nosaj Thing or something.

And then Ernest Gonzales. Those three are my next big things, and I’m pretty excited about all of them, I have to say. I’m most excited about hopefully becoming an outlet for people to learn about new stuff. Obviously, I’m going to try to work with well-known artists, but for me, so much of it is about trying to discover new stuff, and then having them put their friends on and finding a cool, easy, word-of-mouth thing that’s just a lot more direct than, say, what the blogs are about. It could be a direct outlet for people.

FP: How has your own experience as a DJ affected how you curate music for the label?

LB: That’s a tough question. I’d have to say it doesn’t, really. It’s weird, ’cause originally, I thought it would a lot more, especially when I started. I’d initially envisioned this as more of a dance label, and the first release was that way. I asked Daedelus and Jogger to make dance tracks. The second release, I would say, is pretty dancey as well. But the Shlomo and Ernest Gonzales stuff isn’t so much. I’m a big fan of the music representing your mood, and I like a lot of different shit and go through a lot of different moods. I DJ a lot of upbeat stuff, a lot more disco and electro, but the label won’t take on those forms. I’d say the DJing affects our parties more than the releases.

FP: What does the future hold for Friends of Friends?

LB: I think what’s awesome about the model and the parties, and all this stuff that I’m trying to get done, is that the future is so open-ended. I love that that’s where we’re going with this. When I talk to somebody about a release now, it’s like, “How can we make this an interesting Friends of Friends release?” and it becomes a discussion, it becomes this process where we’re working on something together. That’s how this Shlomo thing just happened. I literally just heard his EP probably three, four weeks ago, for the first time. I hit him up on email, and next thing you know, we’re talking about how we’re going to put out a Friends of Friends release, and how it can be Friends of Friends-themed as well.

FP: It sounds like you’re on the frontier of a new record label model. It has got to be really exciting.

LB: To be completely honest, that’s the best part — that I do feel like we’re kind of doing our thing, and it’s a little scary, yeah, but at the same time, our overhead is so low. That’s my whole goal. When I talk to these artists, they know I’m not putting a lot of money behind the releases, but that’s the point. Let’s find a way to not spend that much money. The whole Friends of Friends notion, if we set up a release properly, is like we’re almost putting together a small podcast or radio show or something. People used to go to radio to hear something that’s different presented in a unique way.

For me, radio is obviously dying; the blogs tend to be either very emotionless or personality-less. Half of them are copying press releases on the site, you know? For me, this is a way to present a story intact, and let people jump in and involve themselves in the story, if they want. That’s why with the first release, we did a big remix contest, too. I want people to get involved. There’s been a few people who have hit up Friends of Friends based on hearing some of the releases, and I have three of them either doing remixes or covers on upcoming releases. There are so many people making cool stuff right now, why not be open to that kind of stuff, and put them on immediately, and make it kind of this expanding network?

Friends of Friends Volume 2 comes out September 15. Fans are invited to download the Lazer Sword remix of Larytta here. On September 10 Friends of Friends, Flavorpill & Filter will host an evening of music by Lazer Sword, Rainbow Arabia, Hecuba & Ghosts on Tape @ Echo.

Photo credit: Maud Constantin