Jay Smiles answered the phone, picking up right where he left off….but this was the first time we had ever spoken. A few days earlier Jay had left me a panic-driven yet endearing voicemail; before the message had ended, I had already made up my mind. Before calling him back, however, I gave it a few days to convince myself otherwise. I reached out to friends who had toured with The Movement and asked what they thought, hoping they would knock some sense back into me.
First I spoke with Nate Edgar, bassist of John Brown’s Body. I told Nate that I thought The Movement was going to ask me to be their manager and that I was straight up scared. The band’s reputation had always intimidated me, and I didn’t know how I could ever hang hard enough to be a real part of their lives. Nate said “wow man… hmm, ya know Seth those guys are really really good, the drum and bassy really kill it, but yeah man…hmmm management for those guys, that could be a tough one.”
Then I called James Searl, bassist of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. James confirmed my fears right way. He wasted no time saying “I am pretty much sure that The Movement is the wildest band that we have ever toured with. No, for real Seth…you know all those rock and roll documentaries- crazy stuff happens, and The Movement is the only band I know of that has actually lived that lifestyle.” James went on to say something like, “the thing is I can’t help but love them though, seriously. I am a fan and I think the music they make is authentic and really fucking good. It would be right to work with them.”
I called Jay back and he picked back up where we had never actually started before, skipping the pleasantries and going straight into a mid-sentence cadence. The ending of that conversation marked the beginning.
The next year was a blur. It took a long time for things to settle; old habits die hard. I spoke with former booking agents, managers, as well as friends and fans of the band. They all shared similar stories: The Movement has a complicated history, one that I may never fully understand.
We had some false starts which culminated in six weeks of silence. 2014 ended with prayers, 2015 opened with promises. The band was back and Josh was healthy.
When The Movement returned to the studio to work on their sixth album, they were under the wings of producer Danny Kalb and multi-instrumentalist Matt Goodwin. For two weeks the band lived in a recording studio at the end of a long dirt road in the rolling hills of Virginia. Surrounded by fields and goat pastures, and with a fridge full of vegetarian food and kombucha made in Charlottesville, the band started recording. By September, the mixes were almost finished.
The band stopped by our office which is in the back of a coffee shop, inside an art park. The agenda had one line item: how did The Movement want to release their album? As the discussion shifted to the budget for the album, the band’s business manager projected a P&L statement on the wall. Gary and Jay’s eyes got wide; Josh sat there twirling a pen. The all-too familiar and formal conference room, and the establishment ideology that it implies, was beginning to dissolve by the minute. Who were we kidding? The meeting was not really about business, it was about getting together to eat Tacos…the cat was already out of the bag- The Movement had just finished recording the greatest album of their career, and we were all equally anxious to share it.
I told the guys that there was label interest, and I waited to see their reaction. To my surprise there was none. With the pen still twirling in his hand and a knowing smirk on his face, Josh looked up and said “we want to release this album through Rootfire. You guys were there for us. We are family and we want to fly the Rootfire flag.”
In the next breath I told Josh, Jay, and Gary that doing so would be an honor.
A few days later my wife Erin and I took a bicycle ride in the hills outside Naples, New York, the village where I grew up. As we climbed the longest hill of the day, I thought back on the last ten years of my life spent managing bands and helping release music. I wondered what it would be like riding my bike on those same roads ten years into the future, and I thought: What could I do right now, that I would look back on and be most proud of?
Part III (A)
The next week I was home in Charlottesville, VA, having breakfast with my friends Annakalmia (Kal) and Alex from the band Rubblebucket. We had met years before at the University of Vermont (UVM) in the basement of Slade Hall, a cooperative dorm where Phish played their first gig. As we sat around the kitchen table that morning I shared the idea of a record label that would operate under an alternative currency model- one more akin to the gift economy. It would lend artists money for producing, marketing, and manufacturing their music. The artist would collect income from their album sales directly from the distributor, and make payments back to a cooperative on the interest free loan. Kal approved and said something like “I think about how as a musician, the decisions that I make now will affect me when we are 60 years old, and how much pressure there is to get it all right when we sign a record deal.”
Hearing these words from a friend who has put art first in her own life, this fact remains true: music should be the driving force in the music industry, not money.
Part III (B)
The most significant experience I had at UVM was working on a sugarcane farm in Honduras. I was there with a group of students whose purpose was to calculate the rate of evaporation that happens when sugar cane is heated and turned into sugar. We collected evidence to show that if the farmers adopted the same technology used by maple syrup manufacturers in Vermont, they would significantly reduce the amount of fuel required to produce sugar. If farmers adopted this type of technology they could burn their discarded sugarcane as fuel instead burning wood or tires. The only problem was that this technology required new equipment, which was a significant expense.
So a group of farmers formed a cooperative which would lend money to its members for the purchase of new equipment. The effect was enormous and eventually led to the production of the first certified organic sugar in Honduras, as well as to the creation of local laws banning the burning of tires. I saw firsthand the power that a cooperative could have.
Then things clicked. I thought…what if we think of artists like farmers and albums like sugar…and then… a cooperative could make micro-loans to artists, directly empowering the artists and their businesses.
The seed of this idea had been planted, and I soon became obsessed with it. The next step would be securing the financial support to get things going.
By this time, Rootfire had formed a deep partnership with Ineffable Music Group. To pull off funding for the Cooperative, we would need full support from the owners of Ineffable or we could never afford to fund the initial investment in it. I wrote to Thomas, Igor, Matt, and Dan, and asked if they would back the idea. Their response was immediate and decisive. “This is incredible,” Thomas said. “We have to do it.”
The following day I sent Josh, Jay, and Gary the terms for the Rootfire Cooperative. As we talked on the phone together a few hours later, I couldn’t help but think back to that first phone conversation with Jay more than three years earlier. I never could have anticipated the conversation that we were about to have. I was so proud of the music that The Movement had created, and so grateful for their love and loyalty that had inspired this idea. As we talked about the terms, I asked the guys how they felt. Josh was like “I kept reading and wondering when I would get to the catch, but it never came. I was like, wait….what? How?”
On April 8, 2016, Rootfire Cooperative will release Golden, the sixth album from The Movement. Golden marks the first release for the Cooperative, and will be followed by two more albums in the late spring and early summer. Stay tuned.
Photo Credit: Reid Foster