Spin this

May 31, 2006 at 12:00 am

The DEMF annually shows the world that Detroit techno and the culture it has spawned remains one of the area's most enduring if obscure exports. It's capable of commanding the world's attention without a hit single or recognizable star.

A large part of Detroit's more recent electronic music boom is Ann Arbor's Ghostly International label, which has done what few independent music labels in Detroit — or around the world for that matter — have done in recent years. It's surviving in the era of fading record store retail, dense online competition and scant listener loyalty.

The label has done this partially by tapping into a post-techno aesthetic where electronic music means anything from the futuristic hip hop of Dabrye to the wistful, melodic indie rock of Brooklyn's Mobius Band. Its sister label, Spectral Sound, has built on the Detroit techno model with the sexy Audion, and early '90s dance music nostalgia with James T. Cotton's retro-acid house and Todd Osborne's hard-charging bits. But now, as indie record stores are being replaced by iTunes downloads, online shopping and MySpace IM'ing, the label is keeping pace with the Ghostly Digital EP series, a monthly series of downloadable mini-albums by such acts as Midwest Product and Cepia.

It's a shrewd move — and not always one governed by the bottom line — by a label that has meticulously put as much care into how its music is presented as in what it releases. As label manager Jeff Owens puts it, "Right now it's as much a promotional device as an experiment."

The label has always been good at both promoting and experimenting. Sam Valenti IV, an ambitious son of a Masco executive from Bloomfield Hills, started the label out of his dorm room at the University of Michigan back in 1999. Ghostly's first release, interestingly enough, was "Hands Up for Detroit," a 12-inch single by fellow U-M party kid Matthew Dear. The bouncing house track recalled Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk and paid homage to the D's rich techno and house tradition. If you didn't know it was born in a U-M dorm room, you'd swear the track was the work of some Detroit house producer like Scott Grooves. Of note: Its record sleeve featured a full-color cartoon by Detroit artist Michael Segal and the first appearance of the Ghostly logo — a modified Pac-Man ghost, in an era where most dance singles featured little or no artwork.

Since then, the label has made presentation a priority. Valenti runs an art gallery in Ann Arbor and admires such labels as Factory, Mo Wax and, particularly, 4AD for its blend of image and substance.

And Valenti is tired of the rich-kid barbs that are occasionally lobbed his way, and, frankly, the guy works too hard for the tag to fit. If Matthew Dear's Leave Luck To Heaven is now able to approach sales of 10,000 copies worldwide (a respectable sum for an indie label; even Richie Hawtin's albums for the Mute label barely sell that) it's only because of the synergy between the label and artist; both have promoted the album tirelessly for more than two years, and Dear himself has played more than 200 DJ dates to support it.

Though techno remains to many a faceless, acquired taste, Ghostly has helped transform Dear into something of a techno sex god. (Recording under his nom de plume Audion last year, Dear's big hit was a 12-inch called "Just Fucking.") Since then, Dear's tracks have been licensed to Euro dance music comps and he has helmed a prestigious mix CD for London's Fabric nightclub brand, putting him in the same league with Carl Craig, who likewise did a recent Fabric mix.

Valenti is so respectful of the politics of the Detroit electronic music scene, with its legends and innovators, that he initially asked not to be quoted for this story. And it's not without irony that Ghostly has been singled out by both Rolling Stone as a "Hot Label" and by Los Angeles' Urb Magazine as "Label of the Year," but is still wary of its perception as whitebread new jacks in the competitive Detroit scene, with its rich history and storied past.

Valenti stresses that Ghostly is an Ann Arbor label, not a Detroit one, and that its music is electronic, not techno (though its Spectral Sound does favor the hard four-to-the-floor stuff).

The label head sees the move into digital releases as inevitable, citing much lower production and promotion costs; if people are going to download music anyway, they can still throw Ghostly a bone. "Music is considered a free good now for a lot of fans," Valenti writes in an e-mail. "They can choose to buy [our] music [digitally] based on loyalty and support."

Valenti approached iTunes a year ago with the digital label idea, and the result so far has been an exclusive EP every month. Apple won't supply download numbers just yet, but Valenti estimates Ghostly is getting about 10,000 downloads a year from all its outlets and looks to double that number annually. To follow up, the label offers CD cases with full cover-art for fans burning the release into a CD.

Other labels are catching on as well. New York hip-hop label Def Jux, for instance, has launched its own online store, where it sells songs for 98 cents. (iTunes sells songs for 99 cents and keeps almost a quarter of that.) It's not about the money, of course, it's more of an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em thing. Ghostly gives iTunes exclusive download rights for three months and then makes them available to other sites.

What Ghostly is acknowledging, in its own small way, is how little of the record business now is actually about selling records.

Actual vinyl record sales account for a small percentage of a Ghostly's hard-copy sales — the majority is CD. But the way the label is structured, tours are booked in-house and many artists are managed by the label as well, so revenue is consolidated, according to Owens. Merchandising shirts and hats, as well as licensing tracks for overseas comps and domestic advertisements sweeten the pot. For instance, a Dabrye instrumental hip-hop track, "Hyped-Up Plus Tax," was licensed by Motorola for a RAZR commercial and ring tone last year; tracks by Mobius Band and Midwest Product have been licensed for Hummer and New Balance ads as well.

In the end, it's the artists who stand to benefit most from the digital label. Take Ann Arbor's Mike Dykehouse. Without the Ghostly Digital label, he'd be just another surly record store clerk with a laptop full of unreleased music. His "shamelessly throwback" Nostalgia Radar EP, GD's offering last month, may by his own admission only find a handful of fans. With its shoegazer guitars and breathy vocals, plus Smiths and Dinosaur Jr. covers, it's not the typical Ghostly future-hipster fare.

But that's exactly the point. "I'm sort of a turtle as far as getting stuff out there," Dykehouse says. "Beneath my mopey exterior I'm a total megalomaniac. I'm just trying to write a good song. I wanna make music and get it out there, and [with Ghostly Digital] I can do that and it's no big deal. However people come to this music is cool."

Valenti himself has mixed feelings about the digital revolution. On the one hand, there's some solace in knowing his artists are next to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on iTunes. But, as a kid who came of age in the indie retail boom of the early '90s, he bemoans the loss of retail outlets such as Royal Oak's late great Neptune. "I worry that [music sites] won't foster that community and education that record retail has."

Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]