Alumni Profile: Indie Record Producer Brian Witkin
National University alumnus Brian Witkin (BA, History, 2013) is the founder and CEO of Pacific Records, a San Diego-based independent music company that produces and promotes local talent.
Newswire talked with Witkin about his roots, the perks of his job, the changing nature of the music industry and the value of higher education.
Newswire: How did you get into the music business?
Witkin: Both my parents were professional musicians, so I grew up sort of immersed in the music industry. My mom plays the drums and my dad was the original keyboards player for Sha Na Na. He played at Woodstock right before Jimmy Hendrix.
Newswire: Are you a musician?
Witkin: Yes, I grew up playing music too. I was in my own band as a teenager, and the big thing at the time was getting signed to a label. I tried to go that route and wasn’t getting any traction, so I ended up doing my own record in house and slapping my own label on the back. One thing led to another and that’s how the original idea for Pacific Records was born. I thought, “Hey! I can do this!”
Newswire: What happened next?
Witkin: Right out of high school, I took things to the next level and got really serious about it. I raised seed money to start my own label, got people to pre-order CDs and started packaging lesser known acts with bigger bands. From there it kept ramping up. At one point I had my own retail stores, but traditional record stores have since gone the way of the dinosaur.
Newswire: How do you get your product to market these days?
Witkin: The means of introducing bands and the way of buying music has changed so much. In the old days, worldwide distribution was controlled exclusively by major labels. It used to be that a few powerful people controlled the marketing and distribution of records. Now, anyone can do it – whether they’re good or bad. If you have a track, for about $20 you can release it worldwide on iTunes.
Newswire: How do you generate revenue?
Witkin: Most of the money we make these days doesn’t come just from CD sales. The profits are generally split between traditional record sales, online downloads, merchandising and sync licensing, which involves placement in video games, movies and TV Shows. Our act Sprung Monkey, for example, appeared in person on the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Another band of ours, Sand Dollar, will be featured in a Geico ad later this month. We also have an in house recording studio at our facility for our bands to use, but anyone outside the label can come and pay an hourly rate to record with us. Instead of the old way of doing business, in which a label offered a huge cash advance to up and coming bands then manufactures hundreds of thousands of CDs on speculation, we offer marketing and distribution to our musicians. We start modestly, then grow according to the reaction and demand.
Newswire: In the old days, record labels were a bit like venture capitalists, weren’t they?
Witkin: Pretty much. A record company would sign dozens of bands, and the one act that made it big would pay for twenty or thirty acts that failed. At Pacific Records, we think every band should be sustainable, at least on a small scale.
Newswire: What’s the lifestyle like for a modern record company executive? Are we talking a lot of glitter and glamour?
Witkin: We’re not buying yachts or lighting cigars with $100 bills, but we are living the lifestyles we choose and, again, it’s sustainable.
Newswire: Do you attend a lot of music festivals and industry award events?
Witkin: We do have a lot of access to shows and awards, especially locally, but I usually try to stay behind the scenes. I don’t enjoy going to shows as much as I did when I was young because even though it’s fun, it’s still work.
Newswire: You earned a bachelor’s degree in history from National University. How does that tie in to what you’re doing professionally?
Witkin: I kind of did things backwards. Right out of high school I took several years off from studying because I knew I wanted to build my own company, but I knew I was going to go back and earn a college degree eventually. Education is a very, very important thing in my family. My father attended Columbia University where Sha Na Na was founded, and later went to medical school.
Newswire: Why study history?
Witkin: I’ve always been fascinated by history. When I returned to school, it wasn’t to get a job. I was going back to broaden my horizons, gain a deeper understanding of the world, and feed my intellectual curiosity. National University was the perfect fit for me. I could attend while simultaneously building my business, and the experience in general was great. The teaching was excellent, the subject matter was engaging, and I graduated cum laude and as a member of the Pinnacle Honor Society. I would recommend National to anyone, especially entrepreneurs and business owners.
Newswire: What is the Pacific Records sound?
Witkin: It’s not a sound, it’s more of a “southern California” feeling or flavor. We’re not genre specific, we’re more geographically defined. The brand ties in with our name. We’re all surfers, we all grew up here, and we appreciate the diverse influences that have shaped our regional lifestyles.
Newswire: Final question: Are there any up and coming bands you would like to recommend?
Witkin: Social Club. They were just nominated at San Diego Music Awards for best alternative album and for best music video. Super Groupie. They were recently featured on an MTV reality show. Also, SoCal Vibes and Stranger are two up and coming bands I would recommend.
Note: Since this article was written, Pacific Records has solidified a record deal with Grammy Award winning artist Lito Romero of the famous Romeros Guitar Quartet. He is working with Pacific to debut a solo project that will showcase his own brand of contemporary guitar based music. His first EP is scheduled to be released February 14th.