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NO LABEL? NO PROBLEM
A Seattle Band Uses the Internet to Top the Charts
By Robert Bevan Dalton
Seattle's best kept musical secret (at least since grunge flared and rocked and died) has been leaked to the wide world — Maktub has mad soul. Without the marketing firepower and deep pockets of a major record label, the band's second album, "Khronos," has topped the MP3.com charts in both the R&B and Soul categories.
Robert Bevan Dalton is a Seattle-based writer, poet, and fly-fishing roustabout.
Maktub (pronounced "mock-tube") has become a pioneer in the new media domain, bypassing the cumbersome studio system by spreading the word through the World Wide Web. The band's website is a blast, offering MP3 downloads, concert webcasts, and insight into the inner workings of the group crowned Best Local Band in a Seattle Weekly newspaper poll (trouncing runner-up Pearl Jam). The site is also their marketing ticket — providing an international platform for their music and a vehicle to build and mobilize a database of fans.
The band is led by new-vintage frontman Reggie Watts, an agile improviser and compelling presence on stage. His powerful baritone combines the retro soul of Marvin Gaye with the hard edge of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.
Catching Listeners in the Web
"Without our Internet presence," Watts says, "the band's visibility would be greatly reduced. We've had people hit our site in Pakistan and Israel. In getting the word out to the world, technology helps immensely, and that's something you couldn't have done as a band seven years ago."
Maktub released its first two records independently. "But let me further define 'independent' – the label is us," says Kevin Goldman, who has played bass with Watts and drummer Davis Martin since Maktub got its start in the mid '90s. The band assumed its current form in 2000 by adding Daniel Spils on keyboards and Thaddeus Turner on guitar.
Goldman spearheaded the Internet promotion of the band's first album, "Subtle Ways." His involvement in technology began in the early '90s when he was part of an in-house design team for the Microsoft Network. "Those were the early days, the glory days for designers," he says. "We were all trying to figure out what the Web was. We're still trying to figure that out now."
Watts agrees: "The Internet is still young and people are sorting it out, but I think it tips the scales a bit toward the artist."
When "Subtle Ways" was released in 1999, Goldman simultaneously launched Maktub.com. Shortly thereafter, Maktub splashed on the cover of the Seattle Times. "The next day our website hits went up by a thousand percent," Goldman says. "Without the Web presence, there would have been maybe a dozen people who went out and bought the record, instead of several thousand people listening to our music that day."
Winning Fans the New-Fashioned Way
"The lifeblood of the band is our database of fans," Goldman continues. "We e-mail them about upcoming shows and new songs on the website, and we're always posting new photos, journal entries, and news blurbs. It's all about engaging people. Then you begin to form a community, with all the immediacy the Internet allows."
Technology has also enabled Maktub to both reward and leverage the fanatic loyalty of its fans. "In the past we thought all that appreciation was great, of course," Goldman says, "but we didn't have a system to enable them to help promote us."
The Maktub website mobilizes fans into what they call "street teams" to spread the Maktub gospel everywhere from Bozeman to Boulder and Brooklyn. "When we're doing a show on the road," Goldman explains "all I have to do is design some flyers, send them prepaid to a copy shop, and then contact that town's street teams to pick up the flyers and distribute them. In exchange, we let them into the show for free with their friends. It's simple."
How to Lure the Labels
The proliferation of new media and Internet music distribution has got the recording industry on its heals, waiting to see how the new formats shake out. "Labels don't want to take any risks," Watts says. "So when people suggest that we start redefining things, like going into a specific category, that's just fear."
Goldman agrees: "Technology can help a band that doesn't fit the mold earn a living — and yes, I would put Maktub in that category. The more you can leverage technology, the more it's going to help you succeed. Instead of relying on 'the ticket' — getting signed — you use the tools at your fingertips to spread the word in a grassroots way, which can be extremely powerful and long-lasting.
"We have two records that are ours. We own them 100 percent. We draw loyal fans to our shows. They're all bargaining chips with the man — if we're selling CDs in every city in the U.S., art aside, creativity aside, that just makes a good business decision for a record label."
It's clear that Internet media distribution is not a flash in the pan. "I think we'll continue to see bands that are passionate about their art finding some success outside the studio system," Goldman says.
Watts thinks for a moment before delivering his verdict: "You create your own audience, and eventually your audience wants to hear your songs on the radio. I'm not too worried about it. If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be fine."
So It Is Written
Consider the fact that three songs off "Khronos" have been licensed by Starbucks, and are being played in coffee houses worldwide. Consider the fact that the band just returned from a wildly successful show at New York's vaunted Irving Plaza. Then remember that "Maktub" is an Arabic word that means "something destined to happen."
Maktub recently rewarded its local following by performing an unpublicized "secret holiday show" at an intimate Seattle club — a rare treat, as the band is now more likely to play substantial venues like Washington state's Gorge Amphitheater. Local fans had better soak in the funktabulous Maktub vibe before the band finally does get signed. Then they'll have to be satisfied with catching Maktub's latest concert on the Web, like the rest of the world.