Burlington-based music label rides digital success.
By William Smith
In an industry continually up-ended by advances in technology, James Rhodes started his music label FiXT just as the lid was starting to lift on digital downloads.
“When we first started, it was very much still the CD era,” Rhodes said. “We were moving lots of physical CDs, and mp3 downloads were a thing. But that was secondary to CDs.”
That quickly changed. The digital iTunes era became the established music model, and Rhodes was primed to ride the wave. He still worked a full-time job at Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center. However, as his business grew, those hospital hours decreased.
Rhodes was eventually earning a full-time income, and expanded by opening a small office and hiring staff.
“So we rode that (digital downloads), for quite a while,” Rhodes said.
The popularity of streaming music started surging a few years later, and1music labels had a choice – evolve with the newest distribution model, or wither away with the old one.
Rhodes said he saw too many companies cling to the old digital model, the same way their extinct predecessors refused to give up physical media.
“We quickly realized our music needs to be where the consumers are — you got to fish where the fish are. And consumer behavior is this is the most convenient, customer-friendly way to listen to music. A streaming subscription,” Rhodes said.
Making money on streaming takes patience and time, considering half of customers don’t pay a subscription fee.
It’s a long-term investment with endless growth potential, and the revenue is literally paid out in thousandths-of-a-cent. The revenue is divided between so many middlemen, Rhodes said, that the gross per song is infinitesimal.
“But that adds up,” Rhodes said.
FiXT has about 25 artists signed and recently moved into much larger offices at 1340 Mount Pleasant Street. One of the rooms in the winding corridors of wooden doors houses a small studio that will soon be used for a podcast.
It’s not the only sound studio in the building. Music vibrates from some of the rooms — 90s grunge is a favorite.
“We sign a lot of artists on the smaller side, and we’ve had a lot of success, taking artists from a few hundred listeners per month to about 100,000 to 300,000 monthly listeners. We’ve got a few artists that are in the 500,000 to 800,000 monthly listener range,” Rhodes said.
Ironically enough, that steaming success has looped back around to physical media. Many of the artists under contract release LPs pre-sold before they’re pressed. Records have become a hip niche again over the past decade.
The new counter-culture trend FiXT has recently started producing is cassette tapes. It’s a tiny market compared to LPs, considering there aren’t many active tape decks around. That’s what makes it cool.
Rhodes can relate. He grew up in the era of cassettes transitioning to CDs.
“My parent were always listening to music on road trips. My dad liked barbershop quartet and southern gospel,” Rhodes said. “But when I was a teenager, I discovered Metallica. And then I got into Michael Jackson, and then alternative and grunge and all these influences.”
Rhodes worked his way into the music industry through his fandom of one artist, in particular, the Circle of Dust industrial music project created by Klayton, who later became known as Celldweller. His fandom was accidental, and it turned into a job opportunity.
Eventually, Rhodes co-founded FiXT together. Rhodes serves as vice president.
“I found a cassette (of Circle of Dust) in a bargain bin at the record store in the mall. I thought the artwork looked cool, grabbed it. And it was this kind of industrial metal thing. And I loved it,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes met Klayton in person and was given a marketing job with Slack. He took up that slack and delivered far more. Part-time became full-time.
“Then his manager offered me a job to move to L.A., which is why I moved to L.A.,” Rhodes said.
L.A. was fun, but Iowa was home. Rhodes grew up in Burlington and graduated from Burlington High School in 2000. In 2006, James and his wife Rebecca moved back to Iowa to be closer to family and start their own.
During the transition back to the Midwest, James and Klayton launched FiXT as a label vehicle. The goal is to support other artists and provide a fair-label deal in an industry known for lopsided agreements.
FiXT is celebrating 18 years of operations as a record label, music publisher, and merchandise company this year. Rhodes isn’t arrogant enough to know what the next shift in the industry will be.
He wants to be ready when it happens.
“Odds are, you’ve probably heard our music somewhere, in a movie or a video game, and you just didn’t know it,” Rhodes said.