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Interview: Billy Fields, Music Business Sales Exec, on Vinyl’s Comeback and Digital Music Trends

Billy Fields

The struggles of the music business over the last 10 years have been well-documented. With the launch of Napster and the blossoming of illegal downloads, sales of physical CDs plummeted, and labels and shops disappeared. Digital sales via outlets like iTunes and Amazon have helped the industry stem the tide a little, but not enough.

Yet over the last few years, something strange has happened: vinyl sales have shown tremendous growth. Once deemed too big and too old in the CD era, the format has somehow made a comeback in the age of digital downloads. We recently caught up with Billy Fields, Director of Sales and overseer of vinyl production and Record Store Day for a major record company, to discuss the return of vinyl, what makes the format unique, and how digital music and vinyl can both continue to grow in the years ahead.

Flightpath: Music is so tied into digital technology these days, but vinyl sales – this year and last year – are really kind of astounding. 2.8 million sold in 2010, and that was up from 900,000 four years ago. Sales from 2011 so far are up 37 percent over the same period last year. Why do you think this is happening?

Billy Fields: I should couch all this. Some of this is actually based in fact because of the business I’m in and who I talk to on a regular basis, but a lot of this is just my thought about the aspect of digital music – that convenience is really fantastic, but convenience doesn’t actually trump the emotional connection that someone has to a record. I just read a story that came in through a vinyl community blog and through a Twitter feed that I follow about this cat that was in San Antonio when the wildfires struck. The guy snuck back into his “by-demand-of-the-police-get-out-of-the-neighborhood” neighborhood to get his records.

Flightpath: [Laughs] Right.

Billy Fields: Now that’s a stupid thing for him to have done because records are not as valuable as his life. But he said the reason why he did it was that every one of his records, he had a sentimental attachment to. I challenge anyone to show me that sort of connection to a digital file.

Let’s be clear about vinyl and the way it’s judged. All the numbers that everyone talks about are scanned through SoundScan, which is the industry standard. It’s what everyone uses, but there is a lot of business that happens that is either added to, subtracted from, adjusted, or never reported at all because of the nature of what the business is. As a couple of examples: Urban Outfitters carries records now in every one of their stores. They report none of those sales to SoundScan. All of the major online audiophile LP specific outlets – Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc – there’s a lot of them. They don’t report to SoundScan.

So we are going off of what the mainstream music business does, and we had a plateau in 2010. 2010 I think, if I remember correctly, was up 15 percent from 2009. It was 2.5 to 2.8 million. And I’ll be honest that once we got through Christmas last year, and we got into January, I started seeing weekly averages of 62, 64, 65,000 units reported in SoundScan. Which was up dramatically from either the fourth quarter of 2010, where the averages, until you got to Christmas, were 48,000, 52,000, 45,000. So something happened this last year at Christmas which was like, this whole other group of kids got turned onto what was going on and started to actually buy. Now all this also, by the way, coincides with a lot of really great indie rock records being released with a digital component [included]. We’re actually able to go to these kids, tie in the sentimental quality of vinyl, but also give them this convenience factor that makes it the best of both worlds. You get something with 12-by-12 art, it’s beautiful, you can read liner notes, you get to get into the details of a record and, you know, you get to put it onto whatever device it is you’re walking around town [with] – you get the best of both. The reason why, back to your original question – it is the sentimental, emotional connection to music, which at it’s heart is what music is. That is driving the business and how it’s developing and how it’s growing.

Flightpath: This is probably a reflection of what you were saying, but I’m a big music fan and nerd. I grew up in the CD age, I’m thirty years old, and I’ve basically switched over to vinyl plus digital downloads. And a big reason for that is because I can buy a new album on vinyl and get the digital download with it, which is great. I love the size of a record, the sound, and you know, the whole experience. But I also think that there’s something to be said for a well-made physical artifact that digital just can’t match.

Billy Fields: I completely agree.

Flightpath: Do you think that a new generation is kind of realizing that, finally?

Billy Fields: I think that every, I don’t know, let’s call it every decade or decade and a half, you get this process that happens. You start to realize that all the technology you’ve been consuming, all this that you’ve done to drive you forward, you’ve done it so quickly that you actually forget to experience being alive. I think that, you know, it’s more this process of every decade, decade and a half of reviewing, “What have I been doing? What did I miss?” And so for you, at 30, you grew up on CDs, you never even really dealt with vinyl.

There are three distinct groups of people that are actually buying records today. There are the audiophiles – the people that never stop buying records and would go wherever they have to go to get the best pressing. So they’d go to European imports, they’d go to little niche labels that release the weirdest psych records that have ever existed but are so lovingly made, and made in such small press runs, that they become highly collectable. Then you’ve got people like me. I’m 14 years older than you. I actually grew up on records – the end of records – but adopted every technology from there. I’m on Spotify, I’m a Rdio user, I love iTunes. I don’t buy a lot of music that way, but I use it. I have music on all my devices because I like to take it with me. So you’ve got my group of people that grew up on it, absolutely, but sort of walked away from it, that are now coming back because, “Wow, this really is better than CD sound. It’s better than ear buds in my ears on the train. I can hear this music, I can let the music envelope me, almost like a physical blanket.” And then you’ve got kids! And I’m going to call you a kid at this point – well, your age and younger, that never even thought that records mattered or never even had the opportunity to like, open up Dark Side of the Moon, put it on with headphones, and realize, “Holy shit, this is blowing my mind.”

So, that’s what I think is happening. You’re going through the process where we’re all saying, “Hey, let me sort of reflect on how I go forward into the future.” And you also have kids that are like, “I’ve never even experienced this before and this is really fantastic.”

Flightpath: Most of the time, when I find out about a vinyl release, I’m finding out about it online, either through Twitter or through something posted on Facebook.

Billy Fields: With all the aspects of our media world that are splintered now and [are] becoming even more splintered, the more we get away from the ubiquitous song on radio – we’re sort of past that right now, but it’s not done yet – it’s almost, “Wherever the water rises to, that’s where we’re going.”

I mean, I’ve got my trusted sources. I am, what’s the word…a disciple. I’m a disciple of independent retail. I shop in record stores. I like the people that work in record stores. I call any number of them my friends. I like to buy records.

I’m in Denver right now. I went to Twist & Shout, bought records, and I’ll buy some more records before I leave. And the reason why is that when you walk in there and you say to someone, “Hey look, what are you listening to? Oh wow, that sounds great. I’m going to buy that.” That’s how I get turned onto records. I knew about Mumford and Sons before the two million people that bought it, because independent records stores were telling that story way, way before anyone else was aware of who that band was. Way before they were on the Grammys. I mean years before. And I mean, we all do this differently. It’s either, “This is what my Twitter feed is, this is what my Facebook friends are saying, this is what people I work with say.” I mean, we’re getting it, but it’s funny because it all goes back to that idea of, “I trust the people that I know. I trust the people who have previously told me about things I have loved.” You know, I’ve got people that are in that independent retail community that I could seriously just pick up the phone, call five people, get five different answers and they would all be fantastic records that you would never have heard of before.

Flightpath: Right. I mean, I really miss record shopping. It’s exactly what you described. I discovered Marshall Crenshaw because when I was in college, I walked into a record store in the Village and someone was playing his greatest hits, and I was like “What is this?”

Billy Fields: Right! You were like, “What is that!” I mean, we can’t consume it all. There are so many great books that are written that you’ll never read, you just don’t have the time. There are so many great records that are recorded that you’ll never get to hear because there isn’t the time to do it. You have to decide to pick and choose, build your filters well, and adjust that batch that best helps you hit the mark every time, you know?

Flightpath: One thing I like now is that the marketing seems to have gotten very creative – in regards to vinyl – in targeting fans. Matthew Sweet has a new album out, so does Wilco, and they had these packages where you could preorder and you get the record, a t-shirt, and a tote bag. All this cool stuff. It seems in a way like the marketing is more creative than I’ve seen it in a long time.

Billy Fields: I do agree. I think the reason they are doing that is that for one, you’re seeing the splitting apart of what the retail environment used to be. You simply can’t get all those things in all the places that you could before. You know, even those music retailers or the big box stores that actually carry music that are out in the market, they don’t carry as deep of a selection as before. They are catering to a different audience. It’s a sea change in how the bands reach out specifically and say, “Hey, you’ve already contacted us as a fan and because of that, we’re going to let you in on something cool and here’s the opportunity.” And it’s also combating the idea of valueless things.

I mean, I think it’s great that Lady Gaga sold the records that she sold, and her record frankly, for what it is, it’s a great record. I’m not going to talk bad about the record; I mean, it’s not my bag but it’s a cool record. But for someone that visible, how does she not sell millions of records at 99 cents? [Lady Gaga’s album was released as a download for 99 cents – Dan.] I mean, to me it’s like, does the public actually believe that it’s worth nothing? Or is there some weird, like, “I’ll pay fifty bucks for a preorder of a Wilco record,” and it’s a matter of some people think it’s worth nothing, and some will give their right arm for it. You know, you have those bands that are like, “They want to support me. They like what I do, I want to give them something really fantastic.”

Flightpath: Exactly. The focus of the music industry for a long time has always been on digital. Do you think that was a mistake?

Billy Fields: I don’t think it was a mistake. I mean what has always happened, at least for the music business – and I could even probably say [the same] for the publishing business, or whatever the business is – we’ve always followed the technology. We made singles when that was what was hot. I mean, we’re the music, but we’ve always been about the medium. So as the medium develops and moves into a different environment, so does the music. So I don’t think it was at all a mistake, just that this is the march of technology. You know, I’m talking to you on an iPhone. Ten years ago, what I have in my hand right now was probably conceived by people like William Gibson, but the people walking down the street weren’t thinking like, “Hey, I’m going to be able to carry my entire collection on this thing that I also talk on.”

Flightpath: They didn’t know they needed it at the time.

Billy Fields: Exactly. So, there’s a bit of marketing and a bit of the showmanship of that, but we are an interesting, malleable creature, us humans. We follow pretty well. And if it’s done well, and if it’s done right, and it ends up being easy, we’ll follow all the more. So no, I don’t think that it was a mistake. I think it’s the natural evolution of whatever it is. Don’t you see a future where you don’t ever carry anything anymore? You just think it, you know?

Flightpath: What’s the feeling in the industry right now about vinyl? Is it very excited about everything that’s happening?

Billy Fields: Well, it all comes down to who you’re talking to. I mean, I’m excited about it, I love the format. I’m tied into it in a big way for my entire company. It’s a tough question.

Flightpath: As a music fan, I find it very exciting.

Billy Fields: It is. I’ll use Lady Gaga for an example. Is that really a record that should be on vinyl? I’m not sure. They put it out, which is cool. And it sold. But is that fan really excited about it being a record? I think that’s really what it comes down to. It’s not so much about the format overall, but does [the artist] really work well with the format? Are they going to love that experience for that artist? I think it’s a lot more about that than the overall thing and what the excitement is about that.

Flightpath: I feel like there’s the opportunity there, though, that it could make a person become a fan of the format.

Billy Fields: I think that happens every day. [Laughs] When I had just got out of working in retail and I got into working on the distribution side of the business, I was always amazed by how many Metallica Black records we sold. And what I would always come back to is, “Yeah you know, every year another 13-year-old kid turns 14, and the Metallica Black record becomes the most important record of his life.”

Flightpath: [Laughs] That’s totally true.

Billy Fields: I mean, that’s what happens! Sometimes you get it when you’re younger, sometimes you get it when you’re older; it all depends on how it breaks down. You never know when a record is going to be the most important thing in your life.

Flightpath: Are most bands excited about their stuff coming out on vinyl now?

Billy Fields: Again, the ones that love the format and the ones that actually want the record to be released on record – absolutely. You know the thing is, even after all this time, is your music even officially released until it’s on vinyl? I mean, maybe? Maybe it doesn’t really become real until you’ve got a 12-by-12 record. You know, maybe then it becomes real.

Flightpath: I’m not just saying this, but I don’t download music illegally. I’ve always preferred to buy it. I’ve always felt like I want to support the artist. I like having a collection. I think a lot of my friends, or even a lot of my generation got to this point where they don’t want to pay for anything, and all physical media has kind of suffered for that. What’s your take on that – that phenomenon that’s happened, since the Internet kind of made free access to media possible?

Billy Fields: Well you know, that’s funny, because being as I’m an old man now comparatively, that’s what I think: a bunch of lazy kids, not wanting to pay for anything. That’s good to hear. But I don’t know. That’s a really tough question to figure out. It really is. If we could all turn back the clock and go back to when Napster first started and say, “We’re going to figure out how to monetize this now as an industry,” and not go through the decade that’s been a struggle to figure [monetizing MP3s] out. What would have happened 10 years ago if we had services such as Rdio or Spotify or any of these services that are actually legitimate, real things that gave people access to hear music that they wouldn’t have otherwise? I don’t know. Because it’s not just that people feel like maybe they don’t have to pay for anything, but I guess isn’t that in everything?

Flightpath: I mean, there are pirate sites for comic books. I was reading an interview with Grant Morrison, the comic book writer, and he was talking about how comic book sales are plummeting for different reasons. But he was also saying that it’s like no one wants to pay for anything anymore and that’s a real problem.

Billy Fields: Maybe if we made more stuff and talked a lot more about the fact that it takes talent, and effort, and work, and that work pays off and that you’re fully employed and employable and that you aren’t working at whatever job that you can barely cover your rent, maybe you have a little extra money to say, “I love this artist so much that I’m going to support them.” I don’t know. I think that the way we behave is directly proportional to sort of the messages we’re told or the messages that are parroted into us through various media outlets. Sometimes those messages are pretty disruptive in what they tell you what’s valuable and what isn’t. But again, that’s almost a sociological conversation and I don’t know that I have any of the answers for that.

Flightpath: I wanted to ask you about Record Store Day and about how that came to be. It seems like it’s been really successful.

Billy Fields: It’s been fantastically successful. It started with a group of record store guys saying, “Hey, there’s this thing called ‘Free Comic Book Day.’ We should do something like that for record stores.” Next year will be the fifth year, so yeah, [it started] four years ago and it was mostly an off shoot of what Free Comic Book Day was, which was just, “Hey let’s give away a bunch of great stuff out to people who come in and get them sort of acquainted again with their neighborhood community record store.”

Some of these stats might not be exactly spot-on, because I’m doing this from memory, but in 2010 there was something like 1.1 million people that went into record stores worldwide on that day. Recordstoreday.com’s web traffic for the month of April was something like 1.25 million page views. The amount of retail dollars – I can’t actually answer that, and I don’t know that there is a very clear indication of it. But when you talk to individual stores – and these are stores that have been doing this as community-based, local record stores for 25, 30, 35 years – they say that, “This is the best day that we have had in our history.” So what I would say is, that this has built, and built, and built. I want to say in 2010 that there were 174 specialized releases that were released on Record Store Day. Now, that can be anything from a short run of 100 seven-inch records that are only in a single market to big records, like a Black Keys special 12-inch that’s leading into their release that we made, you know, 5,000 of. So, in 2010 there were 174. Last April, there were around 300 different items that were released.

Flightpath: Wow. So it’s bigger and bigger.

Billy Fields: It’s bigger and bigger, but the thing is, we’re feeling like it’s almost getting too big. It’s sort of too much for stores to handle, and how do you sort through it? Just because the industry is saying, “This is really hot, we’re going to get involved in it and make these things available,” it doesn’t mean that the stores have to buy everything. The stores really need to pay attention to, “Hey, what can I sell to my consumer? What can I sell to my fan that is coming into my store?” So this gives you more of a choice to do it. Did more releases necessarily mean better results? I think yes and no. But again this last year, the same store I just related about “the best day in our history?” This year, it was store after store after store saying, “We’re up 45 percent from our last year. At noon, we had eclipsed last year’s numbers and we’re still going strong. We had a line 40 deep for seven hours.” I mean, I live in New York, and I went out with a bunch of friends from Atlantic [Records], and I think I hit seven record stores that day and it was great.

J&R was a mad house. People were grabbing and pushing and screaming and it was just like, “Oh my God.” It was crazy. But then you go other places and it was, “This is what we’ve got left, and it was crazy at 9 a.m. when we opened,” and then you hang out at a store like Permanent Records out in Greenpoint and they’re like, “Oh yeah, it’s better than last year,” and they’ve got bands playing. It’s like a whole day party. Come out, interact with other human beings. Get out of your digital world and your 140 character lives and actually shake hands and say, “Hey,” to people that share an interest that you have.

Flightpath: That’s awesome, and that’s why I don’t think vinyl will ever go away and why I’m excited it’s coming back. I just can’t think of anything else that would inspire people to be so excited about an entertainment format.

Billy Fields: You know, I think that’s a really good point. Even though this is very specialized and we all admit that this is niche and it’s a very small percentage of the overall music business. And it is, let’s be real. But what other events have happened in the music business that are as exciting as Record Store Day? And not just the music business, but even in the entertainment business, period? In stores, where you have people lining up for hours and hours and hours to hang out and buy some things that they’re coveting. I have not seen any other event occur. In fact, one of the reasons why vinyl is exciting and why vinyl continues to grow is because of Record Store Day.

Flightpath: What’s your feeling about where everything is going both for vinyl and for digital?

Billy Fields: Well I think that vinyl is going to continue to be a really strong format. I see no reason why it won’t continue to have, on average, 20 percent growth, year over year, for the next number of years. I think that there is still a lot of content, and I say content in a very generic way, that isn’t in the format that needs to be. Whether it’s specific records where the artist really wants to take the time and do it right and put it back on the format, or just other things that haven’t yet been explored, whether it’s more seven-inch series or special 12-inch pieces or whatever. There is still a lot of vinyl business to be had and grow. The prime vehicle for marketing, and this is really the truth of it, is artist pre-orders and artists talking to their fans. It’s Record Store Day and it’s online record stores like Music Direct. So we have a lot that we can still touch on when it comes to selling.

I think as far as the format’s concerned, it’ll continue to grow and it’ll continue to be a niche product, which it is now. But I don’t see any reason why it’s going to stop being 20 percent [growth] year over year. I think last year I said, “I see no reason why we’re not going to [grow] 20 percent, year over year, over the next five years.” This year, I think through last week, we’re 35 or 36 percent above last year. And we still have the busiest quarter of the year.

Digitally…I don’t know. I think the growth of digital music has everything to do with the growth of whatever the device is. So, you see every year at Christmas that [new mobile or digital devices] are sold and then you get this huge influx into the iTunes store. Whereas three years ago, it was primarily music that was the benefit of that, now you’re seeing people buy everything. It’s apps, it’s books, it’s video – it’s everything. So I think that that will continue to grow, but it will be dependent upon the devices that support it. And so, as long as that continues to evolve and develop, I don’t see any reason why that slows down either. And frankly, the services like Spotify, Rdio or Rhapsody, and all that – sort of like, “Hey, come on in, listen as much as you want, have access to as much as you want for a set fee or free,” – I think that’s another access model for discovery, that lets people then make decisions like, “Hey, I’m going to go out and buy this record now.”

Interview: Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits – Part 1

bill-hunt-the-digital-bits

For years, The Digital Bits has been a leading source of home video news, thoughtful reviews and industry discussion, developing a huge following among cinephiles and casual movie fans alike. From the beginning, it has been a champion of film restoration and presenting films with the best picture and sound possible; it helped establish the language of what constitutes quality bonus features; and it has an uncanny ability to offer smart film and disc critiques while addressing the technical aspects of DVDs and Blu-rays in an easy-to-understand manner. Today, its review archive is a treasure trove of insights and information on film and home video releases. In part one of our interview with Bill Hunt, creator of The Digital Bits, we discuss why he launched the site, the events that helped it make gains in popularity, and his new role as Star Wars therapist.

Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about your life prior to The Digital Bits, and what led you to start the site?

Bill Hunt: Well, I’m originally from North Dakota, and I studied film at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And right out of that, rather than getting into film, I actually got into video production. Did a lot of corporate stuff. I lived in Minneapolis for awhile after college and did a lot of directing and editing of corporate videos – training things, that sort of stuff. And that actually brought me out to California. In kind of a sideways way, I was doing video out here, and once I was out here I thought that maybe I’d establish some contacts in the film industry, and maybe see if I can’t put my foot in those waters and get involved there.

The interesting thing is that I actually became friends with a lot of people who worked at the studios. I’ve always been really interested in the technology of home video – video technology, film technology – and so when DVD was being developed, I had a lot of contacts at the studios, and so I was following it really closely and I was learning a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the technology. At the time, like many film enthusiasts, I was a big LaserDisc fan. I kind of thought, for quite awhile, that a movie disc format with discs the same size as a CD would probably be a huge hit if it happened. That wasn’t necessarily the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood. There were a lot of people, very early on, who didn’t think that was going to be the case – people that I talked to at the studios.

But when it became clear that DVD was happening, they were developing a format, I started writing about it. I was using EarthLink at the time and I had a free homepage.

Flightpath: And what year was this?

Bill Hunt: This was ’97. Real, real early. When I would talk to these folks at the studios, I would put on this EarthLink site the interesting information I’d heard from them – what discs were being planned, what the technology was all about, what studios were going to be supporting the format. That sort of thing. It initially started as like, an email newsletter that I sent to a few friends, and then I moved that to the EarthLink site. But then within a month, EarthLink called me up and said, “You’re getting way too much traffic. You need to do this as a business.” Because what was happening was, there was really nobody covering DVD. Even Variety and Hollywood Reporter weren’t covering it. Video enthusiasts – Videographer and magazines like that – were sort of talking about it a little bit. But really, there was nobody who was diving into it, especially online. It was a time when there were very few websites devoted to this stuff.

So what was happening was, I was posting this information online, and all the Hollywood people who worked at the studios and the movie directors whose movies were potentially being considered for DVD, and just the whole Hollywood community, jumped on board, and just the whole enthusiast community jumped on board, and traffic just went crazy. So, within a month I bought a domain name and started doing The Digital Bits. I ended up quitting my job doing video production, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Flightpath: Where’d you get the name from?

Bill Hunt: You know, it’s interesting. I was trying to come up with something that wouldn’t be obvious, which is both good and bad, because obviously on the Internet, if you want to read DVD news or Blu-ray news, you search “DVD” or “Blu-ray.” But my thinking was that everything was going digital. All these things were moving from analog to digital, so digital had to be in the name. And “bits” just seemed like bits of news, bits of information, and it tied into the actual binary bits of digital information. And it all just kinda worked, and it’s good because a lot of other DVD websites have come and gone or had to rebrand themselves later. And we are still plugging away.

Flightpath: What were some of the tougher learning curves in launching the site yourself and developing it? Because as you said, there just wasn’t much around at that time.

Bill Hunt: Yeah, there really wasn’t. Just learning how to build a website – and this was of course, ’97, which was very, very early, so it was very early HTML – that was definitely a learning curve. And it’s still a learning curve, because after I got it up and running, it took off so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to go back and redesign. So I’m actually, right now, doing a redesign that will take The Bits from sort of the original HTML model into blog, database-driven content. Yeah, so I’m just now doing that. And the reason is because, in addition to being the web guy, I was the reporter; I was the main contact with all the studios. So there just was never enough time, and that’s what I’m doing now.

Flightpath: I was going to ask about that. That’s one thing I always kind of liked about The Digital Bits. I feel like I’ve been visiting it as long as I’ve been interested in DVDs and movies, but you know, it’s always kind of felt the same. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but I’ve always liked that you seemed to resist the sometimes knee-jerk reaction of websites to redesign every year.

Bill Hunt: Yeah. It was both purposeful and not. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to work on a redesign, is because one of the things I hate about a lot of websites these days is that the blog format tends to really McNugget everything. I used to read the old music magazines – Crawdaddy and those kind of magazines, and the LaserDisc Newsletter, and some of those things – and one of the things I liked is that you’d get one long column in which the person would go from one topic to another, and kind of tie them together, and give you a little context. And so you’d get lots of news, but you’d also get some background information, and you kind of would see how it all fits together. You also got some personality, because there was room to add a little personality to it. That’s kind of always the way I wanted to write and the way I’ve always done The Bits. The problem is, when you go to the blog-driven format, the tendency is for every single piece of news to become a news McNugget. And so you get like 20 posts a day versus one or two good, long, substantial ones. The struggle has been to try and figure out how to adapt to the blog format without losing that personality. You know, everyone is trying to drive up hits and drive up content, and the more posts you do, the more hits you get. So there’s that theory. But my feeling is that, the people who like The Bits and who have stuck with us over the years, like The Bits for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. [Laughs] It’s like you say, there’s personality and we don’t do the McNuggeting. I have no desire to take a press release that I get from a studio about a Blu-ray release and just copy and paste it, and upload it and call that a post. Anybody can do that; it’s just not very interesting.

Flightpath: The problem with shorter content is that you can’t inject as much personality, or really, thought, into something.

Bill Hunt: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, the news is everywhere. There are a hundred websites that are posting this kind of news. But what people tend to come to us for is perspective, so that’s what we try to bring to it.

So that’s been a challenge. And then I would say that the other challenge has been sort of the business side. Trying to figure out how to dive into the advertising model, and selling advertising and dealing with the other side of the studio – the ad buyers and the media people. One of the most challenging aspects of that has been that in the film industry, at the studios, there’s just a gigantic revolving door. So people go from one of the PR agencies to one of the studios, and then they go back to another studio, and then they go back to a PR agency. So it’s this constant churn of different people you’re dealing with.

Flightpath: Are you doing all of it? Those are very different hats to wear: creative and business.

Bill Hunt: I do a little of each of it. My wife, Sarah, does a lot of the business-end now. I really tend to focus on content and looking behind-the-scenes in the industry, maintaining those contacts, and doing reporting on those issues. We have columnists. For example, Barrie Maxwell, who does our classics column, reviews all the different formats but from a classic film perspective. Adam Jahnke does a lot of our more eclectic, more offbeat things. There’s also Tim Salmons, Todd Doogan, Jeff Kleist, Mark Altman and a few others who cover different things. And another good friend of mine, Matt Rowe, started a site called MusicTAP. So we partner with him on music content. We try and spread things around. But my whole day is spent answering emails, answering inquiries, talking to people in the studios, talking to DVD producers and special edition producers. That really is, I would say, the lion’s share of my day. And that’s hours, some days.

Flightpath: The Digital Bits launched way prior to things like Facebook, Google+ and social media. What did you do to try and spread the word?

Bill Hunt: The answer is we did almost nothing. The real advantage was that we were doing this before anyone else was really doing it, so there were very few other places to go. There were a few other good websites: DVDFile happened around the same time, plus DVD Review, Home Theater Forum. And Steve Tannehill’s DVD Resource Page was doing its thing. There were a handful that started around that time, but we were fortunate to be among the first. So everybody in that group, in that interest field, knew who we were, and it kind of spread via word of mouth within the industry and within the enthusiast community. And then certainly that was helped by the fact that we were right in the thick of the original format war, which was DVD versus DivX.

Flightpath: Yes! I still don’t understand DivX.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It was so ridiculous. We actually broke the news of DivX. We were the first publication, in print or anywhere, to reveal that Disney and Fox, for example, were going to adopt this format called DivX, which was sort of a pay-per-view flavor of DVD. And then we actually contacted DivX, and within a couple of weeks, we actually went to DivX and did a really substantial feature on the technology. We gave it a very fair shake, originally, and reported all the details of what it was and how it was intended to work and what it meant. After that, we sort of did a separate thing and said, “Well, here’s what we think about it.” And it really just kind of took off from there.

Flightpath: Related to that, was there a specific review or a feature that you ran, which really turned the corner for the website?

Bill Hunt: I would definitely say the DivX thing did, because that format war supercharged interest. Interest was really picking up, in terms of DVD, at the time. That topic just absolutely went everywhere. It was all over mainstream media. Attention coming to DVD was really [borne] out of that controversy about this format war. So I would say that.

And then also, when the Star Wars special editions came back to theaters, which I think was ’97, there was talk that those were the obvious movies to bring to DVD. Those are the movies that everybody would want. And I think it was in 2000 when The Phantom Menace came out, there was this controversy – it came out on VHS, it came out on LaserDisc, but it wasn’t on DVD. It was a huge thing. It’s like, [George] Lucas is very progressive about technology, and these are obvious films to bring out. And so we, along with several other websites, did this whole Star Wars-on-DVD campaign. And Lucasfilm took notice, and they basically said, “We’re gonna do it.” And a year later they put out Episode I on DVD. So we were covering that, and that also was a big landmark event for the site.

But I guess – probably the biggest thing that’s really helped The Bits grow over the years is that we’ve just assembled a really great group of columnists. I mentioned some of them earlier and there have been others as well that made key contributions and moved on. But for example, Todd Doogan coming on board and bringing his experience as a laserdisc reviewer and his time at TNT’s Roughcut – that was a big deal. Adam Jahnke – who started as a writer for Troma – brings a really refreshing and unique expertise and writing style to the site in his Bottom Shelf and Jahnke’s Electric Theatre columns. And Barrie’s passion and knowledge of classic films is as strong and deep as anyone I know. Each of our writers comes from a different place and a different perspective, but we’re all of very similar mind in terms of our love of this stuff and what we’re trying to accomplish. These guys are a big part of The Bits’ success and popularity. Even more importantly for me though, is that they’ve all become really great friends. Hell, they’re like family at this point. So I guess that’s really the thing I’ve gained and appreciate most from The Bits over the years – the friendships with them and others in the industry.

Flightpath: You mentioned Star Wars…it’s funny, because I’m a Star Wars nerd. And I feel like, reading your review of the Blu-rays and all the Star Wars releases where Lucas makes changes to the films, you almost have to act as a therapist for Star Wars fans.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It’s really true. It is true. And the funny thing about that is, I’ve said a couple of times, even in my reviews, is that I’m the same way. I grew up with those films; they had a huge impact on my life. It’s taken me years to learn how to sort of separate my practical, just common sense perspective, from the feelings I have connected to Star Wars. But having done that, having been able to do that, now I find that a lot of other people still aren’t able to do that. [Laughs] So in my review, I just try and say, “There’s good and bad here, but it’s not the end of the world. This isn’t rocket science, it’s not brain surgery. The films look good.” There is an aspect of that.

The other interesting thing about this website – tied to both format wars, tied to Star Wars, tied to you name it – is that I get hundreds of emails a day from people. Just readers who have questions or who want help. One of the things I tried to do very early on was to keep The Bits very focused at sort of a mass audience. Widescreen Review is a great publication, but you have to be a real expert and enthusiast to really appreciate all the detail it’s going into. My goal was to always say, “Okay, I want to do two things. I want to expose people who are new to DVD or Blu-ray to the technology, and explain it to them in a way that they can understand, and help them to appreciate it, to get the most enjoyment out of it. And then on other side of the coin, I want to expose people to a lot of films that they maybe haven’t seen before.” One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was in college, as a film major. Growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t have a chance to see a lot of foreign films, or independent films, or art house films. And suddenly, I was a projectionist for the film department, and I was watching [Akira] Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and [Federico] Fellini. That was just an amazing time for me – discovering all these great movies from around the world. So, what I was trying to do, was sort of bring my love of those things to people who may never have seen a [Stanley] Kubrick film or a Fellini film, and say, “You know, you might really be interested in this, and here’s why.”

We didn’t want to talk to the in-crowd, necessarily. We wanted to talk to everybody. We wanted to get everybody into the fold and let everybody share in the fun. Because of that though, we’ve developed a readership where, whenever they have a question or an issue, they start emailing. [Laughs] So, you know, half my morning is spent just going through emails and trying to answer as many as I can.

Flightpath: With great power comes great responsibility.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] I guess so. I guess so. And the other fun thing about the site is, the longer we’ve been doing it, people just sort of feel like they know you. It feels like a family, to a degree. People have no problem emailing and talking about stuff, I think, because we do put a little bit of our personality into the site. They feel like they know who we are.

Be sure to come back later this week for part 2 of our interview with Bill Hunt!