JOEL T. JORDAN
Brooklyn New York
Interview: Ariane Halls
Photography: Damian Weilers
Art Direction: Beatrice Hurst
Joel T. Jordan is good at many things, one of them being talking (the transcript of our one-hour conversation was 6000 words long). Another is designing rave flyers — he has even published a book on the subject, Searching for the Perfect Beat: Flyer Designs of the American Rave Scene (sample Amazon review: “This is the most colorful book I have ever seen.”) His greatest talent, however, lies in the music industry: his 30-month-old cloud-based licensing software, SynchTank, has over 70 clients on five continents.
Ariane Halls: How old were you and your brother started your hardcore label, Watermark?
Joel T. Jordan: We were 12 and a half. Jason worked at a lemonade stand on the Ocean City Boardwalk and I worked as an usher, and we scraped together $500 and pressed our first 7-inch. The vinyl was so shitty you could see through it, and it wasn’t black — it was kind of brown [laughs]. But we sold 500 of them, and before you knew it we had another 500 pressed.
After that we kind of upped our game and completely rewrote the book — we changed our label name, and everything that went with it was really classed-up and considered and masterminded for success. We actually mastered records, which was unheard of in punk rock, and plated them, and would sit there at the lathe and carve cryptic messages into the matrices. When you put so much time and effort behind one little piece of 7-inch and then everyone else embraces it, it’s like, “Wow, holy shit — what else can we do?”
What happened next?
We were computer guys — my father always had computers around when we were growing up, so we’d been programming since we were 13 and we had a really heavy background in computers and computer science — and being computer guys we were sharing information already, using the internet before the internet was the internet … As we were programming and noodling and tinkering and editing existing software, we were also building our own software programs to solve problems. One of them was a bulletin-board system that we developed completely by ourselves, built in a language called ACOS, which isn’t even in use anymore. If I had seen into the crystal ball I would never have been able to guess that 24 years later I would be doing exactly the same fucking thing!
How does SynchTank work?
Well, it’s basically a bulletin-board system — like the thing I designed when I was 14. Somebody with a collection of music, like you or me, but probably more like a composer, label or publishing company — someone that has years of recorded assets — normally has their music collection in iTunes or something like that, then they have their paperwork over in Excel, or they have a FileMaker database of all their details; something that’s disconnected from their music collection. There’s no global view of their music collection; it’s just completely disjointed.
What SynchTank does is it takes all these details that are over here, all these details that are over there, and the master information, and it puts it all in one touchpoint. So, you can search by any angle — you can search by writer, territories, descriptions of songs, lyrics, the master information that’s in the actual tunes. And then we also use really complex algorithms to assign data like tempo, BPM, key signature, moods, rhythm complexity, and similarities between songs, so that you as a human being can find things in seconds that you normally would not even remember that you have.
You can also view every detail of a copyright without having to run over to your computer — you can view it on your phone, or on the computer at the cafe or the library. So, it’s truly a mobile way to get to your assets and get to all your rights, and to know exactly who owns what, what it sounds like, know if it can cleared or not, and then you can also license things instantly from the program. So, there are a lot of things it does, but the main thing is that it’s a database that can be configured and modified to be used by catalogue owners to run a library, essentially.
I think of the program as a tool — like a hammer or a hedge clipper [laughs], you know? It really just does things better than a human can with their limited resources. Guys like publishers and music supervisors love this because not only can they work on their projects anywhere in the world, but they can send things to people without even thinking about it, and they can do it without all the rigmarole that goes with these boring admin tasks. It allows them to get more access to themselves and their staff, do more creative stuff like sign acts, and do better deals.
Who are your clients?
Well, they’re varied. They vary from composers to record labels, advertising companies, digital agencies, licensing companies, massive music companies and distributors. We serve clients that have as little as 100 tracks up to clients that have multi-millions of tracks. Right now we probably have one of the biggest music collections on the planet under management. We have 20th Century Fox as a client; The Orchard, which is one of the world’s biggest distributors; and then we also have a lot of tiny publishers and composers. We don’t have any bands yet, though, because it’s not something that would seem affordable to someone that doesn’t do this professionally. Normally our clients have been doing this forever — it’s not really a hard sell; it’s more like, “I’ve designed this thing, I know you guys need it, let’s take a look,” and they see it and they go, “Oh shit, that’s going to make my life easier. Where do I sign?”
Where do you take the software from here?
Well, the program is morphing into different things. Now there’s a shopping-cart module where you can sell merchandise alongside abstracts like licenses. So, somebody with a deep collection — like Modular, for example — might have all these different Presets logos, and they could sell t-shirts for ten bucks. And then some guy in Japan goes, “I fucking love that t-shirt, I want to sell it in Japan for them.” Well, they could license the design through that same program, buy the one t-shirt to wear on their back, and then buy that logo to use to create 1000 t-shirts and share in the revenue with The Presets.
So, we’re dealing with every level of the music industry now, which is great because — well, why not do it, if that’s what people want it to do? The users are actually dictating how the creation is developing — I’m just sitting here going, “How can I make it better? Tell me what you guys need.” I’m here to serve, and I want it to be as strong a product as possible, and if it fits in with what somebody’s doing but they need it to do something else, then yeah, sure, we’ll make it do that. We haven’t yet said, “No, that’s fucking crazy,” on anything; we’ve always been like, “Yeah, that sounds great, we’ll add that in,” and that’s kind of our attitude, I guess.
Where do you think SynchTank is heading?
When I set out to build it I was not intending to start a company or change the industry or be disruptive or any of those things that I can see beginning to happen, so I guess where I see it heading is in about a year’s time we’ll probably have over 100, 150 clients — even more maybe, probably another ten employees, another two offices. This thing that was in what is now my baby’s room is now a global business, and it was never intended to be; not at all. It was kind of, “I have this problem, how can I solve this problem, who can I show this thing to?” Sharing it with everybody else made it a business.
And that’s where we’ve kind of been fortunate. I feel that — in America, and I’d like to think around the world — there’s a kind of ‘pay it forward’ mentality in the music industry. It’s kind of like, “Well, how can we help each other?” There’s a lot of people coming together, banding together, sharing resources, and also sharing knowledge. So, it’s very much been professionals pointing other professionals toward me, and then me learning from those people.
With record sales being the way they are, do you think sync is going to save the industry?
If anything it’s certainly been one of the bigger ways to earn money all the time. Every part of the industry is booming, except downloads and that shitty thing you put music on — plastic; those things aren’t doing well. But touring and merchandise and all the ancillary business around music are great; they’re totally healthy. And sync’s not just some new thing, it’s just that people are suddenly paying attention to it because of shrinking revenues elsewhere.
Sync is a 2.6 billion dollar per year — and growing — market. I think it’s going to be growing exponentially — double or triple in the next ten years — but in order to be a part of that scene you need to work extra fucking hard. The sync industry is, if anything, just going to become more convoluted and more saturated with more operations popping up, more licensing companies popping up, more interest in this market and so on — which is great, because it’s going to make the thing bigger, but at the same time it’s going to make the thing harder to manage, and that’s kind of where we’re like, “Well, we’re here to do all that.” We’ve kind of been in the right place at the right time, where we’ve already been working on it for three years before everybody decided to come along with us.
Why do you think you have succeeded?
I’ve learned everything from listening and taking notes and paying attention to people that are smarter than me — I have a lot of people around me that are way, way smarter than me. I just have that kernel of instinct and that kernel of insight into what the initial problem was, and I acted on it immediately. There’s always been a sense of urgency with my brother and I; there’s always been that, “Let’s get this done now.” Why not get it done now? What the fuck are we waiting for?