Blogger Spotlight: James Shotwell (Haulix)

Hello and welcome to final Blogger Spotlight of the week. The interview you are about to read was written and conducted by music writer Jesse Richman at our request. If you have any questions regarding the content of this blog, or if you would like to learn more information about the services offered by Haulix, please email james@haulix.com and share your thoughts. We can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

You might not recognize the name James Shotwell at first glance, but if you’re here reading the Haulix blog (and I know you are, because you’re reading this right now! gotcha!), you’re actually intimately familiar with his work. Yes, James is the man behind the keyboard here at Haulix, turning the spotlight on industry professionals of every stripe with his interviews, offering advice on publicity, marketing and more to bands, and keying you in to the newest features of Haulix’s platform. Think about that for a moment – how is one man capable of writing about, or even qualified to write about, all of this stuff?

Well, as it turns out, this isn’t James Shotwell’s first rodeo. I’ve long known James as the founder of Under The Gun Review, one of the best sources on the Internet for insightful, smartly-written commentary on the latest in music, film, comedy and more. (He’s also the guy who put up with a full week of my snoring at last year’s SXSW, which means he’s either a living saint or a crazy person. I’ll let you be the judge of that). Still, as I discovered in this interview, there’s a lot more to James than even I knew. Instead of boring you any further, I’ll just let the man tell you about himself, in his own words, below.

If you would like to learn more about James, make sure you follow his thoughts and observations on Twitter. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.

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H: I think we’re all pretty familiar with who you are and who you work for, but what is your official title here at Haulix, and what does it actually mean you do here?

J: Well my name is James and I am the marketing coordinator here at Haulix. I run organize and execute all social media campaigns, run the blog, research promotion opportunities, and generally do my best to make sure the Haulix brand is being represented well both online and off.

H: Ok, we’ll get back to Haulix in a little bit, but let’s start where you start. Where were you born and raised, and more importantly, what role did music play in your life during those early years?

J: I was born in Bowling Green, Ohio in late 1987. It’s the same day Miley Cyrus was born, and oddly enough many of my earliest memories with my mother and music are when she was a diehard fan of Billy Ray Cyrus. I mean a real fan, like, fan club exclusive windbreaker and everything. She even likes the non ‘Achy Breaky’ albums.

Music has always been a big part of my life. My grandfather was a pastor in the church, and I spent many days roaming the empty pews while he and the choir prepared for the next week’s service. My parents were also big music fans. My mom, as mentioned above, loved country a lot when I was very little. My dad was into rock, both christian and mainstream, and they began taking me to concerts before I was old enough to enter school.

H: What’s the first band you fell in love with? What was it you love(d) about them?

J: The first band I can remember being captivated by is Audio Adrenaline. Specifically, Audio Adrenaline during their ‘Some Kind Of Zombie’ phase. Horror is something I love nearly as much as music, and I look to that band and that record as very formative forces in my early years. They were a christian rock band, but they had an edge and gift for lyrical wordplay that drew me in like no other. We even saw them live at one point, but I barely remember the show.

H: What about your first live music experience? Who did you see, when, where? What stands out about that first show?

J: I touched on this before, but my parents were taking me to music events from a very young age. I cannot pinpoint which was first without calling my mom, but I remember the Audio Adrenaline ‘Some Kind Of Zombie’ tour leaving a big impression on me. They were headlining with the OC Supertones as direct support. Before that, I believe we saw the vocalist Carmen in Toledo, but again – too young to remember. My dad tried to buy me a shirt from the Audio Adrenaline show to mark the occasion, but the only size they had left was adult medium. I didn’t care though, and for the next year or two after that I would sleep in a tour tee from that night.

H: At what point did you know you wanted to make music more than just a hobby? DId you ever pick up an instrument yourself, or did you always know you wanted to be the man behind the curtain, as it were?

J: I think my interest in the music business began with those early concerts, but it wasn’t until I heard Blink-182’s ‘Enema Of The State’ that I felt any drive towards making music my life. Until that album hit my ears music was something I used to connect with the world outside the quiet farming community I called home. My parents bought me a cassette copy of ‘Enema,’ and that same summer I probably spent every other night riding around my town on a bike with headphones in (behavior I no longer encourage – wear a helmet!), screaming along to every line. I felt drawn to the chords and the lifestyle of being yourself the music spoke about, and before long I was signing up for band in school and attending local shows at night.

As far as actually performing is concerned, I was a member of my school band (concert and marching) from middle school until graduation. I also played guitar for a number of years, and even put out a couple solo releases under silly uber-emo names that will remain out of this interview because I don’t need the internet digging up forgotten streams. I played shows, tour the region with friends, and whenever that was not an option I booked shows for friends at a local venue. I was never the greatest booking agent, but I loved being involved in creating entertainment opportunities and realize now those times helped inform the ‘Advice’ columns I now write through Haulix. It all comes back around, I guess.

H: Folks here might only know you from Haulix, but before you started working for the best online music promotion service in the business (it is, isn’t it?), I knew you as the man behind the keyboard at Under The Gun Review. Where did the impetus to start UTG come from? How has that site grown and evolved over the last half-decade?

J: I spent the majority of high school and college doing whatever I could to build my resume in hopes of one day catching the eye of someone in the music industry. At some point during my Sophomore year in college I stumbled across a Facebook post seeking writers for a new music review site called HighBeam Review (RIP). I applied and spent a couple of months writing for them, but ultimately decided to step out on my own after falling in love with a chapter on music from Abbie Hoffman’s ‘Steal This Book.’ He wrote that anyone could gain access to free music from record labels if they were willing to run a zine of their own, and for whatever reason my broke as can be self thought that was the perfect role for me. I gave notice at the site, launched a blogspot after my own name, and about two months registered the Under The Gun URL.

With our sixth anniversary just two months away I must admit the many changes the site has undergone since launch have been on my mind quite a bit as of late. I was the only contributor originally, and at first there was a strict policy against news on the site. I only wrote reviews, and every day a new review would be posted. Over time I realized that reviews alone would not build a community however, and slowly news began to creep into the site. More writers came, new ideas emerged, and now we feature news, reviews, editorials, pictorials, and a few random articles in between. There are nearly 40 contributors spread across the globe, and many of them have been with the site for well over a year. We’re a family as much as we are a team, and we even found time along the way to introduce film coverage into our offerings. It’s been an absolute blast thus far and I cannot wait to see wait year six will hold.

H: You’ve broken a number of stories at Under The Gun Review – it’s a great source for music news. But perhaps even more importantly, Under The Gun frames that news with context, insight, and educated opinion, and that editorial work has been recognized by some of the biggest sites in media. Do you have a particular favorite story or feature that you’ve worked on? Which accolade was the most surprising? The most meaningful? Don’t be shy, toot your horn!

J: First off, thanks for tooting our horn. We try to focus on quality over quantity and never let the chance for easy hits interfere with our desire to offer in-depth insight into the entertainment industry, but it’s admittedly a constant struggle and we appreciate anyone who notices our efforts – good or bad. That said, I often find myself falling in love with features that are not necessarily the most read or widely covered. My greatest joy in doing UTG comes from creating features that I don’t believe would have otherwise existed had our staff not thought to create them. In 2013, a good example of this would be our in-depth interview with Cody Votolato about the early years of The Blood Brothers and what he remembers from the time surrounding the release of ‘Burn, Piano Island, Burn.’ That album has impacted more lives than probably anything I could hope to write, but as the decade mark was approaching it seemed like everyone was fine to let the day pass without a moment of reflection. Our column may not have been our most read interview of the year, but for fans of the band it offered a never-before-shared perspective on their most formative years that many probably never thought they would read. To me, that’s the kind of content sites like UTG should hope to create every day. We know we don’t have access to Miley Cyrus or other ‘in the moment’ stars, but we do have the ability (and time) to craft unique editorials on topics and ideas that bigger publications are forced to pass over for one reason or another. Sometimes we lose sight of how great that is, but we’re getting better at it.

H: One of the things that makes Under The Gun Review unique is that you don’t limit your reporting to music – movies and comedy make up a large part of your coverage. What’s your favorite movie of all time? Is there a story behind your interest in the cinema?

J: My love of cinema, much like my love of music, started very early on. There was a small theater near our home in Ohio that I would frequent with my parents as a child, and for whatever reason I still hold many memories from that location close to my heart. The pain I felt when ‘Aladdin’ was sold out its opening weekend still haunts me.

When it comes to film and UTG, the decision to inject more cinema into the site was one that felt logical from the start. Everything on the site, at least initially, was spawned from my personal interests and tastes. I like to think of myself as someone with a very open mind when it comes to art, and I do my best to seek out new music/film/photography/etc whenever the opportunity presents itself. I figured if there were enough people in the world who agreed enough with my diverse taste in music to read UTG there were probably just as many, if not more, who also loved film. We gave it a go, and as of December 2013 our film coverage is as frequent as our music, with nearly as many reviews being completed in the calendar year as the previous two combined.

Favorite movie is a question I do not take lightly. I have thought about this for many hours, and have gotten into heated arguments with myself over the pros and cons of movies far older than myself as a result. That said, I am confident in my belief there is no greater film in existence today than the 1976 classic, NETWORK. It blew audiences away when it was release, and to this day it holds up on each repeat viewing. The dialogue is crisp, the acting is on point, and the tale of a newsman trying to stay above water in the face of the ever-changing world of media is something I connect with far more than I would ever care to admit. I think everyone who writes about the world probably feels the same. That is, if they’ve seen it.

H: How about comedy? Is there a favorite comedian, or comedy album/special that sparked your interest?

J: My biggest creative inspiration is George Carlin. I have poured over every one of his comedy specials and books at least three times already and I know I will go through it all many more times before my days are done. I found his book, ‘Napalm and Silly Putty’ in my local library in middle school and have been a fan ever since. My parents were (and are) against profanity, so I had to keep his work secretive around the house. Some teen boys have hidden porn collections, but I just had dirty comedy written by the snarkiest grey-haired man I had ever encountered.

H: As long as we’re on the topic, it’s that time of year again… list time! Instead of making you run off a countdown of faves (I imagine you’ll be doing plenty of that regardless), how ‘bout you tell us one artist, movie and comedian that made an impact on you this year but flew under the radar for most? Let us bask in your secondhand cool for a minute, so that we might be cool too.

J: Things that the spotlight we call ‘hype’ missed? Hmm…

Artist: Sledding With Tigers

This is a bit of a selfish pick because my label just agreed to do their debut album, but throughout 2013 I was slowly falling in love with this band. I like to think of them as the love child Kimya Dawson would have if she were impregnated by The Front Bottoms, only slightly more punk.

Movie: The Kings Of Summer

This movie had so much hype leading into summer that I thought it would be a runaway success on the level of ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ but for one reason or another it got lost in the early june box office shuffle between ‘Now You See Me’ and whatever came out before ‘Man Of Steel.’ Coming of age are almost movies always a safe bet for a good time, but there is a special chemistry shared between the three young men at the center of this story that is nothing short of electrifying to watch. Plus, Nick Offerman appears.

Comedian: Lamont Price

I just saw Lamont perform as an opener for Big Jay Oakerson on New Year’s Eve and he absolutely crushed. His stage presence is very welcoming, making you feel almost like a best friend sitting opposite your over-active, nicely afro’d friend with hilarious stories to share. It’s hard to discuss him too in-depth without giving away bits, but a quick scroll through YouTube will probably give you all the information you need to know.

H: Back to business – along with UTG, you recently spent time with a company called OurStage. What was OurStage, and how did you get involved with them? What was your job there? Tell me about a particularly memorable experience from your time there.

J: I got involved with OurStage after a former UTG contributor suggested I apply for one of their paid internships. I lived in Michigan at the time, but when they asked me to fly out for an interview my parents helped me book a flight the next day. I came out, we talked for about forty-five minutes, and I went home. Two weeks later, while stranding in Arkansas following car trouble on my way back from SXSW, they called and offered me a full time role promoting a new project they were developing. That project eventually died, but I stayed on as social media head for a few additional years. I also worked on the blog, which highlighted the efforts of OS artists as well as those in the mainstream.

In 2012 the company suffered a few financial setbacks, and as a result I was laid off for several weeks. When they called me back to work, an opportunity came up for OS to sponsor a stage on Warped Tour and we leapt at it. I was chosen as the tour manager not long after, and the following summer I accompanied Larry g(EE) across the country for six weeks of shows on the world’s wildest traveling music festival. It was a one-of-a-kind experience that I will never forget.

By the time I returned to the office there had been several more changes to the structure, and I eventually settled into a general marketing position that included my previous efforts in social media and blogging. That lasted another year, and then I decided the time had come for me to move on.

H: OurStage, like most entertainment ventures, ultimately struggled to succeed. Having had a front-row seat to its rise and fall, what lessons did you learn from your OurStage experience that might help Haulix users fare better in their own ventures?

J: OurStage taught me that in order to succeed in the startup world you need a complete offering. OurStage built a streaming platform for exposing people to new music that worked great and proved to be a valuable tool for businesses hoping to leverage music in promotional campaigns. That always worked and will, most likely, continue to work for whatever business builds a similar platform in the future. The problem is that when the company tried to expand it did so in ways that did not always benefit the initial offering. For example, we had a social network element to our site that was never very social.

Haulix offers a far more complete product. We keep your music safe and offer a great streaming platform for journalists, yes, but we also offer all the tools needed to distribute and manage your media in ways that entirely customizable to your needs. We also offer analytics on both email and media engagement. It’s a ‘one stop shop,’ if you will. Having nailed that down, we are now able to refine what we know works while focusing additional time and effort on exploring future updates.

H: Is there anything else I’ve missed? Any other industry-related experience I haven’t mentioned?

J: I do some PR work with The Catalyst Publicity Group.

Oh, and I am one-half of Antique Records. We’re a boutique label based out of Boston that specializes in limited edition releases. We have a dozen or so tapes out right now, as well as great 7” from the band Maura. We just announced plans to release Sledding With Tigers’ debut album in early 2014.

H. You joined Haulix in June of last year. How did you find your way here? Were you a user of the service before you came to work for it, like a modern-day Sy Sperling? What was it about Haulix that intrigued you enough to cast your lot with the service?

J: My role at Haulix came into existence more or less out of my own curiosity about the company. I had been tweeting with Matt (the founder) over the last several years, and one day our conversation built from a basic Twitter chat about the company’s plans to a chain of emails that eventually became the position I have today. Being someone who works online, I’ve learned to appreciate anything nice anyone says about my efforts, and as a result have made it a point to tweet zines/startups I enjoy to let them know they have my support. Haulix has been my favorite platform for music distribution since I first encountered it in 2008, so I had been tweeting to them (and about them) for a number of years before it ever grew into something bigger. When Matt asked me however, I knew right away it was unlikely a company I loved as much as Haulix would come my way again and leapt at the opportunity to add to their efforts.

H: What about a “best practice” here at Haulix? What’s one part of the service you see being underutilized, or misutilized? You folks offer a lot of great tools – what should your users be doing to make sure they’re getting the most out of your offerings?

J: Something I know I am guilty of underutilizing in the past as a journalist is the ability to add comments/review links to your individual promos. Most bloggers I know either email links to PR people or hope someone connected with the release notice their social media promo blitz, but you can directly engage the people responsible for sending you the promos you have review through our service. I’ve included a screenshot to be nerdy/helpful:

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H: The music industry is rapidly changing, and between your different positions, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of it. What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started, or is wanting to get started, on a career in the industry? What are the clearest avenues to success? To what do you attribute your own success?

J: I’m a firm believer the best industry minds get their start in their local scene. If they do not have a scene they should consider their first challenge in the business to be creating one. My town lost its only music venue when I was in middle school, but thanks to a very kind family I was given the opportunity to reopen it while still in high school. I booked over two dozen concerts before graduation, working with both local and national talent, and though it closed again shortly after I left for college the experiences made possible by its existence laid the foundation for everything that would follow in my life.

There is no ‘clear avenue to success’ in this business, but those who find a niche they enjoy and dedicate all their effort into doing that thing to the best of their ability are those ones most likely to succeed. There is something to be said for knowing a little bit of everything, but unless you can do a few things incredibly well you will not be very useful for long.

H: Finally, prognosticate a little. Where does the industry go from here? Where do you see Haulix in five years, and where do you see yourself?

J: To be honest, it’s really hard to guess what the industry will be like five years from now. It seems more and more artists are moving away from the traditional album release format, and I think in the long run that is probably best for a lot of talent currently working the unsigned music circuit. More often than not albums seem to end up being underwhelming and turn away people who may have been sold on the group if they had chosen to release one song at a time, or even a couple of tracks every few months.

As for Haulix, I believe the sky is the limit. We have been consistently growing for a number of years and we would like to continue doing so for as long as possible. We will be launching our mobile platform this year, and there are several additional developments we are currently considering. Can’t let those secrets out just yet!

My biggest goals right now are to stay the course with my current projects and see just how far they can develop. Working at Haulix is a dream come true, and the fact it allows me time to also write freelance on the side is something I certainly do not take for granted. I would be perfectly happy never working in a conventional office setting again.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.