Industry Spotlight: Seth Werkheiser (Skull Toaster)

Hello and welcome to a new week of music industry insight and advice here on the official blog of Haulix. We have a lot of content planned for the days ahead, and we could not be more thrilled than to kick things off with a look at the origins of two of the most entertainment hard rock/metal outlets of the last decade. If you have any questions about the content of the blog, or if you would like more information regarding the distributional services offered by Haulix, please email james@haulix.com and share your thoughts. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.

As many of you know, this blog exists to promote the future of the music industry and the people who will one day run it, but truth be told we are not always sure what the future will hold. We do our best to ask everyone we speak with about their thoughts on where the industry is headed, but by and large people have no real idea what this business will look like five or ten years from now. The best we can do is ask as many questions as possible and plan for the worst, and though we may be hesitant to the idea we must accept the fact things are going to change.

I’m not sure Seth Werkheiser knew where he ultimately wanted to end up in music when he launched Buzzgrinder in 2001, but I am willing to wager everything in my possession that he never could have guessed the path to success he would blaze in this often turbulent business. From life as a regular joe, blogging about the music that interested him, Seth began a career that eventually landed him a paying gig with AOL. He worked his way through the ranks and in 2009 helped the company launch Noisecreep, which quickly became one of the top online hard rock hubs. After a few years, however, things at the company began to change, and Seth was faced with the decision of sticking with his baby or exploring new horizons outside the site he had built from the ground up.

He chose the latter.

In the years since leaving Noisecreep, Seth has gone on to find new ways of reaching music fans, including the launch of his increasingly popular Skull Toaster email chain. He’s still writing, but he now has more freedom than ever before. Somewhere along the way he realized that there will always be new peaks to reach and challenges to meet, which he welcomes with open arms. In our interview below we get a glimpse at not only how he reached this realization, but at the journey that created the influential voice in music that he has become.

If you would like to learn more about Seth Werkheiser and his efforts to further the music industry, please make it a point to follow Seth on Twitter and subscribe to Skull Toaster. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.

H: Before we begin, would you please introduce yourself to our readers:

S: Ahoy! I’m Seth Werkheiser. I started Buzzgrinder in 2001, and Noise Creep in 2009 for AOL Music.  Since 2011 I’ve been biking, couch surfing, and writing metal trivia.

H: Thank you for joining us, Seth. You have had a number of roles in the industry that I want to touch upon, but I want to say right off the top that your current project – Skulltoaster – is unlike anything we have featured before. Would you please tell everyone a bit about your current writing effort?

S: Well, after doing the “blog thing” from 2001 to 2011, jumping back into more blogging wasn’t something I wanted to do. Without a writer budget, and because I didn’t feel like writing 500 word posts anymore, I figured Tweeting nerdy metal trivia would be easier. I could research and write five questions a week, schedule them, reply when people answer, and see where it went.

I also felt way back in 2011 that  – wow – lots of people are staring at their phones, aren’t they? Maybe there’s something to this whole “mobile thing.“ I wanted to make something right where the reader was – looking at a Tweet. They didn’t have to click to read more, they could just reply, and I loved that thought.

H: We’ll get back to the origin and day-to-day in a moment, but I want to take a few steps back in your story and learn about your early interactions with music. Were you always determined to be a professional in the music/writing industry?

S: I wouldn’t say determined, I think I was wired for it. People have been telling me in recent years that maybe I should “get out of music,” and that just doesn’t even compute. My grandmother and grandfather played country music and called square dances in the Poconos back in the day. My mom played bass and sang in that band. My one uncle was a shredder with an Ibanez guitar and a bunch of effects pedals. My other uncle was in a band, Daddy Licks, and they self released a record in 80 or 81. And my dad plays guitar, too.

So of course I started playing in bands in high school. I played bass in alt-rock bands, funk bands, Primus-y thrash bands. Of course I was going to be a rock star! 

And since I was going to be a rock star, I passed through high school with all D’s. I spent a lot of time in high school writing in notebooks. Just stories and nonsense. Then halfway through my senior year we do this creative writing project in English class and my teacher, Mrs. Vainger, she’s like, “wow, Seth! You can really write! You should go to school for this!” It was then I thought of writing, but writing about music wasn’t my first thought, it was more newspapers. Those actually existed and did well back then! But yea, the writing part came later.

H: Can you recall the first album you purchased with your own money? Bonus points for the format of said release and the story behind how you discovered the band/artist. Keep in mind, this is like ‘Who’s Line,’ so the points are made up and never really matter.

S: It may have been Poison ‘Open up and Say Ahhh!’ at Fay’s Drug Store, but I don’t know if that was with my own money or not, since I was 12. I knew them through MTV, of course. I can say for sure the first CD I bought with my first credit card was Into Another’s ‘Ignaurus,’ in 1994. My friend took me to see them playing with Life of Agony, I think, and I loved them. Bought their CD the next day at the mall. Still love that band and album.

The first time I skipped school was with some band mates and we drove in the rain to buy Guns N Roses Use Your Illusion I and II. That was my freshman year of high school, so 1991. That band is why I started playing music in the first place. I wanted to play guitar like Slash, but I wasn’t any good, so I picked up my mom’s bass and got to play in bands. Moms are the best.

But I don’t know the first album! I bombed this question!

H: How about your first concert experience?

S: Probably when I was a little kid and my dad playing in country rock bands at ski resorts in the Poconos. That was like, as normal as seeing your dad watching TV these days, to me. After that, I remember maybe Spin Doctors with like, Cracker. My scene points are disappearing by the word with this interview.

H: What came first, your desire to work in music or your desire to be a professional writer?

S: Work in music. I played in bands, booked shows for a small time, wrote zines, made websites for local bands on Geocities. The writing thing didn’t come until later, after I finally stopped playing shows in 2001.

H: Buzzgrinder, the first site you launched (as far as my research can find), hit the net in 2001. What initially sparked your desire to have your own corner of the internet?

S: I had an office job with internet access and lots of downtime. At the time I was really into the Decapolis message board, around 2000, mostly their music thread. I thought, why not move the message board “thing” to the front page? I didn’t even know about music blogging, or Absolute Punk and all them. I just knew I liked a handful of bands, and I wanted to write about them. I wanted to see the thing that I wanted to read – something that updated often, like a message board, about the bands I liked.

H: What was the blogging world like at that time? Did you have a lot of competition for coverage? As someone who started working around the time of the social media boom it’s hard for me to imagine how someone even went about marketing a new music site in 2001.

S: Well, there were still magazines to pitch, so it wasn’t the maddening PR and marketing flood that it is today. Sure, I got emails, but lordy, not like in the last few years of doing the music blog thing, which I stepped away from in 2011. Back then you had to make something that people would come back to on their own accord. They’d bookmark it. They’d come back because they knew you’d always have something new. That was hard work, since you couldn’t Tweet your most recent headline every hour on the hour, constantly begging people to read your latest post.

H: From what I’ve found, your next career move was to join the AOL team in 2006. Did you do any freelance writing before joining that organization, or was Buzzgrinder your main focus? Did the site generate income?

S: Buzzgrinder was the thing I did until 1AM each night, scheduling posts to run while I was at my day job. I did that for five years, and one day thought to put it on my resume on Monster.com, and that landed me a three month contract working with AOL Music, doing HTML and some music writing. I wore a suit to the interview. I was new to the city! But I got the gig. Some of the people working there knew of Buzzgrinder because it showed up in their traffic referrer logs. But it was just doing the site, no freelance writing, no college degree, no bullshit unpaid internships – it was just something I made and built and that landed me the gig.

And yea, Buzzgrinder made money. Those were the days, in 2005, when the site started doing well. But there weren’t the million music blogs back then, either. Heck, when I started at AOL Music they didn’t have the Spinner music blog – they were JUST opening up their “walled garden.” Metalsucks started in late 2006, I think, too. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, there were some great music sites going. Chromewaves, Tiny Mix Tapes, Pitchfork. But we were all doing our own little thing. I don’t even remember ever looking at other sites and being, “wow, I can’t believe we didn’t get that premiere!” or anything like that. We all had our own audience. It was different, because today everyone is competing for the same eyeballs with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and it’s just so much louder today. You never saw the headlines from other sites unless you actually went to the site. Now everyone is RT’ing everything and you see 9,000 headlines an hour.

H: You did a lot while working at AOL, but for the purposes of this interview I’d like to focus on the origin of Noisecreep. What can you tell us about the pitch to launch the site and those initial months of development?

S: They pitched me. I got talking to the VP of Music there, the incredible Bill Crandall who, let me tell you, is the one of the smartest music heads ever, but also one of the most humble and kind hearted people out there. I approached him about Buzzgrinder, because another “buzz” site was interested in it – this is back in 2008, when a certain “buzz” site was talking to a bunch of music blog folks. I got talking to him about it, but it turned into, “do you want to start a metal blog for us?” They saw the traffic potential from a Slipknot gallery they did on Spinner, and they already had a country blog, a hip hop blog, and Spinner, so why not metal?

I started work on that in November of 2008, and launched in March of 2009 I think. It was a lot of building a roster of great writers, figuring out the tone and direction, and the name. Oh, the name. Since it was AOL, everything had to be legit and tidy, so trademark checks and stuff. A fellow I worked with, we spent weeks putting metal sounding words on a white board, and trying to match them up. Noise and Creep were there. So were Crank and Pit, which I’m glad we didn’t go with.

H: You were at AOL for a while, but ultimately left the company and Noisecreep behind at a time when the site was one of the more recognizable hard rock outlets in existence. Is it alright if I ask what changed or otherwise occurred to let you know it was time for your exit?

S: Simple; my writer budget was cut in half and my hourly rate was less than when I was just doing HTML coding for them in 2006. For me, the writing was on the wall. The tides of blogging were shifting; I could assign a writer with 15+ years of music writing experience to interview Ozzy, James Hetfield, and Lemmy in the same room, but an unpaid college intern could write a post about Lady Gaga’s shoes and it’d get more traffic because it’d get linked on the AOL Homepage and get clicked on by 80 million moms across the country. 

So it was a un-winnable battle. Less budget, my work day had to end at 5pm – what music blogger editor stops checking email at 5pm EST? – and we had to do less exclusive, original content and more press release re-writes and top 10 lists. It was time to leave.

H: Having brought Noisecreep from literally nothing to one of the more influential music sites in existence, it had to be incredibly hard to let go. Did you ever worry that you had peaked as a professional? I ask that because I caught a few tweets from you recently that mentioned a professional outlook that included ‘new peaks.’

S: Peaked at doing a music blog to attract eyeballs to sell ads? Oh, shit yes. I peaked. I won’t go into actual numbers, but we did well. But at a certain number, where else is there to go? When you hit a million, next is two million. Even then, what, next you want four million? No thanks. 

It was like driving up a mountain road that never ends – you know how a cars engine starts to strain after awhile? Well, then there’s two bosses in the back seat telling you to drive faster. It’s never enough, and it never ends. So I hit that peak, sure.  Let someone else work 16 hour days and embed Tweets for some TMZ-style gossip post and infect every new social media network with “updates.“ That’s not a peak I want to summit anymore.

But new peaks? Oh, there’s plenty of those! Labels still need eyeballs. Bands still need to reach fans. Venues, music equipment companies, record stores –  there are plenty of peaks still yet available in those areas, and most don’t even have a fucking email list! In 2014! So there’s still plenty of work to be done. I’m excited about that.

H: Not long after your departure from AOL in 2011 you launched Skull Toaster, which you already described briefly at the beginning of this interview. Where did the idea initially come from?

S: It came from quiet time. Hiking in Georgia. Couch surfing my way to New Mexico. Walking along rivers in Kentucky. I saved some money and got away from a computer, the inbox filled with press releases. I was actually back in Brooklyn when the idea came to me; post a metal trivia question, and maybe people will answer. I had no idea if it’d work, but I’m still doing it almost three years later.

A big part of it for me was, and this sounds like hipster talk, but I wanted it to be sustainable. Checking email around the clock, monitoring Twitter feeds, setting up keyword alerts in Google – I did all that. But what could I do next where I didn’t have to be paying attention around the clock? I didn’t need to be bound by release schedules or seek access to artists via publicists, I could do this all on my own time. I became a couch-surfing, hiking in the mountains hippie that really likes Twitter, so it all came together! 

H: How did you initially get the word out about Skull Toaster, and what was the early response?

S: I think I just Tweeted about it from my @sethw Twitter account a few times, and that was it. I mean, it helps that I’ve been on Twitter since 2006, and a number of followers have been following what I’ve been doing since Buzzgrinder. It wasn’t a huge response at first, but I wasn’t very good at writing metal trivia questions, either! But a handful of people stuck around, and it was fun! A good amount of those early followers are still answering metal trivia questions today.

H: What are the biggest challenges you have faced with growing Skull Toaster?

S: Actually, I’ve deliberately tried to not grow by traditional means. I used to @mention bands in some questions, but I don’t anymore. I don’t use hashtags anymore. I never asked a music blog friend to feature me on their metal site. I’ve done give-aways with labels and bands, and they RT my give-away Tweets, but that doesn’t lead to a lot of growth, either. 

I didn’t want to grow for the sake of growing, I just wanted to find the right audience, and I’ve got a damn smart audience these days that I’m proud of. Most of my followers come from other followers. They #FF me on Fridays. I just have real conversations with people on Twitter, and that leads to other like-minded people following. There goes my “growth hacker” title, but whatever!

H: I’ve noticed there is an option on the site for people to support your efforts in they so desire. How has the response been?

S: Incredible. Donations from all over the world. I sell stickers, and a few donations come in here and there. And it’s all from, “hanging out on Twitter.” I mean, I have some blog posts, and a nightly email, but ultimately everything comes from conversations on Twitter. I now know a lot of great people from doing this. I don’t say that in a, “wow, I’m so cool” kind of way. But for someone who has run a site with lots of traffic, I mean, it was just traffic. Traffic doesn’t sound fun! 

But meeting people all over the world and talking about hair metal? Or their cool kids? Or good coffee? I met someone recently in Philadelphia, PA at a friends house. As we were being introduced we had one of those, “yea, I think I know you from… Twitter??!” It was surreal, but that happens because I don’t treat my audience like a click machine. I don’t blast automated Tweets every 30 minutes. I just get to know people, learn stuff, and we talk about cassettes and how bad the Oakland Raiders will be this year.

H: Have you been freelancing and working on more conventional projects while developing Skulltoaster?

S: I’ve taken lessons I’ve learned over the past decade and applied them to freelance and consulting gigs. Email marketing, social media, content marketing, audience development – those sorts of things. I mean, the SEO, write 18 blog posts a day thing, there’s enough experts and “experts” in that field. I’m doing my best to show the relationship side of all this internet stuff. You can follow all the SEO tricks and use all the right hashtags and keep talking about “viral wins,” but for me I want to know my audience. I try to instill that idea with clients. Can you name your 10 best customers? What city they live in? Have you had conversations with them? Swapped emails? Met them for coffee? That’s what matters to me, and I pass that onto the clients I work with.

H: What can you tell us about Cred.FM and your role there?

S: They do music playlists. We had smart writers who would curate playlists from YouTube. Some were artist specific, some were based around festivals, events, genres. It was pretty neat. I was brought on as Managing Editor, to sort of guide that ship, and bring more eyeballs to the site. I worked with labels and bands to build playlists around their projects, and would put them on our home page, and in turn they’d Tweet about it and such. 

Also, I honed our social media methods. Got an editorial calendar going, Tweeted playlist links when an artist had a birthday, or an album had a special anniversary. It was fun.

H: Looking forward to the remainder of 2014, how would you like to see your work develop (for Skulltoaster or otherwise)?

S: I’m trying to do more stuff I’ve never done before. I mentioned stickers earlier. That’s design, file prep, finding a printer. Then finding a site to sell through. Then shipping orders. And how do you get the word out without looking like the typical band on Twitter; “HEY, BUY MY STICKERS!” 

Next is a poster series: I’ve been working with some designers and photographers, and an art director. I’ve done a series of posters exactly zero times. I’m stoked to say I don’t know what I’m doing at all, but I’m doing it and going to do my best to make it work. I want to see artists and photographers and art directors get paid, ultimately. If somehow Skull Toaster can help make that happen, I’d be stoked.

H: Speaking a bit more big picture, what are your current career goals? How have they changed since, say, the time spent at AOL?

S: My goal hasn’t changed: I want to help bands sell music. I will sleep on couches, eat peanut butter sandwiches, travel by bus, whatever to make that happen. I’m not just saying that – I’m living it. I’ve been on the road since 2010 making this work. I want albums to listen to for the next 40 or so years of my life if I’m lucky, and there’s a generation coming up now that deserves the same.

H: What advice would you offer those reading this who may be considering trying their luck at becoming a professional music writer/critic?

S: Build something for yourself. Put into the world what you’d love to see, no matter how weird it may seem. I’d stress doing that for yourself, for free, before writing for an established outlet for “exposure.“ Yea, clips are nice in established outlets, but when you build something that you own, you get to build your audience. I mean, writing for a big outlet, sure, lots of eyeballs. And it’s faster! But the site owns those eyeballs. They own the stats and the ad impressions. When you write something of your own, or do your own photo features, or book shows in some unusual venue, there’s value in that, and now you have an audience. I’ve learned that it’s nice to have an audience a decade down the road. The work you’re doing today, it’s all foundational. Build something, keep doing it, and hopefully a decade down the road you can still be doing it.

H: There have been a lot of professional entertainment writers in recent years who have spoken out against writing for publications who are unwilling to pay their contributors, regardless of your skill level. Do you feel this is a good outlook for young writers to have?

S: If a site sells ads, if people are getting paid, don’t write for free. The idea used to be you’d do that for the clips, then you can work your way up to bigger outlets. Well, what bigger outlets? AOL Music was the number one music site on the internet back in 2008 or so. Today, just six years later, it’s gone. Doesn’t even matter today. I mean, do what you want. The tried and trusted, "pitch editors, get gigs, chase late invoices, write link bait posts” – yea, I’m obviously I’m a bit jaded here. 

Or you can create your own damn thing. You can still write about music even if it doesn’t end up in Rolling Stone. If you only have 20 fans, maybe you’ll have 40 the next year. The lean years ain’t fun, otherwise everyone would be a “music writer.” People bolt when they don’t get page views, can’t sell ads, can’t interview big names… but you can tell who toughs it out. I see a few of those young writers doing that now. Those are the people who are gonna be running media outlets – in whatever form – a decade down the road.

H: When it comes to receiving music for review/feature consideration, which digital distribution platforms do you prefer and why?

S: Haulix for sure. One, the press release, band photo, and music are all right there. Two, that “My Promos” link in the upper right? Brilliant. It’s hard to keep track of everything I’ve been sent, and that link is priceless.

H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

S: End unpaid internships. There are plenty of bright kids who don’t have the means, the privilege, to live in major cities and work for free, and we’re worse off for it. Cut your banner ad budget and pay people for the work they perform. Yea, album sales ain’t what they used to be, but paying people zero dollars per hour ain’t helping.

H: Beyond paychecks and steady employment, how do you measure your personal level of success as a writer?

S: If I helped someone fall in love with a band, then that’s success. If any of my metal trivia, and the nightly email newsletter I send out, helps someone gain a sliver more appreciation for the music, I’m good. If my Twitter rants, or a blog post inspires someone to step out and do something on their own, then we all win.  

H: I believe that covers everything. Do you have any final thoughts or observations you would like to share with our readers? 

S: Just that I think the move to mobile is going to disrupt everything so much more than we’re prepared for. As screens get smaller, so do the display ads. Those dumb background ads go away, too. Stuff like that is going to rattle a lot of freelance budgets, especially when – not if – mobile internet traffic surpasses desktop traffic. That, to me, is both frightening and awesome at the same time. I’m excited to see how we progress past the current “get traffic, sell ads, get more traffic” model. It’s disruptive, but hey, so was Napster. We adapt or die, and I think great music writing will find a way to exist.

Thanks for the interview! This was fun. If you can link up sethw.com that’d be awesome, and skulltoaster.com as you see fit, that’d be awesome, too.

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.