Standing on the Frontline of Soul: Interviewing Chris Rizik, Founder of SoulTracks
We talked about the philosophy of running a music media outlet and how the already aging soul music can still grow and evolve in modern days.
SoulTracks is a soul music website founded in 2003 in the US and has been an important resource for me for many years. I’m very honored to interview Chris Rizik, the founder of SoulTracks, right when it turned 20 this year.
Chris loved listening to soul music growing up. When he was studying at Michigan State University, he aspired to write about music. So he asked the State News whether they needed someone to write soul music reviews, and he was accepted as a staff writer. Chris once considered making it a career but thought he was not good enough. He eventually decided to do what he learned from school: accounting. Later he became a lawyer and then founded a venture capital company. While he almost forgot about this hobby, the internet boomed in 2000. However, he found that there was not much information about the music he’d been loving. Out of interest, he pitched several articles to some websites. XM Radio saw them and asked him to do a show. However, Chris was not interested in radio shows; what he wanted to do was write music.
On Memorial Day in 2003, Chris bought a software from eBay for 50 bucks and started building the website and writing. At the time he already had some experience with venture capital, so he tried to apply it to the website and make it professional. He started hiring writers and producing more reviews and biographies. At that time, soul music was already out of fashion in terms of radio stations’ standards, but Chris thought that SoulTracks can create a parallel universe to let soul music fans have a place to gain more knowledge and, more importantly, discover that there are still new music and activities in this genre.
Thank you so much for accepting my invitation for this interview. It’s my honor to do this since SoulTracks has been a highly valuable resource for an Asian soul music fan and journalist like me to be able to get closer to the culture for so many years.
It's interesting that SoulTracks was launched in 2003 and in the following year I created the “RnB_Soul” online forum on PTT. PTT is a long-standing bulletin board system in Taiwan which can be deemed as the Taiwanese equivalent of Reddit, and RnB_Soul is one of its subreddits. Technically speaking, setting a forum on an existing infrastructure was much easier than building a website from the scratch, but I believe the motivations were the same — we both acknowledged the possibilities the internet had created yet at the time there was not much discussion about the music we'd been loving.
SoulTracks was born in the blog era, and everyone just started to build their own blogs and websites and write stuff. I remember that there once were so many online resources about soul music and black culture. As of now, we still have SoulBounce, YouKnowIGotSoul, Sonic Soul from Germany, etc, but there are many more that are defunct. What do you think made SoulTracks sustain for 20 years? What’s the business model and financial structure for SoulTracks, or is it just a pure passion project where you just spend what you earn from your VC job?
Thanks for inviting me to this interview. I started SoulTracks to scratch an itch I had. I really like writing and expressing my opinion about the music I love. And more importantly, as a fan I found that back in 2003 I couldn’t find the information I was looking for on the internet. So I created SoulTracks and started writing piece more for myself. But soon I found that we were filling a need for others who felt like I did. Initially SoulTracks was helping classic soul music fans to find what was happening with the artists they loved – many of whom did not have a strong internet presence. And then we really found our longstanding mission, which was to help those fans find the new generation of soul music artists, mostly independent, who were making great music but weren’t getting exposed on broadcast radio or in the mainstream media. We began to focus on being the bridge between classic and modern soul, and hopefully bringing a generation of fans with us to find these underexposed new artists.
We’ve been around for 20 years mostly because we have been consistent. You’re right, there have probably been 50 or more soul music sites that have come and gone since we started, but the ones that have survived (and there are some good ones) have survived because we put in the nonglamorous work of making sure we’re keeping up on new music and are posting new stories regularly. I have been blessed with a great staff of writers who are also music heads like I am, and between us we usually put out a couple new stories everyday, keeping our readers fed with interesting new reviews and not having long gaps between stories. Every day that our readers go to SoulTracks, they see something new, and that’s important.
We didn’t have a business model when we started. It was just me writing in my spare time. But eventually record companies and artists started contacting us about advertising their music on SoulTracks, and so we starting running ads. That revenue allowed us to hire our writers. I have been blessed that I have a “day job” that has allowed me to approach SoulTracks as a mission that is self-sustaining, but that hasn’t needed to be hugely profitable.
Although you’re always passionate about music and operating a website is similar to running a startup, I guess you still have to strike a balance between the day job and your passion project because your time and energy are finite. And as one becomes older and older, it’s very common to become more pragmatic and give up doing something that doesn’t make lots of money. So, how do you achieve that balance? What’s the philosophy?
I had to make a decision about 15 years ago about what I wanted SoulTracks to be and the role I wanted it to play in my life. I decided that it was something that I wanted to be fun and intellectually rewarding for me, and I didn’t think it could be that if I tried to make it a business that would maximize revenue. I’d have to make too many compromises, or become a “lifestyle” media business. What I wanted to do was write about soul music, and I didn’t see a path to optimize profits that would also be fun. So I kept it as a “nights and weekend” passion project, and I actually created my other startup, which is called Renaissance Venture Capital, to be my daytime business. That turned out to be a great decision. I really, really love Renaissance and we’re doing a lot of good for Detroit and the State of Michigan with that. And SoulTracks is my fun diversion. I vowed that the measuring stick for SoulTracks would not be whether it made money for me; the measuring stick would be whether I was having fun with it. And now, 20 years after I started it, I’m still having fun.
Do you have any daily or weekly routines for running the website? Walk me through what a day or week looks like.
Every morning I get up very early and look on the internet and social media to see if anything is going on in the soul music world that we should be writing about. I also read the dozens of emails that are waiting for me (we get about 300 emails a day), often from artists submitting their music for review. Based on that, I will assign articles to our writers or will decide that I’m going to write something that night on the topic.
Then at night I do the same thing again, always trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and communicating with artists, publicists, and writers around the world. And then I will typically write a story or two at night that may be published the next day. And we have our Music Director, Melody Charles, who also helps screen the dozens of artist submissions we receive each day – ultimately, we will typically write a story on one or two of them.
Longer articles, my editing work, and the business part of SoulTracks are usually handled on the weekend. I’m fortunate that my wife, Colette, is a CPA, so she handles the finances for the website.
There are a lot of moving parts to keep the site flowing, and between the writers, the web work, and the business part of SoulTracks, we have around 12-15 people who work on SoulTracks every week.
I used to read lots of album reviews and think pieces on SoulTracks, especially those written by you and L. Michael Gipson. Interestingly, there’s always a sentence placed at the end of every review article to indicate how much the writer recommends the album they write about. Though very few, I still remember there were times when the albums reviewed were not recommended. As far as I know, SoulTracks has built an online community for fans and artists throughout these two decades. Do you think the “level of recommendation” affects or is affected by SoulTracks’ relationships with the artists? For example, you may be friends with an artist, but his or her new album is disappointing. How do you keep your credibility and friendliness at the same time? How can media be friends with artists while still being critical?
LOL, you’ve hit what can be a sensitive topic. We have had reputation over the years for expressing our opinions about music and the business of music. The issue of the level at which we recommend albums has been one that has been an important part of our history. Some artists are quite sensitive about anything less than a “highly recommended” label, while others truly want our opinion and want to use it to improve their music. In the end, we’re just people who are giving our opinions. There’s nothing magical about our thumbs up or thumbs down. And our readers are smart and can make up their own minds about music once they’ve seen what we write.
I think that over the years we’ve gotten more thoughtful about how we write about music, particularly with independent artists. There are reviews about major artists that we HAVE TO write, because our readers expect it, and we will be honest and pointed in our reviews, although never unkind. But with independent artists striving to find an audience, we would rather screen them more thoroughly and only post music that we like. It doesn’t make much sense to introduce our audience to a new independent artist whose music we don’t like. We’d rather, in our screening process (remember, we’re only writing about maybe 5% of the songs submitted to us), focus on those independent artists we really like and put them in front of our audience.
What made you decide to host the SoulTracks Readers’ Choice Awards nearly 20 years ago? What does it mean to you and the community?
As part of our mission to expose independent artists to the world, we saw that major label artists get the mainstream media, the big radio stations, and they even get their own awards (The Grammys). So we decided to create an alternative to the Grammys just for independent soul music artists. We have similar categories as the major music awards, but only independent artists and their music are eligible. We’ve been touched by how much even being nominated means to these artists, as many of them have simply not received the recognition that they deserve in other places. And they’ve been able to use their nomination (or if they’re lucky, the actual award) as a way to increase their exposure, their concert bookings, etc. The Readers’ Choice Awards continues to be extremely important to us and to the artists we cover.
Although there’s a Best New Artist category among the awards, it seems that most of the nominees were veterans, at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the last several years.
Good observation. This has happened because so many veterans who were signed to major labels are now independent, making them eligible alongside much younger artists. It ends up being a nice mixture, but it pushes our readers to be thoughtful in their voting and not simply vote for the most familiar name.
When you launched SoulTracks, soul music was already an old thing. And 20 years have passed, there seem to be a lot more obituaries than upcoming new stars in this genre, and the entire demographics including the fans and writers are getting older. I just found that I actually left a question for you nearly 10 years ago on Facebook about the average age of SoulTracks’ readers, and you replied it’s “around 40”. It might be around 50 now.
Yes, it is right around 50 now.
Will there be the demise of this genre? I know this is a complicated question because we have witnessed many new sub-genres given birth by soul music, but they seem to adopt more of the musical elements than the spirits and the underlying cultures. For example, in my country, when young people talk about neo-soul, they’re in fact talking about a trendy atmosphere or a vibe, not the original movement and historical context. What do you think about the younger generation of soul artists and fans? How does SoulTracks decide which artist is soulful enough to be covered on the website?
I don’t think that there will be a demise of soul music, but I do think it will continue to evolve. Soul music has at various times reflected more heavily its Gospel influences, at times more its jazz influences, and now increasingly it bears elements of hip-hop and even electronica. It makes for a pretty wide palette of music that we experience. Readers tend to gravitate to some styles more than others, often based on their own life experiences.
We try to know what we’re about and what our readers are about, so we tend to shade our stories more on music that feels like the descendant of styles from the 70s-90s. We are not a hip-hop site, and that’s not what our audience wants from us, though there can be hip-hop elements in the music. We are also a vocal music site, so we don’t cover a lot of instrumentals. Lastly, we are sensitive about the coarsening of lyrics in music, and so we try to avoid covering music that has heavy expletives, or that demean people (especially women). On the flip side, we do love music about love, faith and positivity.
This question is always confusing for newcomers: what are the differences between R&B, soul, and neo-soul?
This is the “holy war” that we try to avoid. I could give 10 definitions but in the end I feel like they’re a bit of artificial boundaries that were originally drawn in order to put albums in the “right” section of a store. Fortunately, we don’t have to make those distinctions. We simply trust our ears.
What do the markets for soul music and soul music journalism nowadays look like? How are the sustainability and scalability in this genre? My country is small so there is not much room for niche genres. Fans are no longer loyal to one or two genres. Do you think the market in America is still discrete? Or do artists and journalists struggle to compete with those from other genres?
The internet was a boon for music journalists who wanted to reach the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have come at the right time to benefit from it. But the days of large numbers of people paying for music news is probably gone, so it takes (and will take) creativity for young journalists to figure out how to make a living writing about music. I made my own decision that I didn’t want to rely on it for my living, but there will be others who will embrace that challenge.
For artists, the change has been just as dramatic. I wrote an article four years ago that was titled “Spotify could kill Jazz, Soul and Classical music. Really,” and I meant it. The economics for artists has changed significantly. It is now truly difficult for artists in niche genres to make any meaningful money on their recorded music. So that puts more pressure on live performances and perhaps merchandise to keep an artist afloat. Many still have day jobs and perform at night and weekends. And those who have committed their all to performing really toil in order to make it all work.
Soul music was born in America, but now its audience and artists are global. There are so many great artists coming from Europe and Australia and having created their own unique styles, such as Hiatus Kaiyote, Marie Dahlstrøm, and Nicolay. What should those non-American artists do to break into the American market? Nao Yoshioka won the SoulTracks Readers’ Choice Award as best new artist in 2015, a very rare achievement for a Japanese soul songstress. What did she and her label do right?
I think music has become much more international and I am really impressed with how our readers embrace artists of all nations and cultures that deliver music that speaks to them. Nao is a great example. She has her own sound, and she always delivers high quality music. She had made a great impression on our readers by the time of the vote for the awards, plus she and her team really mobilized her fans to also participate. This goes to one the fundamental features of the most successful independent artists: they don’t just sing; they create a relationship with their fans and they create loyalty.
What are some essential works (albums, books, films, etc.) in this genre you would recommend to the younger generation and why?
There are so many great documentaries and films of the classic soul years. Young fans can scour YouTube and spend countless hours. Interestingly, the question I receive more often from young fans or from non-soul music fans is: who are some newer artists I should listen to that I don’t know? I usually mention artists like Gregory Porter, Mamas Gun, Kwabs, Eric Roberson, and a few others who cover the spectrum of what soul includes these days. If someone spends a few weeks on SoulTracks.com, they will see a plethora of talented artists, many of whom they’d never heard before.
Finally, what does the future hold for SoulTracks?
We’ve had tremendous growth over two decades, but there are still millions of fans we haven’t yet reached. Our goal will continue to be to serve as that bridge that helps music fans discover great artists and music that will really connect with them. Though we are based in the U.S., it is gratifying to know we have regular readers in over 100 countries, and we take our responsibility to them seriously. And beyond all that, our goal is to continue to have fun and experience the absolute joy of hearing new music everyday.