Matt Molarius has learned a thing or two about the music business with his band Transfer, a local-scene staple since 2004. But before his years of hard work and gleaned know-how, the vocalist / guitarist admits he fantasized about a straight shot to the top. Or, as he puts it:
“This vision of grandeur that we were going to be discovered by somebody that just happened to see us play live, and Mr. Big was going to pull up in his limousine and drive us to Hollywood and record us with Capitol Records and fly us around the world and we'd sell a million records and all that bullshit.”
What, that didn't happen?
“Amazingly, to our dismay, it didn't happen that way,” Molarius laughs. “It was a blessing in disguise, though. We had to figure it out for ourselves.
“Obscure Magpie started as a publishing entity for Transfer,” he continues. “Publishing meaning music—basically registering and owning the actual intellectual property rights of our music. I wanted to own our music. I thought, Who would be better to take care of what we do than ourselves?”
The company name was lifted from a conversation with a British sound engineer. Molarius had expressed concern that one of Transfer's songs smacked oh-so-vaguely of another band's. The engineer's cheeky response: “Well, everybody's a thief and a magpie, mate, so don't worry about it!” (“It's true,” adds Molarius. “Everybody wears their influence on their sleeves. It's just a matter of how creative you are and how obscure you are with that presentation.”)
Obscure Magpie was born of necessity. Transfer didn't have a label, meaning no support for recording or booking. So the band did it themselves. And, “through playing shows, and knowing more people, and networking around our music scene, we acquired contacts who had friends.”
DIY is nothing new, but Transfer's persistence paid off when a demo found its way to Sony Playstation. The song
“Smoke in the Crowd” was featured in the 2006 edition of the hugely popular MLB baseball video-game series. And that's when it hit Molarius.
“The traditional label deal seems to be obsolete. CD sales are becoming obsolete, which is why the label deal is obsolete,” he says. “Labels aren't making any money off their traditional format, which is selling CDs. Everybody's file sharing; there's no way to really control it. Nobody really pays for music anymore.”
Nobody, that is, except for the corporate market.
“The license to intellectual property is beyond technology,” Molarius says. “Music directors, independent film companies, TV shows, marketing companies—all those people need music, and they need the license to use it. Publishing companies own those licenses.”
Molarius and his business partner, Transfer bassist Shaun Cornell, decided they could help other local bands secure placement deals, which Molarius believes is the future of revenue for independent artists. Obscure Magpie has landed songs with MTV, Fox Sports and DC Shoes.
Now the company's services—offered comprehensively or à la carte—have expanded beyond publishing and placement to booking, packaging, merchandising, fan-list management and recording at Cornell's Blue Roof Studios in North County. In other words, all the stuff that takes years for new bands to figure out on their own.
Obscure Magpie is a “collective community,” Molarius explains. “We can offer a family, basically. That's my vision of it—to be able to offer the network that we've created for ourselves, for the people around us who need that support. They're at the level where they're just trying to make music. That's where it's at. That's what we want to focus on. That's what we want everyone around us to focus on.”
“It started as a publishing thing, so that they'd have some music to sell, other than just Transfer stuff,” says Rob Kent, vocalist for Apes of Wrath, one of Obscure Magpie's top clients. “They're such good friends of ours, it just seemed natural. We're also using their awesome recording studio.”
Molarius bristles a bit when asked about the business-end particulars of Obscure Magpie. “Hey, isn't this a fluff piece?” he jokes. Obviously, they're in it to make some money, but Molarius insists that building trustworthy relationships and using them to everyone's advantage is what they're really about.
Take 14-Hour Party, which Obscure Magpie is co-producing at The Compound in Austin during this week's South by Southwest festival. While most bands and artists will be there promoting themselves, the Magpie crew seem more focused on trying to help others. For several years, Transfer unsuccessfully vied to get into the official festival. So, instead, they gigged at parties on the unofficial fringes, where Molarius befriended Damon Alexander, of Austin's Go Entertainment, who's co-producing 14-Hour Party. Listed among the 22-band lineup headlined by Atlanta's Dead Confederate are a few San Diego names, like Apes of Wrath and Crash Encore, another Magpie client.
It'll take dozens of sponsors and volunteers to pull off the event, but Molarius doesn't seem concerned. Almost 3,000 partygoers already have RSVP'd. Among them, future fans / bookers / directors / friends who'll walk away with a dog tag imprinted with Obscure Magpie's URL and a code, which they can later type in—along with their e-mail, natch—to download a compilation of MP3s donated by the bands at 14-Hour Party.
“And then we'll add them to our roster of Little Magpie family members,” Molarius says with a conspiratorial grin.