Cantora Records is one of the most successful young labels in New York City, but that just doesn't seem good enough for them.
The company was formed by NYU students Will Griggs and Jesse Israel in 2005; their friend Nick Panama came aboard quickly afterwards.
After early success with MGMT's Time to Pretend EP, they've expanded into licensing, live music events and consulting work, and will soon debut the technology initiative Cantora Labs.
Nonstop Sound recently spoke with Griggs about how they got their start and their philosophy of over-delivering.
Nonstop Sound: The origin story of Cantora is that you and Jesse met at NYU and became friends when you discovered you liked the same bands. What bands did you two bond over? And what brought you both to NYU anyway? Where were you originally from?
Will Griggs: "Jesse and I were sophomore suite-mates at the Broome Street dorm at NYU, but we really bonded musically over the DJ sets we were doing at parties he was setting up in the basement of an East Village bar. He would play a lot of hip-hop; he had a radio show on WNYU called the Abstract that showcased lots of Stones Throw, Def Jux, etc, and I played a mix of oldies, new wave and newer indie records that was coming up at the time like The Unicorns and Broadcast.
Jesse and Nick, who ended up coming to NYU a couple years behind us, are both from LA. I am from Arlington, Va., and came up to NYU knowing I wanted to be involved in music somehow and it seemed to be the best place to be able to brush up against some interesting stuff."
NS: Cantora doesn’t just release records. You organize live shows, you do music publishing, you do consulting work. Do you do catering? But seriously, do you feel a responsibility to redefine what a record label should be in this day and age
WG: "Absolutely. I think it's essential for any company to adapt to changing climates but for music companies its especially crucial. We believe that the value of music has never been higher, but for a lot of fans the value doesn't lie in a CD or MP3. They are still showing up to gigs and listening to more music and a wider range of artists than ever before. The challenge is trying to reconcile that gap as much as possible. So we try to find as many ways to use the power of what Cantora and the music of our bands means to people and create as much opportunity around that as we can. Whether it is through live events, pushing for success within the licensing world, helping songwriters through our publishing efforts or using our experience in music to help new technologies, we are always trying to leverage the work we do in each area to strengthen the others."
NS: Is there a model for what you’re shooting for with Cantora empire? How do you keep so many plates in the air?
WG: "Our vision is to create as well-rounded of a company as possible without spreading ourselves too thin. If we aren't adding value with every element of what we do, we'd be doing everyone a huge disservice. For instance we didn't ask for any publishing rights from artists until we teamed up with a strong, international publishing partner. Our goal is to over-deliver."
NS: You’re probably best known for atmospheric, danceable acts like MGMT, Francis and the Lights and Bear Hands. Is there a “Cantora” sound? How do you choose which acts to work with
WG: "The common thread in my mind is great songwriting presented with innovative arrangements. We think of it as forward-thinking pop music. We are drawn to songs that have immediate impact from a pop level but push things forward a bit."
NS: How did the three of you discover MGMT? Time to Pretend put the label on the map, so to speak. Was the idea of doing a record label a theoretical thing that became real when you heard them, or were you determined to do it and then found the perfect first act?
WG: "MGMT, then called the Management, came into my orbit through my cousin, the artist Teddy O'Connor. He was a year ahead of me at Wesleyan. When I visited him my freshman year he took me to see them play at Eclectic House. MGMT were playing as what I believe they called the "Expandagement" which was a nine-piece version of the band that I'm sure only played a few times. It knocked me out.
Teddy gave me a bunch of demos the band had been giving away to their friends and I played it for Jesse when I got back to NYC. Those MP3s made it out to LA where Nick became a fan. By the time he tracked us down in NYC we had been helping MGMT out in whatever way we could without any real experience or knowledge of the music industry landscape.
We weren't sure if we wanted to manage bands or put out records. We just knew we loved the band and wanted to help them reach more people. What gave us impetus for the Time to Pretend EP was an invitation from Of Montreal for MGMT to open for them on a national tour. At that point it made sense to get the band some studio time; our buddy David Perlick-Molinari squeezed us into his studio after hours and co-produced the EP. We each put in what little money we could and pressed up t-shirts, CDs and the band hit the road."
NS: How did you keep your head on straight when they started blowing up in 2008? Early success can cripple some businesses. How did you stay focused?
WG: "It wasn't too hard since we had absolutely no point of context for that sort of thing. It also helped that the guys in the band have always remained so down-to-earth and supportive of folks around them. As they were getting bigger and bigger they always worked with and supported their friends. All the people working on their videos, or opening up for them on the road were all their friends so that definitely made it less of a foreign experience."
NS: Tell me about tech-company offshoot Cantora Labs. You claim that “tech and music” will be one on your website. How so?
WG: "There are a few ways to look at it. First of all we are bringing music and tech together in our collaborative workspace physically. We think it's crucial to have our label and music operations under the same roof as the tech companies so they can learn and grow together. With Cantora Labs we are taking our years of music industry expertise and providing it to start ups to build new apps and web ventures. This means acting as a liaison between tech founders, who often have little or no experience in the industry, and the people within the entertainment industry while also using our perspective as a music company to create the strongest products possible. I'm glad to see more music companies embracing technologies more and more each day as opposed to looking at them suspiciously and we are thrilled to be helping to bring those worlds together as much as possible."
NS: What’s next for Cantora? Where would you like to see this record label plus other things business grow?
WG: "We are going to continue building the same way we always have, by pushing things as much as we can without biting off more than we can chew. We built Cantora over the years in a very deliberate way and whether it's with the new crop of bands who we are thrilled to be working with, which include Slam Donahue, Zulu Pearls and Emil & Friends, or the tech companies we invest in and develop we can only try to get better at what we do every day and continue to test our own limits.
For instance we have brought one Cantora Labs company, Sonic Notify, to some of the world's largest acts, festivals and labels and have gotten a hugely enthusiastic response. It has also given us reason to branch outside of music, last week Sonic Notify powered the app for Made Fashion Week."