Written by: Melody Charles
A capital funds manager and true music connoisseur who turned his passion for soul music into the leading authoritative online magazine for all things soulful, Chris Rizik is the publisher of soultracks.com, a site devoted to expanding the encyclical knowledge of classically-composed and contemporary R&B. Thanks to thousands of quality reviews, insightful articles and a community that champions independent and under served artists, millions of devoted readers consider soultracks.com their ‘one-stop’ shop to discover old and new gems of the genre.
As 2013 marks 10 years since the launch, Mr. Rizik spoke from his home base of Michigan about early goals for soultracks.com, what makes the site different from other entertainment pages and how up-and-coming musicians can increase their chances of getting coverage and respect.
CHRIS RIZIK (CR)- “Ultimately, I did this because it was an itch I had to scratch. I’m such a big music fan and I didn’t see anything else out there that was where I wanted it to be as a reader. I can’t say I had the whole concept developed when I first started, I just knew I wanted to create something to where fans could read about artists that they couldn’t learn about anywhere else. As I came to learn about about all of these new talented independent artists that I wasn’t hearing about on the radio, I wanted to become a voice that would just expose the best of them to music fans and hopefully, create a strong critical voice that would help people find what they were looking for.
One of the really interesting things that we [my son and I] noticed early on was that new recording and distribution techniques helped artists that couldn’t get a major contract still find a way to get their music out there to listeners, but there’s no way for a potential fan to sift through the thousands of artists. What I really hoped we could be is that ‘Good Housekeeping’-type seal of approval for a new artist we really liked and give them a new level of exposure. For readers, we could exist as a kind of a filter to help them sort, among this big haystack of music, the wheat from the chaff.”
KNOWSHI- One of the major differences I noticed when I discovered the site was how it serves as a bridge between the ‘old school’ and ‘the new school.’ How did that particular approach evolve?
CR- “Pretty early on, we realized that most of the people coming to our site had a connection to old school soul, no connection to the newer music coming out now and didn’t really have a way to find it. So part of what we wanted to do was function as a translator: if you liked this, you should listen to that. We wanted to find a way to re-engage fans of old school music and help them to connect to new school music of artists who are amazingly talented, but simply didn’t have the same type of access that the older artists had. Today, the urban division of many major labels are skewered toward hip-hop, so a lot of adult fans have become very disenchanted with what they’re hearing now on the radio. Our goal became, pretty quickly, to connect them with a new generation of artists, such as bringing them into the site to read about Marvin Gaye, then introducing them to Gregory Porter, for example.”
KNOWSHI- Another component that I find refreshing is that the articles delve into trends and topics instead of the dishy, gossipy stuff, such as that essay about the misfires at the 2012 Grammy awards that went viral and led to a new category for classically-composed soul songs. How did you resist the temptation to not reach for the ‘low-lying fruit’?
CR- “A lot of sites have moved from being about music and being about lifestyle and even, to a certain extent, celebrity gossip. Sometimes the economics of running a site lead to that direction because of the type of advertisers they can attract, or the feeling that even more casual fans will be gained that way, but life is too short to do things that you don’t find interesting or uplifting, so none of that interested us. We created this site about music because we’re passionate about it, and there’s plenty of places where people can read about what an artist is wearing, but that wasn’t what we were about. We wanted to be a place where serious music fans could come in and really read about music. We touch on topics other than reviews, but it all tends to be serious and opinionated stuff about what’s going on in the music industry and other things that will affect our adult readers.
If you look at the topics that are being covered, such as Michael Gipson’s article about deeper-voiced R&B artists are being treated and how they’re not skinny 22-year-olds, or how my piece a couple of weeks ago about how really talented artists receiving stereotypical treatment in reality shows, we go deeper into topics than what’s seen in other places.
KNOWSHI- One of my very favorite pieces was the viral one about the Grammy Awards, how did it feel for that essay to have exploded the way it did?
CR- “Everyone wants to have impact with something that they’re passionate about, when something like that happens, like when that article got picked up by NPR, for instance, it was such a validation that demonstrated that there are people out there who care about what we care about, not just the ones you see on TV or getting the major press all of the time. The amount of mail that I received stating that I had verbalized something that was important to them, it was really gratifying. To have something that was written from the heart read by thousands of people was one of the most satisfying accomplishments: besides the fact that we’re helping people who truly deserve it, the feedback from music lovers that what we do is important to them and that we’ve helped them to find music or stated an issue that they just didn’t see somewhere else is what’s satisfying.”
KNOWSHI- Another outstanding and unique feature of the site is the annual Soultracks Awards. When did you start that and why?
CR- “We started that in 2005, and at the time, we were really starting to understand the power of independent soul and the ways that the major media world was ignoring this whole movement. We sort of saw ourselves as a parallel to the print mainstream media and major awards overlooking the independent artists, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we create an alternative that honors the independent artist?’ We do have a major label category, and that’s to recognize the creative artists with major label support, but to be nominated for the other categories, you have to be independent. They’re working day jobs, pursuing their music on nights and weekends, driving from show to show…it’s tough. When it really hit me was in the beginning, when we did live shows on stage, an artist who I had been following for 20 years, came up, crying, to get her award. After she got back to her table, she immediately called her mother and was sobbing as she shared that she had won because a lot of people don’t realize that she hadn’t been honored in that way before. From that point on, we knew that we would keep doing it forever because we accomplished exactly what we had hoped.”
KNOWSHI- Such an inspiring legacy, thanks so much for breaking it down for us Mr. Rizik. To wrap it up, what does an aspiring singer or musician have to do to earn consideration for coverage on soultracks.com?
CR- “They have to be creative, original, and have to make music that is, quality-wise, what you could hear from a major label, which is a real challenge. We tell artists all the time, ‘we don’t grade on a curve’: you may be doing this by yourself, or with friends in a bedroom studio, but many other artists have figured out ways to make it at that level, so when we recommend an artist to fans, we’re not going to say to readers that the writing was okay, but the vocals were muffled and it sounded like they were playing a toy piano. We push artists to make sure they’re keeping their game up and turn down a lot of stuff where there is nothing redeeming, such as the lyrical content being disrespectful to people or really doesn’t say anything. We look for strong lyrical content, songwriting, quality singing and production. We get about 15-20 submissions a week and we write maybe five reviews, so we turn down more than we take. but even when we turn down an artist, we try to tell them why—-it’s not a fit quality-wise, or its more hip-hop or rock, or they have to up their game on production, whatever it is. We take our roles as ‘curators’ seriously and what we don’t want to do is introduce an artist that no one’s ever heard of and then bash them. We screen the submissions in a way to where the artists who are placed in front of our fans are worthy of being heard.”