Drop Cards: Not So Much a Brave New World as Same Song, Different Key: An Interview with Jon Collins of Dropcards

Recently, an MSN.com article ruminated on the next 25 years of technology: tiny cameras in your glasses and shirt buttons that allow you to record every moment of your life, the Internet as a 3-D virtual world you interact with via nanocomputer holograms, and brain-implanted microchips that pipe the Internet, sound and music, straight into your brain. For Jon Collins, Director of Sales & Marketing of the alt-distribution company Dropcards, technological changes aren't seen as revolutionary; they're business.
"The market dictates the trends," he says. As far as thinking his own product is revolutionary, Collins doesn't. "We provide a service to help answer questions that popped up in the wake of the iPod and digital age that followed. We have no lofty goals to 'revolt' against anything," he says.
However, Dropcards, a simple concept that was practically unheard of pre-2004, is unquestionably one more sign of the complete overhaul of music distribution as we know it. Dropcards distributes music via custom-designed plastic cards the size of a credit card. On the back is a URL and code. You go to the URL, enter the exclusive code, and download specific audio tracks, which might be a few sneak-peek tracks from a band's upcoming album, songs from a music DVD, or even an audio book. Collins is a vinyl collector, and Dropcards often distribute mp3s that comes with vinyl-only releases, like the red-and-yellow Dropcard in SLUG's Death by Salt III vinyl release. It's simple and terrifyingly popular. Dropcards weren't meant to be a sub for CDs, though—well, not at first.
"Some of our best clients still make quite a living off of selling CDs," says Collins. "Our friends at Universal Republic just sold a few hundred thousand Jack Johnson CDs. How could I possibly tell them, with a straight face, that we're looking to revolutionize their business? We're here to help solve problems, not create new ones." However, in January 2008, Soundscan approved Dropcards as a viable album-distribution vehicle, complete with bar codes. This means Dropcards will be sellable, and reportable, to Soundscan, "following the same rules as the album and CD before it."
Up until now, Dropcards were almost always presented as a free promotional item, like the Dropcard in the front of a recent Decibel Magazine promoting an up-and-coming band on Vagrant Records. Collins is unapologetic about Dropcards taking the place of old ways of distributing, presenting and selling music.
"We do what we do, anyone else can do what they do," he says. "I never really got into CDs. Most people I personally know didn't. That didn't stop the CD from ruling retail shelves for almost 25 years. Even though I love my MP3 player, albums and 7"s take up most of my house. My sister-in-law, however, who is 18, loves the download cards. She's the one that any sort of person looking to make a living in this business has to cater to. She's never known anything other than digital music." There are whiffs of future-without-album-art in the small, compact surface area of a Dropcard. They weren't meant to replace CDs initially, but it's not hard to imagine Dropcards, or a pre-loaded Shuffle, or music on a microchip, as harbingers of the physical albums of tomorrow. If there are any physical albums at all.
Local musician and youth guitar instructor at Paul Green's School of Rock, Dave Payne, says, "The music on a CD has no monetary value any longer; it's the CD package that has the monetary value. You can download anything on the Internet for free. The music only has enjoyment value, like the enjoyment people get out of watching TV (which they don't have to pay for)."
If packaging disappears for good, Travis Pierce, bassist for Violet Run, says merch will become a bigger part of how bands will make their money. "You can't download a hoodie," he says. "Until you can, I'll continue to buy them." "We're headed towards a time when musicians will not be able to make money off their music," says Kelly Ashkettle, a writer for In Utah This Week and owner of a local concert promotion company, Rising Moon Productions. "It's nice when a band can offer handmade, unique items to sell with their music." Payne describes the "huge paradigm shift in how music is sold and distributed," yet Collins sees it a big differently. "I don't think there's much difference between the 'new' music industry and the old," he says. "The roles have changed a bit but what hasn't the advent of the Internet changed significantly?"
Collins continues, "The same bands will play Super Bowl halftime shows. Bruce Springsteen will continue to put out the same record and 19-year-old folk-punk kids will profess to 'get it.'" Collins does agree a change in retail structure will occur. "Revenue models will likely be different. Advertising models and sponsorships will be more prevalent. Less money made off of music sales, more money made off of touring and merchandise. Who doesn't love music, though? Everyone loves music, it's not going anywhere and if you're good, you'll make a living from it. CDs will, of course, become obsolete July 21st, 2011."
Before Dropcards, Collins was in a retail business catering to the independent music community that tanked. "All the bigger companies that didn't want to give vinyl the time of day five years before began buying up all of the limited stock that was our specialty," he says. "Such is life. I still work in the music industry. I didn't stop because things changed and I have a wonderful job now.
I'm fairly optimistic that there will still be work for people in this business if they want it." As far as how to find success in a changing music industry, Collins continues,"My only advice is just 'be good.' If you're good at what you do you'll be fine," he says. "People talk about album sales being down, but do you think a band like the Arcade Fire is feeling that pinch? People love that band because they're good. People talk about magazine sales being down but the Vice Magazine brand has EXPLODED over the past few years because people love what they put out there. The magazine is free and they'd still get away charging for it. Just be good." Other companies were creating download turnkey cards before Dropcards, but they were previously only available to people who had a "five-figure web development budget." Customized Dropcards are a mere 50 cents, and you can make as little as 100 a run. There are different varieties, and the most expensive, a metal dog tag, runs at the CD-ish price of $3.50 each. The brand-new, pre-loaded, customized Dropdrives in 12 different shapes are higher-end and intended for customers with bigger budgets.
Collins protests those who might see Dropcards as a commercial vehicle only used by bigger companies for huge promotional drives. "The same [thing could be said of] Myspace, Facebook, Virb, or any other online music site. Every band in the universe has a Myspace page—right alongside Mitt Romney and the Food Network. Internally, sure, we all have our own opinions on these things, but at the end of the day, Kelly at Disney wants to work with us for the same reason Jay at Def Jux (Aesop Rock's label) wants to work with us—we have a product and service that they want and we have the experience to expertly carry it out."
Dropcards are innovative, putting money behind imagination. One of the owner's companies, which has been printing cards since 1995, can make "clear cards, holograms, foil stamping, scratch and sniff, lots of bizarro stuff," says Collins. They recently came out with an environmentally friendly line of cards—paper cards, biodegradable corn cards, and Seeded Cards which includes a handfuls of seeds that when planted and watered, germinate into a garden. "We've always got things cooking, but it'd probably be foolish of me to spill too many beans," he says. "We'll be launching a ringtone platform by the time anyone reads this. Enter the PIN on the back of your card and your cell phone number and we magically beam you a ringtone. Silly stuff like that."
When asked what he fears most about the future of the music industry, Collins says, "I fear that I'll be asked to predict the future of the music industry one more time this week. I'm excited about everything. Anyone who doesn't get why now is a very exciting time to be in the music industry and wants to talk about all the doom and gloom will likely never get it."