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Inside AWAL

A behind-the-scenes look at the men who put the Arctic Monkeys and the Editors on the map
By IAN SANDS  |  June 12, 2006

POSTER-CHILDREN: AWAL helped the Arctic Monkeys reach the iTunes top 10 a year before their Domino deal
Denzyl Feigelson, the president and founder of an unorthodox music company called Artists Without A Label, or AWAL, is 50 years old, though he sounds much younger. When he says, “You know, you get that hair stand up on the back of your neck,” for once, this is not a 50-year-old talking about the Beatles: it’s a 50-year-old talking about the Arctic Monkeys. Like many music industry veterans, Feigelson has had a long and varied career: a former musician and musical therapist, in the ’80s he found himself in Paul Simon’s camp, and he oversaw Simon’s groundbreaking Graceland World Tour in 1987. After Graceland, he began to manage the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and he also picked up their countryman Johnny Clegg. Later he settled in Los Angeles and went to work for the artist-management firm Alive Enterprises, where he worked with Luther Vandross, the Gipsy Kings, Teddy Pendergrass, and Alice Cooper.

In 1995, before most musicians had even heard of the internet, Feigelson got a stroke of inspiration. “There was just this incredible dearth of independent music out there,” he says, “and artists just couldn't get signed. For all the wrong reasons . . . they didn't fit the mold . . . .they weren't pop enough, they couldn't fit the radio schedule . . . so I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if artists could just sell their music directly?'” His idea, conceived before the advent of mp3s, was, as he describes it with the benefit of hindsight, an early forerunner of MySpace. For his first, embryonic version of AWAL, he solicited songs from artists and posted them online. It was a radical idea for its time, and he soon had to rent out a small storage space to house the records he was being sent.

The idea, then as now, was to give a wide range of listeners access to artists whom they wouldn’t otherwise have opportunity to hear. If they liked what they heard, people could go by the CD at an online store (or at an actual bricks-and-mortar record shop, as people once did). There was no business model: AWAL didn’t turn a profit, but it certainly turned heads. Napster featured AWAL on its website, and, as Feigelson recalls, “suddenly we’re getting four million hits a day and we get venture capital funded.”

When the RIAA began its crusade against Napster, Feigelson was in San Francisco consulting for an online label (now defunct) called The online music market seemed to be making serious headway, but the Napster suit — which signalled the music industry’s wider reluctance to embrace internet distribution — put the brakes on. Hard. "That was just like the bomb,” Feigelson recalls. “In 2001 everybody sort of scattered, because the businesses were too early, everything was just too early." Most music-related internet ventures went belly-up, but in the midst of this online exodus, Feigelson refused to disband his site. Through the lean years, he kept an employee or two on payroll to run the day-to-day operation.

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  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Internet, Science and Technology,  More more >
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