Software as a slingshot

"Officer" helps small labels through the billing jungle and supports e-commerce

Anyone who visits Popkomm, which has been held since 1989, will notice a certain perplexity that runs through the music industry’s coarse companys. Whereas shortly before the turn of the millennium the blessings of the digital age were still being invoked, grim negative figures or a lack of prospects now dominate the experts’ faces. And this is already noticeable in the exhibitor figures: While 924 exhibitors came to the Deutz exhibition halls last year, this year’s catalog lists only 820 exhibitors from 33 different countries. Also the numbers of the total sales of CDs are since 1999 backlaufig, while ever more CD blanks are sold and apart from Napster the other Tauschborsen in the Internet the digital exchange of music files frictionless and above all free of charge permit. So what has gone wrong and is the whole music industry really in a bad way??

If you talk to Rudolf Chelbea of the Munich-based software company Officer, the main reason for the difficulties of the major companies lies in their motives and objectives. "Whether techno or folk music labels, all small labels sell their records because they are convinced of it and because they earn their money with it. Any kind of additional income from Internet sales is very important for such companies, even in a small scale. But overall, the small label does not do it because they want to make millions. They do not expect this at all and are thus more realistic than many major companies. They bring out 20 singles in the hope that two of them will be a hit. And they have still completely slept through the rough trends like German hip hop or folk music!"

If there are records of artists like Jan Delay, Thomas Schuhmacher or 5 Sterne Deluxe in today’s charts, it doesn’t mean that they have landed there thanks to a so often invoked build-up work of the major companies. Many of these current stars are musicians, label managers and music publishers at the same time and only use the distribution channels of major companies when their own label can no longer manage this. The number of such record companies worldwide is estimated at 60.000 companies, 6000 of which are based in Germany alone, while still being managed as independent labels with a staff of 1 to 200 people. It was precisely for their needs that Rudolf Chelbea and his partner at the time, Tobias Hagen, developed the Officer software, after a DJ and label owner friend in Berlin complained about his suffering with the daily time-consuming label work.

Based on the database software File Maker and with the help of experienced label owners such as Michael Reinboth (Compost Records), they both started programming in the spring of 1997 and one year later were able to win the multimedia prize of the Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology for the first version. But why is the program, whose name alludes to its diversity in reference to the Swiss Army Knife, something like a small revolution??

For Rudolf Chelbea, the scope of his company lies far beyond a mere software sale and more in the sense of David versus Goliath.

"In this case, for the first time, we have managed to look for a solution starting from a problem. In the past, they had hired their own expensive programmer, who, years later, had written software for a single company that would have been infinitely expensive. Here, for the first time, there is a symbiosis between us as a provider and the label owner. We listen to every single wish of the customer and then we change the software. So we listen and still develop something that everyone is satisfied with.

Our advantage is that industry-typical know-how of the real users is directly included in the final product and everyone benefits from it. You don’t have to buy a Microsoft product that can do certain things for its price, but otherwise just tells the user: Tough luck!. In principle, the officer program could also be compared to the idea of open source, except that in this way of thinking, everyone does what they want. We, on the other hand, channel our knowledge and that of the clients to guarantee independent labels the best possible solution to their problems. Our product must be good in the end, because we are so close to the customer with our ideas, that we would only harm ourselves with useless features."

Whereas 15 years ago musicians had to buy expensive studio time, technological progress has made it possible to produce in one’s own bedroom. But the success of one’s hit single is of no use if the musician or label owner signs a bad record contract and also fails in other ways due to the complex set of rules and regulations of distributors or GEMA. Especially the distribution channels of young record labels are always changing: In the beginning, the promising works are still sent by mail order, but a little later the first Germany-wide distribution may be added. In the further course of the company there are then several distributors and the first international contacts and so the demands on knowledge and logistics are getting higher and higher. Adapted precisely to this changing challenge, software like Officer is something of a slingshot for David for 120 German-language labels to date.

Technically, too, major record companies tend to behave like the immovable Goliath, because in terms of presentation to the public, smaller labels have long practiced more than the majors want to offer. For example, many of these companies offer free MP3 files, web streams of live gigs and the complete data of all their own artists on their own websites. Chelbea and his team have in the new version 2.5 not only implemented all suggestions of the previous end customers and special solutions for label newcomers, promotion and booking agencies and musicians, but also thought of the e-commerce of these labels.

"A central server of Officer will offer via an established webshop the possibility to manage this content on the part of the Officer users on their own desktop. This allows smaller labels to retain their own identity, which they would otherwise always give up in favor of the previous network music operators when cooperating with them. For the consumer this also results in a more special offer, which is not bound to the style drawers of coarse providers."

At the end of the year, the requirements of an international version will finally be explored by means of a discussion forum on the Officer website. This is a completely new challenge, because in America, for example, the accounting system for texts and music works very differently. But if Officer is right with his concept, at least the number of exhibitors had to increase again in the coming years of the Gorny Summit….

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