When he was a kid in Bloomfield Hills, Sam Valenti IV used to ride his bike to Street Corner Music in Southfield every week to see what music was new. There was always someone behind the counter who could say, "Hey, you ought to look at this."
Same went for Record Time in Roseville, Neptune Records in Royal Oak and Melodies and Memories in Roseville. The staffs at those stores included the best DJs in Detroit, people happy to be a young Valenti's musical cruise director.
Those days - and some of those stores - are gone, but Valenti, founder and CEO of the independent record label Ghostly International, continues to pay his respects.
Valenti, 28, launched Ghostly in 1999, when he was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. In 2001 he created a sibling label, Spectral Sound, and together they showcase all kinds of electronic music - from the ethereal sounds that seep into your consciousness to club tracks that defy you to keep any part of your body still.
Ghostly has grown to represent more than 30 electronic artists, many of them recognized in the US and abroad as some of the best in the business.
"Electronic music is so vast," said Matthew Dear, a cornerstone of the Ghostly label. "It's this giant kind of subculture that's spread its tentacles all throughout the world and grabbed root in every form of music. As far as where Ghostly fits into that, we've always wanted to make great artistic music. I guess it's music with more of a creative message than a political message."
Valenti has a degree in art history and he curates his record labels like any other collection of fine art. He's now the figurative guy-behind-the-counter, telling the customer, "Well, with Matthew Dear you'll notice elements of the Talking Heads; there's an international influence, a country influence. If you like that, you might also like Hot Chip."
And so it goes.
"I think that's the job of a record label, to provide consistency of vision and voice," said Valenti. To that end, The Ghostly Store, a web store set up by the company in November, also sells music from other labels.
"It's more about building an affinity and a trust with fans and helping them find other things they like," Valenti said.
Valenti's musically formative teen years happened to coincide with an especially rich and exciting time for electronic music in Detroit. He worked parties and dances around metro Detroit as DJ Spaceghost (the cartoon-like ghost emblem he drew would become his company's logo) and absorbed knowledge and new music from people like DJ Houseshoes, who used to let him carry records into St. Andrews Hall when Valenti was still too young to get in through the front door.
Valenti first heard Dear play at a U-M welcome week party in 1998, and the following summer they launched the Ghostly International label with Dear's Hands Up for Detroit. The record surfaced at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival that year; several Ghostly and Spectral artists have performed at the DEMF in the years since.
"Without Ghostly I don't think I could have the scope that I have," said Dear, who also records dance music under the name Audion and works under another label as False. "Sam has such a broad understanding of music that I could show him some of my solely electronic things one day show him some acoustic guitar songs the next. And I'd have no hesitation in showing him either one."
Valenti split the label into Ghostly and Spectral in 2001 after discovering several very cerebral, classically-informed tracks on the flip-side of a Tadd Mullinix house and techno tape.
To make room for everybody and encourage the artists to grow in whatever kind of electronic music they were making, Valenti restructured Spectral as the DJ-oriented dance label and Ghostly as more of an avant-pop collection.
The Ghostly lineup ranges from Mullinix, who records cross-genre as Dabyre and James T. Cotton, to the classic vintage electro-pop of Solvent and the heady, ambient sounds of Kiln. On Spectral you'll find artists like techno/house legend Todd Osborn and Mullinix's James T. Cotton persona. Each brings something unique and a little different.
"Art culture is about the new, and the new is never stagnant," Valenti says. He points to the French impressionists, subversive old-timers like Monet and Renior. They were part of a "crew of guys, all trained painters, who were choosing to blur the lines of reality."
"I represent artists who are representing the new."
Valenti looks for artists that share his vision. Most are from the Midwest, and that's no accident. Although Europe is the vanguard of electronic music, he says Midwestern artists have a genuineness and commitment that he hasn't found anywhere else. The Midwest is not an easy place for art. You have to really want it, and that, Valenti says, forges strong personalities. He points to people like Madonna and Iggy Pop, Eminem, Alice Cooper. Love 'em or hate 'em, they are unabashedly who they are.
"They're one-of-a-kinds," he says. "I hope to think that a lot of our artists are one of a kind."
Even though his company is based in Ann Arbor, Detroit, with its wealth of history in so many kinds of music - rock, hip hop, soul, electronic, funk - still sets the standard by which Valenti judges music. Detroit doesn't give style points. It has to be good.
So how does an independent record label survive at a time when the music industry as a whole is struggling? It definitely doesn't live by records alone. Licensing, merchandise, events and the web store all play a part. Innovation helps too. Ghostly was an early adopter of the digital-only release, and it introduced USB distribution in 2006. The business has grown steadily – no huge hits, no huge pressure to repeat them. Valenti ran the company out of his dorm room and later out of his apartment, recruiting friends to help out as the workload grew. Today Ghostly International has six employees and offices in Ann Arbor and New York.
"It's kind of on our own terms," he said. "We're beholden to the industry, but we're not beholden to what Wal-Mart has on its CD racks. It's kind of a hybrid between a fan club, a gallery and a mail-order business."
Meanwhile, some of its artists have found work in the mainstream. They've provided sound on commercials for New Balance, Motorola and Hummer. Ghostly artist Richard Devine handled sound creation for the Halo video games and Jeff McIlwain (a.k.a. Lusine) and David Wingo scored the Warner Independent Pictures film for the recently released Snow Angels.
"That's touching culture in a way we can't do on our own – we don't have the marketing budget to do an all-out assault on the media," says Valenti, who concedes that big-splash marketing isn't Ghostly's style anyway. Still, he's acutely aware of the push and pull between the artistic and the commercial; it's part of what makes this business fun for him.
"You've got to stay pure to it, but you've also got to talk to an audience," Valenti said. "If we were just making commercial music that wouldn't feel like much of an accomplishment. (When something does get mainstream exposure) you get this mainstream rush. It feels like, 'OK, we didn't compromise our values but we were able to reach more people.' And that makes it even better."
Check out Ghostly