Interview: Jesse Sussman - Ten Million Sounds

I recently had the privilege to chat with Jesse Sussman, the man behind Ten Million Sounds, a non-profit label which releases compilation albums and donates 100% of the sales to charity. He had many interesting things to say, and I am very honoured to feature him on my website and raise awareness on his work. Check out the interview and also the music, which besides serving a higher purpose is actually really good. 

What made you want to start Ten Million Sounds? 

In 2010 I came across the YouTube channel of Bob42jh (who now runs Cult Classic Records with Thomas Prime). His entire channel was full of amazing underground jazzy hip-hop music, and I had never heard of anything like it. Before that I mostly listened to what was on the radio, but Bob’s YouTube channel showed me that there was a very different world of music out there for anyone willing to seek it out.

Once my ears were open, I dove into the world of instrumental hip hop—artists like Nujabes, Emancipator, Bonobo, Marcus D, Blazo, and DJ Okawari. After listening to everything on Bob’s channel, I started looking for more music on my own, spending entire days searching SoundCloud, BandCamp, and various music blogs.

"It was like a musical gold mine. I couldn’t believe the quality of the music by independent artists from all over the world. However, even though these artists were releasing such great music, it was, for the most part, falling on deaf ears. Their music was hard to find, and as a result, nobody was really listening."

I really wanted to change this and give these artists the recognition they deserved. I reached out to some of my favourite artists to see if they would be interested in working with me on a charity compilation album. I asked for a one-time license to use their track, and although I had no money to offer, I would do all of the promotion and behind-the-scenes work, and 100% of the album sales will be donated to charity.

Because I had no previous experience in the music industry (except for running a blog), I wasn’t expecting much of a response from the artists. I was just a pimply-faced teenager writing about music in my bedroom. I thought the compilation would be a cool idea, but I was trying not to get my hopes up, because it felt unlikely: why would these artists I respect take a leap of faith on me, someone with no experience, to promote their work?

So it was really surprising when most of the artists agreed to let me use their songs on the first compilation album. From there, it was time to get to work, and that’s how the first compilation Morning Light got started.

How did you come up with the name?

Ten Million Sounds was actually the name of the music blog I was running before it became a label. When I was trying to come up with a name for the blog, I wanted the name to express that it would cover all kinds of music, all genres, so Ten Million Sounds was the first thing I thought of before rushing to buy the domain and setting up the site.

Do you have any musical background?

A few years ago (after releasing the Morning Light compilation), I started producing under the name bluefa, but most of my experience is on the business side of the industry: aside from running Ten Million Sounds, I’ve worked in artist management, journalism, concert promotion, and for the past few years I’ve made playlists for Google Play Music.

How hard is it to run a non-profit all by yourself? Does it ever get frustrating working on this project without expecting some financial compensation?

It’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t get frustrating. Ten Million Sounds has and will always be a non-profit venture with the dual mission of promoting independent music and raising money for outstanding charitable organizations. While there’s obviously no financial compensation, the rewards come in a different, but perhaps even more valuable currency: relationships with the artists I love and respect, the satisfaction of facilitating and participating in something I’m proud of, and being able to support charities I’m passionate about, hopefully making a positive impact in the lives of the people who need it most.

The albums have been embraced by many fans, does that give you strength to keep working on the project of Ten Million Sounds?

It’s been incredible and humbling to get such a warm response from people all over the world, but the part the gives me the most strength and motivation to keep working on Ten Million Sounds is the charitable impact: one hundred percent of the label’s album sales are donated to charity, and Ten Million Sounds has funded eight cleft palate correction surgeries to date through the organization Smile Train.

The music is obviously very important, and it’s what inspired me to start the label, but knowing that Ten Million Sounds is making a difference is what keeps me going.

How do you find artists for the releases, and how do you decide what kind of sound you are looking for?

At the very beginning, each compilation starts with a photograph. I look for a picture that captures the atmosphere I want to convey, and that becomes the album cover. 

From left:  Morning Light  (2012),  Finding Time  (2013),  Still  (2015)

From left: Morning Light (2012), Finding Time (2013), Still (2015)

Once I have that picture, I try to think how it would sound if it was transformed into audio. What would be the soundtrack to this photo? If I were watching the sun come up in the forest, what kind of music would be playing in the background? After I get an idea of what that sounds like, I spend hours searching for beats and tracks that fit the atmosphere of the album cover. I look through the discographies of my favourite artists on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, until finally getting twelve or fourteen tracks that fit exactly what I’m looking for.

The overall sound on the latest release “Still” appeared very homogeneous. Do you pick the songs yourself, or you ask artists for a song of their choice?

I ask for specific songs, and then I assemble the tracklist in hopes of making it seamlessly flow from one song to the next. The homogenous sound is important, so that there’s context and a consistent mood, but you also don’t want to get so specific that it all the sounds the same. It’s a balancing act that sometimes feels like walking a very thin tightrope, but when you safely make it to other side, you remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

Did any artists write a song specifically for these albums, or were they all previously released?

None of the songs have been written specifically for Ten Million Sounds. About 95% of the tracks have been previously released, and the other 5% are unreleased tracks that didn’t fit the artists’ other projects. Since Ten Million Sounds is nonprofit, I don’t have the resources to pay artists for the use of their tracks, so I feel it would be unfair to commission a project when I’d be unable to compensate the artists. That’s why I only include tracks that have already been released.

Even though almost every track was originally intended for another project, part of the challenge (and the fun) is to make the compilations feel like each track was originally written for the compilation, creating a whole new project based on putting together parts that weren’t originally meant to be put together.

Have any artists approached you to be included? Any artists who rejected your proposal?

Sometimes I get submissions from artists who want to get involved with Ten Million Sounds, and I’m honored that they’re even thinking about it. The first person to ever reach out to me was IV The Polymath—he was actually submitting his music to the music blog before the label even got started. I remember being so excited after getting his email, because his music was exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for. I reviewed his album for the blog, and his work has been featured on two compilations.

About half of the artists I reach out to end up on the compilations, and I’m happy with that number. The albums work the best when both sides are equally as excited about it, and while it’s disappointing to not always get the response I was hoping for, I have to respect the artist’s decision to do what’s best for themselves and their vision.

How do you choose which charity you are going to support on every release?  

Each release from Ten Million Sounds fundraises for a different cause; so far the label has supported the International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression; St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a leading pediatric treatment and research facility focused on researching advancements in curing catastrophic diseases and saving the lives of children; Smile Train, an international organization which funds cleft palate correction surgery for young children in developing countries; and Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger. I choose organizations that have proven track records in demonstrated impact and financial transparency.

Jesse handing the profits to the charity organization  Smile Train  

Jesse handing the profits to the charity organization Smile Train 

What are the future plans for Ten Million Sounds?

I can’t believe the Ten Million Sounds label already been around for almost five years. More compilations are possible, but it would be nice to switch things up.

Thank you for this interview and the wonderful work that you do.

Thank you Aroto for running this awesome site, and for supporting both Ten Million Sounds and independent music at large. I respect and admire your passion and consistency, and I know your fans and the artists featured do as well.

Jesse Sussman