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Proto Pack: Proto Tracks' mix-CDs compile the latest in dance music.

Peep the Technics

Proto Tracks sends the latest club hits to your doorstep

By Yoshi Kato

A TIME-HONORED way to get exposed to cool music is through mix tapes helpfully compiled by your new best mate or lovingly put together by your sister's ex-boyfriend. A fledgling Bay Area company is taking this concept from the independent record stores and bedroom DJs of the world into its subscriber's mailboxes.

On a bimonthly basis, Proto Tracks sends out compilation CDs of dance tracks from independent labels. The playlist represents a cross-section of electronic styles--ranging anywhere from drum 'n' bass and distorted ambient to global techno and turntablist-flavored hip-hop--which are culled from an international pool of music.

Its debut release, I (heart) SF, was sent out in February and featured 16 tracks from San Francisco-based dance music labels including Om, Ubiquity, Six Degrees, Tino Corp/Flexidisc and Context Free Media. The second volume, which went out last month, draws from an international base and features numbers from labels such as Breakbeat Science, Majesty Recordings and Ninja Tune.

Spread over an hour-long mix, Vol. 2 opens with the forward-moving happy blips of "Dither" from England's CiM. Subsequent songs include the elevating electro dub of San Francisco's own Professor Smith (on "Pleasure Leisure"), the blissed out beat-laden washes of Susumu Yokota's "Three Ripple" from the Japanese Sublime label and Greg Davis' acoustic guitar-fired eventual sonic swirl implosion called "Nicholas." This latest collection ends with the throbbing sounds of "When Will I Be Free?" by Beyer.

Founding partner Marko Gargenta first brought up the idea of a mix-CD subscription service. "Marko identified a need: Here's all this great music out in the world, all this fresh electronic stuff you hear in clubs," says co-founder Dallas Z. Kachan, who of late was a consultant in high-tech sales and marketing. "Very few people are plugged in enough to the scene to know what it is they're listening to and how to find out more about it."

That's where third co-founder Jonah Sharp comes in. Best known for his work as a DJ and as a member of Spacetime Continuum, the Scottish-born owner of Reflective Records is also Proto Tracks' music director. He and his staff choose tracks for each Proto Tracks release, which he also produces. Each volume includes an extensive booklet with liner notes on the songs and artists and the labels behind them.

Rounded out by fourth co-founder Aeon Karris of the Webdesign Group, the privately held company now employs a staff of 10 which does its business in a virtual office--which is to say, at this point there's no central campus or work site. But there are plans for an eventual physical workplace if the numbers add up.

"If there's any value-add I've been able to contribute to this company, I think it's fiscal restraint," says Kachan. "We're doing it on a shoestring budget. We don't have significant investor dollars. This isn't one of those high-flying, bankrolled dotcom startups. We're doing this with our money, real money, so we're making it stretch as best as we can."

In a time when uttering the word "startup" may draw melodramatic gasps of horror and all things technological are the buzzwords of the future of music, Proto Tracks' quartet of co-founders decided to take an older school, medium-tech approach to music distribution. Proto Tracks takes a postal--rather than an on-line--route to getting the good sounds out. It maintains a website that offers background into the service and samples of the compilations' tracks.

"Regardless of what the economy is doing, we think that we're providing a real valuable service," Kachan says. "There's a lot of value in subscribing to something like this, rather than going out and buying 10, 12 new releases every month, trying to figure out what's what."

Proto Tracks: 3 volumes $42, 6 volumes $81(domestic); 3 volumes, $48, 6 volumes $93 (international). P.O. Box 78294, San Francisco, CA 94107 or www.prototracks.com.

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From the June 6-12, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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