The Music Man: Live And Direct with David Milkis

The co-founder of FREETHE introduces us to the label, and the record industry

David Milkis is the co-founder of FREETHE Entertainment LLC, a small record label operating out of his hometown of New York City, as well as New Paltz and Pittsburgh. With the help of a few peers, Milkis works with roughly 30 artists across the nation, providing publishing services and anything else you would expect from a record label.

Milkis is also a musician; he plays the cello and has experience with music production and mix engineering. Our familiarity with Milkis stems from his collaboration with FREETHE artist Trick Papi on their project, 2 HRS. His work on that tape is enough to prove he is a man of music. 

But that wasn’t enough. We had to talk to Milkis one-on-one to get in his head and see things from his point of view. On March 29, Milkis hung out with us on Instagram Live from the comfort of his home to talk about his musical origins, the label he helped build, and dropped some insider knowledge on the label industry. Check out some of our conversation with the man of music below.

Tell us about the early days. How did FREETHE come into fruition? 

So I went to Bard for one year in 2014, where I met a number of aspiring beatmakers and jazz musicians. They turned me on to other music – not classical. I was enthralled in the cello most of my life. Growing up in New York, I got a chance to be involved in a lot of different genres, but being close to these people really helped hone in on something. My roommate at the time was a beatmaker who was not very good at the time, but that was the first introduction to more genres. That became an idea that was basically a collective of different musicians who would release different things. 

That never happened. I left Bard and came back home to focus on my craft. I was an apprentice for two years at a studio called Engine Room Audio. During that time, I met BA Pace, an amazing local artist. We came up with the same idea, just revamped. It still wasn’t FREETHE; it was something else and we were working with a few other people. That also didn’t turn into anything.

It finally became something when we finally came up with a name based on one of BA’s songs on SoundCloud. We registered as a business in early 2017. There was still lots of building time and it wasn’t until late 2018 when we started publishing music. 

What goes on behind the scenes of FREETHE? What does it mean to be a music publisher?

We do a lot. I personally offer whatever the artist needs. The thing about labels is, traditionally, they like to say what they do, and that’s it. It’s inside this box and if it doesn’t work then they don’t help. I like to open that box and ask what artists need.

We can work with a finished song, mastered and complete. We then slap on embedding codes, distribute and publish. But that’s the minimum; we also do way more things. I am a certified engineer, and I know multiple other engineers that can help with whatever production process the artist may need. Whether it be actual recording, mixing, mastering, or maybe they need beats. The artist can decide how or what they need and at which level. We can help from the very beginning to the very end.

FREETHE comes off as an amalgamation of services, conveniently categorized as a label. I think that makes it attractive and stand out.

Our priority is to complete the package; make sure it’s possible to finish. I think the unique part is, regardless of our involvement, we stay away from the art itself unless they want our musical inclination. But if they are holding on to the integrity of the music, it’s not our job to change that. This affects the legal implications. We don’t own their music; we aren’t the master owners, which is different from what a lot of labels do. We make sure the artists are the master owners. 

What does it mean to be the master owner?

So traditionally, when it comes to the minimal involvement where we don’t have to do anything, we ask for five percent of publishing per song and 10% per project. We otherwise negotiate for more with more work we put in, but it’s never going to be over 50% of the publishing. And just so everyone knows, this is out of 200%. Each song is valued at 200% because there are two sides to it. There’s publishing and there’s actually performance rights. We take part of the publishing and give the rest to the artists so they end up with between 150% and 195% of the song.

That’s good to know. I always hear about artists getting duped by a contract, but I never understood how it happened, or why.

A lot of artists end up in a position where they have to sign something that lets the label claim their work. And a lot of the time, it looks like an attractive offer: “You get 100% of the royalties!” What about the other 100%? Where does it go? Who’s claiming it? It’s not the artist. I don’t like that.

It sounds like FREETHE really has the interests of the artist in mind at all times.

To be honest, I cannot personally guarantee a true marketing experience. I am not an advertising person, I am not really a business person, I am a musician. What I can promise is because of my musical network and colleagues, I have friends and places to reach out to. There should be content about content, in my opinion. Though I can’t do much marketing, I can reach out and build a little an aura around your work. 

That’s interesting. So, what would you say is the label’s reach? How many artists are you associated with?

I would say we have four types of relationships. Ourselves would be the first. We are our own artists, we release our own music. People like Rio Azul, BA, TRICK PAPI. Then we have our friends. For example, TRICK PAPI introduced me to Negro Sage, now he is part of the beat tape series. We also have recruits: straight-up people that we don’t know but probably heard of, and we pitch to them. We just genuinely express our interests, tell them what we can do, what we want to do, and we see what happens. Then we have actual referrals. Sueños, a jazz-band based in San Francisco, reached out to me asking for a re-release. Sometimes people come to me with questions and I tell them what we can do based on what they need.

I would say we have between 15 and 20 releases of different people, and then maybe 10 or 20 more people from those artists’ networks. 

Speaking of TRICK PAPI, it just occurred to me that you are the MiLK who helped him with his 2HRS EP. We heard from PAPI about it, so what was your experience making this tape?

That was a fun project. We noticed it as it was happening too. [TRICK PAPI] lives pretty far from me and there’s never any time for us to do anything. When we do meet up, we try to maximize all the efforts and get it all out there. So we ended up doing two tracks, and that didn’t take much time because he had them all written. 

He was like, “This sounds like a vibe, let’s see where this goes. Do you have anything similar?” I did, and we just kept it going. Then he ran out of raps and he had to freestyle for the last song and that came out pretty good too. By the time we were an hour in, we were like, “This needs to be something, let’s turn it into something.” I think in a week or two we decided it would be the 2 HRS EP

It was fun. I do want to say that I think we rushed it. It was fun and it was cohesive, but that means if we put more time in it, it would be better. Nothing beats improvising, but when you put time into it, you can create something with more quality. 

Follow FREETHE on Instagram to keep up with the latest releases from their ever-expanding roster of talents. 

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