Kickstart to success


Sun-Gazette Correspondent

As digital communication grows ever more prevalent globally, the dispersion of ideas across cultures becomes easier at every turn. Because of this, every sector of every participating society enjoys benefits. It is equally true that the globalization of ideas carries costs for each sector. Consider musical entertainment.

As labels and critics coin an ever-expanding variety of genres, many feel that the sounds and experiences offered in today’s music landscape are paradoxically growing more homogeneous. Thanks in part to handheld digital devices, it is easier than in days past to access music no matter one’s location, but it is arguably more difficult to access unpopular genres. And by virtue of the individualized nature of the listeners and their devices, lost on the listener is the social aspect of music and the central role that this aspect plays in the human experience. Enter Williamsport native Seth Olinsky.

As co-founder of the internationally-recognized outfit Akron/Family, Olinsky has traveled the world in the name of music. He has seen the aforementioned paradigm shift in music firsthand, and has decided to do something about it.

Crediting his youth in Williamsport’s tight-knight music scene as partial inspiration, Olinsky has paired with conceptual artist Ali Beletic to create a record label and lifestyle venture with a decidedly humanistic approach. Beckoning the visceral, unifying experience of rock ‘n’ roll music, Olinsky’s Lightning Records has set out to facilitate the free exchange of ideas through the experiences and media of music, art, surfing, guitars, dirt bikes, desert happenings, fashion, design and premier coffee roasting.

In order to realize this vision, Lightning has recently launched a “20 Artist, 20 Album” Kickstarter fundraising campaign, offering subscribers a chance to enjoy five latest releases of selected groups and the Lighting Journal, an American counterculture publication, every quarter. Subscribers can enjoy the music as digital downloads or cassette tapes, and may choose from a selection of limited-edition, hand-roasted coffees to accompany the journal.

Lightning’s Kickstarter fundraiser, which runs through Jan. 8, already has surpassed its $12,500 goal and Olinsky is optimistic that its community of subscribers will continue to grow through the end of the pledge drive.

The Sun-Gazette recently conducted an email interview with Olinsky in order to get a more in-depth look at what the label offers and what it hopes to accomplish.

ISAIAH BRITTON: What were your motivations and inspirations for this venture?

SETH OLINSKY: Lightning has inspirations from a number of different directions, but mainly we were inspired by the idea of setting out to do something new both artistically and as a business project. A new way to release records and create value for artists. A new context for the music and art we make and for the music of artists and friends we admire and work with. A way to bring together a community, a global network of artists, musicians, motorcycle builders and coffee roasters to explore these new possibilities together.

Plus, we wanted to build something that could help us save rock ‘n’ roll!

I’ve always wanted to start a record label, and I’ve always loved labels like Stax, or Chess, or Dischord. Labels that one way or another built or participated in a strong artistic community. So the idea we are exploring here is how to take a global community that is not just musicians, but artists and surfers and others, and find the ways that these different subcultures can inspire and feed each other. It feels to us like a similar rock ‘n’ roll spirit runs through them all.

Also there have been many times we have tried to create something like this one way or another, bringing artists and communities together to explore a new idea. One example would be the 100-guitar orchestra we did in Williamsport in 2007, collaborating with composer Rhys Chatham and the Uptown Music Collective for the world premier of Rhys’ “A Secret Rose.”

IB: Music is central to Lightning. How does the transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll influence the other media and experiences Lightning offers?

SO: I was moved by this idea of the “transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll” after reading Patti Smith’s book, “Just Kids.” After reading the book I was truly inspired by her vision of the raw, poetic and world-changing power that rock ‘n’ roll possessed. In fact, I had been trying to record a folk record, and it just wasn’t working, and after reading “Just Kids,” I just gave up and plugged in and the record sort of ripped itself into existence as if it had just been waiting for the opportunity of electricity.

I think there is an excitement and electricity in the human experience of music, and this can really be any “genre” of music, for this idea really relates more to a spirit than a “genre”, and I think it directly relates to the excitement of the experience of surfing or certain art or dirt biking. I think this rock ‘n’ roll thing we are after is a certain spirit of alive-ness, of fully living life. And that’s both what we are looking for in the musicians and artists we are working with, and also what we are looking to explore as artists, track with writings in the journal, and provide for people in happenings or concerts we put on.

Also in Ali (Beletic)’s work there is a central theme about getting people just a little outside of their boundaries to create memorable and emotional experiences. She believes that rock ‘n’ roll is connected to a spirit of fun and celebration deep within the human spirit that is larger than music – this definitely is a connection to getting out on the edge or even just out beyond our normal day-to-day experience.

IB: One of Lightning’s stated intentions is “to bring different cultures together.” How is this accomplished in practice?

SO: I think in this context we are aiming specifically at bringing sub-cultures together, and exploring different ways people can come together to relate. Often you can find that rock ‘n’ rollers hang out with rock ‘n’ rollers or surfers with surfers, which is pretty natural, but as humans we aren’t so specialized as we like to believe. I certainly love to play rock n roll, go surfing, dirtbiking and so on, even all in one day. So it’d be great if we didn’t have to specialize in business. I think this idea is us trying to create a more humanist approach to business.

In business terms, a lot of it will be about partnering with different artists and friends that design clothes, build sculptures, architect desert shelters, or rebuild old sports cars, and acting as a bridge between these different “specialties” that we have experienced in exploring multiple sub cultures and want to share. A space to bring these ideas together, see them interact and inspire each other, and give people a doorway into them. If you’ve seen the Dogtown and Z Boys documentary, its not unlike the way the skateboarding magazines in those early days were able to introduce people to this new world.

IB: You have lived in various regions of the country and have toured globally with Akron/family. Would you say that your immersion in different cultures allowed you to identify a demand for the lifestyle that Lightning offers?

SO: Definitely. Touring has not only given me the opportunity to see and meet an amazing and inspiring array of artists doing different things all over the world, but has also given me the inspiration to bring all these ideas together. Back in 2008 Ali and I traveled to record with a drum group in Ghana. We are actually releasing this record as one of the albums on first Lightning 20 Artist series. When we first showed up as American’s we were very confused by the structure there. We were staying with this group that was a drum group , but they also had a school to teach deaf people to dance, and they were also a family, and they were also working in construction – we were confused. Are are you a band or a non profit, and are you related or in business together? The borders of the business structure weren’t clear to us from a western paradigm.

But as we have traveled through the world more, traveled through life more, we’ve come to find ourselves in a similarly humanist, broad headspace and it feels like that this is more what life is actually like. And interestingly enough, we’ve found ourselves creating something more open ended like this. To us, it feels really relevant in the modern economy and that is really exciting.

Another thing I’ve seen traveling around the world in the music scene is a need for what we are trying to do as well. I can speak most specifically about music, but I have seen a homogenization of how music is presented both live and recorded, across the world, and I think that this has taken a lot away from the pure joy and spirit of music for both musicians and listeners. I think part of the intention of Lightning, by pulling on various artists and trying to explode the way things are done now, is to get back at this spirit of music bringing people together in real time and making music special again.

IB: Lightning focuses on the “social exchange in music.” How would you define this? Is this something that the cassette tape helps to facilitate?

SO: Music is an aural experience, and therefor maybe more closely linked to the primitive human experience – or say, a less rational and more mythological organization of life.

I think growing up somewhere like Williamsport actually helps to emphasize the social aspect of music versus a more urban, “mediated” story of music. In Williamsport you can really see the eco-system of music, from the teachers to the players to the listeners, and how they feed each other and create a real tangible value in the community.

Or you can take something like Fugazi and Dischord and how that DIY punk scene inspired and enabled kids in small towns like Williamsport to organize and perform at the own shows at local YMCAs. Or perhaps something that comes from the community around a band like the Grateful Dead.

In all these instances, a social community springs up around the music, it has its own economy and structure and is really a way of being for people. And, it is fun! It is our own fun, not a pre-programmed conversation or boxed fun, and our culture seems to have gone so far in a direction now on the whole that this idea is almost radical!

It felt like there use to be scenes with regards to music. A great time when this town had a rivalry with that town. Where the audience really was a participant in the experience. I believe deeply in this exchange and the social happening of concerts. On the artist side, it seems now a days a lot of bands get so caught up in the mass media side of what they do that the side that is of a real place atrophies.

And cassettes have this really amazing relationship to the history of underground music. They’ve never really gone away. Because they are so affordable to make and share, compared to Vinyl or even CDs, it allows both musicians and fans to share music that doesn’t always have a clear place in the marketplace. There is taper tradition in the Grateful Dead scene and that network of traders, or the way mix tapes have always been a way for people to trade music. Also it is a really great way to release a unique artistic statement that isn’t safe enough financially for a traditional record label to release – a more unique, edgy, or artistic statement.

Tapes are cheap and available and easy to duplicate and so they have been and still are the most accessible way for people to exchange their ideas with out the need of approval from some editor – they are self publishing in a somewhat pure form. I think this relates interestingly as well to what is so new and exciting about Kickstarter.

In the beginning of the new David Byrne book How Music Works, Byrne talks about how context and boundaries are so important for the creation of art and music. He talks about how CBGBs was an accidental yet perfect context for the birth of the punk rock form. Its shape was perfect to hear loud music clearly, and the size was perfect to allow the intimacy and sight lines for gestural performances. Bands that weren’t playing were allowed to come hang out and drink without paying a cover charge and Hilly’s only stipulation to play was that music had to be original.

I think tapes right now provide a similar context for labels and artists. A way to take risks creatively, release artists who’s work is outside the norm, or allow a well known artist to try a new idea or sound – and what is great about this is not the genre of “experimental music”, but the spirit of being a little wild, taking a chance, walking out a little further – and that seems so totally connected to this idea of the transcendent power of rock n roll!

And our hope is that participation in our 20 artist series subscription is a chance to provide a perfect context for the beginning of our label experiment – which i believe, like CBGB’s will bring people together and build a large musical community and artist network that together can experiment with new ideas, new forms, new sounds, and new ways to create wealth and friendships from its own inherent value.

Olinsky currently resides in Los Angeles. To become a subscriber visit