Before Montrey Whittaker co-founded EARMILK in 2009, the San Francisco-dwelling, Tennessee-raised music aficionado was a self-proclaimed computer guy. “I do DevOps/Systems Administrator type server stuff,” he shared with Global Grind. “I love tinkering with computers, messing with servers – which I do for our website now.”
Since then, EARMILK – the internet music publication gaining massive international appeal – has grown into a team spanning all parts of the world. In a climate where many start-up publications fight to remain relevant, EARMILK fuels its staying power through smart brand collaboration and nonconforming curation.
Global Grind spoke to Montrey via phone about EARMILK’s humble beginnings and how a game of Counter-Strike birthed one of the internet’s premiere brands to follow. “There’s no right way, but if you’re doing it your way, [it’ll be] recognized.”
GG: Tell us a little more about EARMILK’s start.
MONTREY: The roots of it are a group of us. It was four of us originally that met online and we just noticed that we all had an eclectic sense of music. We met online and just said, “Hey! I think a lot of the newer generation [is] more open to so many different other genres. It would be nice to create a publication that caters to that and kind of promotes it.” And I wouldn’t say we were the first, [but] we felt we were doing a great thing by starting it up. We just came together thinking this is just a great opportunity, a great time to start – especially with the electronic side of things, because it wasn’t being pushed as much at that time. [Genres] like dubstep were outliers [and] not something that some of the bigger sites were pushing at the time. Not yet. That’s the basics of how it started, and we started it for fun. It wasn’t a business decision. It was more of like a “this music needs to be promoted” decision.
You mentioned you all met online. Was that via a social network?
I forget exactly how we met, actually. I think friends of friends, basically. Some of us played games online and I think someone was saying, “Hey! There’s this other guy I know that’s really into random stuff like you. He likes Outkast and Sarah McLachlan just like you. Why don’t you meet?” Some of us hadn’t met [in person] until two or three years into running the site, and by then we were already getting maybe up to a million hits a month, I think by 2011. We’re definitely an online crew for sure, [communicating] through video and all those sorts of things.
That reminds me so much of The Foreign Exchange.
Yeah, I think about The Foreign Exchange all the time. They didn’t really meet until much, much later after they had made the album. That’s a perfect example, and it’s indicative of the times. Obviously face-to-face [interaction] is important, but you can do so much online.
Absolutely. Even this interview right now.
Yeah, exactly, and also I think that’s one of the reasons we started the site. What it really helps with is being able to find people. I think that’s really cool.
To backtrack a bit, what were you doing before EARMILK? What was your passion, your pulse?
I wouldn’t say I had any crazy passions. I’m a computer guy. I do DevOps/Systems Administrator type server stuff. A little quick backstory, too – so the four of us originally started the site, but when it started getting serious, only two of us remained, and that’s me and my partner Blake, who lives in Toronto. By the way, we have a huge Toronto following because of him, so some people have always thought we were based out of Toronto. Blake [is] more of like a Full Stack coder. He’s been involved with a couple different startups. He helps a lot with Wavo. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Wavo at all.
[It’s like] Hype Machine – same type of deal where [they] aggregate from a lot of different sites. I would say I didn’t have anything specific [I was passionate about], but I’ve always been heavy into computers. To be honest, three of us met through online gaming – yeah, that’s how we met. I remember now. We met through Counter-Strike. A lot of us used to play Counter-Strike hardcore, so we met through that and then we discovered how much we love music and how not only were we nerdy with games, we were nerdy with music. I remember sitting on Skype in 2009 we were talking about different things, different terms. We were thinking of like “Eargasm” and random things and then I brought up “Earmilk” and it [was] like, “Hey! See if that dot com’s available.” Our curation has been awesome, but the name has been really helpful.
We were thinking about what type of music we wanted to promote and we were thinking about “healthy” music. We were just saying that we wanted to promote healthy music, and by that, we just meant music that we thought was good – period. We never really promote things that we don’t like, and even though we all have different tastes, we trust each other. It’s all about taste and healthy music.
I feel like anybody who runs a music blog probably has a fixation with music stemming from childhood. What were you listening to growing up?
That’s a good question. When I was super young, I listened to a lot of random things. I grew up in Tennessee, but I grew up on the internet more than Tennessee, if that makes sense. I grew up with Outkast really heavy because they were super pivotal – especially being a Black man. A lot of hip-hop was not as smart as Outkast was, and all of a sudden Outkast came along with a southern accent talking about time traveling, so they were huge for me. And also, on the flip side, I brought up Sarah McLachlan – I wouldn’t necessarily listen to that in public with my windows down [laughing] because that might be strange, but I listened to that, and one of the big groups for me was a group called Blur.
The back story to that is related to EARMILK because one of my favorite music videos of all time is Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” In that video, there’s this little milk carton that walks around trying to find his owner. He has his owner printed on the side of himself. [One of the vocalists] in Blur is Damon Albarn, who later created Gorillaz, which is also one of my favorite groups.
So there’s you in California and your partner who’s in Toronto, but you have writers in other parts of the world as well, right?
What other locations?
Kind of all over the place. We have quite a big following in London. Sometimes people even think we’re from London. [We have] people from L.A. We have quite a few people in New York and Toronto. We used to have a couple people in Australia – we were trying to like really tap into that.
Being that you have writers all over the world and you cover so many different genres, how do you present such a variety of content without overwhelming your reader?
That’s always a struggle. People that seem to be attracted to our site seem to recognize that we’re doing our best in that realm, because a lot of websites don’t have any focus and sometimes that can be an issue. The way we’ve done it for so long is, I think, people just recognize that that’s what we do, so I think they understand the brand from that perspective. It’s never perfect percentages. Right now, it’s probably more electronic than hip-hop just because of what’s happening and what type of music’s coming out. But at that same time, we do make a conscious effort to make sure we keep it pretty even and to answer your question, we don’t have a perfect formula. We basically do it for the love. We just post things that we like. Obviously we try to come up with scenarios where that also increases readership, but that’s not necessarily the goal, which may not be super smart all of the time, but that’s how we operate now. We seem to attract A&R people, people in the industry, listeners that are kind of tastemakers in their own community – the type of person you’d go to in each city that would make mixtapes for all their friends.
So essentially it’s for the music lover, the “connoisseur,” so-to-speak.
Yeah, it feels weird saying that, but I’d say that’s like the goal and what we’ve been doing and it seems to be working.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far since starting the publication?
I think the biggest challenge is staying eclectic forever. It’s hard to stay on top of everything, especially with how fast things are coming with cool companies like Native Instruments and all these companies creating software like Ableton making it easier to make music; it’s just happening at a super fast rate. One thing I always say is that even if time were to completely stop right now, it’d be impossible to go from now back to 1977 and hear all the cool music, because time doesn’t stop. And that’s a relevant thing, too, because sometimes we don’t always post what’s super brand new.
If you had to give someone advice for starting a blog, what would it be?
It’s quite different starting it now than when we started in 2009. There’s so many blogs now. One thing I would say is definitely start it for the love, because that will be what allows it to last a long time. Maybe you won’t get immediate, like, millions of hits, but being able to do it day in and day out, it needs to be mostly for the love. [I’ve seen] publications start with just the business aspect of it and a little bit for the love. I’ve seen so many come and die. I’ve seen some sites come up and all of a sudden just vanish because they weren’t in it for the right reasons. If it’s done right, you’ll attract the right type of people and you’ll start seeing the results that you wanna see, but you gotta double down on what you like day in and day out.
Especially if you’re going to be dedicating so much of your time to it.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like being a DJ. You could make it by just selling out and doing whatever is popular at the moment, but a lot of the times you’ll get more love from other DJs and other musicians in the scene if they notice you trying to do your own thing. There’s no right way, but if you’re doing it your way, [it’ll be] recognized.
What does EARMILK have going on for the rest of this year?
I’m about to go on this year-long trip to 12 different countries. This is a big trip for me. It’s part of this program called Remote Year. We’re going to be looking into different ways to collaborate with different brands in different countries. One brand is called Protein. We’re gonna do some things with Native Instruments. Also we have a new video project [with] GoPro. I can’t say too much about that, but we’re definitely gonna be teaming up with them to do an interesting Boiler Room-esque type event. A lot of this year has to do with international collaborations, working with different brands. We’re also talking to Majestic Casual. We’re talking to them about doing some event collaborations. Over the years we’ve kind of been somewhat a little bit too cool for school, sitting in the back of the class with sunglasses, but I think this year we’re opening up to do more collaborations with brands that we respect.
What about in NYC?
[EARMILK] recently picked up a director named Inna Shnayder, and she lives in New York. She lives and operates an artist studio that showcases musicians and visual artists often. It’s a live and work type studio.
We’re gonna team up with a creative music agency, NUE, and they’re in New York. We’re about to start doing an event series with them and looking at how to enhance our overall business. Alex Kirshbaum and NUE Agency work on The Patch House. It houses artists on the road and on the rise for free and allows them to be creative and innovative while enjoying all the comforts of home.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Montrey Whittaker