Here’s another LM oldie:
DIY – did it already (summer 2008)
The press has recently been saturated with tales of free downloads, MP3 giveaways, and other such experimentations/gimmicks, most notably spearheaded by bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. If you’re a digg subscriber, you will have noticed that one of these stories makes the daily hitlist quite often these days. But do they really deserve the “innovative” tag with which they have been attributed?
Several artists had already adoped this “new” style of distribution, in climates where it could not have been blamed on attention-seeking. My Ruin, for instance, following a host of bad record company experiences, decided to take hold of the reins themselves, releasing records independently – and even handmaking some of their merchandise. Gary Numan has made no secret of the fact that his NuStreet store is run by him and his parents. As he says on his website, “My dad gets the order and types in the information to a little machine which clears the card, or not. He then fills out a stack of paperwork to make sure that everything is legal and done properly at our end. My mum, yes my mum, then packs the stuff into packages and puts it in a big bag”. Across the pond a full two years ago, Barenaked Ladies experimented with giving away their music via new media, and there was no ensuing furore. Did it really take a publicity stunt by a big name for people to take notice? More pertinently, will record companies become nothing more than a leg up into the industry? Are these ideas at all applicable in the long-run to smaller bands that cannot afford to make a living out of giving away their work? Is this economically viable for either party? We had a look at how some other artists have adopted these progressive methods of distribution.
The Attic Project have had fairly big following in Leeds, with well-attended shows, an EP release, and even professiona; interest from Led Zeppelin engineer Stuart Epps – and a couple of record labels. Nonetheless, former bassist Andy Walton doubted the good intentions of the industry bigwigs; “My advice to anyone starting out would be that the fewer people you need to rely on to get stuff done, the better,” he said recently. “To be honest the whole corporate side of things was generally characterised by people telling us that they really liked our stuff and we definitely had potential to be the next big thing…and then promptly disappearing off the face of the planet. Most promoters/labels that we spoke to tried to subtly (they thought…) get us to take on a more “Leeds” (read Kaiser Chiefs/ Pigeon Detectives) sound, which was never going to happen.”
Although now disbanded – and never in a position to leave their day jobs even at the height of their success – The Attic Project remain proof that bands can thrive under their own steam, particularly in a dynamic student-based environment. They even found themselves playing alongside Bad Manners and Sham 69 . Andy reminisces, “Playing a full sized festival main stage was the absolute dog’s danglies, especially for an unsigned band, and it proved that word of mouth (plus energetic Myspacing) is the best way to promote”.
Staying in Leeds, Robochrist was a self-confessed DIY project that soon became “a joke that accidentally went horribly right” , earning support slots for Alec Empire amongst others. Surely this meant creator Chris Catalyst had to work overtime to make the project a success? Apparently not. “Robochrist being a solo project made it a lot easier to get started, because I only had my own time and ego to deal with, not a load of other people’s. The whole idea was to do it myself, because at that time I was sick of other people’s bullshit”. While he was not entirely happy about the style of music he played, and recognised the downside of working in solitude, Chris had full control over the Robochrist brand, something that few big artists can boast.
The notion of self-promotion for the preservation of integrity seems to be universal. One act that continues to create a buzz in the New York club scene is Funeral Crashers, who have played most of their home city’s most intimate club venues, with band members branching out into DJ work and receiving sponsorship and support from across the scene. The Crashers’ Frankie Teardrop details the process of self-producing a studio album; “I joined in spring 2005…we cut it in summer 2006, but didn’t finish it and release it until October 2007. A real labour of love, that one! In short, we just wanted to make sure we were all set before we made that jump”. Last year they put out this entirely self-financed album – La Fin Absolue du Monde – which is also offered as a free digital download from their website. Perhaps a risky move for a band with little starting capital? “We had a wave [of sales] when the record first came out, but things have definitely slowed a bit, much to our bitter chagrin. We still get the occasional sale here and there, mostly in the digital medium (neat), but things aren’t flying off the shelves, so to speak. However, this is simply because we have zero label help and are working completely “DIY” in a genre where it’s hard to catch attention as it is- sad but true…I decided to toss our record out for free download/preview as an experiment half out of frustration, half out of curiosity”.
Being realistic about the limits of your immediate success doesn’t mean having to compromise your integrity, however. Frankie continues, “I figure, it’s better to be heard and not sold than to be unheard and also not sold…I still wholeheartedly encourage folks to buy it should they really like what they hear, and I’m certainly not spreading our link around like a sexually transmitted disease…Here’s hoping, n’est-ce-pas?”
The Funeral Crashers aren’t the only ones hoping, as both estalished and new artists are increasingly open to the idea of giving away their music. This is perhaps a symptom of myspace music culture, where snippets of music can be heard for free before purchase; a small taster at the food hall. For emerging musicians, getting the word out about their talent, and projecting themselves into the consciousness of as many people as possible seems to be more vital than making money straight away. (Indeed, isn’t this the case for all artists on a wider scale?)
Summa Riot has been experimenting with different methods of distribution for several years now, releasing the Butterflies EP as a commercial release, giving away limited edition promo CDs online and in gig queues, and most recently releasing the album The Art Of Self Destruction as a free download. Ben Rayner (the man behind Summa Riot) says, “It was really a marketing exercise to gain new fans and spread the word around the Internet. I will admit that I was very interested in the way that Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead released their albums as major artists, and also [in] the statistics from the Saul Williams album [The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust] as a relatively small artist. The Butterflies EP only sold a small amount of units, so having the full length album pressed wasn’t really a financially viable option. So I decided to give it away for free, no sign- up, no catches, just free music. There is a donation option on our website, which is set at a lower cost than if you were to download it off itunes, but this has also been unsuccessful. I mean why pay for it when it’s free?… We had just under 8000 downloads in the first month, and 3000 so far this month which has completely blown my mind, I never expected to have this amount of interest”.
One could speculate that this new seek-and-find trend is a violent reaction to the Pop-Idol score of talent that has recently been dominating mainstream music. Will this lead to a widening gap between the two sides of the “music as art/commerce” argument? Can the two even compete in the same arena? “To be honest”, Ben continues, “there seem to be a lot of obstacles for underground musicians… the main one for me is trying to get gigs in the UK [which] is difficult because we don’t fit in the rock genre and we don’t really fit in the dance genre, there are places that ‘bigger bands’ on the scene play, but unless you have a reasonable sized following the venues and promoters are not interested”. Furthermore, if the music marketplace becomes a total free-for-all, it runs the risk of becoming saturated. “Websites like myspace are great for unsigned musicians, but there is so much new music out there and everyone trying to achieve the same thing that…would-be ‘fans’ seem to have become very apathetic. People generally don’t go out of their way to find new music. You (the artist) really have to put in the hours all across the web setting up profiles, networking and just generally doing as much as you can to promote yourself in a fairly cost-free way”.
Thus putting this much-vaunted punk ethic of innovative music distribution into doubt. For every original new act we open ourselves up to, how many out-of-tune Madonna wanabees will there be out there? Do we still need the Simon Cowells of this world to sort the wheat from the chaff for us? The future of music is in our hands. Can we be trusted?