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Why TLC turned to Kickstarter for its final album

.@officialTLC on Kickstarter album: Artists 'want to express themselves creatively without restrictions'

Sixteen years after TLC printed thousands of fan names in the liner notes of its Grammy-winning album “FanMail,” the group has again turned to its supporters to steer a project -- but for a price.

The groundbreaking R&B/hip-hop group plans on hitting the studio to record its first album in more than a dozen years, and the members are asking fans to participate in the process through the fundraising site Kickstarter.

TLC’s new album -- the first since the death of founding member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in 2002 -- will be its last, announced surviving members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas on Monday.

"While major labels offer artists multimillion dollar recording and marketing budgets, they don't often give artists complete control of their own music. It is ESSENTIAL that we create our final album completely on our own terms, without any restrictions, with YOU," the group wrote on Kickstarter.

Watkins and Thomas have set a goal of $150,000 by Feb. 19, which will cover a writing session in the studio with a producer and engineer.

Funds raised beyond that will go toward booking additional studio sessions, producers and other costs.

“We’ve always been known to do innovative, creative and out-of-the-box things,” Watkins told the Los Angeles Times in a phone call from New York. “Kickstarter is one of those opportunities. It’s really ideal for artists who want to express themselves creatively without restrictions, and this is the perfect platform to do an album with our fans and have them involved.”

Watkins and Thomas have also created nearly 20 reward incentives for those who pledge.

A contribution at the lowest level ($5 or more) gets you access to vote on a remix to be included on the album and the highest ($7,500 or more) includes a photo shoot with Watkins and Thomas. TLC is also offering VIP concert tickets, scrapbooks, autographed lyrics, a listening party and a movie night or slumber party with both members as prizes.

In addition, supporters will have a say in album tracks and packaging, Watkins and Thomas said.

“They are going to be heavily involved,” Thomas said. “The title of the album, how it will look -- everything. There will be a poll when it comes to the songs.”

Fifteen years ago, before digital downloads had revolutionized the music industry, TLC was an early adopter of connecting with fans through digital means. They were one of the first big acts to partner with MP3.com. The group gave away a single (“I Need That”) in a deal that promoted their 1999 FanMail Tour and contributed to charities.

“People thought we were crazy,” Watkins remembered of the partnership. “We were ahead of our time on that too. This is why Kickstarter makes sense.”

Amanda Palmer, Neil Young, Spike Lee, Zach Braff and “Veronica Mars” have already anchored successful Kickstarter campaigns, and TLC is quickly meeting its goal.

Just two days into the campaign, the group has already gotten more than $107,000 (and counting) of its goal.

New Kids on the Block -- who earlier this week announced the launch of an arena tour with TLC and Nelly in May  -- have put $20,000 toward the campaign, and it is reported that Katy Perry has contributed $5,000.

A new TLC album has been a long time coming.

Once a dominant force in the 1990s, TLC set the tone for the era’s R&B with feisty anthems and bold feminist statements. In the years since Lopes' death in a 2002 car accident, the question has lingered on whether or not there could be a TLC without Lopes. In 2013, the surviving members proved a comeback was possible.

J. Cole recruited the group for his single “Crooked Smile,” which netted TLC its first Top 10 R&B single since 1999, and Drake invited them to perform a surprise set at his annual OVO Festival.

What also got things moving was working with VH1 on their 2013 biopic, “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story." Watkins and Thomas served as executive producers on the film, which was a major hit for the network, and the duo was inspired to return to the studio. The same year they issued their first new single since 2003.

Although TLC reunited with producer L.A. Reid, it was a one-off for their 20th anniversary compilation. At the time, the group generated a wealth of new material, but Watkins said the plan for this record is to start from the beginning.

“That was a great start to feel out where we wanted to be,” Watkins said of those earlier sessions. “We’ve evolved more since then, so we want to start from scratch and have a fresh new sound.”

The new album will pay homage to Lopes, but fans shouldn’t look for unreleased vocals on the new release. Watkins, Thomas and producers turned to Lopes’ limited-released solo effort, “Supernova,” to pull as much as possible in order to complete “3D,” which arrived six months after her death and was assumed to be TLC’s final chapter.

TLC’s new album doesn’t have a firm release date, but the group set September as the estimated delivery date on its Kickstarter campaign.

“We could continue to tour with just the catalog that we have,” Thomas said. “But after the overflow of love and support that we’ve been getting from fans, and especially after the movie, we felt like this is a really good time to do something like this and make one more album. If we can add to the catalog that we have, we’ll feel real good about that.” 

Twitter: @GerrickKennedy

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