Making fans a part of the inner circle

Special to The Times

You say it's not possible to win a jazz Grammy with an album that isn't out in stores, at the listening posts or available on Amazon?

Think again. Composer and bandleader Maria Schneider did it in 2005 with "Concert in the Garden," as did Billy Childs in 2006 and Brian Lynch and Eddie Palmieri in 2007 -- all on the ArtistShare label.

And Schneider has two more nominations this year for "Sky Blue," also on ArtistShare.

"I was the first artist on ArtistShare," says the New York-based musician. "Kind of the guinea pig. But it obviously worked well for me, and I got in on the ground floor with this new record business model. And, now, here I am again, heading out to the Grammys."

"Sky Blue" is a worthy entrant. Schneider's compositions for her 17-piece ensemble -- especially the Grammy-nominated suite, "Cerulean Skies," with its atmospheric mixture of simulated birdcalls and flowing jazz rhythms -- are cutting-edge displays of 21st century big band jazz.

The CD, filled with her trademark flowing instrumental textures, occasionally tinged with world music references and snippets of electronica, has been on most of the major, year-end best-of lists.

ArtistShare is an apt name for a company that enabled the production and sale of recordings via a partnership between performing artists and their fans.

"Our mission statement is very simple," explains Chief Executive Brian Camelio, who founded ArtistShare in 2001. "It's to develop relationships with fans, and make the biggest return we can for the artists. The fundamental premise is that music's true values are based upon the individual creativity and the unique process that each artist brings to a recording."

ArtistShare offers levels of participation in the entire process of imagining and creating a recording -- a significant step away from the pay-by-the-item of the contemporary music marketplace.

ArtistShare projects are announced on both the company and the artists' websites at a series of participation levels, each offering a range of perks that escalate as the price rises.

"Sky Blue," for example, lists levels reaching from "Participant" at $9.95 to "Executive Producer Participant" at $18,000.

The $9.95 folks receive a package that includes a downloaded copy of the album, a downloadable MP3 of a never-released Schneider composition and all of the notes relating to the "Sky Blue" recording experience.

The $18,000 executive producer -- which is limited to one participant -- gets, among other things, a credit listing as executive producer on the "Sky Blue" album; an invitation to a recording session; VIP access for a year to the Schneider Orchestra's performances; an inscribed copy of the limited edition "Sky Blue" CD; and monthly "Sky Blue" video updates.

The executive producer participant for "Sky Blue" was claimed by Johnny Koerber, a longtime jazz fan who works in investments in Connecticut.

"I've always loved jazz, and always thought it would be fun to commission a piece of music," he says. "After I bought Maria's previous album, I got an e-mail asking if I'd like to participate in the new one. I thought, 'Why not?' so I clicked on my computer and e-mailed my interest. Within 10 minutes I had an e-mail back from Maria.

"I thought I was just doing it to support an artist . . . but the welcome I received was something I'd never imagined, which speaks volumes for Maria and the organization."

And that wasn't all. The final perk for Koerber was the opportunity to attend the Grammy ceremony with Schneider and Camelio.

"It makes the whole thing so personal," she says. "When you make a record this way, you feel as though you have this whole family who's in your court. It puts the pressure on in a kind of scary way, but in another way it's kind of good. Because you don't want to let anybody down, and when you see people preordering and some coming in at a higher level, it's kind of like wind in your sails, and you're like, 'Come on, I can't let these people down.' "

In addition to the personal gratification, Schneider's "Sky Blue" ArtistShare project has generated nearly $200,000 from the participants, with 15% going to the company, the balance (about $170,000) to her. Contrast that with a commercial recording she made before her association with ArtistShare.

"It cost me $30,000 and the record company bought it for $10,000. It earned another $7,000 in royalties, but I was still out $13,000, and I'd given up half my publishing.

"With ArtistShare, I can see everything, I know exactly what's going on, and the money is going directly into the music. I wonder how much pop artists -- who have tons of fans who want to see every little thing behind the scenes -- would make if they did a recording with this model."

The company has about 100 artists on its roster, according to Camelio, who expects to reach the $1-million sales mark this year. Moving in other directions, ArtistShare is also offering participation in a book project, and FashionShare and FilmShare are on the horizon.

The association with ArtistShare has enabled Schneider to compose and record music for a 17-piece ensemble, find an involved audience that offers both enthusiasm and financial support, and -- as a little icing on the cake -- win a few Grammys.

"I can't even imagine going back to the sterile, old way of doing recordings after all of this."

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