For musicians, economy is the mother of invention
Los Angeles singer and songwriter Sam Phillips turned up recently for a small-scale show at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. Playing for an intimate audience of several dozen, she was testing on a live audience new material she’s been working on in her home recording studio.
But for a select few regular visitors to her website, the new songs weren’t so new — they’d been able to hear them weeks or months earlier as subscribers to her “Long Play” music and art project, an innovative way she’s generating financial and emotional support for the creation of new music.
With “Long Play,” a website within her main site, Phillips has thrown open a virtual door to her creative world, inviting in fans over the course of a year to watch and participate as she writes and records a new album that she plans to release in the fall.
She’s not alone. As the traditional record business has turned topsy-turvy, artists as well as startup companies are developing ways to finance the making of music today. A couple of European websites, Sellaband.com and Slicethepie.com, act as revenue-generating conduits between musicians and fans.
A few years ago, this “patronage model” was viewed as a potential replacement to the beleaguered major-label system. But with Sellaband on the rebound after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year — it’s getting back on its feet with a new group of owners — the tactic is no longer viewed as the savior. Rather, it’s one weapon in an ever-expanding arsenal.
During a couple of decades as a major-label recording artist, Phillips got used to a ritual in which a record company would put up the money to record new songs she’d written. Once completed, she’d wait and watch for weeks, months, sometimes even years for those recordings to be released to the public.
Phillips, named one of the 25 best-reviewed artists of the recently concluded decade by the review-aggregate website Metacritic.com, spent 13 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Virgin Records, before shifting over a decade ago to the boutique Nonesuch label.
Recently, however, her Nonesuch contract came to an end. With the music business in disarray, she decided the time was right to launch an Internet-based forum for her back-alley cabaret pop songs and art. Visitors to her website can subscribe for $52 — $1 a week — which gives them access for one year to new music as she makes it as well as a slew of special audio and visual content aimed at her hard-core fans.
“We did it exactly the opposite from iTunes,” Phillips, 48, said with a laugh at the studio she’s set up in a vintage house on the east side of Los Angeles. “We put no music up and asked for $52 for the year. And people responded, which is great.”
‘Art-and-music installation on the Web’
Since going live with Long Play last fall, Phillips has pulled in about 1,000 subscribers who have provided her the budget she’s using to keep working on the new album. But that’s just the culmination of the year-long project.
She’s also letting subscribers download a series of five EPs — roughly one every two months — each containing four or five new songs that she has recorded since the previous one. Some tracks from those EPs may wind up on the album, many won’t, but no one will know which of these works-in-progress make the cut until Phillips makes her final choices several months from now.
She’s also posting recorded conversations with some of the musicians she has invited in to play on the album, for a Long Play bonus feature called “Phone Booth.” She writes a blog accessible only to subscribers, posts some of her art collages and short films she’s shot, various ways of giving those who are most interested in closely monitoring her career a window into how she creates.
“This isn’t for everybody,” said the woman who also scored the music for the long-running USA Network series “The Gilmore Girls” and who starred as a mute terrorist opposite Bruce Willis in the 1995 thriller “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” “I don’t feel this is the new business model — whatever that may turn out to be. To me, it’s more of an art-and-music installation on the Web.”
Securing financing directly from fans has provided Phillips with a newfound sense of freedom to pursue her artistic impulses without artistic second-guessing that can come from corporate overseers.
But reporting to subscriber-investors, with whom she has a greater sense of direct connection, “I feel more pressure to do something for them. It’s not a [faceless] company and people out there that you don’t know; it’s Jill, it’s Bruce, it’s all these people who have sent their money to me. I’ve got to get something going for them, and I hope they like it.
“That I’m not sure I like,” she said with a laugh, “but they’ve been happy so far.”
“I couldn’t be happier,” said subscriber Jill Lorenz of Clayton, Calif., in the Bay Area. “I’m a big supporter of artists in general … and always wanted to know more about their creative process: what books they read and what they thought about. The Long Play gives us this rare access and insight into Sam’s world, and I’m grateful that she’s willing to share that with us. The $52 subscription price is a steal when you think about the price of one concert ticket to see a much less gifted musician at some gigantic venue these days.”
But there’s also a risk in sharing more of her creative and personal life with the online community.
“One of our Long Players wrote in, because I had said something about how we’re going to expose the artistic process,” Phillips said, smiling. “He wrote in and said, ‘Yeah, the last time I heard that — about getting involved in the creative process — I wound up helping a poet move his couch.”
In late 2007, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule turned directly to fans, via her website, rather than jockeying for a new deal with a record label.
“You guys are the Medici family,” she wrote in her website pitch, “except I give you prizes for donations of certain amounts.”
For a $1,000 contribution, for instance, she promised to write a theme song for the donor. Fourteen people took her up on that one.
Within about two months of launching the jillsnextrecord.com site in early 2008, she’d brought in $75,000, and later that year released “California Years — Part I,” which she made with help from three-time Grammy-winning producer Don Was.
One donor left a message saying that even though he didn’t like her music, he admired her campaign and contributed $25 anyway. “That was one of my favorite comments,” she told The Times recently. “The fun thing to me was that you’re not trying to please a suit or an A&R guy, you’re trying to please these people who are directly supporting you, and they’re way more important.”
Southland drummer, singer and songwriter Josh Freese, a member of such bands as the Vandals, Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses and A Perfect Circle, among others, cooked up a wacky guerrilla campaign for his 2009 solo album “Since 1972.” His program opened the door to contributions after he’d recorded it, but it generated considerable media attention, and significant support from donors, for the wild perks he offered.
“People are doing things right now similar to this but on a more serious note,” he said at the time. “So why not go crazy with it, where I’m giving people foot massages, taking them to Disneyland and letting them take items out of my closet?”
In fact one 19-year-old fan from Florida redirected money he’d been saving for a new car and ponied up $20,000 to spend several days hanging out with Freese and his rock-star pals.
Not a perfect model
Fan financing is an option that has become both more attractive and necessary as money has become harder to come by at traditional record companies.
Slicethepie has registered about 15,000 acts, 28 of which have reached the $25,000 fundraising goal that releases funds that they use to record albums.
Those ventures are different from the direct-to-fan outreach that Phillips and other U.S. musicians have done on their own. With the European programs, fans invest in musicians as they would in the stock market, with the expectation not only of helping acts whose music they may admire but also of generating a financial return on their investment. (U.S. fans, however, can only donate, not invest, because of federal regulations governing what are considered international stock transactions.)
One band, Scars on 45, got a song from its Slicethepie-financed album placed in an episode of " CSI: New York,” mainstream exposure that led to a major-label deal earlier this year with the Atlantic Records-affiliated Chop Shop Records label.
Sellaband, however, hit a snag earlier this year. After collecting more than $3 million and paying for dozens of albums for participants since it opened in 2006, company officials still couldn’t make ends meet, and filed for bankruptcy. A new group of owners took over in February, shifted the operation headquarters to Munich, Germany, and have vowed to continue the program as it was conceived.
The highest profile act to hook up with Sellaband to date is veteran rap group Public Enemy, which signed on in October. The group was named Sellaband’s ambassador to North America, where the service is far less known among musicians than in Europe and Asia.
But in the seven months since aligning with the site, the rappers have collected only about $54,000 toward their original budget goal of $250,000 for recording and promoting their next album. That’s prompted the rappers to downscale that figure.
“We’ve been financing our own records for years,” Public Enemy rapper Chuck D said. “The reason we hooked up with Sellaband was to do the kind of record we wouldn’t normally do ourselves, with lots of guest artists. But we realize the economy is hard, and people have to pay their rent and buy food. So we’re going to just try for $75,000 and do it a little differently than we’d planned on.” As of now, they have Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, DJ Z-Trip and rock band Rise Against lined up for guest appearances.
“Every band financed generates just a few thousand dollars of revenue for the financing platform and there is rarely significant income in the form of royalties,” Slicethepie CEO David Courtier-Dutton told The Times by e-mail. “Fan financing should not be provided as a standalone service. It’s just one — albeit critical — ingredient required to help an artist develop a career.”
Phillips certainly isn’t ready to call it a viable long-term solution.
“I don’t know if I will go past the year,” Phillips said. “It’s been a fun idea, but it’s a lot of music and a lot of content in a year. I’m trying to do that very spontaneously. I’m trying not to feel I have to have ‘X’ amount of little movies or Phone Booths. I’m trying to do it organically, as we record and as I do everything else too.”
For Phillips, Freese, Sobule and many others, it’s about the adventure as much or more than the financial bottom line.
“It’s like you’re in a Frontierland — you feel like a cowboy,” Sobule said. “That’s what’s exciting to me: putting on a show, coming up with an idea — being able to survive.”
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