Support your local anything-but-a-record-label

I think Kickstarter is one of the best things that has happened to music in a long time, since it does away with pretty much the only remaining useful, nontrivial thing that record labels offered to bands or to fans: paying for the up-front production costs. Kickstarter lets bands get that money from true fans who are willing to pre-pay for a not-yet-recorded album, instead of basically entering into a loan-shark relationship with a label.

I recently contributed to a kickstarter for The Dollyrots. I got an early digital copy of the new album -- which is great and you should buy it! -- and also got the little care package they sent out including a signed poster of all of the contributors and a few similar things. This extra stuff is adorable, and made the whole process feel very personal.

Apparently they only had around 500 contributors, but that was enough to pay for the album, which is awesome, and kind of surprising -- that's not exactly a large number of people! Even for a small band, that's only the attendance of two or three shows. It looks like about half of their total came from small-ticket items rather than things like "buy my old guitar".

The Limousines, who are also awesome, just put up a kickstarter for their new album too, and it contains this sad anecdote:

When it came time to make our first music video, Internet Killed The Video Star we aimed high. We wrote the story out ourselves and found a great director... The video included nearly 50 crazy looking zombies, tons of special effects and multiple shooting locations. We even hand-made an arsenal of cardboard weapons - The best part was, we managed to do it all for less than most bands spend on catering at their video shoots.

The zombie video has over a million views on YouTube now, but back when it only had a few thousand, MTV came calling! They said they loved what we had done and asked if our label had submitted it to them. When we told them we weren't signed, they were amazed and probably even more excited to help out. They played the video in its entirety a number of times and featured us for a whole week [...]

By the time we were ready to make the video for The Future, we were signed to the label and assumed we'd get a healthy production budget so we decided to go even bigger than we had for Internet Killed The Video Star... We wrote a script calling for even more elaborate special effects, crashing a time traveling Delorean into a Porsche, tons of costumes and actors, plus massive explosions. We had our sights set for an epic video and when we submitted it to the label, they said, "No... It's too dark and violent and besides, it'll be way too expensive..."

We were shocked, but, defiant and determined, we decided to make the video anyway, on our own dime.

Of course the next step was a conversation between the two of us that started with "if we're a signed band, why are we having to choose between paying our rent or making a music video?" and ended with "the breakup call" with the label...

As far as I can tell, record labels are useless at this point. They loan money, write a press release or two, and handle the mechanics of getting the MP3s into Amazon and Apple. There are cheaper ways to get those services than giving someone else so much control.

Smaller labels used to provide an editorial role, in that you could sort of expect that if someone was released on a particular label, it would have a particular sound, but even that is pretty rare these days. For example: last year, Niki and the Dove were scheduled to play a date in San Francisco that was cancelled, but I managed to see them at SXSW at around the same time. I asked them after that show why the SF date had been cancelled, since obviously they were already in the country, and they told me that halfway through their (short) tour their label -- Sub-Pop -- had told them, basically, "You guys are too small and not popular enough so we're pulling the plug in the middle of your tour and canceling the remaining dates."

So my first reaction was, "Wow, that's pretty fucked up" and my second reaction was, "Wait, what the hell is a band who sounds like this doing on Sub-Pop?? (And my third reaction was, "Wow, Sub-Pop still exists?" Turns out they're now just an imprint of Warner.)

There certainly still exist small labels that have this kind of editorial theme -- Kitsuné comes to mind -- but there really aren't very many, and I strongly suspect that most of them aren't actually functional businesses, but are more along the lines of, a one-person operation that is more like a very expensive labor-of-love that is funded by savings and/or a day-job. (I have a certain amount of experience with this dynamic.)

At this point, I think what label a band is on is usually about as interesting as which plant pressed their CDs, or which ISP hosts their web site.

Back when I still used CDs I used to try to support bands by buying their CDs at the show, because often they get a bigger cut of that sale that way (though sometimes not, as the label basically makes them buy their own CDs at so close to face value that it makes no difference). Even when they get a good margin on the CDs, they almost certainly still make more profit on t-shirts.

Paying for the music ahead of time via something like Kickstarter just seems like a much more sensible way to go about it, especially if you already know that it's a band you love and that you'd have bought the next album sight unseen. It's almost a "subscription" model.

It's also nice to be paying for the thing you actually care about -- "I'm paying for you guys to make a new album" -- instead of the weird proxy situation that other merch puts you in. When you think about it, it's kind of nuts that often the way you can best support a musician is by letting them re-sell to you a piece of clothing that they commissioned and sourced from someone else.

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22 Responses:

  1. I was extremely excited to see The Limos roll this out. Reading their story was depressing as hell, which of course made backing 'Hush' feel that much better. Only $50 to get into the secret listening party? Yes please.

  2. Chrishawn Lee says:

    I agree with this 100%

  3. matt comroe says:

    There's a similar concept called Cash Music which Kristin Hersh helped launch. I am thrilled to be able to directly contribute to her studio time costs.

  4. Richard Perrin says:

    Thanks for making me aware of this, and indeed, for introducing me to The Limousines, IIRC.

    I think Kickstarter may be a big part of the solution to "The Problem With Music". (90's article by Steve Albini, known for producing the Pixies, and some other album).

  5. Austinite says:

    Our local boy Nakia is financing his next album with a service called pledgemusic and I"m supporting him on that. Seems there are plenty of options for musicians

    And I didn't know that MTV played videos.

    • Lun Esex says:

      And I didn't know that MTV played videos.

      That part about MTV playing the video "in its entirety a number of times" made me want to check the date on the source to see if it was either the 1st of April, or something 20 years old that had somehow resurfaced on the web.

      Alternately we are seeing something that has slipped through a crack in the time-space continuum from a reality where, somehow, Kickstarter exists simultaneously with a channel called MTV that still stands for "Music Television" and still plays music videos.

      I think it'd be this blog post which slipped through the time-space crack, having been written by that alternate reality's version of jwz, because I'd think this reality's version of jwz would have noticed the incongruence in that part of the story. :)

      I wonder what that version of reality has to give up in return for having an MTV channel that still plays videos. Maybe their version of the SciFi Channel has mostly stopped playing science fiction*...

      *The 90% of the Internets that are subtlety-impaired are going to make a comment about this sentence in 3... 2... ...

  6. Erbo says:

    Marillion has used a Kickstarter-like method of pre-funding albums successfully in the past, including for Anoraknophobia (2001), Marbles (2004), and Happiness is the Road (2008). The band is sometimes known as "England's best-kept secret" and "the best band you've never heard of." They're in the "progressive rock" genre; their early material sounds a lot like early-70's Genesis, while their more recent material can have a Crowded House-type of feel.

  7. Phil says:

    The Oatmeal summed up the state of the music industry

  8. There is a category of musician that will just keep making music (sometimes, good music) for its own sake regardless of compensation but has no interest, time, or inclination to work at getting it into circulation. Some small/niche labels still exist for this purpose, at least.

  9. solarbird says:

    We paid for duplicating our first album - or more correctly, buying the equipment to DIY that duplication - through Kickstarter. I've got friends in other bands doing all the same things.

    And when the Emily White thing made a big stir this summer, I ended up writing about that:

    http://crimeandtheforcesofevil.com/blog/2012/06/so-the-problem-with-all-of-this/

    ...and it turned into a six-part series about trying to reinvent the whole idea of a music industry. Getting money in advance, as you describe, is I think going to be pretty damn key, moving forward.

    (Whole article series here, back to front.)

    Strangely, I got a lot of comments on this series, but almost all of them were left on the Livejournal echo. I guess that isn't dead yet after all. XD

    • Ewen McNeill says:

      For the ease of clicking, the six parts in (forward) chronological order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. It's worth reading. (Although beware every single page tries to force a download of three SWF files, at least if you have the Flash plugin turned off for safety.)

      Plus a bonus extra link referenced from one of those parts, about major label funded touring. Some of the points in the bonus post are rebutted in the first series of posts.

      Ewen

      • solarbird says:

        Thank you! I'm glad you like the posts. <3

        For the record, the flash you're seeing is Bandcamp's music player. We found that every extra navigation click cut down hard on the number of people hitting play to listen to our songs, so now we try to have "play" available pretty much all the time.

        Sorry it's three times tho'. It's one each for the studio album, the side project, and the free live EP. Same player, but different parameters, but it'll try to load each one anyway.

  10. mspong says:

    Is it modesty or are you really not aware that the editorial/curatorial role formerly played by record labels, is now played by high visibility bloggers like yourself? I'm certainly not alone in that I usually discover new music nowadays because someone whose taste I trust raves about it on Twitter or some other channel.

  11. gse says:

    I'm of a few minds on this. My current band self-released our first record. Which was great - we controlled our own destiny and decision-making was fast and easy. But we released our second record on a (small) label - and in fact did a repress of the first one with two labels. Those decisions happened after a lot of internal discussion. In the end we decided the label help was worthwhile - though not for the money. I think it was for two reasons - one, getting some help. We no longer had to do all of the PR work ourselves (though we still do a lot), we didn't have to manage the details of pressing ourselves; we didn't have to fill all the mail orders ourselves (though we still do fill orders via our website). And secondly, it got us a little more reach, got our music heard by a slightly different group of people, got somebody besides us to go around telling friends "this band is worth listening to," and helped us find bands to tour with or play shows with or do splits with. Plus, in the genres we operate, labels still carry their own reputation and credibility. Anyway, that all worked out really well. But there wasn't a ton of money involved -- nobody was pissing away somebody else's money or anything -- and we gave away very little control. We were all in it together. And our relationship with all the small labels we've worked with has been really good. Our next record will be on a label as well. I still believe a lot in DIY and owning your own destiny, and I think these relationships allow both. They really are relationships.

    Even though I like the idea of "patrons," and I think it's neat (and fascinating) that people are happy to pay more than the cost of a record when they're helping a record get made, and I love seeing people find ways to do shit without gaining entry to some cool-kid club, I'm personally conflicted when I see bands raising money to record, or to go on tour. To my mind, if you want something and believe it in, you put your skin in the game and then see it through. And honestly, how hard is it for 4 adults with day jobs to collectively save up $5k or $10k? (On the flip side, if you have a $10k budget and kickstart $40k, what then? 4x longer in the studio doesn't make a better record.) Anyway, for whatever reason we've always funded (and done) our own recording and that feels right for this band. I have engineer friends who hope that the kickstarter thing will result in recording budgets being less insane, and recordists getting paid a little better. That would certainly be cool. It's also great to see bands find a way to end-run the bullshit that distributors, promoters, and venues often end up injecting into bandedness. Like I said, I'm of a few minds on this!

    Anyway. From where I sit, finances aside, labels are still valuable and cool in some cases. All of this may be specific to our band, or this genre (for instance, people who like our band love vinyl - not true for all kinds of music), or the size of labels I'm talking about (small indies, small # of physical units pressed), or this half-decade. And of course there are tons of amazing label-less bands too, and I own and love many of their records, and you sure don't need a label to "succeed."

    In 3 years I'll probably take most of this back.

    • M says:

      Thank you. Running a small record label is/was a hellish way of making a living - a process of seeing all your genuine enthusiasm and energy and, yes, trust in a band that you loved sucked out of you and destroyed. Utterly thankless, save for when you worked with a band that had had a go at DIY-ing it all themselves. Then, the band would understand that it's not 'sending out a few press releases' but sitting up till 2am writing them, getting up at 9am the next day to stuff them into 1000 envelopes to journalists/DJs/shops/venues you had spent years building up a relationship with, making a database of what was sent and the outcome, following up hundreds and hundreds of emails a day, every day.... then there's the dishonesty of distribution compaies (ask what happened to 1000's of small labels in the UK in recent years). Small labels end up being PR and plugger and sales and most likely doing half if not most of the manager's job. Yes, it's all so much easier now if you avoid hard copy - yes, if a label doesn't do the above efficiently, you might as well do it yourself... but how many musicians are sitting out there right now wondering why nothing is happening for them? Lost in the noise of 10,000 other online bands...

  12. cthulhu says:

    I guess I'm surprised that you like a band that gets played on the Little Steven's Underground Garage channel on Sirius/XM, chockablock with the Beach Boys, early '60 girl groups, all of the mid-60's British Invasion, late-60s American R&B bands like the Rascals, current power pop bands like the Cocktail Slippers and the Raveonettes, Jack White's solo stuff and his other bands the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather...ain't music grand!