Posts

Patronage of the arts is a time honored practice that is still alive and well in the music business.  Many examples of fan financing from Ellis Paul, to Jill Sobule and many others have been reported and detailed recently in this blog and others.  Now a group of musicians from California have put together a very interesting program to raise money for commissioning projects that I hope catches on.  We need more thinking like this in the music industry today.  Effective and creative methods of connecting music fans to artists, writers, composers and producers will help propel the next generation of music making.

Symphony of a Million

“Symphony of a Million” is a 6-month campaign, a commissioning project that brings together composers, performers, and the general public.

The goal is to sell 1 million notes. Purchased notes will be used in not just one single million note work, but rather many new works. Composers will work with performers and compose pieces of varying lengths. The first work to be written will be a 1000 note work for solo marimba composed by Music Academy Online founder, Dave Schwartz, and written for percussionist Nobue Matsuoka. The second work will be a 4000 note composition for saxophone and harp and it will be composed by Anthony Lanman who will be working with saxophonist Dr. Noah Getz and harpist Jacqueline Pollauf who perform together as the duo Pictures on Silence.

* Buy a note for $1

* Each note becomes part of a piece of music composed by award winning composers. Throughout the process we will be commissioning composers to write new works of varying lengths using the notes that you purchase.

* A special “Symphony of a Million” concert, sponsored by Music Academy Online and featuring world-class ensembles, will premier all of the works created using the notes you buy. The concert will be held May 18, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler, the man who composed the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

* Buy as many notes as you wish. Dedicate the notes to someone special. Help to shape entire sections of new music with the notes you select! Your name (and theirs) will forever be part of the final scores.

* Encourage your friends and family to buy notes.

Find out more here.

There is nothing new except what has been forgotten. Things have a way of cycling around, and if they are effective, becoming novel again when more recent methods of making progress fade away. Fan financing is picking up steam as a way of raising money to support artists in the face of falling label support. Like the patron model of old, artists are reaching out to their fans, offering incentives and various forms of access for fans that donate money in support of their artist’s work.

This model is not new, but is gaining steam once again. And why not, it works. In the 70’s Cris Williamson, who just spent a week in residence at Berklee used fan financing to raise money for her album projects which helped to start the women’s music movement. She started the first women’s music label, Olivia Records using fan financing as a strategy to fund numerous projects including the label itself. Now lots of artists are returning to this strategy to fund their careers. James Reed has a new story in the Boston Globe on the subject. Enjoy.

Lighters down, checkbooks up
A growing number of musicians are looking to fans, not record labels, to help fund their albums and tours. And giving has its perks.

By James Reed, Globe Staff | April 12, 2009

Ellis Paul, a veteran singer-songwriter who first made his name in New England’s folk clubs in the 1990s, found himself in a disconcerting position last year. He had decided not to renew his contract with Rounder Records, his longtime label, but wanted to make a new album.

With no immediate ideas for funding, Paul took a novel approach: He enlisted his fans, posting a letter on his website asking for donations. Since July they’ve surprised him by contributing more than $90,000 through a Framingham-based online service called Nimbit, along with checks sent in the mail.

“When you’re only selling 20,000 or 30,000 records, you don’t really need a label,” he says. “We figured we could do this in-house, but we just needed the money, and where was the money going to come from?”

In a growing trend reminiscent of the old-fashioned ways of artists and patrons, musicians around the country – including local singers Mieka Pauley, Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, and former Throwing Muses singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh – are depending on their fans for unprecedented financial support. And it’s not just limited to American artists. In France, singer-songwriter Grégoire channeled fan funding through the website MyMajorCompany.com and released “Toi + Moi,” which peaked at No. 2 spot on the French album charts.

Even as the economy deflates and the record industry continues its downward spiral, indie artists are finding that their supporters are eager to help. In a sense, the fans are replacing – or at least augmenting – the traditional role of a label, which previously would have financed the album with a monetary advance and then taken care of the promotion and distribution.

Piano-playing songwriter Seth Glier, who lives in Western Massachusetts, is only 20 but has already built a fan base that supported him on a recent monthlong tour. Through online efforts, Glier raised $2,500, which came in handy as he and a bandmate zigzagged across the Northeast and had to pay for gas, tolls, and the occasional hotel room.

The initial goal was to raise $500, which Glier accomplished within two hours and then kept going. Glier admits it takes a certain caliber of artist to ask fans outright for money. “It was an idea I had a couple of years ago, but I have a really hard time asking for help,” he says. “When I was able to unclench my fist, it was great to realize how many people were there for me.”

The fans aren’t technically just giving money to these artists: They’re buying services.

To fund “The Day After Everything Changed,” his new album out in the fall, Paul allowed fans to buy different tiers of sponsorship, ranging from $100 (the “Antje Duvekot Level,” named after the local singer-songwriter) up to $10,000 (“the Woody Guthrie Level”).

The higher the contribution, the greater the goods. For $100, you got an advance copy of the album with a bonus disc of demos and outtakes, along with tickets to one of Paul’s shows. For the top-level contributions, of which Paul received a few, fans got several perks – everything from a one-year membership to Club Passim to a signed acoustic guitar to a credit as an executive producer of the album.

One $10,000 contributor, a Boston-based fan who wished to remain anonymous (“People are losing their jobs and homes right now. I don’t think it feels sensitive,” she explains), says she and her husband couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have him write a song for them, one of the perks at their donation level. They even visited Paul in the studio.

“We left feeling that our donation – as well as everybody else’s – is in very good hands,” she says. “In this day and age, to pull out your pocketbook, it’s got to be something pretty compelling.”

Karen Zundel, a librarian in Pennsylvania who’s been a devoted Ellis Paul fan for 12 years, says she even saved up for her contribution because it held more importance than your typical splurge. “The arts are what sustain us and bring individuals and communities together and help us to connect with our innermost beings,” Zundel says. “A new car won’t do that. When you buy a new car or a new outfit, you get that little thrill that lasts very temporarily, and then it’s gone. But I think art really sustains me. It lasts.”

But the way that art gets to the consumer is changing. Dave Kusek, vice president of Berklee College of Music who co-authored the book “The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution,” says the role of record labels is declining.

“I personally think unless you need massive radio airplay, there’s very little reason for record labels to engage with artists anymore,” he says. “It’s a relic of the past in that artists today can find other ways to get to the market, to get money, to distribute their product in a way where they have a lot more control.”

Kusek acknowledges there are pitfalls to blazing a new trail with fan funding, though. “I do think there’s some risk if you don’t deliver,” he says. “Essentially, you are relying on people’s trust in you. They’re effectively loaning you money in the hopes that they’ll get something in return. So if you don’t come through, you’re running the risk of alienating your fans and eliminating those relationships.”

Jill Sobule, who rose to fame in the mid-1990s with the ubiquitous hit “I Kissed a Girl” (long before Katy Perry swiped the topic), recorded “California Years,” set for release on Tuesday, with the help of $80,000 from fans after establishing a website, www.jillsnextrecord.com, specifically for the project.

“I know some people say that’s a lot to record a record,” she says, “but it’s also for everything a big label is supposed to do: publicists, marketing, promotions, distribution. I’ve pretty much used all of it.”

Like Paul, Sobule offered various services at different price points. For $10,000 one lucky contributor got to sing on a new song. Sobule says she vetted the idea with her fans first. “That’s really important: You leave out the middleman and go directly to the fans and talk to them,” she says.

The one thing she hadn’t counted on was the level of freedom fan funding brought her, both financially and creatively. “In the old model, you’d have to sell 150,000 albums for people to think you were successful,” she says, “and now you don’t have to.”

“It definitely is humbling,” she says of asking fans for money. “I feel like I better do the job for my fans. I better bow down to them more than a record label. They’re the ones in control now, in a way.”

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

From the Business Innovation Factory Summit, my presentation on the Past, Present and Future of Music.

http://e.blip.tv/scripts/flash/showplayer.swf?file=http%3A%2F%2Fblip.tv/rss/flash/1445348&showplayerpath=http%3A%2F%2Fblip.tv/scripts/flash/showplayer.swf&feedurl=http%3A//bif.blip.tv/rss/flash&brandname=BIF&brandlink=http%3A//www.businessinnovationfactory.com&enablejs=true&tabType2=none&tabType1=details&tabTitle1=About&tabType3=none&backcolor=0xffffff&frontcolor=0x999999&lightcolor=0xcccccc&showguidebutton=false&autostart=false&showmorebutton=false

Here is the story they wrote about me for the Summit.

Back in the seventies, David Kusek walked from his freshman dorm at the University of Connecticut, down a long hill to the music department for classes several times a week. When the routine got a little stale, he began taking other routes. One detour took him past the computer science building where he quickly noted the “hot” cars in the parking lot. Naturally, he began taking computer science courses.

Great ideas are born in such serendipitous ways. When Kusek melded his deep-rooted love of music with his newfound affinity for computers, he opened up unchartered territory in the music world by inventing the electronic drum. His company, Synare, took a relatively unfamiliar technology (computers) and combined it with an indigenous musical tradition that tuned percussion to the key of the song. Kusek also knew how to start a business, develop products, and take them to market. Having the right price point added to the appeal of the electronic drum and attracted the attention of fledgling artist Donna Summers who took a chance on the new sound and propelled her career.

“For better or worse, we had our part in the disco age,” Kusek says. “We helped to define the sound of the era.”

Taking another detour for curiosity’s sake led Kusek to study animal communication in California with noted biologist John Lilly. They were trying to use sound to communicate with dolphins when the Apple II computer came to market.

Kusek was already synthesizing the sounds that dolphins make, so he devised a way to do the same with musical instruments, to “put the Apple II between the instruments.” He explains that his new company, Passport Designs, “broke music down into a language of expression, which we mapped to simple computer code and connected it to the instruments. We created a computer language for music.” Witness the birth of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), developed by a group of companies including Passport, which has left an indelible mark on the music industry by becoming the prototype for all music interface software.

If only they had patented it.

Kusek, along with Dave Smith and the other people responsible for creating MIDI could have made millions with MIDI, but he remains philosophical about this missed opportunity. “Maybe the reason why it took off was that it was absolutely free,” he says. “It was a compact way of representing music in a simple and cheap format.”

Kusek has learned to appreciate and even extol the benefits of free and open access to music. He helped create musical notation software and was instrumental in developing enhanced CDs for the commercial market. He supports the creation of a music utility to “monetize” the immense wave of file-sharing that has become standard operating procedure in the industry. He reasons that Internet users already pay for access to a network that supplies the music, so why not add a nominal fee to the ISP bill and allow for legal trading? With approximately 80 million households using the Internet, a monthly music utility fee of $3 would generate almost $3 billion in annual music sales from households alone.

“If you tracked what was downloaded,” Kusek says, “you could create a system where the money flows exactly to the people who are listening. It could be a 30 to 40 billion dollar business again, as it was in the nineties.”

Admittedly, this system would spread those billions among a larger base of artists, establishing an unfamiliar sense of parity in the music industry. But Kusek says that the megastar is gone, anyway: “In the last four to five years, new artists coming to market are not making anywhere near what artists like Madonna made. I think that happens because of file-sharing, but also because the music industry was taking its eye off what was important. In the mid-nineties, the record companies thought their customers were WalMart and Target. They had no connection to their audience at all.”

File-sharing may have killed the megastar, but not the art, Kusek insists. “I think it’s a great time to be an artist,” he says. New performers may have smaller audiences, but they also have a more efficient way of finding that audience and staying connected to it through online chats, newsletters, and blogs. And instead of the record industry’s marketing machine pushing music at fans with an $18 plastic CD case and the elaborate promotion attached to it, word of mouth is shaping the musical tastes of the rising generation.

As it should, according to Kusek. He has brought technological innovations to the music industry by accepting such change and using it to open up the possibilities of sound. He envisions music flowing in a clean stream wherever people communicate, allowing artists and fans to express themselves freely.