Monday, September 7, 2009

Pay to Play

Interesting story on NPR's Here and Now recently about how some musicians are mining their fans directly in order to bankroll production and marketing costs for new releases.

I don't know what to think of this phenomenon. At first sight, it all seems innocent and fun. But there's a claustrophobic tinge to it also. When an artist turns directly to the fans for financing, it seems as if the circle has closed. Sure, it's a passionate group ("the base") but what about expanding your audience? Is it all word-of-mouth from here on in because you can't afford the publicity that a major label would afford you?

Of course, one could argue that fan financing puts the pressure where it should be: on creating something that draws on your strengths, whatever it is that made you appealing to listeners to begin with. No more advice on image from the label, and stress to sell enough "units" to please a corporation.

It's a story that's still unfolding. At the end of the NPR piece, it's revealed that Erin McKeown's Internet fundraising stopped short of releasing her latest work on her own label. Instead, she chose to go with Ani DeFranco's Righteous Babe imprint. Smart move probably--there is much to be gained by association with a stable of artists and the market presence an established label has.

I am impressed with imprints like Appleseed Records, who have managed their company well enough to provide a vital stream of folk releases over the last dozen years. It was inspired by Pete Seeger's work, and in its catalog are several outstanding collections of Pete's work. But it also keeps issuing new releases by seminal figures like Tom Rush, Donovan and Buffy Sainte-Marie as well as promoting the more contemporary careers of artists like the Kennedys and John Wesley Harding.

I must admit, one criteria that I use to judge whether or not I'll purchase the CD is the label. If I have enjoyed their judgments before in whom they sign and promote, I'm willing to take a chance on someone new.

Yep, "brand" matters. It's just that when artists become their own label, they are the brand, and they'd better be distinctive enough to be one, or they won't sell enough units to stay in the game.

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