If you're Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails, you can throw a new record up on the Web without major label support and fans will come running (or, as it were, clicking). But for indie artists who aren't even household names in their own hometowns, freedom from corporate contracts can be a double-edged sword. Sure, you have all the cred of controlling your music, but getting people to actually hear it is another story. So how do you amass a large audience from outside the traditional music industry? If you're San Francisco's Von Iva, the answer has moved from labels to licensing — a direction that recently landed the group in the onscreen company of Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel.
The bio for the female synth-pop trio offers a clear example that times have changed. Whereas the olden days (of, say, the '90s) would only find bands boasting about getting into rotation on certain radio stations or playing big festivals, Von Iva's one-sheet describes the band's song placements. There was the theme song for the bi/lesbian surfer reality show Curl Girls, a track that landed in the Heather Graham movie Birds of Prey, and another that's embedded in an episode of the cable series The L Word. Dell used "Not Hot to Trot" to sell computers, while Forever 21 plays "LALA" to get shoppers in a buying mood. Each of these outlets licensed (paid the band for the right to use) these songs. But the big news is Von Iva's inclusion in the new Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel comedy, Yes Man, which opens December 19.
The film centers on Carrey's character, a negative dude who decides to change his life by saying yes to everything that comes his way. Deschanel plays his love interest — who happens to be in a band, Munchausen by Proxy, featuring the actress/singer backed by Von Iva. So not only do these San Francisco ladies get to show off their chops on the Yes Man soundtrack (which features four of their songs), they also get an actual cameo on the big screen. And from the descriptions by keyboardist Becky "Bex" Kupersmith, the Munchausen act doesn't seem that far off from Von Iva. "We started from the whole concept of an art-damaged, David Bowie [style] ... '80s band," she says.
Ironically enough for these 21st-century marketers, Von Iva's inclusion in Yes Man came about in a very old-fashioned way. Jonathan Karp, music supervisor for the film, grabbed a copy of its 2007 CD, Our Own Island, off the shelves at Amoeba Music in L.A. after the cover caught his eye. "He just thought we'd be a good fit," Kupersmith says. "We met with Jonathan and the director [Peyton Reed], and we were hired on the spot." Their Hollywood interview was pretty casual; Karp and Reed liked their recordings, and the ideas they had for this fictional band. "They gave us a lot of creative control," she says. "It was like, 'It's your thing, figure it out.'"
But Warner Bros., the company releasing Yes Man, was interested in more than Von Iva's creativity, Kupersmith says. She believes that the fact the band isn't signed to a particular label worked to their advantage. "The first thing [Warner Bros.] asked was, 'Who owns your music?'" she says. "And I'm not sure if someone else had owned our music, they would've been so eager to work with us." Because the members of Von Iva own the rights to their songs, they pocket all the cash, without a middleman. (According to the Von Ivas' manager, Joyce Williams, for each song the band places, it receives "anywhere from a minimum of $1,000 for a smaller-budget film or TV show to $15,000 for a major motion picture or commercial.")
Kupersmith says she'd love to have the regular support offered by a label (Our Own Island came out on indie Ruby Tower Records; its new EP, Girls on Film, is self-released), but she's quicker to list the advantages of being independent than to bemoan a lack of traditional financial backing. "We have more control over everything," she says. "We own our own music, and we don't have to worry about waiting to put something out. You hear all these horror stories about bands signing to major labels who sit on their records for two years. We've never had to worry about any of that." Von Iva has also kept up a pretty relentless tour schedule this year, which helps bring in the cash.
But of course, Von Iva's biggest asset is its music. Girls on Film, a collection of new and previously released tracks, is an infectious batch of hard-edged, rock-infused disco. "Livin' for It" is a supercharging, positive anthem, while "Guise" informs potential suitors that they've got to step up their game. Frontwoman Jillian Iva (who named the band for her grandmother) has a hearty, lusty roar with just a hint of a rasp; she belts out lines promoting fierce independence on a bed of propulsive synths and dancefloor drum beats from Kelly "Lay Lay" Harris.
It's easy to see why commercial entities would be attracted to Von Iva. Its dancey pop tunes come with a strong, in-charge attitude that promotes independence with a radio-friendly, retro-diva sound. The band members have hired someone to specifically help license their music as they attempt to move Von Iva further into the consumer marketplace. "I don't know what it was like to be in a band ten years ago," Kupersmith says, "but it definitely now seems like [licensing] is a really big deal." Of course, having new movie pals like Deschanel only fuels the hope that product placement will continue taking over where traditional labels left off with these ladies.