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Indie songwriters find success in wooing the superfan 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2009
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While some rock stars have reacted poorly to major shifts in the recording industry (see: Metallica sues Napster and its own fans), others have adapted more shrewdly (see: Radiohead popularizes pay-what-you-can pricing, makes tidy profit). But far beneath the Spin covers, independent musicians have been building business models based on superfan culture. Here, supportive consumers pay more for creative extras like getting their names in songs, or having a favorite act perform live in their living rooms. It's VIP marketing done the DIY way, and thanks to the Internet, it's putting money directly in artists' pockets and offsetting the traditional prototype for success.

Ian Rogers, whose company, Topspin, specializes in digital marketing software for musicians, says relying on retail CD profits alone won't cut it anymore. He points to artist innovations that range from the wacky (former Nine Inch Nails drummer Josh Freese offering to call you if you buy his solo album for $50; for $1,000, you can get drunk with him and cut each other's hair in the parking lot of the Long Beach Courthouse) to the groundbreaking (Trent Reznor releasing Nine Inch Nails' latest CDs The Slip and Ghosts I-IV online for free with more expensive "collector" editions available simultaneously) as fundamentally strengthening the link between artist and audience. "What [Reznor] did with Ghosts was genuinely moving," he says. "It changed the question from, 'Will you pay us for what you can get for free?' to 'How big of a fan are you? Because I've got something for you no matter what.'"

The concept of rewarding eager listeners with targeted products has spread through an underground of singer-songwriters. Los Angeles–based keyboardist John Wood started Learning Music Monthly (www.learningmusicmonthly.com) as a subscription-based service. He offers a new album of ambitious pop songs every month, packaged in a cover produced by a different visual artist. "I wanted to push myself creatively," he says, "and this seemed like the best way to get it out there."

Brad Turcotte, who records electro-pop as Brad Sucks, started posting his music online for free in 2002. He uploads new songs every month to www.bradsucks.net, and says 500 daily customers download tracks on a pay-what-you-wish basis. Turcotte says they offer anywhere from a penny to $20 for full albums, although most pay around $10.

Jonathan Coulton claims to have stolen Turcotte's idea. He quit his programming job in 2005 and started an experiment called "Thing a Week," posting a new quirky indie-rock tune every week at www.jonathancoulton.com. Some became Internet hits, and he is now something of a modest rock star. He sells out shows at the Great American Music Hall, and offers tiered-priced merch including higher audio-quality downloads and coloring books.

Even the performing scene is starting to bank on the loyalists. Jon Troast's "100 House Concerts in 100 Days" tour combines the old concert idea with new music technology. For $100, fans can add their homes to his coast-to-coast itinerary (locally, his tour hits San Francisco, Oakland, and Concord next month). "In some ways, it's a return to the days of the troubadour," says Troast over the phone from Skokie, Illinois, where he'd finished living room concert number 27 the night before. The only downside, he says, is the exclusivity of the performances: Because of the nature of the "venues," they're invite-only affairs and can fit only so many people. To be more inclusive, he posts podcasts of his shows at www.jontroast.com.

Topspin's Rogers says many of these fan marketing concepts go beyond publicity stunts. "They make human beings feel closer to music and actually want to share it more," he says. These creative schemes put more money in artists' hands than ever before, he points out, adding, "I'm not sure if people realize yet how far you can go with this."

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Ezra Gale

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