New opportunities in cyberspace are giving jambands more ways than ever before to keep things harmonious right here at home
by Lee Abraham
In last monthís column I rattled on about the war being waged over online music distribution. Even went so far as to suggest that bands today have a new, unprecedented opportunity for taking control of their own destiny and achieving financial independence, without selling their soul to the record label devil. Call me a dreamer. Itís OK, Iíve been called a lot worse.
A month later, the statement still stands. Maybe Iím seeing things, but in my eyes thereís a new economic model on the horizon, and at times, the glare reflecting off the music biz skyline is blinding. Ironically, in spite of all the dazzling digital technology ushering in the brave new era, the spotlight is about to return to a very analog concept - community.
----------------The great untruth---
Hanging out in a dimly lit, smoke filled nightclub, just sort of killing time before the band I had driven forty five minutes to see got started, a buddy and I were engaged in some idle chit chat. Mostly of the Ďshop talkí variety. A couple of music-is-my-lifers, our occupational preoccupations had once again melted into after hours conversation. The hot topic on the cocktail table: intellectual property, copyrights, and Napster.
One thing led to another. Soon we were on to money and the arts. Then came good vs. evil - a classic rant session that became increasingly animated with each passing round of properly chilled Black and Tan. Not that my friend needed any encouragement. He was already on a roll. A former musician who spent years touring the country in hopes of Ďmaking it,í only to give it all up for love and a semi-steady paycheck as an Arts and Entertainment Editor at a local weekly, my buddy loves to bash record companies.
"Business sucks and record labels are the worst," he muttered. Taking a swig of beer, the editor gave his bold statement a moment to resonate. Working the pregnant pause to full dramatic effect, he took another pull, and then continued. "Money always ruins everything. Itís evil!" Satisfied with the finality of his observation, the editor gave a quick nod before savoring another snoutfull.
I was moved by the conviction in his voice, but disagreed with the statement. Scrambling for a worthy retort, I followed his lead, taking a long, slow sip from my frosty mug, stealing a moment to think. Didnít help much. "Canít really do a hell of a lot without it though," was about all I could come up with, doing my best to match his tone of profound disgust. "Besides, itís the -people- who money attracts, that are evil." Hmm. Now we were on to something...
We both took a drink. The editor frowned and slowly shook his head from side to side. In spite of a comical, 'got beer?' mustache he was now sporting, the guy was making a serious point. "Artists shouldnít have to deal with all the business bullshit," he chortled, wiping beer suds from his upper lip, momentarily ruining the frothing-at-the-mouth caricature of him I had been enjoying in my mind's eye. "All they should have to think about is making music. It happens every freakiní time. The first step to selling out is trying to cash in."
Obviously well pleased with his proclamation, the cynically idealistic editor drained his mug with a flair, one moment chugging, the next, ordering another round. And then the band started. Good thing. Nothing ruins a fine time with an old friend like telling him that he had just spoken the great untruth.
--------------------Darwinís theory of music as a career---
Face it - Darwin was right. The fit survive. And as much as the Internet is changing the reality of doing business in the music industry, nothing is going to change the fact that in an economic system based on open market competition, there will be winners and losers. Simple as that. Sound harsh? It is. Harsh but true.
Fact: the vast majority of musicians in touring bands will never achieve financial security at the club level. Call it paying dues. Thereís barely enough cash in bar gigs to pay for low budget gas, fast food and a cheap motel, not mention rent and utilities back home. Few and far between are the musicians who can even think about funding this yearís IRA, or saving to send their kids to college, with money from the road. Something akin to blood from a turnip...
Donít get me wrong. Iím not against competition. Quite the opposite. Competition makes this country great. But having a free market economy doesnít mean the Ďblockbuster drivení business model shoved down the music industryís throat by a few powerful, self serving interests is the only way of doing business. Itís not. Everybody knows the music biz has more than its share of bad karma.
Thank the greedy bastards who built their music distribution empires and radio play oligopoly on lavish rewards for the rare blockbuster hit. Theyíve created a top heavy cost structure, pouring excessive amounts of cash into promoting the few stars with monster hit potential, while undervaluing way too many talented and hardworking artists, left to survive on a hand to mouth basis because they only sell a few hundred thousand records. The result is an unnecessary disparity between the haves and have nots - an economic imbalance based on selective marketing that has nothing to do with the quality of the art itself. Sure itís ugly. Butt ugly. Thatís why so many artists buy into the great untruth.
------------------Dead but not forgotten---
Like it or not, the long, strange legacy of the Grateful Dead permeates all aspects of the jamband world. Both on stage -and- behind the scenes. Regardless of musical -style-, most jambands cite the Deadís open ended, genre bending, exploratory and improvisational way of making music as an -approach- they relate to. Offstage, look no furthur than the vending scene at weekend music and camping festivals for a few nonmusical carryovers of yesteryearís Dead tours. From the tie-dye vendor set up under an EZ UP tent purchased at Walmart on the company credit card, to the red eyed and smiling barefoot entrepreneur doing business with a cooler of ice and a buck-a-beer vision of life on the road, Shakedown Street is as busy as itís ever been.
And then thereís the band itself. More so than any of its contemporaries, the Dead attempted to manage its own affairs outside of the musical mainstream, while at the same time better serving its ever growing community of fans. Good intentions didnít always translate into good results, but as the years progressed, the Dead remained undaunted, continually experimenting with ways to keep their business dealings as cool as possible. Anchored by relentless touring without the support of main stream radio, they started their own record company, produced a movie, developed an in house mail ordering system for concert tickets, and even published a periodical alamanac/merchandise catalog hawking everything from T-shirts and posters to coffee mugs, wristwatches, and neckties.
Sure, not all of their enterprises worked out, but that isnít the point. What matters is that in spite of all the summer of love counterculture imagery surrounding the Dead and their fans, they made no secret of trying to maintain control of the business end of their operation. And that my friends is the Deadís gratest contribution to the music biz: shattering the misconception that an interest in managing your business and making money, or, gasp, -directly participating- in the process, is a betrayal of artistic integrity. Itís not.
--------------The futureís here and we are it----
Take a good look at the hard working, touring jambands. Not the hometown hero part-timers, but the 200+ show a year road warriors who eat, sleep and breath their music 24-7. Thereís something about the pioneering spirit of bands who enjoy barnstorming the country in a passionate crusade to spread their music that appeals to me. I just like that approach. By making the process an adventure, the carrot at the end of the stick driving the vast majority of the music industry, becoming rich and famous, doesnít matter to these artists. They put their heart and soul into their music because of the magic it conjures, not the money it makes.
At the same time though, they understand that thereís a business side to being a band, and by and large, they do their best to generate cash flow. Virtually all have a merch table, stocked with at least couple of T-shirt designs, hats, independently produced CDs, mailing lists, stickers... the list goes on. The neat thing is that these bands are not bankrolled by some deep pocket record label sugar daddy, or propped up by a Madison Avenue media blitz. Everything they do gets done because they do it themselves.
That's fine for young bands. Builds character. But anyone who's spent a few years knocking around the country in a van with four other sweaty guys knows that after a while it's not as much fun as it used to be. Clearly, there's another level to strive for. Rather than be forced to spend the rest of their lives on the road, something the Dead never got past, bands who network with their community of fans correctly, will be financially independent enough to tour as little, or as much as it chooses.
---------------Community, the analog foundation to the new digital business model---
OK, here we go. Bands, listen up. Hereís the plan. Even though the jamband scene will continue to grow, itís currently large enough to sustain itself financially if everyone works together. Thereís millions of dollars flowing through it -right now-. As the rest of the world figures out whatís going on, thereíll be more. The problem is that money doesnít come with instructions. Neither does running a band as a business.
Until now. Well, sort of. Although just a rough sketch, hereís four cornerstones to a community based foundation that jambands can build on to achieve financial independence without compromising their art.
1) Start an optional, subscription based music distribution for your fans. Rather than running your fans down the never ending Ďpay per playí path being blazed by the big music corporations, where consumers pay a certain amount to download a song or album (or in the analog world: going to a store to purchase a CD), give fans the option of joining your bandís community for an annual membership fee. In return, fans get free or reduced admission to shows, maybe a high quality soundboard tape/mp3 download or two a month of your hottest shows, and a copy of whatever studio CDís the band releases. Of course membership will have its privileges and it will be up to each band to develop its communityís personality and value added amenities.
2) Host your own semiannual festival. By far the most lucrative cash cow in a bandís portfolio, a couple of successful festivals a year is the key to financial independence. Itís already happening. Hookahville, Big Wuís Family Reunion, moe.down, and The Recipe Family Picnic are just a few band hosted festivals that are already building their own traditions.
Although they vary in size, attendance at band sponsored festivals is growing larger each year. Thereís certainly more of them now than there used to be. The good news is that thereís plenty of room for even more. Some festivals are drawing eye popping numbers in the range of 15,000 people or so. Thatís already too big for a lot of folks, and the opportunity for smaller, more grassroots -community- oriented festivals is still great.
The good news is that it doesnít take 15,000 people to make a festival profitable. Do the math. OK, letís make it easy. Say thereís 10,000 people paying $50 for a weekend of camping and music. Thatís big bucks. Cut it in half and itís still pretty healthy. Bottom line - as long as the band doesnít get seduced into the conspicuously excessive lifestyle of the limousine rock star, they should be set.
3) Network within the community. Create an online bulletin board and interactive database for the community to offer goods and services to each other. Encourage bartering and raise community awareness to look to each other first whenever thereís money to be spent - anything from buying a computer or renting a van to shopping for an insurance policy or auto mechanic. If everyone in the community knows what everyone else has to offer, itís then possible to help support each other.
4) Delegate responsibility but retain oversight. This is the answer to the great untruth. Itís the gray reality between the black and white illusions of micro management and absentee ownership. Let someone else handle the minor details, but maintain control over -how- your business is being conducted. Pay attention. Stay involved, and at the very least, stay informed. Make sure that the people hired to help with the subscription based distribution service, and to produce the festival, respect the relationships your community is built on. In other words, donít let your staff act like the assholes in corporate music who got us into this mess in the first place.
Hopefully, all the hard work will pay off, and as time goes on, bands that take a community approach to their business will reap the rewards. Thatís what a successful career is all about. A progression over time - not too dissimilar from music itself, if you look at it right...