The DIY Indie Band Biz Model…
….seems to be all the rage these days. But is it only news when it’s the latest Indie “buzz” band who’s side-stepping the major labels?
This whole “digital music era” thing is bringing out a lot of great discussion about changes to the status quo of music industry business models, and “indie” bands utilizing new “Do-it-Yourself” biz models are getting all kinds of press. The Wall Street Journal just last week had an article on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and how the band has been able to find success without signing a contract with a major label. Through touring, word-of-mouth fan buzz, and some key distribution deals, the band has sold a nice chunk of albums and had a successful few years on the road. Billboard also picked up on CYHSY’s “go-it-alone” strategy with a nearly identical article that’s (not behind a subscription wall and) definitely worth a read.
Articles like this aren’t really all that new or revelatory. They chart the underground successes of independent bands that are finding varying levels of success without the help of a record label, a music video, or radio play, and therefore side-step the “standard” (and dying) mainstream “model.” For an example of how pervasive this new type of thing is, I’ve compiled a bunch of similar reading at the bottom of this post. But what I keep noticing about these articles is not the exciting new ways independent artists are circumventing the standard model (though, I admit these stories are often quite intriguing). Nope, I keep noticing who they are not covering.
If you read this site, you can probably list a bunch of bands that have also found success with a “go-it-alone” strategy and no major-label contract. You can probably name several bands that have been successful by focusing on their fans, their live shows, and gradually building loyalty and fan buzz over the long-term. So where are the similar press accounts about MMW, moe., Umphrey’s, STS9, or the Disco Biscuits? Why does it seem like these live bands–who are just as independent as your latest “indie rock” buzz band–consistently get ignored?
Take that Billboard article on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for example. It discusses the band’s recent performance at the Hammerstein in NYC (which they did not sell out, by the way). But who else recently played the Hammerstein? Yep, the Disco Biscuits. They rocked that place not only for a solid Thanksgiving run but also sold it out for their NYE show last year (they also played Lollapalooza, had a killer line-up for their own festival, and just finished a stellar “comeback” year with an all-night bonanza at the E-Centre in Camden, NJ). And who else just capped off a huge year with an even bigger set of shows here in Chicago at the Aragon? That other “live band,” Umphrey’s McGee.
And then there’s moe. Now, it just so happens that I’m not the biggest fan of moe.’s music these days, but moe. has many other converts out there. They must, or else they wouldn’t have just played one of the poshest venues in New York City on New Year’s Eve: the Radio City Music Hall. Also, moe. just last week announced their snoe.down festival that includes a killer line-up and is really quite an innovative “recreation-destination” type of a music festival. This on top of what(?) doing their own festival every summer for the past 3-4 years? Like their music or not, moe. knows their fans and continues to find ways to give their fans a great concert experience, all with a very independent set of management and organization. How’d they do it? Slowly, gradually, and with a lot of touring and hard work.
Just over ten years ago, I saw moe. at a tiny upstate New York venue (the Haunt, Ithaca, NY). They rocked this little smoke-filled room and made people take notice that they were clearly on to something. Since then they’ve gradually built up a following. Part of it was the music, part their fans’ devotion, and another component was the tapers (I had the tapes of that show in hand within a couple weeks; these days, it often takes less than 24 hours!).
We can cite all kinds of other bands that have done this, are doing this, or are just now tapping into it this “live band biz model”. It’s not limited to jambands, but can include any band that has a great live show and has no interest in being an indentured servant for Warner Music or Sony/Universal. Hence, your CYHSYs, Arcade Fires, and Wilcos of the world can pull off similar successes by using nearly the same model.
So the question remains: why don’t more people take notice of this type of progress when it’s the bands that “jam?” Is it just too hippy (whatever that even means these days)? Is there a stigma in terms of the fans, the drugs, the scene? Is it too far off-the-radar? Isn’t this exactly the type of shit the Billboard guys are writing about when it comes to CYHSY?
Of course, some mainstream outlets certainly HAVE taken notice. The folks who thought that the Dead and Phish were somehow enormous exceptions to the traditional rules have at least been swayed more recently by the behemoth that is Bonnaroo (just see FastCompany’s article on SuperFly for an example of that). But, it just seems like the mid-size “jam-oriented” acts — who are consistently playing the same venues as the CYHSY’s of the world — never quite get the same kind of recognition.
So what do you think? Am I full of shit? Do these bands even want this kind of press? Drop a comment.
All this is not meant to diminish what CYHSY or any of the other buzz-worthy indie rock acts have accomplished. There’s a reason all those crazy fans at Lollapalooza (myself included) freaked out at Broken Social Scene’s set, really dig Of Montreal, and have recently eaten up all the hype for Arcade Fire’s new album. I just find it fascinating that there’s so much damn press about bands side-stepping traditional business models with nary a mention about bands that have consistently accomplished the same (or higher) level of success with a very similar model: touring heavily, knowing their fans, having a lenient policy towards tape-trading and file-sharing, and building the interest and trust of those fans over time.
• FastCompany just published a feature on MusicToday and its gradual success supporting and promoting all sorts of artists, from the likes Dave Matthews Band to John Legend. I happen to really admire what MusicToday has seemingly built from scratch (the company also fought a David-and-Goliath-style battle with TicketMaster over ticket availability—and won!).
• If you’re a Wired reader, you already heard other examples of this trend in the magazine’s September feature “Music Reborn” that discussed a variety of new music business models with a similar set of DIY approaches. Wired cited Beck, Terry McBride’s Nettwerk Music Group with the Barenaked Ladies, and some other “indie acts” (most of which I’d consider pretty mainstream).
WHITperson -- aka Marc Whitman or simply "Whit" -- is a long-time LMB contributor known for his in-depth posting style and his knack for crafting interesting podcasts. Whit currently resides in Brooklyn, where he's building up his web development chops and hoping to put his technical skills towards something interesting in the music world. Follow his updates over at whitperson.com and on twitter @whitperson.
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