Independent musicians fine with new technology tools to reach audiences
From left, Meeka in Jail band members Rich Snyder, bass guitar, Jay Green, guitar and vocals, and Mo Heine, drums, rehearse.
Meeka in Jail band drummer Mo Heine, behind the silhouette of Rich Snyder, rehearses Thursday at bass guitarist Jay Green's business, Big Science Music.
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Jay Green, the composer and owner at Big Science Music, a Downtown music production company, remembers the days when bands used to tape and staple posters of themselves onto telephone poles.
They collected fans' addresses at concerts and sent postcards about upcoming gigs. Some would hand out fliers at venues days before their own shows. It was time-consuming and expensive, but, for bands trying to make it, that was how you filled seats.
Now, Mr. Green sends out email blasts and videos using a website called MailChimp to advertise gigs for Meeka in Jail, the three-person, original rock band in which he sings and plays guitar. He sells the group's music using websites like ReverbNation, where he posts songs, shares press reviews and connects tracks to Facebook using ReverbNation's own "widgets."
And poster tape? Well, that has become just about as relevant as cassette tapes.
"There's all these vehicles for bands to put their stuff and sell directly," Mr. Green said.
The Internet has flattened the music industry, reducing the influence and market share of the traditional means of music promotion, ranging from terrestrial radio to major record labels. In 2011, for the first time, the majority of music sales were digital, according to trade magazine Rolling Stone.
It's still a big business. Customers' purchases added up to what was a $7.7 billion industry in 2009, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
But now the independent artist can tap into an ever-growing array of tools to get that new recording heard by more than the neighbors.
The influence of online music store iTunes and video sharing site YouTube -- where Justin Bieber famously got his start -- is well established, and projects like file sharing service Napster rise and fall in relevance.
Even those seeming paradigm-shifters are battling for independent bands with newer entries -- from Spotify (similar to iTunes, but free for basic functions) to SoundCloud (where artists can record or share audio and rough mixes online) and sites such as Bandcamp, which charges musicians less to sell digital music than iTunes (15 cents on the dollar, according to its website, versus 35 cents on iTunes, according to Mr. Green).
For bands trying to make a mark, the new industry players simultaneously present new outlets and challenges. Musicians want to win audiences and sales, but must fend off increased competition and illegal downloads.
For some, the answer has been to outsource the sales process to online distributors.
Paul Cosentino, clarinetist and leader of the Boilermaker Jazz Band that he started after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1988, sells through CD Baby. The website pushes the old-style swing band's music out to various platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, taking 9 percent of the net earnings from outside platforms, according to the site.
For Mr. Cosentino -- whose band plays music from the American songbook, by composers such as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Cole Porter -- the fee is well worth the ease of sales.
"All of that stuff gives us a worldwide presence," Mr. Cosentino said.
The growth of digital sales has allowed the band to gain traction internationally. It performs in 150 to 200 gigs per year, about half of which are in Pittsburgh. On one tour, the Boilermakers traveled to Korea, where Mr. Cosentino learned that they were already being played in swing clubs.
"The music that we're playing is from the '20s and '30s ... but we're also trying to be as up on the modern technology as we possibly can," he said. He estimates that 60 percent to 75 percent of his sales are digital, though he expects a resurgence in sales of physical copies as fans seek the higher-quality sound.
And an online presence can even help finance new albums.
The crowd-funding website Kickstarter, which allows users to pitch creative projects (musical and otherwise), has helped more than a few artists foot recording fees.
Joy Ike, a Squirrel Hill singer-songwriter who writes music she characterizes as soulfolk, has raised funds for two of her three full-length albums on the site. For her latest endeavor, an album she plans to release this winter, she launched a Kickstarter page in June.
Her goal was to raise $10,000. Donors were offered benefits at different giving levels, from "warm and fuzzy feelings" at the $5 dollar level (10 backers) to a pre-release of a track at the $10 level (56 backers) to an original composition, personalized for the donor, at the $500 level (four backers).
She even gave away her ukulele to one donor who gave $350. Through the site, Ms. Ike raised $12,760.
"It seemed that people really wanted to support what I was doing," she said.
In some ways, the Internet now fills the role for independent bands that record labels used to play.
"I'm not sure that a label could promote me any more than I'm promoting myself," Mr. Cosentino said.
Kirk Salopek, band leader for two Pittsburgh-based bands -- Mandrake Project, an experimental-music band, and Silencio, a band that pays tribute to the music of David Lynch films -- agreed. He noted that while record labels offer publicity, marketing, exposure, connections and money -- resources that may be beneficial for pop stars -- independent bands can largely obtain those resources for themselves online.
Silencio's first album, which was released in June, was even wired over the Internet to a studio in New Orleans.
Ms. Ike, too, likes the independence of distributing music on her own, at gigs and through other platforms, including TuneCore, CD Baby and her own website. "I just really enjoy having creative control over the process," she said.
But the lower barriers to entry have some unwanted side effects, such as the ever-nagging problem of illegal downloads.
Despite efforts to curb piracy, U.S. music sales dropped 47 percent between 1999 (when Napster was started) to 2009, according to the RIAA. The association also cited a report from the NPD Group Inc., which found that U.S. customers paid for just 37 percent of music they acquired in 2009.
Another byproduct from the ease of promotion may be that musicians may not carve out a niche for themselves or pay their dues in a local music scene. Instead of scoping out venues to see what bands are playing and see how they can contribute, musicians can now promote themselves and check out music on YouTube, without ever connecting with other artists.
"There's no true do-or-die commitment," Mr. Salopek said.
In addition, the growth of individual digital tracks means that consumers forgo albums for single tracks, he said, losing out on the musical arc that albums provide.
"The Internet has provided as much pain for the music industry as it has helped," Mr. Salopek said. "But the independent musician, I think, is ultimately better off."
Some things never change: It's still hard to make a living in the business. But for some, not having to worry about the bottom line is music to their ears.
"I'm grateful that I'm not trying to make a living off of my band," said Mr. Green.
First Published September 2, 2012 12:00 am