Exploring Madison's Music Scene
Jul 17, 2013
09:11 AMLocal Sounds
New Paradigm Fuels Local Releases
THE OLD MODEL
We’ve all heard or read about the music industry in freefall, an industry that has largely made its own bed since the mid-to-late seventies when the “music business” usurped the “music.” Albums were expensive to make and even more expensive to market and distribute. Getting a recording contract served two purposes: It was a measuring bar that vaulted artists from obscurity to possible security. Furthermore, artists were nurtured by the caretakers at the labels, having two or three shots at finding enough popularity to justify the label’s continued investment in them. Secondly, it provided a screening process of sorts for the consumer. Labels were presumed to possess the acumen required to allow the best to bubble up, even in avant-garde circles. The industry began to falter when it realized that the mass of people will consume what is spoon-fed to them. Marketing and greed began to consume the old paradigm as artists were forced to accept huge advances, and ridiculous amounts were spent on not only recordings, which had to pass muster with the suits, but touring also, where the staging began to dwarf the performance. The labels would recoup before the artists saw a dime. Only songwriting royalties were relatively unscathed in the process, pressuring songwriters to produce hits rather than advancing the craft.
The introduction of the CD in the eighties was another serious industry miscalculation. LPs had risen to a list price of $6.99 while singles were virtually nonexistent. The new format was marketed as indestructible, which it was not, and superior, which it was not, since prized recordings were simply burned to disc from masters intended for vinyl without any thought of sonic enhancement. The result? CDs that probably didn’t skip but sounded like cardboard and retailed for a whopping list price of $16–$20.
The industry attempted to adjust but the damage was done. The punk movement should also be credited with helping to pop the overinflated balloon that was the music industry. MTV seemed like it would salvage the broken model for a time, as artists could also be forced to accept obscene advances for videos costing up to six figures. But by the time the nineties rolled around music videos were already dead on the vine.
Then came Napster, a computer-based, file-sharing atomic bomb that obliterated the music industry as we knew it. Like punk rock on steroids. Everything got blown sky high and the debris is still hanging in the air. God knows how it will look when it finally falls, if it ever does. The days of a platinum seller are all but gone. Even the long-play format is in danger of extinction, as technology has shortened our attention span to the point where a five-minute song can barely be tolerated. Who has time for that? Couple that with the introduction of the MP3—the first step backward in sound quality since the introduction of the phonograph—and you have a recipe for chaos. Now we walk around with crappy-sounding, overpriced earbuds listening to crappy compressed files on overpriced digital players set to shuffle.
THE NEW PARADIGM
The advent of the computer has eroded nearly every facet of the music industry with the exception of the recording process itself. Home recording has been made affordable. Assuming there is a relatively adequate soundspace to capture the music, Dark Side of the Moon can now conceivably be produced in an artist’s bedroom. This wildcard has effectively increased total recorded output. Madison has seen its number of album releases rise exponentially over the past several years, with over one hundred per year now being the norm. That’s astonishing, and for a city the size of Madison, it’s also unique. Local recordings have been tracked on the Local Sounds Magazine website and you can find comprehensive listings there.
The delivery of music has also been a beneficiary of the rise of computer use in the music industry. Physical recorded product is becoming unnecessary, with some recordings released exclusively as digital downloads. This has damaged the concept of pairing an album cover’s artwork with the music, which was a big selling point of the LP format; some purchases being surely being made solely on the basis of the artwork’s appeal. But the current generation has little knowledge of LPs, and free downloads are all most have ever known.
These days there has been added impetus from the advent of crowdfunding. We’ve probably all heard of Kickstarter by now, a service that allows consumers to fund projects they deem important. That model has allowed musicians to raise the capital needed to produce recordings before they ever venture into a studio. The idea is centuries old, but the modern process has its genesis in the mid-nineties with Marillion, an English art-rock band who appealed to its wide international fan base to pre-fund an American tour and the recording of its next album. Contributors provided $60,000 in capital for the tour alone and those who contibuted to the album project had their names listed in the album credits.
Crowdfunding has other benefits, as artists can award various level of swag to contributors. For instance, a $10 contribution might get you a link to a downloaded version of the completed project while $25 might get you a CD mailed to you. A $35 contribution might get you the CD and a T-shirt, $50 might get the artist to perform in your living room, etc. Even major-label artists have jettisoned the recording industry to adopt this new model, the most famous case being the British group Radiohead who popularized the name-your-price construct, earning more off the release of their In Rainbows album than any other they had previously released. Granted, they were arguably the world’s biggest pop band at the time.
Facebook has become the best promotional tool a musician has ever had. Performances and recording projects can now be promoted to an artist’s fan base with ease, and adding to that base is relatively easy. Facebook’s advertising options are also affordable and thousands of potential followers can be reached for under $30.
Locally, several recent and forthcoming releases have been crowdfunded. Here is a sampling of them. Feel free to add your own input about other projects in the comments section below.
Lords of the Trident. A metal band with the gift of humor. The band recently exceeded its modest goal of raising $700 on Kickstarter to fund its third release, Plan of Attack. The low-pricing strategy has worked for them. Kickstarter requires that the project’s goal be reached for the artist to receive any money, so it is an all-or-nothing scenario. They obliterated the $700 goal and then offered additional benefits to donors if subsequent goals were met. They successfully eclipsed their third goal of $2,100 and are now offering calendars to those who gave $25 or more—swag that is sure to elicit laughs as well as shock and horror. One hundred eight backers.
Subvocal. This psychedelic folk-noir band’s 2004 release Nikki’s Room is one of the best recordings to come out of Madison. Mark Adkins has had trouble getting the resources to undertake a follow-up given the band’s cult status. Recently he raised $3,198 on Kickstarter, exceeding the project’s $3,000 goal to record the follow-up, Black. Seventy-two backers.
Here is a special preview: A rough mix of the title track “Black.”
Harmonious Wail. The longstanding, ultra-popular and mega-talented gypsy-swing combo celebrates its twenty-fifth year with a new album entitled Bohemian Tango. The project was funded with a Kickstarter project that came in $1,175 over its $2,500 goal. Eleven $50 backers will receive a signed copy of Bohemian Tango, plus a jar of Harmonious Wail Mustard, courtesy of the National Mustard Museum. Sixty-nine backers at time of writing.
Romero. The hard rockers funded the vinyl pressing of their CD Take the Potion by offering digital versions through Kickstarter and raising $2,810, more than their goal of $2,500. Multiple levels and offerings were available with special-edition CDs, including expansive artwork, stickers, buttons, potion bottles, T-shirts and even drum lessons. Sixty-two backers.
Evan Murdock. Folk/country singer/songwriter Evan Murdock recorded his first solo album Feel Bad No More with help from a project on Indiegogo, where he raised $140 more than his stated goal of $5,000. Unlike Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing model, Indiegogo charges nine percent if you fail to reach your goal but only four percent if you do. Eighty-seven backers.
The Whiskey Farm. The alt-folk rockers successfully funded their project on the Pledge Music site. Pledge Music charges a flat fee and a portion of the monies raised must benefit a charity. The Whiskey Farm graciously chose the Madison Area Music Association to receive five percent of the earnings used to record their fine album From the Still. Eighty backers.
Beth Kille. Undoubtedly the most impressive crowdfunding project to date is Beth Kille’s. She raised a whopping $12,250, exceeding a very ambitious $11,000 goal for the recording, promotion and video for her album Dust. Though not required to do so, Kille pledged that any amounts exceeding her goal would be split between the Madison Area Music Association and Girls Rock Camp, two organizations with which she is heavily involved. Her impressive networking abilities and genuinely outgoing personality prove what a bit of hard work can accomplish. One hundred eighty-four backers.
Steez. The self-described creepfunk outfit has not released a follow-up to its 2009 album, KRONOS. That situation is about to rectified as they have begun recording and also have launched a Kickstarter project that will run through August 15. The goal is $4,000 and the digital download level is only $10. Here’s your chance to jump into the crowdfunding arena and generate some goodwill as well as some fine music.
A few cracks have begun to appear in crowdfunding’s foundation. There is little recourse for a person who invests in a project with Kickstarter or any other number of similar sites should the artist fail to deliver. Of course, this is suicidal to a musician in terms of losing a loyal fan base that believes in them, but, as they say, stuff can happen. In addition, the public is beginning to max out, both with crowdfunding and with Facebook. Having so many more self-produced recordings has resulted in a glut of product in cyberspace that is becoming difficult to navigate. More time is required to weed out what is of interest to the consumer, a process that both the music industry and the music press used to make much easier. But such is the price for having such overwhelming abundance, a condition that is supremely familiar to Americans in particular, and increasingly, the rest of the world.