Turning the tables on traditional music marketing
November 2nd, 2011
Lincoln, NE – For some Nebraska musicians, building a global audience is becoming more important than having a bestseller. As the music industry evolves, the way music gets into the ears of fans is changing – from vinyl to CD to digital, and back to vinyl – and musicians are changing their strategies too.
On a Wednesday night at Duffy’s Tavern in Lincoln, Omaha band McCarthy Trenching starts its set. The band’s led by Dan McCarthy, who started putting his music out in the mid-2000s at the request of some friends.
McCarthy came up through the music ranks playing with bands signed to the Omaha indie music catalyst Saddle Creek. His first two records were put out on the New York record label Team Love, a nationally distributed label co-founded by famed Omaha musician Conor Oberst.
On a new song off his album “Fresh Blood,” released in October, McCarthy pokes fun at being a lesser-known musician constantly on the road on a thin budget.
“That song is supposed to have a sense of humor for sure,” McCarthy said. “But sometimes you’re out there it does feel like you’re getting old, and what’s it all for?”
McCarthy isn’t going on any large tours to support the new record, partly because Team Love didn’t release the album. Instead the small independent Omaha label Slumber Party Records put it out.
“(The label) is definitely a labor of love,” said Slumber Party Records owner Aaron Markley. “No one makes any money off it. Most of the records haven’t broken even. (When the label started) it was just me sinking a lot of my own money into it.”
The new McCarthy Trenching album “Fresh Blood” was released as a digital download and a limited amount of records were pressed. That’s a trend that more and more acts are following. But McCarthy paid for the vinyl record pressing himself; he used surplus LP jackets from his debut album and screen-printed the new title over them.
“There is kind of a limited amount of money that I want to invest in making the physical artifact, because it’s not important to many people anymore,” McCarthy said. “Though I like it, and it’s really satisfying to have that physical thing, especially 12-inch vinyl … this is the project. It’s done, and yesterday it’s for sale.”
Even though Team Love didn’t release “Fresh Blood,” it doesn’t mean they didn’t want to. Record labels, too, are trying to figure out how to adapt to the changes.
“Like a lot of labels, we were getting financially hit by a lack of sales as everything has been shrinking,” said Team Love co-owner Nate Krenkel. “So putting out seven or eigth records a year was no longer something we could afford to do.”
Krenkel left his job as an executive at Sony Music around 2000 to manage Conor Oberst and his bandBright Eyes, and it was around that time that he and Oberst decided they really wanted to release an album by Omaha band Tilly and the Wall. So the two started Team Love; a label that’s always been sort of a laboratory for experiments in the music industry. Beginning with Tilly and the Wall’s debut record, “Wild Like Children,” in 2004, Team Love started making the records available for free download on the Team Love website. This was at a time when music labels were suing people who were illegally downloading online.
“The original idea behind it was based on two parallel thoughts: one was that the industry was getting way too aggressive and just taking the wrong approach to piracy,” Krenkel said. “They were turning their consumer base into turning them into being criminals.”
Team Love also saw it as a promotional tool, so the more popular bands could attract attention to those musicians that weren’t as well-known. But Krenkel said ultimately the bestsellers were also the albums being downloaded for free the most, so they’ve tweaked the model and are now only making certain recordings available – not their entire catalog.
And some musicians are using illegal downloading as a marketing tool. Lincolnite Max Holmquist performs under the name Great American Desert. He recently circled the state with another musician and recorded an album called “The Frontier Project,” due out this winter, about people and issues in Nebraska.
Holmquist let a friend post some of his music on a file-sharing site, and in the last six months, he’s seen his facebook fans double … with people “liking” him from Europe to South America. Holmquist said he remembers when file sharing first stepped into the media spotlight.
Max Holmquist, now under the moniker Great American Desert, started his music career under the name South of Lincoln.
“You had bands like Metallica adamantly against it,” Holmquist said. “I always thought it was interesting, because bands like that got famous through mixtapes that fans dubbed (and) sent out to each other, and … file sharing is today’s version of that.”
What separates these bands from Metallica is that direct sales are secondary to getting your name out. But Holmquist says there needs to be some middle ground.
“If you’re somebody who downloads music online, do that,” Holmquist said. “But also when those artists come through, support them. Go out to the shows and buy whatever concrete merchandise you can.”
Whether or not music fans will adhere to this sort of “code of ethics” is impossible to track. After all, both Holmquist and Dan McCarthy are doing limited touring right now.
“One positive part of the change in the music business is maybe you don’t have to drive like hell around the country,” McCarthy said. “Live performance is really important, but maybe getting in the van isn’t the only way to (reach a wide audience).”
Whatever musicians do to get their music out to listeners, there’s no science to it. The trick is how to be memorable enough to not get lost in a sea of data on a massive hard drive.
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