Mr Ten Per Cent
Smart musos are cutting out the middle man and plugging directly into
the fans, writes Jon Casimir.Saturday,
Saturday, March 25, 2000
A mate of mine plays in Melbourne band My Friend The Chocolate Cake.
They've been around for quite some time now, and recently found themselves
at the end of a contract.
Rather than re-sign with the old company or forge a new contract with
another outfit, they decided to go it alone, at least for a while. As
a way of testing the waters, they rounded up a bunch of unreleased tracks
from the vaults and pressed a CD. They then sold the album, 19 Easy Pieces,
at gigs on their summer tour.
At $20 a pop, a good price for the fan, they parted with more than 100
copies every night. Some nights, they sold twice that.
All up, they played 14 gigs, with one in four punters choosing to buy
the CD as well as a ticket. By the end of the tour, the band had sold
a couple of thousand albums.
Chocolate Cake had previously released four CDs. All four sold respectably,
about the 15,000 mark. For each one of those individual sales, $2-$3 made
its way back to the band. For each copy of the new CD they sell, about
$17 in profit comes back.
Do the maths. At six times the return, Chocolate Cake can afford to lose
many of the supposed advantages offered by record companies (marketing,
distribution, media attention etc). If they lose 75 per of their usual
sales numbers, they're still ahead.
In between tours at the moment, they're shifting their attention to the
Web, adding credit card facilities to the Chocolate Cake site to make
it possible for 19 Easy Pieces to be sold that way. Who knows how many
it will sell in the end? Probably not enough to make them billionaires,
but enough, perhaps, to be a viable and attractive economic model.
Not every band can take this option. New acts are often desperate for
the exposure and advertising muscle that a major label can offer. But
for those with an established audience, and a career that is, shall we
say, mature and unlikely to scale up or down dramatically, it looks pretty
Especially now the Net is here. And while everyone is getting carried
away (justifiably, to some extent) with the future of the direct-download
revolution, the fact is, musicians are already using the Web to do all
kinds of things: to break down the barriers between themselves and their
audience, and to cut out the industry middlemen.
David Bowie has used his site as a marketing and creative tool,
offering exclusive tracks free from his own Web-site, soliciting lyrical
input and allowing surfers to remix tracks.
have done similar things and recently offered a Make Your Own Anthology
service for a few months. Visitors could compile their own list of greatest
hits which would then be burned to disc and mailed to them.
Canadian singer Jane Siberry is another artist simply taking advantage
of the Web to cut down the number of people between herself and the money
earned by her art. Always a wilful artist, Siberry's work has rarely sat
with the pigeonholing simplicities of the mainstream.
Though she had worked with major labels before, Siberry has now chosen
to release her records on her own label, Sheeba, and distribute them via
the Web. From her typically wry site, she explains herself, interacts
with the media and sells CDs, books, videos, T-shirts and choir charts.
This is her window directly to the world, to her fanbase of, oh, probably
a couple of hundred thousand people, a geographically spread community
of a few thousand here and a few thousand there.
As with My Friend The Chocolate Cake, Siberry has decided, for the moment
at least, that the major record companies have little to offer her. To
be fair, you'd have to imagine the majors wouldn't be too sad to lose
her as she was always a marginal commercial prospect, no doubt more difficult
to deal with than the latest compliant 15-year-old popette.
Siberry has not only decided to maximise the profit margin on sales of
her albums, she has also grasped the bull by the horns and decided to
use her freedom to release the kinds of records that few, if any, major
companies would allow anyway. Her latest work, New York Trilogy, is a
four-CD collection, a distillation of three concerts, each specifically
"Lack of cash has been a great teacher," Siberry says on-site,
"but creative control is a rare thing. As head of my own label, I've
had a lot of lessons in a short period of time that have put me in a much
better position as a human being and creative person. I've enjoyed having
the mystery removed from the 'artist's life' thing, so that the fans are
seeing how it really is!"
Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 2000