By now, everyone knows the story of Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah: independent band finances own record, manufactures disks, ships copies, plays Letterman, lands on the soundtrack of an Office episode, and sells 90,000* and counting copies. All without a major label deal. For every record sold, the band is putting major cash in the bank; rather than a royalty after certain costs, they’re getting the whole enchilada after costs.
And that’s before you factor in live performances and merchandise. Now whether or not this band is a flash in the pan, one thing is clear: you can have success without the machine. Other bands are looking at this model, and thinking that DIY isn’t just for punks anymore. As we wrap up our coverage of this year’s SXSW festival, we turn our attention to music, and how the bands are viewing the future.
The festival is still a place where record-label scouts see bands and make deals. But it is also, for many more performers, a hub for operating outside the recording business. A success here doesn’t have to be — and probably won’t be — a seven-figure advance. It could be finding a European distributor for a self-released album or the offer of a Midwestern college tour instead.
We’ll be talking a bit more about the future of radio later, but one thing many of the bands hitting SXSW realize is that they aren’t going to be played on Los Angeles’s KIIS FM (though they do stand on a chance on the still-vibrant Indie 103.1). Commercial radio programmers can’t figure out how to slot most independent music, so rather than taking a chance, they go with the “better to ignore” idea. After all, if it sells a million copies down the line, they can always jump on the bandwagon later. Which leaves the bands in the enviable position of bypassing the major labels.
With its emphasis on live showcases, SXSW reveals the gap between the narrowly defined, studio-fabricated realm of radio and MTV hits and the less glamorous but far larger territory of van tours and club dates. That difference showed in the music. Many of the most impressive bands made a mighty clamor: a grand, amorphous guitar squall that galvanizes a club, but is difficult to translate to a recording and nearly impossible to sell on commercial radio. One of the convention’s keynote speakers, Neil Young, talked about wanting to make “this massive distorted crunchy hideous noise”; he wasn’t the only one who feels that way.
British band Four Day Hombre took a look at the cash versus creativity balance, and decided that the money wasn’t worth the loss of control. They took the self-financing route a little further by selling shares in the band’s label, Alamo. Though not a radical concept, it’s an example of creative thinking and fan dedication — and those fans have a vested interest in spreading the word about the band, though return on investment isn’t the only goal.
“I might end up throwing away £3,500, but at least these guys have had an opportunity to get out there so a lot more people can see what they’re like.”
The music industry has spent much of the past ten years with its head in the sand. Now that many fans and technology have passed it by, it’s looking at ways to exert control on an unruly audience. Like, oh, killing the single. Again. For great bands out there, no worries. For the music industry, you should be afraid. Very afraid.
* – For those industry executives who scoff at 90,000 copies — how many of your bands did that well for so little money? Rather than looking for one big hit, why not go with ten good hit