Column 89 — Elvis would never approve…

Category: Blog — @ 12:36 pm August 16, 2006

In honor of Elvis’ “so-called” death day anniversary (some say he’s still alive…) I’m drinking from my Elvis-in-a-karate-robe coffee cup this morning, which was purchased at the Graceland gift shop. Elvis certainly wouldn’t have approved of giving away his records to adoring fans, which is the subject of this week’s column.

Passing out copies of CDs at shows is nothing new, but it seems to be happening more and more lately, what with MySpace acting as a simple way to hear a band’s music. Are we approaching an age when recorded music will simply be given away as a promotional tool for a band’s tour? Maybe, maybe…

A few things that didn’t make it into the column below: Someday Stories guitarist Joe Provil said their recent disc give-away was mostly his idea. The recording has been sitting around for a while, having been mastered three times — and the band still isn’t satisfied with the sound. Joe says he got the idea from Little Brazil, who gave away their first demo recording. “After about four months they were charging three bucks for them and had tons of people coming to their shows,” Provil said. Is lack of radio support another reason for the freebie? The former member of Gauge said his old band’s song, “Waiting Around,” got heavy play in The River. “You don’t have that outlet anymore,” he said. “It’s impossible to get music out there that way.” And while MySpace is an convenient home for bands on the ‘net, “It’s become so polluted with bands spamming everyone, it’s hard to get discovered that way,” he said. “If you search ‘Omaha’ on MySpace there are hundreds of bands, but only a few play shows. It’s impossible to find what you want.”

Go! Motion frontman Albert Kurniawan was on the other end of the spectrum. He said the web is helping bands sell CDs and that MySpace is helping them get heard. He also said the current state of radio isn’t making things tough for new bands: “If your music is good and you’re not lazy, your music will be heard eventually,” he said. Go! Motion no longer is giving away their disc at shows, but Albert said if you can’t afford one, talk to him and he’ll see what he can do. Otherwise, you can buy them from their MySpace page or send a request via email to gomotion@gmail.com. The cost is $5 (but only $2 at shows).

Column 89 — Why Buy the Cow?
Is music losing its value?
There are basic rules to business, commerce, whatever you want to call the process of “making a living.” You make something or provide a service, and in return, people give you money.

The record industry (and America for that matter) was built on this concept. Musicians made records and sold them via record companies, who in return provided them money to buy large mansions, runway wives and long-term drug habits.

All that is starting to change.

On a recent Saturday night at Sokol Underground local band Go! Motion (not to be confused with The Go! Team) celebrated its “CD release party.” After the band charged up the sizable crowd with its take on post-punk indie dance music, they set up camp at a merch table, but instead of selling their new CD, they handed it out … for free! I told one of the band members that the idea was to “sell” — not give away — the merch, but he just laughed at the old man.

A couple weeks later, Someday Stories was down at O’Leaver’s punching out a set of brutal, angular indie rock. Afterward, one of band members strolled up and offered me (and everyone in the bar) a copy of the band’s 4-song EP. “How much?” I asked. “Nothing. We’re giving them away.”

It should be pointed out that both bands’ CDs are among the better recorded listening experiences I’ve had so far this year. Go! Motion’s 11-track disc, Kill the Love, is professional both in its recording and Digipak packaging. Someday Stories’ EP is less fancy — a CDR in a paper sleeve — but sounds just as first-rate. So why just give it away?

“Nobody’s heard us before, so people may not buy our CD,” said Go! Motion frontman Albert Kurniawan, “but they will take a free one because they’ve got nothing to lose.” Kurniawan said the disc, which was recorded at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, and Blacklodge in Eudora, Kansas, cost the band $4,000 and eight months of their lives. They gave away around 200 copies to the crowd at Sokol figuring, “if they don’t like it, it’s cool, but if they do, then we gain more fans.”

Someday Stories guitarist Joe Provil said giving away the CD gets their names in the cars and houses of potential fans. Recorded at Bassline Studios and mastered by engineering wizard Doug Van Sloun (who also mastered Go! Motion’s disc), the EP has become the band’s $2,000 hand bill. “It’s the ultimate flyer. If they go home and like it, they can go to our MySpace page (the address is printed on the disc) and see our upcoming show dates,” he said.
Is this a new phenomenon in a business where, more and more, music is available for free on the Internet? Mike Fratt, president of Homer’s Music, isn’t sure. He pointed out that the music world is becoming crowded. In 2003, about 37,000 new CD titles were released. This year that number will approach 60,000.

“Some bands feel that touring is where the money’s at,” he said. “They figure they won’t make it off CD sales.” Giving it away is nothing new. Indie labels like Barsuk and Fat Wreck Chords have always given away mp3s on their sites. So does Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records (home of Jenny Lewis and Tilly and the Wall), which shook the industry by making CDs available in their entirety as free downloads, hoping that listeners will eventually buy them.

Fratt says even his band, Goodbye Sunday, makes a few songs available from a MySpace account. “I think you should give away some music, but not all of it,” he said. “Where does it stop? Where will the revenue stream come from?”

Fratt’s not even sure some bands understand the concept of selling their music. “We (Homer’s) have to reach out and ask them to let us carry their records,” he said. “Two years ago we had them coming to us.” To help educate bands, Homer’s placed a “How-To” document on their homepage that explains the basic process of selling music on consignment at their shops.

But will it make a difference or is music simply becoming worthless?

Fratt pointed to research conducted by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) that states that today’s 18- to 24-year-olds see no value to CDs. “That crowd grew up using their mom and dad’s broadband or the computer in their dorm room to download music,” Fratt said, adding that bands giving away CDs at shows only furthers the process of devaluing music.

Provil disagrees. “To me, music is music regardless of the price, and paying a low price or even getting it for free isn’t going to change how I feel about the album.”

He said the fact is that most people — when given the chance — will download an album. “The album art isn’t worth the money these days,” he said. So how does Someday Stories hope to earn gas money for their upcoming tour?

“I don’t have an answer,” Provil said. “We’re just trying to be heard and cutting out the cost of the CD for the consumer seems to be the easiest way to do that. It is taking a loss, but it takes money to make money.”

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