Fans reissuing old LPs

Audiophiles often complain that CD reissues of old records sound terrible. Take, for instance, what this fan says about the quality and ethics of re-releases by the legendary psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators, fronted by the late Roky Erickson:

“What’s been done to the ‘Elevators music when it was reissued on CD is a crime. The master tapes are long lost so “they” took any old album and ripped it to CD and did a crappy job. This CD became the future “master” for all subsequent reissues and there have been a lot. Like, if another company wants to reissue they license the music and then just go buy a CD to copy. It’s crap. The sound is thin and bad. The band gets paid nothing.

The solution? Let the fans do the reissuing:

The Roky CD Club has released the first volume of Attack of the LPs by the 13th Floor Elevators. This is the band’s first album, the Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, backed by the “Live” album. What makes these different from all the other reissues are two things: 1) they are distributed FREE to the fans 2) the signal was ripped direct from original International Artists LP pressings. The Roky CD Club is a group of Internet-based fans (loosely affiliated with the Texas Psych Google group) who collect, catalog, restore, preserve and share ultra-rare American garage-psych music. They have been active for almost ten years producing upwards of fifty volumes of material with the emphasis being on Texas Psychedelic.

But wait, you cry, isn’t this illegal?

Isn’t the Roky CD Club worried about running afoul of the Roky Erickson Trust? “No really” says a fan; “the Roky CD Club originally began operations with the blessing and help of the Roky Erickson Trust. For many years we collected a donation for discs traded that was sent to the Trust to be distributed to Roky Erickson as needed. It was only when “‘certain other'” people took over the Trust a few years ago that our long relationship with the Roky Erickson Trust soured. They have since proven that they are incompetent by surrounding Roky with his enemies and butchering the music. We call the gang running things now the “‘Roky Robber’s Roost'”. No, the helm has passed to us to “‘save'” this music and deliver it to the fans. We will not fail in that quest. Besides, we already tried working with the new “‘Head'” of the Roky Erickson Trust. After a series of increasingly bizarre and obtuse communications from him we just cut him loose. They put out stuff like: Don’t Knock The Rok and this is just like dragging the name through the dirt. It is apparent to the fans that it is 100% up to them to save this music.”

Sounds kinda like “yeah, it’s illegal but we don’t care!”

I know nothing about the Roky Erickson trust, I have some covers of his songs by others (a hilarious version of “I Walked With A Zombie” by R.E.M., for instance) but never paid that much attention to him or his trust. What’s interesting here is the notion that the fans are the guardians of tradition, the ones on a sacred quest to preserve what they love for posterity when those who could and should have been in charge of this mission have failed. Listen to that language: crime, enemies, butchering, gang, robbers vs. save, quest. Legal or not, it’s true that often the fans are the only ones who care enough to do it right. So whatever’s up with the Roky Erickson Trust, they’re probably right to leave it alone.

Registering Fan Sites?

Via Techdirt comes word that Dragonball is requesting, demanding, insisting that all fans who want to start a fan site register it first with them.

First I think “ha ha ho ho he he.” Then I think “are they going to run around suing those who don’t? what a pain for the fans and what a way to make them hate them, but probably an effective way to chill their fan activity.” And ultimately I agree completely with the Techdirt take:

In this case, it seems like the company is trying to find a balance between protecting its own trademark and allowing fans to continue, but at some point people need to realize that any attempt at controlling word of mouth efforts pretty much destroys the whole point of any word of mouth promotion.

It’s not viral, bottom-up, grassroots, or quite as much fun if it’s on a short corporate leash. Anyway, a google search turns up 1,450,000 hits for “Dragonball fan site” so the genie’s probably out of the bottle on that one…

Universal drops suit against ABBAMAIL

Some of you may recall that the ABBA fan site ABBAMAIL was being sued by Universal Music for selling unauthorized boots through their site. After much rallying from ABBA fans, Universal has decided merely to keep a close eye on their activities rather than going through with a law suit. Read all about it here:

We have received written advice from MIPI that Universal Music do not plan any further action against ABBAMAIL.

Our lawyers rang to advise us that the matter is now closed. Universal Music & MIPI have backed down on their original demands including wanting names, addresses etc. of fans who have purchased goods from ABBAMAIL’s webshop. They have also backed down from their demand to be given 20-30 year old audio and video cassettes from Graeme Read’s personal ABBA collection.

Above is a portion of the letter containing the relevant advice that Universal Music are not taking any further action. Now that we have this in writing and have published it on our website, we can begin to move on from this horrible and unnecessary situation and look towards the future for ABBAMAIL.

Like all letters received from MIPI, the language is tough but this is, in fact, a significant backdown from both Universal Music and MIPI. It only seems to have come about since the protest campaign that flooded Universal & Mono Music with emails from fans around the world angry about the situation. The feature article on the Sydney Morning Herald website, Australia’s most reputable newspaper, also seems to have had an impact.

ABBAMAIL did supply MIPI with raw sales numbers over the last few years and no doubt despite the aggressive wording of their letter, both Universal Music and MIPI realised that they were – after all – dealing with a fan organisation selling to hard core fans – not a major international piracy ring.

As the sitemasters note, however, the threat of suit was not without personal and financial cost to those involved.

I’m glad to see this, but stand by my position that it’s one thing for fans to distribute unreleased stuff amongst themselves for free and quite another to sell it (they have now pulled almost all of the boots they were selling). If you need money to fund your site, ask for donations like does.

Burnlounge: Another take on fans as retailers

Burnlounge bills itself as “the world’s first community-powered digital download service,” offering its own version of the emerging new music business model starring fans as retailers. See here and here for some cynical takes on this. Joe at who used to be sympathetic has also now modified his opinion to “Burnlounge sucks.” Digital Media Wire recently interviewed Burnlounge co-founder Stephen Murray. Here are some excerpts:

DMW: What was the driving force behind the idea for Burnlounge?
Murray: I had a record company with Carson Daly and a couple other people including Ryan Dadd. We were trying to figure out how to market our artists in a new and unique way, using a process that’s always existed, which is friends telling friends about artists they think are cool.[...]

What’s the Burnlounge concept?
What we do is turn fans into retailers. It’s this whole crowd sourcing concept, giving tools and resources to enthusiasts to allow them to become part of the entertainment business, to go semi-pro, if you will.

So for that to occur you need two things: One, a platform, which in this case is a virtual record store. [...] The second thing is marketing resources. We need to give enthusiasts the tools of a professional [...]

So with those tools, how do store owners go about getting customers?
The same way that you already recommend music: you tell your friends about the music you’re into. The difference is you’re not telling them to check it out at another digital music service, you’re telling them to check it out at your own store.

They set it up with three different packages, depending on how serious people are about acting as music retailers. The less-serious models earn credit on all their sales which they can use toward purchasing music in their own stores. The more-serious “moguls” can translate their credits into cash. Minimum earning are apparently a whopping five cents a sale. I’m not sure I’d call this a next-generation snakeoil ponzi scheme, as the Digital Music Weblog has, but it seems like you’d have to move an awful lot of tunes to make it worthwhile.

More interesting than this instantiation of it, is the notion that fans are not just the record store customer, the fan is the record store. It used to be that working at the record store meant you were intrinsically cool (except, perhaps for my own employment at such an establishment for several years and all those bozos who worked at the corporate-owned other record store in town). In the near future will it be running your own online record store that makes you Really Cool? And how will people know you’re the cool kid from the record store when you’re out at the rock shows?

My peeve: just because people connect with each other doesn’t make it a “community.” As my friend Marc Smith says, community is a great term for marketing but a lousy term for thinking. Oh yeah, all the flash on their site is a turnoff too.

But peeves aside, the real question is where the line is to be drawn between Digital Music Weblog’s critique that they (or any other fan as retailer sites) are selling snakeoil through ponzi schemes and a more generous interpretation that they are empowering fans while benefiting musicians. How much money do fans and musicians have to make per sale to make it synergy rather than exploitation? It’s not an inherently bad idea to have fans selling the artists they love, in fact I’d argue it’s an inherently appealing idea. So the issue is what it takes to do it right.

Gimme That Web Authenticity Thing

The Boston Globe has a piece up about indie bands using the internet to acheive stardom (if not affluence). It runs through the usual rigamarole — the YouTube video the label wouldn’t produce but the band did (Dresden Dolls this time, instead of the usual OK Go), concerts in Second Life (funny how a site with fewer than a million users is suddenly THE place for marketing your product, whatever that product may be), and, of course, MySpace. But there are also some nice reports of interesting strategies to involve fans in “authentic” relationships (i.e. those unmediated by labels):

The Dresden Dolls, a duo who describe their music as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” invite their fans to send in artwork and videos inspired by their songs.

“A fan can send me a beautiful painting, and seven seconds later, it’s up on our website , on the fan art page, and it’s visible to thousands of other people,” says singer Amanda Palmer. “I love that we can connect with people that way.”

That sort of authentic connection between a band and its fans is a relatively new phenomenon. Coulton, who writes quirky, fabulist folk songs about American history, star-crossed mad scientists, and technology, recently used his blog to invite the Web audience to submit an eight-bar solo for his song “Shop Vac” on the instrument of their choice. The best one — chosen by user voting — was incorporated into the finished song.

“Audiences want to feel that Web authenticity thing,” says Mike Denneen, a Somerville producer who has worked with Aimee Mann and the band Fountains of Wayne. “They don’t want to feel they’re being marketed to.” That puts the deep-pocketed marketing departments of such mega-labels as Universal Music Group and Sony BMG at a distinct disadvantage.

Ultimately, however, the piece ends up wondering whether all this immediate access to fans will really translate into money for musicians:

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for knitting together a community of passionate fans (though some question whether all those MySpace “friends” will ever pony up for a concert ticket or pay for an album download.) But the Net audience expects to get a lot of things for free, including music and videos.

“We’re looking at a changing economy, in which music is free, and artists are going to have to learn to make their living through touring and merchandise sales,” says Palmer.

“The barriers to getting your music and your image out there are lower than they’ve ever been,” says Denneen, who co founded Q Division, a recording studio and record label. “But over the long-term, the big question is, how many of these people are going to be able to make a living at it?”

It’s a good question, and it will take time for these things to shake out enough that the patterns differentiating those who make money and those who don’t become clear, but it seems more and more evident that the ones who make money will be those who have created enough of a human-to-human relationship with fans that the fans WANT to give back. It doesn’t have to mean that each and every fan will pay the same amount for the same product. It doesn’t have to mean that every MySpace “friend” (and oh, the problems I have with that label) has to go to the show (on the other hand, if they don’t go, who does?). All it has to mean is that enough fans will pay enough to make it worth the musician’s while.

It’s probably the wrong metaphor, but as a teacher at a big public institution, I teach a lot of students who are there to fill their day and do what it takes to keep their parents paying the bills so they can go about the real business of getting drunk at night — but they don’t all have to want to learn so long as there are enough that do. I cultivate relationships with all of them, knowing that nowhere near all of them will make it worth my while. The metaphor breaks down since my pay isn’t directly related to their tuition, and their tuition doesn’t reflect what they get out of or put into the class, but I think there’s still something there in terms of recognizing that some of the people we work for are just going to give back an awful lot more than others.

What I keep wondering is how many bands, managers, marketers, labels, and others have the requisite interpersonal savvy to build and maintain relationships with audiences in a way that makes fans feel truly involved. It’s one thing to make good music, another to craft an appealing public image, and yet a third to craft what feel like interpersonal relationships with large groups of people.