I paid $750 for an album

Originally published in September, 2012

Artists connecting with fans in a tangible and meaningful way is the real solution to piracy, writes DAVID SWAN.

If anyone asks what my favourite moment of life has been, without blinking, I’d point to a 2010 gig in Portsmouth, UK. It was Circa Survive, and my friend and I travelled to an oppressively grey sea town we’d never heard of a few hours out of London just to hear them play songs. But what we got was a band playing with fierce, demented energy, and smashing it out of the park. Towards the end of the set, frontman Anthony Green leaned heavily on my shoulders as he preached to the audience, then looked at me and asked if I was OK. I nodded, and he ruffled my hair and resumed jumping around the stage in a spastic frenzy. After the gig we met in the merch area and talked about music and life for 10 minutes, and I left with a grin that greets my face whenever I think about that night.

Money can’t buy experiences like that. Money can, however, make sure experiences like that can be replicated by music fans the world over.

When you support stuff you love, more stuff you love gets made. It’s a simple concept but one that gets forgotten when talk of torrents, Spotify and record labels failing dominates the industry discourse. When the band decided to leave Atlantic Records and self-release new album Violent Waves this year, they put it up as a $5 download, but I didn’t hesitate paying $750 for the highest tier package. Limited to 11, the package included a handwritten lyric sheet, a video call with the band, pencil sketches and artwork, a vinyl copy of the record and vinyl jacket hand-painted by the band.

$750 is a lot of money, sure. But how much is an emotional connection worth? What price do you put on hours of singing along in the car or the raw catharsis of crowd-surfing at a gig? With 100 percent of the funds going to the band through their choice to self-release, compare that to one third of one cent, which is what a band makes when a song is played on Spotify.

I’d illegally downloaded each of the band’s previous albums, and thousands of others since the days of Napster and Kazaa. This was penance, I’d taken hours of enjoyment for granted and hadn’t felt guilty. If everyone had that same mindset, who knows how music would survive at all. Everyone talks about how the music industry is “dying” and there’s no money it in anymore, but the good news is that artists are just being forced to become more creative with how they earn a living.

American indie outfit Murder By Death used Kickstarter to fund their new album Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, and offered up a $6500 ‘Kentucky Bourbon Trail Blowout’ package, in which two people could tour whisky distilleries with the band in a limo, followed by a restaurant dinner (flights included). No one bought it, but the band raised $187,000, including one person paying $750 for the privilege of dictating what tattoo the band’s drummer, Dagan, would be next subjected to. The $250 option was a one year’s subscription to the “MDB book club”. Once a month the fan receives some recommended reading from the band, with each book containing an inscription from a member of the band describing why they love the book.

Serial Nine Inch Nails/Devo collaborator Josh Freese was probably taking the piss when he offered a $75,000 package for his solo album where a fan could take shrooms in Danny from Tool’s Lamborghini and have Josh join their band for a month, but the $20,000 package included a minigolf session with Maynard James Keenan and Mark Mothersbaugh, and someone actually bought that. The $10,000 package included Josh’s old Volvo, and that went too.

“When you support stuff you love, more stuff you love gets made.”

Fans of American angst-rock outfit Say Anything can pay $150 for lead singer Max Bemis to write and record an acoustic song about anything of their choice, and I took up that offer several years ago as a birthday present to one of my close friends, who then had a three-minute chronicle of our friendship in audio form. Is Bemis “selling out” by singing songs about stuff he doesn’t actually give a shit about in order to make some extra money? Maybe, but if the fans are happy and Bemis gets to then keep making genuine art, there are no losers.

In a recent piece for FL, editor-in-chief Darren Levin wrote, “Your collection of digital music isn’t worth the $100 Dick Smith hard drive it’s imprinted on” – and that’s spot on. More permanent though are handpainted vinyl jackets you’ve spent hours working to afford, or the memories formed through meeting a band or receiving a personalised book every month.

Acts have finally worked out a way to make money from music again, and it’s in the best possible way – through cutting out the middleman, taking some creative freedom back and at the same time rewarding their fanbase through more direct and outlandish offerings that were previously impossible, or just not thought of.

Bands and artists connecting with fans in a tangible and meaningful way is the real solution to piracy. “You get what you pay for”, Green sings on track two ‘Sharp Practice’, and that’s never been more true than it is now.