Late last year, there was much fuss around Radiohead’s decision to eschew usual distribution schemes and release In Rainbows in a variety of formats, among them free downloads. It was no surprise that the marketing plan worked well and, more recently, helped the on-CD version of the new album top many sales charts. Radiohead is an extremely popular band; of course its experiment did well. But if there’s going to be a music industry anymore, it’s going to be because non-platinum performers can make a living as musicians.
Which brings us to Jill Sobule, ace singer and songwriter, composer of the catchiest TV theme in recent years, stalwart performer at tech conferences TED and D … but not someone who has received a commercial break in line with her talent. So … she’s turning the tables on how records are funded. Instead of getting a label to advance her a recoupable recording budget, on Jill’sNextRecord.com she’s asking fans to fund her next collection, with contributions ranging from $25 (Polished Rock Level; you get an advance CD) all the way up to $10,000 (Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level; you get to sing on the record). Sobule estimates her next set will cost $75K to make; she’s $32K of the way (from 195 contributors) there already. (Disclosure: I made a contribution. You should, too.)
I recognize that Sobule, while not headlining arenas, is an established performer with a great reputation and a novel idea. She’ll succeed at this because she has earned fans and goodwill. Brand-new bands, most of them anyway, couldn’t get away with such a plan because they have no pre-existing audience. But the only way many worthy young bands will stay in the business will be if they have a sense that they can make a go of it if they don’t wind up as big as Radiohead. Sobule, then, is a worthy role model for the whole imusic business — a beacon of hope during an industry’s long, dark winter.