Can open source reinvent the music business?

San Francisco band Severed Fifth wants to create a new template for success.

Under the traditional music model, bands create an album, sign their distribution rights to a record label, and the label distributes the music and benefits from the majority of sales. Recent economic problems
and the advent of digital distribution and file sharing have squeezed labels for cash, which has limited distribution and marketing. Consequently, bands have suffered by losing their
distribution rights to companies that no longer have the funds to effectively distribute their music.

This poses a few unfortunate outcomes for bands. First, they lose control over their distribution, and if a label is not doing a good job, this can cripple a band’s ability to spread awareness of their material. Second, labels typically provide tour support if a band
sells a certain number of units. However, low investment in distribution translates into limited sales, meaning bands won’t get to tour and raise that awareness. Finally, bands usually make money through tours and merchandise sales. With the labels not providing adequate marketing and distribution, bands are not sent on tour, so they don’t make much money. The net result is that the romantic dream of a record deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s widely acknowledged that the music industry is broken, but I believe the black clouds we’re under actually provide a tremendous opportunity for bands, record labels and fans. That’s why I formed a project called Severed Fifth, which aims to change the music industry similar to the way open source has changed software.

Severed Fifth

Changing the rules

Severed Fifth is a band that I formed in the San
Francisco Bay Area. However, it’s a different kind of band. Outside of creating music for folks to enjoy, Severed Fifth has two goals:

  1. The first is to put open distribution and community at the heart of the band, and to use these elements as catalysts to build growth, awareness and expose the benefits of what I am referring to as the Open Band approach.
  2. The second goal is to use these elements to build success around Severed Fifth, so it becomes a great example of how an Open Band approach can work. I want other bands and musicians to be able to point to Severed Fifth and say, “If those guys can do it, so can we!”

Many moons ago, there were hollers in the software world of, “If that Finnish chap can rally the troops to make an operating system, heck, I’ll take
the same approach for my database app.” I want to optimize Severed
Fifth to be an example that not only appeals to open source and free culture fans, but regular bands in the trenches can point to it too.

Open Band Three Tier system

Severed Fifth is a music project with three core principles, which I
have labeled as the Open Band Three Tier system:

  1. We give the music away freely: Like open source, this encourages redistribution and awareness, and empowers fans to harness the content, share it with friends, and ultimately bring more listeners to the band (in the same way open source has exploded in popularity due to the free availability of content for users to test and assess if it works for them).
  2. We build community: I have taken my experience in community
    to build a community around Severed Fifth. This helps fans feel part of a project they can contribute to. We have done this in the form of the Severed Fifth Street Team.
  3. We socialize Severed Fifth Fair Pay: We encourage people to pay what is
    fair and reasonable to them to help support the band. This is powered
    by PayPal and anyone with a piece of plastic in their wallet can
    contribute. Thanks to the free availability of content and the community feel, people gain a closer connection to the band. In turn, they are more likely to contribute. We have already seen many financial contributions from fans.

This idea is simple. In a recording industry environment that is
widely regarded as ineffective, if we provide a solid example of a
band that provides free access to content (which significantly lowers
the barrier to attract fans) and empowers those fans with a
community, this results in a wider fanbase that feels a closer sense
of commitment to supporting their favorite bands. Of course, the same approach could be applied to other creative endeavors: publishing, art, video and more. My goal is to make Severed Fifth a successful and repeatable template.

The story so far

We have made good progress thus far. In October, we put out our 11-track “Nightmares By Design” demo for free. The album is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, so you can share it with your friends, remix it, and otherwise enjoy it. Response has been very positive, with people not only enjoying the music, but also taking advantage of the rights. They’ve been spreading it around, putting it on YouTube videos, and making ringtones out of it.

We have also invested a lot of energy in building our community. As noted above, we created the Severed Fifth Street Team. These passionate fans have been putting Severed Fifth posters up in local areas, getting the music played on local radio and in clubs, and spreading awareness online. We have seen tremendous examples of people feeling
inspired to contribute: Rob Kielty produced a Severed Fifth Android
, Virgil Brummond is working on a Severed Fifth fanzine, torontomario has created many Severed Fifth wallpapers, and Bungee Brent contributes photography.

In addition to this work, the community has come together to build
awareness across many online resources such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Reverbnation
and more. Throughout these resources, the community has contributed videos, graphics and advocacy — each person is harnessing their own skills to grow awareness of the band.

To get a good feel for the progress so far, we have released two short videos summarizing 2010 and the recording campaign. See 2010 Recapped and Severed Fifth Recording Campaign – Jan 2011 Update.

The next step

Being based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are fortunate to be in
the epicenter of heavy rock and metal. We are also fortunate
to have a number of well-known and experienced musicians act as
advisers to Severed Fifth. They bring a wealth of experience to Severed Fifth, and while they are not paid in any way, hey have a real belief in what we are doing.

One of these advisers — who has possibly the most significant experience of the group — sat down with us shortly after we released “Nightmares By Design” and said: “I think you guys have a real shot at changing how things work. First, because the time is right for the style of music you play. Second, because the band is a tight unit musically and socially. And finally, the industry really is broken and it needs the kind of change you’re advocating.”

His belief in us came with a caveat, though. “If you are going to
bring real change and be taken seriously, you need to compete on the
same production level as professional bands,” he said. “I
believe you guys have the music and style nailed, but ‘Nightmares By
Design’ is a great sounding ‘demo,’ and you guys need a great sounding
‘album’.” He said we needed to re-record the album in a professional studio if we really wanted to bring about change.

He was absolutely right. While we are all proud of “Nightmares By
Design,” it does sound like it was recorded in my home studio (which it was). After doing some digging around, we determined it will cost around $5,000 to record the album. We started the Severed Fifth Recording Campaign to help fund the recording. In just over a month, we have raised nearly $2,000, with some fans contributing as much as $300 each.

Our next step is to get into the studio in the first few weeks of
February to record the album for a late February or early March release. The new album will also be released under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license. After release, we are planning a significant outreach campaign to take Severed Fifth to the masses.

More help needed

While we are still very much at the beginning of the road with
Severed Fifth, the feedback from the community and many people
actively involved in the industry has been hugely supportive. I
believe that we have a real shot at achieving this, but we can’t do it
alone. If we are to build this groundswell of interest and make
Severed Fifth into a truly persuasive template for other bands and
artists to use, we need as much help as possible. If any of you can
help with publicity and advocacy, please get in touch with me at “jono AT severedfifth DOT com.”


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