1.08.2006

A new distribution model

I have found mp3 blogs and music blogs in general to be a great place to learn about new music I might like. I don't expect to add to my playlist when reading economics blogs, but a post at The Big Picture late last year led me to check out the latest music from Harvey Danger. The band isn't new, nor new to me. But I was never too high on its big late-90s hit, "Flagpole Sitta," so when I read that they were making a return, it didn't interest me much.

But as I read about the band and the way it planned to release this new music, my interest was piqued. Stung by major label whims that found it dropped after its sophomore disc failed to recapture the novelty kitsch appeal of its debut, the band decided to release its new disc, Little by Little on its own. More than that, however, it was making the disc available for free download, both as straight mp3s and a bitTorrent file complete with cover art. In an essay on its web site, the band explains the decision: "This is by no means a manifesto. We don't pretend to be the first band to spin a variation of the shareware distribution model... We're not a bunch of fake Marxists. We're just trying to be smart capitalists so we can sustain our lives as musicians."

That's a key; Harvey Danger has been kicked around a bit, and it knows that while this move might be politically savvy in these times of anti-major label sentiment, it's even more business savvy. There's no way a band on the far side of its popularity curve like this could make back an advance from a major label or sell enough to justify giving up the kind of control over their own art that such a move would require. Instead, they can get word out about their disc thanks to this unique distribution model, let people sample their music without limits and try to sell a few to those who really like it. Paying for recording and manufacture of the physical disc, plus the bandwidth to host the files is more than recoupable by the sale of a few thousand discs. To make sales more appealing when the music is available for free, the band is offering a "deluxe package" with a 30-minute bonus disc, all for $11.99.

According to a Wall Street Journal article from late November, the band spent $50,000 on the project, including recording, manufacture, promotion and distribution. Assuming a profit of even $5 per disc (which is probably modest), the band need only sell 10,000 copies to break even. That's not unrealistic. More than 90,000 people had downloaded the disc by that point, according to the article, while 600 people have donated something to the cause through PayPal and 3,000 copies of the disc had been sold.

And the music? It's not bad. Those who liked "Flagpole Sitta" and who have moved on and seen their tastes evolve will likely find much to like. Like fellow one-hit-wonders Nada Surf (whose own MTV staple "Popular" did more harm than good to its career) the band seems to have matured and put its industry woes to good use as fuel to create more sophisticated music that is a bit more organic and less jokey. I was about to use the cliche that the great song "Cream and Bastards Rise" is worth the price alone, but that isn't saying much. Maybe I'll put my money where my mouth is and go give them a couple of bucks as thanks for the song.

Meanwhile, other artists -- not just musicians -- would be wise to check out the band's site and distribution model. As band guitarist Jeff Lin tells the Journal, "I don't think a model like this works for everybody. It would be very difficult for a band that doesn't have any previous recognition at all." As quick as pop culture chews up and spits out hot new things, however, there are plenty of artists across many disciplines who do have that previous recognition. This may be a way to mover careers into the next phase once that recognition begins to fade.

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