April 2004

Musicians on the Web

Simply Jane is a rough-and-tumble band from Wyoming that writes tight rock'n'roll tunes. The band’s strikingly attractive lead singer, Jana Davis, sings in a powerful voice over hard-slamming drums and Steve Hill’s roaring guitars (Hill also writes all the band’s songs). They’ve built a following through hard work, extensive gigging (opening for Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynrd, for instance), and word of mouth. And they’ve created a well-designed website that helps them put the word out.

The Internet offers musicians and fans of music unprecedented access to each other in a world of nationally programmed radio networks and MTV. In an e-mail to me, Davis noted that "Simply Jane is a band based out of Sheridan, Wyoming (the least-populated state in a America), so the Web has been key to our success as far as communicating with the rest of the world." A number of bands whose discs I’ve reviewed over the last couple of years, among them Weak, David Sylvian, and Garrin Benfield, have informative, well-designed websites to help them present their music to listeners. Davis says websites offer a practical advantage to musicians. "No longer do we have to ship promo kits," she writes. "Go to our website and you can sample music, download pictures, read a bio, check out reviews, dates. And all instantly!"

Famous Last Words, a San Francisco-based jam band, has also found the Web to be a big help. According to bassist/vocalist Kate Burkart, "…we created the website ourselves. People comment that it has a lot of character, is user-friendly, creative, and funny -- we're proud of it and are glad to have people check us out there." If you’re visiting the Bay Area and want to catch them live, you can find upcoming dates on the site. But news of Famous Last Words has traveled beyond the Bay Area and even outside the US because of their association with an online music retailer, CD Baby.

CD Baby is based in Portland, Oregon and was founded in 1998 by musician Derek Sivers. The company sells music provided to it directly by independent musicians. It also handles projects by signed artists, such as Stan Ridgway, that aren’t picked up by their record companies. The site is searchable and each title has quotes from press reviews and rated comments from listeners who bought the disc. CD Baby site has sold over 800,000 discs and paid more than $6,566,164.78 to the artists who sell through them. The company pays musicians $6-$12 per disc, in contrast to the $1-$2 they receive in a traditional label deal.

Most impressive is the wider exposure CD Baby seems to give bands. "We sell CDs nationally and in Europe to people browsing CD Baby's website," Kate Burkart told me in an e-mail. "In fact, a DJ in Europe discovered us on CD Baby and connected us with another DJ friend of his here in the States, who dug it so much that he hooked us up with a whole network of DJs around the world. Now we get e-mailed playlists (that include our songs) from all over Europe and Australia and even Japan!" Simply Jane has had the same experience. According to Jana Davis, "Thanks to CD Baby it [their newest disc, Simply Jane] grabbed attention from Belgian radio and a German music mag, as well as sales in Sweden."

Even musicians who are somewhat better known than Simply Jane or Famous Last Words can benefit from the Web. I’ve long been a fan of Scottish songwriter Lloyd Cole, who has a small but loyal following here in the US (where he’s lived for more than ten years). If you go to his website and put your name on his e-mail list, he’ll send you a periodic newsletter and you’ll find out where he’s performing and if he has any recordings in the works. About six months ago he notified fans that he released a new disc on Sanctuary Records in the UK (it will be released here in the US in March). I promptly ordered it from an online shop there.

As I was typing the paragraph above it occurred to me that it’s been awhile since another favorite of mine, XTC, has released anything new, so I popped on their website to see what’s up. Nothing new on the horizon, but there are a couple of demo discs by the band’s primary songwriter, Andy Partridge, that I’m adding to my to-buy list. I went Australian singer Paul Kelly’s website, read that he had a new album scheduled for release, and picked it up from an Australian music site (two weeks later, SpinArt released it in the US).

Everything I’ve read about the music industry lately suggests that confusion reigns there. As major labels consolidate and take fewer risks, we’re going to hear even more bland, repetitive pop, and we’ll have to dig a little harder to find the good stuff. In truth, it’s always been that way, except for a few brief periods. Now, with a few keystrokes, some patience, and help from publications such as SoundStage! that take the time to review unique and interesting releases, you can still find music that challenges and moves you.

...Joseph Taylor

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