THE BACK PAGES

This album brought to you by—you

Who needs labels and A&R? Today bands are turning to a new funding source: their fans.

BRYAN BORZYKOWSKI May 26 2008
THE BACK PAGES

This album brought to you by—you

Who needs labels and A&R? Today bands are turning to a new funding source: their fans.

BRYAN BORZYKOWSKI May 26 2008

This album brought to you by—you

music

Who needs labels and A&R? Today bands are turning to a new funding source: their fans.

It’s unlikely you’ll see Walter Braunsteiner on the Grammys’ red carpet or rubbing shoulders with Kanye West, but that doesn’t mean this 36-year-old Austrian can’t be the world’s next big music mogul. An insurance industry IT specialist by day, Braunsteiner has given up buying CDs of up-and-coming artists, instead focusing his energies, and money, on developing them. No, he doesn’t work for a major label in his spare time; in fact, he’s barely involved in his local music scene at all. But like a keen-eyed record executive, this Viennese music fan—along with thousands of others across the globe—is coughing up big bucks to help his favourite artists venture into the recording studio.

Braunsteiner has given 25 musicians a total of $20,000 through Sellaband.com, a twoyear-old website that lets people “invest” at least $10 in an artist to help kick-start their career. If an act is lucky enough to raise $50,000, the site’s management will hire a producer, book recording time and help develop and market a CD; the fans’ generosity nets them a copy of the finished product. The site also gives people a chance to make money. Revenues are split between the band, the site and the “believers.” “We’ve been called the record label of the future,” says Johan Vosmeijer, Sellaband’s CEO and former Sony BMG executive. “We don’t make decisions on the process, but we release the product and distribute the music.”

Essentially, Sellaband—and U.K.-based Slicethepie.com, a similar site that helps artists raise $30,000—cuts out label funding and the A&R executives who find and develop talent, giving fans the chance to decide which act is most deserving of a recording career

instead. “We’ve turned everyone into their own record label,” says David Courtier-Dutton, Slicethepie’s CEO and founder.

Even more established artists are turning toward this model and avoiding the big label contract in the process. Jill Sobule, a quirky Denver-based singer/songwriter, originally found fame in the mid-’90s. In her 18-year career she’s been on two majors and two indies, with her last label going bankrupt. Rather than finding yet another label to help her record, market and distribute her disc, she turned to her rabid fan base for support, setting a fundraising goal of $75,000. It wasn’t long before donations—$25 gets an investor a thank-you in the liner notes and a hard copy of the finished product—started pouring in. One British woman donated $10,000, or the amount Sobule required to land a guest spot singing on the record. After 53 days Sobule reached her target.

With success like this, will more cashstrapped industry players—including small indie labels—launch similar fundraising campaigns? “It’s not the direction I would go, but maybe we should,” says Trevor Laroque, head of Toronto’s Paper Bag Records. “I can’t really see any negatives to it, though it seems all backwards—you develop a fan base and then plug everything else into place.”

James McQuivey, vice-president and prin-

cipal analyst with Forrester Research, is less optimistic about the future of fan-funded albums. “This is a nice gimmick,” he says. “But the idea of betting on the success of music will only appeal to a small group of diehard music lovers. It’s not a mainstream solution to the problems the music industry faces.”

But it’s not just about helping an artist succeed—or the promise of earning money, in Sellaband and Slicethepie’s case—that’s making ordinary music buyers open their wallets. This business model has dramatically altered the way fans and musicians interact. Normally, someone buys a CD, and then maybe posts a message on the artist’s MySpace page. But for acts who rely on fans for more than sales figures, the music is as much their followers’ as it is theirs. “I put unfinished material up for my fans to hear,” says John Tayles, a Mississauga, Ont.-based artist who raised $30,000 through Slicethepie.com.

Sobule plans to make a donors-only website where she too will share works in progress and solicit people’s opinions. “That doesn’t mean I’ll take every one,” she says, “but there’s something to be said about people overwhelmingly picking one song to include over another.” Still, it’s hard for some artists to shake the major label mentality—even for ones who’ve been through it all before. “If someone offers me a million dollars maybe I’d sell out,” says Sobule, only half-joking. “But right now I can’t. I’m duty-bound to figure out how far I can go.” M

BRYAN BORZYKOWSKI