What price artistry?
Got a kind and friendly e-mail today from Jake Brennan, a Boston-area musician (and son of Dennis Brennan, among that city’s roots-music laureates) who has started up a new “artistfunding” organization, with his associates Brad Powell and Evan Kenney, called The Hector Fund. (Exactly who Hector is, I’m not sure; didn’t find any explanation of the name among the FAQs on their site, but no matter.)
Jake was writing specifically about Linda Thompson, who is the most prominent of the three artists they’re representing at present. Thompson is apparently preparing to record a new record and is seeking to fund it through contributions from fans (i.e. the “artistfunding” model). To help draw attention to the effort, they’ve put up a new track, called “Never The Bride”, that Linda wrote with her son Teddy Thompson; it’s available for free download here (as long as you’re willing to go through a very simple and relatively unobtrusive signup process). The track is fairly classic Linda Thompson, an English folk ballad that could’ve been written last year or a hundred years ago. In other words, essentially timeless, as much of her best work is.
As the music industry’s longstanding models crumble, various schemes and scenarios are cropping up as potential alternatives. Artistfunding is hardly a new one, as the Hector Fund folks readily admit; they credit Mieka Pauley as being their first exposure to the notion a couple of years ago. I believe there’s actually a precedent of sorts stretching as far back as 1994, when Texas singer-songwriter Sara Hickman’s fans chipped in to buy the rights to her shelved album Necessary Angels from Elektra, allowing Hickman to eventually release it on another label; she listed all of the contributors as “angels” in the liner notes.
(It’s worth noting that NoDepression.com launched last fall with a similar kind of assistance from longtime supporters of the magazine, a couple hundred of whom chipped in anywhere from $150 to $1,000 to help get the website off the ground in exchange for being listed on our Founders Circle page along with extras such as T-shirts and copies of the ND bookazine. Much of this is, of course, also predicated on the longtime PBS model of funding for public television.)
More recently, Brennan cites Perfect Circle drummer Josh Freese as having taken the concept to new levels. To fund his recently released solo disc Since 1972, Freese set up a tiered structure offering everything from phone conversations and dinner engagements to personalized songwriting and even a monthlong stint playing in the band of any fan willing to pay $75,000. (Not that anyone has necessarily taken him up on it, but that last one would be a pretty good gig; $75K for a month’s work would be equivalent to a $900,000 annual salary, if extrapolated out to twelve months.)
The Hector Fund has taken some cues from that gameplan in their artistfunding campaign for Linda Thompson. There are signed CDs and special poster artwork available at lower levels; bump it up a bit, and Thompson will take a phone call from the donor, and/or accommodate other personal interaction such as a visit to the studio during recording, or dinner with Linda and son Teddy, or a personalized song written for the donor. You can also buy into “Executive Producer” or (at a higher level) “Principal Executive Producer” designation in the album’s credits. And the uppermost category of all is, admittedly, pretty funny:
$100,000 Pay Me To Go Away Level
For $100,000 I won’t make the record at all – in fact, I won’t make a record for the next year. You can say you’re responsible! Hell, I’ll even tell everyone you’re responsible. Imagine the rush, the power, the heady trip! It will be like being a record executive in the eighties all over again!
Humor and creativity aside, though, it seems to me that the question must be asked:
Is this a good thing, for the artists? And, more specifically, for their art?
The argument is generally made that anything is better than the old major-label system, where corporate behemoths had control of the pursestrings and the power. Certainly there were real and legitimate downsides to that arrangement. It’s also true that, while some of these fan-club shenanigans may seem a bit ridiculous for the artists to toss out there, the stark reality is that bills do have to be paid: The money to record has to come from somewhere, and not just to cover costs for making music, but also for artists to make a living, ideally without having to work day-jobs. Particularly if you’re an artist as accomplished as, say, Linda Thompson is. (And it’s not as easy for Linda to just go hoof it on the road in a van for eleven months outta the year like a young band of twentysomething indie-rockers might be able to do.)
But I think it’s worth acknowledging what this has come to. Essentially what we’re doing is asking a small cadre of wealthy fans to subsidize the artistic process, basically because we’ve accepted that the broader range of listeners who may eventually hear the record may well be listening for free, one way or another. I’m not arguing pro or con here, to be clear, just saying this appears to be how it is, now. Furthermore, it would seem to speak to the widened gulf between the haves and the have-nots: There seems to be an implicit presumption that this smaller segment of well-off patrons can afford to support artists by paying them in the hundreds of dollars, whereas the larger segment of paycheck-to-paycheck folks are finding it harder to pay in the tens of dollars for music anymore. (Again, not arguing right or wrong here – just suggesting that this is where we stand as a society, presently.)
There’s a juxtaposition of YouTube videos at the bottom of Thompson’s artistfunding campaign page on the Hector Fund site that sort of encapsulates the sadness I feel about the situation. First is a very recent interview that Thompson did with Brennan, discussing the nature of the artistfunding campaign:
….and immediately following that is a clip from 1975, Richard and Linda Thompson performing “A Heart Needs A Home”:
I realize it’s oversimplifying to interpret it this way, but I just ended up feeling like the latter video reflected what making music was all about in 1975, and the former clip reflects what making music is all about in 2009. I don’t really mean to be critical here, as the Hector Fund folks – and Linda – are just trying to find a new way forward. And new ways MUST be found, without question – for all of us, whether we’re musicians, or novelists, or journalists, or photographers…pretty much any of us whose work is subject to an entirely different process of valuation in the digital age.
Finally – I think I have a suggestion for that $100,000 level. The “Pay Me To Go Away” thing is a hoot, for sure…but, really, it’s absurd to think anyone would ever want to chase off a talented artist such as Linda Thompson. So how about this, instead:
$100,000 Pay For THEM To Go Away Level
For $100,000 , I’ll ditch everything else on this list – no phone calls or dinner plans or shopping trips or listening parties or songs-on-demand or studio visits. Instead, your $100,000 contribution allows me to focus all of my attention fully on my art: to make a record without having to concern myself with anything else but the music.
If I had $100K to spare, I can’t think of any greater gift I could give to an artist, in the midst of an era when, perhaps more than ever, a heart needs a home.