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Friday, July 4, 2008

Fans raise $50,000 for Japanese band

Special to The Japan Times

To most bands, it sounds like a dream come true: $50,000 with no strings attached; the opportunity to record an album with one of the world's top engineers; and the freedom to make any kind of record you want, unhindered by interfering labels just waiting to drop you at the first sniff of commercial failure. Too good to be true?

News photo
Metal money-makers: Electric Eel Shock (Kazuto Maekawa right), the first Japanese band to raise $50,000 on Sellaband.com, clearly didn't spend the cash on a new wardrobe.

Apparently not, if German/Dutch music Web site Sellaband has anything to say about it. Acting in part as a networking site that allows bands to build and connect with their fanbase, Sellaband takes it a step further by allowing fans, or "believers," as the Web site terms them, to show their devotion by investing in their favorite musicians, $10 at a time. When pledges for a band reach the 5,000 mark, the musicians are given the money and go into a studio to make an album. Each believer gets a copy of the finished disc and also retains a stake in its sales.

It's not an entirely new idea, with the Internet having hosted similar schemes before. In 2001, British prog-rock band Marillion financed the album "Anoraknophobia" through preorders; Canadian publishing company Zeros 2 Heroes Media works on a similar principle, sourcing ideas from within an online social-networking environment; more recently, the Web-based venture company MyFootballClub bought the team Ebbsfleet United by taking donations from thousands of small investors throughout the world. The concept has even spawned its own neologism, "crowdsourcing."

Despite the cringe-inducing terminology, the Sellaband experience has been a positive one for many of the musicians using the site. Garage-metal band Electric Eel Shock recently became the first Japanese group to reach Sellaband's magic $50,000, a figure they raised in just 54 days. Bassist Kazuto Maekawa points out, "The most obvious difference with (other social-networking sites) MySpace or Mixi is that you can invest in the band directly. It's obvious, but it's a massive difference; it means that Sellaband is a more active way of involving your fans — they're not only fans, they're part of the band."

For Maekawa, Sellaband is a natural development from Electric Eel Shock's own philosophy of fan involvement. From their wild live performances to their online interactions with fans, they have always believed in getting up close and personal. For a while now, the band have operated the Samurai Club, where they have partly financed the recording of their previous albums (sometimes self-released, sometimes on traditional labels) by soliciting small donations from fans in return for lifetime guest passes for their live shows. They have even taken to describing Sellaband as "Samurai 2.0."

Electric Eel Shock spend a lot of their time on tour around the world, playing over 150 shows a year. As Maekawa says, "The Internet is borderless and Electric Eel Shock is a borderless band, so we need communication tools; that's why our motto is 'Sex, drugs and e-mail.' "

One of the first bands to successfully raise money through Sellaband was London-based trip-hop group Second Person, who in 2007 used the money to make "Elements," a concept album based on the five Chinese elements. Bass player Mark Maclaine believes that this kind of fan interaction represents an important step not just in the way bands interact with their fans but also in the way the whole music industry works.

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Well suited: Second Person (Mark Maclaine left) believe their success on Sellaband has opened doors for the band. ANNICK WOLFERS PHOTO

"I think lots of people in the U.K. were getting disenchanted with the way they were getting pop music forced down their throats," he says. "And one facet of that is that people have stopped trusting the music industry."

Maekawa agrees with this sentiment, pointing out that one of Sellaband's strongest points is the way that it provides a level playing field for artists.

"There's no territory, no money power. There's just music there," he says. "You can compare the bands equally, whether they are independent or major, from anywhere in the world. Isn't that excellent?"

Maclaine believes that one of the biggest benefits the members of Second Person have gained from Sellaband was the ability to develop in a way that working through the industry as normal would never have allowed.

"Nowadays, if a band's first album isn't a success, they get dropped, whereas in the past bands were allowed more time to develop," he says. "Working with Sellaband gave us that time, and the experience of working with one of the best engineers in the world, Tony Platt (producer of AC/DC's "Back in Black," who was introduced to Second Person by Sellaband), has also really helped us understand the studio."

According to Maclaine, Electric Eel Shock (of whom he himself is a fan) could have more tangible benefits to look forward to as well. "When we did the album 'Elements,' we also used some of the money to make videos for the tracks. One ended up as a YouTube featured video, and then MTV picked it up."

As a result, despite being an "album that no label would ever have allowed us to make," "Elements" proved to be an unexpected success for Second Person, with their music being used in an advert and receiving plenty of press.

The benefits are accruing for Electric Eel Shock before they even begin recording their new album, with a place on the bill at "Sellabration '08," a music festival featuring some of the most popular Sellaband artists, in Amsterdam this August. For now, though, Maekawa is just grateful not to have to worry about money this time. He jokes that $50,000 is "not enough to make a Radiohead album" but that it's importance to the band can't be understated.

"We were always struggling to make money for the recording each time, so we really appreciate all our believers," he says.

Whether or not sites such as Sellaband represent, as Maclaine puts it, "the evolution of the music industry," CD sales from major labels are continuing to drop, and the current status quo in the music business is looking increasingly shaky. What Sellaband probably does represent is an increasing dissolution of the boundaries between creators and consumers that has gone hand in hand with the development of the Internet as a tool for social interaction.

On the one hand, Sellaband is simply an alternative source of money than a record label. But then again, as Maekawa says, "The money contains the will of our believers, so I'm sure we can record a legendary album for them!"


You say you want an evolution? So does the music biz

Adapting to the changes in the music industry has been a painful process for many, but big companies and small entrepreneurs are gradually coming to terms with the new order.

Major record companies have been struggling to reconcile the Internet's inherent tendency toward democratization of information with their own instinct to protect and control their assets. In 2007 in Japan, Sony imprint Columbia set up Oto Revo, an online audition site where bands can post their own videos in the hope of qualifying for a recording deal. Whether this represents real engagement with Internet technology or simply an attempt to save money on A&R is a matter of debate.

The struggle record companies face in finding a way to turn file sharing into a revenue stream has been one of the more high-profile battles of the Internet era, with widely reported legal battles over services such as the prelegit Napster and a few cases of users being made an example of through aggressive prosecutions for music piracy. One method that might point to the future lies in the MSP (music service provider) set up in 2005 by U.K. music Web site PlayLouder — basically an Internet service provider where part of the subscription fee goes to the record companies, in exchange for legal, unlimited downloading of that label's catalog. This kind of blanket license seems like a realistic option for record companies to pursue, and EMI's new chief of digital operations, Douglas Merrill, has been making positive noises about such an approach.

The Web site Sonicbids, set up by well-connected entrepreneur Panos Panay in Boston, acts as an electronic middleman between event promoters and bands. Bands can upload an electronic press kit (EPK) to the site for a subscription fee of just under $6 per month, and then submit it electronically to event promoters, usually paying an additional application fee. Event and festival promoters love Sonicbids because it makes their jobs so much easier, which has led to controversy as increasing numbers of them refuse to accept applications by any other means, making the subscription fee effectively a tax on access to most of the bigger events.

One side effect of the changing nature of the music industry is the increasing importance of touring to a band's revenue streams. The industry has been floundering around trying to find a way to deal with this situation for some time. As CD sales drop, ticket prices rise, and it was against this background that Madonna ditched Warner Music and signed an all-encompassing "360 Deal" in Oct. 2007 with event-promotion company Live Nation, combining albums, touring and other sources of revenue into a single deal worth a reported $120 million. Live Nation went on to make similar staggeringly expensive deals with U2 and Jay-Z, then promptly fired the executive responsible.

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