Thoughts On Sustainability

• I often feel there is an inverse relationship between quality of output and material success in the music business. This is distressing, but not out of line with what I’ve come to expect. Throwing Muses would wander the halls of Warner Brothers back in the day, muttering, “You don’t have to suck in order to work here, but it helps.”

• Now, however, the financial climate and current upheaval in the music business mean that musicians like me are genuinely poor investments for the traditional powers that be. We do not engage in lowest common denominator trendiness, and so don’t warrant the expenses of marketing dollars and company overhead.

• Okay, I get that; this is a business. However, I believe that when you sell toothpaste, you should be selling a goo that helps prevent cavities and when you sell music, you should be selling sound that enriches the listener’s inner life. There is today a twisted kind of natural selection in the entertainment industry — a sort of “survival of the blandest” — the result, I imagine, of mind-fucking marketing techniques, bandwagon appeal, hype. To me this stuff is ugly, not beautiful.

• Given this, I can only assume that record labels are not for me. I’ve said it before — I will always play music — but in the past, it was a record company’s job to make sure you heard that music. They sold their product; they had funded it, it was theirs to sell. How to sell music without them? I liken our situation to that of the family farmer’s — how can we keep from going under without going corporate?

• This is what I think: we specialize — we offer an organic product. It is lumpy and expensive and made with love and it can save you. It’s the right thing to do. It isn’t shiny or poisonous, which can be disconcerting to people who’ve been raised on shiny poison, but it’s natural, it’s high-end and we want you to eat it.

• To that end, I think I need to engage in a grassroots kind of capitalism, choosing principles over profits, values over image, ideals over marketing. I have to create a permeable membrane between artist and listener — I’m a craftsperson, after all. The church of the rock star that the music industry televangelists hawk has always been anathema to me anyway. This is about songs and sounds, nothing else.

• Music is a tenuous profession in good times, hard times mean some of us disappear. I’m not looking for pity, but collaboration. Coming to you is the best way I can think of to continue being a musician.

• The model is not new, it’s akin to public radio’s listener supported programming and Community Supported Agriculture’s subscriptions to underwrite crops. In other words, music grows on trees, but money doesn’t and I’m unwilling to suck in order to work here. Therein lies the value proposition. This little business will be interactive and intelligent; you will not be lied to, no shiny poison, no middle man.

• The idea of relying on listeners, treating music as a cooperative, is humbling, yet interesting to me. This is a bit of a manifesto, I’m sorry, and now I’ll shut up, but I wonder if we might be able to do this together.

More soon…

Love,
Kristin

37 Responses to Thoughts On Sustainability

  1. Rob says:

    Life would be a lot emptier without your music, Kristin.

    You’ve got integrity, and I’m sure your fanbase will support you.

    I certainly will.

  2. gse says:

    I’ve thought on and off about attempting this kind of thing… the “patron” model. It obviously requires some number of existing potential patrons to get going. And how does one create a set of potential patrons? Marketing! I don’t know any other way for a relatively unknown artist to gain an audience. And you need an audience (or corporate sponsors) if you’re going to sustain a career as a musician. If it’s all about sounds and songs, you can keep a day job and make music in your basement at night… otherwise, at some level, yeah, it all comes back to selling toothpaste.

    But in your case, Kristin, the pump is already primed and so you probably (hopefully!) have a truly viable “patron pool”. I’m very interested to see how this goes for you.

    Sorry if I’m mixing messages; you’re not a new artist, but I’m interested in both cases. At my age, I guess I’m not a “new artist” either, I’m just a less popular one. :)

    (And I hope I don’t sound like a smartypants; I’m well aware of, and inpsired by, your ability to make “music” and “grown up life” work together.)

  3. jhames says:

    I just formed a marketing company with my two friends in Seattle, and while I can’t speak for them, I will *gladly* work on your marketing pro bono. Of all the times your music has brought me to a better place, the least I can do is helping you reach the same–or at least farther from those that seek to ride your achievements for their own nefarious means.

  4. butterbean says:

    I’d like to hear more about this, Kristin. I notice you have Snocap on your myspace page, which allows you to sell music (almost) directly to your fans…. I’m wondering what other kinds of support you want to cultivate.

    As much as I hate myspace, it really is a great tool to bring musicians in more direct contact with their fans.

  5. Gordon Skene says:

    Count me in. I have of late been spending a lot of time combing through MySpace and finding bands I never would have heard on radio – bands from all over the world. The difference between now and before is now we get to hear them at will and support them when we can. By downloads or direct sales – however we (I) can support a band whose music I like and whose point of view I respect. I’ve been doing it a lot lately and judging from the numbers of downloads and plays, a lot of bands are seeing the benefits. Something is happening right.

    Music has become a grassroots thing again – and I think that’s good. It is also going back to being a regional thing, and I like that better. I am able to check out the scene in Buenos Aires or Madrid or Paris or even Minneapolis and feel connected, which is what I haven’t been feeling the last ten or so years.

    It stopped being about music when corporate takeovers were the rule of the day. It has happened in the film business and it has happened in music. Throw money at the blockbuster hoping for continuous returns while rejecting the desire to nurture.

    The result has been a bland mixture that feeds on itself with no where to go.

    I have said this before and always will – nothing of any value has ever come from the mainstream.

    Every trend, every musical style has come from the underground – hatched by people with their own visions and their own truths. Heard and experienced by a few people and then spread by word of mouth.

    The difference between now and even 15 years ago is the ability to get the message out to a larger group of intersted people than ever before. Technology has made it possible for someone in Djakarta to hear the same track and be part of the same movement as someone in New York – that is the difference. In essense, your base has increased immensely.

    As one person, I wholly support your quest. I have complete admiration for your music and what you’ve done over the years. Your music is ageless and whatever I can do to support you and spread the message, I will happily do.

    Best of all possible wishes,

    Gordon Skene

  6. sparky says:

    I just want to voice support for any experimental music distribution stuff you may be itching to try. I have purchased much of your output over the years and will continue to do so as long as it is around. I would like it if my dollars actually went to supporting you and your family and your band mates.

  7. Lucia says:

    Kristin-
    Please don’t ever shut up. I think you are one of the greatest american songwriter/artist and I soooooooo appreciate what you do.
    I totally agree that the music industry sucks and that commercial music is lame.
    What you do is too special for an industry so lame. I totally support you 100% and turn you on to people every chance I get.
    I think your manifesto was awesome. Keep doin what your doin. Grassroots rocks, bring it on,

  8. Michael says:

    hey the good news is that grassroots marketing has never been a more plausible option than it is today. like slim moon always used to say, kill rock stars man. (except for the ramones and cheap trick. those guys get a pass.)

    i’ve been a big fan of you and the muses for almost twenty years now (holy hell, has it really been that long?). you can count me in any time you are in need of grassroots marketing worker bees. i didn’t realize you had a myspace page, but i’m going to add you as a friend right now. i’ll be the guy with the “dawn of the mummy” avatar. it’s a long story.

    you know, you should really give jeremy enigk a call. he’s in pretty much an identical situation (too much intelligence and integrity to blend on planet sheeple) and facing the exact same challenges as you and the muses and 50 foot. i’m sure he’d have an interesting perspective on all of this. you guys should join forces.

    anyhow, chin up. all these many years and musics later, and HOUSE TORNADO is still one of my favorite albums of all time. you and your music really do matter to people.

    probably not beyonce though. who cares.

    michael f

  9. Anna says:

    Kristin!

    A lot of events in my life would have been harder to cope with if your music wasn’t there! You’re reaching out to people in a way that I could only dream of!

    Just let us know what we can do to help you, and we’ll be there :)

  10. micah says:

    God bless you, Kristin!

  11. Sean says:

    call it subscription, or like gse, call it patronage, but it’s a venerable model for sure, and it would be great to see it updated with internet based lots of different social networking tools (MySpace et. al., SMS, Twitter, RSS, Rhapsody, music-map.com, last.fm, etc.) bringing people to the music and drawing in the patrons.

    i agree w/ gordon skene that with the internet’s capacity for “reach”, now is a better time to try this route than any. (but jeez gordon – “even in minneapolis?” even in minneapolis? you’ll give me a complex…)

    although i’m not in the music biz except as a buyer/listener, this approach is one i’ve thought about a lot over the past few years and would love to see work. it does not surprise me that you would be among the first to give it a go, showing others the way.

    needless to say, i’ll be a subscriber, a patron, or whatever else you want to call it, so long as it keeps your very special brand of music coming my way.

  12. Gabriela says:

    I will continue listening to your music.

    the problem, for us artists, comes when.. well, the bills come.
    thats why, when I was 15 years old, I made up my mind to have a “real job” to pay the bills, and that way I could make the music I wanted, without having to bend my ideals for money. well, I might end up a vegetarian who sells chicken but.. hey, the music will still be real :)

    and I love your latest album.

  13. boxhead says:

    Here’s something to mull over: Issa (Jane Siberry) runs a Patron Programme, whereby sponsors each fund one day of studio time.

  14. Sara says:

    What I know of the music business–from what a I read and through friends who have recently gotten a close-up taste of it, a gross face-twisting taste of it–makes me ill and angry. I hate the bad ways money incites people. I hope your ideals and integrity are somehow contagious, that substance over the fleeting will be properly acknowledged. And I hope that isn’t mere idealism.

    I will purchase/attend/whatever’s applicable anything and everything you do, ever, because I respect the way you think and admire the art that you make. Anybody who knows me and didn’t know of you beforehand has received a mix-tape/CD, a history, and a hearty endorsement. (I even gave my mom a copy of Hips and Makers, thinking it might help her know me better.)

    Onward ho.

  15. produceus says:

    i think you and Billy are pioneers in making the business of music work in the 21st century.

    not to mention, family-friendly!

    so as a musician with no business at all (and 2 kids), i gotta say anything y’all come up with gets my support.

    p

  16. Robin says:

    At this point, I love your stuff (and stuff by other people with similar sensibilities) so much, I’d buy it no matter what.

    Hike the price up. Sell it in packaging made from folded notebook paper. Toss cassettes of it out the window of a Studebaker rampaging the streets of Seattle.

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. My friends and I are always talking about how much easier it was to find new or engaging music when we were younger. These days you have to scrape off so much icing to find out if the cake’s any good.

    If more artists had the attitude of this post, it’d make finding the good ones so much easier.

    It sorta makes you wonder if that’s why so many “artists” are against it. It’s like I’ve always said about free music on the internet – the only people who seem genuinely concerned are the people who will make less money if listeners can find out an album’s bad before they pay for it.

    And you certainly have nothing to worry about. xoxo

  17. motorcitybob says:

    I like the idea. And I will support it the best way my limited income allows. Your music has always been present in the last 20 years of my life, I wanna/need to keep it
    there!

    Keep us posted

    Rob(erto)

    PS: for us European fans, please
    consider shipping costs! I mean,
    we’ll *always* need a “slow but
    cheap” option / I still remember
    somehow proudly when my first
    10.000 Maniacs t-shirt took 6
    weeks to get to Italy :-)

  18. JAKE says:

    Kristin: I also like this manifesto of sorts. In this day and age, the power is in the people. You produce such fine music and I can’t wait to hear new 50 foot music.
    I am an interactive media person and I would absolutly love to produce a music video for one of your melodic creations, so as to help promote your music. It would be my donation and participation in your new business model.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Hi Kristin,
    I read your last tour diary entry and instantly donated money in the tip jar. Your music has helped me so much over the years and continues to do so. You can’t survive without your music and neither can your fans. So I donated money for all of us to survive on. Consider it grant money to make more music. It’s not much but I’ll try and send a little more when I can.

  20. Mark says:

    Your music is my comfort food. Seriously. A big chunk of my emotional stability would be lost without your voice and songs. To a large degree, you gave me the courage to focus on putting out my own music. Now all you have to do is keep giving us the goods and have faith in humanity, and the community you’ve cultivated over the last 20 years. Stop concerning yourself with an antiquated equation that relies on marketing and marginal/minimal talent. Be YOU. That’s all i need. That’s all I ask for.

  21. Richard says:

    I have the same anxieties with my poetry. Who wants to buy poetry? Only poets buy poetry, and not all of them bother…! But, like you say, there are ways to involve (and create) an audience – especially, now, on the Net.
    I, for one, will always be willing to ‘subscribe’ to your music… long may it seduce and astonish and have moments of heartbreaking, visceral savagery!

    Richard Goodson (see http://www.myspace.com/goodsonpoet or http://www.talesofthemalenude.blog-city.com)

  22. Dave Allen says:

    Kristin, I fully understand how you feel that the business of music undervalues us as artists. I’m not sure that all records labels can be tarred by the same brush but I do believe the major labels have lost their way. The issue is twofold – 1. The internet allows instant access to any music file that’s posted and 2. the record labels panicked instead of understanding that file sharing wasn’t hurting their business; it was just a regular downturn, part of the same cycle that hurt them back when disco stopped being popular. So they have laid off a great many of their staff and are now seriously weakened and lacking the serious talent that is required to turn things around. After the collapse of disco they snapped up another popular movement – punk rock. This time around they buried their heads in the sand and then surfaced only to sue their customers.
    The music fan as consumer has moved away from corporate music too and now finds delight in discovering music such as yours via other means. The patron system might work but I have to say that I haven’t a great deal about people having success in that arena. I will write about your post on my own blog at Pampelmoose.com and see if we can expand this thread.

    Dave Allen, Gang of Four. Pampelmoose.com

  23. Kristin says:

    Thank you to all who commented on this post. You words are thoughtful, heartfelt, informed and most of all, appreciated.

    We’re thinking hard and things change every day but one thing is for sure, we’re coming up with some exciting ways forward.

    Much more to come, soon.

    Love,
    Kristin

  24. Elie says:

    Hello there everyone. Kristin’s note is most welcome. I personally live in Beirut and the satellite informs me that this is not only a Kristin Blessed endeavor, but that it is finally a cross into the threshold of the dividing line between the corruptibles and the matters of true philial intimacy and correspondence of integrity and valour. Hail hail to crop and farmer imageries, even though it is ground proven that farmers, had they the mind diligent enough, they would have chosen strip joints and high corporate stinky cigars. Yet what is ground solid, when God appeared to Daniel in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, the earth quaked.
    This inverse relationship, when you say inverse, the word makes me muse on the Star of David and the Time Sand Teller. Music grows on trees because someone keeps stern watch over the bud and the blossom. When the things that are supremely vertical come in handy, the lower horizontals will be a parade of goat skippings. Yet, I would like to be of help, so list me.

  25. Elie says:

    dares to speak in parables.

  26. gurdonark says:

    I think that the failure of the music business is not so much about the artist or the tin ears of corporate executives, but a story about how an obsolete way of doing business was outmoded by technology.

    The music business had a trifecta.
    They had control of the ways people experienced media, from radio airplay to product placement on shelves. It was a time of relatively difficult capital acquisition, so they were the only lending store in town for studio time cash. The only effective way to advertise and market was through media they had a substantial presence in. Thus, they could enter into transactions unfavorable to the artists, they could focus on lowest common denominator, and, worst of all, they could be extraordinarily inefficient in the way they used their resources.

    All that began to change. Viral marketing versus the internet took away one advantage. Viral airplay through net media spreading took away another. The relative ease of finding funds for business/band start-up–still not easy, but not so impossible as before–took away another. The new recording technology made a home-studio less an eccentricity and more a simple, easy thing to have.

    This made the economics of the record business turn upside down.
    Like any dinosaur (and SUVs come to mind), there is an initial focus on pursuing large game, in a time when game begins to get scarce. This leads to a lot of lowest common denominator music.
    Yet these death throes are all a bit beside the point for the independent artist, because it’s as easy as listing songs for download through tunecore.com and running a decent myspace page to have almost as many advantages as one ever got from a record deal.

    I’m not sure that the key is a “patron pool”, though I’ve been very impressed with the things Issa (nee’ Jane Siberry) has accomplished with her self-directed payment plan and patron program for studio time.

    I think the key instead is effective viral internet marketing (such as a strong site/weblog like you maintain), live shows, internet video, and Creative Commons licenses, with strong encouragement for remixing of all non-commercial kinds.

    You’ve had an interesting run as a “label” artist, but the real fun, I believe, is what you’ll accomplish as a small-business capitalist.

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  28. Todd Perley says:

    This is the essay you need to boil down to three sentences? Good luck with THAT!

    Your position is indeed a conundrum. The current violently changing world of music marketing could work in your favor, but you may need a crystal ball to discern how exactly to make it work best for you. The chips are still flying — both an opportunity and an annoyance.

    I think it’s brilliant, and not a little hilarious, that Billy is teaching music marketing at Loyola. This is akin to John Waters getting kicked out of film school, then, years later, successful, being asked to lecture at Harvard. Billy is brilliant, and an asset as well as an ally. If anyone can find the pulse of this strange marketing world, he can.

    After the Bright Yellow Gun debacle that you told me about (to point to just one example), where WB didn’t just fail to promote your product, but actively cockblocked it, I can’t see how you would ever feel comfortable working for The Man again.

    The ideal of music speaking for itself and getting to the masses on its own merit is a pretty one, but, sadly, unrealistic. Marketing is such a huge part of any publishing industry: writing, music, film, etc. How many people have I introduced to your music who say, “Who is this? My god, it’s fantastic! I’ve never heard anything like it. Just what I’m looking for!” Such awareness comes via marketing, obviously, though I do my best to word-of-mouth you to anyone who will listen. Can’t reach everyone though, try as I might.

    Myface and Spacebook = good. Radio play = better. Distribution and being well-stocked in brick-and-mortar shops seems key. How does one accomplish all this? Fuck if I know. I’m just a consumer.

    CASH is, of course, a radical and thoroughly interesting new approach. I look forward to watching its evolution and ts tweaking to bring it to its full potential.

    To close: I’m TERRIBLY glad you’re so prolific after all these years, and it’s exhilarating to follow your own artistic evolution — always fresh and always quality. You really are a national treasure, you know.

    Let’s talk more over tiny quiches at d’Or. :-)

    xoxo, Todd P.

  29. skylar totty says:

    The fact that my 5 year old daughter and 2 year old son grin sing and move at each and every one of your songs tells me that you’re doing something special and beyond capital corporate blah and these children know what it takes to support and enjoy and most importantly appreciate an artist like you. the fact that the best memories i have with my wife are seeing you perform should mean something. you more than any other artist/musician are what makes this family whole. we’ll support each and everything you do. an aside story of magic came 14 years ago in washington dc when a car pulled up next to ours (my wife and i) and the passenger asked where “throwing muses university” was located. they saw the sticker on the back window of our car. we proudly shared what it really meant and who throwing muses is. maybe a new fan was created that day.

  30. What you’re describing is less “a grassroots kind of capitalism” than a gift economy. You might be interested in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift. It’s a fascinating read and quite relevant to your approach.

  31. andrew says:

    Hey there…quick honest answer without having read the comments above so apologies

    i never listened to the Throwing Muses despite being surrounded by indie kids recommending them growing up and sort of being an indie kid myself at the time…no idea why but there it is

    then, many years later, i saw you mentioned in a list of “musicians who twitter” a while ago and signed up. can’t say i’ve been paying too much attention but i sort of register the odd tweet.

    then, today, i kind of read this article (you can see a vagueness theme developing here maybe) and now it’s a little bit in my head to actually become one of those random small number of followers. not saying i will now but it’s now a definite possibility.

    i suppose the simplest way of saying this is that the mere fact you talked to me at some stage like a human being while being demonstrably one yourself is kind of enough to get me interested, after literally twenty years of ignoring your music though being aware of its existence, in actually hearing some of it or maybe giving you some cash at some stage.

    so, i’ve no idea what the moral there is but having read your thing i think this will all work out for you because even writing something like that (particularly having already been involved in the music biz) puts you ahead of 99% of the industry in my book so i’d like to genuinely wish you all the best with this and hope it goes well

    there ends my garbled contribution…

  32. Annie says:

    for young bands like us, record lables are the last thing on our minds. We manage/book/market in the DIY fasion that most indie bands do now days and it seems to be the only way to do it. Take for instance Amanda Palmer. She too severed ties with the industry and is now almost completely fan funded (a twitter phenom). At least you both had the labels in the begining, before the itunes/myspace/twitter world existed allowing you to have some brand/name recognition. I think Jill Sobule had the right idea, allow the fans to take stock in the music they love. Screw the labels. Let fans support you directly by making contributions for the album. I really feel that soon enough we’ll all be internet buskers, with our paypal accounts open, not guitar cases, next to us as we sing for dollars.

  33. fringefreak says:

    I heard Joni Mitchell talk about how her record label was perfectly happy if she sold her 200,000 units in a slow, steady fashion. They didn’t expect Mega Superstar sales, but so long as they kept a true artist in their stable, they could be considered players in the record industry. It’s great to see someone like a David Bowie, who’se taken control of most of his catalogue and internet content, get the fuller share of his creative output. I applaud you, K, for bringing your well deserved fans along on your journey. You deserve the greater slice of the pie…but moreso, it’s nice to see you treat it with reverence, like a true artisenal creation. All the power to you.

  34. Alex McGhie says:

    Yes, in the current climate (or any climate for that matter) I would embrace all of those principles. Count me in.

  35. Tenley says:

    that is an honest and great essay of sorts. i hope that you continue to make music and i will join in on continuing to support/love your music. not to pick favorites but i absolutely love all the throwing muses songs!

    much love, tenley

  36. Nathan McKinney says:

    I think most fans would be proud to support good music. Take a look at the working model that Amy Corriea and Jill Sobule came up with to produce their fan-funded albums. Not only did I participate in Amy’s, I frequently check to see when I can help with the next album. Good music is worth the extra effort. The quality of what you do has a premium for those that know, and many of us would take pride in being a part of your efforts.

    And BTW, her album is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time, so I’m pretty certain the quality didn’t suffer an ounce for the process.

  37. Izaak Diggs says:

    I think the time for artists like yourself has come. I mean, now you can have recording software on your computer; you don’t need to spend half a million on an album. The label is an anacronism; they have connections, they can open doors, but you already have your loyal fans (myself being one of them). I like your idea of the cooperative; you have a receiving only PayPal account on your website and your supporters contribute what they can. With all the social networking sites, people into what you do know when you will be gigging/doing book signings. The balance of art and commerce is a bugger, isn’t it? But the good thing is that the thing that makes you “unmarketable” to a label conversely has given you a fanbase that is very loyal and “into” your creations. You are unique, but in a good way

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