A few months back, Billy started hankering for another Throwing Music experiment in keeping with his “Works In Progress” mp3 subscription series of 1998 (we’ve been selling mp3s for 10 years now!?!), which he followed with the on-line only release of “Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight” later that same year, and the 50FootWave “Free Music” name-your-own-price experiment which resulted in more than 2 million Ep downloads in 2005 (yeah, 3 years prior to you-know-who “inventing” the idea) . He likes to get music directly into the hands of listeners whenever possible.

This time, the Great Idea Inside Billy’s Head was this:

“We’ll offer people in our web community the chance to buy CD-R’s of Kristin playing 10 songs of their choice. They’ll pick the 10 songs from a menu of 200 — no guesswork on our part as to what anyone wants to hear — they’ll tell us. We’ll burn the CD’s ourselves and Kris can personalize and sign them: 10-4 (your name here).

We’ll charge $50 for this CD, ensuring that only a few people will partake initially. But if they like it, word’ll spread.”

Wicked, I thought. I never know what people want to hear. Some seem to only like old Throwing Muses songs, some only like the most recent release, some people only like Sunny Border Blue, some people want unreleased material, some like me to scream real loud, some like me to whisper, some just like Your Ghost over and over and over again. Now the set list can be someone else’s fault decision. And when ThrowingMusic webinatrix Tine says, “I want one!” I know it’s a good idea.

We sold 100 in record time (under 20 minutes). Of course.

“A hundred?” I asked.

“A hundred,” answered Billy.

Literally a hundred?” I asked, hoping he was kidding.

“Get to work, he replied.

As it turns out, 200 songs is a lot. And my songs are not the easiest to play. For two months, I sat with my iPod, marveling at the disgusting complexity of a Throwing Muses song, wondering who the hell wrote all these “Kristin Hersh” solo songs, filling notebooks with lyrics, chords and time signature notations, asking questions like, is a piano instrumental even a song?

Creating an acoustic version for each song and then getting it performance-ready was like preparing for ten tours at once. I tried shifting my focus to the first few orders. Now I know what songs people want to hear: generally speaking, songs that I would never, ever choose to play live. Which sort of makes sense.

When I finally felt that I was able to tackle the first few orders, my gear wasn’t. It buzzed and clicked and ultimately choked. I wondered if I should just concede defeat and offer refunds.

Then I had an idea: offer an upgrade. I bought time at Stable Sound and started over, recording clear but still raw versions of all the songs people had asked to hear. I built personalized 10 song sets out of this session, dedicating each 10-4 to the special boy or girl who’d ordered it.

When we happily told folks that some high-quality 10-4’s would be on their way soon, they expressed great disappointment. Initially, we were taken aback; then I came to appreciate what it was they were after.  They wanted truth in real-time.  Warts and all. And they wanted it played just for them: a musical prayer. I can get behind musical prayer. Way.

So, months behind schedule, I started over again and we offered refunds in case some people didn’t want to wait. No one asked for a refund.

It takes me about an hour to learn each song on a 10-4 and get it up to speed, then maybe another hour to  record. Billy lies on the floor and listens, we appreciate each song as it goes by and reminisce about the time it was written, recorded or toured. We laugh a lot, cried once or twice. We get through 1 or 2 orders on a good day.

It’s been a real nightmare learning experience – like all great ideas. I keep telling Billy that he thinks I can do anything, when really, the opposite is true: I can’t do anything. But we’ve come to love diving headfirst into this ocean of songs and swimming around.

Note: The Online Store is offering some of the songs I recorded live to tape at Stable Sound in a series of 5 volumes called “10-4-All”. Here’s an mp3 of one of them, “Cathedral Heat”. And in case you’re interested, here’s an outtake from an actual 10-4 recording, “Mexican Women”.

Posted in: words on July 16, 2008