Selling music post-MP3: part 1

I expect everyone’s seen what Lily Allen had to say about illegal downloading recently – and indeed what everyone then had to say about Lily Allen. So rather than rehashing the whole debate about pirating music, I thought this blog might instead take a look at a related matter: the various clever and intriguing ways that musicians and allied techie people have been inventing to persuade people to actually pay for music. Whether that be remixable iPhone apps, new music formats, or innovative distribution methods, for the next however long (i.e. until I run out of links) this blog will semi-regularly highlight as many of them as I can dig out of my bookmarks folder. Or at least the ones you might not have heard of.

Today, then, let’s kick things off with a look at Kristin Hersh’s Strange Angels subscriber project.

An introduction

As part of Throwing Muses, solo, and most recently as one-third of 50 Foot Wave, Kristin has been releasing music for over 20 years now, notably through 4AD; however, in October 2007 she took the decision to opt out of all her recording contracts and try things her own way. Her plan? To release a new song every month, as a free download – in both high quality MP3 and lossless FLAC format, complete with the raw recording files as “stems” for remixing, the lyrics and an accompanying essay – and for financial support rely primarily on optional payments, touring, merchandise and various levels of fan subscriptions.

Named Strange Angels, after a previous album – and presumably also in reference to angel investors – her subscribers, in addition, receive various levels of exclusive items and access to recording sessions and gigs, depending upon which level of subscription they buy. Furthermore, a non-profit organisation called CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders) was set up to facilitate the project, and now also provides a platform for a number of other artists.

As a model, though, this perhaps isn’t anything particularly new – Einstürzende Neubauten, for instance, initiated a not entirely dissimilar series of supporters projects and internet community in 2002. So why highlight Kristin Hersh’s version?

A social media natural

In terms of the success of a subscriptions and micropayments/free tracks financial model, it of course can’t hurt that Kristin is already an established artist, and indeed that model might not even be an option for many newer bands, but where her project differs, and indeed where it excels, is that she is just an absolute natural with social media – an engaging and distinctive writer anyway, she also seems genuinely interested in the creative and artistic possibilities of an active and lively dialogue with her fans; notably, via her Twitter account.

Just click on that link, though, and you might assume that she ignores followers – she only follows two other accounts and rarely makes an @reply – but, in fact, you soon realise she just has her own way of using Twitter: rather than follow all the tweets of 5,000+ people, she takes the more practical and personal approach of Direct Messaging followers personally when they reply to her tweets, or from time to time using the account to (in effect) chair and participate in often very interesting discussions about the future of music, or where to take her own. Moreover, unlike so many bands who just tweet tour dates and the latest download release, Kristin actually gets Twitter – she has her own distinctive voice on it, with her tweets genuinely funny, persona(b)l(e) and worth the read.

Twitter, you feel, is simply another string to her bow, an extension of who she is and how she does things, rather than only a form of marketing. Ditto the essays and daily photoblog on her website. Without it ever coming across as forced or cynical she just involves people.

And that’s why I highlight the Strange Angels project rather than another similar endeavour: because if selling music post the invention of the MP3 is about giving listeners something more than the music, Kristin Hersh does so in an unusually open, self-deprecating and involving way, without the slightest hint of contrivance. She understands and embraces that music is a two-way relationship. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. And as a result, two years down the line, her music making is now completely independent – giving her the freedom to just do what she does best, and what she does so engagingly: being Kristin Hersh. Which surely is the point.

NEXT TIME: something shorter.

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