New schemes for professional musicians to make money in the digital age

Yesterday an article showed up on my Facebook feed from the band They Might Be Giants. They are starting up a new fan club. It costs $99 to join for 10 months (yes, they’re resetting the membership dues in February, for some reason), and as a member you get their new album in VINYL (right, because this is 1965) as well as an exclusive bonus vinyl album that won’t be sold to the public, vouchers for 2 free tickets to any concert they are headlining, and your name appearing in the liner notes of their new album if you sign up before the 25th.

At first, I was scratching my head at this, because you need to be a pretty hard core fan in order to shell out $99 to a single band. I’m a member of Pearl Jam’s 10 club, but that costs $10 a year, the bonus tracks are sent to me in MP3, and it pays for itself with the service-fee-free access to concert ticket presales (with seats much better than could be bought if you weren’t in the club). But there’s no way that their fan club package is worth $99 a year (the typical TMBG concert ticket is $30).

It later dawned on me that they may have started this up as a way to make a couple extra $$s, and make sure that the members of the club actually buy the new album. When I buy music, I always get it in digital file format, since I do all of my listening via my computer or phone. But still, new albums usually can be found for $10 or less. So that, plus another $60 for concert tickets, leaves me $29 short of their asking price. So what it comes down to is that they are charging fans to get access to “exclusive” songs that they apparently didn’t think were good enough to release to the general public (or most likely will get a general release anyway in some form or another) and for the right to have your name appear, likely in a miniscule font size, on a list that nobody will read anyway. Are they trying to sucker their fans who are bad at math, or are obsessed enough that they have to own EVERYTHING their favorite band releases regardless of the cost?..or is this an act of desperation, since being a professional musician is no longer a profitable career?

Weird Al was doing a similar thing on his last tour. For every show, his website was selling “VIP tickets” which were far more expensive than a regular ticket, and included crap like Weird Al Trading Cards.

I’ve heard stories of other bands pulling similar schemes (Radiohead had a $50 album?). Anyone else fill us in on what other bands are doing to try to make it in this industry these days?

So the debate…is it right or fair for bands to gouge their fans with packages like this, and what is their true motive? I’ve lost a lot of respect for TMBG ever since they focused on doing children’s music (they’ve even admitted that they got into that genre because it’s one where people still do buy CDs), but this really doesn’t sit right with me. Needless to say, I will not be joining their fan club.

Link to the TMBG Fan Club site, see for yourself

Feh. I guess they are going to try to grab the hard-core fans, much like fanboys buy multiple copies of favorite DVDs as the more extreme editions become available.

The live scene sucks all around, though, unless you’re a headliner, pretty much across the country, due to economic pressure. Musicians are the first “luxury” clubowners try to trim down, as their businesses falter for various reasons. That bartender grafting off the till, incompetent managers, a public without that much dough to throw around, who knows.

I say power to anybody who can sell their music on their own terms, whatever the price. I won’t be buying it, nor downloading it illegally, but that’s my own prerogative as well.

The Internet is creating an Information Revolution that will have effects as far-reaching as the Industrial one before it. There’ll be plenty of trial-and-error before the most efficient formula for success is hit upon.
To the fans, I say: If it isn’t worth the price to you–don’t buy it. If enough people agree with you, it’ll go down.

I am not actively trying to earn a living wage off music, so while I hear a ton of buzz about how many different ways musicians are trying to chart their own courses, I have no practical insight that separates blue-sky discussion from what is actually working. I consistently hear that touring and merch are the things that a musician can directly control so artists are anchoring their earnings on those activities. Beyond that, TMBG are as respected and mature as it goes as far as “mid-market” artists go - e.g., not huge but with an active fanbase of moderate size - so if they are giving this a shot, it would suggest that they think experimenting in this regard is worth a try…

Personally, I find this somewhat amusing. For every mid-level to highly popular band that I hear about struggling and gouging their fans, I know half a dozen underground bands that are doing better than they ever have.

For instance, one of the many bands I’m a fan of has a completely free membership which gives everything the OP just mentioned. They just released a new album last week, by being a fan, I got my name in the liner notes, I got a large discount on the special edition, fan exclusive videos and bonus tracks, and I had early access to tickets, though they’ve only announced their European dates, so that doesn’t really do me much good right now. They don’t need to charge because fans like me have no issue dropping a good chunk of change on merchandise when we see them live because we want to support the band.

I think the entire industry, particularly the major labels, are struggling to maintain their market share by staying close to the old models, but with the old models just not that workable anymore, and with the industry so much easier to break into these days, I think we’re going to continue to see a lot more leveling out.

Either way, I do think that charging that kind of money for a fan club is only going to work for the most die-hard fans. I sure as hell wouldn’t pay that kind of money. Then again, I don’t have a single band that stands head and shoulders above every other as my favorite, I have several bands that I absolutely love, so it wouldn’t seem worth it in that regard.