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As a teenager, I used to read Rolling Stone and occasionally Billboard magazine to see what songs or albums were at the top of the charts, amongst other articles.  Casey Kasem’s Top 40 (a radio show) was a Sunday staple, a great way to learn snippets of history about the artists or the context of the songs, at least for one newly entering the realm of musical influence.

Times have changed, and I have changed.  I don’t really care who is at the top of anyone’s charts, and I’m losing familiarity with any of the names that appear on the charts that remain.  It seems on the few occasions that I listen to the radio, “classic rock” pretty well encompasses either what was already classic when I was in school or was currently playing at the time – often, as it turns out, the same artists touring today to continue to compete for my generation’s disposable income. 

Shortly after college, a friend of mine worked for a record store and started adding tons of CDs to his otherwise “classic” collection – all of which were obscure artists which were recorded by record labels that were just as obscure.  Why we he bother listen to these?  After all, the major labels did a pretty good job of sifting through all the noise to find the artists that could play well and had something interesting or tuneful to say.  It can’t be said that classic rock got it wrong.  I didn’t get it, and, looking back, I’m fairly certain that most of what he started listening to was garbage.  Still, the oddity that it was then is the norm that is today.

Those major recording labels are pretty much gone, either bought up by Sony or another conglomerate to cash in on re-releases or otherwise out of business.  Capital, Elektra, Geffen, Island, Columbia, Warner Brothers, Reprise, MCA…  they’re mostly footnotes in today’s musical landscape. 

Marketing obviously has power.  The industry “process” of elevating artists has been replaced (with popular approval and to my consternation) by “American Idol,” spot placements on popular TV shows, and i-Tunes bestsellers.  There’s always been a “single” vs. “album” buying decision, but the industry is pimping the singles to the detriment of the “deeper cuts” from albums that have worn favor from many a listener.

As “owning” music has evolved from something physical (albums, CDs, etc.) to digital (.mp3, the cloud), the focus of musical marketing has changed.  Why should labels push “albums” when buyers seem to prefer individual songs (or, at least those who don’t illegally file share).  Paste Magazine, which was a very good source of music reviews of artists who aren’t generally featured on regular FM channels, all but closed their doors due to lack of advertising revenue.  The economy notwithstanding, I would imagine it’s increasingly difficult to choose to advertise traditional products (a complete set of new songs by an artist) when the popular culture of a changing demographic prefers karaoke reality shows, Pandora or Genius to fill in the blanks.  Let’s face it.  Newly released rock (in almost all its forms), folk, Americana, and jazz have little hope of gaining commercial airplay these days.

The impact works both ways.  Artists who are at the top of the charts, made popular by whatever means, presumably make money, which puts them in the best position to continue recording.  And their songs get heard.  Well enough.

However, for those artists without a marketing gorilla working in their interests, how do they find an audience?  The remaining major labels still have some clout in song placements, but they’re increasingly irrelevant in selecting and promoting talent.   With an even more challenging environment to make money (less exposure and single song sales), how do artists earn a living to continue their art?

Build a website… host some songs on MySpace… tour, tour, tour… record in a home studio tweaked by ProTools, tour, tour, tour… 

Shannon McNally (try “Pale Moon” if you follow the link) is not one of my all time favorite artists.  She’s written and recorded some excellent songs which are among my all time favorites, but her album choices, from songs to arrangements to production values, have been erratic.  I don’t know the history behind the decisions she makes, I just like what I like and hope for more of the same whenever they may come.

Having become a “fan” on Facebook, I was notified that she was raising $10,000 to fund the production of a new CD (“Western Ballad”) via Kickstarter, a website that provides the means for artists to fund their projects with private backing – as enterprising as they may choose.

McNally posted a couple of new songs to gain fan confidence in the direction she was headed, and she made offers to her fans for their support.

Such as?  Here’s some of the available options:

$15 – pay now, get CD when released.

$25 – plus a handwritten Thank you note.

$35 – CD and T-shirt

$50- CD and VIP passes at concert of choice.

$60 – CD and songwriting tutorial with Shannon.

$75 – CD and personal phone call.

$500 – A bunch of stuff plus a thank you in the CD credits.

$1500 – a house party gig anywhere in the U.S. 

$10,000 – a trip to New Orleans, a trip to the studio with a 5 piece band, and apparently some home cooked meals.  (no takers indicated on this one yet, but there are on the others).

There are other options as well, and some of these evolved as she began to understand what she could offer and what people wanted.  So far, she’s raised $19,460 with over 140 backers.  I’d call that a success… and even an amazing story.

It may be apparent that I have a preference for physical products over digital copies that could be wiped out with an errant magnet or other corruption, but I can’t deny the convenience of condensing incredible volumes of sound into a device that is smaller than one’s palm.

But even as the evolution of technology has threatened the music industry of old (not to mention a generation of guppies lacking musical discernment), it’s refreshing to see that technology also offers artists new means of pursuing their dreams and visions, and, in McNally’s case, one by which they draw even closer to their fans.

And of course, I get to look forward to the end of the month when “Western Ballad” arrives by mail, a CD which I had at least a small part of enabling.

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