In one of his characteristic spills on marketing, author Seth Godin tossed off a blog post about the future of the music industry and more or less made a profundity of the obvious. Records aren't selling so much anymore—OK, so what is?
"You used to sell plastic and vinyl. Now you can sell interactivity and souvenirs," Godin suggests.
For bands struggling against the glut, just being heard is as valuable as a sale, and it can be just as difficult to achieve. The tried and true, tour-till-you-die model has worked for The Avett Brothers and has helped local bands like Red Collar and American Aquarium pick up momentum as well.
But for Minor Stars, the Internet and Bandcamp.com offered another method of exposure. Using Bandcamp's embeddable digital distribution platform, Minor Stars spent the month of November "leaking" one song per week from their debut album, The Death of the Sun in the Silver Sea. "It's a very, very simple music delivery system," remarks the band's front man Eric Wallen. "I'm just throwing that shit out there."
Wallen had previously been reluctant to release anything until it was, to his thinking, ready. It was Minor Stars bassist, Bob Dearborn, who pushed Wallen to release the songs two months before the album came out—and to build "The Vault" on the band's Web site, specifically to release demo recordings and song sketches that would otherwise go unheard.
"He's, for years, been like, 'Why are you holding on to these demos?'" Wallen says of Dearborn. Finally, he came to agree with his bandmate. "Time is passing. Whatever we've got, let's put it out there."
And he's hardly the only local (or once-local) artist making use of the platform. Dan Bryk used Bandcamp to release his long-awaited Pop Psychology album—for free for a short time, and then as an $8 multiformat digital download. Roman Candle echoed traditional releases of three EPs and their 2009 full-length, Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, with digital versions hosted on Bandcamp. Both Bryk and Roman Candle now sell their entire back catalog, digitally, through the platform. Chapel Hill duo Veelee made its first release, the Three Sides EP, available as a free Bandcamp download as well.
Because Bandcamp allows artists to set their own prices—including pay-what-you-want (somewhat erroneously dubbed the Radiohead model) and graduated pricing by audio quality—it found something of a following among artists looking to reach their fans without relying on the labyrinth of downloads in online mega-retailers like the iTunes Music Store. Describing his own decision to host his music via Bandcamp, Bryk blogged, "The part of all this that remains unbelievable for me is that I am receiving about 95% of the proceeds of the sales after PayPal takes its micropayments ounce of flesh. That is a pretty major game-changer for me, and was the primary reason I decided to sell Pop Psychology directly, give away a low-quality version, and allow everyone to listen to it in full."
For Minor Stars, making the music available, for download, for free, before release, was one more shot at finding an audience. It's the same mission the band is hoping to pursue with its online "vault" of songs. With touring capabilities limited by jobs and expense, finding an avenue for exposure can be difficult. But for Web-savvy bands, artist-controlled digital distribution might offer some hope.
"Yes, of course I want people to buy the record," Wallen says. "But it's much worse to me to be here five, 10 years later and not have even gotten these songs out to anyone."
Minor Stars play with Transportation and DeVries at Local 506 Saturday, Jan. 30, at 10 p.m. The $5 cover includes a free CD.