NEW YORK—Steve Forbert might as well be playing in a sold-out stadium.
His new album just hit the racks. The crowd shouts out requests for some of his more obscure songs. You could say his career is moving forward full-throttle.
Steve Forbert hasn’t had a massive hit single since, oh, around 1979. That doesn’t mean the lanky Mississippi folk-rocker - best known for crooning “Meet me in the middle of the day / Let me hear you say / Everything’s OK” from his smash, “Romeo’s Tune” - doesn’t want another one. During the concert, he emerges from the back of the stage, turns his head this way and that, and shouts encouragement to his band. Perhaps he envisions playing a filled-to-capacity Madison Square Garden. Instead, he preaches to the converted - dozens of die-hard fans - at the Bottom Line, a Manhattan nightclub that seats 400. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Who needs radio or MTV? Hordes of musicians are cultivating their own fan niches, often via grass-roots means. As record companies and radio consultants focus more on hits - and less on hit-makers - Forbert and a band of like-minded artists are mining the Internet, cranking out newsletters and tapping a hodgepodge of promotional ideas - all just to keep established fans coming back for more.
The result? Rebellious rock n’ roll has modified its defiant stance. Often perceived as underground operators, musicians instead have heightened their business acumen. Singers taking matters into their own hands can keep more money for themselves, and reduce expenses related to marketing, distribution and promotion.
“What we are doing is finding the core base consumer, the uber-fan, the superfan who really cares,” says Marc Geiger, the chairman and chief executive of Artistdirect Inc. (ARTD), a Los Angeles company that runs a network of individual musician Web sites targeting fans of Beck, Janet Jackson and others. “Everything else is absolutely gravy.”
A Telling Tattoo
Forbert might not agree with that assessment. “It’s the same as it has always been for me,” the singer-songwriter says. “I still make the records with every bit of as broad a scope of intent as I made the first one.” His solution? Touring. Forbert is on the road a third of each year.
Other artists are not so ambitious. The four members of Moxy Fruvous, a band that mixes quirky pop with four-part harmonies, had two hits in their native Canada - and were subsequently dismayed when teenage supporters quickly abandoned them for the next big thing. Now the combo markets itself without help from mainstream radio or cable. “It’s not just about satiating or maintaining this clique or little cult, but cultivating it in a way that it grows and grows,” says Jian Ghomeshi, who writes songs and plays drums and guitar in the band. Having record labels spend gobs of money to “shove your image down the collective throats of the world” can be effective, he says, but only for a short period of time.
“You’ve really got to wonder how Britney Spears is going to be doing five years from now,” he adds. “Maybe she’ll be happy, and maybe she’ll turn into Gary Coleman.”
Moxy Fruvous guarantees fans a different set on each date of a concert tour, the better to encourage devotees to see multiple shows. Certain albums are available only at concerts and via the Internet.
The group even tried an incentive program. A fan who attended five shows won a baseball cap. Ten shows brought an autographed T-shirt. For attending 20 shows, Moxy Fruvous would write a personalized song. And for those foolhardy enough to make it to 50 dates, the band offered a Fruvous tattoo on a fan’s posterior. “Two guys got it,” Ghomeshi recalls. “We paid off fully.”
The Mann Act
Individual efforts succeed, but may lack the grand impact of which many musicians dream. “You’ve got to keep your goals realistic on this,” says Cliff Chenfield, co-owner of New York’s Razor & Tie Records, an independent label that features musicians who once commanded the limelight. “There is a market for these guys, but it’s a small market.”
Such entrepreneurship among musicians was once hard to find. Now, head-butting between artists and labels is more frequent.
In March of last year, for example, rocker Tom Petty released the first single from his most recent album, “Echo” via MP3.com’s (MPPP) Website. His label, Time Warner Inc.’s (TWX) Warner Brothers, was not prepared to issue the album for more than a month. More than 150,000 people downloaded the single before the album hit stores, according to MP3.
Warner subsequently pressured Petty to remove the song. “He made his point,” says label spokesman Bob Merils. “It was a pre-release promotion, and we said, ‘This is enough, please.”’ Petty could not be reached for comment.
While a Recording Industry Association of America spokesman declined to comment, the trend looks likely to continue. Consider the famous – in industry circles - case of Aimee Mann, the angst-rock chanteuse whose career got a big boost when one of her songs included on the soundtrack to the film “Magnolia” was nominated for an Oscar. Prior to that event, Mann recorded for a handful of major labels, only to have album releases thwarted by industry mergers or tone-deaf executives.
She ended up buying a set of her masters from Seagram Co.’s (VO) Universal label, and enacted her own marketing plan for a new effort, “Bachelor No.2.” “We made up our own records and started selling them, first at gigs, then off the Internet,” says Michael Hausman, the singer’s manager. Only later did Mann sell the discs in stores. “What I found was that by doing things in kind of an organic way,” Hausman says,”you end up making more money.” Final analysis? “It was a much more direct connection, and there were fewer middlemen.” After all that, Mann and her husband, musician Michael Penn, formed a sort of “artists’ collective,” says Hausman, a principal in the start-up. “The system wasn’t working very well, so we decided to do it ourselves.” Rugged individualism can backfire. Seagram-owned reissues label Hipp-O wants to seize on Mann’s new popularity and release a collection of her older songs, Hausman says. After all that hard work, Mann and cohorts would rather do it themselves. Hausman won’t consent to the Hipp-O project.
You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play
Forbert is also testing new strategies. He hired a business manager, Brad Hunt, who suggested new ways to get Forbert to Forbertphiles and, perhaps, others.
Chief among the plans is a possible revamp of the artist’s Website. “It’s maintained by a fan,” says Hunt, who acts as a consultant for several musicians. “The kid does a great job, but I think there’s a great opportunity out there with a little bit of investment.” Proposed links might deliver coupons granting a few dollars off a new release or allow consumers to buy the record immediately.
Additionally, Forbert is consolidating his publishing rights, the better to oversee placement of his songs in films and commercials. His mind is set on releasing a second volume of greatest hits (some of his later albums are out of print), and cobbling together an album, tentatively titled “Young Guitar Days,” of outtakes and older material never included on previous records. Meanwhile, whatever the final effects of his marketing plans and schemes, Forbert’s probably got another gig. At the end of each show, he plays one of his earliest songs, with a title that might sum up the one truism of the business: “You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.”
By Brian Steinberg, Dow Jones Newswires; 201-938-5218