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For musicians, economy is the mother of invention

Enterprising music makers are turning to the Internet and micro-financing through donations.

May 09, 2010|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles singer and songwriter Sam Phillips turned up recently for a small-scale show at Hollywood's Hotel Café. Playing for an intimate audience of several dozen, she was testing on a live audience new material she's been working on in her home recording studio.

But for a select few regular visitors to her website, the new songs weren't so new — they'd been able to hear them weeks or months earlier as subscribers to her "Long Play" music and art project, an innovative way she's generating financial and emotional support for the creation of new music.

With "Long Play," a website within her main site, Phillips has thrown open a virtual door to her creative world, inviting in fans over the course of a year to watch and participate as she writes and records a new album that she plans to release in the fall.

She's not alone. As the traditional record business has turned topsy-turvy, artists as well as startup companies are developing ways to finance the making of music today. A couple of European websites, and, act as revenue-generating conduits between musicians and fans.

A few years ago, this "patronage model" was viewed as a potential replacement to the beleaguered major-label system. But with Sellaband on the rebound after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year — it's getting back on its feet with a new group of owners — the tactic is no longer viewed as the savior. Rather, it's one weapon in an ever-expanding arsenal.

During a couple of decades as a major-label recording artist, Phillips got used to a ritual in which a record company would put up the money to record new songs she'd written. Once completed, she'd wait and watch for weeks, months, sometimes even years for those recordings to be released to the public.

Phillips, named one of the 25 best-reviewed artists of the recently concluded decade by the review-aggregate website, spent 13 years in the '80s and '90s with Virgin Records, before shifting over a decade ago to the boutique Nonesuch label.

Recently, however, her Nonesuch contract came to an end. With the music business in disarray, she decided the time was right to launch an Internet-based forum for her back-alley cabaret pop songs and art. Visitors to her website can subscribe for $52 — $1 a week — which gives them access for one year to new music as she makes it as well as a slew of special audio and visual content aimed at her hard-core fans.

"We did it exactly the opposite from iTunes," Phillips, 48, said with a laugh at the studio she's set up in a vintage house on the east side of Los Angeles. "We put no music up and asked for $52 for the year. And people responded, which is great."

'Art-and-music installation on the Web'

Since going live with Long Play last fall, Phillips has pulled in about 1,000 subscribers who have provided her the budget she's using to keep working on the new album. But that's just the culmination of the year-long project.

She's also letting subscribers download a series of five EPs — roughly one every two months — each containing four or five new songs that she has recorded since the previous one. Some tracks from those EPs may wind up on the album, many won't, but no one will know which of these works-in-progress make the cut until Phillips makes her final choices several months from now.

She's also posting recorded conversations with some of the musicians she has invited in to play on the album, for a Long Play bonus feature called "Phone Booth." She writes a blog accessible only to subscribers, posts some of her art collages and short films she's shot, various ways of giving those who are most interested in closely monitoring her career a window into how she creates.

"This isn't for everybody," said the woman who also scored the music for the long-running USA Network series "The Gilmore Girls" and who starred as a mute terrorist opposite Bruce Willis in the 1995 thriller "Die Hard With a Vengeance." "I don't feel this is the new business model — whatever that may turn out to be. To me, it's more of an art-and-music installation on the Web."

Securing financing directly from fans has provided Phillips with a newfound sense of freedom to pursue her artistic impulses without artistic second-guessing that can come from corporate overseers.

But reporting to subscriber-investors, with whom she has a greater sense of direct connection, "I feel more pressure to do something for them. It's not a [faceless] company and people out there that you don't know; it's Jill, it's Bruce, it's all these people who have sent their money to me. I've got to get something going for them, and I hope they like it.

"That I'm not sure I like," she said with a laugh, "but they've been happy so far."

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