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kristin hersh is brilliant | The Discipline of Innovation

kristin hersh is brilliant

kristinhersh1

I subscribed to Kristin Hersh today.

That probably sounds a bit weird, so let me explain. If you’re not familiar with her, Kristin is pretty much a genius. She started making music over 20 years ago with her first band, Throwing Muses. The Muses have made around 7 records in that time, plus she has put out another 7 solo records, plus a couple with her latest band, 50 Foot Wave. She’s still active in both bands and in solo recording, and the songs that she writes for each of the three projects all sound distinctively different, but nearly every single thing she’s done has been fantastic. In short, she’s one of the most consistently good and innovative musicians around. And now she’s innovating business models.

At the end of 2007, Kristin severed all relationships with record companies, and decided to become user-funded. In doing this, she’s come up with several innovative ways to continue to make music and get it out to people that want to hear it. First off, you can subscribe to her music – that’s what I just did. She’s offering her new songs for free from her website, but with a subscription, you get all kinds of bonus things, like concert tickets, cds and other stuff.

Next, she’s trying to set this up as a co-operative. So all the music that she posts comes in flac format, with a creative commons license set up to encourage people to add to and share the music.

To that end, Kristin also uploads the raw recording files as “stems”. Please consider using these files as a starting point and bring your own vision and creative ideas into the mix. Really. It’d be so cool to hear what you’d do if you were part of the session. Think about getting your hands dirty in that way and uploading the result to Kristin’s RW page.

The result? In about 16 months there have been over 80 remixes of the songs posted on her site, plus another 50 things (art, photography & writing) inspired by the music. That’s a fair bit of creative effort that’s been unleashed in a relatively short period of time.

The third innovative idea is the 10-4 project. Here’s her description:

This time, the Great Idea Inside Billy’s Head was this:

“We’ll offer people in our web community the chance to buy CD-R’s of Kristin playing 10 songs of their choice. They’ll pick the 10 songs from a menu of 200 — no guesswork on our part as to what anyone wants to hear — they’ll tell us. We’ll burn the CD’s ourselves and Kris can personalize and sign them: 10-4 (your name here).

We’ll charge $50 for this CD, ensuring that only a few people will partake initially. But if they like it, word’ll spread.”

Wicked, I thought. I never know what people want to hear. Some seem to only like old Throwing Muses songs, some only like the most recent release, some people only like Sunny Border Blue, some people want unreleased material, some like me to scream real loud, some like me to whisper, some just like Your Ghost over and over and over again. Now the set list can be someone else’s fault decision. And when ThrowingMusic webinatrix Tine says, “I want one!” I know it’s a good idea.

We sold 100 in record time (under 20 minutes). Of course.

“A hundred?” I asked.

“A hundred,” answered Billy.

“Literally a hundred?” I asked, hoping he was kidding.

“Get to work, he replied.

And so, Kristin has made over 100 personalised CDs for people.

All this adds up to a revolutionary new business model for music. One of the things that I noticed in subscribing is that interacting with an artist this way feels more relational than transactional. This might just be a fan’s delusion, but if you read the forums and comments on Kristin’s blog, there is a definite sense of community formation surrounding this venture. And this is very different from the recent experiments by Radiohead and Nine Nails. Those were essentially about the bands trying to shift the power in their relationships with the record labels. Kristin Hersh seems genuinely interested in eliminating the middleman completely. And this new model sets up an interesting dynamic – saying that I am giving money to help sustain her as an independent musician makes me feel like I have an actual stake in how she does. Over the years I’ve done plenty to spread the word – I played the Throwing Muses constantly when I was on the radio, I’ve included songs from several of Kristin’s projects on compilation cds I’ve given to friends, I’ve badgered people to buy cds and go to concerts. But it definitely feels like the ante has been upped now.

My prediction is that in another 18 months or so, Kristin will be making more money from her music than she ever has before, and that she’ll have built an incredible community with the people that care about her music. Furthermore, the most recent batch of songs that’s posted suggests that, most importantly, this arrangement will give her the space she needs to perform at the absolute top of her game. I hope I’m right!

Will this business model work for everyone? Probably not. There are a few key points:

  • The community-building effort has to be absolutely sincere. If people decide that this is simply a cynical ploy, the whole thing will blow up. I don’t think this will happen with Kristin, but not everyone can pull that off.
  • This arrangement will be harder to pull off if you are a new artist, or if you are too big. The new artists won’t have a big enough base to draw sufficient numbers of people willing to pitch in. An advantage for Kristin is that she has been connecting with people over a long period of time, and that connection is strong – it’s a great base to build from. On the other hand, artists that are huge can’t pull off the community-building. The fan base will be too big – which will make it impossible to forge links of sufficient depth.
  • Finally, I think you have to have a pretty wide artistic range to make it work. Being able to pull material from Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave and the solo work is a tremendous advantage.

Why didn’t the record labels figure out this model? That is an issue worthy of much more discussion. For now, I’ll just share with you the notice that appears with the official video for Your Ghost on youtube:

NOTICE
This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by WMG. The audio has been disabled. More about copyright.

When your entire business model is built around preventing people from hearing music, well, the music won’t spread very far, will it?

If you’re wondering what I’m going on about, here’s another version of Your Ghost:

And here are the Throwing Muses doing an excellent version of Shimmer a few years ago:

And one from 50FootWave:

If you like either of those, go to Kristin’s site to hear lots more…

About Tim Kastelle

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

16 Responses to kristin hersh is brilliant

  1. Tim 11 May 2009 at 1:47 am #

    Just want to see if this embedding works – one more song, a live version of Bea from a couple of months ago. Highlights how good a drummer David Narcizo is…

  2. Sam MacAulay 11 May 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    Interesting post Tim!

    “…And this new model sets up an interesting dynamic – saying that I am giving money to help sustain her as an independent musician makes me feel like I have an actual stake in how she does. Over the years I’ve done plenty to spread the word – I played the Throwing Muses constantly when I was on the radio, I’ve included songs from several of Kristin’s projects on compilation cds I’ve given to friends, I’ve badgered people to buy cds and go to concerts”.

    Last week Lars and I had an interesting discussion about how we’d just witnessed some efforts in this regard when tyring to buy a second-hand bicycle from an independent manufacture in west end. But I think it’s especially relevant in the small wine industry. A lot of the successful boutique wineries I’ve visited in Australia (e.g. Hunter Valley, Heathcote, Bendigo; Granite Belt) implement tactics (e.g. winery clubs; special tasting events; grape picking; site tours) to try to generate similar feeling to these.

    Come to think of it, I also saw a similar strategy deployed by a cafe in North Beach in San Fran. I wonder if this sort of strategy is best deployed in industries where the consumer perceives there to be some sort of creative premium or whether it’s universally effective?

  3. Tim 11 May 2009 at 8:24 pm #

    A lot of these things are about strengthening & deepening ties. Partly that’s to maintain higher value relationships, but also I think that this strengthening increases the propensity to spread the word. I don’t think it’s universally effective – certainly once things become a commodity it’s pretty hard to initiate this dynamic…

  4. Stephan Borau 28 May 2010 at 4:34 am #

    I believe this kind of business model is the wave of the future… Give your music away for free and find other ways to monetize it (artists make more money from concerts than from records — they only get $1.25 per record).

    However, this is only new to the West. China and Brazil are light years ahead in this kind of “alternative” music business model.

  5. Tim 28 May 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Very true Stephan – I’ve been writing a bit recently about what we can learn from India, China & Brazil – there’s plenty!

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