Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Life after major labels: The case of Sloan, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with Jay Ferguson of Sloan. (You can find Part 1 here.) Today we'll talk about working the supply and demand angles as an independent band, Carly Simon's yard sale, and staking out a career in the middle ground of the 'long tail'.

The conversation continues with Jay talking about the turn toward self-curation in the Internet era.

JF: I do find that due to the Internet and artists curating their own material, their own websites, it’s more common. Take Beck, for example. His website is about communicating directly with fans. He’s got such a big fan base worldwide that he can curate fun things…like albums of covers, or an album of sheet music. And that’s something you can’t really do on a major. (Ed. note: Beck no longer on Geffen). He's curating fun things. And I find that’s what we’re trying to do…the hardcore 7”, with a digital hardcore covers album or limited edition vinyl bootleg albums. And they usually sell out in a day or in 2 days. It’s the stuff we’re doing in between album, and it's direct to the fans.

Sloan "1985" limited edition t-shirt
LK: You’re really tweaking the supply and demand; you know there’s an audience for these really cool things…like limited edition t-shirts and vinyl, and you seem to be able to figure out exactly what the size of that market is.

JF: Well, we made 1,000 of the Twice Removed box set. And it was a bit of a gamble. We made it in the fall and thought…okay, maybe people will buy it as a Christmas gift. We’ll do the tour behind it. I bet you we can sell 1,000. We’ve done some bootlegs before. We did 300, it sold out in an hour, then we did 500, it sold out in a day. So we wondered, if those went that fast, how many people are there who would buy a $90 album that’s actually curated by the band?  And we gambled on the 1,000.

LK: At that level is it profitable?

JF: Yes. It’s expensive to make each of the units but your profit margin is still about 40%. Plus it gives us a reason to tour. We went out and did all of Twice Removed…did you see it?

L to R: Chris Murphy, Jenn Hollett, Me, Jay Ferguson, Boston Oct. 2012
LK: Yes! I was there in Boston.

JF: Right! And in Canada the tour brought out a lot of the older fans out that hadn’t come out to see us in a while. We found a lot of couples who were struck by that album when they were in high school or in university and this time around they’re saying ‘honey, let’s get a babysitter and go see Sloan’. So when this came out they said we have to go see this. I had people come up to me and say: “I haven’t seen you guys play in 10 years but I had to come out and see this.” If you can measure how many people you can sell to, it's do-able. And I feel like there are a thousand people out there who will pay for anything we do that is of high quality. We won’t put out a piece of junk and charge $100 for it.

LK: I think you should try to do that…to test your theory.

JF: Yeah (laughs). I found that Carly Simon was selling an old DVD that didn’t sell, with things from her house…like she was getting rid of junk she didn’t want.

LK: Kind of like a yard sale?

JF: Yes, kind of like Carly Simon’s yard sale. Here’s my DVD…and… something from my trunk that I didn’t want.

LK: So who watches over the business concerns of the band? There’s no ‘manager’ per se…Mike (Nelson) is your tour manager, right?

JF: Yes, Mike is the tour manager, but does a lot more…and Chip Sutherland was our manager but he still handles some business stuff when it comes our way. If there’s something with a contract attached to it, or a licensing opportunity for a movie. He’s a lawyer, so he’s a bit of the overseer, even though he’s very busy with Leslie Feist, who he manages. Mike has, over the years, grown into more of a management role.

LK: I’m interested in the band's ‘org structure’. Who’s the CEO of your business? For example, who, at any point, knows what the inflows and outflows of cash are?

JF: That would be Mike. Sometimes, he has to be like a parent, like if something is going bad he won’t always tell us (laughs). He’ll say ‘oh we have all these theatre shows in the fall' because he doesn’t want to stress us out. If we have projects we want to do, like the Twice Removed box...we decided we wanted to do that in early 2012, and tour it in the fall. Chris & I thought "what do we want to put in the box set?…A 7”?  A booklet?" And then I went to a company that does vinyl manufacturing and asked how much it would cost and I got some numbers and said Mike, here’s the amount, and then we all decide if it’s a good idea. We dream up the project, figure out how much it’s going to cost, and tell Mike. And then it’s either yes, we can afford it, or can you scale things back…but usually it’s fine…and we just do it.

LK: We talked about this before we started recording this interview…You began to say “If I were starting out today…” and I said ‘wait!…hold onto that thought’…so now is the time for that thought. We’ve talked about the benefits of the ‘old system’ and now, how the members of the band can perform some of the functions of the label. What comes after the dot dot dot after “if I were starting out today...”

JF: I don’t know…I know how to record…I could make a professional sounding album in this room with the right microphone...I have all the tools to make cool graphics. I feel like oh great, I could do all that…and using Illustrator, and In Design, and finding the vinyl or CD manufacturer…but beyond that I don’t know how you get attention. You still have to get out there and play shows. Unless you “go viral”…but then look at the Lana Del Rey story…you go a bit behind the scenes and you see it’s not a new artist at all. She’d had an album out before, under a different name. So it’s all been hatched by some label people. If I was an indie artist today I don’t know how I’d get attention…other than Pitchfork randomly picking up on things. That’s what happened with Broken Social Scene. Pitchfork wrote about them, some guy at Polygram UK saw it, then thought ‘hey this is cool’, saw them at SXSW and then signed them to a UK deal. They had also been touring and they had a live show that really communicated with people and I think that was a big thing. But that’s something that happens 1 out of every 500,000 times.

For us, now, we have the benefit of doing our own thing, having been tied to a major label that took us to a wider audience. That audience has fluctuated over the years but it’s still enough of an audience that we can do stuff online, we have a mailing list of 20,000 people that get our email blasts. And when we did the limited edition box set 1/20th of them ended up buying it.

And in the states, where our audience tends to skew a bit older than in Canada -- where we still get kids who are just finding out about us, kids as young as 14 -- but in, say, Boston, we can play a club show to 200 people, and we can play to 700 people in Calgary and the merch numbers can be the same. It doesn’t happen all the time, obviously, but I’ve found that we can play a smaller place in the states and end up taking in $1000 at the merch table.

LK: Have you heard of the theory of the long tail?

JF: The long tail?

LK: OK, I’ll draw it out for you….(starts scribbling out diagram showing the ‘head’ of the market being approximately 20%, and where most the activity occurs, with the tail being the 80% where less activity occurs.) And people argue about this…about whether or not you can make a living in the ‘in between’ area…where before it was pretty much impossible. How much of a myth is it, the staking out of a career in this middle area?

JF: I feel like I only know our experience. Even though I know other bands that have dropped off, because with the new paradigm so few records are being sold…by anyone. Lady Gaga sells, like, 1.5 million and it’s a big deal. That would have been at least a 10 million seller in earlier decades. Sales have dropped so much that some artists are making more money from touring…and a lot of artists are taking over their own career. Some, like us, have benefitted from the marketing they received in the 90s, from the majors, or wherever they got it. But I think you can also utilize the goodwill of the audience, the interest of the audience, and somehow propel a small business career..by using things like Topspin, by recording on your own. We recorded our last 4 albums at our practice space. But for us, our bread and butter is still touring. In the 90s when we were selling 90,000 copies of One Chord to Another, we were making a lot of money from CD sales. [Ed. Note: As broken out in this post, in the absence of a major label's involvement the percentage of an album sale that the band keeps jumps from about 10-15% to approximately 60-70%. Also note that in Canada, which is approximately 1/10th size of the US, albums go gold at 50,000 and platinum at 100,000.] Now it’s a fraction of that, for everyone, so a lot of people are turning to touring and you don’t need a major label to do that. So I think the long tail is true, especially for bands that have had attention from radio, and that have been exposed to a wider audience.

End Part 2. Click here for Part 3.