Saturday, October 5, 2013

Life after major labels: The case of Sloan, Part 3

Welcome to what I hope you find to be the thrilling conclusion of my conversation with Jay Ferguson of Sloan, with a special visit from Jay Coyle (aka JC in today's interview). Yes, stereo Jays today on the blog. If you missed the earlier posts in this 3-part series, you can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Let's pick up the story where we left it off in Part 2, which was talking about how the band has charted its own sustainable course outside the major label system. Yes, they were on a major, briefly, in the early 90s, and yes, they did distribution deals with majors from the mid 90s on, but today theirs is largely a story of using readily available technologies for direct-to-fan engagement, and, of course, leveraging the benefits that accrued to the band from their days of being affiliated with labels and their marketing and promotional muscle.

One of the key figures in getting the band set up online has been Jay Coyle. Since 2009 he has been assisting the band with the various facets of their online presence and also goes out on the road with them, as the affable merch guy. I've seen him in action a number of times and gosh darn if people don't happily leave the gig loaded down with t-shirts, toques, and scarves.

LK: How would you characterize the bigger changes in the way the band has been operating in the last few years?

JC: The direct to fan route has really opened up the fan base while allowing [Sloan's own label] Murder Records to become more active, with the bootlegs, box sets, etc. So I feel that part of the story changed in 2009 when I came on board. Having this as my focus makes it much more about building a bigger bridge to both the fans and the band’s future legacy. I would even note that the labels would never know how to do direct-to-fan fully nor could they do it as authentically as Sloan does. Today, the band is now more focused on serving the fans than ever before.

LK: And how do you divide up the work? Who does the tweeting, facebooking, website updates, Instagram, etc

JC: Patrick does Twitter. Mike (Nelson, tour manager/business manager) generally updates the website, often with items written by himself or Chris or Jay. I handle a lot of the direct-to-fan conversation via e-mail. I get pretty busy with that around the tours and the limited editions releases and reissues, and on the road at the merch table which is the original direct-to-fan tool.

LK: What other online tools or platforms do you use?

JC: We use a variety of things. Topspin for fan engagement, Kill The 8 for merchanding.

Using direct-to-fan tools from a marketing perspective, like the Sloan singles collection we gave away through NoiseTrade, that's a perfect example where offering music to a free download/streaming-minded culture actually allowed the band to benefit by capturing the conversation with these fans, both old and new. I am a firm believer that some form of piracy and the rising streaming options helps fans move from casual listeners to core fans and that offering music 'for free' is actually speeding up the conversion process from first listen to music buyer/show attendee/merch buyer.

Thank You Jay Coyle. We now resume our conversation with Jay Ferguson.

LK: If you think of what we’ve been talking about as a pie chart…of the ‘old day’s of the music business of the 90s versus today, how would you say things break down, in terms of percentages for CD sales vs touring vs merchandise, etc?

JF: To be really general, I would say touring has opened up way bigger for us. Not bigger than in, say, 1996, when things were really big for us…

LK: Yes, I remember those days… getting mobbed on Front Street (in Toronto), with you and Chris.

JF: Really?

LK: Yes, by a group of 14 year-old girls…I have pictures somewhere …in a box somewhere, in storage, in Vancouver.

JF: Good. We’ll be calling you for those pictures when we do the One Chord to Another box set. But I would say that touring has taken over. The piece of pie that was albums…someone on a diet would take that piece now. But we have more songs getting played on the radio, the more records we put out. And we’re almost at the classification of ‘classic rock’ on Canadian radio.

Sloan rock pies, then & now, developed in consultation with both Jays

LK: Are you going to be like Five Man Electrical Band soon?

JF: Like being played every hour, on the hour?

LK: Yes.

JF: I hope so. It’s funny, the airplay portion has really grown…because back then, in the mid 90s we had three albums, now we have ten. Merch has always been good…but now we’ve got more to offer. Also, the t-shirts that were $15 or so in 1996 are now $25. Still, I would say the merch piece of the pie is about the same.

LK: But touring is expensive, isn’t it?

Sloan tour bus, Fall 2012, decorated for various band members' birthdays
JF: It’s expensive...we tour on a bus, and maybe we shouldn’t. but it also keeps our band alive, and sane, so we can tour for longer. If we were all in a van we wouldn’t tour, or not as much as we do. Chris says he would happily tour in a van…but…

LK: How many days in a year do you tour…roughly?

JF: I would do a ballpark of about 90 days or so..but it changes year to year. If we have an album out we’ll give ourselves a reason to tour. It’s almost like we’re putting an album out so we can tour. Which is another thing that’s good about running your own business. Because people in the band have families now. It’s not like being on a major label when you’re basically told when the tour is because ‘we got traction at a station in Kentucky’. We don’t have someone telling us we have to do this at a certain time. We can tell Outside or Yep Roc [Canadian and U.S. distributors] when we’re touring. They might say can you wait a month or two, because they might have congestion at that time. And we want to give the album to them at a good time for them so they can promote it properly. It’s like business planning. We knew we had a lot of goodwill coming from The Double Cross [Sloan's 2011 album release], so we said why not present the fans with a Twice Removed reissue so we’re thinking why not do a new album every other year and leapfrog with a reissue.

LK: How much of an anomaly are you guys, in terms of operating the band in the ways we've been talking about?

JF: I think it’s a matter of interest…like, how interested are you in your band? For some people it's a matter of how the money is split up. If the bass player makes less, why would he put effort into the band? Our band is run democratically, everything is split evenly. I’m so happy with the band, happy to promote it, to talk about it, and I’m a fan of the band. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. So it’s fun to do all these projects. To create the artwork, to do the boxsets. I love that stuff. And also…no one else is going to do it. Am I going to wait until somebody else does it? History or vanity, like I said….which one will tell your band’s story…and I guess vanity wins in this case (laughs). I’m doing it because I enjoy do it…but also…and I don’t want this to sound obnoxious…but there’s also money to be made. We can make 300 or 500 or 1000 of these limited edition things, and we can sell them out.

Chris and I will sit on the tour bus, looking through graphics annuals from 1968…and say 'let’s make an EP that uses that kind of cover'. We’re fans of art and graphic design and it’s fun to apply it to what you do. It’s fun to make things. It’s fun to engage with fans. It’s almost like imagining what would a fan like? Do I want Paul McCartney to make a box set of Band on the Run? Yes! We’re also lucky because we own our masters and we don’t have to talk to anybody about doing these things. I’m sure there are bands who would love do things like that, but they don’t own the master, they don’t own the publishing, and there would be so much red tape to go through, and they wouldn’t end up making very much, so they just say ah, forget it. With us, 90% of the stuff we need to do these projects is in my basement or in Chris’ attic.

LK: You had to buy back some of your publishing, right?

JF: For the first two albums, Smeared and Twice Removed, there’s a publisher that still owns those two, but all the rest of the catalogue is ours. And there was a deal with EMI for a while, that went sour. We ended up paying back the advance and I’m glad we did because Money City Maniacs was part of that and that paid for itself, just by licensing it to Future Shop and a beer commercial, and hockey games. That one song ended up paying for that whole deal.

For us it’s a combination of interest and survival…and ability, yes, but I think anybody can have the ability to operate Illustrator, and Chris learned how to do Photoshop and InDesign, and he has trouble using Google. But seriously, Chris went to NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art & Design) and he’s studied, for example, how books are laid out. Like the math of how layouts work…measuring the margins and columns and how that makes things look beautiful. (Ed. Note: Andrew Scott of the band also attended NSCAD , continues to be an artist today, and continues to exhibit. You may know his design work from things such as a band t-shirts, and now you can see his paintings here.)

Barney Bubbles exhibition, Chaumont, France, 2012
I have a great graphic design book by Barney Bubbles who did all the Stiff Records stuff…for Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello and all those people. It's gorgeous. And we used that as a template for the Twice Removed booklet. Chris basically mapped out the grid based on that. He’s highly motivated and he’s patient doing that kind of legwork and both of us are fans and we’re interested in the same things and we work well together. People just need to take things apart, learn how it’s made, and then you can do it yourself.

End Part 3.

To play catch up:  See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

For a related post from Ari Herstand about the new tier of middle class musicians, working primarily as their own bosses, click here. 

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