August 12, 2004
By Danny O’Brien
Indie band Groovelily are on tour, and doing a roaring trade in CDs and merchandise, but they don’t spend a penny on promotion – it’s all courtesy of the internet and their fans. Danny O’Brien reports.
Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, the singer and keyboard player for Groovelily, are playing to a full house: literally. In the front room of a suburban home in Santa Clara, California, the pair play to an audience of 30, crowded on sofas and foldaway chairs. The lighting is the lounge’s floorlamp; the instruments are a foldaway keyboard and electric violin; the effects and amp come courtesy of a Powerbook and a copy of Apple’s GarageBand software.
But this is not Vigoda and Milburn playing for a group of friends. This is an official house concert for the New York band, currently on a West Coast tour. Tickets for the night cost $15-$20 (£8-11), and were sold online. All of the money goes to the band. Merchandising is for sale downstairs, next to the cakes and pies brought along by the audience.
The CD sales of the band’s music do well; they were mastered by the band, giving them around $14 profit on every one sold. And Groovelily didn’t have to spend a penny on promotion: word of this concert, as well as larger gigs, are spread through their active online fanbase. In the end, this house concert may make them almost as much as most college gigs, and for a far more pleasant audience.
Groovelily’s predicament is a familiar one for any indie musician. Without a record label behind them, they have to organise everything – from promotion and recording albums to arranging tours and booking hotels – themselves. It’s always been an uneasy life, going from gig to gig, hustling for attention in a crowded market, working to keep the band together against external pressures.
But in the past 10 years, technology has slowly lifted the boat for Vigoda and Milburn, and thousands like them. The falling costs of CD mastering, the distribution possibilities via the net and the growth of online communities has meant that, instead of struggling, many bands have found themselves making a more comfortable living as independents than their counterparts signed up by record labels. The net has brought fans and bands closer together, and given them tools to help keep each other afloat.
“When we started 10 years ago,” says Vigoda, “we knew indie bands that were spending $40,000 just on postage to keep in touch with their fans.” These days, much of the promotion Groovelily does for their tours is through their email list, which is run for free by one of their fans.
Pre-promotion for the tours is mostly handled by another, smaller, group, the Petal Pushers. These are dedicated Groovelily supporters, who, when the band is playing in their local area, will download flyers from their website, print them out and scatter them around neighbourhood hangouts. Petal Pushers also contact local radio stations, arrange interviews with the local press, and man the merchandising stall at Groovelily gigs. When the band says that their fans are everything, they mean it.
“Everyone has a net connection, everyone has a printer, everyone can email their local newspaper,” says Rob Bond, who manages the Petal Pushers database. He’s a volunteer, as is everyone else involved in the effort. Organising the band’s promotion takes four or five hours of his spare time a week, run from a simple Access database and a Yahoo! mailing list.
Daylle Deanna Schwartz wrote The Real Deal: How to Get Signed to A Record Label in 1997. But when it came to write a second edition in 2002, she began to have second thoughts about whether acts should aim to get signed up. She’s now working on a book on how to stay independent. “I tell people now to build a career and a fanbase first, and then consider signing,” she says.
She ascribes much of her change of heart to new opportunities provided by technology – and the unbalancing effect it has on the major record labels. “Look at MP3s. That’s a threat to the major labels, because they depend on record sales to survive. Independent musicians need to attract loyal fans to build a career, and free music is perfect for that.” Groovelily gives away MP3s of its music on its CD-selling site; bonus demo tracks are available for Petal Pushers in a restricted area of their website.
And it’s becoming clear that a loyal fanbase isn’t just an asset to independent musicians. It’s also an asset if they want to arrange a deal with a record label. Schwartz gives the example of OfARevolution, an independent band that let its fans tape and trade their performances, and who recently sold 100,000 copies of a double live album set. OAR recently signed to Lava records, on the back of their independent album sales. They announced the move on their fan message boards first, and answered personally every question the fans made.
And while Groovelily is making a comfortable living in the homes and on the screens of their fans, their hopeful lyrics still sing of a time when they might get their bigger break, and wider fame. Their fans wish them the same too.
“When I took the job,” says Bond, “my hope was I wouldn’t have to do it for very long. I’ve got a salary and health benefits, while sometimes they’re sleeping on sofas. I’d be happy if they moved onto bigger things.”
And if Groovelily does get that break, will the network of fans that have held them up for so long still stay loyal? Will the Petal Pushers still be around to give them a hand? Bond laughs. “Maybe I’ll just go down the list to the next band that needs my help,” he says.