Challenging Media Distribution and Music Distribution Challenges - Part Two, The Corey Smith Experiment

Tim Anderson's picture

Since the 2007 release of In Rainbows it’s become cliche’ to note that artists do not need labels. Often mocked by industry insiders who point out that “Radiohead isn’t Radiohead without the many years of EMI promotion.” That is no doubt true. Yet you cannot claim that major labels record companies have much to do with the success of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) or, more interestingly, in the case of Corey Smith. Radiohead, positioned as the popular purveyor of the avant garde, is seen as visionary, as is the work of CYHSY for similar stylistic reasons. But Corey Smith, on the other hand, is described as a “fun” artist who, while not “Nashville slick”, is firmly rooted in several American genres. Musically the two have little in common, come from two different areas of popular music. And while I find Radiohead’s work much more compelling, I think Corey Smith’s experiments in building a fan base using web based tools is far more interesting in understanding how music will be made popular throughout the 21st century.

Halfway through my recent music industry class one of my students pointed to the example of Corey Smith as an alternative to major label distribution. The student is a young promising musician in the Hampton Roads area who, when he spoke of Smith, lit up in admiration for his music and more voiceferously, his entrepreneurial acumen. For those of you unfamiliar with Corey Smith his bio is as clean-cut American as baseball, apple pie and Mom. A long-time songwriter from Georgia who lists influences from “George Jones to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Nirvana to Tupac”, the artist is college educated with a degree in Social Studies Education and a former career as a teacher. Marrying his college sweetheart and beginning his work as as a teacher, Smith turned to music as an outlet that begat an award from a songwriting competition that resulted in a demo cd that he distributed to friends and family. It was from there, as friend told friend, that demand for the CD and Smith’s talent grew, or so says his bio,

I recorded it and sold it to friends and family and pretty soon it spread all over Georgia. I got calls from bar owners who wanted me to come and play shows. So I’d go to new towns, meet new people, and learn about other opportunities to perform. One thing just kept leading to another. It wasn’t like I had a master plan so much as I was just being guided in that direction. Eventually, I knew music was what I was supposed to do.

Smith’s music, which can be heard at his MySpace Page and some of which can be freely downloaded at his hompage, is in the tradition of Jimmy Buffet and James Taylor with a dash of Hank Williams thrown in. The result is a breezy singer songwriter whose dealings in nostalgia make him an easy fit for country western clubs, playlists and audiences even though his work could easily find audiences in those same frat houses that once spun Hootie and the Blowfish discs. Smith’s “I’m not gonna cry” has become something of a staple for graduating High School classes throughout the US, a fact that he has posted his sheet music for this and another one of his songs, “21” for download through his site and sheet music direct. The result, as Bob Lefsetz in his Lefsetz Letter blog reports, Corey has succeeded by giving his music away,

I was leading a discussion in Aspen about the modern music business. The question came up whether you needed a major label. Jonathan Levine, an agent at Monterey, said he never considered a major deal as being necessary to sign an act. Actually, he found when majors shopped acts to agents, those acts tended not to succeed. Marc Reiter said Warner had done an incredible job with Mission Metallica, giving away content every single day in the run-up to the release of “Death Magnetic”. But he wouldn’t commit to re-signing the band to WB. And then Marty Winsch told the story of his client Corey Smith.

Corey was a high school teacher. Playing gigs on the weekend. Marty was booking a venue. Was there any way to make headway, for Corey to support his wife and two kids playing music?

Absolutely said Marty. But first they had to release the equity in Marty’s recordings. They had to make them free on his site. To everybody.

And it was this giving away of the music that was Corey Smith’s tour support. They didn’t need a nickel from a label or a fat cat. Because once people heard Corey’s music, they had to see him live.

Which they did. In 2007, Corey Smith grossed $1.7 million. This year, not even half a decade into Marty’s management of the act, Corey’s going to gross $4.2 million. Free music built the base. Fan rabidity blew the act up.

You can buy the tracks on iTunes. They’ve sold 420,000 so far. When they experimented last summer, and took the free tracks down from Corey’s site, iTunes sales went DOWN! So, they put the free tracks back up. Actually, people e-mail Marty every day, asking for a track. AND HE JUST E-MAILS THE SONG BACK!

Not everybody’s ready to commit right up front. The free music allows people to try Corey out.

They don’t want radio play. They gave a station in a city sixty tickets to give away, but only on the condition that they DIDN’T play the songs. Marty wants people to experience Corey Smith live. That’s where it happens.

And Marty wants it to be easy. So therefore, he sells FIVE DOLLAR TICKETS! Yes, he rewards fans. Tickets are CHEAPER on the on sale date. And let me ask you, how many people are going to tell their friends they scored such a deal? And maybe drag them along with! That’s your marketing. Your fan base. It isn’t about hiring a PR firm or using Twitter. Actually, Marty pooh-poohs most technology. He says you’ve got be wary that the technology doesn’t get ahead of, doesn’t overwhelm the act. He doesn’t use Google Analytics to find out where each and every fan is. Marty goes on feel. He, and his uber agent Cass Scripps just go into a new territory, and although the first gig might be soft, the one after that never is. Because Corey delivers.

Actually, that’s important. Marty has tried releasing the equity, giving away the music of other acts. But they haven’t succeeded. Because they’re just not good enough.

If you’re truly good, you don’t need anybody else’s money, your recordings can be your tour support, they can put bodies in the seats, you can build a career.

These are huge numbers, and Lefsetz’ is correct when he says what Smith and his manager have done is “released equity” in a plan that will only work if the live performer is good enough to attract a following. Of course, this is a plan for those who are healthy enough and has enough support to tour (i.e. a solid homebase, health plans, quality management, etc.), which was something that, in theory, a label was supposed to assist with and/or provide. That labels often operated in such a way that all of the risk would be placed in the hands of artists who would lose control of their assets and their royalties through the contractual recoupment of “advances” is a product of unique historical circumstances. The combination of technological change (from print to recording), limited means of distribution accumulated in the hands of relative few, and the emergence of an en masse unorganized, un-unionized workforce of musicians (i.e. the breaking of the American Federation of Musicians in 1948 and the rise of youth/amateur/folk musics as key content providers for radio, see BMI, and records companies) meant that companies who could control distribution and reproduction could leverage their advantages over labor in terms of terrible contracts. What this meant for audiences was an effective set of oligopolistic firms, stock and pricing practices that aimed to control demand and purchasing patterns.

None of this is new or shocking and all I am pointing out is how 20th century media economics concentrated power and production. What is new is that an artist such as Corey Smith and others are stitching together a set of best practices that emerge from multiple experiments and dependent of cultural contingencies. For example the Radiohead In Rainbows experiment worked because Radiohead’s international stature paved the way for others to do the same pay-as-much-as-you-wish experiments that preempt leaks and stimulate the sale of premium materials to an international fan base. In the Corey Smith example you must give it away to slowly build a regional following that depends on live concerts and the incomes streams that performances initiate. In the Radiohead example you potentially sabotage your margins to exploit voluminous amounts of fans. In the Corey Smith example, you give songs away to grow a loyal fan base that may buy your CD, T-shirts and bring their fans to the concerts where volume may be limited (compared to the likes of Radiohead or NIN) but margins are wide. What we have are two different approaches, two different experiments to counter Paul McGuiness’ of U2 managerial fame claim that “ultimately free is the enemy of good”. Instead, I believe these and other experiments will result in free being the tool of better. But more on that later in a post on the music industry and “slow growth”. In other words, to be continued…