The New Middleclass Musicians: I Fight Dragons

from the yet-another-example dept

Obviously, we've been covering various stories of content creators who are making use of new methods and new ideas to build a successful business model in a very changed world. We get lots of content creators contacting us about what they're doing -- but so many are doing cool things these days that just what they're doing is becoming less interesting than the details of how well they're working. So it's great to see Ariel Hyatt, over at Music Think Tank, provide a fascinating interview with Brian Mazzaferri, of the band I Fight Dragons. While I think the interview leans a little too much towards the concept of 1,000 True Fans (which I believe gets people way too focused on the "number" rather than the concept of true fans and how to build them), there is plenty of interesting information provided.

I also find it a little disconcerting that in what appears to be a clear success story, Mazzaferri seems to keep acting as if it hasn't been a success. He talks, repeatedly, about how difficult it is to build up enough true fans to be successful -- especially with a larger band (I Fight Dragons has six members). And yet, then he admits that the band is making enough money so that it's his full-time job. So clearly, the band has built up a strong enough fan base, combined with creative enough business models that it works. And they did this in less than a year! To me, that's really impressive, and it suggests the band has gotten off to a fantastic start. Yet, Mazzaferri keeps insisting that the 1,000 True Fan idea (and, again, I think it's a mistake to focus on the number) only works for a solo artist or a duo, while also admitting that as a band, they've probably only got closer to 500 true fans. It just feels like something is missing. Why is he so down on the concept when it appears to be working?

It's also interesting to see how the band has been making its money. He admits that for them, a lot of it has come from CD sales -- often CD sales done at live shows. He notes that because of the venue choices they've made, they don't make that much on live shows, but it has helped sell more CDs. But it does seem like the band realizes the benefit of offering really valuable scarcities like what we've seen work with other musicians as well -- and, of course, working hard to connect with fans through things like email and Twitter. When asked to break down where the money comes from, Mazzaferri highlights one unique offering that was a huge success for the band:
Making limited-edition, very high-value stuff is awesome. We sold 100 Lifetime Membership USB drives for $100 each (lifetime admission to any IFD show, free digital content for life), and that was a huge $10,000 boon for us.
All that said, it appears that he still thinks the only way to become a success today is to do a deal with a label -- and preferably a major one. I've always said that if bands don't want to really do what's necessary on the business side, there's nothing wrong with working with a label, though I think most musicians who end up signing a standard record deal may end up regretting it. It may speed up the ability to get attention, but it may make it more difficult to actually build a sustainable career. Oddly, he seems to suggest the opposite, noting:
My last big concern about the 1,000 true fans model is longevity. Most of the people using it work through the internet, and everything on the internet has an exponentially shorter shelf-life than it's Real Life corollary.

I just think there's very little data right now on how long an internet music career can last. Most traditional music careers, even people with a hit record, are lucky to last more than a decade, and so traditional music business literature says to make as much as you can while you're hot and save it up for when your career's over.

What's the new model for that? Is the expectation that an internet music career is longer than a traditional one? I suppose one could argue that, but it's a tough sell for me. The internet is fickle, and tastes change. I guess we'll see the truth of that as time goes on too.
The problem is that on a typical record label deal, things don't really work that way for most musicians, either. It may work for the top of the top -- the ones that catch on quickly and become big. But for the majority of bands that sign with a major record label, they fail to really get big enough to matter, and the labels very quickly drop all support and the band becomes yet another unrecouped wonder. That's not a sustainable model at all, and it's certainly not a model of "making as much as you can while you're hot," since many signed bands never actually get hot enough to really make that much money anyway. It seems like a bottom-up approach that relies on building a strong relationship with the fans has a lot more chance of being long-term sustainable than a career fueled by a sudden rush of major label hype, followed by being dropped into the obscurity bin.

While Mazzaferri may not be entirely happy with where the band is today and its prospects as an unsigned act, it still seems like this represents a pretty good example of the new sort of middle class of musician that couldn't have really existed in the same format not so long ago. In the past, the only way you could really get to the point where the band was your full time job was to get a label deal first and have them give you an advance. But by doing creative things like the "lifetime subscription" offering, I Fight Dragons has been able to reach that stage without having to sign a label deal. Now, it may, in fact, make sense for the band to now switch to a major label track, but I can't see anything in the band's experience that suggests that embracing a newer model of connecting with fans directly, and offering unique scarce reasons to buy, can't lead to a sustainable living.

Update: As is pointed out in the comments, just a few days ago, the band did, in fact sign with a major record label. This isn't surprising, given what Mazzaferri was saying in the interview, since he seemed to conclude he needed to do that, despite the evidence to the contrary. I wish them luck, but I've seen so many bands make similar statements when they first sign with a label:
"They were really interested in us from the get-go," singer Brian Mazzaferri tells The A.V. Club. "They're really interested in us keeping our creative control, as opposed to some other people, who were like, 'We really like what you're doing, but how 'bout we take out the chip tune?'"
I hope that's true, and I hope the were "really interested" in letting the band keep creative control, but so many of these stories end up poorly, with the band realizing that, once its signed, it loses pretty much all leverage on these issues. The article also suggests that this will mean the end of the band emailing out free tracks. This would be unfortunate, as it would be a mistake to go against what helped build your fan base.

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  1. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), 9 Feb 2010 @ 8:25am

    Re: Disappointed about record label deal

    Why is this a problem? Is it a problem because you work for a label? I really see no problem with musicians going direct to fans.

    No, I don't work for a label and label deals are a non-issue for most artists. They won't be offered them.

    The problem is setting unrealistic expectations. The best way to survive as a musician is to keep your expenses down and be prepared to make some sacrifices. I know people who have made it. But often it starts out by having roommates, or living with your parents, or having a significant other who will support you. If you have a day job, don't quit it until you know for sure your music will generate enough income to support you.

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