Jamming for Dollars
Major record labels are still pissed off about digital distribution. The concern that free, nearly perfect copies of songs would be scattered all over the world led to a concerted effort this past summer by the Big Five record companies, audio conglomerates, and electronics firms to make music "secure." The Secure Digital Music Initiative's (SDMI) goal was to ensure that computer users wouldn't dub MP3 copies of albums without giving record companies a piece of the pie. Home recording on cassette recorders in the '80s raised similar alarms, and VCRs initially caused a like-minded panic in Hollywood.
But SDMI is dead, and record companies are still doing business. The success of Widespread Panic in particular shows that giving away music may not necessarily be good for record companies, but it's working out just fine for musicians. The Southern-rock-flavored sextet from Athens, Georgia, encourages fans to make tapes of its concerts à la the Grateful Dead. Music is played. Music is recorded. Music is taken home. No money changes hands. And while record companies recognize the value of free music (songs on the radio are played gratis), a tune frequently aired on the radio usually corresponds to strong album sales, which is how record companies make money. Bands, on the other hand, receive a royalty of about one dollar per CD (which is then divided among the group's individual members), and that's only after the label's costs have been recouped, rarely before a group achieves platinum status.
The real source of most up-and-coming acts' income comes via concert tickets and merchandise. Consequently what bands want more than anything is to be heard by as many people as possible. If somebody gets a copy of a Widespread Panic bootleg and decides to go see the group, the potential loss of one dollar on a CD is more than made up for by a $25 concert ticket. Capricorn Records, Widespread Panic's label, may not agree with that philosophy, but the musicians themselves have become an under-the-radar success story.
Since its beginning in 1986, Widespread Panic (John Bell, John "Jojo" Hermann, Michael Houser, Todd Nance, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, and Dave Schools) has been doing things happily backward. Drawing on the same love of sinewy funk that inspired Little Feat, Panic generated a large fan base from touring and hoped to sell records later. And this seems to have worked. Hearing percussionist/singer Ortiz explain it, what with his talk of "markets" (not "cities") and "product" (not "records"), you'd think this band is pretty much jamming for dollars.
"Whereas most bands travel in support of their product, we travel just to support our way of life," Ortiz says. "We're still going to come out here and tour 150, 200 dates a year, whether or not we are in support of a product. We love touring, and we love the experience of having that relationship with the fans."
Letting fans openly tape concerts, of which no two set lists are the same, is a relationship all right. Kind of like a marriage. And those live shows, which sometimes go on for three hours, have made Panic's vows with its fans endure. A double live album, Light Fuse Get Away, was released last year, and even with the, ahem, widespread availability of its bootlegs, the record still sold more than 100,000 copies, close to what the group's studio records move. Word of mouth among tape-trading devotees (lovingly referred to as "Spreadheads") replaces the promotion other acts receive from radio, MTV, and the press.
"We pretty much have allowed taping of our shows, and obviously our record company turns their back to that," Ortiz says. "I guess any record company would [look down on] that whole system of how we operate. Maybe it has shot us in the foot, and maybe it hasn't. Our main thing is to generate interest in the band whatever way we can. Obviously some people feel like our writing capabilities haven't progressed, and maybe that's why we haven't been on the radio or had major play on MTV. I think that we have a good working relationship with Capricorn; they approve of [how the band operates]. Obviously they want better record sales, but we just want better attendance. Our main thing is live touring."
This is a career strategy that is paying off -- literally. Widespread Panic made more money on tour in 1998 than either Smashing Pumpkins or Sheryl Crow, while selling only a fraction of the records those two acts do. The band's latest album, 'Til the Medicine Takes, has sold only about 70,000 copies since its release in August, according to the SoundScan sales chart. The group's last nonlive record, 1997's Bombs and Butterflies, has sold 150,000 copies to date. Says Ortiz: "The whole system is that hopefully one song will put you on the charts, and everybody will go out and buy that album and then pick up the [back] catalogue."
That has yet to happen, but Widespread Panic is striving to get out of the jam-band ghetto. For 'Til the Medicine Takes, the group was consciously hoping for a radio hit. To that end it went for polish and variety, enlisting a producer with a track record, John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls), borrowing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for the New Orleans-influenced "Christmas Katie," recruiting soulstress Dottie Peoples for backing vocals on "All Time Low," and even adding Colin Butler of Big Ass Truck for some turntable scratching on "Dyin' Man." The result is what happens when a bunch of stuff is thrown against the wall to see what sticks. A little soul, a little jazz, a little hip-hop, and a lot of freewheeling rock. All in pop-song time, under four minutes, a far cry from the epic length of many of Widespread Panic's live renditions. Although no radio hit has yet emerged from Medicine, it wasn't a last-ditch effort on the group's part. As long as people are taping its music, the band will be on the road.
Ortiz believes the insular nature of Spreadheads may be keeping Widespread Panic from breaking through to a wider audience. Fans might be telling other people to go to concerts, but that doesn't mean they're telling them to buy the group's records. "Our fans are pretty much laid-back. You almost have to push them into going out and buying anything," he says with a laugh. "Their whole concept is they feel like we're their own private little band; they're not holding us back, but they really want to keep us to themselves."
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