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Is The Music Industry Toast?
It Tastes Great With JamBands...

Ian talks with Ben Colmery of

Several years ago, I met a disturbingly decent writer named Ben Colmery. We found over time that we shared a lot of common views about people and life in general, but one thing always unsettled me a little bit. He was a Phish fan. An otherwise (more or less) rational human being, his enthusiastic monologues about Phish shows and Phish people left me a little dumbfounded. Who were these jam band people? Were they just a new generation of Deadheads? Were they a bunch of hippy-revival losers? Ben would play recordings from Phish shows, and although it was evident that these were some very talented musicians, I never took the time required to appreciate the larger Gestalt of a Phish performance. In fact, I still haven't. However, I've talked to Ben a lot more, and met a few more "Jam Scene" types, and come to realise that although I'm too much of an old geezer to join in "the scene", I have a lot of respect for the philosophies behind what's going on.

Several months ago, Ben & I began discussing some possibilities for doing something positive with our mutual interest in some broader concept of promoting and sharing independent music. We're still in the early discussion stages, but I've developed a lot of respect for what he and his cohorts at are trying to do, and realized an interview with him would be an easy way to get some echopraxia site content without having to write a clever article. So here, more or less unedited, is the dialog:

Q. What is it you all are doing over there at Are you a bunch of pot heads?

A. Well, primarily. But the thing is, we need something to do when we AREN'T high. So, we decided that during those 5 minutes a day, we'd put the bong (named "Ming the Merciless") down, turn off the cartoons, go to bed before 4 am, not leave pizza boxes all over the place, not leave giant cans of green fuzzy beans in the garbage, get off the couch, and help some bands.
I guess if you want specifics, what we are doing is giving more structure to the network that is forming around the up and coming bands in the jamband scene. We aren't exclusive to jambands, per se. We are exclusive to bands that put music, and community, and the relationship between artists and the audience before the business of music. We don't waste our time with egos and head cases. We spend it doing everything we can to help develop this grassroots thing. By doing this, we hope to help build up the infrastructure for up and coming bands to ultimately empower them, and the audience. The more the focus is on music, and not just money, the more bands and audience members there will be that support that. It's sort of like this: kindergartners learn a lot more at that age than adults learn at 35. If you teach them when they are still learning, when they are still capable of learning, it will be a hell of a lot easier than trying to do it when the "old habits" have already set in.
How are we doing this? We bring the audience to the band, and the band to the audience. We put up posters, copy cds of live shows, talk to people within the vast and intricate community within the jamband scene, spread the word. The bands we deal with are living gig to gig, putting food on the table. They aren't raking in crazy money. These bands realized there are countless people out there who want to help them, and who are willing to provide virtually free advertising. The music sells itself, basically. What we are doing is organizing this, looking for bands that are just starting to expand their touring region, and just basically helping spread the word.
In the end, I hope we can set an example. I hope more and more people who get into the business of music will go the nonprofit route. With a nonprofit, you essentially just have to cover your cost, which equates to keeping the costs of those you work with down. You are no longer in pure competition with those around you. Therefore, you aren't doing everything you can to take advantage of people. When they benefit, you benefit, and vice versa. By helping to set this example, it very well could pave the way for more and more small businesses and nonprofits, and when all is said and done, greater independence from the major labels.
Okay, that all sounds a little weird (especially the part where I treat younger bands like kids, and act as though I'm this father standing over them with a whip, or a summer sausage, or something). That's just how it came out just now.

Q. How do you spell rThYhtM?

A. I'm pretty sure there's an "x" and a "5" in there somewhere.

Q. If I had a band, could I get you to review it? How?

A. Well, it would help if your band didn't suck. I mean, I'm just not sure we have time for emotionless post europop, frankly. Seriously, though, if you email us, and arrange to send us something recorded (preferably a live performance), we WILL listen to it, and let you know what we think (hmm… that makes it sound like there's this collective intelligence capable of the Absolute judgment lurking in the shadows. Keep that in mind. It may be true.).
If you are playing near Boulder, we'll come see you, and write an honest review. Understand that our goal is not to slam you. It is to help you grow as a band. Our policy is not to sugar coat, and gloss over all the rough spots, and basically cream on your band. As well, our goal is not to act like experts and rip your band to shreds. Our intention is to celebrate what is strong in your band, and offer some critical opinions of anything that might need work. No band is perfect. Perfect is horrifying and boring. Every band can improve. If it thinks it can't, then it is a nostalgia act. The point is to push, expand, grow, redefine, create art. It doesn't have to be original. It just has to express. A moment has no meaning unless it ends, and paves the way for the next moment. That is what we look for. The next moment. You don't have to be the new Radiohead or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. You just have to show that you are trying. That is when the ego disappears, and the next moment can begin.
Oh, and putting me on the guest list is also a pretty good way of getting me out there.
As we grow, we will be bringing on a staff of writers. In the meantime, we are accepting submissions from anyone who wishes to contribute. Either way, you aren't really limited to the Boulder area. But for now, it is the easiest way to get a review out of us.

Q. Do you see the "web music scene", whatever that is, as having a financially viable future, or do you take the industry stance that it's just a bunch of young pirates stealing profits from artists and cutting into legitimate CD sales?

A. I think it's funny you should say, "Stealing profits from artists." If they are stealing anything, they are stealing from the major labels, not the artists, if you look at percentages. And that's fine by me. Okay, that's not entirely true. The artists lose out, too. As far as I'm concerned, if you go with a major label, you kind of deserve whatever you get.
The web music scene that involves studio albums really isn't stealing from the artists. It is providing artists with the opportunity to function independently of the major labels. It is really beautiful, actually. There are countless people who spend a few thousand dollars on some professional equipment, record their own studio albums, and then do their own distributing. They don't sell as many albums, but they make a lot more money per album. Instead of getting a buck or two a cd, they get all of the money. Sure, they have a cost to cover. But that still translates to a lot more money per cd sold.
Of course, that is really only referring to those burn and mail actual cds. This doesn't really answer the question of music that is sold and obtained through downloads. I have never bought music that way, and really know very little about it. The reason? I distinguish between the web music scene that involves studio albums, and the web music scene that involves legally copied and traded shows. I am involved in the trading scene. The trading scene has just about nothing to do with studio albums. We trade shows that artists actually encourage us to trade. We are into the live sound. Generally speaking (but not always), we really end up a little turned off by studio albums. We don't like perfection.
So, in a long and winding way, I'm trying to say that, truth be told, I'm the wrong guy to ask. Do I think the web has a viable future for distributing music? Absolutely. For the trading community, it generates a tremendous amount of free advertising for bands. Shouldn't advertising be free, or close to it? I mean, doesn't anything worth buying pretty much sell itself? As far as a way of distributing music, and making money off of it, I can only speculate. I'd say it has a viable future. There are so many people out there writing, recording, and distributing music without the help of major labels, that, as long as costs stay low, web distribution should be yet another option to subvert the establishment. Now's the time to buy a server, and host some downloadable music, I guess. The consumer doesn't have to pay for you to burn them, or package them, and doesn't have to pay for the distributor's overhead, or the retailer's overhead. Sounds like it has some real potential.
But again, I really don't know. All I know is, the free distribution of music through the web is alive and thriving.

Q. Radiohead had a chart-topping release last year, and did it without an MTV video, and with all their songs being "accidentally" released on Napster before the official CD release date. Do you think this was a fluke, or a sign of things to come?

A. Man, all these rumors of what is really happening, all these things that might have been staged, or might have been an accident. The recordings the Dave Matthews Band did with Steve Lillywhite just before he got the boot managed to find their way onto the web, free of charge. How? I really don't know. Supposedly, it was Lillywhite himself who released it. We all got a copy of it, and found it kind of refreshing to listen to a DMB album that was unfinished, and therefore overproduced. So many people loved it that DMB went back into the studio to finish the album a year after they'd kicked it to the curb.
"Advance" copies seem to be popping up all over the place. Phish's last studio album, the Oysterhead album. Is it a good way to generate buzz? Man, that's hard for me to comment on. As I said, the trading community cares so little about studio work, as a whole, that we all tend to get an advance copy of an album we really weren't sure we wanted to buy in the first place.
The success of Radiohead's single didn't happen because it was "accidentally" released on Napster. It happened because they are a great band. They set an example, and I hope people were paying attention. It seems more and more like the truly talented bands are finally being rewarded for their talent. All the megastars are complaining of ticket sales going down. Yet, people keep going to see the really good bands. Why? Because people are slowly getting sick of being spoonfed dogpoo. The big pop acts are charging 40, 50 bucks a ticket. And they are going through Ticket$%^#er, who is tacking on another 10-20 bucks a ticket. A lot of people are starting to realize that they can see a better show by going to see bands that do their own ticketing, promoting, booking, and recording. And because they do it all themselves, they are keeping their costs down. Is this hard to pull off? Yeah, but if you look at the jambands, a lot of the promotional/advertising work is done for free. And a huge amount of cost for major labels is promotion and advertising.
I think this is a sign of things to come. It may take time, but it is happening. Clear Channel, Ticket#$%&er, and all those record labels have good reason to worry. The times they are a changin'.
Of course, this brings me to an infuriating sidepoint. Bob Dylan, voice of revolution, music royalty, is still using Ticket$%^&er to sell tickets. We need these big names to start taking a stand-they don't need these companies to sell tickets-and they don't need to play only the venues that use those agencies if this change is going to happen any time soon. If they don't, that change will just take longer. But that change is coming, my friend.

Q. Can you think of any similar successes with "unconventional" music marketing?

A. Well, there's always the "Tupac Method". We could start mysteriously killing off the up and comers just before they peak, and watch their album sales skyrocket after their supposed death.
Or, we could learn something from the jambands and the trading scene. Give to receive. Put on a great show, allow people to have a copy of that show for free, reward them for putting up posters and spreading the word, involve the audience in the process instead of leeching off them, and create an actual community in which the musicians and the audience members can symbiotically coexist.
Of course, this will never appeal to the terminally greedy.

Q. Got any general thoughts/feelings/opinions on copyright issues? Like Copy-protected CD's, that sort of thing?

A. Nah, I'd better not answer that one. I'm just going to start getting preachy, and commence the tooting of my horn.

Q. What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

A. I'd have to say Ben and Jerry's Festivus, Bob. It makes me feel kinda dirty.

Q. If I gave you a million dollars right now, what would you do with it?

A. I'd beat you unmerciful with it, and laugh at you. Then, if you still had a little life left in you, I would rip your arm off and give you a little of the "Grendel Treatment".
After cleaning the blood from the murder weapon-I mean-bills, I would invest most of it, and drop the rest on some treehuggin' hippie crap.
In other words, I would do some selfish things and then I would do something good, like start up a nonprofit corporation designed to help cement the infrastructure for up and coming bands that want to sidestep the major labels and everything else that is foul about the music industry.

Q. What does Phish smell like?

A. To the untrained nose, it smells much like the Dead.

Q. Will you review my CD at PLEASE? I'm only donating the proceeds to Amara Conservation through November.

A. Yes. I will do it in the morning. I will do it in the night. I will do it when I want to do it. Uhhhhh.

Q. Can I borrow your car?

A. I'd like to see you try.

Q. Can you get me a real job?

A. Sure. I'll pay you a million dollars to take care of The Chimp problem.

Q. Will you send me a thermal coffee mug?

A. As soon as I receive my love oils.

Q. What Time Is It?

A. Well, it's time to get ill, of course.

Ian Gray
November 2002

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