Jill Sobule


If the prospect of a single company mounting a Guns n’ Madonna tour worries you, it also concerns some in the business. Via e-mail, Tom Morello, the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, told me that a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger could have huge consequences.

“Fewer and fewer gatekeepers mean fewer choices and higher prices for fans,” he wrote. “One huge monolith means no choice at all. Fans and artists must develop some organized counterweight quickly or resign themselves to their fate.”

A pretty grim forecast. Then on Thursday, a new CD by Jill Sobule arrived in the mail. “The California Years, Vol. 1” is a wonderful record, but the back story is just as good and a reminder that in among the giants, new models are emerging.

Ms. Sobule is a Denver native, a singer-songwriter who has been in the business for more than two decades and is probably best known for her 1995 song, “I Kissed a Girl.” In that time, she has been signed and dropped by two major labels and had two independent labels sign her, then go belly up.

Reluctant to go the label route again, she posted a question in a blog on allthingsd.com, the digital technology site owned by Dow Jones:

“How do I pay the rent?”

After listening to her fans, she came up with an updated version of the Medici model. To raise the $75,000 she needed for an album, she set up a Web site — jillsnextrecord.com — in which her fans would serve as patrons for her next record in return for various rewards.

Ten bucks earned them a digital download of the record, $50 an advance copy and a thank you in the liner notes, while $1,000 got them a personalized theme song written by the artist. Three people who paid $5,000 had Ms. Sobule play at their house. The person who gave $10,000 sang on the record.

If it sounds cheesy, like a virtual Tupperware party, consider that the record was produced by Don Was, who has produced Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The sessions, recorded in Hollywood at Henson Recording Studios, were available for streaming and comment on Ms. Sobule’s Web site before she chose the final songs. (One listener’s verdict? More cowbell, please.)

Reached at the TED conference (Technology, Education, Design) in Palm Springs — Ms. Sobule is that rare plugged-in folkie — she said her version of digital busking had real benefits.

“I have never received a single cent on a record that I have ever made,” she said, because sales never seemed to pay back the money she owed for an advance. “With all of this talk of new models and all of these big companies like Clear Channel and Live Nation trying to figure out a way to make a buck, this is one thing that makes sense for an artist like me. I have a small group of fans, but they are mighty.”

Ms. Sobule said that while the top of the business is busy finding ways to own more and more of what seems to be a shrinking pie, artists like her were tunneling their way to a direct route with their public. In a sense, the diminution in value of the CD has allowed musicians to re-examine what a contract with a label or a promoter really means.

A year ago, Ms. Sobule sold thumb drives to people at her shows and gave them a password so that within a week, they could download a version of the live show. “The people who come to your shows are going to want to share an experience, to have something to remember, and it just makes sense that you give them that kind of opportunity.”

Ms. Sobule is less the tech evangelist than a working musician who likes what she does. Jillsnextrecord.com is not always as earnest as it sounds: It offered a $500 “Gold” level of donation in which your name was to be sung at the end of the record, but also a cheeky “Gold Doubloons Level”: “Exactly like the gold level, but you give me more money.”

“I am never going to be a top 10, MTV person at this stage of my career, but this approach allowed me to make a record that I am proud of and I don’t owe anybody,” she said, and then corrected herself. “I still owe about 10 people theme songs.”

David Carr
New York Times