Cracks in the Wall That Separates Us: How to sell your music in the age of the Internet (by Pim van Tol)


In the days before the internet, musicians (and record companies) made their money selling records, and promoted the records by touring. Selling T-shirts and other merchandise was a nice sideline to this basic model. These days, the situation is reversed – or at least, the recorded music has become less and less the primary musical product, around which everything else revolves.

From this statement, it is obvious how the new model has made it very difficult for traditional record companies to sustain themselves. It also becomes apparent how bands need to be more actively involved in selling their ‘product’ than before.

Some more traditional musicians might find this hard to deal with – but for others, the more enterprising kind, there is much to be gained.


The internet makes it much easier to find a small audience for a specific (maybe ‘unpopular’) kind of music. It might take no more than a couple thousand people form the US, the same number from Europe and from Asia, and you might have the required 12,000 people willing to pay for the recording costs of your new album. This is the route that British band Marillion followed in 2001, when they had the release of their record Anoraknophobia pre-financed by their fanbase.

Another example of a band finding their audience through the internet is no-man, the duo Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson started his musical career in. No-man has only performed live on a small number of occasions, and is very much a studio collaboration between Wilson and singer/songwriter Tim Bowness.

In the 90s, no-man were signed to record majors, but soon found the contractual obligations and a constant prodding towards a more ‘commercial’ sound tiresome and unrewarding. They started to self-release their records – first to a small audience, but, coinciding with the growing popularity of Wilson’s band Porcupine Tree, later on to an ever-growing international audience. As a way to capitalise on their few-and-far-between releases, they started the mail order label Burning Shed, offering CD-R copies of B-sides, outtakes and the like to dedicated no-man fans.

By now, the label has grown to an impressive size, incorporating ‘official’ and fan releases of progressive music by no-man, Porcupine Tree and a whole host of like-minded bands from past and present, including King Crimson, Peter Hammill, Nosound, and The Pineapple Thief. The label offers a wide range of leftfield artists who are basically in the same situation as no-man: they have a relatively small – but dedicated – international following, little opportunity or willingness to play live, and no backup from major labels.

In short, through the success of no-man and Porcupine Tree, Burning Shed has grown from the name for a couple of CD-Rs into a full-fledged platform for a specific kind of music, drawing listeners and buyers from all over the world and featuring an ever-growing roster of progressive bands.


The infamous example of Radiohead giving away their record In Rainbows as a download – leaving it to the listener to decide what to pay for it – was a case of smart, calculated forward thinking on the part of the band. The download was made available in early October 2007. At the end of 2007, the record received a traditional release on CD; a standard edition for all those people who were not internet-savvy enough or distrusted/disliked the idea of downloading music and playing it from their computer or burning it onto a blank disc. This tends to be an older (35-plus) audience.

But the record was also officially released in an extended form, with extra tracks, housed in a special box including the CD, a vinyl record and a book of photos and lyrics. The price of this limited edition – £40 (approximately $80) – made good a lot of ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ downloads (the average price people paid for the download was £5). All in all, the album was huge success, selling in excess of 3 million copies.

This multi-version, multi-packaging release of the same record is a proven way to fight the loss of income through online sharing of digital music. Given the fact that they cannot keep people from putting their music on the web, for others to download and play for free, musicians can sell special editions, featuring analogue versions of the music with special artwork, booklets etcetera. These editions are usually limited and much more expensive than a regular CD. Some loss of sales – how much depends heavily on the popularity of a band – can be recouped in this way.


The idea of the limited edition has been given a new push by Saint Etienne and Clem Snide, among others. Saint Etienne, a pop trio from London, England with a large international fanbase, used to release special Christmas singles or EPs for their fans – gave them away, in fact, to the subscribers to their newsletter. With the growing of their fanbase and the changing music industry landscape, Saint Etienne changed their tactics and started releasing fan-only CDs at a little over standard CD price. These editions were usually limited to 3,000. With their latest release, A Glimpse of Stocking, they built upon that concept. The CD was available in three editions:

*a numbered CD album (at £12, roughly $19)

*the numbered CD album with a Christmas card signed by the band members (at £16),

*the numbered CD album and the card, plus an extra CD with a ‘personally dedicated Christmas song’, sung by vocalist Sarah Cracknell, not available on the main album. “This is the only way you’ll be able to get this song! And your name will be in the lyric!” (at a whopping £150 pounds, or $240).

The release sold out in a matter of weeks, with the expensive version being sold roughly 100 times. The ‘personally dedicated song’ was in fact a recording with the lyric ‘We’re baking a cake for …’ changed according to whom the dedication was for. This was a lucrative deal, for sure. An extra day in the studio, but not a lot of extra effort required. And since roughly two-thirds of the songs on the album were previously released, the band didn’t have to recoup the investment in the writing and recording of a full album, to begin with.

An artist who has taken the concept of individualizing songs a step further is Eef Barzelay from Clem Snide. On his website, Barzelay offers two ways of personalizing songs.

3 Clem Snide songs personally recorded for you ($30). Eef will tenderly record any 3 Clem Snide/Eef Barzelay songs of your choosing and email them to you or a loved one. Each recording will be unique and yours only.

Eef would love to write you a song ($100). Let’s really put some cracks in the wall that separates us. Give me some of your words, poems, thoughts, pictures, etcetera, and I will write a song just for you. Or instead of an original song, I will cover 2 songs of your choosing.
Compared to Saint Etienne, the offer is remarkably cheap, and offers true personalization. I like this idea, and I think it offers some interesting possibilities for fans. I can imagine, though, that it requires some adjusting for Barzelay – say, I want him to cover ‘La Macarena’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’, or I offer him a collection of impossible words to write a song around. Knowing him from his music and through interviews, though, I suspect Barzelay will find some creative loopholes for both of these situations. (In fact, in a recent mailing, he confessed to have liked the process so much he intends to do a record of these personalized songs, and asked for a couple more.)


An artist who has taken the idea of personalization to the road is David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame, offering to come and play a home concert in America or England for the intriguing price of $999.49. Some rules apply of course – a minimum of 10, maximum of 35 audience members, who should not be charged for attending; no alcohol to be sold on the premises; Thomas shall not be responsible for neighbors complaining about the volume (“no louder than a stereo played medium-loud to loud”) – but still, it’s a private concert by one of the great rock musicians.

It’s an interesting way to make playing live worthwile, although I imagine it will require some serious scheduling talent, even more than than for a regular concert tour.

In the same price range as Saint Etienne’s personalized song, for $250, you could be having lunch with studio drummer Josh Freese. This artist sells his albums with a whole host of add-ons at different prices. He seems to understand the concept of individualization pretty well, and makes good use of the common wisdom that what most fans want is exclusive access to their heroes.

Freese’s prices range from $7 to $75,000, with most intermediate prices including some form of personal appearance. The latter ‘limited edition of 1’ could be read as an over-the-top cynical critique of the capitalist system of ‘selling yourself’, although I assume Mr Freese is dead earnest when he offers:

Signed CD/DVD and digital download.


Come out on tour with me for a few days.

I write, record and market a 5-song EP about you and your life story.

Take home any of my drumsets (only one, but you can pick which one).

Take ’shrooms and cruise Hollywood in Danny from TOOL’s Lamborghini OR we play ‘quarters’ and then hop on the Ouija board for a while.

If you have a band, I’ll join it for a month: play shows, record a CD together, have a swim party, etcetera – or none of the above. We could also just sit in your basement and jam old Van Halen. OR…

If you don’t have a band, I’ll be your personal assistant for a month (4-day work weeks, 10 AM to 5 PM) and then we take a limo down to Tijuana and I’ll show you how it’s done (what that means I can’t legally get into here, right this minute). If you don’t live in LA but are in the USA I will come to you and be your personal assistant/cabana boy for 2 weeks.

Take a Flying Trapeze lesson together in the San Fernando Valley and then Robin from NIN and his wife make us raw lasagna.
As of February, 2011, the offer still stands.


For those artists who don’t like to travel, consider this alternative by Dweezil Zappa. At Dweezilla Bootcamp, “Dweezil Zappa and his band, Zappa Plays Zappa, will mentor you. All classes are optional and open to everyone. Dweezilla classes have been designed to enhance your musical skill level and improve your focus by providing a wide range of master classes available for all ages and skill levels… ZPZ crew will also be on-hand to provide information on sound engineering, what it takes to put on a live performance, and to answer any gear-related questions. There will be private performances, intimate jam sessions, campfires, and of course, an inside study of Frank Zappa’s brilliant approach to music, his career, and legacy.”

Prices range from $999 to $2620, depending on how luxurious you want to stay. The cheapest package offers all classes and gives you a camping space, the top price is for all classes and a single-occupancy, luxury bedroom. At the first installment in 2010, 62 people came to the bootcamp. Considering the size of the band and the quality and inclusiveness of the organisation – with backline, amps and guitar and amp-techs available – this is value for money. For a special audience, for sure (active musicians wanting to learn from the best) but a good idea nonetheless. This might be something that is as much fun to do for the band and organisation as it is for the people attending.


A final example of the new way forward comes from Damian Kulash jr., singer with US band OK Go, who wrote an astute piece about this in The Wall Street Journal. Kulash describes the changes in the record industry and goes on to explain his band’s solution to the new situation musicians (formerly ‘recording artists’) find themselves in.

OK Go were originally signed to EMI, but discontinued their contract and founded their own label in 2008. They find they now have more creative freedom and are able to find more diverse ways of funding projects (the band gained notoriety through their remarkable and increasingly complicated-to-make videos on YouTube) than ever before. Kulash and OK Go’s solution to the basic problem for every musician – you need a lot of money beforehand to record an album, shoot a video, stage a production – is to find sponsors. The band get total creative freedom, the sponsoring company gets direct access to a notoriously hard to reach audience: the 12-to-25-year-olds. The brand names are only mentioned in ‘thankyous’ at the end of a video, for example. This deal benefits both parties, but, as Kulash points out, this will of course only work with established bands. No company is willing to subsidize an unknown band.


So what have we found in these examples? It’s all about connecting with your audience in a more direct way, and about selling yourself – your public persona as an artist – more than selling your music. As Damian Kulash puts it, “[Music] is becoming more of an experience and less of an object.” Not every musician might be comfortable with that, but times have changed. It doesn’t automatically mean you need to sell your personal self as aggressively as Josh Freese, but it might mean you need to offer a bit more than a standard CD and a T-shirt.

In the end, I think it’s about two things: being creative, and reaching out to your audience. These two principles have not changed; they are still central to being an artist, musical or otherwise. The internet and other technical media have made it easier than ever before to do both. Maybe the internet has ‘lowered the stage’ for established bands who were used to multiple-record deals and the rock star life, but simultaneously it has broadened the stage for a whole host of new, exciting, innovative artists, putting cracks in the wall that separates us.


Pim van Tol is a free-lance translator, and editor with a publishing company specialising in business books. He plays drums in Dutch-language rock band Stek. Pim lives in Amsterdam.