Burning Thumbs

Somebody at C-Net read a recent Pollstar article that asked why more artists aren’t recording and selling their own shows – and C-Net provided a modern-day answer.

Recording and selling an evening’s worth of music has an upside for an artist – more income – but the downside is the hassle. Venues – significant in either size or marketplace prestige – take a slice. IATSE takes a piece, too, as Barenaked Ladies’ longtime tour manager Craig "Fin" Finley reminded Pollstar. Then there is the significant paycheck of a dedicated sound engineer.

"But another reason is technology," wrote a C-Net blogger, noting the expenses of CDs and burn towers. "One possible answer is memory sticks. They’re more expensive per unit than blank CDs, but they’re smaller, file transfer is faster, and they don’t require dedicated equipment – just a computer, which you’re probably already using to record the show."

One artist doing this, the article noted, is Willie Nelson. Another, as Finley noted, is BNL, which sells Barenaked on a Stick for $25 after the show. By 2008, expect plenty more artists selling live recordings this way.

It was simple for BNL. The band already owned a Pro Tools system – a digital audio workstation that can cost north of $30,000 – and all that was needed were some thumb drives and a lot of USB hubs.

The shows are recorded, from the board, onto a laptop computer in a single mp3 file, then dragged and dropped onto the sticks, along with a text file of the setlist. About 30 sticks can be produced in a minute and there’s no such thing as "over-burning." If too many sticks get loaded, they’re erased for the next night.

It’s a fast transaction at the show: fans can buy the stick before the show; they’re given wristbands that are exchanged for the drive after the show. After fans load the shows onto their computers, they’ve got a reusable novelty in the 256-meg thumb drive.

"We’re talking files now and to put them on a CD is a bit redundant," Finley said. "On my Mac laptop, which I work on every day, I can’t recall the last time I stuck a CD in it for anything."

BNL has recorded its last four tours, although it’s been common to run into recording charges and sometimes it’s not feasible.

"You take a $3,500 [IATSE] union fee and a $2,000 house fee, you have to sell a hell of a lot of music," Finley said. "But we see it as a huge fan service first and the fans eat it up. We don’t necessarily see it as a goldmine at the end of the show. … However, whereas the unions tend to be pretty sticky and non-negotiable on the figures they want to charge you, a lot of venues / promoters are flexible."

About a year ago, a company called All Access Today, which handles Willie Nelson’s fan club, wrote recording and replication software that allows artists who do not have Pro Tools to get into the act just the same. And rather than sticks, the company manufactures wristbands with thumb drives in them.

BNL uses a "sister company" of All Access for its product, according to the company’s Chris Collins.

"We run direct off the board," Collins said. "When the feed comes from the board, we’re actually remixing it to a CD-quality sound rather than getting the house mix so you get the ambient crowd noise. It sounds pretty much like anything you get on iTunes."

The company is currently handling Nelson’s concerts and selling the wristbands at the shows and on LiveWillie.com, and recently released 25,000 copies of Matchbox Twenty’s new album in wristband format. All Access Today expects to record Matchbox Twenty’s upcoming tour and to work with "a bunch more" artists next year.

"As far as unions go, we always pay the union depending on what venue you’re at," Collins said. "It’s not a big deal and it works out in the wash anyway."

Artists also face copyright issues. What if an act is fond of playing a particular cover tune every show? Or likes to mix it up? If an artist plays someone else’s licensed music, it might not take long for the artist to find out what the Harry Fox Agency does.

A spokeswoman for HFA, which collects and distributes mechanical licensing fees on behalf of music publishers, told Pollstar the agency has developed a special licensing program called Express Live so artists can record live without too much red tape.

The flagship artist for the program was Gov’t Mule, which has been known to play cover tunes for nearly half the evening. The band could decide night of show what cover songs to play, and sell, and Express Live would provide a grace period for licensing. Likewise, acts that tend to play and sell the same cover songs can give HFA intent, then log in with HFA the day after each show to provide tracking of the recording.