Saturday, May 30, 2009

SF Independent Musicians Campaign from London Bus - 2

Chris Hansen, musician and multi-media web company founder, is the man trying to raise the profile of the city's independent musicians and steer them through tumultuous

waves of change that are rocking the global music industry - see previous blog

At the heart of every musician is the drive to get their music heard and for young, unknown musicians this is far from easy. Which is why, yesterday, Chris and his troubadours were on an
open-topped London bus touring the streets of San Francisco.

The major obstacle facing independent musicians is recognition and it's side-kick, money. With the arrival of the internet facility of free downloading, this has opened up an avenue that many musicians have welcomed.

But not so the major recording companies for whom this form of free publicity for aspiring artists is draining their income. The 'Big 4' - Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI - are renewing attempts to block illicit downloading.

'They are trying to say all recorded music should be paid for but the reality is that 95 per cent of all music that is downloaded is downloaded illegally for free,' said Chris.

'So from an independent musician's perspective, we say why not give all our music away for free for recognition, as recognition is our currency. Being unknown, no-one is interested to help you.'

Chris stresses that they are not against the major labels but feels that they 'don't have the answer for independent musicians, especially now that we live in a post-Napster world - the first downloading service that was closed down - in which most consumers feel entitled to get their music for free.

'New technologies have spurred the do-it-yourself movement for independent musicians, but realistically we are still a long way off from being truly self-sufficient. There are thousands of online resources for musicians, but still no way for us to draw in a significant audience,' he says.

'There are tons of home recording options, but anything that will actually make you sound good is still too expensive for most people. So, what's left is for those of us at the bottom rung of the ladder to work together in the spirit of collaboration, rather than competition.'

Chris, aged 32 years, is multi-talented and in the forefront of city campaigning with his company, Bricks and Mortar Media, and plays bass and does vocals in his band, Bloomsday Rising.

Earlier, as an English and Philosophy major in Atlanta he co-founded an arts magazine, bluemilk, that expanded into a multimedia arts group - see an excellent article:

In 2004 he left Atlanta for an MFA in Writing and MBA programs at the University of San Francisco. Today he is in the throes of writing an article on the state of the music industry and the San Fran music scene - the draft is brilliant and I'll publish a link to it when it is completed. In it are some eye-opening stats for those not in tune with the industry:

'The reality is that most musicians do not have a substantial enough following to make a profit from CD sales, digital downloads and streaming royalties. According to Nielsen Soundscan, approximately 80% of all albums released each year sell less than a hundred copies. The remaining 20% of musicians account for roughly 96% of all music sales.

'But even that lucky 20% doesn’t really earn a living by selling their recorded music. The standard agreement with major labels requires songwriters to forfeit all copyright, as well as 90-97% of the revenues from album sales, in exchange for the distribution, promotion and support required to make an album a hit. It is only through extensive live performance, merchandise sales, and exhaustive touring that the signed musician earns a real profit.'

The widespread dissemination of music these days, said Chris as we stood on the bus, has turned the multi-million rock star into a mythical being and created instead a musical middle-class.

As I asked him what chance he thought he had against the big music companies, he explained.

'What is the chance is the redefining of what success means. It no longer means being a rock star and making millions, but more of a middle-class ambition. Could I quit my day job to be a musician? That is the threshold.

'It's not that we're opposed to making money but we could sell these to a few people or we could give them away to a lot,' he said, handing us a CD of his debut album, 'Rattle the Windows', and a follow-up EP, 'Unlocked.' Across the back writ in large unmissable letters: rip, burn, remix, share.

The heart of life for the independent musician in San Francisco is the Hotel Utah, a historic, green-painted turn-of-the-19th-century edifice that now overlooks the expressway exit on 4th Street and Bryant. Inside is the narrow saloon with it's famed bar back where on Monday nights the musicians get together not only to perform but to be recorded.

Known as 'open mic' sessions, these are a lifeline. 'For many musicians this is the only recording they have as they can't afford to go into a recording studio,' said Chris. The man behind the recordings is musician JJ Shultz whom Chris described as ''tireless in his dedication to the artists.'

On the website, musicians can access free streaming audio clips of their performances.

'The reason why the Hotel Utah open mic is so special is because of the selfless environment and overarching sense of community,' he says.

'For a singer/songwriter who can't afford a demo, this is a great starting point. Perhaps it would be enough to get a gig, and perhaps that gig will lead to bigger and better things...'

For now, Chris' website,, says it simply: ' 'til you drop.' So long as the work is attributed and no profits are made.

As the musicians strummed and sang their way around the streets of San Francisco atop their red London bus, this is the freedom they are fighting for.

Next Sunday, Chris will be in San Diego for the conference of the National Association of Recording Merchants - NARM - when such issues will be thrashed out.

Meanwhile BAMM leads the city campaigning. As their website says, 'Bricks and Mortar Media has big plans to create a venue in San Francisco as well as a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, so check back often for more updates.'

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