Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips has always been a restless soul, happy to build and then discard a musical persona as she encounters new challenges and fresh pastures — both creatively and entrepreneurially — over the course of her long and prolific career. Which helps explain why Phillips, who started out in the ’80s as an acclaimed and very traditional Christian music performer, has morphed into an avant garde artist whose latest project, “Long Play” — an ambitious and highly personal Web-based art and music installation — only exists in a virtual world, “as digital files, which is both great and weird,” she says.
Phillips has taken a year off to create the online site: an eclectic mix of new music, short films, original essays and candid footage of her at work. She likens the endeavor to “part magazine, part museum tour, part radio show — and an inside peek at the creative process.” It’s also her response to the changing realities of the music business.
“I loved my last label, Nonesuch, but I was frustrated by the amount of money that was spent on my last record compared with what actually got done,” she says. “And I don’t blame them — the record business is just badly broken and that’s what happens now. The old way of doing things just doesn’t work anymore.”
The artist saw it as the ideal time to experiment with “new ideas, and to do things I’ve never been able to do with a label.” That includes releasing five EPs (issuing one every two months, a process that started in October) as well as a full-length album (scheduled for release this fall) — all in the space of a year.
The first EP was “Hypnotists in Paris,” a collaboration with the Section Quartet string ensemble. “Then I did a holiday EP, and I can release extra tracks and do instrumental music — and instead of the old way, where I’d have to go out and promote them and spend months on the road, I can just focus on being as creative and productive as possible,” she says. “I still have two EPs and the album to go, so it’s a lot of work, but so far so good, and I’m really enjoying the whole experience.”
For Phillips, the experience is also about giving her audience and fans “full access to what I do, in the same way you want to read everything an author’s written when you first discover their work,” she says. “It may not be a large audience, but after years of releasing a record every three or four years, I kept hearing complaints that it was too long to wait in between records. So this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”
And she’s happily adjusted to the financial realities of the new model. “I decided I’d go with however many subscribers we got (at $52 a pop), and that income would fund production,” she says. “So if the album’s just me humming into a microphone, you’ll know how many we got.”
The artist, whose song “Reflecting Light” appeared in 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” admits that it may turn out to be a one-off experiment. “I honestly don’t know if I can keep this pace up for the next 10 years, but it’s been so much fun and given me so much freedom that maybe I will continue,” she says.
She also notes that “Long Play’s” new artistic and business paradigm — her third EP, “Magic for Everybody,” is being released through iTunes, Amazon and other digital music stores April 20 — benefits the artist as well as the audience. “As soon as you create something, you can put it out there and get instant feedback and instant gratification,” she says. “No more waiting around for months to release something, by which point you’ve already moved on to another project. It’s instant.”