Chiefs puts fans in control

Band sets unusual digital plan

There’s nothing unusual about a band wanting fans to be invested in its success, but for an act to make that investment profitable for its followers — well, that’s another matter altogether.

That concept, however, is at the core the business model hatched this past week by Britain’s Kaiser Chiefs, who launched their new album, “The Future Is Medieval” on a digital platform that not only allows fans to build a custom collection, but also to sell their unique versions of the album and pocket a commission in the process.

Frontman Ricky Wilson says he and his bandmates were “burned out on the idea of another cycle of doing prep work six months out, press three months out and promo shows a month out,” so they decided to stage a guerrilla release of their fourth offering with no forewarning.

The singer says that merely surprising fans wasn’t enough, though.

“We wanted to involve people on a number of levels,” he says, “and we kept coming around to the idea of how to do something that would be financially good for the band, and for the fan.”

So with business partner and friend Oli Beale, who works with the London office of ad agency Wieden and Kennedy, the band went about setting up a platform that essentially turns each consumer into a mini record company — with the ability to design album covers, choose repertoire (10 tracks from a total of 20 recorded for the album) and re-sell via social networking sites.

“At one point, we were told we’d have to register as a bank in order to pay out funds and offer money back to anyone who asked for it,” says Beale. “But then we worked out a partnership with Paypal, so as soon as someone sells their copy, the money goes directly into their account.”

That commission turns out to be roughly $1.63 per sale (the customer pays just over $11 for the 10-song package). And while Wilson declined to go into detail about the band’s cut, he acknowledged that the financials were slightly better than with a traditional physical release — which will follow, via the band’s parent label, Universal, later this summer. (Beale says that the label group is considering using the platform for some of its other acts in the future).

Beale grants that the model isn’t for everyone, noting “you need something of a profile in order to make something like this work, just as Radiohead needed its profile to do what they did with ‘In Rainbows.’ ” He also concedes that the fractured nature of the release negates chart eligibility, as each individual seller’s version of the album counts as a separate release.

Wilson calls that latter consideration “liberating” and points to the benefit of being able to consider the sales of individual tracks when putting together the traditional release of “The Future Is Medieval.”

“It’s been gratifying to see how many people are willing to try this,” says the singer. “It’s so easy to get music for free online these days, and people could find ways to get these songs as well, but this is selling very well. People want to be part of something — it’s very punk rock in a lot of ways.”

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