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My Friend The Chocolate Cake
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Driftnet: Goodbye, Mr Ten Per Cent
Smart musos are cutting out the middle man and plugging directly into the fans, writes Jon Casimir.Saturday,

Saturday, March 25, 2000

A mate of mine plays in Melbourne band My Friend The Chocolate Cake. They've been around for quite some time now, and recently found themselves at the end of a contract.

Rather than re-sign with the old company or forge a new contract with another outfit, they decided to go it alone, at least for a while. As a way of testing the waters, they rounded up a bunch of unreleased tracks from the vaults and pressed a CD. They then sold the album, 19 Easy Pieces, at gigs on their summer tour.
At $20 a pop, a good price for the fan, they parted with more than 100 copies every night. Some nights, they sold twice that.

All up, they played 14 gigs, with one in four punters choosing to buy the CD as well as a ticket. By the end of the tour, the band had sold a couple of thousand albums.

Chocolate Cake had previously released four CDs. All four sold respectably, about the 15,000 mark. For each one of those individual sales, $2-$3 made its way back to the band. For each copy of the new CD they sell, about $17 in profit comes back.

Do the maths. At six times the return, Chocolate Cake can afford to lose many of the supposed advantages offered by record companies (marketing, distribution, media attention etc). If they lose 75 per of their usual sales numbers, they're still ahead.

In between tours at the moment, they're shifting their attention to the Web, adding credit card facilities to the Chocolate Cake site to make it possible for 19 Easy Pieces to be sold that way. Who knows how many it will sell in the end? Probably not enough to make them billionaires, but enough, perhaps, to be a viable and attractive economic model.

Not every band can take this option. New acts are often desperate for the exposure and advertising muscle that a major label can offer. But for those with an established audience, and a career that is, shall we say, mature and unlikely to scale up or down dramatically, it looks pretty good.

Especially now the Net is here. And while everyone is getting carried away (justifiably, to some extent) with the future of the direct-download revolution, the fact is, musicians are already using the Web to do all kinds of things: to break down the barriers between themselves and their audience, and to cut out the industry middlemen.

David Bowie has used his site as a marketing and creative tool, offering exclusive tracks free from his own Web-site, soliciting lyrical input and allowing surfers to remix tracks.

The Beastie Boys have done similar things and recently offered a Make Your Own Anthology service for a few months. Visitors could compile their own list of greatest hits which would then be burned to disc and mailed to them.

Canadian singer Jane Siberry is another artist simply taking advantage of the Web to cut down the number of people between herself and the money earned by her art. Always a wilful artist, Siberry's work has rarely sat with the pigeonholing simplicities of the mainstream.

Though she had worked with major labels before, Siberry has now chosen to release her records on her own label, Sheeba, and distribute them via the Web. From her typically wry site, she explains herself, interacts with the media and sells CDs, books, videos, T-shirts and choir charts.

This is her window directly to the world, to her fanbase of, oh, probably a couple of hundred thousand people, a geographically spread community of a few thousand here and a few thousand there.

As with My Friend The Chocolate Cake, Siberry has decided, for the moment at least, that the major record companies have little to offer her. To be fair, you'd have to imagine the majors wouldn't be too sad to lose her as she was always a marginal commercial prospect, no doubt more difficult to deal with than the latest compliant 15-year-old popette.

Siberry has not only decided to maximise the profit margin on sales of her albums, she has also grasped the bull by the horns and decided to use her freedom to release the kinds of records that few, if any, major companies would allow anyway. Her latest work, New York Trilogy, is a four-CD collection, a distillation of three concerts, each specifically themed.

"Lack of cash has been a great teacher," Siberry says on-site, "but creative control is a rare thing. As head of my own label, I've had a lot of lessons in a short period of time that have put me in a much better position as a human being and creative person. I've enjoyed having the mystery removed from the 'artist's life' thing, so that the fans are seeing how it really is!"

Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 2000