Recording artists once looked upon a major-label record deal as the Holy Grail. But now, thanks to the Internet, signing one's rights over — often at the risk of being lost in the corporate shuffle — is no longer the only way to reach the musical masses.
FIG. 1: The subscription service 52 revolves around Ari Hest writing, recording, and releasing a song a week to his fans for a year.
Photo: Malcolm Browne
Singer-songwriter Ari Hest (see Fig. 1) and his manager and brother, Danny (see Fig. 2) , have launched a unique platform for showcasing Ari's music, communicating with fans, and turning a profit. The brothers' Web-based service, titled “52,” allows subscribers to receive a new, original Hest song each week: 52 in 52. The service operates on a three-tiered ($20, $35, or $75) format. The higher the level, the more additional perks you get, such as merchandise, concert tickets, video, and bonus tracks. At the end of the year, subscribers will vote for their 12 favorite songs, which Hest will then remaster and release as a CD.
Ari Hest built his foundation as an independent artist by recording, touring, and developing a following. By the time he signed with Columbia Records, he was a recognizable name in the music world — but not to the degree needed to become a label priority. Released from his contract last year, Hest and his brother began brainstorming for a new way to put out his material, expand his audience, and remain fiscally secure. The result was their service, 52 (arihest.com).
Armed with a MacBook Pro running Apple GarageBand, Hest began writing, recording, and mixing his songs while his brother built their Web site, which launched this past January. And so far, they say, so good. Ari says that he had already written about 25 percent of the material needed; the rest he has to write as he goes. “I'm not doing any covers. I toyed with the idea of doing them or rehashing old songs,” he says, “but it almost cheapens it to me. I want to challenge myself with this.”
FIG. 2: Danny Hest, Ari''s manager, was instrumental in developing the plan for 52. Danny also built the Web site.
Photo: Courtesy Danny Hest
How is membership reaching, or even surpassing, your expectations?
Ari Hest: It's not blasting off, but we didn't expect it to right away. The first month was pretty good, then it slowed a little and it's still steady. We're having a great time with it.
Danny Hest: We set out on a pretty conservative track. My goal was 2,000 members for the year, and maybe five or six times that if it catches on. Frankly, I spent more time on the technical side of it than I wanted to. Now that it has taken off, I can concentrate on referrals and street time to encourage people to join. It takes a little convincing to get fans to try something different, so I'm pleased but not ecstatic. However, I see potential for growth.
I heard that you recouped all of your expenses after one song.
DH: The only expenses are our publicist, Monica Hopman, on a monthly basis, and two years of Web hosting that were paid for up front. I bought three books on how to build a Web site and spent maybe $100 on some digital Web tools. I used Joomla, a free, open-source content-management system. I had built a few sites for Ari before he was on Columbia. I taught myself; I'm decent at it. I learned out of necessity. Ari bought a new hard drive, monitoring speakers, and a mastering program. We did a preorder in the middle of December, and within a week we had almost completely recouped our expenses — so we knew this was a model that could actually work. We're also offering songs in the traditional way on the MP3 store, and we uploaded the first 13 songs to iTunes and got a lot of sales from that, too. We're trying to put as much quality product out there as possible, and he's enjoying seeing the direct correlation to fans' excitement. It's been successful from a business standpoint.
How big a part did your major-label deal play in building your fan base and making 52 viable?
AH: I have a lot of respect for a lot of people I worked with at Columbia, and they'd agree that my experience there did not expand my fan base. They felt bad; their system wasn't working for me. I was independent before signing with Columbia — and I was selling records almost as much, with a decent fan base.
DH: The best thing Columbia did at [that] point in Ari's career was to let him out of his contract. They wouldn't have gone for this idea. This came out of wanting to do something creative and release all the material he had. On a label, with the traditional way of marketing, it's hard for them to adjust their schedules. For a prolific artist, that's not conducive. They certainly tried on his first record, but he never got the full benefit of being on a major label. And on his second record, everything was falling apart — people were being fired, and it almost did damage to what we built up. Ari was in the spotlight for about a minute, and then they pulled the plug. Every time we were about to get somewhere and rally support for the next record, there was a new president [or] this and that person to prove ourselves to. The timing was never in our favor until they let us off the roster. It was remarkably easy to get out of the deal.
Will artist subscription Web sites eventually be a common way to sell CDs?
AH: I think we will see more of this kind of thing, but it's contingent on the artist wanting to learn how to record, EQ, and mix. I had no idea. I don't know the proper way to mix; it's all done on two speakers I got from a friend, and then going to different stereos in my apartment and car to test it. I'm still not sure what compression does. But I'm motivated. If an artist isn't willing to learn, technically, they probably won't get far with this idea.
DH: [Some of my other artists] are thinking about it. Several are on labels, so the likelihood is very small. Several industry people are intrigued by the model. It also takes a very particular type of artist to pull this off — a very prolific songwriter, adept at recording themselves and making things sound good, and who's willing to work that hard to come up with and do the production for a song every week. And it takes a fan base to start with, to make it plausible as a model. If Ari were starting from scratch, I don't know whether we would have been able to consider this model right from the start. We're lucky that he made albums over the years and people were eager for the next thing he would do. It's not right for everybody.
There might be variations on this model for other artists. A fan wants everything put out by their favorite bands. Artists have been doing subscription fan clubs for years, providing access for more content and special content. There are companies that specialize in making these Web sites. The difference in what they pull off and what an artist in real time can pull off is amazing. Fans here are part of the creation, and there is something very powerful about that happening in front of them, versus someone releasing an old show every two weeks.
What is your advice to artists trying to find new ways to advance their careers?
AH: Playing a lot of shows is important. What's also helpful to me is being motivated to learn about new things. When they don't come naturally, you have to figure them out for yourself. It's annoying. It's not something you look forward to. But you have to force yourself, because it's only going to help you. It's increasingly hard for new people to get their name out, and the more you can do for yourself, the better. Having been independent, on a major, and then independent again, it's clear to me that the best way to go is independent, because labels don't know what they're doing and they wouldn't do a project like this. They are in no position to take this on. They're still in album/single mode, and they need to get out of that or they will go away. I think that in a few years we will see a lot more subscription things from artists and labels. My street team has also been great.
DH: My advice is, and always has been, do as much as you can on your own. With the Internet and social-networking tools out there, and how recording costs have dropped, it's far easier to make recordings sound great and spread the music through other means. I also tell artists, “You shouldn't wait around hoping someone will discover and sign you.” That's a rarity. Take the mind-set of making something happen for yourself. It's very rare for a manager, agent, lawyer, or label to pick someone out and create a career around them. You have to be a self-starter. It takes a vision from one person to get people excited about your music, and sometimes that one person is the artist.
Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer for Mix andAllHipHop.com. Her features have also been published in numerous other music-industry magazines.