Rock's a hard place

Free Energy at a video shoot for Bang Pop staged in April at Pennwood Middle School. The bands promotional effort was cost-efficient, boosted by lots of free volunteer labor.
Free Energy at a video shoot for Bang Pop staged in April at Pennwood Middle School. The bands promotional effort was cost-efficient, boosted by lots of free volunteer labor. (Tony Fitts)

Get rich on big CD sales? Not happening, not anymore. Bands like Philly's Free Energy work for a living, online and onstage.

Posted: September 19, 2010

If any rising Philadelphia rock band would seem to have it made in today's topsy-turvy music business, it would be Free Energy.

Led by singer Paul Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells, the band was a breakout hit this year at the influential South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

The Fishtown quintet's fresh take on the clean, classic-rock crunch of 1970s acts such as Cheap Trick and T-Rex has drawn deserved attention both nationally and at home.

Six weeks before its first album, Stuck on Nothing, came out on CD, the band made its TV debut on Late Show With David Letterman. This summer, Free Energy toured the United States and played giant festivals in England and Japan. On Thursday, the band will bring its power-pop sound back to Philadelphia for a show at the First Unitarian Church.

All of which is enough to make Free Energy the envy of aspiring acts aiming to distinguish themselves amid a mad scramble of starter bands.

Even so, it's a slow grind.

The skinny-legged, long-haired guys who look as though they could have walked off the cover of a vintage Steve Miller album are striving to make a name for themselves in an industry that has been contracting for more than a decade.

So even though they're signed to a New York label revered by hipsters (DFA Records) and are backed by one of the four remaining major recording companies (EMI), Free Energy can't count on CD or download sales as a main source of income.

Once, a band could have. That's how it worked under the old rules. Today, anyone trying to make it in the music business is playing by the New Rules - which means, in the age of iTunes and YouTube, MySpace and Twitter, that the rules are always changing.

Under the New Rules, getting fans to pay for recorded music is a tough sell, but there can be real value in giving it away. And hardworking bands can make a living from playing live shows and placing songs in commercials, movies, and TV shows - so-called syncs.

"The industry has changed so much in the last five years that the rules that apply at one point don't really apply six months later," says Simon Henderson, the Scotsman who comanages the Philadelphia rock band Drink Up Buttercup.

So while Free Energy may sort of look like rock stars, and may one day be rock stars, they're not living like rock stars. On the rare occasions when they're home, they reside in shared apartments or group houses. All except Wells, who is not living quite that large.

"I sleep on a camping pad," the 32-year-old guitarist says in the band's rehearsal space, above an auto-repair shop, which would overlook the Market-Frankford El if it had a window.

Wells shrugs as he looks down at the floor where he often spends the night: "It's pretty comfortable." There's no shower, but along with a turntable, a drum kit, and empty Kenzinger beer cases, there is a utility sink in the corner.

"We always talk about how there are two realities for Free Energy," says Neil Harris, the band's manager. "There's the fact that they got on Letterman and have gotten attention in Rolling Stone and Spin." He laughs. "And then there's the fact that Scott sleeps on the floor in the studio."

The Napster Effect

It's been more than a decade since Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning created Napster, the file-sharing service that set off the recording-industry collapse that continues today.

In 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan, 373.9 million albums were sold. That is down 12.7 percent from 2008, and less than half of the 785 million sold at the recording industry's peak in 2000. (Last year's 373.9 million includes 76.4 million paid digital download albums, the most since the iTunes store opened in 2003.)

In June of 2000, Newsweek ran a cover story on Napster. Andy Hurwitz, who now runs Drexel University's Mad Dragon Records label, then had a jazz-and-R&B label, Ropeadope Records, that occupied half of the 27th floor of a skyscraper off of Rockefeller Center. (He now runs the label from his home in Narberth.)

"I couldn't have scripted this any better," Hurwitz says. "When we signed with [legendary Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun, I was sitting in his waiting room and [Atlantic co-CEO] Val Azzoli showed me the magazine, and said, 'Have you ever heard of this?' That was the beginning of the end. The foundation was shaking. But no one fully realized it at the time."

There is no shortage of statistics to illustrate the recording industry's decline. Revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009, according to Forrester Research. In 2000, the biggest album was 'N Sync's No Strings Attached, with 9.9 million sold. In 2009, the top seller was Taylor Swift's Fearless, with 3.2 million.

Through the week ending Sept. 12, album sales were down 13 percent from last year. That week, 4.8 million albums sold - the lowest weekly figure since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991.

It's a bleak picture, but it overstates the industry's demise; iPods, iTunes, and downloading have created new listening habits, and a shift from entire albums to individual songs. And focusing solely on albums ignores the explosive growth in areas such as digital-track sales, which topped 1.1 billion in 2009, though they have not offset the precipitous drop in CD sales.

Acts entering the business, like Free Energy, have other potential sources of income.

"If the traditional CD sale is not working for you, you're not dead," says David Bakula, analyst for Nielsen Entertainment. "There are so many other ways you can make money. When the boy bands did staggering numbers - 'N Sync sold 2.4 million in one week - they just had album sales. Now, we've got album sales, track sales, mobile-phone ring tones, mobile streaming, syncs, merchandise. . . ."

Under the New Rules, there are more options, and ingenuity is essential.

"There's no one answer," says Kristin Thomson, who works from her home in Penn Valley as education director for the Washington-based musicians' advocacy group Future of Music Coalition. "There are so many formulas. Musicians and bands have all these tools they can use now."

"The indie sensibility might once have been associated with slackerdom," says Bruce Warren, program director at WXPN (88.5 FM), an early Free Energy supporter. Local alt-rock station Radio 104.5 and Princeton University's WPRB (103.3 FM) have also backed the band.

Warren first tipped Free Energy's "Dream City" on his "Some Velvet Blog" in May of 2009. The song has since been used in a Flip camcorder TV commercial and in a Target ad for snowboarder Shaun White's clothing line. "If you want to make a living," he says, "you have to work hard."

And if you do, there can be a payoff.

Harris, a 25-year veteran of the music business, says that these days, "It's much easier to make a living. But it's harder to get rich."

"It's harder to become really rich," says Sean Agnew, the Philadelphia independent promoter whose R5 Productions puts on shows at venues all over town, including the First Unitarian Church. "But it's easier to do well, and become middle or upper-middle class, like each member making $50,000 or $60,000 a year. The challenge is to make a name for yourself."

Befitting a band that specializes in bouncy, seize-the-day choruses and power-pop guitar riffs, Free Energy singer Sprangers, 30, doesn't buy into the idea that it's not possible for bands to be big. "I think that's a fallacy. I just don't think there are any ambitious groups or musicians anymore who are willing to go for it."

The ability to adapt is also crucial.

"There really isn't a model that says, 'OK, I have this type of band, I'm going to do this,' " says Henderson, the comanager of Drink Up Buttercup. "The only thing that is constant is that you have to write really good songs, make really good records, and work really hard. Everything else is in flux."

In the last decade, record stores have all but vanished. Chains like Tower and Sam Goody have gone belly-up.

The bricks-and-mortar retail world now consists of big boxes like Best Buy and Target, surviving chains like FYE, and scrappy independents such as a.k.a. music in Old City and Main Street Music in Manayunk.

The Online Explosion

While retail has all but disappeared - or migrated to a Starbucks or Cracker Barrel point-of-purchase display - online music has exploded.

"It's been 10 years since Napster, and now we have some perspective," says Thomson, of the Future of Music Coalition. She says the industry's efforts to preserve old rules of the business - by limiting digital copies and pursuing people who downloaded music illegally - have failed.

"They had some success, but they can't get back to the point where there's forced scarcity. Before 1999, where could you buy records? You could buy them at the store, and you could hear them on the radio. The Internet changed all that."

In 2010, those options still exist, along with innumerable others. To know a band is to Google it. You can listen on MySpace, network on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and check out what songs the scads of MP3 blogs are giving away on the Hype Machine. Or what bands are being plucked from obscurity by the online indie-music bible Pitchfork - which has given Free Energy unwavering critical acclaim.

If you choose to own, you can buy songs on iTunes or Amazon, or niche services such as eMusic.

Millions use illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing tools such as BitTorrent to download music (and movies and TV shows). This year, CNN reported that fewer than half of U.S. Internet users - 44 percent - believe music is worth paying for.

In one bit of good news for the industry, the NPD Group found that in 2009 there was a 25 percent decline in the use of peer-to-peer illegal-downloading sites. One reason: People have built up their collections. Once you've downloaded the Beatles or Billie Holiday catalog, you don't have to do it again. Another was the popularity of legally watching or listening to streaming music on home computers, laptops, and mobile devices.

Along with ease of access for fans, technology has brought ease of production and distribution for bands.

With laptop tools such as Apple's GarageBand, "you can make a record in your bedroom, upload it digitally, and get worldwide distribution without ever getting out of bed," says Paul Dickman, a Philadelphia music industry veteran who partnered with blogger Joey Sweeney to create Philebrity Label, which put out the topflight debut by the Philadelphia band Blood Feathers.

With the barriers to entry all but gone, "it's much more democratic now," says booking agent Tom Windish, whose Chicago firm books Free Energy, along with 400 other bands, including Philadelphia DJ-producer Diplo and Drink Up Buttercup.

"Major labels put blockades in place and made it difficult for bands to get heard," Windish says. "Now, you put a few songs up on MySpace and if people like it, word can spread very quickly."

The best way for news to travel in the entertainment business has always been word of mouth.

Word of Web is faster.

"Ten years ago, bands would play for 100 people," says Windish. "The next time around, people would bring a friend and it would be 200 people. The next time, maybe 400 if things are going well.

"Now, the trajectory is the same, but the word spreads so fast that it all happens much more quickly."

Through the downloading decade, acts were heartened by a robust market for live concerts.

In 2009, despite the economic downturn, North American concert-ticket sales were up almost 10 percent, to $4.6 billion. That's an increase from the $1.75 billion the industry took in 2001.

The concert business took a hit this summer, paying the cost of a prolonged recession and high ticket prices as acts old and young try to make up for losses in income by touring more. Billboard reported recently that concert attendance was down 30 percent for the year, while Pollstar, which tracks the touring business, said gross revenues for the top 100 U.S. tours were down 17 percent in the first half of this year.

"There's a glut in the concert market," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar. "People are being selective. Everybody's trying to wring as much money out of their touring as they can. And I guess the question is, at what point do you actually kill the golden goose by twisting its neck so much to get every last dollar out of it?"

But concert industry panic is "a high-end problem," Harris, Free Energy's manager, said this month.

This year, the average price of a concert ticket to the Top 100 biggest tours was $60.77, down from last year's record of $64.61, according to Pollstar. Tickets for Free Energy and Titus Andronicus at the First Unitarian Church on Thursday are $13.

"The ground for the mid-level act is more fertile than ever," Geoff Gordon, president of the local chapter of concert giant Live Nation, said in May at a music-biz seminar in West Philadelphia called Show Me the Money.

Agnew, whose R5 Productions has booked Free Energy into the Fishtown clubs Kung Fu Necktie and Johnny Brenda's, says the club business has been resilient.

"Things seems to be fine in the smaller- and midsize-band indie business," Agnew says.

The Never-Ending

Tour

That's good news for bands like Free Energy. It means that while acts breaking into the business may never earn any significant income from their recordings, they can still have a career.

"Touring is essential for everybody," says Harris, who also works with the Australian electro band Cut Copy and used to manage the American pop band Scissor Sisters. He was speaking last spring at Pennwood Middle School in Yardley, where Free Energy was shooting the video for the bubblegum nugget "Bang Pop." The band made the video for $30,000, a quarter of what it would have cost a decade ago.

The label put up the money, and Josh Nussbaum, who has helmed episodes of MTV's makeover show Made, was hired to direct. Scores of volunteers showed up for a casting call at Urban Outfitters, lured by the prospect of hanging with the band and snagging a signed cassette of Stuck on Nothing.

That's how the music business functions under the New Rules: With an excess of enthusiasm, and a shortage of cash. "My staff was the casting department," says Harris. "It was, 'C'mon down, you've been cast as a Hot Girl. No, you're not getting paid.' And, amazingly, 100 kids show up and want to do this."

The video concept - the Ramones' Rock 'n' Roll High School meets Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" - was the band's. "Free Energy goes to a high school, and inspires kids to rise up, put on psychedelic war paint, make posters, and dance," is how Sprangers explains it.

"It's just like a concrete example of what's good about music," Wells says of the video, which was tagged a "Buzzworthy Obsession" by MTV. "It helps people open up, helps them look at things differently. It's a pretty simple metaphor."

The hook-happy single finally reached the Top 40 on Billboard's alt-rock chart this month.

"Music is the spark, the hope," adds Sprangers, who grew up in Minnesota and moved to Philadelphia with Wells in 2008. "It certainly was for me, for us."

"I would definitely be a different person," Wells adds, "if it wasn't for my musical life."

If Free Energy is going to continue to have a productive musical life - and make a living at it - the band will need to earn money on the road.

"You don't make any money selling records," Harris says. "At the core, the business is basically the same. Make good records, play good shows, and you'll be fine, as long as people like it. It's just that none of my artists now are really in the record business. They're in the music business. And almost all of their income comes from playing live."

Harris' aim is for Free Energy "to get it big enough so they can make money from playing live all over the world." He believes the band's appeal is broad enough to attract "people who buy two records a year. Suburban housewives and their husbands - those are the hardest people to get."

Though they are well-positioned, the band's future remains uncertain. For all of its progress, Free Energy hasn't "made it" all the way yet.

"It feels good," says Harris. "But nobody knows if it's really going to work. This is the magical time."


Hear Free Energy

Go to Dan DeLuca's blog, "In the Mix," at , for video clips of Free Energy.

See Free Energy

Free Energy will appear in an all-ages show with Titus Andronicus at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. Tickets: $13. Information: www.r5productions.com.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

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