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But Undertow no longer needs to depend on a physical distributor to get its music into record stores or online music outlets. With the influence of brick-and-mortar music outlets waning, digital distribution is sufficient.
And because the collective pays less to distribute its records through TuneCore, its artists see career-sustaining money sooner. In essence, TuneCore gives Undertow the same access larger bands have at a fraction of the cost.
"The music industry was traditionally all about distribution, and the cost of distribution and infrastructure [was] really, really high," Price says. "There were only a few companies in the world that could do it effectively. Digital distribution changed all that. In the digital world, you have digital music that replicates itself on demand as a perfect digital file, with no up-front costs, and it never runs out of stock.
"The metaphor is: Twenty years ago, I bump into you on the street and in your back pocket you have a CD or cassette of your band," he continues. "And I say, 'Tell you what — pay me $30, and that CD of your band that's in your back pocket will instantly be available at every Tower Records, with infinite inventory. Every time it sells in Tower, Tower will take their cut and you get the rest. That's what TuneCore is."
The Undertow Collective stresses that CDs aren't going to disappear just because digital music is becoming a dominant medium. Their artists will still release them (especially because some have separate record deals with indie labels such as Polyvinyl or Barsuk). The relationship between the buyer and seller in many cases is just more direct.
"You're just cutting out retail, you're cutting out distributors," Andrews says. "You're selling right to the fans, whether it's digital or actual CDs."
Despite the illusion that the Internet has created distance between artists and fans, the opposite seems to be true. If anything, technological advances have facilitated closer relationships. Buying music directly from a band's website creates the perception of a personal, one-to-one relationship.
Sometimes customers even have a direct hand in the creative process. When it came time for singer-songwriter David Bazan to self-release a DVD called Alone at the Microphone this year, he and Andrews turned to fans to help finance it.
"Whoever pre-ordered it, we sent them a download code to get the audio tracks separately," laughs Andrews, Bazan's manager. "It was sort of the old, 'Let us borrow your twelve bucks for a month and we'll give you some MP3s for free.'
"We did [the DVD thing] not knowing how we would make our money back on it. We sold a thousand of them before we even had them. By the time we ordered the first batch, a thousand of them were out the door. It's amazing.
"If you can find your five or six thousand loyal fans, you can make a really amazing career out of that," Andrews continues. "They'll come to every show, they'll tell [their] friends. They'll buy everything you put out, they'll buy the shirts."
It helps that Bazan — who used to front beloved indie-rock act Pedro the Lion — makes sure that his fan base gets its money's worth.
"Any time there's someone in a room where I'm playing, I need to do whatever I can, so that if it's possible, they're going to freak out and want to come back and bring people," Bazan says. "People ask me, guys who are just starting out, 'What do you do, how do you get going?' You just have to be good. And if you can't get your friends to come see you and keep coming back, then you don't got it. You gotta work harder and be better."
"Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days;We've called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. Jonny"
The UK quintet directed fans to www.inrainbows.com, where they could obtain the album in two formats. For £40 (roughly $80), customers could buy a coffee table-book-like "discbox" which contained Rainbows on vinyl, CD and as a digital download. The other option was to order a MP3 download for whatever price you wanted to pay. Fifteen dollars, five dollars, even zero dollars — any amount was fair game.
Releasing new music exclusively via the Internet isn't a new concept. But never before had a hugely popular band so drastically cut out music industry middlemen when releasing a new album. Essentially, the quintet became a self-contained record label, distributor and record store — one that could operate independently from mainstream, traditional business models. Radiohead — and not the bean counters — controlled how and when fans heard its music.
The results sent shockwaves around the industry. Other big-name acts, like Brian Eno and David Byrne, followed the band's lead. Electrometal superstars Nine Inch Nails even one-upped Radiohead by releasing two free collections of music in 2008: Ghosts I-IV and The Slip.
Bob Andrews stresses that not every musician has the luxury to release albums in this way. "Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails can, because they already have fan bases," he notes. "But you're not going to ever break a new band like that, because you're immediately assigning zero value to their music."