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Indeed, Radiohead's stunt had psychological components: How much is its music worth to its fans? More important, how much are fans willing to pay for something that's essentially intangible? Or, for that matter, something that can be downloaded for free? After all, an MP3 is ephemeral, a piece of data that can easily be deleted.
As Grabau points out, it's all about what those zeroes and ones represent. He cites a recent cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." This free MP3 was available via Wilcoworld.net to those who pledged to vote.
"The context of the MP3 is what probably becomes valuable," he says. "That has no meaning whatsoever in itself. But it happens to be [performed by] a band that's pretty remarkable and new, Fleet Foxes, and a band that's been around for a while that has a very good career, Wilco. [They] got together on an iconic song, [and] you get it for free if you pledge to vote. That song is relevant because of the people that made it, because of what it represents."
Radiohead's October 2007 an-nouncement almost overshadowed one made by the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, twang-punk band Glossary. In September of that year, the quartet stated that it was giving away its latest CD, The Better Angels of Our Nature, via its website, www.glossary.us. Its previous two records came out on Undertow. But independent of Radiohead's decision, Glossary had decided to forgo familiar physical distribution models.
With that in mind, Glossary sent copies of Angels first to long-time supporters on an e-mail list called Postcard from Hell. When the album was released, fans were instructed to spread it freely on social-networking sites and message boards.
"We put the record out for free, we've basically leveled the playing field between us and a band that has a big company behind them," says Glossary singer-songwriter Joey Kneiser. "All of a sudden, we have worldwide distribution of our record. Anybody who has an Internet connection can go get our record. And if they like it, they can listen to it and come see us, or they can order the hard copy. If they don't like it, they can just delete it.
"We decided that we didn't really sell enough CDs to where it would really hurt us, and the exposure would be much better," he continues. "We actually thought that it would probably make us sell more CDs."
Kneiser's hunch was right: The gamble paid off "way beyond our wildest dreams," he says. Glossary hoped Angels would be downloaded for free 5,000 times from October 2 through the end of the year. The band hit that amount within two months. More important, Glossary saw a spike in total album sales across the board — including physical copies of Angels.
"People started buying the CD off the website that was free," Kneiser recalls. "We were selling pretty much about one a day for the whole rest of the year, up until we just ran out. That was crazy, because they're ordering a CD on the same site that's free. There were those people who still want to have a physical copy of the CD."
While Glossary satisfied its rabid fan base — which was happy to spread Angels around — it also gained some new admirers.
"A lot of the people who were buying that new CD wanted to buy everything that we had for sale," he says. "Most of the time we would get our orders in, they would be for three CDs — they'd want the new one and the other two that we have."
Magnolia Summer's Chris Grabau is a fan of the "long tail concept." Conceived by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, the idea posits that immediate gratification isn't a sustainable model for economics — or entertainment. So it's not about how many CDs or digital downloads the new Lines From the Frame sells in the short-term. Grabau is more interested in amassing a Magnolia Summer catalog that endures.
"As a musician, the sole intent for us above all is to make good music and get it out there somehow," he says. "People who would want to support my band will eventually — and I don't know if that will be at the merch table after the show or ten years down the road. I'm willing to take the time to find out, because it's about building a body of work."
Indeed, Grabau's band isn't a household name, but it's generally well-received. The band's last album, 2006's From Driveways' Lost View, earned favorable reviews from national publications Harp, Allmusic.com and No Depression. The band also plays every year at South by Southwest, as part of a popular showcase curated by Undertow.
Magnolia Summer also contributed a song to the three-CD project called Of Great and Mortal Men — 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. That track — "Czolgosz's Dream," about William McKinley's assassin — was one of three featured MP3 downloads on an NPR story about the collection.
Grabau recorded Lines from the Frame at Sawhorse Studios with Jason McEntire. Supporting him are long-time collaborators John Horton (guitar), Greg Lamb (bass) and John Baldus (drums). Joe Thebeau of Finn's Motel co-produced and lent backing vocals. Sonically, Frame is crystal-clear and dynamic. Grabau's keening, wistful vocals mesh well with mournful violin from Kevin Buckley and the occasional curl of pedal steel.