Chan Poling winced when he remembered the price tag for the Suburbs’ original “Love Is the Law” music video. It cost the band in 1984 dollars six times the entire amount it needed to put out a new album this summer.
“We spent $300,000 on that thing, because that’s what you did in those days,” Poling said, likening the major-label record company structure of the ’80s and ’90s to stories of military contractors who charge $5,000 for a toilet seat.
“The system was so bloated back then. Things are a lot more levelheaded now.”
Now that fans, not record companies, are helping the Suburbs finance their albums, he means.
Poling’s locally beloved dance-rock band — returning Friday to First Avenue to celebrate its new LP, “Hey Muse!” — is the latest in a string of prominent Twin Cities rock acts who have turned from the long-faded record labels of old to crowdfunding as a way to put out their latest albums.
Other former major-label artists from the Twin Cities who enlisted the new, fan-driven methodology include Dan Wilson, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and Tommy Stinson with his band Bash & Pop. In each case, the musicians reached out to their audience four or five months ahead of the album’s release, selling everything from private concerts and autographed guitars to standard hats and posters, all to help get their new music out to the public.
“It’s another example of how the internet — for all its downsides in the music business — has also enabled musicians to do a lot more on their own,” said Wilson, who returns to the Electric Fetus for an in-store appearance Friday promoting his new album, “Re-Covered.”
Now a Los Angeles resident, the Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare singer said he had one simple goal in mind when he reached out for support via the website PledgeMusic: “I thought it’d be very dreamy to not lose money on this record in the end,” Wilson said.
PledgeMusic bills itself as a “direct-to-fan” website rather than “crowdfunding,” which is the type of project-financing platform pioneered by Kickstarter. The Suburbs switched to its own PledgeMusic-like platform for “Hey Muse!” after using Kickstarter to help put out their 2013 album, “Sí Sauvage.”
“We wanted to tone it down a little bit,” explained Poling, whose group offered everything from a $10,000 private concert to a $400 all-access show pass during the 2013 campaign. This time, they kept it simple with $20 vinyl editions of the album, a $45 autographed poster and only a few other extras.
All told, the Suburbs raised about $50,000 from their "funraiser" campaign for the new album, a good chunk of which went toward the actual manufacturing of the vinyl and CD editions. More was spent on hiring an art designer, publicist and radio promoter — services that record labels used to provide. And then there were the many thousands of dollars already spent on studio time and other costs of actually recording the music, an area where Poling admitted the Suburbs “might be guilty of being old-fashioned.”
“You get in a weird position of having to defend yourself for wanting to make a high-quality record, and I guess I’m OK with that,” he said.
“I’ve tried for years to do things myself, but I really do need to pay a good engineer and use a real studio and all that old-fashioned stuff to make the kind of record I’m proud of. And I’m very proud of this one.”
Et tu, Def Leppard?
Wilson similarly felt compelled to defend the costs of his rather distinct new record.
“Re-Covered” is a collection of songs he mostly co-wrote with other artists for their albums but has never recorded himself. They include the Grammy winners “Someone Like You” (Adele) and “Not Ready to Make Nice” (Dixie Chicks), plus “You and I” (John Legend), “Treacherous” (Taylor Swift), “If I Walk Away” (Josh Groban) and “Home” (Dierks Bentley).
“I couldn’t just do lazy, acoustic-busker versions of them and call it a record,” Wilson explained. “I needed the record to have its own unique sonic identity.”
Toward that end, he recruited name-brand producer Mike Viola (Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis) and even wound up hiring the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet to play on the new version of “Someone Like You.” Suffice it to say, the acclaimed classical ensemble doesn’t work for cheap.
“It was like a dream come true working with them, and I probably never could have done it without” the PledgeMusic campaign, Wilson said.
For the Jayhawks, last year’s PledgeMusic campaign behind their well-reviewed album “Paging Mr. Proust” helped fulfill the goal of working with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and his collaborator Tucker Martine as co-producers. That plan, however, involved extra expenses covering the band’s living arrangements to work in Portland, Ore., for several weeks.
It was the Jayhawks’ first time enlisting a pledge campaign, and the idea was initially a hard sell for frontman Gary Louris and his bandmates, the group’s manager PD Larson said.
“They had some qualms about it, like you’re holding out your hand for money,” said Larson, who laughed at the memory when they all realized even Def Leppard had a PledgeMusic campaign going at the time. “When a band like that — which was giant in the ’80s — has to do it, then you don’t feel bad about the Jayhawks having to do it.”
About 90 percent of the fans who took part in the Jayhawks’ campaign simply opted to buy a copy of the new record. “They’re essentially just preordering the album, and it’s a great way of doing that,” Larson said. The other 10 percent opted for extra doodads such as a signed expanded vinyl edition of the LP ($50) and handwritten lyric sheets ($250).
“When you have fans who are that enthusiastic to buy something special and are literally asking you for it, why not give it to them, especially if it helps get your record out?”
Getting to interact and involve those hard-core fans has actually paid off in more ways than just the financial support, according to both the Suburbs and Wilson.
“It can be a lot of fun, and ends up enhancing the whole experience of putting out an album,” said Wilson, who especially relishes the chance to hand-design calligraphy sheets for pledge supporters. “Calligraphy is kind of a weird obsession of mine, and it’s incredibly funny and enjoyable to me that now I get to make it a part of this music career of mine.”
Always up for a good time, the Suburbs might be having the most fun of all when it comes to interacting with fans via their pledge campaign.
They offered cocktail parties and golf outings with supporters around their last album. This time, they played a special private show at the Turf Club, and they also invited pledgers to a happy-hour hang a month ago at the Summit Brewery in St. Paul to tap the first keg of the limited-edition Suburbs New Wave Ale, which will also be available Friday at First Ave.
“What band wouldn’t want their own brand of beer?” laughed Poling, who remained serious about the end results of the campaign.
“Musicians are resilient. Musicians go against the grain and find a way around the demands of the real world in order to achieve the goal of making their art. I think this is all just another fine example of that.”
Special offers for fans
Here’s a sample of the incentives that acts offered to fans who pledged support for their albums:
The Suburbs: 12-inch “Hey Muse!” single ($15), autographed poster ($45); 2013 album campaign included golf outing with band members ($500) and private concert ($10,000).
Dan Wilson: Hardcover book version of album ($35), original calligraphy ($300), one-on-one songwriting coaching ($1,500), house concert ($5,000).
The Jayhawks: Knit winter cap ($30), test-pressing LP ($150), handwritten lyrics sheet ($250).
Soul Asylum: “Grave Dancers Union” live download ($20), signed acoustic guitar ($750), guest-list for life ($2,500).