Give It Away Now
Mash Notes by Sarah Askari
Ozzy Dahlstrom does not, at first glance, look like a purveyor of the absurd. Actually, he looks like the kind of prematurely responsible kid who might be left in charge of the class while the teacher leaves the room: uptight enough to be trusted by authority figures but normal enough to be trusted by his peers. Yet the redheaded young man in front of me is explaining the most distinguishing characteristic of his new local indie record label, Limerick Records, and it's a head-scratcher. (And not just because they don't have an official limerick, although that does strike me as an oversight and I have recommended to Dahlstrom that he commission one.) Limerick Records does not sell records—or tapes, or CDs. Instead, it gives away digital downloads of all its artists' music for free.
As the McNally Smith graduate explains to me how he developed his unconventional model, 20-year-old boys join our coffee-shop table in staggered handfuls—the artists who have signed on to be part of the Limerick experiment.
"I'd been managing these three bands [Gazillion, Capitol Jay, and Sonicate]," Dahlstrom recalls. "Gazillion's last record came out about a year ago. We released it, and after a big promotional push and lots of shows, we realized we weren't selling any records. Not enough to turn a profit, not enough to break even."
"Sales are simply down nationally," he points out. "It doesn't have anything to do with talent."
So Dahlstrom came up with a different plan—one that dispensed with the idea that it was still reasonable to expect curious fans to actually pay for the privilege of owning a band's music. He set up the Limerick Records website to allow gratis downloads of all albums by Limerick artists. The records are there, free for the taking, like fruit from some sort of community garden.
Dahlstrom is the manager for all Limerick Records artists. As such, he profits from the bands' ticket sales, publishing rights, and merchandise. The label, in this model, is sort of a promotional tool—as he describes it, "more of a brand name than a business."
"There'll be hard copies made in limited runs if someone wants, but no one who wants to listen will have to pay," Dahlstrom says. "We still have album artwork—you can download it. And we're going to be taking great interest in the poster art for shows."
"As far as I know, we're the first to try this business plan."
The crew kicks around the name of fellow local act Zibra Zibra, who had free digital download stations available for fans at the release party for their latest album, 777. "The Arctic Monkeys did some free downloads," remembers Sonicate bass player Willie Gregory-Bjorklund. "But I don't know anyone who's gone this far."
"We decided it was the way to go, and if we insulate ourselves from any outside opinion, no one will tell us we're wrong," Gregory-Bjorkland happily asserts.
Not all of the artists on Limerick were quick to agree to Dahlstrom's plan. "He had to sell me on it," admits Gazillion's lead singer, Simon Fuerstenberg, "and Jason," he says, pointing a figurative finger at Capitol Jay guitarist and lead vocalist Jason Wiederin.
"I'll miss the tangible product," Wiederin says, "but it's not really viable. And I didn't want to be hypocritical about it, 'cause I hadn't bought a CD in years."
Of course, Dahlstrom's bands are all in the early stages of their indie-rock lives, when talent and popularity are still developing, and asking people to pay for your music might seem only a little more hopeless than asking them to listen to it in the first place. But just days after our conversation, Radiohead announced that their latest album, In Rainbows, will be available for free download at the band's website. (Their last album, Hail to the Thief, has sold almost a million copies in the U.S. alone.) And where Thom Yorke goes, must not the entire universe follow?Ê
GAZILLION and SONICATE perform at a CD-release party on THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11, at the RITZÊTHEATER; 612.623.7660
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