Last month, Tender Loving Empire sounded the proverbial trumpets in order to announce its plans for an ambitious, "pay-what-you-want" pricing system for its digital catalog. The label showed such excitement for what it dubbed the "Priceless Music Project" that label co-founders Jared and Brianna Mees even went so far as to offer middle-naming rights for their firstborn child to anyone willing to fully fund the project.
Though the financial response to the Project has been less than momentous (as of this writing the label is $625 toward its crowd-funding goal of $48,000, with just six days left; you can donate here if you like), the Priceless Music Project still remains one of the more ambitious schemes we've seen in recent months to draw money from the perpetually mercurial music industry.
We emailed label co-founder Jared Mees a few questions about the Project, what the new pricing system would mean for TLE bands, and possibly scurrilous middle names for the Mees' daughter.
How did the idea of the "Priceless Music Project" come about? Have you been working on this rollout for a while?
Jared Mees: Well, The Priceless Music Project is the coalescing of the "pay-what-you-want" sales method that TLE and several of our bands have been offering at shows for years. Typhoon, Finn Riggins, Boy Eats Drum Machine and my own band (Jared Mees & The Grown Children) have been selling our CDs on the road on a sliding scale of $5-$15 to quite a bit of success, especially in markets where people at the show weren't necessarily there to see your band, were pleasantly surprised by what they heard but maybe didn't want to drop the whole $12 retail price for a CD…We've found that we end up averaging a price of about $8-$9 but have a much higher volume that helps offset that price difference.
We've been working on rolling out this actual version of the project for a few months now. It's been a lot of brainstorming and worrying and days and days of discussions but we think that what we've presented has the potential, if embraced by the music community to be the next paradigm shift in the way people obtain music. It's really more about the idea and the ideals behind the project as much as it's about TLE or any of our bands making a bunch of money. As much as we'd like to see an increase in the sales of the albums of our bands, we'd more like to see what the music industry would look like if the playing field was leveled and there were no set prices for digital music…It seems like the label or band withholding the music based strictly on the fact that money hasn't been exchanged is a kind of prosaic idea when there's so many other ways someone can support the band or label monetarily. Maybe someone who gets the album for free ends up becoming the band or label's biggest fan, buys all their vinyl, goes to all their shows and recruits ten other people to do the same. Suddenly free albums seem like a really good idea, right?
The fear is that everyone will just flood the site, download the album for free and then the band/label goes belly up. Our interface will be much more about communication with the fan about the needs and liabilities of the band, (how many miles they travel each year, how many mouths they have to feed) as well as offering them incentives to pay over the average price paid (like exclusive songs/videos, etc.) and super incentives (like extremely limited custom vinyl/out of print or rare band items) for being the person to pay the most for the album. All of this ultimately stems from the desire to create a more intimate and active relationship between the people who love the music and the people who make the music.
Did you run this idea by all of your bands before committing to it? What was their reaction?
JM: We did run the idea by all of them to largely positive responses. Since this has been something we've done in the past with physical CDs on tours, they understand the concept and that it's already worked to a certain extent. Every member of every band on our label is also a big music fan in addition to being a musician so an interface like this, one that assists fans in hearing more music as well as assists musicians in getting more fans appeals to our band members on multiple levels.
Do you have any estimates about what you expect people to actually pay for albums?
JM: We expect people to pay whatever they want. We know that the average price paid will probably be lower than a typical retail price paid, but we also expect the volume to be a lot higher which, ideally, will offset that lower price paid. And like I said above we are really looking for that volume to increase more so than the price paid. I am confident enough in the quality of TLE's catalog to know that the real battle is to just get people to come to the site and get the music regardless of what price they pay. I think the music will actually do the hard work of making believers out of people after that. My job (and deepest desire really, why I got into this business to begin with) is to facilitate a connection between one person who is seeking, and another person who is offering. What happens after that is all happening in a very intimate and hidden place where the music speaks and the person listens. In the end, the goal isn't just to sell a record to someone, it's to make a believer out of them.
The "Priceless Music" video made it sound like you had plans to license this software to other businesses if it winds up being successful. Is that the case?
JM: We're still hashing that out. The idea is that many many others will be able to use the software/platform to do the same thing we're doing. A lot of it depends on how much it actually costs to develop. Ideally, if it's not open-source it will be available on a very reasonable basis, most likely based on a band or label's success with the model. We are really trying to connect people and musicians here and it'd be silly of us to put up a barrier to that by charging an exorbitant price.
In the absence of an angel investor, do you have any middle names picked out for your daughter? Alternately: do you have any nightmare middle names that you're worried some wealthy lover of indie rock will force on your firstborn?
JM: We really like Simone or Shilo. Nightmare names would be something totally off the wall like Hitler or Buttmunch. We are hoping whoever has that kind of money to donate also has a sense of decency. Ideally it'd be like after their late mother or grandmother or wife or something.