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Globe Magazine

The self-promoting, fan-financed, go-it-alone star

How Louis C.K., Matt Nathanson, Amanda Palmer, and other artists are seizing control and rocking the entertainment world

Illustration by John Ritter

IN 1988, a chubby 10th-grade music nerd from Lexington found himself combing the stacks of LaSalle’s record shop in Boston when he was surprised to see a celebrity walk into the store. It was Tracy Chapman, the folk singer and former Harvard Square busker who had gained international fame that same year when her self-titled debut album went multi-platinum.

Matt Nathanson had bought Chapman’s album, had caught her once in concert, and had just shelled out for tickets to her upcoming show at Symphony Hall. He excitedly approached the singer to tell her how much her music meant to him. But before he could get to her, a woman who had accompanied Chapman into the shop stepped in his way. “Can I help you?” she asked curtly.

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“Hey,” Nathanson said, trying hard to sound casual. “I’m a big fan of Tracy’s and I just wanted to tell her that.”

The woman replied, “I’ll tell her.”

Time was, performers did their thing and let others worry about business. Now a new wave of artist-entrepreneurs — comic Louis C.K. and rocker Amanda Palmer among them — are taking full control. But by connecting directly with their fans, they’re also inheriting a whole bunch of headaches.

Illustration by John Ritter

Time was, performers did their thing and let others worry about business. Now a new wave of artist-entrepreneurs — comic Louis C.K. and rocker Amanda Palmer among them — are taking full control. But by connecting directly with their fans, they’re also inheriting a whole bunch of headaches.

Nathanson, whose world began and ended with music, was equal parts crushed and dumbfounded. Tracy Chapman was standing just a few feet away, yet rather than simply acknowledge a compliment from an earnest fan, she’d allowed him to be given the brushoff by a gatekeeper.

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Nathanson thought to himself: If I ever figure out a way to make a living as a musician, that is the exact opposite of the kind of artist I want to be.

After attending college in Southern California, a slimmed-down Nathanson did choose the musician’s life. And for the first dozen years of his career, it wasn’t hard for the singer-songwriter to keep the promise he’d made to respect his fans. For starters, there weren’t that many of them. And he was completely dependent on those fans he did have, not just to buy his self-released CDs but often to let him crash on their couches during low-budget tours that felt more like door-to-door sales campaigns. Although he had developed an appealing blend of rock, folk, and pop — and was signed to a major record label for the release of his sixth album — many people wrote him off as just another guy with a guitar singing love songs.

He left the big label and went back on his own. But Nathanson’s life changed in 2009 when his single “Come on Get Higher” caught a wave and went platinum — meaning it sold at least 1 million copies — two years after the album’s release on a smaller label. When a clueless Canadian TV host asked him to explain why success had been so slow in coming, Nathanson cracked: “It’s a strategy we have. It’s called ‘Wait as long as you can possibly wait and then have a hit.’ ”

Last year, he released his album Modern Love, which scored the No. 4 slot on Billboard’s rock and adult contemporary album charts and spawned two radio hits, “Faster” and “Run.”

 This is about the time you’d expect to lose Nathanson to the rock-star bubble, like the one that encircled Tracy Chapman at the record store. But on the day I speak with him, just before his concert in Boulder, Colorado, he tells me he’d spent the bulk of the previous night answering fan notes and autograph requests that had piled up in his box at the post office. In addition to using Twitter and Facebook to convey information

Time Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Matt Nathanson continues to head into the crowd to mingle with fans after shows, saying, “you don’t just get up and leave right after sex.”

to general fans, he continues to pen a highly personal newsletter that he e-mails to about 34,000 of his most hard-core followers (he also sends them samples of new songs). Though delivered differently, his newsletter is not far from the thing he used to photocopy at Kinko’s and mail off when he was a twentysomething no-name, rather than a 39-year-old married father with a 2-year-old child and three singles that have made the Billboard Hot 100. And after many live shows, Nathanson continues to head into the crowd to mingle with fans, something he tells me is as important to him as the “post-coital embrace.” Unless you’re a jerk, he says, “you don’t just get up and leave right after sex.”

Nathanson is part of a new breed of performers who, even after achieving wide success, insist on holding on to the do-it-yourself sensibility that characterized their years of ascent. Their work in maintaining and leveraging an unmediated connection to their fans could help reshape the future of entertainment as the QE2-sized industry slowly capsizes under the weight of both new technology and old disregard for customers. After failing in their attempts to snuff out threatening innovation from newcomers and well-known artists alike, the big entertainment companies are now scrambling to capitalize on it. Consider how the publishing industry pounced on E.L. James’s self-published e-book — the one that began as Twilight fan fiction and offers Fifty Shades of the same couple of smut scenes inartfully strung together — and turned it into a best-selling behemoth that’s moved nearly 40 million copies worldwide.

“I want to go to Cincinnati and talk about my kids and shake hands with weird people who live in trailer parks.” -- Comedian Louis C.K., who cultivated his following through all his career ups and downs and now has a hit show, Louie, on FX.

K.C. Bailey/FX

“I want to go to Cincinnati and talk about my kids and shake hands with weird people who live in trailer parks.” -- Comedian Louis C.K., who cultivated his following through all his career ups and downs and now has a hit show, Louie, on FX.

As it happens, some of the established artists who are doing the most interesting DIY experimentation aren’t native to Hollywood or New York but instead emerged from the pop-culture backwoods of Boston. Last year, Newton-bred comedian Louis C.K. managed to circumvent the traditional networks by using his website to sell his comedy special directly to his fans for five bucks a download, and he ended up pulling in more than $1 million in less than two weeks. This fall, he’ll edge out an even more powerful force when he takes his live comedy act to 24 cities while breaking Ticketmaster’s grip on concert tickets. Instead of bowing to Ticketmaster and its service fees, C.K. once again turned to his website, selling tickets for a $45 flat fee. He moved 135,600 of them in just one week, grossing $6.1 million.

Amanda Palmer, another Lexington native and one who continues to call Boston home, made music history earlier this year. The former singer of the Dresden Dolls, who persuaded her record label to drop her, used the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to solicit $100,000 from fans to fund her new album and tour. Over the course of just one month, her fans did as they were told — then threw in an additional $1.1 million for good measure.

While there have always been performers experimenting at the margins out of necessity, it’s different when mainstreamers begin doing it out of choice. “If people who are in the machine can use the power they get for good to do things outside the machine,” Nathanson says, “that’s how we’re going to get real progress.”

That is, assuming performers don’t buckle under the demands of this new model first.

***

IN 1990, a single mother in Newton came into a bit of money. Mary Szekely had used her software engineer salary to help put her three daughters through college, but her son had gone directly from high school to a job in community-access cable. Now she was in a position to make him an offer. Knowing her son’s ambition was to become a comedy filmmaker in the style of Woody Allen, she offered him $60,000 that he could use to attend New York University film school.

By then, Louie Szekely (pronounced SAY-kay) was a 22-year-old living in New York City and working in comedy. His stage name, Louis C.K., used the variant spelling of his last name that a camp counselor had once assigned him. Thinking the best he could hope for from an expensive NYU education would be creating a film for the student showcase, C.K. made his mother a counteroffer: What if I just skip the college part and you finance a movie for me?

When she agreed, he set about hiring a top-flight technical crew. He blew through the 60 grand, with his mother writing lots of checks to the film-developing lab favored by Martin Scorsese. The result was a 20-minute film called Caesar’s Salad. Although few people other than friends and family ever saw the absurdist flick, the experience affirmed C.K.’s belief that he was capable of producing real art and that he worked best when he exercised full control over its creation. (Although mostly forgotten, the short did attract some brief film-festival interest and spawn a lasting line of dialogue that still gets tossed around at Szekely family gatherings: “Put on your punishment panties!”)

 Despite a career that would find him writing for the biggest names in comedy — Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, David Letterman — C.K. never bought into the collaborative process as practiced at the major studios and networks. His first chance to direct a Hollywood release, Pootie Tang, turned into a profound professional embarrassment. The studio took the film away from him and re-cut it, but still kept his name on it. Roger Ebert equated the 2001 release to “one of those lab experiments where the room smells like swamp gas and all the mice are dead.”

I first met C.K. in 2004, when he was working on a sitcom pilot for CBS. By then, he had cultivated a devoted though still relatively small following, keeping his fans engaged by obsessively editing and uploading clips from his stand-up shows and posting them on his website. After CBS hollowed out his show with a fusillade of network notes and then declined to pick it up, C.K. returned to the road. During the next year, I spent a lot more time with him as he worked on his HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, but that show was canceled after just one season. Again, he returned his focus to honing his stand-up act and growing his fan base through more clips and blogging on his website.  

C.K. finally hit it big with his third show, FX’s Louie, now airing its third season. Not coincidentally, it’s also the one over which he exercises the most control — he writes and directs all the episodes and edits most of them on his laptop — all without any network interference. (When he received a handwritten fan note from Woody Allen earlier this year, a stunned C.K. immediately called his mom.)

If things go wrong — glitches with duplicate tickets, credit card refunds that don’t go through —Louis C.K. won’t have Ticketmaster to hide behind. He’s the face of the entire transaction.

Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe

If things go wrong — glitches with duplicate tickets, credit card refunds that don’t go through —Louis C.K. won’t have Ticketmaster to hide behind. He’s the face of the entire transaction.

Unlike the many comedians who view life on the road as something to be endured until a lucrative TV deal comes along, C.K. actually enjoys taking his act around the country. “I want to go to Cincinnati and talk about my kids and shake hands with weird people who live in trailer parks,” he once told me. Still, I never detected in him the same visceral need to commune with fans that Matt Nathanson and Amanda Palmer clearly exhibit. For C.K., the high level of fan engagement seems more like the currency he uses to purchase greater creative control.

His new Ticketmaster-free tour, then, has become a twofer. He gets to thank his fans by giving them the cheapest tickets around (even putting in measures to try to block scalping), and he gets to extend his artistic control into a new realm. When he announced his unusual initiative, he received applause from some unexpected quarters. Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard tweeted, “We love what @LouisCK is doing,” adding that he wished more people “had the stones” to do it.

When Hubbard declined to elaborate on his head-scratcher of a shout-out, I turned to music journalists Dean Budnick and Josh Baron, coauthors of the book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. They say Hubbard has determined that his company, which became only more dominant after its 2010 merger with powerhouse promoter and venue owner Live Nation, will no longer be able to thrive if it continues to be hated by so many of its customers. So the CEO is pushing for more transparency, including “all-in” ticketing where no extra fees are tacked on. The problem, the authors contend, is that Ticketmaster was able to become the industry giant largely because it was willing to take the heat for other players looking to cash in, including theater owners, concert promoters, and the artists themselves.

Rocker Amanda Palmer, who gets up close with her fans/patrons at an acoustic show in Cambridge.

Joash Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Rocker Amanda Palmer, who gets up close with her fans/patrons at an acoustic show in Cambridge.

It’s common for artists to throw up their hands when their fans complain about being gouged by Ticketmaster’s service fees, which can add to the overall ticket price by a third. But the authors say established performers are actually the biggest driver in determining ticket prices, based on their demands for a guaranteed take. The higher that guaranteed payout is for the artist, the higher the concert promoter sets the service fees to ensure it won’t take a bath. The biggest of the big touring acts, such as Jimmy Buffett, can actually command an astounding 105 percent of the gross ticket sales, according to the authors, leaving Live Nation to make its margins through fees and jacked-up beer prices at the venues it owns. “If you’re an artist telling your fans, ‘There’s nothing I can do about these service fees,’ that’s not exactly true,” Budnick says. “Most artists don’t care to do anything about it.”

In addition to saving his fans a few bucks, Louis C.K.’s move has the potential to shine a light on the shadowy world of live-show economics. The authors say C.K. is clearly leaving some money on the table by going around Ticketmaster. But they think his decision is a shrewd move that will further cement his bond with fans while giving him a more robust database of consumer information that he can choose to monetize any time he wants in the future. (Because the bulk of the big venues in the country are either owned by Live Nation or have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster, however, C.K. will find himself performing in some surprising places, such as the Masonic Temple in Detroit in October.)

Artists who share C.K.’s goals — but not his cachet, since they lack a popular TV show — look for more modest inroads. The jam band String Cheese Incident orchestrated a sort of flash-mob end run around Ticketmaster earlier this year. The band loaned a group of fans $20,000 and had them show up at a Los Angeles theater’s box office, where they could buy tickets for an upcoming show without incurring service charges. Then those fans handed the nearly 400 tickets back to the band, which sold them at face value — without service charges — to other fans through its website. Similarly, Matt Nathanson negotiates with Ticketmaster to offer his top-tier fans the ability to buy pre-sale concert tickets without service fees. Amanda Palmer says she tries whenever possible to avoid what she calls the Ticketmaster “mafia” by renting her own halls. “It’s a lot of work to do things that way,” she says, “but it’s worth it to prevent my fans from being screwed with $12 ticketing fees on a $25 ticket.”

Her lament about the amount of work involved gets to the heart of the sustainability question. Although it’s not as if C.K. is actually pumping out the tickets himself on an inkjet printer in his home — he relies on a behind-the-scenes service called eTix — the sheer logistics do demand a ton of his attention. And if things go wrong — glitches with duplicate tickets, credit card refunds that don’t go through — he won’t have Ticketmaster to hide behind. He’s the face of the entire transaction. In a recent e-mail, C.K. lamented to me about how little time he has, given his “siege of overwork.” As promising as his experiment may be, when I see him personally replying to tweets from some of his 1.5 million followers who have specific ticket questions, I can’t help but wonder: How much comedy is not being written while this guy is staffing his own help line?

***

IN 1991, a sophomore at Lexington High quit school. She felt most of her classes were pointless and, as the youngest of four kids, she’d always loathed being told what to do. But instead of going into the woods to smoke a joint in rebellion, she headed to CVS, bought one of those black-and-white swirl-covered composition notebooks, and made her way to the public library. She pulled a dictionary off the shelf and started writing down words and definitions. She didn’t need school. She would do it herself.

Amanda Palmer’s parents, in keeping with Lexington standards, were horrified at the thought of their daughter as a dropout. After three weeks of rebellion, Palmer struck a bargain with her folks and school officials: She’d return to school, but without having to take the math and science classes she detested. She graduated on time in 1994. That brush with dropout life, Palmer says, “taught me how to work within the system but get to do what I want to do.” Palmer is now 36, although she still reminds you of that undergrad from your Intro to Philosophy course who always walked into class with her hand up, ready to expound. For most of her music career, she operated the same way she had in high school, working within the system but insisting on getting her way. Earlier this year, she decided it might be better to build her own system. She turned to Kickstarter in May and promptly raised $1,192,793, making her the first musician to break the million-dollar mark on the three-year-old crowd-funding service.

In the black basement cavern of the Middle East club in Cambridge, about a hundred people mill around waiting for the show. This August performance is an invite-only reward for a portion of the 397 supporters who had ponied up $300 through Kickstarter to help fund Palmer’s album, Theatre Is Evil, and tour. (Those who contributed $1 got a digital download of the album; those who kicked in $1,000 also received a turntable hand painted by the singer.)

The crowd is an eclectic bunch — hipster couples, a guy in a white tux, heavyset young women in print dresses, an old dude with a ZZ Top beard, and a few souls whose outrageous outfits suggest they’re in search of a new home now that Harvard Square has stopped hosting Rocky Horror midnight screenings. Also in the crowd is Palmer herself, chatting with a few fans.

When the acoustic show begins, Palmer is barefoot, kneeling on a cream-colored sheet spread out on the floor. She sings without a microphone. Her percussionist bangs on a plastic tub and metal mixing bowls. Fans are enlisted to handle the lighting, which means they hold up long flashlights on either side of her.

This hour-plus performance is like nothing I’ve ever seen before — by turns strange, precious, and mesmerizing — but, above all, intimate. After the show, I chat with Lauren McDade, a 43-year-old who teaches high school English in Boston. She had never heard about Kickstarter until Palmer’s call for donations. She coughed up $300 and has since used the site to donate to three other artists. “I know corporations still rule,” McDade says, “but I like this idea that you can do it yourself.”

Amanda Palmer, second from right, meets with supporters during an evening that combined an art show and musical performance.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Amanda Palmer, second from right, meets with supporters during an evening that combined an art show and musical performance.

At other of her invitation-only shows, Palmer turned her encore into an opportunity for fans to write on her bare breasts in marker. “I’m a performance artist at heart, so this isn’t for everybody,” she tells me. “I like the excitement of living on the edge, the danger of closing the space between the fan and you.”

Although turning bare flesh into a canvas for fans won’t be a tactic many performers will rush to duplicate, the rest of the Palmer approach could become an important model. It boils down to enlisting your most passionate fans to serve as both donors and publicists, spreading the word about your latest work with evangelical zeal. How many fans are necessary to make this approach work? Kevin Kelly, the cofounding editor of Wired magazine, argues that solo artists can make a living with what he terms “1,000 True Fans.” These higher-order supporters can be counted on to buy all your work, as soon as it comes out, and to be willing to drive 200 miles to see your show. The key for the artist is to establish a direct relationship with the base, allowing for the easy flow of funds. Kelly acknowledges that, depending on their genre, some artists might need several thousand true fans for a sustainable career. But, he says, as long as these fans’ passion level is incredibly high, their total number doesn’t have to be.

Even though Palmer attracted Kickstarter support from nearly 25,000 people, she tells me the number of her “true fans” is probably somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. And they are a force to be reckoned with. “No billboard in Times Square is as powerful as someone telling a friend, ‘You’ve got to check out the new Amanda Palmer record,’ ” she says. Still, she acknowledges that many of those true fans have been with her for years, back to the days when she had a record label spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread the word about her.

***

“I realized that if my fans had to choose between me being a musician or a good e-mail writer, they’d want me to be a musician.” -- Jonathan Coulton, who’s built a thriving career without a record label

Shervin Lainez/file

“I realized that if my fans had to choose between me being a musician or a good e-mail writer, they’d want me to be a musician.” -- Jonathan Coulton, who’s built a thriving career without a record label

IN 2005, a guy who’d been writing software code for a decade quit his job. He’d always hoped to make it as a musician, and now, at age 34, he decided he needed to give it a real try. He lived in Brooklyn with his wife, a television producer, and their newborn daughter. The couple agreed he’d give it a year to see if he could get something off the ground. He revamped his website and announced he would create a song (or some part of one) every week and post it there. Being a computer guy, he paid scrupulous attention to the number of eyeballs his website attracted. It tended to hover somewhere around 100 visitors a day.

By week number five, Jonathan Coulton found himself with no good ideas. So he opted to record a cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” replacing the tune’s raunchy hip-hop vibe with a soft-and-slow James Taylor feel. It was a hilarious re-imagining of the song. The cover got picked up by a couple of blogs and then by a couple of DJs. When Coulton checked his website metrics, he was blown away to find that overnight it had attracted several hundred thousand visitors. He was an Internet sensation.

At least for a little while. When Coulton saw his fan base quickly drop back to more earthly numbers, he kept plugging away, churning out a new song each week. And slowly this time, but more sincerely, his following began to grow. When fans started asking him about live performances, he encouraged them to log on to eventful.com. That site let him track how many fans in a particular city would commit to attending a concert. As soon as that number represented enough in ticket sales to cover the cost of his flight and a hotel room, he and his guitar would head to the airport.

Coulton also set up a store on his site where fans could purchase downloads of his songs, but he decided against installing anti-piracy software to deter freeloaders. The way he saw it, he was telling his fans he trusted them. Besides, even if nine people downloaded his stuff for free, he figured a 10th would pay for the download, plus buy a ticket for one of his shows and fork over some cash for a T-shirt or other merchandise he sells at his concerts. For emerging artists, high-margin “merch” is a lifeline.

At the end of his first year, there were enough promising signs to keep going. At the end of his second year, he earned more than he had in his tech job. In June, he did a 15-date tour over three weeks. Coulton now travels with a band and a sound guy but tries to keep things lean. He spent somewhere under $50,000 for that tour, yet still managed to turn a profit. He’s had interest from record labels — and is scheduled to perform with the humorist John Hodgman at the Wilbur Theatre in November — but none of their offers have seemed worthwhile given what he’s already been able to accomplish on his own.

Despite all the promise that Coulton sees in this direct-to-fan model, he acknowledges its downsides. As C.K. and Palmer have discovered, a personal relationship with fans requires personal attention. Lots of it. For a long time, Coulton struggled to answer each fan e-mail that popped into his in box. But when that task began consuming the bulk of his day, he says, “I realized that if my fans had to choose between me being a musician or a good e-mail writer, they’d want me to be a musician.” He hired an assistant who replies to most e-mails and forwards to Coulton those that need special attention.

Coulton is proof that by working hard to nurture the fan relationship, artists can have a viable career — if not untold riches — without ever having had any institutional support. “I think we’re going to see more and more people who choose not to go through the old system,” he says. “It’s almost an accident of history that we’re in a time when we still remember the old system.”

***

IN 2012, the frontman of a defunct rock band called Soul Coughing wrote a blog post in response to all the people cheering the collapse of the unloved big record labels. Mike Doughty offered this pail of cold water: Without major labels, a band like Radiohead wouldn’t exist. That inventive English band, which came onto the scene in the early ’90s with the single “Creep,” has somehow remained a favorite in the alt universe long after it turned into an international juggernaut that regularly sells out the world’s biggest arenas.

In his essay, Doughty offered an insider’s guide to rock-band math. “Bands with hit songs still have to circle the country for a couple of years to build an audience,” he wrote, because that’s how you develop a real career. And those bands need what’s called “tour support” from their label to make all that circling possible. According to his back-of-the-envelope calculations, a new band would need $280,000 to fund a fairly bare-bones tour. “No tour support = no Radiohead.” Or, for that matter, no REM or U2. It’s a sobering thought.

Matt Nathanson, who in addition to being a talented performer remains a serious student of music history, also believes there will be no more Radioheads. “It took a machine like Capitol-EMI to make the band that global and that enormous.” Without the budgets of old, he continues, “it’s going to be hard for new bands to fill stadiums now.”

Some artists will still get lucky with a monster hit song, but they’ll never become a worldwide brand without the machine behind them. “The machine is obsolete,” Nathanson says. “The tools are back in the hands of the farmers. And the farms are local.”

At the same time, because the control of the industry gatekeepers continues to erode, the future promises a bumper crop of smaller-scale artists. “They’ll be successful,” Nathanson says, “but not in the way that bands were successful pre-Internet.”

Instead of ConAgra, think of your farmers’ market or CSA. There are a few drawbacks, of course, but at least you can usually deal directly with the farmer. And people always say the merch is better.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.
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