Jimmy Shaw couldn’t believe what was happening. The guitarist for Toronto synth-pop band Metric was speaking at a music industry conference last year at Harvard University with lead singer Emily Haines and their long-time manager, Matt Drouin. “The panel was, like, R.E.M.’s manager, U2’s manager—some serious heavyweights,” says Shaw, laughing. And they all had questions for Metric. “It was pretty surreal.”
They were curious about Metric’s bold experiment in independent music making. In 2007, while working on their fourth studio album, Fantasies, the band turned down two multi-million-dollar deals from labels Interscope and Warner Brothers. Instead, during a five-hour conference call with Drouin and the band’s lawyer, they decided to start their own company, Metric Music International (MMI), with Shaw and Haines as co-CEOs. Rather than rely on a record company to make, promote and distribute their music in a multi-year, multi-album contract, the band started releasing their albums through MMI. The four members took control of virtually every aspect of the operation, from approving advertisements and renting cars for touring to poring over balance sheets and hiring booking agents. Metric is now a stand-alone enterprise unlike anything in the music industry. You might call it a band business.
“They’re becoming an all-encompassing world unto themselves,” says Eric Alper, a publicist with eOne Music Canada. “Nobody is doing this to the same extent.”
Metric is hardly the only act to venture into the business side. Bands like Wilco have their own record labels and handle much of their promotion through social media, while Radiohead has experimented with independent online releases of its two most recent albums. For many performing artists, the line between creative work and entrepreneurialism is blurring.
“You not only have to be a great singer now, you have to be a great marketer. You have to be a great radio plugger. You have to be awesome at accounting,” says Alper. “The question now is not only how good are we as musicians, but how good are we as business people?”
What distinguishes Metric is their involvement in every detail. The band’s decision to step away from the traditional record deal was spurred by a yearning for stability and creative control. “Frankly, we knew too much. We’d been through enough deals,” says Shaw, 37, talking more like a businessman than a veteran musician, using phrases like “cash flow” and “revenue sharing.” In previous deals, the record company took a big cut of profits. So did advertising and booking agents and public-relations specialists. “It’s incredibly hard at this point to know if we would have made more or less under a conventional deal,” says Shaw.
Comedians, too, are experimenting. Led by the hilariously crass yet sentimental Louis C.K., they’ve taken to producing and selling stand-up specials directly from their personal websites. Last year, Louis C.K. became the first by selling his stand-up special, Live at the Beacon Theatre, for a $5 download. It was a massive success, reportedly making the 44-year-old comedian more than $1 million.
“Besides being cheaper, it’s also the ability to make it unedited, the ability to go as long as you want,” says Steve Heisler, a comedy journalist and Just for Laughs talent scout in New York. It’s “the next logical step” for comedians. “This is totally in the vein of comedians caring deeply about who their fans are and what their fans want, and keeping as few barriers between themselves and their fans as possible.”
Shaw says if a band is going to survive without financial backing from an established record label, it has to cultivate a deep relationship with its followers as well. “When there is a completely unified exchange of energy between the band and the fans, that exchange of energy is the point of the whole thing,” he says. “The more there’s someone in the middle, the more the love gets drawn out.”