Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 2
Created by EscapeTheClouds on 2/21/2012 6:18:44 AM

New contributor Mark Rossmore of Escape the Coulds gives us a look at Piracy & it's effect on the Independant Artist in Part 2 of a 3-Part series. 

By Mark Rossmore

Photos used with permission (Credit: Mark Rossmore & DragonCon)


Swimming Around a Tsunami

What are steampunk musicians doing to stem piracy? Are they “pulling a Metallica” and sowing rabid discontent amongst their fans? Hardly! They’re doing quite the opposite.

“We have built our business model on trying to avert, not fight piracy,” Deadly Nightshade's Hazelton said. “We offer people who buy our stuff a lot of perks and provide the best customer experience we possibly can—and that’s easy since we’re an independent project. We can bend over backwards, refund or give away for free anything we want. It compelled us to come up with our own creative ways for addressing the issue while not penalizing fans who want to pay for the material.”

For many artists, it starts by giving fans something tangible and unique that can’t just be digitally copied and pasted. The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed Nothing released their debut album on wax cylinder. The first run of Eli August’s recent nautical-themed EP arrived like a captain’s letter of old, inside a handsome paper sleeve, wrapped in twine and sealed with hand-embossed wax. Unwoman sells her entire collection on a gold USB drive emblazoned with her logo. DNBS lists the names of its pre-order customers under “Special Thanks” in its CD jackets and offers them free recordings.

Even a simple autograph can be a personal connection between the artist and their supporters. DNBS, Clockwork Dolls and many others freely autograph CDs to fans upon request. When I released my most recent Escape the Clouds CD Until the End, I personalized and numbered the first thirty copies to each buyer—by name. No charge. Seriously, who would gouge paying fans extra for a penny of ink?

Creative pricing can also help draw in the fans tired of the Apple iTunes / AmazonMP3 $0.99-per-song structure. As Clockwork Dolls' Allison Curval suggested, artists could “offer lower cost alternatives for users such as ‘name your price’ downloads or other methods of capitalizing on folks downloading your music.”

That’s just what many are doing. Newer sites like BandCamp give artists direct control over their pricing. Their “name your price” feature allows bands to set a minimum price as a base, and a buyer can pay that or anything above it. It’s been put to good use by several artists here, including Unwoman. “My most recent three original releases,” she said, “are pay-what-you-want on BandCamp with $0 minimum; my recent covers album is $7.99 to download. I still feel like all of my pricing is experimental… The idea is to make great content that's easy to get legally, and make the fanbase happier.”

Hellblinki uses that system as well. “Some people insist on paying more for our music than we ask,” Andrew Benjamin said. “Hopefully these things will balance, even on a larger scale.”

What about educating the public about piracy’s ill-effects? “When was the last time,” Sunday Driver’s Joel Clayton said, “someone ran a (well thought out) TV ad about music piracy and its impact on smaller artists?” Playing devil’s advocate, if people don’t know a law’s being broken and to what extent someone’s livelihood is being threatened, can they be held fully accountable? I’ve known certain people who downloaded music like crazy and thought it really was free to take.

“The average consumer,” Hazelton said, “clings to a mindset that suggests digital property is not substantial so taking it is ‘no big deal’. If that idea could be corrected then I think that piracy might see reduction. I believe that people generally do not want to steal but if they can believe that piracy isn’t the same, they won’t stop.”

Not all agreed additional exposure was a good thing. “Stop giving piracy so much attention,” said Joshua Pfeiffer. “All it does is increase the general public's knowledge of it, which in turn entices more people to pirate any and everything. Believe it or not, a large portion of the general public wouldn't even know about piracy if it wasn't so focused on by the media and government.”

So, a bigger spotlight on piracy may or may not be a good thing. How about a bigger spotlight on the music makers? Does putting a face to a ZIP file of MP3s make people less inclined to steal them?

Staying Engaged

“It's important that people know I'm a real person and that I'm always working on new stuff,” Unwoman said. There’s no faceless intern handling her online presence. Like most of the bands here, she’s the one posting her own status updates and keeping in touch with fans across many different platforms.

One place where record labels continue to hold ground is in sheer marketing muscle. Their marketing departments plaster artists across the web, radio, television, and print outlets, a feat outside the budgets of all but the luckiest independent acts. However, their efforts seem to build a “rock star wall” around their artists, turning them more into icons or fashion statements than real human beings.

In contrast, the independent artist can remain far more engaged with their fans. We’re talking direct contact, putting a real face and voice to the music, whether it’s online, in person at shows and conventions, and through multitudes of media outlets. I’ve personally found meeting fans face-to-face one of the most inspiring things imaginable.

“Twitter, Facebook, Mixi, s'all good,” said Strange Artifiact’s manager Orlowitz. “In the indie scene here [in Japan] especially, it's the only way for bands to reach potential listeners unless they're willing to pay out the nose for traditional media exposure.”

I’d wager people would be less inclined to steal music from an indie artist they just traded comments with on a Facebook wall, spoke with in a chatroom, or whose hand they shook after a show. It’s a trade off: quantity of exposure for quality of personal connection.

Social media doesn’t just bring fans and bands together. Groups of artists can also pool their resources, live and online. As seen on the road and on Internet groups such as Facebook’s Music for Steampunks, artists come together to collaborate and to spread the word about each other’s work. Conventions like TeslaCon and Dragon*Con commonly see artists from all walks coming together. Voltaire, Hellblinki, and This Way to the Egress toured together late last year. Several steampunk compilations were released in 2011, including Pegasia Music’s The Lost Journals compilation, the Blood in the Skies soundtrack albums, and multiple Sepiachord compilations.

Hype and publicity aren’t the only things possible via social networks. Via crowdfunding tools like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, fans can make a band’s financial ambitions become a reality. For those unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it’s a service where a band can announce a goal with a set dollar amount—say, record an album for $5,000 or shoot a music video for $2000. Their fans can then pledge specific amounts, each of which nets them a reward once the goal is reached. For instance, if they pledged $10 towards a band’s new album, they may get a digital copy of the record once it’s done. If they pledged $20, they may get a physical CD copy as well.

Steampunk musicians Frenchy and the Punk, Eli August, and Extraordinary Contraptions have all had successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns for upcoming albums. Unwoman’s found it invaluable, a wonderful tool that’s enabled her to “keep making more awesome stuff”—such as a new documentary she has underway. It's just one more way independent artists use their own initiative to get fans involved and make their projects a reality.

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  To be concluded in Part 3 next week, be sure to come back next week!) 

About the Author:

Mark Rossmore crafts stories through both words and music. As Escape the Clouds, he creates exotic, vivid steampunk music via a flash fiction approach to songwriting. His music has been featured on sites such as,, and and multiple steampunk compilations. An avid writer as well, since 2008, nearly two dozen of Mark's fiction and aviation non-fiction pieces have been published nationwide in print and online. Check out all of his work–including his newest album Until the End–at .

Musicians participating in this article (in alphabetical order):






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Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 1
Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 3
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