It’s no secret that the music industry is changing. Until recently, major labels controlled almost every element of what music the public listened to—from recording contracts to the medium in which music was distributed, such as CDs, to the mainstream media outlets that advertised their product. The advent of Internet downloads, iPods, Internet radio and the proliferation of music pirating has rendered label’s old business model obsolete, and the industry is struggling to find new footing. According to Reuters, last year “marked the lowest tally and the steepest decline in album sales since Nielsen began publishing estimates” in 1993.
Although this must be horrifying to the major labels, it marks an entirely new playing field for independent artists. Santa Cruz-based Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), which plays Missoula’s Wilma Theatre Tuesday, Jan. 22, has become one of the bands on the cutting edge of this new digital age. The five-piece instrumental electronic band, known for staging grand multimedia concerts, is among the country’s top grossing independent acts, according to Pollstar magazine.
“Almost all of our successes are in some way tied to the Internet, whether it’s record online ticket sales or hundreds of thousands of podcast listeners,” writes keyboardist David Phipps in a recent e-mail interview. “But our most notable accomplishment on the Internet is the launch of our new record label, 1320records.com.”
STS9’s new digital label evolved from the idea that the band’s website could act as a portal for fans to access their music catalog, including podcasts and live concerts. As STS9 began to release more and more material, the site became a natural online hub for their dedicated fan base—repeat visitors and new profiles increased dramatically. The greater demand then prompted STS9 to pump more time and energy into fostering the community.
“[In addition to] frequently updating content, whether it was fresh news or fresh product, we
also provide different ways [for fans] to interact…whether it’s the ability to write comments on the homepage, a fan message board, or the STS9 blog, peaceblaster.com. There’s content and a mechanism for interaction for everyone,” writes Phipps.
In short order, STS9 found themselves wielding the most valuable commodity in online marketing: a reliable and identifiable network of like-minded people connected through their website. With their own online sales soaring, the band decided to turn its attention to exposing their audience to other artists with the creation of 1320records.com. Last month the label released the solo debut of Sub-iD, adding the underground electronic artist to a catalogue that already included Tuskface and STS9 side-project Landscape and Breathe. This form of “network swapping”—the ability to share information seamlessly between two or more artist’s online communities—is an incredibly powerful and cost effective way for artists to pipeline potential new fans to their site.
“1320records.com encompasses STS9 studio and live releases, as well as artists we love and respect,” writes Phipps. “We want to offer the same direct pathway from artist to audience we enjoy, but maybe an up-and-coming artist can’t…provide for themselves.”
But Phipps stresses it’s not just for unknown acts.
“For other [more established] artists, 1320records.com is a niche market that is yet another distribution channel to employ. By combining self-promotion efforts from multiple artists, we hope to create a cooperative environment that expands the exposure of independent music to a larger, more diverse audience than any single artist could achieve on their own.”
And STS9 isn’t just limiting this model to other independent musicians. The socially conscious band has traditionally chosen to support three different charities with their tours—one each on a local, national and international level. In the past, those groups have included children’s music programs, women’s shelters, Democracy Now, Rock Against Cancer and the Global Information Fund. Their current tour is working with Conscious Alliance, gathering canned goods at every show to help feed the hungry. STS9 is now capitalizing on relationships such as these to grow its online community, as well.
“By linking to these charities, I guess you could say we’re gaining diverse exposure for STS9,” writes Phipps, “but hopefully it’s more the other way around.”
Sound Tribe Sector 9 plays the Wilma Theatre Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 8 PM. $25/$22 advance. Guests who bring 10 cans of food for the Conscious Alliance Food Drive will receive a free limited edition poster.