Severed Fifth: Bringing the Free Culture Movement to the Music Industry

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 31, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Jono Bacon is well-known in free and open source software (FOSS) circles as the community manager for Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu distribution. However, Bacon and his band mates in the metal band Severed Fifth are working hard to provide a working example of free culture. The band is now into its sixth week of a campaign to raise $5000 to cut a professional album, in an effort that is as much an experiment in building a community as anything that Bacon has done for Canonical.

Severed Fifth began as Bacon's one-man band in 2008. "I was hearing a lot of people talking about Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, and how they were giving away some of their music for free," Bacon recalls. "A lot of people were saying that this is the change of the music industry. But what struck me was that these bands already have reputations built on the coat tails of the traditional music industry. They have record labels, and a huge band giving away its music for free isn't much of a revelation. What It didn't tell me is whether this model could work for small bands, bands that were relatively unknown and that didn't have a label. So I originally set up Severed Fifth as an experiment to see if one musician (me) could derive some success with this model."

On his own, Bacon released Death By Reign, an album he describes as "a pretty intense death metal album" that "was about as accessible as the moon." Looking back, he concludes that "I did a reasonable job creating and releasing an album, but a pretty poor job promoting it -- largely because other activities such as getting married, moving to the United States, and writing Art of Community () had left him spread too thin.

Bacon resurrected the band again in 2010 as he started writing songs again. Returning home from New York, he met Chris Kontos, a former player in Machine Head, who helped him find another three musicians for a live band.

Bacon recorded Severed Fifth's second album, Nightmare by Design, by himself, because the live band was still in rehearsal when he was ready. However, the band has played half a dozen gigs around The Bay area, and Bacon assures everyone that Severed Fifth is now an actual band rather than his lone hobby. The members are now working on a video about the band's activities in 2010, and plans a professional recording session for February 2011. The new album, he says, will be more accessible -- "the kind of thing that regular rock fans could listen to."

Developing a solution for the music industry

Bacon describes one of the goals of Severed Fifth as "producing good music that people like." However, more ambitiously, the members of Severed Fifth hope to demonstrate a practical alternative to the current distribution model in the recording industry -- a model that is not only been made obsolete by Internet technology, but also frequently fails to benefit musicians.

Severed Fifth guitarist Jim Adams told Bacon what he already theorized: "When you get signed, you basically sign away your distribution rights a record label. If the label promotes the album, that may be beneficial, but, for many musicians, it means being dependent on the labels' willingness to promote the album, and losing any ability to promote the album themselves. "It's the definition of proprietary lock-in," says Bacon.

With album sales going largely to the label, bands are left to make money by touring through the sale of tickets, t-shirts, and other merchandise. The trouble is, labels determine which acts will go on tour. If sales are not high enough, then a label may not allow a band to tour. Alternatively, a band may sometimes pay to open for a major act. Either way, musicians regularly end up indebted to their label -- even if they have a best-selling album.

By contrast, Severed Fifth is experimenting with an alternative model, in which musicians rely on their own efforts and the power of social media to promote themselves. In the future, Bacon suggests, tours might be funded by corporate sponsors, just as a FOSS conference is now. He adds that "labels will become more like social media marketing companies, because the distribution will be effectively done by the band" via downloads and file-sharing.

However, "for this to happen, we not only need tools, but examples of bands that have done this free culture way of doing things and been successful. I want other bands to point to Severed Fifth and say, 'If those guys can do it, then we can.'"

Taking the first steps

Although Bacon and the rest of the band draw their inspiration from FOSS (and much of their initial support), he emphasizes that "We don't want to be just appealing to open source people. The first couple of shows, I didn't really mention that we were giving away our music, because I just wanted people to enjoy the music.

"But now when I'm on stage, I will say, we believe that music should be free.' And every time I say that on stage, it gets a huge cheer from the audience. We also give out these little fliers that say that the music is free, that you can share int with your friends and put it in your YouTube videos. And a lot of people have come up to us and say, 'Yeah, this is the way it should be.' I've not heard anyone come up to us and say, 'It shouldn't work this way. You guys are making a mistake.' But it's not going to happen overnight."

The experiment is still in its early stages, but, so far, Bacon suggests that it is going smoothly. "I don't have an alternate reality to test this, but I think if we hadn't invested the amount of time in community and we hadn't given the music away for free, we would be in a significantly worse position. I think that barely anyone would of hear of us. We would be perceived as just a band -- a band that makes music and is a bit of a commercial entity, and not a community, and people would be less inclined to donate to it."

Instead, people seem to be embracing the band's "fair pay" policy, donating anywhere from $1-300 for a download. One fan has published two issues of a fan club newsletter, and others have produced a Severed Fifth Android app and Severed Fifth wallpapers for computer desktops. "People are stopping being consumers and are starting to feel a part of something," Bacon says.

The one thing holding back the experiment is the lack of a professional album -- and Bacon hopes that the current fund-raising campaign will soon solve that problem. Once the new album is ready, he plans to step up promotion.

Eventually, Bacon hopes to write a free book about "how all this happened, what we did, and what we learned, so that other bands can read it. They will have everything we've learned in one source.

"I don't want Severed Fifth to be a freakish example of success. I want it to be an attainable example of success. I want people to go to [the book] and say, 'Wow! They did it this way; we can do it, too.'" Other musicians might not feel able to emulate Metallica, but perhaps they can look at Severed Fist and see a role model.


  • Amanda Fucking Palmer

    A US punk cabaret artist, Amanda Fucking Palmer, has kind of been doing this. For years she earned her living busking as a living statue ('The Eight Foot Bride'), then joined Brian Viglioni as the duo Dresden Dolls, and went solo a couple of years ago. Dissatisfied with her label, she fought it and finally was released from her contract. As a solo artist she has build a community, nursing it with blog posts, mails, free webcasted shows, and a lot of daily tweets, performing 'Ninja Gigs' (tweeting that she will be at a certain place, a street corner, a park, a bar, at a certain time, and then showing up there with her ukulele or piano), she has released songs for download, asking people to pay if they like them.
    BTW, the Danish FreeBSD developer Poul-Henning Kamp has been inspired by her blog post '[[|Why I Am Not Afraid to Take Your Money]]': a little more than a year ago he asked the community for a months wages so that he could make a major workover of Varnish. And lately, just a few months ago he posted on his blog, that he had received a (benevolently underbilled) invoice from his lawyers for running his case in court against Lenovo - he lost it - not refunding an unused Windows licence. Within a few days he asked people to stop transferring money - the amount (around $15.000) had been reached! The contributions went from several hundred $$ to a few bucks.
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