News Column

Making a living in the new music landscape [Morning Sentinel (Waterville, ME)]

August 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Maine Sunday Telegram

BRUNSWICK -- Pete Kilpatrick plopped his laptop computer on a table in his living room while his 14-month-old son, Sawyer, rummaged through a box of toys on the floor.

Kilpatrick's wife, Molly, is a sixth-grade teacher, so he spends many weekdays at the couple's two-bedroom ranch house taking care of Sawyer and working when he can. When he has a spare moment, usually at nap time, he goes online to book shows, check on publishing royalties, drum up ticket sales -- whatever he needs to do to keep the Pete Kilpatrick Band in business.

The folk-rock band has a sound that features Kilpatrick's warm lead vocals and quiet acoustic guitar intros combined with jazzy bass lines, soulful keyboards, fuzzy electric guitar riffs and tempos that range from breezy to dance-worthy and rockin'. The band has had a fair amount of success, getting songs on local radio and in network TV shows and films, and playing gigs around the country.

Instead of sitting back and waiting for a representative from a label to discover his band and write a big check, however, Kilpatrick does all he can to build his band without corporate help. The group makes money playing gigs, including a national ski resort tour most winters and a few shows on the same bill with big acts such as John Popper and Dave Matthews. It licenses its music to film and TV production companies, markets its own merchandise and sells its songs directly to fans.

In a good year, Kilpatrick can make $40,000 from being in the band. He does it not only by keeping his voice and guitar skills sharp, but by honing his business acumen as well.

In today's music industry, he doesn't really have a choice.

"There's not a lot of down time with a 14-month-old, but when I can, I do some work. Like today, I'm checking some of our publishing accounts (online) to make sure the numbers are right, and I'll check the statements from the TV shows," said Kilpatrick, 30, sitting under a poster of his favorite band, Irish indie rockers The Frames. "And then, since we have shows coming up, I'll get on Facebook and try to get people to come out. Plus, I've got to reserve a U-Haul van."

Making it big in the music business is a completely different challenge today than it was a decade or so ago -- largely because of the double-edged sword of technology. Computer software allows those with the desire to record their music, and the Internet and social media allow them potentially to distribute it to millions of people on their own.

It also means there's a glut of music from which to choose and less support from traditional record companies, which have seen their businesses shrink because of changes in technology and consumer habits.

So musicians such as Kilpatrick and his bandmates have to work harder -- and smarter -- to get their music heard above the din.

It's still about the music

About 10:30 on a Saturday night in April, the five members of the Pete Kilpatrick Band walked through a packed dance floor at the Big Easy nightclub in Portland and climbed onto the 2-foot-high stage. A few young women in the crowd screamed; young men pumped fists and shouted, "Yeah!"

It was apparent that most in the crowd had seen the band before, as requests were shouted out before one note was played.

The band launched into an up-tempo ballad, "Coming Home," kicked off by a jangly guitar intro by Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick's voice -- the lead and primary voice for most of the band's songs -- is clear and warm, as adept at high harmonies as heart-felt soul. A dozen or so joined as he sang:

"The snow is falling lightly on the road/ Every mile that we drive brings us closer to home/ Coming down from the mountains, I can see the sky is blue/ It reminds me that I'm coming home."

Kilpatrick wrote the song soon after meeting his future wife. He was touring in Colorado, and was thinking about getting back to Maine -- and her. The song was featured in the 2012 teen romance film "The First Time."

A minute into the song, the rest of the band kicked in, with a deep, rolling electric guitar part that sounded slightly country, with a strong dose of Southern rock. The jazzy keyboard and steady drums helped get the crowd dancing at a medium tempo -- bodies swaying, arms and hips swinging.

Between songs, Kilpatrick told stories. He told the crowd how he and his bandmates had played an April Fools' joke earlier that week on drummer Ed Dickhaut. They had put his Falmouth house up for sale on Craigslist for $100,000.

Kilpatrick often tells the audience something about the song. Before launching into "Burning Star," he said it's about "a guy who goes off to war, the Civil War." Living in Brunswick, the home of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, sparked Kilpatrick's interest in the Civil War, which has found its way into at least a couple of his songs.

The song began with a jazzy, high-pitched electric guitar riff, and had a steady, medium-tempo groove, not unlike something from Dave Matthews. The tune sped up a little and slowed down as Kilpatrick sang.

For more than two hours, the crowd seemed spellbound by Kilpatrick's voice and the band's steady grooves.

Not too long ago, musicians relied on live gigs like this one to attract enough attention to get a recording contract. Now it's almost the other way around, because these days, a recording contract isn't the measure of success it once was.

Technology changes everything

Musicians used to have to rent a recording studio and pay an engineer; now they can make professional-sounding recordings at home for a fraction of the cost. Most consumers get their musical fixes online via services such as Spotify, Pandora or iTunes, which has made the act of buying CDs almost an anachronism.

All this means the profits and power of major record labels have been shredded as more people stream music online and no longer buy traditional physical recordings in big numbers. As a result, labels are no longer dangling big contracts to bands and developing talent as they used to.

Instead, they're looking for bands that already have developed their own fan bases and proved they can sell music on their own.

"Technology has created all these tools that bands can use to make and distribute music, so from that standpoint, technology has democratized the creation of content. The potential for bands to get their music out to the public is so much greater than the days when they had to pay for recording studio time and pay to print up fliers to send out to fans," said Mike McGuire, a music industry analyst for Gartner Inc., a worldwide technology research and consulting company.

"But it's not enough to just put out good art and perform it. You've got to create an experience for fans. You've still got to get your work in front of taste-makers and find a way to rise above all the noise."

The "democratization" of music production means it's just as likely for a band from Maine to build a fan base on its own as it is for a band from traditional music meccas such as Los Angeles or New York, McGuire said.

While record labels are still important in getting music played on the radio or on store shelves, their diminished profits mean they have less to offer bands and want more from the bands they sign.

"As we've seen the unbundling of music -- people buying songs instead of albums -- the economics have changed drastically. So now if a record label signs someone, they often want a (financial) piece of everything -- marketing, merchandising -- since there isn't as much money in selling music for them," McGuire said.

The rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis rose to the top of the Billboard single charts this year ("Can't Hold Us" hit No. 1 in the spring) without major support from a record label. The group built a fan base, sold albums on its own and made enough money touring to hire Alternative Distribution Alliance, a division of Warner Music Group, to get its latest album into stores.

The recording industry's total revenue was about $16.5 billion last year, down drastically from $38 billion in 1999, according to figures from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Compounding the music industry's troubles, record labels have been slow to adapt to changes in technology and consumer preference.

Statistics from the Recording Industry Association of America show that as recently as 2009, the record industry was making about 70 percent of its revenue from full-length albums, compared to 90 percent less than 10 years earlier.

But the same set of numbers show that by 2009 in the U.S., the industry was selling only about one album per person -- per year. Even though people are buying fewer albums, record companies still rely on them for the bulk of their income.

So while musicians once dreamed of signing a deal with a major record label, dramatic changes in the music industry have forced musicians to adjust their dreams, and their definition of "making it big."

Having a dream, finding reality

Kilpatrick moved to York from Massachusetts when he was in the eighth grade. Up to that point, he had been heavily into sports, but his new friends in York were passionate about music -- and they were good. He soon joined in their passion.

His friends formed a classic rock band called Jeremiah Freed. Within just a year or two after high school, the band got signed to Universal Records in 2001 in a deal worth about $500,000 in equipment and recording time. After recording an album, the young musicians got into their van and took to the road to promote it.

They soon found that Universal wasn't a lot of help. It was a time of mega-mergers in the music industry, and the revolving door of employees in charge of artist support was swinging faster by the minute. Record labels already were becoming less and less involved in developing bands -- and then the technological revolution hit.

"When we got that deal, we thought nothing could stop us," said Matt Cosby, 31, bass player in Jeremiah Freed who's now a member of the Pete Kilpatrick Band. "They basically guaranteed (success); but once we recorded the album, I don't think they knew what to do with us."

When the Jeremiah Freed musicians went on the road, they took their friend Kilpatrick with them. He sometimes served as an opening act for the band, and he became its traveling instrument repairman.

Kilpatrick learned a lot from that experience, and not just how to fix a guitar. He and the guys in Jeremiah Freed were all young, and they thought it was "cool" to trash hotel rooms, to try to live like rock stars. After all, the band had a record deal.

A couple of years later they were without a label, and they broke up.

"I think I learned that you need to be humble, that it's not cool or helpful to burn bridges -- especially when nobody knows who you are yet," Kilpatrick said.

Around 2004, Kilpatrick formed the Pete Kilpatrick Band. It has experienced several lineup changes since then; the current incarnation, besides Kilpatrick and Cosby, includes Dickhaut on drums, Pete Morse on electric guitar and Tyler Stanley on keyboards. They have been playing together for about three years.

Kilpatrick and the various lineups of the band have put out a total of six albums, the latest being "Heavy Fire" in 2012.

All the current members are in their early 30s, and all have been in other bands in Portland's extremely active music scene. It's not uncommon here to find acts that have signed record deals in the last 10 or 15 years and still have members playing around town. Rustic Overtones, As Fast As, 6Gig, Spose and many others all have this in common.

Practice gigs, networking

The close-knit Portland music community was on display on a Thursday night when the Pete Kilpatrick Band met for its weekly band rehearsal at a rented storage space on Portland's Warren Avenue.

Located in an industrial area behind a Salvation Army store, the space actually is rented by the band Sly-Chi but used by other bands as well. It's in a row of spaces that are used by Rustic Overtones, the Mallett Brothers and several other bands.

When the Pete Kilpatrick Band showed up, a couple members of the Fogcutters, a Portland big-band swing group, were already in the space. There was a little confusion about whose turn it was to rehearse that night. No big deal, though -- the Fogcutters decided to stay, have a beer and listen to Kilpatrick's band rehearse.

When it came time for the Big Easy gig, Kilpatrick left his home in Brunswick in the band's van, a 10-year-old Ford with a TV and comfy chairs. He spent some time with his son earlier in the day, knowing he'd be gone until early Sunday morning and would sleep late that day.

In the summer, the band might do three gigs a week; and in winter, they might be on the road for two months or so on their annual winter tour of ski resorts. As a result, Kilpatrick tries to be diligent in scheduling time to be with his family.

Working smarter

Because of technology and the changes in music, Kilpatrick and his band have to have other revenue streams besides selling music to fans and playing gigs. For one, Kilpatrick licenses their songs to various businesses (one is called Aperture Music), which place the songs in TV shows and films.

Technological changes have led to a huge increase in content being created for the Internet and cable TV, and a need for cheap soundtrack music. Producers don't want to pay high fees to license songs from hit-making bands such as The Rolling Stones. That opens the door for acts such as the Pete Kilpatrick Band.

In addition to "The First Time," the band's songs have appeared on NBC's "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," as well as the Fox sitcom "Ben & Kate." Sometimes a song is played for just a few seconds, but the revenue stream is extremely helpful.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Patrick Doyle, a Maine native who has profiled music stars ranging from Mumford & Sons to Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson, saw the Pete Kilpatrick Band recently in Bethel and thinks the group definitely has a sound that can sell.

"When I saw them, they were having a lot of fun; and I know they've been playing with John Popper and Dave Matthews, which is good, because they can tap those fan bases," Doyle said. "I think people today appreciate more rootsy songwriting, and that should help them."

Playing with other acts such as the Dave Matthews Band is not only a revenue stream for the band, but is part of Kilpatrick's long-term strategy for financial viability. The idea is to play with artists who can help the Pete Kilpatrick Band meet people in the business, which can lead to bigger gigs and bigger opportunities.

For the Pete Kilpatrick Band, the networking started when members met Adam Gardner of the nationally known band Guster, who had moved to Portland a few years back. The relationship with Gardner led to bookings at ski resorts out West and gigs with major artists such as Dave Matthews and The Wailers.

Kilpatrick said the band's focus will be to keep building relationships with other acts that make a full-time living from music. In his time working on band management, he has learned that distribution and radio airplay aren't the gold rings they once were.

"We have to be better about developing networks, playing with bigger bands," Kilpatrick said. "I think (changes in the music business) have forced all of us to be more creative and multidimensional.

"It must have been nice, back in the '90s maybe, to just focus on the music side of things."

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