- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

President Obama’s unprecedented online campaign fundraising effort proved there was a massive pent-up supply of cash waiting in the proliferating network of online communities.

Rock bands are catching on, too.

“People will pay for music if they want to - it’s just that simple,” says Shane Hines, a Northern Virginia-based singer-songwriter who fronts a band called the Trance.

Last summer, Mr. Hines, 30, threw himself on the mercy of his fans. He launched the Web site TeamTrance.com and solicited contributions via the electronic service PayPal toward the recording of his latest CD, “The Glory Journal.” (Rather than attempting to land in the icy Hudson River of genre identification, I’ll note that the band describes its sound as “aggressive melodic rock.”)

An entry-level $15 got you an advance copy of the disc, which is now available to the general public at CDBaby.com as well as iTunes. More generous contributions earned an ascending scale of goodies: For $500, Mr. Hines and bassist “Mr. Thumbs” would cook dinner at your house; for $1,500, they’d put on an acoustic gig in your living room.

The top-tier $10,000 donation - already spoken for - came with a Gibson electric guitar played by Mr. Hines.

The Team Trance campaign so far has racked up $34,000. With recording costs essentially front-loaded, Mr. Hines was able to record with the producer of his choice, Nashville-based Chris Grainger.

He’s now in the enviable position of 1) not having to make good on a record company’s advance, as once was the norm for up-and-coming bands, and 2) not having maxed-out credit cards.

“I keep using the word ‘humbling,’” Mr. Hines says of his fans’ generosity. “You try not to have expectations. I was thinking, ‘If we just get enough money to record.’ I wouldn’t feel good about asking people for money unless I felt what we had was good.”

The Team Trance campaign was hatched and spearheaded by Mr. Hines’ manager, Michele Samuel. At a band meeting in a Panera Bread restaurant, she and the band members scratched their heads. “How are we going to record this CD?” was the collective query. “We’ve got the tunes, and we really want to record with this guy in Nashville.”

Ms. Samuel had heard of bands raising money online to help defray the costs of concert tours - so why not a down payment, of sorts, on a professional recording project?

“Here’s a band that’s been working really hard,” Ms. Samuel recalls. “It needs a little bit of money to make a big difference.”

Ms. Samuel and the band tapped every Web-based resource at their disposal, from Facebook and MySpace pages to a direct e-mail listserv.

“We were counting on the community that Shane had built,” she says.

Once the Team Trance site went live, money began arriving in ever-more-generous increments. To keep contributors plugged into the project’s progress, the band maintained a blog and uploaded pictures and video footage of the recording sessions.

Fan-based fundraising is just one example of how bands might adjust to a music industry that’s morphing into a Darwinian struggle that rewards technological cleverness as well as raw talent.

With album sales withering - and copyright royalties along with them - labels increasingly have less money and patience to spend on developing fresh talent. More often than not, it’s television, not labels, that breaks new artists.

This reality is both demanding and empowering. “You need to be fully realized as a band and an organization,” Mr. Hines says. “You need to be ready to move forward whether there’s a label there or not.”

Yet the absence of a multinational intermediary between artists and their fans also means there’s a real opportunity to develop relationships that are more meaningful than the distant and impersonal axis of adored idols and awestruck fans that ruled in the last century.

For example, an unusually ardent fan-band connection is the only way to explain the seeming puzzle of Radiohead’s most recent album, “In Rainbows.” After initially offering fans the choice of paying whatever they wanted for an independently released digital download, the band revealed in October that it still had managed to sell, the old-fashioned way, 1.75 million copies of the album.

The hybrid rollout of “In Rainbows” offered a glimmer of hope to an ailing industry that all was not lost. Some bands, at least, could thrive in the post-label age.

The trick, it seems, is to give music fans the sense that they’re doing more than just purchasing and consuming - that they’re participating, with virtual intimacy, in an unfolding organic process.

“At the end of the day,” Ms. Samuel says, “people just wanted to give money - to be included.”

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