Indie band has Hands-on expertise in music biz

By | January 7, 2007 at 4:56 PM

It’s New Year’s Eve in New York and
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is headlining the buzziest indie rock bill in town.

The eclectic quintet — which has risen to notoriety for selling more than 110,000 copies of its 2005 debut album in the
United States without the help of a record label — has plenty to celebrate. The band is using the show at Manhattan’s
Hammerstein Ballroom to preview a half-dozen tracks from its self-released sophomore set, “Some Loud Thunder,” due January 30.
CYHSY’s most rabid fans don’t need much of an introduction to
some of the new material. Proof is in the rollicking new song “Satan
Said Dance.” The track is available only through
MySpace, but many audience members on the floor are mouthing along to
lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s slurred nasal refrains.
Fans dance and pogo amid hundreds of popping black and white
balloons, which have been released onstage, and are now spilling onto
the floor.
If ever there’s been a moment that sums up the band’s
penchant for successfully operating on its own iconoclastic terms, this
is it.
CYHSY doesn’t even get around to recognizing 2007’s arrival
until well after 12. “We figured since we have you all here, we get to
decide when midnight is,” Ounsworth tells the crowd just before leading
them in a tardy countdown to the new year. “We think midnight might as
well be now.”

REJECTING LABELS
The story of how an unsigned band goes from obscurity to
playing one of New York’s biggest rooms on the city’s biggest night
begins, in many ways, in the offices of Columbia Records on a balmy
July afternoon 18 months earlier.

Ounsworth, guitarists Lee Sargent and Robbie Guertin, bassist Tyler Sargent, drummer Sean Greenhalgh and band manager
Nick Stern are huddled with the Columbia brass contemplating a deal.
The group is at a crossroads. CYHSY is riding high as the
toast of the blogosphere with its self-titled, self-released debut. But
the group is eking out a crude existence by rock ‘n’ roll standards.
Everyone still has day jobs. With no label to help it, the bass
player’s bedroom apartment in Brooklyn is doubling as the CYHSY
warehouse and distribution center. The grind of operating a mail-order
business is becoming all-consuming, requiring daily trips to the post
office to keep pace with the steady stream of orders coming in.

The prospect of a contract with one of the world’s biggest record companies is tempting — at least in theory.
But the meeting founders almost immediately out of the gate
with a single question from Ounsworth: “What can you do for us that we
can’t do for ourselves?”

Ounsworth, in particular, is wary of surrendering his vision for the band to a third party.
The Columbia executives outline a plan for building CYHSY that
highlights the strengths of the major label system: global
distribution, marketing, radio promotion, music videos, retail support
and tour support.
While for many bands those are the magic words — a deal like
that typically is worth more than $1 million — for CYHSY it is a
confirmation of its belief that it is already self-sufficient.
To be sure, a label might make things easier. But CYHSY is
already generating press attention and raves from influencers like
triple-A KEXP Seattle and pitchforkmedia.com without the help of a
label. Likewise, it is actually selling records sans record company.
Armed with a torrent of online hype and not much else — no marketing,
no distribution and almost no touring — the band has managed to sell
close to 5,000 copies of the album in a month. That’s more than double
the initial pressing of the album manufactured for its June release.

And the band isn’t interested in making a music video, nor does it see itself as a fit for mainstream radio.
By the time the band members regroup later that day at a
Brooklyn bar to discuss the merits of Columbia’s offer, not only have
they come to the conclusion that they don’t want to do a deal with the
label, they realize they don’t want a deal with any record label — at
least not in the United States.
Outside the States is a different story. The band recognizes
it needs help overseas, and in October it ultimately will sign a record
deal with Wichita Recordings for global distribution. Though even there
the agreement will leave much of the power in the hands of CYHSY.
“When I started working with these guys, the first thing I
said to them was, ‘We’ve got to make sure you have a career
worldwide,”‘ band manager Stern says. “Wichita is a three-person label,
and the reason we signed to them is that they’re just an extension of
me and of the band. They’re doing things the exact same way that we
do.”

But as for the United States, it is decided that day that talks with all other American labels, including Seattle-based
Barsuk Records, will be cut off, too.

Stern adds, “All the ways that they knew how to make the band really big, really quickly, we didn’t need.”

BUSINESS ANOMOLY
With the release of “Some Loud Thunder,” many in the music
business will be watching CYHSY to see how that decision to bypass the
label system in the United States holds up over time.
On the follow-up, the group faces the pressure of increased
commercial expectations and, without a U.S. label, a bigger workload in
setting up the album. In America, the album is expected to ship as many
as 60,000 copies out of the gates, up from 2,000 in 2005.
As was the case with “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah,” label
functions in the United States are farmed out where and when necessary.
The band is again taking the album directly to retailers via Warner
Music Group’s indie-distribution arm,
Alternative Distribution Alliance.
Still, those working with the band, and the band itself, are
reluctant to set themselves up as poster children for a new business
model. ADA boss Andy Allen sees the situation as much more of an
anomaly.
“For developing bands, it’s an extremely high-risk way to go,”
he told Billboard in a recent interview. “It was never our intent to
establish direct relationships with bands. We don’t have an in-house
label here at ADA, and we’re not really equipped to work with bands
directly. We have not done any deals like that since. It was a function
of being friends with the band, the manager and the lawyer.”
Ounsworth, too, thinks his band’s accomplishments are
relatively singular, but for different reasons from business models or
new media marketing approaches. “Maybe there is something to the music
rather than just communication on the
Internet,” he offers.

Regardless of why the CYHSY approach is working, it has certainly enabled the band to do things its way.
For starters, a substantial part of the band’s profits come
from album sales, not touring. Worldwide the band claims sales of more
than 200,000 units of the first album, for a gross of more than $2
million.
Over much of the lifecycle of CYHSY’s first record, the band
was earning more than $7 an album on a CD with a developing artist list
price of $11.98. This time out, it has to settle for a more modest take
of $6 on the sale of every album — and that’s with a higher list price
of $13.98. But the band is investing more in retail price and
positioning programs. And it is still substantially greater than the $2
average the typical young band makes from record sales.

CYHSY doesn’t tour like the average young band either.
While its deal with Wichita requires the group to play more
dates overseas, in the United States, CYHSY will never be mistaken for
a road warrior. Unlike the typical emerging act that painstakingly
builds an audience by crisscrossing the country in a van and playing
300 shows a year, CYHSY plays many fewer dates and rolls in relative
style. The band, aided by its album sales, has been shelling out of its
own pocket for a tour bus since its first major tour with the National
in September
2005.
Eschewing the label route has downsides, of course, and
involves much more in the way of logistical effort on the part of the
band. Ounsworth certainly makes no effort to glamorize the situation.
“In a lot of ways it was even better when I had
(a day job),” he says. “There is as much bull attached to this as most
of the other jobs I’ve ever had.”
And without major label marketing dollars, the band is
somewhat beholden to the buzz of the blogosphere to keep the wheels on
its business model rolling. Given the often-fickle nature of bloggers,
that could be a dicey proposition.
At the New Year’s Eve show there were already signs for
concern that some sort of backlash against the band is under way. Sales
for the concert were soft. The 3,200-seat venue was
three-quarters-filled. Stern says it is the first time in 18 months a
CYHSY show hasn’t sold out. (A higher than normal $40 ticket price
didn’t help either). Earlier in the year, the band had played to a
capacity crowd of 5,000 in New York’s Central
Park.
“A lot of people are bashing them right now and saying they’re
overrated,” said one fan at the show, Jimmy Gianopolus, who flew in
from Chicago and had streamed the new songs off the
Web. “I don’t know why, I think they’re great.”
Musically, the new album, produced by Dave Fridmann, has much
of the whimsical quality and Talking Heads influences of the debut that
earned raves from the blogs the first time around. But it has fewer
first-listen hooks and demands repeat spins to reveal itself.
Stern says that no matter what, CYHSY will continue to build
its audience organically. “We’ve never done anything to force this down
people’s throats,” he says. “The people who championed us really seemed
to like the band or liked the story enough that they felt like it was a
good enough story to write about. And that’s why it’s worked with the
fans.”
Ounsworth adds: “We suggested on our Web site that we had an
album out. The rest of what happened had very little to do with
us.” 

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