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ArtistShare: A Record Label for the Digital Age

ArtistShare: A Record Label for the Digital Age
Paul Naser By

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In the information age, as technology is transforming the way we share ideas, the creative artist seems to be in a dangerous situation. Peer-to-peer file sharing and free-streaming content are direct threats to an artists' livelihood. Combining this insight with a love for music and an appreciation for artists and the value of their work, Brian Camelio started his company, ArtistShare. After remarkable success with both its innovative model and its extraordinary roster of artists, it is celebrating its 10th anniversary by looking towards the future as it begins a partnership with Blue Note Records.

A music lover since childhood, Camelio grew up playing rock and roll and graduated college with a degree in classical composition. Working as a guitarist, he performed classical, jazz and rock music while writing and performing his own music, even working internationally. He took an interest in software programming in the mid-90's and found that he really liked it, saying of writing code, "I found it to be very similar to composing and I got as excited about it as I did writing music." Around this time the internet was starting to gain a lot of popularity, and, as Camelio was becoming more involved in programming and working on the web, it occurred to him that the music industry was going to change. "It occurred to me in 1999 or so, that this issue of file sharing was really going to be a problem for musicians. I could see that thing that we were basically making our money off of, which is selling recordings, was going to go away. Anything that could be digitized I could see as being a real problem. Even though the internet at the time wasn't mature enough to handle any sort of file size, it was very clear that that would change and it would be very convenient for people to start trading music and videos and whatever could be digitized."

As he was coming to this realization Camelio also was witnessing the mistreatment of some of his close friends by record companies. "Around that time as well, all my good friends in the city, people like Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, Chris Potter and David Binney, mostly in the jazz community, were having problems with their record labels. At some point I just got very angry about it and decided that it might be a good opportunity to come up with something that would put the power back into the hands of the artist, put the control back in the hands of the artists, because I kept hearing stories about people signing contracts that didn't realize what they were signing, or the label just flat out refusing to pay the artist; they did all the work and spent the money."

As these concepts bounced around in his head, Camelio thought about where the value really was in an artist's work. "Being a composer and musician, I view art and music as a timeline; all the big things that are created, like the greatest CDs, are a snapshot in that timeline. It's just capturing a certain moment in an artist's career. I started to view the value of what an artist does as being in the process, not necessarily in the end result or in one of the snapshots of that process." This realization is the central idea behind ArtistShare and is what gives the company its unique approach and model, to which it owes its great success. "I thought, maybe I can create a model where people pay for the process, and they pay to have something done, almost like a service, instead of having to rely on this end result which is this recorded music, and trying to sell that after the fact... I thought the idea of being able to watch the process, and to align yourself with the artist as a fan would be infinitely interesting. You can't copy it either; you can't steal the creative process from the artist. Present it as a story and get people involved." Related to this were two other key concepts that influenced ArtistShare's model.

One was an West African dance show that Camelio attended, where some audience members were so moved by the dancers' performances and solos that they would literally throw money at the dancers. He was really impressed by their honest and direct show of appreciation and playfully says of ArtistShare, "this is my digital solution to chucking dollar bills at the artist." Alongside this was a friendship that Camelio formed with Brazilian singer-songwriter/guitarist Milton Nascimento. When they first met, he had not really heard Nascimento's music; after listening to his music, Camelio says, "I was like, this guy is amazing! To this day, one of my major points of inspiration is, wouldn't it be great to be standing in the same room when he was creating a song, and what would I like to see as a fan?" All of these things together led to his unique vision of a community of artists and fans connected by their shared love of creativity. "From the very beginning of my obsession with music, which started as a young child, I can always remember wanting to know more and wanting to see how it was done... I'm still fascinated by it, by seeing the creative process in action. So that was my idea; I will create something where people can access the creative process, can pay the artist to do something and they can watch it and help create this community of fans and artists."

ArtistShare's model is not product- or result-oriented; instead, it focuses on allowing fans to become a part of the artist's process, watching the development of the end result as it goes through all the stages of becoming a completed work of art. It is not the funding by fans that sets ArtistShare apart from other companies. Kickstarter, to give one example, has emulated the ArtistShare model of crowd-sourced funding, but, as Camelio notes about such companies..." the focus is way too much on money. I think the artists can end up hurting themselves by going out and saying, 'Give me money for a project,' instead of focusing on, 'Hey, do you want to be part of my community, want to watch the creative process, want to get to know me?'" It is the element of getting to know the artist and being a part of the community that makes ArtistShare what it is. The fan gets to choose their desired level of participation, which can range from simply purchasing a copy of the finished project, in whatever form it takes (such as a CD or MP3 download), to being an executive producer of the project, which in the case of the many musical projects entitles the fan to prominent credit on the album as well as various other benefits which change depending on the artist and project; some of these could include: invitation to the mixing and mastering of the album, a private concert for the participant and their friends, VIP access to concerts for a year, a personalized copy of the finished product as well as access to all the exclusive video, audio and blog updates that document the process of the development of the project.

Aside from its groundbreaking model, ArtistShare has been a remarkable musical success since the beginning. One of the first albums the label released, Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden, won a Grammy award for "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album" in 2005, only two years after the label began releasing records. In the ten short years since then, five more ArtistShare albums/projects have won Grammys and the label has accumulated 18 Grammy nominations. Part of the secret to their success is the amount of attention that goes into the construction of each project. When asked about the acquisition of new artists, Camelio responded that they don't really reach out to new artists; in general artists seek them out, and, even then, the roster is intentionally kept limited. "Basically when we get a new artist, I spend a lot of time formulating a project and we spend a lot of time showing them the best practices for documenting their process and relaying it to their fans. It's a new thing, it's not necessarily intuitive, the way that we do things... We have more than a decade of experience with this and seeing what messages work for what artists and how to really get the best out of [their process]."

Consistent with their success and focus is their world-class roster of artists. In the jazz idiom, they include, as mentioned previously, Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, David Binney and Chris Potter, as well as: The Clayton Brothers, which includes John Clayton, Jeff Clayton and John's son, Gerald Clayton; Alex Skolnick; Sax Summit, which includes Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane; Jon Cowherd, co-founder of the Brian Blade Fellowship; Niels Lan Doky; Robin Eubanks; the late Bob Brookmeyer; Danilo Pérez; Julian Lage; Billy Childs; Brian Lynch; Donny McCaslin; Geoffrey Keezer; Alex Sipiagin; Scott Colley; Lindsey Horner; Jon Gordon; and Kevin Hays, among several others. Apart from supporting jazz musicians, ArtistShare is also home to a number of musicians from other genres, including singer-songwriters, composers of Latin and world music, composers such as Alf Clausen and has even helped produce a comedic country album by comedian Rick Moranis. They also fund creative projects by non-musical artists such as author Dan Oulette and his biography of Ron Carter and filmmaker Paul Devlin. This unique mix of genres and projects is evidence of ArtistShare's vision of creating a community where creative artists and their fans come together and sidestep the middlemen that are usually a central element in the traditional record label model.

It is this artist-centric, community based approach that makes ArtistShare unlike any other model available for artist funding. One of Camelio's main goals was to ensure the livelihood of artists. "In general, what I would like to see is to bring this model into every art form and to improve it as technology improves... to really create a new industry that will help alleviate the pain of an industry that previously had a product that can now be digitized and freely traded among people and to make sure the artist can still create. My future goal is to ensure that creative artists are able to create and get paid for what they do." ArtistShare is the first company to rely entirely on internet sales for its products. In fact, this is what made Schneider's 2005 Grammy win especially significant: hers was the first album in history that had won without ever having been available in record stores. The six wins and 18 Grammy nominations that ArtistShare albums have received are testament to the success of the model, which, given the current state of the music industry is more important than ever.

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