According to guys like David Bazan, David Mead and Jack White, making a music career work in 2012 might be all about thinking small 

Damn the Enormodomes

Damn the Enormodomes

In February, David Bazan stepped onto the Cannery Ballroom's stage, club lights blinking on a 1,000-head-strong, sold-out crowd. When he returned to Nashville in April, he loaded into a living room — no stage, no PA, about 95 percent fewer heads.

The shift wasn't a career contraction. It was a choice.

"When somebody asks, 'So how's your career going?' if I were to say, 'Going great, I'm playing to 40 people in someone's living room every night.' It's like, 'Uhh, that doesn't sound great,' " says the singer/longtime Pedro the Lion leader. "But for me, it just reminds me how much I love the simple act of playing songs for people."

It also provides options. Lately, Bazan's touring schedule varies: Some runs, he heads to clubs with his band; others, he's solo, singing within spitting distance of yesterday's leftovers. The latter setting brings lower overhead, a smaller capacity and, with it, generally a higher cover. Add it up and you're looking at a hard thing to come by on indie-rock tours these days: workable profit.

"Prior to [doing house tours] there was always an uncertainty about how we were gonna make it work financially, when it comes to touring in clubs," Bazan says. "[Afterward], it felt like suddenly we owned the means of production. There was no obstacle between me and playing shows for people. ... I feel like we breathed a sigh of relief after that."

Bazan's one of many established artists-turned-music industry problem solvers. The problem: finding a way forward as the old making-records-and-touring revenue stream evaporates. The solution? For some, a shift in focus and intent. Where once the goal was bigger stages and more mystery, there's a renewed embrace of a smaller, more personal approach: intimate house shows; limited-edition releases; fan-funded recordings that bring listeners — sometimes literally — right into the process. To navigate a troubled industry, artists are shifting energy back toward the long-held touchstone of the DIY scene: community.

For Nashvillian Derek Webb, that path's been unfolding for almost a decade. After several arena-headlining years with CCM act Caedmon's Call, he issued the lyrically "complicated" 2003 solo set She Must and Shall Go Free, and supported it with house shows, hoping that would give fans a chance to challenge and question. At the time, he saw it as an investment in his "tribe." Lately, as he tours houses alongside wife and fellow singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken, he sees it as a smart career move, too. The two still play church and club shows; at smaller house shows, they charge $5 or $10 more per head, tickets consistently selling out.

"From friends of mine who play in arenas all the way down to friends who play bars, everybody's having a hard time getting tickets sold," Webb says. "So for me, when I see that kind of downturn happening, my instinct is to pull my tribe close, to lean into the downturn."

For Webb, pulling fans close means regular interaction, living-room sets that become deep, intimate discussions. For pop voice David Mead, it meant inviting fans into his creative process.

To finance the new Dudes, Mead turned to fan-funding outlet Kickstarter — an increasingly popular resource that allows creators to pitch ideas and gather support. For fans, part of Kickstarter's draw comes with the intimacy it can provoke. Musicians routinely offer access that would've once seemed unthinkable, in limited quantities, generally with a correspondingly high price tag. Mead's fans earned access to early demos and a say in which songs got cut for a $100 "producer" pledge; a studio visit for $250; a private house show for $2,500.

Mead surpassed his $20,000 goal, and the process turned out to be as rewarding as the response. "The more the record went on," he says, "the more of a gang it felt like doing it."

A supportive gang can help provide the means to create; it can also be a license to explore a kind of creativity that would perplex most labels. That proved true for producer-musician Andrew Osenga, who's locked down in a makeshift spaceship in Berry Hill, capturing the musical feelings of imaginary intergalactic traveler Leonard Belle.

Osenga — who was also once a Caedmon's Call member and now plays guitar for Jars of Clay and others — thought up Leonard's story to combat insomnia. It led to a song, which inspired an album, then the concept of building a spaceship-set studio space. He nervously kicked the idea to Kickstarter — $18,860 in pledges later, he's happily lost in space.

"My old A&R guy came by and was like, 'We never would have let you do this,' " Osenga says, eyeing Leonard's plywood space freighter. "I'm like, 'I know!' "

The fresh freedoms that came with a new approach to his career inspired Mead, who's more focused lately on serving his gang and less focused on aiming for all-things-all-people. As a musician, "it's probably smarter to think of yourself as a really selective antiquities shop that deals in a small amount of merchandise for a select group of clientele, as opposed to thinking of yourself as a Walmart," he says.

That approach — limited, unique items, aimed at particularly engaged fans — seems to have worked well enough for the Jack White-helmed Third Man Records. The label keeps a stock of standard vinyl, but routinely dreams up wildly creative packaging ideas (a greeting-card gatefold, 7-inch single stuffed inside a 12-inch), produces a small stash, then watches fans hungrily snatch them up. They've also enticed fans into TMR's Vault subscription service with members-only releases and members-only perks.

"The collectible thing is there almost just to satisfy a small contingent of our fan base," says Third Man co-founder Ben Swank, "but it's absolutely become the most popular aspect of what we do."

White — an artist who's managed to grow a dedicated community into an all-out army — has a clear enough sense of why the approach works.

"If you do something creative with a mechanical object — an actual, tangible object — people remember it and hold on to it and cherish it," he said in April, during a Record Store Day interview for Rolling Stone. "It's easy for a small operation like ours, in a boutique sense, to be a success, because we're not trying to go platinum with everything we're doing. We're just trying to turn people on to new music. It's easy for us to say, 'Look how people are responding to real music and real, tangible items.' But that's all we can do. That's the only romantic thing we can possibly do."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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