For Musician Erin McKeown, the Sweet Sound of Independence

BY Arts Desk  March 18, 2010 at 3:12 PM EST

Erin McKeown peforms in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kate Gardiner

Erin McKeown is ten years into her career as a solo singer/songwriter. She’s one of many impacted by the changing music industry. As fans buy fewer CDs and download more files, independent artists — musicians who don’t depend on major record companies to promote their work — are feeling the impact. “Most of what I do is sell CD’s to people in rooms that I play,” McKeown says. “And so for that to be one-fifth of what it used to be has been a pretty vast economic change.”

When McKeown needed to finance her newest album, ‘Hundreds of Lions’ (2009), she decided to follow the lead of other independent artists. “There’s a path that’s being paved now about people asking fans for money,” she explained. Musician Jill Sobule is one example. Last year, Sobule decided to release an album independently. She set up a donation system similar to a public broadcasting funding drive. For $10 you got a digital download of the album, $50 earned you an advanced copy and mention in the liner notes, and so on. Donations climbed as high as $10,000, for which the “thank you” gift was getting to sing a song on the album. In the end, Sobule raised $75,000 — enough to fund her project, and scoring some press in the process.

McKeown took her own approach. The tech-savvy songstress created an internet variety show — “Kind of like ‘Wayne’s World’ meets ‘The Judy Garland Show’” — that she called ‘Cabin Fever.’ She filmed and produced four hour-long webisodes, which she streamed live. A ticket to the virtual show was the password for the livestream, which cost $10 for one webisode, or $30 for all four. Fans who subscribed to the whole series saw that each show had a different theme and was shot in a different place around McKeown’s home: her living room, her front porch, her front yard, the river near her house. In the final performance, McKeown and band played her new album, “Hundreds of Lions” from start to finish.

Art Beat sat down with Erin after a recent performance in Washington, D.C. to talk about her new album, how she recorded it and why she decided to do it on her own:

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“Cabin Fever” not only helped McKeown raise enough money to cover the cost of her album, but proved to be a great way to advertise as well. It gave McKeown a creative outlet in the lull period between songwriting cycles. In the past, she’s found that the limbo time frustrating: “You’re just waiting and waiting and waiting, and this was an incredibly productive way to wait.”

“The music industry is vastly different than it used to be and I don’t think it has figured out what to do about that.” Industrious independents, like McKeown, are taking advantage of the current cultural and commercial crossroads to create music in their own way, on their own terms and, with a little help from their fans, on their own dime.