How does an indie folk band expand its fanbase in 2011? Catchy hooks, hard work and a unique tour. Plus, a little help from Starship.
An A&T commercial on TV of late finds a less-than-enthusiastic contest winner scoring "an entire day with '70s rocker Edgar Winter," as she's informed by a radio announcer, at which point Winter suddenly appears (keytar in hand) in her living room.
Despite the (self-deprecating) singer's plea for appreciation, the contestant not-so-subtly opts for a more desirable prize.
Thankfully, not all musicians are met with such apathy when affording the opportunity for an up-close, intimate performance.
For Martha's Trouble, audience interest has even been great enough to warrant an entire tour of fans' homes.
The Auburn, Ala.-based husband-and-wife folk/pop duo - Rob and Jen Slocumb - devised the "At Your House Tour" as a unique way to promote its 10th album, the self-released "Anchor Tattoo," issued earlier this year. The jaunt began in September, reaching as far north as New England, and runs through the last week of November.
"This summer, we were driving, I think from Alabama to Ontario, just always brainstorming different ways that we could promote our new record," Rob said at a recent visit to Billboard's New York offices. "We had this idea: what if we announced to our fans, 'We want to come play in your living room.'
"(We thought), let's just throw it out there and see what happens."
The response? Un-Edgar Winter-like.
"More dates than we could actually do," said Rob.
"The whole idea is to bring this new record into somebody's living room. (For $200, which can be split among attendees), the host(s) invite 50 of their closest friends, some of whom may never have heard of us before.
"It's just a great, informal atmosphere."
"Going into someone's home, you're in their personal space," added Jen. "But, people have been so gracious."
Such fan loyalty has, fortunately, been a foundation of Martha's Trouble's career. While having received airplay on XM/Sirius satellite radio's the Coffee House channel and having been spotlighted in USA Today and Newsweek, the pair has had to make the business side of self-releasing and promoting its music as much a part of its workload as its songcraft and live performances. Fan donation via kickstarter.com helped fund the recording and release of "Anchor Tattoo" and the act's "At Your House Tour" is just the latest example of the ingenuity required of an independent artist.
"The biggest task of all is keeping the machine moving forward," Rob and Jen explained upon the album's release. The pair counts "booking future gigs, fulfilling internet orders, promoting concerts, doing interviews and all the other tasks that a do-it-yourself artist endures" among their numerous professional responsibilities.
"We don't rely on the support team of a record label, so it really is an around-the-clock job."
It's still, however, clearly a labor of love. And, one in which the married couple has avoided the potential pitfalls of working together. The duo, parents of sons Wilson (who started kindergarten this year) and Emery (a freshman pre-schooler), instead appreciates the upsides of its musical union.
"We feed off each other really well. We know each other really well, so there's a comfort level there," said Jen.
Plus, "I always get my way," she joked.
As the pair heads to house concerts in Lafayette, La. (Nov. 12), Winchester, Va. (Nov. 18) and Lancaster, Pa. (Nov. 19), Martha's Trouble is looking forward to playing fan favorites, including its 2004 single "City Skyline" (from its last full-length album, "Forget October"), about the cautious excitement of leaving home to pursue one's dreams, and tracks from its new release.
While 11 of the 12 songs on "Anchor Tattoo" are new compositions, the set includes a cover of "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," originally a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 for Starship in 1987.
How did a remake of a glossy, Albert Hammond/Diane Warren-penned pop song make the cut?
The twosome took part in the Songs for Kids Foundation's "500 Songs for Kids" fundraiser at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta. For the past five years, the event has featured 500 artists playing 500 "feel-good" songs over 10 nights. Proceeds help bring musicians to children's hospitals and special needs camps. ("For a brief moment of their day, these children get to forget what ails them and listen to great music," the foundation notes).
After receiving an invitation to perform, Martha's Trouble also learned its song assignment.
"We were like, 'We're not sure what we're gonna do with this'," admitted Jen. "We ended up re-working it. Of course, it's a classic '80s song, which we love. We loved it before and we just really fell in love with it again."
The duo then added it to their live repertoire, spurring its recording.
"We got a lot of requests for it, so we decided to put it on the new record."
As it promotes its new album in such intimate settings, Martha's Trouble (named for a Biblical story about sisters Martha and Mary; "Martha's trouble was that she didn't focus on the important things in life," Jen explained) continues to bring its music to fans in true troubadour style.
"It's who we are. We're not trying to be like any other band or trying to be the next trend in music," says Jen.
"I think we went through a discovery process trying different things over the years and landed on what I would say our strength is. But, it took some trying. I think that's good, though. You try different things and you come to a place where you belong, where you fit.
"That's what we did. And now, we are stronger than ever."