The record industry is no stranger to self-release and pay-what-you-like albums, with acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Amanda Palmer, and Radiohead opting to deliver new material to their fans via their websites rather than deal with record labels and distributors. Following in those footsteps, the five-piece rock band Circa Survive has announced its plans to release its fourth album, Violent Waves, via direct-to-fan distribution at a flat cost of $5 when it comes out August 28.
The rock band, based out of the suburbs of Philadelphia, formed in 2004 and released three albums and two EPs prior to the release of Violent Waves. The group has taken part in the Vans Warped Tour and the Bamboozle festival multiple times, and has opened for acts like My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria.
"While other bands have successfully released records through platforms such as Kickstarter or through distribution deals with ADA/RED/The Orchard, [and others]," said the band's manager Nick Stern in an interview with Billboard.biz, "Circa really wanted to be in complete control of every aspect of the release and build their own platform for distribution."
The band's most recent album, Blue Sky Noise, peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and spent three weeks on the chart. It was Circa Survive's highest debut to date and sold close to 28,000 units in its first week, impressive numbers for a band with next to no mainstream exposure.
"We're not aiming to be cheap, we're just aiming to be smart," Stern says about the band's fourth album. "You don't need a label to get a record exposed any more, you just need a good record and a team that knows how to get it to the right people in the right way."
Stern himself is no stranger to the self-release model, having worked with CYHSH, one of the pioneers of the model nearly a decade ago. That group decided to forego the help of a label on its debut album and pushed over 122,000 copies of the disc. "What I learned [from them] is that at the end of the day nothing is more important than the music." He promises fans and naysayers alike that Violent Waves is a strong album worth the low price point, and points to as yet unconfirmed fall TV appearances as a sign of the record's reach.
The members of the band, according to an official statement, have "always prided themselves on their extraordinary relationship they have with their fans" and claim this self-release model of business will allow them to propel the record industry forward. Reliance on fans to propel a self-released album is a risky move, but with over 350,000 Facebook fans and close to 50,000 Twitter followers, the group is hoping it's a risk worth taking.
Circa credits comedian Louis C.K. -- who did massive sales when he released a live set from the Beacon Theater on his website for direct download at the same price point as Circa's new album -- with the inspiration for the move. C.K.'s experiment yielded more than $1 million in sales in its first ten days according to CNN figures, whereas other artists like Amanda Palmer have recently found success in financing their albums with Kickstarter campaigns (hers raised over $1 million in several weeks on the strength of 24,883 backers). Unlike C.K., however, the band welcomes retailer support with physical releases. As Stern puts it, "All retailers are welcome to order directly through us at a standard retail price. The only difference will be that we have to do a minimum of 5 pieces per store."
Especially for bands with smaller audiences, the self-release model can come at a cost. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal estimated that indie group Clap Your Hands Say Yeah spent more than $35,000 "to finance the production of some 50,000 CDs." Though Stern wouldn't comment on the costs involved with establishing Circa's self-release model, in an increasingly digital age, the band is willing to hedge its bets, and it seems to be paying off already. Since launching the Violent Waves website on Monday afternoon, the band has added over 13,000 email addresses to its fan database.
The band plans to support the album with a fall tour sponsored by Journeys, Macbeth, and the Keep-a-Breast Foundation, high profile backers that demonstrate industry faith in the band's ability to market itself without a record label. "Their touring continues to grow steadily while album sales have stayed fairly consistent," Stern says, pointing to recent trends in touring outpacing album sales for smaller bands. "We decided that we know how to reach our fans better than anyone else could."
In terms of additional promotion, Stern assures that the band will work harder than most to get the word out. "It's a lot more work for the team, but we still plan to hit all the traditional outlets that a label would hit," he says, noting, "The worst thing would be if the model suddenly became 'self-release and be happy with half the sales.'"
Is Stern, and more importantly Circa Survive, afraid that this experiment might not succeed? "If we win this bet, we'll win big. If we lose the bet, then the worst case is the band owns their own record, is in no long term contracts with anyone, and their fans will know that we tried to do something in a completely honest way."