"It's truly beyond my wildest dreams," Longley tells Billboard, calling in from a tour stop near San Francisco. "I never imagined it would end up where it is now."
There is much to learn from Longley's blueprint, as musicians struggle through a label ecosystem often suffocated with red tape and a self-publishing economy where simply getting music online does little to guarantee anyone will listen.
Shortly after graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music and moving to Nashville, the artist used Kickstarter for the first time to fund her third studio album, 2015's Liz Longley. "I had all my songs but no budget," says Longley, then unsigned but with two albums under her belt, a small-yet-fervent fanbase and a handful of friends with industry connections. She raised over $50,000 to record the album on Music Row with a team of seasoned session musicians. Produced by Gus Berry (Jaquire King, Charlie Worsham), the music caught the ear of Sugar Hill Records, which signed Longley and released the self-titled LP, as well as followup LP Weightless a year later. But Longley failed to make a sales or radio breakthrough, lessening her commercial clout at Sugar Hill, which was acquired by Concord in April 2015 and increasingly merged into its Rounder imprint.
Longley recorded Funeral For My Past with five-time-Grammy-nominated producer Paul Moak in late 2018 and says she felt ecstatic about her latest work. But when she handed it off to label reps in January 2019, it became apparent something was different. "Once I started to see the response from the [radio and promotions] teams, I realized it was gonna be tough to get the deserved attention," Rounder president John Strohm tells Billboard. "So I went back to Liz and said, 'Not that it’s not a good record -- because it is -- but maybe it's not the right project for us."
With 2019 drawing to a close, Longley now has a concrete release plan and a wealth of advice to offer her fellow artists. For instance: if you cultivate a devoted enough following, some fans will pledge $2,500 for you to write a song about them. Or $8,500 for a personalized song, plus a house concert, plus executive-producer credit on your album. "The main lesson from all of this is the importance of connecting with your fans," Longley says. "I write about heartache, which a lot of people have experienced... I find my fans to be so emotionally available."
In her chat with Billboard, the 31-year old musician explains how she was able to mobilize her fanbase as a self-managed artist -- and what it means for the industry going forward.
Billboard: When you turned Funeral For My Past over to Concord, what happened?
Liz Longley: It was just a waiting game. I made the record in December  and handed it in in January. I was excited about it and they were, too. That’s where things got confusing. If the record was going to come out, it was clear it was going to take at least 10 or 11 months. That didn’t make any sense to me... You hand in a record and typically it comes out three or four months later. There’s a layout, a plan. When that didn’t seem to happen, I felt like maybe it wasn’t a good fit anymore.
This happens to artists a lot. Records are not selling like they used to, so [labels] have to bring on more artists in order to survive. It became clear that the best thing for me was to try to take this on my own. A lot of artists get to this situation, especially these days, where you make a record and it gets shelved; there’s simply not enough people to man the release. I was lucky that my label allowed me to buy it back. That’s not always the case: Delta Rae just did a Kickstarter because the same thing happened to them, but they were not able to get their music back.
Had the label undergone some changes?
Yeah. There was a lot of transitioning going on. I’m a little bit outside of their genre wheelhouse. Sugar Hill is primarily bluegrass -- which I love -- but I kept moving towards my own sound and wasn't able to go on tour with [bluegrass artists]. Then Sugar Hill was purchased by Concord [in 2015]. I was signed to Sugar Hill by [ex-GM Cliff O'Sullivan] who’s no longer there unfortunately [as of 2017].
I just didn't think it was a good fit anymore. But I'm respectful that they helped me get to where I am now. They put in time and helped me grow my fanbase.
What inspired the new album and what does it sound like?
I made it with Paul Moak in Nashville. He’s made records with some of my favorite singer songwriters: Caitlyn Smith, Griffin House, Mat Kearney. I met with Paul and it was like this spiritual experience: his studio is all vibed out, candles everywhere, all these religious paintings. I played him the songs and we talked about my influences: Sheryl Crow, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, Phoebe Bridgers. These songs really fit into that world. We got a band and made the record in three or four days.
I don’t know exactly how to describe the sound, but for me it’s fresh and different and grows upon what I’ve already created. I feel like it’s gonna be one that my fans really relate to, and also embrace more than any other because a lot of people who listen to my music come out to shows and seem to prefer the stripped-down sound. I've tried to chase a sound on record that touches them like my live show does, yet brings it to another level. I think I've finally done that.
Could you offer some detail on the process of buying the album masters back from Concord?
I actually signed a contract with them before I launched the Kickstarter. So as soon as this Kickstarter is over, I’m sending them $35,000 and then the record belongs to me. The rest will be history! [Laughs]
When will fans who backed the Kickstarter receive the album?
[Kickstarter backers] will get the digital copies in December or January. Then we’ll start rolling out singles to the rest of the world in January 2020. The full thing will be out Sept. 18. We’ll have all the CDs and vinyl at shows.
Do you have a distributor?
We’re working digitally with Tone Tree. We don’t have a physical distribution company as of now.
You've already reached the $45,000 goal to buy back the album and promote it on your own. What are your plans for the rest of the money?
We’re gonna do extra music videos, release the album on vinyl, and perform an online concert for every single backer when it’s done. And we’re going to have more merch available than ever before. We actually started making some jewelry, which has lyrics from the title track, "Funeral For My Past," on it. We did these bracelets that say, "Let it go, let it be, let it rest in peace." We already started bringing them on the road and they sold out immediately.
Before signing with Sugar Hill, you self-released your first three albums. What lessons from those days do you find important now?
How important it is to have a team of motivated people who understand what you do. The beauty of being independent is [you] can build [your] team from the ground up. I've already begun to do that.
The main lesson from all of this is the importance of connecting with your fans. At shows, I'll stand by the merch table until the last person leaves. It's my favorite time to hear stories, connect and have a moment. This is even more evident in the way this Kickstarter went. A lot of these relationships I was lucky enough to create on the road over the years.
I'm impressed by your high-level donors -- you had one back you at the $8,500 level, nine at $3,500 and two for $2,500.
I know all of them by name. I know their families. Most of them were part of my other Kickstarter. It’s a big deal that they’re willing to keep showing up for me. It’s pretty cool to see their names pop up on my phone.
Some of these [donation levels] involve me writing songs with [the donors]... I love writing songs for people, and some of the people doing it are songwriters themselves. So we get to write a song together that tells their lives and their stories. And record it in Nashville.
What has your experience working with Kickstarter been like?
I’ve had absolutely no issues, but not a ton of interaction. The site makes it pretty easy to input everything and manage everything as it’s coming in. I think the hard work is after the Kickstarter ends: figuring out how to manage almost 1,000 different pledges, where to send it, what size, etc. There are a lot of companies that have come forward like, "Hey, we saw you had success with Kickstarter, we’d like to help you get all your packages out." Other than that, Kickstarter has everything covered and I would certainly do it again. Though to be quite honest, I didn’t even see myself wanting to do a second one. After I did the first one, I truly believed, "That's it, I just needed this to get on my feet and now I’m good." It was humbling to have to come back and go, "I need you guys again." I was seriously terrified, but encouraged by people around me to do it.
Do you see your story as part of a bigger movement, where more artists can successfuly work outside the label ecosystem?
I do. I have nothing against labels; they were super supportive of me and helped me in huge ways. But I do think it’s important to realize that nothing matters more than your relationship with your fans. As long as you nurture that, you’re set.