Ben Union is one of Tacoma's busiest acts, a pop-rock outfit that has little trouble filling Jazzbones, the Crocodile Café and Puyallup's spacious Liberty Theatre. You'd think the band would be quick to parlay all those packed venues into big CD sales. But, last summer, singer-guitarist Ben Mira had an epiphany regarding the best way to spread his band's sound.
“By the end of this month we'll be giving away all of our music for free - everything, through our web site,” he said in September. “Indefinitely we'll be doing that. I think we're gonna start doing that with all of our releases, just giving everything away for free. Any way we can break down barriers between our band and people is good for us, you know.”
Ben Union made the switch in October, and now fans can download the contents of the band's first three CDs, “The Light” and “This Blessed Union” volumes one and two, along with previously unreleased collaborations with the Fame Riot, Tess Henley and more. “If you prefer to pay for it, you can do that through the iTunes or CDBaby links below,” reads a message at http://www.BenUnion.com. “Either way, just tell a friend.”
The music biz is rapidly evolving, and even the biggest names in the business seem to be abandoning the idea of building their fortunes solely on album sales. Radiohead made headlines a few years back employing a pay-what-you-want strategy for the initial release of the “In Rainbows” album. Seattle label Sub Pop later publicly mused about giving away all its music for free in order to cash in on related memorabilia; at present, the label still charges for all those Beach House and Blitzen Trapper CDs, but also entices fans with loads of free mp3s available through http://www.SubPop.com.
But on the most indie level, it’s not just about staying afloat in the age of rampant piracy. It's about exploiting the possibilities of the Internet as part of a solid long game. Local musicians know it pays to put their tunes in as many hands, and ears, as possible, even if it means forgoing payment for a while. The idea is to generate the sort of buzz that leads to paying gigs and exposure through regional blogs and podcasts. And who knows? Maybe they can ride all that Internet buzz to the cover of Spin, à la Vampire Weekend in 2008.
Along those lines, here are just a few regional acts you can support without spending a dime. Just download their tunes and, assuming you like them, help spread the word.
ILLFIGHTYOU: This Tacoma hip-hop trio – comprised of emcees EvergreenOne, Ugly Frank and Khris P – was generating a buzz by leaking material online well before it made its live debut on Seattle's KEXP-FM around this time last year. The band only amplified that buzz by offering its self-titled debut album, gratis, through http://www.illfightyou.com.
City Hall: EvergreenOne's other group, with rapper-producer Todd Sykes, may be the most prolific creators of free content around these parts. Between their various group projects and solo joints, you can fill your old iPod mini with their content alone. The portal is http://www.wearecityhall.com.
Clemm Rishad: Rishad is half of Writer's Block, the Tacoma songwriting duo (also Will Jordan) that penned Nikki Minaj's “Fly.” Even as Rishad was shopping material to other artists, he was boosting his own solo profile by offering his “Supaflyness” mix tape for free download this year. Bookmark http://www.ClemmRishad.com.
Czar: This prog-metal band is building its reputation on one of Tacoma's noisiest, most chaotic sounds. You can name your price and experience the insanity for yourself by downloading their “Shark Cancer” and “Old Haunts” singles from http://www.czar.bandcamp.com.
Swelter: As featured recently on Tacoma Weekly’s “Make A Scene” page, this popular Puyallup noise-rock band broke up in 1998 before a second album could see the light of day. Years later, it lives on in cyberspace and you can name your price at http://www.tacoma-swelter.bandcamp.com.
Bruce Leroy: This rising star of Tacoma hip-hop offers his 13-track debut album, “Leroy,” and “Coolin',” the summer jam he released in July, for free download at http://www.bruceleroymusic.bandcamp.com.
Fame Rilla: This local artist is giving away “15 Minutes of Fame,” 11-tracks of bass heavy hip-hop goodness, at http://www.famerilla.bandcamp.com.