Thinking outside the box set
Once upon a time, musicians just sang for their supper -- now it seems they have to actually cook it themselves as well. That's the conclusion to be drawn from the Unthanks's charming new venture: hosting residential singing weekends with personalised catering thrown in to the bargain.
The modern folk ensemble were nominated for this year's Mercury Prize for their outstanding Last album, have a new live CD out next week and play Dublin and Cork next month.
They invited their fans, during their Vicar St gig earlier this year, to come and spend time hanging out with them in their home town of Northumberland in the north-east of England, joining in music sessions down the local pub and even dining with the band.
Their website states that for a fee, Unthanks fanatics can stay "in a modern fully insulated bunkhouse by the coast in Northumberland. The weekends feature singarounds and workshops from Rachel and Becky Unthank, short coastal walks, singing in the pub, and food to write home about by pianist and producer Adrian McNally."
This latest entrepreneurial project is one of the quirkiest manifestations of the trend for musicians to be interactive in how they deal with their fans in 2011.
In an age of shrinking revenue streams, caused by both the global recession and the illegal downloading culture of the internet, artists have been forced to think outside the box set and come up with new ways of keeping the show on the road. In short, it's a case of innovate -- or starve.
The heart-warming offer to hang with the band in their home town and live like an Unthank for a weekend is a welcome reversal of the traditional relationship that exists between artist and fan in the celebrity culture, which can roughly be translated as "buy my album and concert ticket and then get the hell out".
But I've noticed an increasingly fan-friendly approach from older, more established artists at their gigs in recent weeks. Billy Bragg stayed in the foyer of the Button Factory for over an hour after his gig there last month, signing copies of his new CD and posing for photos for what seemed like every last member of the audience.
Ditto Steve Earle the other week, who hung around in the Olympia Theatre after his intoxicating three-hour set, scribbling fan dedications in the inside jacket of his new novel and the cover of his CD for another seemingly endless line of fans. Talk about putting in a shift.
Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin was equally accommodating after his show in the Workman's Club a few weeks ago.
It seems the days of the quick getaway on to the tour bus are over -- nowadays it's all about, to quote Larry David, the Stop And Chat.
The Wedding Present's Dave Gedge even hung around the merchandise stall in the Academy BEFORE his show there.
Indeed, Gedge has taken a leaf out of the Unthanks's book on DIY capitalism by offering to include the names of individual fans on the sleeve of his forthcoming album in return for a fee that will help him fund recording it.
His website spells out the details of what he calls his Club 8 offer:
"1. The option of having a name of your choice on the album sleeve in the 'thank you to ... ' section, in recognition of your support of the band.
2. A CD copy of the album signed by David Gedge and sent to an address of your choice in advance of the official release date.
3. One of 500 specially pressed and numbered seven-inch singles featuring two exclusive tracks that will not be on the album, also sent to an address of your choice.
4. As a valued member of Club 8 you will be eligible for further special benefits throughout 2012, to be announced later."
Even the judges of Dragons' Den couldn't fail to be impressed by Gedge's business nous. He also hosts his own indie rock festival in Brighton and Yorkshire every year and sponsors a Scottish football team, who display his band's name on the front of their jerseys -- you can even buy these jerseys with your own name emblazoned on the back.
Closer to home, my namesake, the former Fat Lady Sings and Alien Envoy singer/songwriter Nick Kelly, offered to play 10 separate house concerts in the homes of his fans for a fee last year. It's rumoured he even offered to do the washing up.
The Unthanks play the music of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons at Whelan's, Dublin, December 13 and 14, and Cyprus Avenue, Cork, 15. Their new live album, Diversions 1, is out now