Jamming for Dollars

Taking a cue from road warriors like the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic makes its money the old-fashioned way

Major record labels are still pissed off about digital distribution. The concern that free, nearly perfect copies of songs and albums would be scattered all over the world led to a concerted effort a couple months ago by the Big Five record companies, audio companies and electronics firms to make music "secure." Called the Secure Digital Music Initiative, the goal was to ensure that computer users wouldn't dub MP3 copies of records without giving record companies a piece of the pie. Home recording on cassette recorders in the '80s raised similar alarms (VCRs were going to kill the film industry). But SDMI is dead, and record companies are still doing business. The success of Widespread Panic shows that giving away free music is good for bands -- but not necessarily for record companies.

The sextet from Athens, Georgia, encourages fans to make tapes of its concerts, à la the Grateful Dead. Music is played. Music is recorded. Music is taken home. No money changes hands. And while record companies recognize the value of free music -- after all, songs on the radio are free -- a tune frequently played on the radio usually corresponds to strong album sales, which is how record companies make money. Bands, on the other hand, get about a dollar per CD, and that's usually divided amongst the group members. Most bands make money by selling concert tickets and merchandise.

What bands want more than anything is to be heard by as many people as possible. If somebody gets a copy of a Widespread Panic bootleg and decides to go see the band, the potential loss of one dollar on a CD is more than made up for by a $25 concert ticket. Capricorn Records, Widespread's label, doesn't see any of that money and has reason to be against bootleggers.

Tape 'em if you got 'em: Widespread Panic offers fans a real take-home experience.
Danny Clinch
Tape 'em if you got 'em: Widespread Panic offers fans a real take-home experience.

Widespread Panic is a hidden success story in the music industry. Since its beginning in 1986, Panic -- John Bell, John "Jojo" Hermann, Michael Houser, Todd Nance, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz and Dave Schools -- has been doing things backward. The band generated a large fan base from touring and hoped to sell records later. And this seems to have worked. Hearing percussionist/singer Ortiz explain it, what with his talk of "markets" (not "cities") and "product" ("records"), you'd think this band is pretty much jamming for dollars.

"Whereas most bands travel in support of their product, we travel just to support our way of life," he says. "We're still going to come out here and tour 150, 200 dates a year, whether or not we are in support of a product. We love touring, and we love that experience of having that relationship with the fans."

Letting fans tape concerts, of which no two set lists are similar, is a relationship, all right. Kind of like a marriage. And these live shows, which sometimes go on for three hours, have made the band successful. A double live album, Light Fuse Get Away, was released last year, and even with the, ahem, widespread availability of its bootlegs, the record still sold more than 100,000 copies, close to what the band's studio records sell.

Word of mouth among fans and tape-trading replaces the promotion other groups get from radio, MTV and the press. "We pretty much have allowed taping of our shows, and obviously our record company turns their back to that. I guess any record company would [look down on] that whole system of how we operate," Ortiz says. "Maybe it has shot us in the foot, and maybe it hasn't. Our main thing is to generate interest in the band whatever way we can. Obviously, some people feel like our writing capabilities haven't progressed, and maybe that's why we haven't been on the radio or had major play on MTV. I think that we have a good working relationship with Capricorn; they approve of [how the band operates]. Obviously, they want better record sales, and we just want better attendance. The record company just wishes more people would buy the product. And so do we. Our main thing is the whole live touring thing."

In fact, the band's record sales have remained steady, while its concert draw has grown. This is a band that made more money on tour in 1998 than Smashing Pumpkins, and Sheryl Crow, while selling only a fraction as many records. That's the difference between record companies and artists: They each get their incomes from different sources.

"Capricorn realized from the very beginning that we were going to be kind of like pirates on the sea, kind of like [Capricorn Records president] Phil Walden was. He was going to run his business how he wanted to, and we wanted to run our business how we wanted to," says Ortiz. "The merchandise is strictly ours, which isn't much, but it's a whole lot bigger than it was five or six years ago, and the record sales have been slowly but surely progressing." The band's latest album, 'Til the Medicine Takes, has sold close to 70,000 copies since its release in August, according to Soundscan. The group's last, nonlive record was 1997's Bombs and Butterflies, which has sold 150,000 copies.

"The whole system is," says Ortiz, "hopefully one song will put you on the charts and everybody will go out and buy that album and pick up the [back] catalogue."

Ortiz believes that the insular nature of Spreadheads (folks who follow the band like Deadheads) may be keeping the band from breaking through to a wider audience. Fans might be telling other people to go to concerts, but that doesn't mean they are telling people to buy the group's records.

"Our fans are pretty much laid-back. You almost have to push them into going out and buying anything," Ortiz says. "Their whole concept is they feel like we're their own private little band; they're not holding us back, but they really want to keep us to themselves."

While the group has focused more on touring and jamming than on songwriting in the past, it now is striving to get out of the jam band ghetto. For 'Til the Medicine Takes, Panic was consciously hoping for a radio hit. To that end, it went for polish and variety, enlisting a producer with a track record, John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls), borrowing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for the New Orleans-influenced "Christmas Katie," recruiting soulstress Dottie People for backing vocals on "All Time Low" and even getting Colin Butler of Big Ass Truck to add some scratching to "Dyin' Man." The record is what happens when a band throws a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks. A little soul, a little jazz, a little hip-hop and a lot of freewheeling rock. All in pop-song time, under three or four minutes, and all finely produced.

"We had so much time on our hands. We started the album on January 11 and didn't finish until March 31, and we used every minute of it," says Ortiz with a laugh. "We wanted to have the majority of these songs under that four-minute time frame. We really wanted to get some songs that were more radio-friendly, and we really wanted to mix up arrangements more than we had on the previous album."

Though no radio hit has emerged from Medicine, it wasn't a last-ditch effort on the band's part. As long as there are people taping its music, the band will be on the road. And as long as the band can keep selling 100,000 copies of its albums, Capricorn should be pleased.

Widespread Panic is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 5, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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