Free Vanity

A local metal artist plans to give away half a million CDs

Rarely has revenge been served colder than the frozen shit sandwich the record industry has been served. Two decades after forcing the record-buying public into accepting the CD without once lowering its list price, people let it be known via iTunes that they just want the tracks they like, thanks. If they're even paying for them at all.

All this time, major record labels have been in passive denial over digital downloading. But now with their profit margin shrinking faster than the polar icecaps, they'd have been better served heeding marketing visionaries like Otto D'Agnolo, Valley record producer and owner of Chaton Recording Studio.

Three years ago, he wrote a book called The Music Industry is Burning Down — Thank God! In it, D'Agnolo foretold the current scenario and how the artist would cut record companies out of the equation completely. Now, he's putting his theories about the future of music distribution into practice with a metal band he's managing and producing called Vanity Tweak, fronted by 17-year-old singer Carly Gasbara, who adopted a name befitting a Bond villainess about a year ago.

But here's the weird part. In breaking this unknown act, D'Agnolo plans to give away more than half a million Vanity Tweak CDs without any thought to seeing a penny from sales of the music. Initially bundled into the 2007 "Tempe 12: Girls of the Pac 10" calendar, this three-track giveaway is just the opening salvo of a campaign that will make all Vanity Tweak tracks free, either bundled into sponsor-partnership swag bags or disseminated at any number of free concerts the group is doing. Is this any way to run a rock band anywhere but into the ground? And what's D'Agnolo's return on projected zero profits?

D'Agnolo grins like a guy who's obviously thought this over. He's not going to lose his studio if the 500,000 CDs don't reach their intended target. According to the Vanity Tweak official bio, the singer has a benefactor — a Buddhist cardiologist, Dr. Sudheer Gogte of Yuma, who says his sponsorship is "a small thing for one whose destiny is so clear." In truth, Gogte's investment is probably about what a record company might advance a new act, but the money goes straight to promotion rather than to lawyers. D'Agnolo's investment is all of his spare time — cowriting, co-management, producing, recording, and landing other sponsorship opportunities. During lunch at Gourmet House of Hong Kong, he muses that in today's music business, "Giving away music is becoming the price of doing business. Like Gourmet House gives away fortune cookies."

"When do you get the return on advertising?" he asks. "You never get it directly, [you] get it ultimately after you establish yourself as a brand. The CD [is] an advertising expense for merchandising and performing. That's the interface, like giving everybody the joystick so you can sell video games. We're about the artistry. At the same time, we're looking at all the different revenue streams that can be generated from the fans to the artist. I don't know an artist that makes his money through record sales."

In less turbulent times, like maybe the '90s, the unreleased Vanity Tweak debut CD wouldn't have been a hard sell to major labels. Fronted by a gutsy and photogenic young girl with an actual vocal range, angst-riddled lyrics, and heavy guitar, it would have been a perfect fit for MTV and classic rock-dominated radio. Hell, there's even a grunge cover of Derek and the Dominos' "Bell Bottom Blues" to cover all bases.

But these days, A&R men can lose their jobs signing a FedEx airbill. And they're still second-guessing what girls Carly's age want to hear and not giving it to them. Truth is, Carly was second-guessing what she should be singing until last year. At age 13, her mom brought her to Chaton for guidance. "I was singing jazz. A little off pitch, but [D'Agnolo] could tell I could sing," she says. "When I was 12. I was more into Christina Aguilera pop kind of stuff. So it's impossible to know who you are at 14."

She and D'Agnolo recorded several tracks in that vein and went as far as mastering them at Capitol before she decided she was sick of that sound. She moved toward Liz Phair fare, which she also ditched before arriving at the heavy metal gothic sound. Since the demographic for metal is college males, it was a shrewd move to get Vanity Tweak's name and music into the Tempe 12 calendar, which has a local circulation of 60,000.

The next step is breaking the band to a younger audience by staging free concerts at high school assemblies via a partnership with the Arizona Mental Health Association.

"I remember my favorite day in high school was when the Army came to my high school assembly with a rock band because they wanted to recruit us," D'Agnolo says. "I wouldn't have gone if they didn't bring the rock band. If you tell a kid to come to an assembly and talk about not killing yourself, he probably won't come. But bring in a band, give away a few CDs, and talk a little about mental health, [and] they'll come."

Since much of today's pop music seems to encourage self-absorption, co-dependency, and even suicidal behavior, it's fortunate that Vanity's songs fit the bill as far as reaching out to troubled teens.

"They were thrilled because she's expressing the anguish, but she's not saying, 'I have a mental problem,'" D'Agnolo says. "She's saying, 'These are the kinds of things you're going to come up against,' and offering them something they can relate to."

"The song I wrote about my uncle is about death, obviously," Vanity says. "He killed himself when I was young, so I wrote a song called 'The Day You Fell,' and it's about trying to deal with it and wanting answers and not being able to get them. And I gave a song about my brother, who was going through some tough times. Everyone has frustrations when you're growing up."

Was the AZ Mental Health Association ever concerned about the name Tweak resembling "tweek," the meth lab shorthand for killer speed?

"In the studio world, I've used that word for 30 years," D'Agnolo says. "We spell it right, they spell it wrong, and we're taking it back."

And, of course, no one's going to mistake this hard rock for Prince's first girl-group spin-off, Vanity 6. Which also comes up a lot less than you'd think. "I don't even know who that is," Vanity Tweak says. "Does she have a MySpace page?"

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Vil Vodka
Vil Vodka

It's great to read an article about a well known local producer, one with gold and platinum records on his studio's walls and an obvious attachment to the music industry's past, who is willing show guts, take risks, and prove to be one of the most forward thinking music producers in the country. For someone like myself who has worked hard and spent tens of thousands on my own music 2.0 company, I found the article very inspiring. That is why I was shocked after visiting the Myspace page of Vanity Tweak to see that they are making the same mistake that thousands of other unsigned bands are doing; not setting their music to be downloadable. To see such an important detail overlooked by a professional like Otto D'Agnolo was very disappointing.

Mr. D'Agnolo has the basic concept down. Unsigned artists should not be selling CDs, not within their first year atleast. Free music is the key. Be it concerts, CDs or downloads. While CDBABY, Tunecore, and SnoCap have given millions of Protools-equipped artists nationwide an almost-false sense of empowerment, we are learning time and time again that the key to jumpstarting an artist-fan relationship is giving your music away from the get go while waiting for the relationship to truly cultivate. But let�s see if I am clear on what I just read. Otto D'Agnolo is going to use a six figure invested interest to give away a half million �coasters� but won�t allow his artist to give away free music on the web?

A further venture into the artist�s own website (www.vanitytweak.com) gives us a flash based website that doesn�t allow downloading of the band�s music. Now I consider myself a junior audiophile. I don�t have the best equipment, but I will take vinyl through Bose speakers over compressed audio and earbuds any day. But let�s get realistic. Home stereo systems have become niche. So, if the iPod is the most common listening device among the 18- 32 demographic, shouldn�t the goal of all up and coming artists (and the managers that represent them) be to get their music on as many of those iPods as possible?!? And if that is your goal, don�t you want to make it as easy as possible for your potential audience to get these songs on their portable devices?

So Otto D�Agnolo wants Vanity Tweak to connect with a college and a high school audience. Ask these kids how many free CDs they get every week from young and hungry bands. Probably atleast one per every show they attend or about one a week. I see CD-Rs from bands everywhere I go. Consider that there are more CD burners per households these days than television sets. Hell, I have probably burned a half million CDs from the day I bought my first CD burning desktop computer ten years ago to now and with all the bands I have either played with or managed within that timeframe. Now ask these kids what they do with a majority of those CDs. 5 years ago the CD giveaway was a premier promotional strategy. Today, your potential fans are not impressed. Do you want your music collecting dust on top of someone�s dresser or do you want your music directly on the iTunes and WinAmp playlists of your potential fans?

Despite how well written this article is, Serene misses one important mainstream comparison: the parallels between D�Agnolo�s bonus CD idea inside the Tempe 12 calendar and the recent and highly publicized giveaway of three million discs by Prince in the UK. Prince is Prince. His track record of making some of pop music�s finest moments gives him a free pass of experimentation. However, if you are a barely known artist competing for a small slice of the attention span pie, placing your CD inside a subscribed periodical (regardless if it�s a daily newspaper, monthly zine, or yearly calendar) equates your music to that of the AOL �First 40 Hours Free� CD-Roms of yesteryear. Isn�t anyone listening to Seth Godin? We live in a �ask first� marketing culture. You don�t spam people your mp3s and show dates unless they sign your mailing list�and you don�t �place� your band�s CD inside an unrelated piece of literature, unless said piece is music related to be begin with.

Otto, please give your client�s music away�but please be smart about it. Set the music on Vanity Tweak�s myspace page (or Pure Volume, GarageBand, etc) so everyone can download and enjoy the songs on their favorite digital player. Make their music podsafe. Go as far as to set up your own podcasting feed so you can offer your subscribers the first opt to download new tracks. Save your investor�s cash on a premier CD or vinyl package to sell when the time is right. If you cultivate fanship correctly, they will be back with money in hand to buy your client�s goods, even if the goods is a recorded medium that has the same songs offered free on the web. Once fanship is established, you can sell the tokens of fanship easily be it vinyl, CD, T-shirts, buttons, etc. Be smart or else your potential audience will see your CD and concert giveaways as just smoke and mirrors.

And one more thing�yes the labels are fucking up. However being on a label is still considered cooler than being too sponsor-friendly.

Sincerely, Vil VodkaVodka Tonic Media (inspiring music mogul and, more importantly, someone who still buys music and discovers new artists everyday).

Jessica
Jessica

This was a very cool article. Sounds really interesting to give out all of those CD's for Free through the Tempe12 calendar. I wish her great luck

 
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