By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
She never writes those songs down; in fact, the first time she sees any lyrics is when she sees the cover art for the CD and someone has transcribed them. “Mostly they get them right, but I always have to think for a minute. And sometimes what they think it is is better than what it really is.” She never changes them, she says, because she doesn’t know how to memorize words.
“Imagine becoming a musician to get rich!” Hersh huffs as she sips her coffee and bounces Bodhi on her knee. O’Connell and the kids have returned from the bookstore, and Bodhi has returned to his mother’s lap. “That’s not only evil, it’s stupid. You should play music because you have to, or because it’s fun to be in your garage with your friends. But you should not play music to sell it to people. That is not really playing music.”
It’s been a long time since Hersh could be accused of not really playing music. Despite Throwing Muses’ early successes, opening for the Violent Femmes and X before Hersh had turned 16, Hersh’s songwriting never proved to be the commercial gold mine the record industry was looking for. After The Real Ramona, Throwing Muses, with bassist Fred Abong and drummer Dave Narcizio, hobbled along in major-label land for another five or six years, selling as many as 80,000 copies of one album, University, but never scoring a hit single and rarely playing in a venue bigger than an ordinary nightclub. When Hersh started making solo records, she filled them with moody, lyrical songs that play like fragments of waking dreams; except for her 1994 Hips and Makers, which featured a collaboration with Michael Stipe on a single, “Your Ghost,” and sold 100,000 copies, they earned her the adoration of critics but little attention from the record-buying public.
But her small fan base was ferociously dedicated, made up of listeners who are never easily satisfied by any songwriter and cling like mad when they are — in other words, says Hersh, “people who turn to the Internet to make their presence known and to learn about music.” The band left Warner Bros. for Rykodisc in 1996, but ran out of record-making money a year later. So O’Connell placed the songs on the new Web site ThrowingMusic.com, and advised visitors to stay tuned for future music and live gigs. Ostensibly, the band had broken up, but on ThrowingMusic.com they were still selling records (they managed to put together two more, in 1998 and last summer), T-shirts and even tickets to shows. Some of those shows happened on severely short notice; Hersh was playing to flash mobs before the phenomenon had been defined.
She and O’Connell were also interacting with those fans long before anyone considered that a worthwhile activity. “We lowered the ticket price to $10 from $12 or $25 because people posted comments on the site saying, ‘It’s too expensive for me to bring people to your shows,’” says O’Connell. With that approach, they’ve managed to recruit listeners who happily pay $15 to subscribe to a works-in-progress series so they can hear songs as soon as they’re recorded, sometimes in very rough form. They have retained small clusters of followers who will drive significant distances to see Hersh play.
In the past decade, Hersh and O’Connell have made a living — enough to raise a family and tour the world in a bus full of kids, dogs and a goldfish living in the sink. The Internet helped, but it wasn’t all. “Only part of the change for us was technology,” says O’Connell. “The other part of it was getting real, realizing that it’s not all that important to grab the
brass ring —”
“— or possible,” Hersh interjects.
“We had to create a sustainable way of making music. We had to make records with what we could afford out of our own pockets; we had to be realistic about how many records we could sell and how many people would come to a show. We had to create a bond with our fans, and part of that bond comes from the trust that you’re going to stick around. And the only way to do that was to make do with less.”
Looking back, O’Connell says that Throwing Muses was “built on a foundation that was unsustainable, mostly because the record business had trained them to think they needed a ton of money to make records.” No one working with the new band — the “collective” that includes photographer Lisa Fletcher, producer Ethan Allen, Throwing Muses’ other bassist, Bernard Georges, and now 50-Foot Wave’s new drummer, Rob Ahlers — is getting rich now, but they are making records without commercial pressure or compromise.
Given the stratum of industry power they have chosen to inhabit, Hersh and O’Connell make less money off record sales than they do off Hersh and her band playing live. Consequently, they have a different attitude about what the record companies call piracy and fans call sharing. “I’ve always been very pro-Napster, very pro-sharing,” Hersh says. When I remind her that she’s now voicing a renegade, even criminal, opinion, she shrugs it off. “Only people with money object to music downloading,” she insists. “They want to keep their money and their stuff.
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