This column was penned by Lindsey W. and is a continuation of the Black Witch series “Fandom and the Fan” which continues throughout the month of March.

You can’t go a day when looking at music headlines to catch the tag-line “… ruined the music industry.” The association changes day by day: iTunes, Napster, The Pirate Bay… How is the industry going to survive when there are so many forces going against it? That’s the clincher. Maybe the music industry won’t survive, it’ll turn into an entirely different beast. The signs are slowly showing.

The highlight of a band’s career is to get signed to a record label. It means they “made it” and more-so, they’re going to be earning a living from that point on, creating music and playing it for the fans. It was just the case for a band called Hawthorne Heights. They were quickly signed by Victory Records and were put on the road, had singles on the air, music videos on the tv, in music magazines everywhere and in whatever they did, they absolutely had to promote — records.

That was the ‘new’ plan, it’s not the bands that matter, but the brand, the record company that matters. Hawthorne Heights suffered because of it. It didn’t  matter how many albums they sold, they never saw a return, everything was invested back into touring, CD recording and most importantly (for the label), marketing. To top it off, Hawthorne Heights couldn’t even see what expenses were being put where and how much they were actually losing. The band wasn’t making a living and they seemed all in debt all while their songs were high on the billboard charts. So, they sued Victory Records. They demanded out of their contract or, in the very least, to see some monetary return to float their bills.

The lawsuit took years and Hawthorne Heights thought they could get out of it. They started recording material on their own dime and touring themselves accompanied with their own merch, fully fan supported. Then tragedy stuck while on tour, the bassist and “screamer” vocalist Casey had died in his bunk. The untimely death was caused by complications from pain medicine he received after a recent dentist visit and his own anti-depressant medicine that no one knew would conflicted. Without knowing Hawthorne Heights full catalog, it would be tough to say how this affected them, more-so than the devastation of the band losing their best friend. Casey was one of the vocalists, apparent in most of their singles and if they were to perform, there would be an clear void in the voices heard on stage (on top of the guitar work he also did). Soon after, the court case was completed and horror of horrors, Victory Records won, the band signed the contract and owed Victory Records one more record…

Surely this was a unique situation, that Victory Records, with the industry suffering, wanted to cling to an established and growing band that was trying to escape a contract that gave little to no benefits. But no, Virgin Records also thought they were owed a record. The band? 30 Seconds To Mars.

30 Seconds To Mars started on shaky grounds: a media backlash was happening in the industry, all because there was a new wave of bands being lead by famous actors. For the most part, the bands were generally deemed horrible. Jared Leto (Fight Club, Requiem For A Dream, My So-Called Life, etc.) did his best to hide that he was in fact the lead singer and guitarist for the band and hoped his merits would be based on the music.

The first album, self-titled 30 Seconds To Mars was put out by Immortal Records, signing a general five CD contract. Now, they don’t have to put out all five CD’s but it does lock the band in to the label for a lengthy amount of time if they do well. The self-title got generally positive reviews and gained enough of a following for Virgin (parent of the now defunct Immortal Records) to release a second album again with little to no promotion, hoping to see a return on their little investment. Lucky, with Jared being an actor and continuing to do so, he would invest his money back into the band, in promotion, in touring, and tried to get the band public.

A year after the release, there was still a small cult following, but no big break yet. A word went out on the band’s message board: if there were fans that could travel to a location in Canada (and were preferably twins, though not necessary) to be extras in an upcoming music video, it would be appreciated. A few fans jumped at the chance, some thinking this would be a great way to meet the band and be in a music video, even if this might be their last one. Single “The Kill” came out, harking back to the movie The Shining and the band blew up, they finally had the mainstream’s attention. They shot a beautiful music video in China and on a glacier in Greenland. Eventually they would need a new CD, because they were running out of songs for singles.

30 Seconds To Mars saw how Virgin did nothing to help the band, and although they were getting the attention of the label, the band still wanted control and help in executing the new album and related promotion. So, they decided to sign to another label. Virgin sued the band for 30 million dollars, saying that they were still owed 3 out of 5 records. The band countered, in California (where they signed the contract) a contract is null and void after seven years and 30 Seconds To Mars was past that point. The band took the lawsuit personal and the album This Is War was created. Eventually the lawsuit was settled, the band wanted to continue on with their lives and release the album they had been working on during the lawsuit. They signed to EMI, parent of Virgin Records and released This Is War.

What is interesting about This Is War, beyond the legal troubles, harks back to last week’s article. This Is War, although mainly about the battle over control of the band, was created in part with the fans help. 30 Seconds to Mars turned the album into a declaration of not only themselves but everyone who wanted to make a statement. They held a “summit” where they had hundreds of fans come and sing, of which you can hear throughout the album and specifically in their first single “Kings And Queens”. That video too was helped by fans, owing some of their success as a band to the fans who helped them in “The Kill”, 30 Seconds to Mars asked people to dress up and come with them on a bike ride throughout the city of Los Angeles.

Not only all this, but the band asked their fans to submit a picture, much like a mugshot, to be the cover of the album. There are at least 2,000 different covers, featuring fans and celebrities (whom all submitted their picture to be randomly selected) and sent across the world. An American fan would find their picture on the album in New Zealand, a British fan in Germany and even so on. They were connecting fans personally, all the fans that submitted could ‘find themselves’ in the world with the help of others they’ve never met. Recently, 30 Seconds to Mars also highlighted their fans and the declaration of the band (“yes, this is a cult.”) in “Closer To The Edge”. It’s closing into two years since Jared Leto has appeared in a movie (biggest gap since starting his acting career) so it seems like 30 Seconds To Mars is finally on stable ground.

So, in the end, both Hawthorne Heights and 30 Seconds to Mars went back to a major label, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t survive without them. And that, even more than losing an established band to another label, scares major labels more than anything.

It seemed like an experiment at the time. Trent Reznor, essentially Nine Inch Nails, decided to produce and promote Saul William’s newest album at the time, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! The album was free, with an optional fixed price of $5 for any quality (for the audiophiles out there) of recording. The online release was arguably a success but not by much. Out of  the 154,449 people who downloaded the album, only 28,322 people paid the $5 for the record.  Since 2004, the same amount of albums were sold of William’s first album, Amethyst Rock.

Around the same time, Radiohead came out with their “pay anything you want’” for the album In Rainbows before seeing it release traditionally in stores. The amount they saw in return was never published and because they are arguably more of a household name than Saul Williams, the comparison for the labeless online distribution was mute.

No one thought much more on it until Reznor decided to release a four CD “dreamscape” called Ghosts I-IV, online at different levels of commitment: $5 again for the digital release up to a $300 Ultra-Deluxe Limited Edition signed by Reznor. In one week, 750,000 people purchased the album, making over $1.6 million in sales. It was the first album Trent Reznor released after finally ending his record contract with Interscope records. If that’s not a success story, I don’t know what is.

It’s not just bands more than a decade old who have success stories. It’s starting to be the story of little bands too, like OK GO, who became a YouTube sensation after going behind their label’s backs and releasing their video “Here It Goes Again” to the world versus a video treatment by the label. They released their album Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky on Capital Records, only to find themselves able to re-release it under their own label, Paracadute Recordings, touring under their own direction, getting sponsors and other organizations to help with their music videos they’re so known for. They even are taking up a new trend for merch, selling the recordings of their live shows after they’re finished on a unique usb. It will definitely be struggle but they made decisions to make themselves a household name and now under their own direction. Hopefully they will continue to profit, if only to invest back into continuing the band.

I could go on to say that even currently, the latest self released CD that gained some notoriety is Patrick Stump’s (lead singer of Fall Out Boy) Truant Wave EP. It actually ranked on the iTunes charts (the only way it was being sold) and made marginal sales with the only promotion being whatever online mention Stump himself made on the album and in giving full song previews to certain websites.

That’s the surprising trend: a lot of bands sign to a label, be it a naive move or a quick money grab only to keep the band going, and sign a five-year standard contract – only to find out they aren’t in the best situation. Yes, arguably, sometimes they gain notoriety through the label’s distribution support, but this is never the case.

In point, just because 30 Seconds To Mars signed to the overhead of the parent of the first label they signed to, the band still had to ask French fans for support in getting the This Is War released by the French branch of the record company. Digitally, Truant Wave was released globally through iTunes, with only iTunes and Stump claiming the proceeds. So it’s become a choice. Work with a label, get more promotion (if they decide your band is worth it) but run into possible limitations on the music being found globally in shops. Or get as much promotion as the band can provide (which is still limited to their time during the day) versus everyone being able to access and download the music (speaking of iTunes/Amazon and the like, legally).

The fact that there is a choice for musicians to reach their fans and to continue making a living creating and performing music is amazing. The music landscape will change dramatically in the next couple of years. Concernedly, I hope it doesn’t become the current model that the band The Bloodhound Gang has adopted. Their last two singles were released to iTunes supposedly for their so-called upcoming album, of which the date keeps getting pushed back. At this time, they have a singles-only release and are a promotion band, essentially no more albums, if it’s not a single it’s not given attention. As a music fan I find this startling because this very likely could be a new medium for the future. Music labels are already promote “360 deals” that now not only own the rights of the music, CDs, and band’s merch but also a percent of their tour proceeds all go back to the label. It would only be just to then see these 360 bands only create singles and perform them in a very restricted manner.

Either way, as a fan, you get to choose what band and what venture you want to support with your personal promotion or monetary support. Bands can’t survive without a fan, whether it be with a label or by themselves. It’s also in the fan’s power to control how the industry evolves, it would be wise to remember that.

Next week is the final column of Fandom and the Fan, which will be written by me and with some final collaboration between Lindsey and I. April resumes normal Black Witch postings.