There’s a popular trope out there these days that with streaming music and file sharing, there’s just no way for musicians to make a living as musicians. Game over. Done. Unless you’re already big and famous.
But don’t tell that to Doug and Telisha Williams, aka the band Wild Ponies. As of this writing in the spring of 2016, the Williams have just released a new album, Radiant, on their own label; they released a limited-edition acoustic version of the same album at the same time; and they have a new album in the works to be recorded in the summer. They’ve also been touring throughout the US and Europe, and in March they completed a two-week tour of … the Yukon Territory. Yes, northwest Canada, where they travelled from the airport on a trailer attached to a snow machine. (That’s north country speak for a snowmobile.)
Doug and Telisha met in high school where he was the drum major and she was a majorette. They then played together in a rock ‘n’ roll cover band. “We eventually got married and tried day jobs, and that didn’t work, so we went to being musicians,” Doug said in a recent interview. They’ve now been married more than 17 years. Wild Ponies play roots and Americana music – sort of a mix of country, bluegrass, blues, folk and rock. When they got started everything was acoustic, But their latest album is all-electric for Doug’s guitar, though Telisha still plays the upright bass. They are often accompanied by drummer Megan Jane and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin.
“We’ve never been with a traditional record label,” Doug said. “We’ve never courted any of the major labels. And while we’ve flirted with the small indie labels, we’ve now formed out own small label. When you have your own label, it means you spend more time on the business side than you want to… But it also gives you the responsibility. You have to do your own work with radio promoter and the promotion person.
“It also means you have to raise your own capital, which is tough. It means you have to have a closer relationship between you and your fans.”
Doug says that principles for success he and Telisha count on come from the work of Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly and his theory of the “1,000 True Fans.” This is the idea that artists can be successful apart from a large company or media organization if they can find 1,000 true fans. Kelly writes:
“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res-version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”
Doug says that artists who have a thousand or so true fans can have “a pretty good middle-class life. We don’t survive without fan engagement. We don’t play a show anywhere where we don’t know someone in the audience on a first name basis. Anywhere in the world. Amsterdam, London, southern Germany… Little towns in southern Germany.” (Full disclosure – your author and his wife are true fans of Wild Ponies.)
Wild Ponies inhabit a part of the music business (media business, really) located somewhere between the mega-stars who bring in enormous numbers of fans and the garage bands who hope to get a hundred plays on YouTube. They inhabit a spot between the long tail and the short head on the media distribution curve.
For the Ponies’ first professionally produced album, Things that Used to Shine, they raised more than $30,000 from 340 backers through the crowd funding Web site Kickstarter. To get funding though Kickstarter, musicians (like everyone else seeking Kickstarter funding) put together a video pitch along with written details about their qualifications and the album they intend to make. Potential contributors pledge to fund projects they find interesting, but they only get charged if the project reaches the financial goal the creators set. If the project doesn’t reach its funding goal, no money is exchanged. Assuming the project does reach its goal and gets funded, the people who pledge do not get an investment in album; instead, they get the satisfaction of supporting the project and very often some kind of reward, such as a copy of the album, a t-shirt, or even a dinner with the artist. (When filmmaker Spike Lee funded a small indie movie through Kickstarter, $10,000 donors got to go with Spike to a Knicks NBA game.)
Doug says that he and Telisha are pretty happy with the way their professional life is going. “People say “I hope you guys make it.” But we are doing well. I don’t even know what ‘make it’ means. We’re paying our bills. You can be a successful lawyer without arguing a case before the Supreme Court. But I consider us successful. I love what we do.”