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Instant Karma

Burning CDs of shows to sell to the audience makes good sense. But selling the idea to bands is another matter.

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Schubas, Metro, and the Double Door have announced an agreement with New York-based eMusicLive to make its See a Show, Buy a Show (SASBAS) instant live-album technology available at concerts in Chicago. With artist consent, the company will record performances, then burn CDs on the spot to sell alongside band merch. It's not a new concept--Clear Channel introduced its Instant Live program at some Boston clubs last spring, and other companies, including DiscLive and Chicago's Pirate Entertainment (which documented Buddy Guy's 16-night stand at Legends in January), have launched similar systems. But eMusicLive's Chicago ventures make it the first outfit to set up shop permanently in multiple clubs in a single city.

SASBAS promises better recordings than a typical bootlegger could make: its mix combines signal from a dedicated microphone setup in the venue and output from the soundboard. Each venue will have its own eMusicLive rep to handle paperwork with the acts, oversee the mix, put start IDs on the songs, and run the burner (which can make as many as 50 discs every ten minutes). The standard rate is $10 for single discs and $15 for multiple-disc sets.

In the past six months eMusicLive has installed SASBAS in four other clubs across the country--Maxwell's in Hoboken, San Diego's Casbah, Ann Arbor's Blind Pig, and Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill--and recorded 200 shows. But only a handful of them have been by bands most people would recognize. Difficulty in securing name acts is a common problem for the fledgling subindustry. Despite Clear Channel's hammerlock on radio and concert business in the U.S., its Instant Live catalog is mostly local Boston acts plus a handful of jam bands. "The majority of artists haven't been able to participate for various reasons, like contractual or label obligations," says eMusicLive president Scott Ambrose Reilly (Lounge Ax lizards may remember him as Mojo Nixon's manager Bullethead). "And some may just be hesitant about the technology or the idea in general. But we think there are enough bands who will want to try it to make this a success."

One source of hesitation for acts that are free to play ball is the question of exactly what they're signing away when they agree to have a show recorded. That's a question eMusicLive has been asked a lot since 1999, when it went into business as Digital Club Network, offering concert webcasts, paid music downloads, and a few live CDs (by artists including the Meat Puppets, the Handsome Family, and Ralph Stanley) on its own label. Under its standard contract, DCN claimed the right to do basically whatever it wanted with its recording of a band's performance in exchange for a 25 percent royalty on any money it would make in the process.

These days, the company's plan is to retail any leftover SASBAS discs at local record stores (Schubas recordings will go to Reckless, Hi-Fi will carry CDs made at Metro; no arrangement has been confirmed yet for Double Door) and to sell the live audio as MP3s at its Web site. Bands will split all net profits evenly with eMusicLive, Reilly says, with about a third of the gross going to cover expenses, which include the venue's cut. Perhaps as significant as the improved royalty rate is the fact that bands get their share of on-site CD sales in cash, which can make a big difference on the road.

Control of the master recording itself, however, remains with eMusicLive. "Ultimately, what we do with it after a certain point is at our discretion," says Reilly, who mentions best-of compilations from individual venues as a possible use. "But the thing we've learned here is nothing makes any sense without a real partnership with the artist."

Reilly is negotiating with several indie labels in hopes of increasing the pool of potential SASBAS participants, just as DCN struck webcast deals with many of the same companies. Every act on a label's roster wouldn't necessarily be recorded, he says; it would still be up to each band, but a template agreement with the label would already be in place. In some cases rights to the masters might revert to the label or to the band itself.

For the venues, the only real risk is to their reputation, says Joe Shanahan of Metro and Double Door. "That's why we were involved in picking our [eMusicLive venue rep]. They're sort of working under our banner, so we had to pick this person carefully because the whole thing is an extension of us--we're essentially partners in this."

Earlier this week Kansas City trash-art combo Ssion became the first SASBAS participant at Metro. Slated to go at Schubas are the Hold Steady (see Spot Check), the new group from ex-Lifter Puller main man Craig Finn (who used to work for DCN), plus the biggest name to agree so far, San Francisco pop obsessive John Vanderslice. Richard Buckner, who plays Schubas on Friday, recently declined an eMusicLive offer. He says he was approached at the Casbah in San Diego just hours before showtime. "I didn't know the company or anything about them," he says. "They sent an indie-rock-looking girl up to talk to me, but she had a definite business air about her. I refused 'cause it was just like, 'Who are you? What do you want to do?' To me, if they can afford to record the shows and have a rep there, they could probably afford to try and get [ahold] of me and explain it properly, and not in the middle of sound check."

Urge Overkill nixed a proposal to record their first reunion gig, also at the Casbah, says manager Matt Suhar, "because naturally you're worried about what you're going to sound like on something that's so raw, and you're a little concerned anytime you sign on for someone else to sell your music." But when Suhar discovered a bootleg from the current tour on the Internet a few days later, the band had a change of heart. "We realized the chances are someone's going to be recording the shows anyway. So why not do it professionally and sell it?" Urge sold out a run of about 60 discs last month at Maxwell's, which has a legal capacity of 200.

Other local artists have taken a wait-and-see approach: "If we were to release something live we'd want to record it well, mix it well, and have it be something that we believe in, not something we've never even heard," says Tim Rutili of Califone, who turned down an eMusicLive bid for their show at Schubas this past week. "Maybe this is the beginning of something good. But for right now I like the idea of people taking away a memory of the show better than them taking away a CD of the show."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Mizbliss.

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