KNOWING THE BUSINESS:
MARILLION? D.I.Y. KINGS? YOU BETCHA!
By Kevin Stewart-Panko
(This article was originally published in the final issue of Unrestrained! Magazine, which was only available as a PDF download, so you might have missed it. Because I thought Kevin did such a great job on this – and since I’ve been a Marillion fan since Misplaced Childhood came out in 1985 – I wanted to make sure it found itself a proper home on the big ‘ole Internet. This was originally written back in November 2008, so it might feel a little dated but the sentiment remains. – Da Ed)
Unrestrained!, being a publication that focuses on the many forms and fashions of extreme music, by default ends up primarily highlighting the underground outside the major labels and the bands that often chalk their existences up to an independent network and DIY ethos. Of course, there are different degrees of Do-It-Yourself and this column has previously featured its fair share of DIY subscribers, but I was surprised as shit to find out that one of the two bands currently ruling the world of DIY (since Fugazi broke up, anyway) is Marillion. Portland, OR’s grind-punk heroes Tragedy are the other, but since they seem to love their privacy and isolation as much as I love their music, let’s focus on Marillion. Plus, the story of how they came to be where they are today is pretty fascinating.
Most people know Marillion as the band with the frontman named Fish (nee Derek Dick; good move on using a pseudonym, dude) who play very English prog-rock along the lines of Yes, Rush, Gabriel-era Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and… Sorry, what’s that? Oh, Fish quit the band 20 years ago? You don’t say. Okay then, allow me to admit that I’m not a Marillion fan. Actually, I can’t even claim that much because I don’t think I’ve ever really heard much of the band. However, the interhole has informed me the band has had a number of charting singles and albums over the years (and that, ironically enough, their second album was titled Fugazi), none of which I’m familiar with except for “Kayleigh.” But isn’t that a drippy, pop ballad that horny teens would swap spit to in the backseat of whatever hearse-sized, gas-guzzling monstrosity the American auto industry churned out during the 80s? Basically, I’d have a hard time identifying Marillion’s corpses with their dental records on hand. But you don’t have to be a fan to admire the way they’ve managed to step outside the industry machine, especially after, and because of, being part of it for so many years. Certain articles I used in researching this piece have stated that Marillion are as creatively on-the-ball now as they were in their glory days. This may or may not be true, and I don’t particularly care because this isn’t our focus.
After the release of 1997’s This Strange Engine, things started to take a turn for Marillion. They had just signed to a label called Castle after fulfilling their contract with EMI which had them in still debt even after moving over 10 million albums in about as many years. The post-EMI plan was to license future albums to Castle, retain song rights and grab a bigger cut of the profits. A good plan indeed, except that releasing an album via Castle was the equivalent of releasing an album via my label [note: I don’t run a label and don’t know how to run a label]. Castle meant well, but really didn’t know what the fuck they were doing in terms of promotion, of which there was very little, and tour support, the lack of which threatened to kybosh a US tour. Thank the ether for the fans, who raised over $60,000 online to keep the American tour alive. Light bulbs went off in Marillion’s heads the same way Jake and Elwood Blues found divine inspiration in The Blues Brothers. The internet! The fans! The money! The band! The ability to raise money through the internet from dedicated fans for the benefit of the band! Hell yeah!
Marillion began taking the word to the streets with their eleventh album, Marillion.com. Marillion.com was still distributed under the Castle banner, but it was self-produced with help from the squirrelly-looking dude from Porcupine Tree (Steven Wilson – Da Ed) and the album’s title was a reference to the band’s use of the internet to communicate with their fans. While preparing the album, management invited fans to send passport photos to be featured in the booklet. In addition to the album’s main program, they made a companion disc named Marillion.co.uk which was available for free to everyone who bought the album. This second disc had a collection of various live and demo tracks, as well as an interview video and, to this day, continues to be updated with newer songs and is still available from their website. It was from here on in that Marillion saw the beauty in DIY, independence and their ability to shun record company models and advance/royalty structures all the while involving their fans in the process.
Instead of getting an advance from a record company for their next album, they decided to experiment by asking fans if they’d help fund the follow-up by pre-ordering it before recording even started. The result was over 12,500 pre-orders which raised enough money to record and release 2001’s Anoraknophobia. The band was able to strike a distribution deal for the album for their label, Racket Records, ironically with EMI. Essentially, following the success of the North American tour that was underwritten by the credit bolstered to them by their fans, Marillion managed to cut out the middle-man in terms of securing an advance while giving back to the fans in the form of a deluxe copy of Anoraknophobia with a bonus CD and the name of everyone who contributed the 16 pound sterling (around $30 Canadian today, closer to $42 Canadian back then) pre-order amount.
The success of Anoraknophobia allowed the band to start recording their next album, but they decided to leverage their fanbase once again to help raise money towards marketing and promotion of Marbles, their thirteenth album. Once again, the band put up the album for pre-order, this time when the record was about halfway complete. Fans responded by pre-ordering 18,000 copies.
While this doesn’t bode well for the band being able to brush aside the criticisms of fans, as there are bound to be segments who don’t like this and that, not because they’re playing the role of self-absorbed, arm-chair critic, but because not everybody can like everything, it illustrates something that fans of independent and DIY music have known for years: that it is possible to be successful outside the majors if you’re willing to do the work involved. Also, whether this whole experiment would have been as successful had Marillion not had the fanbase to originally bum cash from, is anybody’s guess. However, my guess would be that I don’t think 18,000 people would be throwing down x amount of dollars towards an unproven entity. But hey, Marillion figured a way to do things their way and ran with it to the tune of being true to their musical vision and surviving the music industry twice as long as they probably would have had they remained slaves to EMI.
Pre-ordering as a way of raising funds and giving back to the fans via special editions, customized double-CDs, box sets and so on (and variations of) is something Marillion has made use of since, including their latest album, Happiness Is The Road.
But it’s not like the band just borrows cash from their fans in exchange for music and specialized liner notes. Marillion continues to give back in unique ways.
When it comes to live shows, Marillion allows fans to choose set lists, even going as far as allowing wannabes and hardcore fans of varying musical ability to join the band on stage. Now, I’ve never witnessed this, but you don’t have to be Nostradamus to know this can go one of two ways. For those too afraid (or too smart, or too self-aware) to get up in front of rabid throng of pedantic fans, the band created .WAV files of the individual drums, guitar, keyboard, bass tracks and both dry and effect-laden vocals of Anoraknophobia’s songs available both for fans who want to either play along, create their own mix or do remixes. They invited anyone to attempt a re-mix with the plan being to release an album of the best remixes and finalists appearing on the compilation each receiving £500.
Most recently, the band released a downloadable version of their new album’s first single (“Whatever Is Wrong With You”) and asked fans to make their own video with the best video taking home £5000. Then, they went ahead and made some noise – sounding like a defiant punk band in the process – by making the new album available for free on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. However, the tracks were specially encoded so that when they are played, a pop-up box appears asking listeners to give the band their email address for marketing purposes and to drum up other streams of revenue, such as offers on Marillion merchandise and concert tickets. Okay, that last part doesn’t sound quite so punk rock, but you might describe it as the prog-rock parallel to punk and hardcore bands announcing Paypal donation accounts on lambgoat.com. They’ve also got into the business of further protecting their fans (and themselves) by speaking out on the merch commissions venues often foist upon bands for the “privilege” of selling their merch on the venue’s property. Gigs have often been canceled at venues engaging in this common and accepted form of unregulated extortion.
And it goes on. Marillion has become as much a business as they are a band. They manage themselves, with each individual member taking care of a specific area of business: managing the web site, doing accounting, etc. They also have Racket Records for themselves and any side or solo projects. They have a small number of full-time employees, including Colin Price, who does double-duty as Racket’s label manager and guitar tech when the band hit the road, and Lucy Jordache, a fan-turned manager who used to work for EMI and fought against industry bureaucracy in compiling a bunch of extensive re-issues and a best of that EMI weren’t originally planning on making very extensive until she got involved. The band have an operations compound located on a trading estate in Buckinghamshire from where they run their label, merchandising warehouse, the offices where all the band business is conducted and their studio, which is reportedly totally state-of-the-art.
They also have various Marillion weekend festivals – one is being held in Montreal in the spring of 2009 – where they often premiere new material, play fan chosen set lists, have fans jam with or replace one of the band members on stage. During the day there are activities such as Marillion pub quizzes, soccer tournaments, signing sessions, kids’ activities, Q&A sessions and much more. It’s kinda like a Manowar convention, except with not nearly as many drunk, shirtless Germans running around and probably nowhere near as funny. (By the way, I reviewed the Marillion 2009 Convention for Canada’s Exclaim!. Read my review here – Da Ed.)
The way Marillion go about the business of music and the way they service and cater to their audience is totally unique. With virtually no radio play or media exposure of any kind, they have managed to maintain and sustain a huge fan base, sell hundreds of thousands of copies of each album and, with the conventions, attract new generations of fans. Of course me being me, checking the band out still hasn’t become a high priority on my list, but you gotta give respect where respect is due. And respect is definitely due in their case.
(Hey, me one final time too. If you liked this article on Marillion check out the interview I did with them last February for Exclaim! as well – Da Ed)