About 23 hours before the tour commenced last week, Kym Register—one of two co-founders of the Durham quintet Midtown Dickens—offered about a dozen friends a favor.
"So, we just got our 16-passenger van fixed, and it turns out that only Catherine [Edgerton] and I will be able to come on tour," wrote Register in an e-mail, explaining that the band's big tour van would only be taking part of the band north for the 10-show trek. "It's such a fun trip, and we worked really hard on it and would like to extend the opportunity to all of our friends that might be able to go, to go. We leave tomorrow at 3 or 4. Who's in?"
As it has a habit of doing, Midtown Dickens' circle of friends and supporters responded. Will Hackney, who plays mandolin and sings in the band, adjusted his plans and got in the van, as did three others, all toting a musical instrument or two. By the time Midtown Dickens hit Richmond for the journey's first show, they were again a quintet.
The offer of a late-summer touring adventure wasn't the first time Edgerton and Register asked their listeners to join them: In December, Edgerton sent an e-mail to 200 people—including local musicians, parents and fans, or "everyone we know," as she says—soliciting investments for the production of the band's second record. Hackney had done something similar with his other band, Lost in the Trees, raising $4,000 through the same letter. Midtown Dickens wanted to record in a professional studio with producer Scott Solter (The Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice), and they would need no less than $7,500 for the project to succeed, and—if the records sold—each investor would receive full reimbursement and 5 percent profit on investment. The responses poured in.
Historically, record labels have worked by paying a band an advance before the record is made. A portion of that money might go to a producer and a studio in order to make the album sound its best. Another bit might be used to pay the band's living expenses, like rent or groceries at home or for hotels and transportation on tour. In the good old days of largesse and high record sales, perhaps an SUV purchase would be involved.
The band has to repay this advance—along with the record label's expenditures on publicists, ad campaigns and the like—by selling records. When those lines cross, the band may finally get paid. The band can concentrate on making the record without worrying about immediately paying for it, but the system's inherent disadvantage for bands is that it works something like a large line of credit. The band can breathe easy while it makes the record, but the burden of debt looms large when the record hits shelves.
Record labels still do this, but the era in which big labels were scooping up indie bands with large globs of cash up front has mostly expired. Bands, then, have to find alternate ways to fund their projects. Hackney, a co-founder of Chapel Hill label Trekky Records, developed this plan for Lost in the Trees because, in the current music climate, the label didn't have money to pay for a project as grand as the band had imagined. Similarly, Midtown Dickens—whose members are small-business owners and service industry types—couldn't front the cost themselves.
Several friends donated as little as $20 or $50 toward the band's success. Meanwhile, a stranger watched Midtown Dickens play on a Sunday morning at a festival last April and later read their call for support online. He responded by writing a check for $5,000.
"I didn't know people were going to be so generous. Everybody gave according to their abilities," says Register, prowling the streets of Manhattan on a Monday morning, looking for breakfast after a Sunday night show at the legendary troubadour hub, Sidewalk Cafe. "It pushed us to do this thing that I was not on the fence about but that is hard to do without getting paid."
But this wasn't about getting paid. The investments the band received surpassed its original estimate by nearly $4,000. Instead of using that money to fund a tour or to hire a premier publicist to hustle their music into magazines, Midtown Dickens funneled it into improving Lanterns, effectively transforming it from a mere second album into an involving artistic statement.
"We felt like we had to go all out," remembers Register. "We have to get somebody to record it very well, and we have to make sure people hear it really well. It was an artistic plunge: We're going to do it this way, and we're going to go all out because we've put so much into this."
Lanterns, after all, is the culmination of over two years of writing, rehearsal and recording. The entire package does such a long-term effort justice: Each purchase includes the music on three formats—a black vinyl LP, a compact disc in a sleeve and through a paper coupon printed with a code that allows the music to be downloaded online. A 16-page libretto includes not only lyrics but also an illustration for each song by Edgerton.
Apparently, the effort wasn't lost on investors or listeners. When Midtown Dickens played Duke Coffeehouse in celebration of the record's release late last month, the crowd swelled into the exits, and the air was saturated with sweat. People shouted along, and a half dozen guests joined the band as it rolled through all of Lanterns. They sold more than 100 copies. That one investor who'd cut the check for $5,000 decided they'd done enough for him, and he wrote them again. This time, it was a letter proclaiming that his investment had been a donation. He didn't want the money back.
"That letter," says Register, "was the most beautiful act of kindness I've ever seen."