Pretty Lights: Making the Walls of the City Quake
The Grateful Dead and the jambands that followed saw live taping as a way of spreading their music to new audiences, while simultaneously fostering a sense of community, loyalty and respect among their fans. Free music equaled free advertising. Smith sees it the same way, even if he arrived there on his own: he offered the first Pretty Lights album in 2006 as a free download because, frankly, nobody would’ve bought it. Nobody knew who Pretty Lights was when it was released and nobody cared.
“It started for me as the only possible way forward,” Smith says of his free music model. Knowing that he’d have to do something out of the ordinary to grab people’s attention, he used the predominant social media platform of the day— MySpace—to reach out to people personally, asking friends and friends of friends with similar interests to give his music a chance.
Prior to Pretty Lights, Smith had tried the more traditional route of making it in music, playing bass, flute and rapping in a group called Listen., which he describes as “the Beastie Boys meets Sound Tribe Sector Nine.” They did what all the bands they liked did before them—cut an album, toured and tried to peddle the CD on the road.
While this was a time before small, independent bands could put their music up on iTunes, they still attempted to sell the disc online using PayPal and shipping the product themselves. “It didn’t work,” says Smith. “No money was made. I was broke as hell.”
Conversely, with Pretty Lights, as soon as people started downloading the first album, Smith immediately began getting offers to play shows. From there, things took on a life of their own with a business model that made more sense than conventional wisdom whose modus operandi was to sacrifice album sales for ticket sales. (Especially if nobody’s buying albums, anyway.)
“When the second record came out, the  double disc, Filling Up the City Skies, that’s when there had been sort of a critical mass—this perfect storm where the shows that I had played, the word of mouth, the new album and the new model all came together to explode and align. It literally went from 200 downloads a month to over 10,000 downloads a month,” says Smith, almost in disbelief himself. “And, thus, my touring career was born and I was able to play shows outside of my hometown.”
Even after Pretty Lights became a marquee act—selling out venues coast-to-coast and drawing headline-grabbing crowds at all sorts of festivals—Smith made the decision to keep his studio albums free because his original philosophy still works. Today, more than a million people have grabbed music from his website.
He also has chosen to keep his releases free because of something else, something unexpected: “It stopped being the only way I can get my music out there and it started becoming a new philosophy about music and why it’s created, about the relationship between the artist and the fan,” he says.
Alright, stop. He’s beginning to sound like a jamband. As it turns out, this just where the ideological similarities begin.
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Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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