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Marillion: Pioneers of crowdfunding during the Internet's early days

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Marillion. (Courtesy: Racket Records)

SAN ANTONIO (WOAI/KABB) — Crowdfunding. It exploded onto the music and film scene over the last decade.

Artists like Toad the Wet Sprocket ($264,762) and TLC ($430,255) have used sites like Kickstarter to get funding for their new albums in lieu of going through the old system of seeking a traditional record deal and advance from a major label as they had in the past.

Those are among the most successful instances of artists asking fans to help fund their new projects, which were held in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines crowdfunding as "the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the internet." The first use of the word dates back to 2007, and the site Kickstarter was launched in 2009. Its use has become commonplace in the American and worldwide commercial lexicon.

But if you ask the English band Marillion or any of their millions of fans worldwide, they'll all say that they came up with that idea about eight years before Kickstarter was even formed and six years before they even had a name for it.

Twenty years ago, the idea of asking fans to fund the making of an album was unheard of, but Marillion, which is led by guitarist Steve Rothery, keyboardist Mark Kelly, bassist Pete Trewavas, drummer Ian Mosley and singer Steve Hogarth, knew they had a good idea that would help them leverage their own independence from the stoic music label model.

"There wasn't a name for it back in 2001 when we first had the idea of asking our fans to fund an album," said Mark Kelly during a recent Zoom interview from his home in England. "These days, it is hard to imagine how unusual it was since so many bands are doing it."

The band had just come off a stretch where they recorded five albums in six years, on top of massive tours to support each record, with the last album, marillion.com, coming in 1999. That marathon of production that the band released took its toll on each band member, and Mark knew something had to be done. Luckily, they had a radical idea that they were about to unleash.

"I remember the conversations we had and asking 'Why don't we just ask the fans to pay for the album in advance?' We just needed some money to support us through the writing and recording process," he said. "At the time, it really seemed like a big risk. We didn't know what the reaction was going to be from our fans, but in a few years, so many other bands were doing this. At the time, we knew we were breaking new ground, but we didn't know how big it would become."

Marillion got the crowdfunding idea from its rabid American fan base that, in 1997, wouldn't settle for the band not touring the United States and set up the groundbreaking Tour Fund that is now a part of music legend.

Back in the day, Marillion was one of the first bands to see the power of the Internet, talking with friends on its website and on the band's Freaks' message board and email list. Kelly was the band member who was most involved with the Freaks list and its thousands of fans. He learned they enjoyed hearing his exploits from the studio in the months the band spent making their ninth studio album "This Strange Engine."

In the weeks before the album's release, the band was charting plans for its upcoming tour, which would take them through most of Europe. There seemed to be a snag when it came to planning a North American tour.

Marillion's label in the United States at the time, Red Ant, was teetering financially. The decision, although not an easy one, was to cancel any plans to tour the states in 1997.

AMERICA AND THE PAYOLA SCANDAL

Marillion's history touring America dates back to 1983 when the band hooked up with the legendary Todd Rundgren and his band Utopia on a tour of the Midwest.

"During the summer of 1983, we came over to America with the 'Script for a Jester's Tear' album and I was really excited that we were opening for Todd Rundgren because I was a recently converted fan of his," Mark said. "I saw Todd open for Led Zeppelin at Knebworth a few years before and he was amazing. It was exciting for myself and the band. I was 22 years old and I'm touring America. Although, we were touring around in a minibus with no air conditioning in the summer, but we still enjoyed it."

The crowds were small during that first tour, but the band didn't care. They were in big, bold America and set their sights on breaking into the tough American radio market. For a progressive rock band from England, that would be an uphill battle against the American pop sensibilities of the time.

Marillion, led at the time by enigmatic frontman Fish, would come back to the States on subsequent tours and looked to be finally breaking into the elusive American radio market in 1985 with its masterpiece "Misplaced Childhood" and its hit single "Kayleigh," which topped the charts in numerous countries.

But a big payola scandal in 1986, involving several heads of promotions at major record labels, including Walter Lee, vice president of promotions at Marillion's label Capitol Records, broke on a NBC News investigative report called "New Payola." This effectively ended any promotion and marketing for Marillion in the States.

"We were opening for Rush in 1986 where we saw the news of a big payola scandal. There was a guy named Walter Lee and he was filmed by NBC News going to lunch with a Mafia guy," Mark said. "There were paper bags of money changing hands. At that time, Marillion was being played on a few hundred radio stations and were seemed to be moving in the right direction, but after that happened, all the radio stations stopped playing us overnight. They stopped playing everything from Capitol Records because they didn't want to be seen as they were playing their records because of some kind of payoff. It was a bit of bad timing for us."

In the NBC News report, Lee is seen on camera with Joe Isgro, a record promoter and a reputed soldier in the Gambino crime family. The NBC News report claimed that record companies paid Mafia-connected independent promoters almost $80 million a year to "essentially do the dirty work of the industry."

After the report, Capitol Records, along with MCA, RCA and Warner Communications dropped ties with independent record promoters as the federal investigation deepened into allegations of payola in the music industry.

Fish would go on to leave the band in 1989 and Hogarth joined the band the same year for the release of the album "Seasons End."

The 90s would see the band go through some lean years after splitting with EMI in 1995, going the indie label route with minimal success, which led up their decision to not tour the States in 1997.

THE BIRTH OF CROWDFUNDING

Marillion's America fan base learned of the decision not to tour. This didn't sit well with them, especially one fan named Jeff Pelletier, who had an ingenious idea to open a bank account and let the American fans underwrite the tour.

Mark was approached by Jeff about his plan, and initial was skeptical that the idea would work.

"I never thought it would work, but I didn't want to shoot the guy down, so I went along with it. I thought he would raise a few thousand dollars from some well-meaning fans that really wanted us to tour and that would be it," Mark said. "It was a big leap of faith really, but within three weeks, there was $18,000 in their bank account. At that point, I told the band that I think we're going to be touring the United States."

Mark said that many fans don't realize how much it costs for an overseas band to tour the States. He said that "when you have to fly from the UK with your crew, equipment and the band, you've already spent $30-$40,000 before you've even played a gig, and that was back in 1997. Those costs were really what was going to make it not very viable for us to tour over in America, but those fans wouldn't take no for an answer."

In the end, the fans raised about $60,000, which was enough to fund a 21-city tour. That was unprecedented for an Internet campaign, and the band's biggest U.S. tour at that time since 1991.

The tour fund campaign also woke up the band to new ideas in the way of fans funding their upcoming projects and how powerful the internet had become.

"We've got a really strong following in America," he said. "Those American fans proved that fans would band together and were behind us no matter what. They were also curious about what kind of music we'd be doing next."

After the next two albums "Radiation" (1998) and "marillion.com" (1999), the band completed its three-album contract with Castle Communications and were free to explore new musical territories, both in and out of the studio.

"Back in the old days, we'd churn out an album a year, but as you get older, you learn to slow down a bit," Mark said. "It was really getting difficult to do that. We literally would record an album, head out on tour and then go right back into the studio to write the next album to keep the money coming in. We decided to take control of the whole process."

To gain total independence, they would have to generate the necessary capital needed to fund the band through the recording process. So they went directly to the fans, sending out over 30,000 emails to members of its website asking if they would pre-order their unrecorded album nearly a year before it would see its release.

Within 48 hours, they received 6,000 responses saying "Yes" and when it was all said and done, nearly 13,000 copies were preordered and had an advance of more than $250,000, which was more than most record label advances the band would have received at the time.

That response from the fans also helped the band secure a worldwide distribution deal with its former label, EMI, and the band headed into its own studio to record "Anoraknophobia," the first album to be funded by the fans in advance.

"Anoraknophobia was really the album that gave us our independence," Mark said. "It gave us some breathing room and the financial stability to be able to say we're not going to make an album this year. It felt like we were making an album when we were ready rather than because we had to."

The first 7,000 people to pre-order the album were credited on the album sleeve in a special edition.

Another byproduct of the crowdfunding venture was that Marillion retained the rights to all its songs and didn't have to use that as a bargaining tool to obtain a sub-standard deal with a major label back then.

The band has gone on to use crowdfunding for most of its albums since 2001 and has seen a surge in fan popularity around the globe, especially after its 2016 release F E A R, which garnered some of the band's best reviews in recent years.

WITH FRIENDS AT ST. DAVID'S & STREAMING SERVICES

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting England at a near standstill for more than a year, Marillion used the time to start work on a new studio album, and also release the live album “With Friends At St David’s." It showcases the band putting a new spin on some of their enduring classics with the help of "In Praise of Folly," a string quartet accompanied by French horn and flute.

Mark said that producer Michael Hunter's arraignments were amazing as they helped reimagine these songs to give them new life for not only their diehard fans but hopefully a new crop of fans.

"We chose the songs that we thought would work best with orchestral instruments," he said. "There are a few songs that were sort of written with an orchestra in mind or where I've done keyboard parts that had we had access to an orchestra at that time, we would have used it. I'm really proud of how these performances turned out."

The album is set for release on July 23 on all the normal sites, including streaming services., Mark said this is a new area where the band has seen an increase in song play and sales. But he fears that the album-oriented bands will have a tough time navigating through this new platform, and that fans hopefully will not be a more singles driven consumer.

"In purely commercial terms, we've got 1.1 million listeners a week on Spotify, which is just one of the streaming services," he said. "I can look at the artist's page and see what song or album they're listening to and how long they're listening to it. I can see with an album like 'Misplaced Childhood' that people start listening to it at the beginning and then you can see the less number of streams towards the end of the album. So, there is evidence that people still listen to albums because that is the biggest danger is that people will only listen to singles. I mean you couldn't make 'Close to the Edge' by Yes these days because you've got a 20-minute track that is going to earn you the same amount as a one-minute track. So, financially it is a disaster. And people want to be hooked within the first 10-20 seconds of a song, so the title track, with the first two minutes being this kind of birds singing or ethereal soundscape would not work. The listener would just skip it before the music even started. That is a shame because that atmosphere you build up at the beginning of a song, for me, is really important."

The top 5 Marillion songs on Spotify are:

  • Kayleigh
  • Lavender
  • Beautiful
  • No One Can
  • Easter

The top 5 Marillion albums on Spotify are:

  • Misplaced Childhood
  • Clutching at Straws
  • Afraid of Sunlight
  • Holidays in Eden
  • Script for a Jester’s Tear

"I think streaming services are here to stay, and we're seeing that people will still gravitate to good pieces of work with the right marketing," he said.

As the band has just finished some work on the new album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, Mark says fans should see new music from Marillion in short order.

"I know I'm going out on the edge here but I'd say we hope to have the new album out by the end of the year," he said. "We're really excited to finally share this new music with our fans after such a trying time with the pandemic. We all deserve some better days."


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