Now That No One’s Buying Music, Bands Are Selling “Experiences” Fans Used to Get for Free

You may have been delighted to learn this morning that for a small notional fee of just $25,000, you can invest in the the once-in-a-lifetime experience of meeting globe-conquering pop overachiever Beyoncé Knowles. But wait, your $25k doesn’t just buy the chance to meet her. Oh, no. You also get to work for her “style team” for a day. Yep, that’s right — you can pay $25k for the privilege of working for Beyoncé for a day. Who could possibly say no?

The person this immediately brought to mind was, yes, Amanda Palmer — she of the “Hey, it’ll be a great experience to play in my band for free” — but then, not even she had the temerity to charge for the privilege of not getting paid. Beyoncé’s “people” would no doubt argue that the money goes to a good cause — the chance to get ordered around for a day is Beyoncé’s “contribution” to a charity auction, a fact that reveals a great deal more about Knowles than the entire “documentary” that aired a few months back. But come on, seriously, why not just donate the cash? Why does someone have to take up the “opportunity” to work for Beyoncé and her mother for a day in order for her charity of choice to benefit?

In the case of Beyoncé, it’s probably a case of a megalomaniacal pop star whose ego precludes the very possibility that anyone might see the prospect of basking in her august presence as anything other than a privilege worth every penny of $25k. It’s all symptomatic of a more pernicious trend, though. More and more often these days, you see bands charging fans for “access.” In an era when making a living out of selling your actual music appears less and less viable, bands are selling… well, themselves.

Bandpage recently launched a whole section of its website devoted to “experiences,” suggesting that this idea has become increasingly popular. Some of the things on sale are endearingly strange — having Yoni Wolf of Why? cook you dinner (yours for $500!), for instance — while others are just kinda sad (“unlimited music for life” from one Bryan Fuente for a whole $25.) A lot of it, however, is just stuff that bands used to do for free, often for fan clubs or just people who had to be in the right place at the right time: giving away setlists, meeting fans, autographing CDs.

You could argue that bands have always charged for merchandise, and that this isn’t in principle any different to charging for, say, a T-shirt or an autographed CD. Clever bands have also pushed their merchandising further — The Polyphonic Spree selling robes, for instance, or Wavves selling weed grinders. (The best bit of merchandise I ever got was from a band called Pornland. It was a frisbee with their logo on it, and it was called “The Flying Fuck.”)

But there’s a fundamental difference here. T-shirts and CDs are tangible products, things you can take away with you, objects with practical utility — you can wear a T-shirt, or play a CD, or throw The Flying Fuck down at the park. What bands are selling more and more these days is a sort of abstract experience. In general, there are no goods changing hands, only time and money — what you’re essentially paying for is your favorite band’s precious time, and the experience of feeling like you’re part of their world, if only for a rather fleeting moment.

The other notable recent example of this has been emo also-rans Hawthorne Heights, who caused an almighty backlash earlier this week when they offered “lucky” fans the right to photograph them on the Vans Warped tour. For $150. Unsurprisingly, this went down like a sack of shit with professional photographers — the idea of being charged for access doesn’t exactly set a good precedent, nor does the idea of a kid who’s shelled out for such access wandering around taking pictures on his/her iPhone when you’re trying to work — but it also inspired a fair bit of debate among fans on Hawthorne Heights’ Facebook wall.

Some fans were also less than enamored with the idea, but others were predictably keen to decry those complaining as “haters” and etc. To their credit, the band members themselves seemed rather aghast at the fuss they’d caused, with singer J.T. Woodruff explaining, “we had no idea that something that was meant to be fun would be perceived this way. It was really meant as a special way to watch a band from the stage, hang out with the band, and photograph your experience. Not, pay to take pictures for us, which we would keep. That was not the intention at all… we didn’t even consider that this is how it could come off.”

Perhaps the most revealing post, however, came when he explained that “the biggest bum out, is that we try so hard to invite people in. Give them cool experiences. And not rip them off. I’m bummed.” That’s laudable, but there’s still something more than a little mercenary about this. In the past, bands rarely viewed such experiences as any sort of commodity — they either liked hanging out with their fans or they didn’t. Some bands would happily carouse with audience members backstage after shows, whereas other, more socially awkward, types would rather hide under the bed than meet the public. Either way, though, the process wasn’t commodified. (Rock ‘n’ roll legend dictates that yer Led Zeppelin type bands — and their gatekeepin’ roadies — charged for “access” in, ahem, other ways, but that’s a rather different topic.)

It’s understandable that bands want to explore alternative ways of making money, and considering that Hawthorne Heights funded their last album via a crowd-funding site, it could very well be that emo isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. But ultimately, it seems a bit depressing that fewer and fewer bands are prepared to “meet and greet” their fans — the people who pay their wages, after all — without charging for the “experience.”