Kristin Hersh has been making music with her bands Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave, and as a solo artist since since the mid-1980s. She’s recently released a highly-praised memoir, Rat Girl, and the first album released as a book, Crooked (also available as CD and download). In this interview, she talks about her success with fan funding as a return to earlier days of her career.
Update: just after this interview was conducted, Hersh tweeted that Throwing Muses are back in the studio. Fans, rejoice!
You certainly had an audience long before any of us were thinking about using the Internet to communicate with our audiences and so you’ve been through all these changes. I’d like to ask you to reflect on how your communication with your audience has changed since early Throwing Muses days to now?
Hersh: I actually find the way we work presently harkens back to the very early days of Throwing Muses where it was so clear to us that music happened between people. That we weren’t entertainers. Because we weren’t entertaining, but there was something that was happening when we made noise and a room full of people got it. It was resonating with them, which resonated with us. We felt like at our deepest, we were the same, as lame as that sounds. Musically it seems to be almost physically true. And it was quite clear to us that we needed these people in order to make music happen.
And around the time when Throwing Muses quit recording I became intrigued by the idea of a global village that you could, rather than describing yourself in terms of a demographic, you could reach out to likeminded individuals across the globe and create a scene that way. And I think it’s because we’re intrigued by the idea of a scene, like, where is it happening, where are people making music happen together. And that’s essentially what we found on the Internet: that we finally know these people.
Sometimes the fact that you can have so much communication with your audience on the Internet is a challenge for some people. You’re sort of faced with that question of, “How much do I want to tell about myself and where do I want to draw those lines?”
Hersh: That’s true, but I am in control of it now. In the past, a Rolling Stone writer would live in my house for a few days and write down everything they heard and I had no control over how they heard it. I could try to have a fair amount of control over what they heard, but not when you have a life. And I had to trust people to be decent and it was nerve racking.
Now I have the time to think and I have time to say what I think is important. And I don’t particularly believe in self-expression. I just don’t think we need to blather on at each other because we have issues or psycho garbage. But I do think that sometimes people ask pertinent questions because they need to know the answer and I can respect that. And if I don’t want to answer peoples’ questions I’m silent. Now I’m allowed to be silent sometimes.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about having greater control over your identity online and what you engage and what you don’t.
Hersh: I have a very respectful audience, I think not everyone attracts that kind of a listener. But I don’t think anybody would ever say anything negative to me or even to invasive. I have interesting conversations and when I’m not interested or I’m not interesting, I shut up.
You’ve said that giving music away brings in people who want to fund you, and you’ve had success with your “Strange Angels” subscribers. How do you think that works?
Hersh: I think it’s balance. Everybody knows there are extremely rich people in the music business and discerning listeners have noticed that those are generally not the musicians that they like. So they don’t feel good about handing over money for a CD when it’s going to those people. But if you can see a band, buy a band’s recordings and know that there is no middle-man collecting, they can’t stop giving. They see that we’ve given and now it’s their turn to give.
And yet that’s not really what it’s about anyway. Really the point is if someone doesn’t have anything they can get it. They can still listen to music. They can still come to a show. Because lots of great listeners don’t have any money. And it’s interesting they — sort of awful — they thank me for letting them be involved. It gives me a stomach ache.
Yeah, I saw you tweeted that. You said, “You’ve got to stop thanking me.” And I thought, “Wow. This is not what I usually hear.”
Hersh: They’re just letting me do what I live for. I just live and breathe music, I’m obsessed with it to the point where it’s Gods and devils and monsters to me, it’s so important. And I know I can play without anybody listening, but it’s unfinished then. It’s almost like a kid, you don’t want to keep it in the closet. You grow it up maybe but then when it’s grown up it goes out and makes friends and is effective in the world. And you’re not done raising the kid until the world has accepted it.
Is there anything else about relationships, communication with audiences you want to make sure you get out before we part?
Hersh: Essentially the point is that we do this together and the recording industry got in the way so now we’re doing it together again. I think it was a necessity for me to pull myself out of my recording contracts, which I did quite peaceably by the way and with their blessing. And all my companies said, “We’re interested to see how the experiment turns out and you can come back anytime.”
And now we’re doing it together again just like when we were teenagers. And that will create musical phenomena which rise from the ground up instead of major labels and top 40 radio saying, “You will like this,” from the top down to the people. People decide what they listen to now and that’s huge, they’re getting a musical education they wouldn’t have otherwise.
And at one time, musicians would say, “You’d have to be awfully brave to try to do without a record company.” But we didn’t make anything when we were on Warner Brothers. They took everything we had. Everything we made went to them because they said, “We marketed your record and we spent this much and you made this much so we’re taking it all.” The only record that made any money for me was my solo record because it was the first one and it cost nothing to make, it was in the black the day it was released. And then the day I left Warner Brothers they declared it in the red and I never made another dime.