Marillion were one of the first bands to catch on to the power of the internet to change the financial and emotional structures of the music industry. In this interview, Mark Kelly (photo), their keyboard player, talks about their experiences with fan funding, beginning with a fan-initiated tour in the 1990s through to the lesson learned from not seeking fan funding in a later release.
Nancy Baym: I have questions, but if you want to just talk, we can start there.
Mark Kelly: Some bands tend to have a very standoffish relationship with their fans I suppose and that’s their choice, they keep a good distance from their fans, they’re not very easily accessible and they don’t hang around after the show to say hello to people that sort of thing. But we’ve always been the opposite of that, we’ve always tried to be as available as possible if people want to come and talk to us or even if it’s just to get an autograph or to tell us what they think or, you know. So that’s something that we’ve always tried to do really. So when the opportunity to communicate more closely with fans came along via the Internet, we obviously thought that was a good thing.
Even in the days of Usenet you were involved in Marillion discussion forums, am I remembering that right?
Mark Kelly: It was a mailing list. It wasn’t official, it was run by a guy in Holland. Very interestingly, the vast majority of the fans on that list were Americans. I think mainly because they probably adopted the whole Internet thing a bit earlier than the Europeans. I just thought it was quite interesting that there was all these fans. I think there was only about 1,000 of them on the list, but just discussing Marillion, Marillion songs, lyrics, what we were doing. And so I signed up to it when I had Internet access or dial-up, you know, and I used to just read it and I was a lurker, nobody knew I was reading it.
After a year or two I blew my cover. I can’t remember why but it was probably to correct somebody who said something that was completely wrong (laughs). And so in the process I started to get all the questions from people about why we weren’t touring the States and all that sort of thing. And I tried to explain that we didn’t have a record deal in the States and every time we did tour in the past it had always been with money from the record company. So then there was a guy from Canada said, “Oh well, why don’t we raise the money for you to come and tour?” They opened a bank account and everybody who was interested donated money into it and then they raised about $60,000.
Actually, by this point, once they had said all this I was like, “Well I think you’re a bit crazy but if you want to do it. I mean, obviously we can’t have anything to do with it, but if you guys want to go ahead and organize it, we’re not taking the money.” Some guy said, “I’ll set up an escrow bank account and we’ll put it all in there.” Anyway, within a few weeks it had about $20,000 and I hadn’t even told the rest of the band at this point what was going on, so I had to sort of break the news to them how we’d gotten into this situation where if they– I think I said we’d need about $50,000 to make it, break even.
Anyway, we did the tour. And oddly enough, because of the story around it we got quite a lot of publicity which meant we sold more tickets than usual because there was– each gig that we were playing there’d be a little local newspaper or whatever would run the story about the tour fund and how the American fans had raised the money for us to tour. So it was this sort of interesting story in itself whether or not you knew anything about Marillion, you know.
That was an interesting lesson actually for us: to raise the band’s profile, finding a story that sort of transcends music is a good thing. So anyway we did the tour. And I suppose that was our first realization of the power of the Internet and how rabid fans can change things, make things happen.
Do you have thoughts about what it was about you guys that made your fans willing to step up and do that at a time when it was such an incredibly novel thing to ask for or to come up with themselves?
Mark Kelly: Well, funnily enough, I watched your little video thing you sent me and you were saying about how fans are willing to pay more than the price of an album because they say things like, “Oh well, your music changed my life,” or, “You’ve given me so much pleasure over the years, I really want to give you something back,” that sort of sentiment, that feeling. We get a lot of that so I think that’s it really. There’s definitely a sense from our fans that have been with us, some of them for 25 years or whatever that given the opportunity they’d like to show their appreciation and so preordering an album is on the surface looks like a leap of faith or trust in a band, we could have just run off with the money. But we’ve been around long enough and they’ve grown to know us in a way that meant that they trusted us and also trusted us to give them something that they would like.
So you’ve continued to use fan funding ever since, haven’t you?
Mark Kelly: Yeah, we’ve done variations. It’s been like a nuclear arms race really because every time we’ve done it we’ve had to up the ante and make it bigger and better. That’s how it’s felt. The first one was a single album with an extra disc with a couple of extra tracks on it, so that was what set it apart from the retail jewel case version and it had a nice booklet with it and everything and it was a little bit more expensive. In 2004 we did an album called Marbleswhich was a double album, so two CDs of 60 minutes each, all new songs with a hard case and a hardback book with about 200 pages in it, lots of lovely artwork.
And then after that we decided that we probably didn’t need to do it again because financially things were a lot better, funnily enough, now we’re no longer with a record label and didn’t have an agent or a manager or a promoter. So we said, “Okay, we don’t need to do this again.” And in fact I felt that rightly or wrongly and I think I was probably wrong at the time, but at the time I said, it feels a bit like when you go to a friend and ask for a bit of help and, “Can you lend me some money?” and they lend you some money and then you go back again and you say, “Oh well actually we need you to lend us some money again.” I know it’s not quite like that, but I said, it does feel like maybe we shouldn’t do it again, it just feels like it might sort of get a bit old with people. So we did a standard album with a standard case, didn’t do any advanced orders, took no money. And it wasn’t as well received.
But the other thing we noticed was that people felt that somehow it wasn’t as special. They like the fact that they had this involvement with it, the fact that we had to keep them up to date on what was going on because we had their money, so we felt obliged to say, “Okay, well we’re at this stage now and here’s a few little samples of what we’re doing.” So there was all that stuff which made them feel, one, financially they knew they were financing it and two, they were very much involved with the whole process as it was going along. So there was a sense of disappointment that we didn’t do it. And people said, “Oh, it’s a shame you didn’t do a preorder, we’d love you to do that again.”