Ted Leo’s taking label matters into his own hands, launching a Kickstarter to fund his new, as-yet-untitled album. The proceeds of the campaign, which is already live, will cover recording costs and such, but also give Leo free creative rein over packaging and marketing. As he put it in a message from Kickstarter, he wants to “keep making music for me; I want to keep making music for you. I’m seeking sustainability, and it’s my belief that I have a responsibility to use my platform to do what I can to help others achieve that, too; and I’m going to remain as active as possible toward that end.”
Leo’s Kickstarter goal is $85,000, and the rewards for backers range from digital downloads and signed postcards to a vegan meal with the artist and even a private solo show. Leo does plan to support the album with a tour once it’s out (though the release date is also unknown at this time). The A.V. Club spoke with Leo ahead of the campaign launch about opting out of labels and continuing to make music even in the face of our crumbling democracy.
A.V. Club: Why did you decide to forego the label this time?
Ted Leo:: My relationship with Matador ended, and I say this not in any braggadocious way, but I have enough relationships with people at labels that I had my choice of labels to work with. Fine, dare I say great, labels to work with. But at this point, I have some friends who work at Kickstarter who were able to explain to me some ways in which they thought that their system could benefit me at this point in my life and career. And when I started really thinking about it, I realized I don’t really need a label right now, and I think it’s actually more creatively challenging for me I would never say this is an across-the-board way of doing this. But I feel it was an interesting and creatively challenging way for me to consider moving forward, not just with this album, but as artist wanting to make music at my own preferred pace. And not having to be buffeted about in the stormy seas of the record business such as it is.
Nobody wants to stay in complete stasis, even audience-wise. We would all love to expand our audience. The way that labels operate these days—the way labels need to operate these days—there’s an emphasis on presales these days. The whole idea of Kickstarter for me is a bit of just accepting the reality of the way that things are, and instead of trying to fight it and scramble for every bit of market share, or blog-page real estate that everybody’s scrambling for, just to say, okay, I can’t do this on my own. I’m not independently wealthy. I’m pretty much the opposite of independently wealthy. But I feel like I’ve established a pretty good relationship with a pretty loyal bloc of fans, who I bet would be willing to help me get this record out. If I can do it, and it exceeds my base goal to get my record out, then I can do the things labels do, like promotion and more forward momentum.
AVC: This actually seems perfectly in keeping with your ethos.
TL: I’m glad. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not gonna pretend at this point that I haven’t wondered or worried, even been skeptical of the model at times, as I think a lot of musicians of my age who got to where they are by using the old model, but in a much more “slugging it out in the trenches” way, building something up brick by brick. It felt weird initially to have this big shift toward asking people who you want to buy your record to go in with you in a way that labels do in removing a certain amount of risk from the process. In a sense, isn’t that what the label is? They front you a certain amount of money to make a record, and you sort of—you pool your risk together in trying to at least break even on that. Maybe fund the next thing.
But again, when I started to frame things that way, I felt it wasn’t actually that different or bad. Just because you’re pooling your risk with people who actually want the end product. So maybe they’re happy to go in with you? So what’s the difference?
If it works out even modestly, then my idea with it is that this would be a way that I can continue to make music and tour, without having to get involved in budgets that don’t involve me. In broader concerns and machinations that don’t involve me. If I can make music on my own—part of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, is creating a better home studio scenario, where I can keep making music, and using tools that are available to me now, to get it out there.
AVC: What can you tell us about the album?
TL: The album isn’t done yet. I’m campaigning with an eye toward getting it out and finalized for mastering if it funds. I’m still kicking around what the final list of songs is going to be. So I haven’t really gotten to the track listing yet. There’s stuff that i’ve been playing, stuff that I wrote after the last record, some that’s still important to me musically and wanting to get it out on the record. And then there are things I’ve written as recently as last week that I want to make sure make it on as well. It’s not going to be too locked in the record that I could have made 5-7 years ago, nor is it going to throw that stuff out entirely.
Musically, I hope it’ll be in the wheelhouse of what people have appreciated, but also a couple of steps or directions that show some progression. And there’s a lot—doing so much of it on my own over time has allowed me to really think about what I’ve really wanted to do. I really try to be conscious of not totally going down the rabbit hole, of losing the thread of what these songs should be, of over-engineering them when you wind up spending too much time on something. But at the same time, I think one of the interesting things about having had so much time is that my own relationship with these songs has changed. I’m trying to think of what I want this song to be today, and is it really what the song should be, or should it be what it was when I originally wrote it.
AVC: Since we last spoke, it feels like someone slammed the brakes on the country. Does this struggle inspire you? Or does it make you question what you can accomplish with this?
TL: Neither of those things. It completely depresses and horrifies me. All these people talking about all the great art that’s going to come of [Trump’s presidency]—as a fan of music, and as someone whose life continues to be affected positively by the art I’m lucky to be able to consume, I get it. I get the wanting that. But you should be grateful when it falls in your lap, it’s not something you should ask for, because the circumstances that would require that to happen are terrible for the people with concerns beyond the music they’re going to be listening to. That said, in terms of the second half of your question, what it can change never changes, and that’s what we were talking about. That’s the flip side of the “make good art” coin, it helps people. It helps them get through those times. I lean toward thinking of it as music that helps people emotionally.
AVC: We also previously talked about recharging between stirring shit up, musically and politically. Do you feel refreshed right now?
TL: I feel very activated. I feel very energized to deal with stuff. I think that being in the midst of launching this album campaign in a completely new way for me is itself kind of a stressor that doesn’t exactly—I mean, I’m nervous about it. It’s a real new thing for me, and that’ s not helping me feel refreshed, but I do feel energized, I will say that.
Here’s an album preview, which we should have posted earlier, we know.
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