“I think that’s what it’s worth,” Mohr said as he prepared for a show at South Burlington’s Higher Ground club last Sunday.
“The easier it is for people to access culture, the better it is for everyone.”
That such a stance likely spells doom for record companies doesn’t bother Mohr one bit.
“The world would be better off without them,” he says.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters know all about selling records. But this isn’t 1993, when their major label debut (“Sister Sweetly”) went platinum and spawned three hit singles. These days, a good release might sell 50,000 copies. Even blockbusters are performing poorly – the numbers for the biggest selling CD of 2007 would have barely put it in the top ten in 2000
While the record business grows apoplectic, alternating between suing fans and cooking up half-hearted attempts to control digital music, Big Head Todd and the Monsters have decided to embrace the future.
When the three high school friends started playing together in 1986, bands commonly toured to promote their records; in the post-Napster era, that logic has been turned upside down. These days, it is records that sell concert tickets.
Inklings of this trend appeared long before file sharing came into vogue. In the early 1990’s, Big Head Todd and the Monsters were part of H.O.R.D.E., a jam band caravan that actively encouraged fans to record shows.
Underground tape trading played a vital role in the careers of Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root and other H.O.R.D.E. alumni. This served as an early example of how making music freely available could help bands build their fan base.
With the Internet age, the practice suddenly became a lot easier to manage. Still, a bootleg tape isn’t the same thing as a studio album. But Big Head Todd and the Monsters began thinking that it might serve the same purpose.
Shortly after the release of 2004’s “Crimes of Passion,” the band started giving away podcasts of selected songs on their web site.
Their latest record, “All the Love You Need,” isn’t even for sale (yet – later this spring, Best Buy will offer it with a bonus DVD). With nothing more than a valid e-mail address, fans can download the entire album for free, including the cover art, from bigheadtodd.com.
Even more radical was the decision to send out, via postal mail, over 500,000 free discs.
“We felt like a lot of our fans aren’t as Internet-savvy, or dialed into burning discs,” says Mohr. “The idea of a hard CD appealed to us a lot.”
Ultimately, the goal is exposure, something neither radio nor the old-line record business can provide. Though, Mohr says, “I love satellite radio; I think it’s a great medium. It’s growing, it’s young.”
“We need to get the music out to as many people as we can,” he explains. “It doesn’t do us much good to sell 50,000 units of a record if we can deliver a half a million plus in free ones. This will drive people to the show and have them fall in love with our music.”
Besides, he says, “most bands don’t make any money on records, and we never have – even when we had a platinum record.”
Big Head Todd’s free music strategy seems to be working. They’re on the second leg of a tour that began January 10 and runs until early April.
“We’ve been having a lot of sold-out shows and a lot of excitement for the band,” says Mohr. “It’s been great.”
With all the focus on distribution, one wonders how the music is on “All the Love You Need.” Well, it’s a bit edgier than past albums, but there’s enough melodic blues rock to remind fans of Big Head Todd heyday hits like “Bittersweet” and “Don’t Tell Her.”
“Silvery Moon” is a particular standout, name-checking Jack Kerouac, one of Mohr’s heroes, and cresting with a hopeful chorus of liberation – “free at last, you’re on your own.”
“Blue Sky,” recorded in 2005 for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery, continues in a similar vein. “You can change the world,” Mohr sings.
When questioned about all this insistent optimism, he answers, “I believe in the power of the individual and pushing boundaries – free expression. I think overall, life is great.”
“Are we gonna die? Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “Everything comes to an end sooner or later. But overall, I guess I would be an optimist.”
Mohr thinks of “All the Love You Need” as Big Head Todd’s punk rock record.
“It has an aggressive tempo,” he says. “Our producer kept telling us how it reminded him of Social Distortion. It has a more masculine feel; a lot of the songs are kind of epic ballads in a punk rock format.”
The DIY spirit of punk has long been a part of the band’s approach, says Mohr.
“We’ve always been outside of the music business mainstream.”