What Makes Jason Webley and Friends’ “Margaret” So Brilliant

As 2014 winds down, I find myself both excited and bemused to write a final music marketing blog about a Seattle indie artist I first met a few years ago. His newest project, Margaret, hot off the press this month, impresses me both musically as well as promotionally (although I hesitate to use that word, and he would probably cringe at it, too). One of the things that characterizes this artist is a fierce allegiance to the creative much more so than the commercial, but perhaps that is a large part of what makes this music project such a great example to discuss.

Watching the way the marketing and promotion of this album has unfolded since I first heard about the project in April of this year has taught me a lot, and I hope you take something from my analysis.

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Good music and creativity are at the heart of successful music marketing. I have never seen that embodied so clearly. The marketing is important, and executing well is important, but without good music, marketing only takes you so far.  First and foremost, I believe that what drove Jason’s project was making good music that was meaningful to him.

What is good music? Ah well, that is a subjective thing. All I can say is, I know it when I hear it. And I know when I don’t. And so do you, and so do fans. Marketing is just the icing – it doesn’t disguise a bad cake, but it sure makes a good one taste better. Now, it is true that music is subjective, and there are many tastes, many genres, and many niches. However, some music is just well written and well-performed, and even if you don’t like the genre, you can appreciate the musicianship. Most importantly, good music moves the audience emotionally. Passion, combined with creativity and craft, make art that is magical.

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The second most important thing to get from this article is that being flexible and listening to what your fans want from you will go a long way. If you start with a great live performance, and then get a clear message from your fans to release a CD, do what they say and they will buy it.

There’s a bit more to what Jason did with this project, however, so I’ve outlined below the 10 elements I think were most effective at propelling the project forward at such speed and with such success.

The Backstory

Jason Webley is a Seattle area musician whom I first met two years ago in 2012 at my own CD pre-release party when he tagged along as a guest of Amanda Palmer. I had contributed to Amanda Palmer’s very successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign, and the premium I chose was a house concert from Amanda. She was kind enough to deliver her house concert at my pre-release party, and she brought along Jason. He performed a few of his own songs, and they performed together. Jason and Amanda go back a ways, and have collaborated on a CD called Evelyn Evelyn (look it up, it’s high concept art).

Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley
Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley

Jason was a tour de force at my release party – stomping, pounding his accordion, his hat bouncing precariously on his head. His songs and his performance were passionate, if not quite something I fathomed deeply at the time. For more insight on Jason’s philosophy and performance style, check out his TedTalk from earlier this year. But I could tell he was a great performance artist, and so when I heard this past spring of 2014 that he was putting together a multi-artist concert about a dead woman from a nearby city called Everett, WA, I bought tickets for Stevie and me. I had a feeling it would be good.

April 11 Margaret Program

Well, it was great. A group of Jason and his Friends had composed what was essentially an art deco musical about the life of this woman named Margaret Rucker, daughter of one of the founders of the city of Everett, who was born in beginning of the 20th century, December 12, 1907.

Before the April performance by Jason and Friends, I read the story of on Jason’s website, about how his friend, Chicken John, had come across a scrapbook that had pictures of and poems by Margaret in a dumpster in San Francisco. Margaret’s life was, in some ways, a remarkable life. In others, it was like any other, with its share of love stories, triumphs, and tragedies.

After the April concert, people who had attended starting asking Jason if a CD of the songs would be available. The Margaret project, which had been ambitious enough and six months or more in the making already, began to grow even larger. Undeterred, Jason created a Kickstarter in July of this year to fund the production of a physical album and accompanying book. He asked for $11,111, and he raised $67,653 from 1862 backers, myself included. I have backed several crowdfunded projects, but I knew this one was different. I suspect Jason may have thought ahead, because he did record the April Margaret show, but what he funded with the Kickstarter was a fully produced studio album of most of the songs from the show.

Jason has just completed a mini West Coast tour of the Margaret show. I caught the Seattle show on December 12, 2014, which would have been Margaret’s 97th birthday.

Jason Webley and Friends

The Key Elements of Marketing Margaret

There are some lessons I learned, and I think many indie artists can also draw, from this project. I found the project compelling enough to support it on Kickstarter, as well as purchase 3 extra Margaret Book/CDs to share with my family and friends for Christmas.  That’s a big deal for me.

Now, the Margaret physical CD and book were only just released. It is early yet to say how commercially successful this project will be, but it is such an artistic and creative endeavor, and so well executed, I feel certain that it will continue to gain momentum. So I am sharing it with you now, so you know about it, because I think you will appreciate it as I did.

One other thing you should know is that I am not personal friends with Jason Webley, or with any of the other musicians involved in this project. We don’t hang out in the same Seattle musical circles. Nor did I consult with him about this post. So I hope it is clear that I am writing from my own, hopefully unbiased, observations and analysis.

Here are the key elements that contributed most to the Margaret project’s unique style:

Collaboration

margaretposterThere are over a dozen other musicians involved in the project. Jason must have begun by explaining his idea over and over to several of his friends, and getting them excited about contributing.

This is no small feat. Each of these musicians has a musical career of their own, so it speaks to the power of these friendships, the power of the story, and the power of the creative idea. Not only did each of the musicians create original and unique music for this project, they also agreed to perform it on stage, in most cases multiple times. So Jason ended up with a stellar group of songs, and with a built-in fan base composed of the multiple fan bases of each contributing artist.

In addition to being a great idea creatively, this is a brilliant music marketing tactic. I have seen several of my friends who submitted projects to the Grammys this year that involve collaborations with many other artists. It’s got to be tough to negotiate and coordinate – artists are notoriously touchy, plus you have to have major project management skills.  It can clearly pay off, however.  I am really impressed at how well Jason pulled this off – creatively, logistically, and promotionally. The album presents as a coherent work, as does the live show.

Storytelling

The story of Margaret Rucker is a regional story, but it is also a human story. There is a sort of Great Gatsby tragic feel to it. Love, poetry, high society, big money, abandonment, marriage, a car accident, children, military service, addiction, suicide, a scrapbook – and mystery. The story details were just rich enough, but still sketchy enough, for the imagination of this group of highly creative people to run wild. Jason and his friend Chicken John did a fantastic job of telling the story both in the live shows and in the album, drawing the audience in, building the arc of the story, and bringing the story home at the end.

The Rucker Pyramid and Poem by Margaret Rucker

Multimedia Live and Recorded Performance

Most albums start with the studio project and then a live stage show is created to support the album. This project was created the other way around. I think this is an important differentiator.

Also, both the April and December live shows included a narrated slide show, live music, candles, and some dramatic cocktail dresses and hair. This was performance art. Two and a half riveting hours of it. I was so impressed with the showmanship and professionalism shown by the “cast” of musicians. The musical performances in both shows were simple but riveting. From Jherek Bischoff’s totally avant garde song, Night, to Lonesome Leash’s one man band, to Eliza Rickman’s a capella soprano, to Zac Pennington’s heart-breaking arepeggio’d Joe Cocker–like performance.

Every artist was outstanding on stage, and the show itself was staged and paced impeccably. If there were errors, no one noticed, the show built and carried the audience effortlessly. The studio CD is also multimedia – it includes a book with photos from the scrapbook as well as full credits, lyrics and the CD. Kickstarter contributors also got an extra CD with live performances and some extra goodies. There several posters, too. Just enough nice artwork to provide some extra spice without overshadowing the music.

Genuine and Emotional

Both the live performances and the studio performances of the songs on the CD are infused with emotion. They also express both Jason’s style as well as those of the other musicians in a way that does not compromise each artist’s genuine personality for the sake of the overall project. Nothing feels forced or fake about this project. Margaret’s story is revealed slowly and deliberately in the show and by the end, you feel as if you know Margaret, yet you don’t really know her.

[Tweet “The music brings to life a story of a real human individual”]

The music brings to life a story of a real human individual, and it is also firmly rooted in the history of this city just north of Seattle. This is history brought to life in the best way, with all the poignancy and pathos, the romance of the era, the personal drama, the achingly beautiful poetry of a tortured soul. Toward the end of the December show, one of the musicians also told a story about how she had connected with several elderly (90+) people from Everett in her search to find out more information about Margaret. Having lost her own father in the course of the project, she found meaning in being able to hear the stories of these strangers who had become new friends to her. She appreciated them for being here on this earth when her own father is no longer. How profoundly moving and courageous for her to share that story in front of a live audience. I know many people were moved by the live performances, you can read one journalist’s review here in Glide Magazine.

December 12 2-14 Margaret Ticket

Larger Personal Meaning

In addition to telling the story of Margaret’s life, Jason brought up some philosophical questions at the end of the show: Why was this scrapbook found in the bottom of a garbage bin – is that all we are reduced to eventually, something that may or may not be discovered by a stranger at the bottom of a garbage bin? Did Jason do something noble – or something intrusive – by dramatizing Margaret’s life? Did he and his friends take too many liberties in filling in the story? What will people say about him when he is gone? What would Margaret’s children have thought of this tribute from a stranger? What is the importance to society and to us as individuals of bringing history to life? What is the measure of one person’s life? I found both the music and the performance of Margaret to be very meaningful to me on a personal level, and I could tell it was meaningful to Jason and his Friends. Isn’t that what music is really about, in the end?

Crowdfunding and Public Funding

Jason solicited funds from the local Everett Arts Council to help stage orginal April Margaret show, and then proceeded to blow away his Kickstarter goal for funding the album production. Now it helps a bit that Jason has friends like Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, and of course the other highly accomplished artists who contributed to the show – both to advise him on his crowdfunding as well as help promote it. The video was very well done and the premiums well designed. Crowdfunding is essentially the pre-sale of an album. It’s a very useful marketing technique that builds interest before the release and helps activate a super fan base who are motivated to listen, share and help promote the album immediately upon release, building and sustaining buzz.

2014-12-12 20.28.17

Musical Craft

I liked several of the songs when I heard them in the first show in April, but now that I have heard the studio CD, I appreciate the sophistication of the music and the artistry of the musicians all the more. These are all songs and artists who can stand on their own, who can craft good melodies, structure songs to be accessible as well as sophisticated, even challenging, write a good hook, and write decent lyrics. The vocals are in some cases outstanding. The musicianship, although simply arranged, is polished and professional. Each of the female musicians sounds remarkably similar, and the album is dominated by the accordion and string instruments, with very little percussion. Many of these artists have worked extensively already with Jason, and some are affiliated with his label, Eleven Records. Most of the songs were recorded and mixed by Jason, and he mastered the album as well, so the sound is consistent. As work of art, the songs hang together remarkably well – no small feat for a collaborative work this ambitious.

Social Media

Jason has been on Twitter since 2009, and he is no novice on Facebook. As of the writing of this, he has almost 18,000 likes on his Facebook page, as well as almost 10K Twitter followers. What matters more than the numbers, however, is that he has engaged fans who tweet out pictures of his albums and talk about their experiences at his shows. He engages with his fans in a genuine way, and it seems clear his social media presence is not run by an agency. While he may not be pushing out a lot of content frequently on social media, Jason uses the medium in a way that balances information, conversation and promotion. (There were a few tweets using the hashtag #MargaretRucker, but not many. Somehow I suspect Jason doesn’t much like hashtags. A hashtag could be a nice addition to the Margaret promotional campaign, as it would help unify conversations on Instagram and Twitter).

Windowing

Jason has posted Margaret on Bandcamp, but I have not yet seen this particular project on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon or Spotify (although other, older, Jason Webley music is available on those platforms). Right now, the only way to get a physical album is to order it from Jason’s website or attend the Margaret tour performances (which for now, seem to be over). I think fans don’t mind purchasing directly from Jason’s website, and I can say from personal experience that fulfillment is fast. He is making the most margin on his album up front, which I think makes a lot of sense. It also brings people directly to his website and gives him the ultimate control over pricing and distribution. He can always expand the distribution channels for the album at a later date.

2014-12-13 15.11.48

Agile

Here’s the thing. I don’t think Jason had the album in mind when he organized the first Margaret show. His fans begged him to create an album. So he set up a Kickstarter. That was so successful, he was able to create a whole extra CD, as well as plan a five city tour of the show to support the CD (Portland, Eugene, Seattle, San Francisco, and LA). I suspect there will be more tour dates, although I can imagine it’s hard to get all those musicians to do an extended tour. Whatever happens, it seems clear from how this project unfolded that Jason listens and responds to what his fan’s say, and he is also flexible enough to create something with a whole bunch of other musicians that is way beyond himself. When people responded, he came back with a creative and well-executed studio and live performance product. I call this being an Agile Musician. It seems like a simple concept, but most artists don’t do it. The basic idea is to listen to fans, try different things, and do more of what fans respond to. Sometimes, it’s a lot of work to listen to your fans. But it clearly pays off.

Jason printed 4000 CD/books. I think he’s going to need to print quite a few more.

Here’s a small video clip from the end of the April Margaret show.

And here’s the Margaret “trailer”

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