Jill Sobule's 'California Years'

When singer-songwriter Jill Sobule found herself without the financial support of a recording label, she found a way to circumvent the business — by getting her fans to donate enough money to fund the recording of her new CD. Host Rebecca Roberts talks to Sobule about the creation of California Years.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

When a record label drops a musician, usually that's the end of the road. No more CDs, no more tour support, no more career. But Jill Sobule beat the system.

She's been dropped by two major labels and watched helplessly as both of the indie labels she signed with went bankrupt. But instead of getting back on the record-label carousel, Jill Sobule turned to her fans for salvation.

Jill's with us now from NPR West. Let's bring her in for the rest of the story. So Jill, what did you do?

Ms. JILL SOBULE (Singer-Songwriter): Well, I decided to go directly to the fans. And I came up with an idea, and I put up jillsnextrecord.com, and I had different levels of donations because I didn't want to just say give me money. So I wanted to be able to give them something.

So there was everything listed from free downloads for, like, five bucks to you can be on the liner notes, to, I think, $500 is that there's a song at the end of my album called "The Donor Song," and I sing your name.

(Soundbite of song, "The Donor Song")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) These are some of the people who gave me money to make this record, so I said I'd sing their names. There's Amy Stavis(ph) and James Lynn(ph), Brian Harrison(ph) and Elise Pasqual(ph).

I think at the gold level, I write you a theme song. Carl Kasell was kind of the influence on that.

ROBERTS: I was about to say, this sort of sounds like the public radio system of production. You know, for a certain dollar pledge, you get a premium gift.

Ms. SOBULE: It is. It was a big influence. So that's why I'm glad to be here on NPR. But then, there was kind of the silly ones like for 10 grand, it was the weapons-grade plutonium, and you can sing on my record. And I really didn't think someone would do it, but they did it, so…

ROBERTS: Yeah, one person did. She got to sing on the track "Mexican Pharmacy." Let's play a little.

(Soundbite of song, "Mexican Pharmacy")

Ms. SOBULE and Ms. JO POTTINGER (Software Developer): (Singing) La la la la, la la la, la la la, at the Mexican pharmacy. La, la la la, at the Mexican pharmacy.

ROBERTS: So that's your weapons-grade plutonium donor singing harmony. How did that work out?

Ms. SOBULE: Well, it could have been a nightmare, but she wasn't someone who wanted to be a singer or famous. She was a software developer that somehow got into a lot of money, and she just wanted to support. And I have to say that she sang really good, and we didn't have to auto-tune or correct her in the computer like you have to do with most pop artists today.

ROBERTS: That's very impressive. We should give her credit. Her name is Jo Pottinger. So was there was a point when you were raising the money, and the Web site was live, that you though, you know, this might actually work?

Ms. SOBULE: I think within about 10 days, every morning I'd wake up, and I'd see all the different donations, and it was really exciting, and I thought there's something here.

ROBERTS: How much did you raise total?

Ms. SOBULE: Well, I put up this $75,000, and I used that as, you know, not just for the recording budget but for this is what it would take for me to do the things that the label is supposed to do but never really does well. And I had to stop at about $85,000. People kept giving money.

ROBERTS: Really?

Ms. SOBULE: Yes.

ROBERTS: It also strikes me that sort of as a double bonus, you get to kind of give a big middle finger to the Los Angeles recording industry. I mean, you do that with a song called "Nothing to Prove." Let's hear a little of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Nothing to Prove")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) I remember laying down, it was 1983, under the tree while listening to "London Calling" or something like that. Twenty-three years later, I'm here at a meeting, trying to impress someone at a dying record company. I've got nothing to prove.

ROBERTS: It's a very funny song. Can you tell me the inspiration behind it?

Ms. SOBULE: Yeah. I went into a meeting. It was one of those that you dread going into a record company office. And you know, people looked at me like I was Grandma Moses or something like, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Some artifact.

Ms. SOBULE: That you have to, you know, be this polished, you know, from Disney, 18-year-old, and I think that was the breaking point. And so that song is very autobiographical.

(Soundbite of song, "Nothing to Prove")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) And everyone's in the industry, and I hate when they use that word, and when they tell me they're in the industry, I ask, oh are you in steel? I've got nothing to prove, and nothing to prove, nothing to prove.

Ms. SOBULE: And it's funny because a month ago, I was on a panel for songwriters, and I was the only non-industry person there. They were A&R people, and they were telling everyone what to do and, you know, how to proceed in their career. And I just stood up, and I said don't listen to these people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SOBULE: They're horse-and-buggy salesmen. Just get some fans.

ROBERTS: When you produce an album entirely financed by fans, do you feel a certain pressure, you know, that they've shelled out their hard-earned cash for you? They're expecting something pretty great.

Ms. SOBULE: Yeah. In fact, it's more pressure than getting money from the man. And, you know, even after shelling out the money, I continue to have a relationship, a direct relationship with the fans. For instance, before I mastered the record, I put out a secret place on my Web site, streaming all the songs and ones that I hadn't yet thought if I'm going to put on the record, to ask them what do you think, which are your favorites? Which ones would you maybe leave for a bonus track?

So it's great to have everyone participate, and I actually like my fans. I think that they're smart and kind of geeky. And they have really good taste, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: The album is called "California Years." There's a song called "Palm Springs." There's this one called "San Francisco."

(Soundbite of song, "San Francisco")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) I like to go to San Francisco. I like to go with flowers in my hair…

ROBERTS: Now you say on the liner notes that the next record may be called "Utah Months" or "Back to Brooklyn." Did the change of scenery to California inspire you, and in what way?

Ms. SOBULE: You know, my last three albums were very New York-oriented. As a storyteller - and I think of my songs as I tell little short stories, the scenery always is important. So I think that these last three years of being in L.A. made a difference. And so I think every album, I should move to a new place.

ROBERTS: That's woo. That's raising a lot of money, not to mention, you know, a whole lot of packing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SOBULE: Yeah. But maybe I'll have jillsnextcondo.com.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Palm Springs")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) Seahorses, sharks circling, Brian Wilson, inspiration. Smart dolphins, waves crashing…

ROBERTS: Jill Sobule's new CD was entirely financed by her fans. It's called "California Years," and it'll be released on Tuesday. Jill Sobule, thanks so much, and congratulations.

Ms. SOBULE: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song, "Palm Springs")

Ms. SOBULE: (Singing) I said something's going to happen. I said something's going to happen to change my world.

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Jill Sobule: With A Little Help From Her Fans

Hear The Music

Note: This song contains language that may be offensive to some listeners.

Jill Sobule i i

hide captionSinger Jill Sobule performs as part of the Festival of Freedom Downtown Seder at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Peter Kramer/Getty Images
Jill Sobule

Singer Jill Sobule performs as part of the Festival of Freedom Downtown Seder at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

When a record label drops a musician, that's often the end of the road. No more CDs, no more tour support — and, in many cases, no more career. Jill Sobule, however, beat the system.

She's been dropped by two major labels and watched helplessly as both of the indie labels she signed with went bankrupt. But instead of getting back on the record-label carousel, Sobule turned to the people she knew she could count on the most: her fans. She managed to raise close to $89,000 to fund the production of her new album, California Years.

How did she do it? Sobule created a tiered system that rewards fans based on how much money they were willing to donate. The levels were:

$10: Free digital download of album

$50: Advance copy of CD and acknowledgement in liner notes

$100: Copy of CD, plus T-shirt saying you're a junior executive on the album

$200: Free admission to all Sobule shows that year

$1,000: Sobule will write your theme song

$5,000: Sobule will play a show at your house

$10,000: You get to sing on the album or play the cowbell if desired

One fan did donate $10,000, and she sings on the track "Mexican Pharmacy."

In addition, Sobule has penned a song just for NPR. To celebrate the 101th day of 2009, we asked her to write us a song about the number 101. The result, "Philosophy 101," tells the story of Sobule's first philosophy class in college.

To visit Jill's official website, click here.

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