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Denver Musicians Take Entrepreneurial Approach

Paper Bird crowdfunded one of its albums on Kickstarter.

Magic Music was one of the local standbys during Denver's folk boom.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club, standard-bearers for the "Denver Sound."

Chris Daniels & The Kings perform with Freddi Gowdy in 2014.

Jessica Cole, second from right, with Lyric House staffers.

Denver's music scene is booming, with nationally known hitmakers, outsider artists and everything in between. The musicians are more businesslike than ever, but that doesn't mean they don't work together.
Denver's music scene hit a peak soon after Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., scrapped his mega-syllabic moniker in the 1960s in favor of something that fit more easily on a marquee: John Denver.

The city emerged as a country-rock hotspot in the 1970s, but lost some of its luster in the synth-heavy 1980s. As acts from nearby Boulder, such as Big Head Todd and the Monsters, went national, Denver bounced back in the 1990s with a wave of new venues and the rise of the gothic-country "Denver Sound." Bands like DeVotchKa, 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna's Auto Club earned devoted followings, but limited national recognition.

Then a pair of Denver bands reversed that trend by shooting to the top of the charts in the past decade. The Fray hit it big in 2005 with "How to Save a Life," followed by The Lumineers with "Ho Hey" in 2012.

Today, Denver is above average in terms of artists and venues per capita, but has a bit of a climb to reach the heights of music hubs like Austin and Nashville.

Business chopsPaper Bird crowdfunded one of its albums on Kickstarter.

Chris Daniels has been part of Denver's music scene for a long time. Forty years before the Lumineers went national, Daniels was playing in Magic Music, an acoustic folk act that's now reuniting for the album they never recorded. He has released numerous albums and toured the world with his horn-driven band, Chris Daniels & The Kings, and is a member of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

He's also an assistant professor in the Music & Entertainment Industry Studies (MEIS) at University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver), one of only two schools with such a program. The department offers classes in everything from promotion to publishing to audio engineering, and even has its own in-house, student-run record company, CAM Records.

The Internet has significantly changed in the music business, notes Daniels, pointing to the rise of iTunes and the digital single and the move to social media for promotion. The end result? Today's musicians need serious business savvy.

"Most young artists are going to be DIY [do it yourself] for a good part of their career," he explains. "They're going to have to survive in a world that doesn't have career placement."

Bands in the 1980s and 1990s "were built around getting record deals," Daniels adds. "In some ways, that hasn't changed. But if you look at The Lumineers and The Flobots and The Fray, it was that one golden song that pushed them from local to national. That model is still working."

But the payoff has dwindled. In 2003, selling three million singles would net artists about $2 million, Daniels notes. Today, three million streams on Spotify translates to about $20,000.

Licensing songs to TV shows and commercials has become the equivalent of a hit radio single in decades past, he adds. "All of those are part of a broader scheme. But they've got to be great live  -- this is a town where that matters."

Daniels calls YouTube the "third leg" of a strategy that includes songwriting and live chops. "More people get their music from YouTube than any other source right now."

The Internet has driven major change for not only artists, but venues and promoters as well. "Promotion is 180 degrees from what it used to be," says Jim Norris, co-owner of 3 Kings Tavern, a mid-sized venue in the Baker neighborhood. "It's gone from street and print to almost exclusively online."

But artists often find the Internet's accessibility a double-edged sword, he adds. "It's all about coming up with new ways to sell your merchandise," says Norris. "It's hard to stand out."

Norris has worked in the Denver concert business since the mid-1990s. He also co-owns Mutiny Information Cafe, a used bookstore that doubles as a small all-ages venue.

He says the biggest change during his tenure has been a boom in new venues, fitting because of the bounty of talent that calls Denver home. "There are so many artists here. I can't see many more places in the country with more artists per capita."

A graduate of CU Denver's MEIS program, Jessica Cole started Lyric House Publishing after realizing, for all of its talent, Denver didn't have a true music publishing company.

After an internship in Nashville with Country Music Television in 2007, Cole returned to Denver to finish her degree, with plans of heading back to Music City as soon as she flipped her tassel.

But she stayed put.

"I decided I wanted to bring a little bit of the Nashville mentality to Denver," she explains. "It has such a strong community, but it needed a publishing house."

"There's so much untapped talent here," she adds. "I wanted to be part of getting people heard, sharing Denver with the world."

So Cole went into business as Lyric House in 2012 and now works with more than 30 artists in Denver and 80 nationwide, with four full-time employees, five interns, and a small auxiliary office in Los Angeles.

"We are a full-service publishing company, and that entails licensing, pitching, and song placement, and so much more," says Cole. "There are so many layers to it."

She's landed local bands Glowing House and Ivory Circle on VH1 and electronic dance music DJ Monarrk in a major motion picture.

"Licensing wasn't as popular 10 years ago," notes Cole. "It's really changed the landscape of the industry, it's become the way to hear new music"

Likewise, the music industry "has changed a lot in the last 10 years," Cole adds. "The record deal was the end-all, be-all. These days it's all about artist power."

Artistic controlSlim Cessna's Auto Club, standard-bearers for the "Denver Sound."

That means musicians increasingly are opting to self-release music and work with publishers, managers, producers, and promoters instead of labels. "Now the artist is having a chance to have personal relationships with all of those people," says Cole. "Now they really know what's going on."

"Literally banding together" is what Cole says Denver's artists need to do to take the city's music scene to the next level. "That's essentially what Nashville's about," she explains. "They've had a core community for so long, and people keep coming in because they love that sense of community."

Paper Bird started performing in Colorado in 2007. After releasing a pair of CDs, the bluegrass-tinged Denver band launched a Kickstarter campaign for its third full-length album, Rooms, in 2013, with a target of $15,000. "We made it and some dough to spare," says Esmé Patterson, who sings in the band and also performs under her own name and with other acts.

With the surplus, Paper Bird was able to release the album on CD and vinyl. The latter was "the reason a lot of people donated,” says Patterson. "[Vinyl] is a resurgence that's going to continue. The audio sounds better and the art is bigger. I'm excited about that."

Despite the success, she says she doesn't expect Paper Bird will crowdfund its next album. "It was an interesting experiment for us, but I don't believe we'll do it again."

And, while they haven't worked with a label yet, Paper Bird is sending out demos of new songs and the band is "open" to signing with one.

"It's interesting to be in an industry that is changing so rapidly," says Patterson. "History is being written. We're in an era of capitalism, especially with art, where people don't want to pay for it."

She says Denver could use more mid-sized and independent venues, but that the music scene is dynamic -- and rising. "We are lucky to be part of a really vibrant community. We travel a whole lot and are able to peek in at other cities. We always feel really lucky to come home."

"There is a lot of heart in the songwriting in this city," Patterson says. "The standard is really high. People inspire people and people challenge people in a really cool way."

But some things never change. "We're just focused, as always, on making the best music we can make," says Patterson. "What we've focused on is being a live band. We're definitely more of a live band than a studio band. That's the best way for a band to make money, and it has been for a while."

Chris Daniels seconds that notion. "That's the new model, but it's not that new," he says. "You gotta get out there and play."

This story originally appeared in ID8 Nation.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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