IN 1988, a chubby 10th-grade music nerd from Lexington found himself combing the stacks of LaSalle’s record shop in Boston when he was surprised to see a celebrity walk into the store. It was Tracy Chapman, the folk singer and former Harvard Square busker who had gained international fame that same year when her self-titled debut album went multi-platinum.
Matt Nathanson had bought Chapman’s album, had caught her once in concert, and had just shelled out for tickets to her upcoming show at Symphony Hall. He excitedly approached the singer to tell her how much her music meant to him. But before he could get to her, a woman who had accompanied Chapman into the shop stepped in his way. “Can I help you?” she asked curtly.
“Hey,” Nathanson said, trying hard to sound casual. “I’m a big fan of Tracy’s and I just wanted to tell her that.”
The woman replied, “I’ll tell her.”
Nathanson, whose world began and ended with music, was equal parts crushed and dumbfounded. Tracy Chapman was standing just a few feet away, yet rather than simply acknowledge a compliment from an earnest fan, she’d allowed him to be given the brushoff by a gatekeeper.
Nathanson thought to himself: If I ever figure out a way to make a living as a musician, that is the exact opposite of the kind of artist I want to be.
After attending college in Southern California, a slimmed-down Nathanson did choose the musician’s life. And for the first dozen years of his career, it wasn’t hard for the singer-songwriter to keep the promise he’d made to respect his fans. For starters, there weren’t that many of them. And he was completely dependent on those fans he did have, not just to buy his self-released CDs but often to let him crash on their couches during low-budget tours that felt more like door-to-door sales campaigns. Although he had developed an appealing blend of rock, folk, and pop — and was signed to a major record label for the release of his sixth album — many people wrote him off as just another guy with a guitar singing love songs.
He left the big label and went back on his own. But Nathanson’s life changed in 2009 when his single “Come on Get Higher” caught a wave and went platinum — meaning it sold at least 1 million copies — two years after the album’s release on a smaller label. When a clueless Canadian TV host asked him to explain why success had been so slow in coming, Nathanson cracked: “It’s a strategy we have. It’s called ‘Wait as long as you can possibly wait and then have a hit.’ ”
Last year, he released his album Modern Love, which scored the No. 4 slot on Billboard’s rock and adult contemporary album charts and spawned two radio hits, “Faster” and “Run.”
This is about the time you’d expect to lose Nathanson to the rock-star bubble, like the one that encircled Tracy Chapman at the record store. But on the day I speak with him, just before his concert in Boulder, Colorado, he tells me he’d spent the bulk of the previous night answering fan notes and autograph requests that had piled up in his box at the post office. In addition to using Twitter and Facebook to convey information
to general fans, he continues to pen a highly personal newsletter that he e-mails to about 34,000 of his most hard-core followers (he also sends them samples of new songs). Though delivered differently, his newsletter is not far from the thing he used to photocopy at Kinko’s and mail off when he was a twentysomething no-name, rather than a 39-year-old married father with a 2-year-old child and three singles that have made the Billboard Hot 100. And after many live shows, Nathanson continues to head into the crowd to mingle with fans, something he tells me is as important to him as the “post-coital embrace.” Unless you’re a jerk, he says, “you don’t just get up and leave right after sex.”
Nathanson is part of a new breed of performers who, even after achieving wide success, insist on holding on to the do-it-yourself sensibility that characterized their years of ascent. Their work in maintaining and leveraging an unmediated connection to their fans could help reshape the future of entertainment as the QE2-sized industry slowly capsizes under the weight of both new technology and old disregard for customers. After failing in their attempts to snuff out threatening innovation from newcomers and well-known artists alike, the big entertainment companies are now scrambling to capitalize on it. Consider how the publishing industry pounced on E.L. James’s self-published e-book — the one that began as Twilight fan fiction and offers Fifty Shades of the same couple of smut scenes inartfully strung together — and turned it into a best-selling behemoth that’s moved nearly 40 million copies worldwide.Continued...