This One’s For All the Marbles
Marillion's Independence Day

So our president continues to piss me off.

While we’re all arguing over whether the administration’s intelligence arm is deceptive or just plain bad, King Bush II goes on record opposing gay marriages. Wait, it’s worse – he’s likely going to back a proposal the GOP has put together to amend the fucking Constitution to make gay marriages illegal. “I believe marriage is sacred, and is between a man and a woman,” Dubya said, before finding a way to work in the word “sinners.”

This is one of those times when I really wish God would just show himself, just come down from wherever He is and start smiting. Amidst their fervor for moral values, the religious conservatives almost always seem to forget that their pal Jesus preached tolerance and love. I swear, I will never understand how two people finding each other and making each other happy, without hurting anyone else, can possibly be wrong. November 2004 can’t come quickly enough.

On the bright side, Bill Maher should have a lot of fun with this on his HBO show this week.

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Anyway. I wanted to bring up a long-running topic again, that of artists finding new ways to communicate with and expand their audience. Plus, this gives me a neat excuse to rectify a glaring omission – I’ve recently discovered that one of my very favorite bands has so far gone practically unmentioned in this column, and I can’t imagine that your lives are complete without an additional exhortation from yours truly to go out and buy more music you’ve never heard.

So. The band is Marillion, a British quintet that often gets wrongly lumped in with the progressive rock types. Truth is, there’s never been a band quite like Marillion – the range and scope of their catalog is impressive, as is their nonchalant attitude about it, as if every band on the planet could be this good if only they’d apply themselves. If you’re not a fan, you’re probably only aware of Marillion thanks to a pair of huge singles in the ’80s – “Kayleigh” and “Lavender.” That was when they were fronted by an imposing, dramatic Scotsman named Fish, and when he left in ’88, to be replaced by Steve Hogarth, pretty much all of the art-rock posing went with him.

The music, startlingly, has become more experimental and diverse since Fish’s departure. Imagine the 1968 Beatles, complete with style-hopping sonic unpredictability, but with the unassuming air of the 1963 Beatles. In such an image-conscious era, it’s surprising to hear a band make such grandiose magic musically and still come off like a bunch of fun-loving regular guys while doing it. You might not think that second bit is so important, but if the guys in Marillion have proven anything in the last few years, it’s that they’re masters at inviting their audience in.

That’s crucial when the music is as wide-ranging as Marillion’s is. Radio program directors (or at least, those that still select their own playlists) like formats, and like to be able to squeeze artists into them. It makes for predictable hits – if Jay-Z suddenly decided to do a big band swing album, the whole marketing machine wouldn’t know how to deal. (Also, the seas would boil and the skies would split open, heralding the end of the world, but that’s another problem…) Marillion is un-squeezable. For every three-minute pop masterpiece they create, they also deliver a 15-minute multi-part epic, an ambient soundscape, and a rocking blues tune. That it all sounds identifiably like Marillion is just not good enough for worldwide promotion.

And true to form, the established hit-making engine has passed Marillion by – their albums have sold less and less through the years as they’ve leapt to smaller and smaller labels. That the records themselves have gotten better and better is beside the point. Their last one, 2000’s Anoraknophobia, was one of their best – two killer pop singles and six long, winding experiments in groove, tone and texture. Songs like the swirling “This Is the 21st Century” and the pummeling, epic “If My Heart Were a Ball It Would Roll Uphill” were (and are) unlike anything else being produced right now, and charted new ground for the band as well.

Anoraknophobia was important for the band for another reason as well – it signaled the beginning of the end of their reliance on record labels. See, while a lot of bands were talking about utilizing the internet to create a fan community and subsidize continued musical exploration, Marillion was doing it. They started in the late ’90s, and did everything right – they kept in constant contact with their fans, provided consistent information, and delivered on every promise. It helps immeasurably that is one of the best-designed and most user-friendly websites you’ll ever see. The whole enterprise conveys the band’s professionalism and reliability. They know what their site says to people – come on in, we want you to hear this stuff, and we’re going to make it easy and painless for you.

After years of this, the band finally turned to their fanbase for help – they offered Anoraknophobia for pre-order before they’d recorded a note of it, hoping that they could pre-sell enough of the album to pay for itself. The advantages for the band are obvious – a recording process free of outside interference, and the freedom to make whatever record they wanted. The advantages for the fans were less obvious – cool packaging for pre-orders, a bonus disc with a few songs, things like that. But guess what – it worked, far beyond the band’s hopes.

The thing is, a pre-order campaign is only successful if the fans implicitly trust the band to deliver on their promises. Here are some other cool things Marillion has done through their website: they’ve organized Marillion Weekends two years running, and sold tickets and promoted the whole shebang through the site. This year, they played their Afraid of Sunlight album straight through on stage on Friday night, filmed it, and had a professional-looking homemade DVD of the show on sale on Sunday – a stunt that landed them in the record books. They run a concert subscription service called the Front Row Club, whose members receive a complete recorded concert once every two months. They’ve been doing that for two years now and haven’t missed a ship date.

Recently they offered the masters of every track on Anoraknophobia for a remix contest. The best remixes will appear on a compilation later this year, and there’s a cash prize for the best version of each song. And of course, there’s Racket Records, the band’s own label, on which they release live albums and special projects. Racket releases are only available through the website, but they don’t look like albums of that sort often do – everything Racket does is lavishly designed and beautifully executed. As you’d expect, their customer service is excellent as well.

I bring all this up because the band has tapped the fanbase again this week. For the past year or so, they’ve been working on a new album, keeping the details somewhat secret, but they revealed all on Monday. It’s called Marbles, it’s well over two hours long, they expect to be done with it at the end of the year, and it comes out next April. Marbles becomes available for pre-order on September 1, and Marillion hopes to sell enough copies beforehand to not only pay for the recording, but the packaging, promotion and distribution as well. This will be the first completely independent Marillion album.

As a new format for record sales, I’ve got to say, I like this. Those who pre-order will get special packaging, receive their discs a month before anyone else, and get their names printed in the liner notes. But it’s not about that, at least not for me. Supporting something like this is about helping deserving musicians continue to be musicians, with creative freedom. It’s about flipping off the record industry, if for nothing else than for thinking that suing people left and right will stem the download revolution. In this particular case, it’s about rewarding one of the best bands in the world for never letting me down.

It’s also a huge gamble for the band, one that could very well find them crawling back to the labels by next Christmas. They’re aware of this – one of the reasons they named the album Marbles is that it’s for all of them – and they’re still willing to give it a shot, which by itself makes this little enterprise worth my money. Every revolution needs a leader, someone who will show the way, and if these five quiet Brits can pull this off, who knows how many other bands they’ll inspire.

I’m not certain where I’d recommend starting a Marillion collection, but happily, the band has included sound clips for every one of their releases on the website, so you can hear for yourself if you like. Whether or not you like what they do musically, it’s hard to argue that they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to promotion. They’re right now building the model by which all ‘net-based bands will eventually be measured. Despite what the RIAA may think, the future is inevitable, and the best parts of it will look like

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One last thing, because I’m so excited about it – everyone go to right now and check out the cheesy-beautiful cover for their new album Action Pact. Isn’t that cool? It’s the little things like this that make me glad to be alive.

Coming up, I plan to finally get to that 6gig record, and then the new Prince, the new Ween, and a host of other goodies.

See you in line Tuesday morning.