While Vast work on their third album, frontman Jon Crosby is inviting his fans to an artist's most sacred of spaces: the studio.
Like most bands, Vast (essentially Crosby and an assortment of backing musicians) have recorded more than enough tracks for their next album, the follow-up to 2000's dark and sophisticated Music for People. Unlike his peers, however, he's showing fans the means to that end by offering two sets of in-progress downloads.
"It's pretty standard to record 20 or 30 songs and just pick the best ones for the album," Crosby said. "And that's what we're doing, too. The difference is that we're showing everyone all the other tracks. Other bands might do that and call them B-sides, but with the Internet, it's making all these things possible."
It's also helping artists with dedicated fans, such as Vast, who've nurtured a sizable fanbase off two shadowy, industrial-tinged rock records, stay in touch. The albums, which boasted eccentricities like the Bulgarian Voices and classical cellist Suzie Katayama (who would later appear on AFI's Sing the Sorrow), sold more than 210,000 copies combined, enough to make a lasting impression, but not a profitable one for major label Elektra Records.
The first 10-track set, titled Turquoise after one of its songs, was downloaded more than 2,700 times since it became available in June. The second and more experimental Crimson was posted on August 19 and has been downloaded more than 1,800 times. Both are available on the digital download Web site www.payloadz.com for $2.99 each.
Crimson's first-week average of 700 downloads would have placed it near tracks by Jason Mraz, Johnny Cash and Justin Timberlake on the SoundScan download chart if the company counted payloadz.com sales along with iTunes, Buymusic, Pressplay, Musicnet and Listen.com
One of the things Crosby likes best about posting his recording progress online is its immediacy. The lyrics to one of Crimson's songs, "All I Found Was You" were written on a Sunday night and the MP3 was available two days later.
"We can continue working on a song up until the last moment before releasing it online," he said. "That's impossible to do in a conventional retail situation."
Crosby's initial idea was to sculpt Vast's third album using the feedback from those who downloaded Turquoise and Crimson — a "give the people what they want" approach. But before his artistic integrity could be compromised by the deliberate collision of art and commerce, he realized that wouldn't work.
"A lot of times the fans' reactions were similar to mine," he said. "So I had to just make the record that I felt was right."
While the feedback didn't do much to change the album in progress, the overwhelmingly positive posts from fans helped strengthen it.
"I felt more confident about the material by the sales figures and the reaction to the music," he said. "I took a chance with my second record— it's a little scary when you do something different and people don't get it. I did something on the first record [1998's Visual Audio Sensory Theater] that I wanted to change on the second. So I was wondering what was going to happen on the third. So when they heard the stuff and liked it, it gave me a lot of confidence."
While work was beginning on the as-yet-untitled third album about a year ago, Crosby got the idea to let his fans in on what he was up to. But he wanted to offer them something greater than acoustic demos or subpar outtakes.
Armed with the Internet's ability to break down the barrier between artist and audience, Crosby's reason to invite his fans into the studio virtually was less an answer to "why?" than one to "why not?"
"There are so many reasons why we did it," he explained, "and what it came down to was that there was no reason to not do it," he said. "The only thing that was holding me back was that I was afraid of letting people hear music that was unfinished. But then I remember back to when I would play my friends new stuff that I recorded on my four-track and ask them what they thought. And this is like a return to those days. It's just really nice to play music for people, even if it's not finished."
Crosby expects the finished LP to surface before the end of the year. Upon its completion, he'll shop around for a label to distribute the album, though the idea of releasing it himself online isn't completely ruled out.
"It's really nice to strip it to its simplest level," Crosby said, "which is, 'I'm a musician, I make music, and I want people to hear it.' F--- everything else."