Music

Trading Physical Dollars for Digital Dimes

After his band's popularity waned, Mike Baker began using social networking to write his music and build a buzz.

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Oakland's Mike Baker has been playing music for decades. He cracked the minor leagues with his critically acclaimed, self-produced album Interstate Medicine in 2002, but the reality of the music business had him shackled before he got off the ground. To many aspiring rock stars, his story is nothing new. He had no label. He had no marketing campaign. He had only his own will to succeed, and seven years ago, in the pre-Facebook era, that was not enough.

Baker, 38, decided to take matters into his own hands and created Radio Nowhere — a pop-rock band focused on a social-media, tell-your-friends marketing strategy centered around his fluid, conversational online presence. "Radio Nowhere is an attempt to tell the infrastructure of the old music industry — terrestrial radio stations, record companies, and corporate dailies — to go fuck themselves," he says. His web site, RadioNowhere.net, offers free access to all his songs, information on gigs, and bulletins that delve into the mind of a working musician trying to capture local, East Bay fans. Along with his Facebook page and Twitter feed, Baker's web site is centered around blog posts that range from explaining how a musician writes a song to detailing weird instruments played by a UC Berkeley campus bum. Engaging fans with free music downloads and constant insights into his creative process is the reason Baker started Radio Nowhere. "Fans of the local music scene really want to connect with artists in their own community," he said while sitting on his stoop in the Temescal neighborhood. "More and more bands are reaching their fans directly online, and the old-school music biz is just irrelevant."

His efforts are quietly taking root as his online following grows daily. The tall, slender guitar player's approach is simple: Do it yourself and give fans direct access to all the music in their communities, not just the pre-approved payola playlists airing on conglomerate radio stations. Thankfully for music fans everywhere, Baker's marketing strategy is starting to catch on with many new artists; the result is a renaissance for bands that previously never had a chance. Radio Nowhere is everywhere.

For Baker, it's about being in contact with a small group of music lovers rather than spamming 10,000 people he doesn't know. "I'm finding that concept is surprisingly hard to wrap my head around though — to unlearn all the mass-media lessons that we grew up with," he said.

Baker got his first paying gig when he was a sophomore in high school — playing baritone saxophone in a Sousa marching band. Later, while working in burrito shop in Tahoe City in 1996, he talked his boss into letting him set up his guitar and amplifier during his lunch break and play for tips. He blasted covers of the Beatles, Lyle Lovett, and Warren Zevon while patrons snacked on carne asada burritos.

Six years later, Interstate Medicine came to life. Recorded at Fantasy Studios (next to Carlos Santana, who was tracking Shaman), Baker led former members of the Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, Mazzy Star, Van Morrison, and Bonnie Raitt's band through several weeks of sessions. The album of twelve original songs was a critical hit; "Sister Rosa," a gospel-infused song, garnered Baker an award in the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2003.

That same year, to promote the album, Baker's marketing effort paid off when he played a sold-out show at Slim's in San Francisco. He got everyone he knew to come and fans were singing along and jumping up and down, cheering and smiling. "Looking down on 500 people was pretty cool," he recalled.

However, the buzz from Interstate Medicine slowly faded, though he continued to play locally. In 2006, he began work on his second release, Days Between Stations. The four-song EP picked up where his debut album left off, offering fans more of his haunting voice and thoughtful lyrics, including the standout track "Halfway Home," which tells the story of a road trip home from the Saline Desert. Touring for the release waned as Baker began to piece together his strategy moving forward. Playing locally was not sustaining the buzz he needed to grab fans.

"Definitely playing around your home area is good, but after that, it gets a little murky because it's super expensive," he said. "Oh, and forget about it if you have a job you don't want to lose."

Baker's current project revolves around his new record, Polaroids. Rather than make his fans wait for a completed product, which can sometimes take up to a year to fully produce, he decided to include them in the process in an effort to keep them intrigued and interested. "If you disappear for a year, you will lose all traction," he said.

He uses his page on Facebook to post snippets of tracks he's working on. He Tweets daily to a few hundred followers — sometimes about finding a tabla sound and other times passing along links to interesting articles. The blog on his web site, RadioNowhere.net, is mainly used to update fans on how each demo is progressing. Listeners can comment on a riff he's working on or a sound he found while messing around with his vast collection of computer instruments. They can also listen to the songs as they're being produced. And when they're finished, fans can download them for free — a practice that is becoming more and more popular among bands.

"I'm taking fifteen people that fuckin' love this music I'm making," he said. "And they're gonna hopefully buy my music and a T-shirt and then they're gonna tell their friends and those fifteen will slowly turn into thirty and then one hundred, and so on." He noted that there is a fine line between looking for new fans and pissing people off.

Baker admits, however, that his strategy hasn't fully blossomed yet into a sustainable model. "It's a paradox," he said. "The Internet has made so many things about being a musician easier, but what it's really done is take what used to be the main revenue stream and remove it from the equation. At lot of people are saying this in the industry and it's true — we are basically trading analog dollars for digital dimes."

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