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Donita Sparks sells out

Donita_sparks_transmiticate In 1967 the Who released The Who Sell Out, mocking the notion of artistic integrity by sprinkling fake commercials for household products amid its tracks. It's a fabulous collection of pop-rock gems (as is Petra Haden's a capella version from 2005) that, either through prescience or coincidence, anticipated how eager labels and bands would become to tie their songs to consumer goods. I'll leave to Bob Lefsetz the question of whether musicians hurt themselves by farming out their songs to commercial interests; I tend to be forgiving on that front because, with CD sales melting away, musicians really do need to find new revenue streams.

Which brings me to Donita Sparks, who's taking the licensing business in a whole new direction. As part of the CASH Music initiative she launched with singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, Sparks is selling the rights to half the revenue she makes from licensing her song "He's Got the Honey" to commercials, TV shows and movies (and given the track's bluesy fuzz-rock feel, it's more likely to wind up in a beer commercial than "Toy Story 3"). Up to 100 investors can buy .5% shares of the sync licensing revenue for $100 each. If she sells all 100 shares, she'll raise $10,000.

Cash_music_logo The arrangement turns the usual record-label model on its head. Under the typical label deal, artists get paid an advance in exchange for their rights to their recordings. Here, Sparks is trying to collect her advance from fans, who take the label's place in shouldering the risk of failure.

One purpose of the arrangement is to raise money to promote "Transmiticate," a new album Sparks released on her SparksFly label Tuesday. But another purpose is to bind at least a few dozen fans more closely to Sparks and her career. As manager Robert Fagan put it in an e-mail Tuesday:

It is a way to create sustainability for the artist and a way for the fan to feel actually a part of the process. Since she has a good track record for licensing songs we feel this is a good bet for the fans as well, and while no one will get rich it will keep the music coming and interaction with her fans vibrant in a new way, utilizing the power of the internet to its fullest.

Although CASH Music is trying a bunch of new ways for artists to generate revenue, the sale of sync-license shares is the most original. Think of it as a fan club that promises dividends instead of early ticket-buying opportunities or autographed posters. That might seem more like capitalism than rock 'n' roll, but hey, a girl's gotta pay the rent.

Here's a video for "Infancy of a Disaster," another track from the new album:

Update: Apologies for spelling both of Kristin Hersh's names incorrectly the first go-around. Feel free to refer to me as John Healy for a while.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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