Sharing her medicine: Kristin Hersh makes music for and with her fans

photo by A.V. Crofts

Interview by A.V. Crofts

I am sitting across a table from Kristin Hersh at Empire Dine and Dance in Portland, Maine. She’s here to headline. I’m here because of Twitter.

Hersh gets social media.

I am one of her nearly 100,000 Twitter followers. The Throwing Muses founder, along with her power guitar trio 50FOOTWAVE, and solo artist, is as prolific there is she is with her music — over 13,000 tweets and counting — and her 140-character entries often mirror her lyrics: observational magic realism that are sung with what a friend of mine described as “lush roughness that sounds like manipulation.”

When I first learned Hersh had booked a show in my summer hometown, I tweeted her in hopes of landing an interview to discuss her use of digital media to create and disseminate her music, and engage with those who love her music. She promptly and graciously agreed. (Take that, social media skeptics.)

Now we’re face to face and she’s losing her voice to a cold.

“Last night in Connecticut I drank apple cider vinegar mixed with Tabasco sauce,” she said.

We lean in close to save her vocal chords. I am as vested in preserving her voice for tonight’s show as much as she is.
Hersh excels at leveraging technology to reach and grow her audience. Five years ago, she announced her independence from major record labels and launched a fan-funded mechanism called Strange Angels. This bold move akin to cliff diving came with certain advantages for fiercely independent Hersh.

“It means I no longer have a sponsor with a vested interest in the marketability of my music,” she said. “I like that people are more idiosyncratic than Marketing ever gave them credit for.”

Under this model, fans around the world can support Hersh and her music by pledging quarterly Pay Pal contributions that fund all aspects of her music making and distribution. In return, fans get access to her music in advance of the general public, along with bonus tracks and complimentary tickets to one of Hersh’s performances each year.

“I found it an interesting exercise in the psychology of humility and gratitude,” she said. “But who is so big that they cannot afford to be humble?”
The Strange Angels system is hosted by CASH Music, a nonprofit organization Hersh helped to found in 2007 that creates and makes available open source digital tools for musicians and music labels. A self-install option is available on their site right now and a hosted version of their platform is expected to be released this fall.

For Hersh, the collaborative nature of open source is deeply appealing. “If I feel I am finding like-minded people and sharing my medicine with them, I feel like we are doing something together.”

In keeping with her commitment to open source, Hersh supports Creative Commons, as was recently revealed in a tweet she posted about the song “Slippershell” off her current solo studio album, Crooked:

When I press Hersh on the balancing act artist walk between unlimited access versus monetization, she jumps quickly into the shoes of a fan. “I truly believe they are not devaluing music, they are devaluing money.”

While Hersh would be the first to tell you that the beauty of Strange Angels is that it shrinks the distance between a fan’s investment and her earnings, it is clear that a central motivation for Hersh is the engagement she creates with her fan base.

“I think of music as friendship,” she said.

Hersh feeds that friendship in numerous ways: from making tracks-in-progress available online for anyone to remix, supporting fan forums on her website, offering multimedia packages that combine her music with print publications, curating rich photo sharing and video channels — or responding affirmatively to an interview request from a stranger via Twitter.

“Fans develop a sense of authenticity,” she said.

The touchstone for that authenticity is her music which is fueled and funded by the ongoing conversation she has with her most devoted listeners.

“People will hear music as it is,” she said. “You cannot lie to me in music. It is the only language I am fluent in.”

Kristin Hersh will perform at The Triple Door in Seattle on August 24, 2012.

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  1. Philip
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Really good article, well-written, interesting, and timely. Well done!

  2. Anita Verna Crofts
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for reading and for your comment, Philip!

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