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Music fans pitch in to design covers, back CDs, map tours -

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Music fans pitch in to design covers, back CDs, map tours Updated  | Comment  | Recommend E-mail | Print |   By John Zich, USA TODAY Rascal Flatts fan and graphic designer Chris Kubik shows off his winning album cover design for Unstoppable, which also hangs behind him on the wall of his home office in Arlington Heights, Ill. By Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY Chris Kubik always dreamed of designing album covers. But as a senior graphic designer for Schumacher Electric Corp., he was more likely to spend his time with battery chargers and jump starters than superstars and electric guitars.

So when his girlfriend told him about a contest for Rascal Flatts fans to create the country trio's new album cover, he jumped at the chance. "I made up a couple of designs and entered them," says Kubik, 26, of Arlington Heights, Ill.

AUDIO: Hear Jill Sobule's thank-you song to donors

Kubik's design, which features the musicians sitting in high-back chairs with picture frames representing the group's six albums behind them, beat out 2,000 other submissions to grace the just-released Unstoppable, which likely will be the best-selling CD in the country this week. And Kubik, who already owned all the group's albums, now has an emotional investment that goes far beyond traditional notions of fandom. "This is an unbelievable opportunity," he says.

As CD sales decline, advances from record labels dwindle and audience demographics break up into smaller niches, more and more artists from all levels of popularity are seeking to retain fans by including them in the creative process.

The notion is hardly new. For years, record companies have used focus groups to help determine songs to be included on albums. In 2004, David Bowie asked fans to blend recordings of his older songs with those from a new album, Reality, to create "mash-ups" and submit them to his website. And Barenaked Ladies made available separate instrumental tracks for several songs from its 2006 album Barenaked Ladies Are Me so that fans could create their own mixes.

The methods of bringing the audience into the creative process have become more personal and may involve all stages of an act's career. Artists such as John Mayer and the Jonas Brothers' Joe Jonas are known for communicating directly with fans through social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Other acts engage fans through their websites.

"Many times when we're putting together a new tour, I'll get online and ask about what the fans want to hear, what songs they wish we would do live that we haven't done in a while," says Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus. "Their input and their advice is invaluable to us. It's the main source of research for us whenever we start out to do a piece of business."

Fan interaction with musicians is blossoming on other fronts as well:

•Kiss is using fan input at to choose sites for its fall tour of North America.

•Nine Inch Nails has a new DVD project called Another Version of the Truth: This One's on Us that includes a version of the band's 2008 Las Vegas concert edited together from dozens of fan-created video and audio recordings.

•Queen Latifah used January's People's Choice Awards show to announce a contest in which fans could submit videos of original songs for possible inclusion on her forthcoming album, Persona (no release date yet). Fans eventually chose the song Fairweather Friend by Ingrid Woode, a 26-year-old chemist from Cincinnati.

"I was a fan before she (Latifah) made that announcement on the People's Choice Awards, and I always will be," says Woode, who is awaiting a date to record.

Rascal Flatts also used the People's Choice website to host its album-design contest, which ran in two stages. First, the band provided optional photos and design elements to aspiring designers, who then submitted potential covers. Then, the group chose a handful of favorites and let fans decide a winner.

"It was fun to involve them on the front end of the process, something we had never done before," DeMarcus says, adding that he's pleased with Kubik's winning design. "I like the simplicity of it. I like the way he enhanced an already fantastic photograph."

DeMarcus also liked outsourcing that particular part of the album-making process because it meant the group didn't spend nearly as much time choosing photos and debating potential covers.

"I'd much rather be writing or in the studio producing than be sitting around looking at a bunch of photos of myself," he says.

Going to fans for backing

Instead of outsourcing work to fans, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Jill Sobule went to them for backing. When she saw her usual sources of funding — record-company advances — dry up, she knew she'd have to get creative if she wanted to record again.

"The idea of trying to get a record deal and go have meetings seemed completely horrible," says Sobule, who had a top 20 modern-rock hit in 1995 with I Kissed a Girl (not the Katy Perry song) but hadn't released an album in five years. "The second thing was, no one's giving advances, so why would I do it, anyway? I've never made a penny off of records."

Sobule made plenty off the promise of a new record, though, by creating a website (, where fans could contribute money to finance the recording. She raised $88,969, enough to hire Grammy-winner Don Was to produce California Years, out next week on Sobule's Pinko Records label.

Sobule ran her website much like a public-television pledge drive, offering increasingly enticing perks for greater gifts. A $10 donation served essentially as an advance order, with donors receiving a free digital download of California Years upon its release. The most popular level, $50, got donors an advance copy of the CD and a "thank you" mention in the liner notes. For $500, fans got their names incorporated into the album's final track, appropriately titled The Donor Song.

Sobule, who kept fans informed with an online tote board tallying donations, also recorded personalized theme songs for 11 $1,000 donors, among them Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron. One $10,000 donor got to sing background vocals on the album.

"She was a software developer who had gotten into some money recently," Sobule says. "She'd never sung, so I made a big day of it, taking her to a vocal lesson. She got it in one take. She was so good, and we didn't have to auto-tune her!"

Other artists have found success with similar models. Shane Hines never imagined fans would directly fund his recordings, but that's exactly what has happened for the Washington, D.C.-area indie rocker. "I expected labels to be involved, I expected tons of money," says Hines, who fronts Shane Hines and the Trance. "When you're 15 and you have stars in your eyes, you expect fame and fortune because of this big machine that makes everything happen. I've come to find out that just isn't the case."

Instead, he raised $34,000 in increments of $10 to $10,000 via a website to finance recording of the group's EP The Glory Journal, released in February. One woman contributed $5,000 to give her 12-year-old son a day in the studio with the group as a birthday present. "We let him in on the whole process," Hines says. "He got to play, and he got to know from start to finish how the whole thing went."

Hines' premiums for donations included guitar lessons, road trips with the band and home-cooked meals (though nobody took him up on that one, he says).

"I like seeing people who come to our shows when they're not at our shows," he says. "It makes it feel more like a community. Community made this record."

Sending fans to the streets

Other artists, such as Nashville singer/songwriter Jeff Black, engage the community on the road. Kiss may bill its 2009 North American run as the "first-ever fan-routed tour," but Black takes the concept a step further. Not only do fans help schedule his dates, they often serve as booking agents, promoters and hosts.

Black wrote a couple of moderately successful country hits for other artists during the '90s and briefly had a deal with Arista Records. Royalties from those days still trickle in, but the prolific artist largely has replaced those income streams with money from fan-sponsored shows, sales of independently produced CDs, even a subscription-based weekly podcast called Black Tuesday.

"I'm closer to the people who like to listen to my music than I've ever been," he says. Organizers of the fan-sponsored concerts, which often are held at houses, will print event-specific programs and tickets and take the word of Black's shows out into the street.

Before one show in a small Kansas town, he says, "they had been copying my CDs, handing out music, telling people, 'You've got to come to this show. We love this guy's music.' I was the first fan-sponsored show they did. They've done several since then."

Like Black, Sobule appreciates her newfound closeness with her followers, who make up a fan base that's small enough to be manageable but large enough to let her sustain a career.

"I don't have to sell hundreds of thousands of records," she says. "I can contact everyone that says something nice and tell them, 'Thank you.' Maybe Madonna can't do that."

She admits, though, that granting them so much access to her career comes with a price. "It takes up a lot of time," she says. "Instead of writing a song, I'm on the Internet talking to fans or pumping up some of the people on my team."

And as anyone who has seen The Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night knows, fans — especially when they come in large groups — can get out of hand. Last month, American Idol winner David Cook felt compelled to use his MySpace blog to ask some of his fans to give him some space.

"The efforts by some fans to find our hotel rooms, call our hotel rooms, attach things to our bus, etc., is something I have to condemn," Cook wrote. "This relationship only works when it remains healthy for both parties."

DeMarcus says Rascal Flatts rarely encounters that level of inappropriate fan conduct: "In every case where you're dealing with somebody who's in the public eye and admired by a lot of people, you're going to have the occasional fan who doesn't know where to draw the line.

"By and large, our fans respect our privacy and respect the fact that we have lives outside of Rascal Flatts."

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