Kaitlin Beard has been in rock bands for years. The Everett singer currently takes the stage with a group called In The Between, performing at bars and nightclubs in hopes that she might one day play music for a living.
Beard, 32, moved a little closer to that dream in May by signing with London Tone Music, a record label in Shoreline. Unlike most music industry deals, though, hers was for just one song.
“Hinder,” the hard rock ballad she recorded in August, is part of the project 52×52: A Year in Your Ear, in which London Tone releases a new song each week for the duration of 2014. So far the label has put out 32 singles, available on iTunes and streaming on Spotify and SoundCloud.com.
Most of the musicians hail from the Pacific Northwest. They range from up-and-coming to established, from folk and pop to jazz and country. The only requirement is that their song has never been commercially distributed before.
“All these bands in the local market are people who are striving to learn, and grow, and do what they need to do to make this passion a full-time occupation,” said Jeffrey Ross, one of five partners at London Tone Music Group.
Ross, whose claim to fame is discovering Kenny G, is one half of the consulting company 2 Jeffs on Music. He and partner Jeff Heiman run the business side of the 52×52 project.
“To find those talents, to develop their careers even two or three notches above where they are, is really quite satisfying,” Heiman said. “We’re helping to build their foundation — their fan base, their social media, the attention they get from press and radio — to a point where they get bigger locally, and then can spread out regionally.”
Beard and bandmate Shane Scot, 39, were introduced to Ross and Heiman after competing in a battle of the bands at the Hard Rock Cafe in Seattle. They said joining 52×52 was a no-brainer.
“It’s like, what do we have to lose?” Beard said. “We have everything to gain. If this gets us out there — puts our name a little further than we could have on our own — then that’s what we gain.”
The songs are recorded at London Bridge Studio in Shoreline, the birthplace of platinum albums by Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Blind Melon and Candlebox in the 1990s. More recently, it’s hosted acts like 3 Doors Down, Nickelback and OneRepublic.
The rich history of the studio is part of 52×52’s pitch to young artists: Come stand where the masters once stood — and where elite engineers are mixing tracks — and record a song.
“It’s breathtaking when you go in there,” Beard said. “There are artists on the wall that I’ve been listening to since the late ‘80s. I remember recording in that room and I was thinking, ‘I should go barefoot.’ Because I’m sure they were sweating just as much as I was, if not more.”
A couple of members of the Italian grunge band Neodea, who recorded a song for 52×52, fell to their knees and kissed the parking lot as they walked up to the studio.
“Everything they’ve ever loved came out of London Bridge,” Heiman said.
The other three partners of London Tone are the owners of the studio, Jonathan Plum, Geoff Ott and Eric Lilavois. They handle the production aspect of 52×52. Heiman met them while serving as president of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Grammys.
“They had this germ of an idea to do something once a week,” Heiman recalled.
But they had no experience with distribution. That’s where the marketing and management skills of the two Jeffs came in handy.
“We didn’t know much about that side,” said London Bridge owner Plum. “We were focused on recording the music, not so much getting it out there and making money from the music.”
The five of them sat down to talk about the project in October 2012 and formed London Tone Music Group the next April. The first song in the 52×52 catalog, “Pilots” by 48-year-old Kim Virant of Seattle, came out on Jan. 20.
Since then they’ve tackled tracks from a mixed bag of genres: garage rock, indie rock, hip-hop, R&B, electronica, alternative country, grunge, world music and even a children’s song.
“The musical consumer has changed,” Ross said. “Particularly young people — they don’t necessarily just focus on one genre of music. It’s not unlikely for someone to like a rap song and also listen to a country song.”
Still, Ross drew a line when the project began: “I said no polka music,” he recalled.
“Right,” Heiman said. “But if we get a good polka artist, we will.”
Musicians can apply to be part of the project on Sonicbids.com, a networking site for people in the music industry. All submissions are considered, whether the artist has a large regional following or no following at all.
“A lot of the decisions that are driving the signing of artists now are based on how many Facebook friends you have, how many YouTube views you have, how many Twitter followers you have,” Ross said. “We’ve thrown that out the window. We’re looking for great songs.”
Once there’s mutual interest between London Tone and an artist, a contract is negotiated and the band comes to the studio to record with the producers.
Meanwhile the two Jeffs do interviews, band bios, photo shoots, cover art, press releases and social media promotion. “Everything to give them a professional presentation,” Ross said.
The business model is a talent swap of sorts: artists contribute original music and in return get studio time, track production, coaching and management. They’re fed and, if needed, put up in hotels.
London Tone owns the rights to the songs, as well as a portion of the publishing rights (the artists retain all songwriting credits). After a year, artists can re-record their tracks, but the 52×52 versions belong to London Tone.
If a 52×52 track makes money, the artist receives “a very generous split of the revenues from dollar one,” according to Ross. This is because there’s no recoupment, a standard industry process whereby musicians must repay the studio for the cost of production before earning any money.
For the London Tone team, the project is an investment in emerging talent and an exercise in owning intellectual property.
“We’re building this catalog of music of all these interesting artists, and you never know where any of them are going to go,” Heiman said.
Ross added: “The music industry is a river of nickels. There’s a lot of little pots of money that are out there, and you have to just try to exploit those and hopefully they’ll add up to something at some point.”
Four of the 52×52 songs have been licensed to play in the overhead music systems of 10,000 Starbucks stores around the world. One of those songs, “Constellations” by I’m With Amy, was licensed by the hit MTV series “Awkward” for the upcoming fall season.
It also happened to be the first song that singer Amy Piñon ever recorded in a professional studio. She met guitarist Abe Woolsey while studying audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle and the two submitted a demo track to the London Tone team.
“She has a lot of potential,” Ross said. “But prior to her involvement in 52×52, nobody knew who she was and she was trying to find her way. We’ve helped her by establishing some steps along the path.”
Other 52×52 artists are more experienced. The most prolific performers of the bunch are indie rock duo Science!, which consists of a Shoreline Community College instructor Jim Elenteny and music booking agent Justin Stang. They’re on track to play over 100 live shows this year.
“We’ll play anything from a coffee house to a university to a bar and a graduation party. For anybody that will have us play,” said Stang, who is the band’s singer and guitarist.
Stang says working with London Tone opened new doors and expanded their fan base. He also liked meeting fellow 52×52 artists.
“The music business tends to be a very network-oriented business, so having that wide variety of musicians and artists certainly helps,” he said.
Ross and Heiman say they couldn’t find anything like 52×52 when researching the idea last year. There was an artist who recorded a new song each week, charging fans a subscription. Another did a song a day for a while.
“I’ve never seen this model before, in this particular way,” said David Hirshland, an executive vice president at BMG Chrysalis, one of the world’s largest music publishing companies.
“In some ways those guys are crazy, but thank God for them is what I say,” he said. “Honestly, if they’re good at it — as they should be — it could be a good model for scenes around the country. I can think of a dozen other cities that could really use this.”
In March, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons partnered with Samsung to launch an Internet radio station called ADD52, which streams music by unsigned pop artists from “all corners of the world.” Each week one of the songs is chosen to be professionally recorded.
While ADD52 is a more expensive and extensive endeavor than 52×52, the primary difference between the two projects is that London Tone takes on all genres, from mainstream to esoteric, with the ultimate goal of developing regional musicians rather than discovering bankable pop stars.
“Whether the song or the artist ever go to a super high level — because most don’t — there’s still that song that they wrote that meant something to them when they were writing it,” Heiman said. “Whether they felt that it would be shared with the world, or just their family, or just themselves in their room… they’ve written a great song that has touched at least the five of us in this company.
“And we wanna bang the drum for them.”