Interview: Donita Sparks

Donita CASH-es out.


Former L7 frontwoman Donita Sparks is back with her new band, the Stellar Moments, and a debut solo album, Transmiticate. She's also created a unique new website along with Kristin Hersh (Throwing Music, 50 Foot Wave, etc.) called CASH Music -- the "Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders." There, musicians provide free downloads or follow the "pay what you like" model, and they provide fans with opportunities to invest directly in the music-making and touring process. I recently spoke with Sparks about CASH:

So how did you and Kristin come up with this idea? Was it something you and she had been knocking around for a while?

We came up with it with our managers. Kristin and I, we did not meet back in the day, we met fairly recently, like in the last year and a half or so. It’s weird because we’re kind of around the same age and we’ve both had careers in kind of different realms of the rock world -- even though similar as well because we both came from the underground -- but we were talking about how similar our career paths have been and the challenges of getting our music out without labels and with the whole downloading dilemma to consider, and that’s how we came up with CASH. We didn’t like the one extreme of the RIAA suing everybody -- we don't feel like they speak for us as artists. They always say, 'We're speaking for the artists,' and it’s like, 'Wait a minute, you’re not speaking for all of us!' Some of us are not very happy with certain things, and then on the other side of things, we don’t like people who are pissed off at the RIAA and are brazenly pirating stuff just because they hate the RIAA so much. It's like, 'Wait a minute, we’re in the middle here, people!' We’re trying to make a living here, and our concert sales are not picking up the slack of our record sales. So we’re trying to make it work, and we felt that...we believe that our fans and music fans in general want to pay for music. I know I pay for music, I find iTunes very easy. I don’t get the big dilemma. We’ve had over four million downloads of our songs from CASH. People are picking them up and putting them on blogs and what have you, but we’re tracking it, and we’ve tracked over four million downloads, just of me and Kristin. It’s like, I’ve never sold those kind of numbers, and to know that four million fucking people have downloaded our songs, that’s like, wow, that’s a good way of getting your name out there, you know?

Sounds like it. I saw you had a "Vinyl Lovers Club" on there, and ways for fans to help with tour support and things like that, too.

Yep, you can get your name on a T-shirt on one of my tour shirts. If you buy us a tank of gas you’ll be a tour sponsor and get on the guest list and things like that. I’m also offering profit participation on my sync license of a song called "He’s Got the Honey." That’s totally what record companies did. They put up money up front, basically gambling on you that you were gonna be a moneymaker, and then they’d make money on the back end. So we thought of offering a profit participation in the sync license, so any time it gets used in a commercial or TV show or whatever, people who have signed up for this -- it's all totally legal, totally legit -- they’re gonna get a cut. And yet I own it, I’m not giving up ownership, so it’s cool. It’s an investment, and everybody knows that one placement in a commercial, you’re gonna make your money back and then some. That's something my manager and I thought of -- we go out for a couple margaritas and we brainstorm and we think up stuff that we find very amusing, and then we start saying, 'Wait a minute, we could actually do that because we’re not on a major -- there’s nobody stopping us from doing this, we could actually pull this off,' and we did.

Is Kristin doing basically the same thing that you are?

She’s doing some amazing stuff on her CASH page, like you can come visit her in the studio for a grand. Or you can be an executive producer on her record for five grand. That’s what labels do, they executive produce you. They give you some money to record, they come down to the studio for a day, they sit there, and then they leave. So she’s doing stuff like that.

I saw that you only have a handful of artists involved right now -- you two, Xiu Xiu, a couple others. Is CASH gonna be something that any artist can sign up to participate in?

We get requests all the time -- we’re actually turning people away at this point because we’re not fully at our capacity of what we’re gonna be able to do, so as the year unfolds there’s gonna be more and more, and eventually we wanna open it up to everybody. CASH went live in December but we were still in beta -- Kristen did an outreach to her fans only and the press picked it up, and then Wired wrote about it and then all of a sudden we were in Billboard and we were still in beta, we weren’t ready! We have an amazing tech team and they’re doing amazing stuff and they’re still working on it.

Do you enjoy working on this kind of project as much as making music?

Yeah, this is a challenge to me, and yet when you think of something fun, it’s really pleasurable. Because I’ll tell ya, when I was on a major label, I thought of some really fun ideas that were always shot down because they were just not what the rock department usually did.

Like what?

Well, this is in the early '90s -- I wanted bus benches, and literally the marketing department said, "Oh no, no, no, we don’t do rock for bus benches, it’s only urban artists." And I was like, "Urban artists? I’ve seen the hip-hop ads -- I want a bus bench!" And they wouldn’t do it. And now, what are bus benches now? In L.A. they’re all rock and roll, like all Epitaph Records now. The very first one I saw a couple years ago was for Buck Cherry and I was just like, "Fuckin' Buck Cherry?!?" And they were on every corner and I was like, "What the fuck?!" And that was years later. I was way ahead of the curve on bus benches [laughs]. But it was shot down. And here’s another one -- I wanted a video in Super 8, and they said "Oh no, no, no, MTV’s not gonna play a video in Super 8." Okay ... two years later, Beck comes out with "Loser," the whole video’s Super 8, and the video was huge. And I was like, "Goddammit..." It was just that kind of narrow-minded shit all the time, so now this CASH thing is kinda fun because we have complete control over stuff like that. We wouldn’t get the green light then, and it was like, "Why?" So now we’re greenlighting everything!

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