Last fall, Sean Kelly was ready to pump gas for a living; he felt like things had gotten that bad. The list of creditors to whom he and his band, the Samples, owed money had sprawled like Southern moss. And in November, three of his bandmates -- longtime drummer Sam Young, keyboardist Alex Matson and bassist Andy Sheldon -- quit out of frustration with the Samples' lack of momentum and with Kelly's inability to pay them back wages. When they left, they left angrily, and Kelly took the exodus as a sign of end times.
"I never thought that I would be in a tour bus again," he says. "I didn't think that the gear that was in our practice space would ever be brought out again, except maybe to go to a pawnshop. I mourned those guys leaving; it was like having a relationship end. And then things somehow got so outrageously out of control. It was like people could tell that we were having trouble, and some of them came out of nowhere to punch us down."
Seventeen years after the band formed in Colorado, and many years after it had established a modest but loyal fan base among the jam-band and college-rock contingents, the Samples were bordering on bankruptcy. Royalties from their thirteen records -- seven of which were released on the Boulder-based What Are Records? -- had never been the band's primary revenue source, and touring had become more of an expense than a money-maker: The band owed on its tour bus (a leathery liner that once carted around the Mariah Carey camp), owed drivers, stagehands, musicians, tech guys, even the Internal Revenue Service. At one point, the IRS even threatened to put a lien on Kelly's personal possessions.
But instead of filing for Chapter 11, Kelly and manager Ralph Pastor devised a last-ditch plan: They put the band up for a charity bid. Through written pleadings posted on www.thesamples.com, Kelly asked fans to place a value on what the Samples' music meant to them -- and to give accordingly.
"[It's] as if a mighty giant had little birds pecking at [its] ankles," Kelly wrote on the site. "The first one would be a nuisance, the second painful, but when there are new ones arriving everyday and pecking away, sooner or later the giant will fall. That is what our creditors are currently doing to us. We are on our way to profitability but we need your help to get there."
For their efforts at keeping the little birds at bay, supporters -- most of whom already provided the band with conventional fiscal support through CD and ticket sales -- would receive a laminated "Lifetime Pass," sporadic invitations to live performances and loads of thanks from Kelly. And so far, more than 500 individuals have given approximately $15,000 and offered volunteer help with publicity, legal and Web services. (The suggested donation amount is $50.) The Samples' Web site got a major digital facelift after the Lifetime Pass initiative got under way; on it, Kelly uploads regular "progress reports" and photos from performances, allowing now-financially vested fans to keep track of the band's health. In his postings, Kelly stops just short of thanking fans for rescuing him from certain death -- in a financial sense, at least -- even though contributions have barely dented the band's $100,000 debt.
"I didn't want the pass idea to come off as desperate, but at the same time, I couldn't just give up without at least trying one last thing to save it," Kelly says. "I just figured if the fans knew how fragile things were and how close the band was to just disappearing, that might mean something to them. I wanted to give them some choice in the matter. And as soon as I did, the response just started flooding in. It was obvious that we had to keep this thing going."
Aside from a few irritated e-mails -- mostly from former bandmates and managers -- the response has been uniformly positive, Kelly says. But his own allusions to the band's financial situation have been almost uniformly vague. How did things get this bad for the Samples? Who are these wolves -- er, birds -- knocking at the giant's door and pecking at his ankles? Kelly blames a series of bad management decisions and alludes to its poisonous parting with What Are Records?, from whom the Samples split in 1998 before forming their own imprint, Apache.
But Kelly also cites a now-familiar culprit -- namely, a group of insane hijackers who brought the world to a halt by flying jets into buildings in September 2001. And though the 9/11 connection feels a little like a too-easy out, Kelly swears there's a valid link: The band lost a high-paying "anchor" gig in Nevada when the promoters canceled the show in a post-attack panic; when that paycheck never rolled in, Kelly says he was stuck with a crew and a bus he still had to cover. That's the kind of thing that major labels can be handy for.
"We've never really been a band that makes any money or that is oriented around money. When we tour, we're just kind of barely in the black, so we weren't at all prepared to cover some massive loss like that," he says. "We're kind of like the Grateful Dead, in that we just give our heart and soul altruistically and never expecting anything in return. But ultimately, it just ran us into the ground."
Of course, the Samples aren't the only band that absorbed some shocks when the towers fell and the music industry, like the world, went into a holding pattern. Denver promoters canceled scores of shows in September 2001, many of which were never rescheduled -- or their ticket prices recouped. Manager Pastor concedes that, altruistic as it may have been, the band's own lack of monetary moxie probably had a lot to do with its undoing.
"Sean got in debt, and once he got in it, he didn't know how to get out of it," Pastor says. "Listen, he's a wonderful artist who's channeling something greater than himself. But he isn't exactly the most business-savvy person in the world. He's got so much to offer the world, but there were some bad decisions made. For someone like him, he gets in a hole even $10,000 -- he just doesn't have it."
"I'm a high school dropout with an eighth-grade education," Kelly says, laughing. "But I've learned a lot, and I've realized that without any money, the music is just going to die. The artist tends to always think, 'Well, I'm looking for an outlet to express myself. I shouldn't have to worry about this stuff.' But musicians should know as much about the business as they possibly can, to protect themselves."
There are signs that the Samples have improved their business acumen. Last year, Apache released the two-disc Anthology in Motion: Volume I collection, and the band recently released a live acoustic DVD. Another live disc, recorded during performances at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, was issued this month. The band has also signed a sponsorship agreement with Clear Channel Entertainment, which will record shows during the Samples' current tour of North America and make them available for sale through Best Buy. (The agreement is part of Clear Channel's fledgling "Instant Live" campaign, whereby concert-goers will eventually be able to purchase entire shows on their way out of the venue; because it hasn't brokered arrangements with any record labels, Clear Channel is currently testing out the system on unsigned acts.)
So the band's on the road again and hoping that this time, the journey doesn't end in a financial wreck. Kelly is optimistic, almost philosophical.
"I feel like our music is just spreading on an exponential level," he says. "It's clicking. There's joy on stage. We're up and running, and the machine needs to run."
The machine known as the Samples appears Wednesday, June 4, at the Fox Theatre and Thursday, June 5, at the Gothic Theatre.
Oh, what a circus: One year after launching as an experimental performance at the now-defunct club Cosmo, the Acoustic Circus has become a near-monthly happening that regularly sells out the Soiled Dove. Organizer Mark Sundermeier of the Sad Star Cafe says the series was designed to showcase artists in a stripped-down setting, and also to introduce them to one another. During the showcase-style performances, as many as ten bands unplug for short sets of four to five songs, along the way copping a combination-platter taste of their peers' music.
"We've definitely had some interesting intersections of artists from totally different spectrums of the scene," Sundermeier says. "At one show, we had Wendy Woo checking out [hard rock band] Rogue. She was like, 'Wow, I didn't know the lead singer could sing like that.' Then later, Bill Terrell of Rogue was like, 'Wow, that Wendy Woo -- I had no idea she could play so well.' It's just a cool opportunity for people from many different genres of music to see what each other is doing and for the audience to get turned on to stuff they might not have seen otherwise."
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This week, Sundermeier unveils The Acoustic Circus, a two-disc compilation of 31 live tracks recorded at Herman's Hideaway and the Soiled Dove over the past twelve months. The artist lineup is a mixed bag: Popsters like Rubber Planet and Tinker's Punishment strum alongside heavier acts like King Rat, FOMOFUIAB and Rogue; The Railbenders, Offering 74, Backbone Velvet, Carolyn's Mother and the Mercury Project are among the notable names on the list. As is typical with compilation projects, the quality of the material varies, and some bands' work translates better to a non-electric setting than others. Still, a couple of clunkers aside, the collection is a nice cross-section that Sundermeier is hoping to use as a scene-boosting tool: He's already distributed it to label reps at Sony and plans to shop it to any A&R guy who'll listen. (The CD is free for the asking: Request a copy at www.acousticcircus.com.)
"It really just shows you what somebody can do without all the guitars and the instruments behind them," he says. "It's been amazing, some of the people who have cropped up. Like Hell Camino -- typically a pretty hard-rock band -- came in with a banjo, and the bass player came in with an accordion. The Acoustic Circus gives artists an avenue for expression that they might not normally get to use with their band."
Expression will be the order of the night on Saturday, May 31, when Sundermeier launches a CD-release party for the project at the Soiled Dove. Rubber Planet, You Call That Art?, Backbone Velvet and the Acoustic Circus Band -- an amalgam of members of Sad Star Cafe, the Good Sirs and Soul Pilot -- will perform, as will a bevy of buskers, fortune tellers and other circus-like folk. Step into the ring.