Nerds of a feather flock together, as they say. Brian Ibbott and jazz composer Andrew Allen have once again proven this adage to be entirely true. The two have paired up to produce another passion project that is sure to appeal to the dorkiest dweebs you know, Free Play, an album of traditional jazz renditions of video game songs. Their first Kickstarter-funded project was even geekier than that: Smooth Federation, an all jazz tribute to Star Trek. The new one, which has surpassed its Kickstarter goal, is slated to be the second release on Ibbott's Coverville Records imprint.
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Ibbott, of course, is the seminal Colorado-based podcaster who first earned renown with his wildly popular Coverville podcast, a program devoted entirely to various cover songs performed by an endless parade of artists. Coverville, which is just under fifty episodes away from closing in on its thousandth, was launched by Ibbott in 2004 and now boasts a subscriber base of ten thousand or so. Allen, meanwhile, is a rather gifted multi-instrumentalist from central Florida who holds a degree in jazz studies and performance from the University of South Florida.
Naturally, music is the thing that brought the two of them together. Well, that, and they're both nerds -- they'd have to be to have dreamed up there latest venture (more on that in a minute). With the success of Coverville, Ibbott branched out a little over a year ago and began co-hosting another podcast with Frog Pants impresario, Scott Johnson, called the Morning Stream (hint: the name is a euphemism and a double entendre).
Before the two began collaborating, they were mutal admirers: Johnson was a fan of Coverville, and Ibbott was a big fan of the Instance, another show hosted by Johnson -- who illustrated the cover of Smooth Federation and the forthcoming Free Play disc. And that's what brought them together for the Morning Stream, which Johnson and Ibbott co-host live remotely (the former lives in Utah, and the latter hangs his hat in Arvada) via Skype four times a week. The show draws somewhere between forty and fifty thousand listeners per episode. "We're not pulling down Adam Corolla numbers or Chris Hardwick numbers," Ibbott says with a laugh, "but we're doing pretty well.
"The show is a mix of a bunch of different geek cultures," he goes on. "There's celebrity news, but it kind of always has a geeky twist. We've got a guy who comes on and talks tech on Wednesdays, and we've got a Netflix review thing on Wednesdays also. But every day after all the pleasantries in the beginning of the show, we begin with a segment called 'Stump a Trek Nerd,' and we've got a Star Trek fan who lives out in Seattle, and every day we tried to stump him with a trivia question. When we started doing the series, we had a Star Trek theme behind it, like one of the official themes"
That's where Allen comes in. A fan of the show, Allen sent the pair a jazz rendition of the Star Trek theme that he had recorded and The Morning Stream started using the song as a music bed on the show. That interaction quickly led to Ibbott casually mentioning to Allen that he'd be interested in putting out a full album of these types of tunes, if he were ever so inclined. Allen was indeed interested, so much so, that shortly after that discussion, he wrote, performed and recorded all the tunes for the whole album within a month.
"The staple of this record and the staple of everything I do and the music I release," says Allen, "is to take an older style of music that I love and to introduce it to a newer generation that might not be too familiar with it. I'm trying to get it out of the museum gauze state where it's played in colleges and trying to get it out to mainstream people without having to do it smooth. I want to take b-boy and cool jazz and make it accessible."
With that notion in mind and a full album completed, Allen and Ibbott began hatching plans to produce the album and then set about working out the logistics of releasing it, which turned out to be quite a process. Although the album was completed in November, the guys didn't launch the Kickstarter campaign until nearly six months later.
"The mastering had to be done," Ibbott explains. "But probably one of the biggest parts of that was the licensing." Next to figuring out how much money needed to be raised, the biggest hurdle was hashing out all the details for licensing the songs themselves, a rather daunting task, evidently.
"The homework that actually has to be done before you can even approach the licensing companies, you have to know who owns the rights to each song," Ibbott points out. "You need to know the composer - and for some things, it's pretty easy. You're looking up the original series theme, it's pretty easy to find.
"But when you're looking at, oh yeah, that one song that's playing when Kirk and Spock are fighting with the giant Q-Tips on that one planet in that one episode," he adds, "that's where you've got to do a lot of homework and figure out: Alright, who wrote that, what the heck is it called, and who owns the rights to it? It's kind of labor of love. It was a pain in the butt while I was doing it, but looking back, it was actually kind of fun.
"And we're running into a lot of the same things now with Free Play, with video games," Ibbott notes of the trio's (like Smooth Federation, Johnson is handling the cover illustration) latest Kickstarter project. "It's really easy to find out who recorded a version of the song from Portal 2 or something more modern. But when you're looking back and saying, 'Alright, who did the water level music for Super Mario World?' You can kind of make some assumptions on who wrote it based on other songs that they wrote from that same soundtrack, but as far what it's called - it's probably not going to be called 'under water level.'"
The licensing lessons they've learned aren't the only things the guys are applying to the new project from the previous one. This time around, they're doing things slightly differently. For Smooth Federation, they produced posters, offered two versions of the record (physical and digital) -- which meant having to keep a keener eye on the number of deliveries of the latter for licensing purposes -- and they offered signed copies of the discs as incentive for the Kickstarter campaign. Those things, especially the shipping of the posters internationally, added unexpected layers of difficulty and expense to the project.
Andrew Allen (left foreground) signing copies of Smooth Federation at Nerdtacular in Utah.
So this time, no posters, the digital version is included with the physical version and in the most important twist: This album is set to be recorded at Wildwood Studios in Franklin, Tennessee, by Allen with the help of Robert Plant bassist Byron House and his son Truman House on drums. The sessions are slated to take place over two days on Friday, April 26 and Saturday, April 27, with a projected release date of Thursday, July 4 or Friday, July 5.
The fellas favor using Kickstarter for their passion projects pretty much the same reason everybody else does; it has proven to be an ideal platform both for the built in, focus group nature of crowdsourcing, as well as the inherent aspects of marketing directly to your target audience: "It's a good way to make sure you've got people who are going to enjoy the stuff," says Ibbott. "You do what you love, but you do have to make sure that there are people who are going to appreciate it."
Likewise, Free Play is an ideal follow up to Smooth Federation. "You look at the music of Star Trek and you look at the music of video games, and obviously, there's very geek parallel," Ibbott concludes. "Geek is cool right now. So we're happy to be part of that."
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