The Residents are a band on a 40 year anniversary tour. If you have heard of them, it is probably not because of the once-traditional record company model. Rather, you know of The Residents because the band forged a direct relationship with its fan base, a model now furiously sought by all musical artists.
I spoke with Homer Flynn, who has been with The Residents since the 1976 formation of Cryptic Corporation. The aptly named organization is the beard for the band, handling all business (and presumably creative) affairs for The Residents. Homer and the band had just come from a gig in frozen South Dakota, and he was enjoying thawing out in Solana Beach for that evening’s gig at the storied Belly Up.
I asked Homer if the internet has made things more difficult for the band’s effort at maintaining its anonymity (the band has long taken to the stage in outfits that kept its members’ faces hidden from the audience). Homer said that the internet has made some things more difficult, but some things are better, “anonymity is now more difficult because of the lack of distance. But back in the day, the gatekeepers, the record labels, controlled everything. Now we find it far easier to go directly to the audience, thanks to the internet.”
The Residents, like all bands, are changing to suit the times. Homer explained, “The Residents used to get by with advance money and tour support from the label. None of that exists any more. With our Talking Light Tour we are recording every show, we put it up for sale within 24 hours. Our revenue is now so much higher even though we are selling in hundreds compared to thousands of record sales, but those record label sales came with deductions.”
Homer chuckled when I reminded him of the famous lyric by Tom Waits “the big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”
Due to the longstanding theatrical aspect to their shows, each setlist remains fairly consistent across gigs on the tour. Homer casually identified who would be performing that night at the Belly Up: Randy, Chuck and Bob. The most surprising thing to Homer is the large number of young people in the audience, completely due to social media and internet exposure. That new blood in the audience is crucial for legacy artists. Unlike many legacy artists, The Residents are OK with live performances being bootlegged and shared, as it “stimulates interest as opposed to takes money out of our pockets,” said Homer. He pointed out that way back in the day “baseball team owners shied away from radio broadcasts of games, but it stimulated interest in a huge way.”
Homer and The Residents don’t miss record labels overall. “There were some benefits [in having a record label deal], but most record label execs don’t have the fervor needed.” I asked Homer what the future holds for The Residents. He mused about a novel based on Bad Day on the Midway (the award winning CD-ROM from the mid-1990s that almost became a David Lynch project), which might become an audio book. “But how big of a production can it really be?” Homer wondered. “With four or five CDs worth of content, how would we assemble it?”
Except decades ago in Australia there is never an opening act for The Residents. And that was the case in San Diego at the Belly Up. The three piece band relies on a large data bank of loops, tapes and digital sonic effects to flesh out their stage show. The jagged chords and guttural vocals ensure no radio airplay, but the devoted crowd already knew that.
The lead singer (either Randy, Chuck or Bob) sported a clever multi-layered outfit of T-shirts, stripped off in sequence, thereby allowing the band to progress through their 40 year retrospective. The opening song “Santa Dog” was the only apparent connection to the Ned Flanders-like Christmas display of huge candy canes.
Two hours later, the band wrapped up their show and headed out to meet the fervent fans in the next city.