With traditional music-marketing models in decline, some musicians are now becoming as well-known for their marketing (Radiohead's making an album available for free downloading, Bruce Springsteen's releasing a hits collection exclusively through Wal-Mart) as for their music.
No musician, however, has proved more ingenious at staying ahead of the economic paradigm shift than Jon Troast (rhymes with "toast"), a guitar-playing singer-songwriter from Wisconsin whose current "100 Concerts in 100 Days" tour may very well be coming to a living room near you.
Yes, a living room. Several years ago, with five indie albums and several years of playing to distracted restaurant, coffee house, and club crowds under his belt, Troast hit upon a novel idea: For $100, he would perform a one-hour, one-man concert in the living room of his fans for them, their family, and as many of their friends as they could invite.
The idea was a hit. He played to crowds as small as five and as large as 75. Sometimes they overflowed into the kitchen, sometimes the backyard. Once he played in a basement sand pit.
Combined with the money he made from point-of-contact CD sales, the $100 covered his gas money. And, as many of his hosts were happy to feed him and let him sleep on their couches, his food and motel overhead was practically nil.
In March, Troast began his current round of house calls. Its itinerary encompasses 25 states plus the District of Columbia. His fans in the other half of the country can keep up via the nightly podcasts and weekly free MP3 new-demo downloads available at jontroast.com. And, since the CDs he's selling now include his highly accomplished last three releases, his net profit will almost certainly be his best to date.
It is these recordings-Second Story (2004), A Person and a Heart, and With, To, From (both 2008)-that no doubt explain Troast's growing stack of C-notes. Recorded in Nashville with the Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call), they reveal Troast to be a Gen-X Everyman uncannily adept at fusing catchy, folk-pop melodies and terse, articulate lyrics.
"I write from empathy a lot," Troast told me. "I've had a range of experiences, but if you can pull from others' experiences and learn from them too, that opens it up that much more."
The experiences to which other people have "opened" Troast include the comic (in "A Break-Up Song" an over-emotional male wishes hyperbolic ill upon the girl who jilted him), the poignant (in "Mary Jane" a man grows old alone because the only girl he ever loved married someone else), and the existential (in "Does God Have a Bleeding Heart?" Troast brings Job up to date).
As for Troast's firsthand experiences, he was reared in the Christian Reformed Church and attended Calvin College. He also grew up with eight siblings, four of them adopted-an ideal background for someone whose livelihood depends on feeling at home in crowded houses.
And, at 31, he has also lived through eight presidential elections. In "I Wanna Be the President," his unofficial anthem, he discovers the importance of becoming the "president of the United States of Me."
"The song has to do with being responsible," Troast says, "with saying, 'I'm going to step up and look out for my neighbor. I'm going to do what I can to make sure that the streets are safe, that we have good laws, that I'm part of a functioning society.' If everybody did that, that would have a lot more influence than one person's getting elected president."