Kristen Hersh Spearheads Net CD Series For 4AD

Former Throwing Muses singer just released LP of folk songs via label's innovative online-sales campaign.

You won't find the new album from ex-Throwing Muses leader Kristin Hersh on the racks of your local record store. And that's just fine with Hersh.

In an unusual twist on the standard artist lament that stores won't stock their albums, the absence of the recently released 12-track Murder, Misery and Then Goodnightfrom retail racks is totally by choice.

Hersh's album of Appalachian folk tunes is the first in a planned series of Internet- and mail-order-only albums from indie-label 4AD, one-time home to such pioneering rock acts as guitar-terrorists the Pixies and moody trance-band Dead Can Dance.

"This is the only way to do a record like this," Hersh, 32, said about the album that features the indie pop singer performing sparely arranged covers of such traditional folk numbers as "Down in the Willow Garden," "Poor Ellen Smith" and "Banks of the Ohio" -- songs the singer said she remembered her father singing to her as a child.

The campaign reflects the label's view of the Internet as a potentially effective outlet for artists' less pop-oriented material -- stuff that will appeal primarily to hard-core fans.

In additional to being sold on the 4AD.com Internet site, the albums will be available at a handful of other online retailers, such as CDnow and Amazon.com.

Despite the bold step of keeping the records out of stores, both 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell and 4AD CEO Robin Hurley brushed off the mantle of Internet innovators.

"The idea is an old one, really," Watts-Russell said. "It came to me a few years ago when we opened our mail-order facility, and I liked the idea of [having] things available exclusively through mail order. But trailblazer? Hell no, not at all. I think there are thousands of people out there actively researching and figuring out ways to exploit the Internet and get the maximum return from it and a foothold for the future."

The 4AD experiment comes at a time when more and more artists are exploring the idea of using the Internet as an alternative means of releasing new material.

While thousands of mostly obscure acts offer their songs for free download on sites such as the popular MP3.com, former Pixies leader Frank Black recently offered his entire new album, Frank Black and the Catholics, online in the downloadable MP3 format, the first such effort by a major artist. The album also was offered through the SpinArt label in retail outlets.

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince originally had intended to release his Crystal Ball album by toll call and Internet only, but later relented and offered it in stores as well. The Minneapolis Twin/Tone label, former home of such high-profile power-pop acts as Soul Asylum and the Replacements, earlier this year decided to abandon the retail market completely and offer all future releases on its website in the downloadable Liquid Audio format.

"I like to feel that I have the freedom to record any music I want," Hersh said, "which is rare in this business. I think [4AD's plan] was an excuse to make this record, which I didn't necessarily feel driven to make and which I enjoyed. But it's not something I would ever mass market or spend a year promoting and touring."

And while the singer said the album, which features such stark numbers as the backwoods-infidelity song "Three Nights Drunk" (RealAudio excerpt), clearly is not representative of her more pop-oriented material, Hersh said she thought her notoriously devotional fans would appreciate this kind of creative meander.

4AD will follow Hersh's release in the new year with an instrumental album, Under Arms, from the Hope Blister -- Watts-Russell's follow-up to his offbeat cover-band This Mortal Coil. A third release also may be in the works for early 1999 from experimental one-man band His Name Is Alive.

While Watts-Russell and Hersh said the unusual arrangement allows them to communicate more directly with their fans, the label founder acknowledged that many of the artists on the label were nervous about being guinea pigs in this experiment. "I had to explain to them that the fact that something wouldn't be available in shops, to me, doesn't mean it would be second-rate," Russell said.

Additionally, Hersh just began offering an Internet subscription service to fans, "Works In Progress - Kristin Hersh," which for $14.95 a year entitles the listener to one new MP3 a month of new, in-process or unreleased material.

"These records are not necessarily viewed by us as the artists' next proper album," Hurley said. "But we feel strongly about releasing them, and I think fans will feel strongly about wanting to own them."

Hurley said he doesn't have unrealistic expectations about what the limited-audience albums will sell, but he added that he hopes they will reach hard-core fans who will, in turn, help the company develop a mailing list for future, larger Internet sales.

"A huge percentage of my audience is savvy enough to find this," Hersh said. "And the whole thing of putting your name and face out there for the press to promote an album has always turned me off. I'm not a show-off, you know? I'm not cut out for this. My dream job is to write songs and mail them out and know it will pay the rent. This is as close as I've ever come to that."