Green Room Interviews: Give and Take with Empires

Written by Melissa Ridgley Posted in: Green Room Interviews on November 03, 2011

Chicago rockers Empires have a big sound and an even bigger DIY attitude. Ever since boldly releasing their debut album, HOWL, for free on their website in 2008 when such a move was relatively uncommon, they've been winning over fans and critics alike at breakneck speed (i.e. tens of thousands of downloads and counting all through word of mouth). The four high school friends that make up Empires have relied on few others but themselves for the level of success they enjoy today, and seem to be appreciating every moment of it more because of this independence.

Check out the interview below to see what guitarist Tom Conrad had to say about the band's summer contests with Rolling Stone and Airwalk, marketing shows with merchandise, and why they think the practice of giving before taking has worked wonders for them. So how has the tour been thus far with Colour Revolt?

Tom Conrad: It’s been good! We’re about a week in now. We had a day off yesterday and were in Toronto, and that was our first time in Canada. The guys in Colour Revolt are great -- awesome band, awesome tunes. We’re very happy to be on tour with them. Great! So your first release, HOWL, was given away for free on your website, and racked up over 70,000 downloads. What marketing tactics did you use to promote this? Or was it more through word-of-mouth?

TC: It was completely word-of-mouth. So, this was back in 2008 when it was still kind of taboo for bands to release music for free. I feel like it was on the cusp of people being like, 'should you be supporting this or should you not be?' Our band has always been very self-sufficient by doing all of our recordings on our own, artwork and promotion -- everything we’ve been doing has been in-house. So for us to give away a record for free was on our time and our money. It was ours. So we didn’t really feel like it was that big of a deal, and that we didn’t have that much to lose at all. We didn’t really think twice about it -- we knew that’s what we wanted to do. I think at the time, looking back now, a lot has changed in the past two or three years. Now everyone is giving away their music for free. But like I said, at the time, it seemed like other bands were hesitant to do it. Empires has an extremely loyal fanbase. Can you point to anything in particular that has made the bond with your fans extra strong?

TC: I think it did start with HOWL. We hadn’t really played any shows yet and didn’t have a web store up yet. And I think the first introduction to fans was that we had this album for free. And we didn't ask for emails, donations or anything. We just put it up there for downloads that only took one click. I think that was one of the big things that motivated us by putting the record out for free. It inspired us in a sense that the first introduction to the band was giving. Giving instead of asking fans to come to shows or buy merch. Instead it was like, here just take this. And let’s talk afterwards. Everyone has been asking you guys about the competitions you’ve been in recently, more specifically Rolling Stone's Choose the Cover Contest and Airwalk's Unsigned Heroes Contest. Do you think that giving the fans the power to decide who wins these big promotional opportunities is where the future of the industry is headed?

TC: I don’t think anyone knows where the industry is headed. Our attitude with Empires is that we are still very much in the driver's seat. We just want more people to know about the band. So I guess the contests were good tools. Going into the contests, we never thought we were going to win. The editor in chief of Rolling Stone would say, 'You’re so close!' but we would just look at him like, 'You’re funny, dude.' We didn’t take it too seriously. We would just have fun with it and enjoy it. Each round we advanced we were like, 'Huh, really? Alright.' On this tour you are giving away silkscreen prints of the concert poster to people who show you their receipt for buying a ticket in advance. What was your reasoning behind this?

TC: That brilliant idea actually came from Colour Revolt. It was another thing to encourage people, and something else to give back to fans. We keep trying to release music and tour as much as we can. Anything we can give while coming up with creative ideas, we're all for it. We’re not really guys that are too shy and try to stay in the back. Are there any other unique merch items that you’ve given away, sold, or made?

TC: No, we’re pretty boring. I’m cool with like a black shirt and white ink. I have no idea. If you look at me now -- I have no idea what to wear and not wear. Finally, tell me a little bit about what to expect from your upcoming release, Garage Hymns.

TC: So going back to the Rolling Stones contest, it was sweet and dandy and all but we still had our own agenda of trying to get stuff done for the year. We started in May and we’ve been working on this record now for about a year and a half.  We spent about 18 months writing and demoing it out. We would go in and demo a song 6 or 7 times to make sure it had the right progression, bridge, tonality, or whatever it was. We just did our homework. So when it came down to the actual session for the record it was very quick. We didn’t think much about it. We knew what we wanted and it was a no-brainer. So it was kinda like doing your homework so come test-time we were like, 'We got this.' We are very confident in what we did and wish we could put it out tomorrow. We think we’ll release a song or two before the end of the year, but it will probably be a 2012 release. Cool, well I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

TC: Oh yeah, thanks so much for coming out!


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