Thirty-year-old Matthew Ebel has a regular gig every Tuesday night. There are more than 300 people in the audience, but Ebel can't see them. He's not in a club but in his basement, performing live, on the Internet.
Video produced by Jesse Costa/WBUR and Andrea Shea/WBUR.
He does this for an hour and a half each week, interacting with his fans the whole time in a chat room. They make song requests from as far away as Singapore and Germany.
"I can't really tell if these are men or women or farm animals or zombies or whatever," Ebel says, laughing.
Ebel sings through an amplified headset and plays keyboard. But he's the only musician in the room. The other instruments are pre-recorded. He refers to his "band" as "Robots." He admits, "I've always been kind of a geek, " and he said it helps these days.
Two computers run the show. A small video camera sits on a tripod in the corner. Through it, fans watch Ebel's every move. He knows many of them by name. They immediately notice a strange visitor in the room, and Ebel introduces us.
"Everybody, this is Andrea. They've noticed that I've gotten a hair cut recently, oh my goodness, and some of them seem to be obsessed with that."
The audience is attentive. They sing along with Ebel. And clap. With typed words. They fill the computer screen.
Throughout the show, broadcast on the video site UStream, Ebel plugs his own Web site, repeatedly. That's where he sells music subscriptions that give fans consistent access to brand new songs. Ebel has more than 70 subscribers right now, at varying levels. He also has a virtual "tip jar" and sells CDs via iTunes and CDBaby. Ebel started performing on UStream two years ago. Before that Ebel says he took a stab at the more traditional musician trajectory.
"It wore me out after a while," he admitted, trying to get the attention of people who really don't have that much attention left. He says he toured with a band and solicited major record labels.
Former MTV VJ Adam Curry says it's clear that the business model of the record business is broken.
He has been called the "Podfather." In 2004, Curry created one of the earliest podcasts, "The Daily Source Code." Ebel's music was featured. The podcast world embraced him, Curry says, and now that audience watches Ebel's weekly concerts. While big artists like Snoop Dog and the Jonas Brothers are also using UStream, Curry calls Ebel a pioneer for creating an immersive experience for fans.
"You're not just waiting for the music video," Curry explains, "you're not just waiting for the artist to come through town to see the tour, you're actually involved every step of the way, it's what's happening now, not the future."
That idea doesn't sit well with everyone, including Boston musician and rock critic Dave Wildman. "I don't know, it freaks me out," he says with a laugh. Wildman likens Ebel to a talented street performer on the information super highway.
"That's the scary thing about this is, you know, are we devaluing human contact? I don't know. But he's found his audience and that's really all that any musician can hope for."
Just this week Ebel invited his most loyal fans, the ones who pay $150 a year for their subscriptions, to hang out in the flesh at his first VIP Beer Bash and Barbecue. He said he wanted to thank them, in person, for their support. He told them that he sees them as investors, "because you guys are spending way more money than you should for the kind of music that you're getting out me."
VIP Chris Penn says Ebel's music speaks to what he's into: video games, podcasting, Sci Fi. He calls Ebel a mix of Billy Joel, Elton John and Ben Folds for the online generation.
"His music is interesting in that it has commercial appeal," Penn explains, "but it also has all these interesting little references to the culture that he's a member of and a lot of people share. It's geek stuff but you know his most recent piece was about Team Fortress 2, the video game, but set to country music."
The song, "I Blame the Spy," is hilarious. It references a Scottish Cylops and various weapons and characters from the popular video game.
Back in the basement, Ebel says what he has with his like-minded fans is a perfect fit.
"It's a much better relationship, which is exactly what I want, I want to actually know who it is that's keeping me alive and keeping me fed. It makes me a much happier musician."
Matthew Ebel says ultimately his goal is to attract enough VIP subscribers so that he can go on tour with a human band, because humans, unlike his Robots, don't crash.
This program aired on August 20, 2009.