Senses Fail Wins With Joshua Tree Sessions Film Project
Senses Fail has been a band for twenty years. They are a classic four piece band whose sound is post-hard core or emo, similar to My Chemical Romance. Buddy Neilsen is their lead singer and for the past six years the primary songwriter for the band. The band members include Nielsen, bassist/guitarist Gavin Caswell, drummer Steve Carey, bassist Greg Styliades and guitarist Jason Milbank. Typically Senses Fail plays in rooms which seat 1,500 – 3,000 people.
Like all musicians who have been forced to pivot because of Covid-19, Senses Fail has begun to find new ways to connect with fans, deliver music and create revenue for themselves. The past year has shown a new willingness for fans to purchase livestreams when going to in person events is more challenging than it was prior to Covid. Even outside of pandemic, the band’s fans are now mostly millennials in their 30’s now having children and don’t necessarily want to go out. From this lens, the band saw a new opportunity to connect with their fans who were reluctant to go out and decided to pivot.
Senses Fail recently did something bold. They took the money lent them by the Small Business Administration as part of their EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) and filmed a live performance in Joshua Tree. This project, The Joshua Tree Sessions, was the single most expensive outlay ever made by the band. They hired a director utilizing a film crew with 12 Blackmagic cameras. The intention was to deliver a high quality one time single view event, rather than just another streamed concert. The intention was to deliver something more than what the viewer was expecting. For these reasons, the band took a significant upfront financial risk. Just the rental of the cameras cost more than a car. The project worked exactly as was intended by the SBA’s EIDL program: the band used the money to create a product, which they then sold at a profit – attracting approximately 3,000 purchases of the live stream.
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For Buddy Neilsen, Joshua Tree, CA has been the touchstone for many significant live events. It was there he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, and there where he was a first responder to a terrible rock climbing accident. Witnessing that accident was transformative for Buddy changing both the path of his life and inspiring him to fully commit himself to Senses Fail. Because of this connection he has to Joshua Tree, and the many life altering events which happened there for him, it made sense to use that location to make new art.
But, building a concert in the desert is not easy. It requires bringing in everything. It’s often said there’s a lot of holes in the desert. What’s less often said is that you can’t do much with a hole. Senses Fail had to bring in everything from generators to create power, to mixing consoles, gear, lighting, trusses and even porta potties. This is where art can get complicated. Christo used to string miles of canvas across open land and over rivers, or wrap floating islands at sea. Any vision can be executed with proper planning and budgeting.
Senses Fail planned a spectacle, with full production, and complex backdrops so they could film live performances of their 2004 debut Let It Enfold You and their next album Still Searching. They played these two albums in full at Joshua Tree. These performances constituted the Joshua Tree Sessions which were then made available by stream.
By offering their Joshua Tree Sessions to fans over a very short period of time, Sense Fail created both scarcity and urgency. The end result is Senses Fail recreated community among its fans who all had to show up within the limited window the concert was available, or miss it forever. The band is not going to replay the show. It’s gone. This is much like the model at a music festival where the headliner only plays when they play. If they’re truly massive, like Foo Fighters or Green Day, nearly the entire population of the festival masses together, with most listening to the live music but essentially watching it performed on the screens because of their distance from the stage.
For Senses Fail, or any similar band, there are presently five streams of revenue: live performance, streamed performance, merchandise including recorded music, publishing and sponsorship or advertising. Senses Fail will release a vinyl album of their concert, but their plan does not contemplate future viewings of the video. And, because of the quality of the production, Senses Fail was able to get a distribution deal for the album. The album was recorded on their own label NAME*** , but Senses Fail has now partnered with a distributor as a result of the live stream while continuing to own their own content and masters.
The band is currently on a club tour in support of Bayside, a band celebrating their own 20th anniversary. Senses Fail plans to release their new album Prose early next year. This album is a more literary project, a modern commentary on the frailty and momentariness of life and what it’s like to live in current society as a parent during these times. Half of the record is based on T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland, the other half is based on Walt Whitman’s poem To Think Of Time.
Their upcoming projects include a new vinyl box set made out of recyclable content which can be put into the soil and ultimately grow into a plant. They are also making a version of their album where the vinyl has pressed flowers within. These items, show the care in which Senses Fail creates the offerings for their fans. They go way in depth in thinking out the possible options. Senses Fail’s strategy with merchandise is to go build different tiers and lots of choices. By making that extra effort, the band continues to build community and engagement with their fans while driving revenue.
Here is our conversation in both video and audio podcast formats:
I found Buddy Neilsen to be endearing as we discussed his approach to the band, the process of song creation and the ways in which Joshua Tree has impacted his life. There’s a certain literary aspect to the way in which he creates songs, and it shows in his manner of speaking and in the work he produces.
Ultimately, in a competitive world like music, the winner is always those whose projects emanate from the arts and those creators who prioritize their art. Senses Fail is a misnomer. In the way this group approaches its own business and what they offer their fans, their more accurate description would be Senses Succeed. I’m intrigued to see what they produce next.