Marillion: To Prog or Not to Prog? (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

And while for many, the whole idea of progressive rock means (somewhat paradoxically) looking back, Marillion has long been on the forward edge of one of music’s important modern-day developments: connecting with fans via the internet.

Marillion was among the first musical acts to realize the power of developing contact lists of fans. Having met American college student Erik Nielsen while on tour, the band agreed to let him design a Marillion website. “Especially from our perspective in the UK, this internet thing was just a dark art at this point,” Hogarth says. “We’re talking mid ’90s. It wasn’t mainstream; it was a little bit of a fringe kind of thing.”

“And we invented crowdfunding,” Hogarth says, pausing for a moment afterward. “Well, we didn’t really. One of our fans did.” Hogarth explains that Jeff Pelletier, another American fan of the group, “got it into his head one day to open a bank account and put a note up on an internet notice board, asking people to send money if they wanted Marillion to come and tour in the U.S.”

In 1997, Marillion had left major label EMI and signed with an independent label, one that didn’t have the financial means to support an overseas tour. “This guy decided that wasn’t good enough,” Hogarth recalls. “So he went about and did it. And the first I heard about it, he already had $20,000 in the bank!” At that point, Marillion got involved with the grassroots project, offering to make a live album for distribution exclusively to financial backers. The campaign raised in excess of $70,000.

“We came back from that tour with our heads swimming,” Hogarth says. “We were thinking, ‘Wow. We had no idea these people would go to these lengths for us!’ And then it was only a short jump to thinking, ‘Would our fans actually buy the next album before we’ve even finished it, maybe even before we’ve written it?’” Once again the answer was yes. More than 12,000 fans pre-ordered 2001’s Anoraknophobia.

The band leveraged the power of its website when distributing the album. “Mark Kelly came up with this brilliant idea,” Hogarth recalls. “No, maybe it was Steve [Rothery]. They both take the credit for it; it’s a great idea. They said, ‘Let’s make this album with a mail-back card in it, and a space for another CD, and the card says, ‘You can have another album to go with this one. It’s free, but you have to ask us for it.’ And then overnight we had everybody’s email address.” He readily concedes that such ideas are taken for granted today. But back then, “they were just amazing changes in what was possible.”

The financing and making of future Marillion albums would follow a similar sequence of events. By the second decade of the 21st century, direct contact with fans and crowdfunding initiatives would become an established part of the business model for many musical artists. And the platforms became more refined, meaning that a DIY approach to crowdfunding was no longer needed. Against that backdrop, 2016’s Fuck Everyone and Run was funded via a PledgeMusic campaign; backers received various bonus premiums in return for their early support of the project.

And though Marillion has long benefited from its fan base’s sense of community, the album’s themes focus on the “every man for himself” philosophy that seems to manifest itself in movements like Brexit and the United States government’s recent move away from some forms of global cooperation. “You see Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un throwing shit at each other,” Hogarth says, “and you can’t help but feel a bit nervous. And then you read about Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and what he’s up to, and what he stands for, and you get a good deal more nervous.”

But in contrast with the apocalyptic themes of Fuck Everyone and Run, Hogarth remains cautiously optimistic. “It only takes one seriously bad apple, one nut job to pull the whole thing out,” he says. “We’ve just got to hope that they’ve got enough moderate people around them to go, ‘Are you sure you really want to do that?’ A very, very vast majority of people on the planet are all decent people with a sense of fairness,” Hogarth says, “so ultimately, you’d like to feel that the solution is there.”