I’ve always been one of those people who has to reinvent the wheel. Believe it or not, I think it’s a form of laziness. For me it was always easier to write a song of my own than to learn a song by one of the great songwriters. Of course, my early songs were no good, apart from the self-indulgent diary factor, but it gave me some satisfaction to have written and completed a song to which I could subject innocent listeners. But the reality is, I should have spent more time learning and playing other people’s music. It would have made me a better musician, and a better songwriter. Still, I had to do it myself.
Since no one else was willing to perform my songs, I was forced to do them myself if they were ever going to see the light of day. So of course I needed to have a band. Back then I dreamed of that magical “record deal,” by which a major recording company would pay me large sums of money to sleep late every day and spend my afternoons in recording studios and my nights playing huge arenas. But something happened while I was waiting to be discovered. The music business died. Or it might be more accurate to say it committed suicide. Or maybe it was an accidental death worthy of the Darwin Awards.
It used to be that record companies made a commitment to artists, nurturing them through multiple releases to give them time to gain an audience. Not any more. Now the record companies treat artists like Kleenex – use them and throw them away. It used to be that radio stations were local, with real DJs who played creative songs that were more than just heavily produced autotuned ear valium. Not any more. Now radio is syndicated, corporate and automated, and only plays the few songs that are really just commercials for the producers.
I don’t intend for this to sound like sour grapes. In fact, the interesting thing is, a “record deal” with a major label is now the last thing I want – why would give up all creative control over my craft when I can do it myself?
In my musical career, I’ve recorded one album (yes, on vinyl) and five CDs, and I’m working on a new one. Not a single one of those projects ever sold enough to pay for itself, but in the end I’m no worse off than all those bands who got dumped by their record companies and were left with nothing, because the label spent so much money making their albums that they never got paid back. Of course they did get to live the rock star lifestyle for a while, but at the end of the day they’re now working day jobs, just like me.
Digital technology has made it so that we don’t really need the record labels any more. We can make a good CD, we can play gigs, and we can sell CDs at our gigs and on the web. All this fits well with a personality like mine, who wants to see what it’s like to bring my own ideas to fruition, in spite of the fact that I was behind the curve because I learning as I went along. Of course independent artists can’t afford to pay radio to play our songs over and over again like the corporate music factories do, but then as I said, radio is dead. I guess the trade-off in the do it yourself world is that you retain all creative control, but you’re also left to do all the marketing on your own – and for introverted artists like me, that can be a problem. Still, many musicians are like me – having switched from wanting the record deal, to not wanting it.
This means that the best music is not what you hear on the radio – the best music is independent music. If you want to find the really great music, you have to abandon corporate music, and spend a little more time looking for the good stuff – the independent artists. Sure, you have to wade through a lot of self-indulgent, navel gazing diary music to find the treasures. But that treasure hunting process can be part of the fun. To that end, I highly recommend the website CDBaby.com. It’s been around forever, so it’s not somebody’s get rich quick scheme, and it’s a great source for finding music that you would never find if you only listened to the radio.
I also want to encourage everyone to resist the temptation to buy single songs. In fact, I’m not even a fan of downloads at all. I’ve had them come through sketchy, but even more than that, if you buy music from iTunes, you are very limited as to what you can do with it. Buy an actual CD, that you can hold in your hand, with artwork you can see up close in a hard copy, and then rip it to digital – you can make as many copies as you want and put it anywhere you want. You know, even though most of us don’t do vinyl any more, we still make albums, which are collections of 10 or 12 songs based around a theme, or at least representative of a particular period in an artist’s career. Not every song can be a “hit” and if you only buy the single song you’ve heard before, you will miss out on the other songs. In fact, only buying a single song is like the micro version of only listening to the radio – when you only listen to the radio to hear new music, you miss out on all the great independent artists; and when you only buy single songs, you miss out on all the other tunes by an artists you already know you like. As a songwriter, it’s really hard to make your craft even pay for itself (let alone make you money) if you’re only selling single songs. So when you just buy a song at a time, you’re cheating the people who worked so hard to create it. If you could, would you buy a digital download of a mystery novel, but only pay for the last chapter?
Speaking of books, the print publishing world has caught up to the music world, in the sense that POD (print on demand) and e-book distribution have made it possible to publish your own book. Ironically, though, this is not always a good thing. While it does no harm to listen to bad music that was recorded just because the composer could do it, having no filters on print publications (especially in theology) could result in the undiscerning reader being taken in by pseudo-scholarship. Call me a hypocrite, but I think the democratization of music publication is great, but I remain skeptical of the same process when applied to books.
In any case, this is really about independent music. I hope you’ll check out CDBaby. You can search your favorite genres and find great new, independent music. You can buy it as a download, or get an actual CD (delayed gratification, but worth it). In case you’re interested, here’s the CDBaby page with CDs from my band, Remember Rome. Anyway, time to end before this starts sounding like a commercial.