Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memoir - The Arts, The Music Industry, The Future

My friends have always been artists. I have always had a special relationship to the arts, and the ability to somehow communicate with and understand the artist in a way that the rest of society cannot. Perhaps it’s the Androgen wash. Maybe it’s just sensitivity to the same concerns, but throughout my life I have found myself as an advocate and encourager for the artist in society.

I “managed” my first band when I was eighteen. At the time all this really meant was scheduling a show for them at a nearby coffeehouse and coming up with the sound equipment for the show. They were a punk band called “Jeremiah & the Cuties,” and they were all friends of mine. We all volunteered time at a coffeehouse ministry run by a local church. The place catered to the youth of the city, and at the time (in the early 90’s) was the only all-ages place that stayed open late in downtown Boise. We opened at 7pm and stayed open until 4am, or whenever people finally cleared out. All the kids who couldn’t get into the bars would hang out there and drink bad coffee, and the bar-goers all came by when they closed up at 2am. That hour between two and three in the morning was always sketchy, when the two crowds would meet and have to make room for each other.

Although it was run by a church, there wasn’t a great deal of proselytizing taking place there, it was really just a hangout. The coffee was bad, the service was too, but no one cared because it was the only place of its kind. It lasted for a couple years, and in that time was a real landmark for the youth culture, and especially the street culture of the city.

Jeremiah and I came up with the idea of putting on a show there. He was new to Boise, a Native American from Alaska who’d just moved to town with his mother. He played punk and metal guitar, and he couldn’t sing well, but he could scream for days. The band had just formed as a trio, Jeremiah on guitar and vocals, and two brothers, Matt and Jack, on bass and drums. Somewhere I still have cassette tapes of their early rehearsals.

I’m not sure how we did it, but somehow we got permission from the city to block off a portion of the street in front of the café. It sat right in the heart of Downtown Boise, but at the end of a cul-de-sac where the city had closed off Eighth Street when they put in a five-lane interstate connector. We put up barricades, and erected a small stage out of plywood and two-by-fours. Someone borrowed a small sound system, and I managed to set it up without breaking it or blowing the speakers.

We cranked it up as loud as we could, and put on what was likely Boise’s only free, outdoor, punk show before then. We probably had about thirty or forty kids, all in combat boots and duct tape, pierced and stapled, moshing and abusing each other in the street for an hour. And everyone had a blast. We caught someone selling LSD in the bathroom and kicked him out. I don’t think the café made a dime during that time because everyone was pretty much giving stuff away, but it made an impression, and beyond the quaint notions of getting people into church or getting someone “saved,” I know that there were friendships made that day that actually provided at least a couple of people with paths to get off the street.

When the curfew came and we had to shut down, no one wanted to quit so we packed the gear up, loaded everyone in the back of a few pickups, and drove up the hill to the giant empty warehouse the church owned. It was a converted supermarket, and was basically just a giant box of a building. We set up inside there and continued the show until the wee hours. As far as I know nothing was stolen.

From that time, and actually starting before then, I consistently cultivated close relationships with musicians and artists. I wasn’t a musician myself, and although I sang in the school plays as a kid, I had not actively participated in the arts for years. But there was something there, some connection that allowed me to not only understand what they were saying, but to communicate it to others in a way that facilitated understanding and cooperation. It was innate. Part of it was my understanding of the business. During this time I was already working in Radio and had some knowledge about the “industry.” Mainly I’d just read a trade publication or two, or I happened to have actually seen a copy of “R&R” (Radio & Records magazine), but that was more than anyone else, so it qualified as industry knowledge.

I worked with musicians, put on a few shows and eventually decided there was nothing going on there I couldn’t do as well. I bought an old “Carlos” guitar from a room-mate for forty bucks and had my friend Joe show me some chords. The first song I learned was “Shooting Star” by Bad Company. It was just C, D, G, with an F thrown in that I skipped for the first few months. I took that guitar with me to Hawaii in 1993, and when I moved back to Boise a year and a half later, I knew how to play it.

During the time I was gone, the church I’d been a part of had grown considerably, bought a new building and was now one of the largest churches in the area. My good friend Casey, who had been the underling to the Worship Pastor, was promoted when the other guy started a recording studio, and the fringe musicians I’d been hanging out with when I left were now established and doing their own work. There were performance venues in town that hadn’t existed a year before, and a thriving coffee-house music scene had sprung up that would eventually spawn a number of artists now touring nationally. It was a different place, and I related to it differently. I joined Casey’s band as backup singer and acoustic guitarist, and within six months started my own band, playing in front of fifteen hundred to two thousand people every Sunday morning.

It was a baptism of the kind unavailable to musicians outside the church. Anyone else at my age, with my experience, would have been playing to tiny crowds, and with sub-standard gear, slogging away in obscurity. We had a built-in fan base (small and insular though it was), and played every week on state-of-the-art gear for a listening crowd. Of course there was very little “artistic freedom,” we had to play the songs the church wanted to hear. But there was great creativity, it was a progressive church, and the music we played on Sunday morning wasn’t too different from what we were playing in the coffee-houses on Friday and Saturday night. We had no idea how good we had it.

And so it went for a few years. I went away to Switzerland for most of 1996, where I continued to perform and lead songs in a church setting, but where I also began to write some of my own music. I returned to Boise late that year with a couple new songs in my pocket, and a serious desire to get out and start playing around town. I convinced a coffee-house owner to let me play on Friday nights, and for a while I had the house gig there all to myself. I formed a succession of bands and performed regularly in the summer festivals and fairs in the area. We even recorded a CD in 1999, a four song EP recorded in one day, and produced for about $500. I made two hundred copies myself, burning each disc on my computer; designing, printing, cutting and assembling each cover and jewel-case. Each one was signed and numbered, and all two hundred sold within a few months. It got some local airplay (on the station I worked for), and one of the songs charted on “,” a site that’s now gone, but was the first of its kind for digital music at the time. They were small victories, but it was heady stuff at the time.

For the next few years, and through many changes, I continued to write and perform my own songs. In addition to my own performing, I continued to act as a liaison between the artist and the culture. Upon returning from Switzerland, I developed a curriculum for the church, teaching adult education classes on the Arts, Worldview, and Critical Thinking. I was specifically working to educate the general population about the value of the arts to their everyday lives, as well as teaching artists how to relate to the world and their culture in ways that could be understood and appreciated.

Over time my wife and I transitioned away from the traditional church. I have many friends who remain disappointed with our decisions. Had I gone the standard “Christian Music” route, I would almost certainly have got some big “deal” along the way, and would probably be touring and supporting my own music, playing in churches for people who all believe the same thing, reinforcing that isolation. It wasn’t for me, from the start I knew that. One of my friends let me know how disappointed he was with me because, had I stayed at that church, I’d now be the “Worship Pastor,” making a very comfortable salary, with benefits and a 401K. I’d have “security.” As it is, I’ve gone from job to job, from career to career, and always tried to write my songs along the way. I won’t say that kind of security isn’t appealing, but I won’t do it differently.

I spent the last two and a half years as Tour Manager and Personal Assistant to the band Over the Rhine. I worked closely with the two founding members of the band, a husband and wife who have been writing their songs and performing them for over fifteen years. In the junkyard that is the Music Industry, they are one of the few minor level success stories. Which simply means they have been able to fashion a life for themselves, and to actually make a living at their music without either going broke or breaking up. That’s saying something.

Over the time I spent with them, I did a lot of jobs. Tour managing is an all-consuming pursuit. Basically the job description is: “Everything.” Everyone works for you. Your band, your crew, the musicians, the local crew, the venue personnel, even if they don’t work for you, you have to treat them like they do to get the job done. I was told that I did this job very well, in fact more than a couple of touring veterans said they’d never seen it done better.

I realized recently that my greatest value to Over the Rhine was not as a Tour Manager, or running their local office. It was not in securing distribution deals or in making sure they got paid. I think my greatest contribution to them was in the form of encouragement. I saw what they were doing, and I was able to encourage them in ways that actually inspired them to continue. I never related to them as a fan, but as someone who “got it,” who understood what they were driving at, and could help them refine, clarify, and better state their goals in order to more fully achieve them. I see now why I was constantly troubled with regard to my “job description” with them: they thought they needed a Tour Manager. And they did. And in me, they saw someone capable, someone bright and quick to adapt, who was able not only to do that job, but do it well. They had someone who not only could manage their touring machine, and get their business affairs largely in order, but who could do so while at the same time providing great encouragement and inspiration. I think it was a win/win for a while.
But I began to sense that we were at cross-purposes. As things got better, as the songs got played on the radio, and the guarantees got bigger, and musicians left and were replaced… as things grew, we got further from where we started. I could see clearly that “success” for the band, in terms of money and exposure, meant that I would be less involved in doing what I truly loved, and more involved in the daily drudgery, the business of it all. What I loved was talking with them about their art, helping them see the need and application for it, and reflecting back to them what they were giving off in such a way that they could do it better, with more focus and greater purpose. I think I loved this not so much because I loved them and their art in particular (although I did), but because that’s who I am. I love doing that for anyone.

I work now with several different bands and artists on several different levels. I have turned down invitations from internationally touring acts to manage and book them because I just can’t stomach the thought of diving headlong into that world again. I work closely with several friends, advising them on aspects of their careers and giving them help where they need it. In some cases they pay me for this work, but for the most part it’s just relational. And I enjoy that
immensely. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay the bills.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an idea that might make some sense: I’m thinking of starting a consulting business for musicians and artists. Something along the lines of “Music Industry Consultant and Artist Coach.” I’m not interested in managing artists or bands, taking a percentage of their earnings (which are usually scant) in exchange for some nebulous agreement to make them bigger and more famous. That almost always plays out as some Svengali relationship where the manager seeks his own interest, and the band is lucky if that translates into theirs as well.

The music industry is a mess. The labels are disappearing, either due to consolidation or atrophy. Digital music is going nuts, but the industry seems dumbfounded as to how to make any money off it. They lament the death of the industry, but ignore the fact that more new music is hitting the marketplace than ever before. And in that picture is arising a whole new landscape of independent artists, who understand how to market themselves, to get their music on the internet and into the hands of fans through iTunes and other digital delivery portals. There are sites like DiscRevolt, where fans can buy download cards at the show, and that night they can download the show they just heard off the Web. There is so much creativity going into the marketing and promotion of music right now, and every day less and less has anything to do with the traditional structures of labels, and managers and agents and publicists.

I think there’s a role I could play here, helping those artists to focus their energy in ways that are meaningful and productive. Many of these people are completely willing to do the work themselves; they just don’t know where to begin. My friend Pete hires me occasionally to do publicity work for his band, not because he’s not capable of doing it, but because, when he picks up the phone or creates a new email, his mind goes blank before the vast expanse of numbers and people and places he could be calling and emailing and sending things. Which is most important? What is crucial today?

Working with artists in this way, I think I could provide a valuable service, and maybe even make a living, while not leeching off their creativity and tying my financial health to their artistic output. Why has no one ever realized what an unrealistic and unhealthy proposition that is? I can offer my services as a consultant, for an hourly fee with no strings attached, give them the clarity they lack, and a push in the right direction, and then they’re on their way. If they need follow-up help, either by phone or in person, that can be part of the agreement. But they’re not signing over fifteen percent of their gross earnings to me for some service I may or may not ever be able to perform.

It’s crucial to me that any services I provide for artists (for anyone for that matter) not tie them down. I’m tired of the compromises where we do what we “have to” do, recognizing that it’s killing us, but chalking it up to the “greater good” or at least the need to put food on the table. Artists enter into usurious deals with shady managers and agents and outright crooks in the hopes that this well-connected sleazebag will at least grow their enterprise while he rips them off. It’s a given in the industry. And the few artists that know their way around, who can read a contract and not get dizzy, are forced by the nature of the business to become assholes themselves just to deal with the people that are supposed to be working on their behalf!

I can’t function like this, and I won’t. I would sooner give up on the industry and go flip burgers than to spend my time and my energy arguing with people, and working to make sure my ass is covered. I’m not interested in working with people I can’t trust, and I’m not interested in cultivating anything untrustworthy about myself. I believe that I can function in this world in a way that is mutually beneficial to all involved. I believe that there is no-such thing as scarcity, that there is enough to go around for everyone, enough money, enough power and influence, enough resources, enough food, enough space, and air, and hope for all of us. And I believe that the way toward finding and promoting this great wealth of resources is through generosity and honesty.

I’m still far from working out all the kinks in this plan, but I’m considering the creation of a new pricing structure for my services from now on. Not just for my consulting or coaching services, but for everything I do from the cost of the CD’s I sell to the amount I charge for a performance, to my hourly fee for carpentry or writing services. Recently I came across the concept of “Not-Just-For-Profit.” There’s a website:, that lays out this idea; business as means of building social capital and creating other kinds of wealth. It’s based on the idea that profit, in and of itself, is not bad, but there’s a balance to be struck between greed and the fear of money. As it says on the website, “money is like fire, it can warm you, or it can burn you.”

For a long time I’ve been thinking about this idea of fair commerce, of an economy that is not based on scarcity but on the belief that there is enough to go around, and that my success is not contingent upon someone else’s failure, my “wealth” (in whatever form) is not dependent upon another’s poverty. To that end, I’m working on a new system of fair transaction built around several factors, including: The value of my services to another, the actual cost of living for my family, and the state of that person and their ability to pay. For instance, this might mean a scenario where I actually post online my budget and my projected living costs, in much the same way that a non-profit or a corporation would make their financial dealings public to shareholders, I would simply disclose what it actually costs me to live, and why. I would price my services fairly to start, but then would include some provision for those who could not afford them.

For instance, if my monthly budget were $3,000: I would state where that money is going, $300 a month for food, $600 a month for rent, and so on. And then would state that once my monthly expenses are covered, I really don’t need anything more. I would factor wisdom into the budgeting, so saving for the future, for my son’s education, for retirement would all be in there. Insurance costs would be included, including life insurance to cover my family if something should happen to me. I’m not talking about just giving my money away, but about acknowledging that while I have certain legitimate needs, to become obscenely wealthy is not one of them, but the care of the less fortunate around me is.

So, within that system, once my monthly expenses are covered, there would be a plan for the use of any income beyond that. For instance, you might say that for every dollar above my expenses (profit), twenty-five percent would go to charitable contributions, twenty-five percent would go toward subsidizing the cost of my services for musicians or artists who could use them but cannot afford them, twenty five percent would go toward a “rainy-day” fund for when the industry changes, or the business collapses or other “unknowns;” and the final twenty-five percent might be returned to my clients in some form of credit or rebate, in other words, the more people are supporting the business, the less it costs everyone. This is just a hypothetical, and of course it would require a lot of fleshing out to ensure that it’s fair and takes as many variables into account as possible. But the idea is there. An economy of generosity, of concern, of humanity.

I think this is a way to make a difference, to structure my life and my future so that I am leaving behind something more than I brought with me.

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