From Projekt Record & Black Tape For A Blue Girl's Sam Rosenthal.
On Friday afternoon, I hung out with the people behind the electronic label Spotted Peccary Music. They release great CDs plus they're the company that serves up Projekt's 24/96k high res files.
We were sitting at picnic tables in the open-air back-porchy-like room of a typical Portland-styled drinking establishment. Wood-planked walls, beer signs over the steps to the bar, a food-cart belching scented smoke as it turned out Philly-styled Italian food. I'm painting a picture for you, a little setting of reality before this blog heads off and becomes cerebral. We're sitting there, drinking our what-have-yous, having a really great brainstorming session concerning many tangents in the music industry, including physical vs. digital, will people pay for music, and the new landscape for survival.
Howard looks up and asks a question, I begin to answer, but then go off topic and start talking about how fans interact with bands. In "the old days" (the mid '90s), Projekt could release an album from a band with no image (and a lot of mystery), mention it a few places, buy a few ads, send postcards and catalogs, and wham! We'd sell 2-3000 copies. People were itchin' to hear new music, and Projekt was a reputable source for interesting new acts.
But that's not how you get involved with music, these days, is it? Let's face it, "fans" can access most music for free, if they really want to. The old model of a label releasing a faceless band, you heading to a record store to buy their CD, and then hearing their music for the first time when you get the CD home... that's sort of over. What I find through my blogs, Facebook, and Kickstarter campaigns is that you want a connection to the artists you're excited about. Few bands can survive, reclusively hiding in their bedroom-studio-caves. Yes, maybe a few legacy bands can get by on that, but certainly not younger bands; and certainly not older bands who never successively made the transition to the promotion-connection of social media in the modern age.
I see this problem, over and over. I speak with artists who haven't had an album in ten or fifteen years, and they pull out absurd examples for why things should be a certain way; "Back in 1994, when we toured...." or "When the old label was placing the ad campaign for my last album in 2006." Man, that's a million years ago. The record industry doesn't work like that anymore!
Well, I could shorten that sentence down to, "The record industry doesn't work."
This is the point where my brain shoots off onto a hundred different tangents. Try to follow me here.....
What motivates us artists to keep going?
For Xmas 2009, I posted a blog concerning the topic of Success. In it, a number of Projekt (and related artists) talked about what success means to them. Hold on a minute, I am going to go back and re-read it now, with five years of perspective.
Yep. I still agree with what I wrote back then: "...in the end, what I really enjoy is successfully making the artistic statement I want to make. When each album is fresh and new, it is the most accurate statement of where I am, creatively. At that moment, I am complete."
But, I would clarify that.
To me, success is having my artistic statement received by the listeners. I like when that communication is completed.
And yet, that's not what my brain thinks about. I need to do some self-reflection, to understand why I still have a money-centric definition of success.
Units and Dollars
Here’s the thing, Black Tape For A Blue Girl and Projekt was huge when the music industry measured success in units sold and dollars earned. Back in the 90s, bands like Blacktape could sell a lot of records. As mentioned last blog, at the peak Blacktape's 1996 Remnants of a deeper purity sold around 16,000 copies.
( That was then. I don't live in the past. I only expect a fraction of that, for the next album. )
And yet, I find that I cling to that old belief: units and dollars indicate success. I am using an outdated measuring stick.
I know there are fans of my creations; people who really connect to what I am working on (and what I have created in the past). And yet, I am still thinking that the way to measure that success is the same as it was in the mid-90s: by looking at a spreadsheet containing units and dollars.
I’ve been asking myself, "What is success to me?" or "Why did I want to make art in the first place?" The answer, as I said above, is: I want to communicate. For me, successful communication is the goal of making art. What matters is that people receive my work. They experience it. And that is not at all related to profit. In fact, I probably have more 'success' (by my own definition) now, then 20 years ago. Why do I say that? Because anyone can hear my work, without the barrier of having to pay for it.
So, why doesn’t that feel good to me?
Well, part is because I cling to the old paradigm about sales.
And the other part is I have this underlying belief in "fairness." If I spend the hours doing the work of being an artist, I should get paid!
A friend wrote -- when I asked him why this "getting paid" matters so much to me -- "Perhaps it's a matter of ethics, not so much the actual number but the idea of getting paid. After all, you try and pay people what you say you will pay them, on time and quite accurately; then I think you expect the same of others."
I don't want my favorite artists to be amateurs.
I really want to live in a world where artists can focus on their art. Would I want John Cale to have to work as a viola instructor, so he can take off two weeks a year to play some shows? David Bowie, maybe he's a graphic designer? Marc Almond, he's probably a drag queen, or turning high-end tricks with members of the Houses of Parliament
. Voltaire is a bartender, the one that you visit every week because he's so damn entertaining. Think about it! It's a very weird world where the-average-joe expects to be paid for their labor, and yet people are generally OK with the artists they love working some other job so music can be their hobby.
That's not really the way I want the world to be.
My first job was archaeologist...
My first job was computer graphics
You all know that Projekt is my day job. But that wasn't always the situation. In the late 80s/early 90s, I created speaker-support-graphics for a living. I worked long freelance hours, creating dumb graphics that were projected at conventions for the corporate executives from the likes of Taco Bell, Denny's, Acura, Mazda, etc. etc. (This was pre-PowerPoint, but the same general idea.) It paid really (really!) well and allowed me to fund the early CDs on Projekt.
Around the time Projekt was having success with Blacktape's This lush garden within and the first Love Spirals Downwards release, I realized I was sacrificing the label's potential. I wasn't at my desk answering faxes from journalists and my overseas distributors; I was somewhere around the country doing freelance work. This was in the days before the internet; it wasn't easy to keep in touch remotely. I'd return home and have a month off between jobs; and then I worked on music and the label. But too often, I'd leave Projekt unmanaged for two to four weeks, and that was getting to be a problem. I made the decision to stop working the freelance jobs, and focus on Projekt.
Things really took off, there was a lot of interest, and slowly Projekt ate all my time; my own art suffered. By the end of the 90s (because of all the obligations to the bands on Projekt plus the 11 employees), I rarely made time to work on my music. Then into the early 2000s, and the downsizing (mentioned last blog), and I had plenty of work to do (and I had a son!).
My best friend often reminds me that I cannot pass off responsibility for the decisions I made. And he's right. I chose to put my energy into Projekt, rather than my art. It seemed like a wise move at the time: Projekt was getting very successful.
At any other record label, the biggest artist (Blacktape) would have been begged, cajoled, and bribed to get back into the studio. The label needed its biggest act to keep releasing music (if for nothing else, for purely profit reasons). But I was the guy at the label and in the band, there was nobody at Projekt pushing me, to get me on track. If I had a manager, he would have asked, "Do you really think it's smart to keep putting all your energy into dayjobia, rather than into your music?" That was the thing: Projekt was a new day job and just like computer graphics, this job took lots of time away from my art.
It seemed like a wise decision at the time. However, what ended up happening was that I supported 30+ band's careers, while letting down the most important thing: my own creativity.
I let my art go cold for years at a time.
If I had been focusing on my own work for the last 20 years, would I be surviving at it? Would I be like Steve Roach or Voltaire? Spending a huge chunk of my time making art?
(I hope this doesn't come across as regret. That is not the intention, per se. This is me reflecting with awareness of choices I have made in my life, and contemplating whether I've gotten to the place I intended to go.)
It brings up the question, "Could I survive off my art?" I told myself many times over the years, "I don't mind that Projekt is taking up so much of my time. If I had to support myself from my music, I'd have to make compromises to get by." Yeah, sure, a guy in his early 30s can say that. But I'm older now, and I see Steve and Voltaire creating without compromise. And I ask my younger self if that argument was just an excuse, to avoid the hard work. To avoid having to lay it all on the line, and be an artist. If 'an artist' is what I am here to be, then was I chickening out? Hiding behind a reasonably justifiable excuse for not making more art.
Ben Franklin looks around the bar
Ok, so back to my meeting on Friday with Spotted Peccary. The smell of Italian sausages fill the air again, Howard looks up and poses another question. "What's the future for record labels like ours?"
And I reply, "I'm sorry to say it, but there is no future. Projekt will not be able to continue as the label that discovers amazing new acts and releases them on CD. Because these CDs just don't sell anymore. I cannot keep investing in CDs, when the demand is for less than 250 copies."
Some will misinterpret that statement, so to be clear: Projekt is sticking around! I will keep releasing exciting music on my label. But the logic of releasing acts that barely sell? There is no logic in that at all.
I have to be realistic.
For me, personally, I want to make a transition back to being an artist who runs a record label, rather than a record label guy who has a (mostly) dormant artistic career.
I have thoughts on how to do that (which I will discuss in an upcoming blog).
The intrinsic value of music
For now, I have to be aware of my old connection to dollars and units. I have to recognize that my goals as an artist are not tied up in those numbers. Yes, I definitely believe there are ways to make a living creating music. But even more than that, I believe I can foster a better connection with each of you. Many of you are fans of what I create. And you still value music. It's the core of what matters to you. It's your soundtrack. It's what gets you through your days, both good and bad. And I am told over and over (via email, Facebook, and Kickstarter) that music is worth a lot to you.
You are the completion of the circle that gives what I do meaning.
Music has an intrinsic value to you. It is important in your life. The same way NPR is important, and modern dance companies, and historic art house theaters. You don't want to see music disappear, or become the realm of amateurs.
We're thinking the same thing. Music has value, and it's something that's worth supporting.
I'll post some great new ideas about this shortly.