By Don Campau
Recently, I had a face book debate about giving my music away for free or trade. This happened on a guys page who happens to be a performing musician, a guitar teacher and runs a web site that is fighting illegal downloads and piracy. He’s a good guy and a fine musician. Plus, he’s probably 30 years younger than me. He works hard, practices hard and puts his heart into his music.
Well, after I mentioned that I give or trade all of my music away ( people can buy it if they insist as well) all hell broke loose. He and his friends started really going off and one of them even started attacking me for daring to have my own opinions about my own music. I mean, I wasn’t asking them to give away their music but comments like “so I guess you think your music is worthless” started getting flung around. I calmly stated that I was not interested in the music business and explained why. The ugliness of the commercial industry, the fact that I’ve never met an indie musician that really had “success” in the way I define it. And here’s how I define it. Remember, this is my definition only:
Being able to pay the bills, buy a house, support my family, have health insurance and put something away for retirement and the future.
I have known plenty of musicians that actually did OK in their local areas and even some that have had international followings but NONE that meet my criteria of “success”. I have played several thousand artists on my “No Pigeonholes” shows and as far as I know, none of them have been able to achieve anything even close to this.
Still, I wished them good luck and I meant it. Perhaps they are young idealists and good for them. Maybe I am an old jaded man and in fact they all said I was being negative. OK, maybe that’s one interpretation. To me though, it is just being realistic. I gave up the idea of a career in music about 35 years ago. Long before the internet, longer even then these guys have been alive. However, they are welcome to their opinions and their experiences are valid. They kept complaining about being hurt by downloaders. Ok, how many people have downloaded their material illegally? Would it be enough to pay the rent, make ends meet, even buy lunch? I realize every dollar counts to anybody just making it these days. I am not questioning their experience but I do question their anger placement.
They kept using terms mouthed directly from the commercial industry itself like: “target demographic”. I pointed out the folly of the commercial music industry: mafia/ corporate control, using people as products, the degradation of women, the “ageist” bias, etc. Did they really want to be part of this side of the industry? Or did they want to be independent rockers, which is what I assumed. I really don’t know but I suggested another way, a new model of business, one where community is more important than lame ass jewel case CD profits. In fact, I’d say the idea of an independent musician making money, real money, on a regular CD is long over. In fact, it may never have existed to begin with.
I stated that a new model will offer something to people, to fans, that is special and cannot be downloaded. Things like hand signed CDs, private mp3s, special art work, handmade copies. These are things that cannot be downloaded ( well, maybe the private mp3s can be). I mentioned that Nine Inch Nails and Tool seem to “get it” by offering fans something unique. My own experience with NIN is getting the free downloads and then buying the actual release and buying the tickets to see them live. For me, it worked. Tool offers incredible art work with their commercial releases. Sure, some people are going to rip you off. Are they “real” fans? I doubt it. That’s where the community angle comes into play I said. Real friends are going to support and watch out for you much as my neighbors and us look out for each other when we are gone. There is the well known example of Radiohead having people pay what they like. Evidently, they did very well with this approach. Of course, these are groups that have huge followings and a large fan base. Still, the idea is to create a loyal fan base. That means a lot of hard work, and usually tireless and endless touring. And even after that, it is more luck than anything else is seems to me.
One of their arguments is that they went to music school, took out big loans and felt they deserved a living in their chosen career. That logic sort of shocked me really. I mean … you seriously think this ? I said there are too many bands, in other words too much supply for the supply and demand system. They countered with their experience that downloaders could be talked into valuing the music and creating more demand. Ok, point taken, but is that a game changer? Will that turn people who could care less into fans and then will they be willing to shell out hard earned money on a product and artist they know very little about? Hmm…I doubt it. No one owes you a living. It’s like having too many carpenters in this economy where very few houses are being built.
In the end, the main guy said that a “hobbyist” like me should not be able to comment in a blog about “professional“ musicians. To me, that’s not some big slap though. I like being a hobbyist. And are they really “professionals”?, not by my definition, no. By my definition, they are “amateurs”. And I don’t mean this in a vituperative or demeaning way. I really do wish them well with their careers.
Many of my brethren in home recording and Cassette Culture take offense to the term “hobbyist” because when we get done with our actual day jobs our minds turn to creating music for the fun and art of it. Then we make our Cds by hand, trade them with other like minded individuals worldwide, perhaps play music live and sell a few Cds, or , gasp… give them away. In other words, spend most of our waking hours away from work being “hobbyists”. I personally do three radio shows where I listen to indie bands, play their music, make the playlists, contact each musician personally to let them know I received their CD and played it on the air, post a podcast, and become a cheerleader for their music. And I have done this everyday since 1985. I have never made one cent for my efforts. In fact, it costs me money to do it. I do it because I love contact, community and the music many of these artists create. Does someone owe me a living? Definitely not. It’s been my choice all the way.
Once again, I am not suggesting that other people follow this path but for heavens sake, let me.