During my downtimes, when I am not interviewing artists about their music, I am learning about how listeners consume music. I think back to my experience at the Governors Ball Music Festival and recall observations of what people did in adjacent to enjoying concerts. Aside from the various bands and I artists I caught on video, The Strokes being one of my favorite sets; I noticed the scads of individuals, myself included, who used their smartphones to capture musical moments and publish them on social media. On this note, I am happy to show my footage of Fitz and the Tantrums and The Naked and Famous from a view within third and second row standing area in front of the stage.
According to Mel Johnson, a writer for Brooklyn Magazine, the Governors Ball founder, Jordan Wolowitz told a Reuters reporter that “fans are “digesting more music and their palates are more diverse than ever” and that Governor’s Ball is “indicative of how people digest music in the 21st century” (Johnson, 2014).
While Johnson agrees with Wolowitz’s statement, she also questions how today’s concert-goers are translating their individual music experience of a live show. She asks, “Perhaps the festival-goer relentlessly hops from stage, to stage, to stage, one after another – he gets the perfect Instagram shot, but was he really listening? Or, was he just devouring each experience, contemplating its previous place within his personal feed?” (Johnson, 2014). In an attempt to give insight to Johnson’s second question, I turn to Twitter for valid proof of what people most likely did with their smartphones and digital devices while they attended concerts.
I look back to see what people Tweeted under the search terms, “Governors Ball Music 2014” and “Governors Ball 2014.” Between June 6th and the 10th, many concert-goers posted pictures of their experiences at the festival, whether it was watching an artist perform, looking at the fashion other attendees sported or the additional activities. Further, some consumers who showed interested in capturing concerts and sharing them with their friends and social media followers, evidently acted more like valuable sources of information than mere social content hogs.
An independent writer and Librarian from North Carolina video recorded Bastille’s performance of their two songs, “Laura Palmer” and their cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” at the Governor’s Ball. Aside from attracting more than 2,400 views on Youtube; on September 17th, a young woman from Malaysia, whose favorite band happens to be Bastille, posted this Southern guy’s video of the British band in a Tweet. Meanwhile, a young American woman retweeted a video of Childish Gambino’s performance with Chance the Rapper, which was initially tweeted by RIAffiliated.com, and originally recorded by the blogger Pursuit of Dopeness. Then, the Editor-in-Chief of the new music reporting website Fresh New Tracks, posted self-made videos of Axwell & Ingrosso’s set.
Pursuit of Dopeness accurately captured an example of smartphone and app usage at work in real-time. So, who are the people in this clip using their smartphones to enhance their concert-going experience? Or, I should ask, who might they be? Returning to Twitter, and looking to Brandwatch for help, I examined who Tweeted content which included Governor’s Ball. I gathered some quantitative and qualitative research on user demographics. For example, Twitter users who are likely to search queries like “Governors Ball Music Festival,” “Bastille,” and “Janelle Monae” will either live in the U.S., UK, Canada or the Netherlands. They will have an interest in music (no surprise there), books, business and sports. Profession-wise, they are most likely to be artists, executives, students, or journalists (Trutescu 2014).
The mention of journalists comes as no surprise, especially since my own Twitter research shows that The Rolling Stone Magazine, The New York Times and Billboard received plenty of attention with their Tweets about performances. On June 9th, The Rolling Stone experienced 95 retweets and 157 favorites of their article “30 Best Things We Saw at Governors Ball 2014” which included highlights from sets by Outkast, Jack White, and the Strokes and 29 additional acts. This article was more a compilation of quality photographs with thoughtful and compelling captions. The New York Times, experienced an average of 59 retweets of 8 of their most popular Tweets during the Festival, and an average of 13 favorites between June 9th and June 16th. The majority of their content covered artists and fashion, and, unlike The Rolling Stone, included more written critiques while pics were second. Billboard experienced an average of 55 favorites among their 11 Tweets – from June 7th to June 10th – which included original video interviews with The 1975, Janelle Monae, Outkast, Bastille and more. However, the retweet rate for Billboards’ posts averaged only at 28.
What does this light social media research say about the average concert-goer? It says the festival attendee will always show an interest in quality music content whether it parallels their own music experience or effectively delivers a report about a concert they could not attend. These findings also provide additional insight. The favorites Billboard received from Tweeters regarding their video interviews with musicians suggests people are most likely to state their “like” of the medium that is the quickest and easiest. However, written content, will perhaps experience more retweets, and if the media source is one that is recognized for delivering quality reporting on music news, like The Rolling Stone, that will come out as the most accepted and liked among Twitter-users.
The shortcomings to the information I have gathered and analyzed above includes the difficulty in determining who publicized these Tweets in real-time at the Festival. I can only use the data I found to infer that those who were publicizing their experience at Governor’s Ball Music Festival in real-time fall in the demographics of those Twitter users mentioned above. Looking forward to my future research of the music consumer, I would like to analyze data on the smartphone/ and social apps activity among concert attendees in real-time. Most importantly, I would like to tell a story about today’s music listener and how they enhance their concert-going experience with social media.
Briefly returning to Johnson’s question, I would say the users who “devours each experience, contemplating its previous place within his personal feed” will most likely be a journalist, a writer, an editor, a blogger, somebody who aims to act as a source of information for a group of readers. To all the individual concert-attendees who do not affiliate with a news outlet, and have publicized their concert incessantly, I say keep up the good work! All my readers will know that an A&R representative from any label will rely on social media to examine the popularity of a talented artist or band, whether they attend a band’s performance or not (refer to “Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players,” 2014, para. 9-10). As for independent writers, bloggers and reporters producing valid referential resources, I encourage you all as well – continue capturing these moments, whether they be through pictures, written reviews, and videos, so that they become a part of our rich and exciting music history.
When I touched base with Stephanie Gunther, the vocalist and bassist from the Garage Rock Band, Desert Sharks, I felt excited to talk with a rock ‘n’ roll band that puts so much vulnerability into their songs. “Tequila Shark” was the track that attracted me to this Brooklyn-based all-women group, with a grimy bass line, and tinny sounding guitar which seems to echo, creating a space within the music for Stephanie’s beautiful alto voice. In the second verse, she sings the lyrics, I had a dream/ we had just met/ you showed me through your hallways/ and asked me would I stay. Fast forward to the chorus she sings It’s all mine/ your love’s in my mind, and then these lyrics repeats one more time.
When I asked her about the lyrics, Stephanie said, “I was exploring how we can go to such depths of dreaming up scenarios in our mind about someone we pine over. You can have all these fantasies of what it would be like to be together, how every detail would go down, where you would go, how you would interact, how much in love you would be.
“You can literally picture it and sometimes start to feel the emotions as if it were real, like you are having this secret mental affair with someone and they have no clue. I wrote, “Tequila Shark” about two dreams I had about two separate people, and that went along with those ideas.”
The most attractive aspect about the lyrics involved the vulnerability and honesty of the storyteller. In addition, there is very little mystery and interpretation of the meaning. Desert Sharks will remind rock enthusiasts that female bands continue to push past the gender stereotypes, and can do so with grace, and create opportunities for themselves independently in hopes to get recognized by a label. All of these are reasons for players in the music industry to pay attention to this group who were also in the Artists on the Verge class of 2014 at the New Music Seminar. It is my pleasure to feature Desert Sharks on Music Historian.
Stephanie says that when the band first started, people immediately doubted Desert Sharks.
“We’d get comments from people who first saw us on stage that they didn’t expect us to be any good, due to being female. Then, they’d say we blew them away. Now, it’s less about gender and more about our set, who we reminded them of and how they felt during our show. We’ve met some really awesome and supportive people at our shows. That’s one of the best parts about playing,” says Stephanie.
While some stereotypes are easy to disprove, including the one that says women can’t play instruments, women still have to work perhaps twice as hard as a man to make it in the business. Luckily, Desert Sharks don’t let challenges slow them down. Instead, they look to create opportunities to help them get closer to their ultimate goals – making a living with music.
“We’d love to work with someone on a full-length. The biggest task is getting heard. Our focus is on writing, playing shows, recording and touring,” explains Stephanie.
At the moment, Desert Sharks have an EP and vinyl they released in early 2013 which was recorded at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio, post-produced by Adam Reich, and pressed through Double Dare Ya Records, titled Sister Cousins. Just a few weeks ago, they released their 2014 EP on Manimal Records, Template Hair – an occasion that was marked with a show at Shea Stadium in late June. The promotion for their latest record will continue with a tour in August. Sister Cousins vinyl and Template Hair cassettes are available for purchase on Desert Sharks’ bandcamp.
In the short time they have been together (since 2011), Desert Sharks have played with bands they look up to, recorded and worked with a few labels, and toured. This four-piece group continuously set their sights on greater projects like working on a full-length with somebody in the future, touring out to the Midwest, where Stephanie is from, and getting signed. In order to reach these benchmarks, the group continues to dedicate their time to as Stephanie would say “making our music better and better.”
“We’re constantly writing new material and are anxious to get it recorded and out there for people to hear,” Stephanie adds.
Like I learned at the New Music Seminar in the panel The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? good music rises and makes its way to several listeners and to A&R representatives. I also learned that there is an opportunity for guitar-driven genres to make a comeback as well, which presents an opportunity for Desert Sharks. Songs like “Tequila Shark” can act like one of the Desert Sharks’ strong songs.
Aside from the fact that garage rock – according to Stephanie – can be “sexy, heavy, sweet or dancy,” “Tequila Shark” has an impressive compositional structure of A, B, A, B, C, as opposed to A, A,’ B or A, B. In my opinion, the more varied the sections within the song, the more interesting and exciting the track is to the listener. In addition, the lyrical content, which is straightforward and honest, lingers somewhere between vulnerable and impermeable. I asked Stephanie whether the realistic scenarios behind these lyrics focused on past romantic relationships, friendships, struggles or anything else.
“I’d say yes to all of those things,” begins Stephanie. “A lot of it is from my own life experiences, some of it, like our newest single “crazycrazy” is from someone else’s point of view put into my own words.
“When we start writing a song, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to write. I write at home a lot and put notes in my phone of phrases that pop into my head. Once we put together a song musically, I start to actually feel out the vibe. [I ask] ‘Does this song sound happy to me, does it sound sad?’ The hardest step for me usually is deciding the subject matter. Once I know what I want to write about, I can shape the words to fit the melody.”
While Stephanie loves Garage Rock, and agrees that this style influences Desert Sharks’ music, she admits that describing the group’s style of music is never easy.
“Garage and surf [rock] definitely influence our music, but I’d say we’re also heavily influenced by metal, punk, goth, pop, and more. Describing your style of music is the worst thing ever, especially when every band is a mishmash of influences. You end up [saying something] like, ‘Oh, we’re like The Ramones meets Dolly Parton meets Sabbath meets the Spice Girls.’ People get hung up on trying to label it and it gets hard to navigate. You want to say ‘just listen and see for yourself.’ Choose your own adventure and draw your own conclusions. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll in the end.”
An additional challenge to being in a rock band is making decisions with a group. The ladies within Desert Sharks “all share strong opinions,” says Stephanie.
“It usually takes a long time to come to a decision. Figuring out a [band] name was no easy task. We wrote “Tequila Shark,” and afterwards, some of us said ‘that’s a cool name, should we just call the band that?’ Desert had been a word on a list of words we dug, so we stuck desert and sharks together. It was the first name we came up with that we all didn’t hate.”
Since 2011, this band has built an excellent resume. The greatest strength they have developed as a group is their willingness to be flexible while they maintain strong attitudes. Their talent for writing a lot, and having a wide selection of songs is also beneficial for any A&R representative looking to sign a female Garage Rock group. From starting off with a Craigslist ad and arriving at Shea Stadium, Desert Sharks have made a healthy journey.
“We met through Craigslist,” recalled Stephanie. “The stars were aligned for that one. Rebecca [Rose, the drummer], Sunny [Veniero, the guitarist] and I met up initially with another girl and wrote a song together. We were sort of just jamming and playing around with ideas.
“The other girl had prior commitments to another band, so she left. We put out an ad, and Stefania [Rovera, the additional guitarist] answered. It was the missing puzzle piece. Once she joined we started writing a ton and felt like we wanted to start playing shows.”
There are plenty of rock ‘n’ roll listeners out there who want to hear this type of music and Desert Sharks might be at the right place in time to get recognized. People still line up to see independent Garage Rock bands in the United States. As for guitar-driven music, based on what I listened to at the New Music Seminar and what I saw at the Governors Ball Music Festival, there still exists an audience for The Strokes and Jack White.
Regarding my final question for Stephanie, I wanted to know what she thought of the motto “Rock is Dead.” She explained in two words “rock ‘n’ roll reincarnation.” Based on my interpretation, this means rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well, just in another form.
Female bands continue to make a comeback in rock ‘n’ roll, and like the Desert Sharks, they dedicate their time to writing songs, making records and performing in both small and large venues. These sharks are coming up to the surface with their hook-drenched tunes and ready to enter new territory – the wild music industry. The greatest strength of this group is their ability to carry listeners within the strong currents of their 2-3 minute tracks, a talent which – based on my listening experience – has been difficult to replicate on today’s music scene.
When I listened to the song by the Nashville-based band, The Blackfoot Gypsies called “Don’t know about you,” I immediately felt the timbre within the singer’s voice resembled that of Bob Dylan from the ‘60’s. In addition, I felt splashes of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Garage Rock, and Americana. As far as the rest of the song is concerned, I heard very little country. I initially found this curious because I thought Nashville was the capital of country music. Thankfully, the band told me this is not the case.
“I think it is more of a touristy thing that Nashville is only for country music,” explains the bass player in the band, Dylan Whitlow. “Where we live in Nashville, there are mostly rock ‘n’ roll bands.”
The group’s harmonica player, Ollie Dogg adds, “It used to be that way, but I always played the blues.” As I talked with this group at the dimmed Delancey lounge on the Lower East Side, I soon learned that only two members of the Blackfoot Gypsies are Nashville-natives.
The group began as a duo in 2010 with drummer Zack Murphy and Guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige. Zack had just moved back to Nashville after spending six years in Knoxville, and Matt had recently moved from his hometown around Portland, Oregon. Both young men were new to the music scene and somehow, they found each other and started playing. Then, in 2012, Dylan, who relocated from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania met with Matt after seeing the duo at a show. The final addition to the band is Ollie Dogg, who was introduced to the group by his cousin at a Marathon Party. Now, all members live together in the same house.
Research this band’s Facebook page, and you will see a charming photo of the band right outside of their beautiful home. Dig deeper onto the “about” section of their page and you will find something that if it doesn’t grab your attention, it certainly grabbed mine – Band Interest: “Spreading the terrifying joys of realism.” I asked Matt to talk to me a little more about this.
“Being a real band is almost a challenge,” he begins. “Being a real person and entertainer is very difficult. Touring as a real band and seeing how terrifying it really is, it makes people say “oh man these guys are real; [they’re] people playing music because they like it.””
Zack chimes in, “to make money without compromising ourselves or our art.”
“To be able to earn money, be silly and entertain, and somehow keep a leveled head about yourself,” concludes Matt.
Just a few minutes into my chat with this band, I have already learned that something besides country music is happening in Nashville, and the realism this group speaks of might actually go beyond the lyrical content within their songs. For the remainder of my conversation with this group, I wanted to learn more about the band that described themselves as “The amplifier for your heart and soul, your love and your hate, your on and off, your push and pull… there is no room for thinking… Only feeling (Blackfoot Gypsies, Facebook, 2014).” It’s my pleasure to welcome the Blackfoot Gypsies to Music Historian.
When the group says “there is no room for thinking… Only feeling,” within their music, they emphasize the need for listeners to lose themselves in a song – a human aspect that is left out of today’s modern music. Further, the feelings Zack and Matt wish to evoke through their music are visceral. Matt elaborates:
“They are the ones you can’t control, and the ones that you want to hate, but you can’t. We’re not necessarily trying to prove anybody wrong [about themselves] but mostly trying to tear down the walls of the preconceived notions people usually create about who they are and what they like.
“When they come to the show, [for example], I’ve watched guys try to be straight, square and cool in front of girls, and then they turn into these ape monkeys because something happened [inside of them]. It is in the music, it is in the energy, and sometimes, it gets so fast and perpetual that you lose yourself.
“We lose ourselves all the time, that’s our job and getting other people welcomed into that. This is the type of feeling we try to harvest in people. That is the human aspect so often left out of music nowadays. That’s real.”
I could tell this band wanted to convey something to the listener within the first song on their 2012 LP On the Loose, titled “Don’t Know About You.” In the opening verse, only the guitar accompanied the voice. The lyrics are – I wandered out last night/ looking out for your home/ knowing you like to roam/ without your telephone/ But you don’t know because/ I never said a thing. Then when the chorus came, later in the song, the one element that grabbed my attention was how the down beat in the drums, the harmonic rhythm in the guitar, and the voice came in synch, emphasizing the lyrics I don’t know about you, but I feel like makin’ love.
These compositional elements attract the listeners’ attention and make for a memorable melody. Then, there are other songs on the record that have sadder lyrical content, like “Stone Throwin’ Angels.” One of the verses in the song is You’ve got three kids in the yard/ and watch you come and warm your bed/ and a fugitive conscious that goes unsaid… I asked the band members about the meaning behind these lyrics.
“That one is mainly about a friend of mine who was once a musician and could have followed the dream, but then he had kids and a wife, and I watched it not happen,” explains Matt.
While this song is based on a true story, Matt claims that if it holds any relevance at all, the fun part is making up the rest, in a way, that applies to the songwriter.
“We are just doing real life, even if it’s just something stupid,” he continues. “We were just jamming on a song called “I’m on Fire.” It was really hot in our room one night, all of the amps were turned on, and I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to sing?’ “I’m on fire!” There it is, a song, and it’s real.”
I decided then and there that I would share a story about when I took a trip to West Virginia for the Appalachia Service Project. “I was 15 years old, and I went to Logan County as a volunteer with a church to fix homes for those in need,” I said to the Blackfoot Gypsies. “One day in July, I was doing roof work and I thought to myself, it was scorching up there.”
Then Zack asked me where I was from and somehow, I mentioned that I grew up in a Romanian-speaking household. I promise, I’m not babbling. This information will become helpful as the article continues.
At the moment, The Blackfoot Gypsies currently self-distribute their LP and it is available for download and 12” vinyl. Zack describes the process of being your own musician and entrepreneur as rewarding.
“It’s nice to have help in getting everything done, but when you all of the work yourself, you get all the rewards for yourself. Do you really want to pay someone else money that will not be used for you? Would you rather have that money yourself? You don’t have to pay anybody back. It feels good.”
This made me wonder – since the Blackfoot Gypsies are currently unsigned – whether the group is currently on the hunt for a record deal. According to Zack, the band is looking for the “Right record deal.” Matt adds, “It’s not really like we’re hunting, it is more like they’re hunting.”
“It’s so much like dating someone – ridiculous. It’s through a friend of a friend that saw you at a show… and now they’re bringing their friend’s lawyer to check you out. Then, there is a meeting and contract, and ‘Oh my God,’” he continues.
While this method of networking with labels proves to be more efficient, the group should be ready to ask a handful of questions. I asked the members whether they had been careful when speaking with lawyers. Zack reassures, “We usually consult our friend who is a lawyer. We ask him questions in order to decipher what we should ask [the label representatives].”
As the group keeps experts within the music legal field close, they simultaneously stay atop of their long-term goal for the future, which Zack claims is “being the next big thing.”
“Anyone who says they don’t want to be famous for what they are doing are probably lying,” he expresses. “So, why are you doing it? You want to be unsuccessful with it, do you want nobody to hear your music?”
I agreed with Zack. I then asked Matt to share his thoughts, and he expressed something similar, but with a little more hint of sass. (Remember that information I shared with the members regarding my ethnic heritage? It will be useful now.)
“One of the greatest bands that ever lived. We’ll be 90 years old and still doing it, God willing none of these guys gets hit by a bus, or overdoses or falls in love and runs to Romania. That could be bad!”
“It’s only bad if you don’t have a plan,” I politely and diplomatically replied. “But, if you know someone who can help you get established…”
“Romania is fine, I’ve got nothing against it,” said Matt jokingly.
Regarding the Blackfoot Gypsies’ immediate future, the group is currently focusing on a few projects. The first, a new LP titled Handle It, which they plan to release at the beginning of August. The second, a Gypsy Camp Tour set to start in July, which Zack claims will be amazing. Matt, Dylan and Zack say the band is coming to do a show in New York City on July 11th, at the Bowery Electric, as part of a two-week camping excursion, romping around the middle of America.
Basically, The Blackfoot Gypsies will perform at venues everybody recognizes. Instead of heading to a motel after the show though, the group will set up a tent somewhere. Given the lack of camping grounds in cities like this one and Chicago, the band already established they will sleep under a roof for these particular shows.
“It is part of the adventure,” explains Matt. “We are shooting for the gypsy concept but sometimes that does not always work out. We will sleep under a roof when we come to New York City or Chicago.
“We also encourage artists to come out and sell their jewelry, pictures and art. You can buy things, and you can trade. Why restrict it to just us? Have other people come out.”
The group sees the Gypsy Camp Tour as more of a recreational pursuit than an entrepreneurial endeavor. They did it for the first time last year, and it was “a blur of great memories.”
While the band definitely does find time for fun, they expect to get paid for the performances they put on. After all, performing is still work. The camping is their downtime. In addition, while performing and touring presents its benefits, including the constant changing of scenery, meeting new people, and keeping oneself busy; there are also challenges, even for musicians who don’t mind “roughing it.”
“All of the driving in all of the conditions possible, and making a dollar stretch longer than it should, the show we perform determines whether it is worth it or not. It happened to be worth it almost every time,” says Matt. “The challenge is, you can’t predict when you lose. Sometimes you lose, but when you win, you really win.”
I saw a performance by the Blackfoot Gypsies at Spike Hill in Brooklyn. The energy that filled the audience, the amazing and full-bodied harmonica playing by Ollie Dogg that drew in the attention of the whole crowd, and the well-rehearsed set from the rest of the band assured me this group is really searching for winning moments. These moments don’t only come from performances, they will also come from the right record deal that will benefit both The Blackfoot Gypsies and the label helping distribute and promote the band’s music to audiences in all corners of the U.S.
Lovers of Americana looking for the perfect music that will help them temporarily lose themselves and feel both the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once need to check out this band. They can download their album through their Bandcamp website, or go to a live show, which can have its perks. The Blackfoot Gypsies like to bring a close-knit line-up with them, enabling listeners to get a taste of other Nashville-based independent musicians who have a similar sound.
Meanwhile, label representatives should continue pursuing this group, especially since, as Nashville-based artist Kim Logan would say, “Americana has taken hold, and as vinyl makes a comeback,” more artists will be performing rock ‘n’ roll (as cited in “Plugging into Modern Southern Rock,” 2014, para. 33).
As I conclude this interview article, I want briefly to share the inspiration behind the band name.
“I had another band before this one,” said Matt, “and we all sat around trying to think of a name that was cool and close to home, like the Blackfoot Indian tribe. And gypsies are cool, I like them. They wander around nomadic style, you know, like Romanians.”
“Not all Romanians are gypsies,” I explained.
“Yes they are,” he responds.
Perhaps The Blackfoot Gypsies don’t play themselves up as a mysterious rock band, but who needs mystery all the time? Let the music take over every now and then, and help you release some of the feelings you have internalized for a while. Try it. You might actually find it enjoyable.
Behind the full-bodied and slightly sweet vocals of Southern Rock singer-songwriter, Kim Logan, is a fiery woman who know what she wants and what she is about. Lyrics like I’m a real good catch and I know it… from “Voodoo Man,” And I’ll give you three, but no more, turns across the floor/ But then it’s your turn, boy you better learn to be a gentleman, from the chorus within “Gentleman,” and finally, I ain’t someone’s other half/ I don’t like you baby, but I’m like you baby/ I think I love you but I don’t know if I should/ because there’s already one of me in the neighborhood from the song titled “Neighborhood,” which you won’t find on her first full-length record, but on the landing page of Kim’s website, will get the message across to any listener.
Although she recently turned 23, Kim has had a long road of musical development and plenty of real-life experiences which she transforms into great songs. In addition, she has an attitude about music today that matches the female empowered persona portrayed in her tracks.
“In the music industry today… It takes at least twice the work for a woman to accomplish half as much as a man. I really want to break that ceiling, and someone who has inspired me with lyrics, statements and actions has been Lady Gaga. What really disturbs me is Classic Rock and Southern Rock does not have somebody like that,” says the young musician. “I want to be the new millennium woman, the Lady Gaga of southern music, telling women and all creative spirits that it [the music industry] doesn’t have to be gender divided anymore.”
I agree with Kim on the subject of women in the industry. Daylle Deanna Schwartz, New York City’s first white female rapper will tell you that in the ‘80’s, women used their bodies to get ahead in the industry. Look back at the history of the American industry in your own personal time, and you will see women were only given two masks to wear – the emotional exhibitionist who was a sex object, or the unsentimental, bitter and passive-aggressive woman. Both of these facades are one-dimensional and superficial and sadly, female musicians are still expected to put on these faces today.
On a brighter note, there are female artists in country music that did not play either of these roles during the pinnacle of their careers, and led and continue to lead by a more positive example. One woman that comes to mind is Dolly Parton. I asked Kim about her thoughts on this, and while she agrees Ms. Parton continues to positively speak up for women’s and gay rights, her prominent years were the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The Southern Rock scene needs a fresh young face, and Kim hopes to be one of those new faces.
Yes, Kim is a very ambitious young woman. So I listen to her story of how she got into the industry, the positive experiences she had along the way, and what she wishes to make of them. In doing so, I begin to understand what fuels this passionate musician’s ambition, and why she chooses Southern and Classic Rock to tell her stories to the public. I am happy to welcome Kim to Music Historian.
Kim credits her mother and father for their support in her long road to becoming a singer songwriter.
“I always wanted to sing and my Mom worked in pubic relations and events for some really amazing people in the 90’s like singer songwriter Charlie Daniels, Southern Rock bands [like] Molly Hatchet and the Marshall Tucker band.
“I developed a special bond with Doug Gray, the guitarist from the Marshall Tucker band, and when I was about 9 years old, I was talking to him during one event weekend and he said I should go out on stage with Charlie Daniels at the end of the show and sing with him during a jam. Doug and Charlie jammed together after the show.
“I believe we sang “Amazing Grace” and Doug kicked my ass out on stage. Singing with Charlie and Doug is when I got the [rock ‘n’ roll] bug. I went to my Dad and told him I wanted to sing professionally, and I think my Mom had already realized that. My parents said “you’re going to do it right,” so they put me in classical and vocal training and the opera program in Sarasota, Florida for about a decade. This started when I was turning 9, and I did this all through high school.”
During this time, Kim also picked up the guitar. Her motivation was to accompany herself in her singing and songwriting.
“My parents got me a guitar and my father told me I wasn’t allowed to play electric guitar until I made my fingers bleed on my acoustic guitar, which he was right about,” says Kim. “I don’t know where I would be without a guitar in writing. I can’t do without it in the writing process, I want to have control over the writing process.”
Throughout high school, Kim also participated in additional musical activities such as playing in punk bands, party bands, blues and classic rock bands. Whether it was opera or songwriting, she was always singing.
Kim’s strong classical education helped her get into the Berklee College of Music in Boston for vocal performance. However, her desire to play honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll made it difficult for the young artist blend into the Boston music scene.
“I think, at the turn of the millennium, everybody just got so crazy with music technology and music school, and students at Berklee had all of this new equipment available to them, they were held up in their dorm rooms tracking themselves and playing shows for other students,” expresses Kim. “It was also that weird blog [phase] that happened at the same time… and for the first 10 years of the new millennium, I think everyone was a little too innovative and saturated with music technology to get out to a show and plug their amplifiers into a wall and play. I wanted to play, not sit in a classroom anymore.”
So, the artist moved to Nashville to perform, record and tour. “Nashville is very centralized,” she explains. “I have been able to hit the entire deep south, including Texas, and then come back up to New England, and Chicago. I very briefly studied at Belmont, but that was more of an afterthought because my schedule for years has not been conducive to a classroom environment.”
Thankfully, Berklee College reached out to Kim while she was pursuing her career and Nashville, and she is now completing her music degree online. She hopes to obtain her degree from Berklee soon. Although Kim has been in and out of school, she never stopped educating herself in the history of American genres. Through self-education, she learned to appreciate some of her songwriting heroes and favorite musical styles. She explains:
“It really comes down to the fact that I am obsessed with Music History. Before I was in college, I sought to learn the history of the genres in contemporary music myself. I would just dive into everything from the 1860’s civil war tunes to jazz and the blues.
“What really lit my fire was the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax, who went to the Appalachians and the deep southern terrains and did their field recordings. When I learned about that, and the Great Depression, and where everything after that comes from, it helped me understand the songs of Jack White and heroes of mine who, have also gone back and learned the same things. I felt like I was going back and strutting the same path, learning the same things in order to create my own contributions.
“My potpourri of different stylistic attempts comes from a deep love of other genres of music and re-creation of southern and grace, and different types of music. This lets me stretch my muscles in songwriting and vocal performance. That’s sort of my life’s work there.”
Pick up Kim’s self-titled debut and you will hear how she flexes her songwriting muscles. “Black Magic Boy,” a Southern Rock song with a grimy tin-like effect in the guitar will leave you feeling like you transcended into a barroom in a southern part of the U.S., perhaps New Orleans. Listen to “Devil Makes Three” and the pitch bending produced by the steel-peddle and the major melody within the tune makes one feel like they are driving through a small sunny town in the Midwest. Then, there is the blues-infused track “Gentleman” which includes soulful vocals that back-up Kim in the chorus.
Aside from her style of writing, Kim continues to display her love for music history in the Vinyl production of her debut record. I asked what attracted her to recording with analog equipment, as opposed to staying strictly with digital.
“It is a science that non-compressed music and sounds, which have not been diluted digitally, are much warmer, more open and richer,” explains Kim. “I recorded the album at a converted church, and I pressed the record at United.
“I am passionate about vinyl records, no matter who represents me or what management I am under. We want that instant gratification and that quick satisfaction of logging onto Spotify and hearing something from somebody’s iPhone or their party. When you are at a live show though, you are listening to real live music, and you want to take home a vinyl of that record so that you can listen to it and understand the artist’s brain, and why they felt it was necessary to create that thing.
“It’s plain and simple, but that is the best method of listening to what a musician has to convey and say.
“I do think analog and digital can go hand-in-hand, they both can be complementary.”
I remember reading articles in Brooklyn-based publications, like Brooklyn Magazine and I heard that the vinyl is making a comeback in some music communities. I thought back to when I had researched Kim Logan before I contacted her for an interview. Specifically, I recall feeling surprised when I learned about some of the other artists on the Artists on the Verge roster for the New Music Seminar, who also make Southern Rock music – The Blackfoot Gypsies, Jamestown Revival, and Carolina Story. I thought to myself ‘something is happening within the Southern and Classic Rock community somewhere in this country that is getting industry players here in New York City excited.’ In regards to Kim, I wanted to know what made her passionate about classic rock, and the other form of classical music that attracts her, opera.
“It really is the timelessness in a piece of artwork. Each movement, whether it was classical, romantic or experimental in opera, were associated with distinct feelings. It was both a genre and community.
“I feel that way about classic rock and I feel that way about the blues, classic country, and the new wave of classic country that is currently happening. You have a community of artists who are trying to achieve a certain standard while enjoying art as much as possible.”
As I got to know more about Kim, talking with her in the very crowded and active second floor lobby of the New Yorker Hotel, I wondered about her personal observations of the music communities throughout the U.S. What did she think about the scenes throughout the different places she has lived?
“The scenes are going to be completely different in almost every city in America. Everything springs from the ground up. There are very different kinds of people in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and Chicago.
“I think Nashville and Brooklyn have become my favorites. I spent a lot of time in the Boston and Brooklyn scenes trying to connect with some of the bands, who came from indie pop music. There were many blog-driven Pitchfork bands with whom I did not connect. I was happy to take my act to Nashville where I not only played with large bands, but also became a fan of the bands.
“As Americana has taken hold, and as retro recordings make a comeback, like vinyl, it feels good for musicians playing rock ‘n’ roll, country and soul.”
While this young artist works towards greater goals like being a positive role model in the Southern and Classic Rock genres; like every savvy business person, she is always setting little goals along the way. Kim self-produced her debut. At this time, she gets ready to make a second record with producer, Dave Cobb.
“I am excited to work with this guy because I think it will provide the perfect combination for what I want to hear on my record, and what I want everyone else to hear. I am returning to the studio in the late summer and I am aiming for a Fall release.
“I think I am going to tour on it, and start the whole cycle over again. I think I have beaten this last record almost to death, and it’s time to get some new material.”
At the moment, Kim is currently unsigned. If any producers or A&R agents in New York City plan to attend CMJ in October, I encourage you to check out one of Kim’s shows. If you are an industry player in Nashville, watch out. She is playing several shows throughout the summer.
Between her move to Nashville in 2010, and the release of her debut in 2013, and her appearance at the New Music Seminar, so much has changed for Kim, and the development of her career continues.
“I have put out records in March of 2013 after I had gone down to the SXSW Festival and I did not have merchandise nor any recordings, and I scrambled to release this record so that I could take it on the road. Then, I got an article in the Nashville-based Native Magazine, and it all kind of tail-balled in the last year and a half.
“I’ve been on the road, and I have been working my ass off, and the iron happens to be hot. Absolutely everything has changed, and I’ve checked a lot off my list since then. I’m really grateful, and I want to go to as many places as possible and bring the best records there. It will only get busier.”
Music history lit this young artist’s fire. Plugging-in to a performance space with other musicians and making something happen helps feed that passion. Whether listeners are attracted to her country songs, driving rock ‘n’ roll riffs, or blues-infused choruses, they are bound to hear the voice of a woman who delivers stories about her real life experiences through clever lyrics, thoughtfully written compositions, and warmly recorded sounds.
She might be a combination of a music nerd and a young woman who reveres the Southern and Classic Rock legends who were big in the 60’s through the 80’s, and in the early millennium. Regardless, Kim Logan has found her voice within this genre, and she flexes it freely. She comes to the city as much as possible to bring her sound to Southern and Classic Rock lovers here in New York City, Nashville and just about any city she can reach. Kim says, “I want to get people excited about it, and I want people to put money, time and energy into real music, with real instruments.”
If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.
The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.
The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.
The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.
While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.
The A&R Movement: Where music is headed
Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.
Trends in Music
Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.
On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.
A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not
One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.
If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.
In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.
On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.
Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs
Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.
If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.
What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.
So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.
The Take Away
The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.
Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.
Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions
This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.
I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”
Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.
Some of the Songs up for Critique
The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”
Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”
The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.
A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists
Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.
One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”
An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”
As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.
The Take Away
All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.
“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”
Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”
They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.
So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.
Online Media Music Discovery
Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.
Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player
As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.
Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention
The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.
On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.
Do Use Social Media to Create Attention
Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.
Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention
Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”
In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.
Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them
Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.
Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.
Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big
Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.
The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.
Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.
Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”
He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.
“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”
New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.
John Elliott’s songs appeared on the television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “One-Tree Hill.” He even co-wrote a song within one episode of “Californication.” Yet, for most of his career, John remained an independent artist.
“It’s a serious balancing act,” explained the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter. When I asked him about the benefits and challenges of staying independent in the music industry, John honestly and humbly answered, “Sometimes the benefits outweigh the challenges and sometimes it’s the other way around. I’ve mainly stayed independent because… I just haven’t met the right people yet. Actually, I might have just met the right people the other day. We’ll see how that goes.”
He adds, “I do have someone working with me who started as a fan, and now because she believes in what I make and I [in turn] believe in her, she has become a valuable member of the team. I think that’s a rare relationship to find. I would love to continue to build a team, but it has to be with the right people.”
Since high school, during his first attempt to write music on a blank tape from 1993, John knew he wanted to pursue music as a career. So far, he has entirely self-produced all his records, including his latest Good Goodbyes– the first record on which he played every instrument, and the one that perhaps presented the most challenges. Now, as he continues the journey he started long ago, John Elliott reflects on the radical experience of relying solely on himself to bring his music to fruition. It is my pleasure to welcome John as the featured artist for the month of March on Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.
In the title track of his record, which is composed in a major key, John sings the following lyric, “I can’t let a good thing go even when it starts to bleed,” followed by, “Even when I know it’s dying and it’s time to set if free/ I’m afraid I won’t be treasured/the way she treasures me.” John wrote this song in 10 minutes one morning, without even writing the lyrics down.
He says, “I don’t question songs that come [to me] like that. They are just pure and right. If I look at it now and try to analyze it, I would say it’s [the song] about moving on from something without knowing what’s next, which is a scary thing to do. People always say “let it go, let it go” as if that’s something safe or easy. I think it’s a little disingenuous to claim you can just lightly skip into the future, unencumbered by the past, never to return or look back or wonder.”
“Of course,” he continues, “the album is called Good Goodbyes, so I understand that moving on and elsewhere can be, and often is, a good thing. The rest of album definitely lives under the umbrella of that song.”
As a critic, I find it comforting when the title track of the artist’s album is born with little effort and yet holds so much meaning that analyzing the lyrics might take 10 days.
John confirms, “It’s not about how “easy” it is to write something, it’s about how right if feels. I know when I write well, with honesty, passion and heart. When I try too hard, it’s no good.”
Other songs on his album like “Yin and Yang Collector,” “Monogamous” and “Friends Back East” seem to tell a definite story. I wondered whether these songs had a story and whether John spent more time trying to write them compared to “All These Good Goodbyes.”
“Generally, it’s doesn’t go well if I start by trying to write something with a message. That’s tricky. It’s better if the story, images, or lines are strung together by emotional truth of some sort. If you get that right, a message “might” emerge. The best writing is a little mysterious, but somehow makes perfect sense to your soul. You have to get your head out of the way and let your heart hear it,” explains John.
John describes the lyrics on his album more as poetry than storytelling. He also recalls a moment when he performed another one of his songs from Good Goodbyes, “Still I’m Not Still” for a producer. “That’s not a song,” remarked the producer, “that’s a meditation.” While John admits the producer might have meant to say this as a negative remark, John received it openly and happily. He claims “I loved it.”
Like most artists who perfect their craft (and the art of letting a song take its form without exercising too much control is one of the ways to be perfect), John has written, and rewritten a myriad of songs that did not make his latest record. By the time a song does make it on his album, he has “obsessed over every line” both lyrical and musical.
Listeners, of course, are another important part to any musical experience, and John’s music is no exception. “Every listener brings his or her own unique perspective to the experience, and might hear something radically different than what you intended,” adds the artist.
In the case of Good Goodbyes, I couldn’t help but feel that John really went out on a limb and made himself very vulnerable, especially since he was the sole creative and functional driver of this record. On his past albums, John included a number of different players in the process. He claims the making of his latest record “happened during a very solo time in my life and as the process of creating it continued, I realized it was important to me that I remained true to that.
“It’s quite unnerving to rely solely on your own intuition with creative choices that have no objective basis. It’s also, eventually, quite satisfying.”
Good Goodbyes also taught John how much he relies on other people for approval about his music. Although he enjoyed the experience of producing and only answering to himself, he still needed a second set of ears. After putting the record through seven revisions, John invited mastering engineer JJ Golden to help frame the final product.
“I tried to bring all the disparate pieces and sounds together into something cohesive,” he explains. “It’s a collage, and it has some sonic flaws, but hopefully that gives it character.”
Watching John during one of his live shows on his nation-wide tour back in November, I listened to and watched an artist whose music brought a character out of him, one who believes in himself so much and manages to attract an audience that believes in his sound and performance.
I walked in to Cantina Royal, a restaurant in Williamsburg just in the nick of time to see John Elliott. Secured with a Brooklyn Lager, I traveled down a red-light lit hallway to a performance space behind a gritty grey door.
In this performance space, there was no stage but a clear floor. There was plenty of room for audiences to take seats in rows of mobile chairs and mini tables. Pink and blue lights covered the space designated for acts. In the far left corner of the room, I noticed the uncanny detail of a rope that extended from the high ceiling and coiled out on the floor.
Most chairs were filled, and the only available seat was at a table occupied by a couple. As I sat down and prepped myself for a night of intense observation and musical analysis, I occasionally peeked at the flirtatious exchanges between the man and the woman next to me. Underneath the table, the guy caressed his girlfriend’s bare knee as she sketched a picture on some scrap paper. Both shared a package of very low caloric snack of seaweed sheets. Perhaps they decided this food paired well with beer? I was not sure whether this combination was romantic or strange.
Returning to John’s performance set, I knew I was in for a performance I would never forget. And I was right.
During his song “Monogamous,” which is primarily built on ambiance created by electrical and synthesized instruments playing held out notes, there is a long period in which John does not sing. On the record, the artist can get away with this, in a performance it is a different story. John knew he had to fill up that silence with something, so he started to swing on a rope in the far left corner of the room; a move several audience members found amusing.
For his next song “Yin and Yang Collector,” John had a costume change. He dressed as a king, one that somebody might find in a frat house in New Orleans as opposed to one in a dramatic film about Henry VIII. During this song, he picked up his guitar and started playing like a true singer songwriter. But, I soon learned the surprises were not yet over.
John did not finish “Yin and Yang Collector.” Instead, he looped into another song, a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then transitioned back to “Yin and Yang Collector.” An artist successfully and easily accomplishes this only when the tonic of another song is the dominant or the predominant of the song they initially sing. This makes for easy modulation, and often, one will not find artists doing this during a performance but rather in their private time practicing.
As I looked back to the couple, I noticed the woman started sketching a new picture, one of a masked face that imitated the appearance of John’s costume. It made sense then and there that something about John’s performance successfully captivated the imagination of one and perhaps multiple members in the public.
When I asked John what audience members said about his music during his tour, he remarked that most of what he heard has been “positive!” That or complete silence,” he adds. “A few people said it’s their new favorite. One person told me how much they liked this album more than the last.
“I just finished a show in Bellingham, Washington. Someone told me [I put on] the most entertaining show they’ve ever seen, so that was nice. But really, I have to remind myself to make what feels right to me and then let it go.”
John recalls a few moments from his tour in which listeners did not enjoy his set. During his show at Cantina, he humorously told the audience about the reception of one of his songs.
“This song went well in Austin, but horribly in Oregon because it was a song about people in Austin. Then it went well in Pennsylvania.”
Humor is just part of John’s nature, it is no way a coping method of dealing with the downsides of being a musician. Sharing your creation with the world comes with the territory, and that is why so many individuals who probably have songwriting talent will not pursue anything with music. Luckily, John understands this territory well, having traveled it before. He claims:
“The album is out there now. I hope people listen to it and like it. I’m very proud of it… And I’m thinking about what to make next.”
Currently, John is in between touring for Good Goodbyes. His agent is currently booking shows in the Midwest for 2014. In the meantime, he tackles the toughest component of any business plan, the marketing of his product.
“Promotion is the greatest challenge of releasing an album independently. Truth is, I had some good plans in place, and then I went on tour and lost track of things. I want more people to hear it… I funded this album myself with savings from tours and other music income.”
When I asked him about the most important lesson he learned about being an artist and a businessman, he openly claimed, “The most important lesson I’ve learned as an artist is that everything happens in waves and you must learn to ride them. The most important lesson I learned as a businessman is that I’m learning as I go, and sometimes I luck into great decisions. In general… I need help on that side.”
John’s story of making and promoting Good Goodbyes is honest. It reminds listeners that like heroes in our favorite novels and films; if a musician does not go through any struggle, whether it is letting go of an old relationship, a bad habit or faulty belief, or a challenge of understanding business or making music, there is no reason for that listener to care about the artist. As for John’s music on Good Goodbyes, which is now available on iTunes, his website http://thehereafterishere.com/recordings, on Spotify, and, of course, at his live shows, the album will draw listeners into his world of expression, one that reaches the soul on an esoteric yet comforting level. Perhaps it is no surprise why his songs appeared in the hit television shows among audiences that fall within the 25 – 40 year age range. John presents us with something worth listening to, but we have to get out head out of the way and let our hearts hear it first.