We have met the enemy, and he is us ... or ... Art and commerce, especially in the ‘new’ music industry

First of all … Happy New Year. I have a few New Year-like resolutions regarding my relationship with the music industry that I want to share.

UNPREDICTABLE, which was just released in Augof 2010, is my third CD. I recorded it after being in the biz for more then 25 years. So I’ve seen a lot, and have some perspective to share. 

I’m very happy with my latest CD. I loved making it. I worked with all of my favorite musicians. I like the final product a lot, and I’m thrilled to share it. I even have the total luxury of being able to share it with no expectations. I have a great job and don’t need this CD to sell a lot so that I can pay the mortgage. This is new and different from the days when I was a touring songwriter. Back then I was trying to “make it.” I was ambitious and wanted nothing less than ‘rock stardom,’ or at least ‘singer songwriter stardom.’ And frankly, I had a tendency to get put out when I thought this wasn’t working, especially when I saw others ‘making it’ when I was not.
I now work as a producer for a wonderful studio in Boulder CO. I love this work. And I thought that becoming more of a producer and being not quite so much in the spotlight would break this trend of feeling anxious about “making it.” But I fear now that it was only temporarily hidden. It’s been wonderful to be behind the scenes, helping other artists express themselves and get their music out there. But as soon as I put out another CD of my own, those old feelings began to percolate again, the familiar “why not me” feelings bubbling to the surface.
Also, recently a client of mine called me in tears. She’d just released her third CD and was very upset that it wasn’t doing as well as she thought it might. She was distraught, full of self-judgment, convinced of her own worthlessness, and a bit angry that the industry hadn’t noticed her talent. I knew some of those feelings and could understand and thought I could help … especially so, having just visited some of them myself.
The music industry has changed. It’s less exclusive and more spread out. It’s easier for more of us to get music out to the masses with no help from industry gatekeepers. And yet, some of those old resentments still surface from time to time. Why?
I think it is because it has never been “the industry’s” fault that these feelings exist. It’s our own.
I discovered this in myself recently, and I think it could be true for many of us. Here I am, a very happy guy, with a good job, living fairly well, making the ends meet. I have some songs and I have a way to record them well, so I do. As I’m making this project, people keep asking, “What are you gonna DO with it?”  And my answer is always, “Nothing. Making music is what I need to be doing. After that, the CD
will do whatever it does and that’s not my concern.”  Many are astonished at this and tell me so.

"You should get this music out there," they say, "you should push it, get it heard, market it." And the more I hear this, the more I think, "Yeah … I should!" And the more I think that, the more I think, “Maybe it has a chance to really DO something!” And the more I think that, the more I think, “this stuff is good enough that it really SHOULD do something!” At that point the shit starts to hit the fan. As time goes on, and as I spend money trying to force the issue, I begin to wonder why it is NOT doing something as fast as I think it should. I begin to judge not only my self and my own music, but everyone else’s as well. I begin to compare myself to everything out there. And I begin to simmer about it. And not so slowly, but very surely … my happiness is gone. Nothing has changed, but I’m no longer living in my present moment, happy to be making music, happy to be creative, happy to be making a living. I’m assuming that since I have not been noticed, I must not be very good. I’m sitting on the “I suck” button, bitter about myself, bitter about the industry and bitter about music.
Yuck!
Okay, we’ve all run into less than savory industry people who, for whatever reason, are happy to hold power over us. The agency woman who won’t give us a chance. The club booker who is nasty to us. The sound guy who doesn’t really care much and is in a rush to get to the next artist. But, to be charitable, most of these are just people who are trying to make a living too. They may even be people who have tried what we are trying, and have not succeeded, but rather ended up here! And honestly, aren’t there boneheads everywhere, not just in this industry?


So here’s a thought. Since the music industry is changing, and since it seems as if the old models are no longer working and new ones have not quickened into solid form yet, perhaps this is a good time to make the industry what we want it to be, what it could be. I don’t pretend to know what this is, but maybe the first step is just to love music, to make the music we want or help it to be made and be happy with it NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS.
Music, songs, and really all art, is a conversation. It is an expression by the artist that is heard (or seen) by people who interpret and feel it in their own way and are free to love it or hate it, feel it deeply or just on the surface, agree with it or disagree with it, share it with others or toss it in the garbage. But if the artist was to try and force people to think one way about it, it would be a
completely different experience - just as when a forceful personality tries to MAKE you agree with or believe something that they want you to agree with or believe. That is no longer a conversation, it’s a sales pitch. When the artist puts pressure on us to love his art, to share it with others, to buy it, to think it is better than something else, then art is no longer art … it’s a commercial product. One of my favorite quotes about art and commerce is from Quincy Jones, who said “As soon as money enters the conversation, God leaves the room.”
SO … I’m going to declare myself here. Having just ridden that particular merry-go-round, hopefully for the last time, I’m gonna try and have a different attitude about it. I think it is the job of the artist to make art and to be completely in that experience. So I’m just gonna continue to make art. I will make it available to everyone I can. But I will leave commerce to others. I will continue to love what I do, and I will continue to be happy. I will support others to do the same.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, if you have been completely non-judgmental and happy in your art or enjoyment of the art of others … good! But if you’ve had some of these feelings, then I hope this is of some value. And I invite you to explore it a little.
Rock on.


-January 6, 2011-

Unpredictable

This is my first blog … ever! I hope it will be the first of many, but you never know. A long time ago I said about my first CD, “I hope this will be the first of many!”  I ended up putting out one every ten years. I hope blogging will be different … But we’ll see.

 

Also as with Facebook and digital recording, cigarettes and folk music, I once said about these, “I will NEVER do that!”  I proceeded to get into each in varying degrees of addiction. And though I don’t know how this will go, I often have a lot to say. I also usually have too little time to say it. Again, we’ll see.

 

I’ve just finished a new CD. It took me two years, which I never anticipated, and a high degree of sticktoitiveness, which I DID anticiapte. Being as busy as I am, and knowing my tendency toward procrastination, I decided in the first few days of ‘08 to go ahead and do this, figuring that if I didn’t just start, it might be ANOTHER ten years before I got around to it. So I booked time at the studio where I work for the first weekend in May. Then, thusly boxed in, I started writing! I already had a few songs, and a few more ideas. But, again being the procrastinator I am, I went right up until a few days before that first recording session trying like crazy to finish the last few songs. And still, it wasn’t until early this year, while putting final touches on the mixes of the other 9 songs that I finally wrote and began recording the tenth! This last was a dream I’d wanted to fulfill from way back: an a cappella song. I did finish it, and it is on the CD. But only just by the skin of my mic cables.

 

This CD is the truest artistic thing I’ve ever done. I am in the luxurious position of not having a record company, not really wanting to be a rock star - much preferring the ‘behind the scenes’ work of studio production, which I’ve been doing solidly for more than ten years - having no deadline of any kind, AND having no real expectations, either imposed on me from outside, or within myself about what had to be accomplished with this CD … other than a complete and true expression.

 

In the latter, I’m happy to report, I am completely and very satisfyingly successful. I have made a thing I am proud of and want people to hear.

 

The basic tracks were recorded at Coupe Studios that first weekend of May, ’08. We recorded “live” in studio A, with Christian Teele on Drums, Chris Engleman on Bass, Taylor Mesple on Keys, and me playing scratch tracks that would be replaced later, but there for the feel of it. We had a LOT of fun, laughed a lot, experimented as much as we damned well wanted to, and in the end, had laid down tracks with which we were all very happy.

 

I didn’t touch the project again that year! My schedule at Coupe is very busy. Unbelievably I have a lot of people that want to do CD projects with me. For this I’m extremely grateful! I LOVE this work. But it was a little disappointing to leave the project for that long.

In early ’09 I began the work of doing overdubs. I flew to the East Coast in January, to spend a week in a friend’s studio, and one day of it recording Duke Levine. Duke is among the finest musicians I’ve ever been in the presence of – and this includes everyone I’ve ever heard, seen play live, opened for, or had in my studio. (Many of the others are on this CD as well. But I’ll get to them.) I’ll just never do another record without him. His creativity and ability are astonishing! And his parts on this CD are, as always, fabulous. When he comes to the studio, he brings 12 guitars, a completely jammed full pedal board, a few amps. He listens to the first bit of a song, rubs his chin for a second, then reaches for the guitar he wants, kicks a few pedals and starts to play. By the end of that take, he’s got it. And by the end of a few more, he’s done a part that leaves your jaw hanging and a smile in the heart of your ears.

Then came Eric Moon. Also a producer, Eric is the mad scientist of keys. He has a self built rig, that includes a keyboard, a computer with touch screen, pedals, an amp, a mic, and several other things that look as if they could cook your breakfast for you … all wired and fixed into one box. He too listens for a bit to a song, and starts programming just the right sound. He can do anything, as far as I can tell from having worked with him over the past several years. And his parts are perfect in every way … feel, sound, style, tone, effect, feel, harmonics, dynamics, vibe and feel.

 

And then there’s Jonatha Brooke. She is unique … beautiful in every way, smart as Einstein, creative in the most outside the box way, as present as the beating sun on a cloudless day, funny, and very generous. We’ve been friends for years and have recorded on each other’s records before. So I asked her to do some parts for me while she was in Denver doing a show. She was too busy, then. But, months later, she offered to do the tracking in NY. I sent her mixes to sing to, and she sang at Ben Wittman’s studio. (This got me a little nostalgic, as Ben and Jonatha had both been a part of my first CD, Circle Of Friends.) When she sent me the tracks, I was blown away. I knew I would be. I was expecting it. But I was STILL blown away!  (Her latest CD is a collaboration with Woody Guthry – his lyrics from his archives, her music. It’s called The Works and it’s brilliant. Check it out!)

 

Then I hunkered down and did my own parts, vocals and guitars and whatever else, over the last few months of ’09 and the beginning of ’10. It was an amazing feeling doing this over time, on my own time, with nothing to rush me and no one to please but myself. Recording, for those of you who don’t do it much, is usually pretty deadline oriented. There’s either a budget or a schedule or both, nipping at your heels. Often you have to make decisions pretty quickly, and some of them can be arduous. This suits me, as I like the challenge of thinking on my feet in a creative situation. But it can be daunting, and it can leave you reeling (no pun intended) afterward. But in this case, I got to take my time, do things over a few times, get distance from it and then go back. Basically, I was free to do whatever I wanted. I often worked on someone else’s project until midnight or so, and then worked late into the morning on my own stuff. Or I’d come in a few hours early and do a track or two before another session. The bottom line is I had fun with it. I enjoyed it … ALL of it.

 

The CD, entitled “UNPREDICTABLE” is finally released on Tuesday, August 3. I’m jazzed about it and I hope you like it. It’s available on johnmcvey.com, CDBaby, RedPillOnline.

 

Thanks for reading. More to come …


-July 31, 2010-

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