Why I Quit Music (and the redemption of small press)

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Part I: The Plight

A few months back I made the decision to quit music.  Ok, that’s not really true.  I’m just being manipulative.  But it is partially true.  I, like 6,335,428  other people in the Bay Area, fancy myself a “singer/songwriter”.  I had a little project that I called The Mockingbirds. (I would link you to the website, but I deleted it.) I put out an album back in 2011 called Lacuna that I was very, very proud of.  So proud in fact that I ended up printing a thousand of them, which in retrospect bordered on hubris.  With my little project (which boasted a price-tag of upwards of $15 grand) proudly gripped in my bony mitts, I ventured out into the local venues with the notion that I would strike up enough sales to pay for the next record.  Who wouldn’t want to buy this after all? It has all of the trappings of what people love: it thematically revolved around my late father but was uplifting rather than maudlin, it was all acoustic, it had just enough arty influence to make it interesting but was also quite approachable, it was beautifully produced and engineered, it had an absolutely stellar cast of musicians, the cover art (executed by gifted artist and good friend Derek Wilson) was gorgeous, and the songs were really fuckin’ good!

Now, hear this:  Being a “singer/songwriter” or any other kind of musician or artist or poet in the Bay Area, or any place else for that matter, is really freakin’ hard work.  You end up being composer, creative director, publisher, marketer, promoter, manager, financier, performer, networker, and sales team – any one of which is a full time job in itself.  I don’t imagine that most artists enjoy doing all of that other work, but they do it anyway. Why? Because there is no other way.  And this is what pisses me off to no end about “popular music”.  I personally know dozens and dozens of first rate, absolutely dazzling musicians and songwriters that are struggling to make ends meet while airwave-wasters like Bieber and Spears et al sit on their professionally toned asses collecting fistfuls of cash for absolute dreck!  Though I have now quit performing music of my own, I fully and happily and with god on my side, endorse a fifth  entry into Kant’s list of antinomies:

  1. the limitation of the universe in respect of space and time,
  2. the theory that the whole consists of indivisible atoms (whereas, in fact, none such exist),
  3. the problem of free will in relation to universal causality
  4. the existence of a necessary being…and...
  5. the cotemporality of shit and diamonds (or: you can’t polish a turd with cash)

Here’s an interesting side-note.  Just as an experiment, I started a Facebook page for Lemmiwinks the Gerbil King, one of my favorite characters from South Park.  I just wanted to see if it got any attention.  I also created a Facebook page for my musical project The Mockingbirds because, as stated above, I was also the promoter and marketer for my music.  I do absolutely nothing to the Lemmiwinks page, except post some sporadic bullshit about gerbils and other rodents.  That page now has 359 likes.  It just got another one yesterday.  My Mockingbirds page to which I pretty consistently posted “meaningful” and heartfelt content has 246 (200 of which are friends whom I paid to click the button, the other 46 are spam). Now if I were the scientific type and had to formulate some kind of hypothesis regarding public taste, I might come to the horrific conclusion that the general public cares more about animated rodents than art.  Would I be right?  Who knows, but I bet if we conducted a poll, we might verify that hypothesis.  Reminds me of the scene in Supersize Me where Ronald McDonald was a more recognizable face than Jesus (and that’s saying something in this god-fearin’ Christian nation of ours).

As I stated earlier, I have incredible respect for the musicians that are attempting to pull off a career amidst all of the crap they have to do to get attention.  But for me it’s like this: I like driving my car but please don’t ask me what’s under the hood.  I felt like an absolute poseur with promo shots, stage banter, web presence, blasting Facebook with cheery, upbeat status updates about shows that were an absolute fuckin’ train-wreck -“Great show last night at ArtBeat!  Thanks to all [two] of you that showed up! Thanks for [not] supporting local music! :-)”… Probably the worst experience was a disaster of a gig at Pyramid Brewery in Downtown Walnut Crick.  It was like Derek Bailey (rest his ultra talented soul) performing for KFOG Kaboom – all puzzled looks over pints of draft beer and nachos.  All of this to say, I still have over 800 really lovely cd’s in my garage that I’m now donating to charity events.  (You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.) (If you want one, let me know. It comes with a dollar bill.) I say these things not to get an aw-poor-baby but to reveal just what the hell is going on for most of those “singer/songwriters” that are up there pouring their talented little hearts out for a crowd that is more interested in gossiping about their neighbor’s teenager than listening to what the artist has to say.  So I say to all those people (none of which are you, dear reader):  Pay attention, dammit! Buy a freakin’ cd!  You spend more on crappy Starbucks triple grande lattes than you do on music!  You say you love this artist or that artist and then you go home and stream it on Spotify!  You say to me, “aw c’mon dude, Spotify is coool… I totally use it to discover new artists”… No, you friggin’ don’t!  You get all of your music for free because you think you somehow deserve it!  Let me inform you of something, person other than you who cares deeply about the survival of the arts, you absolutely don’t deserve it.  That little silver disc that you refuse to purchase from the artist is not some damn gratuitous gesture, it is a labor of love!  It is a little slice of the only thing about humanity that gives me any hope – CREATIVITY.  By going home and launching Spotify (or Pandora or BitTorrent or any other stupid website or app that gives people’s music away for free) you are killing creativity.  You’ll pay $40 a week in crappy lattes but $10 for a cd that will help support an artist’s creativity well, that’s kinda pricey. Jesus.

Part II: The Redemption

Which brings me to the part about the possibility of deliverance.  (Cue angelic music). Amidst all of the utter and absolute crap that’s being released by the major labels, there are isolated islands of hope, oases of artistic integrity that are doing such incredible work that it makes me do a ludicrous little jig in celebration.  (It is like that joke where this guy has twin sons – one is a pessimist the other an optimist.  The guy can’t stand his sunny little boy but adores his little curmudgeon.  For their respective birthdays he gets the grouch a shiny new bike, and the little idealist a giant pile of horse shit.  While one boy is ignoring his new bicycle, he checks in on the other who is busily shoveling away at the pile of shit.  When the dick-head dad inquires as to the purposes of his activity, the boy brightly replies, “Well, with a pile of shit this big, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”) But back to the islands of hope: Some of these small press labels are simply devoting themselves to releasing really great music that pushes boundaries and explores the fringes of what music is capable of accomplishing (Isounderscore, for instance). Others, bless their souls, are releasing tiny runs of limited edition packages that are so exquisite in execution, design, and aesthetic content that it makes the mind wobble.

One of these art houses is Time Released Sound, lovingly run in Alameda, CA by a nice fellow named Colin Herrick.  Why just this morning I opened, listened to, and explored the 2013 release by The Angling Loser.  What can I say but what a treat for the eyes, ears, and fingers.  Inside the green, opaque velum envelope to which is affixed a fishing cigarette card, lies a little treasure trove of delights: a hand sewn fly tying flip book, an antique fishing postcard, a page from an angler’s instruction manual inside of which are enfolded two beautifully recorded cd’s, and a hand-numbered insert with track information.  The music is a tranquil combination of treated ambient-ish guitar, electronics, field recordings, and cryptic recorded voice.  Each release is a literal feast for the eyes and ears, usually in a run of maybe a couple  hundred.  Here’s a picture from their blog showing off some of this ultra-fine work:

time-released-sound

Am I right or am I right.  (Notice how I ended that with a period.) Freakin’ stunning. I want them all.  Now maybe it’s because I grew up listening to records (the kind that are 12″ in diameter and go inside a nice big cardboard cover with cool art to gaze at) that I like actually holding something in my hands when I’m listening, something that informs the sonic world in either text or imagery.  Something that fills the lacuna of meaning in the rich tapestry of the sensorium.  Or maybe it’s because I spent so much time with my lips on a bong as a young ruffian.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that I absolutely love beautiful things, things that somebody’s hands have touched, things that are personal expressions packaged in love. I buy regular old cd’s in those goddam jewel cases, sure, but there is something so clinical and, well, unpatriotic about those.  This stuff that Colin produces, on the other hand, brings back that fine marriage of the arts that so many great artists (Gustav Klimt, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Laurie Anderson, etc.) have spent their energy pursuing.

Here’s another one:  Wounded Wolf Private-Press is a publishing house in the UK/Turkey run by two ridiculously talented polymaths, Atay İlgün and Gözde Omay.  Quoting their website, their focus is “poetry, fiction, photography, folk and textural music along with additional prints and ephemera.” I recently ordered a couple of items from them which arrived promptly with a couple of additional gifts from these generous, kind-hearted folks.  The Hogweed and the Aderyn, is a beautifully textured slice of acoustic heaven.  Somewhat dark and pastoral, it conjures those European country-sides that all of us romantic Americans love to pine for.  The disc is housed in an elegant (biodegradable!) cardboard sleeve with a tiny carved wooden folk instrument affixed to the front.  All of this done, the music and the packaging, and executed by Atay and Gözde.

hogweed & aderyn

To my mind, this is the future of music.  Though I will probably never perform in front of humans again, I do plan to write and record. I hope that my next collection of songs can be released on a worthy press like one of these. Maybe just 100, but beautiful, handmade, personal, and intimate; a reflection of the time and effort it takes to plumb the soul and the intellect for words, search for the right notes and chords and rhythm to make the words come to life, explore the infinite variety of sonic textures that will support but not overwhelm the delicacy of the song, record until each gesture is in integrity with what the piece needs to come to fruition, muddle through the dozens of possible track orders until it flows like a river, and finally marry the final product to a visual aesthetic which both informs and augments all of those life experiences that have been boiled down to 50 or so minutes on a silver disc.

I love that there are people out there who have committed themselves to making a small but vital difference.  I love that there are musicians out there who are willing to go through endless amounts of bullshit just to grace our ears with their song.  I love that human beings love to create.  It gives me hope for the future.  For the rest of us our task is simple: appreciation.  Make art a priority because without it we lose a little bit of our humanity.  Scratch that… a lot…  So next time you are at a club watching/listening to an artist and some clown is talking about their stupid day at work, smack them upside their head and remind them that this music we humans make is our salvation, so shut the hell up!

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