Music, business (part 2: Personal Rockonomics)

I’ve never been very adept at the business side of things. No doubt this comes partly from my upbringing—though my background is relatively privileged, my parents are neither numerically inclined (there was no hope for math homework help past about grade 4) or particularly capitalistic, either in their beliefs or in their actions (a distinction to be elucidated below).

Then there was my coming of age in the punk/DIY scene, which seared onto my mind the idea that taking money into consideration as part of musical endeavours was deeply morally wrong. Most of my peers soon abandoned this ethic, and I would later discover that people with the most stridently anti-capitalistic views in public are invariably the most ruthless when it comes down to negotiations over money behind closed doors, but by then it was too late for me to shake the ideological imprint.

As a young man, to the extent that I thought about the future at all (which was not very much), I just kind of assumed that an artistic career would arise out of my talents and ideas. This seems shockingly naïve in retrospect. I remember in my first year of university, I had a creative writing prof who declared that for a writer’s career, going to the right parties was just as important as developing your craft. Puffed up with the deadly post-adolescent combination of arrogance and naïveté, I waved away his advice without a thought. Looking back today his statement still seems obnoxious, but undeniably true.

It seems obvious to me now that success (however you define it) in any creative field has very little to do with talent and everything to do with good timing, persistence, schmoozing skills and extreme will power. For a chronic procrastinator with an acute allergy to bullshit and a tendency to get discouraged easily, it is not very self-evident to embark on this route.

To be continued.

Music, business (part 1)

As many of my devoted fans know, I’ve been blessed throughout my life with a lot of very talented friends, some of whom have gone on to varying degrees of success. I’m happy for them and proud of them all, but of course this can also bring up occasional flourishes of envy or of nagging self-doubt—especially when some of these successful friends give me pep talk/lectures.

“It’s the music business,” says one.

“The business side of things is just as important as the creative side—you should think of them as the same,” says another.

“Think of it as a marketing installation,” says yet another. (I admit that this perspective on the situation spoke to me a bit more).

Are these things true? Why didn’t anyone tell me earlier? And would I have even listened?

A few years back I was reading an article by Exclaim’s music business journalist Allison Outhit. Some guy she interviewed gave a quote along the lines of “If you’ve been working hard for 10 years and you’re still not successful, maybe you suck.”

The quote stayed with me, bringing along with it a stark self-questioning: if I’m not successful, does that mean I haven’t worked hard enough? Or that I suck? (Allowing of course for the possibility of a third option, that this guy is a goddamn asshole).

In 2008, I quit my job, where for the first time in my life I had a respectable income and was settling into middle-class comfort. I felt I wasn’t putting enough time or effort into my creative work, and wanted to take a genuine crack at an artistic career, which I had never truly devoted myself to before.

Two years later I found myself, for the first time, questioning the value of carrying on this project in the face of profound non-reaction from labels, promoters, and the whole trend-obsessed music business machine in general.

It’s hard to write about this kind of thing for a few reasons. First of all, I’m very grateful for whatever small impact I’ve been able to make, and I’m also acutely aware that certain things I’ve accomplished (getting played on the radio, touring internationally, collaborating with famous people, etc) are things that some artists only dream of.

Secondly, I generally feel that it’s unbecoming for anyone to bitch and moan about not being more successful.

Finally, if certain people believe that I am successful for the reasons listed above, a pretty big part of me feels that I should let them have that illusion—it’s a win-win situation for us all.

That said, there are some things that I need to get off my chest and goddammit, what is the blogosphere for if not the shameless combination of self-pity and self-promotion?

To be continued.

La Roux, New Moo: Who Knew?

Chilling at the family cottage this summer. Traditions include hanging around on the dock, hanging around on the porch, and later, hanging around by the fireplace. And listening to the New Moo.

This Vermont-based radio station (WMOO 92.1), which brands itself as having the region’s best variety (invariably causing the distressing thought of what less variety would consist of), plays almost exclusively a kind of whitebread corporate pop. It plays a lot of Top 10 and a lot of present and past Idols, excluding almost all R&B and only allowing little hints of country – forget about hip-hop, on this station tunes like Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” and the Soup Dragons’ cover of the Stones’ “I’m Free” have the rap parts taken out – plus a lot of 90s one-hit wonders (New Radicals, anybody?), and seems to generally specialize in a kind of musical universe I wasn’t previously aware existed, one in which Hootie and the Blowfish and Matchbox 20 are the most important, influential bands (I wish I was joking or exaggerating, I really do).

This must sound horrible, and a great deal of the time it is. But we listen to it all the time anyway—I mean, there might be something good on Vermont NPR or the Lennoxville campus station, but then there might not, and then I’d have to spend many minutes cranking back the ancient radio to its optimal microcosmic sweet spot.

I have many great memories from years of the Moo (mostly involving ultra-cool indie-rockers admitting their secret love of James Blunt or the Goo Goo Dolls), along with some traumatic ones (joking that maybe one of the bland, generic tunes sung by thrice-diluted Alanis clones we kept hearing was the new Liz Phair song, and then finding out that it actually was).

So anyway, this weekend we’re listening away as usual, cringing through the crap and singing along with our guilty or shameless favourites, and all of a sudden on comes La Roux’s “Bulletproof.”

Somehow this disrupts my reality a little bit.

Not that I was disappointed to hear it – it’s a good tune. Or that it doesn’t fit in – it’s catchy and poppy, just like the parade of mainstream pop that surrounds it on the Moo.
But I’d been under the impression that La Roux was some kind of underground hipster phenomenon. Certainly, here in Montreal the only time I heard about La Roux was from hipsters.

(Although I am actually interested, on a strictly socio-demographic level, in the question of who or what constitutes a hipster, I will not address this here, except to submit that hipsters do exist, and furthermore there’s nothing wrong with being one. More on this later.)

Now, I am aware that we’re, at some level, past the era where the terms “underground” or “mainstream” have much meaning. The few remaining bands who worked their way up from the DIY scene to the corporate mediasphere, like REM or Green Day, are long in the tooth. Artists like MIA are doing pretty musically radical things in a mainstream context, and a lot of bands considered “indie” are way softer and sappier than anything on the New Moo.

But MIA doesn’t get played on the Moo… or MGMT, Bon Iver, Major Lazer, or whatever the cool kids are listening to these days. Hell, even something like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was too, well, crazy for the Moo. The Moo will play Norah Jones, but not Feist. It’s a corporate, mainstream operation through and through.

Conversely, the hipster crowd does not listen to Nickelback, Lady Antebellum, Rob Thomas, or Avril Lavigne (except when they’re at the cottage with us).

So what have I missed?

Is La Roux the true crossover artist of our time?

A reverse Lady Gaga, infiltrating the underground with mainstream notions?

(Some minimal research seems to indicate that, while they’re possibly an overnight sensation, they’re not a corporate creation but a legitimate indie-turned-mainstream act).

Or do I just not get out enough?

That reminds me of a brief Facebook craze where everyone was suddenly posting 20 facts about themselves, which invariably involved a lot of oversharing. From this phenomenon I learned that several people who I thought of as gregarious social butterflies actually suffered from acute and chronic social anxieties. I felt like reaching out and saying, “Hey, I found a great solution to that… just stop going out!” But then, as I’ve discovered, if you stop going out, you miss out on things.

Like how it is La Roux is being played on the New Moo.