Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sell Me Like Cheerios!

I subscribe to a folk-music listserv ... one of those chat-room things that show up in your email box. It used to be a rollicking place, but it's pretty quiet now. Dull really. The list is for members of FAR-West, the western regional branch of Folk Alliance, and it only perks up before and just after the annual conference. I haven't weighed in on anything since the list slowed way down. I used to get into some lively discussions and debates though. One recurring theme set myself and one other member named John - against virtually the whole rest of the community. This would happen when either John or myself mentioned 'competition'. In discussions about the conference, one of us would say something like: "We have two hundred performers competing for the attention of a couple dozen presenters and radio hosts." And the blow-back would begin. Everybody wanted everybody else to know that they never COMPETED, but instead made music in perfect cooperative fellowship with all other folkies everywhere. I remember remarking to John off-list how funny it was to watch people competing with one another for the title of 'Least Competitive'.

You see, John and I had this crazy notion that a conference wherein everybody gathers to be seen in hopes of career advancement was - in meaningful ways - a business conference. But most everybody tried to deny that one of the hallmarks of any business is the intention that somebody buy one product over another, thereby inferring a preference, and necessitating competition. That, to folk musicians, is crazy-talk. Little wonder that nearly everybody making waves in folk music is touring themselves to death trying to break even, while either losing their security or depending on somebody with a 'real' job to keep the home fires alight.

It makes people very uncomfortable to talk about such things, but then, truth-telling is never job-one where political-correctness rules the day. But none of these people owns me, so I'd like to talk about why I think that some of the most meaningful music in the world goes begging. First though, I'll offer my theory as to why this once-bustling listserv is now an electronic ghost-town. It's because a few people got sick of hearing about upcoming shows. The idea was proffered that all gig announcements (already sequestered to Fridays) ought to be cleansed form the general-discussion board, and ghettoized on a list for that purpose only. Lest it seem that we were all promoting ourselves. I spoke out vigorously against this, declaring that it was only this evidence of gigging that made the list look like a meeting-place of artists on the march to better things. I said that I'd rather put up with some clutter and be reminded that this is a performer's art and profession, than silence the hype to save some non-player a minute with the 'delete' button. Heck, I said, it's inspiring. It makes me want to get out there and compete! You can guess why I did not win the argument. And, exactly as I predicted, the list-serve virtually died.

I tell that story as an illustration of what is wrong with those who make American folk music.

Now I don't want to imply that there is no recognition of the fact that the world of folk-music is a competitive world. There are workshops available at the conventions that offer marketing advice. But this is all done in a de-fanged manner. One phrase is heard at every one of them, and is virtually the only strategy that I have ever heard offered. It is this: "It's all about relationships". The idea is that you have to develop a personal relationship with every radio host and every festival booker, and those who book every club in every city. Personal relationships. Hundreds of 'em.

I don't, for a second, doubt that the key to success in folk music is just that - personal relationships. But I will say that that is a big part of the problem. It's a shame that your success is incumbent on how many people you can stay personally connected to. On how many people you can seduce into helping your career. It makes for a lot of neglect on the home-front and insincerity everywhere else.

I go to a big folk festival in Texas when I can. I've been three times since '08. And I will tell you for certain that it is - for all intents and purposes - a closed shop. There is a definite and obvious in-crowd. The man or woman who runs it is a very sweet person, and does an amazing job. I very much like the festival. But there are - far as I can tell - three ways to get on the main-stage. The first is the universal pass-key of fame. If you are well-established, you can get booked. The next is to win the songwriting contest, which gives you a window of exposure that you had damn-well better maximize. The third way is to develop enough of a 'personal relationship' with the boss that he/she gives you a slot as a gift. How do I know that this is true? Simple. Because every year there are people on the main stage who are simply not terribly compelling, but ARE friends of the head honcho. Or honchette. As the case may be.

Now I have not been to every other festival, but I have no reason to believe that the scenario is much different anywhere else. In this piece I will try to make the case for abandoning the group-hug, circle-of-friends mentality, and trying to attract into our midst some good old-fashioned capitalists. I know who I am as an artist. I have never, and will never write a song to a formula popular at the moment. I'll write 'em like I write 'em. Period. But once I have written them, and recorded them, I want to sell as many copies of my CDs as possible. For two reasons, neither of which are noxious. The first is that, since I believe that my music is good for the soul of the listener, I would like as many souls as possible to have access to it. The second is that I would like the opportunity to do professionally, what I am good at. But marketing is not what I am good at. So what I want is for somebody who is good at marketing to grab hold of my stuff, and take it to the world. And I don't care if that person is competitive - in fact I'd prefer it. And I don't care if that person wants to get rich off my work. I'd prefer that too. As long as this person is honest, and ethical ... I want my music to be sold like a product. Because that's what it is. A musical, and lyrical product.

Folk music is like a boat with more anchor than hull. It has defeat built right into it. This is because it has deep roots in collectivism. It's true. Folk music of the guy-and-guitar variety, has always seen itself as a movement. And any good movement needs a self-definition. That - for folk music - is 'Champion of the Underdog'. A noble enough identity, as identities go. At one time folk-singers graced every union rally, decrying the greed of the bosses, and demanding a fairer distribution of the wealth. The long-suffering Civil Rights marchers had to put up with a bunch of white college-kids singing 'Negro Spirituals' they'd learned in the dorm before driving on down to D.C.. And of course, the Viet Nam war sprouted protest songs like magic-mushroom in a cow-pasture. What did all these protesters have in common? They just hated those guys in suits making money by exploiting the powerless. Such movements are best when kept simple, and simple-minded. So it was axiomatic that the collective was king, and capitalism was the root of all evil.

If that is your orientation, you are going to have a hard time making a living with music.

Woody Guthrie is still astonishingly present in American folk music. I have a good friend who has largely set aside his own fine songs to become a keeper of Woody's flame. He tours with it, and is always at the big Woody Fest each year in Oklahoma. Woody was the real deal, for sure, and I like his stuff. But he lived in another time. You could ride the rails and live on nothing back then. I don't doubt that Guthrie, had he lived, would have settled down at some point and set up a retirement plan. But in Woody's day, with the spotlight on the excesses of capitalism, there was still hope of a viable socialist alternative. He died before he grew up all the way. A good part of folk music didn't want to go on without him.

Woody's heir apparent, Bob Dylan, certainly got over all that commie stuff pretty quick. He has been a fixture of American popular music since what, '63? And I must say that he has offered very few protest songs over the last forty years or so. That's because Bob Dylan is not a hypocrite. He knows that he is able to do what he does because he is lucky enough to be profitable to the big companies that get his music out. This is no knock whatsoever on Dylan's artistic merit. In fact, I want to be very clear that I think Dylan's work has been consistently fine right along. My point is that capitalism is a friend of the arts ... even those arts that claim to hate it.

I was just re-reading some of the Neil Young biography, 'Shakey'. The reader comes away from this book knowing that if not for Elliot Roberts, we would probably have forgotten all about Neil Young with the fading of Buffalo Springfield. Roberts is a stone-cold pit-bull. And he lived to see that Young - and Joni Mitchell - got more than they deserved from every deal. In the book, Roberts admires Albert Grossman, another hard-charger, and the man called a "Colonel Parker type", by his client - Bob Dylan. Of course we all know about Elvis's flamboyant manager. And almost anybody my age knows that without Brian Epstein, the Beatles might never have gone to London, let alone taken the whole world by storm. These managers wanted to WIN, and win big. Did that diminish the artistic merit of their clients? If anything, it emboldened them to push the boundaries  When you see somebody move mountains for you, it does something for the old self-belief. And though it might be argued that some of these managers were driven mainly by love of the art and artist, they made lucrative deals because somebody in the loop had dollar signs in their eyes.

Some years ago, I argued with an L.A. folky of some stature. He is from the old school. He sings union songs to this day, as if factories where still dark, smoky dumps filled with broken men. He had just met Springsteen, and was in thrall. At the time, Broooce was making news for raising a ruckus in Pennsylvania over a closing steel mill. I tried to get my friend to see that Springsteen was rich and famous as a direct result of the very same business practices that make a steel mill lay off workers  when the mill is no longer profitable. You don't think that - even as Bruce was filling bank vaults - other lesser-selling acts were being cut from the roster? Because that is exactly what happens. In business, you go with the profit-stream. It was fine for Springsteen to condemn the steel company, but I never heard him demand that Columbia re-sign all the acts they'd dropped. He managed to be the voice of the underdog while out-earning the supposed oppressors. That's a pretty neat trick.

All of this was just before The Boss swiped Steinbeck's mojo, re-invented himself as Tom Joad and cleaned up the contemporary folk category at the Grammys. All while living in a multi-million-dollar walled estate in Beverly Hills. Sound like the collectivist dream to you?

If I sound mad at The Jersey Devil, it's only because I hate hypocrisy. If you get rich because millions of people buy your product, then God bless you. But don't try to wear Woody Guthrie's skin as camouflage.

The main mistake that folk music makes is to be at odds with its utility as musical entertainment. Because of its roots in white-guilt, it believes that it must be a humble thing. It craves the mantel of importance in a sociological sense even more than it does in an artistic sense. And it dares not even consider itself in commercial terms. But if a song is beautiful and uplifting, is it wrong to promote it, or is it wrong to fail to promote it? Marshall Mcluhan used to say that all art was the setting of traps. That every work of art was a trap set to catch somebody's attention. Attention being necessary to the delivery of the message. It may be particularly true for songs, as they are usually first heard on the fly, from a car radio or in a crowd. Nobody goes to a song museum hoping to find a neglected masterpiece. A song must be a snare as well as a nourishment.

I first heard Jackson Browne - my first greatest inspiration - while I was breading chicken at the KFC in San Gabriel, California. I will never forget it. It was 'Doctor, My Eyes', and I can feel the drums in my spine as I write this. This was no polite entreaty. This was a flag waving boldly from the open window of a speeding culture. And it was not at all political. It was not about some poor underdog, it was about ME. And in the years that followed, Browne captured the heartbreaking dance of the young and sensitive soul being pushed forth into an uncaring world. What finally blunted his artistic power? Politics. He - as liberals will - began to feel that he owed his talent to the service of a cause. He's never quite recovered. And more's the pity. I'd have been better served by his helping me to know my own heart, than by him telling me how to  vote, and who to blame.

Folk music is largely bereft of business people. There are some folk clubs, but mostly concerts happen either in listening rooms set up in churches, libraries and colleges, or at make-shift venues in peoples' homes. Presenters usually feel that it is somehow inappropriate to make money, and so they pass the proceeds directly to the artists who are mostly touring by car. The presenter is therefore not incentivized to grow that artist's fan-base in hopes of a bigger cut next time. So, unless there is a breakthrough, the artist plays to about the same number of people each go round. Often, it's the very same people. And because the few good gigs in your nearest big city are reserved for those who have had breakthroughs, the average singer-songwriter has little choice but to slog around the country trying to service those few fans he or she has gathered in previous trips.

Radio typically consists of a couple of hours early Saturday morning on a low-watt station at a community college. With any luck, your song might be played along with twenty others, and then not heard again for months if ever. The radio hosts - like the presenters - are volunteers, and are paid with community-status and the friendships they enjoy with creative people from far-off places. These are the relationships we talked about earlier. There are a few hosts who have long-standing shows in decent markets, and who could maybe get you a main-stage gig if they fell in love with you. You see them at the conventions, huddled with the better venue people. They are the only real celebrities present.

Just to use that word - 'celebrity' - in a discussion of folk music feels silly. Because at an even lower onion-layer than the white-guilt level, folk music is supposed to be the music we make for each other. It's to be played with simple instruments while sitting on back porches or wandering the countryside with no agenda beyond a bowl of porridge and a cozy hayloft. Though more pastoral, it has the same DIY sensibility that characterized the Punk movement. And like Punk, Folk had a brief commercial flowering, followed by decades of diminishing returns.  Both musics have in common a dogged distaste for elitism. Anybody can own a piece of it. If you buy a P.A. system, and rent a room, you can be an impresario. Celebrity is antithetical to the thing and therefore it's hard to valuate it. There are no clear lines of distinction between audience and performer ... which is spiritually lovely, and a great source of poverty for all.

All because of a wrongheaded belief that capitalism is somehow a bad thing. The dance goes on in every corner of the left; this awkward attempt to be fine with it when our guys get rich while condemning the very same practices on the part of those other people. I think it's a stupid way to look at the world. Capitalism is simply a vehicle for streamlining barter. We store the value of what we produce in currency which we can later trade for what we want or need. Whether it is a tank of gas, a bag of groceries, or a concert ticket.

It's likely too late for me to get any real traction in the music business. It's too bad. I could have been a contender if I'd been influenced by go-getters. But hippies got to me first. My best bet at this point is probably to bleed out a couple more albums, lose my mind while the documentary cameras roll, and die an interesting death. That is something that could be marketed. But for the youngsters attempting to come up, and thinking that Folk Alliance is the path, I suggest that you put a decent band around you, develop a show, and find somebody who is obsessively determined to manage the biggest act in the world - and believes  that act to be you. Make a million bucks. Give some away. Put some in the bank. But stay away from the the failure-pool of folk music. Unless, of course you are related to Woody Guthrie.

Dave Morrison January 15, 2013


  1. Sad ain’t it. I was told often that if I had been singing 20 years earlier, someone could have made me make money. I never will now. I do it now because I don’t want to die without having left a record, or three. And I have a crazy vision that I feel compelled to share. The amount of work so many of my friends commit to to make their way through the folk music scene astounds me, Also the money many spend on their own productions... At some point it just seems too expensive, too hard and bad business. And then, I hear the voices that say, if you were good enough, you could make money, real talent will force its way etc etc etc.... There was a reason talented writers, musicians, painters, had managers and agents and patrons. Anyway, I love your essay.

  2. Hey Dave,
    Nice article. I don't disagree with much in it. I am not anti-capitalist and never have been. I'm anti MEAN capitalist and I think it's possible for capitalism to co-exist with love and fairness and concern for your fellow human.
    But your analysis of folk music misses one major point: Folk, as you and I tend to practice it and as most of the people at the folk alliance et al see it and define it, just isn't the music of choice of the vast hordes of people. Bruce Springsteen didn't become a big star as a folkie, he made it big as a pop rocker. All the practitioner's of what we think of as "folk" with almost no exceptions are people who made music with an acoustic core and a sensibility that we might recognize at our song circles, but who presented their music as pop and folk rock. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen...and on and on. These people could play with us at parties and fit in, but their records and their live shows are pop/folk-rock events, and people go for that. I have a music blog that I used to keep up regularly called Bill Burnett's Songmine. On it I put videos of my own songs and of others I know and admire and I also wrote articles about the likes of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell etc. The articles got much more attention from the internet googlers than the original songs, and the one article I posted that got BY FAR the most attention was one I wrote about The Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar." That got hundreds and hundreds of hits and comments and was reposted all over the internet. Because the Stones provide a style of music that is very very popular. It's rock. It's R&B. It's pop. It isn't folk. So if one is a folk musician in the mold of you and me, it is perhaps better for our sanity to take a less commercial view because under no circumstances (with rare exceptions) is what we do going to be commercial. Even in the Folk Boom of the early 60s, the ones that made it were by and large the acts that married their gentle strumming to something that met the culture's desire for greater drive and power. I mean, Gordon Lightfoot didn't releases his songs as a solo folkie. He was produced up. Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan (obviously). Peter Paul and Mary were fairly "pure" and Joni's first album. But even then she had Steve Stills producing and playing bass. It's just that what we do isn't the Zeitgeist's favored cup of tea. And to try to go bigger is expensive and probably not going to succeed--because to tour with a full band means you have to spend 5 times as much money and make 5 times as much money and end up hating each other and fighting and falling apart. So, for the sake of our souls and the souls of our audience, it is, for most of us, better to back away from the big machine and the hopes of serious remuneration and take a more zen attitude about the value of what we do. It does have tremendous value, but is unlikely to produce a hit in the old sense of the word, especially in this time of cultural diaspora, when everything is spread across the internet like a spilled sugar bowl. A granule here, a granule there. Hard to get a full spoonful, like we use to when we all listened to the radio and heard Motown and Stax and Beatles and Dylan and Tom Paxton and Peter Paul and Mary and The New Christy Minstrels all coming out of the same little tinny speaker.
    Yours in song

    1. Hey Bill,

      I don't disagree at all. I would have said much of what you did ... but every point can't be made, lest I write 5,000 words. :0) You make the point that the folkies who've made it big had bands around them and made a big sound. In my last paragraph, I advise people to get a band. I myself have a band. And the truth is, that I am not really a folky anyway. My new album is full of bass and drums and electric guitars. You and I are 'singer-songwriters' in the same way that Browne and Zevon were. I never listened to 'folk' music coming up. I have more Tom Petty in my collection than Gordon Lightfoot. The singer-sngwriter music I took in was from the produced albums that got their music played. I don't consider that music impure. We take to the 'folk' scene because it is the cheapest easiest way. But then, it's kinda limited in its appeal. So we get stuck touring forever while knowing all the while that what we are presenting is not the whole vision.

      Jackson Browne didn't tour till he had a contract and radio support. That machine only kicks in when you have financial support behind from people for whom your music is an opportunity to make a profit. There's no real reason to go out and drag my ass around the country without radio support when ten million people live freeway-close.

      I don't need or want Springsteen-sized success. My target is to have 10,000 real fans. People who get me, and dig what I do, and can be depended on to spend twenty or a hundred bucks at my events and on my products every year. That pencils out for me as 'success' Those people are everywhere ... not necessarily at folk festivals. And I don't need FAR-West or Folk Alliance to find them. I played Pasadena three weeks ago to 65 people and then sold out the Coffee Gallery Friday night. I'm building audience because I present myself in an environment suited to my particular gifts. And the new friends that I make at each gig? I don't have to drive a thousand miles to stay connected to them.

      To my ears ... many if not most of the singer-songwriters trying to make their way (including Rob who commented here) are really not folkies. Their breakthrough will come elsewhere. IMHO

      Best, Dave

  3. Nice article. Many people I know would agree with parts of what you have said - and disagree with others.

    I will second Bills comments above. The folk community is largely about _support_ for a type of music and the people who do it _in spite of_ the fact that it does not make money.

    Nothing wrong with that - unless you are looking for more. I confess that I often am looking for more than just support. I am often looking for true creative validation and achievement...the chance to be heard and , yes, to compete.

    My solution is to love and appreciate everyone that wants to help me and to keep trying to do work I can be proud of. Life is way too short to do anything else.

    1. Thanks Rob,

      I commented at greater length on Bill's comments. I have no issue with support. But, I have lived long enough to know that the most meaningful support will come from the audience who really NEEDS what you do. I work for them, not some little emperor with a festival or series. Finding those you are here to connect through your music is the goal. Hanging out at a conference, scraping for the few decent gigs is mostly a waste of time. I generate at least two real gigs a month here in SoCal. I've been ignored or actively opposed by all the house-concert presenters in L.A., and I'm building audience very steadily.

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