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