New Music Manifesto

IMG_1530I’ve been driving around the country for the better part of three years, playing music, sleeping in my car, seeing amazing places, and meeting new people. All these things are really brilliant and I’m quite privileged to do them. I have had a lot of people comment on their jealousy over my life and it has humbled me.

Here’s the other side of what I’ve been doing for the past three years: constant autism meltdowns on the road, sore back and neck from sleeping in a Honda Element towards the end of my 30s, spending more money than I have, stressing out over whether or not I can afford publicity, getting stuck in a city/state more than a day’s drive from my home and support system, crying, screaming, punching, unable to breathe, stress headaches, and broken equipment I can’t possibly afford to replace. For all my trouble and effort, I have never made a dime, but I have lost an infinite number of them.

I want to break down what it takes to “make it” in the music industry (e.g. people all around the country know and love your music). First off, you have to have a lot of energy and a thick skin to pull you through countless, thankless shows in towns you have never heard of: For every San Francisco there’s a dozen Springfields. You have to have no financial responsibility towards anyone but yourself: You’re going to be very poor and every cent you make is going to go towards your budding musical career (and a lot of cents you don’t make, too). You have to spend money constantly: touring consistently means constant gas, food, and lodging; $2-3k every time you want to record and press an album (which no one will pay for); $3-10k for publicity every time you want to release; paying band members who will not and should not work for free; constant submission fees to blogs and songwriting contests and festival entries. You have to be mentally sound to a certain point: you must have room for some of your mental health to collapse and still be functional. You stay up late every night, constantly talking to people, promoting yourself and trying to get them to listen to your new single on the drive home on Spotify, which you will not get paid for. Spend more money on radio campaigns, get duped half a dozen times by scams in the process. Feel flattered when someone offers to be your manager, pay them a fee to give you some lame advice about what to do with your band that they learned off some industry blog post you could have read yourself with one Google search. (Not me, however. I’ve had one manager and she was fantastic.)

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Performing at Big Bend National Park, TX. November, 2016

And no one will listen to your songs. You’ll check your streaming stats and it’ll show less than a hundred people listened in the last thirty days and no one is paying you for it. Or you do have a lot of streams and you realize you’re not getting a dime for them. People who do listen to your album don’t talk to others about it, so you don’t grow your audience. You pay for ads on social media to no avail. You book shows constantly, play until your hair starts falling out, work at a coffeeshop saving money to pay for the next tour, and when you get home you have nowhere to live. You are preyed upon, given countless false promises, and the feeling of getting smoke blown up your ass becomes commonplace.

One out of every thousand bands following the industry formula is signed to a real booking contract, or a real management deal, or the coveted record deal (which doesn’t mean shit today, other than you’re about to go into major debt). Out of every fifty bands getting this kind of break maybe one will stick around long enough to release three to five singles, get on a bunch of playlists and break through to the mainstream. Still, most of them will be gone in less than five years, anyway. They’ll emerge from their flirtation with rock-stardom chest deep in debt and with no real-world skills to pay it off. Basement living at its finest.

And you probably make great music people should hear, but it doesn’t matter. You’re nobody to most of the country, and it hurts and breaks you down. It beats your brow into submission until you join the ranks of the “normal” American: holding down a nine to five, denying your artistic inclinations, and buying a house you’ll complain about for twenty-five years. If you’re lucky you’ll continue to be a weekend warrior, playing local bars and clubs to get your fix.

If you’re lucky.

I’m done with all of it. At some point in my 20s and 30s I got this idea that if I worked hard, toured hard, and released plenty of material, someone would recognize the worth of my music and I’d be on my way. I toured all four corners of this country and everywhere in between. I payed big bucks for a major public relations firm only for them to effectively ignore me during the campaign. I’ve had mental breakdowns countless times across the country and I’m just not going to do it anymore.

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In the studio, paying to make an album no one will pay for. June, 2017

I’ve shifted my thinking about music and success. I’ve shifted my thinking about what I’m willing to do to make a living with my guitar and voice. After three years of a lot of pain I’m putting it behind me and looking towards a more realistic and relevant future. As most readers will know, I am moving to Corvallis, OR in two weeks. I am leaving the relative security of the music scene I started in for non-musical reasons, but the move allows me to make some new musical moves and has opened my thinking about what I do.

A musician living in New Mexico, whether it be Albuquerque, Santa Fe, or one of the millions of rural acres in the state, will always have a difficult time on the national scene for one simple reason: Geography. You must travel six hours to get to any major market (Denver or Phoenix), and one of them is crap for music (Phoenix… sorry but it’s true). Furthermore, to get to any other market, major or minor, you have to drive another six hours. Musicians in New Mexico and other markets like it (I’m thinking some midwestern states and some of the mountain west) are isolated and are therefore stuck playing their local scenes and bars in small towns throughout their state. You can’t make a living doing this; there simply aren’t enough gigs to go around. It’s really shitty, because there are some great bands and songwriters from New Mexico (and Montana, and Kansas, and South Dakota) and they will never really get a chance to even do what I did, because it takes too much time and money to be feasible. Throw the social clock in the mix and people end up giving up without anyone other than their local fans ever hearing their songs.

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Having an epiphany in Anacortes, WA. May, 2019 Photo by John Ellison

I had an epiphany while talking to a friend of mine on a recent visit to the Puget Sound: searching for national success, whether it be from an isolated location like the Southwest or a populated location like the East Coast, is bound to be disappointing. So how does one “break out of the town they came from” as Aesop Rock once so eloquently put it? By becoming a regional artist. It’s a mistake I made when I quit the real world and joined this circus called the music industry. I was blinded by pipe dreams, driven by unrealistic goals and hope, and fueled by a constant barrage of encouraging comments from my friends and other people in the music industry. I spent thousands running around the country, playing in places I would not be able to play again for another year (in order to establish an audience in a city, you have to hit it up at least three times year, more likely four), wasting my time. I could have been focusing on everywhere in between Phoenix and Denver and I’d probably have lost a lot less money.

But being isolated in the southwest made me think there was nothing to be made on the rocky mountain circuit; no money, no audience. I wanted my songs to be famous; oh, the hubris of youth. Moving to an area where I have access to not one but four markets, two of them major, made me realize I should be focusing on the Northwest region for the majority of my time. Build a name in the scenes closest to me, start making money. Stop worrying about selling the recorded work and focus on playing real, authentic shows where people can connect with me and my music.

I played a show in Portland, OR in the spring of 2018 at a place called Artichoke Music. The room was “packed” meaning there wasn’t a table or seat open, but there were still less than 50 people in attendance. I played a 30-minute set to a rapt room and it was one of the best experiences I ever had. A week later I repeated the feat to a smaller room in Union, WA. These shows didn’t expose my music to a large crowd, but the crowd that heard it bought music, followed me on social media, and continues to engage my world. This is more important to me than gaining a national audience.

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At Artichoke Music, Portland, OR. April, 2018

I don’t want to be famous. Jesus, could you imagine what a disaster it would be? It would kill me. I want people to hear my songs, and I will continue to create and record on a constant basis, releasing music as soon as possible after I write it. I have a goal of playing one hundred shows in 2020: with 95% of them being in the Oregon or Washington areas. I’m not giving up on my music career, but I am shifting how I think of it. I don’t need the adoration to know my music has value. Adoration is as fleeting as becoming Instafamous (pretty short shelf life on that…). My focus is to become the absolute best writer and performer I can be, all else is side-business. No more wasting thousands on faulty publicity campaigns resulting in nothing but disappointment. No more wasted meltdowns on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere Idaho. No more canceling tours I spent months booking.

Keeping it regional will allow me to cast aside these traditional moorings of the music industry. I just wish I would have thought this way years ago. There’s nothing wrong with only local or regional people knowing and loving my music. It means something to them, and that should mean something to me.

So fire your manager, if you have one. Don’t get sucked into the many, many industry scams preying upon young, hopeful musicians. Focus on your region, make a name there. They’ll care more, you’ll be more fulfilled, and you may just end up with some money in your pocket.

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