Thursday, September 22, 2011
I'm A Folk Artist
I'll Take What I Can Get.
As I see it, folk music has always existed outside the mainstream economies of the world, certainly outside the monied elites of history. Don't get me wrong, I love Mozart and The Beatles, but I'm not anything like them. While all those royal patrons were deciding which wigged genius to back, ordinary people were playing music in pubs and markets for whatever the people would toss their way, or were just playing for fun around camp fires and front porches.
That's the tradition I come from. Even though I was raised by academics in semi-suburbia, I was raised with folk music and in the folk music ethic. When I was young, I abandoned that ethic and tried to fit into the pop music world which was very different. It never felt right and no matter how hard I tried, I always felt terrible in that world.
Only in the last 5 years or so have I returned to my folk roots and have done what I would never even have considered doing when I was trying to be a pop star: playing anywhere that feels half way right for whatever pay is available, including just tips, and mostly letting people decide how much they want to pay for my music. I don't make nearly enough at music to do it for a living but I've never enjoyed making music more than I do these days and it's never felt more right.
I'm not "going anywhere" and I know it. I'm 54, I hate traveling, I only know a few chords, I'm incredibly limited musically and I'm kind of a head case lyrically. I know what I do has value, but I'm a doubles hitter not a home run hitter.
I'm grateful for whatever comes back when I play. Hell, I'm grateful for the chance to do it at all. I'll take what comes to me, but my expectations are very low. Most of the good stuff that's happened in the last couple of years has really surprised me. I certainly don't expect it to continue. Just before I got a gig opening for America at our local Britt Festival, which I thought was a major long-shot, I was telling my wife Samarra how grateful and happy I was just to be considered good enough to be in the running for an opening slot at Britt.
People who like or love what I do think I'm either being way too hard on myself, or suspect me of false modesty, but I have to tell you, I play hours and hours and hours of music to people who are barely listening at all. They're hearing me and sometimes tip well just because they like the vibe they're getting but they're not really understanding the song itself or what I'm trying to say. I've played much of last FIVE YEARS to pretty luke warm response overall, so it's hard to get too worked up over myself.
I didn't mind playing semi-background music for 2 hours in a coffeehouse for $20 and tips the morning after I played for 1500 people and made hundreds of dollars. I was happy to have the gig because that's really my bread and butter musically. That's what's mostly available for my kind of music around here and I'll take it. I consider myself a folk artist not a fine artist. I'm proud of what I am, but that's because I'm being true to my nature. I don't judge people who are different kinds of artists. My favorite band is Steely Dan, hardly what you'd call a "folk duo".
I don't consider playing for tips the same as playing for free. I'm happy to play almost anywhere, for free, for tips or for pay. I can't really relate to most of what's been happening to the industry lately. I am not in the pop music business and certainly not in the mainstream pop music industry. There are so many currents of money, marketing, history, politics, manipulation and God knows what else affecting that world. It makes my head spin.
I'm so so glad I'm not young and trying to make a living at pop music, much less trying to become a pop star. The young artists in my tradition are building fan bases by constantly traveling and playing wherever they can for whoever will listen. They are connecting directly to people on a daily basis, they are developing connections with people who feed and house them as they go too. They are living in cars and don't expect to graduate to limos any time soon. They're not courting the industry because the industry isn't interested in them or in art for art's sake. I can't imagine genuine folk music being as popular nationwide as it was briefly in the 1960's. So once again there isn't much money in it, which has been the case for the bulk of human history.
Simple music with a few chords for people who call themselves "folks", music that tells stories about people's lives is not the stuff of pop music star dreams, but it it the stuff of my dreams. I love just casting my net and seeing what comes back. Mostly it's not much but when I can connect to a few people who really listen and like what I'm doing...well that makes it all worthwhile.
For artists like me, the digital revolution is a Godsend. My music will always be a minority taste, but worldwide that minority is not insignificant. For a guy like me to record a video in the local cemetery, post it on youtube, have a guy in Holland that I've never met make a better video out of it that gets over 139,000 views is nothing short of a miracle. For most of my life, getting that many people to hear one of my songs was virtually impossible. My original video is up to 20,000+ views and that amazes me too. This revolution might well be hurting pop music artists and recording companies. It may well have negative effects on the development of popular music. I don't know. But I don't make popular music. I make folk music, so for me, as I say, it's been a Godsend. It's like I'm suddenly in a much larger living room or front porch.