‘Bottom of the food chain’ Archive

Karma Co.

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

A long time ago, when the world was young, there was a guy named Russell Wolff. Russell was this amazing ball of energy from, um, maybe Philadelphia – he moved up to Boston and immediately became one of my favorite pop songwriters. His album “Karma Co.” is everything you want from a pop album – whip-smart, great production, great songs, lots of attitude, and the chops to back it up. He became Liz Carlisle’s producer, and they left town to seek their fortunes, and they showed up in the Boston area to perform once or twice, and then…crickets.

This always fascinates me. Where do these people go? How could someone I thought was the bee’s knees just…vanish? Before the Intertubes, we were left to wonder. Now, on the other hand, well, just Google “Russell Wolff”. Kinda takes the mystery out of it, but one day, I was sitting in front of my computer, balancing my checkbook and rockin’ out to “Karma Co.” (it’s great checkbook-balancing music, I’ll tell you), and that’s exactly what I did. And there he was, big as day, hangin’ out in Nashville! And he’s done lots of cool stuff! And there’s an email address! And, of course, I couldn’t resist.

And, of course, he wrote back, and, of course, like everyone else in Nashville who isn’t on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, he’s starving, but he’s loving his life. Now, I’m glad that Russell is loving his life, and I’m sorry he’s starving. But there’s a part of me that says that Russell has let me down, because I want more “Karma Co.”, dammit.

I mean, Russell’s music is mine. That sounds insane, doesn’t it? He wrote it, he recorded it, he performed it, it’s his, no question about it. But there’s that little voice in my head – and I’m betting that you have it too, for some author, musician, playwright, somebody – that has glommed onto this particular snatch of creative energy and laid a claim to it, that somehow has a wire directly into my lizard brain. I want more. I need more. And the fact that “Karma Co.” was the last full-band music that Russell recorded makes me sad – for the world – and mad – because I want more.

Now, I know that Russell doesn’t owe me a damn thing. He’s already given me a gift. Fifteen bucks isn’t a lot of money to pay for karma. But it’s a drug. I am, I guess, addicted to “Karma Co.”

This is the fan speaking. Art is designed to connect, viscerally. And the wars that are fought over copyright, nowadays, are fought, at least in part, over the ownership of the connection. We consume these things – we’re encouraged to consume them, they’re fed to us, by television ads, billboards, flacky articles in breathless magazines – and then the fight begins. Can I remix my favorite U2 tune? It’s mine, dammit. It was playing when I met my first girlfriend, or when I lost my virginity, or during that astonishing beach weekend where all ten of us watched the sunrise and bared our souls.

But it’s not ours. The music does not belong to us, legally. The artist does not belong to us. There’s a television series now called “Game of Thrones”, which is based on a book in a series by an author named George R.R. Martin. And a while back, my wife observes, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman was asked by a fan of Mr. Martin about the inordinate amount of time that Mr. Martin was taking in producing his next book, and Mr. Gaiman famously said, “Look, this may not be palatable, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Heaven knows that if one of my fans buttonholed me at a gig and demanded to know where my next album was, I’d either assume he was joking or wasn’t really interested in preserving his previous investment in orthodontics. I mean, I’ve been working on it. Really. Leave me alone. It takes money, and rehearsals, and the sort of time that people with ailing and elderly family members don’t really have. And I hate being in the studio, and my voice isn’t having the greatest year, and – just – no. As thrilled as I am that you like my music – as delighted as I am that you came to hear me – I am not your bitch.

And Russell, in turn, is not my bitch, either, as much as it grates on me to admit it. It’s crazy that I can hold these two contradictory thoughts simultaneously – I demand that Russell record another album, and I’m appalled at the thought that anyone would demand another album from me – but the fan and the musician occupy different parts of the lizard brain. You’ve all probably read those interviews with famous actors who find themselves tongue-tied in the presence of their professional idols – yes, it could be marketing flackery, but I believe it. The consumer and the creator are different beasts, living side by side within us.

After all my gnashing of teeth, it turns out that Russell is in the middle of writing a song a day for the entire year, to raise money for a friend of his with cancer. That might feed my jones for a while – but you know how addicts can get.

Just Some Guy

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

I recently participated in a salon.

I’m sure, for some of you, I’ve just conjured up an ancient Palmolive commercial, with Madge softening your nails with dish detergent (seriously, how is it that she was never fired?) – and now, I’ve just sent the rest of you to YouTube to view some ancient 70′s pop culture, and you’re thinking, man, how old isthis guy, anyway? – but let’s get back to the salon, by which I mean something like the Algonquin Round Table, except with folk musicians (and stop it with the Google searches for a minute and just listen up, you young whippersnappers, you).

This salon was entitled “Open Mikes in Boston: From Club 47 to the Cantab”, and it’s one of a series of salons organized by the New England Folk Music Archives, hosted by Scott Alarik , charming performer, author of the book “Deep Community”, and former folk music critic for the Boston Globe. These salons are all open to the public, and feature selected panels of knowledgeable and presumably engaging people having, and leading, a vigorous conversation on the selected topic. This particular salon featured Betsy Siggins, founder of the New England Folk Music Archives, former executive director of Club Passim and one of the people behind the original Club 47; Geoff Bartley, virtuoso musician and long-time host of two open mikes at the Cantab LoungeDon White, renowned funny songwriter and performer, now host of his own open mike in Lynn; and me. The event was on June 1, which you might recall as the Night the Tornadoes Came, so Don never made it in from Lynn and we just about outnumbered the audience; but that’s not the point, really. Actually, that’s not the two points, really.

The first point is: I’m pushing 50, and I’m telling you, listen to your elders. Not me, silly – everybody else there. The dirty little secret of music – well, life, actually – is that nothing much changes. Human beings are human beings: flawed, talented, ambitious, humble, greedy, generous, short-sighted, wise. We tamed fire; we invented the wheel; we learned to farm; we tamed steam and coal; we harnessed the power of information, through writing, movable type, wires, radio, and now digital data; and at every step, our strengths and weaknesses have led us to glory, tragedy and everything in between. This is what makes history fascinating: it’s all about us – in fact, it could be about you and me. Read Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” if you don’t believe me. And listening to the stories about open mikes past, from the 60s and 70s and 80s – way before my tenure on the open mike scene – well, the same egos, the same tensions, the same pressures, the same virtues have been with us all along. I wasn’t much for history when I was in high school, and I’m still not a big fan of “back in the day”ism; but while digital production and distribution have really, really changed music, they haven’t really changed musicians.

So you owe it to yourself to go listen to people who have been doing this for a while. They’re wiser, at the very least due to the brute accumulation of experiences; they’re probably more patient; and they’ve had more time to master their craft. I heard Geoff Bartley do a fairly new song at the Amazing Things open mike the other night (a rare treat, like a presidential visit). It was a protest song, based on an old Quaker hymn called “How Can I Keep From Singing” (which I have never heard, or heard of). And what Geoff did with it, well, I’ll tell you, it sounded timeless; it could have been written in 1850, or 1960, or yesterday. It was that good. You don’t learn how to do that overnight. And you don’t learn how to do that without knowing your history.

The second point is: me? Why me? What am I doing on the same panel with that list of comparatively illustrious folks? I’m just some guy. Because we’re all just some guy, here in our heads. It’s like not having the guts to ask out that hot guy or girl back in high school, when at the same time the hot guy or girl was thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody ask me out? What’s wrong with me?” You can’t see yourself, ever.

But I’m apparently not just some guy. Scott Alarik thought of me out of the clear blue sky, which means he thought of me. Because he’s seen me perform. Because he was one of the performers at “How to Raise Your Own Voice”, the event that Susan Master and I hosted at First Night 2004. Because I host a listing of the open mikes in the New England area on my web site. Because he and I both play Gurian guitars. In other words, because I’ve been, well, around.

Do not, do not underestimate the importance of hanging around. Because 95% of life is Just. Showing. Up. Being on time. Acting prompt and courteous and keeping your clothes on at the relevant moments. Listening. Eventually, you meet people. You hear things you haven’t heard before. You make a tiny contribution that takes on a life of its own. You do something memorable (and I’m not talking YouTube, “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, TMZ.com, front page of the New York Post memorable). You become, well, part of history. Someone who’s been around for a while. Someone who might have something interesting to say at a salon, maybe.

It’s been said that history is one damn thing after another, but that’s not exactly right; history is one damn thing happening because of another damn thing. This is the way our lives go; and this is the way history is made. And this is the way just some guy becomes one of the elders. Just by hanging around.

So go hang around somewhere. Something will happen.

PROs and cons

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Today, my friends, we explore the follies of youth, overripe expectations, and the extent to which we musicians end up with the short end of our own damn stick.

Many years ago, when I was a young, impressionable musician, I joined BMI, one of the three performance rights organizations (PROs) in the United States. Hey, I was going to be a star, right? Gotta have someone to collect all those dollars from my airplay. I received my contract, which I signed forthwith, and set out to become the star I was bound to be.

Now, PROs in the United States are globally unusual, for two reasons: first, there are more than one of them, and second, they decline to collect playlists for live performances, but rather use another formula – say, airplay – to determine the distribution of live performance fees. And third – although I have no idea whether this differs in other countries – they pay their agents on commission.

Let’s consider, now, if we might, the fetid consequences of this particular arrangement of things. First, if you’re a venue, and you have music, you have to pay fees to all three PROs. Because the chances are that the artists you present or play on your stereo are performing songs by songwriters represented by all three PROs. Second, if you’re an agent of said PRO, your motivation is to mislead the venue, because the higher their fees, the higher your salary. Third, if you’re a member of one of these PROs, the venues you play at are liable for paying fees to that PRO – yes, they owe fees for your performances of your own music – unless you issue a separate license to that venue, which you wouldn’t be doing unless the venue wasn’t paying any fees to the PROs – a license which, by the way, you have to forward to your PRO, which, if the venue was not paying PRO fees, might be interpreted as a hostile act.

Now, don’t get me wrong – people deserve to be reimbursed for the performance of the music they write. So says the copyright law in the US, which I’m actually kind of supportive of, at least I would be if the copyright maximalists would crawl back under the rock they oozed out from. But – ahem – people deserve to be reimbursed for the performance of the music they write, which is most emphatically not happening. Because the formula for distribution of live performance fees is based on airplay rather than actual song lists, Taylor Swift is being reimbursed for the performance of the music I write. Which is, unsurprisingly, not cool. Unless you’re Taylor Swift.

So imagine, today, being a small coffeehouse. Like, say, Somethin’s Brewin in Lakeville, MA, one of my favorite venues – at least until it stopped presenting live music. Imagine having long, rude, unpleasant discussions with PRO agents who insist that it’s up to you to prove to them that their music isn’t being presented at your venue. Imagine your fury when you discover that Sam Bayer, a local fave, doesn’t even receive the fees you’re paying for his performance. Imagine being complete, utterly, irretrievably disgusted.

Ironically, it seems, BMI was founded as a less odious alternative to ASCAP, and, again ironically, pioneered fees based on a sampling of actual live performances. Today, they’re no better than the rest of them. My contract doesn’t let me quit BMI except during a window that occurs every two years (and yes, I’m told by a reliable lawyer that it’s enforceable); I don’t get reimbursed for my live performances; I can’t waive my performance fees except by tattling on the venue; and I can’t even vote to change BMI, because, although its board is elected by its members, the votes are allocated according to  – you guessed it – airplay.

So if I want to play at Somethin’s Brewin, I’m hosed until I can quit, next September. It’s not that the club is doing anything illegal – like I said, they’ve stopped doing live music – it’s just that they’re not interested in the hassle of trying to convince BMI that they’re not doing anything illegal. So we’ve lost another venue, and BMI and ASCAP and SESAC don’t collect any fees at all from that venue – and nothing is, in case they haven’t noticed, less than some sort of negotiated fee rate – and their agents don’t get any money, and the songwriters they represent don’t get any exposure there, and I’ve lost a stage that I really like – it’s just a win-win situation all around.

There’s no reason for me to belong to a PRO. None. There’s no reason for just about any of us to belong to a PRO. For the vast majority of original singer/songwriters, gig income and album and download sales will be the only dollars they ever see from their music; even if you get a bit of airplay, you’ll never see a dime from it. Had I actually thought about this, and understood my music career clearly, it would have been obvious to me – but no, I had to succumb to the lure of lucre.

Especially without a waiver for my own performances, my contract with BMI is just a boat anchor. I’m simply fodder for them – a number they can point to when they call the tiny coffeehouses to shake them down. There’s only one word for the PROs nowadays: thugs. And I’m ashamed to have them represent me.