Access Granted (Part 2 of a little historical perspective on Country Music)

For those of you who tuned in last week to my little quick, or not so quick, summary on the rather fast-paced reality of Country music, it might be a benefit to review that little, or not so little, article. Just click back to the blog and skim through the piece titled “Is Country Music Traditional?”  In it, I recap a short history of Country music in America and how it is actually pretty difficult to define what “traditional” country music truly is.

My contribution today to the digital writing world is a bit different, a little more philosophical and introspective. But it is important that you were aware of the context. You see, it was my discovery of the history that has caused me to evolve into seeing this music that I love in a new light. I couldn’t put the cart before the horse, as they say.

Let’s rewind the clock a little, like, the big clock, the one that rules the world. Close your eyes, breathe deep, hold your hands out onto your knees and let your mind take you back to the 1800’s. Now realize that you look really stupid and that you cannot successfully read this while in that position. So how about just think with me.  But here is your fantasy; you see someone on the street of your town in the mid-1800’s. You stop and ask them, “hello there old chap…” I assume this is how people greeted each other back then, “…could you please inform me of where I might be able to listen to some music? Oh, and also my dear fellow, what type of music do you enjoy good sir?” Depending on the size of your city and its sophistication, you might receive a couple of suggestions. This fine 19th century gentleman might direct you to a local theater, or opera house. Or if he is compelled to send you to a more blue-collar destination, perhaps a local saloon with an upright piano.  Depending on what decade your fantasy is in,  he might tell you of his personal favorite song that he has recently heard, and it might be “Oh Susanna” by Stephen Foster, or possibly “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”.   A good Texan might suggest “Home on the Range”.  If you are in a city with more high-society folk, they might suggest the music of Beethoven, or a waltz by Johann Strauss.  This was the American musical climate at barely more than a century ago.

Where was country music? It had not yet been plucked out of the idea dimension of the human brain just yet. Folk was on the rise with some of the old sing-along songs I mentioned above. But to hear it, you’d have to be in a dancehall or saloon. No radio. No iPods. No smartphones. No vinyl (sorry Austin folk with your mustaches). No CD’s. Summary, it has been a rather traumatic century on the quick explosion of music on modern society in the past century. Nothing is REALLY traditional.

But I understand, we do tend to see things as old , or historically long, in relation to the lifespan of a human. That makes sense since most of us don’t really care about music after we die…or do we? So, a century is about as far as we think in our own perspective. But this thinking can enable us to shoot ourselves in the foot on more big-picture perspective.

I don’t want to risk losing you my faithful reader, so I should transition into my thoughtful point. Read on…

I listen to a lot of independent music podcasts, read a lot of articles, review a lot of blogs. I try to stay abreast (such a funny word) of the latest happenings.  Mind you, I don’t try to participate in all of the latest and greatest, but I do try to be aware of what is out there. There is no shortage of musicians who are in panic about the state of the music business right now. Royalties are harder to come by. The industry is flooded. It seems impossible to get “discovered” and picked up by a major label to be sent around the world in a huge jet playing for thousands of roaring fans.  A century ago, just one teeny weeny century ago, royalties didn’t exist (they did but nobody was playing anybody’s songs so who cares?), musicians were a small class of local craftsmen, there were no labels, no music industry, no tours, no jets, and no roaring fans.  That is, unless you count the supposed riot that took place at a performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” ballet for its oh-so-crazy heretical portrayal of pagan rituals.

Again, just like my last writing, I mention this because it helps me put things in perspective. We musicians, like all human beings, get pretty worked up about things we don’t have.  And in doing so, we leave very little mental space to notice the things we do have. So, what do we have?

Digital media has made music accessible in a way that we have never seen before. Anybody with a professional sounding production can get their music onto a platform and market it across the globe.  Yes, that has flooded the industry. But who cares about floods? The worries over a  flooded industry are only for those who are thinking oh-my-gah, so last century.  For those stuck in a mindset of being the next big superstar on a major label, you are last century my friend. Hoping to sell out an ampitheater neighboring a castle in Ireland? Last century. Still using the ancient words, “Billboard Top 40”? Last Century.  Yes, I know, these things still exist, and probably will exist for a little while. But in the big picture of modern world history, this little phase that we have been in where we are visited by cute little guys called Music Industry Execs and we sign contracts with hand-held pens, I have a feeling these days are dying.

So, what comes next? I guess none of us really know for sure. My guess is that musicians who are able to make a living begin to look something more like musicians in the 1800’s. They are willing to hustle and perform at places that want music performed, they show up on time and play good music that is well practiced and played with skill.  They build relationships. The old musician idea of “mail-money” is going to become less and less likely for most songwriters, because there are just so many good songs being written.  In the flooded market, many people, and I do mean many, will eventually be weeded out by homelesness, frustration, and debtors prison (sadly I don’t think that exists anymore).  The future world of music is going to be for those who see a musical career differently. They will be musicians who do their job well, build a loyal fan-base, perform a skilled craft that sets them above the masses, and who are willing to work their job like it’s a job. This is not unlike the musicians of the past centuries, only there is a lot more competition now.

But there are some real advantages to today’s musical world.  The satisfaction of getting your music heard is easier and more accessible than ever.  Labels used to be the only avenue for mass distribution. One reason why so many musicians are broke is because they are shooting for mass distribution without a label, and that takes an office of people who light up cigars rolled in 100-dollar bills and laugh villainous laughs at you crazy hard-working types.  So, maybe don’t think about mass distribution. Maybe think about how you can get 100 people in your town to come out for a show. Maybe think about how you can use live streaming to be a part of people’s weekly lives in a meaningful way. Maybe work on the craft of writing songs that folks will keep coming back to when they need those sounds and lyrics to speak to them again.  This industry is filled with people who are suggesting last century industry strategies in a new century market.  My prediction is that there are going to be a lot of grocery store bagger boys in the near future with long hair talking about how they were almost a rockstar five years ago.  The future in music is for those who are steady, skilled, hard-working, creative, and willing to think about income and expense in a self-employed business model rather than a big industry executive model.  We’ve already seen this in the development of home recording, digital music distribution, YouTube marketing, and other creative ways to build relationships with fans without a lot of overhead. Those industries are thriving because hard-working musicians are looking for ways to do what they love in the long-term, not just score the fame and glory for today.  Notice, I didn’t mention social media. Why? Because I believe social media will soon become a graveyard of old forgotten profiles. It has done very little for the fulfillment of our hearts and our relationships. It will have had its heyday and will always be there in some form, but let’s face it, people want something real. Well, sometimes. Maybe I should just say that I want the kind of fans that want something real, and I want to try my best to give them that.

We have lived through a century when music exploded onto the world scene because of industrial revolution world-changing innovations like radio and recording technology (even the microphone wasn’t invented until the late 1800’s). Like all fast innovations, these technologies created a fast revolution in culture, but ultimately short-lived. Radio hits will likely be a short blip on the timeline of world history. So maybe join me, and don’t worry so much about the fact that your song is not hitting Billboard Top 100 charts, and just keep playing!

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