NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com
This week I realized that I have about 6 topics brewing at once. So, as it is with any good jam session, I am just going to wander and see where I land…
It was the early 2000’s and, just like any other day, my business partner Paul Smith and I were doing a session at our studio, Saturation Acres. This day was a bit unique though because we had an outside producer, Tom “Bone” Edmonds. Bone is an industry veteran that has worked with The Rolling Stones, The Band, The Allman Bros., The Cult, and Lenny Kravitz. To name a few. He has the best stories ever. And I have learned so much about making records from him.
Anyway, on this day we were simply engineering and playing guitars on one of his projects.
But that is not the story.
On this particular day, Bone had brought a guest to the studio. A man, mid 50’s-ish, in a flannel shirt who by my estimation had had one too many before he got to the studio that day. I don’t know if he was a friend or a relative. But he was polite enough. He sat quietly and watched the session unfold. Little did I know that this man would say something that would haunt me to this day.
We went about our business doing guitar and vocal overdubs. The usual process. “One more time on the chorus”. “Check your tuning”. “That was good, but a little pitchy”. “That sucked, do it again. Do it again. DO IT AGAIN”.
And with each pass our house guest got more and more agitated. I thought maybe he had to pee. I gave him directions to the bathroom. He didn’t move. After about another half hour of this process, he couldn’t take it anymore. He reached in his front pocket.
Much to our relief, he did not have a weapon. It was a Roy Orbison cassette.
He waved it in our faces and said “I don’t know why you guys are going to all this trouble when you can just go down to Walmart and get this for $3.00.
To this guy, we were making a record because we didn’t have anything else to listen to. In his eyes we were making our own ketchup. And that didn’t make any damn sense. Especially with Walmart just down the road with racks of the stuff for cheap.
Bone looked sideways at me and smiled, “You know, he has a point.”
We stopped the session right there and went to the bar.
I have spent over a decade trying to answer that man’s question. It was like a curse he put on me. I didn’t even catch the guy’s name. I didn’t even get to thank him. Regardless, wherever he is I bet he is still listening to that Roy Orbison tape.
Rephrased in my mind, his question was, “Why waste your time making and listening to this independent music when all the most popular stuff is so cheap and readily available? Everybody’s doing it. It’s easy, dude.”
I’ll try and answer that, but first another tale. I told you I was wandering…
One day, the aforementioned Paul and I came up with the idea that we were going to try our hand at beer making. We bought some buckets and various ingredients. A simple kit. We decided we were going to make a Guinness-esque dark beer. It was fun and it went well. We bottled up our creation and put it under the steps to ferment. Six weeks later we got together and cracked a few brews.
Hmm, NOT BAD.
We gave each other a head nod (the cool people of the 90’s equivalent to the high five) and split up our winnings. I was psyched. The next day I grabbed a six pack and headed over to my neighbor’s house. He was grilling by his garage. I handed him a six pack and told him about how I had made it and this was for him. He said thanks and cracked one open. A strange look came over his face as he took a swig. I could tell he wanted to spit it out, no doubt. He forced it down and handed me the beers back. “Sorry man, this just isn’t my thing. But (he shook the bottle in my face)… If you can make a beer that tastes like a Coors Light, you bet your ass I will drink it.”
Ok, clarity… Time to stop wandering. So, why bother with this stuff?
How am I going to convince a guy that likes Coors Light to like my homemade stuff? How am I going to sell a guy on the virtues of the new Graces Downfall record I just produced when his idea of a good jam is Miley Cyrus?
Answer: I’m not. Or at the very best it won’t be easy.
But…making independent music is still friggin’ cool. And it’s needed now more than ever. Because to quote Sesame Street, “The musician is a person in your neighborhood.” And your neighborhood needs to realize how important he is.
My wife always tells me that we were destined to be “the indian at the party”. We are not invited to a soiree because we own a bunch of construction companies, hold a public office, or have a building named after us. We are invited because we are interesting people who live interesting lives. i.e. “the Indian at the party”.
Hello Johnny Potatoes……I’m Billy Potatoes. I’d like you to meet my friend, Jimmy Carl Black. The indian at the party.” “Ooh, nice to meet you. Can I touch your feathers?”
I probably could have been a decent muckety muck, but I have never regretted choosing to be the indian at the party. Ok, I guess I wandered a little again.
To repeat myself, the musician is a person in your neighborhood. A city (or state’s) music community is a big part of what makes that place unique. And that should be celebrated right beside the exalting of its sports figures.
I live in Pennsylvania, so everything here is Penn State, The Steelers, The Eagles, The Phillies, etc, etc. I can walk out my door and by this afternoon I could find a dozen bars with various Pennsylvania sports team’s memorabilia plastered on the walls. Conversely, I bet I couldn’t find one photo honoring one member of Pennsylvania’s rich musical history. And there’s lots of it. Why is that? I for one would rather see a picture of Questlove hanging in the bar than Michael Vick.
Hell, people are jamming to tunes on the jukebox by artists that started right in their home state or town. And they don’t even know it; or care. Stephen Foster, called “the father of American music” was educated in Towanda, PA. About 15 miles from Towanda is the town of Camptown, rumored to be the inspiration for “Camptown Races”. Anybody heard that song? Sure you did. But you probably were unaware of his connection to PA.
Why does this happen? Well, let’s crack open a Coors Light and discuss it.
Upon returning to her hometown, the author Gertrude Stein once lamented, “There is no ‘there” there.” In most American cities, this has been happening for many years. The landscape becomes more and more “the same” as you move from place to place. There is no “there” there.
Every town has a Lowes, Walmart, Target, Perkins, Bed, Bath, And Beyond, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc, etc. Every one of them pretty much the same as all the others. There is no “there” there.
Radio stations playlists are overwhelmingly being dictated by consultants in some far away place. People with no direct connection to the community they are spinning tunes for.
See where I am going here? We are being homogenized and too few are awake enough to see it or care.
If someone comes to your town to visit for the weekend and wants to soak up the local culture, what would you do?? You’d take them to the diner with the old cook who yells at all his customers. Or you’d take them to the restaurant with the most unique deep dish pizza you have ever had. Or you’d take them to the backwoods bar with the best bluegrass jam in the area.
I hope to god you wouldn’t go buy a couple Whopper meals, pull into the parking lot of a Walmart, and listen to Kesha on the radio. And, oh yea, top the night off with a 12 pack of Coors Light and Netflix TV shows.
Sadly, option #2 would probably be a more accurate picture of what usually happens.
Ok, I’m lost again. How do I bring this full circle?
Hey, if people want Kesha they want Kesha. If they want Coors Light, they want Coors Light. I’m usually the type that likes to appeal to people’s self interest instead of their sympathy. I’m not a “you should support the arts” kind of person. People don’t have a lot of free time and I don’t want anyone to do something out of a sense of obligation. But still I feel something is being lost here.
Like my old radio promotion guy used to say, “Wake up people, your back yard is on fire.”
Does Hollywood have to make a movie about your hometown for you to realize how cool it is??
When I’m listening to tunes at home, the independent, regional stuff I work on flows effortlessly in and out of the playlists that contain all the classics. I love it. Just like grandma’s meatloaf sits on the table next to the Kraft macaroni and cheese.
But still, I have trouble convincing people to pay attention to this stuff. Everybody’s kind of sleepy.
I once played a charity auction in Austin, TX. Why we were there I don’t know, but I am glad we were. I stood backstage surrounded by a sea of the Austin music scene elite. Jimmy Vaughn, Charlie Sexton, Eric Johnson, Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton (of Double Trouble….. Stevie Ray’s band). The vibe was incredible. Those guys (and music in general) are an important part of the identity of that city. And I stood there enviously wanting just a little bit of that vibe for my town.
Others have found ways to convince the public to watch TV shows about celebrities ballroom dancing and diving into pools.
And still I babble. Still I wander. Damn you, Roy Orbison man. You win again.
Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.
The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. March 22, 2013