Thinking Small: Devon Léger and Roots-Based Indie Music
An interview by Michael Dylan Welch, first published in Line Zero #4, August 2011, in a much shorter form.
Certain people are infectious with their passion for music. Devon Léger is one such person—as a music performer, listener, and promoter. In 2010, he left his dream job at Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival to start Hearth Music, a promotion business devoted to Americana, folk, and roots music. His company quickly staged the Seattle Folk Festival, which will build on its initial success when it returns again in late 2011. In the following interview, Léger says that he “loved the idea of a deep-winter festival where people could gather indoors on a cozy December night and listen to amazing folk artists.” This sort of fresh thinking is bound to make him more prominent in the Seattle music scene in his chosen focus of acoustic indie music, especially amid the challenges and opportunities it encounters with social media and music industry changes. For someone who loves to think small, in the sense of making sure that the music he and others play connects intimately with an enthusiastic audience, Devon Léger looks to be heading to big places with his passionate promotion of indie music. But the journey is all quite simple. His email signature quotes Hazel Dickens, who sang, “It would warm this old heart, my brother, if you’d come and sing one song.” That’s where it’s at for Devon Léger, remembering music’s roots one song at a time—and thinking small.
“Indie” is a trendy word these days. Is folk the original indie music? How has that changed in recent years?
Indie has become a byword for what people used to call alternative music. I think indie used to be a good term when it described a subset of the music industry that wasn’t concerned with big business or with old models. But now, with indie bands like Arcade Fire winning at the Grammies, or The Decemberists with a #1 album, it doesn’t mean much. As for folk music and indie, folk music is certainly independent, in that it rarely relies on big music industry business (though it does frequently inspire big business). But I wouldn’t say that folk is the original indie music. From the earliest days of the recording industry, folk music was business and folk artists were frequently recorded by the biggest labels back in the 20s and 30s. However, there is an underlying grassroots, do-it-yourself spirit that folk music shares with other indie forms, like punk or even underground hip-hop. I tend to gravitate towards folk music made outside of the industry, made for fun or for family or for friends. Though I work as a publicist, I try to work with artists who are driven by the music first and the industry last.
What are some of your earliest musical memories?
My dad was a music teacher, so I was always around music. I took a lot of his music classes, since he taught at the schools I attended all the way until I was in high school. I remember many folk songs he sang. In fact, I just heard a great version of “Diamond Joe” the other day and it brought back childhood memories. Other songs like “Inch by Inch” or the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” bring back old memories. I also remember him fiddling with friends or warming up for a concert at the symphony, so we had a lot of music floating around the house. Some of my fondest memories are of driving to school in our old Volkswagen Bug and listening to classical music on cassettes. We had Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Brandenburg Concertos, Handel’s Water Music. It was a long commute each day to where he taught and I went to school, so we listened to that music a lot. It was definitely burned in my brain.
What drew you to the fiddle, and how does it warm your heart? What else do you play?
I first played the piano, painstakingly teaching myself “Für Elise” over the course of a year. Then I moved to the mandolin in middle school when my dad taught me Nirvana’s melody to “Come as You Are.” Then I turned to the fiddle after a trip to Ireland where I realized no one could hear the mandolin in the jam sessions. I’d been playing some violin with the school orchestra and realized I wanted to learn the fiddle. When I was a kid, my mom made a deal that I could skip household chores like the dishes if I played music, so that was a great motivator.
I wouldn’t say that the fiddle warms my heart. Oh, no. It’s a horrible instrument. Almost impossible to sound good on, and it takes a lot of energy and focus to play. It’s not relaxing at all. I wish I played the banjo, so I could sit back and enjoy myself more. But the fiddle does ease my soul. I can channel my energy and aggression through it, and when I hit the groove with my friends and everything lines up, it’s a wonderful ride. But I don’t practice much at all because it takes so much of my energy.
What instruments do you wish you could play? Why?
I wish I could sing. I really, really wish I could sing. But I can’t. I don’t get it. I can fiddle and play a number of other instruments, so I know I have a musical ear, but I just can’t sing on key. I’m very sad about that. In my family band, I’ve taken to singing a few songs just to force myself to get better, and it’s worked a little bit, but not much.
Who were your earliest musical influences? Current influences?
Earliest influences were definitely my dad’s folk music and classical music. Also, my dad taught guitar to kids at the middle school, so he’d make cassette tapes of heavy metal and hard rock so he could learn the guitar licks, and I’d listen to those a lot in my spare time. I loved Poison and Iron Maiden and Aerosmith. When I got old enough to go to concerts, I went to some seminal concerts that really inspired me. Seeing Irish fiddler Brendan Mulvihill tear up his instrument in a cloud of rosin really blew my mind as a kid. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
My current influences are pretty vast. For playing dances, I try to listen to a lot of hardcore hip-hop to channel some of that energy and aggression. When I play dances, I want people to dance, and when you’re playing pretty “safe” folk music, sometimes you have to amp it up a bit to get a reaction. Otherwise, I listen to old-time and bluegrass these days and have been enjoying American roots music to no end.
Describe your music library. How do you find new music to play or perform, especially when the tradition is so often aural?
My music library is quite large because I work professionally in music. I certainly wouldn’t say I listen to everything, since I do have real musical currents that I follow. I love American roots music and have been getting into country music. I listen to world and Celtic music too. Hip-hop is an interest of mine, but I’m pretty picky about what I listen to in that arena. I don’t connect to the culture too much, but I like the verbal dexterity and the mish-mash of music that lays the beats.
Even though the folk tradition is aural, the Internet and digital technology has changed traditional music so much that it’s not so hard to find music anymore. I use many recorded sources, either commercially released CD or field recordings. Some field recordings are shared among trad musicians, others are online or available for sale. I make a lot of my own field recordings, not with an eye to document anything, but purely because I want to remember a tune or a song later. Sometimes when I identify a tune I want to learn, I can just search for it on iTunes and buy whatever version I like most. And of course, I still learn tunes from friends at jam sessions, just trading info and ideas and picking up a tune by ear at the session. This is my favorite way to learn, since the tune carries good memories—when I remember the tune later, I remember who I learned it from and the good times we were having. That’s the real power of an aural tradition.
You studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and got hired straight out of that program by theNorthwest Folklife Festival. What made it your dream job, and how did your education prepare you for it?
I’ve been talking recently to ethnomusicologists about how my education prepared me for my work outside of college. I think there’s too strong an emphasis in graduate work on how to continue your work in academia after the degree. I was more interested in how I could work with my training and skills outside of academia and dedicated myself to that. As for Northwest Folklife, they were looking for an ethnomusicologist to work in the programming department and I had experience in that field and the folk music scene. For me it was definitely a dream job. When I was in high school, my senior project was to get my Irish band into Folklife and that was my first trip up. I was hooked. For years, all I knew of Seattle was the area right around the Seattle Center, because I only ever came up for Folklife. Joining the Northwest Folklife Festival staff was an unparalleled chance for me to discover new music and new musical communities each year. No matter how strange my musical tastes at the moment, a bunch of bands always specialized in just that music at Folklife.
You worked for Folklife for six years. Please describe the festival, your role in it, and some of the difficulties the festival faces.
It’s an amazing festival. There simply aren’t any other festivals like it in the world. It’s the largest community arts festival in the nation and draws colossal numbers of attendees (well above 200,000) each year. When I was working at Northwest Folklife, we would program about 800 bands and figured that 6,000 performers would attend the festival. In fact, one day I ran some numbers and came up with the surprising figure that if you put every performance at Folklife on one stage and ran that stage 24/7, it would run nonstop for over a month.
I also loved the anarchy of Folklife. I’d say it’s a kind of controlled anarchy, but I’m not sure how much control anyone can have over it. With that many artists and audience members in any area, all kinds of strange and amazing things can happen. I ended up feeling that there were ultimately three festivals going on at once. One festival was all the programmed stages, where people carefully planned their time to see their favorite bands or to check out the diversity of Northwest music. Another festival was all the buskers or street performers. Since it was on a public campus and a free festival, it became one of the premier destinations for street performers. And the third festival was made up of the looky-loos who wander at will, hang out with their friends on the lawn, and just enjoy the company and the vibe. I really loved that kind of energy from all these strangers coming together in harmony.
For difficulties, I’d say Folklife faces the same difficulties as any community arts nonprofit these days. How to get money and how to keep funding? It’s a horrible climate out there for funding and I’m sure it’s still difficult on Folklife.
How is Folklife funded and how long do you think it can sustain itself without charging a fee?
Folklife has always been free to attend, and I think that’s a core precept of the festival. When I first started working there, I would have said that the festival could sustain itself indefinitely as a free event. But in recent years, I think this has become more difficult. Many nonprofits are suffering from drastic cuts in grants and grant funding, at a federal and state level, for one thing. And the people who created and financially sustain the festival, the baby boomers, are either burning out on all this giving, or moving on. For any free folk music festival to survive in today’s economy, they need to develop strong corporate contacts, new donors and new sponsors, and they need to bring a new generation into the Folklife fold. Without that, I don’t think anyone can survive these days.
In early 2010, you started Hearth Music, a Seattle music promotion business. Please describe Hearth Music’s philosophy and focus.
My goal with Hearth Music was to experience many sides of the music industry at once, and ultimately to help the artists I most believed in to make a sustainable living at music. We say we’re an arts promotion agency, and that means that our job is to spread the word about the music we love. Sometimes that means writing a blog about a great artist, helping them get booked at a folk festival, and sending their new album out to our media contacts across the continent. I just saw that many great artists weren’t getting heard and I was tired of not being able to help.
What motivated you to start Hearth Music? What void did you see it filling?
I started Hearth Music because I was seeing that the music industry was like the Wild West. Its infrastructure has almost totally collapsed, but new technology frees us to make our own careers and our own music and to find new ways of making that work. If I thought that I’d have to survive by playing the music industry’s games, I never would have started Hearth. But I saw that I could find new and fun ways to work with my favorite artists and to help their careers.
I just watched this great documentary on movie studio giant Pixar, The Pixar Story, and it reminded me how powerful it can be when someone takes a chance and throws all their weight behind new models of doing good in a bad industry. I wanted to take what I learned at Folklife, which was how to work with other passionate people and how to unite musical communities, and I wanted to apply that on a smaller scale and on a year-round basis.
One of Hearth Music’s major—and quick—accomplishments has been theSeattle Folk Festival, which first took place in December of 2010. What were some of its successes and challenges? What’s next?
That was fun! I just figured that Seattle would enjoy a folk music festival in the winter months when there’s less going on. With the gracious help and support of Town Hall Seattle, the first year was a definite success and a huge inspiration to us all. We’re coming back in 2011. The dates are December 9–11 and we’ll be back at Town Hall, and also at the Columbia City Theater. I’m planning a theme of “Appalachian Winter” for the festival and will be bringing artists from the South and the Northwest to explore this winter music.
It was certainly a challenge to create the festival from scratch in a city that’s already swamped with music festivals and at a time of year usually reserved for holidays and travel. But I loved the idea of a deep-winter festival where people could gather indoors on a cozy December night and listen to amazing folk artists. I stand behind that vision and with all the buzz created from the 2010 fest and the happy and inspired festival-goers, I think we have a real future.
Describe how you find artists to book, whether for festival or individual shows. And how do you find venues and event sponsors?
Finding artists to book is easy. There are so many great artists and not nearly enough festivals or venues to support them all. So booking artists is not too challenging. Also, I have many connections that I’ve built over my years in folk music. Finding venues can be a bit trickier, but again we’re blessed in Seattle to have a wealth of great venues, like Fremont Abbey, Town Hall Seattle, Columbia City Theater, Dusty Strings, Kenyon Hall, Empty Sea Studios, and many more. Event sponsorsing is a whole field of work that I’m just discovering. I like it a lot. I like pitching the idea of the festival and bringing people onboard to be a part of it, but there’s a definite learning curve.
Any particular bookings you’re most proud of? Why? What made them special?
I’m very proud of one of the headliners of the Seattle Folk Festival last year, Mr. Lif & Brass Menazeri. I helped bring this group together just for the festival. I knew I wanted to work with Mr. Lif, who was a well-respected underground hip-hop MC who had taken a hiatus from touring and performing. I found out he was splitting his time between Seattle and Boston and I asked him to come out for the festival. He’s one of the only rappers to focus on the bank bailouts and mortgage scandals and to speak out for working-class Americans. I see him as hip-hop’s Woody Guthrie. He needed a band for the festival and I thought about how much I loved brass bands and hip-hop and then how much I loved Balkan brass bands and wondered what that would sound like. So I asked around for the best Balkan brass band in the United States and everyone kept telling me Brass Menazeri, from San Francisco. I ran the idea by Peter Jaques, the leader, and being an old-school hip-hop head he was totally excited by working with Lif. And Lif, to his credit, was really into working with the Balkan brass band. I think he was looking for new ideas and new energy and has always been an open and experimental hip-hop artist. Anyway, they flew up for one day of rehearsal before the festival, in an old, damp, abandoned coffin factory, if you can believe it. They brought in some amps and heaters and before they knew it, seven hours had gone by and they’d built a band. They killed it at the festival, blew everyone away, and ran over to KEXP right afterwards for a live in-studio session.
Turns out they liked working together so much that they’ve made a real band out of this collaboration and just raised over $8,000 on Kickstarter for their debut album. They’ve been getting some cool national press and I’m really proud that this collaboration ended up being so fulfilling to everyone. Who would have thought that Balkan brass and hip-hop would go so well together?
Is Seattle particularly friendly to folk, or music in general? Why do you think that is?
I think Seattle is great to folk music and music in general. Between Portland and Seattle, we have the hottest music scenes in the country right now. The Decemberists, a Portland folk band, just nailed the #1 Billboard spot in the United States with their new album, and Fleet Foxes, a Washington folk band, are riding close behind. With the whole wave of beardcore folk music coming out of the Northwest, Seattle’s on everyone’s mind again. I should also point out that having Sub Pop Records behind this new folk music, as well as KEXP, has been a huge boon.
For more traditional folk music, there are a ton of great musicians out here. It’s a cold and rainy place, so it can be hard to get people out of their cozy homes, but there’s a lot of heart and community love in Seattle. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Describe some of your favorite musicians, locally and farther afield.
My favorite musicians are artists who enjoy music for music’s sake. Whether they’re an MC like Mr. Lif who loves to create and to connect with his audience, or an old-timey banjo player like Riley Baugus, who can channel centuries of Southern Appalachian traditions, to me it’s the same thing. Locally, I certainly have favorites. I love The Tallboys, and have been following artists like Zoe Muth and her awesome country band, Cort Armstrong, Ruthie Dornfeld, The Canote Brothers, Nancy K. Dillon. One of my favorite local bands is Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. I’ve definitely been working with them a lot. They’re incredible songwriters and have these monster chops on old-time banjo and bluegrass guitar. Just beautiful, timeless music.
Is “folk” a useful label? Is “folk” just the North American variety of world music? How would you differentiate folk from acoustic, roots, or Americana?
I think it’s useful, though a couple decades of singer-songwriters and over-eager protest singers have dampened its usefulness. It’s become a kind of polarizing term and brings to mind images that I don’t personally care much about. I use “roots music” a lot these days instead, since I like my music to have strong ties to musical traditions. But folk is still a good way to show that this is music made and consumed by real people and accessible to all. Folk music should be above the petty concerns of the music industry, and should be focused on something greater in all of us. “Acoustic” is also a useful term, since I’m not a big fan of over-amplification in music, and “Americana” has its uses, though it too has baggage, like emaciated Texas songwriters singing about the open road. I stand by “folk,” even though many people would like to move on from the term.
How does the folk and roots music you love intersect with popular and classical music? How do you think it could? What does other music have to learn from folk/roots and its community?
I have a real love/hate relationship with pop and classical music. When I was playing fiddle as a kid, I got flak from classical musicians and was told that I couldn’t fiddle unless I could play classically first. Then as I learned more about true fiddling, I realized how much classical violin could hold me back. Some of those old fiddlers in American traditions played outside of classical scales, using subtle microtones to convey feeling. And some of the bowing traditions in American folk music are absolutely beyond the conception of classical violinists. I played lots of classical music when I was younger and I was blessed to have a conductor for my youth symphony who understood that classical music could be a lot of fun. We played all the great classic symphonies and just had a blast. So I’ve had fun with classical music, but folk always had more of a draw for me. I’m a big fan of amateur classical music, because that involves communities and because it’s less stressful and stiff than professional classical music, but for now I’ve moved over to the folk side.
And pop. I don’t get it. I like what I like and I don’t like what I don’t like and what else can I say? I don’t know enough about pop music to even begin to understand it, but it’s fun to learn and explore.
If you could snap your fingers to make it happen, how would you improve the Seattle music scene?
I’d like to see more work building community in Seattle’s folk music scene. I’ve done a small part to help that and there are happily plenty of other people working on this at the moment. But I wish there was some place you could go to stay in touch with everything happening in Seattle’s folk music scene. As for Seattle’s broader music scene, with organizations like KEXP, the Vera Project, The Stranger, Seattle Weekly, City Arts, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Seattle City of Music initiative, blogs like Sound on the Sound and American Standard Time, honestly my only goal is to learn from all this inspiring work.
DescribeFiddle Tunes, what it means to you, and your role in it.
The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is a life-changing event every year. I can’t recommend it enough. I don’t play much of a role in it, other than helping out here and there however I can and generally enjoying the hell out of myself. It’s a week-long immersion in American roots and folk music held in Port Townsend, Washington. It’s one of the few fiddle camps that has the vision to bring out real tradition-bearers from all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They’d rather bring out an old-school fiddler with little teaching experience, because that fiddler is from this deep musical culture, than bring out a professional teacher who’s playing other people’s music. I really respect that kind of vision and I cherish what I’ve learned from these musicians and how it’s informed the music I play. For me, it’s a godsend, because Fiddle Tunes brings French-Canadian musicians every year, and usually the very best fiddlers from French Canada. It’s enabled me to understand my own heritage and to pass some of that heritage, most of which I didn’t know about when I was a kid, on to my children. I’ll never forget the late-night poutine party we put together at Fiddle Tunes in 2008. My dad served up endless bowls of poutine, and we filled this little house with people. The Québécois band that year, De Temps Antan, stayed up with everyone until the sun came up, playing tune after tune. People were shouting and hollering and carrying on and every now and then one of the French-Canadian musicians would burst into song. Magical moments like that are commonplace at Fiddle Tunes.
Even if you’re not a fiddler, I recommend attending the concerts in Port Townsend, which are open to the public. That can give you a taste of the inspiration and energy of this music.
Tell me about your family band,La Famille Léger. Any particularly standout gigs you can describe? Any dream gigs you’d like to have?
It’s a blast playing music as a family and we mainly do it for fun. I focus way more on promoting other people’s music than promoting my own, and I like it fine that way! But in our family band, my father and mother and wife play, and someday soon maybe my girls will play too. I have two young daughters, both of whom love being around the music and are starting to pick some of it up.
We’ve had some really cool gigs, mainly because of my work with the Canada Studies department at the University of Washington. We just played for government delegates and diplomats at a benefit dinner in Bellingham, which was a lot of fun. One of my highlights was playing for Pita Aatami, the president of the Makivik corporation in Nunavik, Québec. I’ve long been inspired by Inuit accordion music, which is one of the most obscure and unknown forms of accordion music in the world. We got to play for Mr. Aatami at a gala event in his honor when he visited Seattle last year. I’d learned some Inuit accordion tunes from some rare recordings and played them for him. He was just blown away and very touched and it was an honor to show respect for this almost totally ignored aspect of Inuit culture. Now, it turns out that our family band has been invited to travel to Kuujjuaq, the main village in Nunavik, this August to play at the Aqpik Jam Festival, a big Inuit festival. We’re really looking forward to the trip and to meeting Inuit musicians. That’s a dream gig right there.
Describe the recordings you’ve made. Where can someone listen to your music?
I don’t think I’ve ever made a fully produced album. Most of the albums I’ve made over the years have been homemade affairs just for fun. The album we have now is like that, just the four of us gathering around and playing our favorite tunes and singing some old family songs. If anyone’s interested, they can go to www.lafamilleleger.com to listen. Also, we’ve been researching our family heritage, the music of Acadian New Brunswick, and my dad’s been posting blogs about that on our website. He also posts sheet music and mp3s to share the tunes we’ve been learning from old archives in Moncton, New Brunswick. I see the family band as a way for us to rediscover our heritage, which has been mostly lost. There’s only a handful of Acadian fiddlers left in New Brunswick, so we’ve had to go to archives to fill in the blanks. It’s a fun journey and always a joy to make music en famille.
Your wife Dejah is also a talented musician, artist, and poet. Tell me about her.
Yeah, we met in high school when she was singing her own songs in the local talent show and I was playing with my Irish band, Sheep Dip. We’ve been together ever since, and have two kids together. She’s a wonderful singer and was inspired early on by songwriters like Joni Mitchell. Now, she’s been discovering Acadian music and learning old Acadian songs in French. She also just recorded an album of acoustic lullabies for children. We like to say that these lullabies were all “field-tested” with our kids, and it’s true! She wanted to make an album that would actually help kids go to sleep and help relax adults, so she cut the whole thing with just her voice and guitar. And it works—we’ve gotten lots of great feedback about how helpful it is. It’s a beautiful album. And she’s also a poet. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, and a sonnet of hers recently won first prize in a Washington Poets Association contest. Dejah also does graphic design for Hearth Music and many other clients.
How is music part of your daily life at home? How does music affect your children?
I wish we played more music, but I’m such a media junkie and I work so hard at my job that I’d almost rather just crash out and watch Futurama with my girls than try to play tunes at night. But since I don’t play a whole lot at home, I make sure to involve myself and my family in plenty of gigs and jams so music stays a part of our lives. I want to show my kids that music is something you do with friends and family, and though you can play it on stage, you can also just play it at someone’s house or for fun. But I also want them to be real consumers of music, so they hear music at all times around the house and love to sing along to their favorite shows. My two-year-old daughter, Zoë, is in love with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It’s a strange little musical about superheroes, but the songs in it just captivated her and she learned them all by heart. Now she doesn’t hesitate to sing/shout them whenever she’s out and about.
Are social media sites changing the face of indie music? It would seem to me that indie music of all stripes has a marriage made in musical heaven with sites like Facebook. Or would you disagree?
On the Hearth Music blog, and on the Victory Music Review and No Depression websites, I write frequently on how to use social media as a roots musician and certainly have my opinions. I’d have to agree that social media sites have totally changed the face of music. In fact, I based most of my business plan for Hearth Music on Facebook and have been well rewarded for my work on that platform and others like Twitter. There are some keys to remember, though. These social networking sites should always point to a real website. They shouldn’t be an end in themselves. The Internet is so fickle that these sites don’t have a decade of life in them, but are lucky to last more than a few years. Already MySpace is completely dead. In fact, to many bookers and industry people, it’s the kiss of death to have a MySpace site. I’ve passed over a number of artists I might have been interested in purely because I didn’t want to wait ten minutes while their MySpace page loaded and slowed my whole computer down. So you have to know how to use these sites, or you can end up hurting yourself. It’s not easy, but it can be done. For more info, check out these articles I wrote that candidly appraise the different sites and how they should be used for maximum benefit:
Also, there’s a great list I helped put together of140 Roots Music “Twitterati.” These are 140 of the most active tweeters in roots/folk/bluegrass.
What other websites are vital to folk or indie musicians seeking to share or sell their music and network with other musicians? Why are they important? What would you do without CD Baby?
I firmly believe in Twitter, CD Baby, and Bandcamp and encourage everyone I work with to use these sites. They’re important because they add a lot of function to your Internet presence. CD Baby is a pleasure to work with and really trusted, plus they take most of the work out of distributing your music without taking a huge cut. They’re not perfect, and like much of the Internet, a lack of heavy editing has drowned out some of the better voices, but without CD Baby we’d all have to ship our own CDs from our websites and we’d have much more work to do. Twitter’s a great way to build more personality for you and your music, and Bandcamp (or Soundcloud) are new ways to get your music streaming easily on the Internet now that MySpace is dead.
How important are blogs and artist websites in promoting indie music and being part of the larger community? How tech-savvy do folk musicians have to be these days?
Blogs are funny these days. There’s been a big change in the blogging movement. It was huge a few years ago and lots of blogs popped up and there was much talk about blogging as an industry changer. But bloggers quickly realized that it takes a ton of time and effort to maintain a blog and that’s just to keep the content fresh. If you want to have your blog read by anything more than a few friends or passers-by, you need to double your time commitment to start marketing the blog. So now most of those start-up blogs have stopped. I’ve seen many blogs that just kind of petered out in late 2008 or 2009—like junked cars on the side of the information highway.
Instead, what we’re seeing now is that the few bloggers left have turned to longer, more in-depth articles and have started branding their blogs. So if their blog was successful (read loyally by fans), maybe now they’ve developed a logo and a festival, or a series of compilation recordings, or maybe merchandise. There’s starting to be more of a blurry line between bloggers and journalists, or now even between bloggers, journalists, and publicists. It’s an interesting time for media and most of the old models are collapsing.
For artists, the website is key. It’s just about impossible to have a career these days without a website. And your website has to be functional. It all needs to be up to date and you need streaming audio and video easily accessible. You don’t have to be tech-savvy, but if you’re not, you need to pay people who are to help you out.
One of my favourite indie (sometimes folk) Canadian musicians, Jane Siberry, pioneered the pay-what-you-want online pricing scheme for her songs—and she did this in 2005, long before Radiohead and labels like Beehive Recording. Is there a future for self-determined pricing in folk/roots? Siberry has reported that the average price people pay for her songs is actually higher than the suggested price—perhaps that says something about the indie audience?
The pay-what-you-want model for album sales is something of a gimmick, I think. It does work and it’s a great idea, but it won’t become the industry standard. Instead, what we’re seeing is a shift from a model of consuming music to a model of patronizing artists. That’s why Jane Siberry was successful with her suggest-a-price idea and it’s mainly why websites like Kickstarter are so successful. Music was never about passive consumption, no matter what the industry wanted, and artists are realizing now that they can create sustainable careers for themselves by accepting their fans as patrons and giving these fans ways to actively support their careers. It’s a new model of consumption that hasn’t been accepted yet, but plenty of artists learned this early on and have been doing quite well with it.
The basic idea is that your fans want to support your music because they like what you do. And they’re more willing to deal with you directly than with an intermediary like a record label or a CD store. If they buy from you directly, they know they’re helping you out and helping you to make more music. So they want to become patrons of your music, rather than one-time consumers. And artists are figuring out that this is a model they can build on. Sites like Kickstarter bring the world of nonprofit fundraising directly into the hands of the artist. These are really powerful tools.
What’s in your future musically?
Lots more family music. For sure. I’ve been having a great time setting up concerts in Seattle and would love to work with more artists. I’ve been playing music as much as I can and learning Southern old-time music on the fiddle. I’d love to work more with that. Since music is all I do, I’d say music is my future.
Any advice or inspiration for musicians just starting out?
Think small. Don’t think big. The foundations of the industry are full of empty dreams and that’s part of what’s been bringing everything down. Don’t think you’re going to make it big as a musician. Everyone who makes it big starts out with a really solid, small base of fans and builds from there. They just put one foot in front of the other and try to have as much fun as humanly possible. That’s sustainable!