Grammys: For Musicians Or For Naught?

Peter Cooper of the Tennessean is an excellent music journalist and a pretty good singer and songwriter who I have a great deal of respect for. Today he posted an opinion piece about the Grammys and how the show has pared down the number of categories it offers, cutting ethnic, classical, and instrumental categories, and his opinion seems to be that that’s a bad thing. Click here to read Cooper’s post, “Exclusivity May Suit the Grammys But Not the Rest of Us.”

Cooper says that pruning instrumental categories and other niche genres does a disservice to the musicians because:

“Grammy awards also help touring musicians to emphasize validity to concert promoters and to audiences. Want to go out and see another singer-songwriter? Maybe not. Want to go out and see a three-time Grammy winner? Maybe so.”

Here’s where he and I differ–I don’t think the Grammys were established to pad the resumes of musicians. Good music will find an audience no matter how many awards you can or cannot associate with the person playing it. Most of my favorite bands, and probably many of yours, never won a Grammy or any other award. If an artist needs a Grammy to validate what they’re doing, I’d suggest they are doing it for the wrong reasons.

I spent many years in music retail and from my admittedly limited perspective never saw much of a sales bump from the Grammys for anyone other than the major artists who performed on the telecast. To use one of Cooper’s examples, Alison Krauss, I sold plenty of her albums over the years, but mostly due to bluegrass fans who already knew about her or those who came to her music from hearing it on the radio…not because she has won boatloads of Grammys.

Cooper also says, “One of the Grammy Awards’ most appealing aspects has been the celebration of the gifted-but-marginalized, and this year that celebration was somewhat muted.”

Perhaps it was, since there were a lot less of them honored at the non-televised portion of the show, but for the vast majority of those who did tune in to the TV show, those awards would have fallen on deaf ears anyway. Let’s face it, the music-buying public is mostly tuning in for the lowest-common-denominator trainwrecks such as Niki Minaj. The fact that they occasionally get a Civil Wars or Avett Brothers probably results in more head-scratching and bathroom trip tune-outs than it does real exposure for those acts.

Music is fragmented now more than ever, and musicians ought to take a lead from politicians–shore up your base, play to them first, and if and when you get some momentum they’ll support you even if you make that unlikely ascent into the mainstream. Until then, play because you want to play, enjoy playing, and couldn’t do anything else even if you tried to stop.

Post-Echo’s Post-Music Business Model For Successful Collaboration

With the increasingly collaborative options offered up online it was only a matter of time before someone figured out a way to take advantage of pooling resources and initiative to come up with something greater than the sum of its parts on a local level. Post-Echo is a website, it’s a group of like-minded local South Carolina musicians, and it’s a glimpse into the future of collaborative creativity and promotions in the music business.

“Post-Echo arose out of a discussion about where music was going in the century ahead, and how artists could keep their heads above water in the post-digital music age,” says co-founder Justin Schmidt of Post-Echo band Forces of a Street. “Everyone talks about how record labels are outdated, and we agree, but it didn’t look to us like having a million struggling independent musicians was the way things should go either.” With Post-Echo’s other originator, Fr. Jones, also being one of those independent musicians, it was more than an academic argument.

“Being artists ourselves, we knew what it was like to put yourself out there on your own,” says Jones. “It’s rough, and it’s hard to provide people with context for what you’re doing – why they should listen to your music.”
Post-Echo, then, was founded on two main principles, according to Schmidt and Jones: First, a collaborative relationship between artists makes for better music, and second, the music and art of Post-Echo artists will strive to create a ‘full’ experience.

“We are very lucky to be working alongside these artists,” they both agree. “There are so many creative ideas and unique personalities among them, and we want to help them amplify and broadcast their artistic personae as best we can.” They are doing that through a mixture of album releases, video blogging, fully produced and live music videos, free downloads, and more, using whatever it seems will help get the word out about Post-Echo artists.

Bobby Markle and Caitlin Hucks are the most visible part of the operation outside of the bands themselves due to their presence in a string of videos interviewing and promoting the groups various new releases.

The first inkling of what would become Post-Echo was a compilation album released in 2011, Future Y’all, which included many local and regional artists, some of whom have become involved with the collaborative Post-Echo effort. “It road-tested a collaborative approach and built bridges for us with some excellent artists in the area,” Schmidt says.

The next big step for Post-Echo begins this week with the February 14th release of the new album from Forces of a Street, Pro Icarus, followed by electronic act Roomdance and their new album Sewn Inside on March 1st and the ambitiously titled These Are the Things I Love and I Want to Share Them With You from the band Pan on March 7th.

The interesting thing about Post-Echo is that there is no real rhyme or reason or underlying similarity between the artists involved, unlike more famous collectives such as Elephant 6. I’m reminded of a comment from longtime South Carolina artist Danielle Howle when I asked her once in an interview what she thought Columbia’s “sound” was—her response was that it was that there was no “sound,” in the sense of everyone sounding similar, and that that was the best thing about the area’s scene.

Pro Icarus is a perfect example of the diversity of the Post-Echo roster, as it is in itself a wildly diverse set of tunes. Justin Schmidt is a child of 90′s and 00′s rock, from Coldplay to Radiohead, but he’s also talented enough to mask those influences in a haze of Pink Floyd and Beatle-isms and nods to everything from Dinosaur Jr. to Devandra Banhart on songs such as the trippy “Black Light” or the first video single, “Scope.”

For their part, the artists who have gathered under the Post-Echo umbrella seem pretty happy to be out of the heavy downpours of the music industry uncertainties and content to make music their own way, for now.

“Every press label or record label has to start somewhere, so even though Post-Echo is at the beginning of a long journey, we are happy to be a part of it,” Says Ian Flegas of Pan. “We want to help them get more recognition and they want to do the same for us, it’s a win-win. They are almost honorary members of our band because they do so much work for us–they are always sending out emails, posting our stuff on their web page, filming and recording us, doing interviews–It’s a real fun experience.”

Local act Pan’s upcoming full length album was recorded at Archer Avenue with Kenny McWilliams, a process that Post-Echo helped with, he says.
“They helped us with finding the right studio—if we had recorded anywhere else our album would sound much different than it does,” Flegas says. “We used better equipment, amps, pedals, and really nice guitars, and the results have honestly exceeded our expectations—if you were going to compare the two, our new album would be a Ferrari and our first album would be a Camry.”

Pan is one of those sometimes dismissed ‘instrumental’ bands, but one listen to a song such as “Seeking the Sea King” and the intertwined melodic lines grab your ears just as much as any vocalist might. I’d venture to say that Pan is that rare breed of rock band which would sound less great with a singer, in fact.

For fellow Post-Echo band Pandercakes, the incentive to join up was increasing exposure for the singles they have already been releasing for free download on Soundcloud.

“We hope that our involvement with Post-Echo will allow our music to be heard across the country as Post-Echo continues to grow,” says Pandercakes’ Logan Goldstein. “It hasn’t changed how we release our music, but it gives us another outlet for promoting it.”

The latest Pandercakes single is out this week at www.soundcloud.com/pandercakes , joining such majestic kitchen-sink production indie-pop gems as “Andre Breton” in what is shaping up to be a most intriguing member of the local music scene.

The newest recruit to the Post-Echo group is Modern Man, a self-described “recording experiment” that has turned into a full live band with a densely layered modern rock sound indebted to My Bloody Valentine and others from that shoegazer era of guitar-centric britpop.

“Post-Echo came out to one of our shows and said they’d like to help us out,” says original modern man Allen Glenn. “ When we sat down with Post-Echo to discus a possible future, they were all about not changing any concept/image/whatever that we may have and only want to help us and them grow together. By them potentially lifting some burden off of our shoulders we are able to focus on writing, recording, and producing artwork and merch, and playing shows.”

So, what’s next for Post-Echo?

“After the hubbub of the triple release is behind us, we have plans for another exciting collaborative project,” Schmidt says. “In the meantime we also hope to produce another interactive ambient video collage where listeners can make their own soundscape using performances by Post-Echo artists.” if that’s not enough there’s also a comic book in the works with a soundtrack album to accompany it.
For more on the bands mentioned above and other Post-Echo artists and projects, visit the Post-Echo website.

Tryin’ To Make It

Two local South Carolina projects I received notice of this week illustrate a question I’ve been trying to ask, and perhaps provide the answer, about what goals a musical artist ought to have in today’s version of the music business. The first is a new song and video from Fat Rat Da Czar, “Tryin’ To Make It,” from his forthcoming album Cold War 3; the second is a new album from Danielle Howle, New Year Revolutions, recorded entirely on Garageband at her Awendaw cottage.

The question is why anyone’s first impulse or desire as a musician these days should be to ‘make it’ in the sense of signing that mythical record deal instead of doing it all themselves? With all of the tools out there to direct one’s own career at whatever level or ability, what’s the point of handing over control to a corporation that returns so little back?

I can point to several South Carolina based artists in the recent past and present who have taken the bait and come out of the major label water with little more than the hooks in their back to show for it, either self-destructing from the experience or simply returning to playing the same restaurants and bars where they played before their stab at the big time. I-Nine and Eddie Bush (With the country group One Flew South) at least released albums; Boxing Day‘s never officially came out and I’m probably not the only one wondering if Weaving the Fate‘s will suffer the same fate.

Fat Rat and Howle are not the point/counterpoint of this argument, for each has been doing it themselves in their own way. “Tryin’ To Make It” isn’t really saying he wants to get that major label contract, though hip-hop may be one of the last places it would almost make sense. Instead, he’s pointing out to his friends and fellow rappers that he’s working hard toward his own version of making it in music.

Howle’s new album is a perfect example of how the new music business model can work to an artist’s advantage. With no label to tell her she can’t do it, Howle took the new backing band she started touring with last year, Firework Show, into her two-room cottage in Awendaw, South Carolina and within two days they had a full length album’s worth of recordings. Some of the songs are older ones re-arranged with the current ensemble in mind, some are entirely new tunes, and one, “Being Poor” is a cover of the late SC musician Chris Conner‘s band The South which Howle has been opening her live shows with for a while.

The amazing thing is how there isn’t much difference between this computerized home recording and the bigger studio productions Howle has released on various indie labels in the past, sound quality-wise. The barriers to entry within the recording process have fallen so low that a no-budget project like this one can easily suffice for a truly independent artist such as Howle, who plays constantly and thus needs a more frequent way to provide some new take-home music to her fans. I’m not even going to get into the argument about whether you charge for the music or give it away free, because that’s not the point here—the point is that if you’re in control that decision is yours to make or not make.

I’m not an independent musical artist like Fat Rat, Danielle Howle, or any others you might be a fan of, but if I were here is a very simplified version of what I would be doing instead of signing with a label (Assuming I had the talent and ability to produce music that others might like and want to hear/have):

1.Give away the music digitally via Bandcamp or other online means that allows for ‘name-your-price’ distribution.

2.Do small production runs and sell physical copies at gigs, they’re not much more than souvenirs or coasters these days anyway.

3.Offer package deals to fans with added perks for more money either prior to the release to help with production and distribution costs, or after the fact just as a thank-you. See Graham Colton and Amanda Palmer for excellent examples of this kind of promotion.

4.Concentrate on playing live shows as much as possible, and get paid for them as often as possible—learn to book yourself and promote yourself until you get to the point where you need professional help, then and only then should you worry about a booking agent or manager relationship.

5.Create a presence online through various channels—not just Facebook, though that’s the obvious one. Twitter’s a great place for relationship building if you put the time and effort into using it regularly and interacting constantly. Your website isn’t as important as it once was, but you still need a presence out there with your name on it. Are your fans posting video of your live shows on Youtube? Share those clips with your mailing list, Facebook friends, on Twitter, etc., especially if they’re good quality—you’ll gain a loyal fan in the videographer by getting them hits on their Youtube channel and you’ll encourage others to share the clips amongst their own friends. Make your own videos (Like Fat Rat and others locally have already begun to do) and promote them the same way.

6.Try new and different things—work with filmmakers, visual artists, writers, and other creative types because you never know what kind of ideas and opportunities might come out of it.

The bottom line isn’t the bottom line anymore, in other words it isn’t about how much money you can make this year or with this album or even this tour. It’s about how you can build your brand and your career by expanding your fan base gradually with people who genuinely want to help you and who will spread the word about your music for you. That kind of exponential growth comes not from limiting your fans but by enabling them to share what they know and love about you. How you do that is up for grabs, just know that you are the one who has to do it.

Columbia’s Nashville Connection

CherryCase


With last week’s ‘farewell show’ from local indie-pop band CherryCase, the trickle of musicians leaving Columbia, SC for Nashville, TN has become if not a flood, a definite trend. In addition to Jake Etheridge and Taylor Desseyn of CherryCase, the young yet very talented Haley Dreis is also relocating this summer; she’ll be teaching violin and pursuing her music full-time. Last year, another accomplished local songwriter, Hannah Miller, made the move.

Haley Dreis (photo by Clayton Bozard)


They join a cast of Columbia and South Carolina expatriates already established in Music City to varying degrees. Taylor Bray, who played in several area bands during his tenure in Columbia, is working in the studio business there, while Charleston singer and songwriter Amber Caparas has been there a year or so as well. Camden native Patrick Davis is a well-entrenched presence in Nashville with hit song credits by Pat Green and Jason Michael Carroll (“Where I’m From”) and cuts from Darius Rucker and others, while Christian songwriter Laura Story (“Mighty To Save,” “Blessings”) has also been there for a while. Reach way back into SC music history and you’ll find artists such as Rob Crosby, who had several hits as an artist and still works as a writer, and Mark W. Winchester, onetime bassist for Columbia’s Rockabilly 88 who has played with Emmylou Harris and the Brian Setzer Orchestra in addition to a few indie releases on his own.

Patrick Davis


A few local artists leaving for the greener avenues of Music City doesn’t make an entertainment brain-drain, of course, and the opportunities available in a music town like Nashville will always draw the really serious players no matter what South Carolina audiences do. For the rest, there are plenty of ways to make music and stay right here in Columbia, or Charleston. The list of well-known acts staying put may someday start to outstrip the ones jumping ship, even. Chaz Bundick and Toro Y Moi started the indie-rock buzz going, and Coma Cinema is keeping pace. Down in Charleston, the guys in A Fragile Tomorrow actually moved INTO South Carolina from up north to increase their music-making opportunities. Danielle Howle continues to tour internationally from her Awendaw, SC home base, and last time I checked even Darius Rucker still lived in Charleston, not Nashville.
Here’s hoping that even our now expatriate artists at least come back often to visit and play the occasional gig here in South Carolina, and if they ever want to come back home, they’re welcome to any time.