So, for the fist time in a long time I sat down to write. It happened to be Independence Day, July 4th 2013, sitting on my deck with the laptop - so I went off on that theme and it took on a life of its own.
It's kind of a muddled piece about being "Independent" and what that means in the context of America, what it means for MichiganBands.com, and what it means for the fledging music "scene" out there - whatever that is.
It ends with kind of a positive affirmation about how we need each other, despite the ability of each and every one of us to sit at home within the comfort of our own virtual world and do it all ourselves.
Click "read more" below for the article. Thanks.
Happy Independents(sic) Day
with a brief, muddled history of MB
oh, and some feel-good positive affirmations to send you off. ; )
Gave Proof Through The Night...
Happy Independence Day, local Band-heads. Fourth Of July, 2013. And even though we're supposed to be celebrating our independence from the tyranny of Great Britain some 237 years ago, I'd much rather celebrate the renaissance of local independent music. Why?
Let's face it, the U.S. ain't independent from anything anymore: not Great Britain, who tripled their holdings of U.S. debt to $321 Billion in the last three months; not China, who still owns most of our debt and basically subsidizes our standard of living via WalMart and every other big box store; not India, who leads the world in outsourced American service jobs; and not the middle east, to whom we're still beholden for much of our fossil-fuel-based energy and war profiteering.
No, at the very best, we're ineluctably interdependent with the rest of the world, as recent events in banking douchebaggery have proven; one pebble-sized turd dropped into the toilet-bowl of our capitalist economy inevitably contaminates the water supply for all. Not even the off-shore, tax-abating accounts of ex-patriot billionaire corporate pirates can escape the inclement weather of a 21st century digital economy, the poor bastards.
And 237 years later, after hoisting that tattered stars and bars into the rockets red glare, there's really only one flag left, and its symbol is cash (in any currency, preferably a stable one - if there is such a thing anymore). The world has gotten much smaller and the squeeze is getting much tighter. But I don't have to tell you that. You're likely a frickin' musician for gawd's sake.
But the news ain't all bad. No, really. Things used to be much worse for you band-heads (that's a term an ex-girlfriend of mine used to use to refer to musicians, i.e. "I don't do band-heads" - which, it turns out, she does) before the internet.
Go Digital, Young Man;
About 18 years ago (1995) I gave up bar-band life to start a little family and, hopefully, never have to suffer the mind-numbing repetition of classic rock ad-nauseum ever again. At the same time, I gave up on radio because I just couldn't stand to listen to the songs I performed in front of alcoholic bowling-alley patrons, for over a decade mind you, get drilled into my ear canal with every advertising cycle.
This was before the internet had really taken off, before satellite radio, before the iPod. Hell, Mp3.com hadn't even been invented yet (I bet you youngsters don't even know that relatively recent internet history).
So, much like our early forefathers, I struck out into uncharted territory, out into the digital wilderness to escape the "tyranny" of commercial radio programming, which unfortunately still reigns the airwaves to this day - though their impact has been much, and quite righteously, diminished.
America Online via squelchy dial-up telephone modems were the "Facebook" of the late-late twentieth century. But the World Wide Web (that's what we called it back then) was still good enough to explore the uncharted and undeveloped digital realm that was just beginning to replicate and render some usable websites.
One of those early discoveries for me (probably around 1998-99) was michiganartists.com. Truth is, I wasn't even intentionally looking for music at that point, but local artists, the graphic kind, like my sister who got her MFA from Wayne State. Pictures were the order of the day; streaming music wasn't even really possible yet. Files were downloaded via FTP and then played.
Finding truly local music on the computer, to me, was an epiphany. Bands of every genre not twenty minutes from my zip code were already exploring and exploiting the possibilities of the internet. In those days, bands only had a dedicated URL, hosted by who-knows-who-dot-com. But MichiganArtists was (and is to this day, I believe) collecting and collating HTML links of local bands all in one place. No longer were local bands allowed, or forced to suffer, anonymity imposed on them because of geographic location and/or denial of access to the radio, record labels or stores.
That was a big F'n deal. It's still a big F'n deal and it changed everything. Along with cheaper and cheaper quality instruments and recording gear imported from all around the world, music would never be the same.
And I think the lack of anonymity brought about by the internet turned out to be GOOD for music, as well. There was a time when, a'hem, local musicians could bask in the comfort of their own delusions without having to confront the insane amount of talented individuals who might have existed just a couple of towns over.
That geographical anonymity afforded a lot of puffed-up attitudes that were undeserved. Sure, there's still a lot of that going around but it's a lot harder to get away with when you can dial up a six-year-old on YouTube who can play Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" from the comfort of his web-monitored play-pen. Internet-imposed humility was a necessary, if painful step toward our "independence" and growth. It forced musicians to step up their game.
As a music fan, the internet was a lazy man's heaven. It was a smorgasbord of mystery flavors just waiting to be sampled. I spent a lot of time clicking band links night after night, searching for something that might get me off. When I found it, that shining gem in the vast wasteland of the unrefined, it was a HUGE pay-off.
"Wow! These cats are really good! And only twenty minutes away! And they're playing a gig tomorrow night at So-and-Sos! Gotta go check 'em out." Boom, you're now stimulating the local economy. Assuming you got out of you chair.
Before the advent of online local music, which seems ubiquitous and overwhelming now, you only had the two-dimensional promise of a Metro Times or Orbit club ad or the valiant efforts of Tom Ness (n.k.a Stephanie Loveless) and company at Jam Rag to maybe get you off your ass to check out a local band. There was no sampling the goods first, unless you bought, on faith, a local cd that "might" have some shelf space in some far, dark, forgotten corner bin of a record store (you see kids, a record store was....oh, never mind).
But I wanted more than just enjoy the bounty I'd discovered online, I wanted to share it. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to help spread the gospel of local, independent music.
"Well, all ya had to do was ask, son." P.T. Barnum, Eat your heart out.
So, You Wanna Help, Huh?
After writing a few reviews and such, Webmaster Rick enlisted me to edit content for a new site, MichiganBands.com. I was hooked. I wanted to tell people how great it was to discover music you REALLY loved in your own back yard. How cheap it was to catch one of their shows or buy their CDs. How absolutely cool it was to kick back and chat, in depth, with the very people who created that music. I met a lot of cool people. I met a few dickheads, too. But in every case, I respected the work and engorged myself on the music.
We started out with wild expectations as to what a local music website could be, what it could mean to the local music "scene". We created a site that solicited contributions by the bands, and hopefully other local music fans like us. Anybody could contribute content - to this day.
But it never really worked the way we hoped it would.
Turned out, Bands were only interested in promoting themselves and everyone else was looking for free ad space for their own fledgling business (photogs, CD replicators, studios, promoters, web-designers, etc...). Voluntary contributions by music fans like us were too few and too far between to provide a steady flow of content. I wrote the overwhelming majority of music reviews and edited and posted band links. Webmaster Rick kept the wheels turning and the bandwidth paid for.
It was the prospect of unearthing a rare gem that motivated me to pursue this at all. But it was probably a bad presumption on our part, in retrospect, to think that people actually wanted to search out the good stuff for themselves. They don't, for the most part. They want you to tell them, as quickly as possible, what's good and what's crap. Don't waste our time. Just get to the point. I never could do that, insisting there's something to be gleaned from any and all local music, considering the work that went into it, even if it was criticism. I was mostly alone in that opinion.
For a while, in the early oughts, our traffic was quite impressive (to date, we have piled up over 23.5 million page views). The forums were hopping and a lot of local networking was going on. But, like most forums, policing them for trolls, flamers, cyber-bullies and free ads became untenable - so we shut it down. Wasn't fun anymore and we weren't getting paid to put up with it.
Like the bands we promoted, we had little or no material support or representation - so it goes with being "Independent". Like America after the revolution, we were pretty much left to our own devices. The potential was there, but the work was entirely up to us. Two people. Two people with day jobs. Two people with families, bills, grown-up responsibilities. No way we'd be taking the risks necessary to make this bird fly any further than it did. So it is what it is, to this day.
Money, Money, Money. Money.
The biggest limitation to being "Indepedent", of course, is lack of resources (e.g.money). At first, we didn't care, but as MB became more like a job than an adventure, we'd needed the motivational cash to carry on or it was like beating your head against a wall and wondering why you had such a bad headache. Somebody has to pay for the bandwidth.
But nobody asked us to take on this burden, so we shouldn't have been surprised when even the bands that we promoted didn't really want to pony up for an ad. Our favorites did. When we asked them. Ok, when we begged them. Class acts all around.
We flirted with pushing more affiliation links and going after venues for ads, etc.. but like other media outlets, we found it consumed all our available time. We could farm it out, but there wasn't anybody we trusted enough to do it. We didn't start MB to make money anyway, but to discover new local music and share it with our friends. A labor of love, with an emphasis on the labor. It also gave us the permission to abandon it for any length of time we felt necessary. Music shouldn't be a burden, but a quality-of-life enhancement.
Instead, we held a couple fund raisers, which were a blast, but even so, the prospect of us making any money from what we did brought the worst out of some people. "How dare you raise money - for yourselves!" they cried.
Attempts were made to sabotage our efforts by people who really should have known better - by people who should have joined us, made us better, not fought against our every attempt to thrive or even survive. But people suck sometimes, and they can really suck if there's money involved. So we said fuck it and quit the fundraising - even though the bars begged us to do more. We had some big parties. Heard some great music. Paid some bills. Made some good friends. Bought some t-shirts (which we mostly gave away) and walked away without a dime for ourselves.
I toyed with the idea of applying for some sort of arts or business grant to make it worth promoting local music full time, but never pursued it considering the dearth of state money allocated to promoting the arts in the existing recession. Things would get even worse for the local economy later on.
The bands weren't making any money either. At least not original bands. My favorites from all those years were 20-40k in debt from the top-flight studios and producers they used trying to hedge their bet. Great product, but you still have to move units to pay the bills. Some wrote it off as a loss or worked second jobs to pay it all back - playing classic rock in bowling alleys, probably. :z
From time to time , Webmaster Rick and I would be approached by businesses who wanted to affiliate and start some kind of "special promotion" with us and take advantage of our traffic, but when they figured out how we were operating, they thought we were out of our minds for doing it all by ourselves, for free, and dismissed us readily. Didn't bother us.
Despite the top-level-domain suffix of Michiganbands.com, we're not a "company". More like a .org without a board of directors, a collective without a definite mission, or a virtual commune of misfits.
Since we started down this road more than a decade ago, dozens of other local music web sites have emerged, many better, some worse, but they kept coming and that was fine by us. The more the merrier. With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, it's never been easier to find a local band you really dig.
So, in the immortal words emblazoned upon that red white & blue, stars and stripes banner that hung above George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, we figured, "Mission Accomplished". We may be equally delusional, but that's our story and we're sticking to it. Fight the good fight.
Declaration of Independents(sic)
And that, as far as we we're concerned, was the fight for Independence. Independence from major record labels who churned out the same shit as their competitors because somebody had a "hit" last year. Independence from their predatory contracts that would assign good bands to un-promoted purgatory. Independence from distributors and promoters and radio stations who were on-the-take from those very labels. Independence from being gouged by ticket monopolies and event promoters, probably owned by the same millionaires who park their cash offshore to avoid paying the same tax rate as you.
We declared independence from the hipsters and trend-setters who couldn't see, or refused to see the quality of what was right in front of them because it wasn't "retro" enough or approved by the jet-setting european-vacation set or the self-righteous city dwellers. Fuck 'em. We know what we like and it isn't always considered "hip" by the glitterati. We celebrate any attempt at independent expression through music in the local market. We're not here to sell anything - which is our rebel cry.
We think, as a local independent musician you contribute - nay, you are VITAL - to the local flavor and local culture of our specific geographic region, something that's largely been ignored by those in power and/or lost due to the homogeneity of commercial music and the ubiquitous nature and perniciousness of commercial nationalism.
Partly why we chose to name this site "Michigan Bands" and not "Independent Bands" or "Struggling-Broke-Ass-Musicians-Of-America.com" - the geographic limitation was intentional and, for the most part, enforced. This is where we live. This is where we celebrate our Independence. When you "make it big" or move to Nashville, we're not so much interested in you anymore. We want to support our struggling, hungry artists who have something to prove.
O'er The Land Of The Free...
That rugged individualism that Americans celebrate on The 4th Of July, that "pull-up-your-own-bootstraps", "take-no-shit-from-anyone" and "get it done by yourself, for yourself" paradigm of so-called "independent" America, has resulted in not only our local music scene fledgling for cohesiveness, but more medical and funeral expense fundraisers in the last two decades than I care to recall. Our gig calendars were littered with them. Life is tough out there and what safety net still exists for people is threadbare and tearing apart.
But the fact that these events were so often organized or contributed heavily to by local, independent bands and musicians is a telling reminder that, like the America I speak of in the beginning of this, er, manifesto, we're not independent. Not by a long shot. We're inter-dependent. We need each other. What we do, what we say and what we write affects others and creates the reality we live in every day.
And, even when it often seems nobody gives a damn about your music, or your stupid local music website for that matter, when your family and even your best friends seem to feign interest and walk away annoyed by your solicitations, we need to suck it up and take a minute or two to recognize the artistic efforts of OTHERS as often as possible. That's right, OTHERS. Recognize.
It's such a cliche' by now, after years of attending meetings and reading blog posts about what's needed to create a mutually-nurturing, healthy music scene in Michigan where musicians and fans are truly engaged with each other, but the answer is, simply, to BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT. BE THE FAN you hope to attract. Reach out and SHARE WHAT YOU THINK about another band's work - but, for god's sake, be about more than yourself and your own career. If you're meant to be rich and famous, it will probably happen for you. Good luck with that. In the meantime, be engaged in the journey because it's a big part of your life. Remember, ♫ It's not the kill, but the thrill of the chase ♫
You might be surprised what a single encouraging word can do for somebody. It can change their life. I've watched it happen. It can make them feel validated for their efforts and bring peace to their minds. It doesn't even have to be about their music. Maybe your contribution is to be honest and direct them to a supportive role you know they'd be great at. But tread lightly, because you might also be horrified to know how long someone can sting from a stab of criticism. I've learned both things the hard way.
So, be proudly independent of those who would exploit your efforts for their own reward, and recognize and nurture the inter-dependence of the scene you live and work in every day.
Thanks for putting up with me all these years,
Comments can be posted at: www.facebook.com/michiganbandsmusic