Today I received an e-mail which starts like this: "Dear Erkka, I wanted to send a big thank you for your support of and interest in my music. Independent artists are able to exist and continue to create because of people like you." Something told me it was not an automated script sending those thanks-messages, but that the artists had written that in person. And, obviously, it means what it says. That made me stop to think. And, as typical for me, when I think it tends to be a whole network of thoughts, a lot of associations each interconnected. So, let's see if I manage to write down a piece of that network;
Already in the pre-internet times, when a c-cassette was still a standard format, I was thinking that there is something wrong with 'good music = what tops the sales charts'. I mean, of course to sell big you have to be good. But that doesn't mean that if you aren't selling huge amounts you aren't a good musician. For example, to sell big you also need big companies taking care of distribution and promotion. Without enough money in the promotion it is likely that not enough people get to know about your music, and you never sell big because you are not famous. So it is not only talent which determines the success in sales. It has a lot to do with big business, and sometimes the most talented and the most interesting stuff is to be found in the marginals. (And, what tops the charts, is what the masses buy. What if your personal taste is something different, which doesn't appeal to the mass of consumers?) So I grew up with this kind of thoughts, rather randomly listening to this and that music whatever felt like touching something in my soul - be it a top selling major band, or some small unknown live act in a pop-up side-stage of a folk music festival.
Well, now when home computers are powerful enough to run studio software, and internet offers unlimited access to global audience, the big business has less control over music distribution. Of course things like promotion, or a spotify play list still heavily affect the way we get to know about interesting bands. But next to all that, merely by surfing YouTube recommendations it is possible to stumble upon artists you haven't heard of before. In an interview Molly Nilsson has said that she actually prefers to people finding her music by chance, like randomly surfing youtube or something. Over the years her honest indie attitude has won her an international audience. I discovered her as she performed on a small indie festival I went to see. To honour Molly's diy-spirit, I chose a live video with 770 views, although many of her videos have hundreds of thousands of views. So, apparently, without the help of big money promotion machinery, Molly has built her own career beyond the fence, outside the frame.
And several years ago, following a link a friend posted in facebook, I discovered a super talented all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band called Zepparella. I started following the band and learnt that all of the members are (or have been) involved in various other projects. That they are not only covering Zeppelin. but creating their own original material. And following Zepparella facebook feed has been a good way to stay updated on related album releases. Oh well. Last week I finally had a little spare money to send their way, so I logged in Bandcamp and bought Zepparella's live album, a collection of the drummer Clementine's original works, and 'Abandon All Hope' - a fresh album composed by the guitarist Gretchen Menn.
After listening to all of those albums several times I was, once again, impressed. Gretchen's 'Abandon All Hope' made me want to buy decent headphones, so that I could just lay still eyes closed listening to the music to the fullest. The rich layers of the music delivered a sense that there are mystical, colourful paintings attached to the music - so I wanted to see the pictures and shut my eyes allowing my imagination to fill in the blank. It was only after that I remembered an update mentioning that 'Abandon All Hope' is a concept album, so I went to read more about it. And, indeed, an article in GuitarPlayer says that it is based on the Dante Alighieri’s epic 14th-century poem, Inferno. Seriously, this is one of the most impressive albums I've heard for a good while. Outside any genre definitions, it feels like it combines everything from Beethoven to Zeppelin. Gretchen's talent in composition and orchestration delivers a blow of awe. I like how the low-end bass instruments carry the listener to a dream-like state, where the various melody instruments paint all those infernal pictures. It kind of a brings the medieval themes into the present-day context, sparking the mythical visions alive with electric guitars and violins.
I don't know if any big business record label would be willing to release an album like Abandon All Hope. Anyhow, as an indie artist Gretchen doesn't need to ask any gatekeeper 'do you see enough commercial potential in this concept?'. No, she is free and daring to pursue her vision. Now, I don't read music magazines, I don't follow discussion groups or anything. I've mostly been discovering music in the spirit of Molly Nilsson - randomly stumbling upon what ever sounds interesting to me. So I feel rather lucky having found an indie artist like Gretchen Menn. I went on to read the bio on her official homepage and it says that after college she went to flight school, then flying regional jets for the airlines to fund her guitar playing. And that after a year of flying she quit the job to allow her to fully concentrate on the demands of a career in music. Now this is what I call dedication, following your inner calling. Flying an airliner might be kind of a dream job, but the heck I'm happy that Gretchen did fully choose the path of an indie musician, eventually allowing her to learn and to master the skills to create something like Abandon All Hope. And I'm more than happy if my little money helps to keep her doing what she loves to do. Yes, today's thank you e-mail was from Gretchen.
Well, I think I need to mention yet another node of my network of indie thoughts. As, here in Finland I've been mostly following an excellent indie label Soliti run by Nick Triani. And recently there was an article on Nick's thoughts upon visiting Slush - a highly hyped start-up funding / investment event annually held in Helsinki. Watching and listening to all the business hype around cutting-edge technologies, new software, new business models and all that, Nick writes "Let’s work out how to make that money more evenly distributed. Securing the plight and financial welfare of the creators of the magic that comes from our devices and super hi/fi headphones should be paramount for the industry, right? Sometimes I wonder. It’s often the ‘artist’ who is the last to be asked." And I must admit I do admire a record company boss who thinks like that =)
But what has kept me thinking the most, is Nick's concluding statement - he mentions he went to Slush after reading all the news of world political, economical and ecological situation getting gloomy and tense. (I won't go into details in this post. It is okay if you disagree, as long as you remember that there are a lot of people like Nick and me, who think that there are real threats to global humanity, that the decisions we make today are building towards consequences in 30 or 40 years, and if we fail to make the right decisions now, the future consequences are increasingly likely to be disastrous. In 30 or 40 years. A time-span far too long for an average business investor to comprehend.) Okay, Mr. Nick Triani writes: "What are we investing in? We should be investing in a better world for ourselves and for the future, a world within the reach of everyone regardless of where they are born and what their monetary means are. We should be looking at urgently saving the planet. I mean, what’s the point of having all this innovation if we’re fucked at the end of it in any case? I would love to see Slush focus all their considerable talent and energy to saving the planet. Now that would be something really special. And you know what? I think they could do it."
I basically agree with Nick Triani's vision. And I've been thinking of what it could mean on the level of practical details. What kind of difference would it make if the music business cares about saving the planet or not? Obviously, it can't merely mean them producing only politically inspired rally songs to save the planet - that would quickly become rather boring. Well, but if we look at what is causing all the global trouble, I think one of the things is arrogance. For example, powerful people who believe they are so much above the others that they don't need to listen to advice. That it is up to them to command, and people shall obey. I think any this kind of pattern is bound to lead to trouble - partly because rival gangs led by arrogant bosses are going to clash, causing a lot of unnecessary loss of lives. And partly because failing to listen to expert advice, arrogant leaders are likely to commit grievous errors merely because they refuse to see any flaws in their own line of thinking. Now, I think one example of this pattern was the previous generation stereotype of a rock star. Stars who believed that their talent and their fame buys them a superior position so that they are entitled to behave badly. Launch a drinking party, destroy a hotel room or two, toss furniture out the window, and walk out of it as a celebrated hero, knowing that you have enough money to pay for the damage done. A role model worth celebrating? This reminds me of a point the Zepparella bass-player Angeline said in an interview when asked for tips for aspiring musicians. One of Angeline's pieces of advice was 'be a good person' - because good persons are nice to co-operate with, if you honour your promises, if you treat your fellow musicians with dignity and warmth you are more likely to get called back, getting further deals and finding further opportunities to get involved in good projects. Simple as that. ("A life hack: Don't be an asshole" as an indie writer Drew Hayes once tweeted). Put in other words; if you want to become a rock star, don't act like a stereotypical rock star. I think it is talented artists like Angeline Saris, Gretchen Menn, Clementine and Noëlle Doughty, among others, who contribute towards a new kind of role models. A new image of what it is to be a rock star, an indie artist, a good person.
Ps. Since the previous two posts lacked pictures, I felt I need one for this post. More or less unrelated to the content of the post, this is Viikunia The Cat, who found that my hat makes a nice pillow. Her wound is now fully healed, fur regrown to the place where there once was a scar.