I grew up playing in bands around my home town and across Southern Ontario. I started playing in school bands, but, by my late teens, was playing in bars, clubs and any other place that would pay a meagre existence to any group of young punks that would come in and play cover songs for a beer-swilling crowd. As we plundered through another iteration of “Mustang Sally” or “Some Kind of Wonderful” while the barstool messiahs shouted “SKYNYRD!” at the top of their lungs, we often wondered how to escape the monotony getting paid a pittance to pander to the boilermaker crowd.
Eventually, those of us who wanted to stretch our creative chops started writing original songs and exploring more unique and challenging arrangements of any (growingly obscure) covers we attempted. I quickly developed a far deeper appreciation for playing my own material to 25 people who were truly digging what I was doing versus 250 who were downing drafts to Steve Miller’s “The Joker”.
I was having to play for free instead of the measly $50 or so that a cover gig might bring me, but there was far more gratification and sense of accomplishment in half an hour’s worth of true creative connection with an audience using my own notes.
When youth slides by and work starts to occupy early mornings and late nights, finding a creative outlet with a band becomes increasingly less viable for every collaborator you want to add to the mix. In 2008, after playing some solo gigs (which I found enjoyable enough), it became evident that finding a new creative outlet to manage some work/life balance was necessary.
Podcasting became the creative channel that allowed me to perpetuate a philosophy as close to musical improvisation as I could find. With nary a lick of experience or guidance, but with a computer and a microphone, I quickly learned that not only was my voice as satisfying an instrument as hauling gear across the province, but it was powerfully immediate and self-sustaining as I could move from idea to finished product in minutes.
Recording podcasts has always been a creative process for me, which has often (most joyfully) verged into the artistic. The same rush that I found during a particularly harmonius jam with my former bandmates is echoed when I press record and start chattering, conversing, discussing, expressing, pronouncing, ranting, and spouting. The end of the process usually leaves me creatively spent and fulfilled.
Fortunately, upon first going to Podcamps and like conferences, I happened upon a core group of podcasters who were happy to treat podcasting as I had: a form of creative and artistic expression. It was at these same conferences however, that I met scores upon scores of cover bands — or at least their podcast equivalents.
I have no problem with people making podcasting their career or choosing to profit from it. Many podcasts are intended to be forms of “push media” like any newspaper, magazine, radio or television show. There is something incredibly honourable about a creator who achieves great craft with a podcast that is constrained within certain parameters or pre-determined topics. Such restrictions can sometimes even foster creative stretches instead of inhibiting them. There’s a reason Shakespeare wrote 95% of his plays in iambic pentameter and the majority of his poems in sonnets of the same meter. There’s a reason why countless musicians can find creativity under the prescriptive clench of a 12 bar blues. There are many professional podcasters who have crafted their skills to make me appreciate their patter, humour and proficiencies at flowing discourse.
There is a growing and important place for podcasts in the digital media landscape. Where, however, is that same place for podcasts in the world of art?
Even though I’m often labelled as an “amateur” podcaster, I bristle at the descriptor. The true meaning of “amateur” is quite fine, but the distorted perception of it has become insulting. I don’t want to penciled in as having the same “amateur/professional” relationship as athletes or musicians. The impression is that someone who makes money doing something is intrinsically better is distasteful and disingenuous. After recording over 1500 episodes of 8 different podcasts, I am happy to think that my level of craft is better than many (if not most) podcasters who choose to make money. I’ve been straining to find the correct term to express the difference other than “amateur” and haven’t landed on one that sticks: Independent Podcaster, Podcast Artist, or (simply) The Unprofessional Podcaster.
I’m ready for a time where people can start to think about podcasts as potential art works and the recording of podcasts as an artistic process. I know too many podcasters who have too many years of expertise in storytelling and conversation to not call them artists. Almost every workshop and session I’ve delivered about digital media is about this message: find the creative and artistic in the medium you choose to inhabit. Go ahead and craft your profits, connections and leads if you want, but always take some time to explore what you love about the medium. If you enjoy the craft of podcasting, then why not take the time to try and let loose the shackles of topic, timelines and titles. Play some jazz. Take a solo. The microphone is yours.
If I can find joy in the act of conversing with the world over a microphone, there is art in it. Not enough people are talking about the creativity. Too many people are getting lost in the analytics, SEO, networking, and monetization. I’ve made a point of not checking or caring about how many people download or listen to my podcasts. I don’t record for listeners. I record for myself and, having found my medium, would record even if publishing was taken away from me. I suppose I publish for listeners, but publishing is not a creative process and, thankfully, takes almost no time. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t enjoy the communication that often arises from my listeners, but worrying about strategies to “engage” listeners takes time away from doing what I love most: recording.
When I (far too infrequently) sit down to play piano these days, it’s not for anyone else but me. It’s not for comments, pingbacks, Twitter mentions, Facebook likes, or expanding my network. And it’s certainly not for the drunk at the back of the room who’s still yelling “Skynyrd!”