On a Career Creating in 2020

“How much do you receive for a Spotify play?”

The question is a common one these days, beginning to replace “Have you worked with anyone I’ve heard of?” and related cross-examinings as our on-demand ethos deepens. On one hand, it’s an easier question to answer directly: over the last year I averaged just shy of $0.006 per-stream after the distributor’s cut and including publishing, roughly par for the indie-course. On the other hand, well, that’s the answer.

It’s been five years since Rosanne Cash and Marc Ribot shared their Spotify statements with The New Yorker, and the public today seems generally aware of — if not overly concerned with — the uniform dinkiness of what artists and songwriters receive from this model. The chorus of high-ish-profile dissenters has subsequently grown, but streaming services continue to tighten their hold on the content landscape. Still, there’s something compelling about hearing a specific, fraction-of-a-penny figure.

Across the arts and well beyond (think journalism), the struggle to monetize creative output persists, finding new ways to flummox, exasperate, and inspire (often concurrently) those who barrel ahead with careers in these markets. Some of this output comes from places of deep passion, skill, schooling, wit, insight, and/or integrity; some does not. Some audiences place higher value on such characteristics; others not so much. And while it’s true very few of my musician-peers first got into their work for financial reasons, I’ve noted increasing frustration with just how slim the pickings have become. (If tunes aren’t your thing, can I interest you in a hat?)

“I am exhausted from making the deliveries for this music machine,” wrote artist/producer Diaspoura in a recent essay articulating why they declined a slot on the compilation album that accompanies Oxford American’s annual Southern Music Issue. “Sure, maybe I’m being streamed in Australia — but what good is that if I can’t afford to take a day off from my income-based job to write new music?” (Kudos to OA for printing the piece, and for a response that, while falling short of a pledge to pay full licenses, includes this: “It is disingenuous for media organizations and small nonprofits like ours to claim that ‘exposure’ is acceptable compensation. Empowering artists is central to the OA’s mission, and we can do better.”)

Yes, the freelance world is fraught, as this tweet illustrates so succinctly (classic literature spoiler warning). But even musicians with some traction in more lucrative structures are feeling the rug slide away, as in the case of television heavyweight Discovery Networks entering the new year with the demand that their composers surrender performance royalties and sign away rights to collect from past shows as well. A common fear, expressed in two of articles I’ve referenced, is that younger artists just coming onto the scene aren’t as aware of what’s dissolving, and may be more apt to accept pittances as the way things have to be.

Songwriting desk

Just like songwriting itself, it can be easy to get lost in my own head on these issues, and I do believe in balancing awareness and strategy with occasional reminders of what drew me to music in the first place. I may feel that the current listening culture appreciates songcraft to a diminishing degree, but I’m still fervent and obsessive as ever on the craft itself, and so are pieces of my circle. With this in mind, I reached out to five of my Seattle songwriting peers to get their thoughts on craft, content, and coming attractions. Here’s what Nick Droz, Beth Fleenor, Reggie Garrett, Julia Massey, and Joy Mills — all prolific and passionate originators — had to say for themselves.

NICK DROZ

What role do songwriting and songcraft play in your creative process?

Well, since the vast majority of what I create is songs, the process of songwriting basically is my creative process. In terms of craft, at this point, I notice structural/harmonic/lyrical mechanics when I hear ones I like, and end up kinda putting them in my back pocket. Then, while writing, one or two will jump out and suggest themselves when/where appropriate. So the craft thing is somewhat intentional, but also happens in a pretty organic manner.

What are you doing with your songs these days?

First off, trying to get back into a regular practice of writing. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in the last year, and so I’ve been letting my songwriting time get kind of sporadic. In general, I’m trying to write things with melodies that I connect with. Just trying to buck a few of my old tools/tendencies/defaults. I’m also trying to vary the topics I’m writing about. Personal growth, love, feelings of all sorts, they are great fodder for writing a song, but there’s a big world out there, and I’m trying to look at it and find compelling subject matter. Involvement with projects like The Bushwick Book Club Seattle has been really useful for that.

How are you navigating the current landscape with regard to content creation, compensation, and audience expectation/engagement?

I think it would be generous to say I’m navigating it at all. At current, I’m just making stuff and trying to get it to a place where it’s a good product in terms of rehearsal/presentation, then doing my best to line up gigs/opportunities to play it. I certainly won’t take a “pay-to-play” situation, and I think the idea of “play for the exposure” is pretty problematic, but if the product your pushing is songs you’ve written, it’s difficult to demand guarantees/negotiate compensation. Gotta balance wanting a gig with the least you’re willing to do it for. Audience engagement is also interesting. Social media is obviously a big tool, and likely the first thing many folks think of these days. That’s tough, too. There’s a lot of people making awesome stuff, and it’s a grind to engage with folks amidst a sea of worthy products. I’ve been interested in trying to figure out a non-internet, or at least less social media-based approach. I haven’t had any novel ideas yet, but I think the e-mail list is probably a pretty good tool. I have yet to really do the e-mail list thing. That’s on my list for 2020.

Tell me a little about your last release

I just put out a new record in November. It’s called Safe Bet. It’s a song-focused guitar rock record with some country ornamentation here and there. I’m really proud of it. Everyone who touched it from playing to engineering of any flavor to art did a spectacular job. I have a pretty specific model in my head of what I want records I make to sound like, and this is to date the closest I’ve gotten. It’s been released digitally, and I had vinyl pressed too, which is really fun and exciting. I’ve never done that before. I always wanted to, and told myself I’d do it only if I knew for sure there was a demand to support it, but a switch flipped a few months ago, and I just decided to go for it. We’ll see how it goes. The songs on it span a six-year period in terms of when they were written. They range in topic from musings on living in Austin and Wisconsin, moving up to the Northwest, inspiration found in books, and there’s of course a breakup song on there as well.

What’s next?

Solidifying the lineup of my band as much as I can. Folks are busy so building up a stable of players is good, but I’d like to figure out a good lineup that’s close to stable. I’m pretty close, which is nice. Gonna be going out and about on the West Coast playing songs and pushing this new record. A good mix of solo and band shows. I’m also planning on starting work on a two-song single. Maybe doing digital and cassette releases. I did a run of cassingles a couple summers ago and they sold out fast, so maybe try that again. All of that and trying to double down and write a bunch of stuff. I’ve got plenty of unrecorded stuff, but in terms of a single it would be fun to do one super new tune, and one from the back catalog.

BETH FLEENOR

What role do songwriting and songcraft play in your creative process?

My creative process always begins with improvisation — little seedlings mostly sprout while walking, driving, cooking, or showering, and then they really grow when I sit down and begin improvising with them. Things usually start with the voice — I sing melodies, beats, harmonies, and then go back and figure out what they are on clarinet and piano as I begin shaping. On rare occasion something will begin with the clarinet and build from there.

I work particularly well with intensives and residencies, so if I don’t have a specific commission or prompt for a project, I will often self-impose the same kind of structure. Sit down for several hours, over several consecutive days, start improvising and see what asks for more time and attention. There is always SOMETHING there if I make time and space to turn on the faucet. Once something has a little more body to it, and it keeps recurring over and over, it either gets workshopped in live performance, or stowed away in notebooks and phone recordings for further work at a later time. Sometimes songs/compositions will sit half-finished for a year and then one day, spontaneously, the rest of it will come forward. For live workshopping, I divide things up depending on what project/band it is most appropriate for. Crystal Beth has solo, duo, and band incarnations so I’m lucky to have multiple avenues to try things out and see how it plays out — which is always different than in the practice space where it originated.

How are you navigating the current landscape with regard to content creation, compensation, and audience expectation/engagement?

I really dislike this term “content creation.” I create experiences, multi-sensory experiences. If I’ve done my job well, they plant something inside of the experiencer/listener and continue to grow into something far beyond me, so I refuse to relegate them to “content.” I think art/music affects our health — mentally, physically, and spiritually, and I want us as a society to talk more openly and actively about that. There are a lot of conversations about compensating artists, the effect of streaming music, etc. (and that is very important), but there’s not enough talk about WHY this thing — music — is so very fundamentally important to humans. You find it as the undercurrent of most of our daily lives, so it clearly has an intrinsic value. It changes our state internally, and I think that’s a big deal. I try to talk about it as much as possible. Doing so seems to change how the audience receives what I make, and in turn, people show their value and respect for it by paying for it in whatever way they are able. It is important for me personally to create as many live experiences for the work as possible, because that’s where my particular artistry really shines, and people generally want to take home the recorded artifacts (records, singles, art pieces) from those experiences, which I find very touching. And I believe in the quality of the work, so I’m willing to present the same songs and compositions over and over again to give them more life. They continue to develop and deepen with each turn, and I value that, the same way I value experiencing work from seasoned artists who have been working on their craft for decades. I don’t really buy into the notion of needing to release something new every week to keep people’s attention, or of the glory of youth. I trust time and experience to draw the listeners that are right for my work directly to it — as long as I keep putting myself out there on the line, vulnerable and present. As for daily survival, this practice is what has drawn a collection of patrons who make it possible for me to keep making work — and I hope to continue growing that collective so I can develop more and more and better support the artists who work with me. I’ve been at it 20 years — here’s hoping I can go another 40 more, and deepen the practice.

Tell me a little about your last release

My last release was in October 2019 and it was my first full length solo record: Crystal Beth Push Thru. It’s comprised of seven pre-written songs, and one improvisation that closes the record. It took me nearly 10 years of working solo to feel like I had definitively found my voice and was ready to commit to it in the studio and release it to vinyl. And I’m glad I waited! For years people kept hounding me about not making a record and I kept saying it’s not ready, and I was right! Push Thru is exactly how it needed to be and when it needed to be, and that is a HUGE success for me artistically. I wouldn’t change anything about it. I am unabashedly proud of it as a complete work of art. And it is a perfect encapsulation of who and where I am in my life. I have found a way to Push Thru to the deepest and most vulnerable parts of myself to keep growing, in a grounded way, a sort of comfort in the discomfort of that ongoing, moving and shifting state — and I hope to ride that wave for as long as I can.

What’s next?

This next year is all about touring the new Crystal Beth record. I set a goal of 50 live shows and I have about 35 shows left to book, so my efforts are focused on that front. I also have hopes to begin the early stages of planning a full band record (Crystal Beth & the Boom Boom Band), and I have a new secret project with space bassist Julie Slick that I hope will materialize this year. I also have plans to mount another immersive catharsis installation sometime in 2020 — fingers crossed all the pieces will fall into place.

REGGIE GARRETT

What role do songwriting and songcraft play in your creative process?

That’s an interesting question. I’d never really thought of it that way — the idea that one has a creative aspect to themselves (process) and that that can be expressed (or not) through various disciplines or endeavors. For almost half my life I expressed it through painting — got a degree in it and practiced for a while in Brooklyn. That took a back seat to music right before and as I moved from New York to Seattle. The truth of the matter is that I had always loved music but never thought it was something I could do, so I painted. As I got older, after art school, I gradually started writing songs, which sealed it for me. These days I’d say that songwriting and songcraft fulfill my creative process for the most part (though painting does lurk in the background). My wife says that that’s how I express my emotions, through music. As far as songcraft is concerned, I think I internalized good ideas about song structure when I was very young — music was important in my family and we all listened to a wide variety of music, a lot. As I grew older I wandered farther afield in my explorations of different kinds of music. Over the past few years I seem to be re-learning what I’ve always known about song structure. My actual process is a fluid thing that doesn’t seem to have any particular rules, other than the fact that almost all my songs begin with rhythm.

What are you doing with your songs these days?

Lately (that is the past few years or so) I seem to have turned more to social commentary, observation, and protest in my songs. Perhaps it has something to do with growing older and getting a broader, more overall perspective on what’s going on in the world. I don’t seem to be writing so many love or love-gone-bad songs these days. I don’t think I’m finished with all that, though. I guess it’s just the place I am in my life right now, and the place we are in as a society. Suddenly, it seems much more important, even critical to talk about what’s going on in the world.

How are you navigating the current landscape with regard to content creation, compensation, and audience expectation/engagement?

Really can’t say — take it day by day.

Tell me a little about your last release

I don’t put out records very often. The last was Something New (which is pretty old by now). With that one I decided to try a full-bodied approach to production — full-band orchestrations and more for most of the songs. I don’t believe there was a single solo (or even very stripped-down) acoustic piece on that album. Glad I did it. The next one will hearken back to a much more “acoustic” sound, a fair number of solo and SnakeOil Peddlers acoustic trio numbers. There will be a few full-band productions, but not so many. The interesting thing is that most of the songs will have been Bushwick-inspired pieces.

What’s next?

What’s next is to finish the new recording and get myself out there performing more this year, perhaps try a few collaborations with folks I admire.

JULIA MASSEY

What role do songwriting and songcraft play in your creative process?

Songwriting and songcraft are the foundation to my creative process. My background as a musician is in learning what others wrote, and mastering their vision, but when I discovered that I could step out of that role and into the creator myself, I was hooked. Since being the singular source of creativity in my musical endeavors, I’ve actually struggled to step out of the “head writer in charge” and have recently challenged myself to be in the role of collaborator. What I’ve found is that it is strengthening and inspiring my songwriting!

What are you doing with your songs these days?

I am currently in a highly-regulated/scheduled part of my life and so the time I have allotted for songwriting/songcraft is extremely limited. Therefore, most of my material is getting funneled specifically for releases. I don’t have the luxury of building a big bank of random musings that I normally enjoy. That said, it’s been an interesting experiment with needing to get the job done and being hyper-focused on being efficient and effective. We’ll just have to see what others think I suppose! So far, I’m proud of the songs I’ve created in this environment ,which I admit is all that counts.

How are you navigating the current landscape with regard to content creation, compensation, and audience expectation/engagement?

At the moment, the most direct path I’ve explored in this area is Patreon, which allows listeners to subscribe to creative output from content generators, and finally signing up for TAXI which is a music licensing platform. I’ve had very limited success in that arena, and I’m eager to join the club of commercial licensing. As far as general audience expectation/engagement, the Patreon platform is fantastic, but it doesn’t scratch the itch of in-person experience. Because I’m also in a band that performs fairly regularly, I am also constantly working on how to encourage attendance at shows. Limited appearances, and inserting spontaneous moments in performances seem to have a big effect on whether or not word-of-mouth gets around. And yes, word-of-mouth is still one of the most powerful tools for audiences in my opinion.

Tell me a little about your last release

My newest project, Warren Dunes, celebrated our debut EP this last spring called Welcome to Warren Dunes at the Clock-Out Lounge. For us, this was the culmination of a slew of challenges: working together as a band for the first time; collaborating in a more traditional sense for the first time; and forcing ourselves to work more specifically inside a musical genre (calypso) for the first time. What we have found is that our sound, although reflective of all of our other projects (Electric Nono, The Five Finger Discount), it still stands alone as a fresh sound. Folks are telling us it’s hard to describe, but so far “post-modern beach music” seems agreeable as a description to most listeners, which sounds fine to me!

What’s next?

We are going into the studio in January to record another 6–7 tunes that will either be released as singles, or be cataloged toward a larger, longer release in 2020–2021. We are watching and adjusting to our audience before we decide on some of those things, but we are very much active and looking forward to a busy schedule of festivals and other shows next year!

JOY MILLS

What role do songwriting and songcraft play in your creative process?

Songwriting and songcraft are at the heart of my creative process. I set out in my early-20s down the songwriting road, setting small goals for myself (getting on stage to sing a half-dozen of my own tunes was one of my first goals). With each milestone I passed and threshold I crossed for the next 20 years, songwriting became both easier and harder. It was my way of processing the world around me — a world of duality where I sought lines, melodies and hooks that could alchemize the mundane into the profound. I liked open-ended thoughts and fragments of poetry that allowed the listener to pick up on whatever piece resonated. My ethos was about feeling and fractal images.

The actual songwriting practice is a solitary and sacred place for me, even when wrenching words out of the air while trying to gracefully catch them like falling stars. The line feels so tenuous at times. It is easy to be overcooked and overwrought, but I am better at knowing when I need to keep pushing and waiting for that line or word or melody to arrive. Some songs feel forged in fire, some feel fleeting and impermanent. It has taught me patience, perseverance, and trust in the process. Even when I’m afraid I’ve run out of ideas, I know I just need to allow the field to lie fallow and honor the seasons.

What are you doing with your songs these days?

In the last few years I’ve been fascinated with how my lyrics and songs come to hold different meanings to me. As if I wrote them from a higher self and set on a slow release to reveal deeper insight. It’s opened my mind to the idea that there is a flow back and forth, like time does not just move one way. Or it moves in a spiral. Maybe this will make more sense in a few years!

These days I’m trying to break new ground (always) and reach out of my comfort zone. I’ve been trying to change up my approach which has almost always been music first, lyrics second. Or taking tips from other songwriters and emulating (er, copying?) different styles. My voice has grown and matured to a place where I can be freer to improvise. Collaborating and co-writing is still awkward for me. I relish an empty room with my guitar and a notebook.

At times I’ve had pleasant mistakes or casual attempts that have resulted in pretty cool tunes, which has also hinted to me that the muses call down whimsical avenues.

How are you navigating the current landscape with regard to content creation, compensation, and audience expectation/engagement?

I stopped trying to “make it” years ago, and after some significant bitterness and heartache about my dream of making a living as a musician, I came to a new relationship with my work despite the ruinous music industry. Ultimately, it was liberating. Scaling down my expectations of external validation made me write closer to the bone. I have no one pressuring me to write a certain way, and diverting my attention away from the exhausting and exploitative music machine allowed music-making to become fun and magical again. It still sucks to feel like you’re toiling in relative obscurity sometimes, but ego will be ego. The real good stuff lies with the small audiences who ARE there, who do listen across the community radio wires, who receive the signal. It’s so hard to direct the signal to those who will appreciate your work. In this overstimulated and oversaturated world of content and social media, it feels like the connection between audience and artist has been hijacked by metrics and louder voices (both implicit and explicit) that insist you must create demand for your supply amidst diminishing returns, all in exchange for drink tickets and a five-way split of a Ben Franklin.

I sometimes joke with my partner, Tom, that we were spared success in the music business. I kind of believe that, to the benefit of our evolving craft. I also feel great kinship and satisfaction working with organizations like The Bushwick Book Club Seattle, who provide a platform and audience for songwriters in a way that has become quite rare.

Tell me a little about your upcoming release

I’m just about to release my first full-length (Echolocator) in five years with my amazing band who have been my musical comrades for many years, giving enormous lift and expansion to my songs. I worked really hard on this one, through episodes of self-doubt and frustration along the way. I’m happy and proud of this work, what will be my ninth release since my first solo album in 2003. This one feels forged in fire.

What’s next?

Always more songs, more fallow seasons, more listening, more wrenching, more grace, more collaborations, more signal — all within the growing and earned wisdom that art is not for ego. Art is for soul.

For the past twenty years, Wes Weddell has worked multiple shifts in the engine room of Seattle’s roots music scene: WesWeddell.com

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