I spent the evening going through my old scrapbooks. It felt like the right thing to do. I needed to remind myself. I wanted to remember how it was, how it felt, all those years ago.
It had been nearly a week since I dragged myself out of bed after not having slept, with a hollow pain deep in my gut that I had no explanation for. As it was already late morning, I stumbled onto the computer to check email and twitter, to acquaint myself with the day, and I saw the news that David Bowie had died. That he had, in fact, been battling cancer for 18 months. It didn’t seem real.
It has been a long time since I was a superfan. A very long time. There was disbelief and shock, and it was an odd feeling I had, a vague sense that something huge had been lost, but it felt very far away at first. It was perhaps a blessing that I had so much work to do, that I could only glance at the outpouring of grief and remembrances. People I hadn’t heard from in years posted things to my Facebook page.
As the days went by, memories started flooding in and I began to remember. I began to feel. A lot.
None of the fans really understood why I stopped publishing my little Bowie newsletter and sold my collection, after being so devoted for 10 years. In my heyday, I followed tours, attended many, many shows, met fans and former associates and bought everything in my general vicinity having to do with him. And then I just stopped. For the record, it all got to be too much. Not the artist, nor his wonderful music, but everything else that madly swirled around him. All that other “stuff” got in the way of the art and kept me from enjoying it all purely, as I once had. But I never stopped being a fan.
London Press Conference, 1990
From the moment I was introduced to Bowie’s music by a boy I met at a technical school we were both attending, I was entranced. It was just before Let’s Dance came out, and I gravitated toward the Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy — especially Low. There was something about that sense of isolation, the alienation, the continuous searching, the yearning, the endless endeavors and failings, not feeling quite right in one’s own skin, that I immediately identified with. I’ve always felt different from the mainstream, apart from others, and Bowie bestowed his blessing on all of us who were trying to forge our own way alone, through uncharted lands. He was a shining beacon, a knowledgeable guide, a mystical sherpa. As he proclaimed in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” “And you’re not alone, let’s turn on and be not alone, give me your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful, oh give me your hands!”
The first concerts I saw were his two shows in Hartford, Connecticut, during the Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983. His Let’s Dance album wasn’t a particular favorite, but that just happened to be my timing. Other albums that hold a special place in my heart, then and forever, are the Space Oddity album (Man of Words, Man of Music), The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. Plus the very early song, “Conversation Piece.” So many of those songs, I felt, he was singing just to me. He understood. He was a kindred spirit.
The Bowie Room, back in the day.
In an almost continuous wave of serendipity, I began meeting fellow fans, collectors, minor legends and all sorts of interesting characters. It was a magical Felliniesque odyssey. Just ahead of his Glass Spider album and tour, I started a Bowie newsletter with legendary Bowie fan Rose Winters (who had collaborated with the equally legendary David Jeffrey Fletcher on “David Robert Jones Bowie: the discography of a generalist, 1962-1979”). Our humble little photocopied newsletter then morphed into Sound & Vision, which for a short while was printed on colored paper to thwart extensive copying among non-subscribers but which never worked. Ah, those quaint pre-Internet days. And the concerts — oh god, the concerts! From arenas across the U.S. starting in 1983 to massive festival crowds in 1987, mostly outdoors, in Rotterdam, Belgium, Germany, Italy, England, Sweden, Austria, France, Spain. Exciting exclusive press conferences on both sides of the pond. A scrappy Tin Machine show at a dodgy club called The World on the Lower East Side and a later one on their next tour at the intimate and wonderful Toad’s Place in New Haven. An improbable “Sound & Vision Fan Convention” in L.A., loosely based around a Tin Machine live taping at LAX for an “In Concert” TV broadcast. Nutty adventures with friends in a kaleidoscope of cities. Corresponding with and trading with fans all over the world. The memories (and half dozen scrapbooks) I’ve saved are just as much of the interesting people I’ve met as they are of the man’s music, all part of the same glorious experience.
It’s a few weeks after his passing now, with so many articles and tributes talking about the music, the art, the movies, the fashion, the sense of oneself as a unique individual, fearlessly sharing your gifts with the world. That last one is perhaps the most valuable for me personally, as I wrestle with an endless parade of mid-life crises that I’ve been struggling with since age 15. So yes, this is mostly about me, just as writing about Bowie, for anyone, turns out to be just as much about the observer as it is the observed. The message and the messenger and all that. The message, of course, is to celebrate your uniqueness, however odd you may be to yourself and others, and to value that uniqueness in others, without casting judgement. And that’s one hell of a legacy.
From The Archives
‘Early On’ (Rhino Records) Liner Notes
Early On liner notes (Rhino Records)
liner notes #1
liner notes #2
liner notes #3
liner notes 4
liner notes #5
Sound & Vision Newsletter Excerpts
Mick Rock Interview, Issue #14 Oct/Nov 1988
Mick Rock int. #2
Mick Rock int. #3
Jeff Rougvie Interview (Rykodisc), Issue #20 Summer 1989
Jeff Rougvie int. #2
Jeff Rougvie int. #3
Jeff Rougvie int. #4
Sound + Vision Review, Issue #20 Summer 1989
Sound + Vision Review #2
1990 London Press Conference - Issue #23 Jan/Feb 1990
I’m not sure whether you’d call the music of The Minerals alt-country with a dash of psychedelia and a dab of southern gothic, or possibly psychedelic music with a dash of alt-country — whatever it is, it’s hypnotic and very, very pretty.
Their debut album (on Staylittle Music) was conceived while stranded in a barn in Southern France with wine and cheese during a week-long snowstorm, and it was certainly time well-spent. At once homey and mysterious, their music builds on something traditional and earthy, weaving mystical magic with haunting male/female vocals and harmonies with acoustic strings, violin and drone-like underpinnings. Gorgeous.
The Minerals are from South Wales, which likely accounts for the feeling of rich tradition at the core of their sound. They formed in the summer of 2014, and the band features Colenso Jones (Climbing Trees) and Jodie Gibson (Drop Dead Darling), with Tariq Bedgood, Helina Rees and Daniel Tudor Edwards.
They’re releasing the single “Ball of String” backed with “Lo-Fo” on February 26th. If you happen to live nearby Cardiff or if you’ll be visiting in April, they’ll be performing April 15th at The Moon Club (supporting Rusty Shackle) and on the 16th at Snails Deli in Rhiwbina. Festival shows will be announced in the Spring.
After all the heavy electronics, dance music, hard rock and big orchestral ensembles, sometimes a simple little acoustic folk-rock tune sounds really, really good. Such is the case with Norwegian singer-songwriter Signe Marie Rustad and her musical companions, Annar By (vocals, electric and acoustic guitars), NjÃ¥l Uhre Kiese (bass guitar) and Alexander LindbÃ¤ck (drums). This lovely video is by Eivind Walberg and NjÃ¥l Uhre Kiese. With the focus clearly on the performers and not on studio trickery and huge sounds that can at times obscure the music, we’re reminded of the simple beauty of two voices closely entwining and lyrical poetry shining forth like a bright star. And that’s the truth.
This second single is from her forthcoming sophomore album, Hearing Colors Seeing Noises. “The Truth” was inspired by Robert Plant’s “29 Palms,” which made an appearance in a dream. Because of this, during live performances Signe will often refer to the song as “Ode to Robert Plant.”
The new album will be a departure from the Americana vibe of her debut album, Golden Town (2012), with hints of psychedelia, space echo, reverb and backwards guitar on some tracks and minimalist folk with just acoustic guitar and voice on others. The first single that was released in May of last year, “The Space Song,” has that mix of psychedelia and folk. It is a beautifully hypnotic drifting dream with swirling guitar and soaring vocals.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Boston native Owen LiPuma, going by the name of brmfthsstm* (Broom of the System) has been working all that heavy stuff out in the solitude of his bedroom with his wistful lo-fi song, “Honest.” As he explains it, “it is a song about my struggle with finding myself and my growing up to become me.” I have news for you, son — that struggle never ends.
In the time it has taken for me to post this, he has released another song, called “Mute,” which he says “touches on my own anxieties about the world and myself.” Yup. I hear ya.
The Walls EP by NYC/NJ trio Atlas Bloom gets off to a powerful, rambunctious start for the title track, complete with heart-pounding percussion, squealing guitar and manic vocals. “The Lighthouse” adds in tightly knitted harmonies and more percussive electric guitar pummeling that gives the ensemble a progressive jazz feel due to the slick composition. “Replace You” slows it down a bit, bringing in a repeating trancelike chorus with harmonies and dueling guitar leads that, for me, makes this a standout track. “Your Silence Spoke” closes the 4-track EP with some quirky guitar and vocals, harmonies and interesting complex rhythms. It’s a solid four songs which sound like twice as many people playing on them. I see they’re playing at the Middle East Corner (Bakery), which should be quite a blowout in that tiny space!
Atlas Bloom released their debut album First Light in 2014. Their tour starts at The Camel in Richmond, Virgina on 2/4 and winds up at the Scarlet Pub in New Brunswick, New Jersey on 2/21. There are stops in D.C., Philly, Cambridge (at the Middle East Corner on 2/10), Portland and Providence. See their schedule for details.
from a 1987 press conference at the Cat Club in New York City
I can’t believe that just a few days after celebrating the birthday of this extraordinary artist and heralding an amazing new album, that we’re now mourning his death. My heartfelt love and appreciation to David Bowie, and my sincere condolences to his family, friends and fellow fans. I’m in absolute shock about this (I wasn’t even aware he had been fighting cancer for 18 months), so for now, I’ll just toss up a quick video of my favorite Bowie song. I wish I had videos of my own, but my time with him was pre-YouTube and pre-any kind of video camera that wasn’t the size of a toaster. I have decided to attempt to digitize what I do have, which are my 40 Bowie Bits/Sound & Vision newsletters from 1987-1992 and a bunch of my live recordings (that is, if the oxide hasn’t come off the cassette tapes). We all thank you, David, for everything.
Haunting, mysterious, complicated, intense. And I base this only on the title track to â˜… (otherwise known as Blackstar), David Bowie’s new musical offering to Planet Earth, which drops today. It also marks the man’s 69th birthday, and it is his present to us.
Tonight I will listen to the album in its entirety, wrapped in a dark shroud and quite possibly recapturing the feelings I had for this brilliant artist nearly 30 years ago when he was my entire world. For now though, join me in a little taste and celebrate his considerable influence on the musical landscape and our glorious and terrible culture, as he continues, as he always has, to hold a mirror up to show us its strange reflection.
All my life Iâ€™ve asked myself why. What was the reason, the purpose, the lessons I was meant to learn, being born into the family I found myself in? On the inside of my motherâ€™s wedding ring, which she still has but no longer wears due to her frail condition, is the inscription â€œwe three against the world.â€ For a long time, I fought against that worldview, as it seemed to forever place us â€” and me â€” in a never-ending adversarial position with all of humanity. It put me at odds with life. As I get older, I see how true this has been from the very beginning and I realize that in this epic battle, the one weapon that has helped us survive is love. That defiant proclamation now stands as a tribute to the strength of our commitment to each other. And that, I now realize, is its purpose. Read my essay on the Depression Army blog >>
As we enter into 2016, my reflection on the current state of the music business began in my mind, as it typically does, as a tirade against the major record labels (now down to “The Big Threeâ€) and the archaic structures and business models that perpetuate them. But that feels like a tired old argument. While the Internet has spawned illegal downloads, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify that pay musicians next to nothing in royalties and the almighty Shazam (which has somehow morphed overnight from music discovery tool to kingmaker), it has also spawned powerful social media platforms and potentially lucrative grassroots crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and Patreon.
For every seemingly insurmountable mountain in the treacherous modern-day music biz, thereâ€™s now a curious new wormhole that, if stepped into properly with purpose, can launch an enterprising indie band into their very own parallel universe of direct artist-to-fan reciprocity, happy customers and a steady income. This allows a musician or band, regardless of what level theyâ€™re at, to operate outside of the traditional music industry. It takes determination and hard work, but there are plenty of musicians who have proven that it’s possible.
Meet Amanda Palmer, The Crowdfunding Queen
There is perhaps no one more adept at the concept of direct-to-fan marketing than sometimes Boston-based Amanda Palmer. With a background in street performing (she busked in Harvard Square as “The Eight Foot Bride”) and alternative rock/punk cabaret (The Dresden Dolls, Evelyn Evelyn and as a solo artist), she’s lived the life of a D.I.Y. artist to the fullest, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding long before Kickstarter. After an ugly split from her major label, she decided in 2012 to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance her album, Theatre Is Evil. The campaign ended up raising $1,192,793 with 24,883 backers. At the time, it was the most successful musical project ever on Kickstarter. This extraordinary success, thanks to her rabidly loyal fanbase, added to her public profile and got her invited to deliver a TED talk in 2013. This then led to her memoir and indie musician how-to primer, Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, which was published in 2014.
Amanda has had her detractors. There are people who see her as an opportunist, a narcissist, an exhibitionist, as overly ambitious, as a “phony” taking advantage of her fans. They refer to her Kickstarter campaign as “digital panhandling.” I can’t help wondering if the same criticisms would be leveled against a male artist. Let’s face it — women are still not allowed to be ambitious, strong, savvy marketers, and thatâ€™s in any line of work, not just entertainment. As for being a phony, I’ll just say this — Amanda Palmer is one of just a small handful of musicians whose songs can bring actual tears to my eyes (“Ampersand” will forever turn me into a sobbing mess every time I hear it). There’s also no denying that she’s as rabidly devoted to her fans as they are to her. If you’re a cynical person by nature, you might say that it’s all calculated, but I can’t imagine anyone sharing as much personal information and inviting strangers into their life as she has. If it’s all an act, that’s quite an act.
Though The Art of Asking was published back in 2014, I’ve only just read it now and in fact, finished the last page just a minute shy of midnight last night, on New Year’s Eve, with just enough time to walk calmly into my living room after having a major epiphany, turn on the TV and watch the ball drop in Times Square.
The Last Three Titans and the Crumbling Kingdom
According to Nielson SoundScan’s 2012 report, the three remaining major record companies of the once “Big Six” now control 88.5% of the global music market (sales of CDs, music videos and MP3s). That would be Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. In the age of the Internet, with rampant illegal downloading, music sharing on social media and the popularity of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, sales, even of MP3s, have steadily decreased. There is no doubt that this is what has led to the current climate of label desperation, in their last-gasp efforts to maintain big profits.
This desperation has created, as I see it, an adversarial relationship between the artist and their fans. At the very least, these corporations, through their own petty financial fears and insecurities over losing their market stronghold (which began a long time ago), have bred a culture of distrust. Fans are viewed by these conglomerates much the same way that I see the squirrels in my backyard — running off with the goods (or the bird food) without so much as a “how do you do.” It then becomes the sole sales strategy of the label to find a way to force music consumers to pay for their music and punish them when they don’t, rather than trying to develop new business models and marketing strategies that adapt to the changing environment and cater to the specific tastes of each artist’s fanbase.
The music industry “old guard” has also set requirements for musicians that are so unrealistic and myopic that all but a small handful of top earners churning out mainstream dreck are destined to fall short. This includes expected sales figures, radio airplay, Shazam numbers and other metrics, demographics and analytics — while dismissing old-fashioned ideas of community building and consumer loyalty.
The Shazam Factor
Shazam is an especially disturbing trend. What made its debut as an iPhone application in 2008 has gone from software that identifies a piece of music to a deciding factor if your band gets on the radio or gets booked by a promoter for a show in a particular region. This iPhone app is now shaping the music industry — and not in a good way. Though not originally intended for this purpose, radio station programmers and concert promoters now use the data collected from many millions of users to see what songs are most popular and in which parts of the country a particular band has a following. Critical decisions that can influence a musician’s career trajectory hinge on this data. Since people tend to gravitate toward the familiar and like a new song that sounds like something else they enjoy, the result is an ever narrowing and homogenized collection of songs on radio station playlists that sound remarkably similar to each other.
So What Does Amanda Say?
Quite a lot, actually. She has surfed every treacherous wave in this crazy music industry ocean, and she’s got the scars to prove it. What she provides in The Art of Asking is nothing less than a road map for fellow musicians and a message of appreciation, respect and empowerment for music fans everywhere. Her insights about the importance and difficulty in asking for help are downright enlightening for anyone trying to do something outside the mainstream, in any field.
The Artist-Fan Relationship
“Throughout my career, the fanbase has been like one big significant other to me, a thousand-headed friend with whom I have a real, committed partnership. I don’t take vacations from communicating without warning. We share our art with one another. They help me run the business by feeding me constant information. I cop to my mistakes. They ask for explanations. We talk about how we feel. I twitter to say good night and good morning, the way I would with a lover. They bring me food and tea at shows when I’m sick. I visit them in hospitals and make videos for their friends’ funerals. We trust one another. Occasionally, I’ve broken up with fans. Some have broken up with me.”
Obviously, Amanda is a sharer in every sense of the word. Not every musician will feel comfortable with the level of intimacy she has with her audience. Some artists are just private people. But that’s ok. Even a little sharing in the form of an occasional newsletter — nothing personal but just enough to let people know what they’re up to creatively and professionally — is better than nothing.
She speaks about “the net” (her community of support) and how it is tightened and strengthened by interactions and exchanges over time with members of her fan community. You can’t outsource this critical communication. You can hire help, but the artists themselves must create the emotional connections and create their art. As she points out, this can’t be done by an Internet marketing company, manager or assistants. It has to be done by the artist.
The Major Label Business Model (Fan-Hostile)
“One of the strategies the label employed that always baffled me was wanting us to focus all the energy on casting the net elsewhere, to attract strangers, while ignoring our established fanbase. I loved new people. Of course. But it seemed insane to jeopardize the current relationships to find them.”
This is not to say that every band shouldn’t be trying to expand their audience, but to ignore the existing fanbase, those who are eager to purchase product and support their favorite artists and those who form the band’s unpaid army of promotional people, is sheer stupidity. Musicians must instinctively understand this because after all, why become a performing musician if not to make a connection with your audience? If that wasn’t a key motivating factor, they would be perfectly happy playing songs for friends and family on the weekends when not working their 9-5 office job. No, musicians (unless they have become jaded, hostile and petulant and have temporarily forgotten) understand the importance of their fans and of maintaining a close relationship with them. It’s their labels and marketing firms, the music business establishment, which takes ownership of their social media and uses it not to communicate and engage, but merely to blatantly market, as if peddling a pair of shoes.
Fans that are garnered and cultivated more organically tend to be in it for the long haul. They enjoy the band’s entire output, not just one catchy song they’ve heard on the radio. Also, today’s “commercial alternative” radio and in fact the entire music industry does back flips to cater to a younger audience, which I’ve never understood. Aren’t those the individuals far more likely to be sharing tracks with their friends rather than purchasing music legally and less likely to have disposable income for higher-priced tickets, collectible vinyl, t-shirts and other memorabilia?
“The label’s theory probably followed some kind of cutthroat marketing maxim: once you’ve got a customer, you’ve got ’em. Move on to the next victim. Except that our driving motivation was to hang out with and bond with our small group of existing customers, whom we’d worked so hard to find in the first place. We knew from experience that our evolving friendship was slowly but surely bringing new people into the fray. Making fans that way — in person, one by one, as they were won over at our shows by our harder-core fans — seemed more effective than going out there and hollering on the radio to a group of unknowns, hoping to be heard by someone who might like us. Our way felt more like getting introduced to a person by a mutual friend, personally, at a bar over drinks. It felt real.”
It is also far more enduring. Ensnaring a big audience with a radio hit is great — until the next album comes out. Without naming names, we now have the situation of a band that put out their first release in 2013 and happened to have a big radio hit (just one song) headlining shows, supported by bands that have been touring virtually nonstop and putting out music for 10 years. And what happens in another 10 years when this new band hasn’t had another big hit? They’ll no doubt be at the other end of that bill — if they’re still around at all.
The Crowdfunding Business Model (Fan-Friendly)
“Labels donâ€™t understand the importance of community — the existing fanbase. Instead they focus on new audiences at the expense of nurturing the existing fans.
“The label didn’t understand why they should pay for the band to maintain a website year-round. They thought it was something that only needed to be “up” when we had a new record to promote, and wouldn’t pay to keep the site active the rest of the time.” “I knew the way to keep the fans happy was by staying present — through the forums, through sharing people’s art and music back out through the Internet channels, through keeping everybody connected. That’s just how a relationship works. And when the time came to ask them to buy a record, to buy a ticket, whatever… if I’d been there for them, they’d be there for me. It went beyond the emotional; it also seemed like smart business.”
Bands who are outside of the mainstream in terms of their appeal tend to have “cult followings” and tight-knit communities of supporters. For these types of musicians, the major label business model makes no sense whatsoever, while the crowdfunding model is a perfect fit. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Fans can support their favorite artists at whatever level they’re comfortable with and by doing so, they become part of the creative process. The artist can sell directly to their fans, giving them complete control over their creativity and maximizing profits. No more middleman!
Even when bands have signed with a record company, most labels won’t put in the time or expense that it takes to develop an artist, provide decent promotion and encourage a growing fan community. All relationships, if they are to endure, require nurturing.
Coming Down From Your Garrett (or inviting people up)
In The Art of Asking, Amanda speaks about the difficulty for an artist to leave “The Garrett” (that place, literal or figurative, where they create their art) to go into the “crass and mundane” marketplace to sell that art. With today’s technology, they can chronicle and share their backstage and behind-the-scenes working processes and distribute the work themselves to their public. But they must either leave The Garrett or invite people inside. The essence of crowdfunding is “finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. Not for the masses, not for the critics, but for your ever-widening circle of friends.” She goes on to say, “If you’re not social — and a lot of artists aren’t — you’ll have a harder time. Risk is the core cost of human connection.”
That connection has a real financial payoff. Amanda’s Kickstarter campaign demonstrated how much an artist can achieve with a limited but dedicated audience. “By the time we closed, after a month-long campaign that gathered over a million in backing, the most astonishing thing to me wasn’t the number of dollars. It was the number of people. There were just under twenty-five thousand backers. Almost the exact number of sales that had constituted a failure in the eyes of the label.”
On Honestly Relating to One’s Audience
“I have faced a slew of screw-ups over the years… but most of the time, if I explain the backstory and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the situation, the audience stands with me. I’ve apologized tons of times. The only thing I must not do is break the code of honesty and steady, forthright contact. You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating.” “I think the real risk is the choice to disconnect. To be afraid of one another.”
It comes down to mutual trust, really. When an artist is being absolutely up-front with their audience, it shows the respect they have for them (treating them as partners and not as customers), and this respect is given back in loyalty. This might not seem important — that is, not until the artist encounters a serious roadblock and is faced with leaner times. Then, loyalty is everything.
“Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability.”
Again, this is not to say that that a musician must share everything with their audience. Boundaries can be drawn, and observing them is a big part of that mutual respect. But fans who are investing their time, energy and hard-earned money have at least a right to know what’s going on publicly with that artist, and the more they share their experience in the treacherous undercurrent of the music business, the more their dedicated fans can help make it a smoother (and more lucrative) ride.