Chapter 3: Unique Artistic Endeavors
by Alex Cosper
One of the mantras I've formed in my head about the indie revolution is that it's better to stand out than it is to blend in. If you sound just like Nickelback or Britney Spears you're going to blend in with millions of other bands who think they have to sound that way to be commercial. It's better to be unique so that people don't confuse you with someone else.
At one time it would've been unheard of for an indie band to make it to the top of the charts in America. But in October 2010, indie band Arcade Fire from Canada topped Billboard's Top 200 album chart with The Suburbs, sending shockwaves across the music world. What is stunning is they did it with a sound that's far from normal major label crunch rock/rap formulas. They actually did it with violins and mandolins. The band is signed to indie label Merge.
What's astonishing about the music biz is they've relentlessly kept a lot of the same tired formulas going for decades, then once in a blue moon an indie band comes along and proves you don't have to. There are no rules in the new era when it comes to positioning an act. You don't have to be bound by styles and genres dictated by stations and labels, like in the 20th Century.
These days an artist can be whoever they want to be. If you want to mix classical music with rock then that's perfectly cool, instead of "we better run it by corporate, first." The 2010s decade is shaping up like the mid to late sixties when freeform radio became the hub of musical exploration, in search of experimentation and free expression.
A diverse indie artist rising from the San Francisco Bay Area is Adrian West, who plays not only guitar and drums, but violin and mandolin. His album Chameleons and Butterflies is an elaborate showcase of his talent and passion for multiple instruments. With these traditional instruments, Adrian is able to create a very unique modern sound that bridges pop, folk, rock and classical.
Looking back on how he entered the indie revolution, Adrian says, "After years of trying different things and working with different musicians I have put together a CD and a live show both of which I'm very happy with. We're playing out more, people are enjoying the music, buying CDs, sticking around to hear more, signing the mailing list. It's starting to have its own momentum and that's a lot of fun."
The road to becoming an accomplished musician can take years. While it's possible to throw together a three piece band and have a set list down in a matter of weeks, it's definitely a bigger challenge to expand the sounds and the songwriting beyond typical three-chord bar band rock.
Adrian learned a lot of different instruments over time. "When I got bored of one instrument, I took up another," he says. "I started violin at 4, switched to drums at 14, switched to guitar around 24, started taking voice lessons in my 30s. Once you know violin and guitar, mandolin comes pretty easily. I don't play piano per se, but I can master pretty much any piano part I need to long enough to get it recorded. I like playing most of the instruments on a recording myself because it pushes me to find different yet complementary parts within myself. I enjoy that challenge and I also enjoy having complete control over the performance."
Both the electric and acoustic violin help Adrian's recorded music stand out. Of course, if suddenly every rock band started mixing in strings it wouldn't be as unique, but for now, classical music's small market share, is not considered mainstream. Adrian says, "I think of my music as acoustic rock with West-African, Celtic and classical influences, and that's not a blend you hear every day. I also don't mind mixing instrumentals with sung songs, which many bands shy away from ... as for the live show I make subtle use of 'looping' to seamlessly add layers of sound and rhythm and make our sound fuller and groovier."
The album Chameleons & Butterflies is not only rich in melodic flavor, it tells an insightful lyrical story based on the themes of transforming from childhood to adulthood. From the opening track "Light Your Fires" to the climax into naturual beauty of "The River" the album is compelling enough to be the soundtrack for a movie or even bigger work of art. It sounds like an album that feeds the brain with knowledge and experience. The descriptive imagery of life's journey through the wilderness of growing up is absorbed in songs like "Summer's Ghost" and "Every Mile."
"Playing music makes me happy," Adrian asserts. "It allows me to escape the stresses of daily life. I record music in the hopes that maybe my music will have an uplifting effect on others." Indeed, the album has an enlightening quality that you don't hear too often from the album charts.
Many albums these days are just packages of songs with no theme that ties any of it together. At one time the Beatles and Pink Floyd set standards for concept albums as being the most critically-acclaimed form of recorded art. But over time the meaning and importance of concept albums got watered down and washed out by commercial overkill. Instead of albums getting juiced with songs that make people smarter, albums became full of filler that made music fans poorer. Wall to wall CDs in the living room used to reflect a vast library of musical exploration. But thanks to major label music biz marketing, the concept of the concept album became buried in filler albums with one good song for the price of $18.
After awhile, even before the big recessions of the 2000s, consumers figured out the prank. CDs were just too expensive to justify paying almost 20 bucks for one good song and a bunch of thrown together songs about nothing. When songs have lyrical value, they actually have more power than songs with incidental lyrics about nothingness. Songs with meaningful lyrics have the power to inspire songs with even deeper meaning.
In a pop environment such as a top 40 radio station there doesn't seem to be any incentive to raise the bar of intellectual or enlightening qualities of music. We all know how powerful music can be, but it seems the direction of the pop radio format has been toward the ordinary instead of the extraordinary even though pop's biggest cycles were during innovative periods. But in an indie environment anything is fair game, which is exactly what makes indie much more interesting and exciting than pop.
Adrian is focused on making great music with an eye on technology as the new gatekeeper of music. "In recent years," Adrian observes, "people have changed the way they consume stuff with a mind to protecting their bodies and their planet. They are making small sacrifices, doing things that aren't always convenient, in order to protect the environment. I'd like to see people have the same change of attitude regarding how they consume music. Pay for music, don't copy it for free. Go out and see live music instead of staying home and watching movies all the time. Putting out good music is hard work - musicians deserve to get paid for their efforts."
It was Adrian who turned me on to Jango.com, which lets artists buy plays on their streaming service. In the old radio world pay for play was considered shady payola because it wasn't disclosed to the public, making it illegal. But in the new internet world, pay for play is a perfectly legit concept since it's upfront and it doesn't cost you several grand.
That's right, in the radio payola world, thousands of dollars secretly changed hands to secure radio airplay until a government crackdown in the mid-2000s resulted in multi-million dollar fines for all the top radio and record companies involved. The investigation was overseen by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. One of the settlements the radio biz agreed to was to play a lot more indie music, but that hasn't happened yet as of 2010, although there have been a few examples of indies gaining national airplay, usually with distribution and promotional help from one of the majors.
At Jango.com you can legally pay for hundreds of plays for just $10 and thousands of spins for $100. They say on their site that 1000 plays typically gets you 30-50 new fans. In December 2010 Jango claims to have 7 million listeners.
Jango, which in 2010 ranked in the top 1000 websites according to Quantcast.com, allows an artist to gauge which of their songs get the best audience reaction. I had initially thought "Watery World" was Adrian's best shot at a big hit in the indie world because the song is so upbeat and melodic and descriptive. The song paints vivid back to nature imagery. But more popular with Jango listeners was the title track "Chameleons and Butterflies."
Adrian West's music has been played on KPFA, perhaps Berkeley's most popular underground station ever. It's actually a public station and part of the Pacifica Radio Network that has artistic, eclectic community-based stations all over America. Airplay on KPFA is the best kind of exposure for an indie artist with an educated following. Another station with the same level of credibility is KCRW in Santa Monica, where the spirit of independent art is welcome.
Following the big corporate mergers of the late nineties, the radio and music biz treated art as an opposite to commerce as if the two are mutually exclusive. Yet, the best selling band of all time, even in the 2000s was the Beatles, who had a fun time mixing art with commerce. Big biz defends the cookie-cutter approach with mantras like "art doesn't sell." Art actually is the product that does sell. People actually are attracted to art. It's not as if people are trying to run from art.
The argument that gets lost is artistic freedom vs corporate formulas. The path of least resistance in the music and radio industries is to just go with tried and true formulas, which can inevitably be exposed as more of a crutch than a solid platform, driving sales action into downward patterns. There will always be fans of all the genres, but that doesn't mean everyone craves genre music (formula music written simply to showcase or fit into a genre that doesn't bring anything new or unique to the music, kind of like music riddled with cliches).
People do want creativity in music. That's why the Beatles are still selling big 40 years after their breakup: their songs tell interesting stories that paint colorful images in the mind. That's called creativity, something that indie artists have understood all along. What does the most successful major label artist have to do with indie? They got to run their own indie label called Apple Records, which was under the EMI umbrella. They actually learned some hard lessons about finance, but what came out on their label was still some of the best music ever made.
Who usually gets the best combination of sales and critical acclaim? It's usually poetic storyteller artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Doors, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, U2, Prince, Coldplay. Those are all popular major label artists, but also very influential in popularizing songs well loved in the indie world. Those are some of the artists most likely to be covered by indie bands just because the songs tell captivating stories that hold an audience's attention.
Continue to Chapter 4: Performance and Studio Time
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