Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as an Indie

Being a musician in this era, this slice between what was and what will come, has stirred up that brutal mother of all inventions, Necessity.  And that mother straps the creative to the rack and stretches them into shapes they were not made to conform to.
How's about an example:  Mary Panjoma, lead voice and front face for Panjoma, as well as catalyst in the Austin electronic music community.  Mary is arguably one of the best chameleons at this new game; capable of seismic shifts from creative brain child to managerial mover-shaker in the blink of a snare hit.
That's her with the orange hair (or wig, rather).  That's Patrik Nilsson behind her with the bass, and riTchN on the keyboards on the far left.  Not pictured:  Guest players Melissa Riotgurl (of The Future Process) and John Ousley.

So back in 2005, when Mary and Co. formed Panjoma, they went looking for a place to play, and discovered a hole in Austin's live music genre pool - Electronic. Here in the live music capital of the world, we gotcher rock. We gotcher country. We gotcher rock-country, we gotcher alt-whatever, we gotcher... But we don't gotcher industrial-strength electronic. Nosirreebob.

But as it turns out, though Mary is an artist, she's not just an artist:  She seems to be missing the artist's penchant for obstacle avoidance, and raised her game, as it were.  Knowing the strength-in-numbers motto, she dug around in the dank underground scene for other off-center, out-lying bands; and with this handful of musical and cultural rebels, formed an improbable cooperative - The Austin Electronic Music Grid.  From there, they could team up, launch out, find a venue, find an audience, and find success (in whatever way it is defined).

Notice that this was 2006, back before the social media moguls ruled the world; back when crowdsourcing was a yet-to-be-understood word. At least in this context.

Mary the Artist morphed into Mary the do-it-yer-own-self-er; forced by creative need to move into uncomfortable, inexperienced areas.  Into the littered land of DIY.

This DIY movement, we think, was born by this era of rampant computers, free-roaming software, affordable hardware, and the fiscal disarray that seems to follow in their train like some leering toadie.

Triggered by technology, the dismal financial outlook of the music industry has brought about a radical restructuring that is still being architected at the time of this writing (Spring 2011).  From here, it's all speculation and talking heads; some of it good, some of it fantastic. But it's just that, speculation:  We'll get there when we get there; we may know it, we may not.  One thing we do know - In these days, Artist and Sugar Daddy (a.k.a., Label) are on the outs.  For both parties, the cost-benefit analysis is grim.

Meanwhile, the musician continues to create.  Then, when the creating is done, pays the price for that creativity with time spent doing un-musical things, like promotion.  Video production and post production. Email lists.  Excel spreadsheets, newsletters.  Photoshop. Web sites.

Panjoma's latest release, a collection of their greatest hits, has an official release date of 5/1/11.  Remastered, re-worked, sounding better than ever; we're talking bouncy-hypnotic soundscapes, danceable-yet-deep tracks, industrial instruments grooving to a dance-friendly staccato, Mary's sultry vocals; all interlaced with ever-so-rare experimental niceties popping up, far more than the average allows.  A definite must-listen, you hardened skeptic you.  All recorded in the home studio, natch.  (Did we put "audio engineering" in the un-musical list?  Should've.)

Musically, Mary + Patrik + riTchN pass the compositional and production baton like champs, each knowing their way around music theory and each other; understanding the nuances and subtleties of both.

But on the business side of the fence?  No one is jumping on that horse, so Mary takes the reins.  In earlier days, a label's retinue of staff would tackle this front, then break for lunch. Now?  Now the indie dives into promotional details all by her lonesome self.  Looks at the checkbook balance and does the cost-benefit of hiring out vs. DIY.

Hiring out would mean renting studio space and gear and an engineer's talents and a post-production mastering guru.  DIY means being your own mastering guru and engineer. DIY means renting, buying, borrowing, and cramming gear into a spare room; recording on nights and weekends; damn the neighbors, full speed ahead.

After that's done, you find yourself where Panjoma is now; staring at the next hurdle, the Promotion Monster, and wondering what you can sacrifice to slake his thirst.  Checking that bank balance and seriously considering getting someone like Ryan Cano and The Loyalty Firm for all those required-yet-non-musical tasks.  Like strategizing and socializing and doing all those chores that end up spreading your name and music to a world-wide audience; videos and tour management and reviewers and press releases and mailouts and printables and -

We dedicate our time to getting our client's music in the press and that's a full time focus and our full time job.  We then report all postings we secure and target high profile blogs that use aggregators like Elbows, Hype Machine, MOG Network, Technorati to help spread further around the globe.
This will optimize SEO recognition which matters if someone who wants to do work is searching you by Google. It will be impressive when your band is the first 20 pages in the search.  
Ryan Cano of The Loyalty Firm
In spite of this mountainous to-do list, Mary decides that, today, at this point in time, this expertise might not be worth another mortgage.  She instead invests with what she has, time.  Trips to the post office, emails, documents, duplications, website stuff, release party details (it's looking like June, either the 18th or the 25th, with Arc Attack at Kenny Dorham's Backyard).  Doing what she can to get radio play and maybe, maybe, organizing a tour.  If it doesn't cost too much.

To other artists, parting with the cash money is worth it:  "I HATE doing that [stuff]," says David T. Jones of Watch Out For Rockets; and if the number of "How To Promote Your CD/Band" articles and Facebook posts are any indication, he speaks for most indie artists - This isn't typically within the artist's comfort zone; you'll spend more time promoting a recording than the time spent inventing and making the thing.

Somewhere, sometime between then and now, the balance will return.  The ball the labels carried will be carried, but by other types of entities.  Perhaps something more co-op like, something similar to Anthony Erickson's Eye in the Sky Collective, which looks to leverage a group of artists to gain price breaks in promotional or production services. Or maybe more Austin Electronic Music Grids will form, only less genre-centered and more promotion focus.

Or maybe not.

When asked what she would say to other indie artists, Mary's advice was simply "Be patient, stay together. It takes 5-10 years to get where you're going."

She was talking about bands, but the wisdom applies:  Be patient, buckle up, do those uncomfortable things guys; wherever we're going, we're probably still 5-10 years away.

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