Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which Someone I Used to Idolize Harasses Me and I Learn a Few Things About the Music Business

Part 1

When I first heard who it was on my voicemail, I got excited. Really? Is this for real? One of my heroes from my youth was calling me? On my phone? The woman whose songs helped me through my teens and helped me again in the political upheaval of the last year? The woman whose unvarnished *REDACTED* album was the touchstone for me feeling like I could share some unvarnished music myself this year? The woman whose songs inspired me to keep going when I felt I couldn’t? Was that really her? And it was.

But, within seconds, the news went from amazing to terrible. Her message said something to the effect of “If you’re sensing hostility in my voice it’s because it’s there” and “I’m in New York, too, and I intend to raise a ruckus.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly here, as I could not bear to listen to the message again.)

So. My hero from my teens was calling me. (Yay!) But she’s calling to tell me she’s furious with me. (Yikes.) *REDACTED* knows who I am! (Yay!) But she wants to go to war with me. (Yikes.) It was a bone-shaking message to get.

See, over the last year, I’ve recorded over 40 cover songs in my living room. Three of those songs were hers. And when I decided to make them available to the public, I knew I needed to go through some hoops. This process is all new to me but I did a bunch of research and it seemed like the best way to assure that the songwriters received due credit and compensation was to use this licensing company called Loudr. I paid the licensing fee and preliminary royalties for each writer. It wasn’t cheap. And a lot of folks don’t bother. But how I engage with my fellow artists is important to me and I wanted to make sure I did right by everyone I owed an artistic debt to, both metaphorically and literally. Loudr calculates the preliminary royalties and so Elvis Costello got $9.10. ani difranco got $9.10. And *REDACTED* – because I recorded three of her songs – got $9.10 times three. Plus, I’m assuming, at least a portion of the license fee.

So *REDACTED* called me and declared that I was using her composition without permission. And she was pissed. She called seven times, several times a day for three days. She trolled me on Twitter. She doxxed me. She targeted my theatre company (which has zero to do with my music.) She clicked around in all the places I have digital media presence. And because usually those places are quiet and unvisited, that made a lot of noise.

It is a really heartbreaking experience to be trolled by someone you once admired so fiercely. I cried on and off for 24 hours. I didn’t do much sleeping either.

At first, I tried to figure out what she wanted. She didn’t say. Was it the profits from the songs? Because there aren’t any. Is she after a portion of my album sale? Because that’s a dollar. I mean – I’m a month into the first release of two albums and the only money I’ve made is the $10 I got when my dad downloaded it (which he really could have gotten for free.) That $10 is about a 1% recoup of my cost and her song was one dollar of that.

But I don’t think it’s about money – after all, she’s just made money on my recordings. I think she’s pissed that I recorded her songs at all. I think she’s pissed that copyright laws are such that I am well within my rights to do so. And I understand that, too. When I submitted to Loudr, I thought one of the things I was getting was permission from the songwriters to record their stuff. I thought that was why REDACTED’s songs took longer to process than the others. I thought they were waiting on her permission. Turns out – no – that’s not how it works at all. Copyright law gives anyone the right to record anyone’s song, as long as they pay for a license. It has been this way for decades. I have no idea if that law is fair or just or not. But I understand that it’s weird that anyone can just sing your song that you made up out of your head. I have felt weird when people tell me that they’ve been playing my songs without me. I get that. It is weird.

But music – particularly folk and pop music – has this interesting quality of becoming part of the public imagination once it’s released into the world. I mean, with folk music, that’s kind of the point. Folk doesn’t just mean a conversational voice over a pleasant acoustic guitar. Folk music is so called because it is for the folk. It is Woody Guthrie playing for Okie migrant camps. It is Pete Seeger sailing a boat down the Hudson River, singing, to convince Congress to clean up the polluted river. It is Odetta singing at the March on Washington after being introduced by Martin Luther King, Jr. The song “We Shall Overcome” was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement and has continued to bubble up whenever there is need, like a couple of weeks ago when, heartbreakingly, the Virginia Senate voted down the ERA. Folk music is meant to travel. It is meant to move from person to person to form a collective voice.

I mean, I love a finger-picked acoustic sound as much as the next person (probably more) but the real power of folk is its place in a collective. That’s how pop music can slide into folk sometimes. The crowd singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” after the Manchester bombings transformed Oasis’ pop hit into folk music. And it is tremendously moving to see/hear. Are the guys from Oasis models of indie folk generosity? Hardly. But I thought REDACTED was. I mean, her music functions as folk music for me. But I’m sure for her, it feels more personal. Like, those are her friends she’s singing about, her life. It must be weird to have other people sing them. Granted. I’m pretty sure, though, that trolling someone who loves your songs is not the way to address that weirdness. It is a pretty good way to lose a fan, though.

I’ve always been a folkie. I come from folkie folks. I come from a place where people getting together to play music is a regular event. I grew up in a world where people traveled with instruments and might pull them out at any moment. I sang around a lot of campfires and in living rooms and porches. For me, that’s where music really thrives.

Where I live now, though, we don’t really have the space for that. There are no porches to gather on and few public spaces where a group of people might pull out a guitar or a concertina and shake the night. With so much privatization of public space happening these days, it gets harder and harder to gather. If I want to sing in public, I have to book a gig. And unless I can guarantee that 30 people will turn up for that gig, I probably won’t be able to do that. I can’t guarantee more than a handful of people so I play by myself in the living room for the new public commons, the Internet. It has felt like this is where the folk are and so in solidarity, I’ve been singing songs that are my folk music.

But the Internet is not a boxcar or a union meeting. It is not a rally or a protest. I know.

Even before this dispiriting phone call from REDACTED, I was thinking about how the digital landscape just flattens everything out, how music is mostly just aural wallpaper for cafes and supermarkets or background for videos now, how it makes me feel acutely, even though I intend for these songs to help rally the resistance, it is all just background noise, that despite all this social media, we are less engaged with each other, less able to share our art, less connected.

And I can understand the frustration an artist like REDACTED might feel – with the means of distribution all flattened out like this – anyone with a computer and a microphone can have their music next to someone who’s spent their entire life in the music industry. I mean – how is anyone going to know that “REDACTED” is her song, not mine?

I’ve got liner notes that make such things clear but in the digital music landscape, authorship is completely inconsequential. There is no way to indicate what is original and what is cover. In the old days, an album’s notes would contextualize something like what I’ve just released. But while I made album covers with liner notes – there is nowhere to put those notes in any of the digital distribution channels. There is nowhere to put any of that information.

And while that may be all fine and good for actual folk music – for folks at a campfire or at the rally – authorship and artistry are important and need to be recognized. Musicians, writers, producers, everyone disappears into a digital file. Everyone disappears into the background. Everyone becomes wallpaper.

PART 2

The thing of it is, REDACTED is pissed at the music industry. With good reason. The music industry is imploding and horrible for women. (More on that in a minute.) But I am not the music industry. I’m an indie artist who makes art. I make lots of different stuff but this last year, among other things, it was music. And after all these years of people asking when they’d hear me sing again, I figured I’d just go ahead and share the stuff I was singing at home.

I think Jaron Lanier was right about musicians being the canaries in the coal mine of the future. He said to watch closely what happened to musicians and journalists as they would show us what the rest of the middle class would be in for. In the big data transformation that our culture has been seized with, “content” gets disconnected from its creators and things that travel through digital space, even when they become viral, don’t necessarily credit or remunerate the creators. Musicians are the canaries in the coal mine of a nameless faceless data mine – and REDACTED may be a great example of what happens to those canaries.

I wouldn’t presume to know what happened to her during her time in the arms of the music industry. But I know that the industry generally chews women up and spits them out. Since the 80s, most women singer-songwriters, if they have a hit, it’s one and then they’re done. Maybe you get a second one, if you’re lucky but mostly, women in this genre get embraced for a minute and then chucked out the door. And I have to wonder if the toxic atmosphere of multi-national conglomerates trying to control your creativity (and probably your body as well) made for a particularly toxic coal mine that led to REDACTED’s very public psychotic break a few years ago.

I’m thinking it might have gone like this: right, here’s the coal (that’s the recording industry) and here’s the canary (REDACTED, watching the industry erode, implode, become data driven and more corporate) and in the coal mine, the canary starts going crazy – because, toxic fumes, man, and everyone goes, “Hey! That canary’s going nuts! Probably there’s something wrong with the canary! Let’s get rid of it and get another one in here.” But it’s the fumes, man, the data driven fumes. The sexist fumes. Or maybe this particular canary just happens to be particularly crazy.

But I digress. Because I’m not even IN the coal mine, folks. I’m just a canary singing in a tree because it makes me feel better and I had hopes that it might make a few other people feel better too. And I sure feel bad for my sisters inside – but also a tiny bit envious because they’re the “important” ones, the ones with awards and recognitions and record sales.

The thing that’s breaking my heart about this is that REDACTED is likely attacking me because so many of her avenues have been closed. Since she seems surprised by this Loudr thing, it would seem that no one else has requested licenses from her before. That means a struggling artist in Queens is the only one that wants to play her songs. Or at least the only one who paid for the rights to do so.

She’s punching down because she’s gotten nowhere in punching up. She’s been flying around the coal mine, going crazy and the miners swat her away – so she goes after the first free canary that comes into view.

Aside from my parents, a handful of friends and some guys in Sweden (Spotify stats are so wild) no one cares about the music I just put out. Like – really. No one really cares. And that is a pretty normal experience for me. Pretty much those same people come to my shows or read my work. It’s normal for me to fly around the margins and have only a handful of people notice. Ironically, the person most interested in me was the person harassing me. I’ve never been tweeted at so much.

Would I like more recognition? Of course I would. For just about any of the many things I do. But I have, for decades, operated at the invisible edges of things and I have made peace with that. I do it even though no one is asking for it.

What’s harder for me to reconcile than the world’s general indifference to me is how no one cares what REDACTED is doing either. Like – someone with her history and experience and recognition should not be calling me herself. She should have people for that. If Paul Simon didn’t like me recording his stuff (yes, he got $27.30 in preliminary royalties, just like REDACTED) he for sure would have his lawyer call. Or his agent. Or anyone. Paul Simon would not call me up to tell me he was about to raise hell. Probably, if he didn’t like it, he’d talk to his lawyer about it and when he heard it was all perfectly legal, he’d forget about it and go back to relaxing in his chair made of money.

So it’s bracing to realize that someone I once admired has been sent to the same margins I’ve occupied all this time. How is it possible that I have more Twitter followers than her? (Probably the bots. Also – activism.) But also – how is it possible that someone with name recognition making a stink has no real impact? When I initially told my friend about this call, he joked that his inner PR person was thrilled. “What could be better for your album than a famous person making a ruckus about it?”

But, despite REDACTED retweeting my blog and Patreon links and lord knows what else (I don’t know, I muted her,) it has had no impact whatsoever. No one has clicked her links. No one retweeted her. She’s shouting into the void, just like me.

And if it were just her and just me, I might not have all this to say now. But it isn’t. Everyone is shouting into the Internet and only a few are heard. I have been stunned to see tweets from national organizations, with millions of members, with no likes on their tweets. To be heard, either with music, or activism, or art of any kind, you need a giant algorithm behind you. You need millions of people to like your tiny donkey videos, you need the data driven winds to blow your way.

You need 30 people to play a gig in New York City and you need a million people to follow you to make a living in music. Luckily, I’m not really trying to have a full-on music career. (I have other arts to struggle mightily against in this way.) But I am incredibly sad that there is no middle space for music anymore, that a brilliant artist can disappear, or go crazy, or slip away into the void.

One of my principle skills as an artist is an adaptability to inhospitable arts climates. If a door closes, I slide over to the window. When the window closes, I’ll go out the cracks. If I can’t get a gig, I’ll play in my living room. I don’t give up. I get discouraged, of course. But I just try another way when things get crazy. And last year things got really crazy, did they not? So I decided I’d record it all because I really wasn’t sure what else to do for me or my people.

I listened to funk and blues and I played folk. For the folk.

PART 3

The funny thing about all this is how entirely resistant to the idea of recording I used to be. My former bandmates could tell you how hard it was to convince me to record our album back in 2001. I had a theatre-maker’s preference for art that burst into being for a moment and then disappeared like a firework. I also felt that if the recording wasn’t perfect, I didn’t want it out in the world, haunting me. But somehow, now that recordings no longer need to live on a physical object like a CD or a tape – they are a bit more ephemeral. A recording can both live forever and disappear into the vastness of the internet. A recording can be both permanent and impermanent all at once. I somehow flipped some switch in my mind that allows me to imagine that digital recordings can have the evanescence of theatre. Or maybe in my later years, I just value authenticity and immediacy more than perfection. Each record is really just a document of the moment I recorded it in.

Ever since I went to the Grammys, I have been thinking about a line in ani difranco’s song “Fuel.” It goes, “People used to make records as in a record of an event, the event of people making music in a room.”

Now no one even makes records, we make digital downloads. Just like your PDF from work or the photo from the party. Everything is flat. Everything is a digital download.

So my attempt to share the music I recorded at home one day is sitting in the same basket as the multi-billion dollar corporation’s property. That is, one of the three major label’s artists. (Yes, we’re down to three. And only one of them was the big winner at the Grammys.) And there are mechanisms in place to push the big guy’s “properties” forward and silence others.

I’m not trying to be seen by the big guns. I don’t think I have it in me to sell my soul to the corporate engine. Would I like to make a living wage from my art? Like ANY part of it? Like music or theatre or fiction or any of it? Of course I would and if there’s a way to recoup the cost of sharing all of it, I would like to. But I don’t think I’m suited to having a corporate boss. So ultimately, I just wanted to share a little bit of indie folk punk raucous spirit with anyone who needed a dose of it the way I did.

It is heartbreaking that THE inspiration for sharing it is also the person trolling me for it. I would have thought she would have understood. I would have thought that she could have taught me something about channeling righteous anger into folk pop anthems. And she did teach me – about thirty years ago when I first heard her music. She taught me that music could be by a campfire and out in in public. She taught me that women’s anger could sound great over a guitar. She taught me that you could sing about social issues and still be cool. That you could be folky and tough.

Part 4

Since I got that voicemail, I have been wrestling with how to reconcile all I got from her, all I learned, all I’m grateful for, with the person who would harass an artist like me. Some people advise killing your heroes (metaphorically, of course) and at times I have found it useful to think about. In this case, though, it’s a matter of my hero wanting to kill me. Not literally, of course. (Though doxxing does make me vulnerable to the nazis on Twitter.) It does rather feel like Superman went bad and is now going after Jimmy Olsen. And Jimmy Olsen has to be his own hero now. I have to be my own hero.

This seems to be a lesson that I keep having to learn. Every time I encounter an artist I looked up to, I find they are not who I imagined. Every time I meet that one lone artist who seems to do things in an original way, they disappoint me. And each time, I have to learn again that the time to look up is over and it has become time to be my own hero.

What I discovered this time around however, was that I am no longer alone in this. I discovered what a tremendous well of good will I have to draw from. My friends and family lovingly gathered around me when I felt under attack and I felt seen in a way I hadn’t before. I realized that a lot of people really do understand what I’m about and what I’m trying to do. A lot more people support that vision than I realized. It would appear that, though I often feel invisible, my values and intentions have been visible to my friends and family for some time.

And visibility is a major part of this story. In part, I have, historically, kept a fairly low profile in the flattened digital sphere out of fear of being attacked. The blog doesn’t have my name on it, for example. As a woman on the internet, I expect to be harassed, doxxed or dragged. I assumed the digital Nazis were going to come for me at some point or another. They’ve come for every other feminist I admire. But instead of Nazis, the call came from inside the house. It came from an indie feminist folk icon which somehow made it worse. But it also made me braver once I was through the worst of it.

*So why have I redacted this post? Why have I obscured the artist and her work at the center of it?
1) Because I don’t want my own visibility to be at the hands of another artist’s bad behavior. I’d really rather not have my name associated with hers in this way.
2) Because I think this artist is genuinely battling a mental illness. Googling her leads directly to many public accounts of concerning behaviors. Howard Stern thought she’d be a great guest in the middle of her public melt down. (Piers Morgan got her instead.) I just can’t get on board with adding to that exploitation of madness no matter how upset she made me.
3) If my folk are enjoying her songs on my albums, I don’t want to taint them. I, for sure, will never want to sing them again – so I’d rather leave those songs untouched by her behavior in the minds of my listeners.                                                                                           4) I may be braver now but I’m also not too keen on the harassment picking back up any time soon. I don’t want a stray google alert to mean the recommencement of the whole unpleasantness. She may read this. She may not. Probably not this far down though. So – better safe than fielding multiple mean voicemails a day. Just because I’m braver doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly lost my baseline conflict aversion.*

 

I made all this messy folk music for the people know me, who understand what I am trying to do, who have my back and will send me all the hugs and cute animal images I need when I don’t feel able to withstand the cruelties of the world. I’d rather have all those people in my life than my old heroes. My people are the folk and I will sing for any one of them whenever I am called upon. And as my therapist said, “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.”

You can help this canary keep singing for folk

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

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