How To Be An Independent Artist in the Music Business - Part 2
“Well I’m out here,
Still looking for a place to rest my heart when I grow old
You know you can’t
Believe in all the things that you thought
When you were young”
My record is finished. Now comes the weird part.
I moved out to LA about a year and a half ago. Things weren’t going well in my personal life in many ways, but I don’t talk about it on the internet. I do, however, put my feelings about the fucked up shit that happens in my life into my songs. I mean, I don’t really even know where my songs come from. Sometimes, as I’m writing them, that’s when I realize I’m feeling and thinking about… In many ways they are like ‘thinking out loud’, and as I’m writing, it’s like there is one part of me that just listening and documenting, and there is another part of me speaking. I am the Listener, and I am the Writer, and they are both me. It’s a mysterious and therapeutic and natural experience.
Sometimes when the songs appear, they are angrier than I realized I was. Sometimes they are sad when I thought I was writing a happy song. Sometimes they are funny or entertain me, sometimes they surprise me. Sometimes, they aren’t about me. Often, they are like little movies in my head - based on real life, but fictionalized and interpreted through metaphor and performance.
Generally, they are truthful, but not necessarily revealing.
At some point after that Song that has been born, it will arrive at the second phase of it’s evolution: the playing, arranging and recording. This is also a mysterious and natural experience for me, where much of the time I feel more like the ‘Listener’ than the ‘Player’, while being both at the same time. I play and listen, I record and listen. I meet up with musicians, I go in the studio, I bond with people through a mutual love of music and the heart-opening experience of making it together. I listen to the players and engineers around me, and the song continues to reveal itself.
This second phase can, however, involve a little more struggle than the first. In the writing phase, I’m very at one with my intuition, and that intuition guides me to finish the song or demo it or play it around the house. But once it’s a Song, then I feel a sense that there is a puzzle I have to solve; like all the pieces are lying in front of me, I just have to put them together the right way. The ‘right’ way. What is that? How does one know? How do I know if it’s right? I listen…. until I know. Or at least until I know that I’m done.
Throughout all of this, I am very much an Observer, but - crucial to my point, whenever I get to it - I am not observing myself. I am not thinking about myself; I’m thinking about the song, what it ‘wants’, how it is supposed to be sung, what instruments should play it? What should the beat be like? I make thousands of small decisions, but they are like the flow of a river, deciding to go left or right around a stone... Which is to say, there is no ‘deciding’ involved.
Except, sometimes. Sometimes it’s more like being a lost driver stopped at an intersection with no idea which direction to turn. When I come to those intersections, I downshift; I am the Listener and I wait to know which way to turn… or maybe, back up. I love love love love solving those puzzles. But I have left some unsolved puzzles behind, ones I didn’t have time for, couldn’t wait and listen long enough, because the songs that were moving on to the next stage in their evolution were pulling my attention along with their giddy, sparkly exuberance.
And that next stage in their evolution is…
Ugh. It’s horrible. Their exuberance has reined and saddled me and ridden me into a trap. Because now I’m not the Listener anymore. YOU are. And now - now I’m the Salesman. “Check out my new song”. Gotta post pictures of myself. Now I’m observing myself. I’m observing myself being observed. And it’s not mysterious, magical, therapeutic, or sparkly.
“Check out my new song, do you like it?” For the most part, I really don’t care.
If you don’t like it, I don’t care.
But if you DO like it, if you DO care and send me messages and ask me to play shows and listen hundreds, thousands, and millions of times, then I do care. It makes me want to show you the new songs. Maybe you will care about them too, and yeah, that is a great experience, I love to participate in that exchange. It feels like a kind of closure, like, now I can rest; now I can move on - I have served the song.
I have a lot of songs with unfinished business. The momentum of their mysterious, natural evolution pushes them out of me towards you. They need cover art, and ISRC codes, and posts on social media. They need money and time and they need me to be very very uncomfortable with the kind of work I will do to introduce them to you and everyone. They are jealous of their older siblings who are fully independent and get to hang out with you guys all the time - especially ‘Broken’
When I was 30, I became a mother. I had already been a mother to four albums and, what, 40 or 50 songs. But when I had my daughter, I was dedicated only to that. I knew I had to step up, take care of myself to take care of her. She is upstairs as I write this, getting ready for bed and listening to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. She’s 11 now.
When she was about 4, and I had been ‘just a mom’ all that time - not out touring or promoting or marketing or anything like that - people started listening to Broken, a lot. From my calculations - and it’s actually quite hard to calculate, but that’s another topic for another day - Broken has been streamed about 25 million times. The rest of my songs combined have more like 6 million streams altogether, for comparison.
That has been very validating for me. It helps to counter balance the ridiculousness I often feel doing the part where I put the records out and try to tell everyone about them. The part I’m doing now.
Like the hubris at the heart of a Greek tragedy, I have always been plagued with inner conflict. I long for a sense of belonging, but I’m suspicious of tribalism. I want meaningful relationships, but feel safest at a distance. I like attention on my work, but feel very uncomfortable when the attention is on me - a distinction that often seems hard to make.
I am not a particularly happy or well-balanced person. I’ve had a pretty weird life and my share of fucked up shit. I am pretty lonely and heartbroken and have trust issues and feel restless and anxious and hopeless and sad a lot. That should be apparent from my songs, I should think. And my songs feel like an appropriate place to let it be apparent, but it feels so weird to go around advertising that; to treat this whole thing I do as a “business” - from the stifled feelings needing expression to the meditative flow of songwriting to the cathartic completion of a recording, it just doesn’t seem like something that fits in that category. For me, I guess, it’s more like a spiritual practice.
I actually do run a small business, one that makes sense - one that provides a service for the purpose of generating income. I enjoy it and it suits me as a way to make money but I don’t do it for any other reason.
Where I fit into the music business, however, doesn’t make any sense to me. I feel compelled to share my music, but I can’t escape the context of capitalism and the language of marketing, which just seem to suck all the magic and sanctity right out of the experience. Just, everything about the writing and creative process feels so natural and makes sense to me right up until the song is finished and I release it. Releasing it feels like to so much busy-work and competition and begging for attention. I feel bogged down by what should be simple decisions, heavy with over-analyzation and awkward self-awareness. It’s boring and it’s a draining kind of challenge, unlike the energizing challenge of getting a guitar part right or finishing a mix.
The irony is, though, for some reason, it doesn’t make sense to go through that whole process if I weren’t going to share/release it at the end. And if I release the records/songs, I cannot rest or be satisfied until I do what I can to help them be found.
So here I go. I’m going for it. The songs are ready. They’ve been ready. I’m going to try to be a decent salesman for them now, even though it feels ridiculous. I’m trying to just do what I can do, because that’s all I can do on any day.