Saturday, December 22, 2007

until next year

Well, in spite of my good intentions and occasionally valiant efforts, I'm not going to be able to finish this little series on "sustainability and music" before Christmas after all. With our "Community Supported Music" initiative celebrating its first anniversary of being "up and running" it seems like a good time to share some thoughts and reflections and questions as we move into the future... I look forward to exploring this (and other things) with you in the new year!

I'll be taking a break for a few weeks, as we make a family trip to visit Jeremy and WuYan in Shanghai and celebrate their wedding with WuYan's home community in Yunnan province. A very different kind of Christmas for us! Check back in mid-January - regular blogging will resume then.

Wishing you peace and joy and receptivity to angel voices this Christmas and in the year to come!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

sustainability and music (3)

I've received a couple of interesting and thoughtful e-mails in response to my earlier posts on "sustainability and music," and it seems I've given the impression that I think money, or making money, is "a bad thing."

This is interesting - and rather surprising - to me. In addition to seeing myself as engaged in a "vocation" and a "ministry," I also see myself as a "self-employed business person" or even (in my more optimistic moments) something of an "entrepreneur." I liked the theme of the recent MEDA conference in Toronto (where I sang a couple of my new songs about - you guessed it - economic stewardship): "business as a calling."

And, like many business people, I am seeking to operate my business (and make money/earn a living) with integrity, in a way that is coherent with my faith. Or, to put it another way (in the words of a song on a recently released album that you really ought to buy... GRIN... in fact, you can listen to the song here) - "My money talks, so what can you hear it saying...?"

I suppose you could say that I'm taking an enterpreneurial approach with a passion for environmental sustainability and a "simple living" orientation. And yes, those words CAN all fit in the same sentence...

I don't have a problem with earning money. I DO have a problem with business models - in any industry/economic sector - that are not sustainable (which is to say, they are destructive) in environmental and other terms. And I am actively seeking/exploring/developing alternatives in my "line of work," as are many other people in theirs.

For instance, according to the prevailing wisdom of what a musician must do to "make it," my performance schedule is woefully inadequate. Over the past few years, I am averaging probably 40 to 60 performance dates per year, trying to keep it to a maximum of two weekends "away" per month, and have been "on the road" for more extensive (long distance) touring anywhere from 2-5 weeks per year. This has been about right for our family - it is what we have decided that we can handle at this point.

Some people look at my performance schedule and say "Wow - you sure are busy, and are really taking this music thing seriously." Others would see this kind of schedule as not serious or viable at all (definitely not adequate for consideration for a record label contract or distribution deal with most indie labels/distributors). Many musicians tour much more extensively and continuously, some logging 200-plus performances per year as a working musician.

It is a rare artist indeed who can find the right balance between the kind of "on the road" time required to build and sustain their career and the kind of "at home" time required to build and sustain healthy family and community relationships. Of course there is no one formula or "right way" to do this, and I have tremendous respect for people who have managed to maintain a lengthy career, as well as good relationships and mental health, with a kind of touring schedule that I know I could never manage.

But I also know of (and respect) many who have not been able to pull this off... and others who try it for a few years and then "settle down" to a "real job"...

A couple of interesting examples that I've come across lately:

1) a friend in a band with a major label contract wondering about their future prospects if the new album isn't a big seller... very uncertain, even if the new record does really well, whether this career is a viable long-term option, could be managed while starting a family, etc. What surprised me most was that here is someone who has achieved what many musicians dream of - a major label contract - and he's asking all the same questions as many of us in the "indie" world. Except for their album to "do well" and give them a shot at some degree of financial viability - even in the short term - it needs to sell upwards of tens of thousands of copies (where for most of us "indies" an album that sells a few thousand is doing well).

2) another friend wrote this article about The Duhks - a Winnipeg band that I like very much - and their struggles with wanting to "go green" (see the great website for their Sustainability Project - Green Duhks) while at the same time trying to "make it" in the music business. They are doing things like buying carbon offsets for their tours (and using a "veggie-oil run van") to mitigate their environmental impact, but at the same time (and acutely aware of the contradiction) felt compelled to accept sponsorship from Chevrolet for an ad in Rolling Stone magazine that could really help their career.


Two things that strike me about these examples:

1) the pervasive sense that the economic system in which we are working is fundamentally untenable and unsustainable, for ourselves, our families, our communities, our planet.

2) the pervasive sense that WE HAVE NO CHOICE, that there is no other option, that the "get as BIG as possible as fast as possible - tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!" approach is the only game in town.

(By the way, I hope it's clear by now that what we're talking about here is not unique to "the music business" but has parallels in virtually any "sector of the economy" that you can name... agriculture, energy, and the automotive industries immediately come to mind...)

Is it true that the mainstream system is fundamentally flawed and inherently unsustainable? You know by now that I think "yes."

Is it true that we have no other choice? I don't think so.

Can we even imagine an economic system for music that is not inherently destructive of the environment (and for which we attempt to compensate by buying more and more carbon offsets while simultaneously pursuing ever-increasing levels of touring, CD and "merch" sales)? Can we imagine an economic system that is actually GOOD for the planet?

Can we even imagine an economic system for music that is not inherently destructive of family and community relationships, but that actually ENHANCES and STRENGTHENS them?

I think we can. I think it's already happening. I think we need to share those stories and experiences and help to get the word out. In my next post I plan to share some of my own beginning experiments that attempt to move in this direction, and might even go so far as to venture "a modest proposal for an alternative business model for the arts." And I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and experiences and experiments and critiques.

I'm reminded again of the old adage (wasn't it Gandhi who said it?) - we must become the change we wish to see in the world.

And by the way, I do want to incorporate "carbon offsets" as one of the standard costs of the way I "do business" - am considering listing them up front as one of the standard costs on my invoices for performances (a cost that I'm thinking we would share 50-50 as travelling performer and hosting community). What do you think about that idea? But I've heard a lot of controversy around some artists that have gone big into carbon offsets and promoting "carbon neutral" tours, only to find later that the companies that they worked with didn't follow through, or that the trees planted to offset carbon emissions all died, etc... Can anyone point me in the direction of good, trustworthy, reputable systems that are in place for buying carbon offsets? Who has experience with this?


Monday, December 17, 2007

snowed in... and on the radio

Thanks to the "storm of various superlatives" (biggest in ten years! almost the biggest in 40 years!), our one-night visit with family in K-W ended up being a 3-nighter..., with a long commute early this morning to get Julie back to work and Matthew back to school, and just in time for me to head back down the 401 again tomorrow for a live radio interview on Faith FM.

(I know, it can be done over the phone, but I'm also going to be meeting with Charlene to - hopefully - finalize the arrangements for the "My Money Talks: songs for worship" songbook to be released - again hopefully - in February...)

So if you're in Kitchener-Waterloo and near a radio tomorrow between 11:30 and noon, tune into Faith FM (94.3 FM), or listen live over the internet if you're near a high-speed connection (or even dial-up, according to their website) anywhere in the world wide world.


Friday, December 14, 2007

head-butted by a camel...

... at the scene of the "live nativity." One of the unexpected hazards - and pleasures - at the Wellesley Santa Claus Parade.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

sustainability and music (2)

I keep hearing this new orthodoxy, with slight variations, about "the music business in the digital age"...

1) the big players in the "traditional" music business (big record labels, etc.) are in trouble and don't know what to do
2) "new media" and digital downloads are a great thing for independent artists
3) in the age of digital downloads, musicians should not expect to make money from recorded music, but from live performances and merchandise sales.

To which I say:

1) looks that way, but massive multi-national conglomerates generally seem to find a way to take care of themselves (or, as they would say, their shareholders)
2) yes
3) that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

Let's think about this for a moment, beyond the obvious (though undeniably fun) demonstrations of the silliness of this idea. (Example: farmers should not expect to make money from growing produce, but from - I know! - selling t-shirts and fridge magnets...!) I at least have yet to meet any of the proponents of "standard orthodoxy #3" above who have adopted the "business model" that they so enthusiastically recommend for musicians, and vacated their salaried positions as journalists or university professors or whatever for a lifestyle of constant touring and selling frisbees, caps, and travel mugs with their faces on them...

Of course performing ("touring"), in some way and to some extent, has been and will continue to be at the core of what it means for most of us to be musicians - and to earn income as musicians - and that's a good and necessary thing.

But again, as I pointed out in the previous post, there is a "scale" that is liveable and sustainable... or not. And the mainstream "you've gotta be BIG to make a go of it... tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!" approach, it seems to me, is not.

Do we REALLY think it's a good idea - given the realities of climate change and urgent need to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions - that independent artists should buy into a business model that requires us to rely almost exclusively on MORE touring...?

Do we REALLY think it's a good idea - given those same realities - for every independent artist and band to function as itinerant purveyors of more cheap plastic trinkets and disposable crap? (I'm referring to the "merchandise sales" here - not the music, whatever you might think of it... - and I know, we do need some t-shirts and caps to wear, but don't tell me that artists relying on merchandise sales for income are buying and re-selling high quality clothing produced in environmentally friendly ways... not exactly a viable "revenue stream" for artists - believe me, I've checked it out...)

Come on. Surely we can do better than that.

The trendy catchphrase "Your failed business model is not my problem" strikes me as an interesting case in point. Typically directed at "the traditional music industry" and intellectual property rights (copyright) system, this phrase makes for a quick and handy justification for illegal downloads or file-sharing or whatever... (and is available, by the way, on t-shirts for $8, or so a 10 second Google search tells me)... and I can see the point, and I think in some ways it's partially right...

Except that it's wrong. Dead wrong.

The "failed business model" of the traditional music business IS my problem, and yours. In a big way. In fact, it's become abundantly clear to anybody that's paying attention that the "failed business model" of the western world is EVERYBODY's problem (in the form of climate change)... and that what we need are ALTERNATIVE business models that are environmentally sustainable.

Telling independent musicians that their only viable options for making a living are by touring more and selling more cheap "merch" is not an "alternative" to the mainstream model - it's buying into that model hook, line, and sinker. And, as far as I can see, it's stupid and it's just plain wrong.

We can do better. Much better.

There is all kinds of creative thinking going on out there about creative alternatives. There are all kinds of creative ways - some with the help of "new media" - to forge a lifestyle that is more fulfilling, healthy, sustainable, and true... Let's talk about those ideas, and share them and try them out, and report on their progress. Let's step up and provide some leadership in envisioning and implementing alternative business models that can be sustainable for ourselves and for the planet.

Let's not wring our hands and profess concern for climate change while we simultaneously seek "success" in the mainstream system and according to the mainstream business models that continue to accelerate the problem... settling for a business model that assumes ever-increasing levels of touring and merchandise sales as "the way of the future." That kind of business model is indeed bound to fail. And it IS our problem.

I'm looking forward to posting more ideas about what "alternative business models for the arts" might look like... and I look forward to hearing your ideas as well.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

sustainability and music (1)

A while back I shocked someone when I told her my goal was NOT to sell as many CDs as I can.

I come across that all the time - when someone finds out that I'm a musician/singer-songwriter/recording artist, the immediate assumptions are that 1) there's no way you can make a living at it, and/or 2) the only way you could possibly make a living at it is by getting really "big" and being "famous," and therefore that's what I must be trying to do.

Whereas my goal is to simply be faithful to this vocation, and to find a way to do that over the long term, on a humble and sustainable scale. Sustainable in relational, financial, mental health, and ecological terms.

I'm finding that some people really respond to this goal, and appreciate it (and, it must be said, usually wish me luck with the implied sub-text that I'm sure going to need it!). Others find this frustrating, and say they hope for "more" for me, that they think I can "do better"... and sometimes the implication seems to be that striving for sustainability means limiting my dreams too much (at best), or retreating into the welcoming and comforting arms of intentional mediocrity (at worst).

I'm reminded of the writings of Wendell Berry, who for many years has loudly challenged the assumption that "bigger is better" when it comes to agriculture, that "industrial-scale" agriculture is the only way to go, and has argued instead that "there is a ratio between eyes and acres, between farm size and farm hands, that is correct." ("A Defense of the Family Farm," in the 1987 collection of essays called "Home Economics," p. 164). And that a big part of our ecological crisis is that we have not got that ratio right.

It seems to me that the same could be said about music. And many other things, for that matter.

It's a funny thing... being passionate about environmental sustainability and the need for change in the way we live... including, among other things, changing habits of hyper-consumption... and writing songs that, among other things, articulate something of that vision... and then recording them and putting them on a plastic/metallic disc, encasing them in more plastic and paper and cardboard... and then shipping them all over the place and seeking to SELL them...

It's a process full of contradictions, obviously. Contradictions that I struggle with every day.

In the manufacture of my latest CD, I wanted to make choices that were better for the environment. Recycled, post-consumer paper, vegetable inks, alternatives to the plastic jewel case package... (why do those options still cost MORE?! Why do we persist in financially penalizing better environmental practices and subsidizing poorer ones...?) ... and yet the most environmentally damaging piece of all remains the disc itself...

... and before we get too excited and breathlessly ecstatic about digital downloads and iTunes as an environmental alternative, let's give our heads a bit of a shake and recognize that the computer industry and related electronic gadgetry are hardly paragons of virtue when it comes to environmental sustainability...

Now don't get me wrong. I've embraced the world of digital downloads too, and see lots of potential for how this can be part of the mix of a more sustainable way of approaching a long-term musical vocation (I'll be posting more about that and other ideas soon)...

But it seems to me that as an ecologically responsible means of music distribution, we have yet to improve on the system that songwriters have been using for thousands and thousands of years...

Sing the songs! And teach them to others and pass them along... and see, over time, which are the ones that remain...


Saturday, December 08, 2007

now we know

Ahhh... so THAT'S what my brother-in-law is up to... and where we'll be visiting over Christmas... thank goodness for journalists who help us keep track of family members and their musical adventures...!

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