Saturday, February 12, 2011

Music internships

I get asked a lot if we do internships. 

I don’t know what to say.  I mean, I believe it takes a certain number of hours in a job to get really good.  Years of walking, even though it feels like running sometimes.  And so yes, internships are a great way to get a head start on all the time it takes to learn.  I do believe in them.  But do I offer them?  That’s something I go back and forth on.  It requires commitment, time, and attention to manage interns well.  I take that very seriously.  So certainly, for the right candidates we accept the help, and are eager to train.  But we are very careful in the candidates we choose.  We expect every monkey to be an expert – and that goes for interns as much as it goes for managers.

I had internships when I was in college.  My first gig in music was an internship where I had to go around to every record store in the greater Boston area with a clipboard and count how many KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails CDs were on the racks, make note of their placement, and if need be sneak them a more opportune position. 

Yup, the little folksy girl pushed the hardcore stuff before anything else.  But that job taught me a lot. 

Here are a few of the truths and fallacies I learned when I was 19 years old that still affect how I work today…

My boss was the god of the office, and I knew even then – there was something terribly wrong with that.  He sat in a big desk in the middle of the office and everyone worked around him.  He wore a phone headset and spent all day calling people by their last name or “honey” or “sweetie” followed by a big guffaw of a laugh as if to say “we’re old buddies.”  And while I never let on, I was pretty sure the people on the other end of the phone knew how fake he was.  But then I thought maybe those people were just as fake, so it worked for him.  Who was I to question that?  The day he called me a “dyke” as if it was no big deal, I bailed.  It was my first taste of disdain for the industry as it was – and I know it gave me a sense that there was probably a different way to be in the music business.  That I could do it a better way.

So yeah, I bailed.  But not before I learned a few things…

Lesson One - The tedious things are the most important.  And they teach you the most.  Sometimes I see people try to delegate things they think are administrative in the name of efficiency, but really they just don’t want to do something that requires that much focus.  Really, the tedious things are sometimes the most important things you will do.  Don’t rush things that require your attention.

The reality is, executive work is administrative today.  The best leaders know how to DO things.  The internet has not only broken down the barriers to entry, it’s broken down the barriers in job descriptions.  You are as likely to find me programming a web page or mailing out posters as you are to find our newest, youngest employee.  And I’m not embarrassed to say that.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  A manager is NEVER too important to write a note to a radio DJ and stick it in an envelope with a CD.  Nor is an artist.

Taking trains and buses around the city to record stores when I was 19 was not only a gut check (did I really want to be in the music business or was it just a fantasy?)…  It was also a lesson in the hours and effort and gritty hustling it takes to make sure every t is crossed and every i dotted.  In those days, placement in record stores was everything.  Today it’s placement on web sites.  And today, I go through the entire litany of online music outlets to see how our artists are reflected.  Is it an old photo?  Is the bio/description recent?  Are all their albums listed?  Is there a link to where you can buy their music?  Is their placement buried or prominent?  I just don’t have to take the subway to get there anymore, but I still do these things.

I guess an internship, and probably also the first job after college, are big gut checks.  Can you do this?  Can you grit it out?  Do you have the drive?  The desire?  The hunger?  Do you want it enough?  It’s as important to prove these points to yourself as it is to prove it to the people you are working for/with.

Lesson Two – Phone voice is really important.  It just is.  Even in this day and age or internet, IM, Facebook and texting (and yes I certainly do a lot of business that way), you gotta be able to talk confidently, emphatically, passionately, sincerely, calmly, and carefully on the phone.  If not phone, fine then, Skype.

Lesson Three – Know how to do things yourself.  I learned this from my internship, but also from every job I ever had.  You gotta know how things work in order to be able to delegate the job to someone else.  That’s not to say hoard the work and don’t let other people to help you.  It just means know that you can fall back on your own two hands when the going gets rough.  (‘Cuz it will get rough sometimes, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that – it happens to EVERYONE in this business.  Twelve times over in fact.)

Lesson Four – Treat everyone like they’re a CEO.  I learned this from my internship, and also from the times I temped as a receptionist at different times between jobs and business school.  You never know who you are talking to, so trust your instincts but don’t make assumptions.  This is one of the things my mamma told me growing up that turns out to be very good business sense.  In this business, interns one day are running companies the next.  Always treat folks with respect, even when they seem like they don’t have a clue where the industry is going.  Sometimes those people have meaningful insight into a problem you’re working on, and all you have to do is ask their opinion.  Sometimes those people are three steps ahead of you, and they’re onto creating the next Google.  Seriously.

Lesson Five – Never say anything about a person (especially an artist) that you wouldn’t say directly to their face.  Another lesson from mamma that became evidently valuable in my first internship (he talked smack about people in the middle of the office all the time).  Let me just say, this is a VERY small business.  We all know each other, or are one or two people removed.  And we all get together at conferences multiple times a year.  The music business is a jungle of opinions, gossip and posturing.  Don’t feed that beast, cuz you won’t be able to tame it.  If that little pit in your stomach feels bad for what you’re about to say about somebody, just don’t say it.  Even if you trust the person you’re talking to.  You just never know when a comment you say one day is gonna come back and slap you in the face 8 years later. 

And mamma also always added – don’t put those thoughts in writing either.  For goodness sake.

From the time I was an intern all the way to now managing artists, the conversations I have heard and things people will say have floored me.  The old industry condoned people talking about artists as if they were crazed animals who didn’t know what end was up.  I always lose respect for people when they talk about their clients as if they are stupid.  In my opinion, if you think your client is stupid, then why are you working with them?  And if you think your client is stupid, what does that say about the fact that they’ve decided to work with you?  But it happens a lot.  Music business people sometimes bond over their clients’ neuroses, or they write off the fact that an artist doesn’t understand a particular part of the business.  It’s a delicate thing.

I don’t work with artists who are talked about like that – so that means I neither tolerate the people who talk about artists that way, nor the artists who allow themselves to be talked about that way.  And if I ever feel myself slipping into that “mode” or detect another business person is heading in that direction, I do whatever I can to maneuver to a more positive direction.  Great work does not come out of negativity.  You can’t succeed “in spite of” something.  But you know, I suppose that is a topic for a separate blog entry!

Anyway, my point is, this last lesson is sometimes harder than you’d think.  Afterall, as a manager it IS my job to have opinions, and it IS my job to determine which of those opinions are constructive and which are garbage, and then it IS my job to enunciate my opinions to the right audience at the right moment so they make a difference.  So just like a chef who has a higher likelihood of cutting herself at some point because she uses a knife so much, I have a higher likelihood of putting my foot in it because I use opinions so much.  So, whenever I’m not sure if something is constructive, or whether or not I should be saying it, I fall back on that golden rule I learned in my internship (and from mamma)…  I think, “Would I say this directly to that person if they were here?” and if the answer is no, I zip it.

What valuable lessons did you learn in your internships?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Principled leadership

I learned something this week.  I learned something big.  You know that feeling?  When you hear someone say something, read words somewhere, or see something happen and you know in that moment you’ve learned something that’s going to change you? 

In that moment it’s never something huge and complicated either.  It’s always something simple.  Almost obvious.  Something so easy to believe that you realize you kinda believed it all along, you just didn’t think it aloud quite that way.

This week I learned that to change people’s mindset on something, you must insert that notion consistently in everything around – so before people know it, they are used to seeing it, and think it already is that way.  Sure, you might make a big declarative statement about the idea you want to change in people’s minds to kick things off.  But that’s not enough.  Then, you must nudge people at every step until they’ve walked in your direction.

Sounds simple, right?

I mean, of COURSE you can’t change the world with one quick action. 

Of COURSE you need to thread it through many parts of our culture to make it so. 

It seems so obvious. 

But then WHY are we always trying to find that big thing that’s going to make a splash?  Why aren’t we looking for a million little things to accumulate the flood?

This week I went to a going away event for a woman named Deborah Merrill Sands.  She was the Dean of the Simmons School of Management – the only all women’s business school program in the world.  Until now.  She’s leaving Simmons to start a similar school on the West Coast at Mills College in Emeryville, California (near Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area).

A few years ago, Dean Merrill Sands added one word to the Simmons School of Management tagline.  It has always been “Empowering women for leadership” and she added the word “principled” before “leadership” – a slight change many people noticed, but only some discussed.  I guess I was one of the ones who didn’t discuss it, but who accepted it as party of my alma mater’s motto.  What did it matter anyway?  Who really thinks about their alma mater’s motto and whether or not it ever changes?  And it seemed like a pretty Simmonsy value.  So I just noted and didn’t think about it again.

But during her celebration, I realized, with great surprise, that her coining of the phrase “principled leadership” really did change my world.  In small ways, in great ways.  It was so subtle that I didn’t realize it.  But many of the decisions I’ve made in my career, and many I have encouraged others to make, have been based in the assumption that such thing as “principled leadership” exists and is a valuable thing.  The motto made it okay to care.  It gave me permission to keep a little ethical genie on my shoulder as I walk through my day to day business, who I always wanted to be there anyway.  And it made it clear, that principles are established not in the large decisions – but the small, every day ones. 

The notion of “principled leadership” shifts the bar on success.  We are always debating, especially in the music industry, what it means to “succeed” in today’s world.  Do you measure success in sales?  Fans?  Facebook friends?  Twitter followers?  Email subscribers?  Number of shows?  Songs?  Albums?  Fancy hats?

In “principled leadership” there is no success at the expense of the customers, the community, the environment, our culture.  As Temple Grandin said – what’s good for cows is good for business.

So what does that mean in the music industry?

Well, I’d say the record industry has provided many examples of what “principled leadership” is NOT.  But it has also many examples of principled leaders who have not achieved their full success potential.  That’s what I’d like to write about…

How to be a principled leader AND stay out of your own way.

Because it’s true – principles can slow you down.  Principles make you stay in business relationships that are not advantageous to you.  Principles can talk you into thinking a smaller level of success is good enough – because it feels more comfortable, and that way you are not faced with pushing the limits of what you think is right and wrong.

Let’s be honest – when you are succeeding at something, growing, “getting big,” or whatever you call it, ethical dilemmas crop up all the time.  When you are truly pushing yourself, your company, your team, and growing your business, that is when you are faced with the social impact of the work you do.

I remember the first time I negotiated a contract to work with an artist who was already established – she came up in the business when times were quite different from today, and I could tell in the course of our discussions that she had been taken advantage of by many different “music business creeps” in the course of her career.

Knowing this about her got me all caught up in my head trying to anticipate the ways in which her experiences may shape the way she navigates a business relationship with a “new era music manager.”  So after a litany of emails and phone calls to determine if we would be a fit to work together, she asked me one question.

“So, what you’re saying is you have principles?”

She followed it with a joke, something like, “What a rare thing.”

I knew that comment wasn’t coming from a place of negativity.  But I really couldn’t tell what the right answer was to the question.  And I could tell by her intonation that she did want me to respond.  Was she testing me?  Did she want me to admit that I have principles?  Or is she checking to see if I am going to say something like, “within reason, yes” or “when possible, yes” or “when no one’s looking, yes.”  I of course didn’t say any of those caveats.  I just said…


After I said it, I thought how odd it is for someone to ask me that question and for me to even wonder if the right answer would be no.  What does that say about the music business?  And in that moment, it made me feel even more committed to being in this business.  Because in this major time of change in the music industry, we need principled leaders to drive that change.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The big gig checklist

Okay, after my last post, you might be saying – yeah but gimme something tangible! 

Gimme a list of things I should think about when I have a big gig coming up.  So, in that case, you can take these things with into consideration and you will be just fine when the big day comes…


  • Big gigs always have crazy timelines, unexpected needs, and random people will contact you daily asking you for stuff – always get them what they ask for same day, and always assume they didn’t get it if you don’t get a confirmation email – check in later if you don’t hear, just to be sure…  (but don’t write 8 emails a day, for goodness sake use your judgment!)
  • Get to the gig on time – and be prepared to have to walk a ways with your gear (so get there a half hour before they told you to load in)
  • Make sure they know in advance if you are going to have anyone accompanying you the day of the show, as big events have security, etc.
  • Gauge carefully if this is a gig you should do solo or with band.  Even if they won’t pay you more to play with band, remember that on large stages, especially when they are outdoors, band is better.
  • If you are opening for someone you’ve never opened for before, listen to their music, and listen to their most recent album – that way when they ask you if you’d like to sing with them, you can say “yes, i love that song ____ – are you going to play that one?”  (please don’t spend more than 2 hours on this tho – cuz more than 2 hours is overthinking it!)
  • Send a press release about getting the gig, a press release about playing the gig, and a press release after the gig about how great the gig was.
  • Think about what you will say in interviews before you get to them – I’m not saying be fake, but be sure you know what your soundbytes will be, and if you get nervous you can always fall back and direct the conversation to the spirit of that point.
  • Hire a photographer and/or videographer to follow you around that day – and if need be, make sure you get permission from the event to have your own “band photographer”
  • Promote the gig as if nobody else is promoting it – don’t sit back and collect whatever the gig is gonna do for you, work to bring people to the event – keep the mentality that any show with your name on it has to be a success and promote it like mad
  • Invite the people who have been good to you to be there to see it happen- even if they can’t make it, you’ve seized the opportunity to alert them to your great success milestone and as these pile up, they’ll feel the pulse of what you’re up to


  • Don’t hide.  You’re not small.  People just don’t know you yet.  Don’t let that make you feel small.  You’re only small if you let yourself be seen that way, and if you see yourself that way.  Remember.  You do this because you are good at it.  You belong there.  Roar like a lion!
  • Whenever you say your name, say it in the affirmative.  No question marks at the end.
  • For goodness sake play your BEST SONGS, the ones audiences have proven reaction to - don’t try out new material if you haven’t heard audience response to it yet, and play songs you are passionate about
  • Have a setlist – nobody thinks it’s cute when you pretend you’ve never done this before
  • Know how much time you have to play, and leave the stage before your time is up
  • Conduct your soundcheck efficiently and confidently – everyone there are people
  • Listen to the experts on the things to keep in mind (especially what to wear, if you are going to be on television)
  • Bring two options for wardrobe, think about hair and makeup – even the most natural looking people do their hair and wear makeup on large stages
  • Take full advantage of the press activity going on as part of the event – if there is a press conference or press tent BE THERE
  • When asked how it feels to be there, tell the truth.  Really.  It’s ok to say you are psyched.  It’s not uncool to be enthusiastic about something.  It’s actually uncool to act cool about it. 
  • Politely contact anyone and everyone involved, keep track of a list of people and what they do, and send them ALL thank you emails after the gig (you never know who will have a different job one day and remember this about you)
  • By all means, tweet and facebook in the greenroom and backstage – but DON’T BRING YOUR PHONE TO A PRESS CONFERENCE!  It’s too tempting.  Keep the tweeting away from the press.
  • Be prepared to be photographed anytime you are not backstage or in the bathroom.  That’s not to say smile like a fool the whole time.  But keep a generally photographable countenance, so you are not surprised when you see a face you weren’t expecting online later…
  • Go out to the merch table after your gig – this is one thing that IS as cool to do in a big venue as it is in a small venue (unless they explicitly ask you not to do this) – let people photograph you.
  • Have free giveaways and/or cards with your album imagery and your website URL on them, so people can take them from the merch table if they don’t buy a CD/merch right there


  • Don’t wait, put out another video, song or album right away – so anyone you captured in that timeframe knows you are alive and on the move
  • If you don’t have new material, re-imagine some of your previous material – remember, new music is what’s new to people who haven’t heard it before these days…

Friday, October 01, 2010

Success is a path not a destination

The rat race "emerging artists" run today can sometimes make them forget what they're supposed to be doing – observing, writing, recording and performing great songs, and connecting with people in a meaningful way. Voicing things that matter to other people, that change our lives and our world.

Every artist has “spotlight moments” – milestone opportunities when they are in front of a large audience with an opportunity to gather a mass of fans quickly. And when I say “spotlight moments," I don’t mean a spotlight one night on stage in one town. I mean, in the rare instance that a larger stage opens to an artist for a window in time, and they find themselves in front of thousands or millions of people with a platform on which to speak. What an artist (and their team) does in these moments can change the trajectory of the artist’s career and the reach of their music. So, you see, it’s not just about getting to the spotlight, it’s about what you do with it that counts. And it's how you navigage, what compas guides you, and what you learn in the process of BEING an artist that prepares you for that moment.

The artists who deliver when the spotlight is on them are on a mission. They have real material that supports the mission. They have more than one song, more than one thing to say, and they have explored the mission from many angles already. They are prepared to flex their muscles in all directions – live at the event, in promotion before and after the opportunity, online, through photography and video and social media. Extending the fingers of what they already created through at the core by writing and playing really great songs.

Some of the most talented artists of our time never see that spotlight. Sometimes the artists who see that spotlight are not prepared, and some even are ridiculed for not being worthy. Sometimes it feels like a lottery. Sometimes it feels like fate.

The other day, Oprah asked Simon Cowell if he believed in luck. He said yes, he believes in luck. Oprah said you make your own luck. I could totally understand why Simon Cowell believes in luck, and why Oprah would say you make your own. Anyone who has been in music as long as Simon has to believe in talent, savvy and luck. Because he’s seen enough to know that talent alone does not a pop star make. Savvy alone does not one make. Luck alone does not one make. But surely to be embraced by a nation seems lucky (on the outside).

Let’s talk for a moment about what Oprah said though. You make your own luck.

I suppose that’s what it feels like to be in music today – luck making. We just keep trying to carve out our place in music, our fans, our team, our songs. We trust the fact that the people we gravitate to networking with are the right people for us. We hope the wisdom of our choices in where we go coupled with the intent and serendipity of who we meet might pave the way to reaching more and more people with our music.

In this post, I’m going to focus less on what it takes to get to that spotlight, and more on how you prepare now for that event should it happen to you, and what it means to seize that opportunity to build something meaningful and longterm.

Often the rat race is all we can see – the networking, the travel, the phoners and conferences, and the most important lessons we are learning in the process can be missed.

Several months ago, Bob Lefsetz wrote about the bands that were able to shine when this spotlight was turned on them, and the bands that crumpled under the pressure and attention. The bands that could follow up their first big song that hit the airwaves, and the bands that were one hit wonders. That entry from him has stuck with me – not because I agreed with everything he said, but because I’ve always felt at Market Monkeys we are investing in artists who are doing the work to become great at what they do first and foremost. I was encouraged when moved to think about what will happen when the spotlight shines on our artists – because I know that any Market Monkeys artist can and will rise to that occasion. In part because the spotlight moment itself is not their goal...

Market Monkeys artists are on a lifelong journey. The songs and craft are at the center of that journey. And the fans know it.

As a performing artist, you have to appreciate the work it takes you to get where you are going – you have to believe in your path as much as you believe in your potential and goals. It is the work you are doing now that will prepare you for each milestone moment you have to shine. I’m not saying you gotta love the driving and the crappy sound systems and the price of gas and the credit card dance. But each time you step on a stage in front of an audience that is twice as big as any audience you’ve played in front of before, you must know that all the rough gigs and other things that happened last week are what prepared you for that moment. If in that moment you can use what you learned in all those gigs, you will shine.

  • The tough soundchecks you’ve had will make you a pro when you soundcheck for the big gig - and the way you handle that is just as important as the way you perform when the audience is listening.
  • On that note, the sound emergencies you’ve had to deal with will make you be able to keep cool, calm and collected should anything happen while you are in the spotlight - and that speaks wonders.
  • The spotty merch accounting situations you’ve had will make settling up easy when you finally deal with a professional merchandise manager.
  • The tough interviewers you’ve had will make you able to interview yourself, and speak the question and the answer in your commentary when the big camera is on you.
  • The grass roots videos you've made will help you be able to turn around video quickly, and seize every possible media exposure impression.
  • The inexperienced promoters you sometimes run into now will instill in you a sense of responsibility for the success of your tours that leads the experienced promoters to respect you and want to work with you.
  • The conversations you have at the merch table with fans now, will stay with you as the voice of your core fanbase for your entire career.
  • SOME of the criticism you receive now will remain your charge to work on even as you grow. (but some if it is rubbish – your experience will help you determine what to let in and what to slough off)
  • I think I’ll keep thinking of more of these and add them as they come to me… If you have some to add, please do respond! I’d love to hear what road learning has come in handy in moments like these.

Above all… Remember you are a professional. Because if you’ve been paying your dues, observing astutely, taking note, honing your craft – then you are in this for the right reasons. Really, you are.

It’s your songs, and your ability to write them and present them that will trump everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

So just let go. You were born to do this. HAVE FUN. AND in times when it’s not fun, RESOLVE TO LEARN. You are not working for something nebulous tomorrow - you are living your career today.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

songwriters sure could use a brill building

i've been spending some time with "the essential carole king" which was handed to me after a meeting in new york recently.  it has two discs.  the first is "the singer" the second is "the songwriter" and the text in the liner notes has me thinking all over the place today.

it strikes me - so much education happened at the brill building that we can’t even quantify the impact. 

(now, let me head you off at the pass.  i’m sure other things not so wonderful happened there, too.  i mean it wasn’t oz or anything.  but for the purpose of this post, let me be the optimist.  come with me – and let brill become something else for the sake of discussion…)

the stones talk about having gone to the brill building just to learn from listening to carole king's demos of hit songs for other people.  they learned how to hear the things in a demo that inspire performers, producers, players and marketers to turn around and make something brilliant.  and they said they went to brill to learn how to understand america in order to reach the people in a meaningful way.

how do new acts learn these skills today?

and what are we doing to encourage cross-collaboration, exposing artists of one genre to another? 

i don’t just mean john mayer and kanye west being thrust in a studio together for a day.  or young pop stars having ghost hit writers who are not acknowledged come award time (and on wikipedia). 

i mean new, young artists really being exposed to the way other artists work. 

aside from opening for people, i just don’t see it that often.  and even then, the headliner and opener seldom realize the opportunity they have being in the same city on the same night.  most of the time, they just hide in their respective corners.  and when they do interact – it’s about the live show.  rarely to they get to songwriting or recording.

i suppose the only example i’ve heard of a songwriter getting that kind of education is taylor swift.  say what you will about her, but she’s certainly done her homework in the songwriting labs of many great Nashville writers.  i don’t know the back stories.  but it sounds kinda brill-esque to me…


i'm obsessed with the process of recording lately.

what's ritual.

what's work.

what's magic.

what wheels don't need to be reinvented. 

what wheels need to be discarded for the new unknown.

what changes because of technology, and what has always been a constant in making music.

how we keep ourselves open to lessons others have already learned, so we don't hold ourselves back or waste precious time.

how we accept the lessons we have to learn physically by doing, even though in our heads we know it to be true.

how we make music that is truly original AND accessible to a broader audience at the same time.

as music makers, we have to remind ourselves not to get sucked into the abyss of self-involvement.  the music isn't about us.  it has to be about something else.  someone else.  something more. 

it strikes me that the muscle carole king conditioned at her career's beginning is a muscle most young songwriters don't even know they have, much less cultivate.  and when they do know they have it, they avoid it because they think it’s bad.  they think represents "selling out.” 

i’m not even sure what constitutes selling out anymore – it’s not that simple.  but i encourage you to resist the monster of worrying about that!  really.  and i assure you that great songs are written by making decisions that serve the song – not the writer.  certain considerations should be made for the singer, but only so much as to be sure the lyrics and range support the creation of the character narrating – not the vocalist singing.

a great songwriter writes songs.  and the songs are in charge.  not the ego. 

even when hit songs are written, the song’s in charge.

i'm especially obsessed with the second disc of this carole king set - "the songwriter" - fifteen hit songs she co-wrote in the 1960s during her Brill Building years (with one Billy Joel exception).  songs like "will you leave me tomorrow," "the loco-motion," "up on the roof," “one fine day,” “natural woman.”

so many characters, so many singers, one writer.  men, women, rock, r&b, soul, folk.  that’s something.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Music of the people

Joining the board of Folk Alliance International recently has really begged me to question “what is folk music” in a new way.  It’s easy in my day-to-day reality to become ethnocentric about what the artists I am surrounded by most are doing.  Easy to just assume Folk is the heritage from which they come because they think that is so.  Easy to get needlessly waylaid thinking about what makes them Folk and forget what makes Folk Folk.  But now the question is posed in my head almost daily.

For several months I have contemplated this question – some days more intensely than others.  Some days I net out still carrying my Folk card.  Some days I just don’t think I belong.  I’ve settled in a land of disappointment in the mere suggestion of the question.  I don’t know if I should run from the question, or to it.  I get frustrated that it’s even a debate.  Confused at how I got to this desert island where good people get stuck – in the circular debate in search of answers to unnecessary questions.

I love Folk music.  And when I say that, I mean so many things.  All of them relevant.  All of them real.

And that’s all that matters.

People don’t make Folk music.  People make music.  And the community that gathers to laugh, cry and sing along makes it Folk.

Today I got my new issue of SingOut! Magazine – their 60th anniversary issue.  In each issue of SingOut! they include lead sheets and a CD of songs of their choosing.  I put the CD in while I started to read.  Testimonials inside from various notable people in Folk music about what SingOut! has meant to them.  Including Pete Seeger, who was one of the grand instigators of the magazine at inception in the first place.  In Seeger’s note, he recalled the first introductory letter they printed in the early newsletter-esque predecessor to the magazine, “The people are on the march, and must have songs to sing…”

In reading those words, I realized something about the music I love so dearly.  Something I hadn’t thought about before in quite that way.

I’ve been marching around saying that Folk music is “of the people” and that it tells stories of people that are often not told for one reason or another.  That Folk is about honesty.  Good bad or ugly.  In fact, especially ugly.  But today, it strikes me as that is not enough.  Folk doesn’t just tell the story of the people, it gives the story back to the people so they can sing their own story.  And sometimes this is the gap and the thing we overlook in our current, contemporary folksinging scene.

I know I’ve thought this before, passingly.  That singalongs are a hallmark of Folk.  But what I realize now is it’s not the event of people singing a long in a room together – as romantic and inspiring as that might be.  People sing along to music in many ways, their own ways, everyday.  It’s the recognition of one’s self in the music they are singing along to that matters.

As a music manager, I frequently monitor social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to see what people are saying about Market Monkeys artists and friends.  Today when I did a Twitter search for songwriter and gifted lyricist Meg Hutchinson, I found several fans tweeting snippets of lyrics.  Words they found inspiring, reassuring, that they wanted to read back to the world in their own virtual voices.  A modern day singalong of sorts…

I sometimes hear songs in my head during moments in my life that I feel kindred.  My partner picked up a rental car with New Jersey plates and I had to quote John Gorka in response to her Facebook post, “I’m from New Jersey…  I don’t expect too much…” 

Songwriter and kickass guitar player Natalia Zukerman is always quoting other songwriters mid-sentence as we have conversations, especially our good friend Susan Werner – who has managed to put words to so many emotions we encounter in our day to day.  And you know, I know exactly what Natalia means…

Music is an interwoven part of our language and culture.  We don’t have to sing aloud to sing along.  The music becomes “of the people” when it moves us emotionally.  We remember it.  It stays with us.  And it changes us, in small ways at first.  And when we’re very lucky - in large ways, too.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Inspiration means it makes you think

I go to a lot of shows.  Some nights it’s a job hazard and some nights a pleasure.  It is especially delightful when a show inspires me. 

Because when you work in entertainment for a living, going to a show can be like eating at the restaurant you cook at.  You work with the ingredients so much that you can’t really taste the food anymore.  But on nights when it’s so good you can still taste the food anyway, it’s astounding.

Lately I’ve found that it’s not the shows that try hard that are inspiring me.  It’s the shows that are leaving space in the night for the audience to think and feel.  The shows that focus on perfection of execution but that don’t try too hard to keep me occupied the whole time I am experiencing.  The shows that give me a little credit for having a mind of my own, an imagination of my own.

Recently, Alvin Ailey’s show at the Wang (sorry I mean Citi Center), did just that.  In each of the three segments, I found myself thinking, feeling. 

Nothing was in a hurry. 

Nothing was trying to make me laugh or cry or jump around. 

The music became rhythm became movement became dancing became thoughts became dancing became movement became rhythm became music again.

And in between the movements, the thoughts that came in were surprising.

During the first segment, a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, I found myself thinking about culture.  About tribes.  About our individual desire to belong to something important and meaningful.  As the dance explored the humor and festive celebration of Harlem in that time, I couldn’t help thinking about other movements that have centralized on a neighborhood.  The Castro for Gay People.  The Village for Folksingers.  New Orleans for Jazz.  Hollywood for Film.  Detroit for Motown.  San Francisco for the Internet.  Places that represent movements and historic periods of time.  I came from a place like that, that meant something.  Lexington Massachusetts - a place of Revolution.  And I lived/worked in San Francisco during the Dotcom Boom/Bust.  I think both coincidences have very much informed my opinion on things.  Those thoughts led me to consider how important that is to me – to live in places and times that are memorable.  Places and times of change.  And it led me to consider what that next place should be.  And it made me want to go there, and start that new movement, right away.  A great performance can do that!

During the second segment, an exploration of the influences on modern dance in which the dancers showed how movement from African dance has migrated to current movements, I couldn’t help thinking about the beauty in collaboration.  I thought about one of my former bosses at an ad agency, who was an Alvin Ailey dancer before working in advertising, and how much that must have informed his sense of what it means to be a team.  How I had no idea that was what he was trying to do with my team.  And now I know why he inspired me so much when we worked together.  I thought about how rare it is to see true collaboration in the singer-songwriter world, and how important I think it is to find a way to fund and create safe space for that collaboration.  How cool it would be if a music company could be created like a theater company.  In which there certainly would be power dynamics and leads and choruses, but imagine if some of our country’s greatest songwriters were asked to work together in team collaboration for an extended period of time to create something instead of constantly duking it out one by one for individual “success.”  I thought about orchestras and choruses, theater companies and dance companies.  How hard it is for them to get funded and earn a living, but how transcendent the work is. 

I’ve been focused lately on how great shows can change our lives, make us see things in ourselves we did not see before.  A show is not just a sum of the songs and in between banter.  Too often artists think of the in between as extra stuff they say.  But the in between IS the show.  The pacing of a show can have so much to do with how inspired an audience feels.