A small-timer’s valediction to Spotify

(imported from a Twitter rant… we live in such times.)

I’m not under the assumption that my #indiemusic, beloved by mere *dozens* rather than *millions* of fans will be missed by anyone on Spotify. There’s not much money involved in ME following #JoniMitchell & #NeilYoung off the platform.

Let’s be clear about my small-timeyness: after 26 years making music semi-professionally—most of it on stages alone and for a couple of cool bands—I have (ahem, HAD) just one solo commercial album, #DesolationSound, available on Spotify. It was a tiny #indie affair, made in a home studio on a budget of less than $2K. I played, or learned to play every instrument on the album. I applied for Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and FACTOR grants, and didn’t get any of them. I wanted to hire & pay (fairly) other Canadian performers & producers—and when the organizations built to fund & support that kind of home-grown Canadian arts support passed the project over, I had to scale down, channel my inner McCartney III, and do it myself on my PC.

(Thank goodness for technology: they put people on the moon with roughly the same amount of computing power that existed in an old-school 1st-gen Nintendo Game Boy, so cobbling together a tin-can poor man’s Abbey Road in my desktop was not impossible).

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, I put together #DesolationSound—an album I describe in marketing blurbs & ad copy as “prodigious,” and “ambitious,” and other grandiose words because that’s how ad copy works. But let’s be fair, it was a very small #Canadian #Folkmusic project, made in homage to the people I love & remember from the folk stages of the last 20 years or so. Many of the people who I grew up idolizing, alongside big Canadian names like @Lightfoot365 or @JoniMitchell were amazing, unsung working musicians who lived & died without ever putting their own voices to record, because their generation couldn’t do an entire album in a drywall shoebox like I did with the technology they had in their lifetimes.

The extreme smallness of #DesolationSound, especially in the shadow of Canadian legends with monster careers like #JoniMitchell and #NeilYoung, is an important part of the story that isn’t going to get told by the entertainment news folks who (rightly) focus on the biggest artists in history with 50-year recording histories driving millions of dollars in sales. We are heading away, even in “popular” music, from an age in which the landscape is dominated by the biggest stars working today.

It’s getting increasingly harder (some might say it’s now impossible) for there to be another Paul McCartney, another Elton John. Who has both that height & longevity? I think Taylor Swift is getting there…but the days of going to class on Monday, after a new Beach Boys or Cat Stevens album dropped on Friday, and finding out that everyone in your class has already heard it, are gone, and have been gone for years.

Universal stardom is not how #popmusic works anymore, except for all the “legacy artists” we all love, many of whom are hitting their 60s, their 70s, or beyond. Many are getting out of the game. Elton John is currently recovering from COVID before resuming his farewell tour. Paul Simon has sold off his catalogue for $250 million, having shrewdly done the math regarding (a)how much money that really is, and (b)how long he has left to spend it. The period from 1955-2005 was a half-century of absurd monolithic stardom, which was born with television, and began to die with YouTube.

What we’re left with is a world that my generation of late Gen X-ers would deem a “hipster paradise”—a world where casual pop lovers still reach for whatever they’re told to listen to, as they did in the days of Alan Freed and the golden age of radio payola, and as they’ve continued to do in the age of postmodern payola, under tricks and traps like the dodgy “Discovery Mode” that Spotify launched in 2020. But serious music lovers live in a hipster’s paradise where they can now crawl Instagram, Tiktok & Youtube looking for great new music—and sometimes even find it.

And the best part about that cool new artist or band you’ve discovered? When you ask your friends, they’ve “probably never heard of them.” The joy of finding obscure music that you know your friends will like, and turning them onto it, is back with a force—just like it was when childhood friends Mick Jagger & Keith Richards bonded over rare Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley 78s they scoured record store basements for.

We’re back to that world of 1955 again. Music is not being driven forward by the Beatles & the Stones—at least not yet. It’s being driven forward again by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joseph Spence, Maybelle Carter, Woody Guthrie—in short, people with no money and no fame. #Indie artists, really, whether they later ended their careers signed to a record label or not.

Right now, we think of music the way we think of Hollywood movies: a highly visual medium, dominated by well-paid celebrity performers with household names, whose concert venues are not small-town bars, dance halls, coffee houses, house concerts—but arenas & stadiums.

Surely “big names” like Neil and Joni are in that company now. People remember Joni’s appearance at the Kennedy Center honours and Neil Young’s two Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. They seldom think of those celebrities as the kids in their early 20s who played regular gigs at the Riverboat coffee house in Yorkville (which closed years ago, but was about a block and a half from my apartment as I write this) for a whopping cover charge of $1.75.

Now they’re both millionaires—even Neil Young, despite his very best efforts at resisting the grinding wheels of capitalism, which always rubbed him the wrong way. They are the newsmakers now. Thanks to Neil Young’s very public Spotify walkout (which we say is in response to Joe Rogan, but comes in a climate of massive artist exploitation), the world’s largest streaming provider has lost around $4 billion in market value. So in a way, yes, celebrities drive the news, and they drive investor’s gut instincts.

So that brings me to me, a non-celebrity musician…but maybe a significant face of this weird hipster age insofar as basically no one has ever heard of me (the ultimate in cool cachet, right?) We small-timers are not the Rolling Stones of rock. We’re the Sister Rosetta Tharpes. We’re the people nobody who listens to Perry Como on the radio has ever heard. But we’re the people whose weird, challenging, obscure 78s are traded with trembling excitement in shady basements by the Mick Jaggers of tomorrow. We’re the people whose secret records make the next generation of vaccine-hating Eric Claptons sit up and say “holy cow, I’ve gotta copy hat guy’s sound and make millions off it.”

(Like the Sister Rosetta Tharpes, we small-timers are a very diverse bunch too).

So yes, Neil Young’s decision to be at the front of the Spotify Exodus is remarkable; and yes, it’s big news worth following. But I’m throwing my whole dozens or hundreds of sales numbers behind his hundreds of millions, too. What’s important is not that li’l old me is following a rock icon off the sinking ship of Spotify. What’s important is that first-class passengers like him and rats in the boiler-room like me are both getting the same sinking feeling at roughly the same time. Because whither our celebrities go, there goeth celebrity. But whither our small-time, barely-paid, do-it-for-love indie musicians go, there goeth music.

My one CD, Desolation Sound, is now on @bandcamp, which has been very fair to me & other small-time indies toiling in obscurity. Give it a spin if you like (the link is HERE). But mostly, think about the seismic shift we’re bearing witness to in popular music as online content delivery enters its awkward teen years. And keep your eyes on the small AND the big fish to know the whole story.

That’s it for my valediction to Spotify (that’s a fancy word, from the Latin, that now describes the thing grumpy people on the Internet have to do when they storm out of a group so that everyone knows they’re leaving.) Go support your local indie musicians. We really, really appreciate it, especially while live music is still in cryogenic stasis. And thanks for listening… here, and, y’know, to the music!

A Disenspired Age: Notre Dame, William Morris, and Gothic Lessons in a Post-Exquisite World

France’s richest billionaires have fallen all over each other to throw fistfuls of cash at Notre Dame. Terrified of Gothic ruins, as perhaps we should all be, they have done away with the barrier of cost almost instantly, almost effortlessly.

Perhaps it behoves us to start rebuilding the Gothic ruin of education by reteaching our billionaires the beauty of the exquisite.

Going to the Mattresses: Reconsidering the place and purpose of E. L. James’s “Inner Goddess” Journal

So by now, a number of you will have seen and had a good mean-spirited chuckle about the viral Entertainment Weekly news that “Fifty Shades of Grey” writer E. L. James is going to publish a “writing guide.” People are having a good snicker. “Serious” … Continue reading Going to the Mattresses: Reconsidering the place and purpose of E. L. James’s “Inner Goddess” Journal

On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year

On 22 January 1824, Lord Byron’s 36th birthday, the promiscuous, scandalous, beloved but controversial poet wrote what was to be his final poem. “On this Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.” Here, he writes:

‘’Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!

[…]

Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood!—unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.

If thou regrett’st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:—up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!

Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.

He would not write again. That spring he would die while fighting in the Greek War of Independence—not with a bang, on the battlefield as he foresaw, but with a whimper, literally bled dry at the hands of incompetent doctors. Like so many of the great Romantics, he was not meant to be old—nor, I think, did he know how.

So, here I am.

On this day, I complete my thirty-sixth year. Tomorrow is my 36th birthday, and the changes it brings are many, as I cross the halfway point between 20 and 50.

As a lifelong student working on a 4th degree, I live and work alongside students who range between their early to late twenties. My lifestyle, adventures, and experience of the world matches theirs. I play role-playing games; I go to concerts; I am out at 2 a.m. and I have been blessed with what is essentially, after a decade squandered behind the cloistered walls of misguided doctoral studies, a second run at my twenties.

The live I live has huge time demands, but is a good life and full of little rewards. In some ways, though, it’s a very self-centered life. Part of why I consider my little bit of activism important, part of why I consider my commitment to social justice of value to myself in addition to others, is because without it I am living a life that’s not only solitary but solipsistic. A casually of having friends everywhere except where you are is that they all live in the computer. A social life at the computer is hard on its own, on the back and on the spirit…and at times like this, when social media blossoms with outrage and hatred, when I spend each morning stepping over photographs of hate crimes and bodies to get to every cute cat picture or “like” from a faraway friend who’s thinking of me, it’s a life that breaks you down when you reach out to people.

My next big milestone is 40. As I approach it, I remain a law student, a struggling writer, and a somewhat successful musician—but not so successful that it pays the rent, mind you. That my music career pays its own expenses is blessing enough. I still don’t have a grownup job, drive a car, or own my own home. I don’t go to wine-tastings, and know nothing of antiquing. I can’t go to bed at 10, and don’t want to learn how.

But I am “run to fat,” as the once-gorgeous 36-year-old Byron likewise lamented—there is no male word for “curvy” or “voluptuous”—and maintaining my youthful figure and energy is harder than it used to be. I get tired, and as Leonard Cohen says, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”

Now that it comes to it, like Lord Byron, I do not know how to be old. And it is either too late to learn, or still too early.

Thankfully the medicine of bloodletting is passé . I have lots more poems in me. I will not, I hope, be dead on a battlefield by year’s end (though with things going the way they are down south, I ought not to rule it out). But I feel in my bones I am now the youngest of the old rather than the oldest of the young. At 36, with a round boyish face, I don’t look out of place among my classmates—not even those few I’m biologically old enough to have fathered. I am what many people would call “young”; I am not yet come to the midpoint of what, in our beautiful country, passes for the life expectancy of a man. And yet I am of an age where the pressures of convention weigh like a too-heavy Ring on my neck, where what I am and how I choose to live becomes more and more of an anomaly. As a student living alone on a student budget, and as a poly-identifying “free radical” with tenuous ties, at best, to any structure that looks like a conventional nuclear family, I’m just not like the people from high school who at best have settled down, and at worst have simply settled.

I am a giant geek at heart—and I do not relate well to sophisticated adults who have put away geeky things. And as I am surrounded by peers who marry, who raise their children steadily toward their troubled teen years, I am more grateful than ever for the loved ones who are growing old with me without ever growing up. The best adults sound like Neil Gaiman audiobooks: they speak to—for—like—children and adults in equal measure. And they are unabashed geeks for whatever makes them happy.

Let’s talk geeky things, shall we? Our Stories help us make sense of it all.

Like the Tenth Doctor, I feel the changes; my time has come—but “I don’t want to go.”

Like Han Solo, I haven’t matured like the rest of the cast: though we are all weatherbeaten to the soul, the storms have not transformed me so deeply, for good and for ill. Years later I remain more, not less of an idealist, not resigned to the drudgery of it all like Leia, nor soured on all existence and poisoned by his failures like Luke Skywalker. “Look, I’ll get you your money” is, in its own way, a statement of hope—an expression of ardent belief, and no small measure of will, that better days lie ahead. But I am an eternal tumbleweed—a little less lean and fierce, a little softer and grayer—but still rolling around in the same derelict hot rod, still in debt to the wrong people, still rootless, precarious, adrift.

Like Ser Jorah Mormont I’m too old for the company I keep and the exhausting, bloodying, work I do; but I have traveled many years and many miles to find a life that finally makes me happy, and this is where I belong, and now that I have found it I lament being sent away from it. I live in a form of exile, and exile is a disease.

Like Lord Byron, I am not grown tired of looking at people hungrily, though I slip well past my days of being hungered after.

Like Hoban “Wash” Washburne, I am a leaf on the wind; but really, come on now, that was more than fifteen years ago now, and maybe I’ve been dead for a long time already and should just get over it and move on.

I don’t know how to relate to the young or the old. I’m neither of those things. I look like a predator in bass-bumpy nightclubs, and like a teenage slacker at snooty cocktail parties.  I don’t really belong anywhere, near as I can see it.

I suppose this is where people in their mid-life crises buy a frivolous vintage Corvette  and have a series of empty whirlwind flings. But like a young man, I’m too poor to afford a Corvette; and like an old man, I’m too wise now to treat people who love me disposably.

Where does that leave me? I don’t know. Out, I suppose. It leaves me out of many things. The insufferable academic I used to be, the pedantic critical theorist that still lives within me, muttering in the indecipherable language of Humanities grantscrafting, would posit that I “occupy a liminal space” as if he were trying to get funded for this kind of navel-gazing anxiety.

On the day I complete my thirty-sixth year, I am not an academic. I do academics. I am not yet a lawyer, though I do law. I am a writer, for what that’s worth; but not really an author, though I certainly do my share of authoring. I am busy, and far from loved ones, and I am doing so much. But as I slip into a new age and a new change, I wonder if I’ve forgotten how just to be.

These must be things we old people think about, when we’re not yelling at kids to stay off our lawn or griping about how millennials killed the answering machine.

That’s all the time I’ve got for now. It’s 5:11 in the morning. I turn 36 in two hours, and should get some sleep.

My days of love are over, me no more
The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before,
In short, I must not lead the life I did do;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.

 

[…]

But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve pass’d your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’
—Byron, Don Juan I.216-220.