We are more than 50 years into this rock and roll experiment of ours. 1963 gave America its first exposure to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and before that, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly had provided a musical soundtrack to the lives of countless folks. Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” helped many get through their first heartbreak and the Fab Four’s “Hold My Hand” captured that feeling of young love in three minutes of sheer youthful energy and enthusiasm.
But pop music can be a fickle friend. That same artist who spoke to you so clearly in high school or college might not have aged all that well. That band that soundtracked your last summer of freedom before the realities and responsibilities of life caught up with you might now be embarrassing to watch or listen to. I have seen a few heroes of my youth in concert recently and wondered “What are they thinking? Have they run out of ideas and energy completely?” There is nothing quite like seeing a hero in their twilight.
But some beloved artists of my youth are as good as I remember, it’s just that economics and trends are not always on their side. They might have been the go-to artist for that lonely night in the dorm room in February of your freshman year of college, but it didn’t quite work for them, financially speaking, to keep going, year after year.
But the economics of the music industry have almost always been tough to traverse. The normal cycle of putting out albums, touring and repeating, can be withering to family life and good habits, and many artists put in a few years before entropy catches up with them and hard choices need to be made. Ghoti Hook, a classic Tooth and Nail punk band, named their last studio album Two Years To Never to illustrate how much longer they could sustain the grind of trying to make a living while driving around the county in a van going into their 30’s.
But often, no matter how successful an album or tour might be, there is always musical mortality right around the corner. The winds of taste and preference change rapidly, and that rap-metal sound you dig today might be noise tomorrow to many. (I missed the rap-rock thing almost entirely, though my little brother loved Pillar and P.O.D., so it was always sort of around me).
As a result, artists hang it up and go find gainful employment elsewhere. Many in the CCM arena go work for churches and ministries where they can be close to home. Some try their hand at other art forms like film and novel writing. Some become policemen.
But the thing is, their music is always sort of around. Their CD (or tape or vinyl album, etc) is still in circulation in some form–be it in a bargain bin, a Good Will store or your uncle’s bookshelves. So, though an artists’ popularity might be at a low ebb, their music is still being discovered, even if it’s at a yard sale.
And so, that once popular artist, who once topped retail lists and sold concert tickets and t-shirts, find themselves at a tough crossroads. The people who once bought a concert ticket, album and t-shirt still love the artist, but the economics of the music industry (which is rapidly changing year to year) go with the younger, cheaper-to-sign artists rather than taking a chance on a veteran artist’s next album.
That’s why I’m thankful for Kickstarter. This fundraiser site allows veteran artists to appeal to their fan base and raise money for projects like tours, new albums and so on.
There is an existing fan base out there to be cultivated; it’s just the folks in that fan base started paying attention to new music less as their thoughts turned to having children, buying houses, dealing with grumpy bosses and other signs of growing up in these times of ours.
Take for instance this week’s artist of the week, The Choir. They’ve made great albums since the early 80’s, toured their brains out for fifteen-plus years and are still the best of friends. But the tide is against them in a traditional music market, and especially for being signed to and promoted by a label. The numbers just aren’t there. But they have maintained a passionate following over the years by making fans and friends one by one and releasing good-to-fantastic (and mostly self-funded) albums every few years.
And now, they’ve run a super-successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album (one they can craft with time that a budget can afford) and a career spanning live album. They raised so much money that they can now buy new equipment for the road and tour a bit more than they have in recent years. It’s a win-win situation all around. They brought in twice what they asked for, and got a huge dose of encouragement in the process. Those fans were still there, and happy to help out.
This model has worked out for other veteran artists, too. Five Iron Frenzy, Daniel Amos, Steve Taylor (of “I Want To Be A Clone” fame), Guardian and Andrew Peterson (he raised almost five times the funds he asked for to publish his latest book), have all run successful campaigns. There will no doubt be a slew of artists trying this model on for size in the next few months. I suspect the Lost Dogs, the 77’s, Vigilantes Of Love and more will try and stir up their fan bases. The money raised has not been proven to be able to kick start a career back to its glory days yet, but it’s a great way to keep making music and to hear one of your favorite artists grow alongside you. They still have songs to write and miles to go before they sleep.
So here’s to the internet, and the boundless opportunities out there for veteran artists of every kind. You are not forgotten. Your CD is still on my shelf, and that t-shirt is still in my drawer.
And those lyrics? They are still written all over every notebook I own.
– Alex “Tin Can” Caldwell