Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mac Demarco, Kurt Vile, Alex G, Ben Jorgensen... Why not me?

I've started to look around and wonder, what's so great about this guy? Not only that... but... "If this guy is a millionaire off his music, I'm fucking up."

Once you reach a certain level of proficiency as a musician, you can create pop music more or less at whim. Of course, there are limitations. 

Speaking for myself...I can't guarantee the creation of a new sub-genre, though I can confidently emulate musical styles. At some point I've started to wonder, "Where's my major label deal? What am I doing wrong? What about an indie label? Anyone want to pay me for distribution rights? If this guy is making 50k a year doing this, I can too."

For this post I'm going to inspect some singer-songwriters. Do I want what they have? Maybe not. The music industry often harbors "be careful what you wish for" and "More than meets the eye" scenarios.

Let' see if we can figure anything out. I'm going to scan Wikipedia pages and include relevant information.

Up first we have Kurt Vile. 

I first heard of this guy from his song, "Pretty Bitchin'" or whatever it's called. Let me look it up. O-k, it's "Pretty Pimpin." I was close.

Looks like Kurt Vile mailed a bunch of self-printed vinyl records to labels and got signed in 2009 to an indie label called Mexican Summer who have also released albums from people like Ariel Pink and Black Moth Super Rainbow (the only two names on their roster list I recognize), at age 29. 

From there his exposure ramped up significantly, and he rode the wave (with inherent talent) to get to where he is today. He was able to continue to record several albums and dropped "thousands" of dollars on one album (which he claims is his masterpiece) that was eventually put out on Matador Records. 

At the moment he's a bigger name in indie rock. He's 41 and married with two daughters. I'd imagine his record contract and royalties have made him close to a millionaire. But I could be wrong.

The verdict: Kurt Vile is good, but he's not impossibly talented. A decent musician could emulate his songwriting with a few years practice. Say, within 5-10 years.

Second in line: Mac Demarco.

Mac Demarco is a stranger study case. From what I know, his rise to stardom involved a local show where he performed a lewd act at the end of his set. Does this one anecdote explain where he is today? Let's find out on his Wikipedia page.

Okay... He signed to an indie label that put out a Dum Dum Girls vinyl (a band I've heard of), in 2012. He was 22 years old. His E.P. sold out so he was then asked to put out an L.P. on the same label. Pitchfork rated it highly and boom.

The verdict: He's good at guitar. Not blown away by him, but  he's converted me from a hater. I've heard his songs and wondered, "Hey this is cool, who is this?" And it was him. He gets my nod of approval, I guess.

For a third study case I've considered both Alex G and Ben Jorgenson. I don't think either of them are quite at the level of Kurt Vile and Mac Demarco in terms of popularity. Why strive for something lower? Who cares? Let's keep going...

Alex G.

Alex G is an indie singer-songwriter, who is relatively popular. He became acclaimed after releasing several E.P.s consecutively on the Bandcamp platform, where he was heavily promoted.

From there, two indie labels bought distribution rights to his album "D.S.U." -- one for U.S. rights and one for U.K. rights.

After he was already well-known amongst the indie crowd, he inked a deal with Domino Recording Company, who boasts artists like Buzzcocks, My Bloody Valentine, and Franz Ferdinand as current roster acts. He performs at festivals like Primavera Sound. He writes and records all his stuff himself, with help from a cast of other local musicians on various instruments for accompaniment. 

The verdict: He has the unique ability to play folk music with some cool chord coloration. His music could've been lost in the fray without the Bandcamp promotion. The quality of his songwriting is rather inconsistent. I find his live performance ability to be poor. His vocal style goes way up into higher registers, and he was once punched in the face at a live concert by a fan.

And lastly, Ben Jorgensen.

This guy fronted a popular emo band during the height of the emo music wave. In 2001, after his first year at college, he recorded all the instruments for a demo tape which was widely downloaded on P2P applications like LimeWire and Napster. These demos led to the creation of and signing of his band, "Armor for Sleep" to well-known punk and post-punk label Equal Vision Records, where the songs were re-recorded during a two-album deal.

From there, Jorgensen's band signed to Warner Brothers and released one album, six years later in 2007. They played on a final big tour called "Projekt Revolution" where they supported Linkin Park. One of his band's songs made the soundtrack for a major motion picture, "Transformers."

His band is still around doing reunion shows every four or five years. They are doing a U.S. tour for an anniversary of their 2005 album. Jorgensen also put out a solo album which briefly charted on the iTunes "Adult Contemporary Acoustic" charts at #1.

The verdict: Ben Jorgenson is a multi-intrumentalist who created a style of music that was perfectly matched to a breaking musical style/scene. This helped him form a band, put out three albums across indie and major labels and tour across the country. After it all fell apart, I'm not sure where it left him. I find his music and performance ability to be pretty good, for what it is.

...All of this leads me to question, Why not me? Am I as good as these guys? Sure, why not? If I'm not as good, I'm certainly close.

How do I fit in?

I won't get too carried away. There are plenty of musicians and songwriters I am not as good as. Here's two examples: 

Tim Kasher of Cursive. I couldn't pull off what he has done, even if I tried as hard as possible. I've seen him perform a couple times and I've been blown away by the commitment. He has a certain level of vocal and lyrical proficiency that's just not in me. He's almost like a Broadway actor turned art-rock guitarist. 

Another example is Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. I could probably write similar material to his, but the shredding on guitar and perfectly executed live performances whilst totally relaxed and in control might take a while.

Where does this leave me?

Because I work alone I'm somewhat limited. I have to do literally everything myself (aside from mixing and mastering which I've learned to pass off to someone more skilled than me).

I have to pursue a certain stylistic approach that I can actually be 100% proficient at, instead of spending an extraordinary amount of time on stylistic choices that may ultimately fall flat. I have to work within my limitations. This is why I've started to write and record melody based rock music. I know it's working for me, so I'm going to stick with it.

In other words, I've reached a place where I'm no longer trying to invent a new musical style or struggling to emulate a style I know I'm not that great at. I'm doing what works.

What kind of record deal would I want

I've done the math, and if I sold 200,000 copies of a ten dollar album on Bandcamp without any label support... I'd be an after-taxes millionaire. It's unlikely, but still possible.

I've never even seen a record deal, let alone been asked to sign one. This leaves me wondering what I'd even want. I'd say a fair compromise would be two albums over 8 years. *With thirty (30) minutes of music per album. 

I'd like a guaranteed contract of $500,000 over the eight years. That's a salary of 62,500 per year, guaranteed for eight years. I'd be willing to perform a live rock concert no more than 50 times a year, and would require a stipend for each live performance that would cover travel and lodging at a Holiday Inn Express (or similar).

I wonder if any of the above guys have a deal like that? Kurt Vile and Mac Demarco probably have a better deal than that I'd imagine. Alex G may receive significant compensation from Domino Recording Company so long as he keeps churning out music. As for Ben Jorgensen, I'd imagine he works as an independent contractor at this point, and probably tries to net 10-20k per each U.S. reunion tour. However, at the height of his career during 2006 he may have demanded higher wages.

One aspect of this hypothetical record deal you might disagree with is performance. Someone might argue 50 shows a year is not enough to promote yourself. But I've played 30 rock shows in a year and that seemed excessive. In fact, after 30 shows and filming two music videos I ended up in the hospital with a case of fatigue. But I was also monetarily limited at the time i.e. starving artist. With plenty of cash (and ten more years of life experience) I'd be more responsible the second time around. I'd hope. I can't imagine doing 100 shows and also being able to write any compelling material. There has to be a balance.  

What should I do from here?

I think a major aspect of promoting oneself is image. Right now I currently have four albums up on the streaming platforms, but three of them are just instrumental wankery I've uploaded to test out CD Baby as a distribution service and see if I might earn some streaming revenue or downloads. I should remove those instrumental albums and focus on presenting myself as a singer-songwriter. But I'll need to release one more E.P. before I can clean up my streaming platform downloads up for sale.

From there, I need to upload more photos of myself and potentially create more YouTube content. A music video is one of the most powerful tools for promotion and I should likely film one in the coming future, though spending a proper amount of money on it to ensure it is of decent quality.

This online clean up is a major part of self-promotion. With two eight-song E.P.s I would have a proper thirty minutes of material, which is enough for both an L.P. and a full live set. Along with a music video you can't ask for much more of a starting point. Although...

If there's any trend I've noticed from the three case studies, it's cold-calling indie labels.

It seems like Mac Demarco and Kurt Vile both contacted indie labels with their music, and this garnered interest. I've personally contacted radio stations and acquired a couple of fans and some sales, and spins on some stations, both from my latest set of songs and from an album I released years ago. One station has put me in rotation for two months now, with some of my album cuts playing once or twice every week. 

If I found the right indie-label owner I could find myself in a similar situation to Mac Demarco. An E.P. on an indie label led to an L.P. on the same label, and a Pitchfork review has put him in the position he is in now. I don't believe he has to work at 9-5 job at the moment, and is living comfortably. All he has to do is write, record and perform music for a living. And 'aint that the dream? - Mike

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