Success

I woke up early this morning, as is often the case on weekdays. I’m a morning person at heart, with a job that has me working nights and weekends. On my days off, I start reaching for that first cup of coffee a little earlier. Today, I found myself pondering the idea of success; what it means in general, and specifically, how it relates to my line of work. I make my living from music, and there seems to be a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be successful in that arena.

That leads to a lot of questions along these lines. “Why don’t you try out for The Voice?” “Why do you live in Indiana? Have you thought about moving to Nashville or Austin?” “Have you ever tried to get signed to a record label?” “Can you really make a living at this?” Whenever I get asked about things like that, I know that it comes from an innocent place. Most people don’t know the music business, and that’s okay! I think it’s fair to say that success in music is most commonly defined as fame and fortune. Radio airplay, and sold-out shows. Tour buses, backing bands, and groupies. There are three interesting things about this particular kind of “success.”

  1. It’s only available to a minuscule portion of the music biz. 99% of people making a living from music are normal folks like you and me, working in a field that just happens to be understood less than others. Unseen are the middle-class independent musicians, the songwriters, people working in publishing offices, studio guitarists, orchestra violinists, etc. Equating being a pop-star with being a musician is kind of like thinking that working in IT means you’ll become Bill Gates.
  2. Those who do achieve it are often unhappy. I don’t think human beings are meant to be famous. The isolation that comes from that type of lifestyle often leads to depression, addiction, and a downward spiral that we’re all too used to hearing about.
  3. It doesn’t last. Unless you go in as a savvy businessperson, the majority of profits from that kind of success go to the record label. The glitz and glamour of fame is a bit of an artificial creation, and the trappings that go along with it are often supplied on the label’s dime. Only the musicians who were able to negotiate to retain their publishing rights achieve the kind of wealth we associate with stardom. Otherwise, they probably aren’t doing much better than the rest of us. When your 15 minutes of fame are over, it’s back to the real world.

All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. If what others view as achieving success isn’t the goal, then what am I working towards? For me, success means doing your best. It’s that simple.

It means trying your hardest to create great music. It means establishing good relationships on the business side of things. It means paying the bills and providing for your family. For me, it means traveling on the road to play music for people all over America and beyond. For others, it may not. It should always mean treating people with kindness and integrity, the way you would want to be treated. In my case, it’s my wife, our dog, an Indiana small town, a little blue house, our church, and our friends and family.

I’ve been making a good living from music for 8 years, and that is thanks entirely to the AMAZING people who support me. From the music-lovers who buy the CDs and put money in the tip jar, to the venue owners who pay my salary, to the people that start out in the audience and end up as lifelong friends. I LOVE my job, especially now that I get to sing and travel with my wife. I hope the only thing that changes with time is that we get to play music for more people, and in more venues where people come to listen to music. That’s it.

If you asked me to nail down an example of what success really looks like, it’s the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. Josh, Breezy, and Max play great music with integrity, and they travel the world doing it. When they come back home, it’s to a cabin in Brown County, Indiana. They love their community, and they rep it everywhere they go. If you don’t believe me, just watch this video.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve found ourselves crossing paths with this band at venues from the Telluride Blues Festival to Australia. But back when I was just starting out, only 18 or 19 years old, I went to see this band play a show in a record shop in Cincinnati. I didn’t know much of anything about how to make a living in music, so afterwards, I went up to the Rev himself and asked if he had any advice for someone just starting out in the business. He didn’t have to, but he took 5 minutes to talk to a kid about his journey and give some pointers. The advice boiled down to this; work hard, keep grinding, and don’t compromise who you are.

It may not fit the standard definition, but that’s how I define success. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll keep doing it ’til we’re singing in heaven.

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What Killed the Music Biz?

Apple recently announced that it is shutting down iTunes (for Mac users) and focusing support on Apple Music. The reasoning is simple; most people don’t actually purchase music anymore, and the idea of an iTunes library has become antiquated. This has brought about another round of complaints from all over the music world about how streaming services have ruined everything for artists and labels. All the sales numbers are in the tank, and people are wondering where we’re headed, and what to blame. The answers might surprise you.


I recently read a fascinating article about the origins of Smooth, the smash hit song by Santana and Rob Thomas that dominated radio in 1999 and 2000. Take ten minutes and read it if you want to understand the inner workings of the “old” music biz. The sheer amount of moving parts, executives, money, and time that it took to get that record made and to make it into a hit is INCREDIBLE. And make no mistake, that song is not an outlier. A little research will reveal that many of the great songs and albums of yesteryear involved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars spent on studio time, production costs, legal fees, promotion, etc.

The transaction was clear and simple. The decision makers at the label invested that money into artists and songs that they believed in because the potential returns were so high. Santana’s Supernatural sold 30 million copies. According to this article, record companies usually retain around 63% of the money from physical record sales. At $10 per copy, that would mean the label brought in a cool $189 million.

Fast forward twenty years, and sales of music are a tiny percentage of what they once were. People aren’t even buying downloads anymore, which is why Apple is moving away from iTunes. This Forbes article estimates that an album would need to have 8.5 billion streams to generate revenue equivalent to 9 million physical sales.


People wonder why commercial music has gotten so bad, and the answer is very simple. If record labels can’t expect to get a large return from investing in artists, they aren’t going to do it. That’s why commercial country music is just a revolving door of bros in baseball caps, and why pop music is filled with random people mumbling over the same trap beat on every song. They are focus-grouped faces plucked from obscurity, putting out pandering drivel aimed at grabbing whatever bucks are available. Great art is too expensive to make when you can’t make money off of it.

This has led to a steep rise in the number of independent artists. It used to be that if you were a burgeoning artist and entertainer, full of talent and ambition and something to say, you’d go to LA or NYC or Nashville, and you’d try like hell to get a record deal and break into the industry. Now, it’s a different story. Radio music has become so low budget and formulaic that there isn’t much room for anything outside of that formula.

If you are a true lover of music, that’s good news, because the number of high quality artists out there is staggering. The sea change in the industry has given voice to the formerly voiceless. Can you ever imagine someone like John Moreland or Reverend Peyton on the radio? Hell no! But thanks to the advancement of technology, and the way that the music business has fractured, the framework exists for them to be heard. That’s GREAT. But as Sturgill Simpson sings, it ain’t all flowers.


Sometimes, you’ve gotta feel the thorns. Jason Isbell recently tweeted, “Funny how news outlets still say ‘touring to promote their latest album,’ when in fact it should now be ‘touring to promote their survival.’

By and large, people have stopped buying music. And that means the only way to make money is from playing shows. According to Nielsen, concert attendance is up. But I think the really interesting statistic in that piece is this; 23 percent of concert-goers purchase artist merchandise on-site, while 19 percent buy new music. That article was profiling big venues and shows, but I’d say those numbers are dead on for our shows too. It isn’t just Spotify and Apple Music to blame; the realities of the New American Economy are impacting this, because 78% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck.

Interesting how that dovetails with those other numbers, isn’t it? Folks might have enough money to go out to a show every now and then, but probably not enough to buy music or merch. We’re the same way; we listen to Spotify all the time. Yes, because it’s extremely convenient, but also because we simply can’t afford to actually purchase dozens of albums.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? The music business has really followed the EXACT same arc as the rest of the economy. Globalization and massive technological advancements have caused a huge shift, which has made the music world better and created opportunities for those who didn’t have them before. However, on individual level, it’s difficult to earn a fair, living wage.


Blaming streaming services for how things are is the equivalent of blaming immigrants for the lack of good paying jobs. If we want to progress, we have to understand where we are, and start moving forward accordingly. Shaking your fist and wishing for the old days is a pointless exercise, because just like all of those rust belt factories, record sales and the old music business aren’t coming back. As in everything throughout history, the people who succeed will be the ones who figure out how to adapt.

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The Real Thing

As I get older, I find myself withdrawing more and more from popular music. I know that I’m far from alone there, but I can’t do it. With the exception of a small handful of artists like Chris Stapleton, (and God BLESS Chris Stapleton) all the music that I love comes from independent/largely unknown artists.

There is a thick facade on the commercial releases that immediately betrays them as something less than honest. When I hear the programmed drum loops and auto-tuned vocals that have taken over all popular music, it becomes difficult to focus on the lyrics or the emotion of the song. And truth be told, most of the time, the tracks just consist of grade-school level cliches.

I continue to be amazed by the sheer number of people who have never been exposed to great music. Over the years, I’ve had a number of artists that I “quiz” the audience about at shows. “Have you ever heard of…” Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Amanda Shires, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Jason Isbell, and so on. These are Grammy winning artists, and in the case of Van Zandt and Prine, absolute legends. But I would estimate that only about 5 or 10% of folks we play for have ever heard of them. Instead, we get asked to play Bon Jovi or Drake or Luke Bryan. THE HITS. PLAY THE HITS!

I love a good dance song or an all-time anthem as much as anybody. But there has to be more to life, right? When I’m telling stories about music history or the artists I love on stage, I often feel like I’m the proverbial Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. The music that my wife and I listen to is raw, and pure, and full of expression and inspiration. You feel as if you’re looking straight into the soul of the singer, and you feel their joy, or pain, or gratitude, or anger, tenfold.

As long as music as real as this is out there, I’m not going to listen to commercial radio. I’m not even sorry, to tell you the truth. The neighborhood kids can be on my lawn all they want, as long as I get to pick the music.

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What happened to women in country music?

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is 80’s and 90’s country music. Maybe it’s partially because of all the time I spent listening to it as a kid, (while riding around with my dad in his old Ford pickup truck, naturally) but if I find some classic country on the radio dial, I’m guaranteed to stop on it every time. Recently, I’ve found that all sorts of other artists share the same affinity for it. One of my favorite bluesmen, Josh Peyton of the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, said in a recent interview that it’s his favorite kind of music to listen to.

Along with all of the nostalgia and good vibes, there is also a sense of sadness and curiosity that comes with listening to country music from this time period. Namely, what the hell happened? Mainstream country in 2019 bears little-to-no resemblance to the music of 1989. Musically, the focus has shifted from melody and harmony to so called “tractor rap” and big, loud guitar riffs. Most notably, women have gone from being the bedrock of the genre to seemingly existing only for objectification.

A recent Washington Post article shared some sobering statistics; for instance, there more than FIVE male artists for every female artist on country radio. At the most recent ACM Awards, it was more than two and a half hours into the ceremony before a female artist (Kacey Musgraves) won an award. There were no women nominated for entertainer of the year, which is incomprehensible if you grew up when I did. I can easily name ten great female artists from 90’s country radio, just off the top of my head. Patty Loveless, Roseanne Cash, Martina McBride, Kathy Mattea. Reba McEntire, Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Terri Clark, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss…you get the point.

The idea that there is now a 5:1 ratio of men to women on the radio is offensive, but so is the way that women are portrayed in modern country music. As Maddie and Tae pointed out, being the girl in a country song is no picnic. Treating women as objects goes against every fiber of my being. You find it in just about every country song now, but 80’s and 90’s country had an entirely different tone. The overwhelming majority of the time, women were portrayed as strong and independent figures. Many songs by male artists from would find the protagonist asking for forgiveness, accepting responsibility for mistakes, and asking the woman to grant him another chance. Love songs, like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, pledge devotion to women, and offer a promise of accountability. Note that in these songs, the woman has the power. She is to be treated with respect, not as an object. When Luke Bryan commands a “country girl” to “shake it for me”, it’s more than just a bad song, it’s a troubling ideological shift.

The correct narrative when it comes to sexism and abuse is that men have combined decades of entitlement and excuse making with power. One only has to look at someone like Harvey Weinstein or Ryan Adams to see how ugly that combination can be. The strides that are being made for women’s rights and with the #metoo movement are necessary, and long overdue. But I think that something frequently missed in the conversation is how decidedly modern cultural sexism is. The literal objectification of women in everyday pop culture, especially country music, feels decidedly recent to me, and that’s really what I’m talking about here.

I grew up in Indiana, and the way women have been represented and treated in the media climate in recent years simply doesn’t align with how I was raised. There was no mistaking the expectations in the house I grew up in; you were to respect women, or face the consequences. I’m not saying that my childhood is representative of the entire heartland, but that same mindset and ideology is what I hear in country music of the time. When close to half of the songs I heard on the radio were by women, and when many of the other half were sung by contrite men apologizing to strong women, it helped to carry forward that same expectation set by my parents. My mom is a college graduate and a registered nurse. She believed she could accomplish anything, and did.

I’m not sure what prompted this unhealthy change in country music, but it’s disheartening, to say the least. Modern country artists, producers, and executives should be embarrassed, and pressure is mounting. It’s up to us to make sure that lyrics like this no longer describe the norm.

Bein’ the girl in a country song

How in the world did it go so wrong?

Like all we’re good for is lookin’ good for

You and your friends on the weekend, nothin’ more

We used to get a little respect

Now we’re lucky if we even get

To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along

And be the girl in a country song

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On Exclusion and Love

Let me start by admitting that the world doesn’t need another opinion on what just happened at the United Methodist General Conference. With so many people hurting over this situation, it’s tough to know just what to say. I believe that most Methodists in America are hurting, no matter which plan they supported, and I have no interest in piling on further layers of accusations or anger. The headlines this week have reminded me of a dark time in my own faith, and that’s why I’m writing this.

As someone who grew up around an overwhelmingly traditional Christian culture, I always wondered; how could the actions and beliefs of some who claim to love Christ be SO different from what Christ actually taught? I struggled to wrap my head around it for many years, to the point of leaving the faith entirely. It was only after I learned to separate Christianity from Christ that I was able to regain my spiritual strength.

It took me several years after some bad church experiences to realize that it wasn’t fair for me to view ALL churches in a bad light. I’d been “stung by the church bee” and it was difficult to recover. Thankfully, I found a great congregation (First Christian Church in Richmond, IN) to help me move past that. After the events of this week, I fear that many others have been stung, and in a much more painful way.

Certain Christians seem to want to exclude so many, from the LGBT community, to immigrants, to anyone who doesn’t share their particular point of view, left or right. Isn’t it fair to wonder if that might have something to do with the declining numbers in churches all across America? I don’t claim to be a theological expert, but I firmly believe that Christ commands us to love. One of the core beliefs in the Disciples of Christ is the idea that everyone is welcome, in worship and at the communion table.

If we could all learn to love a bit more readily, and point the finger of anger and judgment a little less often, I think the world would be a better place. I hope we can learn to do a better job of making room at the table.

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I’m dreaming of a white camper…

Before I go any further, let me make this clear. We love Regina! (Regina is our 2007 Toyota Sienna with a platform bed and a tent “living room.”) There are so many great things about our current camping setup. Reliability, MPG, and the fact that there are no monthly payments involved. There are a lot of things that we can do because of the flexibility that a minivan camper gives us.

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However, there are also a lot of things that we can’t do, or are difficult to do. “Boondocking” on National Forest or BLM land. Pulling over at a Walmart or a Pilot to catch a few hours of sleep. Cold weather or inclement weather camping. And most notably for Molly, traveling with a future canine companion would be difficult with our current setup.

So, we’re looking ahead and starting to think about what would make sense for the next phase of our lives. I’ve ruled out conventional Chevy 6.0/8.1 and Ford V10-powered Class C’s because of fuel economy, and I’ve ruled out all 2007-present diesels because of the maintenance cost/issues with the emissions equipment. I’ve also ruled out RV’s built on the Ram Promaster platform because of maintenance and reliability concerns.

Option #1: A small, Transit-based Class C.

coac

Something like Coachmen’s Orion series would fit the bill nicely. Powered by a gas V6, this unit is not much bigger than a Class B at about 24′ feet long. That means you don’t need to pull a car behind it, because you can park it just about anywhere. Folks are reporting between 11 and 14 MPG, compared to 7-9 MPG for most Class C’s. The price of a two year old unit seems to be hovering around $40k, which would put the payments around $340 per month on a 15 year loan.

Option #2: A Chevy-based Class B.

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There is a lot to like about this option from the standpoint of reliability and fuel economy. One of Roadtrek’s offerings comes to mind here; 15-18 MPG is easily attainable! The downsides come into play quickly in the form of storage and price. Being performing musicians, we have a lot of gear. There isn’t really anywhere to put it in one of these units. We’d have to add on a hitch box or something on the exterior, and the cost is high. You’re looking at a price of at least $50k, which pushes monthly payments north of $400 per month on a 15 year loan.

Option #3: A pre-2007 Sprinter Class B.

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This is the sweet spot in a lot of areas. MPG is great; around 20 MPG. Reliability is good without the added emissions equipment present on newer diesels, although cost of maintenance is still an issue. There is a ton of usable storage space in units like the Gulf Stream Vista Cruiser. So, what’s the catch? Financing is the big one. It is extremely difficult to get a loan on an RV that is more than 10 years old, which is why these older units are often such a bargain.

From what I’ve seen, you can feasibly pick up a 2004 or 2005 Sprinter Class B for around $30-$35k, but good luck getting a loan on one. Most of us don’t have that kind of money lying around, and recently married musicians CERTAINLY don’t! (It’s also worth noting that rust is a huge problem with this generation of Sprinters.)

Option #4: DIY.

diy

This one is super appealing from a cost standpoint. You could start with any number of vehicles; a used Ford Transit, Nissan NV Cargo, or a Chevy Express. You can get a GREAT van to start with for anywhere from $8k-$18k, and financing is easy. But there is a great deal of labor involved in converting a van to an honest-to-goodness RV. There are issues to think about with weight distribution, insulation and condensation, and a whole host of technicalities with wiring, plumbing, and the like.

Option #5: A-Frame travel trailer.

aliner

For a while, we really thought an A-Frame style travel trailer would be the best option. It’s certainly the most cost effective, at around $6k-8k for a used unit. It doesn’t have much impact on MPG because of its light weight and low profile. We could even pull it with Regina.

But the convenience factor is a concern; pulling and hooking/unhooking a trailer all the time isn’t appealing, plus, it doesn’t help us much with a dog. We would always have to book a campspot, set up the trailer, and leave our dog there before playing a show or going out and about for an extended period. We also wouldn’t be able to just pull off the road at a rest stop to catch a few winks during a long drive, or do much cold weather camping. That being said, it’s really hard to beat the value.

So, what will we do? We don’t know yet! For now, we’re sticking with our current setup and continuing to gather information. If you have any thoughts or ideas, let us know!

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Not In My Town

In a world mostly filled with good and decent folks, there are exceptions. I’ve had great experiences and met amazing people in my travels near and far, but history tells us that there will always be individuals who want to inflict evil and harm upon others. I think one of the defense mechanisms for a community is to hear about a shooting, or a hate crime, or any sort of awful thing and say…”that would never happen here! Not in my town!

I’m sorry, but yes. It can happen in your town, and the question is…how do we respond? This is something that Molly and I have both been faced with recently. In January of this year, there was a school shooting in Marshall County, Kentucky. The place where Molly’s paternal family is from, where her grandparents still live. In a sleepy town of 4,000 people, a 15 year old opened fire in a classroom and killed two other 15 year old students.

And then, yesterday. In Wayne County, Indiana, my home for all 26 years of my life, a teenager took a gun and shot his way into a Richmond middle school. Thankfully, the police received a warning call and put the school on lockdown before he arrived, and thankfully, the police were able to respond immediately. It could have been so much worse, though that’s probably hard to imagine for the family of the shooter who turned the gun on himself. They are left trying to process pain, betrayal, and loss during this holiday season.

I’ve sat through far too many arguments about gun control. I have friends on both ends of the spectrum; I know dedicated anti-gun activists, and I know loyal NRA members. I hang out with people who wouldn’t dare to touch a gun, and I hang out with people who carry one with them every day. All of them are great people. I’ve heard ALL of the arguments, and I’m simply not going to get into them in this post. If you have a strong opinion on guns, you might be getting angry just reading this paragraph. I respectfully ask that you bear with me.

We are so quick to argue. We rush to defend our positions, to prove our points, to compartmentalize people based on political or religious views. I think we sometimes forget about simple humanity. What drives a teenager to the point that picking up a gun and killing others (or themselves) seems like the best option? Isolation? Anger? Depression? Abuse? Perhaps a combination of all of these things. How often do we even consider the question before we fall back to our preset arguments and positions?

Over and over, we hear about these incidents on the news. And we do nothing to address the root causes, because “it could never happen here”, or “if we just ban guns, then they won’t be able to kill other people”, or “if we just arm the teachers, that’ll fix it!” When are we going to start asking ourselves the hard questions about the toxicity of our culture? About what sort of environment leads to violence in the first place? And, when are we going to start reaching across the boundaries of our differences, to make sure that our sense of humanity isn’t lost?

In Wayne County, the answer is now. I hope you’ll join me.

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Artwork by Molly Wallen

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