Dog Guru

My wife, Roxanne and I saw Jamey Johnson last weekend in an awful club in Clifton Park, N.Y. Johnson’s a country songwriter cum recording artist who’s anything but awful. He’s one of those rare artists who come along once in a generation in a genre, in this case country.

He’s so raw and real it hurts. He’s of the outlaw breed, and his songs — even some of his hits – hold a bare light bulb to reality.

He’s a Montgomery boy, an ex-marine, ex-family man, and ex-rebel rouser, and his voice is as perfectly imperfect as his life. I’m not writing this to pitch Johnson, but country fan or not, this plainspoken poet is worth a listen.

I’m reminded of Steve Earle, who blew me away with his 1986 debut album “Guitar Town.” One literate bad boy with a voice to match. The first time I heard him I wanted to burn my guitar and typewriter (remember those), but eventually returned to my auteur senses.

Feels good to get a jolt of genius through your gut once in awhile. I find it inspirational.

What I love about guys like Johnson and Earle is their take-no-prisoners approach. They know who they are, and they live it no matter what, even if it means sacrificing at the altar of the hit-machine gods along the way.

We can all use inspiration on the long and winding road of music artistry, something or someone to keep us on the scent of who we really are. For me, it’s my labradoodle, Stella. She’s my guru. She knows things even Einstein couldn’t, but most of all she knows exactly how to follow her nose, and I follow her example daily.

Stella, my guru

Stella, my guru

Johnson follows his nose at all costs, even though there are risks along the way. His next album may not do as well. He may fade from the scene like many road geniuses before him. But, no matter what, he’ll have done it his way, and he’ll have lived a fully-realized life.

For me, it took a decade to discover my voice as a poet. In fact, when I was in college, I didn’t even know what that really meant. Then, it took yet longer to marry my poetic voice with my music, even a career as a Nashville songwriter along the way, an interesting and — as I once told New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles – circuitous journey. But I now know who I am as a recording artist and know exactly where I’m headed.

And Stella keeps me on track; and no matter what, I love the ride.
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You’re So ‘Yester-moment’

It’s no longer the flavor or the month or what used to be called 24/7 or wall-to-wall coverage. The new media cycle, at least for this nanosecond, is called “perpetual movement.”

In other words, spin or die. That’s the latest from Internet guru Michael Moritz, a Sequoia investor who backed Google, Yahoo and the Sugar Inc. blog-networks.

Quoted in a recent New York Times article, Moritz says:

Perpetual movement is the essence of survival and prosperity online. If online media and entertainment companies don’t improve every day, they will just wind up as the newfangled version of Reader’s Digest — bankrupt.

A second ago, it seems, we were talking about reinventing ourselves. But that’s so yesterday, or should I say so yestermoment.

What the Suger blog people have learned of late is that content on their successful networks must change constantly.

What this overall trend spells for us music artists is even scarier than the current biz model. Maybe the Web 2.0 atomizing machine will move us even further from the album, all the way to the ring tone (do not pass digital single).

Of course, I’m kidding, but only partly. After all, it is somewhat scary. The same warp-machine that devoured major labels, newspapers and publishing may chew us into yet smaller morsels.

For myself, I’m headed into my studio to record a new three-note masterpiece. Must adapt or die.
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Viral, Schmiral (‘Greatness’ Pt. 2)

Baimurat Allaberiyev – a YouTube sensation – has a major record deal but still has few teeth, literally. And those teeth are planted on the cutting edge of the latest boom-and-bust trend in the music industry: viral-video microfame.

So, let’s get real about the sobering statistics of enduring Web 2.0 success among music artists. To that end, I will explore the verities of the viral-video trend.

But first, this exploration is not meant as a discouragement. It’s simply a reality check. Like a sound check, it gets us in tune, so we can perform at our best. And, as with the old industry, the new music model presents real, if limited, opportunities for enduring success. So, as in the past, the motivation for the serious artist is the very challenge of the overwhelming game itself.

Now, back to Allaberiyev, a former sheepherder from Russia who sang renditions of Bollywood songs all the day long, not unlike early American blues singers who chanted field hollers while picking cotton in the South. Some traditions never die.

Writing in Friday’s New York Times, Ellen Barry, tells how one of Allaberiyev’s signature performances was captured on videophone, eventually making it to YouTube and viral nirvana. But, while this music 2.0 fame led to a record deal with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in London, his manager Ilya Bortnyuk offers the sober summation:

“If there will be disappointment, it’s no big deal. It’s show business. There is glamour; there is disappointment. No big deal. I’m used to it after 20 years.”

Barry goes on to cite examples of viral video flameouts like Tay Zonday and Chris Crocker. She quotes Bill Wasik, author of a new book on viral video and Internet celebrity:

“Virtually all of them have found it hard to parlay the experience into a lasting career… Even a short ride is a kind of gift.”

Allaberiyev’s challenge: his charisma must translate into U.S. sales, since world music doesn’t sell in Russia, the environs of his initial following. Because Bollywood show tunes won’t do the trick, his handlers plan on transitioning his repertoire to Afghan and Central Asian folk songs. So, does the man on what feels like the top now find himself with another uphill climb? Certainly. Does he feel like Sisyphus? Yes. Haven’t we all? Yet, that should serve to raise the fighter mojo in him even more. Let’s face it; only heavyweights will win at this game. It’s the same in the new model as it was in the old. Some traditions never die.

And to rally Allaberiyev (also known as Tajik Jimmy), one of his supporters, Yelena Mirzoyeva, has this encouragement:

“A person that feels he is a star; that person will really go somewhere.”

Wasik himself recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed piece making a case for the Internet as the new New York for aspiring artists. He compares making it in Gotham with getting “the big break” on the Internet. The article weighs in with sobering data, which in the end, appear no better than the old music-biz model.

A senior editor at Harper’s and author of “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” Wasik discusses the recently depressed prospects for artists seeking fortune in the Big Apple, and turns his gaze to the Internet, saying:

“Meanwhile, another destination beckons, a place that courses with all the raw ambition and creative energy that the hard times seem to have drained from New York. I am referring, of course, to the Internet, which over the past decade has slowly become the de facto heart of American culture: the public space in which our most influential conversations transpire, in which our new celebrities are discovered and touted, in which fans are won and careers made.”

He cites such Web successes as the The Gregory Brothers, whose humorous YouTube series “Auto-Tune the News” has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans.

But, in the end, Wasik also concludes:

“Microcelebrity is now the rule, with respect not only to the size of one’s fan base but also to the duration of its love. Believe it or not, the Internet is a tougher town than New York; fewer people make it here (New York), but no one there (the Internet) seems to make it for long.”

As I follow the limited cases of significant Internet success, Bon Iver comes to the fore. Yet, keep in mind that his notoriety was spawned from a combination of both viral and print-media attention, including the Wall Street Journal, with one rolling into the other. Some traditions – in this case, PR-wise – never die.

So what statistical sobriety supplies us artists is the tired-but-true principle: the path to success is fraught with frustration and limitation. Same in the new model as it was in the old. So, buckle up, batton down and stay the course. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t star in the movie version.
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