Looking at Things "From Both Sides Now"

Joni Mitchell’s line “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now” holds new meaning in light of a recent Science News article which describes studies confirming that musicians use both left and right sides of the brain more frequently than average people. I am assuming that by average, the author refers to what could be more accurately described as non-musicians. Ah, so we are busted! No more excuses about being shitty at business, too concerned with a new track to remember the mother-in-law’s birthday, and no more hiding behind the myth of the absent-minded genius. The jig is up.

One of the tests proved that musicians scored higher than civilians in devising new uses for simple household objects. I can remember a time when studio engineers used massive Fairchild limiting amplifiers as door stops and created longer tape delays by lengthening the loop with a marker pen. Putting a creative twist on practical matters or “the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems” seems to be a forte of the musical mind. This process is popularly described as Thinking outside the box.

With these test results and studies coming to light, I am moved to ask myself a burning question. Why is it that an individual can assemble a fully functioning bong pipe from simple household items from any kitchen or bathroom in under 15 minutes, yet can’t manage to figure out how to get paid? Musicians do so many wrong things with the right results. The entire guitar gizmo industry owes its success to some knucklehead who had a crappy little amp and said, “Well shit, turn that knob as far as it’ll go and let’s see what happens.” We are the MacGyvers of the arts but when it comes to getting paid, we get screwed…a lot. Or so many of us have resigned ourselves to believe. Here are two examples of thinking outside the box that suggest the opposite to be possible.

The John Borgmeyer biography of Hip Hop mega-personality Dr. Dre details on page 17 how, at the beginning of his career, Dre found a company who would manufacture vinyl dance singles in small lots of 500 for a manageable investment. He went on to sell in the neighborhood of 5000 units through his personal record store. The kicker is that Dre’s store was the trunk of his car! No, it wasn’t easy and yes, it took some effort. But that’s what it took and that’s what he did. The same musical mind that produced the tracks found a way to get paid and wasn’t afraid to get creative. Keep in mind that this was long before myspace, facebook or Sellaband. The internet was years away.

One of my oldest friends is percussionist extraordinaire Brent Lewis. His story is elegant in its methodical simplicity. Drum machines put the knife square into the heart of Brent’s livelihood. Up until Roger Lynn showed up with his box Brent made a decent buck supplementing his live gigs with sessions. Added to this, bands were making less money and percussionists were usually the first to get the old heave ho.

So Brent took Joni Mitchell’s advice and decided to think with “Both Sides Now.” He sat down and recorded an album of strictly percussion instruments on a piece of shit recorder and filled a shoebox with cassettes. Then he dragged a pile of bongos, congas and noisemakers down to Venice Beach. He camped out on the boardwalk, beat the shit out of his hands all summer and sold a ton of cassettes to tourists ready to trade a few dollars for a good story to tell the folks back in Kansas.

Now Brent wanted more. He phoned me often about wanting to make enough money to record a proper album. I had just returned from a gig in the Caribbean and told him how the cruise ships would stop at St. Thomas belching out thousands of money-burning tourists daily. I suggested that he pack a crate of cassettes, a boombox and a few drums and go infest the dock where the ships dropped off the shoppers. Brent got them coming and going. But there was also a bit of marketing strategy. I told him to wear local clothes and never say a word to the tourists but the price of the cassette.  Mystery turned out to be the hook that landed whoppers.

Brent LewisBrent sold thousands of cassettes…THOUSANDS! To make a long story short, rather than paying for studio time, Brent invested in himself. He built his own modest studio and upgraded as the money came in. From there he went global and marketed his music to new age stores which sold mood crystals and massage oils. Sales of his cds climbed into the hundreds of thousands. He has now embraced the internet and I’ve lost count of how many cds he has sold. I know that it must be well over a million by now and the best part of it is that he owns it all.

Brent’s sidewalk record store went through the brick and mortar phase, then moved indoors with the advent of the fax machine. It now consists of a phone and a computer. His case demonstrates that creativity can reach across to the other side of the brain and put a new twist on practical considerations.

Creating music is not a problem for most musicians. The problem is getting paid. The common wisdom is that, with old school record labels losing their stranglehold on the marketing of recorded music, we may soon be faced with a generation of music consumers who have never stepped inside what some of us still call a “record store.” And what of the price of music? I overheard a conversation recently discussing the idea that 99 cents is too much to pay for a song…the point being made between sips of $4.00 designer coffee served in a paper cup. Does it seem a bit skewed that something that gives lasting pleasure and elevates the soul is somehow worth less than a fourth the price of an inflated cup of coffee?

It’s time that musicians admit that they can think not only creatively but critically as well if they expect to see any level of financial return on their investment. Musicians have a tendency to get screwed at both ends. We are bombarded every day by email solicitations to upgrade our arsenal of plug-ins. We keep musical equipment porn under the bed and run our fingers over glossy images of things we don’t need but must have. We do gigs for free under the assumption that “this will lead to more work.” And in the current market, we are expected to give our work away for less than the price of a candy bar. Jesus! Try downloading a free sample from Betty the Banger down on Hollywood Blvd. and you’ll see what real copyright protection is all about. But, by buying into the myth that we are creative idiots, we screw ourselves into thinking that the business of getting paid is somehow better left to others.

Thinking outside the box is fine for starters. But it should be just the introduction to doing outside the box. When it comes to brains, we’ve always had “both sides now” at our disposal and it’s been scientifically proven that we use them well. So grab a piece of unused equipment and use it for something new and exciting like holding the door open. Innovate at the cellular level. Little Johnny up the street didn’t build a website to sell his lemonade. He simply put a table on the sidewalk and started squeezing.

The business of music marketing is coming full circle and many of the unsavory aspects formerly under label control are now coming into the hands of those who create content. In many ways we are getting exactly what we wanted but it will be up to us to figure out how to get paid.

5 Responses to “Looking at Things "From Both Sides Now"”

  • How true! It´s good to have the means back in our own hands but in my case I sort of forgot how to implement the selling basics. Thanks for the stimulus Pete.
    Still the Cape Buffalo

  • Luchi-Lu

    WORD UP Pete!
    And you said it exactly like i wanted to say it (but couldn’t) !
    PS: I love how we are considered musicians as opposed to “civilians” or “average people”

  • Hi Pete ,

    nice blog again :-) . Opposed to “average people” musicians only have 3 braincells ; 1 to breathe in , 1 to breathe out , and one to stop them from shitting in the studio .
    For the whole “getting payed”-thingy : I don’t think I ever MADE or WROTE a song . I prefer to believe that they are brought to me by the wind or the silence . And wanting to get payed for something that you got as a present sounds very very stupid to me .
    And hey !!! … I also never got payed to drink and party all night 😉 .

    HAVE FUN !!! yours Pieps

  • Oh Strobulous Jedi

    I am very much attracted to this thesis that musicians are superevolved beings with a privileged message for mankind with the caveat that I myself was defeated by the Grade 5 theory exams (though I was playing complex pieces by ear) which maths-whizz 10 year olds were passing with distinction. Due to this inability of mine to work with sheet music it would appear that, though pro, I cannot claim any of the duo-hemispherical kudos. Bums, comme ils disent.

    I’m in good company though – today I discovered from a fellow blogger that Tori Amos was in precisely the same predicament & that turned out rather well for her…

    Nonetheless it’s handy to have hard science at hand in response to commoners who still believe that that old cliche of musicians being lackadaisical scrounging whimsy-ridden nincompoops – or, worse still, those who believe that they’re obliged to live up to this stereotype in the name of enhanced creativity. I’ve always thought of music an a kind of ascetic solitary pursuit myself, for the lions share of the time spend composing.

  • Of course, it’s not just musicians that think this way – How many 9-5 people are waiting on their next modest paycheck and hoping that any minute now their real life will begin.

    We’re all terrified of taking control of our lives, but the dirty little secret is that without the courage to change we don’t really live anyway. Take control – what do you have to lose?

    Great one Pete.