What I’m about to go into is the first truly personal post I’ve made in a long time, if ever. I normally keep stuff like this to myself, for good reason, but this has been building for some time. I feel like it has long ago changed the way I make decisions with my career, and because of that, I feel like I owe my fans and supporters some form of explanation. At best, perhaps this will give some insight to new artists of what they may encounter in the future.
I also want to state how immensely grateful I am for many aspects of my life. I truly came from the bottom and ended up on top. What was once a guitar and amplifier in one of the worst neighborhoods in America is now a 1,500 sq ft studio with 4 acres of forest out the window. I make most of my income from music sales, which had been a dream that I thought was unobtainable even in my most optimistic fantasies. I worked extremely hard for it, so while I don’t consider it “luck” by any stretch of the imagination, I do realize that a lot of people work hard for something and end up regretting it. So, for this upward transformation over the decades, I am forever grateful and blessed.
In the back of my head, I always have this thought: If I, for some reason, won a Grammy award for my most recent album, what would I say in my acceptance speech?
I’d probably be proper and thank whoever came into my head first. But really, I’d want to thank my fans, then say “fuck you” to a long list of people and companies. Fuck you to Beatport for selling people’s illegal remixes of my music after declining to carry my actual albums. Fuck you to Tunecore for making me explain how audio compression works to 12 different customer support people who insisted that iTunes is a better audio ripper than Exact Audio Copy and subsequently delaying a digital release for 3 weeks. Fuck you to the person who leaked the album and forced me to ship the CDs early. Fuck you to the warehouse that took 7 days to open the CD boxes and put them in your inventory, preventing me from opening pre-orders. Fuck you to the venues who can’t respond to my emails, and fuck you to the booking agents who can’t simply spent 30 seconds researching my demographic before disregarding me.
Okay, so you see where I’m going with this. At some point it became apparent that with very few exceptions, in the world of releasing “The Flashbulb”, I have to fight tooth and nail with every single person and service that I do business with. I fight to give away money. With nearly every interaction, I’m imagining myself strangling someone so they’ll take a giant wad of cash to do the job that they’re supposed to do. The job that uses musicians to keep their family fed. It’s as if there’s this invisible line between successful artists and groveling, starving artists, and because of my choices to be smart with my income and release my music on my own terms (via Alphabasic), I’ve somehow ended up on the latter side of that line. This, over the years, has changed me.
I can’t really put into words how much frustration and negativity comes with that. The “business side” is nearly a full time job that is farther away from being an “artist” than it would be if I became a car salesman. It used to be exciting to release albums, now at best it’s exhausting, at worst it’s simply degrading. But it’s all worth it because all of this fighting is so I can keep creative control over “The Flashbulb”. A record label would have forced me to put vocals over all of my music and then licensed it to a Viagra ad. They would have cut songs and released something in 2015 that I wrote in 2011. They would have sued people for sharing my music. I don’t think I could ever deal with that. “The Flashbulb” is my soul. It is essentially the exclusive way I express myself. I could never just hand the keys to someone else and relax while they drove it wherever they wanted to.
So all this fighting has been worth it. It’s a trade-off for creative freedom, and just as importantly, the freedom to release music however and whenever I want.
…well, that part has been getting increasingly convoluted, unfortunately.
Something happened recently that’s been a huge blow to me. I know it shouldn’t be, and I should have a stronger spine and be able to laugh things off. Let’s go back 5 years.
In 2009, I had a particularly rough year. I was dealing with both the suicide of a close friend and the death of an immediate family member, and at some point the suppression of my feelings gave way to anxiety and depression. For about a year I couldn’t bring myself to get professional help, and subsequently bounced between self-medicating and expressing myself in music I never intended to release. Most of that music is still unreleased and unheard, but a few things crept out. “Louisiana Mourning” being the obvious short compilation of pieces relating to this period, with tracks “We Are Alone In A City” and “Skeletons” being the others. “We Are Alone In A City” was initially 10 minutes long and had vocals, and I probably cut the track up 10 times before including it on a release. I was constantly on the fence about sharing it with the world. To me, it symbolized this moment where, in my own mind, I had nothing in my life but ghosts to hang on to, and I knew to everyone else, it would merely be something to help pass the time while riding the bus or doing homework. Releasing music that comes from those places is an incredibly insecure, naked experience. If someone criticizes the song, to them, they’re just sharing their opinion about music. To you, they’re criticizing your soul. There’s no way you can naturally come to terms with that arrangement. But the job of a “successful” musician is to suck it up and be humble. You can’t expect everyone to understand the novel-sized, epic saga that is behind certain pieces of music, much less respect it.
So let’s fast-forward to 2015. I’m almost getting comfortable with the aforementioned “fight” that accompanies every music release, and once again, I’m getting naked in front of the world by releasing a solo piano album. I have no idea if I’m a good piano composer. If I was laughed at by even the most uneducated music listener, or if I was praised by people with doctorates in composition, neither would be a big surprise. I’m completely cut off in my own world when I’m writing, and while that has its caveats, it locks out influences that aren’t coming naturally. Once I start trying to appeal to someone else’s standards, the quality of my work starts plummeting. It’s always been that way, and I believe it always will be.
The piano album’s release was, frankly, a disaster. Since my music writing is a mix between music theory and some alien language I invented to help me remember specific ideas, I had hired a transcriber and pianist to transcribe the album into a music book that other pianists could use. It was meant to be included with a special edition of the pre-orders. Well, the transcriber took my down payment and stopped responding to emails, and the whole thing is still dwindling in a Paypal dispute that I honestly no longer even care about. The album’s announcement came premature from a 3rd party, the CDs arrived late, the manufacturer screwed up the bleeds on the artwork, the warehouse didn’t properly handle inventory, the t-shirt order got screwed up, iTunes rejected the album because I marked it as classical, which then prompted Tunecore to throw it back into limbo, which was then accompanied by a bunch of site bugs preventing the album from being anywhere other than Alphabasic and Bandcamp for nearly a month. Oh, and it leaked, meaning I had to ship everything prematurely. It was by far the biggest shit show I’ve dealt with in terms of releasing an album. Every single thing that could go wrong did.
More and more, over the last few years, I feel like I’m losing control over my own music. Even though I’m doing it myself and constantly multitasking through various battles, it’s still all too often being swept into someone else’s terms of service. Someone else’s time frame. Someone else’s release schedule. I now find myself nearly dreading the actual task of releasing music as “The Flashbulb”.
Then, something that would normally be utterly hilarious happened to me. But it happened at the wrong time, with the wrong song, and the wrong idiot behind it all. Due to 2 days worth of DMCAing’, you can’t see exactly what I saw, but this is the relic of it: http://sfvibebeats.com/products/emotional-drake-style-instrumental
And if you want to hear one of the outcomes (most of the many Youtube links are DMCA’d): https://soundcloud.com/onceuponme/drink-like-its-your-birthday-emotional-drake-style-instrumental
(Please don’t leave this guy mean comments, he bought the instrumental from SF Vibe Beats under the misconception that it was an original creation)
So, to sum this up briefly, “SF Vibe Beats” was illegally licensing “We Are Alone In A City” with a drum loop over it in exchange for money via his Shopify store to everyone from rap artists to marketing campaigns. This guy sold it to over 30 people that used it and released the songs. One of the music videos using this “beat” had more views than my top video of all time (Undiscovered Colors). Try to imagine the weight of this. A stolen song of mine with a drum loop plastered on top earned more success on Youtube than a timelapse video I spent a week in a desert shooting to a song that I had written/recorded an entire orchestra for.
I know, I know. “Lawyer up!” “Bury this douche!”
And I probably will. This is far from the first time something like this has happened, and that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. 20 years ago, I sat in my bedroom programming music on a tiny 2-line LCD screen of a synth workstation for, literally, 3 days straight. It was so pure and beautiful. Every track I finished energized the next. I long for that feeling again.
Now? I wake up and alternate between emailing venues, lawyers, music distribution sites, and writing music. I have the knowledge that anything I release can, and probably will be exploited to its fullest potential without my permission. And frankly, while I’ll never imprison myself with a rash decision about the future, I have a huge library of music that I’ll never release because it’s the best, deepest, and most coveted thing I can produce. That’s not to say my recent releases are lacking effort, I don’t believe they are. I think they have their place. But I don’t have it in me to “fight” over my soul, if that analogy makes any sense in reference to what I’ve said here.
I don’t know what this means. But if I’m to continue with “The Flashbulb”, I definitely need to completely restructure not only the way I release things, but my mindset in regards to releasing music to the public. It should be healthy for everyone. The reception of my releases should inspire me to keep writing, and if it comes down to choosing between purely and naturally writing music or releasing music with a bunch of baggage attached, I think everyone can agree which one of those options would be the right choice.
Before I press “publish”, I want to again emphasize my gratefulness for being able to feed myself by writing music. More importantly, I want to thank my supporters. All of this “fighting” is so I can get my music to your ears in a fair, efficient, and affordable manner. I owe it to my fans to find a better way of doing that.