FLYING UNDER THE RADAR: Being an Independent Artist

As far as most people know, there are only two kinds of musicians-one kind plays weddings and bar mitzvahs, enduring repeated requests from the uncle of the bride to “turn down those goddamn amplifiers!” This poor working schmuck also may play in a top-40 cover-rock band that in all likeliness plays better than most of the bands whose hits they’re covering. Or he’s strumming an acoustic guitar and singing at the local Beef & Brew, taking monotonous requests for “Brown Eyed Girl.”

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The other kind of musician is exceedingly rich and famous. His fans will pay a hundred-fifty bucks or more, no questions asked, for a ticket to see him play-and they’ll pay, $18.95 without questions for his new CD at Tower Records. This musician’s latest hit gets played on the radio so much that even his most ardent followers cannot stand it anymore. He is the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Teenage fans adorn their bedroom walls and ceilings with posters bearing his airbrushed likeness. Adult fans shell out $200 or more at the show for the tastefully embroidered logo ball-cap, silk tour jacket, and bronze keychain.

What most people don’t know is that there is another kind of musician out there that fits neither of these categories. Like the famous musicians, he makes recordings of his own songs, goes on the road and plays concerts all over the world, signs autographs, gets interviewed on the occasional radio station, and makes a living doing it. But also, like the musician who works the dive-bars and catering houses for chump change, most people have never heard of him. I am this guy.

Don’t feel unhip or out of touch because you’ve never heard of Bob Malone. It takes significant shekels-major-record-label-shekels-to make an artist known to the masses. I do not have a contract with a major record label. But through years of busting my ass traveling around the world playing live, I’ve built up enough of an audience to pay my rent playing my own music. It’s a good life.

Why don’t I have a label deal? If the answer were simply, “because I suck,” there would be no need to proceed further. It would, in fact, be a relief to suck-I could go off and get a day job and forget this whole miserable business. It is not a matter of ability; it is a matter of marketability. My music is vehemently uncategorizable, which is just how I like it. Unfortunately, that’s not how the record industry likes it, which means I’m unlikely to get a deal anytime soon. Major record labels are in this business strictly to make a buck, and I don’t do the kind of act that generates the highest level of bucks. The record business is very different than it used to be. Marketing music today is a science (kind of like poultry nutrition); the bottom line is king, and minimal risks are taken on music that can’t easily be pigeonholed. But I am not bitter about my fate. I’ve never had to take a day job. Singing and playing the piano is the only job I’ve ever known, and that makes me one lucky son of a bitch. And while there was a time when I had to play your kid’s bar mitzvah or wear a monkey suit and play wallpaper music in a hotel lounge (and yes, people actually did, without the slightest trace of irony, put a dollar in my jar and request “Feelings”), I’ve progressed now to a place where I don’t have to do that sort of work anymore. I get to do what I love to do, on my own terms.

Are major record labels actively seeking sarcastic thirty-five-year-old white guys who flail wildly at a piano and sing lyrics that will most assuredly sail right over the heads of your average thirteen-year-old? No. Is there a market for this sort of thing? You bet your ass, honey! I have cultivated this market the old-fashioned grassroots way-by playing thousands of live shows all over the world. In ten years of doing this, I’ve played places that barely hold 50 people (sometimes with far less than 50 people in them), and I’ve opened for stars in front of a mob of 10,000. I’ve also played every kind of place in between.

I sell CDs at these shows, which often brings in more money than the gig pays. Since 1996, I’ve put out three CDs on my own record label, recorded with my own money, and I’ve distributed to retail by various indie distributors. Each has sold around 5,000 copies. A major label would consider sales of 5,000 copies embarrassing and even horrendous. A&R guys would be getting fired left and right. Marketing staffs would be dropping like flies. I would get dropped from the label quicker than Vanilla Ice after his fifteen minutes were up. And, with the mere buck or less per unit that I’d be making in a major-label deal, minus what it cost me to produce the CD, I’d be back at the piano bar playing “Girl From Impenema” quicker than you could say “recoupable advance.” On the other foot, as an indie artist who keeps essentially all of the money from his modest record sales, I’m damn near middle class! Not bad for a guy you’ve never heard of.

My life is not for everybody, though. I have musician friends with comfortable steady gigs playing at the local Rusty-Fill-In-The-Blank. They often dream of setting fire to their song lists, turning their tip jar back into a goldfish bowl, and telling Carmine the club owner that someone else is going to have to play “Killing Me Softly” while the customers drink their watered-down cocktails and eat overcooked chicken strips. They dream of striking out on the road to play the original music they have poured their heart and soul into. Then they find out what it really takes to make a living this way and they recoil in horror.

In the past twelve months, I have driven cross-country and back four times. My three-year-old minivan already has 150,000 miles on it. I just replaced my fourth transmission. In February of 2001, for example, I played my way from Los Angeles to South Carolina and back in less than three weeks. Along the way, I barely missed getting blown away by a tornado in Arkansas (I sat in my van under an overpass while cows and house trailers swirled in the air around me). I drove seven hours through a snowstorm so bad that, except for a few monstrous orange snowplows and a few semis trying to make that Florida-to-Boston nonstop run in twenty-four hours, I was the only person crazy enough to attempt driving on the interstate. When I got to the venue, the gig was canceled. In western Nebraska, a deer came barreling out of the darkness and ran in front of my van while I was driving 85 miles an hour on I-80. I clipped its back hoof . . . if it had run out there one second later, we’d have both been roadkill.

In addition to fighting the elements and standing on stage pretending to be a rock star, there’s a lot of other work to do in the career of an indie performer and songwriter. Often I am up at 7 A.M. or worse in the morning to do a radio interview (morning drive time is the best time to be on). Sometimes, in a market where I’m doing well, there may be two or three radio stations to do in a single morning. In the afternoon, there may be in-store appearances at record stores. Then there’s soundcheck-and then the show. Then, if you have a morning radio show in the next town, you get in the truck after the gig and drive all night. Or you go back to the Motel 6, call your girlfriend, watch some TV, and get up the next morning and drive to the next town/state, and do it all again. Glamorous and romantic it is not.

Like many other people who do what I do, I do it all alone. No tour manager. No band. No personal assistants. No roadies. I have cultivated some excellent rhythm sections all across America, and when the money is good enough, I will hire one of them to back me up. I’ve worked with a wonderful group of musicians in Los Angeles for ten years now that I consider “my band.” I’m still nowhere near making what it would cost to take them on the road with me. Usually I play solo. The loneliness can really eat you up after a while. Hopefully the hour on stage, which is what you put yourself through all this for, will make the hardships worth it.

When I am not on the road, I am at home spending eight hours a day booking gigs, dealing with radio people, promoters, and CD distributors. Just me, the phone, and my laptop. Oh yeah, I also find time to write songs.

I perform on what is called the “listening room” circuit, the acoustic singer/songwriter circuit, or the folk circuit (although many of us are by no means folkies). Sometimes I headline, and sometimes I open for someone who can pack the place. A typical venue is 200 to 300 seats, with rows of chairs and a well-lit stage, like a small theater. Serious music aficionados come to these places and listen to you play. No one talks during your set. They laugh at your jokes (provided they’re funny) and applaud appreciatively. If you kick them in the ass with a good show, you get encores. When I first discovered this circuit-back when I was working the bars-it was a revelation to find out that it existed. I realized then that I didn’t have to wait for a big record deal that might or might not come in order to put on concerts and play my own music. I could do it right now. After being lucky enough to get an opening slot at a couple of these places, I knew I’d never be able to go back to Hennessey’s Tavern in Hermosa Beach and play four sets a night for sixty-five lousy bucks, pushing drunks off the stage and fending off requests for Steve Miller tunes.

That’s when I vowed that I had played my last gig of that ilk, and I would either make a go of it playing original music and nothing else, or I would go back to school and get a real job. After I made that decision, I went hungry for a while. But it eventually paid off. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I play a lot in the folk music market, but there is a strong blues element to what I do, so I also work blues festivals and the better blues clubs around the country and in Europe. It’s almost like having a dual career in two parallel universes. On public radio, I often end up doing a show with the folk DJ and the blues DJ-twice the airtime! I find it ironic that I do exactly the same show for both crowds (the main difference between folk and blues audiences is that blues audiences consume more red meat and alcohol. I like that). It’s all about perception, I suppose.

Occasionally I get to open for someone famous. As the opening act, I generally will face 5,000 to 10,000 impatient fans that have paid a lot of money and have waited a long time to see the headliner. Nobody wants to see the opening act. They expect you to suck. But if you can go out there and quickly show them that you don’t suck, you stand a decent chance of making them your crowd for 45 minutes. You have exactly the first half of the first song to make the crowd yours. If you don’t get them by then, you are doomed to the longest 45 minutes of your life. Mostly, I have been quite successful as a support act. Ninety-five percent of the time as an opener, I’ve walked out on stage to face a hostile mob and walked off 45 minutes later leaving behind a roomful of new fans. The other five percent of the time . . . I don’t want to talk about it.

Do I want to be rich and famous? Certainly. Do I want roadies, a band, a limo and a suite at the Four Seasons when I am on the road? Of course. Do I want to be a musical guest on Saturday Night Live? Hell, yeah! On the other hand, do I want to hear “I just don’t hear a single” from some musically challenged label exec whose entire record collection consists of a couple of Kenny G CDs and Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits? Absolutely not.

Commercial success is fine, and there’s nothing I’d like to see more than a musician I really love and respect making piles of money. I love that Paul Simon is absurdly wealthy-it reminds me that occasionally there is a little justice in the world. You will not be hearing any sanctimonious bullshit about the evils of stardom from me. But I do believe that an artist should do what they do for the sake of the music, or else not do it at all. If that means doing it on your own, we should be thankful that we live in an age where we are able to do just that. I’ve got my website, my own little record label, and I can make a really great-sounding CD for around three thousand bucks. I take Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. Twenty years ago, these technologies weren’t available to an indie artist. It was either suck up to the label, or it was back to doing four sets a night at the Beef & Brew. We have choices now. If the right deal comes along, I’ll take it. If the wrong deal comes along, I don’t need it. That’s the greatest joy of being independent.

This year I will play about 150 dates on the road and my fourth CD will be released. My guarantee goes up a little more every year. I’m doing well at doing what I love. Once in a while someone will even walk up to me on the street and say, “Hey! Aren’t you Bob Malone?” They might even ask for an autograph. It’s a pretty good life-for someone you’ve never heard of.

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