Recently I received a message from an old friend who is now teaching at the Canadian International School in Singapore. Some of her grade six students were doing research on the reality of music making with a specific interest in the issue of Internet piracy. They had some questions for me, which I happily answered. I post them here for anyone else who may be interested:
Students: Can you tell us about your job?
Steve: I make my living as a singer/songwriter. I travel approximately one third of the year performing 80 to 100 concerts annually – mostly across Canada and the US. Occasionally I travel oversees. My music has taken me to England, Poland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Caribbean and Guatemala.
When I am at home my job is to write songs and record CDs. I generally put out a new CD of songs every year and a half. This is quite an involved process because to continue to write songs that are meaningful and fresh I have to continue to invest in myself as a musician, poet and a thinker. Practically, this means that I need to practice regularly and spend time experimenting with techniques and musical ideas. I need to read to keep my mind engaged and wrestling with new ideas (I typically read 2-3 hours a day.) I need to attend to poetry in order to be a good lyricist. I need to attend to world events and the hopes and anxieties they cause. And then, I also need time to sit and process what I’ve taken in.
People don’t realize that to write songs, the writer needs extended time to simply sit and be silent; to listen deeply, waiting patiently for the moment of inspiration when suddenly melody and poetry start to emerge. This is very hard to describe. I am a Christian, and believe strongly that God is communicating with us all the time, but we are rarely still and silent enough to notice. Being still and silent is probably the most difficult and the most important part of my work.
Another aspect of my job is publicity and marketing which involves radio and TV interviews, developing videos for YouTube, overseeing the development of posters and CD designs, managing and writing content for the website, and having a presence on FaceBook and Twitter.
Finally, I do spend a fair bit of time fundraising. Because music has been so devalued as result of things like piracy and easy access, it is becoming increasingly difficult to monetize (make money from the art itself). And so, artists like myself have to reconsider the patronage model again. Patrons are those who are willing to financially underwrite projects that provide a perceived social good, but that may not generate sufficient monies to be self sustaining, i.e. the arts, hospitals, schools, etc.
It is important to realize that music, as a marketable commodity is relatively new historically. Before the 1930′s there was no recorded music that people could buy and listen to on a personal entertainment device at home. If you wanted to hear music you had to actually be in the presence of a musician or make it yourself. A musician could not record songs, reproduce them on CDs, and sell them to thousands of others as a way to generate income and put food on the table. If you wanted to devote your time to music-making you had to find a patron or two. Basically, this meant that you had to convince the folks around you that your work had a social value worth supporting. This model has its problems to be sure, but it does encourage artists to create for the community instead of slipping into the sickly green, but highly fashionable, narcissism that has so discolored the tradition as of late.
Students: Is piracy a problem for you?
Steve: Piracy is a problem for me, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m an older musician and my audience is generally older. Most of my fans understand that it costs money to make music and are quite happy to pay for what they use. I really don’t think there are many people out there pirating Steve Bell music. The problem for me is more indirect.
Let me explain:
Because of widespread piracy, the record companies, in order to entice people to buy music again, have significantly dropped the prices of recorded music. Ten years ago most CDs in Canada sold for $20 or more (before taxes). Now most CDs are selling between $9.99 and $14.99. As a result, independents like myself are forced to drop our prices as well. Music has been de-valued in people’s minds and they simply won’t pay more that $15 (at the most) for a CD. The challenge for me is this: CDs cost more than ever to make, yet the cost of living and touring have increased, but I have to lower the selling price of my CDs to match the market.
Another by-product of piracy is that with the loss retail sales revenue, musicians are forced to be out on the road more to generate income. We have noticed it is getting harder to get communities to commit to concerts simply because there are too many of them. So, another by-product of Internet piracy is that there is increased competition for the live concert stage.
Students: One of the good things about the internet is that struggling artists can get recognized. Do you think we should be able to access their work?
Steve: I should first challenge your initial assumption (that because of the internet, struggling artists can get recognized.) This is true in some ways but not in others. The Internet is wonderful in that I can get my work to the public easily and inexpensively – and I don’t require a big record company or retail distributor to do so – but it creates a problem as well. Because anyone can get on the Internet… everyone does! There are so many artists, all trying to get noticed, that it is almost impossible to get attention without resorting to gimmickry or spending enormous energy creating attention-getting campaigns (which most often don’t work).
But back to the question. Yes, I think it is wonderful that we can easily access artists’ work. I regularly put songs on the Internet so folks can listen. But I have a right to do this because it is mine to give away as I choose. But it is not yours to give away as you choose. This is an important distinction. Marketers have been giving away product samples for years! Last year I was walking in downtown Toronto, and there were bubbly young people everywhere giving away samples of a new chocolate bar. I tasted it, I liked it, and now I sometimes buy it when I want something sweet. That’s good marketing. But if I would then break into their warehouse, steal a bunch of bars and distribute them among my friends, I’d be arrested and tried as a thief… and rightly so.
Students: Why do you do what you do?
Steve: The simplest answer is that I have to. The impulse to create and communicate what I’ve created is extremely intense for me. It feels like I have to do it or I would shrivel inside. But I also do it because I believe I’m supposed to do it. I believe that God has gifted me with music because music is one of the many ways God loves the world, and that I (among others) have been set aside to express this particular kind of love. Btw, I also believe that you have been chosen to express some aspect of God’s love. And I really do think that people are happiest when they discover how it is that God wants to love the world through them, and then order their lives accordingly. It’s not the same way for everyone – and for some it’s more glamorous than others, I suppose – but only on the surface. I’ve met people who, when you are with them, you feel happy; somehow special, uniquely loved. It is their natural gift to make you feel that way. They’ll never get paid for it – they will not likely become famous because of it – but the world is a better place because of them.
Students: What do you think about S.O.P.A.? (Stop Online Piracy Act)
Steve: I haven’t read the act personally, so I can’t say anything of value about this particular legislation. But I worry about a society that has to debate whether or not to allow one person to steal from another. Only a society in serious moral decline would even have this conversation.
In civilized society, it is generally allowed that if one person conceives of a product and invests in its production, they have a right to compensation from those who would use it. The whole economy is based on this premise. If Ford motor company conceives of a car called a Fiesta, and invests money to turn that idea into a reality, it is widely accepted that I should have to pay a fair price if I wanted to have one. Now… if suddenly it was discovered that there was a way to turn a Ford Fiesta into digital information that could be sent across the Internet and reformed in multiple places… should the car then be available for free?
Students: One of the things that we are looking for is perspective. Can you see that some people think that piracy should not exist now?
Steve: Let me restate again that in some cases making music available for free on the Internet is just good marketing. But only the owner of the product has a right to make that call. Piracy is piracy. A society that wishes to remain healthy and viable over the long haul needs to guard and protect the basic building blocks of healthy economy, which include rules of fair play. Personally, I don’t actually think legislation will stop piracy. But like any law – it reinforces the values of a good society. Ask yourself this: Is it, or is it not ok for someone to simply take what is not his or hers to take? If not, then S.O.P.A. is an important reminder for a society that seems to have forgotten what made it prosperous in the first place.
Students: How did you choose to become a musician?
Steve: I initially worked as a musician because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life, and making music seemed like a fun thing to do until I figured it out. When I was in high school I always assumed I’d go to university and get a degree in music education. I was a pretty good trumpet player and thought I might make a good high school band teacher. But by the end of grade 12 I knew that wasn’t for me. I started playing in club bands and really enjoyed it but mostly considered myself to be a hack. I wasn’t in the same league as the musicians I routinely worked with, and so I thought my music stint would be short-lived. I wrote a few songs back in the day, but for the most part they weren’t very good, and I was happy to ride the coat-tails of others whose work and abilities I admired.
By my early thirties I still hadn’t figured out what it was I should be doing, but playing clubs was beginning to wear thin. Nanci and I had three small children, and playing six-nights a week, year-in and year-out, didn’t make for good family life. Depressed and defeated, I decided to quit music and look for something more reasonable for a man with family responsibilities. Ironically, within a few months of quitting, songs suddenly started pouring out of me… literally. I wrote more songs in the few months after “quitting” than I had written in total up to that point. Around the same time, an old family friend encouraged (and paid for) me to record the new songs, resulting in my first solo project. I started getting invites to perform the music, which eventually blossomed into a full time solo career. What is interesting to me is that having a solo career was not something I ever even dreamed of having. It simply wasn’t on the radar. Go figure.
Students: How did music become important in your life?
Steve: I sang one Sunday in church when I was a little boy. I can still remember the song, “Nearer My God to Thee,” a beautiful and delicate hymn. A woman in the front row wept through the whole song. This puzzled me. I later asked my Dad why the lady had cried, and he told me it was because the music was doing something good in her. I was mystified by this, and have been so ever since. A few years later, my sisters and I sang for some prison inmates on Christmas day. Christmas Day is not a happy day in a federal prison. I remember inmates sitting bent over with their faces in their hands, and I could see tears splashing on the floor while we sang. Again, I was utterly mystified by the power of music. I have never lost that wonder.
Students: If you weren’t able to be paid for your music… would you still make music?
Steve: Oh yes. I just wouldn’t be able to attend to my craft the way I can now. I am quite aware how fortunate I am to do this work vocationally. And I’m grateful that people still value music at some level. I’m grateful for the friends and patrons who get behind what I do. And I’m fortunate to live in Canada, whose citizens collectively believe enough in the arts to make grants available to people like myself.
I am a blessed man. And with that comes the challenge to understand that I have been blessed to be a blessing.
Having said all that… I’ll leave you with a song… for free 🙂
Good Friend | Steve Bell
Lyric adapted in part from Richard Wilbur’s poem Mayflies
On somber night
When shivering clouds bemoan
The aching of souls alone
Then stars appeared
One arc of their dance showed clear
And glittering song intoned
Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
Along the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
And honour God who formed our home
When sun is low
Bright bands in forest glow
Fair fiats of love;
See shimmering flies
in their quadrillions rise
Weaving a cloth of gold.