Every newsletter I tirade about something involving life as a traveling minstrel,
sometimes complaining and sometimes waxing philosophical. This year I do not
feel like chewing anybody out-- in fact, I want to thank a lot of people. I
started out as a populist musician, playing for people wherever we were: at
parties, on streetcorners, in taverns- anywhere, paying little attention to
showbiz or music industry concerns. And now 25 years and 4 or 5 thousand gigs
later, not much has changed. I still do some shows every year in the high-profile
music clubs and festivals, but the bulk of my living is made in settings where
the hands of Hollywood and Disney and MTV are far, far away. I still play house
concerts in people's homes, and I play in churches and grange halls and schools,
and I do workshops and concerts in music stores, usually small, privately-owned
shops rather than giant chains. There are a lot of grass-roots organizations
and individuals that put on concert series for musicians like me and my minstrel
colleagues. They are often non-profit operations comprised of a few people (sometimes
just one!) who want to bring some interesting music to their area, and their
enthusiasm in mobilizing listeners and media in their community allows me to
play for some great audiences, with hardly anything between me and the audience.
And I get to play in some really interesting places as a result. I just did
a gig in the Pyramid Room of the Masonic Temple in Reno NV that was sponsored
by Maytan Music, a local music store, and it was a magic room acoustically.
The night before, I played in a Basque hotel in Winnemucca, NV. In Middlebury,
Indiana I play about once a year at LVD's, which is a coffeehouse in a barn
built by Elva Miller, who loves music, and who poured concrete for the floor
and built a stage and a concert room in the middle of Amish farm country. And
if I start to feel weird about playing such humble places and think that my
30 years of music have brought me to playing in a barn somewhere I look on the
wall and see the pictures of the other musicians who play there, and I am humbled,
because they are the best musicians I know. (Ralph Stanley even played LVD's!)
Folks, the big companies are making a lot of money selling something to somebody,
but there are a lot of people out there who are bored with it, and their interest
in the fringe artists is keeping us alive. We have old blues and hillbilly records
not because big companies or governments realized we should preserve this wonderful
music, but because a rag-tag bunch of individuals and small record companies
recorded some of the fine musicians they found and tried to sell the records
to small markets without trying to shape or modify the music itself. The people
are taking care of their own, and as far as I am concerned, the government arts
money and programs, and the large corporate music are almost completely disconnected
from what I do, and have negligible bearing on my art or way of life. They do
not even have a category in the Grammy's where I belong. The Contemporary Folk
Grammy has recently gone to Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Bruce Springsteen,
hardly my peers. I don't show up on music industry radar screens. Record distributors
won't take my artist-owned product, and radio stations are being pounded harder
and harder by professional phone-callers pushing their music, so little guys
like me get shoved farther and farther out of the airwaves and record stores.
But I am still here, alive and well after 17 years of making my own recordings,
and a lot of distributors and stores and radio programmers have come and gone,
and a lot more will come and go while I chug along doing my own thing. And now
we have the internet (see other essay) which is the first leveling of the playing
field I have seen in a long time, and a great boost to us independent artists,
helping us keep our music and tour schedules available to all who might be interested.
The big companies have not found a way to shut us out yet.
I have always felt that the performer and the audience are the essence of it all, and I cherish the fact that I can play my music for attentive audiences of nice people who are looking for something hand-crafted, not brought to them by a multi-national entertainment corporation. It is not very different philosophically from wandering around the countryside with a donkey and a harp like the minstrels of old did, and I like it. (Now we have laptop computers and cell phones and rental cars.) I do not have to watch the charts and the music business and chase markets and try to jump on the bandwagon-of-the-year. I even made a small profit making a CD of 6 &12-string banjo music! Talk about freedom, and not chasing markets. Yes, I sometimes feel like a failure because Hollywood has not called recently, but I am beginning to feel blessed that I have an audience that is enough interested in what I am doing that I can pursue my artistic visions, survive and earn a modest living. There are a lot more of us out there than you think, and I could name a lot of names of truly wonderful musicians who are also working and succeeding in the fringes and shadows of the big business of entertainment.
It's just the way it is these days, folks, like it or not. I don't know if there are very many basketball or baseball players who are world-class talents who are not involved in the major leagues, but I can tell you that in the world of music, the exploitation of artists, marketing strategies, ownership battles and manipulation of copyrights and publishing (which causes major artists to record songs written by themselves or their business allies to keep the lucrative royalty money in-house, thus reducing the quality of the music put on big-name records...), insane tour schedules and corporate constriction of artistic freedom have shoved a lot of truly brilliant musicians out of the big picture. They are teaching locally and playing local clubs and small concerts, and making their own CD's and managing their own mailing lists just like me. If you have not looked closely, I bet there are some players in your town or who are passing through who are good as anybody on earth. There are a lot of us, and we love what we do, and a lot of us don't give a damn who is on the charts, and I urge all of you to think about this and to continue to support me and my fellow minstrels and the grass-roots promoters and radio DJ's and music and record stores who are also part of the Underground Railroad of Folk Music. Buy our CD's and get on our mailing lists and visit our web sites, and we will continue to bring you some honest music, and let's keep the government, Disney and Sony and their ilk from meddling with a good thing. The people have always guarded their own treasures; governments and big business have always tried to pry them away. And the people are feeding and sheltering me and my fellow minstrels, and we appreciate it.
I certainly do.
© 1998 byHarvey Reid
This web site concerns the music and life of acoustic musician, writer & music educator Harvey Reid.
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