What’s in a Name: Part 2

While I do some editing on these posts, they are largely stream of conscious essays in which I write what I think and feel about the issues I deal with being a niche independent musician who is self-managed and self-booked. Recently I’ve been reviewing  my blog posts, and I’ve noticed an undercurrent of frustration and anger, and much of it is something I’ve already discussed: naming the genre of music I play. Back in May I wrote a post titled “A Rose by any other name: Or What’s in a Name?” It’s hot linked so you can read it yourself, but the gist of it was a rant showing my frustration at my largely failed attempt to be considered a folk artist.

As I say in that post, I’ve always wanted to be thought of as a folk musician. Why is that important to me?  At this point I’m asking myself the same question.  I know much of it stems from the ‘facts’ of my musical upbringing where folks like John Prine, Steve Goodman, James Taylor and Jackson Browne have more to do with my picking up and playing the guitar than Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, or Alex De Grassi ever did.  And I’m almost entirely self-taught. I’ve had less than 10 formal guitar lessons. Those origins are about as folky as you can get. But I’m learning that where I am and what I do now is more important than where I’ve been in the past. I have to act on the former not the latter.

What I’m now coming to terms with, is that it doesn’t matter one iota what I think my music is or should be called, it’s what you think it is and the name you and venues and radio put on it that’s important. Since I took my sabbatical from national touring last fall to heal, I’ve worked very hard to get booked in and become part of the folk community in New England.  And what’s happened has been both a huge rejection and big time affirmation all in one. I’ve met with music managers, venue and festival producers, radio folks, and fellow artists; all with an eye on trying to make the bulk of my concert appearances at what would generally be termed folk venues: think the church coffee houses series, Club Passim, The Ark, Swallow Hill Music, venues like that.   Without fail, all of the individuals liked my music: some enough to pay for a CD when it would have been freely given. Some of these folks have come to my concerts and paid to get in, because they love what I do and want to support it.  Several have booked me in non-folk gigs. But neither will they book me for a concert in their folk venue or festival, nor will they play me on their radio shows. None of that is an indictment of my music. None of it.  Again, they all dig the shit out of it. They just don’t see if fitting on their platforms with their patrons. Ouch, and thanks a lot.

I had plans to attend several Folk Alliance regional conferences this year and next as well as the National Folk Alliance in February but I’ve tabled those. Hell I haven’t tabled them. I’m walking away.  It’s not where what I do is going to work, so there’s no reason to invest time and money.  At this point the best advice I’ve gotten is to pursue performing arts centers through APAP; an organization that works with Performing Arts Centers throughout the US. I’ve got some friends on that side of the business and it can be wonderful, but it’ll also be a huge, long-term investment both through time and finances. It will also require me to present myself in an ensemble more often than not. Performing Arts Centers are driven by grants and most of the grants want ‘boots on the ground’ type of shows in which a soloist like myself just won’t be booked very often. If you’re only presenting 4-9 shows a year those organizations have to make the best use of their grant money. This means I’m beginning a search right now for local/regional musicians with an eye towards presenting at APAP in January 2016 at their national showcase, as well as looking at regional showcase opportunities from late 2015 on.

As I’ve focused more on how others view my music I’ve discovered some things to me that I find astonishing.  Most folks think of me as a classical guitarist. Not folk, not new age, not even modern the way that Andy McKee is considered. Classical.  I am absolutely bumfuzzled that people see me and my music in that light, but that’s because I know the whole story and they don’t.But I get it now. I play with my fingers, hell my nails, which is a very classical approach to the guitar.  I have a thick tone and I’m known for being both a clean and ‘fluid’ guitarist things ascribed to classical. For most of the past 20 years I’ve played guitars with slotted pegheads-a visual cue to folks that I’m playing classical.  Then there’s the fact that I play sitting down now with the guitar on my left leg, another visual cue to the audience that I’m a classical guitarist.

And then there’s my music; while I will never back away from the fact that the melodies I write are folk in nature, so are the ones Bach and O’Carolan composed, but no one would call what they do folk music per se.  It’s more sophisticated, more complex and more demanding of the player. And when asked folks don’t necessarily think my music is classical either; I’ve heard folks say it’s ‘more fun’ than classical, and it’s not jazz either as what I do is ‘easier to listen to’, or so I’ve been told.  No one has offered a good one word answer so I’m still having issues with what I’m going to call my music. As I listen to my music while I play it, American Baroque feels about the most honest name for what I do. Of course that’s not a genre either, but neither was Bluegrass until Bill Monroe pulled that one out of his hat.  But we all know what it means now.

I still have pangs about walking away from pursuing folk gigs, I so love the audience and the singer/songwriter friends whose careers I’ve modeled mine after. But I’ll just put on my fan hat and go see them, as I know they’ll follow me to whatever venue I’m appearing in, even if they are different.  Sadly, I still think that using any word in addition to music to be silly and confining, that is the way the music business works; names are important.  So, please do me a favor and start using American Baroque to describe what I do and maybe it’ll catch on. Bluegrass did.

At this point I’m reminded of an old saying “Seek the truth for the truth shall set you free.”  Even if I don’t have a name for what I do, I feel like I’m closer to my truth as an artist; and that will always be a work in progress.  And that’s what the video performance is about; it’s called Freedom written after an epiphany I had many years ago while living in Black Mountain, NC.  I hope if you’re struggling with some truths of your own that this blog post and the video help strip the veil for you; they’ve helped me get some much-needed clarity.

Cheers, kb

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