THE TEN COMMITMENTS FOR INTEGRITY AS A MUSICIAN IN THE MODERN INDUSTRY
MY TEN COMMITMENTS AS A MUSICIAN
By Johnny Saint-Lethal
After reconsidering the reasons that drive me to be a recording and performing artist in the sub category of Rock Musician, I need to Pledge to myself, and to others, how I plan on using any success that comes my way… should I be so fortunate to have success on any level that is relevant to others.
You may also take this pledge… but it doesn’t matter if no one cares, or if no one else adopts this… Because I’m doing it for me. For what is right. Because that’s how I was raised, and this is how things should be. But if even 10% of independent musicians adopt this, we could make quite an impact. There’s more of us than there are of the big boys and girls behind desks in air-conditioned high-rises. Let’s remind them of that fact.
I make Pledge I-X:
I. To always give credit where credit is due: To sound crew, road crew, graphic designers, artists, producers, engineers, the label, friends, fans, believers, lovers,… and so forth… to the people in the industry that otherwise get overlooked for their precise talents.
II. And about those believers…. Those “fans”…. I pledge to never be above them. To consider them family rather than just our audience. To make every night an uplifting celebration, and as healing as possible. To not separate myself from who I am, where I came from, or where my fans are… Just because some nights I might physically be three or five feet higher than them on a stage, to never look down on them. To never see them as consumers… And with every concert, we’re just all at a house part of various sizes, and it’s simply my turn to talk when I’m on stage. And while this doesn’t mean I can meet every person, or become “real” life friends with everyone… while I’ll need privacy, that when we are all together in the same room…. Even though I might not ever meet anyone I’ll make sure that they know I love and adore them… through my effort and actions…. To never make them feel as though they have to adore me… to make sure that they know we’re all equals. To always respect our fans, and, from this point forward, to always respect and here my advisories when they have a point, and to graciously ignore them when the time is right.
III. To never use music selfishly. Music is a gift given to us, whether we are the listener or the music-maker. It should always be used to uplift, encourage, motivate, empower, empathize, and/or raise intelligent discussions. It should NOT be used for the sole intention of profiteering and selling products, which would contribute to the selfish side of society. It is not wrong to profit from your own art, but if in its creation your only motivation is for financial gain, then the music itself is bankrupt from its inception. We should love people and use things, and no the other way around. Music is a bridge between what we’re feeling but can’t put our fingers on, and its listeners.
IV. To use ANY fortune that I DO have with success, whether it’s a hit song… a contract, a great concert, a well-sold tour, high-publicity interview, charting album, and so on…. To spread the word of other hard-working and deserving bands who need a spotlight turned on them. I will always take someone up with me. I will not try to piggy-back on others. I will not be a climber. Yes, this is the general cornerstone of this thinking… but it needs its own article, just so that I am perfectly clear. The word ‘any’ is important here as well. We must always stick together. The majority of the music industry is currently comparable to the British Class System in days of yore. Many smaller labels and independent bands are fighting this. And it’s finally, after the past fifteen years, really beginning to move like never before. Artists are able to make the albums they want to make… with integrity. Don’t tell us we aren’t ever going to change anything. What I want out of this is a fair shot for all the artists to get put in front of larger audiences who can decide for themselves if they like that particular artist or not. Don’t tell me that “New Slang” by The Shins or “Familiar Theme” by Somos or “Car” by Built to Spill or “Red Eyes” by The War on Drugs (and so on and so forth) didn’t “deserve” to be #1 on radio… But even so… it doesn’t matter. Those bands all build something real on their own without the current Major Industry System Sentiments (MISS, as I’ll call it). And as it stands, most of the public relies on MISS to deliver the message of new music… Top 40 radio, major labels, etc. A lot of these people would enjoy and welcome a change. Even the indie bands that have gone major have left us, many getting pulled into the sleek and posh slick sound instead of sticking to their own sound for the sole intention of reaching more people, instead of relying on their artistry alone. It’s a broken system… the MISS system. With more successful indie bands will come more indie labels, which will give birth to more indie radio… and more venues… and, of course, a larger independent audience. Build it and they will come… and they have been coming in droves. Open your eyes, MISS… here we are. And we will be heard. That’s not a threat, it’s not a promise. It’s a fact. You’ll be on the wrong side of history if you try to desperately grasp the throats of the few artists you have and push out the ones who don’t have immediate dollar signs painted on their foreheads and gold teeth gleaming and glittering and reflecting in your eyes. There will come a day soon… a new independent radio takeover… on the FM, on the Internet, from satellites… where the majority of people do not listen to commercial radio. Where they want to hear a hundred new singles added every week instead of a dozen. 360 and 360 that won’t exist. To the “pop” artists that are creating material of substance: Don’t let your single just become a commercial for the album, and your album a commercial for your tour, and your tour just a commercial for your merch, which is born to perpetuate the cycle. Country radio is destroyed and watered down. Rock radio is destroyed and watered down. Every format is ever-moderating to the center of an abyss of the ever-sought-after “accessible” sound. Fuck accessible. I think most of us got in this because we felt like individuals who were being hampered down in school to be cookie-cutter-castrated like everyone else. And in the greedy search for validation and vindication and financial gain from your art, some of you have willingly, if not knowingly, slipped back into the assembly line. Put on your uniform. Grab your time card. Hold out your hand for the cough-up. And call your lawyer to squeeze out the rest. That’s NOT what I signed up for. And MISS has missed the mark with the Listener, whom they only view as a consumer. What kind of music will warrant a specific golden advertising platform?? Me, I’m not cynical. I am informed. And if I were cynical, I would say “the war is over, they have won…” But they haven’t. There’s more of us than them. They’re armed with greenbacks and office space. But we have the songs, we have the vision, we have the melodies. They’re the lure… with their gold… they’re the ever-present serpent. Whereas we are the pie-eyed pipers… the only ones who can truly lead people to a promised land of new music. And don’t get me wrong… for as many cogs as there are in the MISS MACHINE, there are plenty of people within the MISS industry who LOVE music and just want to try to get the true talent into the business. And yeah, there’s a place for pop and dance and mindless fun… but when it’s becoming the norm, we have a problem. The true misfortune is treating the Artists like a box of cereal and the listeners as purely a “demographic”. They’ve dumbed them down in their own minds like cleaning aisle products at the grocers’…. Not given them enough credit. In reality, the listener is as important as the musician. And therefore, they deserve to know all the options and explore new music in a setting created in the vein of that very freedom of choice, instead of limitations. “Here’s our limited menu… it’s after midnight… you’re a bit too late to the party?” No more. Instead of worry about profit, MISS needs to start being more concerned with quality. Instead of marketability, they need to concern themselves with originality. People are demanding more, as the accessibility of modern technology comes around full-circle.
V. To use whatever platform I am fortunate enough to have responsibly. Being a political band is a niche… something that shouldn’t be expected of anyone. But there is a fundamental and obvious difference between wrong and right, one that we are born with innately. And most of us are in bands because we weren’t the celebrated jocks and preps in our high schools. Most of us were never in a majority group. Most of us always had a feeling that we belonged anywhere but where we were… anywhere but where the world wanted to place us and make us fall in line with. Most of us created our own songs because no one else was singing them. And when we see social injustices, whether it’s racial, homophobic, trans-hating, class warfare, animal cruelty, unfair profiteering and gouging vs. fair business with integrity, etc… it is OUR responsibility to take a stand without the fear of consequences. Because doing the right thing, the good thing, will always have some repercussions. And they are always worth it. Nothing is worth the hollow void of doing nothing but serving one’s self. Again: Love People, Use Things. Don’t Use People and Love Things. A lot of us were bullied in school… or had friends that were… and nothing changes out here in adult world. It only gets worse… like a disease of disregard for the human condition. And when given the chance to be proverbially be that Senior that sticks up for the bullied Freshman, I will take it every time. Because passing on that opportunity would make me no better than the people causing the problem. And while I can’t be there for every instance, I will play my part. Because playing a part is better than doing nothing at all. Standing up for what is right is NOT political. It is our human responsibility. And as musicians, we get a larger platform and a louder megaphone than most people will, and we must not remain silent on our current affairs. We won’t change the whole world… but we can always change the world FOR others.
VI. So when it comes to my career, with every opportunity that I get, I must use them to help my peers. I don’t care who is selling more records, whose shows are sold out and whose aren’t, etc…. I do believe us all to be peers. Equals. With unequal opportunities and fortunes. So instead of reaching out for immediate benefits in popularity and finances, I will always see how my opportunity can also extend an olive branch to other hard working artists I know and respect. Spreading the spotlight to other worthy musicians instead of hoarding it in hopes of selling as many records and as much merch as possible. Build it and they will come. We will trust our music to sell itself… we will trust our fans to carry the banner. And we, in turn, will turn as many people on to new underground music as possible.
VII. Whether I stay on an independent label, or sign to a larger (or even a major) label, my first and foremost concern is keeping the independent musicians, labels, artists, and their supporters on the front burner. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not an elitist, nor am anti-fame, anti-success, anti-arena, etc. You can achieve great success, and do it with integrity. You can work with big publishers, major labels, etc., and do it with integrity. Many people working at certain labels and companies within MISS are, in fact, doing it with integrity on their end. I’m not a cynic about the entire music industry… it’s a broken system that isn’t too far gone. We can fix it, but it’s now or never. So, any tour I might ever be fortunate and successful enough to headline, I must be able to elect our own support. Instead of choosing one that will fill that 3,000-cap venue after we sell 2,000 a night, I’ll pick a newer band that might not sell many tickets with their name yet… and we will play for those 2,000 and those 2,000 will tell everyone of this great new band they saw with us… and they might steal the show and be selling out that 3,000-cap venue the year after… and maybe they’ll remember us! Let’s make the music industry a block of Ma & Pa storefronts that everyone frequents rather than letting them continually proverbially build Walmarts over our blocks.
VIII. In addition to the reoccurring theme of spreading the word on underground music, I vow to help utilize new and up-and-coming producers and engineers with new ideas… not just the artist. And while there might be people in the industry who work well with our music, who are already renowned, and we might work with them, we will still bring in new people so they can also build their resume. Producers and engineers are every bit as a large part of creating and shaping a band’s records and music future as the band members themselves! It’s lovely to go with your favorite producer with a big name. I don’t begrudge any artist that luxury who is lucky enough to do that. But bring in a co-producer or assistant to work on the project. They’ll have invaluable ideas. Make sure they are credited properly right next to the main producer in this case. Or be brave and use a new producer altogether. You think Butch Vig was just created by a computer? No… someone gave him a chance. (Actually several artists did, but Killdozer led to the whole Gish/Nevermind thing, as I understand it…)
IX. I will always laugh AT fame and laugh WITH my colleagues, and never the other way around. I will embrace music and not the things and material rat-racing that devalues its very integrity. I will always ask myself, “Will this better people other than myself if I do it?” They want me endorse some floppy new stupid hat? Well, if I like the hat and some money goes to charity, or I can wear a band t-shirt of an underground band when I do it… I might consider it. But I’m not doing anything solely for my gain. I’m not writing songs to sell cars and build houses that I need to hire a cleaning lady to clean because it’s too big for me to take care of when there are homeless starving people in the world.
X. It is a selfish, lonely, and irresponsible to be in a band if we don’t build a scene. It should be left to that one sentence, and that should be left well-enough alone. Go out and see other bands and performers in your town, no matter what level of success you, or they, have achieved presently. Become friends with others. Spread the word about who you see. Take others on the road. Return any favors that have been given to you. Pay it back. Pay it forward. Are you worried one of your fans might spend their only on another act that you introduce them to instead of you? Good. Let that drive you to make ever-improving art. Let that drive you to perform a better concert, and to serve as a constant reminder to give your ALL every single night. Some of those fans gave all their spending money and then some to buy your record and come see you… give it back to them tenfold. Being the isolationist is not the solution. Unite we stand as we pollenate the music world… As elitists, separately, keeping to ourselves? Then all we are really doing is rubbing one out…
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-Johnny Saint-Lethal, THE SHOW