local music

The Problem With Sawyer Fredericks: (Warning: NSFW)

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I was rooting for Sawyer Fredericks. I'm thrilled he won. I am not attacking his talent, his success, or his ambition in the least. If this is what he wants to do, and he's doing well with it (as he obviously is), and (I hope) having fun, more power to him. This is NOT an argument about that. And this is not about raining on the parade of seeing upstate NY in the news for positive reasons. (And fair play to him for wanting to get back to the farm - I definitely can't blame him there!)

But I was pretty disappointed amidst all the cheering and voting and support for Sawyer to see so many people only coming out of the woodwork to support a local artist once they were famous on the national stage. To those of you who were so suddenly and enthusiastically cheering for Sawyer in the finals of The Voice, who might be thinking, "Wow! Who knew there was such talent in our little upstate NY?" Well, obviously not you, since if you supported the local music scene before it gained notoriety on TV you might have noticed there's actually quite a lot. Sarah Craig did, when she booked Sawyer for a night at Caffe Lena, just like she's done for hundreds of artists in various stages of their careers, including Yours Truly 20 years ago. And it's thanks to the numerous supporters (and you know who you are- thank you!) who have come out to my shows for two decades, and many other artists' shows, that have allowed so many of us on that stage to continue in our musical careers to many other stages, and for the Caffe to keep running continuously for 55 years- the longest running folk club in the US to do so.

"Buy Sawyer's music on iTunes- it counts as a vote!" That's great. And if you buy another local musician's music on iTunes, it counts as groceries. Or gas. Imagine how much richer our musical scene would be if artists who haven't gotten the press that Sawyer has got that level of support.

(And just in case this is starting to sound like sour grapes, I have no desire whatsoever to appear on The Voice. If someone were to offer me a chance to appear on The Voice, with a guarantee that I would win, a million dollars, and a record contract, I would turn it down. Because shows like that do not encourage the taking of artistic chances, which I think are necessary for growth in any medium. (And given the restrictive nature of many of the contracts those shows offer, I would argue exactly the opposite. Hell, Kelly Clarkson just got free of her American Idol record contract- this year!))

It's just a pity that it takes a national talent show/three ring circus to draw attention to local and regional talent. It's a pity that that's the definition of musical success these days. It's a pity that kids think that that's the way to become a musician now. What about the artistic icons that probably would never have made it onto those shows- either because stylistically they weren't the commercially-viable material the producers may have been looking for, or because they were too challenging or weird, or because they weren't the best singers? I can think of a lot of names that might apply: John Lennon, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bikini Kill, Prince, Nirvana... you could keep going in this vein for a while...

Speaking of Nirvana, I think Dave Grohl put it best: “When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and… then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fuckin’ good enough.’ Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! …Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.”

But what you DO need is a local scene that supports musicians enough to eke out a living while they're doing that.