Welcome to my home on the internet

I live in New York City and I play, write, arrange, and produce music for myself and lots of other people. I spend quite a bit of time in Austin, Texas, and travel around the country with various groups. I've contributed performances, compositions, and arrangements to recordings by bands like Snarky Puppy, Okkervil River, Bill Laurance, Nelo, and many more. My band is Progger.
For booking, lessons (in person or via Skype), or questions, send an email to proggermusic@gmail.com.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Creative music as an end in itself, and the challenge of making it sustainable

Sipping a pre-packaged “Starbucks Iced Coffee” bottle from a Love’s station in eastern Arkansas while sitting in the middle bench of a twelve-passenger van being driven down Interstate Forty by a world-class drummer seems like a great time and place to write my first blog post in nine months. The world-class drummer is Daniel Watson, and sleeping in the passenger seat to his right is Matthew Muehling, one of the most remarkably resilient and hard-working humans I know. And I know some remarkably resilient and hard-working humans. These are two of the best people with whom I could possibly be sharing a twelve-plus-hour van trip from Nashville to Austin. 

The end of a tour, even a short one, is usually when I do a lot of reflection on the state of my own life, career, creative goals, friends, and family. This past week was an overwhelmingly positive one, although not without some significant challenges that were made much more manageable by the presence and help of some really fantastic people. More on that later. 

The big questions I’ve been asking myself— and my trusted collaborators— this week have all had to do with the sustainability of an ambitious creative project. Throughout the existence of Progger I have always been at peace with the fact that I will probably always spend, rather than make, money on it. I would love for it to become a sustainable, full-time, and maybe even profitable venture, but the most important thing about it is that it realizes long-time creative dreams of mine on a level that exceeds any satisfaction I ever could have asked for. I’ve found a dream team of musicians to play my weird music and we’ve found some people around the country who seem to want to hear it. That in itself is worth spending money on, forever, if I can do it. 

My top musical and logistical collaborator for this and our previous two tours, Melissa McMillan, feels the same way, as far as I can tell, and I think that’s why we work well together. Our mutual love of animal GIFs doesn’t hurt. But ultimately Melissa’s creative ambitions are laudable and her output is insanely high-quality, some of the best music I’ve ever heard or played. A tiny fraction of the people in the world who SHOULD know who she is do know who she is, and that, too, is worth spending money to change.

As my friend Brad Williams recently put it, we exist in a music industry environment where— at least as far as up-and-coming creative artists go— the tours serve as loss-leaders for the records and the records serve as loss-leaders for the tours. Any freshman business major at UT will tell you that this is an utterly unsustainable system. Musicians and other artists have the burden of creating the demand for their own supply, and while it is certainly possible to accomplish, it is extraordinarily challenging. 

On top of the already expensive, exhausting, and logistically challenging nature of touring, there are also the unfortunate eventualities that a band simply has to deal with sometimes. Yesterday, on the way from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee, our van blew a radiator hose. Fortunately, it did so very close to a mechanic, so we were able to get it repaired safely, but it took a long time and we were an hour late to our first set in Nashville. Our hosts at the venue, the Basement, as well as the band with whom we shared the tour, Dynamo, were gracious and easygoing, and we made it work, but it added stress to the day. It ended up being a great night of music anyway. 

In Dallas, our venue with whom we had been booked for months emailed me four-and-a-half hours before our load-in time to let me know they wanted to cancel the gig for reasons I won’t go into here (I do not believe these reasons to be legitimate). It was, again, extremely stressful. Fortunately, a friend of Melissa’s, Frances Jaye, found us a great alternative venue, Cafe Salsera, who were gracious and supportive, and our friends in Dynamo were able to provide the sound system that the venue didn’t have. Mark Lettieri’s trio joined the bill and again, after the dust settled, it was a great night of music. 

If it hadn’t been for the strength, resourcefulness, and generosity of many people— Dynamo, Frances, Melissa, Mark, Wes Stephenson, all my other Progger brothers and sister (Julia)— things could have been depressing and bleak. In the end, I think we ended up playing better and more inspired music as a result of it all. Mark Lettieri’s set in Dallas, for example, blew my brain to pieces in the most enjoyable way that a brain can be blown to pieces.

After four years of doing everything ourselves, Progger is finally getting some much-needed help from Ropeadope Records, which is a fantastic label owned and staffed by genuinely good people. I still don’t plan on making any money on Progger for a long time, and I will continue to do all the other freelance music work I always have to keep things going, but at this stage in my life there’s nothing I would rather spend money on. This quick tour of the South that Melissa and Dynamo helped make happen ended up giving us all some much-needed encouragement and has made me all the more excited to finish and release this album of new music, our first ever on a proper record label, and has also gotten me excited to start booking some new performances around the country for the year. I think this is going to be a very big year for Progger and for the music industry as a whole, at least in our genre, whatever that may be.

To my dear friends and musical compatriots— Melissa McMillan, Matt Muehling, Carter Arrington, Daniel Watson, Julia Adamy Pederson, Mark Lettieri, Wes Stephenson, TaRon Lockett, Sean Giddings, Paul Deemer, Ryan Connors and all million of you Dynamo dudes, all our friends and family and supporters— thanks for doing what you do and fighting the good fight by creating good music that stands as its own worthy end in a confused, confusing, and utterly challenging industry.