Jer Coons | A New Music FormulaJan 21
Contributing Writer : Rashon A. Massey
Some people will tell you a record deal is essential. I am asked more times than I care to remember, “How do I break into the music industry? How do I get a record contract?” I compose my patience and ask them basic questions we can ask any thriving musician of today: Do you have a MySpace? Facebook Fan Page? Twitter? Have you begun creating a video series on YouTube, even if it’s as simple as a video blog of you writing your music or trying to get shows?
In a lot of ways the basic, grassroot workings of the music industry haven’t changed much. Breaking a hot record today is the same as in the days when the DJ’s ruled the radio airwaves (remember AM and FM?); however, now you don’t even need to pay them under the table anymore. Thank heavens! And don’t seriously pay radio any real consideration because most of them have pre-programmed Top 40 tracks they must play, and the good ones committed to sharing good music are being dropped all the time. I know firsthand since I was dropped from a local NPR affiliate in Michigan.
In fact, I feel today it’s easier to break a successful career because the power and potential is truly in your hands. If you have talent, even something just good enough (as raw as it may be)…you’ve got yourself a career for there is a niche to market your specific artistry. Think of Justin Bieber or Janelle Monet three years ago. Oh you can’t? Because they didn’t exist to you yet! That changed with YouTube accounts. Their lone perseverance to building an online fan base caught the attention of larger acts, distributors and labels such as Usher, Justin Timberlake and Diddy of Bad Boy Records.
With American Idol still churning a mammy-made, pop formula of discovering and creating faces for modern music, emerging talents like Vampire Weekend, Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, Chromeo, My Brightest Diamond, Amanda Palmer and most indie artist aren’t cutting a line to hit the chart topping success they dreamed. They are still appreciating steps 1-10 of building a career. Only now they have technological tools, creating a MySpace/Facebook/Twitter/YouTube account, adding friends, uploading new tracks daily, collaborating with other fresh faces, starting their own email list and performing gigs at venues from parties to colleges entirely without the aid of a manager or booking agent.
Taking that into consideration, when I evaluate the music industry of today, I strongly feel that no one is hurting but the record labels trying to make big money by hiking regular peoples ticket prices or attempting to make them buy a new CD for $18.99!
When you have emerging faces like Jer Coons, doing things as we’ll come to remember them as ‘the old fashion way’ of this new century, that is quite seriously all it takes to “make it”.
It wasn’t two years ago when he was just starting at only 19, performing in little-town Vermont and doing his first big interviews with press. The attractive face, good smile, too-cool haircut and warm personality of the young man was winning small handfuls of fans with each intimate performance he gave. With an appeal straight from the pages of a high school yearbook, Jer started beating the block of social networks to crack the glass ceilings of the music industry by essentially giving his music away for free through digital downloads.
At that time, Walmart was slowly realizing iTunes would destroy the last bit of hope that remained for them being the top source of music sales. The paradigm of music began to blatantly show that Lars Ulrich and the music industry of the last decade was too whack to realize ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ [Side-step with me for a moment : I like to think if during the whole Napster fiasco, if the RIAA simply realized they should offer a one-time free download copy of each physical album sold (and a physical copy for a downloaded album), people would still be enthused about creating a tangible album collection. Why? Because when your computer crashes, you're watching dollars flush down the toilet.]
Jer Coons knew the audience his music would appeal towards was going to be the teenage crowd he was just growing out of, so why not connect with those fresh faces; moreover, embrace the new ways to reach out to the digital Teen Bop/Tiger Beat girls of today, while tapping into live performance options like the coffee house and college circuit deemed appropriate for his age and peer demographic.
Jer did nothing but decide to take his career into his own hands.
When I read, listen and discover artists like Jer Coons, I am reminded of the good ol’ Grateful Dead. They never were ones for a record contract, and yet Phil Lesh and the surviving members were headlining ROTHBURY Music Festival in 2009. From acts such as Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) to Umphrey’s McGee, you don’t need a big record deal to have a lasting career in music. You need to trust that if your talent is strong enough you can build your fan base and community with other musicians, market your own career, start your own label and distribute your recordings and become highly successful. Both of those bands are amongst the top American touring acts of 2008 and 2009, and yet, mainstream still doesn’t know about them. The fan base will buy the records if they want; more importantly, they will share it for free to others. Why? Because the RIAA is realizing something that no one has truly considered to be the honest backbone of music.
It is no longer (and possibly never was) about the recorded album. It is the live music experience and reminding fans music is an audible connection to how we feel at a given moment. So why not make it free because Madonna’s music is no more valuable than Jer Coons. What is valuable is connecting with those hands and ears you have introduced each new download to, or in my day, each cassette passed in the hallways of schools. Through those exchanges, you won’t necessarily want to buy the album but you would pay to meet other fans and folk like you to watch that artists perform. Then both sides win! Artists continue to reinvent the experience and marketing approaches to please fans, and we keep paying to be part of the experience. And no record label is profiting except possibly the self-created one by the artist or small community supporting several musicians we love, inevitably giving them foundation to keep giving us a live music experience.
Check out Jer Coons’ music video “Legs” from his latest release and if you’re in Ann Arbor (Michigan), I suggest you stop by the Ann Arbor Folk Festival next weekend (Jan 29-30) where he’ll continue to spread his music the 2010 ‘old fashion way’ : hand shaking, smiling, taking photos and reminding you to check him out the next time he visits town. His approach is the new black, I promise you.