Saturday, October 31, 2015

America's Music Venues Shutting Down ...

This weekend a wonderful performance venue in Lexington called Natasha's Bistro will close.

And it's a shame ... for an American hometown ... for the music scene ... for the arts in general. And I suppose there will be future conversations about what went wrong ... was the service bad? too slow? Was the menu not right? too expensive? Was it bad management? The music format?

I know for a fact that Art, Gene and everyone at Natasha's tried their level best to make that place work. They bled for that place. Picking apart the possible reasons for the closing completely misses the point of what is actually happening to venues nationwide, not just Natasha's Bistro.

The bottom line is this: America has become a venue starved nation.

Many great venues across America have closed the past couple years. In nearby Louisville alone: the Rudyard Kipling, Jim Porters and several others have shuttered their doors leaving the music public and the artist community in their wake.

In Lexington, my hometown, there are a few new venues coming soon and that is good. Not to be an alarmist but from what I am reading in news stories these venues will fail as well. Why? The cost of opening, the massive investment people are making to open the doors, is un-recoupable in the current music environment.

The world of the arts has changed, my friends. And whenever an arts endeavor launches as a "money enterprise" it is doomed for failure. That sounds anti-capitalistic and I don't mean it that way. Music venues can thrive, flourish and make a living for many good folks ... when it's done right. My point is the business plans most are using, for the arts, are all wrong.

One change that is needed desperately is regarding the BMI/ASCAP/SEASAC, called "Performing Rights Organizations" or "PROs", licensing for performance venues. These agencies do wonderful work to collect royalties for artists to live on from radio airplay, live performance of songs and more. We need both PROs and venues to be healthy and productive. It works like this: PROs charge the club or coffeehouse licensing fees to host performers to play in their establishments and, in turn, pay royalties to the artists who have their songs performed in those clubs.

Fact: Most artists who play 200 seat or less venues don't see a penny. I'm not picking on the PROs here, just stating a brutal truth.

For the venues, these fees are often too high when weighed against the income potential of the room, so they shut down or cancel their music presentations. This leaves the artists, the very ones BMI and ASCAP are trying to help, with no place to work. No place to test new music. No place to sell their CDs. No place to earn a living.

Venues are the gateways between artists and the audience, the venue operators are the soldiers in the war to find that audience ... and the current business model is killing them off.

Little clubs and coffeehouses are like the farm system of a sports team. As I said, very few of the artists who perform in places 200 seats or less see a nickel royalties from BMI and ASCAP. Even tiny 30-40 seat living room concerts are charged hefty fees by BMI and ASCAP just to let artists pass the hat to play.

Here's the reality: Only until an artist finds their audience and can draw 1000 people into a theatre do they register on the BMI/ASCAP royalty richter scale.

Like many of the venues themselves, BMI and ASCAP are using an old world business model that no longer works. As that model fails, they try harder to enforce and collect fees from venues, forcing even more clubs to shut down or stop presenting live music.

My proposal:

I urge BMI and ASCAP to consider a new business model, one that will not only keep venues open but encourage more venues to present music, giving more artists a place to play and find their audiences.

For many reasons it's unreasonable to penalize/charge the venue for the songs an ARTIST chooses to play, anyway. So, I propose changing from venue licensing to ARTIST licensing.

ARTISTS: If an artist plays mostly small rooms, coffeehouses and non-ticketed events like farmer's markets and does, say, 5 cover songs in their set, they pay $75 a year for a license. The money is split between the PROs. If they play mostly cover songs, $150 a year. With an ARTIST PERFORMING LICENSE they are clear to perform anywhere they want. Just show your card and jump onstage. Done.

VENUES: If a non-alcohol venue of 200 seats or less wants to present music, or a farmers market, school, house concert, benefit ... no fee. NO FEE. Done. That's it. Artists simply need to show their current license to play and that venue is in the clear. If the venue serves beer and wine: $200 a year. Full bar: $350. Done.

Here's why this works:

An artist would gladly, GLADLY pay the fee knowing that instead of three clubs in town there are now 15 or 20 places to play. They have increased their business 20 fold. Because the business model works for the venue, more operators would get the simple music license. More stages will open up. Artists will have more places to perform and find their audience. And OMG the venue will be more likely to actual PAY the ding-dang artists.

And, if you do simple math, BMI, SEASAC and ASCAP would be rolling in cash. A revamping of the current model based on the realities of the new business environment of the music world will work in their favor. For every one venue there are 100-200 artists in that area that would stand in line ready to get their performing license. If the PROs do this they will be encouraging and stimulating the farm system nature of small venues. The need to do this. How on earth can a small artist find their audience to begin playing bigger, better paying venues when you are part of the reason so many of the venues they need to find that audience shut down?

As Donald Trump would say, "It will be Yuge."

To be clear, BMI and ASCAP are not the reason Natasha's shut down. But they are, unintentionally, part of the old system that is shutting down and discouraging so many venues and artists.

We need venues. We need BMI and ASCAP. We need them to do well.

Even more, we need art and music to thrive in this two dimension digital age.




Saturday, October 10, 2015

The SongFarmer Album

So, I decided I want to record another album. It's time. And I have a passel of songs that are ready. I'm simply in a puzzlement as to HOW to do it.

Years ago it was the norm for an artist to spend $20,000 or more in a studio with great musicians, carefully laboring over each song, making each note and inflection perfect, making each song mix the best possible. Then taking the finished work to a mastering studio, refining every audio wave and EQ so the album will stand the test of time ...

... only to have most of your fans listen to the thing on a $9 set of earbuds while on a treadmill in a gym. Or in a car going 70 MPH down the interstate.

It is part of the demise of the record industry. Records are, essentially, gone. Record stores are gone. Record companies are folding. For the most part artists sell the bulk of their CDs at their own concerts and live events, not stores. So, if we look at the situation honestly, record labels sign the biggest customer of their own CD when signing an artist. So why be part of a record label and give away all your equity? It makes no sense.

Even worse: we are living among the first generation of human beings that hear music as a flat screen, digital two-dimensional experience. They don't even get to hold a ding-dang album jacket anymore (that's why, if you are fortunate to have a hometown, indie record store, support them. Don't get your music from websites when you are one of the precious few with an actual record store).

HERE'S A PAINFUL FACT: nobody listens to albums on stereo systems anymore (this is not a reference to LPs but to the entire recorded project, whatever format). Oh sure there are exceptions, but the truth is most folks listen to music as crushed low res MP3 files on smartphones in crappy ear buds with little or no sonic quality to them while jogging. In short, we have learned to listen to mostly crappy music on crappy playback systems in crappy environments.

HERE'S A SECOND FACT: the public is not only getting used to the lower quality playback of music, they are being conditioned to hear only singles from a project. The MP3s are loaded into their phone and are played on shuffle ... one song at a time. Kind of a personal Pandora playback. It leaves visionary artists in a quandary as the presentation of a concept album - a full musical cycle like Pink Floyd's The Wall or the Beatles Sergeant Pepper - has become extinct.

HERE'S A THIRD FACT: music is as much visual as it is audible. As the idea of physical records die, so dies the majesty of the album cover. Holding the album jacket in your hand, reading the lyrics as the album played drew fans deep into the magical world being presented to them. The current two-dimensional music world is shallow by comparison. The problem is folks only know it if they knew it from before. Fans today don't have a clue of this because there is an entire generation of humanity who have grown up experiencing only the flat digital experience of music.

Think of what is really happening: they are emailed a MP3 of a band from a friend, Google the band, YouTube the band, iTunes the band then download the band. They've never even seen the band live. Who could have predicted just five short years ago that record store chains would collapse nationwide and Cracker Barrel would become one of the biggest retailers of CDs in America? And to make matters worse, fans have gotten used to getting music as free MP3s.

It's gotten so wacky that new cars don't even have CD players in them anymore, just a USB port.

So here's what I'm doing: the SongFarmer album is being recorded in the same format the public is being trained to listen on: an iPhone.

Which, oddly enough, isn't all that bad.

The iPhone is a recording platform that far surpasses what the Beatles recorded Abby Road on. I'm using a special hi-end mic made for iPhones and iPads by Apoge, a special recording app for iPhones (no, not Garage Band) and using my artists cabin as the studio, which has very beautiful acoustics and a warn, natural reverb. Wood tends to help with that.

And heck ... since most folks will end up hearing the ding-dang thing for free I might as well record the ding-dang thing for free. 

The SongFarmer album is a folk album, performed in single takes with just my Martin 0000-28s guitar and long neck Vega banjo. New original songs like Hippy Luv, The Coin, Rainbow Wife and traditional banjo songs like Little Maggie are included. There is little-to-no editing involved.

I like the songs a lot and will be including the long story song Pamper Creek. I wrote the lyrics while living in Mousie KY after seeing the big Sandy River flood between Prestonsburg and Pikeville. I asked a fellow how high the flood waters got and he said I would be able to see myself by wherever the Pampers where hanging from the tree limbs. It's sort of a modern day Appalachian Alice's Restaurant.

The album has a more important use, though. It will introduce the fine efforts of the WoodSongs Front Porch Association to media and radio stations around the world. We call our WFPA members "Song Farmers," thus the album title, and members will get a free copy of the physical CD when they come to the big WoodSongs Gathering Sept 23 and 24, 2016 at SHAKER VILLAGE near Lexington, KY.

The album should be finished and ready for release to radio early spring 2016. In the meantime, join the WFPA, get free tickets to the Gathering ... and a free SongFarmer CD. Visit or call 859-255-5700 to sign up.

The mission statement is: To gather the global community of front porch minded musicians, bring roots music education into school free of charge, and enhance communities by redirecting the energies of local musicians.

Keep visiting the SongFarmer page for updates, pics and a diary of the album progress. When it's ready the first single from the album Pamper Creek will be, drum roll please, downloadable as an MP3 for free.

Then you can listen to it on your smart phone with crappy ear buds while jogging :)

Michael Johnathon
Folksinger - SongFarmer

Thursday, September 24, 2015


SongFarmer ...

It's a great word. Much better than "folksinger" or songwriter or performer. It is a poetic way to describe someone who uses their music to plant artistic seeds in their communities, their families, their careers.

We call the members of the WFPA "SongFarmers."

Here's why:

When I was creating the WoodSongs Front Porch Association (WFPA) I was trying to provide an alternative to other great efforts like the Folk Alliance, the IBMA or the Americana Music Association. These are music business trade groups that try to help musicians, record labels and agents connect to enhance the artist's careers. The WFPA doesn't complete in any way with those very fine folks. Heck, I'm a member.

Problem is, if I can speak plainly here without sounding like I'm pointing fingers ... there is no music "business" anymore. Not for the tens of thousands of small artists playing at farmers markets, retirement homes, small noisy clubs, schools and front porches across the land. Records stores are essentially gone. Record labels rarely sign artists, if they exist anymore at all. Booking agents don't take on many new artists because so many venues have shut down they can hardly keep the artists they have working no less a new act.

Small, talented, sincere songwriters, performers and artists are then asked to pay for association memberships, conference fees, travel, hotels and meals ... often $1000 or more total ... to attend a trade organization event where they, if they are lucky, end up showcasing in front of other anxious artists who wish they had your time slot. And instead of being helped to understand what to do with a garage full of unsold CDs in a world with no more record stores, you might be treated to a two hour speech that have nothing to do with music or the issues at hand.

To a SongFarmer, the front porch is as an important a stage as a concert hall. Their banjo is a community plow, their songs are like seeds, their guitar is a hammer and saw. Music is an issue of the heart, not their wallet. They don't make fans, they make friends.

With the WFPA I wanted a new way to reach out to artists in a way that will REALLY help them, REALLY explain the new music world, REALLY point to a brand new direction for their music and careers. I wanted the WFPA to be very cheap (just $25 a year) And to attend our yearly conference, called The Gathering, they get to come FREE. The WFPA needs to be very effective and have a solid, realistic goal.

And indeed it does. Not only does the WFPA offer realistic help to the community of SongFarmers, but we are sending roots music into thousands of schools and home school families with lesson plans. All for Free.

And before all you finger-waggers get started, I'm not putting down the FA, IBMA or AMA. I don't think they are lying to anyone. I do, however, think they are lost in an old business model that no longer exists.

Heck, new cars don't even have CD players in them anymore. The music world is upside down and inside out. Who would have guessed just five years ago that today one of the biggest retailers of CDs in America would end up being a restaurant chain? And, no, it's not Starbucks ...

Artists need to have a brand new outlook on music. They have to have a truthful, painful look at what is really happening out there. They need a spectacular new direction for their music. And they HAVE to learn, as brutal as it may seem at first, how FREE works.

So, this weekend, we will have our first WoodSongs Gathering, a music festival and member conference of the WFPA. We call our members SongFarmers, and it will be at the amazing log cabin village of the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville, TN. We have a spectacular creative board like Art Menius, Kari Estrin, Josh Dunson, Raymond McLain, Doug Oines, Steve Martin (IBMA) Reggie Harris and others helping guide the event, the members and intent of the WFPA. It's the real deal.

SongFarmers are taught the most important rule of the new music world: LOVE is the most important transaction of the arts. It isn't marketing, management, what record label you're on or who your investor is. All of that is irrelevant without LOVE. "Love" makes the world of art work. Think of it millions of people spent a billion dollars on an album, not because it said RCA ... it's because they LOVED Elvis. It's love that makes the audience buy a CD, buy a concert ticket, buy a T-Shirt.

Nashville has virtually lost it's entire music middle class because the bean counters focused on marketing and money ... not love. The only thing ... THE ONLY THING ... the audience responds to is their love for a song, love for an artist, love for an idea.

SongFarmers learn to direct that love in a way that does not focus on money. They focus on their families, their hometowns, their audiences. SongFarmers resurrect the emotional front porch in everyone who hears them.

Just about a year ago, I performed a concert in Winnsboro Texas and two wonderful songwriter friends opened the show, Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne and they gave me a little bumper sticker that proclaimed their lakeside cabin home in Texas an "organic song farm." That little sticker sat on my desk for months and then one day, as I was organizing the WoodSongs Front Porch Association it occurred to me that "song farming" is exactly what we are trying to do. Our members would be called SongFarmers.

I called them up and said would you mind if we stole your word? lol. They said, go ahead, we stole it from someone else. It was so Woody Guthrie:

"Aw he just stole from me. But I steal from everybody. Why, I'm the biggest song stealer there ever was."

I think Woody was a SongFarmer. So was Jean Ritchie and Pete Seeger. So is Rik Palieri, Raymond McLain and most of the music world filled with artists who love playing more than anything else.

So join the WFPA. Become a SongFarmer.
Change your thinking about the music business for the better.
And see the amazing work our members are doing.

The mission statement is:
To gather the global community of front porch minded musicians, bring roots music education into school free of charge, and enhance communities by redirecting the energies of local musicians

Visit or and come to the WoodSongs Gathering Sept 25 and 26 at the Museum of Appalachia exit 122 off I-75 ... sing with new friends among the autumn leaves near Knoxville TN.

Michael Johnathon
Folksinger - SongFarmer

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Don McLean, American Pie and the $1.2M sale of the song lyrics

A long, long 
time ago ...

... a young teenage boy, struggling with events of the day and a relationship with his father, found solice in the music of Buddy Holly. Delivering newspapers for his hometown paper, the Standard Star, he cut open the string holding a stack together. As the papers spilled over he saw, in the right hand column, the headline of his hero dying in a tragic plane crash.

Buddy Holly was only 22 years old.

Years later, as he began his fledgling folk music career, he was living in a quaint, small gate house in Cold Spring, NY. It was there he began sketching out the musical ideas for an epic journey through his own past and into America's future. But it didn't all happen right away. Two months after dabbling with some lyrics, a chorus appeared, almost out of nowhere:

Bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
Them good ol' boys are drinking whiskey and rye
singing 'this'll be the day that I die,
this'll be the day that I die ..."

As the thunder of the song grew louder, Don found himself performing in more cities. He already had one record out and it was time to record his  next. As he was preparing for his second album session, the record label folded and he lost his deal. Believing all will eventually work out, he kept on writing songs for this next album. Then, while in Philadelphia, lightening struck ...

... one of the final songs for this new album was the completion of the song he started in Gate house in Cold Spring: American Pie.

It was an epic rock'n'roll, folk song history lesson that was as much literature as it was music ... and it was over 8-minutes long.

Six weeks at #1, several world tours and many decades later, the news hit this week that Don decided to sell, not the "song," but the original 16 pages of lyrics and notes to American Pie ... and somebody bid an astounding $1.2 million dollars for the honor.

Since then, I've read a couple of critical stories about Don's decision to sell, most offensive was an article in the Washington Post by Justin Moyer. It was uncalled for,  no matter how well meaning he might be as a fellow writer. Heck, the headline referred to Don as "gloomy."

Dude, he just scored $1.2 million bucks. How "gloomy" could he be?

To Justin and any other critic of what any artist does with their property: please be more respectful. I'm sure you're a nice fellow and just trying to be interesting. But you are criticizing someone who has achieved an unbelievable accomplishment. They created something of value far beyond anything you can dream of or do yourself. Why do people feel they need to put down anyone for doing what they themselves can not?

Don McLean owns American Pie. He is the artist who created it. The man has a wife, home and children he wants to take care of and secure their future. I wonder what creation of value Justin Moyer or any other critic has that would come within a tenth of America Pie's value?

American Pie was born out of great heartache and loss, it's birth was staggered and painful. It is viewed as one of the most important songs of the 20th century and deservedly so. If Don chooses to sell the pieces of paper the ding-dang thing was written on, all power to him. He is the envy of every songwriter.

And most of America, while singing American Pie, will never know who Justin Moyer is.

Don McLean did more than the right thing.
He did the thing that was his right to do.
'nuff said.

To all the critics out there, I want to paraphrase Finnish composer Johan Sibelius:

 "Fear not the words of a critic; 
for no one has ever erected a statue in honor of one ..."

Folk on,