Monday, October 25, 2010


Further along the road less travelled:
Re-reading my 'Competitive Music' blog, I realise that, caught up as I was in the throes of maniacal ranting, I left out a few things about the competitive nature of modern music.

Ever heard of SoundScan? If you're merely a music consumer (sorry, fan) you probably won't have, but if you're in any way involved with making and selling music in the US or Canada, you live, move and have your being with SoundScan. SoundScan (just made a typo there... wrote SoundScam and had to correct myself, but what a Freudian slip that was) is 'the official method of tracking sales of music and music video in the US and Canada'. In other words, there's a score-card of every CD or DVD that gets sold, and as an artist you can track your impact on the market week-by-week by checking the SoundScan reports.

On one hand, that's merely an efficient system-within-a-system. It's definitely a lot more accurate than Billboard's old way of doing things, which was to call up stores across the US and enquire about sales quantities. On the other hand, it can lead to something I experienced first-hand in Nashville: feverishly checking SoundScan every week, phoning the record label obsessively for the latest scans, and comparing the latest scans to other artists' in the hope of having outdone them.

What the hell is that all about?

A good friend of mine put out his third album in early 2007, and his website was full of news items about the latest scans. "Good news, fans", he crowed, "our scans are up to 15 000 in the first week! Awesome!!" I also had festival organisers refusing to include us because our scans didn't match some of the other bands.

Popularity is now a quantifiable commodity, and if it doesn't look good on paper, it won't even merit a listen. It really doesn't matter anymore how good or bad the music is on its own. It's all about how many truckloads of shiny plastic discs (or, more recently, mp3's) you can sell to as many consumers.

I sound grumpy. Angry. Sour-grapey. I know it. I just wasn't cut out to compete to the death. I make music because I was just born to. Commercially-viable or not. I don't wield my talents like a weapon over the heads of my music-making colleagues, much less the people most musicians have all but forgotten about: other people. 

More 'Competitive Music' soon. Thanks for listening.
And thanks SoundScan for helping me be better than those other crappy bands.


  1. This may make you less grumpy!.. Why not turn it around & see your music as purchasing people.. not them purchasing your music.. & you measure it by the quality of heart that you are able to capture.. each cd becomes currency that buys a heart or two, or three. ..and a greater more objective SoundScan measures the hearts purchased, & to what detail-right down to that ultimate measure: do you capture your own heart when you play your music. Music is a battle for the currency of the heart.

  2. I, for one, am glad you are making music, whether it was with your former band or your new solo work. Who cares about Soundscan anyway? Well I guess you might have to since you have to pay the bills, but hopefully my purchase of your latest CD will at least afford you a Pez Dispenser.

    From the big town of Marion, Virginia, where the deer outnumber the people.

  3. John, I've been a fan of yours since the first Tree63 album released in the US, and I just wanted to say that you're an excellent songwriter/singer/musician. (Btw, love the new stuff you have posted here, too; though it's a different direction it's still really good.) It is so true that music in the US (and sadly even "Christian music") is governed by whatever they can sell, and not by artistic concerns.

    What makes me really mad is how easily duped Christians are by all that stuff. Sometimes I think Christians have the worst artistic taste in the world. Whatever is bland seems to sell the best, while the really good music is ignored as being too "boring." Whatever. (Maybe that's related to what you said elsewhere about churches not being about Jesus anymore but just about church. But I digress.)

    Anyway, it sounds like you got burned by all that crap, and I'm really sorry. But thanks for sharing your gift with us, because it is priceless. Keep making music, John!!!