Photo by Julian Simpson
These are interesting times for Sweet Billy Pilgrim. In collaboration with Mojo Magazine who awarded it 5 stars and an 'Instant Classic' rating, we're going to give people a chance to download our last album, Crown & Treaty, for free (you'll find the relevant link in the issue that hits UK shops on the 30th of April). It might seem like just another tiny ripple on an ocean of uncertainty into which bands and record companies increasingly desperately throw ideas in the hope that something will float, but to us, it's something more.
Well, it would be - right ?
We're in a fairly unique position as a band, in that we've amassed lots of positive critical attention including a Mercury nomination, whilst still operating - to stretch the seagoing metaphor to breaking point - somewhere so far under the radar, that it's probably actually sonar. Don't get me wrong, we have an amazingly loyal and enthusiastic congregation of Pilgrims (some of whom sung on the last album; some of whom have welcomed us into their front rooms to perform), and we continue to find our audience - and vice-versa - one by one; day by day.
These lovely people are inspiring and often humbling in their commitment to what we do, and in so many unexpected ways have given us what we needed when we needed it, and with it, the will to continue.
But the time comes, as a self-funding, largely self-promoting independent band, when you have to actually be the band that your music (hopefully) unselfconsciously details. Crown & Treaty did beat its chest a little. It did open its arms. People who heard it liked it. Now we'd like more people to hear it.
As an independent band, we don't have a marketing budget; we have word-of-mouth. We do have to think about how we can afford to make another record; how we can afford to tour as a six-piece band when a full-band show costs us anything between £300 and £400 to put on. Every day we gasp at the confident strides artists are making entirely independently of the music 'business'; and rightly so.
But it comes down to finding your audience. If you're lucky, you might already have a healthy number of grassroots supporters from the time when record companies still had strategies for putting your potential fans and your music together. If not, you've got find those people. What we love about what we do is having the chance to connect and share, and if that sounds a little disingenuous, we've been playing together (Anthony, Al and I) for nearly 20 years in parallel with our day jobs, our growing families and other life commitments. In short; we've only ever done this for love.
The difference is that the noise we make now isn't as esoteric or challenging as perhaps once it was. Not because we decided to try and broaden our appeal, but because that's how the songs came out. And so we'd like to find a way to share them with more people. Yes, a bigger audience might help us find a way to fund our next record. Yes, it might help us in being able to perform our music to more people. But more than anything else, it helps us to connect, both to an audience and to the act of creating something we feel is meaningful.
There may be those who question this decision given the ongoing discussions as to whether or not giving work away devalues it somehow. I think we imbued it with value when we made it. We painstakingly pieced it together over a year with careful hands. In all the time we've made music, we've taken no short cuts. We missed nights at the pub; time with family; sleep; job opportunities, and all because we take great pride in what we do. Austin Kleon in his book 'Steal Like an Artist' includes in his list of what an artist needs to 'succeed':
"The secret: Do good work and share it with people".
That's where you find us now. Those friends who have already joined us have been kind and encouraging beyond measure. Those who might join us soon are - to borrow the cliché - just friends we don't know yet. In creating Crown & Treaty with care and love; we gave it value. Once those songs are on the lips and wound through the lives of others; they give it value.
I'm starting to see musicians, bloggers, magazines, critics and DJs moving close together, and it's not a defensive circle; it's a creative huddle. I see music fans moving away from playlists and sponsored links and ignoring the white noise of corporate ads. They're turning to the musicians they like, and those who truly love music to find new things. Mentions on Twitter. Invitations to share stages. Playing on one another's records. Unsolicited reviews. Collaborations. Blog posts. Where the 'industry' is failing, music lovers are finding a way: music is finding a way, and that gives me such heart.
At the moment, that might not pay any of us very much money, but I can't remember basing one decision I've ever made for this band on that consideration. That's the next part of the jigsaw, and it looks to me like it will come via the least contrived and most honest means of all - a direct link to your audience.
Listen to Sweet Billy Pilgrim.
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