Portland singer-songwriter Rebecca Gates will soon release her first solo album in over 10 years (she occasionally talks about that here), but the ex-Spinanes frontwoman would rather talk about surveys than new tunes. One survey, in particular: The Future of Music Coalition, an organization she works for, is attempting an ambitious project to identify US musicians' revenue streams. It may sound a touch dull, as causes go, but Gates—who was preparing for tour when we talked almost two weeks ago—is very excited about the project. And when she explains it, it's hard not to get a little excited. When the FMC compiles its data, it will be able to paint a portrait of US working musicians and just how they are carving out a living in a changing industry: The kind of research that's usually done by suits who are only thinking of a certain kind of artist. The FMC's survey, then, promises to teach us music geeks (and, of course, working musicians) quite a lot about the state of not just the music industry but the music makers themselves. If you are an active musician, you can take the survey here any time before October 28. The talented Rebecca Gates would ask you to please pass the link around if it interests you.
Gates talks about the survey, Portland, Lady Gaga and the Benjamins below. If you want to know more about the survey or the FMC, email Rebecca yourself! info [at] parcematone [dot] com.
WW: When did you move back to Portland? How long have you been back in town? RG: I
slipped back into town May of 2009. I drove up from Phoenix without
sleeping and then played with the Minus 5 at Mississippi Studios the
Right back into it.
And I think the first time I saw you back was on stage at the Aladdin
Theater with the Posies. And that must have been 2010... That was last winter I think....
Oh yeah, time flies. So you jumped right back into it. I always made a point of it to come back.
How long were you here before? I
went to junior high and high school here, then I left for awhile and I
came back and I was here for probably nine years and then I was in Chicago
So it's home? Yeah, it is home. I find that I pine for a couple different places. I love the snow. I love waking up to snow.
Does Portland feel a lot different this time then it did your last stretch? Yeah,
that's one thing that's really fascinating and great for me is that
it's a really completely different city. It's still got the core
recognizable elements. My friends that I've been coming back to visit
are still here, raising families, but yeah, it's really different and
it's funny because I had this beef when I left. I left for a lot of
reasons, but one of the things I noticed was that people were moving to
Portland for the quality of life without contributing to it. That just
seemed like, "oh my god, this is going to be the end of it." And it's so
nice to come back and there's a ton of people here who've moved here
because of what Portland is and they're completely contributing to it. I
think the craft museum is incredible and I'm a huge supporter of the
cycling community here. It's a really interesting, dynamic city.
And you've been in places that are cool cities. I
was going to say I've been lucky, but I've been smart. I have to say I
spent 2.5 years going between Marfa and Austin. And New York. And I
spent a lot of really quiet time on the coast of Rhode Island. That's
where I wrote a lot of this record. I love that part of the coast so
much. It's really rural.
Rebecca Gates and the Consortium in NYC, 2010
Can you explain the Future of Music Coalition? Future of Music Coalition started 10 years ago—actually 11 years ago at this point—and it came out of [Washington DC based label] Simple Machines. The simple machines was Tsunami's label. It was basically Dischord [in one building] and then 10 blocks away was Simple Machines—so where as Dischord took more of the punk and hardcore, straight edge stuff, Simple Machines was more like put out girl groups...more of a teen beat crossover that Mark was doing up in Maryland. At some point, Michael Bracy, who was not a musician but a music lover who worked in political science and government [got involved]. So they all lived in DC and there was no group representing musicians other than the RIAA and Don Henley and all of that on the Hill. So it's kinda like—there's all these musicians working in this independent scene, what if we could actually put together a group? And that's how FMC came together, and it actually came together specifically around Low Power FM and trying to get that passed in Congress, to keep community radio and to keep radio open, which is a huge charter.
They were trying to get new stations? Low Power FM is sort of a small broadband. If you envision radio as just circles, Low Power FM is smaller, so it's not pirate radio, it's not community radio, but it's basically this way to not have it be like FM or academic or church affiliated. And after 10 years that finally passed last December. Basically, because I knew those guys, I was aware of what they were doing and I thought they were doing really great work. Then I finished up curating a sound exposition in 2009 and I realized I wanted to finish the record that I had started and I wanted to play music actively at least for a while and part of that was bringing advocacy into that. So I basically called FMC and said, "I'm leaving Texas. I'm going to go back to Portland. Keep me in mind." So I've been escalating my volunteerism and this year I was put on contract and was a consultant for them for this revenue survey and I did that for the first 7 months of the year. So I'm going to the summit next week in DC. It's in DC every year. It's two or three days. This year it's two days, and it's basically a really interesting group of people—government, musicians, tech people—we just got the final lineup for the panel I'm on and its everyone from REM's manager Bertis Downs to Bryan Calhoun, who's director of Sound Exchange; me; Rick Nielsen, who is going to be at the summit because Cheap Trick and their management have been really active in a lot of advocacy. Ozomatli [will be there] but then also the director of copyright for the Obama Administration, so it's super interesting. I love it.
So it's a way for you to make music a full circle kind of thing? Music is invading every aspect of your life. I know, right? I think that's the thing. When I stopped playing music, I worked in the contemporary art world and I continued to sing on people's projects and to perform at a slower level. But I worked making sound art and editing it and curating it and I loved that and I also worked for my paying job in high-end contemporary art world production. It is interesting to do work and think about work that is actually really woven into my practice and into my community. And one of the things I've been doing is working on translating some of what FMC is working on at a national level and thinking about how to translate that into specifically Portland and regionally Seattle and Portland.
With new organizations? For now it's just a collective, something I'm leading, and trying to figure out how to make that work and how to make it by and for musicians. It's exciting.
So there's already the local music union, is it something akin to that? Or how will it be different? Well, I think one of the things that's really great about both FMC and another organization I work with, San Francisco-based Air Traffic Control, is that they're both organizations that couldn't exist without musicians. That's what they're organizing around, but they're also bringing this whole level of information to musicians in terms of activism, in terms of engagement. It's just a different flavor than a lot of already existing organizations. So for me, working with a survey and working at FMC, is trying to get the word out about things that are happening in other communities and other levels.
Could you talk about the survey a little more and what the end goal is for that, and how you see it helping the ordinary musician? Their focus is on education, advocacy and legislation. If we look at it only in terms of legislation and the fact that we as musicians are affected by the laws of the land, and even things that affect our practice like net neutrality, which is hard to get people fired up about. But at the same time if someone's not working on behalf of independent creatives against some of the agendas of Comcast, then who knows what that means in terms of actually being able to put out your own record.
So it's kind of trying to bring that large abstract into the personal. That's something that FMC is really good at. But thinking in terms of how musicians are making money, how the changes in the digital landscape have affected the practice, for good and bad, those are questions that haven't been answered in a hard data sense. From my perspective, a lot of the conversation and a lot of the media attention is based on the agenda of whatever tech company is looking for backing or whoever can pay for a publicist. A lot of the discussion is anecdotal and it's also really human nature that if a perspective is not coming from a business to say that your own experience is the experience, you know? For me, the question was: Why not fill this? Why not move away from all this anecdotal talk. [Talk like] "It doesn't matter if you're selling records because maybe you can make it live or it doesn't matter if you can't get a guarantee playing a live show because you can sell t-shirts online"...what of that is actually working? There's not even been data put together. If you were a sociologist doing your PHD at PSU and you're interested in music, there's not US data available. So I just think it's imperative because, I think, you know, it takes half an hour and we can get thousands of responses, and suddenly you can look and say, "Oh my god, no one is making money from live music" or "here's how all these different people are working."
We're talking to performers, composers, teachers, or orchestra pit players—we're getting a great feedback from jazz composers and then from a lot of teachers because AFM, one of the main organizations in that discipline, has been really behind it. So we're trying to access everybody. If you're a US citizen, you have to be over 18 and we decided to use the RIAA, the Grammy definition of working musician, which is that you've been on six publicly released tracks.
So that could mean putting it on your website, too...it's still a pretty minimal definition. So you'll have a huge well of data when it's over. How long is the scope of this project? Is there any idea about when it's going to end? Basically, its important for us to gather data that's usable, and it's totally anonymous so that's a huge thing to put out. So we're adhering to straight protocols... we have a lot of people consulting on it, so we have to really establish those parameters.
Basically, there's three phases of it. One is interviews, which I've been doing along with two others: In-person interviews, and occasionally [interviews] on the phone or Skype. The second phase is case studies, where we have asked people to open up their books to us, financially, and then we're making case studies, where we can actually work with musicians, look at their books, so we can actually get the hard data. Because our question for the survey is not are you making a living, but where are you making money? So we're going to get about 25 case studies and that's kind of like 3 or 4 pages each with pie charts and we can look at European income vs. American income, changes as digital platforms of delivery shifted, etc. The interviews are interesting because there's a lot of perception in that. You start really talking to people and they say, "Yeah, technology is terrible. Album sales are down because everybody can just steal it." But then they're kinda like, "Well, all my operating costs are completely gone because I can email and I don't have to send out advance cassettes when I'm trying to get shows, so there's that." And then there's the online thing, which is two months from September 6 to October 28. We got a really good first response, which is great, and now we're like "C'mon, let's go," because we have to close it. Then we're going to get all the data together and it will be available to anyone.
Is it going to be published somewhere in a journal or do you know how that is going to work? I think there's going to be a couple different papers coming out of it. The point is to make it available to everyone, so there will be an online granulated breakout so it's super useful.
So if you're like a 18-year-old kid and you're thinking of being a musician for a living you'll see the pluses and minuses of that career path. Yeah, and I mean it's funny... One of the things we're struggling with now is that it's anonymous and we can't say, "This artist who has her own band and works on other people's music and makes $52,000 a year or $7,500 a year," so it's trying to figure out how not to have dollar amounts tied to it but also be able to represent the story of someone. We're not talking about findings until it's closed, but it's interesting because I can as with any research project, keeping it anonymous yet sharing information, there's some challenges but I think it'll be very useful to people.
In that regard, you're also not trying to grab a certain strata of person when you're pitching this online survey. You're just trying to grab anyone who will participate. Yeah, it was important to reach out to everyone in the community, to reach out to organizations that would put it in the newsletter. We like to reach out to everybody, to different genres and different people. We had a really good response because even though it was anonymous we asked people to say what kind of work they're doing and we had a great response from teachers. Well, that makes sense. Teachers are possibly on the computer more, teachers possibly have a more regular schedule, teachers are part of professional organizations, teachers are used to making deadlines, so it's trying to get out to people who aren't as connected.
What's your personal biggest curiosity about the results of this study? That's a great question. I have massive awareness and resentment toward any broad media or corporate business version of what is for other people, because who knows if it's correct. One of the things that's been incredibly amazing for me is to talk to people and find out actualities and hear other people's stories. We're still early in the results and we can't talk about it, but that said, there's a lot of shifts and it's not all negative and it's not all positive. There's a lot of people making a living playing music and there's a lot of people who've experienced an overall downshift in income. I'm just really interested in that narrative. One of the things in getting a survey together is how to you phrase questions, because one of the most interesting things to me is the "failure" stories. And for me as an artist it's nice to see that there are ways of doing business that are creative and appropriate.
Right, and I guess that's another thing the results could open up for people...seeing other ways of doing things and operating as an artist. Yeah, I mean we chose 25 different kinds of musicians and we established 29 revenue streams for our study. I have not had one musician yet who's said, "29?! Wow." I start breaking it down and they're like "Oh, yeah, yeah..." It doesn't mean you're getting a $10,000 check from every revenue stream.
So that could be from t-shirt sales to getting a commercial, soundtrack... It could be that you contributed a song to an independent film, or wrote a song for an independent film that was produced in CA that got picked up on Serbian television and you're getting royalties from Serbian television. Or you sold a t-shirt to someone at a show, marketing branding, ring tones... because we're looking at the last five years. It's a no-brainer, but it is really amazing how there's different issues around money. There's a whole philosophy around indie rock that you're not really supposed to make money, right, or talk about it, or think about it, whereas a jazz player is not supposed to get more than $50 a gig, really, whereas there's other genres whether you're doing studio recording as a classical pit player, in which case you're getting union pay, or you're in in hip-hop or something like dance culture, which has no problem talking about the money. It's just about where you're coming from. If you think about lyrical content, there are not a lot of rock songs about "the Benjamins." The other thing that's interesting to me is that there's so much business based around music and so much technology...is that benefiting musicians, is that benefiting artistic culture in the US? Those are super important questions to me and I think a lot of people aren't considering it. I think we can at least get conversation started around that through the work we're doing.
I've been talking to artists about these streaming sites like Spotify and Rhapsody and what the financial realities of those sites are for an independent musician. And it's really nothing, unless you're Lady Gaga or something. It was actually really interesting to me. Lady Gaga said that she got paid like 50 cents for selling 4 million hits or whatever [about $100-$200 per million plays of hits like "Poker Face" -Ed.]. So then when she came out with her new record, she did a day exclusive with that company, and I thought, that's sort of weird. I think that we sold maybe 35 digital downloads of all of our records in one quarter, so as the primary songwriter I'm really pulling in maybe 10 cents.
The Spinanes, "Lines and Lines"
It's not a huge royalty check coming your way or anything like that. It is a shift, and it's a shift we have to look at in terms of do you want people to make money playing music? A lot of people don't think you should, evidently, which I have issue with in terms of labor practices.
You mean from clubs to labels to... ...users downloading from Spotify. I haven't had anyone in a clothes store let me come in a take a sweater recently. Someone made the sweater, someone's selling it—so there's a lot of conversation to get into it, and I think just getting articulation around it and actually some information. A lot of clubs aren't giving guarantees now and so it's an interesting time. One of the main things for me and my scratching around advocacy, both with and outside of FMC, is that we live in a time where music is incredibly culturally valued. Ad campaigns are built around it, brand identities, personal identities. It's such a crazy disconnect for it to have less and less economic value. That's not to say that people aren't spending a lot of money on music—they are—festivals are happening, and obviously through our survey we're learning that.
I wonder what your take is on Kickstarter. I hope it works. I'm trying to figure out how to release my record right now. I know it'll be out at the end of February but whether its with a label or self-release I haven't decided yet. And I need to decide soon. I hope people like Kickstarter, because if I'm releasing it myself I have to use it. I'm happy that it's there. I think it has really big implications culturally that need to be talked about, but as a tool it's a big great thing. I mean, people make fun of it and call musicians lazy. But anyone can come to my house and see how hard I work on different things and how hard I work at my paying job. It's just a really interesting emotional mind field to navigate for everybody.
So before Kickstarter, if you were going to put out a record yourself, you would just go into debt basically and then try and hope that you can make it up down the line. Yeah, credit cards, family...I mean, banks aren't giving loans. Kickstarter is basically a really smart bank loan. It's people saying "we're going to support your project, we want what you're doing, it's not at all ephemeral or theoretical." That's one reason I didn't put out a record forever. If I had scads of cash laying around I would have put out something by now.
I was going to ask you that because you're on a pretty long hiatus here until the new record comes out. Is that the financial realities of putting out music? Is that a major influence on your not putting stuff out? Yeah, I mean there were a lot of reasons why I quit playing and a lot of reasons why its taken me a while, once I decided to do the record, for it to come to fruition. Money was definitely a part of it. One of the reasons I stopped playing was because I was working too hard and not making any money. I was managing myself, I was paying everyone I was playing with and not nearly enough and I never paid myself. I had just come off a Stereolab tour, like a dream tour, I was playing with a great, amazing band, and I was just like, "You know what? I can't do this anymore." For me, at that point, it just meant I wasn't doing my work well enough, and that's one reason why it took me a long time to come back to it. It really took me people being like "Your work is good. You can't tie money to it. It just doesn't make sense," which I knew conceptually...
And you've always done really well critically so there has to be a disconnect to do that great tour that you really wanted to be on and come home and look at your bank statement. It's gotta be pretty nuts. Yeah, and that's pretty common. I think that there's not a lot of cause and effect in the music business and I wanted to shift to a world where there was more cause and effect: [where] you do really good work and people like what you do and you contribute to a larger goal and you're compensated. But I just realized I'm a lifer and I love playing. I've been creeping back a little bit and partially because of that creep back I got a call opening for the Decemberists, total last minute call, in 2005, and that was like, "Oh, I know how to do this?"
I was super fortunate I was doing a lot of different work and I was living in New York at the time and met a lot of people and expanding my knowledge of options for myself, culturally and artistically, and then standing on stage solo in front of 2,000 people. Most of them had not heard of me, and I was not getting booed off the stage, and I was like, "I like this! I know how to do this!" Playing has always been fun and there's different ways to strategize business with playing, and I'm not sure how well I possess that skill. I'm finding it out again now.
But you're probably learning a few tricks... Yeah, I think the thing is I started defaulting to only doing the business. I actually like organizing, I like marketing, I like thinking about whats useful for listeners, I like making things. I'll get off on that. And then I'm like, I'm opening for Ryan Adams in three weeks and I need to finish that song. And then you start playing the guitar and do nothing besides playing the guitar.
I would imagine you wouldn't want to mix those two mindsets too much either. Is that tricky? Separating the creative process from the business aspects has got to be a kinda tough balancing act. It is a balancing act. I think there are a lot of people struggling with that. I'm really good friends with Erin McKeown, and we have very different careers, but we talk about that a lot. How much time to you devote to that? If someone doesn't want to manage you, or if someone is not offering you certain things, does that mean you should continue? How do you shape that? And we're both fortunate because we have that skill and that intelligence. But the other side of it is what happens when you have a musical environment where the people who are benefiting from it are people who can work in it—are computer programmers, are smart people—are DIY people who can do their own business and do the music. So for me, I like doing both, I kinda need both, but if I'm writing, I'm a total space cadet and if I'm on business, I have eight thoughts in my head right now. So that's fun but also, sometimes you need to be doing both. But then there's the culture aspect... Would the Ramones make it right now?
Right, if they were huffing glue and making their songs and not thinking about their marketing campaigns... And you know they're amazing, so the answer is your hope that raises to the top, and yes. And a lot of times when you have someone who doesn't really give a shit about the business, people will step in. I think part of the thing that's interesting for people like me is that people are like, "You've got an idea. You're good." For me it's a lot of trying to bring creativity to the business, which is not always easy. That's one thing that's amazing for me in being back in Portland. I mean, I was really fortunate, I lived in Marfa, Austin, New York and Rhode Island—places where there's a lot of really smart people playing music. But there's just a really special community here. It kinda crosses genres in a way and crosses families and it crosses straight and queer and male and female in a way that a lot of communities don't. So it's really inspiring for me to come back and work on things here and it's also one reason I feel very invested in working with this stuff with FMC and working locally and you know, right now, from locally up to nationally, we have an arts friendly administration and that to me is really exciting. It's that thing: Who's your community? What's your culture? How much do we support each other? What do we make?
And at the same time, all these problems we're talking about are woven in in that same fabric. I mean, I've been playing off and on for a really long time and I've never handed in an album to a label or a publicist and not have them say, "well, it's a really weird time in the industry right now." So that's really important to remember, too. It's a very young industry. It's a very young discipline. It's going to be changing.
Can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming album? This is your first recording since the Ruby Series EP? Yeah, the EP came out in 2001. I can't even believe that I couldn't get a new record out before the 10-year mark. That's so depressing. That's what happens when you consciously stop playing, I guess. Records don't come out. I toured through the end of 2001 on that and I started writing again when I moved to Rhode Island which was January 1, 2003, and then I did a little bit of recording in Chicago in 2004 and then shelved everything. So there's four or five songs that were written then and the rest were written after.
So you recorded everything more recently than that? Yeah, I did two days recording at SOMA and then I did dates with Califone and then I did some stuff with Mark Greenberg, who's worked a lot with Wilco and Andrew Bird. He was in the Cocktails and he's just a super genius of men. And that was all tracked and then I guess I ended up going with four songs from that week and two of them were mixed in the last four months. A lot of the challenges that I faced were time and money. I was very fortunate because basically a friend of mine was like, "What do you need to finish this record?" And I was like "this much," and he was like, "Here. I want you to have this done. It's a great record, and it needs to be finished."
Is there a spot for that on the survey? [laughter] Yeah, patron! It wasn't even that much, but it was totally welcome and great. That's what Kickstarter and those things are for. It was that chance to be like you get a project to a certain point. and I was also very fortunate. I wouldn't have made the record without engineers asking me to record in their studios because they thought I should make music. I've been really blessed in that sense and I've worked with amazing engineers and musicians on the record. It was not hard to let go of. I was very happy that it hangs together. I know that people are like, "There's no such thing as an album anymore," but I wanted it to be an album and it's always been thought of as an album. I think it sounds great.