David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: Stumptown Comic Fest, business, creativity, opinionphilosophy, @musings info

What musicians can learn from comic geeks

At the end of April I attended the 2013 Stumptown Comic Fest. As a comic fan, I'm a lightweight. I was at the festival to help Mary-Suzanne set up to broadcast live on from the show floor. While I was at the fest, I discovered several things that musicians might take to heart.

While listening to Kyle Yount (Kaijucast) interview Bill Willingham (Fables), a 30-year veteran of the comic industry, I was struck by Bill's observation that "the gatekeepers are gone." Anyone with a penchant for drawing and storytelling can create a comic, post it online, and find their audience. The size of the audience will, of course, vary according to how effective the artist is at self-promotion (a hint for those who have been asleep for the past decade: social media really is important) and how much the stories resonate with the readers.

There are two things to delve into: gatekeepers and storytelling. Let's deal first with storytelling.

Comics are not primarily about the artwork or the paper or the printing technique. Yes, some people might consider these things, but the real value of the comic is in the story told. A comic is defined by its characters, the plot, the subtext and the manner in which the story is revealed to the reader.

An outsider might assume that all comics are about superheroes or teenagers or cats or one of the other familiar tropes. The reality is that there's an incredible diversity in the stories told by comics, both large and small.

Likewise, a casual music listener might assume that all music is of the mass-market, highly-produced variety. The reality is that such music is barely the very top of the tip of the iceberg.

And then there are the stories. Lots of stories. Different stories. Unique stories. Some highly personal; others with broader appeal. But always fresh stories. One thing you don't find in comics is retelling the same story with the same words and different art. There are conventions to be obeyed and canon to honor, of course. Characters may go over familiar ground in new ways; they may meet and resolve similar conflicts, but they don't learn the same lesson over and over unless as a character flaw or plot point.

Music, on the other hand, is strangely incestuous. There's a market for playing other other people's music; the better you are at mimicing the original, the more you're likely to get paid. Tribute bands are near the top of the food chain for the average non-famous working musician. Below the tribute bands are slick cover bands playing regular club dates and corporate events.

Way down down in the muck at the bottom of the musical pond are the musical artists attempting to create something fresh. It's a testament to these musicians' love of music that you see them play in public at all. A typical club date starts with loading a couple thousand dollars worth of gear into your car in the early evening, finding someplace to park, loading in and sitting on your ass for several hours waiting to play a forty-minute set. After that, you hang out until closing to collect - if you're very lucky or very good - enough money to cover fuel, parking, food and beer for the evening.

It seems to me that the music industry has things back-asswards, making a big deal of slavish adherence to existing material while making true creators beg for an opportunity to expose their art. Think again about the comic industry: what would a fan pay for some art-school graduate's tracing of another artist's comic...? [1]

I've been talking about gatekeepers in the music industry for a while. I've been arguing that the internet provides a unique opportunity for musicians to be heard without someone imposing an evaluation regarding the music's suitability for consumption by potential listeners. If you think about all the venues for self-publication (YouTube, SoundCloud, and ReverbNation are just three of many), it's clear that musicians are at least aware of the option.

I'll get back to the gatekeeper riff in a moment. First, a brief digression...

Aaron Duran (writer, La Brujeria) wrote this about one of his experiences at the festival:

One of the most memorable moments at Stumptown came from a young girl today and her sketchbook. Even though I told her I could only write, she insisted everyone had to try. I tried twice to tell her I wasn't good. She smiled and placed her book in my hands, "[I] don't care. Draw." So I drew the worst Medusa ever (theme of the book). She smiled at my art and said I did great and then gave me a roll of Smarties for trying so hard. Then told me to never stop trying. Young girl is far wiser than I.

I mention Aaron's story because it neatly encapsulates the entire vibe of the festival. Artists and fans alike celebrated diversity and enthusiasm for the work. Maybe that's not true of the comics industry in general; I just don't know. But it's certainly true of the Stumptown Comic Fest.

How do musicians behave differently from these particular comic artists and their fans? Briefly, I think, we have a tendency to minimize or ignore the changes afoot in our own industry. Despite our easy access to self-publishing, we still seek out intermediaries to produce, validate, critique and distribute our own works. We seem to have inappropriately strong ties to the past of the music industry: we have a nearly blind faith in the conventional wisdom behind paying our dues, working our way up to better gigs and bigger venues, seeking bigger studios, going on tour and all the other trappings of traditional success in the industry.

It's insidious, really. We like to think that we honor the music, but (for most of us) it's not enough that we play for the sake of the music and our audience; there's always the underlying motivation to succeed by meeting some externally imposed goal. This striving to reach non-musical goals interferes with our music.

In the music world, there's a gulf between professional and amateur musicians. You simply don't see opportunities for professional and amateur musicians to interact on the same footing. Think about that. The music industry remains predicated on a hierarchical system in almost exactly the same way as the sports and entertainment industries: the stars hang out with the stars. while everyone who's not a star has a scheme to become a star. I can't think of a single event in the music industry that corresponds with the egalitarian approach I witnessed at Stumptown Comic Fest, where artists who have huge fan bases share the room, the spotlight and the mind-share with up-and-coming artists without artificially-imposed and reinforced trappings of stardom.

Neil Young said (in his biography, "Shakey"), "There is no best in music." This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Music is an artform, just like the visual arts. There's art (and music) that I like, and that I don't like. Whether I like or dislike certain music is, depending upon my perspective, either a failure to comprehend or an expressed preference. My (lack of) comprehension or preference has absolutely no bearing upon the intrinsic value of the art (or music).

Unfortunately, we - as musicians - are incredibly susceptible to hierchical thinking. We want to know our position in the hierarchy. Who's better than us? Who's not as good? Who's authentic? Who's a poser? Who's innovative? Who's a slave to the past?

We worry so much about how we fit, and pay so much attention to what others say - not even about us personally, but about the attributes by which we identify our place in the hierarchy - that we sink our time and energy into our identity rather than our art.

Perhaps I'm mistaken about the world of comic arts. Maybe the Stumptown Comic Fest is a microcosm. If it is, it's a very desirable microcosm. Kudos to the festival organizers for creating such a supportive and inclusive experience. What can we, as musicians, do to similarly break down the barriers that isolate us from one another?

[1] I'm told that there is a market for "fan art", not widely represented at Stumptown Comics Fest. It's not clear to me what the parallel would be in the music world; the fan art interprets and adapts existing characters and themes. Perhaps jazz would be the best musical analogy.

June 24 2013 03:02:30 GMT