Charlotte & George, an online British-French children’s fashion boutique based in Paris, opened its virtual doors in mid-2016. This past October, C&G’s owner Sarah wrote me seeking to use my track Since I Heard The Sun off Almost X (bandcamp | freemusicarchive) in a video showcasing a new “magic raincoat” they carry. Designed by British fashion house Holly & Beau, the coats change color in the rain (the “magic”). Sarah found my track via a Creative Commons license search (all of my music is licensed cc-by-nc-sa), requested permission for commercial use and made a lovely gesture asking whether I wanted compensation.
So what’s it worth?
I’ve been asked more than once, “Why aren’t you famous?” All I can do is shrug. Sometimes I answer “Because I’d rather you pick up the next round”; other times “It’s a punishment for refusing to use google as a verb.” The question I most get, though, is “What do you do?” I’m on the more weightless end of the what-you-want-is-in-the-limo success scale.
I’m obscure, not unknown is a fave affirmation. I’ve seen my tracks travel the world, and the simple release of a song has seen positivity and stories come back at me from strangers in random wonderful ways. But obscurity also means anyone’s finding my music, let alone spinning it, still isn’t a rational event.
So when people take time to let me know why or where or when they connect with a track, I’m always a bit mystified; not because someone thinks the track is supercalafradulous, but because my track must have been so supercalafradulous and the timing so right that, for a few minutes, all the clutter of this life faded away for someone listening. When that happens, I am allowed to know someone felt what I felt as I wrote and recorded. I am allowed a crystalline connection between a perfect-something I wrote and a perfect-someone-else. For un-perfect flawed me, that’s the songwriting drug right there.
But what’s it worth?
Now, Almost X was my 10th record, and the last few years have been good. I’d been interviewed on NPR, made some best-of lists and connected with a slew of wonderful people who found meaning in my songs. That said, any indie self-released-one-horse-town knows your value is only as high as your last work. And let’s just say my 2015 record Sunrise Highway, well… underperformed. Whether that was fair or not, I’ll leave that to you, but it was loose, fun, full of crashing guitars and contained a few favorite songs that I finally recorded correct. But for some unknown reason(s), the record didn’t take as well as its predecessor, 2014’s sprawling clawing-at-the-world paean to justice, rights, escape, and love Particle Theory, which all my other records will always be judged against (a happy admittance). Sunrise Highway song There Goes The Sky ended up on some compilations and got a bit of airplay, but still, when Sarah’s note arrived, I had just released Almost X amid thoughts that maybe my recent successes were not a launch pad, but rather the world giving me the signal to stop — to go out on top, with my boots on.
Needless to say, my music almost never buys dinner. On the one hand, this is a liberation — I get to make whatever music I want. On the other hand, however, I’m hungry. The most difficult aspect of creativity is to keep any judgment on your art’s value to the world at arm’s length from any value you assign to yourself as a person. Asking me what my work is worth always ripples waves of confusion through me. It’s worth everything and nothing at the same time.
The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.
Alan Watts, The Wisdom Of Insecurity (1968)
In any case, my insecurities notwithstanding (or perhaps with them overarching), I needed to name my price since Sarah actually contacted me about the track’s CC license restriction — most producers don’t. In the last few years, concurrent with my increased (albeit limited) exposure, my music’s popped up on random commercial youtube channels resulting in hundreds of thousands of views for which I’ve gained no ad revenue.
Now, the unauthorized uses do result in other views, more visits to official sites, word of mouth, and search-on-engine action. And every once in a while, a gilded soul will send real money my way via Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, or the “Tip The Artist” link at my freemusicarchive.org artist page. So I let it go. And direct record sales are a unicorn now, anyway. Through recent years most of the hard currency generated by my songs has come from streaming sites like Spotify, Rhapsody and Deezer(!?), in $0.0067 per-stream drips. (Yes, I receive regular accounting statements with line items in fractional cents). As a musician you achieve intimate acute awareness of the concept of a loss-leader, even if you never studied consumer-goods pricing strategies.
Sarah’s honorable request to use the track proved her integrity in this dirty-robot world. I thought about asking for cash, and if she’d offered whatever she believed it was worth to her, I would’ve given her my bitcoin address and left it at that. But, she left the assignation of value up to me, and sometimes there’s more value in being a conduit than a receiver. The coat looked genius.
“I don’t need cash,” I wrote her. “How about one of those magic coats for my nephew, Austin. His birthday’s coming up.”
“A song for a coat,” she chimed back. “That sounds perfect.”
So there we netted out — she was free to use the song and I would receive a “monster magic raincoat,” size 5–6, to give to my nephew Austin for his birthday.
Charlotte & George’s video went out, garnered thousands of views on a couple of platforms for them, and a couple weeks later, a wonderful air-mail stamped package arrived from Paris in time for Austin’s party.
Rain was not falling on the day, but we tested the magic of the coat on Austin in my parents’ living room using a spray bottle, and he loved every second. Now, after wearing it a few times for real, he can’t wait for the next rain. The true magic in the coats, upstream, is in alleviating kids’ fears of inclement weather.
In the Internet’s highwire infancy (often in a 3-page business plan with one positive-linear-sloped graph on page 3), the World Wild-West Web promised infinite direct connections among people outside traditional entertainment, commerce and journalism channels. For artists, this environment promised a new economy around creativity, in which they would gain ever-increasing control of how their work is used and valued.
“Are we there yet?” asked the musician and writer from the backseat in the way-back-when.
“Almost,” said the driver in the now. “But the future present won’t look much different. The old world was not displaced — just given blind spots. We’ll have to get even smarter. Open our eyes and ears a bit wider.”
In this story, I wrote a song and then a few months later the stars aligned to give my nephew a coat. My track became a future present. A fractal of a 21st century creative economy? Maybe, the future’s still here, lying in wait for a watershed. Or maybe just waiting on a magic coat to change your perceptions of the rain.
All the luck and fortune to Charlotte & George. If you’re looking for a well curated collection of kids clothing and a means to support a still-fragile, vital new relationship between art and commerce, they’re one click away.
story mirrored on medium.com