“Everybody’s scrambling a little bit, trying to be on the cutting edge — but the edge is pretty dull right now,” says String Cheese Incident keyboard player Kyle Hollingsworth, offering his views on the shifting structure of the music industry.
In wary contrast to SCI’s typically sunny, bluegrass-sprinkled technical proficiency, Hollingsworth’s prediction outlines nothing less than the annihilation of commercial music.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s happening,” he admits. “I’m personally not involved, but I can see what’s going on. Record sales are way down for every artist out there. … I get a little frustrated, because this is the way we survive.
“Luckily, we have a strong following, so we can play live shows — but what if musicians aren’t making money off records any more?”
Hollingsworth is referring to a peculiarly opposing — but especially timely — pair of music-business woes: bands whose CD sales are hurt by free music downloading, and those groups who suffer from major labels’ rigid, increasingly outdated contract structures.
“If there’s no money in it,” he continues, “they’re going to have to be doing other jobs. What, some musicians just aren’t going to exist? What’s going to happen?”
Then, with a laugh, he offers this: “Some of the musicians of the future will also be lawyers or carpenters!”
The keyboard player goes on: “The days of the superstar are coming to a close, in my mind. [Young jazz saxophonist] Joshua Redman and I were discussing it over dinner the other day.”
Hollingsworth acknowledges that fewer superstars won’t necessarily impact his already-well-established band. But he suggests that a change in what dreams are possible, how high you can reach and what you can accomplish, will subtly alter perceptions of music for musicians and listeners alike. Less overall financial viability might have a trickle-down effect.
Getting along because they had to
It might seem surprising that a member of one of the most doggedly — and successfully — independent bands active today would mourn the passing of the superstar concept.
Indeed, both Hollingsworth and bassist Keith Moseley say that all the members of String Cheese resolved to go the independent route fairly early in the band’s career. Since then, they’ve become an encouraging model for small-business success within an increasingly conglomerated and corporate-dominated marketplace.
In a much-romanticized backstory, the band formed in 1993 in Crested Butte, a Colorado ski town that had separately attracted all five members. When the group first came together, ski bums all, they played for free ski passes. But, pre-dating what Moseley supposes may be a new paradigm of self-sufficiency, they quickly grew into a focused, purposeful unit.
“The first intentions we had were just to tour,” Moseley explains. “Along the way, we did a lot of talking to other bands about their record deals, management deals, about all kind of things. [We] determined that, ‘Hey, you know, maybe we want to try to start our own label,’ based on the fact that a lot of our contemporaries in up-and-coming bands were feeling disenchanted with their record deals. We kinda gauged the climate of the industry.”
Arguably, the hidden key to String Cheese’s success was the way they were able to distribute extra-musical labor evenly within the band — an extreme rarity among musicians, and a strong suggestion that today’s musician requires a more holistic skill set to survive, including not only business acumen but also interpersonal skills.
“[Guitarist] Billy [Nershi] was working in graphic arts before the band,” Moseley explains. “He designed the band’s first T-shirt. [Percussionist Michael] Travis did a T-shirt design, so those guys have always had a hand in the artistic designs [since then]. We scraped together the money to record our own first album — borrowed from relatives and friends, recorded and produced it ourselves.”
Michael Kang, SCI’s celebrated mandolin player, “also has a really shrewd business mind,” Moseley adds. “He and I did a lot of the booking in the early days, before we hired on [management, booking, publicity and design firm] Madison House. I think we were all independently minded.”
And the sense of an approaching career deadline had much to do with that.
“We were all a little bit older when the band started,” Moseley confesses. “Most of us were in our late 20s … so we were really determined, businesswise, to make it work.
“We invested money as soon as we could into a sound system that we carried in our trailer with us. We bought an old ski-town shuttle bus, ripped the seats out and built bunks in that, and drove ourselves all over the country for about three years in that thing.”
Slaying the corporate dragon
Never mind Hollingsworth’s dark vision — Moseley expresses hope that other bands will follow SCI’s work-intensive lead, rather than be led astray by traditional dreams of getting discovered.
In additional contrast to Hollingsworth, Moseley still views the Internet as a blessing, not a hindrance, to struggling bands.
“In some ways,” says the bassist, “I think the music business is starting to go the way of small businesses, with people starting their own labels. … Technology is coming around to where people can record their own albums and make them available and market them on the Internet.
“The whole existing paradigm of big record companies,” he says, “is crumbling and changing. In some ways, there are more opportunities than ever for people to put out their own records. Certainly, it’s not an easy road, and it’s an uphill battle to get exposure for a band.
“But because of the Internet and people’s accessibility, there are ways now to get your music out there without ever signing a big record deal.”
More and more veterans of the major-label system will attest to the estimate that, for every 10 bands a big company signs, they intend to put their resources behind only one. Given rampant inefficiency, bloating and mismanagement of funds, the appeal of signing with a major for their supposed marketing muscle seems long outmoded.
“So few bands get signed,” says Moseley, “and, frankly, most of the ones that do don’t end up going anywhere anyway. They get an advance from the record company, they’ll make one record that doesn’t sell well, they get shelved, they don’t get tour support. … More often than not, I think a record deal ends up breaking a band.”
Either way, a group as resourceful and industrious (not to mention scrappy and resilient) as String Cheese shouldn’t have much to worry about.