In April 2013 I lost my deal with EMI after Universal took over. It was a quickly shattered dream, as my record came out just a few days before the European Courts approved the take over. In fact, I can still remember feeling the remnants of my post release show hangover when my manager called and announced the news with typical Germanic frankness “Ja, Jim so we have lost the deal…we go to pub, take some pilsner and work out what we do next….”
For now, suffice to say, it was a tremendous blow. Obviously every year there are young and tremendously talented musicians who burst onto the scene. But there are also some who get there the old fashioned way of working hard year in year out. The underground is beautiful, but it is also a killing ground. Some of the greatest musicians I´ve seen gave up years ago. It´s not a sob story. It´s just reality that while new opportunities are growing, the last 10 years has seen money in the music industry dry up; and with it the amount of available deals. I´ll be honest – no one was more surprised than me to sign with EMI as someone who was already past the age of 30!
However I looked at it, I was an independent musician once again. I was pretty well versed in finding ways to go forward in life, but on this occasion, I really felt stuck. The drinks in the pub ended up in a hangover rather than a hallelujah. I realized that I had been busting a gut for years, and that on some deeper level, I had to accept where I was, to stop striving. It´s that old aphorism – you get not what you want but what you need.
I spent the rest of 2013 working hard on my second job as a freelance filmmaker. In between, I took the time to consider my position. One of the crappiest things about losing the deal is that the record industry always watches the performance of the new comers on a major label. It did not matter that EMI was bust and had no money to promote the record. It did not matter that there was no release strategy. Or that the radio team new they had lost their jobs and were searching for new ones rather than working the single. I was burnt goods. Like the character in Falling Down with the sign “economically unviable” over his shoulders.
One thing I knew for certain was that I had more in the bag as a musician. It has never really mattered to me working in a dying industry. There is music in my heart, and the one thing I am certain of is that I want to release the songs I write, rather than die with thousands of unreleased binary files in my hard drive.
During this time a paradoxical thing started to happen. In spite of the stillborn record, the songs managed to find their way out into the world, mainly via youtube. Not some fairy tale viral explosion like you hear about every year. But a solid spreading out. I had reports of play listing in South Africa, Brazil, Australia, Romania, the US, and others – nothing life changing but a great feeling when your record is perceived to be dead. Things continued to slowly take on their own life, and from the DJ´s showing support, local booking agencies started to get in touch and inquire about shows – I found myself with bookings in the US, Russia, China and inquiries coming in from left field places like Uganda and Latvia. I realized that though I had taken a blow in my career, that the years of working hard in the underground had created a degree – just a degree – of momentum. And this momentum, for the first time, started to pick up its own wave at the very time I had decided to pause. It was as if life was saying two things. First, stop trying so fucking hard sonny. Second, allow me to work for you, you can’t do everything as an act of will.
I headed over to the States in early 2014 and played my first shows on the West Coast. On the plane home, I thought over the state of things. During the year of stopping, I had felt a growth inside myself which I had never experienced in my years of busyness – the years of gigging in a white van from Aberdeen to Cornwall in the UK, the years of playing night after night in the Tacheles in Berlin; the years of furying, yearning and longing. I had sacrificed many things in my pursuit of a sustainable life in music, and I had got lost in the blood lust of attempting to build my career in the ashes of the industry.
The fact was, that I felt disassociated from the music industry. I felt like I no longer related to its aspirations – of radio hits, pop videos, and glossy photos. Or its values – of red carpets, record sales, projecting success. Or its narratives – new artist great friends with Jay Z! Music video in a Cadillac! Sold out show in Wembly!
I realized that despite the fact that I had had very traditional notions of what success was in my twenties, my life and my path had changed me. I was the same person, but a new version of it. I found no motivation in the idea of begging my booking agent to find me a support tour, or being asked by a radio promoter for a fortune for guaranteed negligible results.
But what did I want? All I knew was that I wanted a different way, a new path, something which fitted to my own life and growth.
There is an old Indian proverb which I read in a Joseph Campbell book. The father tells the son “At some stage you will come across a great chasm. Jump.”
On the flight home from the United States, I realized that I had retired from the music industry. I did not know what this meant, but it felt incredibly liberating. It was not me, and I was not it. I was not what I did, but who I am. I ordered a bottle of wine. People began to sleep. I ordered another one. My heart began to pound and I started meditating on the insane invitations which had started to come in. I realized how little I knew of the world. How inward looking my path had been, how my struggle had not only strengthened me but narrowed me. I thought of the heroes in Joseph Campbell´s books on mythology. Did i have something of the courage these people had, even a tiny trace? Was I willing to find it? What conditions did i need to explore these unknown aspects of myself. I realized I had to embrace the conditions of my life, its circumstances, its dead ends, its opportunities. I saw a vision of a dancing old man on the streets of an unnamed city in China. Was it me playing guitar next to him? I had to find him – sense and order and economics be damned, and while I am at it, other people´s notions of what success and failure is too. There is no life but your own, and all too often I realized I had been conditioned by a narrative outside myself. It burst into flames before me, and in its burning I discovered that wild joy, that insane liberation which only comes when you realize that you have jumped off the chasm and have accepted a notion of faith, not defined by God or religion but by the revelation of knowing that you are found, can only be found, within the falling.
It is a project just beginning. So I thank A Music Blog, Yea? for this invitation to write about it, for their wonderful support at this early stage.
As I venture out into the world, and attempt to answer the meaning of its call, I will write about some of my insights and experiences here. For now though, I am in Nairobi, half way through my tour through East Africa, and have to catch my plane to Uganda for the next set of shows. If you would like to follow in the meantime, please check out jimkroft.com.
And for now, thank you for reading, and wishing you the best from wherever you read this, and whatever state of play your own journey is on.
Article written by Jim Kroft