artistic unknowns by Chris Matarazzo

A song in the woods: Expectations and a first release

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As a teacher and as a writer and musician, I often find myself in the precarious position of knowing that lessons can be extracted from my life and that those lessons can be shared with some benefit to either students or my audience. The danger is that talking about one’s self can be seen as vanity.  Well, I hope you will see this as I truly intend it: a chance for some readers to learn from an artistic life in progress.  I’m an old-hand in the music game at this point, but I sill keep getting pestered by those pesky life-lessons.

So, more of a meditation than an essay this week . . .

As I referenced in an earlier article, my first complete CD of songs was released in August. This has been the cause of some elation, some mood swings and some genuine hissy-fits from yours truly. Why? Well, as with most things in life when they are finally arrived at, it wasn’t nearly what I expected.

The worst thing about all of this is that what I expected wasn’t all that much.

I’m not what you would call a marketing wizard, beyond putting a link into one of my articles, like the one above, or telling my Facebook friends and blog audiences about the CD. Sometimes, I will remember to bring copies to gigs with me and sometimes I will not. That’s me. (The cause of this is the same personal glitch that allows me to continually forget about submitting the two novels I have written and which sit on my desk. I slap palm to forehead about once per day because of this. Yet, despite the disfiguring bruises . . .)

But, anyway, I did math in my head before the release (always a bad portent). I figured: Well, I have over five-hundred Facebook friends. I have a blog. I have friends, readers and people who might just respect me a little. With some links, I could at least make a few grand in sales.  At around ten-dollars per CD, surely those who at least know me may willingly throw ten beans my way, even if they wind up using the thing as a coaster — just to bolster ol’ Chris.

Well, so far, after a little more than a month, I have made about sixteen cents on it.  I’m no accountant, but after three years of work, that doesn’t work out to a great hourly rate.

Granted, I have given a lot of the things away. I mean, I get it. Who am I, Sting? The throngs weren’t waiting for my most recent  release. And I get that selling this thing is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. There’s no Matarazzo marketing team and I’m not an advertising dynamo with endless funds. What did I expect? I’m not playing dives and coffee houses for free to sell the thing, either.

So, okay, the road is going to be a long one. Fair enough.

But then, there is the feedback factor. I’m always chirping about the question of empty feedback — do adoring throngs mean anything?  If five-million people buy your CD, how many of them really have a sense of what you did, artistically? If eighty-thousand cheer for you, how many of them really know and like you as opposed to the image you cut on stage? — the emptiness of fame and all that rot.

So, you figure, you will at least get feedback from your friends — they’ll tell you what they think.  Well, I have gotten some of that — some really good feedback.  But the majority of sales that pop up on my electronic download tracker are to anonymous. If these people are my friends, they’re not talking much. Could be they hated it. Could be they loved it.

Could be I’m not the most important person on their minds, so I should just stop being so damned egocentric.

See, that’s it. In the end, artists — most of them, anyway — tend to see themselves on one of those TV shows from the 70s, in a scene where a main-character picks up a guitar and sings and everyone gathers around and snuggles and nods and exchanges smiles, basking in the talent of their beloved friend. For a song, she becomes the center of their world.

Well, I know enough to know it isn’t like that outside of the TV. In the real world, people listen to music in their cars between convenience stores. They work out to it. They talk over it at parties.

But, sometimes, people lie on couches with headphones and really listen. Sometimes, they get a tear in the eye because of a good chord change. Sometimes, they are moved. But these people have no obligation to stroke the ego of the songwriter, in the end. Maybe music is a gift that we shouldn’t expect a thank-you for, after all. Maybe all art is like that.

So what did I want? The more I think about it, the more I realize that what I want is to make music, so it is time to get back to work. Would I like fame? I don’t think so. And whether I’d like it or not, I don’t deserve it. I never worked hard enough for it, so tough cookies, either way.

Would I like enough people to buy my music so that I could stay at home and write music and do nothing else? Hell yeah. But, in the end, if I am not willing to work for that, I’d just better write music and take whatever audience it gets and be appreciative that anyone wants to hear it.

The great songwriter, Jimmy Webb, is unknown to a lot of people as a solo artist, even though he tried pretty hard and released what he has called some of the most expensive demos ever made, including an album produced by Sir George Martin. There’s a reason for his relative obscurity as a performer:

The main reason why you may not immediately know Webb’s name is that not Webb but many of your favorite pop stars recorded his tunes. You see, Webb had gotten down on his knees [as a child] and prayed to God to let him become a songwriter, but he forgot to ask Him to let him become a recording artist as well.

We are what we are, I suppose. (He’s not much of a singer; I’m not much of a promoter.) It’s dangerous for artists to start to feel entitled to attention and to then feel disappointed when they don’t hard work to get it.

I’ll be honest with you, I do think I am pretty good at music. Okay, I’ll be even more honest: I think I am very good at it. Because of this, I should expect to make good CDs. But being good at music doesn’t entitle me to expect adoration and lots of money. If I wanted that, I would work harder for it, wouldn’t I? So, I should shut up and keep making music for modest sales, or I ought to leave my wife and sons and go on the road. The choice there is obvious, so the whining must stop and the composing must begin again.

We all make our choices and we are all limited by what skills, talents and levels of energy we possess. That’s the way it is. The person who said you can do anything your want if you only put your mind to it was a bullshitter. We all know that.

It will make all the work worth it if a few people sit and listen, just once. After all, if a song plays in the woods and no one is around to hear it . . .

Chris Matarazzo’s ARTISTIC UNKNOWNS appears every Tuesday.

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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