A skinny guy that has a beard and hair like Jesus sits in a chair absent-mindedly tuning a guitar while a cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. His name is Bill Baughn, and he’s an aspiring musician. He is one of many young artists trying to make a splash in what has become an endless ocean of other young artists trying to do the same thing: create something, get some attention, and make some money doing what you love. It’s harder than it seems.
Baughn’s story is quintessentially American. He comes from a smaller town next to a small town. He taught himself to play guitar after only learning the D, G, and E chords and he learned how to write meaningful songs by listening to lyrical masters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Baughn is a self-made musician, using an armory of new and used equipment cobbled together from stores, friends, and yard sales. He’s got the talent and drive, but right now he needs two things: exposure, and money.
I’ve spoken with Baughn in the past about his music, and when we last talked he was planning on embarking on a state, if not regional tour. Unfortunately, that plan has yet to come to fruition. The reason? Funding and planning. “There’s more to it than throwing stuff in a car and driving around,” he tells me. “You’ve gotta set up the shows, figure out where you’re staying, and that’s not just the cost.” That’s food, gas, and lodging if you can’t crash on someone’s couch or can’t find a place to park and sleep. It’s an investment, but the question is will you see a return on that investment? More exposure, more fans, and ultimately more money or will it wind up being a failed pursuit. “It’s a gamble. Do you sink all this money and energy into something only to have it go nowhere?” It’s a fair question, especially when you consider the time you’d have to take off from work if your art is not your primary source of income.
How do you make that art your primary source of income? Baughn’s answer is, “You keep playing shows, keep recording music, and hope more people get into it.” In a word, it takes work. It means spending time honing a skill, creating content, and making it available online (usually for free). It seems like a backwards investment: put forth a ton of effort to give away something for free that may never progress beyond being a hobby. The internet and cheap digital equipment is something of a paradox. On the one hand, the internet the availability of cheaper tools makes it easier to produce and distribute, but on the other hand it creates a lot of competition. “Anyone can record a song and put it on SoundCloud,” Baughn says, “But is it any good?” He shrugs and fiddles with the guitar, “I guess that’s up for listeners to decide.”
It’s hard to argue that democratization is a bad thing, especially when it allows for new and original content to become available. Ironically enough, its greatest strength is also its greatest drawback: if anyone can produce content then how do you figure out what is good and what is bad? It’s a difficult question to answer. Baugh has a point in saying that it’s to the listeners to decide content. At least that’s the ideal situation. Here’s the problem with that: people have limited time and limited money, or in other terms exposure and competition. Thus, they want to spend their time and money on products they know and like. That’s something of a problem if you’re a new artist that’s trying to break into the market. Even if you distribute your content for free a listener can go on YouTube and listen to music for free from artists they already know and like without searching for new content. What if the listener discovers a new artist, like Bill Baughn, and enjoys his work? Let’s say this hypothetical listener has an entertainment budget of $30 a month ($10 for a movie ticket, $10 for an album, and $10 for a book), and Bill Baughn decides to make his first album for sale, while at the same time a well-known musician releases a new album. Baughn, and every other relatively unknown artist, is competing with nationally and internationally known artists that have established fandoms. Do you spend $10 on an unknown artist and hope for the best, or $10 on an artist you’re confident you’ll enjoy? Putting out music for free to generate trust is one option, but it leads back to the original problem: what if it’s all for naught?
It seems like an infinite loop of one Sisyphean task after another, like some kind of musical Groundhog’s Day, and aside from dogged determination how can a new artist break out of the obscurity? “Keep producing content on a regular basis. Keep people’s attention,” is Baughn’s first idea, but collaboration is also key. “I want to work with other musicians I know are good and dedicated to what they do.” When asked if he’s found any success with that he says, “Yes and no. The biggest problem is getting people to commit to something; practicing, writing, and recording on a regular basis.” That’s another major hurdle, since it’s difficult to find someone who is willing and able to devote that much time and energy to something that may not produce any meaningful results. Last time I talked with Bill he was working with Jerry Wenger, another local musician. “I’m still working with him. He does my recording, but he plays with me too.”
Before I left I asked him what his prospects for the summer looked like. He lit up another cigarette, exhaled and said, “I’ll just have to see what happens.”
It may not be directly optimistic, but there is an optimism in that uncertain realism. It’s not a yes, but it’s not a no, either.
Bill’s music is available on SoundCloud under the name, Whatevers Clever.