The Indie Band Survival Guide
Cameron Parkins, September 24th, 2008
Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are true polymaths – founders of the pop band Beatnik Turtle, authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide, and a computer engineer and attorney respectively, they continuously have their hands in a bevy of different projects. Their most recent project, the wide publication of The Indie Band Survival Guide – originally and still available as a CC-licensed PDF – is a tome of knowledge that any independent musician, well-known or budding, would do well to have. We caught up with Chertkow and Feehan recentlly to find out more about the Indie Band Survival Guide, their experience as CC-license advocates, and how they manage to juggle their various roles with seeming ease.
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Can you give our readers a bit of background on yourselves? You are both active musicians, have jobs outside of music making, and are now published authors. How did you get to where you are today?
Jason Feehan: We’re both indie musicians who are in an active Chicago band called Beatnik Turtle. We’ve been writing, recording, and playing live for over 11 years. But beyond that, professionally, I’m an attorney and Randy has a Master’s in Computer Science: Data communications.
Randy Chertkow: Our fields really influenced how we ran the band, and, later, what we wrote about in the book. There was an advantage that neither of us were in the same field. So I was able to help put the legal stuff into human-readable form, and Jason was able to tame my technical jargon and into friendly explanations. Regarding music, I’ve got a formal music education, starting in grade school. I am a reeds player (primarily sax, but I double on flute and clarinet, which is very common for sax players.) I had a lot of training in music and jazz theory, and improvisation. Jason didn’t learn formally at all, yet is an incredibly prolific songwriter and natural talent. He’s written over 1000 songs.
Tell us about Beatnik Turtle, your band. How did you get started? What are your influences?
RC: The core Beatnik Turtle band is 8 members, including a full horn section. We have 18 albums and one EP, and we have released over 450 songs. The reason we have so much music is due to a project in 2007 called The Song of the Day, where we successfully released one song for every single day of the year at thesongoftheday.com. And we continue to release one song for each week in a podcast format.
JF: I founded Beatnik Turtle back in 1997, growing it from a standard, four-piece, guitar-based band into one with it’s own horn section and a recording studio of our own. Actually, we’ve been recording ourselves as a band since 2000. Before that, for years I was writing and recording songs alone at home on a Tascam 4-track. At the time, there were few ways to to get my music out there so others could hear it. The only thing I could think of was to start a band, make a live show out of the songs, and take the music to where the audiences already were – the bars. I convinced my parents to let me build a home studio and rehearsal space in a room they weren’t using in their basement. I figured creating a “headquarters” like this was the best way to form a band – sort of a Field of Dreams thing: if I build it, they will come.
RC: That, and the free beer didn’t hurt. Anyway, the quickest way to explain what we sound like is to say that we are in the tradition of They Might be Giants. Our other influences are bands like The Saw Doctors, Fountains of Wayne, and other melodic bands with a sense of humor. But we’re open to experimentation, and because every band member will cite other musicians and genre of music as influencers, it keeps it interesting. If Beatnik Turtle were a car, it certainly wouldn’t be staying in just one lane. We have so many songs that it’s not surprising that we tried a lot of different styles. We’ve tackled folk, disco, hard rock, techno, and everything in between. The one common thread is that our music usually incorporates some humor and tongue-in-cheek irony. Our most recent album is a bunch of Irish drinking songs, rocked out with horns, in an album called Sham Rock. That one was featured in NPR not too long ago and has been received very well.
JF: Some of our more notable achievements besides successfully completing the Song of the Day project are licensing a song of ours for a commercial campaign for Disney, writing original music for sketch groups at Second City as well as doing live performances there, writing a theme song for a TV show that’s currently playing in 26 million homes, and writing and recording many theme songs for podcasters. And, naturally, all of this was done without a music label.
When and why did you begin using CC licenses for your work? In your new book, The Indie Band Survival Guide, you recommend musicians use CC licenses to release their work. Why is that and what benefits/obstacles do you think musicians encounter when they use CC licenses?
RC: I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Lessig ever since I first saw his Free Culture flash from his OSCON speech, and later, when I read the book Free Culture. Putting that together with Bruce Schneier’s work, in particular his postulation that you have to assume that any form of computer security will eventually be breached, and Professor Ed Felten’s papers on the futility of watermarking and certain forms of DRM, it became clear to me that locking down our work is stupid. It prevents the one thing you want: getting heard. All indie musicians end up achieving by locking down their work with either copyright or DRM is less exposure. And exposure is exactly what most of us want to get. I figured you could either be run over by this inevitable train (like the traditional music industry seems to be doing) or hitch a ride on it and let it take you and your music places.
Now, regarding the CC licenses, I think one of the things often ignored about copyright law is that it’s really all about money, no matter what license you use. Even if you’ve used “all rights reserved”, if someone appropriates your work, and an email or phone call doesn’t stop them, the only way to assert the real power copyright law gives you is to use the legal system. And that simply comes down to a question of whether it’s worth your money or not to hire a lawyer. Even if you wish to stop the use of your work for moral reasons, you’ll have to shell out money on your lawyer.
I believe that in a practical sense, once you release a work into the world you don’t own it anymore. The world does. As I mentioned when I was on a Creative Commons panel that I attended last year: none of these US-based copyright rules that we happened to be discussing mean anything to someone in Columbia, South America. So what do these copyright licenses mean in the real interconnected world? The answer is usually simple: is it worth your money to try to defend it? And I mean in international courts, not just US courts, where you are actually working with the wording of treaties. Most indie artists don’t have that kind of money, nor is it worth it to them. Especially when the exposure is what they wanted in the first place. So realistically, I think that the CC just tells people what you’d like them to be able to do with their work, and is rarely enforcible. If you have the money to defend it internationally, it may give you a license to be able to limit the use of your work according to your wishes, assuming that the local jurisdiction will uphold those licenses.
Our band uses CC licenses to tell folks that they can non-commercially share our music to anyone that they want to. If someone gives our music to a friend, we don’t consider that a lost sale. That’s what we call a new fan.
The biggest gotchas about the CC music-wise is that it is perpetual, and not everyone understands this. Also that it can only work insofar as the local jurisdiction of any breaches of the license upholds it. Possibly the biggest one, though, happens when a musician is a member of a Performance Rights Organization like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or SOCAN. Those organizations will still try to collect on the song’s performance royalties no matter how it’s licensed if it’s in their database. That’s what they do after all. We’ve interviewed musicians for the book where they told us they wanted to exempt a particular song so a podcast could use it and were told “no”. The result was the podcast passed on the song and the musician lost out in getting introduced to a new audience. The same thing could also end up happening in dealings with SoundExchange and the way that they handle the master-use rights. Basically, in these cases, you have a third party that is trying to collect money for you that might not acknowledge the CC licenses.
Outside of music, you used a CC license on your original Indie Band Survival Guide PDF. Why did you choose to do this? Was their any advantages to doing this?
JF: Our goal with the guide was simple: We wanted to share the information we wrote so other musicians could learn what we knew. We didn’t want anyone to have to reinvent the wheel. We were musicians, not writers. A CC license made perfect sense to us. The amazing thing is what happened afterwards. Because it was shared, it was eventually noticed and picked up as a story by Billboard magazine, the Associated Press, Reuters, and finally, by agents and publishers. We didn’t plan on being authors. We took the publishing offer because we had an opportunity to get this information out there much further than we could on our own.
RC: Perhaps ironically, because we’ve never considered using a music label for our music.
JF: The key lesson here is that two major publishers – St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan and Random House – took on a work that started out licensed under the Creative Commons, and decided to make a print book out of it.
RC: As I like to say, we are a counter-example to the misguided idea that the CC destroys the commercial value of anything licensed under it. We hope to pave the way for CC use by not only musicians, but also authors.
What is up next for both of you and your various projects?
JF: We’re currently finishing up the manuscript for the Random House book. Unlike The Indie Band Survival Guide, this one will be distributed outside of the United States and Canada. It’s aimed at a worldwide audience. The Random House version has a different title, The DIY Music Manual, and will be released in February of 2009. Obviously, certain parts of The Indie Band Survival Guide had to be re-written such as the Your Rights chapter that delves into copyright and trademark law. And, in working on this version it’s only made us more aware of the fact that law is local, and that copyright law worldwide is not nearly as uniform as you might believe. There’s no US equivalent to the UK’s moral rights, for example.
RC: We also started up a free and open website to compliment the book at IndieBandSurvivalGuide.com. The book focuses on practicalities about being a musician today – the hows, whys, and what-to-dos. We did not want to make it a book of links and lists. That’s better suited for the Web. So, we limited the number of example links in the paper version, and decided to put everything useful that we found during our 4 years of research into the website so everyone could share in it. There are thousands of useful sites, services, resources, and links up there, organized in a way that makes sense to musicians. It’s an open and free resource, and anyone can add to it as well, so the website will grow as the music world changes. We spend a lot of time adding new information to that website all of the time.
JF: The book is what we wish we had when we started as a band and the IndieBandSurvivalGuide.com website is the set of resources we wish we had. It would have saved us so much time and energy if we had this when we started out. Time that could have been spent on music. We don’t want any other musician to go through what we had to do and nor should they. If we do this right, there should be some kick-ass indie bands that will be able to leverage all the work we did and so they can focus on their music, getting heard, and discovered by fans worldwide.
RC: Oh, and we’ve got a few albums planned for next year, as well. We’ve just finished compiling all TheSongOfTheDay.com music we wrote and recorded into 12 albums. We’re now working on a “Best Of TheSongOfTheDay.com” album. For this, we’re going back to some of the bigger songs and putting more recording and mixdown time into them, for a best-of album. Right now, it looks like we’re targeting a January release for that. And after that, we’re planning on participating in the RPM Challenge again in February of 09, and we’ll announce the theme of that album, to be released in March, on our blog when we get to the start of that challenge. Beyond that, we have even more plans, but stay tuned to our website if you want to see what we’re up to next. That’s as much as I can say for now.