Just make music and share it: Podington Bear’s music for storytelling and podcasts

Jennie Rose Halperin
Chad Crouch AKA Podington Bear via the Free Music Archive

In 2007, the artist Chad Crouch began releasing three instrumental songs per week under the pseudonym Podington Bear. Crouch revealed his identity in July 2008 upon the release of a box set of his work, ending a speculative mystery covered in NPR, KEXP, Wired, and the Globe and Mail. According to his bio on Free Music Archive, “The experiment inspired countless new works of art, and translated into commercial success.”

An early podcast innovator, the Podington Bear project was licensed completely under CC before being posted to the Free Music Archive, where Crouch has featured many of his subsequent releases as well.

In addition to his work as Podington Bear, Crouch runs the influential Portland, OR based label HUSH Records and posts his new work on the Sound of Picture Library, a large collection of his instrumental music for creators. By running his own platform, Crouch is able to share his music on his own terms, providing makers the licenses that they need for specific projects.

You can hear Crouch’s music on a large variety of podcasts, documentaries, advertisements, and more. Much of his oeuvre can be found at Sound of Picture Library or at his website.

Why did you decide to stay anonymous for so long despite your prolific output? Why did you just ultimately disclose your identity?
Anonymity at that time was attractive because I was just wanting to try something new and at that time when I started making music, I was releasing it as a podcast, so each podcast was just a song. That’s when podcasting was whatever you wanted it to be. Today it’s either scripted or unscripted, there’s people talking, or there’s music or not, but generally speaking it’s more a story-driven podcasting than simply just the music. At any rate, it was something new that I wanted to try and I wanted to not have any baggage related to any prior output. It was attractive to me for that reason. Plus, I run a record label, and have done so for the last almost 20 years now. Podcasting, giving away music in those days, in 2007, it was still … the verdict wasn’t in. Is it good business to be giving away your music? I don’t know if people even know now, but given that I was essentially giving away downloads of music, and that’s how I was releasing it, I didn’t want it attached to me and my record label, just as an experiment.
I think the second part of your question was why did I reveal my identity? It started with a mistake, and so the mistake was, with every mp3, you have a metadata tag which has the song name and the album name, so forth and so on, just some added data. Well, the program I was using also put my real name in there somehow, and so I figured, well if anyone found that, that would be obvious. Plus I thought it was about time. That’s why. No big. It’s not like hundreds of thousands of people wanted to know, it’s just that I was ready to not keep it a secret anymore, is all.

At a recent event I attended, a number of public radio producers were saying that they felt like your work was kind of like the gold standard for free music online. How have you used your music to maximize for impact as an artist?
Wow, that’s a nice compliment. The gold standard for free music online. Well, given that I started creating music and it has always been instrumental, that alone makes it more useful for storytelling because it doesn’t get in the way of the story with words that say something else that the story isn’t saying. If I was a singer, or I wanted to make vocal music, it wouldn’t work very well for other people’s means. I realize more, as the years pass, that people have an interest in using my music. Initially, my involvement with the Free Music Archive in particular was minimal. I only had a few tracks available. Then I realized, this is what … A lot of these people are using this music. I should just open the flood gates and let it all pour out and see what happens. That’s what I did.

How did opening the floodgates up maximize for impact? Did you find that you found that your music was more widely used or more widely discoverable? What did you find when you did that?

Like anything that’s word of mouth, if it’s good, it helps get the word out. Certainly, as far as internet presence, you really can’t compete with the Free Music Archive. It’s a hub with so much traffic. I could get praise from all kinds of bloggers, and they could post my songs, but still not as many people would hear it as just naturally do through coming to the Free Music Archive. Almost solely, based on their search engine optimization, they just rise to the top of just so many Google searches. They built it, and people came. Being a part of that project, I would say is the single biggest driver.
Then, as part of the NPR set. I think a few years ago, a lot of my repertoire was being played on This American Life in some of their shows that have a lot of influence. Usually they originally heard about me on there and other types of podcasters, and which podcasts are influential.

Why did you decide to use Creative Commons in particular to license your first project?
That’s a good question. I think I embraced it in the same way I embraced experimenting with the vehicle of the podcast. I forget the exact origin of Creative Commons, but I do remember picking up … I think it was a copy of Wired Magazine, and it came with a CD and it had Beastie Boys on the cover or something like that, and there was a big, huge, center article about this new thing called Creative Commons. The CD contained songs from artists that so many people have heard of, like Beastie Boys, and it encouraged you to remix material that was on this CD, or do things with it that were less copyright, or less copyright restricted.
That appealed to me, and then I kind of kept that in the back of my head. It probably was eight years … I don’t know how many years later, but that I decided to embrace that fully with my music, because I was putting it out there anyway. Putting it out with Creative Commons seemed like a good fit for me.

Have you found that putting the license on has changed things for you, changed things in terms of how it’s recognized, how it’s found, how it’s distributed across the web?
It’s a prerequisite of involvement with the Free Music Archive, but I had adopted it before the Free Music Archive. It’s changed the way it’s distributed, most definitely. Yes, completely. To be honest, the way I compose, too. Originally, I was much more concerned with my musical output, with creating a song that had a beginning, middle, and end. Now as long as the piece of music has a mood, and I usually include the beginning and end, just because I’m a completist, but it doesn’t have to be a first chorus, first song type of construction. A lot of my music is quite short, now. CC has informed both the way I distribute my music and the way I make my music, honestly. I make things that have musical voices in them. Like just solo piano, for example, because I know that that’s something that people find useful for their storytelling in either video, podcast, whatever. It’s completely changed my output over these years.

Speaking of your output, you’re a pretty prolific songwriter and artist. What’s your process? How do you write so much music so quickly?
Well it started ten years ago, and there were years where I did very little. A benefit of having done it for so long and having so much material is that there is an income stream of people who find the music, but they also need it for commercial use and they’re perfectly happy to pay me some money to use it. As far as my process, it’s pretty simple. I use the MIDI controller. I use a piece of software, and there honestly aren’t a lot of acoustic instruments that I’m using to do my recordings, and so now I can kind of just make it all on a desktop and making it digitally is pretty easy to do. I think there are people who are far more prolific than I am.

Your project, Sound of Picture Library, is an extensive library of your music with a variety of licenses for different types of media. Can you tell me more about that? What’s worked, and what have you had to tweak, and how does it feel to be an independent artist who’s in control of your media output?
I’m not a programmer, so that part of it is difficult. Having a database of songs that people can search and that is fairly responsive so people don’t say, “This is taking too long” that’s useful enough that they can find their way to something hopefully that will work for them. That has been difficult and a learning process – there’s no site template for exactly that kind of thing. I have enough facility with computers and stuff that I’ve kind of felt my way along. As far as keeping control of my music, I was just used to that already with running a label, so I kind of know how the sausage is made with regard to the leasing music.
As far as selling licenses online, I’m certainly not the only one who has a library of music solely created by them who sells licenses, but it seemed a good fit for me, just because I was doing it anyway, but it was taking a lot of my time to deal with emails and negotiate a price and that kind of thing. I would say one of the hardest things about it is coming up with pricing that works for everyone, because there’s so many different needs that people have for different projects. It’s amazing. I wanted to meet people at the very low end while not leaving too much on the table for people who have huge budgets to complete advertisements or something online. I try to keep it competitive and fair and just trust people that use them.
Ultimately, sometimes it works out that their project is complicated or it doesn’t fit with the prescribed licenses that I do offer, so I still am dealing with people through email and doing some negotiation. All in all, it’s been a really interesting development for me as a musician and entrepreneur. It’s been growing every year to the point where I’m quitting other jobs, recently, to give more of my energy and time to making the library and administrating it.

What advice would you give to an independent artist who wants to do a similar project and license their own music?
The advice I would give is try not to be too precious with it. Don’t try and control. Don’t be worried about people stealing things. I feel like a lot of musicians try and limit, but I think limiting access to music in a way where you’re trying to always sell it and get the most money out of it is detrimental to exposure. I would say, have fun. Make music that interests you. Make music that sounds good to you, and share it. In the beginning, do not try and make money. Just share it. Share it as much as possible, and if the Free Music Archive feels like a fit, great. If Creative Commons feels like a fit, great. This will help you along with people discovering you.