THE MODERATELY FED ARTIST
By AUSTIN WHITELY
A stale marijuana odor, marinating with a fresher, more pungent smoke, coated the premises of the downtown Louisville apartment building. I’d come in search of a 12-string Takamine Acoustic Electric advertised on Craigslist. A man with Kool-Aid stained teeth and lips assured me I had the right place. I followed him up to the third floor, where I met the roommate selling the guitar. Already hooked up and “ready to go”, the instrument was displayed by a dread-headed man in a cheap, Rastafarian, fake-knit Jamaican hat. “It’s been a while since I’ve actually played this one,” the pseudo-hippie said, handing me the guitar and the line at the same time.
Like every other Craigslist deal that comes with more disclaimers than it does working parts, I left empty-handed. Walking the short trip back to my car in the dusk of that summer night, I contemplated the probabilities of getting stabbed, shot, or robbed. I wanted to kick myself for wasting time on something I knew would be too good to be true—for wasting the gas money to travel downtown, for killing time away from the studio.
The search for that certain sound, the hunt for the bargain instrument or tool that can set you apart from the rest, the knowledge that something better is out there—these have been objects of my disgruntlement. Even when I first started to play, there was always something that limited me: a leaky valve on my trombone, dead strings on my guitar, a muddy sounding amp, drumsticks too big or too heavy. Although this is partly my mental stigma, let’s face it—you can’t sell out arenas using low-quality equipment or release a debut recording on cassette tape. In this capitalistic world, you get what you pay for. You can’t spend yard sale prices and expect Gibson/Marshall sounds. It’s like shopping for food at Walmart and attempting to prepare a six-course gourmet dinner. A bad taste will be left in everybody’s mouth.
Making do with what you have is a sign of true creativity and innovation. You know all those “vintage” sounds and records that your mother or father played? Whether Motown hits or Black Sabbath, some of the most iconic sounds ever made were recorded with old beat-up equipment, minimal training, no digital correction, and no grand production overall. Yet that’s the tone that can grab a person’s ear today. Yes, most of them had that “warm” sound of tape and the most sought-after vintage gear looked for today, but that’s not what set them apart or what’s keeping them relevant now. They had not just a sound, but their sound. They had a message. They had a groove, a vibe, an energy unlike everything else that was being done. They created something, without modern resources, that is still trying to be replicated, even as you read this. People are using technology to recreate “imperfections” and analog quirks that seem real because that’s how those sounds were created.
As a recording artist, if I get too carried away with the technicalities, I lose focus of the purpose of my music. My derived purpose is to get a feeling out. If I can emote how something has made me feel or deliver a song that a person empathizes with, then I have succeeded. No matter the quality, the recording technique, the way it was transferred to a master CD, or the infinite other ways audio signals can “degrade,” a good song or message will carry through.
Will I stop looking to improve the quality of my recordings? No. Will I stop putting myself in precarious positions to get Craigslist items? Probably, a little. Will I stop emptying my bank account to grab more gear? Hell, no. For me, and for many artists, the only constant is the material we work with, not the media we use to create. If your message is true, authentic, and original, then there is room for your music in the hearts of all.
Austin Whitely is Auzman Propaganda, Man, a solo artist from Shepherdsville, Kentucky. He co-founded the Homegrown Art, Music & Spoken Word Show, an open-mic and art exhibition series held bimonthly in Bullitt County. Auzman Propaganda, Man’s debut release, “Greatest Hits Vol. 3 & 4,” is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and other online venues.