Jennifer O’Connor is something of a poster child for the idea of a 21st-century singer/songwriter. Down-to-earth and hands-on, she is both musician and record company operator, both a highly regarded artist and an all too easily disregarded player in the terminally over-populated world of independent troubadours. As such, she is the kind of person who pundits insist should be exploiting our social-media-fixated world to her own artistic benefit on the one hand, while on the other hand being the kind of person hard-pressed to make a working wage in an age of guilt-free free music.
Her song “Already Gone” was featured here last month; she also graced these pages back in 2005. Her fine new album, I Want What You Want, was released in November on her own label, Kiam Records—which is, we should note, an actual working record label with other artists on the roster. As such, she is in a particularly good position to be discussing the state of the industry here in the digital age.
Q: Let’s cut to the chase: how do you as a musician cope with the apparent fact that not everybody seems to want to pay for digital music? Do you think recorded music is destined to be free, as some of the pundits insist?
A: It does seem that we are moving more and more in that direction, doesn’t it? Where eventually all records (digitally anyway) will just be free. How do I cope with it? Well, I think you have to just embrace it because there’s no stopping it. I just released a record digitally and it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and Bandcamp with a pay what you wish, low-minimum deal. I don’t think you can stop people from sharing music (nor do I think you should try to). I’m also selling a limited-edition CD that is pretty personalized and I know that people who are really fans will seek that out. I know because I do that for the music that I really love. I think all of the music business these days is just a race to see who can adapt the quickest and also just keep in the game. I know a lot of people are up in arms about Spotify but I think it is a really great, smart tool. I use it to check out bands I’m not familiar with. If they are worth my money and it’s something I will want to listen to repeatedly, I will go out and buy their record, no question.
Q: What do you think of the idea that music is destined for the “cloud”?
A: The whole cloud thing is weird to me. Music is personal and I like to own my records. I guess the cloud is like a lending library which I suppose is cool as a supplement, but I don’t think it can replace the notion of having a music collection that you own. You say that music fans won’t “need” to own the music they like any longer—but I think that many (myself included), will still want to. At least I hope so.
Q: How has your life as a musician been affected—or not—by the existence of music blogs?
A: Commenters on blogs can be a real drag, but I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff anymore. I think there is room for both old-style music criticism and blog writing and there is certainly quality and its opposite in both.
Q: What are your thoughts about the album as a musical entity—does it still strike you as a legitimate means of expression? If listeners are cherry-picking and shuffling and so forth, how does that affect you as a musician, if at all?
A: It doesn’t affect me as a musician. I still make albums. The album as an art form is still relevant and important and necessary. To me. And I know there are other folks (though the number may be dwindling) who feel the same way. I give a lot of thought to song order, transition, flow, etc. That being said, I’m also a songwriter, with an emphasis on “the song”, so I’d like to think that the individual tracks can stand alone, or they have no business being on the record. So, either way, you win. 🙂
Q: There is clearly way more music available for people to listen to these days than there ever used to be. How do you as a musician cope with the reality of an over-saturated market, to put it both economically and bluntly?
A: This is actually something I have thought a great deal about in the last few years. It can feel overwhelming. It’s hard to wade through all of the music as a listener and music fan for sure. And it is kind of rare that I hear something that really strikes me. As a musician and writer, I think what I’ve come to is that I can’t let that type of issue concern me. I just want to keep writing songs, doing what I do, getting better at it hopefully with each record. There is a ton of music out there yes, but there is not a ton of great music. I think great music will be recognized as such. Even if it isn’t in terms of money or tremendous record sales. The vast majority of musicians don’t really make money from record sales anyway—they make it from music licensing or touring. Of course there is a great deal of competition in those arenas as well. So depending on what part of my personality (musician, writer, or business person) is dominant on any given day—I guess that determines whether I’m thinking about it or ignoring it. It’s tricky and I would be the first to admit that I don’t have it all figured out.