NT11 - John Roderick: From the Long Winters to Roderick on the Line (and back)

In this episode, Abraham and John talk about:

  • Being without a mentor in the arts world (Music)
  • Books on how to become a successful artist (Music)
  • Being hired as a sideman in Harvey Danger (Harvey Danger)
  • What did allow John to survive the age of 30 when everybody else quit? (Harvey Danger)
  • John loaning money from his parents for his first van (The Long Winters)
  • Make a living in the music business $300 at a time (Career)
  • The Shins putting their music in a McDonalds commercial (Music)
  • John buying his house with music money (Career)
  • John utilizing social media and podcasts to diversify his income (Career)
  • The expectation of John becoming a producer (Career)
  • How John became friends with Aimee Mann (Music)
  • John's record label not understanding Twitter (The Long Winters)
  • The effect of Song Exploder (The Long Winters)
  • Do The Long Winters still exist? (The Long Winters)
  • Changing requirements from a record label (Career)
  • The Jonathan Coulton way of releasing music (Music)
  • John's and Jonathan's Christmas album (Music)
  • Dave Bazan’s year of 7” (Music)
  • Merlin the productivity guru (Merlin Mann)
  • John hoping that somebody transcribes his podcasts (Podcasting)

This show is hosted by Abraham Levitan.

Basically, there have been numerous hot irons, and I have struck none of them. Someone will present me with a hot iron and I will look at it until it cools. I do not even dout it with water, I just stare at it, mesmerized by the color and the heat until it cools and then I am confused. Why does heat go away?

On this podcast, Abraham talks with music people about money, motivation and the rest of life. He used to have a band called Baby Teeth and he used to co-host a music improv game show called Shame That Tune. He is also the founder of Piano Power, a music teaching group that provides in-home lessons in the Chicago area. Abraham is sort of embarrassed by how excited he is for this episode. He is a plain old huge fan of John Roderick and it was a thrill talking to him because John brought the goods in a major way in this conversation. Abraham became a fan of John via Merlin Mann. John gave an online-interview for The Billfold recently (see also the writing page) where he talks very candidly about the financial side of being a musician. As they recorded, John had a cold and he had already recorded Episode 194 of Roderick on the Line that same day.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Being without a mentor in the arts world (NT11)

Artists are reluctant to be candid about their finances. It is a hard topic to delve into and talking about finances and was seen as extremely uncool only twenty years ago. That hyper-focus on the difference between integrity and micro-infractions against integrity does not weigh as heavily on people within the arts community anymore. Artists often don’t really have complete mentors. If you start at a stock brokerage as a young stock broker, the person immediately above you had a few months ago been at exactly the same place where you are now, they know your situation exactly and you just have to follow what they do. All the way up, there are role models every step of the way who perform the same job. Within the arts, that is not the case. You may have an aesthetic mentor, somebody who teaches you how to use paint, or somebody who’s band you really admire, but because art is so personal, they can’t be a mentor to you and you can’t model yourself on their financial method and their way of surviving in the art world as directly.

Books on how to become a successful artist (NT11)

There are enumerable books published on how to make it in the music business and how to survive as an artist, but those books are very programatic and they talk about a certain kind of way. John finds them not just unhelpful, but insulting. ”Here is the only way to get a publishing deal”, but every single way to get a publishing deal is different. John wants to write a book himself about the whole experience of being a musician. The financial aspect is threaded through everything you do. You are making aesthetic choices and they have financial ramifications and you make financial choices that have aesthetic ramifications. John thought about writing a book a lot, but everyone who would appear in the book is still alive and 40% of them would not want to be mentioned, which is one of the tough things of having all those stories to tell. ”Here is a guy I know who did this and this is what happened and you probably read about it in the newspaper.” It would be an amazing book and John totally wanted to write it, but that person would call John on the phone.

John tries to talk about finances as freely as he can, because few people who have honored him with that as he was coming up. There have only been a few moments where somebody was just straight forward with him and for the most part he had to extrapolate. John meets musicians all the time where you can just see that they are full of some book they have read. They want John to confirm all these fixed ideas they read in a book on creativity and John goes ”Well…” and they are ”Wait a minute! Confirm what I know!”, but they are blind! These people tend to be the good looking musicians, maybe because they are dumb, and they would come up to John and say they were about to start in the music business and they really want to get a publishing deal. Everybody wants that, but they feel that this is where you start! I guess?

Being hired as a sideman in Harvey Danger (NT11)

In the year 2000, John was a sideman for Harvey Danger and they paid John a regular wage, which is an anomaly, but it allowed him to quit his day job at the news stand, something that doesn’t exist anymore. It sold magazines and newspapers from around the world and cigarettes and gum. Fully half the income from the business was cigarettes, but they sold a lot of The London Times and a lot of Model Railroader Magazine. It was a wonderful job for John, because he worked 5 hours a day 4 days a week and made $900 a month which enabled him to live in a warehouse and make music unencumbered. Nobody at that job cared about that as long as he showed up for 5 hours selling newspapers, which is a wonderful job for a person who is interested in the world, because if a customer walks in the door you can guess if he is going to buy the ”Corriere della Sera” or if he is definitely going right to the porn. It is fascinating!

Being in Harvey Danger was the first time John made money as a musician and it was more money than he had ever seen. He was making $900 a month at the news stand and then Harvey Danger was paying him $500 a week plus $125 per diem and John put the per-diem right in the bank along with the rest of the money because he was backstage eating cold-cut sandwiches every day. His frugality is key goes back a long way. It ended eventually when Harvey Danger broke up, which was a sad day. Like most bands, when people are approaching 35 years old, even if the band has not been dysfunctional before it is going to be dysfunctional then. The band broke up in a very natural way.

They were working on a new album and John was participating in the songwriting, which was intriguing because John could just sit out the band-dynamic behind his piano. Being hired to Harvey Danger came at the right time and was very good for him musically, because, like a lot of self-taught musicians, John thinks quite a bit of what other musicians are doing. A lot of this world of recording, arranging and composing for all the instruments still felt like magic to him. He picked up an acoustic guitar, learned how to play it half-assedly and was immediately compelled to write songs. His guitar playing got better as it was necessary to write more sophisticated songs.

The guys in Harvey Danger wrote collectively, which is bananas. Somebody would come in with a riff, it got thrown around and everybody was tense about it because there was ownership about every little note. John played a lot of instruments in that band. He played piano, bass and guitar, but guitar in their style, not his own. When he came out the other side of that year and a half, he had a lot more confidence that was mostly a product of demystification. Many guitar players think they would be amazing bass players, but John knew that wasn’t true, because the bass was doing something magic that he didn’t understand. After playing the bass in this band he could do it competently enough.

After Harvey Danger John went into the studio and made his first Long Winters record. Prior to that he had only ever made cassette-tape demos with every band he had been in, and he was 32 years old before he really ever started making an album that came out when he was 33. He had already lived through a generation of bands, they were a scene together, they struggled together, they came up, and they were the bands who were playing the undercard bills on all the clubs. Then everybody in those bands reached the age of 30, which is some kind of magic cut-off for musicians in their imaginations. They said that if they didn’t make it until now, they were never going to make it and their girlfriend said it is a hobby and they all went and got jobs, but John survived all that!

What did allow John to survive the age of 30 when everybody else quit? (NT11)

Before John joined Harvey Danger at the age of 31 he thought that he would go back to college, maybe he would even be a history professor, which seemed interesting, but universities are just corporations by another name. This band who was traveling around America in a bus playing these weird sheds with Sum 41 and blink-182 asked John if he wanted to come along and it sounded better than whatever else he was doing at the moment. It was just enough of an interregnum that he came out the other side with a bunch of money and knowing a bunch of people in the music scene. It felt like he was going to keep plugging away at this, make a record and keep going.

If university were educational, built in a different way and would privilege the articulate polymath rather than the multi-published wank, John would have gone into academia with a smirk on his face, but that smirk would have been slapped off of him at some point. Who knows where John would have landed! He also fancied being a writer, but he had never written anything for publication. He had filled up spiral-bound notebooks with all his smart talk, but he didn’t have the boldness or the confidence that he was capable of completion and that he could put something out in the world and defend it. He was too unstable. Harvey Danger were akin to John in the sense that they flopped into their hit single. Singer Sean Nelson was extremely ambitious and he didn’t flop into it exactly, but he took that single around and gave it to everybody in a way that John would have been too embarrassed to do. They made that entire album for $500 and a lot what happened to them was accidental.

A big influence on John was watching Death Cab for Cutie, their peers in the music scene in an era when he was 28/29 and was kind of giving it his last shot. These guys were 23 and showed up in Seattle completely new, they were playing toy instruments, early 1980s student guitars not even on Squire level and Chris Walla had a cassette tape that he would play into a microphone at one point. Just toys! But Ben Gibbard was a great songwriter from the very beginning and they had confidence. We are a band and these are our songs and we are going to play 11 shows a month. Every time somebody opens a can of beer in Seattle we will be there, which goes against the big city advice not to over-play and only play one or two shows a month. John’s band was on the bill for one of the first shows they played in Seattle.

Death Cab for Cutie were first of three that night and the rest of Harvey Danger was eating nachos in the café while John went in to watch the sound check of the opener. They ran through two or three songs and John was like ”Oh shit” They were little kids and with those ridiculous instruments. This was the era where every band in Seattle was like ”What year is your Les Paul? 1982? Mine is a 1974!”, all that cockswagger about gear and provenance, but these guys were just playing stuff that was under the Christmas tree and that somebody’s dad bought somebody. They were making incredible music right away and John told his band that they would have to bring it tonight because there were some kids in there who are going to sweep up the floor with them otherwise. John had never met them before and didn’t know anything about them. They had bowl haircuts and were so new. John’s band did bring it that night and Death Cab came up to them afterwards saying ”Holy cats, who are you?” and they became band friends and played a lot of shows together.

This was the first thing that made John realize that he never wanted to compete in that leather pants feather boa world of post-Grunge that he had been in. He didn’t want to rebel against it by playing post-math-rock either, he just wanted to write songs. These guys in Death Cab for Cutie were writing songs that were complicated and curious and John just said ”Oh, right!” He was a little too old and missed this boat that became Indie Rock, then Harvey Danger came, but now he could bring his songs out and now there was an audience for them. During the Grunge years he was trying to write Pop songs (and there was always a market for Pop songs), but within Seattle there was a tidal wave of ripped denim and loser T-shirts that swept everything away and made everybody play in drop-D. There are only so many things you can do in drop-D and 600 bands were doing it.

John loaning money from his parents for his first van (NT11)

The thing that defeats so many bands and why there is so much bitterness in so many local music scenes is the very real sense that being a musician is something for a rich kid, because they can afford all the expensive gear and they can afford to do it. They are sometimes called Trustafarians. If you look at it, the Beastie Boys for example were all rich kids. There are very few poor people who became big Rock stars, Nirvana being one of the rare examples. When The Long Winters were starting out, they had to suffer a lot of indignities. John moved back into his mom’s house at the age of 33. Fortunately, he got along with his mom and it was the first time he lived with her since he left home when he was 17. She had a house that was big enough to contain him and they were on different schedules. She woke up at 5am and went to sleep at 8pm and John went to sleep at 4am and woke up at noon or 1pm when they had lunch together. They had a good relationship, but it took away quite a bite out of John’s street cool, but what good had that ever done him before?

John did have a band and everyone in the band wanted this more than the indignity mattered, and as they set out on their first tour they slept 4 of them to a room. They would get a room in the cheapest worst Motel 6 with two Queen beds and two men to a bed which is not fun, particularly when your bass player is a snorer, or the other person is 6’4,5” (195 cm) and 250 lbs (115 kg) and John is 6’3” (190 cm) and 230 lbs (105 kg). It is not like you are sharing a bed with a guy who is all the way over there. They were riding in this dented up van and were making $100-200 a show, which means they were not making any money, but everybody in the band wanted it enough and everybody understood that there was no money. Their drummer would hassle John sometimes about his $50, but that was just a personality defect. You can always get in a band situation where everybody is watching the money so closely that they don’t realize that there is no money, just get it through your head.

Their bass player was 23 years old and he didn’t know any better. Before he joined the band, he had only been to Washington and Oregon and when they were crossing into Idaho on their first tour, he was now on his third state, which was a big deal to him. Being in this band, he basically saw all 50 states and every country in Europe. He wasn’t looking for money, but he wanted to get out of his folk’s house and stop working for Federal Express. The other guys were all in their late 20s or early 30s and for a lot of the same reasons like John, they had been in bands for years and they just wanted to do this. They wanted to one time play Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City and they wanted to play music elsewhere. There was enough responsibility among them that they didn’t have a thing where four 24-year-olds were trying to be adults and were just vomiting on each other. They were old enough to know how to walk into a motel and get a room and they did several tours like that.

The van was $8000 and it was the most expensive thing John had ever purchased by a long shot at that time. His guitar cost $650, his amp cost $200 and all of a sudden it was John’s responsibility to buy a van because it was his band. He asked his folks if they could loan him this money and he had never asked them for anything and never asked them for money like that. To their credit, they supported him as a musician and an artist and didn’t give him a lot of flack about getting a real job instead, because they saw the period in his early 20s where things could have turned out a lot worse than this. They felt lucky that John had survived to be 30 and they weren’t going to screw it up now by insisting that he become a registered nurse. Also, John was committed to it like he hadn’t been.

Because John was acutely aware of money and its power and because of the fact that it was fake, they knew he would pay them back. He would bleed to return that money to them and it wasn’t going up his nose. The terms were pretty open-ended and very different between his mom and his dad. His mom made several notations in several different places. There weren’t interest terms, but there was certainly emotional interest that started compounding daily. With his dad, he gave him $4000 and was like ”When am I going to get this back?” and John was ”Maybe never” and then they stared at each other and and that was the end of that conversation. Frankly, his dad died and John never paid him back. That was money that John was like ”You know what dad? You owe me those $4000, you son of a bitch!”, but a lot of money has changed hands between John and his mom in both directions and will continue to do so.

Make a living in the music business $300 at a time (NT11)

Thinking that the big score is going to make you healthy forever is a big mistake. You are making music and you look at the people out in the world with big scores out and you are like ”The Lumineers! Holy cow! These guys just made all this money! Big hit!” and you think that they are just set from now on. Maybe if they are good with money and they take their little portion of it and the do right by it, it will afford them some cushion.

Harvey Danger made $1.000.000 as a band. Sean Nelson told John that 40% goes to taxes, so now you have $600.000 and oops! 20% to the manager, that is $120.000 gone and you are looking at $480.000, starting to look a little thin on the ground. You still haven’t given 10-20% to the lawyer, depending on how bad your deal is, so now you are at $420.000. You are paying people back for stuff, you got bills, but even if nothing of that exists, there are 4 guys in the band and each of you now has $105.000.

That million dollars, which was going to knock them out of the park forever has shrunken down to only $100.000, which still seems like a lot of money when you are making $25.000 a year, but if the first thing you do is buy a car, you basically made the same amount as somebody who is coding in their first year and then it is gone and nobody has any sympathy for you because you got a million dollars and the classic error is to assume that this is the first of many, many millions. If you are in the fortunate 1% and you get $500.000 or $1 million to yourself, you still lose that 40% in taxes.

That is especially true if you are in a band, but without being a writer. If you don’t have any publishing and you don’t have any long tail to what you do, you get a huge chunk and you had better be really frugal and smart about what you do with it, because it may be the one time you make any money at all. For 10 years you have been pouring yourself into the same project for no money, 10 years of sleeping 4 guys in one room, and all of a sudden you get $100.000, which is $10.000 a year.

One time John was given some actual real practical advise by Ken Stringfellow by The Posies who also played in REM and now lives in Paris. He is a real raconteur, music vagabond, asshole and an extraordinary man. They were stopping by at his house on the way to do something else, sitting on the kitchen table and he asked if John would mind watching him when he was opening his mail. He started to open a stack of letters with his letter-opener.

He pulled out a check of $120 for producing some record that sold 6000 copies and every year he gets $120. The next letter was $74, the residuals on an album where he co-wrote one song and nobody cared about it. Then there were $400, his quarterly cheque from sound exchange. He went through and opened all these letters and the highest single cheque was $800 or $1200 bucks, but at the end of this session he had a stack of cheques that was worth $10.000. Ken is exactly the same age as John, but he had a much longer and much more thoughtful and wise time in music. He wagged this stack of cheques in front of John and said ”That is how you make a living in the music business!” You don’t go for the big score, but you go for this! At the time, about half of John’s reaction was smug, like "Maybe you go for the stack of cheques, Ken, but you are in REM and they are paying you $5000 a week just on retainer, so it is easy for you to say!", but as time went on and as John spent more and more time on this, he realized that he was making a living $300 at a time.

In 2003 and 2004, The Long Winters got their first placements and they were like ”What?” The first one was Gilmore Girls or The OC, which sounded great. Prior to that, right around 2000, it would have been very difficult for every band out of Seattle to take money to use their music in a TV-show, let alone a commercial, because everybody had this integrity problem. It was all seen as filthy lucre! You could let them use your music in a documentary about Sonic Youth, but you wouldn’t take any money for it. If somebody would want to use your music in The OC, you would so No because that was a crappy bullshit teenage show.

The Shins putting their music in a McDonalds commercial (NT11)

Nobody gives them credit for it, but there should be a plaque in the Seattle airport if not on the mall in Washington DC, but in 2002 The Shins put their song New Slang in a McDonalds commercial. It was like a comet streaking through the sky, John cannot tell you how many conversations he had about it at the time. It was so brazen! There were no pitch-forks, nobody set them on fire, The Shins continued to be extremely cool but they had put their music in a McDonalds ad! They didn’t say anything about it, they didn’t go to the music community and apologized or explained themselves. All of a sudden it was a new era. The prohibition had been broken. It wasn’t that they put their music in a commercial for Levi’s jeans jackets, but it was McDonalds! They couldn’t have been more unholy. Sunny Day Real Estate had refused to give interviews to Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, because interviews were uncool, but 6 years later, their music was in a McDonalds commercial.

This coincided with the era of people in Hollywood realizing that it would cost them $700.000 to get Start me Up by the Rolling Stones for this Pepsi commercial, but they could get The Long Winters' Blue Diamonds for 10% of that. The Long Winters would take the $70.000 and they would think it was a lot of money. During the heyday from 2004-2009 there was this incredible forced perspective where Hollywood and TV-land had such a skewed sense of what money was. They were spending $70.000 on craft services for the 4-day shoot and being able to get the theme song of the commercial where the Mazda drove around in a wet circle for $70.000 was an incidental amount. They were laughing all the way to the bank! Over here in Seattle town your album cost $5000 to make and they were giving you $70.000 to use one song that you had already recorded and without even using the lyrics. All of a sudden that cheque arrived and it was not pretend, it was a glorious time!

What happened was that every person who had an Apple computer was suddenly able to make a song that sounded kind of like the Long Winters Blue Diamonds and they could sell that to the TV-people for $1500, because it took them 1,5 hours to make. The TV-people would continue to spend $70.000 on craft services, but now music was worth nothing. That again coincided with a culture-wide agreement that music means nothing, even though it was the freaking glue that held them all together. It prevented more people from suicide than any other even combination of factors, but they had all decided that it should be free.

John had people send things to him, asking ”Is this you? This is the song Fire Island!” and John listened to it and it was Fire Island where one minor chord had been changed to a major or with one extra chord in the turn-around, so it wasn't Fire Island, but it was absolutely Fire Island. John of course had heard many of his friends’ bands totally aped as well, not just by sound-alike bands, but by enormously successful bands.

John buying his house with music money (NT11)

Right around 2007, every time John opened the mailbox there were all these cheques for $300-400, but then there were also cheques for $30.000-40.000. It felt very real but he knew it wasn’t going to last forever and he did not mistake it for his new reality. John had to actively push mortgage brokers down and kick them, because it was the height of the mortgage boom and people were saying that with the cash he had on hand and the fact that he had no documentable history of any kind, the last job he had was in 1999 at $900 a month, he now had this bank account brimming over with cash and he could get an $800.000 house! John thought that was insane! He a) didn’t want an $800.000 house and b) are you crazy? They tried to tell him that real estate would be going up forever and John was going to make money exponentially, because when could a rock star ever fall? John knew that this was a crazy time to buy a house and had he bought gold, he would be living on an aircraft carrier right now!

An over-abundance of prudence is characteristic of the Indie Rock era. John thinks of his peers as Indie Rock, not Rock ’n’ Roll. He spent 10 years in the Grunge era and he has a lot of friends in leather pants. He shared a side-man with Duff McKagan, he knows a lot of people with drug habits and he knows a lot of people who thought that money was a thing they should spend as soon as they got it. Indie Rock was the group that primarily benefitted from that publishing era during a time when every single car commercial had a Glockenspiel in it, and just prior to every car commercial having a ukulele in it. The ukulele era represents the death of money, but during the Glockenspiel era, money was pouring out of a hose. That whole group of musician was all sober.

John’s friend Eric Elbogen is a great songwriter who records all of his music in his house. His band was called ”Say Hi to Your Mom!” but he later shortened it to ”Say Hi” He is an extremely humble guy who writes really catchy music and he was the beneficiary of a lot of good luck during that period, but he continued to live in the same 2-bedroom apartment that had newspaper recycling stacked up in the kitchen and his studio was his kitchen with microphones and wires everywhere. He didn’t change anything about his arrangement and it was impossible to know what he had planned. He had nobody to pay, no bandmates, no infrastructure, and he toured with just a laptop. He opened for Death Cab at the Operahouse in Sydney and he got up in front of that enormous crowd with a laptop and a microphone. If there is somebody to emulate, it is Eric Elbogen.

Ben Gibbard could at any time have bought himself a high-rise and a Lockheed Constellation that he could have re-outfitted as a private home, but he never did any of that, but he kept very close to the ground. As a consequence, a lot of that era of Indie Rockers will survive and be able to maintain a thing that is different from what John is doing. John has diversified and keeps working as a fixture within Indie showbiz.

John utilizing social media and podcasts to diversify his income (NT11)

When Twitter first came out, John was suspicious of it as any smart person would have been. They had all just gone through Friendster into MySpace into Facebook. People had invested themselves in Friendster, but then Friendster was gone and the Long Winters had a MySpace page with some ads. John didn’t pour himself into the MySpace world, but a lot of bands did and then MySpace went away. None of these social media platforms stick around long enough for John to care about them, but by 2008 he had a couple of friends who told him that he needed to get on Twitter, because it was fun, and at the time it really was. He made no attempt to promote his band, in fact he thought that would be super-gross, but he was just there to be funny. It was all just words and you had the perfect restriction of how much funny stuff could you put in 140 characters.

John loved the limitation and the fact that people were bouncing this stuff back and forth in realtime. You are trying to attract the attention of the people that you think are smart and funny. Nobody was promoting themselves. None of the weird Twitter formatting and memes that is happening now existed back then, but everybody had their 140 characters and this was what they thought it meant. John was there for fun before every business and every single person alive who wanted to do anything publicly needed a Twitter feed. It was still a weird little corner. If you thought somebody was funny and you did some research, you could find out more about them. There were guys like Fireland or Bad Banana who came out with 5 amazing gags every day. John became friends with Bad Banana, he lives in the Midwest and John sees him every time he has his way through his town. Fireland is still a mystery to John and he stopped tweeting for all intents and purposes.

John started podcasting close enough to the dawn of more widespread podcasting and right at the beginning of ”Yeah, here are two more white guys with a podcast!” A lot of people were doing podcasts based on the NPR model where if your podcast wasn’t tightly edited and scripted in such a way that it sounded very clean and very good, you were just a couple of amateurs who were just Blahblahblah. There were enough garbage podcasts out there! If you get two people who are interested in talking and who don’t run out of things to say, who are capable of listening to the other person and who are bandying, John doesn’t think there is a limit to how good they can be. We are still at the dawn of that medium and there are a lot of people who receive information primarily through their ears. There are a lot of people who’s primarily interface to the world is through their eyes, but millions and millions of people learn through their hearing and if there was a video of them right now talking, maybe some of the visual people would be more intrigued to watch them both in their respective rooms, staring into a microphone, but particularly for this long style of conversation, the radio is the best way. They are right inside your head, and that is kind of sexy.

The expectation of John becoming a producer (NT11)

In 2008, people expected of John to go into producing. Despite all of the money that came in during the years prior, The Long Winters had always been at the top level of the layer of bands that were making it, but just making it. John thinks of the bands that were just above them, like The New Pornographers, or Nada Surf as a separate category, because those were bands that were not selling 30.000 copies of their records, but 60.000 copies. They were in the next level where they could afford a tour on a bus. Nada Surf was much more successful in Europe than in America and they would go over there 3-4 times a years.

Although The Long Winters were on the rise and were continuing to do better each time, touring was grueling, not to say unrewarding. Some of John’s personal best times on tour were at the very end of their long run where they had a big audience in Europe and played those wonderful shows. The band took an interest in where they were, which was a little bit different compared to most bands, because a lot of mistakes a lot of bands make was to just travel with their heads down and when they come to the venue, they sit and check their email backstage, play their show, go back to the hotel and check their email again.

The Long Winters always made a point out of going to the cathedral or when they were headed from Calais to Barcelona, John wanted to go via Andorra, because if they didn’t go to Andorra now, they would never going to go there. Everybody was like "meh!", but John was serious. They had been to Luxembourg and Lichtenstein, so now let’s go to Andorra! as they got there it was phenomenal, but terrifying at the same time because they took a giant Sprinter van on roads that you wouldn’t take a mule on. This kind of traveling made their tours fun, but not sustainable. They came back from tour, John paid the truck rental guy, the equipment rental guy, the booking agent and his band mates and he had made $1200.

Now John get this publishing money that is adequately compensating him for the 15 years of work he had put into the band. Going back out on tour would be an extraordinary amount of work, but John would have done it to promote the band. His bandmates weren’t ever doing it for the money, but everybody was paid enough for it to be a job. Still, when they came back from tour, they had other jobs. The bass player went back to work at the Mac store and their drummer owned a record label and a record store that he was able to keep rolling while he was gone. Everybody had made sacrifices to be a musicians, but John had written all the songs and the publishing money is all about song writing. Half of it went to the label and was disbursed according to master use, but the other half of it went to John as a songwriter.

The expectation in 2007 was that The Long Winters would put out another record and continue to be good at putting out records while John’s job during the downtime was expected to be making records for other people. If you are not going to become enormously successful, you have to diversify. John made a few records with artists and he really enjoyed the work of producing, but as a brand-new producer you are hustling. There was a band in Canada who wanted John to produce their record and there were bands seeking him out, but John was at the very beginning of ”Is this my new career?”, because although he really loved to do it, producing an album is all-consuming! You are going into a room with these people and you are staying in there for a month! Forget about anything else!

When social media started to bloom, what happened and what he never could have predicted, was that he was on people’s radar and maybe he had already been, but now John was aware of it and opportunities started to arise, because he was there, people could see him every day on Twitter and all they had to do was tweet him and ask if he would do this.

How John became friends with Aimee Mann (NT11)

John was playing a show at the new Largo in Los Angeles. Eliott Smith had played there a lot, Aimee Mann had played there a lot, and it had been the proving ground for a lot of comedians. John was opening a show for Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard on their Jack Kerouac tour. They had made a record where they used Jack Kerouac’s writing as lyrics and it was an intriguing and cool album. Opening for them on that tour was a one-time opportunity, because: Are you ever going to play with Jay Farrar again? John Wurster was the drummer and it was an interesting combination of people and an interesting experience.

John covered an Aimee Mann tune in honor of this great songwriter who is from the area. After the show he was backstage and the owner came through the back hall and told him that Aimee was here tonight. John was like ”Say what?” and all of a sudden Aimee Mann and Michael Penn were standing there and John got kind of red-faced. Aimee said that John had fucked up her second verse, but he knew that and his kind of swagger was to say ”Yeah, I fucked it up because I thought it could use a bit of extra sauce, frankly!” and she got a big smile. She also talked to Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard and then they were gone. This thing had happened to John 1000 times before, where he was backstage and somebody comes through and ”Oh, it’s David Cross” and you make a couple of jokes and he is gone.

There was no indication he would see Aimee Mann again, but she started to follow him on Twitter and replied to one of his tweets. He sent her a tweet back and all of a sudden they were pals on the Internet. You feel that you are pals with all the people you follow, but at that moment in social media it was still plausible that you could actually be pals, because there just weren’t that many people on Twitter. Now John was talking to Aimee and after a few months she was about to play in Central Park at a show honoring Paul Simon and asked John if he would like to do ”The Only Living Boy in New York” with her and John is like ”Sure!” What all of this meant was that Aimee was aware of John and his music. All of that stuff was happening as John Roderick, and not as The Long Winters, because when he started tweeting he had no intention promoting The Long Winters there. Maybe he is wrong, but he would have considered it to be gauche to tweet from a Long Winters brand, making whatever obscure jokes he was making at the time. He was coming at that from just like ”haha!”

John's record label not understanding Twitter (NT11)

The people at John’s record label were kvetching, because they recognized that he was devoting a lot of time and energy to Twitter and a lot of that energy was legitimately creative. He didn’t understand Twitter at first and he thought that 140 characters was the goal, so during his first six months on Twitter, his tweets were all exactly 140 characters long. At the time there wasn’t a way to retweet somebody without putting RT in front of it and he made himself a tremendous disservice, because nobody could spread his tweets if he didn’t leave any room. John would work on them for a couple of hours to get them to be exactly 140 characters and he would reword them until they were perfectly compact. He wasn’t adding unnecessary words to make his quote, but he was making these high quality!

The people at his label, Barzuk records, a very highly regarded West Coast label and very good friends, were concerned. Why was John not turning in his album? Is it because he is not just expending creative energy but also satisfying his desire for accolades and praise and attention in this medium where he was just giving people content for free and where you get immediate feedback and then you roll over and rub your tummy? Formerly you had to work your ass off for a year and put out a record and then hope that they Riverfront Times in Saint Louis would give you three column-inches. ”The new Long Winters record is pretty good. You should go see them when they are in town. Although, Fugazi is playing at the same time at the big theater, so maybe everybody will be there instead”.

For anybody who was accustomed to reading their own press, Twitter was representing a massive upgrade, because all of a sudden you were getting positive press day and night. John’s label was mad, but they weren’t on social media, they didn’t understand it and so they saw it as a colossal waste of time. It provoked some bad feelings. There was a period from 2008-2014 even, where most of John’s internet fans and friends who listen to his podcasts, follow him on Twitter and interacting with him in that world, didn’t know about The Long Winters. They weren’t music listeners, in many cases they were not even consumers of Rock music, but they knew John as an Internet personality.

All of his Rock band fans were kind of late to the Internet. They were music fans, they maybe had a Facebook page and they were wondering where The Long Winters went. They had no sense that John was over here doing this ladidadidadida Internet thing. Just in the last few years, those worlds have collided so much that now when he logs on to Twitter, ever single tweet has a link. John follows a very diverse group of people, but it is just link link link. He is not going to follow everybody’s link! Today everybody is on Facebook, so everybody knows now that John didn’t just disappear.

The effect of Song Exploder (NT11)

The Song Exploder episode of The Commander Thinks Aloud did more to introduce John’s music to the podcasting world than anything else. Thousands of people listen to this podcast every week who have never listened to The Long Winters, because they had just not gotten around to it, but suddenly they were exposed to John talking about this one song and it inspired them to go buy John’s albums. John met Rishi at the XOXO festival which is a super-exclusive Internet nerd land where everybody is a high level thinker about the Internet. He didn’t meet him in a Rock context at all. He came up to John, and like everyone from Yale, he found a way to include that he went to Yale into the first two sentences, which Abraham also managed to do. They went out to dinner and it was all very Internet. Then he said that he does this podcast about music and John was like ”weird”, but they made this thing and it was a great experience. John became friends with him and he could not have predicted the effect that this podcast had on people who already knew John well, liberating them to go ahead and try out his music.

Do The Long Winters still exist? (NT11)

John never broke up The Long Winters because there has never been a reason to. For most of his friends who have broken up their bands John always wondered why. The Posies have broken up 16 times and Harvey Danger has broken up 4 times. LCD Sound System played an enormous farewell show at Madison Square Garden and got back together 3 years later. John sees this as a personal affront. If you break up, for the love of God, have a little dignity and stay broken up! John’s friend Eric from the Fruit Bats decided to break up the Fruit Bats, did one tour under his own name, not as many people came as people who would have come to see the Fruit Bats, and so he put the Fruit Bats back together. Just don’t do the broken-up part!

Before recording this podcast today, John was in the middle of writing new music. It was partly because John has recently addressed some longstanding mental health issues that have liberated him from a lot of the unnecessary baggage that goes along with being a creative person. John is now much freer of some of the angry monkeys that used to ride on him all the time and he is faced with a question: Is the music he is writing right now for The Long Winters or is it a John Roderick solo record?

The Long Winters sold 30.000 copies of When I Pretend to Fall and of Putting the Days to Bed, John has 30.000 Twitter followers and Roderick on the Line has 30.000 listeners. John doesn’t think they are the same 30.000 people, but he thinks that whatever he does only attracts 30.000 people. Which is the more interesting brand? The decision wasn’t hard to make, which is that The Long Winters are the outlet of John’s music. Each album was made with a different cast of people, each one was thematically different and each time they toured with a different group. The only constant member was the bass player Eric, and he didn’t play at all on the first album, meaning that the only constant member was John.

A lot of people have helped John with the music he is making now, meaning there is continuity of whatever The Long Winters represented, which is John’s songs as envisioned by him and his friends. The only thing that would qualify as a John Roderick record would be him and an acoustic guitar. John is not entirely sure if he wouldn’t even call that a Long Winters album, too. His music has kind of been a dormant side of what he has been doing lately.

John has gotten some tremendous advice from friends over the years who told him that he has to strike while the iron is hot, because he has 10.000 Twitter followers and he needs to write a book right now! Rob Delaney wrote his memories right at the time when he was peaking on Twitter and it combined into this perfect storm where he got 1 million Twitter followers and he is off to the races, but he had a very different Twitter presence than John did and he is on a different course. There have been numerous hot irons, and John has struck none of them. Someone will present him with a hot iron and he will look at it until it cools. He does not even dout it with water, he just stares at it, mesmerized by the color and the heat until it cools and then he is confused. Why does heat go away?

Changing requirements from a record label (NT11)

It might be imprudent to talk about, but John has enough experience now thinking about putting his album out on a record label, Barzuk or some otherwise. It is unclear if Barzuk is still his label. They have talked quite a bit and they are still very good friends, but they have moved in other directions and they are now managing bands. If they were to release an album by one of their legacy artists, they would want to know if John is really going to pursue this with vigor. It is expensive to them and a tremendous amount of work and is John going to take it all the way? What John needs from a label in 2016 is very different than what he needed from a label in 2006.

Subpop had offered John a record contract in 1999 and it was hilarious. It was written in a subpoppy style and the first sentence was that Subpop retains the rights to this album throughout the universe. LOL! These guys are fun! John read the contract and asked a lot of questions about what does this mean, what does that mean. He was incredibly smug at the time because his dad and his uncle were attorneys. He didn’t have confidence about playing the bass, but he did have confidence that a normal person could read a 5-page contract and not be baffled by law language. There was a clause that some percentage was taken right off the top for breakage. It meant that when you ship vinyl, you have to account for the fact that 15% of them will break, because they are very fragile. Were they planning on making vinyl in 1999? No, nobody buys vinyl, but the clause is just standard. Everybody in 1999 was signing deals like that, even though breakage was not a factor anymore.

In 2005 all the contracts read ”As long as the label keeps the record in print, they retain the rights to the album. If the record goes out of print, then the artist can take the album back and sell it to somebody else” That put some compelling burden on the label to continue to support your record and to continue to print it, where printing meant that they would also continue to put it into stores. Keeping the album up on a website somewhere absolutely fulfilled the terms that it was still in print and all of a sudden all that was gone and all they had to do was to put it up on iTunes. The burden on the artist was still there, but the label effectively owned your album forever. Nobody was thinking about digital rights in perpetuity in 2005 because it had been a new concept.

Who buys CDs these days? What is a record label? John has been maintaining his career separately and he has developed an audience independently, so what is his relationship to a record contract? He does need services, he needs promotion, he needs vinyl produced, he needs the interface that a label presents and the support that a label offers, but the old record contracts are focused on manufacturing and distribution, neither which thing even exists anymore, so you sign a record contract that is primarily structured around these ideas that music is a physical commodity. People are probably signing record deals right now that somewhere on the 34th page have a clause for 15% breakage!

If John kept the entire operation to himself, made no relationships with anybody, put up a website, hyped it for 3 months, and annoyed all his famous friends to promote his thing, he would exert a tremendous effort and the day it came out he would be like ”Everybody buy my fucking thing!” All the money would accrue to him directly with no intermediary except iTunes, how much money would that be? He would not put it on Spotify immediately, but he would put some snippets on his own website, "Go here! Listen to them! Trust me on this one!" There is a built-up desire for a new Long Winters record and there will be people who will just buy it, meaning that during the first week there will be a torrent of people who will give him $10 and you could watch this little thing fill up with money. Once it is full, you put it on Spotify, maybe you put it on vinyl and sell vinyl to people who want to pay more for it. Then you have some outtakes, some songs that didn’t make the record. You play some house-shows for a year or you fly in to play Austin. That is one model.

The other one is that you give 50% to a label who manufactures the vinyl, who gets the article in the Delta in-flight magazine, but hopefully also gets it into Pitchfork and everywhere else. They will treat it like a genuine release by a record label and tout it as the return of The Long Winters and you set up a big tour to coincide with the release of the new album. They will capitalize on all the people who want to see the band and treat it like it is 2003 and at the end of the day you stack up all your currants in the final accounting. Which made you more money? It is the big unknowable. Jonathan Coulton has just finished an album and he is releasing it on Aimee Mann’s sublabel, which is ultimately a vanity label of her big label. He is going the opposite direction and putting an album out on a record label so he doesn’t have to worry about fulfillment, he doesn’t have to worry about publicity, he just doesn’t have to deal with it, but he is just going to put the record into a pipeline. For that guy who is the poster-child of ”put your music on the Internet” to make that decision is telling.

The Jonathan Coulton way of releasing music (NT11)

Jonathan Coulton invented this world where you put your record up for free on the Internet or let people buy it online or you write a song for a video game without really getting any money for it, but all of a sudden you are an enormously popular and successful artist and you don’t owe it to anybody. Jonathan was a lightning bolt in a lot of musician’s minds and they were like ”Oh, it is as simple as that! The world has changed!” There was a New York Times Magazine cover story on him in 2007 that brought his story to the attention of just about everybody. Then Radiohead put out that record with the ”Pay what you want” thing and for everybody who paid $0.50 there were enough people who paid $500 for it. In the immediate aftermath of that people would put up their album up for free and were hoping that they were going to recoup that money in T-shirt sales, but a lot of musicians lost their asses because it doesn’t work for everybody, it only worked for Jonathan Coulton.

It would be a big mistake for John to think that every one of his Twitter followers is going to buy his album when he tweets about it 3 times. Everyone is inundated with a Twitter feed full of links. Everybody is promoting everything all the time. Everybody has got a Kickstarter. Everybody has got a Patreon. People are inundated! John has maybe 1000 true-blue Internet fans and some of them would probably send him a Thank You Congratulations cheque, but that is a lot different than selling 30.000 records, although John doesn’t know how different it actually is (John alludes to this article). Couldn’t he ride off into the sunset by maximizing the money he could make from these 1000 people? If 30 people each give you $1000, you just made $30.000. If 1000 people give you $1000, wow, you are rich! But you can’t know until you wade into the market place and you only got one shot at it. You come out with your plan and you sit and wait.

John's and Jonathan's Christmas album (NT11)

A couple of years ago, John and Jonathan Coulton made a Christmas album together where they wrote and recorded 10 brand new Christmas songs. They were extremely proud of it! Between John’s Rock ’n’ Roll credentials and resources and Jonathan’s Internet resources, they set a low bar of a certain number of albums that they couldn’t imagine selling fewer than. They also imagined a top bar that they thought was a genius idea. They had made a brand new record of all Christmas songs which was hilarious and every one of Jonathan’s fans, every one of John’s fans and everybody who heard about it on NPR was going to buy it. In fact, none of that happened, it underperformed and they don't have an explanation for it. John doesn’t even know how many copies it sold because Jonathan handled all the business and thank God he did!

They made 1000 special boxes with T-shirts and pins and then they would print up however many more just for the punters and they didn’t sell through either amount. If they had said ”We’ll see how many this sells”, they would have been psyched. They would have made $10.000-15.000 each and it would have been ”Sweet!”, but they paid a publicist $5000 before they had sold a single one, because that was John’s Rock’n’Roll experience. Jonathan had never paid for publicity before. The publicist got something written about them in the Delta Airlines in-flight magazine, and he got it covered in the Saint Louis River Front Times and there was no evidence that any of that publicity sold a single album. These box sets for the super-fans cost a tremendous amount of money to manufacture and then they didn’t sell through them. Their expectations drove them to invest a big chunk upfront of what they ended up earning. They did it because they wanted to be ready because you don’t want to be caught with your pants down where all of a sudden you have all those people who want to give you their money.

Dave Bazan’s year of 7” (NT11)

Last year, Dave Bazan of Pedro the Lion produced two songs a month for a year: He wrote them, recorded them, mastered them and made vinyl 7” with an A/B-side (see here). That is a beautiful thing to do and each one of those things was a beautiful work of art. He sold enough of them that it wasn’t a money loser. From John’s perspective, that whole project should be in MOMA. Those ten 7” should be packaged in a wooden box and sold for $500 because what a tremendous amount of work and the songs are amazing. What a brilliant idea! What a beautiful thing!

Contrast that with ”Hey everybody, hey @-world. Here is my new record, it is up on iTunes or it is for free. Peace out!” Which is the thing that inspires you? If you chose the beautiful thing, maybe when you are dead 1000 years from now somewhere will still have this box of 7”. Thank God! I made one beautiful thing in my life! As opposed to ”Hey, I worked on this for a year, I think these songs are amazing, available on Spotify for free and if you like them, you will probably buy one of them.” Some of John's good friends will give him $100 on Patreon for a thing he worked on for a year and he put the songs in a specific order because it tells a story and this is still an album to him, like a complete work, and not a set of singles. But what if he would put out a new MP3 for $0.99 every month and would sell 250 of those?

Merlin the productivity guru (NT11)

Merlin’s productivity world of 43 Folders is totally alien to John.

The famous story is that around 2003 Merlin and John were on the phone arguing about The Beatles and Merlin asked who was designing John’s website. John asked back what they would need a website for. Merlin just couldn’t believe it, because it was 2003 and he replied ”What do I need food for?” and John honestly had no idea! What would he need a website for? Isn’t that for weird filesharing shit? After that call, Merlin designed the first website for The Long Winters as a fan while John doesn’t know anything about XHTML, he doesn’t even know how to use ProTools and he doesn’t know how to read a technical manual, because he doesn’t want to. His eyes just roll into the back of his head. Merlin’s website was about a book like Getting Things Done, and John can’t stand that stuff! The other day Merlin recommended The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and he said it will change John’s life, but it will only change John’s bookshelf, because he will now have one more book on it. Somebody had some ideas and they should absolutely tell those ideas to people, but keep them away from John!

John hoping that somebody transcribes his podcasts (NT11)

Abraham hopes that if John ever did write a ”What I have learned” kind of book, it would be far and away above all the other crap that is written in that genre. He hopes that at some point something like that happens, even if it is just a memoir with a few lessons interspersed. John hopes that someone will transcribe all these many long tirades and John will have a document to work from. He loves editing documents. If you put a 200.000 word document in front of him, he will just put it into 50.000 words that are pure diamond, but to somehow feed all of these podcasts into some transcribing daemon is technologically over John’s head. One day that book will come out and all these podcast will all be a form of dictation. (another reference to John wishing someone would transcribe his podcasts in Reconcilable Differences)

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