Lee Smith's novel, Devil's Dream, and Maggie Greenwald's movie, Songcatcher, chronicle a watershed in the history of American music. Devil's Dream begins with a poignant reminiscence of folks from a mountain community walking out to a high bald with a car radio and battery, to lie on blankets under a starry sky, and listen to The Grand Ole Opry. Before this time, if they wanted music, they made it themselves. After this time, they simply listened to recordings of the same music being played in Los Angeles supermarkets.
Old Timey, Blue Grass, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Rock-A-Billy, Delta Blues, Memphis Blues are just a few of the many forms of music that developed before commercial music reached into every corner of our country. And when the recording industry needs inspiration to rescue itself from its own stale formulas, it reaches back into these corners, or into other areas of the world that have not yet been overwhelmed by American commercial music.
Money changes everything. Some of the ways that money changes music are good. For example, you can hear Rudolph Serkin play Beethoven piano sonatas or Dolly Parton sing blue grass or Samba Ngo play afro-pop for about $15 US; as many times as you wish, wherever you are, and whenever you please. On the other hand, if the music industry guesses that just a few thousand people will be interested in buying a certain type of music, they won't publish that music.
The recording industry continues to conglomerate into fewer but larger companies, companies that are typically run by executives who know more about marketing and accounting than they do about music. Their business plan amounts to finding, and relentlessly promoting, the next Madonna, by gambling large on a small number of potential stars.
Ironically, even though it has never been easier or cheaper to record and produce music CDs, the problem of reaching an audience is at least as hard as it has ever been. Payola (bribes paid to radio stations) has been made illegal, but it still takes a lot of cash to encourage radio stations to play a particular song. Commercial music promotion requires total commitment from the artist, a life of touring performances that is not family friendly.
The result is that many songwriters whose songs are at least as good as most of the hits, and many musicians that are at least as good as most of the stars, will not be heard. Record label executives have replaced the royal patrons of Mozart's time. Mozart died in poverty because he could not get a recording contract. This is not a new problem.
The Community Music Project is a community of songwriters, musicians, and recording engineers publishing local music with minimal amounts of money. Instead of complaining about, or attempting to change, the music recording industry, we offer an alternative for musicians and listeners.
The Community Music Project started with a geriatric tape recorder and a consumer microphone, graduated to MiniDisc, and then to a CD-R recorder. We are currently recording in 16-track digital with conventional studio microphones. As we were considering upgrading to more professional equipment, an angel sent a big check to the project that essentially covered the new equipment. We do not have a studio. Instead, we use our small living room, our son's former bedroom, and quiet spaces generously provided by supporters of the project.
As of June 2007, the Community Music Project has published six CDs, Butterfly on the Wind (2000), Come Shining Through (2001), Feel This Love (2002), Dreams of Flying (2003), The Innocence To Cry (2005), and We Are All of This (2007). The Project has also assisted in the production of two other CDs, Goodbye Taganka (Jamuna, 2000) and I Send A Voice (Mark Smith & Friends, 2002). We are currently recording or planning many more CDs.
The local listening community supports the Project with donations of equipment, recording space, and small amounts of money. "Local" is the Chapel Hill North Carolina area, home to several universities, and therefore now home to folks from everywhere. Because we distribute our CDs free, and by hand, through our friends and friends-of-friends network, we achieve surprisingly wide distribution.