Thursday, August 10, 2023

Feeling Like An Outsider

When you're an amateur songwriter and solo artist like me who releases music to stream in the same places where you can stream the professional mainstream artists, you definitely feel like a pretender and an outsider.

Could my music be "outsider" music?  Maybe.  There are so many styles of music and genres and sub-genres out there, and this is another one I've become more aware of recently.  It's a way of describing music that borrows from the term "outsider art" which describes art made by people who didn't have formal training and didn't hang out with any other artists.  I say that in past tense because usually their art was discovered after they died. 

Here are a bunch of aspects of outsider music and my thoughts about how if at all, my music might qualify:

  • The "Un"s:  Untrained, unpopular, uncommercial, underground, unconventional, unwilling to collaborate, unintential renegade, under the radar, untalented, unsophisticated, etc..  These could all apply to my music I suppose in one way or another.

  • No traditional experience:  Other than playing in a few very short-lived bands and/or duos with only a handful of actual paying gigs in bars in my early 20s, and a few public performances at open mic nights over the years, I've only played live in front of family and friends.  My musical experience has been very infrequent and sporadic in that sense, and I never really practice at all.  However, I've consistently written and recorded songs by myself for a few decades now.

  • Lo-fi overlap:  Outsider music is not typically made in a real recording studio.  I record everything myself in my house using cheap equipment I've purchased, and it's definitely independent and unprofessional.  I have an acoustic, analog sound but I use some digital technology.  The production quality is low, and I don't use much quality control.  Leaving in accidental imperfections is a deliberate choice for me.

  • Lack of self-awareness:  I'm self-conscious about my music, I know it's not anywhere close to the popular mainstream, yet I do it anyway.  Releasing my music to the world despite being laughably incompetent is to me just being bold.  I am afraid of the vulnerability, but I've consistently concquered that fear by hitting the Submit button to distribute the music.

  • Self-taught:  I took a few piano lessons as a child, then was permitted to quit by my parents after requesting it.  I also took an Intro to Guitar course my Senior year in college, and got a B, and didn't learn much except a few blues boogie patterns.  In both cases, the teaching approach was to learn to read music notation first, which was intimidating and overwhelming to me.  I also took Intro to Poetry, which may have helped me understand some basics of lyrics, but it was before I learned to play guitar.

  • Naive:  This means no formal education or training, which I just covered in the previous bullet.  I admit my music is rough, raw, unsophisticated and primitive - all adjectives for naive art and naive music - but I've not been completely isolated from listening to music, which I've done a lot of.  Also, I have very occasionally jammed with other musicians and learned from them.  I've also had the internet, which I've used to look up a few music-related and songwriting-related bits of information.

  • Childlike qualities:  I have some songs that might be considered children's music, and I know some children like some of my music.  I definitely have some novelty songs, and my lyrics are occasionally funny.  I'm not burdoned by a lot of knowledge about music, and I'm definitely an immature person even though I'm a few years away from senior citizen age.

  • Mental illness:  Marketing-wise it makes for a better story if a musician has a serious diagnosis like schizophrenia, but I have no such diagnosis to report.  It would be easy to make a joke about this one, but there seems to be an undercurrent of this in creative people who are not in much contact with the conventions of mainstream culture.  I am not a part of any sort of music scene at all.  I definitely make my music in total isolation, and I have experienced some mental health struggles.

  • Posthumous discovery:  Not many people have discovered my music and it is possible more will discover it after my death.  I would like that, if I were able to become aware of it somehow, but who knows?

All of those points could be construed as either negative or positive depending on your perspective.  The positives of outsider music are:

  • Complete creative control:  Most music people listen to is the result of major corporate record labels following trends and marketing plans to make a profit.  Sometimes even governments pay to train kids to be superstars like these K-Pop artists.  Photoshopped and focus-grouped.  Mine is not "music by committee".  Mine has no outside influence at all.

  • Authenticity:  I write and record my music exactly how I intend it.  I'm influenced by music I've heard before, but don't ever intentionally try to copy anyone.  I get it close to how I imagined it as best I can with my limited abilities.  I don't release it if I don't find something about it pleasing to me.  Whether you find it aesthetically pleasing or not, is a matter of taste and philosophy.

I conclude that I just don't care.  If I label my music as such, and it attracts fans of The Shaggs or Captain Beefheart or Larry "Wild Man" Fischer or Daniel Johnston, then that would be cool and all, but the music journalists and critics who come up with the definitions of these labels would probably say I don't qualify, and that is also cool with me.  

Although I love outdoor recreation, like skiing, sailing, hiking, and even playing music outside, I spend most of my time indoors.  I am likely an introvert if you care about such things, I think because I crave time to myself.  I know when I've hung around other songwriters and musicians I've definitely felt like an outsider, and I prefer to just do my own thing alone.

Don't get me wrong though - in the highly unlikely event that my music all of a sudden became popular and some record company or manager thought I could sell tickets to shows and tour and suggested I put a band together - I would do it in a heartbeat.  I'd find a drummer, bass player, and keyboard player, practice to learn my songs, then go out and play and love it.  Then I'd no doubt get tired of the traveling and decide to take a break, but they wouldn't want me to.  Pressures would set in.  If you watch music documentaries or read interviews with popular musical acts, you know how the story goes.  It would be fun for a while though!  As an arguable outsider musician, fortunately I have no such pressure.  :)

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