This is the first installment of a two-part conversation with Christian folk singer/songwriter Derek Webb. Today, Webb talks about growing up in the South, how he started playing music, and his progressive ideas for the music industry. Tomorrow, he discusses culture and what he sees as the defining problem of the Christian church. (Click here to read part two.)
Patrol: You’ve talked a lot about your music and your convictions but I don’t really know a lot about your life, you know – what your family was like and how you got involved with music.
Derek Webb: I grew up in the South, in Tennessee mostly, and some in Texas. [Music] was just the one thing that came really naturally to me, so I don’t know, I was probably six or seven years old when I started playing music. My mom was a musician as well, a piano teacher and things like that. She kind of taught me a little bit, but I’ve never really known how to read music. It was just more like she got me familiar with it and interested. So piano was first and I kind of picked up the guitar when I was about seven.
It was the one thing I could really do, all the other things I tried, I met with mostly frustration, except for music. So that’s just kind of the only thing I know how to do, so I’m still doing it.
Patrol: What kind or role do you think music can and should play in terms in religion?
Webb: You know, I think, in terms of religion I don’t really know, I can’t really speak to that. What I can say is that in any culture or subculture, or even any worldview, art always does play a really central role. You can gauge a particular worldview that you’re not familiar with by looking at the art that they produce by the people who believe. So in those terms, I think it’s really important. Art is a lot more important than a lot of people would kind of give it credit for. It’s not just something to entertain, although I think it can do that.
Especially in the Western Christian worldview, artists are not really taking that role as seriously as they should. It looks to me like short-sighted goals, just try to sell a bunch of records, try to do something that’s relevant today that may be entirely irrelevant tomorrow, in terms of style or a particular trend. But ultimately we’re telling the story of what we believe and we’re putting a context of our worldview around this art that we’re making, and that’s how people are going to learn about what we believe.
So if we’re not putting a really high premium on making really excellent art and excellent work, then I would just be afraid that people will get the wrong idea about what we believe. Especially with Christians who claim to be made in the image of a God who is a Creator, you know the whole first chapter of the Bible talks about God as a Creator making all things out of nothing. The whole first chapter is sort of marveling at his creativity. But as his so called “image bearers,” are we really taking seriously the fact that we’ve been made in the image of this Creator? And what are we really communicating about his character and about the quality of His art?
You know when I look around, for instance, the state of North Carolina or California or Colorado, some of the more beautiful areas, even the hills of Tennessee, I don’t see a lot of cheesy, substandard, unoriginal art. I see the glory of creation, that’s the artist in whose image we’re made. Yet we totally misrepresent His character by making this really cheesy, short-sighed art. I think it plays a really central and important role. I don’t even think the artists take it as seriously as it should be
Patrol: Speaking of taking art seriously, you are behind a new project that will assist good artists in getting their work out to a larger audience. How is NoiseTrade going?
Webb: It’s going really well. We’re just kind of at the end of the development stage of it, and we’re actually building it as we speak. We hope to have it online in a few months I would hope, tops. And it’s a really good thing, it’s going to be a really beneficial thing for artists and a lot of music fans. In terms of it basically connecting fans of music, and helping them find and helping (artists) freely distribute music. Artists are going to offer records up for free, and fans are going to be able to download those records for free.
But there will be a “trade” to it: we’re asking people to give a minimal amount of information so artists can contact them and let them know they’re going to play in their city and when they have new records coming out. And we’ve built a really tremendous way to do what music fans want to do any way, which is when they find great music they want to tell their friends about it . . . It’s going to be this really great community experiment. I’m really looking forward to it.
Patrol: So have you considered utilizing the Radiohead name-your-price model?
Webb: That’s not really our plan right now. The idea of what Noise Trade is doing is kind of the opposite of that. I really believe that a record is it’s own marketing tool, and the more completely available, the more you can really liberate a record to go anywhere and find anybody the better. And the only way to really do that is to make it completely free. People take free music anyway, they’re free music taking up almost half of the global bandwidth of the internet. Radiohead can get away with a pay what you want, because they’re Radiohead, and everybody already knows who they are.
If you did something like that nobody would pay anything, and then you’d have most people not getting anything, they’d be maybe getting maybe just pennies in exchange for their records and really nothing else. The way we figure it, a better thing for independent artists to have rather than to just give it away for completely free, is to trade fans and to learn something about those fans. Even when you sell records in the stores you don’t know who bought them, where they are, how to contact them, you just get their money. And most artists don’t even get their money, cause most artists don’t make any significant income off of physical records they’re selling in stores. But you can absolutely make your living if you have information. If you have emails and zip codes for everyone who downloaded it, and you know that you have four hundred people within twenty miles of downtown Houston, Texas then you can plan to play there and sell out a show.
That’s really significant for a independent artist. Information is worth a lot, maybe even more than pennies on every record. I think the Radiohead model was good, I think it was a little more of a stunt. I don’t know if a model like that can be sustained for very long for very many artists. But I think gathering a lot of independent artists in one place, all of whom have maybe just a handful of fans, getting all those fans together in one place that can represent a lot of people. And all the sudden all those fans find all these other artists, and all the records are free it’s going to be a great opportunity to really promote a lot of bands who a lot of fans wouldn’t pay anything for their records, yet.
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