Malcolm X Abram: Appreciate artists who make living doing what they love

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Ryan Humbert

This week, local music hustler/singer/songwriter/pop-rocker Ryan Humbert will commandeer the intimate 250-seat cabaret stage setup of the Akron Civic Theatre to present Only the Lonely: The Music of Roy Orbison.

Humbert has done this show before, respectfully taking on 26 of Orbison’s tunes with help from a spiffed-up, nine-piece version of his band and a string section that should ensure some nice lush arrangements.

I know I say this periodically, but you have to appreciate area artists (and really anyone) who can make a living doing what they love.

Area folks such as Humbert, Helen Welch — who recently sold out the Civic’s cabaret stage with her tribute to the Carpenters — jazz trumpeter Josh Rzepka, bands such as Hey Monea, reggae man Carlos Jones and others who maintain a fairly constant stream and circuit of gigs that actually pay the bills (though some, Jones for example, also have spouses willing to sit in a cubicle for 40 hours a week to support their artistic dreams).

While I’m pretty sure most of the self-sustaining artists and bands would trade the local grind for a national one that garnered them big tours and opportunities, as a working stiff (who loves his job, of course. Nothing to see here, boss!), I do have a soft spot in my fairly hardened heart for those willing and able to suffer the financial and artistic slings and arrows to make music.

Interestingly, in these newfangled, Internet-dependent music business times, the grass-roots approach of social media, self-releasing and just giving away free music and making fans feel as if they have a tangible stake in your creative process and ultimate success (which they do, but you probably won’t ever see Keith Richards tweeting about it) is quickly becoming the primary approach as the major label teat (those big cash advances that often kept bands in debt until they could tour and sell their way out of the hole) has all but dried up.

In some ways, the industry has gone backward with artists churning out digital singles and EPs the way the early rockers and pop stars use to churn out 45s to keep up with demand and to keep their names and sounds floating atop the sea of bands vying for attention.

Artists always made more money from touring and merchandise than record sales, but today’s artists are finding they must stay on the road longer to break even, and with terrestrial radio about as popular as newspapers (still nothing to see, boss!), the best and quickest way to get mass exposure is through licensing to commercials and television shows. But even being exposed to a relatively captive audience doesn’t guarantee a boost in sales.

Rolling Stone recently noted that R&B band Fitz and the Tantrums performed throughout the night during the recent VH1 Critics’ Choice Awards (yeah, those exist) playing snippets of several songs from its debut album Pickin’ Up the Pieces with the reasonable expectation of a healthy sales boost but the band’s reward was moving only 300 more units of the album.

The new way does work, though, with artists such as left-of-center R&B cats Frank Ocean and the Wknd finding success on their own terms after releasing mixtapes and playing many shows.

Under the old system, both artists — whose music doesn’t fit the prevalent young-skewing “blazing hip-hop and R&B” radio format — probably would have been encouraged to transform themselves into or at least copy more conventional R&B crooners such as Trey Songz, and load their albums with (expen$ive) features from Nicki Minaj or some other emcee of the moment.

The pop duo Karmin (singer Amy Heidemann and instrumentalist Nick Louis Noonan) inundated YouTube with catchy/cute covers of current R&B and hip-hop hits, racking up millions of YouTube hits that the group has parlayed into a Top 20 hit with its original song Brokenhearted, a Rolling Stone cover (as voted by fans), an appearance on the 2011 BET Awards, a record deal with Epic (good luck with that, kids) and the use of another song Take It Away during the 2011 NBA Finals.

It is a bold, new, music business with many avenues for artists to carve out their own space and live their dream without automatic capitulation to what the remaining industry suits believe the masses want.

So remember: that neighbor kid you hear thrashing away in his basement on a guitar/drums/laptop that you want to chuck off the nearest skyscraper might already by a YouTube star who you will be bragging about knowing a year from now.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.

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