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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview with JT Bruce

JT Bruce is a composer and guitarist from southern California who has released 3 albums of instrumental music. His music can best be described as cinematic. Sometimes prog metal with crunching guitars, sometimes symphonic with spaced out synths, always painting an image in sound. These can be downloaded from his site for free, or you can order a cd from him (totally worth it for the artwork). In addition to music, JT is a visual artist, film maker, and animator. You can download music, see some of his art and watch some film clips at his site http://www.subjectruin.net/. Please do donate if you like what you see and hear.


Sometime after Universica, his newest album, was released I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview with me. He was kind enough to say yes and now that the physical cds for Universica are ready to go, I'm ready to post the interview.


He took the time to expound quite a bit. I think his answers are very insightful and show a great sense of humor. He's part of the young, new generation making prog music for the sake of the art, and one who pretty much entered the business knowing that file sharing and free music would be the new norm. He's got some great thoughts about the plusses and minuses of free music on the internet, getting on with your creativity, and he gives the best advice ever about what to do if someone knocks you down.


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1. What or who got you started in writing and recording your music?


I never really liked popular music growing up. As a kid, I had very confused tastes and bought a couple cassette tapes to be cool, but I never really enjoyed the music for what it was. It took me until 7th or 8th grade to find an interest in old heavy metal and punk, which in turn inspired me to learn guitar. After picking up an instrument, it didn't take long for me to realize how formulaic and homogenous most mainstream music is. This really fueled my desire to make something different and new. 


My musical horizons exploded in high school. I started listening to prog and got my hands on a lot more obscure music that really resonated with me. I was still very interested in the guitar and I floated around between a lot of different guitar teachers who never did much for me. I wanted to learn about the mechanics and underpinnings of music, why things sounded good or bad, and how I could learn to write my own material. They mostly just taught me how to play Metallica songs, then collected their money as I left. 


When I was a sophomore in high school, I met an awesome guitar teacher who took me to the next level when he made me realize that I wasn't a guitar player, I was a composer who happened to play guitar. That was the epiphany I needed to start writing and recording my own music.


2. Do you have any specific sources of inspiration?


I've been making movies since I could pick up a camcorder, and I've played video games for as long as I can remember. Music is a very large part of both of these. The influence these two storytelling mediums have on my life has a profound effect on my music. I like to combine this cinematic sensibility with the sounds and attitude of progressive music.


3. You play all the instruments on your albums. Is there one that you consider your main instrument?


I've played guitar for a long time now, and it's definitely my primary instrument, but as I said before, I consider myself more of a composer than a guitar player. I'm actually not a very good guitarist in terms of shredding solos and nosebleed riffing. Probably a better way of saying things would be that I use the guitar simply to express musical ideas.


4. You've done instrumental music thus far, any desire to do a vocal record?


I started writing The Dreamer's Paradox with the intention of singing on it myself. The entire album was very intricately planned before I even started recording. I recorded a lot of preliminary vocals during the initial sessions for that album, but I developed a massive phobia of my own voice almost as soon as I began. Months later, the lyrics and vocals were scrapped, the music was completely different, and my plans evolved so heavily that the final version of The Dreamer's Paradox only vaguely resembled my original plans. Vocals never entered the picture on Universica, but I wouldn't completely rule out vocals on future material.


5. You give your music away for free under the Creative Commons license, with a gentle request for donations (go donate people!). Why give your music away?


I'm going to combine questions 5 to 11 into a big section on free music, how I got involved with it, and what my thoughts are on the subject. Hopefully your questions will be answered in the process :)


6. You were ahead of the curve for free music. Your first album was done in 2005 and Radiohead released In Rainbows in 2007. What gave you the initial idea to go with free distribution?


7. Did you try going the more standard commercial route first or did you go the free route from the start?


8. Did you ever pursue a label or distribution deal, or did you set out to be independent?


9. You've released 3 albums now. How do you feel about the online free distribution? Has your view of it changed since your first album? 


10. Did you have an idea of what free downloads would be like or certain expectations when you started?


11. How has this business model fulfilled or changed your expectations for the business side of your music?


In 2005, I was an unpopular 18 year old college freshman with a CD full of weird music that nobody listened to. Rowdy teenagers living in the anarchy of college dorms want to listen to 4/4 pop rock and remixed hip-hop songs. I'm not putting this music down, but I'm preaching to the choir when I say that progressive music is pretty far off the radar to most people.


I decided on the free music route when I realized that I didn't have any other choices. I got a lot of blank stares when I showed people my music. They just didn't know what to think. I didn't (couldn't) play my music live. Nobody wanted to buy CDs. Record labels were almost certainly not interested in this stuff. So I gave it away for free.


My thoughts at the time were to focus on getting my music into as many ear canals as possible, so I released Anomalous Material under a Creative Commons License and crossed my fingers. The idea was to spread this stuff around like a disease and see who got infected. I took it as a given that I wouldn't be making any money, but by maximizing my exposure, things might develop into something better somewhere down the road.


I was shocked to find that people were downloading Anomalous Material, and even more shocked to see that they were liking it. I clicked refresh on my statistic pages like a drug addict taking another hit. Every time I got an email from someone about my music, I was floored. So I decided to write another album with hopes it would be even bigger. And it worked! The Dreamer's Paradox began to log downloads on dozens of sites spread across the internet and the globe. Advertising revenue trickled in at an embarrassing rate, and a handful of generous people donated some money or asked to buy hard copies of the albums. This was very surprising to me. I thought, “Why would people pay for something that they could have for free?” I was still making practically zero money, but at least people were listening, and it was an awesome feeling.


By the time I released Universica, I had a certain amount of expectations about how it would propagate across the web. I'd release it on my own site and a few others, and I would send out e-mails to people who'd contacted me about the previous albums. It would take a couple weeks for the word to get out, then it would start showing up on torrent sites, reviews would start popping up, and then I could sell CDs and make some money. But this isn't what happened.


The initial reviews were stronger than the previous albums, but it didn't take off the way they did. Around a year later, Universica was finally getting caught up with the other two, and by the time I printed CDs, they were selling at a very slow rate. During the time between Dreamer's and Universica, I let my footholds slip and a lot of the work I had done to promote my work had eroded out from under me. This was my first big experience with how fickle the internet can be.


In my experience, the free music scene has been invaluable. Without it, my music would simply not exist. At the same time, I feel like I've reached the limits of what it can do for me. The internet is a sea that must be sailed aggressively and persistently. It's a full-time job and if you let your guard down or stop putting in an effort, it's very easy to fade back into obscurity.


12. As the web changes the way we interact there is a trend to getting more personal info about everybody. Your website doesn't give out a lot of information about you. Is the mystery intentional? Are you looking to just let your work speak for itself?


I'm definitely not trying to be mysterious in the way that many bands do. I'm usually vague in my personal info just because I hate writing about myself. It isn't about me anyway, it's supposed to be about the music!


13. I noticed that a Google search for you doesn't turn up myspace and wikipedia as the top results as it does for most bands. Most of your first three search pages are places to download the music. Any favorite websites among those you've used? 


To be honest, I think MySpace has a collection of the ugliest, messiest pages on the entire internet. I haven't used MySpace in a serious way since I was 16. And I'm certainly not notable enough to get an article on Wikipedia!


My favorite websites for getting my music out there are Jamendo and Last.fm. Both sites put a lot of emphasis on the artists and are generous in sharing ad revenue and royalties.



14. Aside from the music you're also involved in illustration and film. Do you compartmentalize your work in these areas or is it all part of a continuum for you?


I love combining music and images (images and words?). As I said before, there are a lot of cinematic influences in my music. I write the scores for all my films and frequently use music from my albums on film projects. While I focus on one medium at a time, in the end they are inseparable for me.


15. When you're working on music, does it come in bursts of inspiration or do you take a steady, constant approach to writing?


When I'm in hardcore music mode, I try to write a minute of music every day. More often than not, it's complete unusable crap. But as we can all relate, there are times when the creative floodgates seem to open and all the good ideas come flowing out.


For me, creativity is like inertia. It's very difficult to get a heavy object moving, but once it's moving, it's very hard to stop.


16. As essentially a solo act doing a band project, do you have any urges to form a band or play out?


I played in a band in high school, and while there's nothing like getting up on stage and rocking out, I just don't think I could form a serious band. The way I work is usually too idiosyncratic to involve other people. Music is one of the few things in life I take seriously – it would be far too much fun being in a band for me to take things seriously!


17. Being a guitar player myself I have to ask, do you have a favorite guitar? Any essential gear you can't live without?


I'm really not a big guitar geek. I've only used one electric guitar on all three of my albums, my Gibson SG. She's a little banged up, but I love her to death. The rest of my equipment is cheap, but functional. I've always been a firm believer that it's not your software or equipment that make good music, it's the ideas you can bring to life with what you have.


18. Any advice for other artists and musicians who might want to follow the same business model you have?


I'm hardly qualified to give out advice, but the only reason anyone even knows about my music is because of my persistence. If somebody knocks you down, you stand back up, kick them in the nuts, and keep on going.


19. Care to share your opinions on the state of music in general? The industry, the way people consume music now, etc...


Despite the doom and gloom projected by the record industry and the fuss about how file sharing is stealing music away from artists, I think the global music scene is thriving. Never have we lived in a time where the technology to write and record music has been more advanced, embraced, and accessible. When anyone can write and record a song, creativity explodes. The opportunity to make music is no longer available to only a select few, and as a result, all of the old business models are failing. But while the record labels are crumbling and the music magnates are desperately clinging to their riches, the power and freedom is returning to the artists. I couldn't be happier about the direction music is taking.


20. Are there any questions I didn't ask that you wish someone would? Now is your chance to take over the soapbox.


I just want to say thanks for the opportunity and the very insightful questions. Support the music you love!

2 comments :

Lamneth said...

Great idea and interview with an intriguing individual. I can think of a few other examples of artists who used to give away their albums for free too, and I think it helped them make a name for themselves. Porcupine Tree and Phideaux are two I can think of.

guitarsean said...

Porcupine Tree gave music away? I never knew that. Cool.

It's a trade off. You might not make any money, but your exposure can be huge. If you really are in it to first satisfy yourself, then share with people who get what you're doing, it's the way to go. Actually, that doesn't sound like a trade off. If you sign with a label you might not make any money anyway.

I seem to be carving an interview niche with musicians who spend equal time as visual artists. If anyone has suggestions for more interviews I'd love to have them.