Middle Tennessee Music Interviews Phil Circle (May, 2018)

Q. Where are you from and what style of music do you create? (In your own words, not necessarily in marketing terms or by popular genre classifications.)

A. I'm from Chicago, born and raised. My music career initially cut its teeth while I lived in New Mexico, however, back between 1989 and '92. That's when I started playing professionally more often and did some of my first recordings. I was in my early twenties. I also recently spent nearly six years in northern Wisconsin, where my wife is originally from. We landed there after a tour ended and we had no place to stay. We moved in with family for what we thought would be a season. I ended up needing a hip replacement and ran into various other health issues that aggravated any attempts at returning home for awhile. Then in 2016, we made the jump back to Chicago and it's here we're gonna stay. Chicago has always been my base, my home, and the biggest influence on my music.

I'm a singer-songwriter-guitarist with definite roots in blues and rock. Still, Latin styles crept in here and there, as did country, folk, and jazz. Mostly, the styles blend into each other. I just write, you know? I don't sit down and say, "Oh, I think I'll write a song in this or that genre." Certainly, I may gravitate to an initial structure or chord choice, but that's about the end of the thinking. I just let the right brain lead the way and use my skills and knowledge of music to piece the song into something complete. So, maybe I'm just another version of Americana, but less mainstream?

Q. What led you down this path of music and what motivates you to keep going?

A. As the youngest of a large family, and with my mom having been a classical musician, I was exposed to a lot of music from the get-go. My dad loved folk stylings, especially from his home in Appalachia. My five older siblings were all listening to The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, and the like. The week I turned seven, the whole family took a trip down to New Orleans. I remember walking down Bourbon Street and clutching the rungs of the fence in front of Preservation Hall, mesmerized by the jazz. I was surrounded by music and the people who played it. Thing is, I was kind of shy in front of people, and I really liked writing and drawing more than practicing my instruments... piano and trumpet were my first. But some time in high school, I started to really take to the guitar and eventually put together a song from a few chords and a poem I'd written. There were other factors involved in the final leap into music as a full fledged career.

I graduated high school in 1984. The eighties were a funny time. Entreprenuerialism was becoming the thing. It grew out of so many major companies, especially in manufacturing, downsizing. People who had trouble finding work started their own businesses, joining the previous minority of the self-employed. Suddenly, everyone with a few bucks and an idea wanted to be their own boss. I was one of them. For a time, I had a fairly lucrative little business of my own selling sundries to gas stations and convenience stores. I figured I'd make a bunch of dough and then use my nest egg to propel my music forward. Instead, I exhausted myself to the point of hospitalization a few times, and eventually said, "That's it! I'm doing music and nothing else, screw the money." I moved to New Mexico to slow it down and recover my health. After a few years, I was back in Chicago getting my music degree at Columbia College and was immersed in one of the most vibrant music scenes anywhere for virtually any style. It was, and still is, invigorating. I've never looked back.

It hadn't occurred to me back then, that I'd still be an entrepreneur. It does occur to me that I still am. In essence, every musician seeking a living as an original artist has no choice now. No record label is going to sign you until you've shown you can grow a following and market yourself, be responsible, that sort of thing. That's why I'm building on my work to begin mentoring aspiring independent musicians. I just started a page on Patreon to get people involved in helping out. It'll provide scholarships and help build on my plans for a little record company co-op. Anyone can get involved for any amount, and they'll have a say in the overall direction of things and reap the rewards. The page is:

Q. How is this new release different than previous ones? Were you trying to accomplish anything specific?

A. Last year, I published my book The Outback Musician's Survival Guide: One Guy's Story of Surviving as an Independent Musician. In it, I share my story, for what it's worth, of more than 30 years in the American music industry. I was Indie/DIY before they coined the term, and I've made my living on my own terms, and just as often in spite of myself. A writer at The Chicago Tribune called it a confessional. So, it's not a "how-to" so much as a "what happened." Around the time that I put the book out (it's self-published, of course), I wrote this song reflecting on hope and survival against the odds. It's more of a ballad and less rooted in my more bluesy off-the-beaten-path style. So, that and the coincidental subject matter matching my book's overall arc, made it unique enough for me to release it as a single. I've never done that. I have eight albums and a few songs from them have made their way to greater popularity with those who know my work, much like singles. But, I'd never said, "Hey, I'm gonna release a single." Until now. And it's almost a companion to my book. If someone made a movie from the book (any takers?), it'd be the theme song, ha. Was I trying to accomplish anything specific? Nothing more than my usual, I don't think. That is, I wanted to finish a song to the best of my ability in that moment. Did this one feel especially potent to me? Absolutely. I've been delighted by the response it's received, too. I'm deeply grateful.

Q. Name one or two challenges you face as an indie musician in this oversaturated, digital music age? How has technology helped you (since we know it does help)?

A. Some of the challenges are minimalized by the ways the technology helps. For instance, where a major label puts two million dollars behind a mediocre act they hope will be drilled into the collective American ear until enough people break down and buy, I can put 100 bucks behind a single and see it picked up every week by smaller stations without a whole lot of trouble or effort on my part. Thanks to the multitude of entrepreneurs that have lept into the modern music business, I can hire somebody to submit my work to the best possible outlets for a fraction of the time and money the major label still puts behind it. If my work is actually put together well, people may even appreciate it more than the mainstream material they hear. Consider the incredibly low overhead required for a new release and the quality you can achieve, too. My debut full length album in 1997 cost me $24,000 to record and promote and CDs had to go for $15 to really see a profit. in 2009, I spent a third of that on another full band album and the CDs cost 99 cents a piece. Now it's even more affordable. All of my music makes it to every outlet for streaming and downloads for dirt cheap and in a matter of days. This single was on iTunes two days after I okayed it for distribution. For that, I used a service. It cost less than $500 to record it and make it available to the world.

I talk about this, in the one chapter on the business, in my book. I give this example. If you sign a standard contract with a major label and go platinum, you make $138,000 to their seven million. After taxes, you're down to about $88,000. As an independent musician, you could make that same money on a whole lot less than a million records sold. And nobody owns you. You choose what and when and where with everything related to your work. You're an entrepreneur. Engaging in business without an assurance of the profits that will be derived is the distinguishing feature of an entrepreneur. We do this for the love of it, but hope for profit. We need to eat and pay bills. Patronage can help. Well paid gigs, too. Ultimately, however, we independent musicians are engaging in an enterprise that now more than ever is difficult to derive a profit from. Why? Nobody really knows which formula works. Record labels make money by continually signing new artists. They're seeing very little actual profit. It's like a fast food chain saying they're making more money by opening more locations when the individual locations are have declining sales. One day they're going to turn around and realize they've lost huge sums of money. GE just did that. I had to laugh, as unfortunate as it is for the jobs of so many. They just looked up one day and said, "Gee, we lost $8.6 billion and have no idea how!" This happens when you're not adapting, not paying close attention to what people are responding to. As artists, we have no choice but to pay attention to how people respond to our work. We're also sensitive to new ideas by nature, adaptable by necessity, and as for thinking outside the box? Naw, we think without a box. All of these factors and more point to a tremendous set of opportunities for the artists to take the reigns of an industry that's in its death throes. Not liking business, and so avoiding it, isn't an option. Find someone you really trust and exchange ideas with them, get them involved. Business is really just a creative use of time, money, and ideas. Who's more creative than the artist? I think we have an amazing opportunity before us. I'm excited.

Q. Where is the best place to connect with you online and discover more music?

A. My music is available everywhere music is streamed or sold online. My book is also available everywhere in ebook or print form.

My website is I'm @philcircle on Facebook and Twitter, philcirclemusic on Instagram. My new Patreon page is for those who really want to get involved. I've also just opened a page for my label on Facebook. It's @guiltbyassociationrecords and I'll be promoting it soon, but it's live now. I respond to any and all messages.

Q. Anything else before we sign off?

A. You have my heartfelt thanks for including me in your work. I'm really grateful to be doing what I do. There were times I wasn't sure I'd survive. But I'm here to say, it's worth every hardship when you do what you love. Just remember not to lose focus of that one thing... you're doing what you love. Thank you kindly.

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