Brent Van Winkle

brentbourgeois

It is SO GOOD TO BE BACK! Thank you for being here.

I made my last CD of original music in 1994. Yes, it was a CD. Vinyl was long gone, cassettes were still around, but losing ground fast, and there was no such thing as downloadable music for sale. The CD was king.

In 1994, Bill Clinton was beginning the second year of his initial term as president. The People’s Republic of China got its first Internet connection. Apple unleashed its first PowerPC Microprocessor. Version 1.0 of the web browser Netscape Navigator was released. Green Day debuted their album Dookie, which went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide. 1994 was also the year of O.J. Simpson (I was in the studio recording while the white Bronco freeway chase was happening,) Nelson Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa, and Schindler’s List won seven Oscars at the Academy Awards.

The record business was still in its heyday in 1994. The sale of recorded music was continuing to rise, and would peak in 1999, with an income of around $14.5 billion. The record I made in 1994, Come Join the Living World, was considered a sales disappointment in the Christian market because it only ended up selling around 60,000 units, a figure that most artists not named Beyoncé or Katy Perry would kill for today. But then again, budgets for albums were astronomical by today’s standards. That same record cost over $100,000 to make, and that was easily the cheapest of the five records I was associated with as an artist, either with Bourgeois Tagg, or solo. (The video for my first single on my debut solo release on Virgin/Charisma, Dare to Fall in Love, cost $250,000!)

In 1994 we still recorded to tape, although we were well on our way using computers to create music. And we all mixed down to digital audio tape, or DAT, which was considered a Godsend because you could make perfect copies of the master for reproduction. Little did we surmise that we were staring right in the face of the silent killer of the music business. If we could make perfect copies, it was only a matter of time before you could do the same thing. The Internet in 1994 was this slow, cumbersome, geeky novelty that seemed at the time to have its greatest potential in research and as a database. You could see even then that the encyclopedia business was in trouble. The idea of “e-mail” was pretty cool, though.

After the sales disappointment of Come Join the Living World, I felt like my real future in music was in producing others rather than making my own records. I did this for next several years, adding VP of A&R at Word Records in Nashville into the mix. It was at Word that the signs of Digital Impending Doom were clearly there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, but few in the industry were prescient enough take the threat seriously, and most fell back on established business norms, thinking this, too, shall pass.

I jumped off the music biz ship as it was sinking in 2002, turning my back on the only profession I had known for almost thirty years and moving my family back to Northern California. I worked at two different churches, wrote three books, including two historical novels, coached my daughter’s soccer teams, worked with their musical theatre companies, and produced a local children’s worship CD. I had almost nothing to do with the pop music world for over ten years.

In 2013, Rip Van Winkle woke up. I was offered the chance to produce and mentor a young singer/songwriter in LA, and I jumped at the chance. This would involve co-writing (which also included a small publishing deal,) and pre-production programming and recording on my own at home, something I hadn’t done in many years. Even when I was producing records in the late ‘90s, I was doing it almost exclusively with live musicians and orchestras, and I hired other people to do the programming. So I had a pretty steep learning curve ahead of me, and had to do it fast. I dusted off my copy of Logic, and dove in. On one hand, I was behind. On the other, I was fresh. The first thing to come tumbling out was an album’s worth of instrumental music. The idea of making a new record was still far from my mind. Then I began writing songs for my new publisher, but he didn’t like them–they weren’t “sellable” or commercial enough. In reality, they were too “me,” and they became the genesis for this album. I guess time will tell if he was right.

So here I am, in 2014, making a new “album?” “Record?” “Downloadable Collection of Songs?” So, so much has changed since I made my last one, we don’t even know what to call it. CDs are on their way out, and vinyl is making a comeback (although did you know that 60% of all vinyl sold today is not opened?) At the end of the recording process in 1994, we turned the recording over to the marketing and promotion department to make the cover and package, pick the single for radio, and develop some sort of promotional tour. They in turn, handed the finished product over to the distribution arm of the company, who then delivered it to the thousands of record stores across the country and the world (and took almost 50% of the revenue for doing so.) Now, there is no “marketing and promotion department–“ that’s me. The “cover?” A selfie. A “single?!?” What is this “radio” that you speak of? “Promotional tour?” Trying to get some pimple-faced blogger to say a few kind words on Twitter from their bedroom. The “distribution arm?” That would be me, getting my master to CD Baby or TuneCore, who in turn, gets it to iTunes and Amazon.com. Heck, I’M the company, the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. Of the few record companies left, none of them would touch me with a ten-foot pole. And that’s fine–I will make a LOT more money without them.

There is mixed news about being a recording artist in 2014. The bad news is, anybody with a computer can make a record, and it seems like half the world is doing just that. Everybody’s making records, and almost nobody is buying them. Very, very few people in the music business are actually making money at their profession. If you are in the business of making records, everything is being done at about 10¢ on the dollar to 15 years ago. There is a tremendous amount of clutter and chaff out there, and it is a real challenge to have your voice heard above the din. There was something to be said about the old system of “record company” as a sort of gatekeeper or first line of defense as versus the overwhelming amount of recorded music, most of it underwhelming, being foisted upon the public now.

But there is much to like, too. In 2014, technology has gotten cheap enough so that almost anyone can make a record. Thanks to constantly improving and less expensive technology, I made a large portion of this record sitting on my living room floor. Thanks to the same technology, I was able to capture many of my friends’ parts at their own homes, bypassing thousands of dollars in studio and engineering costs. (Thanks to the incredibly generous contributions of my friends and musical peers, I was able to make this record for an insanely low amount of money!) This technology has allowed many talented people who would have slipped through the record company cracks the opportunity to offer their musical gifts to the world. Now, the bond between artist and consumer is immediate and close; there is no behemoth middle-man standing in between. Sure, record companies were able to generate more sales, but the artist never saw any of that money (except as a songwriter.) I had an artist at the company I worked at sell over one million records over the course her career, and she never saw a penny of record royalties.

One thing that hasn’t changed in twenty years, or fifty, is that a good song is still a good song. Music will always have the capacity to move us. A great beat or a well-placed set of chord changes still has the power to change our mood. To this day, I get goosebumps or can tear up at a certain melody or emotional point in a song. I have rediscovered my love of songwriting and passion for making music during the process of creating this “collection of songs.” Hopefully, it won’t take another twenty years to make another one.

Brent Bourgeois
April, 2014

6 thoughts on “Brent Van Winkle

  1. Great quote – “Music will always have the capacity to move us. A great beat or a well-placed set of chord changes still has the power to change our mood.”

  2. Just curious, but WHY do you want “to have your voice heard above the din.”? 10 years ago, you wanted to share your beliefs in God, but in looking over your Twitter and Facebook pages (as well as this blog) I don’t see much about God anymore.

    Just curious…

    1. Hello Des…what a great question and one that, parts of which, came to my own mind when Brent re-entered the world of Facebook and what could be loosely termed “the commercial music business”. I’ve known and considered Brent a close friend for close to 35 years. I’ve seen some pretty stark phases and changes in him and his life but one thing that has never changed about him is his powerful skills when it comes to communicating what he feels and believes. His deep sense of there being a higher power was there in his daily living and in his writing long before he became what I considered a born again Christian. Not even sure thats the right “term. Brent is an artist is the most fundamental sense of the word. He is also a type A personality meaning the forces that drive him can often be very self centered from an artistic standpoint. You may be a songwriter or poet or painter yourself…??? Everyone is an artist in their own way. Some of us inadvertently got into the commercial business of our art insofar as making a living from it. Whether it was his journey in the 80’s into the commercial/pop music field or his deep involvement with the Christina labels and the music that he presented in that regard which, by the way, was totally sales driven (sort of an oxymoron isn’t it…Christian/sales driven) to the books he wrote and now, to again making yet another record of his own, his music has always reflected his deep beliefs. What I see is a man reaching still or the stars needing to support himself and his family and keeping his art alive. That being said…I appreciate the question you asked him and I can assure you that he is still walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

  3. Brent’s story is so terrifying similar in some ways to my 30+ years as a “under-the-din” but persistent composer/songwriter. His perspective of the music business is so spot on. I teach an American Popular Music course for the local university where I live and today’s students have absolutely no idea most pop artists make very little from making music. I tell them my story as an indie artist, but I want to add Brent’s Brent Van Winkle article here as required reading.

    I am so glad to hear new music from Brent. I first discovered him with his debut solo CD and was blown away by the intimate nature of its songs as well as the insane production quality. It inspired me to produce better recordings and improve my arsenal of studio equipment. When Brent transitioned to Christian music, a genre I just can’t get into although I’m a Christian, I lost track of Brent’s work, until now. This new collection of songs has me back as a fan in a big way. Sure, it’s all over the map, like the music I make, and while that’s harder to market these days, it what he loves to do and I am right there with you. All the best, and let’s not wait another 20 years!

    1. Mike,
      I’d love to know where you teach, and if I’m ever anywhere close, I’d come and talk to your class. Btw, I consider the Reunion album to be my best…thanks for the compliments and hope to meet you someday.

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