The entire music business is in flux, and contemporary Christian music has not escaped the changes. Digital recording platforms have revolutionized the way music is made -- and who can make it. Digital distribution has change the way music reaches the consumer -- and who will profit from it. Grassroots and independent models have become more and more successful over the past decade. "Indie," which was once a synonym for "can't find a label," has now become the place where rock 'n' roll still happens, and much of today's great music is being made. In CCM, a genre long controlled by a close knit group of labels, distributors, and marketers centered in Nashville which has tended toward homogeny, the indie artist has become a game changer.
One of the stalwarts of CCM's indie music scene is an artist named Andrew Osenga. Osenga was the front man for the band The Normals, who were signed to a major label and began touring and performing more than a decade ago. After The Normals disbanded, Osenga took over for the exiting Derek Webb in the band Caedmon's Call. Since then Osenga has released eight independent albums, built a strong following as an indie artist, and is about to embark on his ninth independent project which promises to be his most unique.
Osenga is an insomniac who makes up stories to help himself fall asleep (it's how insane artists count sheep). A few years back he began an internal narrative about a man named Leonard Belle, who lives three hundred years in the future. Leonard's estranged wife has died suddenly, and he decides to take a job driving a long distance space freighter. Due to relativity, Leonard-the-space-freighter-pilot will return to a very different earth where everyone he knows will be dead or very old. It's a very Kurt Vonnegut way to fall asleep, and on a lark Osenga began writing songs about Leonard-the-space-freighter-pilot and performing them in concert. The only problem was -- they were good.
With some encouragement from other independent artists, Osenga has decided to take this experiment to the extreme. He's going to build the interior of a spaceship -- much like a movie set -- and record the entire project from there as Leonard-the-space-freighter-pilot. He'll finish the writing, record all of the instruments, and make video updates for his fans all from the belly of his own space freighter. He's involved set designers, videographers, photographers, builders and costume makers to create this alternate reality. The traditional problem with out-of-the-box ideas like Osenga's space-freighter album has always been money. A project like this could never get past the typical A&R director.
Kickstarter is an online fundraising mechanism that operates through a person's Amazon account, and it has become the largest funding platform in the world for independent projects. Billed as "a new way to fund and follow creativity," Kickstarter is a rainmaker for the indie artist. The process is simple. The artist sets up a Kickstarter homepage describing the vision for their project. They set a fundraising goal and begin to receive pledges. If the goal isn't met, everybody who pledged gets their money back, thereby insuring the investor that the project they donated toward will actually come to fruition. If the goal is met, the project gets the green light. Osenga set up a Kickstarter account and quickly raised nearly $20,000. Leonard-the-space-freighter-pilot has been cleared for take off. The next step for Osenga involves the warehouse behind his favorite burrito place in Nashville where the set designers, videographers and builders will construct the spaceship-slash recording studio-slash soundstage and begin to track the project.
Independent Christian artists need more than just funding, they also need community and collaboration. Osenga helped foment the Nashville-based cabal of independent musicians called the Square Peg Alliance. Osenga calls the SPA "a bunch of Christian musicians who are not quite right for the Christian market, but who make music that is too Christian for the mainstream" -- square pegs.
"But instead of getting mad about it," Osenga says, "we thought we should have fun with it." The Square Peg Alliance collaborates on projects, does concerts and tours together, all the while noticing that a sort of cross-pollination among their fans has happened. Through friendship and collaboration, each artist's fan base was growing.
"There's a whole world of people out there who are interested in thoughtful music," Osenga says, "We get to keep on playing for those people. As an artist, I'm far less cynical because I don't feel like I'm always fighting against something."
Some of the Square Pegs have since signed with major labels again, but the respite from playing the Nashville game seems to have made them better artists. Osenga and his friends have found a way to transform their lack of self-sufficiency into a real strength. Indie artists need their fans, not just to buy their music, but to help them produce the music in the first place. Indie music is not a sound, or a genre, but a way of drawing a very odd assortment of people together for an artistic endeavor -- people who would never be a part of a big budget project, but whose passion and creativity can result in some amazing music. Passion and friendship drive the indie artist, and thanks to innovations like Kickstarter, they can continue to thrive just a few steps outside of the mainstream.
Check out the other Square Peg Alliance artists here:
Read more of Tim Suttle's Huffington Post articles here.
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