Jeffrey Lewis, Will Oldham, And A Switch In The Tracks

“Artists are pussies, and they end up getting fucked,” – so sings American anti-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis in his song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror.” The song describes Lewis meeting his musical hero Bonnie Prince Billie on the L-train in New York, only for the dream to turn into a nightmare as Will Oldham contrives to rape him on the train tracks before delivering this tragic message.

What do we learn from this presumably fictitious story? Surely it can’t be true that to be an artist is to prostrate yourself before the entire world, opening up your mind, body and soul and allowing them to have their wicked way with you whichever way they choose.

Ask any struggling singer/songwriter—you must know a few, cluttering up the pubs and music venues of the major cities, ready to sing their soul to you through their own compositions which are at once hailed as genius by their friends and family, and completely ignored by the public at large—and they’ll probably agree with this analogy, lamenting that they only wish the world would go that little bit harder.

If an artist’s role is to bare themselves to the public, then it stands to reason that the ringmasters of the striptease are the members of the music industry themselves.

So it is with some confusion that I find myself as both an artist and a promoter in the bewildering world of music.

First and foremost, I am an artist, having left Cambridge University with a degree in Philosophy, a few new songs, and not a clue what to do with them. I started a band, made an EP, broke the band up, made a solo EP, recruited a band, made an album, made another EP, then learned to produce my own tracks a few years ago.

Somewhere in the midst of all this music and trouble-making, I did something many people do in their mid-20s, I started a live music night with a friend. Like many, our night immediately became a social and musical hub for the musicians and mates we found around us. We charged little at the door, gave almost all the money to the performers on the night, and felt that we were doing something noble and important in the service of our social and musical communities. Woodburner was born.

Fast-forward a few years, and Woodburner is thriving. We run an outdoor event through the summer months every Tuesday, with three live acts featuring signed and unsigned artists, local and international. We make live videos of all the acts, helping them produce high-quality assets which will enable them to play better shows, and bring their music to more people around the globe. The shows sell out.

“I want to know if there is a contradiction in trying to make my own music, and also help other artists develop theirs. Is there room to foster my own art and also help those around me flourish?”

However, as time passes, the realities of running music events also come home. The words exciting and stressful blur together, until it becomes clear that if the thing won’t make money, it shouldn’t happen. And then all of a sudden, you find yourself on the other side of the game—no longer one of the wusses, but suddenly one of the “other kinds of folks… dicks, tall, smart and strong and born to fuck us up.” You’re one of the big bad music industry people you swore to fight against. You’re facilitating music in so many ways, but it becomes a transaction that forces you to put a price on people’s art.

I want to know if there is a contradiction in trying to make my own music, and also help other artists develop theirs. Is there room to foster my own art and also help those around me flourish? Or is the world of music a straight-out sprint for the finish line, where only the strongest, most committed, single-minded artists make it, at the expense of the rest.

I fear that by trying to be an artist and a promoter at the same time, I get taken less seriously as both. My output would be better if I dedicated myself to music wholly, and as a promoter I am constantly limited by time constraints as I seek to maintain creativity. You have to give a lot to create art—there is no one to say when to stop, when it’s finished, when you have assembled the pieces of the puzzle. And you can’t do two full time jobs with one life, however hard you try.

However, there is an addiction to promoting artists and bands that’s hard to shake. It has connected me to scores of incredible acts, who I now count as friends I have helped to develop. Being sent music as a promoter has given me an insight into the way I am perceived as an artist as well, teaching me that content is king. You need a killer live show, but you also need an incredible track and video – without all three you are wasting your energy.

Above all, my work in music has always been driven by enthusiasm and passion, rather than a cold, desire to win the game or have it all. It’s this pioneering sense of DIY, caution to the wind, risk-taking abandon that has led me to where I am as an artist and a promoter. In that same spirit, I look forward to seeing where the muse, my imagination, and the winding road will lead me next – as long as it isn’t into a close encounter with one of my musical heroes on the tracks at the end of the Victoria line.

Theo Bard is a Masters student in Popular Music at Goldsmiths University. He is signed to Swedish label Icons Creating Evil Art, who are masterminding several new releases in 2019. His first single “The Gift” came out on the label in May, with EP INKUS (named after the anvil bone in the inner ear) coming out on the label later this summer. To learn more about Woodburner, click here.

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