John J. Thompson has a lot of irons in the fire, and he should: he’s been tending them since he was a teenager. From founding his own label as a 19-year-old to heading creative development at EMI CMG Publishing, Thompson knows a thing or two about the music recording and marketing businesses.
In advance of his keynote speech at the Self-Employment in the Arts conference held on February 21 and 22, 2014 in Lisle, Illinois, CAR corresponded with Thompson at his home in East Nashville, Tennessee to learn about how he built a career out of his interests. We wanted some practical advice for others following in his footsteps. Thompson was kind enough to take a break from writing his second book on the trend and value of artisanal skills to talk to us about making a living in the music arts.
You've run the gamut of jobs in the music industry—entrepreneur, executive, public speaker. How did you transition between these roles?
Most of what I have done professionally has been the result of a determination to be involved in the creative process by developing a certain set of aptitudes, access points and encouragements. I subscribe to Gladwell’s principles in Outlier: I put in my 10,000 hours becoming an expert in a very small niche.
There is commerce involved. Even if money isn’t trading hands yet, time is.
When I was a teenager I discovered the unique niche of culturally edgy music that was also spiritually resonant and true. I started writing my own songs and hammering them out with my buddies in a basement band. I noticed, though, how difficult it was for the artists I loved to find an audience. I was shocked to find out one day that one of my favorite artists worked as a janitor to make ends meet. I realized that there was often a pretty big difference between creating art that satisfied the artist and making art that satisfied the market. I also started to meet songwriters and musicians that had compromised their creative vision in order to accommodate a more mainstream audience and thereby make a meager living. These folks often ended up hating their own work.
By the time I was 16, I had developed a fairly comprehensive vision to become a curator of relationships and a cultivator of community. I felt it was my calling. I saw that if I could coalesce a critical mass of likeminded folks I would have an audience. My goal was to use every tool at my disposal to identify prospective members of this growing niche—to welcome them into the tent—and then to introduce them to the music that was changing my life. The tools I used were music retail, concert promotions, a magazine and an independent record label. I studied and apprenticed and read and pestered and figured out what I needed to know. I built all these bridges between likeminded artists and eager fans. I always intended to traverse that bridge with my own music some day, but by the time I got around to that, I was pretty well branded as a connector, a businessman and a communicator.
How big of an impact has employment on the entrepreneurial-business side of music had on your personal recording practice?
My “day-job” has kept my personal artistic efforts in check more than it has encouraged them. Being in Nashville, the bar is set very high: I’m surrounded by and working with the best of the best in every musical category. A couple years ago my wife and I, under our band, The Wayside, recorded a full-length, gospel-oriented studio record with some of our best friends and favorite players. We perform from time to time at colleges, churches or festivals. We’ve been writing, recording and gigging together for over 22 years now. We do it on our own terms.
As far as the impact my professional career has had on my own musical efforts, it is a mixed blessing. On one hand I know everything I need to know about the business and marketing and the whole process. I have access to the best players, producers and engineers, sometimes in my own neighborhood. I am extremely careful not to leverage my professional career toward the benefit of my own songwriting or recording. Sometimes I’m too careful.
What are the trends you are seeing, and how important is it to acknowledge or ignore them?
If a songwriter intends to be generating a significant income from his or her songs, I believe it is mandatory for them to possess a significant amount of cultural and professional awareness. I do not subscribe to the binary “art-versus-commerce” argument anymore. Once a songwriter exposes her song to an audience there is commerce involved. Even if money isn’t trading hands yet, time is. The only question is whether the commerce is fair and good—a benefit to both the producer and the consumer—or if it is exploitive.
My job is to help my writers to understand what the market wants right now… and “right now” changes regularly. The really successful writers know how to read the current trends and then can predict where things are going. They shoot their arrows ahead of the target, because the target is always moving. It’s a skill most artists never master.
Access to an audience is cheaper and easier than ever before. The bar that used to separate artists from their audience is all but gone. That means that we have millions of artists flooding the ether with junk! The static right now is paralyzing. What are you doing to cut through that noise?
In addition to your activities in the music world, you are also writing a book, and it's not about music. Tell us about it.
I have long been passionate about crafting other things. I brew my own beer. I roast my own coffee. I love to cook. I have noticed a marked increase in hand-crafted, artisanal, local things. From the micro-brewing revolution to the re-birth of independent coffee shops, this renaissance of small, funky, sustainable things thrills me.
I have noticed a set of values that seems to frequently underscore these interests. Those values are often at direct odds with the values of industrialism that have defined our culture over the last 150 years. This book will explore these ideas and the corresponding values by looking at specific stories related to bread, chocolate, coffee, beer and even faith. I think that if more of us practiced our faith in ways that resonate with these re-emerging, pre-modern values, we would find that we have increasing resonance with the world around us.
John J. Thompson has been involved in the music industry for over twenty-five years. In 1989, at the age of 19, he founded True Tunes Etc, in Wheaton Illinois. True Tunes became “ground zero” for the emerging underground of faith-fueled modern music, eventually launching an internationally distributed magazine (True Tunes News) a mail-order company, and a concert venue (Upstairs @ True Tunes) After leaving the True Tunes staff in 2000, Thompson accepted a position as marketing coordinator for the Cornerstone Festival. Along the way he also built a solid reputation as a music critic and feature writer for many publications including CCM Magazine, HM Magazine, Christianity Today and Christian Musician. Thompson has been the director of creative and copyright development for EMI CMG Publishing since early 2007. He is currently a regular contributor of music and film reviews for www.ThinkChristian.net and is a regular speaker at colleges, churches and festivals on behalf of Compassion International. Although still a Chicagoan at heart, Thompson is proud to call East Nashville, Tennessee home with his wife, Michelle Lynn Thompson, and four children.