What's a musician doing on Substack?

Substack has largely been thought of as a home for writers who want to go independent, but there’s a much more expansive constellation of creators who have come to the platform to publish their work and connect with their audiences. One we’re excited about is Thao Nguyen, the multi-talented indie-rock musician whose new publication, For the Record, goes live today. Here’s Thao describing her plans and motivation…

What is a touring musician without a tour? I’m recording artist Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, and I’m joining Substack to find out. My latest run, originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, has been postponed to 2022. I can’t tour, but I can start working on my next album, and I want fans to join me. In my newsletter, For The Record (launching today), I’ll be documenting, in real time, the process of creating my seventh full-length album. Twice a week, subscribers will read, hear, and watch how the work unfolds: from the very early are-these-futile-or-fertile kernels of songwriting; to the demos I play on the guitar, piano, or whatever instrument is lying around; to the essays or short stories I write then pilfer for lyrics; to the alchemy that takes place in the studio.

My record-making method is an expansive, serendipitous one; I never quite know what will lead me to the subject matter, the lyrics, or the musical identity of each album I release. My album We the Common could not have existed without my relationship to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). A Man Alive, about my decades-long estrangement from my father, would never have happened without a chance and revelatory encounter with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and her character Jack Boughton. Over the years, I’ve composed music for documentary films, scored live dance programs, and toured with Radiolab. Each of those experiences led me in sonic directions I wouldn’t have otherwise pursued. While working on my most recent release, Temple (May 2020), I had to take a trip to Vietnam with mom, help turn that trip into a documentary for PBS, workshop a one-act play, and spend a year guest-hosting the podcast Song Exploder before I understood what I wanted to say and what kind of music would help me say it. I’ve got plenty of ideas for the new record that I’m excited about, but what excites me even more is what else they’ll lead me to. 

On Substack, a musician can share their music, as well as the context surrounding their music. During press interviews about an album I’ve released, rarely do I get more than a few minutes to explain the motivation behind an entire project. Through For the Record, I can leisurely introduce subscribers to another musician whose work is so good it almost makes me want to quit, and then inspires me to try harder. I can explain a historical reference in a lyric, or demo production gear that I bought on a whim and now have to incorporate throughout many songs to justify its expense. 

In better times, I’ve been able to exhibit these other dimensions of myself through live shows. I like to tell a story in between songs, or congratulate the crowd on their city’s extremely pleasant riverside pathway (Milwaukee, for instance), or recommend a quick weeknight recipe. But for the next long, concert-less stretch and beyond, Substack will help us stay in touch. I know plenty of people are already broadcasting many facets of themselves on other channels, but I prefer the quieter, calmer format of a newsletter. Sharing music outside the album format – and sharing more of myself outside an album-release cycle – is not just a new way for me to connect with fans, it is a chance to explore new possibilities for how musicians can disseminate and release music, while retaining full control and ownership.

I am one of so many for whom 2020 was a great saboteur, but also a great clarifier. Until recently, making records has been quite harrowing for me. Almost everything I’ve made over the last several years has been a very personal excavation, heavy things that needed to be carved out and released. It was necessary for me to write those songs, but the processes were painful enough to compromise my relationship to making and releasing music. But now! Through the tumult of last year, I am freer and lighter and want to talk about, practice, and share music as I never have before. I aspire to be more like those prolific writers and composers who are always creating and releasing art, not because a deal dictates they should, but because they do not hamstring themselves with over-analysis, preciousness, or perfectionism. I want to be far less pensive and participate at a speed that is well beyond my proven pace. I want to make songs without knowing whether or not they will end up on my next album. For the Record is an exploration of what kind of artist I want to be moving forward.

Over the last 12 months, I, like many artists, have wrestled with the question: how do you keep a career going when your main revenue stream is blocked for at least two years? This question brings others to the fore that have long lingered in the back of my mind: how have so many recording artists ended up in such a precarious revenue model, in which we are so critically reliant on touring for our livelihoods? 

In order to understand the dilemma musicians now face – the question of how to stay afloat without touring – you have to consider the comprehensive shift that’s taken place in the music marketplace in the last ten years, engendered and cemented by the maelstrom of digital service providers. I released my first studio album on the indie label Kill Rock Stars in 2008. By then, the digital revolution was already underway. The counsel of my management and label – as well as the general mindset of independent music at the time – still centered on recording albums and touring. This is how I mapped out my career: I’d record and release a full-length album, tour multiple times a year for a couple years, and then make another record and do it again. Each pass through a town or city would build up a following in that region, and all these campaigns would be aided by record sales. But by 2011, streaming services had gathered so much steam that I was advised that I couldn’t not have my music on these platforms. My best bet was to hope that my music resonated in a way that brought people to my shows, or that the exposure on platforms garnered attention that resulted in licensing opportunities which would then lead to bigger venues and larger crowds and more merch sales. That is the model I’ve participated in for years, and it was fine – or fine enough to ignore and keep plodding through – until touring stopped. 

This next year will be a wild one, wherein we musicians and our teams try to figure out how to keep growing, stay connected, stay ready, and, if we so desire, stay relevant. For me, it is a time to reckon with the current realities of making a living in music. I need to sort out how I want to be nimble; how can I connect to fans in a different, more consistent way; what aspects of a virtual music life I can embrace.

I am 15 years into a career in an industry that dares you to figure out who you are and how your work will honor your truth, under circumstances that demand from you everything that isn’t nailed down, from your time to your essence. I’ve never had much space or time to stop and address how my work will honor what I believe I am capable of, until last year. Working with Substack via a model that directly relies on the relationships I’ve developed with fans over the years is electrifying. It heartens and emboldens me; it makes me wonder, once it all comes back, how will I come back? Can I take more control over what I make and how I share it? Can I reimagine a healthier relationship to my art and its commerce? Can I make music sustainably, with imperative support from those who want what I make? Yes, for the record.

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