An interesting interview with artist, songwriter, small business owner and advocate Blake Morgan about how he mixes his advocacy and touring as an artist, leveraging tour press for his advocacy work.
Castle: You just came off of a West Coast tour with Tracy Bonham, how did that go?
Morgan: Honestly one of the best tours I’ve ever experienced. The audiences were amazing––we sold out almost all of the shows on the run––everyone was so engaged and energetic. And working with and alongside Tracy is a total thrill and an honor. The East Coast leg of our 2018 Tour kicks off in Boston in just a few weeks. I already can’t wait.
Castle: There’s a balance between doing the music work for the fans and doing the advocacy work for what’s right. How do you combine the two?
Morgan: That’s true, it is a balancing act. But recently I’ve begun to see and experience it differently. I now see how my art and my advocacy work are related to each other, instead of different from each other, and I find myself welcoming the balancing act. I feel my job as an artist is to captivate my audience for however long I’ve asked for their attention. In my advocacy work I’ve found “justice” to be a pretty captivating force. So I bring my #IRespectMusic advocacy to my shows, on stage and off, and I now bring my guitar to Capitol Hill when I meet with members of Congress. I find that each––the art and the advocacy––underscores the other now, and I’m happy to be seen wearing both hats at the same time.
Castle: I noticed that you were getting questions in your tour press about your advocacy work. How often did that subject come up?
Morgan: It comes up every time. With press, and with fans. People at shows bring #IRespectMusic signs, or ask me questions after the show about something music-related that they’ve read about this past week. They’re excited to talk to me about both my music and my music advocacy, and I’m excited to talk to them too. Same with music press––they want to talk about what I’m working on, musically, and about music rights, and what the new tour is about as well. I really love the blend.
Castle: How did you handle those questions and how did the journalists feel about it? Were they knowledgable?
Morgan: Well I handle them by telling the truth (as Mark Twain said, ‘it’s the easiest thing to remember’), and that makes it simple. Whether the question is about a new piece of legislation, or my recent criticisms of Spotify, or the launch and growing arc of #IRespectMusic, I try to remember that many people who will read the article may be new to these issues and I have an opportunity to reach them for the first time. For example, that artists have never been paid when their work has been played on AM/FM radio in the United States still shocks and horrifies those who are still unaware. In a funny way, it’s like voter registration (which I’ve done too) in the sense that one is getting people involved on the ground floor. It’s like you’re deputizing people––music lovers and makers alike––to the cause when they haven’t been aware of these fundamental injustices. The journalists often are knowledgeable, but they recognize that many of their readers may be new to these issues too, so they often give me the opportunity to bring those readers up to speed. I’m really grateful for that opportunity. I think the journalists are often eager to interview me about these issues because in their day-to-day music coverage of bands and artists on tour they don’t always get the chance. It’s interesting.
Castle: I know you’ve had an over two-year sold out residency at Rockwood in NYC. Do you think there’s a difference between how a Rockwood fan relates to you as an advocate and how someone new coming to the show for the first time reacts?
Morgan: That’s a great question. The Rockwood Music Hall audiences are also New York audiences, and that makes a difference too. But I think mostly, those shows are like “home games,” and the 100-150 shows I’ve done on the road over the past two years are obviously “road games.” The difference is simple: on the road I want to give everyone in the audience a sense of who I am and what I’m about (artistically and otherwise), and I have about 60-75 minutes to do it. I have to come at the show as if people in the audience haven’t seen me before, but with a nod to those who are coming back too. In New York, I can sort of jump in the middle of things a bit more, as that audience knows me and has been coming to other shows in the residency presumably. Plus my footprint in New York is just bigger in general, so the New York people are pretty up to speed. When I get back from a tour (I’ve traveled over 75,000 miles these past two years), I find I have a whole bunch of emails waiting for me to catch up on as fans I’ve just met or made write to me and get on board with #IRespectMusic. I see it on Twitter and Facebook in real-time when I hit a city too. It’s amazing.
Castle: West Wing Spoiler Alert: Do you think there’s a grassroots value in making tour advocacy an every day thing as opposed to having “Big Block of Cheese Day” once a year in Washington?
Morgan: Ha! (You’re talking to the biggest West Wing fan you’ll ever meet, so I’m smiling at the reference in your question!) Listen, the more our leaders hear from us, every day, the more they act. It’s cliché but it’s true: Congress acts when people make them do so. In my opinion, Congressional lobbying events are important and I’m glad music has them. However, they are––at best––only part of the equation. No real hearts or minds are changed on the Hill at such events. Those events are important because we need to show strength in numbers and strength of organization. But there’s nothing more effective in my experience than one-on-one meetings with Congressional members and their staffs, because those hearts and minds can be won––and are––in such settings.
During one such meeting of mine on the Hill, a member of Congress sat up when I mentioned how badly middle-class music makers need reform. I said it was because like all middle-class Americans, we have health insurance and mortgages to pay, families to support. He said, almost with wonder, “You have a mortgage.” He shook his head with a smile of disbelief. Before I could respond––and very much to his credit––he added, “Blake I apologize for how naive that sounds. But I hope you understand: that’s not something we hear up here. The term “middle-class” when applied to musicians. Or that you, and musicians like you, have mortgages. Of course you have a mortgage, and health insurance, and a family to help support. We just don’t hear that message when we meet with the Grammys or the artists they bring here.”
He was disrespecting nobody, including the Grammys, he was simply having an “A-ha” moment in real time about what I’d said. “We talk about the American Dream and the middle class everyday in Washington, and now here you sit, representing both, talking to your representatives in Congress about what would be more fair for your profession. This is how it’s supposed to work. I’m really glad we’re talking about this.” We talked for another 30 minutes. I was genuinely moved, and I haven’t forgotten that moment…nor will I ever. It’s an example of how grassroots advocacy, propelled by grassroots support, can make the difference in getting through to our leaders. There’s nothing like it.
Castle: Do you think that your approach to crossing over your advocacy work with your music work is unique to you, or could other artists do something similar?
Morgan: I think the way I do it is probably unique to me, but the crossover itself is anything but unique. Artists of all genres and stripes and styles are standing up now. In their interviews, on stage, with their songs and records, on social media and through their representative organizations. All towards the same end: it’s time for American music makers to be paid fairly. Our audiences get it. Our families get it. Our friends get it. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those musicians who paved the way for us to get to this moment (Mr. Ulrich, if you’re reading this…you were first and you were right and everyone knows it now!), and we owe it to ourselves now to keep up the pressure and work harder than ever before. I have no doubt we will, and we’ll do it together.
Castle: I remember that the first #irespectmusic show at the Bitter End had a voter registration element to it, including a speech by Rep. Jerry Nadler. Is that something you’re planning on replicating?
Morgan: Yes. Hold on to your hats, and stay tuned.