For more than 10 years, Railroad Earth has been a prominent figure in the “Jam Band” music scene. The roots/Americana sextet has found its place in this community that thrives on improvisation and welcomes everything from electronica to string-band music into its fold. Railroad Earth multi-instrumentalist Tim Carbone continues to marvel at the diversity and open-mindedness of the scene.
“Last year, at the High Sierra Music Festival, they had Railroad Earth, The Black Crowes, Dr. Dog, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer,” Carbone recalls, speaking by phone from his New Jersey home. “I think that the term ‘Jam Band’ refers more to the fans than the bands. The people are interested in music that explores the outer edges. The common thread of the bands is that none of the bands are three-minute pop song bands. Within the framework of the song, there’s a certain amount of exploration and adventurousness that goes on. That’s what’s common in the ‘Jam Band’ scene—the fan wants to be taken on that trip.”
But while Carbone appreciates the scene itself, he admits that the “Jam Band” label can be limiting.
“Do I like it? The answer is no,” Carbone says flatly. “Because what happens is that every other media outlet looks down their nose on you. I think our record is as good as anybody’s record that came out this year, and I’m the first to be self-critical. We did sell enough to get in the Billboard 200, but did we get any press in Rolling Stone, Spin or Mojo? No. Why does this happen? Because we’re identified as a ‘Jam Band’ and we are immediately discounted.”
On Sunday, January 16, Railroad Earth will perform at Workplay Theatre. The 18+ show begins at 9 p.m. Currently, the band is touring in support of it’s 2010 self-titled release. A nine-track collection of songs, Carbone is excited about the album’s finished product.
“I think it’s the best thing we’ve done to date,” he offers. “Our principal songwriter is Todd Sheaffer. A couple of these songs came from his back catalog, so to speak, some others he had been holding on to and working on piece-by-piece, and another couple of them he pretty much finished for the record. So, it was a combination of all three.”
Carbone also credits the band’s preparation and producer Angelo Montrone, assisted by Michael Caplan, for creating a strong release.
“We do a week of pre-production. The arrangements and how the songs are going to wind up reveal themselves during that period of time. This time around, we worked with a producer and he helped that process a lot,” Carbone says.
But, as artists and consumers both know, releasing a CD in today’s market is a different proposition that it was years ago. I ask Carbone how he views the current musical climate in the age of the Internet, iTunes along with the wealth of people releasing music through these outlets.
“There’s a lot of things going on besides just over-saturation,” he says. “The instant access to music through digital means also means that you can get instantly ripped-off, too. I’m an older guy—I’m in my fifties—and I think we are in the golden age of Rock & Roll right now because artists can get heard because of the technology. But it is a double-edged sword and it means that the music industry needs to come up with a new paradigm—it’s as simple as that. Doing business as usual is not going to work and you have to figure it out. They haven’t figured it out as of yet.”
To illustrate his point, Carbone recalls a specific event that revealed the mindset and actions of modern music consumers to him.
“A couple of years ago, I was asked to lecture at a local university and the topic was ‘Greed in the Music Business.’ The class had about 80 people in it and I said, ‘How many people bought a CD this year?’ and about six people raised their hands. [Then Carbone asked] ‘How many people have downloaded music for free from the Internet?’ and about 98% of them raised their hands. That’s a snap shot of what’s really going on. If you went around to that age demographic and asked the same question from one college to the next, you’d probably get the same percentage of people. They supposedly are, or were, the record-buying public and they’re not buying records. It is what it is, so now you have to figure out what to do,” he says.
So how do artists make their livings in today’s music industry? By relying on touring income generated by ticket and merchandise sales.
“It’s the only thing you’ve got,” Carbone explains. “You’re not going to make a living selling CDs. You’ve got to go out there and sell the music on the road—that’s your life. The idea that you’re going to do something at home for any great length of time is really not possible. You’ve got to be driving around the country six or eight months out of the year.”
Tickets to the 18+ show are $20 - $3 additional charge if under age 21 – and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.