Artist as advocate

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Whenever possible, artists should use their expressive platforms for more than just personal promotion, said singer-songwriter Garrett Lebeau, who suggests that since the advent of the internet, speaking out about political, environmental or social issues is riskier than ever for people in the public eye – but still essential. Lebeau is a member of the Shoshone tribe and grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Now living in Texas, he’s traveling from Austin to play in a fund-raising concert Saturday at the Powerhouse Science Center; the show benefits the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an organization that works to protect the air, water and land of the Four Corners. We spoke with Lebeau about the negative ramifications of change in the music industry and his attempts to rise above it.

How would you describe your genre or breed of music?It’s like funk, soul, blues and folk music. I describe it as sort of a folk approach to R&B, and what I mean by that is it’s a little more organic, not very hype-y.

How did growing up on the Wyoming Wind River Reservation inspire you musically?There’s not a lot going on out there. It’s a lot of blue skies and prairie. I think somehow all that space crept into the music. I don’t fill my music up with a bunch of stuff. And the rhythm aspect of it also comes, on some level, from being native – it’s a very tribal thing. Most music in tribal cultures is centered on a rhythm rather than on harmony and melody.

You witnessed oil and gas development on the reservation. How did that affect your interest in advocacy? Where I grew up was close to Pinedale in Wyoming. So the Jonah Field [a large natural gas field in Wyoming] came in, and by the time they closed, the pollution there was worse than in L.A. You had this prior pristine, very sparsely populated area, then oil hits and by the end of that you have air quality problems. That was crazy to me. That kind of changed my thinking.

Why do you think it’s important for musical artists to be advocates for broader causes outside the artistic or creative industry? Historically, artists would always stand up and speak out. There was a definite connection between people becoming more aware of issues and artists having something to say about them. But that has changed a lot with the rise of social media. People don’t want to offend anybody now, and if you have something going for yourself you don’t want to make any waves. Just in general, it’s so hard to be a musician today, harder than ever, so if you do have any kind of success you want to protect it. People associate success with being attached to money, and in the past we’d never think of getting a Coca-Cola endorsement as a major victory. It was considered a sellout move. But now since it’s so hard to make money and the recording industry has been decimated, a lot of people are living off of sponsorships.

How specifically has the music industry changed in ways that make it harder for recording artists to have careers?In the old days, you had a record company and they’d invest money and do the marketing and legwork to get you out there. If you had even a minor hit, you could kind of be guaranteed a career based on you breaking through to some sort of public consciousness. Then the internet caused the destruction; they didn’t get ahead of it and figure out how to license and protect music. Nowadays, people don’t expect to pay for music – they expect to get it for free. Major artists are selling less than 150,000 copies of a new record, and that’s a big deal. If you compare that to the past, if you had sold that many as a new artist you could’ve lost your gig. Record labels aren’t taking chances on anybody. They look at the last cycle of their consumers and focus on what the consumers want. Everything has skewed to making money, to the extent that it becomes anti-artistic. It’s hard to make any money off of recorded music, so you’ve gotta tour; it used to be you’d only tour to promote your new album.

Do you have to tour to supplement your income?I’ve incubated my talent here in Austin. But I need to get out on tour, too. And I need to figure out how to manipulate these new tools so people will find out about me. It’s difficult, having to continually sell myself. It takes a lot of gas out of the artistic tank. I think that’s affecting music, because the people who are rising to the top … it doesn’t so much have to do with their music, it has to do with them being good self-promoters. They’re shameless.

What are you working on now? I just recorded a new album. We’re doing EPs now, since it’s hard to get albums out to all the people and properly distribute it. A lot of people are abandoning the album concept and focusing on singles. Then it becomes about “Is this tune catchy?” instead of writing an album that’s a good listen. But I’m not buying into any of this crap that albums don’t matter. I think they matter more than ever.

Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldThis interview has been edited lightly for clarity and space.


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