CBC Radio and the Joy of Pragmatism

or, Johnny West is Not the Western Hero his Name Implies

Hi, my name is Derek Harrison. I am a musician. I recently created a piece of music called Empty Heart.

When I was finished, I listened to it, and I thought “Wow, I’m really proud of this. Wouldn’t it be swell if other people would listen to it?”

So I put the song up on Bandcamp, did a whole round of online promotion, and submitted it to the CBC Searchlight competition. Edit: I didn’t make it to the next round, but thanks for voting!

Now some people may take issue with this. There’s a taboo about creating art for others. The prevailing attitude is that it’s not “real” art if you care if other people like it.

Just read this excerpt from a recent blog post by Johnny West:

i don’t like competition in art. i don’t like contests. frankly, i think they’re stupid, and altogether pointless. i think a real artist is someone who is too busy creating art to care much about getting involved in these kinds of things.

There’s that “real artist” idea again. What the hell is a real artist? I don’t think there’s an answer to that question.

Someone once challenged me when I told them I am a musician. They said “Are you really a musician or do you just make music? Do you play shows and get paid?” I’m not necessarily condoning their viewpoint, but rather presenting an opposite to the above definition of “a real artist.” And I think it’s a valid position. After all, I cook most of the food I eat, and I think I’m pretty good at it. Does that make me a cook?

Making a Living

I am a musician. It’s a hard thing to be. I, like most of us, need to have a second job. I’m lucky enough to have a good one, but most musicians are forced to take minimum wage jobs outside of their field. The music industry is in depression. Bars don’t want to pay us. Half of the venues exist in some bizarro world where they expect the hired entertainment to pay them.

Most musicians are entrepreneurs, building a business from the ground up. Transferable skills are a major part of building that business. In my case, I am a songwriter. That is my specialty. But I do session work and tour with bands. Like in all industries, it takes a lot of investment, both monetary and personal, to start a business.

CBC Searchlight

Music is both an art and a craft. I take pride in what I create and I think it has real value for others. CBC Searchlight is one way to share it. I am not going to win, but hopefully my song will reach more ears than I otherwise could have reached.

The artistry is vibrant in this competition. Competing in the same market as me are SwampWolf, who’s wildness rivals Johnny West’s, and Half Moon Run, probably the best new band I’ve heard in years, who’s birth I had the honour of witnessing, since my brother used to play drums for the founder of the band before he moved to Montreal and I unsuccessfully auditioned as their bassist shortly before they began touring the world (they still don’t have a bassist, so I don’t feel so bad). Half Moon Run has a solid chance of winning, and they really deserve it. Edit: neither of these artists made it to the next round either, unfortunately.

I first heard about the CBC Searchlight competition when they were searching for the “best indie music venue in Canada.” Say what you will about Phog Lounge in Windsor winning the competition, but all the top 20 became household names among independent touring musicians because of that contest.

It has its flaws, but it does some good and it does no harm. At a time when aspiring musicians are expected to PAY for exposure, we should be thankful when organizations offer a free promotional service like this.

The Tweet Version

Contrary to Johnny West, I think that a real artist is someone who does everything they can to turn their art into their job, so that they can spend their life doing what they love.

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Work Eats Brain IV


Today was my one-year anniversary working at the same company. When I got in this morning, I went in to the kitchen and poured myself a bowl of cereal, using the little milk cups they have for coffee. The only other person in the kitchen with me while I ate my breakfast was the guy who refills the water coolers and never talks. As he walked by me on his way out of the kitchen he said: “Hey, man.” I thought “That’s odd. That’s the first time he’s said anything to me in a whole year of working here.”

When I got back to me desk there was an email from HR to the whole company that said “The milk in the fridge is only to be used for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. It is NOT to be used for cereal, or anything else.”

Happy anniversary.

Sign that I’m getting old #3: I think this is the first time I’ve done anything for a year.

Love, Derek

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Last night I was having a pint with Joe at Inspecteur Épingle (that’s French for Inspector Gadget – don’t ask me why it’s called that.) I’ve played there several times and hung out there many times. I’m not a regular, but that’s mostly because I’m not in the neighbourhood often, since I quite like the place.

It’s tucked away on a cobblestone street in the East plateau – thoroughly French territory. Some famous hockey player hangs out there but, since I know nothing about hockey, I can’t remember his name. The beer is well-kept and affordable and the range is balanced – Labatt 50 stands beside the cream ale and oatmeal stout from St. Ambroise, which both taste better here than most places, while the less common selection of Alchimiste beers lends a nice variety of flavours and styles to their taps. The bar staff is consistently friendly, inviting and respectful.

So when some lady at the next table turned to Joe and I, interrupting us mid-conversation, to ask “What are you doing at this place if you speak English?”, I was a bit peeved. I told her I’m here because I like it here, and hoped she would go away (she didn’t).

Despite what people say about Montreal, something like this has only happened to me a few times in more than three years of living here. Francophones who are perfectly comfortable expressing their elitism to my face are rare. Not many locals have the nerve to openly denounce our right to hold a private conversation in English in a bar which has shown nothing but respect for my patronage despite the language I speak.

There are some establishments which grumble about Anglophones or otherwise indicate that I’m not 100% welcome. In those bars, I do my best to speak to the staff in my broken French, drink my beer, and then I don’t go back. Politics aside, people can run their business however they want, and it’s easy enough for me not to go to a bar where I’m not wanted. But this was not one of those bars. 

The woman was saying something along the lines of “If you want a good job, a social life, a lover, then you need to learn French.” I told her I have all these things. She asked me where I live – Little Italy. I told her that I like the fact that when I go to the café or the bakery I hear several different languages. At the market recently with my girlfriend, the girl behind the counter responded to her by saying “Spanish, Arabic, French and now English. I like it this way.”

That’s what Montreal is really like. That woman in the bar, who acts like she owns the place and the rest of the province too, is the exception. At least I like to think so.

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