An Interview with River Crossing
conducted by Ben Ohmart
There's one band that's kicking some serious ___ online. They're using mp3.com and a host of other hosts and marketing tools to promote some music that's just so good, you wonder why it's still label-free. Well, maybe they can tell us a little something about it.
Q: G'day, music men. Tell us a bit about River Crossing's background and influences.
A: I formed River Crossing in 1995 so I could access as many different styles as possible. I had a crew of about 20 people with styles ranging from Rock, Metal, Jazz, Blues, Country and Pop. I'd book a gig, then call the crew to find out what kind of band we were going to be that night. Eventually I solidified the group to the core we have now: myself (Terry Thompkins), Michael Saunders, and Mickey Hartzog. One of our strengths is our flexibility; we've played Coffee Shops for 15 people and we've played Festivals for 1000's of people.
We may have been born a couple decades late. You can hear CSN and Beatles influences as well as smoother Coltrain and Folk-based James Taylor inspiration. Luckily, we got to grow up listening to their music, so it naturally helped shape ours.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve very soon? Things seem to be looking up for you, with your consistant star status in your genre of mp3.com. But I'm sure you're doing Other things to spread the music out there, right?
A: We've been approached by potential investors and are communicating with a couple independent labels and Publishing houses. Patrick Keel shopped us to the majors earlier this year, and we're hoping to hear some good news there. In the meantime, I formed a fledgling label, Mad Beacon Records, to help River Crossing and our brother bands get some exposure.
We play in the Dallas area as a full band and as an acoustic project. At this point, we've released 2 EP's and a single over the internet. We've had great success (We've got the best selling CD on a few charts and Top 10 for the rest). The songs themselves consistently stay in the upper 10% of their subcategories.
Our current mission is to secure funding to allow us to use our music master library to create a full length album (microscoping old tunes and completely creating new ones). Then we intend to back the release with a wide distribution and marketing program complete with print and radio support.
Mp3.com has been a huge help in the process. I played for 7 years in Dallas without developing a large enough following to play the "crucial" clubs; I uploaded our music onto mp3.com and we now are visited by over a 2500 new people each week, and get over 1000 downloads.
Q: The computer is great because it's instant communication and it isn't too costly. But how can a band or artist withOut computer access - if such a thing is possible! - hope to compete against all the 'connected' people out there? Any tips?
A: Mp3.com offers uploading services. Just visit the mp3.com site and click on Artist login. There's a small fee if you want them to upload the music and graffics. Also, Kathode Ray Music in Nashville is happy to work with promising new bands across the country whether or not the internet is a part of their strategy.
Any artist can greatly increase his or her chance to succeed by being around the scene. Recently I've found that cruising Deep Ellum (the heart of the Dallas music scene) even if you don't have a gig increases your chance to get into a new club. If the club people get to know you, they are that much more likely to book you when an opportunity arises. The tricky part is mixing business with pleasure; you don't want to become a lush, and you don't want to be a brown-noser. Network. Get to know other artists doing what you do (and even things you don't do). If you support them, they are that much more likely to support you.
To create a buzz about one's band, one must enlist the services of those who like you. It may be subliminal; someone hears you at a gig and mentions it to a friend. Or someone hears your song on tape from a friend. Be there for other bands if gig dates get crossed and they need someone to cover. Give bands you like a copy of your tunes and ask if you can open for them. Offer opening slots to bands you like when you have the opportunity.
And be a good person. It's a business, and many of the people in it don't always act professionally, but you must. Cream rises to the top. You may not receive professional treatment by everyone, but eventually it will be noticed.
Q: Songwriter, when do you compose? What gets your juices flowing? And do you ever make those juices flow even without divine inspiration?
A: I've written songs from tunes I heard in my dreams to rhythms I've heard in machinery to organic melanges jamming with other musicians. I've written a few songs in retrospect to help me understand what happened to me emotionally during traumatic events. Sometimes I'm just overwhelmed with a good feeling and do my best to share it with other people through guitar and vocals.
I noticed a few years ago that almost all of my songs use an A-B format. Recently, I forced myself to at least add a bridge to break up the monotony. "La Rosa" and "River of Time" are 2 of our Jazz tunes that only use A-B. It works there; it helps develop the groove. Mike does anything but stay in a groove.
Take a listen to his Session Head tune at www.mp3.com/sessionhead. I personally think Mike's a genius. He has to be; he's so good at hearing what I'm trying to do, and opening new riffs I'm not even capable of playing. "The Wedding Song" is an even contribution from both of us; the song uses an A-B format, but they are two completely different sounds. The A part is a simple folk riff; the B is a jazzy almost cabaret riff. Toss in a cello and violin, and you've got a wedding tune.
Songwriters are a special breed. I've noticed many manic depressives in our midst. That's not to say every songwriter wants to kill him or her self; I love my life. But I (like many artists) go through mood swings. I think much of our need to create simply starts as a way to understand what the heck just happened to us. Music is the best outlet I found to help me keep track of what's happened and how I've felt before. It also lets me chronicle what I'd like to experience. Some people keep journals; I write songs.
Q: In this day of the singer/songwriter, do you frown at the few opportunities for the plain ol' songwriter? These aren't the days of Elvis when artists sought material rather than write it themselves. Are these better days though?
A: I'm frequently amazed at how much credit singers are given for their efforts. Take Maria Carey or Celine Dion; they have incredible voices, but many people mistakenly think they write the songs. I consider them to be exceptional talent, true Divas, but I'm more impressed with Cheryl Crow's ability to create everything. I consider the Diva to be on line with a gifted actor/singer in an opera; you have to have incredible talent to be in that circle, but you are dependent on someone else to provide you with a platform to express yourself.
Elvis didn't write the vast majority of his music. But no one else could have performed them the way he did. He too was an incredible talent, and shaped the Rock N Roll Rock star image even as his shape, well, widened. Luckily there is a need for both the singer/songwriter and the singer-songwriter team.
Today's artists have more competition. There are more entertainment options available. There are more styles of music. There are more ways to support your favorite band. I'm glad we're here; I probably would not have had as much luck as I've had now if I was competing in another era.
I'd welcome an opportunity to write music for other artists. I'd be willing to negotiate selling my songs to other bands. No one's come knockin' yet, and I'm tired of these songs sitting on my shelf, so here we go.
Q: Any idea what makes a good song?
A: Hooks, baby, hooks. You gotta have a riff that gets stuck in everybody's head the first time they hear it. I've stumbled on hooks before that vaguely remind the listener of some song they can't quite specify. That's one trick; don't rip off another song, but make the listener feel like they heard your song a few times the first time they hear it.
And give your hooks a chance to bite in. I've worked with songwriters that wrote amazing hooks, but passed so quickly from hook to hook the listener never had a chance to settle in.
Write about life. If you have a boring life, you may write a boring song. But if you can explain why life is boring, or what you wish it were like, or what you fear it might be like, you can write a good song.
And don't expect your listener to listen to long songs all the time. Yes, the song is perfect with the 3rd solo, but can you get an audience if you trim the song to 3 minutes? If you find your repertoire only has 5-7 minute songs in it (like we did at one point) force yourself to write a couple quick ones. Invariably the epic makes an impression, but the pop tune keeps a riff and your bands' name in their thoughts.
Q: Everything you experience goes into a song, of course. But are there any really WEIRD things that go into your songs? Like a week of bad toilet paper?
A: I wrote a song about a double homicide my brother witnessed ("Little Boy Blue").
Q: It all comes down to promotion, doesn't it? Or do you believe that even great music will rise to the top of the heap without any external influences? What's the ratio of gigging/composing to promotion for you?
A: We gig more than we write, but promotion is crucial. I co-produced Key's first album "Claustrophobic Astronauts". We didn't promote it much, and initially had good sales (It's still a top 10 seller on mp3.com). Today, Key's tunes are struggling at the bottom of most of their subgenres.
Promotion is a lot of thankless work until it starts to work for you. River Crossing is currently enjoying prime ranking on mp3.com, and I've been working hard to get us there. Still have worlds to discover, let alone navigate.
Q: What is the secret of life?
A: "Everything happens that needs to be" (River of Time). The secret of songwriting? Hooks (Matter of Time)
Can an artist really give out sage advice? Or is he always going to be afraid of too much competition?
An artist can try to give away anything the artist wants. If you tell me the Truth, it's not up to you to prove it's real, it's up to me to believe it. I've learned that I don't have the answers for everyone. I don't worry about that. I follow Christ's example; live a good life and let your life serve as a sounding board for others. If someone sees something good in you that they wish was a part of them, give them insight if they ask. If they don't, don't bother them. The same holds true for music. And art. And business. "Busy, busy, busy.-Bokonon" (Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions")
Q: Where can we find out more about you? www? Mailing list? Grandmother's address?
A: All the answers can be found at www.mp3.com/rivercrossing. Unless you don't see the answer to your question there, in which case you can email me at River_Crossing@yahoo.com
Our mailing address is
PO Box 142181
Las Colinas, TX 75014-2181
Thank you for giving me a chance to chat with you and your readers.