Roger McGuinn, the frontman of The Byrds, was a major influence on other recording artists, from The Beatles to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Fast forward 40 years and McGuinn is involved in a new revolution.
The buzz on the Internet these days is focused on social media. Once again, McGuinn is on the vanguard.
The man who pioneered folk-rock in the 1960s can now be found on Facebook. While on tour, he tweets photos and thoughts to his fans from his iPhone.
The Web savvy baby boomer has been using the Web to get free music to his fans for over a decade leaving many of his contemporaries in the dust, and he is enjoying every minute of it.
I spoke with McGuinn about his Web sites: The Folk Den and mcguinn.com, the music he loves and the music business to get a sense of what keeps him going.
On the music
Myers: Let’s start off talking about folk music. Why are you so passionate about it?
McGuinn: I grew up with it. It’s music that I have always loved and I noticed that about 11 years ago it was disappearing from the musical landscape. It had been replaced by singer-songwriters who were playing their own material.
Myers: Putting the singer-songwriter label on them took the focus away from finding traditional material…
McGuinn: Exactly. And there is a financial incentive to write more material. You get more publishing money.
Myers: What is it specifically about the older songs that still holds up?
McGuinn: They have wonderful melodies and they are great stories. They were originally used to convey the news from town to town, so they all have very meaty human interest stories in them.
Myers: How do you find the songs that you record?
McGuinn: Most of them are songs that I have been exposed to over the years.
Myers: You record the songs on your Folk Den site yourself?
McGuinn: I do. I record them on a computer. I have a Macintosh and I am using Pro Tools. I use a MacBook Pro with a Core 2 Duo processor. It’s the most powerful laptop you can get. It’s really a fast machine.
Myers: What about your Folk Den Web site? How did that come about?
McGuinn: Well, I started The Folk Den 11 years ago just to keep the old songs alive. I already had mcguinn.com and decided to make a section called The Folk Den. Every month I would upload a song with the lyrics and the chords, and a little story about the song. It’s done very well. People have been enjoying it.
Myers: Did you design the Web site yourself?
McGuinn: Initially, I did. But now it’s sponsored by the University of North Carolina. Some of the students there kicked in and helped me with the latest version of The Folk Den Web page. But I do my own site, I do all of the stuff on mcguinn.com… But the actual Folk Den page is a template that they created for me… I do write the pages myself from this point on.
Myers: You seem to be a fan of technology?
McGuinn: I have been a fan of technology ever since my grandfather took me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I loved technology at a very early age.
Myers: Your intention with The Folk Den was to get the folk songs out there?
McGuinn: Yes, to keep them alive!
Myers: Has it done what you wanted it to?
McGuinn: I would say so. In the last 11 years, since I have been doing it, the genre has become more popular – as evidenced by [Bruce] Springsteen doing a folk album…
On the business
Myers: Traditionally, record labels do a couple of things for artists. They record the songs and then they help them distribute them…
McGuinn: Right. Well, in the old days you absolutely needed a record company to be able to afford to record songs because the studios cost over a million dollars. The studio time was as much as $500 to $600 an hour. You could easily drop thousands of dollars a day recording.
Myers: Now, what is the budget like?
McGuinn: (Laughs.) You could buy all of the equipment for $4,000 to $5,000 and the studio time is free.
Myers: You were very successful with the old music business paradigm and now you are on the cutting edge of a new one. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
McGuinn: The publicity machine that record companies have is still better than whatever an independent artist can come up with. Fortunately, I have an established name, and I do things like help Sony Legacy with promoting Byrds’ products. I get a slingshot effect from that myself. I get publicity from that. But if you are just starting out as an artist and you don’t have any affiliation at all, YouTube, MySpace and CD Baby – there are quite a few Web sites that can be helpful. But you are never going to get the big push that you get from a record company. They pour millions of dollars into it.
Myers: Your understanding of technology puts you in a unique position. I was reading an interview with James Taylor the other day. He was saying that he was frustrated with his previous label and from now on he wasn’t going to sign record deals for more than one record at a time.
McGuinn: I think that is one record deal too many because these days, you really don’t need one. Downloading is cool. I’m in the camp of publicity is the new radio. There are ways of getting publicity and distribution without a record label. Amazon.com has been very good to me. I’ve put CDs there and they have done very well.