"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón
Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.
13 March 2020
Raul Midón's latest album The Mirror continues the acclaimed guitarist's upward musical trajectory. What one witnesses time and again on this latest collection is Midón delivering songs that sound truly ageless. The opener "I Love the Afternoon" sits easily beside the best of Antônio Carlos Jobim, while "You're the One" acknowledges contemporary trends without sounding cloyingly of-the-moment. Like Stevie Wonder before him, Midón's music tempers tradition with forward-thinking seamlessly.
The quality of the material is consistent throughout: many artists would be happy to have one composition that rises to the quality of "Disguise" on an album but pairing that piece with "I Really Want to See You Again", while "Cold Cuts and Coffee" reveals each stands poised to become a classic within the artist's discography.
His vocal performances prove impeccable as well: Few singers since Sam Cooke have had the same emotional range and restraint, the sense of intonation and phrasing that Midón possesses. What's more, he carries this over into his instrumental performances: witness his guitar work on the titular piece, one of several that translates effortlessly from the personal to the universal.
Speaking with PopMatters about The Mirror and other musical matters, Midón is candid when it comes to the music industry: though artists are stranded at home for the foreseeable future, he says, there may be a way forward that involves them taking greater control of their work and their artistic futures.
A deeply independent artist and human being, he spends the better part of an hour sharing his thoughts on the current pandemic, his willingness to write about his blindness, and the text that shaped many of his views on the music industry.
How are you doing with the whole quarantine/COVID-19 situation?
I had the whole year booked up.
There's talk that there won't be live performances until next year.
I didn't want to think about that for a long time. But I think it's going to change the balance of things forever. In a lot of ways. It's going to change the balance of what we think about as performers and what we do and how we do it. It's not that we're not online. It's that it's difficult to get paid online right now. People are used to getting their music for free.
Most of us are on labels so the labels make most of the money when it comes to streaming platforms. We have to re-think everything. Even when things do start to come back, I think I'll have developed a lot of different ways to derive an income from music. I hope I'll never be as dependent on touring as I was. That's what my goal is.
What do you see as being possible for revenue streams in the future?
I think it's going to be interesting to see if fans are willing to pay for music. Will it be worth them to go on platforms like Stageit when they can on YouTube and see tons and tons of concerts for nothing? Those of us who have the ability to create content may be in a very good position right now if we're willing to stick it out. I don't care what happens, people still want content. A lot of us can do that because we have home setups. I'm not talking about livestreaming on Facebook. I'm talking about real quality.
My last five records I've created mostly at home. I'm a producer and an engineer and I think this will hasten more the demise of the labels. If you're needing money now and you're going to try and generate money with your content and the label is telling you that you can't do that? That's not even to mention the way we think about government. Most of us aren't getting money from the government. Why not? If nobody has money to spend, then there's no economy. Millions of us are absolutely out of an income.
People were told they were getting checks but they've had problems with that. People are unemployed but they can't file claims. Here in Kansas, where I live, unemployment is run on a mainframe computer that's over 40 years old. It all shows you how bad the infrastructure really is.
Unemployment was never set up for self-employed people to begin with. This idea of, "Well, that's socialism?" Well, goddamnit, we've had socialism for a long time it just depends who you are. Socialism for the fucking airlines [or corporations] to get bailouts who will turn around and give it to their executives and then bitch and moan about socialism? Please.
I'm sad that people are sick and unemployed but I'm also hopeful that this will lead to people mobilizing to make some changes.
It has to be that. I learned a long time ago that we're all given a certain set of circumstances. I was given blindness and it sucks in all kinds of ways. [laughs] But it's also given me a certain way of looking at life. It's an opportunity. Despite everything else. This is the same thing: This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists. Artists have given away their power since the beginning of the music business. They've given it away to managers, they've given it away to labels, they've given it away to agents.
Without agents? There's music. Without lawyers? There's music. Without managers? There's music. Without labels? There's music. Without us? There's no music. How simple is that? Of course there's a partner relationship that you develop with people but the balance has been wrong for a long, long time.
It's been going in this direction since the [advent of] the Internet. It's just going to be accelerated now. You don't need a label to distribute your music anymore. I'm in adult music, essentially. I think some of my songs are pop but pop is a different thing than it used to be. [laughs] I don't need nor will I need massive marketing which a label isn't going to give you. Although she's not on a label anymore either.
You own your own publishing. Did somebody take you aside and say, "Don't give this up?" Because there are those who have signed theirs away.
Who took me aside was Donald S. Passman, who wrote All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I don't agree with everything he says. But I read that book 20 years ago and when I began to understand how the money gets divided and how the music business works, I realized that the only direct payment you get is as a publisher. Everything else goes through other people's hands. By the time you see it, you see very little of it. I made a pretty bold decision to buy back my publishing from Warner when I had the chance.
There's no reason to give away your publishing to a record label. I can't think of a dumber thing to do. It's worked out for some people. It's not a one-size-fits-all. For most of us the lifelong income that comes from publishing is going to outstrip anything you could buy by letting it go.
You can get some pretty big checks. I got $100,000 when I signed with Warner. For me, that was huge. That was more money than I'd ever seen in my life in one place. I've made way more than that over the years in publishing. Even at my level. If you have a hit? Forget about it! Stevie Wonder could throw money out the window from now until the end of his life and still not get rid of it all.
You wanna talk about The Mirror a little?
When did this material start coming together?
I'm always writing, although the road is a difficult place to write. I have a performance mode and a writing mode. Whenever I'm at home I'm writing. I'm in the studio right now working on a song. I take the songs, see what I've got, and see what makes a record.
It seems like you're inspired by current events to some degree.
Absolutely. Writing is a muscle. I'm a big journaler, although I haven't done much lately. I have my little tablet and write in it all the time.
Photo: Samuel Prather / Courtesy of The Bloom Effect
How did the song "The Mirror" become the title and title tune for the album?
It's kind of fascinating to me, as a blind person, the idea of a mirror. You're looking at yourself but upside down. Metaphorically, that has a lot of power to it.
I think that song works on the level of being about interpersonal relationships but it also works when you apply it to the larger culture.
You do these spoken-word pieces on the record. Had you wanted to do something like that for a while?
I was always a big fan of Gil Scott-Heron and Beat poets when I was a kid. I was really into hip-hop in high school, Grandmaster Flash, that kind of thing. I'm not so much into it anymore. I've always been interested in poetry. All poetry is spoken for me anyway. But this is the first time I've put on a record. Well, I say that but it's not exactly true. I did a record a long time ago called Blind to Reality, which is an independent record and I put a spoken word piece on that.
Part of it is a continuation of the whole Bad Ass and Blind thing. There are blind musicians, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, who have never written about being blind. That I know of. It really is a different perspective. Especially if you've never seen. It's different. Your values are different. The visual sense is the strongest, most obvious sense that people depend on for a lot of good reasons. I'm sure that in the hunting and gathering days it was really important to see what the hell was near you.
When do you feel like you first started addressing your blindness in song?
I see Bad Ass and Blind as a real, straight-up statement of, "I'm blind. That's who I am." That's it. Just saying it and saying it with pride. Did you feel a lot of support from the larger blind community? People saying, "Thank you for doing this"? I haven't, to be honest with you. But I'm not really connected with the blind community as such. I'm not in the National Federation For the Blind. I left blind school a long time ago and went to college. Most of my friends are not blind, so I'm not really in the community.
When did you become interested in the recording process, engineering, all that?
I was interested in it for a long time. I did MIDI a long time ago. I had a friend who was an inventor of MIDI. It was in the '80s and I did that for a very intense period of time. Then I thought, "Man, I'm done with that." I didn't realize that the technology not only allowed you to do MIDI but allowed you to be a full-fledged, competitive engineer. When I got here to Maryland and I had all this space I got the studio together with some friends helping me and my wife too.
I paid someone to come in three times a week for 90 bucks an hour to train me. Software is overwhelming for anybody but when you're blind it's even more overwhelming. That guy would come here. I would run a Minidisc recorder and he'd go over everything. When he left, I'd go over the tape and write down what he'd said. I'd take notes just like I did in school.
Photo: Samuel Prather / Courtesy of The Bloom Effect
Do you use software with vocal prompts?
Oh yeah. I use Cakewalk. It's old but it works. The overlay is CakeTalking. A lot of blind people use Jaws, which is a screen reader. What I use creates key combinations for all the crazy things you have to do as an engineer: Levels, compressors, editing. Everything.
How do you approach your guitar solos?
I compose them. I don't really do that live, but I'm a big Steely Dan fan. They used to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on their guitar solos. I don't really care how much time it takes to make it a composition. I was a session musician for a long time. The whole point of being a session musician is to get in there and it as quickly as possible as perfectly as possible so that you can get your money. But, as an artist, it's the exact opposite. At least for me.