In the spring of 1997 I was a junior in high school and a long-time, devout hip hop enthusiast. I was 17 years old, with 17 years experience in the Church (which I loved), but my faith was still pretty new. I was just beginning to try and figure things out. Things like who I was, what the Church was really about, what an authentic life of faith looked like, etc. Despite the newness of the questions, I was one of those kids who already knew all the answers…or so I believed, at least. Whatever I lacked in spiritual maturity I made up for in obnoxious zeal and misplaced overconfidence in my ability to figure things out on my own. Simply put, I was a confused kid.
I was enrolled in a large high school in a suburb of Fort Worth, TX; a school from which I spent a fair amount of time and energy begging my parents to withdraw me. I hated it. I hated feeling lost in the crowd. I hated feeling as though I had no identity. I had always been a (less than significant) part of the basketball team, but had recently traded in my jersey for a (substantially more significant) lower back surgery. My second, in fact. So I was pretty lost at school. I couldn’t play basketball anymore. I had no real friends. No real enemies. No real place. Just another skinny kid in baggy jeans trying to find the balance between loving both Jesus and “gangsta rap” simultaneously.
My confusion manifested itself in a fairly interesting way that spring. I became severely (and somewhat secretly) depressed. Having “all the answers” prevented me from seeking help at home. In fact, I couldn’t even acknowledge my need for help openly. I became a liar. In my quest for an authentic life of faith, inauthenticity became my dearest and most faithful companion. My life circumstances aligned in such a way that it was all too easy to slip unnoticed through the proverbial cracks. I stopped, almost completely, going to school. Now, hear me on this. I’m not saying I cut a few classes. I’m not talking about a Ferris Bueller-esque “NINE TIMES”. When I say I stopped going, here’s what I mean: in the first 56 days of the spring semester of my junior year of high school I skipped 48 times… not 48 classes. 48 days of school. Unnoticed… (well, unnoticed until the truancy ticket I received stating I’d missed somewhere in the ballpark of 288 classes)…
Now, you may be asking yourself, what does a confused, depressed, baggy jean-clad 17 year old hip hop enthusiast DO with 48 days of secret free time in the middle of the school year? That’s a good question. Does he get into drugs? Not me. Not once. Does he just sleep the day away? No. I left for school every single day like I was supposed to. Does he run around with OTHER confused, depressed, baggy jean-clad hip hop enthusiasts? Nope. I might’ve, had I known any. But I didn’t. I spent my days just driving around. I’d drive to my church and hang out there. I’d drive to my church camp (75 miles away) and hang out there. Sometimes I’d drive to my church friends’ high schools and hang out there. Sometimes I’d just… drive. All day long. But, my FAVORITE thing to do was hang out at the local “Christian” bookstore, rifling through CDs, trying to find something to answer the life-questions that so confounded me. I did this at least once or twice a week.
Now, I’ll be honest, Christian retailers didn’t have many quality options at that time for true hip hop connoisseurs like myself. That fact became increasingly evident with every visit, forcing me to expand my musical horizons a bit. And that’s how it happened. That’s how I discovered Derek Webb.
On one of my mid-day trips to the bookstore sometime in late March of 1997, I came across a self-titled album by a little band called Caedmon’s Call, of which Derek Webb was a member. I don’t know exactly what it was, but something about that album jumped out at me. The artwork was pretty simple. The band name was odd and intriguing. The song titles were significantly less “Christian” sounding than those of every other CD on the shelf. I’m not sure why, but despite never having heard a single song from it, I decided to buy that album… a decision that forever altered my relationship with hip hop music.
It took very little time to become a fan. A big fan. A super-fan even. You know that moment in the movie “The Jerk” when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson is laying in bed, eating twinkies and listening to the radio? He hears the unfamiliar sound of music like he’s never heard before…music that “speaks to him.” Ya… that’s kinda how it was for me with that self-titled Caedmon’s record. Something about it met me right where I was, in the confusing blur between adolescence and early adulthood, between societal expectations and authenticity, between questions and answers. It spoke to me. It helped organize the thoughts and emotions that were swirling so recklessly around my head and my heart. It was like hearing a new language from a foreign land for the very first time, but understanding it clearly. Whoever these people were, they were helping to shape me; my faith, my worldview, my taste in music. They were the vehicle through which God was bringing form and order where there’d only ever been chaos.
I followed them closely. Really closely. I went to every show they played in or around Dallas/Fort Worth. I bought every album I could get my hands on. I dissected every song, every lyric, every story they told. I was a total fan. That eventually carried over into Derek Webb’s solo career as well. I was the type of fan every career artist loves and needs; the type who buys every record on or before release day, who buys tickets to every show you play in their town, sings along to every song and patronizes the merch table afterwards. Every single time, without fail.
Somewhere along the way I picked up an acoustic guitar, and the language I’d learned from years of following Caedmon’s and Derek and their folksy touring buddies (Bebo Norman, Andrew Peterson, Justin McRoberts, etc.) I began using to write songs of my own. I started a band with a songwriting friend that, although I’d have never admitted it at the time, was essentially a mediocre rehashing of early Caedmon’s Call music. My musical career evolved and grew and eventually led to opportunities to open up shows for both Caedmon’s and Derek separately, although to date, it’s never developed much past that.
I’m 33 years old now, and have been a fan of Derek Webb, both as a member of Caedmon’s Call and as a solo artist, for just under half my life. I still go to every show. I still buy every record. I still dissect every song, every lyric, every unique sound he records. However… something has changed over the last few years, and it’s led me to this realization: I am no longer a fan of Derek Webb. Don’t get me wrong. I still love his music. I still love his live show. But I am no longer a fan.
At some point over the last few years, and I don’t know how this happened… I became Derek Webb’s friend. No matter how hard I’ve tried to remain a fan, he hasn’t let me. He simply won’t allow it. He insists on treating me like a friend; talking to me like a friend. Two years ago, when I asked awkwardly after a show if I could hire him to sing on my first solo album, he agreed enthusiastically. Then he followed though, and he did it free of charge, as if we were friends. Then last year, when I emailed him last minute to ask if I could open for him at an upcoming local show, he acted like it was no big deal, and made it happen. Just as if we were friends. Then, at some point along the way Derek began following me on Twitter. Why? I have no idea. Why would someone whose career I’ve followed for the better part of two decades follow me back? And not just that, but reply to things I said, carry on regular DM conversations, etc. It muddies up the waters of fandom. It confuses the artist/fan relationship. Then a few weeks back, randomly, I received an email from Derek containing a link to download his forthcoming record, “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry And I Love You”. Now, granted, he sent the same email to several other folks as well. But that’s not the point. The point is: I was one of them. This person I’ve admired and followed for half my life let me in to the circle of friends with whom he shared his latest work.
I don’t know any career artist who shares their work, in it’s entirety, with their fanbase for free before asking that fanbase to purchase that same work. That’s not how business works. It’s DEFINITELY not how the MUSIC business works. The music business insists on building anticipation, generating buzz, making your fanbase wait impatiently, eager to buy your project the first chance they get. That’s the unfortunate, but necessary nature of the artist/fan relationship. Those are the rules.
Well, anyone who follows Derek Webb, even casually, knows he’s not much for following the rules. The rules of the music business, the rules of Western Christianity, the rules of following @questlove on Twitter, he breaks them all with some consistency. In this particular case, I believe there’s a lesson to be gleaned by other artists out there.
For years now, as we, the global community, have navigated the new and uncharted waters of digital media and communication, folks have been talking about “the new music business.” All the systems and patterns and models of the great and mighty music industry of yesterday have been flipped upside down. What used to work consistently with regard to building and maintaining a faithful audience has ceased to be effective. Records don’t sell like they used to. Not because people don’t love music anymore, but because people don’t listen in the same ways they used to. I won’t get into a lengthy discourse about the many ways the industry has changed and continues to change because of the invention of the internet, as it’s all been said before by people with a far greater understanding and ability to explain it than me. Suffice it to say things have changed significantly. And Derek has consistently been on the forefront of music industry innovation, creating (and sharing) ways to keep fans interested and artists afloat. I have to believe he’s at it again. Specifically with me, the now former super-fan.
I believe Derek’s learned something every artist needs to learn. Rather than treating fans like fans, embracing the hierarchical model of music business past, Derek has begun treating those who support him like friends. He’s spent the last decade (at least) dismantling the traditional artist/fan relationship model as it pertains to his career, effectively removing any and all obligatory pretenses. He’s okay with upsetting those who hold a set of “rules” in higher regard than the honest, artistic expression of truth. He seems perfectly comfortable losing “fans,” whether that means running them off, watching them jump ship at the first sign of controversy, or welcoming them into a more authentic relationship: a friendship. That, my friends, is innovative. That, I believe, is the future of “the new music business.” Authenticity over pretense. Honesty over obligation. Humility over celebrity.
So here’s what’s interesting about this. I’ve had Derek’s new album for about three weeks now. I love it. It’s truly some of his best work. I’ve already begun dissecting every song, every lyric, every sound. And herein lies the lesson for the rest of us in the artist community: the day I get an email announcing the pre-sale of this record… this record I already own… this record I’ve already mostly memorized… you can bet your next paycheck on the fact that I’ll still be buying it. I’ll still buy the top tier package. Shirt, vinyl, CD, digital, whatever. I’ll buy it. But not only will I buy it… I’ll promote it. I’ll tweet about it. I’ll tell friends about it. I’ll play it for people. I’ll do that all the way up until his next project comes along and then I’ll do it all over again. Why? Why spend my money on something I’ve already been given for free? That’s another good question. The answer is simple: because I’ve been offered more than mere consumption. I’ve been offered more than ownership. I’ve been offered more than a business transaction or an opportunity for long-distance admiration. I’ve been offered friendship. And that’s what friends do. They support one another.
In case you’re curious how the whole school-skipping thing turned out… shortly after the Caedmon’s discovery, my school administrators and I came to a mutual agreement that my educational needs could be best met elsewhere… meaning I got kicked out. All the classes I’d missed were listed as Incompletes on my permanent record… which, ironically, bumped my GPA up pretty significantly. I transferred to a smaller school, made straight A’s the rest of the way through high school, graduated on time and received academic scholarships to a major university… so… I like to think I beat the system… (which IS Ferris Bueller-esque). Also, just so we’re clear, I’m still a devout hip hop enthusiast. A folk-singing hip hop enthusiast. Thanks for reading.