John Pointer is a talented songwriter, guitar player and beatboxer. He also has an idea that just might save music.
When Quoffer’s manager Kevin Smith dropped by the office last Thursday, June 9, saying “The Great John Pointer is playing in my bar tonight!” My first thought was “John who?” Then I remembered John Pointer’s interview on KOOP 91.7 FM about his “crowd-sourcing” website for musicians called Patronism. And the amazing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” I had been wanting to get hold of him for a couple of months so I could write about him. Now here he was, about to perform in a pub just a few doors down from where I work. It was like fate.
I was glad I went. John Pointer the musician put on a hell of a show. John Pointer the idea man was also pretty inspiring.
First, the show…
Pointer has some unusual techniques. He stands on a wooden box that he stamps on for rhythm. He has a percussive guitar playing style — he recently had had his guitar reinforced to keep it from cracking. He also picks with both hands on the neck. Very unique. I’ve never seen anyone play like that. He performed with confidence and humor, teasing and joshing with the audience.
My favorite song of the night was “Abraham’s Disciple,” a fierce song about religion-inspired violence. “I don’t care what you’re teaching Brother, I’m gonna study war…” He also sang some beautiful more delicate-sounding songs like “Annalisa,” a song inspired by Portland songwriter Annalisa Tornfelt; and “Sleep Well,” a song he wrote to comfort his terminally ill father.
His take on “Kashmir” was pretty awesome as well. There was some unwelcome competition from some basketball fans at the bar who wanted to make it known as loudly as they could that they came for the game, but he handled it gracefully, making a joke out of their outbursts rather than going off on them (like they would’ve deserved, frankly). “Please hold your applause…. Let’s see him do this.”
His cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” impressed me as did his version of Blackstreet’s “No Diggety.”
Pointer gave some great beatbox performances (including, after much begging from a fan, a pastiche of Chili’s ‘Babyback ribs’ commercial) and even taught the audience how to get started beatboxing: Repeat “Mississippi, Mississippi, Mississippi, Pississippi, Pississippi, Pississippi, etc.” (Just the basics. To get as good as he is takes 30 years of practice.)
The beatboxing was popular and he got a lot of audience participation. “James Brown rules: When I say ‘Ain’t it funky?’ say ‘Yeah!'”
John Pointer the Musician
John has been playing music since he was 5, starting out on the piano. He learned to play cello using the Suzuki Method, learning to play percussion and then guitar at age 12. Back then his heroes were guitarists like Steve Vai, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Joe Satriani. When he was studying music at the University of Texas in Austin, where he got a degree in cello performance and composition, he found that “nobody wanted to hear shredders.”
His uncle gave him a Stratocaster and he began playing the blues, like Austin folks wanted to hear. He began playing with guitarist and singer/songwriter Michael Hedges. Then he played cello with a group called Woodwork featuring guitar virtuosos David Lee Hess and Chris Downey. He credits Hess and Downey as major influences on his guitar style. “They still perform occasionally as Seahorse,” he said. “They’re so good they can’t find their audience. I’m nowhere near as good as they are on guitar. They do it more precisely. I’m a bull in a china shop.”
Pointer got into beatboxing and performed with Schrödinger’s Cat – Big Beat A Capella. It was with that group that he got the idea to perform atop a percussion box.
He has had success in the theater. He recently performed in Rent at the Zach Scott Theatre.
Patronism is a subscription-based company that allows fans — or patrons — to subscribe to artists they love. In exchange for subscribing, a patron gets access to all kinds of creative content. That could include downloadable songs, videos, guitar tabs, or lyric sheets — whatever the artist decides. “The idea is to get the patron actively involved in the creative process,” said Pointer. “It will stabilize the artists income so they can keep creating.”
Pointer wants musicians to get out of the album/T-shirt/CD-selling business and devote more time to their art. “I don’t release CDs anymore,” he said. “They’re pretty worthless.” The subscription system on the other hand, allows artists to partner with fans so they can keep making music. “You have to be a musician to understand how radical this change is.”
Pointer is confident his way is the way of the future. “This is going to sink the rest of the music industry, or what’s left of it. But it will save music. In three years I’ll be known as the one who changed music. I’m not making any money, I’m just making sure musicians can keep making music.”
Patronism went live in September and is still in beta, but it has already gained attention from the media. It was a semi-finalist in the Harvard Business School and Berklee College of Music Business Model Competition and has been has been written up by numerous publications, including Time, Hypebot and Wired Magazine.
Patronism is different from Kickstarter, a “crowdsourcing” website that helps people fund projects such as album releases. Kickstarter projects have a definite beginning and end. Patronism is ongoing. “We don’t ‘kickstart’ projects,” Pointer said. “What we do is keep the engine running.”
The website uses a “pay what you feel” model, similar to the one Radiohead used to sell downloads of In Rainbows in 2007. “It’s more like a fan club with lots of content,” Pointer said. “An artist could have special shows for patrons, for example. Music is not a commodity. It should be shared by people who are most moved by it and want to ensure it’s survival.”
If John Pointer’s Patronism saves music it will be ironic, because it’s actually a very old concept. Pointer sees the current “record deal” model as an aberration, something that’s only been around for 100 years. “The future of music is ancient history. We would not have had the Rennaissance without the Medicis. Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Boticelli – they were all supported by the Medici family.”
Musicians are accepted based on talent and ability to use the web. “We are curating it one band at a time,” said Pointer. “They have to be compelling and be able to communicate online. If we deny a band, we have an incubator program. We’ll help them grow their e-mail list.”
Pointer has two business partners: Dave Kuster and Michael Torkildsen. Right now, they are working in the U.S. only, but they plan to take it worldwide.
There are two types of music fans according to Pointer:
1. Super-fans or “patrons.” These are the people who are moved by music and find value in it and are willing to support it. They actually have a relationship with the music and the musicians that produce it.
2. Consumers. These just want to be “fed” or entertained. Music might be fun, but it’s not that important, worth downloading maybe, but not worth paying for. (“To the people who just want everything I do for free, I say fuck them, because that’s what they’re saying to me. I practiced for 32 years to learn how to do this. But if you value what I do, I’ll give it to you.”)
Let’s hope there are enough people in the first category to make Patronism and companies like it successful.