To Touch the Stars: a 10 year retrospective on taking filk mainstream

This is the full copy of a retrospective on To Touch the Stars: A Musical Celebration of Space Exploration, which will be excerpted in Gary McGath's upcoming ebook on filk history.

In 1997, I formed Prometheus Music. My goal was to take filk to a professional level, at a time in which filk albums were rarely as professionally produced as today. I spent about $175,000 to explore what professional filk could look like (mostly covered by sales).

To Touch the Stars was one of our first projects, and our most ambitious effort to deliberately produce filk for a more mainstream audience. Producer Kristoph Klover and I had both loved the classic Minus Ten and Counting space filk album, which was out-of-print, in an era in which 'out-of-print' didn't mean you could still play it on YouTube.

In hindsight, we were incredibly naive. I thought it would cost $4,000 and be done in a year. In the end, I spent about $45,000, and easily a thousand hours of my time over seven years. And Kristoph easily spent as much time. We all made a lot of missteps on the production, in trying to deliver a project that was far beyond our experience level at the time. But ultimately, the CD brought together the best space exploration filk songs, produced in partnership with the National Space Society and Mars Society, who had both recently completed space songwriting contests. The full-color lyric booklet easily rivaled any coffee table space book.

What we accomplished - media coverage and visibility for our community's music - handily ranks as among the greatest accomplishments of the filk community. I worked 80 hours a week on publicity for several months, generating more press coverage any filk project has ever seen. We're talking media coverage like Seattle Times (front page), Popular Science, Discovery Channel, MSNBC, CBC Quirks & Quarks, (top headline on front page),, San Francisco Chronicle, CBC Radio One's "Here & Now" (interview by Karen Linsley, reaching millions), Quest and Spaceflight magazines, Hobbyspace, and countless other publications.

Beyond press coverage, the album made waves. NASA played "Pioneers of Mars" as wakeup music for the Mars rover Opportunity. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission included "Witnesses Waltz" from our album in NASA's "Born of Dreams - Inspired by Freedom" book/DVD. Top space historian Dr. Roger Launius quoted songs from the album in the NASA-published anthology "Realizing the Dream of Flight". And in a pre-iPod era, pre-release CDs of To Touch the Stars were played all over the world at Yuri's Night parties from Houston to Tokyo to Baku (Azerbaijan). Schools and science museums around the world have used it to teach.

NASA mission controller Marianne Dyson wrote the album liner notes, as did distinguished engineer and space author Robert Zubrin. Legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin even endorsed the CD personally.

It's almost tangential to mention that we got extensive nationwide airplay for these songs on major folk programs, largely thanks to renowned folk singer Christine Lavin personally pitching Garry Novikoff's song, "Dog on the Moon" to DJs. NASA licensed our music for their Emmy Award winning SCI Files program, but never used it. A young engineer from Vietnam - Thu Vu Trong - found the MP3s on the internet, and made inspiring videos of the songs, now viewed over 400,000 times.

Having a CD of space filk featured in the Smithsonian's gift shop was the wet dream of 1990s filkers. And, yes, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum and the Museum of Flight both stocked it in their gift shops.

But, commercially speaking, the album was an unmitigated failure. It taught us that filk music brings intrinsic limits in audience and mass appeal -- no matter how it's performed or packaged.

In reality, the prominent space museums who stocked the CD rapidly abandoned it, despite our efforts: their customers simply had no interest in music of an unknown genre by unknown artists, even with Buzz Aldrin on the cover. And Apogee Press, a major space enthusiast publisher that tried to sell it at a major space conference, did not even move even a single CD.

And without the large non-filk buying audience we'd aspired towards, it sold only about $30,000 in ten years -- staggering by filk standards, but not enough to cover costs. Kristoph affectionately dubbed it "To Touch the Black Hole".

To Touch the Stars allowed us to test a thought experiment that had circulated around filk in the 1980s and 1990s: couldn't filk go mainstream if it had quality production and promotion? What would happen if someone took these songs, and produced them and distributed them at a professional level?

What we learned - and in a painfully experiential way - is that the answer is 'no'. There are good reasons why filk music remains largely the domain of filk listeners, even in today's era where anyone can easily discover and listen to filk artists on iTunes or Spotify.

Why? In short, the feedback we received from professional (non-filk) producers is that the juxtaposition of lyrical earnestness and structural simplicity that is often part and parcel of filk songs just doesn't make a satisfying mainstream album when put together back-to-back.

As filkers, we're often blind to the very real shortcomings of the works that we love. To paraphrase a best-selling San Francisco-area folk producer who evaluated (and graphically eviscerated) the carefully selected space filk songs we'd planned to feature, "These songs range from boring to cliched to yowser-awful. At their worst, they are melodically uninspired, and lyrically amateurish. A handful may be first or even second drafts of potentially excellent songs. But even those remain unsuited for publication beyond a niche audience without being reworked. You cannot build a commercially successful album around these songs."

But Kristoph and I loved those songs! We believed in their meaning, and in their sincere, heartfelt emotions and visions of our future. We felt defensive to continually receive almost identically harsh feedback like this from the accomplished folk musicians who contributed to the project, who didn't understand why we were featuring so many songs (and in some cases, filk performers) who they felt to be unworthy of the level of focus we gave them. They urged us to throw out the filk material and collect a new set of songs by professional songwriters. And in many cases - but not all - we did.

In the end, I have to admit they were right. As Popular Science's particularly unkind review of the album asserted:

"By the third song, I had to switch to the raucous howling of the Misfits for a serious brain scouring. For a second opinion I lent the CD to a nerd-minded calculus-teacher friend, and got in response, 'This sounds like something a high school chemistry teacher would make up to teach you about the elements.'"

Personally speaking, there's real sadness to me when I see superb musicians in filk with the potential to raise their game enough to go pro - but are contented remaining a celebrity in a tiny pond. We've created such an accepting and welcoming community, that the existential survival pressure to raise one's game - pervasive in the professional music world - is not part and parcel of filk. I would argue this is filk's greatest strength, even if it hinders the viability of creating content that offers relevance beyond that small community.

Ultimately, my takeaway from To Touch the Stars (and later projects) was that filk songs, for the most part, are intrinsically songs that are designed to bring meaning to our small community. We give songwriting awards to songs as sincere and heartfelt recognition of their meaning and value to a community of people. These songs give voice to feelings and passions of a community, often ones we've had to repress or conceal for social conformity. We cherish not just the songs, but the experiences in our lives that they encapsulate. What could be more important than that?

But from a pragmatic publisher's point of view, the cold reality is that very few of these works are likely to ever attract interest beyond the community that birthed them.

It is a cliche, but filk's strength lies in recognizing the uniqueness and scarcity of a culture that embraces and honors its amateurism, rather than trying to be what it intrinsically isn't.

And filk is not mainstream. It's not filk's destiny. It never will be. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Julia Ecklar's "Horsetamer" is now ready for pre-ordering and downloading!

Volume 16 - Issue 1
March 2013

Hi everyone!

It's been over 25 years since Julia Ecklar's last solo album - "Divine Intervention". Old-timers have heard countless rumors (some real, some not) of a sequel over these 25 years.

So I'm proud to announce that Julia's long awaited sequel project, "Horsetamer" is finally ready for your pre-order and download:

Announcing this album, frankly, leaves me tongue-tied. How do you describe the finest studio recording of Julia Ecklar ever made, crafted by a multiple Grammy-award winning production crew -- and backed up by Pittsburgh's top symphony musicians, all masterfully planned and arranged by Michael Moricz?

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Just for fun...

I sent this e-mail to

I don't actually expect them to do anything for a 5 yr old macbook, I'm just curious what will come back (since I was kinda pissed about being sold defective products and not being notified that I could have gotten it fixed).


Dear Steve/et al --

I just wanted to share a quick story about the impact of Apple doing voluntary recalls of defective products without notifying customers.

Specifically, I am a proud owner of an original 2006 MacBook, which I've used for 5 years as a backup for my iMac. Both batteries in my Macbook (the one that came with it, and the one I purchased from Apple at the same time) started failing after only 125-150 charges (giving a battery service error with all my batteries), despite painstaking monthly calibration, and both being in great battery health. The computer would shut down after just 30-45 minutes of work. So I most stopped using my MacBook and just assumed the batteries were dying of old age.

Since I finally did need a working battery this month, I went online to look for a new one...and just discovered that these batteries were being replaced for free by Apple when I was having these problems. It's wonderful that Apple went out of its way for customers like this -- I never would have imagined you'd be acknowledging the defect and replace batteries on 3 year old computers (what great service!). And naturally, I never thought to search the Internet to discover that Apple was doing this at the time, after all, how would I have imagined or known?

I just went to an Apple store to ask the Genius if they are still doing anything for customers who purchased these batteries that Apple knew to have been defective. Disappointingly but perhaps not too surprisingly, the answer was 'no' - and I should spend another $145 on a new battery.

Two thoughts:

* When you ship a defective product where customers won't realize you have a voluntary replacement/recall in place, it would be really fantastic if you actually told us about it before it's too late. Otherwise, we discover that you were doing the right thing for your customers...after it's too late to get it corrected. If you encountered utility theory, you know it feels worse to learn afterwards that you didn't get something you should have gotten (rather than not having been offered it at all.)

* Given your fantastic retail channels and reputation for legendary service, this would have been a great opportunity for service recovery for your Geniuses. Even offering me a $50 discount off a new battery in exchange for one or two that were recalled and should have been replaced by your company would have made me feel really happy and valued as a customer (despite having received defective goods). After all, it's not like customers are going to gamble on another full-priced battery after getting two defective ones in a row!

Anyway, just some thoughts - thank you.


All Dutch city names sound like "Amsterdam" to Americans ;-)

So Thursday night I'm at the Streets for All Seattle kickoff party and this woman I'm talking to asks:

"So where did you live in the Netherlands again?"

Me: "Enschede"

Her: "Oh wow, Amsterdam! I've always wanted to go to Amsterdam!"

Me: "No, Enschede!"

Her: "Amsterdam, right?"

Finally declined for a credit card at age 36, first time ever.

First time I've ever been turned down for a credit card: what an alternate universe -- paying off your bill in full and in a timely fashion qualifies you as a deadbeat in their universe!

(In truth, I just wanted the $100 reward and then I'd planned to cancel the card anyway after 6 months, so they were right to decline it.)


Why we're writing you

Thank you for applying for the Citi(R) Diamond Preferred(R)
Rewards MasterCard(R) account. Unfortunately, we are unable
to approve your request for the account at this time because
of the following:

o Your credit bureau report shows you have no revolving
accounts with a balance.

If your financial situation changes and you would like
to reapply for an account, visit us at
We appreciate your interest and hope to have the opportunity
to fulfill your request in the future.

Our Keepers of the Flame re-release effort: a second perspective

Why am I posting this?

Recently, the topic of the unsuccessful Keepers of the Flame reprint that we worked on in 2002-2004 came up on the alexanderfans livejournal group.

This reprint effort was something I invested a substantial amount of effort on -- approximately 100 hours of my time over two years -- and $250 to provide an attorney with a minimum-wage gratuity for the many dozens of hours of his professional time. (He was one of Heather's fans who volunteered.)

I've consciously kept all the details of this discussion and negotiation private: music publishing is what I do for joy, not for angst. Even as I type, I can easily see this spiraling out into a flamewar.

However, after some soul-searching and reading a comment from Alex's business manager, I think I'd like to "come out" with some of the back history of Keepers of the Flame as I see it, and at least provide a second perspective for people to consider. I think it's especially important for the many who have never met the other band members and only had access to Heather's old FAQ.

Just a warning: this is going to be really long, as there's a lot I want to say.

The KOTF reprint project and how I came into it…

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Dear lazyweb - best free mailing list service for Prometheus to move to?

Dear Lazyweb,

I've moved Prometheus Music to Dreamhost this week. They seem pretty awesome, and charge half the price of Hostbaby for 10X as much.

But their strict anti-spam policy means that all 850 Eagle Bytes newsletter subscribers would have to re-confirm their membership for me to migrate to their mailman implementation.

Can anyone recommend a free or free-ish service that respects the privacy of our subscriber addresses and doesn't require nearly a thousand re-confirmations? (e.g. no Yahoo Groups or anything)



Dear CSS lazyweb - how do I align an image to an object?

Dear CSS lazyweb,

Might any of you know how to align an image to an object? Don't need handholding - just a pointer to an example (Note that there's an pre-existing set of styles at

Specifically, I'd like to align the two text labels with the Add to Cart icon on:

First respondent with the answer is welcome to a free digital download of the album of your choice (well, limited to what's on published on my website ;-).



30-CD boxes available from my folk/celtic/harp/new age collection: $60/box

For friends from the filk world…

When I lived in California, I used to go to Amoeba Records on weekends and pick up used Celtic/Folk/New Age & Harp music CDs that looked interesting to someone with filk/folk-oriented taste. In the iPod era, these CDs have been sitting in boxes in my closet. I'd like to offer these for $60/box (+ $5 media mail shipping) -- about $2/CD.

All proceeds will support Julia Ecklar's new CD (to help cover Michael's temporary housing while in Pittsburgh working on the CD)

If you'd like a box, here's how it works:

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How F*cked CD Baby has become: here's what came with my publisher payment

CD Baby has sadly become a case study of cluelessness after Derek Sivers dumped it on Discmakers to wreck.

I'm trying to enter their most recent payment into QuickBooks. Couldn't they at least, like, total up the physical CD sales based on the album? Or just add, uh, strategically placed line breaks? ;-) Or even put the repeated instances of the same items in the same order? Or maybe their accounting e-mail could suggest that I'd sold the same things that the accounting statement on their website suggests? (not sure which to believe)

Most small publishers need to know *what albums* were sold, not *who sold it*, since we total up revenue based on which of *our products* generated it. I am *so* looking forward to cutting most of my ties with CD Baby over the holidays and not wasting time with amazingly inept experience design like this. (aka: an hour later, my accounting still won't reconcile.)


Hi Eli,

I sent you a direct ACH deposit for $261.43 today. It was CD Baby payment #{removed}. If the bank numbers you gave us are correct, it should appear in your account in the next week.

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