Eli (egoldberg) wrote,

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, space.com (top headline on front page), scifi.com, 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.
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