Author’s Note: This was commissioned on the angle of a cottage-industry musician using the internet as a replacement for traditional major label marketing and interacting with fans. Martyn was, and remains, a great example of this kind of artist – and the ‘business model’ has since become the norm. I’ve no idea why this didn’t run at the time.
Martyn Joseph: Master of the Web
Commissioned by Record Collector circa 2004 but unpublished
Vaguely recalled, perhaps, as an early ‘90s MOR act who enjoyed a moment of modest chart success with ‘Dolphins Make Me Cry’ and cut two albums for Sony, Martyn Joseph is not only alive and well but alive and kicking – kicking against corruption, poverty, AIDS, homelessness, major social and moral issues and government complacency the world over. Incredibly, if that all sounds like a pretty grim night out, he is also among the wittiest, warmest, most exciting and most inspirational live acts you could ever wish to see – touring incessantly, still delivering an album a year and ‘still hungry‘ to communicate.
Thanks to the worldwide community his website (www.martynjoseph.com) attracts, he is now more empowered than he was with a major label – a benchmark case study, in fact, of a self-sufficient troubadour in the 21st century:
‘I had an experience at a Bruce Springsteen concert recently,’ he says, ‘with a Sony person I knew quite well. I said hello as he got out of his car – and he thought I’d become a ticket tout! Then he said, ‘What are you doing these days?’ Once they’re finished with you they think that’s it. But ‘empowered’ is such a great word. The site is now a community. It gets an awful lot of traffic – about 35,000 hits a month – because I think people know it’s an interesting place to go, to discuss all sorts of things.’
Not only dealing in the usual pics, biog, tour dates and record marketing, Martyn’s site involves a lot of personal input and reflects the artist’s interest in people and in a plethora of campaigns and good causes: ‘To me, it’s a natural extension of the music that I play, to get involved in stuff. Otherwise it’s just a noise.’
Some artists might legitimately feel they should remain semi-detached from their public, but taking the opposite view – removing all barriers, engaging in often lengthy email exchanges with fans, detractors and even nutters – is something which, while time-consuming, sets Martyn apart:
‘It’s something I’ve always done,’ he explains. ‘I reply to every letter I get – to me, it’s part of what I do, it’s about trying to make a small difference. If people have seen me play and maybe didn’t like something I said, well then I feel I owe it to them to enter into a discussion about it. Even the odd crank who might get in touch is a human being – they hook onto you for a reason. So even though there are times I think, ‘Oh gosh, here we go again…’ I’ll do my very best to deal with them directly.’
Happily, it works both ways: ‘When we did the ‘best of’ [the excellent Thunder & Rainbows, 2000] we asked people what they wanted on it. We did this for the [forthcoming] live DVD as well – and I was quite surprised. It made me revisit a few songs. So that side of things is great. It does mean there’s a lot more work though! For me, the website has to change every three or four days. I mean, no one would watch the same news broadcast every night, they’d get bored. So I’m always putting diary entries up there, thinking I must do this or that to keep it fresh. Often the last thing I do these days is write a song. Usually at 2.30 in the morning!’
So how did this cottage-industry, web-based career develop?
‘It was a gradual thing. The first site we had was pretty primitive and then people – usually fans – come along and say, ‘I can help you out with that…’ And soon, as you become more computer literate yourself, you realise there’s this great potential. I actually give workshops now at artist gatherings, to artists themselves, on the best way to get their site up and running and reaching people.’
Of course, no matter how fabulous someone’s website is, if ‘the product’ is mediocre it’ll soon wither on the vine. Happily, Martyn has plenty to say and the artistic gifts to keep people interested and entertained while he’s saying it. Intriguingly, though, he now disowns several albums of early work – the basis of the wildly erroneous ‘Christian folk singer’ tag that just refuses to go away. His reasoning is pretty sound:
‘Well, these days George Bush is a ‘Christian’ – the far right. I do have a faith that underpins my life, but that faith isn’t based on big, thumping answers. It’s based on a lot of contradictions and a lot of questions. It’s a journey – and I generally find more of God in the people who profess no belief than in those who do. But describing any musician as a ‘Christian musician’ is such a stupid thing to say. Do we describe someone as a ‘Christian policeman’ or a ‘Christian architect’…? It’s a load of bollocks!’
Faith aside, though, Martyn simply feels that as a songwriter his early records – like the early work of most artists of any discipline – just weren’t that great:
‘There’s geniuses out there who’ve made fantastic albums from the word go – but mine weren’t! I made a record in 1987 called Treasure The Questions – everything before that is, I’d say, fairly naïve. From a nice middle-class background in Cardiff I travelled, and my outlook on life changed. I walked the streets of Belfast, visited lepers in Thailand and thought, ‘Bloody hell…’ There was no way I could come back and keep everything trite: I had to get into the questions and the doubt, and therefore the music changed.’
Having recently released Run For Cover, a much-requested album of the covers that feature in his live shows, from Dylan and U2 to Bruce Cockburn and Harry Chapin, some people are still looking for a handy genre to put Martyn Joseph into. On the night we talked, after a blistering, high-intensity show in Belfast, one first-time punter reckoned he combined Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams. And Martyn’s view?
‘Well,’ he said, with not one shred of hesitation, ‘I’ll take the first two!’