A Conversation With: Sean Bolton About The Music Industry, Music Post-Covid and Independent Artists
Janset: I wanted to have you on Tonitruale as the first guest of the new “conversation series” as I’ve reached out to you 2-3 years ago for a less professional website I had back in the day before even thinking of having a more structured online magazine. I like the idea of things circling back and ending cycles. So welcome to Tonitruale! How are you doing? How are your days looking like recently?
Sean: Well you know I’m a fan of trilogies, so we’ll have to do this again! I’m doing alright though- I think. The days feel both too long and too short sometimes, I’m just trying to stay healthy and stay sane. I’ve developed this habit of buying books because I think they’ll help me better myself, and then never reading them. So that’s how I’m doing!
Janset: I don’t want to base this conversation around coronavirus and fill it with questions such as Was the quarantine productive in terms of music making?” etc. but I will ask how the quarantine went for you anyway knowing that you’re in the USA, one of the countries who is having it the worst.
Sean: This quarantine has been hard, especially as someone who has been following the rules of social distancing. I was really focused on physical fitness before this all started and then I thought it’d be a great opportunity to just zero in on my workouts, but it wasn’t long before i realized that my mental health needed my attention the most.
This has greatly impacted the industry and all of the artists involved, and I’ve seen more friends of mine than ever, questioning whether or not this career is viable. I ask myself that question every day because it just doesn’t seem like it is...right now. I think it hurt so many artists because people were in their homes and not driving around, listening to music, but I could be wrong about that. It definitely felt like that’s what happened to my streams.
My level of productivity varies and tends to coincide with where my mental state is at the time, but for me, this quarantine has made me less productive than ever before. I feel like I’m constantly trying to find myself and reevaluate my situation, but self care seems harder and harder these days. I don’t ever really feel inspired anymore, if i’m being honest, but I’m hopeful. Some days I feel energized and ready to take on the world, and then reality hits.
I really thought the apocalypse would be more romantic, but somehow we got the one that requires you to stay 6ft apart.
Janset: I think having this big of a change in the music industry can push as all (musicians, producers, label owners, fans etc.) to think back on some problems that are rooted within the industry. With the Burger Record incident for example, we realized how big the problem is and how normalized it is within the realm of music careers. Such a shame that something like music can be linked with such cold blooded disgusting behavior. What was your reaction when you first heard those news and what can be done better?
Sean: When I hear about things of that nature and on that large of a scale, happening with one label, my first thought is “burn it down. burn it all down.” There’s no redeeming or salvaging that; it’s what we call FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition).
It’s our job as the artist to recognize the position of power that we hold, and to create safe environments for fans to listen and enjoy music, without fear of being preyed on, groomed, assaulted, or violated in anyway, but I’m afraid there are many artists who will cross those lines.
I’ve talked with a few of my friends about the idea of some sort of artist accountability team that operates as a kind of Human Resources department that works to protect the fans, rather than the artists. I believe I’ve also seen Clairo talking about hiring a team for her shows to look out for assault and harassment, and I do think that should be adopted as the new norm. I think our favorite artists can often feel like gods to us- which couldn’t be FURTHER from the truth, and frankly, I don’t think that’s a healthy narrative for either the fan or the artist to maintain because we’ve seen what happens when that power goes unchecked. I once worked with an artist who I found out later had been grooming and soliciting pictures from underage girls.
I called him out immediately and had my song with him removed from the streaming platform it was on, but his career continued without a hitch, up until last year when people actively began calling venues and had his tour cancelled. However, there are still those fans that will defend these men with their last breath, and in that way, “cancel culture” isn’t real. If there is no threat of repercussion, how can we expect accountability?
Janset: I think the amount of elitism and the lack of diversity within the community really ruins the aspirations of many musicians. Fans might not comprehend the problem fully but unless you’re already famous and have a following, women need to work twice as hard to get somewhere -minus all the assaults and bullying- And many others struggle to have their opinions heard since every notion is very preconceived. From white dudes continuing to impose certain production techniques that “always work” onto musicians to not giving people space to share and contribute to not giving two shits about local acts, there are a lot of problems. Have you ever experienced some of those problems as a musician?
Sean: Absolutely! Being an independent artist with no management is difficult enough. If you compound that with being a woman, POC, or LGBTQ+, you begin to notice that the deck is stacking higher and higher against you, but I do think music democratizes that experience for everyone in a way that not a lot of other professions do. Historically it’s always been these artists that have the most unique perspective, and stories to tell, that create the most captivating art. I’m very outspoken about my belief that women in the industry are, without a doubt, creating the best and most inspired music, and the men can’t even catch up at this point. However, I’ll only speak for myself.
I’m now 23, but i started writing and pursuing music at 14, and i feel like it’s always been one step forward, two steps back. For example: I released a new song during quarantine titled ‘Houston’ and it meant the absolute world to me, but it performed worse than any previous track I put out before it. The problem is that artists without an A&R, or a representative who can reach out and contact playlist curators, suffer.
If you’re not getting playlisted, you’re probably not being heard, and that’s something i’m constantly battling with. It’s impossible to navigate with all of this gatekeeping preventing you from having access to the necessary resources and platforms for you to grow. Something has to change. Despite my ambition to do everything myself, i’m actually currently looking for management to help with all of the red tape because it’s become apparent that it’s no longer sustainable for me to do alone.
Janset: Even if we don’t want to talk about COVID, it really hit the music industry hard. I remember reading an article about a quarter of NY’s local shops closing down which means hundreds of local record shops. Do you think that the industry will ever recover in the upcoming years?
Sean: I think we’ll have to recover out of necessity, but it’ll take everyone contributing to make this shit start spinning again, and to create an infrastructure that can withstand the inevitability of another pandemic, in our future and futures to come. We have to be ready next time.
Janset: Have you been enjoying any new releases lately? Any albums, singles or new EP'S?
Sean: I definitely have.
This is what i’m listening to now:
Phoebe Bridgers - I Know The End
The Blossom - Angel Fangs
The Neighbourhood - Cherry Flavoured
Dominic Fike - Vampire
Jesse Jo Stark - Tangerine
The Driver Era - Take Me Away
Lewis Del Mar - Sewers
Hayley Williams - Why We Ever
Maya Hawke - So Long
LÉON - Chasing A Feeling
Janset: In order to be a musician you should be into music, a known fact. But I feel like besides your “creator” identity, you’re also a huge music FAN and explicitly share your favorite up and coming musicians on your Twitter account. What was the last thing you’ve heard by an up-and-coming musician that you wished you created/produced yourself?
Sean: I don’t think she can be considered an up-and-comer, but no album has ever made me feel more fraudulent than Phoebe Bridgers album Punisher. Front to back, it’s a fucking masterclass in songwriting and production. Very few albums have made me feel like throwing it all away because i’ll never be able to match or even TOUCH what they’re doing. I don’t know how she does it.
Janset: You’ve started a podcast, can you explain what that is all about?
Sean: The podcast is called Imposter Syndrome and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a few years now. I just got tired of listening to short form interviews with a host who clearly hadn’t done any research beforehand, with no real intention of getting to know that artist.
Listening to podcasts like Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, have not only been a major source of comfort for me, but within the span of an hour he can reach a level of flow with the guest that makes them feel comfortable being vulnerable, and it makes the human experience feel a little more human. I realized I’d never be satisfied with any other medium. I’m a fan of music and conversation, and I wanted to create a platform where I could fanboy over some of my favorite artists and allow them to open up about their experiences in the industry and the insecurities that often come with the territory.
I’ve already mentioned once before in this interview about feeling fraudulent, and that’s true, but I think that’s the through line that connects all creators- the connective tissue is Imposter Syndrome. We’re all trying to get into this party, and some of us will spend our entire lives just trying to get a foot in the door, while others have busted their ass and found a way in, and yet, they still don’t feel like they belong. So I’ll be asking some of my favorite musicians and friends whether or not they feel like they’ve made it to that party, and if so, how’d they get there? What do you do now that you’re there? And did you bring any baggage? It’s an incredibly selfish endeavor because all I really want to do is talk to people that i’m interested in. I really don’t care how many listeners they pull in because small artists deserve to have their voices heard just as much as anyone else. I think it will be fun and I hope that listeners will walk away from each episode feeling like they’ve at least gained insight or an understanding of who that person is. We’re all trying to be understood, and right now we could all stand to feel a little more connected.
Janset: We could listen to the same thing but perceive it very differently or see It from very different axes. I know some of my friends are a bit more perceptive of the production, some listen to the lyrics, some only listen to songs as a whole without dissecting them, only to enjoy what sounds nice. Personally lyrics play a very important part in my listening experience. If a song is well constructed in a way that it can depict the emotions of the lyrics with each beat, I will LOVE that song. Do you have some specific things you base your focus around while listening to music?
I get very distracted if i hear a song that I like. It doesn’t matter where i am, what i’m doing- if i hear something on the radio at a coffee shop or restaurant, I’m locked in and i can’t hear what the person in front of me is saying. It’s the beat, production, melody, lyrics, all of it. I’m even listening to the mix to see how they EQ’d the guitar or how they layered the vocals, I’m dissecting all of it. I used to hear a song and get transported to different places, but now I’m looking at it through a microscope, which I think can be equally as enjoyable depending on the kind of person you are.
Janset: Before you leave, anything you want to add, say, share with Tonitruale readers?
Sean: There’s a lot of really dark shit going on in the world today, so try to be a light to those around you. We all need to stick together and look out for one another.
You can find Sean Bolton on Spotify, Soundcloud, Instagram, Twitter