“It’s easy to change your name but hard to change your life,” sings Sam Phillips in the song “Pretty Time Bomb,” one of 10 slices of hard fought wisdom from her just released album, Push Any Button. And Phillips should know a thing or two about change, her career path is a textbook story of change and reinvention, factors she has continued to embrace since was signed to Christen label Myrrh in 1983, under her given name, Leslie Phillips. Since then, she has skittered along from major labels to indie labels before arriving at her present status as a self-sustaining hands-on artist with no outside label support.
“It’s a good place to be,” Phillips proclaims over the phone from her Los Angeles home, “or at least a place to try and get to, it’s more of a goal!”
In 1987, two major changes occurred; she met T Bone Burnett and began recording as Sam Phillips to delineate her split with the Christian pop industry. “It’s kind of a classic showbiz thing,” says Phillips, “but it’s not so easy to start over and recreate yourself. Those demons catch up with you. But I admire people who manage to do it.”
Those demons were best exorcised in the highly literate lyrics Phillips wrote over a string of critically acclaimed Virgin Records releases she made with Burnett, beginning in 1998 with The Indescribable Wow, followed by Cruel Inventions, Martinis and Bikinis, and finally 1996’s Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop). Phillips says that the two encouraged each other’s natural tendencies to flout the conventions of music industry groupthink, defy categorization and challenge standard practices.
“There was a spirit that we both had together,” says Phillips, “a kind of ‘us against the world’ in the music business. It was sort of that thing, where we were gonna stick to our guns and be really stubborn.”
Inevitably that spirit found Phillips and Burnett leaving Virgin Records in 2001, for the relatively more artist friendly confines of Warner’s Nonesuch imprint, where they enjoyed more critical success with Fan Dance, and A Boot And A Shoe. Also at this time, Phillips made a lateral move to music for television, working on Gilmore Girls with Amy Sherman-Palladino, with whom she recently reunited on the short-lived Bunheads.
“I never thought that I would do television,” says Phillips, “and it was rewarding to me because I was working with Amy and I love her writing and her characters.”
After she and Burnett split, Phillips took sole possession of the producer’s chair for her third and final Nonesuch album, Don’t Do Anything, in 2008. The irony was that, by that point, she’d learned to do a lot, and was beginning to do it all.
While some artists have floundered after the death of the old music industry model, Phillips and a handful of others, such as Marshall Crenshaw and Kristen Hersh, have actually flourished by enlisting their fan bases in a subscription-based marketing model. In October of 2009, before the dawn of Kickstarter, Phillips launched her own subscription plan, The Long Play. Fans were charged a blanket fee of $52.00 for a year of music, comprising five EP releases and one full-length album. It was fun, interactive and mysterious in that even Phillips herself had no idea what that music would sound like. The subscribers made a leap of faith and came along for the journey as the artist created her art.
She soon realized that what she lost in terms of lavish budgets and massive distribution could be offset by an increase in profits and the satisfaction of direct personal engagement with her subscribers.
“I definitely wasn’t the first to do a subscription-based thing, and I won’t be the last,” says Phillips, “but I think I had just reached the point with record companies where I’d had my limit; what I was doing, business wise, was not sustainable for me. And it wasn’t emotionally sustainable either, because when you feel like you’re putting your heart and soul into something, investing your own time and energy, and funds, and then the other end wasn’t being held up.”
At the completion of the project, Phillips had created around 44 songs plus exclusive content such as a podcast, behind the scenes photos and videos. She was receiving subscription requests up to the very end, so Phillips took stock of the songs and compiled 10 of the songs on Push Any Button, the title of which, says Phillips, connotes a connection to 20th century machines and recording equipment.
“I loved the way they looked,” says Phillips, “old soundboards with all the knobs and buttons. It’s also the connection to a jukebox, because this record was done over a couple of years, I wanted to make every song be a standalone. So it wasn’t a concept album as much as I wanted to do the best record and choose the best songs for a 10-song album.”
The notion of taking the music straight to the fans was something Phillips had discussed with Burnett back their early days together.
“He told me,” says Phillips, “that when he started as an 18-year-old kid back in Fort Worth, Texas, he and some other friends bought a studio and a record lathe, in a building that also housed a radio station. They would record the music, cut the vinyl, then they’d take it up to a radio station and the DJ would put it on the radio in Fort Worth. I loved that story and it’s such a great model for what I wanted to do with The Long Play. To include people a little bit more in the process, and to do it quickly. So we’re doing it, but it’s harder to ship physical products, and it’s a bigger headache financially. But it’s important to keep moving, pushing ahead, and trying different things.”
One different thing Phillips is trying, with the vinyl release of Push Any Button, is a series of 100 re-purposed cardboard album sleeves, each hand painted by Phillips, producing one-of-a-kind works of art in themselves. It’s artisanal and analog, making the old new again.
“I took all these orphaned vinyl album covers and I started erasing the images on these things and putting my own collages on them,” says Phillips. “It was a bittersweet kind of experience because it was kind of sad to see these people, with their hopes and dreams, their records abandoned, and the fall of the record business, but then it was fun to take the bones of that and recreate something, make it modern and new, and make it something that would house my vinyl.”
While she salutes the widespread prevalence of crowdfunding, most notably via Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Pledgemusic, or newer strategies such as Jack Conte’s fledgling Patreon site, Phillips isn’t so sure the days of corporate involvement, and investment, are gone for good, or if they even should be.
“It’s really important that we let go of the old record business and the old way of doing things,” says Phillips, “but it’s a really odd line that people have to walk. We might have to let go of this phase that we’re in with Kickstarter and the independents. We have the content for these investors and these corporations, but they need to support us in a more businesslike way.”
Summing up, Phillips believes that we need to revalue, not devalue, the art itself, so that the consumer, not just the rich patrons, understand that artists can’t create big work in a vacuum.
“I just had this discussion,” says Phillips, “where somebody was saying ‘Well, can’t you make music more cheaply nowadays on a laptop?’ and I would say, yes but you can’t really compare that to a room full of musicians with a professional recording engineer and good mics, you can’t really replicate that on GarageBand.”
“When I talk to my daughter, the two things I’ve heard her say that I think are really encouraging are “Mom, I know that if I want to get into music, I’ve gotta change the system. And if I’m gonna change the system, I’ve gotta find a tribe, and people that are in other areas who can help with that.” I think that’s so beautiful, and she’s absolutely right, there is strength in both of those things. She really wants to change things. So, I think it’s a fascinating time to be in the music business, but there are better days ahead.”