In The Midst Of Music Madness, Scott Albert Johnson Is Going Somewhere
Susan Margaret Barrett
“It’s not a good thing to exploit musicians, but it happens all the time,” Jackson, MS, musician Scott Albert Johnson said. “The model of streaming music is great for the listener but not so great for the artist. They pay fractions of a penny per stream. It’s not a sustainable model for an artist to make a living through their recorded music.”
Johnson, who will perform at Oak, 8118 Oak St., on Saturday, June 27, 2015, is a singer/ songwriter and harmonica virtuoso who incorporates elements of rock, jazz, blues, funk, country, electronic and world music in his latest 9-track album, “Going Somewhere.” While he’ll be selling his new release at his upcoming gig, he said a majority of his sales come from digital downloads from Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. Streaming, he fears, may negatively affect digital sales in the future if fans won’t pay to download music anymore.
“With the download model, artists are compensated,” he said. “Streaming compensation is a joke. It’s creating an environment where there is no way to make your money back on producing an album. It drives artists to produce singles and not albums. The trend is just absurd. It’s laughable that services think it’s fair. How are we supposed to make money?”
Johnson applauds pop superstar Taylor Swift who made Apple change their tune this week when she challenged the tech giant to pay royalties to artists and record labels for music played during a free trial period for their new Apple Music streaming service.
Johnson, whose musical influences include Peter Gabriel, The Police, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Daniel Lanois, John Scofield and Rush, appreciates the value of a dollar. It took Johnson 6 ½ years to finance and produce “Going Somewhere,” and he cautions up-and-comers to be conservative with their dreams.
“Getting into music just to make money is not a great idea,” he said. “You have to have a calling to do it, like you have to do it. Playing music to be a star, if that’s your driving motivation, you’re definitely going to be disappointed.”
Johnson started playing harmonica in high school. He sang and played the bass through college too, but let music go for 9 years.
After graduating from Harvard University, where he kicked field goals for the football team, he earned his Master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He worked as a writer and editor from coast to coast, and even acted before finding his way back to both music and Jackson.
“I always say that the two best decisions of my life were leaving Mississippi and coming back to Mississippi,” Johnson said. “By leaving, I was able to have some amazing experiences and learn about life. By coming back, I was able to connect with my wife, have an amazing family, be closer to my parents, and immerse myself in the musical heritage of the cradle of American music.”
Johnson started playing the harmonic again at 30, and cultivated a unique and difficult technique known as “overblow,” which allows the diatonic harmonica to be played as a fully chromatic instrument. Johnson also utilizes digital effects to expand the harmonica’s sonic palette.
He said he became obsessed with the harmonica, but mastering the “harp,” doesn’t brand him a Blues artist. He said he’s more of a rock musician with jazz influences like fellow singer and harmonica player Blues Traveler front man John Popper. The overblow technique allows Johnson to interpret all kinds of music with the harmonica. Johnson also credits Howard Levy, Toots Thielemans, Stevie Wonder and the late Chris Michalek as major influences.
Back home in Jackson, Johnson married photographer Susan Margaret Barrett and since collaborated on their 3 kids, Charlie, 9, Benjamin, 8 and Lily Margaret, 5, and the cover art for “Going Somewhere” – an image of a jet engine and his portrait taken on the tarmac of Jackson’s Hawkins Field Airport.
“Music is a big part of my family’s income,” Johnson said, “using music in a way to help my family.”
After enjoying the success of his 2007 debut album “Umbrella Man,” which earned him raves in the U.S. and abroad, and being named one of the “Hot 100” Harmonica Players worldwide by The Harmonica Company, Johnson started to focus on his latest album, and how to finance it.
“As I got money together I would go to the studio to work and record,” Johnson said. “It was a slow incremental way to do it.”
Johnson originally thought his sophomore album was hoping to be a snap when in the Fall of 2008 he quickly recorded the guitar, bass and drums for 4 songs. But as the harsh realities kicked in, having to find money for collaborating musicians, recording engineers and studio time, he decided to turn to online funding platform Kickstarter for help.
Johnson created a budget, including extra money for reproducing CDs and European promotion, but his first campaign in early 2012 failed.
“I didn’t make it,” he said. “It fell through. More than 200 people donated, but I didn’t reach my fundraising goal, so the campaign was cancelled and no money was collected.”
But, he didn’t give up.
By May 15, 2012, on the eve of the end of his second Kickstarter campaign, 261 backers pledging $17,065 helped him meet his goal to bring his project back to life.
“I slashed the budget and took out all advertising expenses,” he said. “I decided to rely on social media and word of mouth and the fans I already have. I took out the budget for European marketing and went bare bones hoping I would raise enough money on Kickstarter and combine that with the money I made from gigs.”
“Everyone who contributed to the first campaign pledged again the second time,” he said. “And some gave even more. The second time I exceeded my goal by more than a $1,000.”
While Johnson is still awed by how supportive his contributors were, and credits them for the creation of the album, Johnson still had to seek additional revenue streams to promote the release.
With a full time music schedule, he incorporated a full time job as an Associate Director of College Counseling at his high school alma mater, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, MS.
He also received a Performing Arts Scholarship from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 2014 for $4,500.
Coupled with money from gigs and money made from harmonica lessons, Johnson was able to finish “Going Somewhere,” in the fall of 2014, mastered it in April 2015, and released it on Tuesday, June 9, 2015.
“Going Somewhere,” will be distributed by companies including CD Baby and Bandcamp, and Johnson is selling digital downloads for $9 and CDs at gigs for $15.
“He definitely plays to the crowd but maintains his own style,” Shanah Bartram, Oak’s manager, said. “He engages the crowd and can sense what the mood is and plays music and tempos according to that. It’s great when a musical act can figure out how to work the mood of the room – play upbeat when there’s an upbeat crowd, or go more mellow when there’s a mellow vibe going on. Scott’s a great fit for Oak.”
Johnson’s booked about once a month to perform at the popular Oak Street wine bar. Bartram credit’s Johnson’s strong voice and thought-provoking songs with bringing in crowds to fill the room.
“He reminds me of Randy Newman,” she said. “He’s a great person to work with. It makes my job easier.”
Johnson said he sold a couple of thousand copies of “Umbrella Man,” and hopes to sell at least 4,000 of “Going Somewhere.”
“If I could sell that many, I would benefit financially because I own most of it,” he said.
In addition to playing shows and distributing music as affordably as possible, Johnson said writing his own music is something that can contribute to his continued musical and financial success.
“I write my own music for creative reasons, producing something that didn’t exist before in any form,” he said, “but there is a financial benefit, too.”
“I've always felt most influenced by artists who are kind of what I would call triple-threats,” Johnson said. “They sing well, they play at least one instrument very well, and they write great songs. I take each of these three parts of the equation as seriously as any other part. I also feel most in-tune with artists who kind of are ‘their own genre,’ borrowing from many different kinds of music. I hope my music reflects that.”
“It’s definitely easier to have your own songs and own the rights to your own music, if you want a productive career,” he said. “If you write it, royalties will come to you. The financial reason is not the driving force to writing your own music, just a fringe benefit.”
Johnson said he wrote 7 of the 9 songs on “Going Somewhere.” One of two covers on the album is Peter Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember.” The other is “Haunt My Dreams,” by Brett Winston.
Johnson said he’s also proud to have collaborated with New Orleans’ Galactic’s Robert Mercurio and Jeff Raines on the title track, and Mississippi singer/ songwriter and keyboardist Chalmers Davis on 5 of the 9 tracks on the album.
“He takes care of business a lot better than a lot of people I work with,” the Terry, MS, musician said. “He promotes himself really well.”
Davis, who will perform with Johnson at Oak on Saturday, said they’ve grown together as a duo musically in the last 5 years. Davis said was proud to have co-written “Fragments,” the album’s last track.
“The theme of this album, ‘Going Somewhere,’ is our motion – individually or collectively – towards some destination, known or unknown,” Johnson said. “The title track kicks off the album with a confident declaration of the main character’s destiny, while the final acoustic song ‘Fragments’ is a more pensive and thoughtful recognition of all the things that we don’t understand about the universe and ourselves. The hope is that the songs in between flesh out this theme.”