19 Jan Austin James on Communities, Co-writes, and Consistency
Austin James lives in Nashville. Austin James writes songs. Austin James is an independent musician. Any similarities Austin, who goes by The Slow Drag onstage, shares with the rest of the Music City fairytale™ end right about… there.
For the last three years, Austin has been playing guitar live on the internet from his house and cultivated a devoted fanbase that supports him financially in exchange for his music.
“I have been circumventing the industry to some degree over the last several years,” the power pop artist laughs. “You know, to do synch licenses – just like publishing deals, just like record deals and a lot of other industry deals – they oftentimes come with a gate-keeper. And so, if you’re lucky, as I have been in the past, the gate-people will be like, ‘Oh I like you and/or your music enough to put it in my project. So let’s do that!’ But, what I love about broadcasting and being my own boss, and my own label and all that, is that everything that I do has the intended effect, it’s all between me and the fans.”
Growing up in California before moving east, Austin James has had the opportunity to observe both the Los Angeles and Nashville music scenes, and note their similarities and differences.
“I’ve tried a lot of things. Songwriting is pretty fun. But in terms of the kind of music that you have to write, it’s very ‘in a box’. You have to be cool, and fresh, and new, and offer something different that isn’t exactly what’s on the radio. [But] we still gotta fit the radio format, and the only place that songwriters are really making money is with the singles.”
“There’s a songwriter saying in Nashville: ‘in for a word in for a third.’ But in L.A. – and this is changing in Nashville but in L.A. up until the last few years, […] if you’re a a hip-hop producer and you make a track that everybody wants to use, these rappers will roll up and they can contribute two lines or a verse or a chorus, and that’s it. You’ve got five or six different vocalists on this track and the producer and whoever else might want a piece for whatever reason, that’s where the percentage is get divided up a little more exactly.”
On the dynamics of a writing session, Austin is flexible and recognizes good ideas when he hears them. “I’ve been in writes in Nashville, where I’ve dominated the write and I’ve written most, if not all, of the song in a sitting – at least what made it into the song… and I’ve been on the exact opposite end of that, where I’m just writing with somebody who’s killing it and they’ve got a vision, and they know what to say… And I think everything they’re saying and doing is right! And I’ve been in rooms where I write 99% of a song, and somebody says, ‘What if instead of… “and” we said… “but”… it changes everything that happens after that word, and I wouldn’t have tried that. So if they can come in with just one thing that really gets things rolling or changes the vibe of a song, even if it’s just that one word, and I think that’s super cool!”
After songs are written, Austin James’s method of getting them out into the world is far from conventional, pioneering Facebook Live Video: playing his songs, and building a fan community.
“I try to chat with as many [broadcast viewers] as I can. When they’re watching the broadcast I try to catch their names because, especially now, I still consider this project pretty young. So, on the one hand, I do wanna keep my eyes open on bigger opportunities that can help expand my fan base, and community and income. But at the same time, the people who are helping me at now are very precious. I know a lot of their names, I know a handful of things about them, like where they’re at, or some family members or fun facts or quirks or general personality that comes across in the chats, that’s the awesome part.”
“The danger to that is I also have to be as friendly and notice brand new people coming into the broadcast. I don’t want anybody to come int and feel like they’re alone at a party! I don’t want an audience full of individuals that are just sort of there watching me and it’s just between me and these 30 individuals. I want the crowd to be together. We’re all doing this thing.”
The Slow Drag then used Patreon and the Slack app to build his own online fan forum and create exclusive content for it.
For someone who broadcasts via webcam daily, Austin James is surprisingly introverted!
“Somedays, I’m just like, ‘I gotta go live right now, I don’t have any of the time to do it, I’m really tired, I don’t wanna do this, but I promised them every day!’ I will say that’s the hardest thing about the online life. I go out, I got friends, I talk to people and do things, but if I don’t have to put on real clothes to get through my day, I 100% will not – I might make sure that I look okay from the waist up though!”
That probably explains why we won’t be seeing him around major music conferences, among other reasons: “I’ve found that a lot of those types of things, while they can be very helpful – give lots of great information, a place to meet people, but I also found that unless you’re also super focused on a handful of things that you can do as a musician, going to those kind of conferences are like… ‘You should try this! Here’s this guy doing that! Or did you see this girl’s viral thing that she did? You should do that!’- You just get so piled up with information and possibility that sometimes it can be a little bit of a distraction.”
“Because I moved to a major music hub and found myself in a musical situation, I learned a lot about the industries and the kinds of things you can do. I didn’t know that you could just be a studio player, or you could write for people, or you could just sing, or you could be someone’s guitar player, but not necessarily be in their band and all these different kinds of possibilities and their bands out there today doing something like I’m doing: focusing online. There are bands doing what bands have been doing for years and years, hitting the road and going out there releasing albums versus singles… Just like all kinds of things. You can write exclusively for movies, TV, these kinds of things! You can’t do them all, but if you can manage to do a few things really well…”
“Consistency is what’s most important. Whatever you decide to do, do it consistently. Do it long enough to figure out whether or not it’s going to work for or long enough to figure out what you might need to change to make it work. The live shows are about reminding people that I’m there. The longer I do this, and the more supporters that I find that are into the music that I’m making and the broadcast that I’m putting on, and my personality, the more empowered I feel to be myself.”