The RPM Challenge is a great way to get people making music, says its creators, and it’s also a great way to bring your music community together. The population of the Seacoast area of New Hampshire—where the challenge was born in 2006—has roughly the same population as St. John’s, and has a large percentage of artists and musicians, much like us.
Elling Lien spoke with two of the challenge’s originators: publisher of Seacoast-area arts and culture weekly The Wire Dave Karlotski, and alt-country musician Jon Nolan about why the challenge has become so successful in that area, and reasons people here—and everywhere—should take part.
When did the idea for RPM first pop up?
It’s similar to other creative challenges that exist in the world. The real idea was to take a kind of creative challenge like this and apply it to our community—an area we call the Seacoast. The Seacoast, New Hampshire area. So that’s really how it started. We knew all these great musicians in our area, and it seemed like a really fun thing to do with them. But we were blown away, because we had around 220 groups sign up in the first year who were from our area. And we’re not a huge metropolitan area…
And why do you think it caught on in the Seacoast area?
I think it caught on in this area for the same reason it caught on last year with a lot of musicians around the world. I think it just really speaks to musicians. We’re in a funny time, where there are a lot of musicians out there, and there’s a lot of talent, but there aren’t many outlets for them.
There’s this idea if you’re a real band, then you’re making albums, and if you want to make an album, then an album is a thing that needs to be able to sell, or it has to get you a deal with a record label… Making an album becomes this huge deal.
Being a musician is about making great music, and there are so many ways to do that. RPM just strips that down, and says “forget about all of your preconceptions, forget about whatever is holding you back. Forget about the idea you need $10,000 to get studio time to make the most amazing album of your career, and just spend a month working on your music! Experiment! Have fun!” I think everybody who hears it feels so relieved. They finally have an excuse to pound out some music and have fun with it. And that speaks to a lot of artists.
What about people who would argue that this kind of thing makes albums less special?
At its heart, RPM is really a creative exercise. Even if you come out of it with an album you don’t even like, you’ve still spent a lot of time that month working on your art, and you’ve gotten better at it. That alone is a win.
You’ve been involved with the RPM since the start a few years ago. How did it come to be?
I used to be the music editor for The Wire, and it was born on a drive that Dave Karlotski and I had on the way to a public radio station. I had, as usual had too much coffee, and started yapping about how cool it would be if we could convince local bands to record an album in a month. There’s always been a lot of music around our area, but we’re not so big that we can support many bands in multiple genres. We’re just big enough, and just small enough, and people are always looking for ways to deepen and expand and nurture the local arts scene—music community included.
So I thought, “how cool would it be if there was some way we could get everybody to do this, and bands of different genres who might not communicate otherwise would have something in common to talk about.”
My buddy who lives in Washington, D.C., had given me two discs… I had the album he had done for $10,000 in a recording studio, and I had an album that he did (in a month), which he made with a couple of cheap microphones and a cassette 4-track. Listening to them, I was struck by how great his songs were in both cases, and how, really, in the end all that matters is good songs and good performances.
At that time I had been with a band for a bunch of years, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to afford to rent a studio and it was a nice consolation to realise that it’s really okay to just let go and not necessarily worry about what you have available to record on. Good songs and good performances win.
The RPM gives people an opportunity to shut down their internal editor and give themselves permission to try things they wouldn’t otherwise.
“I can’t do reggae!” or whatever…
And maybe at the end of the month they’ll find out they can’t do reggae. [laugh]
Yeah, actually, reggae is a bad example, because I definitely cannot play reggae.
A lot of people are afraid of letting go with things like this. Did you come across similar fears from other artists?
Yes and no. I think, in the case of my poor bass player, who was stuck on a plane with me for four hours and I kept telling him to try it… He had been talking forever about making a solo record and RPM popped up and I said, “now’s your chance!”
Yeah, of course it’s scary, but you know, I think the challenge really eliminates any reason for people to say no. Not the least of which is nobody has to turn anything in. The point is to just do it. You never know what beautiful accidents you might stumble upon. At the end of February, you’re either going to have an album or you’re not.
Fear is part of why RPM was created. It was because of fear. To set up something that helps put those fears to bed…
Try it. Why not? What happens if you get to the end and you hate it? Well, you’ll have done it. You’ll have worked on your music.
The idea with National Novel Writing Month, say, is that you can’t write 1,700 words a day for 30 days and not come up with something good. You just can’t do that. It’s not possible.
And likewise with a musician.
What if it’s a monkey? [laugh]
Well, exactly! So goes the saying:Monkeys, infinity, typewriters, Shakespeare…
Monkeys and 1,700 words a day!
Uh-huh. I bet you they’d write something profound in 30 days. Especially if you give ‘em a six of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
So what are some of your tips on staying creative, happy, and in a relationship as you’re recording this album in 29 days?
[laugh] I won’t even touch the last part of that question.
…Creative and happy… Sometimes those things even go together. What I’ve seen locally is that people do RPM for a wide variety of reasons. I think a lot of people out there always wanted to make an album and finally did with RPM.
Say, somebody’s wife sees the RPM in the paper and says, “all right, Fred, you’ve been talking about this for 30 years and now it’s possible for you to do it with computer software. Go make a record.” [laugh] So relating to the last part of your question, sometimes it might save a relationship where someone is saying, “I don’t want to have to hear you talk about wanting to make a record any more.”
For staying happy, I’d encourage people to stay connected to the other people using the message board, especially for people in your neck of the woods. Find out how other people are approaching their recording…
Last year, for instance, instead of using all the fancy new recording equipment I have (I rent out a studio) I used an old Tascam-248, which is an eight track cassette recorder, which really affected the way I did things…
So talking to other people and finding out how they’re approaching it. That, universally, has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of it. Posting songs, and lyrics on the forums is another thing.
As for staying creative? I don’t know. I think that’s a really personal thing. Keep active…
Just keep going? Keep on chugging?
Yeah! Totally, just keep going.
See page 7 for information on how you can participate in the RPM Challenge. Again, the St. John’s RPM kick off party will take place this Thursday, January 31 at The Victory from 7-9pm. Meet other participants, find out more, or sign up. After that you can sign up online at any time during the month: rpm.thescope.ca