If you look at it one way, making the album’s the easy part. It’s much tougher to get the music to the people. It’s not like major labels -- or major indies, for that matter -- come around to The Khyber or Tritone scouting for talent, with distribution deals burning holes in their fur-lined pockets. No, more than likely you’re going to have to do it your damn self. That’s what singer/songwriter Cynthia G. Mason did. Her Spiderwoman record label started as a way to distribute the music she recorded on a four-track in her West Philly apartment. Starting in 1996, she sold her cassettes at shows, gave them to friends or traded them with other artists. Since then she’s moved downtown and acquired a following and, more recently, a backing band. She’s also collected a decent-sized debt after putting herself through law school and self-releasing 2000’s haunting folk-rock self-titled CD. Wiser and more skilled, Mason is exploring different roads for her next album. We asked her to talk about the nuts and bolts of music at its grass-roots level. We also asked her to come to the office with her guitar and pose for our CliffsNotes-inspired cover. She’s shy, but thankfully she said yes to both.
City Paper: Was it easier to work with cassettes when you started?
Cynthia G. Mason: I don't know if it was easier, but I was morally opposed to CDs for some reason. I was probably the last person on Earth to buy a CD. Somehow I was convinced that CDs would become obsolete a year or two after they came out and that we'd all have to shift over to something else. I remember being really pissed off about CDs. I still think they're overpriced and not as cute and friendly as tapes and not as big and beautiful as records. The sound quality is good. I can't deny that. But, you still have to worry about them getting scratched. Blank CDs are so cheap, though. I have to admit that I like to burn stuff now.
CP: So you've come to embrace the digital technology?
CGM: A couple of years ago, my band sold a CD-R of a live show. … It even became pretty cheap to get 500 or 1,000 copies mass-produced with artwork and everything.
CP: Did people buy off your website?
CGM: People used to buy tapes from me through a little mail-order brochure I sent out. That was before I had a website. The Internet has made things a lot easier. I still sell tapes and CDs directly to people who order them off of my website, but I also have my CD up on the CD Baby website, which accepts credit cards and sends the CDs directly to the customer, while sending me the customer's name, e-mail and his/her reason for buying the CD. CD Baby keeps a small percentage of each sale and sends me a check every time I sell a certain number of CDs. Sales go up if there has been some press somewhere, but I still probably sell most of my CDs at shows.
CP: What kind of financial difficulties did you run into over the years?
CGM: I went into debt. I'm still in debt from the CD I made a few years ago. I'm paying off the credit card bill and I'm in debt from my school loans. It's pretty hard to avoid going into debt for at least the first couple of years in any small business. I never had the time or the resources to work on the label as much as I needed to turn a profit because I was either in school or working full-time.
CP: Was it worth the debt?
CGM: It was definitely worth it. I guess it was mostly copying costs that put me into debt. It was hard to make that money back quickly because I ended up giving a lot of CDs away for promotional purposes.
CP: How much should a musician let money influence her/his path?
CGM: That's a tough one. Most musicians know, from the start, that they are choosing a difficult path financially. It's hard to make a living as a musician and artists have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to have time to do their thing. They take crappy jobs for the flexibility, live in crappy places for the cheap rent and sink way into debt. I decided a long time ago that I didn't want to get a job directly involved in music, that I would hate just to make my money from music. I saw people doing that and it often just ruined it for them, though I could understand the drive to find a job doing something, anything, related to music. I had a background in activism, so I worked for some nonprofits and thought I would try out public interest law. The law people thought I was a weirdo for playing music and the music people thought I was a weirdo for going to law school. I think artists often have to take a lot of shit from employers, peers and family precisely because they are putting so much energy and time into something that is a little bit abstract or that doesn't make sense financially or isn't considered worthwhile by society for one reason or another. Or, at least, it's not worthwhile until they have achieved some sort of financial success.
CP: And then?
CGM: Then, suddenly, it may be considered a reasonable thing to do. It takes a lot of self-motivation to keep at it. It's easy to doubt yourself. My uncle, who is an incredible guitarist, held music in such high esteem that for most of his life he refused to record anything because recording the music, to him, even if improvised, was not the real thing and it sacrificed something. Although I do think there is a place for recorded music, and I do think that it's wonderful when a musician can make a living doing her music, I still have a real respect for the creation of music for the sake of making it, as a way to be creative and emotional and to connect with people, without money being an issue at all. That being said, I also wish a rock band could make a decent living just being a rock band and not waiting tables, too, or not going to the other extreme and becoming greedy asshole whores for the big record labels once they get their one shot because they feel they deserve success after getting harassed at their day jobs for X number of years by some corporate fucks. Independent musicians do not know enough about the music business to start out with, and when they are faced with a contract from a record label, they are often so broke and so desperate for the help that they rush into bad deals with both indies and majors -- they give up their copyrights without realizing exactly what they've gotten themselves into. It's hard to figure out what a contract is all about or what the law is and we shouldn't be punished for wanting to make a decent living off of music.
CP: You recently went to Soundgun and put together a demo to shop your music around to labels. What prompted this shift in approach?
CGM: I decided a while ago that I wanted to look for a label to help me with the next album because I could not finance this one myself, mostly due to my debt from school. After I made my last album, I secured a small distributor, booked my own shows and did my own publicity, but I ended up wanting to focus more on the creative aspect of writing music and less on the business side of things. Even though I enjoyed the freedom that came with running my own label, I realized that I could really use a hand. But, I decided not to sign with any label that was financially unstable or one that could essentially only do the same things that I could do by myself with a credit card.
CP: What are the advantages?
CGM: I won't be doing everything myself.
CP: Will you be sacrificing anything?
CGM: I won't be doing everything myself, so I will be sacrificing some control over the project.
CP: Everyone was surprised when you went un-solo and added a backup band. Now you're looking for help in releasing the next album? Are you learning to depend on people?
CGM: I was in a band in high school and it was really fun. There was a little community of bands around and we'd all play shows in people's basements and in area all-ages spaces. Areif Sless-Kitain, the drummer in my current band, was in one of those other bands. After high school, he moved to D.C. and I stayed in Philly and started playing as a solo act. Although I learned a lot about songwriting from being in my high-school band, I preferred to write when I was alone. I could get into my own head a bit and think about ways of conveying a story or an emotion without the distraction of other players noodling around.
CP: Why did you add a band?
CGM: Although there were things I liked about playing solo, it was challenging to get up in front of people with just a guitar. It was intimate. It could also be really stressful. When I met [Soundgun Studios producer] Edan Cohen [and bandmates] Chris Powell, Chris Reggiani and Larry Brown a few years ago, they inspired me to collaborate with other people again. They were so talented and excited about music -- their energy was infectious. With my new trio, too, which consists of Areif on drums -- he moved back to Philly last year -- and Daryl Hirsch on keys, I enjoy playing live so much more as a member of a band than I did as a solo act. During rehearsals, we sit around and arrange the songs, but I am still able to write guitar and vocal parts on my own.
CP: What can you tell me about the CD?
CGM: I don't have a title worked out, yet. It will be a full-length album of at least 10 songs. I am currently working with an attorney and a PR firm to get the demo passed around and to consider what labels would be appropriate for me.
CP: Any regrets, business-wise?
CGM: If I'd had the time, energy and money, I would have begun working with a publicist and booking agent years ago, even if I was still putting albums out on my own record label. I might have taken some time off from school to promote the CD. But, I've been able to do things at my own pace, which has been good, and I've learned a lot in the process. I've liked having a little label name and logo, something other than just using my own name for things. I wish I had used my full name with middle initial or full middle name from the start. It was suggested to me that I should use my middle initial, G, after there was a mix-up between me and another Cynthia Mason in Philadelphia. No kidding. I got repeated phone calls and letters from the school district, IRS and police looking for another Cynthia Mason who had apparently run into some trouble with the law. Once I was even accused over the phone of allowing my son to beat up another kid. I have no children. People seem to get annoyed when I include the G and I've been very apologetic about it. It's probably not as much a problem now because I think that other Cynthia Mason left town -- I haven't gotten any threatening mail or phone calls in a while.
CP: If you could go back in time and teach your '96 self something about the music business, what would it be?
CGM: I'd tell myself to learn web design right away. I'd be more vigilant about keeping mailing lists and keeping them organized.
CP: Do you have a job in law yet?
CGM: I graduated from law school and I am currently working part-time as a law clerk. When I was in school, I worked at Women Against Abuse and Philadelphia Legal Assistance, doing work around domestic violence issues. I think women are fucked by the legal system and I'd like to do something about it.