Here at Twangville we spend pretty much all our time listening to and reviewing the latest Americana and roots music. We spend very little time talking about how it gets created in the first place, and how the music industry makes a living from genres that don’t attract the business machine that feeds, and feeds on, the likes of U2 or Taylor Swift. As everyone knows, though, the ubiquity of streaming has changed the economics of being a musician and it has the potential to really change what comes out of your earbuds and Bluetooth speakers. Musician Rain Perry has turned her creative talents to movie making and is releasing a film on August 21st about these changes titled The Shopkeeper.
The movie is kind of two stories in parallel. The main arc is a look at Mark Hallman, an Austin musician/songwriter/producer/mensch and his studio, The Congress House. Mark did his time as a starving musician in the 60’s & 70’s before performing with and producing big names like Carole King and Dan Fogelberg. He turned that success into a recording home for a variety of artists that are mainstays on Twangville playlists. Ani DeFranco, Eliza Gilkyson, Will Sexton, Tom Russell are just a few of the performers who give a lot of credit to Hallman. Calling Congress House Studios an Austin institution isn’t hyperbole.
At the same time, music fans moved from buying CD’s to buying downloads to all-you-can-eat streaming subscriptions. Jon Dee Graham takes us through the numbers at various points in the film and does a good job of explaining why the new business isn’t like the old business. While the distribution of music is changing, so is the manner of its production. Anyone who buys an Apple product gets Garage Band, and for many musicians that’s all they need to cut an album. They generally know they’re missing out on the sonic and technical expertise someone like Hallman can provide, but it costs money they don’t have. As a result, Congress House is teetering on the brink.
The story doesn’t end with the end of the film. The music business is still changing. And after seeing all the things Hallman does, and has done, it’s hard to walk away without thinking he’ll figure this out just like everything else. That misses the point, though. Mark Hallman serves as a great proxy for how the music business has changed in the last 50 years. He’s extraordinarily talented and one of the most likable people you can imagine. It’s not hard to believe the music business will find a way to survive, but what’s it going to be if we don’t have people like him. The Shopkeeper doesn’t resolve any problems in the music industry. But it highlights many of them in a wonderful story about a wonderful man. It’s well worth your time to watch if you care at all about the business of the music we love.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.