Devotion + Doubt
"`Alright, I'll do that. Okay.'"
"`And you're going to bust your ass to help us sell this record so that we can make our 87%.'"
"I can't believe people fall for this."
Hold up Richard Buckner, transient singer-songwriter who makes frequent but irregular stopovers in Austin, as an example of just about everything out of kilter with the music biz.. We've heard the horror stories before. Thing is, Buckner's most recent release, his major-label debut for MCA, Devotion + Doubt, has garnered fervent praise from just about every pillar of the music press -- Rolling Stone, Spin, No Depression, et al. -- and you could probably get even-money odds in Las Vegas that the album, a stirring collection of beautifully sparse tales and ordinary tragedies, will end up on a slew of year-end Top 10 lists. And as usual, that and $2 will get Buckner a Shiner Bock, since, according to Soundscan, Devotion + Doubt has sold all of 8,800 copies.
Now, that shouldn't be too surprising as the inversely proportional relationship between print praise and retail sales is a tendency that borders on a logical tautology. Still, Buckner's industry woes run much deeper than simply a commercial success quotient hovering around, oh, zero.
"I am an orphan," he claims, "I'm in this contract with a record company that doesn't even know who I am. I got signed to the label and the one person that liked me quit."
Buckner's A&R person at MCA -- the one that liked him -- left the label the week he entered the studio to begin cutting Devotion + Doubt. Not only did she quit, she didn't even bother to inform Buckner she was doing so. Instead, he heard the news here in Austin at a Fourth of July party when another party-goer/musician informed Buckner that she had split to go work for Steve Earle's fledgling label, E-Squared.
"Over the course of the next couple of weeks I finally got her on the phone and she actually admitted she was quitting MCA," recounts Buckner. "And I had asked -- I knew her contract was up with them -- asked her before I signed my deal, `Please tell me you're going to be with them at least another year, so I can make this record and have somebody there.' She said, `Yeah I'll be there. I'll be there. No problem.'"
The treatment he received from his new label in regards to his A&R person's defection was no less uncivil or inconsiderate. "Nobody from the company ever told me," he says. "I still haven't received any information from anybody at MCA acknowledging that even happened. So basically, I don't have anybody at MCA I even know. I mean, I have one person in the art department I like."
The whole ordeal may have given MCA cause to simply abandon Buckner as he's received essentially no support from the label in promoting the album. In fact, were his career to end today, Buckner's musical epitaph could very well read: "Born Under a Bad Sign." In terms of "luck," the singer-songwriter has invariably had any and all "luck" linked with the modifier "bad." It seems that any break Buckner has gotten has been accompanied by a subsequent misfortune of equal or greater magnitude.
Take for instance Buckner's association with Dejadisc, the San Marcos indie label that put out the songwriter's debut, Bloomed. In 1993, when Buckner got turned down for a South by Southwest showcase, his then manager got a tape of his stuff to Butch Hancock, who added Buckner to one of his unofficial showcases. Turns out some reps from a German label were at the show and they loved him, as did Lloyd Maines, who was also there. In one night, Buckner scored a company wanting to record his songs and someone -- namely Maines -- to produce them.
That material later became Bloomed, which was then released in the states on Dejadisc in '94. All good and fine, right? Wrong. Buckner claims he's never seen a penny from the album, and that Wilkison has the master and won't pay Buckner for it or return it to him. Worse, Buckner's in no position financially to take Dejadisc to court to try to get the master back. "I must have done something really horrible in a past life, because I ended up having my first record put out by [Dejadisc owner] Steve Wilkison," muses Buckner. "I'm just kind of being taken advantage of right now."
Wilkison responds that he has, until recently, made regular payments to Buckner, does indeed owe him money, and has never tried to hide the amount of money owed him. Unfortunately, the financially strapped label (now located in Nashville along with its owner) has no money with which to pay him. "Believe me," says Wilkison, "I would like nothing more than to pay Richard Buckner the money we owe him."
You get the picture, everybody's losing. Yet with Buckner, it seems he has a history with this kind of thing. Take MCA. It was after Bloomed and Dejadisc that Buckner ended up at MCA, a fluke odyssey comprised of what Buckner jokingly calls "a series of mishaps."
"I think somebody at Spin had my demo tapes and liked them so he passed them on to his friend who's a lawyer who knew somebody at MCA. And you know how it is with record labels -- nobody thinks it's cool until somebody who is cool says it's cool. So somebody at MCA who is cool told them it was cool, so they decided it was cool and they decided to sign me."
Even though Buckner had somehow backed into major label Babylon, he was a bit too confused to throw himself at the feet of the suits in thanks and praise. "When I first met with MCA," says Buckner, "I told them, `Listen, this is nice, but I'm not sure why you want to meet with me, because I'm just kind of a songwriter guy, and I don't see myself being a big radio-hit person. I don't know why you're interested in me.' They said, `Well, we don't really want a big radio hit. We just kind of want a catalogue of your work. We appreciate your work.' That's what they said... I don't know what they're thinking."
He was right to be confused. He's not a big radio-hit person. In fact, KGSR here in town was about the only commercial station nationally to play anything from D + D ("A Goodbye Rye" made a brief appearance on the playlist). And there's a reason for that. Listening to a Richard Buckner album is not a trip to Disneyland, nor an evening at Up with People, nor a Hollywood feel-good happy ending. In Buckner's world, love doesn't so much conquer as it destroys, and it does so seemingly for no good reason. Moreover, the emotionally taxing lyrical content is not adorned with merry melodies -- instead, it's textured with space.
"It's not fun," he acknowledges with point blank earnestness. "It's not fun for people to listen to. Look at all the songs that are on the fucking VH1 Top 10. I mean I watch this because I like to really just torture myself completely and make me think that I have no future. Songs like that new Sara McLachlan song has the same guitar chords as the Joan Osborne hit. Four others have the same signature line. Thing is, that night, I had that line in my head. I realized it later, `God that line's in my head still.' There's a load of them and they're very easy to digest and keep on your brain."
Devotion + Doubt contains no such lightness, though it does have a hook that might make it more appealing to the locals: About half of the album was recorded here in Austin (the other half in Tucson with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Giant Sand). And while, unlike its predecessor, D + D wasn't produced by Maines (J.D. Foster pulled that duty this time around), it makes exceptional use of his talents on about half of the album's cuts. Rich Brotherton and Champ Hood also put in appearances.
And Buckner's connection to our fair city is not limited to musical circles. When not touring, he spends plenty of time just hanging out in Austin, frequenting Ego's and downing the sweet tamales with green sauce (along with "a bunch of margaritas") at Curra's. In fact, word was out for a while that the native northern-Californian was going to shack up here on a more permanent basis.
"I may have started that rumor, I'm not sure," he confesses. "I'm [in Austin] a lot, and when I'm there I'm always like, `Shit this is great, I should live here,' but I never do. I mean, I'd like to live somewhere. I don't live anywhere right now. Every nice town I go to, I claim I'm going to live there and I never do."
To describe Buckner's existence as Spartan would be to err on the side of luxury, and that wouldn't be a very small error. You see, Buckner literally doesn't live anywhere right now. He has a mailing address and a phone number in San Francisco, but he doesn't reside there. He did for a while, up until last year, but his current mailing address there is actually for a Mailboxes, Etc. type place, which overnights mail to wherever the singer happens to be; the phone number is for a voicemail that Buckner can access from anywhere. And what of his worldly possessions? Buckner can list them all off the top of his head:
"I've got three guitars, an amp, a keyboard, a stuffed Albacore tuna, and my pick-up truck -- no, I'm leasing that, I don't own that -- and a bunch of CDs."
Buckner lives out of his truck, or rather lives out of the truck he's leasing, and has almost all of his belongings in tow. The fish, which he got in exchange for co-managing a garage sale with his ex-wife (he considers it a good deal), is in storage in Bakersfield. "Is it crazy?" he asks rhetorically. "It's kind of like part pathetic, part crazy, part weird.... It kind of makes me completely insane and keeps me paying my bills."
Obviously, this isn't the kind of lifestyle many people choose, and Buckner doesn't romanticize his situation, which is more a result of necessity than choice. For all the praise his albums have received, Buckner can't pay his bills with press clippings. It's touring that pays the bills, touring that keeps him solvent -- or just solvent enough to keep him touring. Like many of his peers, Buckner is stuck on the malevolent music-biz Mobius strip.
"It's not like you sign with a major label and you get a bunch of money and you live," he says. "What it is is you're offered a menu of scams. And you think, `Okay, this month, I'll try this scam, I'll do a tour.
"`What scam will I do next month? I'll do scam number five. That's the scam where I do a series of radio shows and in-stores.
"`The scam I'll try after that is the one where I make another record.'
"It's just a series of projects you do. I think there's a book about the music industry where one of the quotes is, `Who do I have to talk to to get out of this business?' which I thought is one of the most perfect things I've heard. Not that I want to get out. It's just an amazing set-up where you are continually scrambling to keep yourself afloat. And it's so widespread. So many musicians are living this way."
Throughout the duration of his brief diatribes, Buckner is both giddy and bitter, continually laughing, probably out of desperation as much as necessity. He has animosity towards his situation and the way his career path -- which he loves -- has led him into a business environment that he hates. He's none too pleased with the way the majors have treated him, but his experience at indie Dejadisc was obviously no better. Is it all just bad luck? Well, not all of it. While he may only get 13% of the profits, Devotion + Doubt is nonetheless an album of which Buckner is extremely proud.
"The fact is that I got to make the kind of record I wanted to with J.D.," says Buckner. "I don't care about anything else. I don't care if it sells. It doesn't make any difference. I'm not trying to be coy, that's really the way I feel. I don't care how it does. I'm really happy with the way it came out. If anything happens, that's great, but if not, I don't really give a fuck.... It'd be one thing if I thought somebody gave a fuck -- anybody -- but they don't."
Well, at least 8,800 people give a fuck -- most of them in Austin, probably. What does Buckner say to those people?
"You wanna buy a T-shirt?"
Richard Buckner performs at the Electric Lounge Saturday, November 1, along with Walter Traggert and Mike Nicolai. (The Wrens play early, 9:30pm.)