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Intersection of Life and Faith

Independence and Dependence

  • Michael Herman Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jun
Independence and Dependence
No longer signed to a record label, contemporary folk/pop artist Justin McRoberts explains the changes that come with being an independent artist and his continued need for the support of others.What's it like to be an independent artist? How do you manage to create albums even though you don't get much radio-play?Justin: We (my wife Amy and I) try to keep things really simple. We don't put a lot of thought into strategic marketing or long-term planning. We've been able to work independently because our ministry is about developing relationships with people, and these people turn around and invest back into us. That's a foundation that hasn't gone away.Tell me about a time when someone went out of his way to invest in you.Justin: We have a friend in Lynchburg, Virginia who's done a lot of music promotion for us. He works very hard to make shows happen in that area of the country because he believes in what I'm saying and singing about. Another friend in Lexington, Kentucky does the same thing. In the context of our friendship, we share in each other's ministries.These kinds of relationships, which we have with a number of friends, are what keeps our ministry going. These friends encourage us and help us practically as well.Do you see that as a big difference between now and your experiences in the past as a part of a record label?Justin: That is a big difference. There's a lot more business on the other side, and the relationships are more business-like. So if you're not the flavor of the month, people don't necessarily want to see you around because it's not a good business decision.How did you move from working with a label to being independent?Amy: Things started off for us when we were signed to the label Five Minute Walk and began touring—which included four major tours in the first two years. Justin played with Caedmon's Call, Jennifer Knapp, and other artists in front of large audiences.After two years, we transitioned to being independent. This wasn't a huge change for us because the nature of Five Minute Walk records was to spend the money on touring—not on marketing.We didn't miss having a publicist after leaving the label because we never really had one; we didn't miss being a marketed artist or having radio airplay because Justin never really experienced that. From the outset we helped out with our own management, and now we do all of it. So we already had a lot of the groundwork covered because of our travels, relationship-building, and management experience. You can see that it was a great foundation for us to start from.Justin: Frank Tate (at Five Minute Walk) set us up well to do things on our own. He wanted people to invest in his artists because they believed in what they saw and heard. He tried to put artists in front of more people so they wouldn't feel like they were investing in hype.You spend a lot more time together than most married couples. How do you handle the pros and cons of that kind of a business and personal arrangement?Justin: There is more work for us to do than ever before, and it can be a strain on our relationship. Sometimes we need time away from each other to pursue our own interests. This balance is necessary—it's good to be together, but we'd be at each other's throats if we were together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We travel for a week and a half to two weeks at a time and then go back home for a few days—so we can be human.But we're comfortable working together because it's us from the front end to the back end. There's no middleman in this. We're the ones talking with the church pastor or the person at the college.That allows us to do good business, which is a part of doing good ministry. Caring for people in your job is a part of living like Christ.Money is required to continue good business. How do you balance good business with good ministry?Justin: There's a line between acting like a jerk and taking more money than you need for a show, and being great from stage and earning the money you make.We know the exact amount we need to make and we don't want to take more money from people than they have to give. It all comes back to being there for people as opposed to having people be there for us. Keeping that straight keeps everything else in line.Who do you feel called to serve?Justin: I'm really drawn to the college-aged. College seems to be where the rubber meets the road—where a person decides how his faith and his life will interact. It's where a person decides what she's going to become and where she will leave her mark.I try to write songs that encourage college students to make wise investments with their time, money, and energy. I hope to inspire them to be people who invest in their communities.Amy: The majority of the shows have been college shows. There's a lot of energy with that age group—they're really responsive. They laugh at Justin's funny stories. It's very interactive and intimate.How is this age group different from others?Justin: They're a thinking crowd. They're far more receptive to things.Amy: Yeah, they're listening. So singer-songwriters have a lot to share with them.Justin: Teenagers and adults, on the other hand, tend to be really reactive. Both groups seem to need more time with an artist before they're ready to receive from them.Teenagers often need a musician to impress them first. Part of being a musician is earning the right to be heard from stage, so they deserve this. There's often more of an entertainment factor with teens, and that's not a bad thing.Adults tend to be hesitant, especially with a younger artist. They think about the music in a secondhand way—they assume a younger artist might provide good music for their kids. It can take half of a set before the adult starts believing that he could personally benefit from the concert.Is there something about songwriting or performing that you know now that you wish you would've known years ago?Justin: It's probably what I touched on earlier about earning the right to be heard. This is a Young Life principle—you can't just get on stage and spout-off whatever's on your mind.To earn that right, you have to be entertaining to some degree, make people laugh, and work for your audience. Most people don't show up to see you fail. They show up to see you do well, and they're on your side when they get there. That puts me in a place where I really need to show up for them as well.I need to always remember that the people who come to see me play aren't just an "audience." They are people, individuals whom I can have a relationship with.What would you tell someone who wants to make music his or her career?Justin: It's not worth doing just for the sake of doing. It's only worth doing if God has given you a story to tell and has asked you to share it with people.Playing music isn't the hardest thing to do in the world, but there are some hard things about it, like the traveling and not having community. That can be bad for your heart and for your head.There are traps that a music career sets for people, and it's not worth doing for the awards alone. If you go into something that's performance oriented without having a vision for it, it ends up being all about you. It becomes all about the performance and about impressing people because you really don't have a reason for being there. That's true for life in general—in ministry, if you don't have a vision for what you're doing, then don't do it!Sometimes being a talented musician means that you should offer that gift to your local community. That talent is for your church or for the people in the area God placed you in.Amy: We constantly have feedback from people who appreciate the honest vulnerability that is a part of Justin's ministry. It may be a funny story he tells, but there's hard truth in it.People who want to be full time musicians need to realize that it involves a lot more than just sharing their songs. Life isn't always easy and people's lives are messy. We're called to let them know that they're not alone.Hopefully there's depth in the songs that people write, and when that is the case, people who hear the music feel human. There isn't that roadblock. They begin to understand that they aren't alone in their feelings about life.You can learn more about Justin McRoberts at our artist page for him. Also visit JustinMcRoberts.com to check out his music and find out when he's coming to your area. For booking information, please contact Third Coast Artist Agency by phone (615-297-2021) or by e-mail ([email protected]).