Martin Sexton: Indie path was the right path
ASPEN ” On the title track of his first studio recording, 1996’s “Black Sheep,” Martin Sexton sings about working up the nerve up to finally leave home and strike out on the road in search of “the big prize” of his freedom.
Thirteen years later, and some nine years after walking away from a major label to produce and record his own music, Sexton has certainly found that freedom. And not a day goes by, he said, that he takes for granted what a prize it is.
“What I’ve learned after all these years is what I’m doing is right,” said the singer-songwriter, who makes his fourth appearance in Aspen on Saturday night when he returns to the Belly Up stage for a solo show. “The right thing is showing up. A lot of artists are like, ‘I don’t want to go out on the road, I don’t want to live in a bus.’ But I do that. I don’t mind living on a bus and traveling all over the world. I’ll show up everywhere.”
And the fans, as Sexton has seen over the years, show up, too ” without fail.
It’s a lesson that record label executives could stand to hear, in the midst of so much turmoil in the music industry and the national economy.
Sexton, who channels original American sounds ” soul, rock, folk, gospel, even a little country” with his lifting voice, decided, after his first dance with the corporate music industry, to launch his own label, Kitchen Table Records, in 2002. Since then, he said that if you were to compare his album sales to the rest of the industry as a whole, the contrast would be striking.
His chart would show a line steadily moving up, compared to one that fell flat off a cliff.
The secret to the success, Sexton said, is a commitment to two things: His craft and his audience.
It’s a more organic approach ” and certainly a boring one for some label marketing director somewhere ” but Sexton, who is currently touring behind his second great live album, “Solo,” said he learned long ago that he doesn’t need a national PR blitz to sell records and tickets.
His powerful voice carries for miles, literally. Its infectiousness carries with it the kind of direct, word-of-mouth marketing that can’t be bought. The evidence is in the numbers ” always steadily growing ” of fans who show up to his performances every time he heads back out on the road.
“Some towns are slower growing than others,” he said. “But most of the major markets have had this really measurable growth. I started in the little 100-seat places, and the next year it’s 115, then three years later its 300. It’s gotten to the point now where it’s 1,000, to 2,000 in a major city. In the small towns, it’s not as noticeable, but it’s also sometimes more fun, playing places in the 500 range. The good news is that every time I come through, if it was 500 tickets the time before, this time it’s like 534. It seems to have this nice growth.”
Certainly, Sexton said, one day he would love to have a top-10 radio hit, and a sold-out arena tour. Who wouldn’t?
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., the soundtrack of his adolescence was full of classic rock, starting with the day Sexton’s life changed, as a young boy, when he heard the opening chords of “Frampton Comes Alive!” while secretly listening to his older brother’s records in the attic.
Sexton isn’t above dreams of rock stardom.
But he insists he wouldn’t trade a quick one-off of it for the kind of independent success he enjoys now.
“I think it would be great to get that big, but the only thing I would be afraid of is that that big No. 1 hit can often be the kiss of death,” he said. “When the whole corporate machinery surrounds you and lifts you to that elevation. For some, you can stay there for a while. For some, it can be like, ‘Oh yeah, he had that one hit.'”
Not having that one smash means that fans aren’t necessarily showing up to see him sing one particular song every night, Sexton said.
That dynamic allows him to take the full measure of his audience, and to play the show his fans want to see every night.
“There isn’t one song I have to play, one song that is going to satisfy them,” he said. “It’s kind of like having a bouquet of flowers. They love each one just as much as the other.”
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