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The Industry Source for New Age, World, Ambient, Electronic, Solo Piano, Relaxation, Instrumental and many other genres of Music
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Getting To Know:
Bill Binkelman, 53, has been writing about, reviewing, and interviewing artists in contemporary instrumental music genres since 1997 when he launched the grass roots 'zine, Wind and Wire. Through the years that followed, his reviews have also appeared on various websites and in other publications.


Bill began reviewing for New Age Reporter in winter of 2006. When he's not working at a small private university in St. Paul or buried in his reviewers' thesaurus, he enjoys spending time with his partner, Kathryn Heinze, and their black-lab mix Mamie in a quiet residential neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His other passions include cooking and the Green Bay Packers.

Other Getting To Know::
Getting To Know: Peter Buffett, Jul. 2009
Getting To Know: Jeff Pearce, Oct. 2008
Getting To Know: Wayne Gratz, Jul. 2008
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Bill Binkelman
Getting To Know: Jamie Bonk
January 2008
Toronto resident and acoustic guitarist Jamie Bonk's resume is impressive to say the least: Bachelor of Music in Composition from Queen's University. Formal studies in classical guitar. Silver medalist for electro-acoustic music in the CAPAC competition. Six years as associate guitar instructor at the Toronto Guitar Institute. Currently conducting a series of seminars for Apple focusing on digital recording. Whew!

Of course, what impresses me the most about Jamie Bonk is his music. Starting with his eponymous debut and now on his fourth recording, titled simply 5, Jamie has always displayed not just a unique signature "sound" but a commitment to crafting music which blends elements of new age, smooth jazz, and adult contemporary music into a kick-ass fusion which is almost impossible to resist. I still remember listening to the first track on his debut album and thinking to myself, "Now, here’s someone who knows how to write a great hook!" Throughout his career, he has made subtle but distinct changes in musical direction but always maintaining that trademark sound of his as well as a high level of accessibility highlighted by infectious rhythms and catchy melodies. Since Jamie was the former interviewer here at New Age Reporter, I thought it only fitting to make him the subject of my first interview, returning the favor for his many hours of hard work in writing his Artist-to-Artist series. So, let's meet Jamie Bonk up close and personal.

My thanks to Jamie Bonk for his unending patience throughout the many email exchanges of this interview. To learn more about Jamie, please visit www.jamiebonk.com

Jamie Bonk
Bill: Many artists I've known had some event (or events) kick-start them into taking the leap into recording and releasing their own music. Was there any such event, conversation, or impetus for you? When you did finally hold your debut album in your hand for the first time, how did it feel?
Jamie: It felt great and, to be honest, very natural. By the time I had released my debut CD in '97, I had already been recording for almost 20 years. At around 13 or 14, I started making multi-take recordings by bouncing from cassette to cassette. I call them multi-take versus multi-track recordings because basically I would record one part on one cassette machine and then while playing back that track, I would play a second part live and record to a another cassette machine. I think around 16 or 17 (it's a bit fuzzy at this point) I bought a Tascam 244 (a four track cassette machine) and a Roland Drumatix drum machine. Over the years, I must have recorded a couple hundred tracks with the Tascam. I was also lucky enough that my brother was a keyboardist and he had a Roland Jupiter 4, which I was able to use on my tracks too. I did all kinds of different music. New Wave, Jazz, Experimental, soundtracks... When I listen back to the tracks I did 20-30 years ago, some are good and some are crap, but it was one heck of a learning experience. So, for me recording has been part of my music making for a very long time. It's pretty much how I've always made music.
Bill: With all those different types of music you started out playing and recording at home, how did you settle on the "signature" sound of your eponymous debut CD? And what pushed you over the edge to _commit_ to releasing a bona fide "recording" for the masses?
Jamie: There really were two deciding factors. The first was that the advances in recording equipment, and the cost of that gear, made making a record a financial possibility for me. When I got out of university in '87, the cost of setting up a home studio that could give you pro results was out of my reach -- I just couldn't afford to do it. So after years of absolute heaven using some pretty nice gear at school, I went through what one of my comp profs called "studio withdrawal". I was for all intents and purposes, studio-less. I still had my Tascam and some other gear, but nothing that could give me the results that I needed. Results that I felt could stand shoulder to shoulder with other records out there.

Still, I didn't let the gear thing stop me in my tracks. I used the stuff I had to record demos of my own music and I started doing arrangements for other artists. I would do full blown productions for artists and then we'd take the MIDI/synth tracks into a commercial studio and I would add all of the guitars. It was another terrific learning experience. I got to work in tons of different styles and I spent a bunch of time in some of best studios in Toronto. The downside of working in those studios though, was seeing just how far away I was from making my own record. Couldn't afford the gear and I sure couldn't afford the studio rates.

But all of that changed by the early 90s. There were huge changes on the tech side of things and prices started to drop, so I was able to pick up some gear at fairly reasonable prices. The final piece of the puzzle came into play when one of my students, Jeff McCann, asked me to score a corporate video he was shooting. He had a nice set up -- Digidesign Session 8 and a Mac Quadra. I scored a few corporate videos for him and with incredible generosity, Jeff ended up loaning me his set up. So between that and my parents loaning me some money for even more gear, I was _finally_ able to make a record!

The second factor was that I felt that I had developed a defined point of view -- that I had something to say and that I said it as only I could. It's perfectly okay to play and write in lots of different styles, but that doesn't make you a recording artist. I've always admired artists where you know who they are from the first 10 seconds of listening to a record. So that signature sound you're talking about was absolutely something conscious on my part -- or maybe I should say consciously hoped for. For years before my first album was released, I made demos, complete mock ups, of the album in progress. Most of the tracks on those mock ups made it to the final record. So slowly, the picture became clearer: that I liked certain harmonies "better" than others; that I should focus on the nylon string guitar; that I loved melody, good grooves and that the computer was as central to my music as my guitar playing.
"I've always admired artists where you know who they are from the first 10 seconds of listening to a record."

- Jamie Bonk
Bill: Since you bring the subject up, ''ll ask for your take on a somewhat controversial topic that comes up often. Do you think the proliferation of inexpensive recording set-ups has allowed too many artists with little or no talent to record and release music and that, in turn, has had a detrimental effect on the marketplace? In other words, do so many (possibly substandard) releases have a negative impact on sales? And if you think this is the case, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff without coming across as elitist?
Jamie: Okay some big questions here... The falling prices for recording gear has unquestionably allowed more people to record more music. I'm one of those people who has benefited from the changes in technology. As I said in my last answer, I wouldn't have been able to put out a record without these changes. But, to paraphrase your question: Are there people putting out records that shouldn't be? The short answer is yes. That's always been the case though. It's not like there weren't crappy records released in the past because the music was recorded in a class A studio. The majors have released mountains of garbage. I was at a business conference and a major label guy described their business model as "mining for diamonds -- you've got to go through a lot of coal to get to the diamonds." The difference today though is the magnitude of music released. And the magnitude of coal. The big question/challenge is: How does the listener sift through all of the music (both good and bad) released today and not totally tune out?

Do more bad records equal less overall sales? I can't answer that for sure, but I would guess it does. As with any "product", if the public believes the quality is going south, they're going to buy less of that "product". They're also going to want to pay less for it. The music industry, across the board, has seen both of these trends -- overall sales have decrease[d] dramatically and the price per unit has also dropped significantly. That said, I doubt that the genres that my music fits into played any role in these trends. No artist in this style has enough of an impact on the mainstream market to have much of an overall affect. You have to look to the pop artists and the major labels to see where "blame" should be leveled. Years and years and years of mismanagement and pure greed have hurt the business far more than inexpensive recording gear.

To your last question regarding elitism, I'm not completely sure how to answer. Elitism exists through the music industry -- musicians are judged by the style of music they play, how strong or weak their technique is, what instrument they play, whether they read music or not, what label they're on, who they've played with... and on and on and on... Some of these things matter. Some don't. I suppose my only "advice" would be to be true to yourself. For instance, if you, as reviewer, feel that a particular record doesn't cut it, artistically or sonically, then state your opinion. If you're out of step with your readers then maybe you'll be viewed as an elitist. If you're in tune with your readers maybe you'll be seen as a populist. Ultimately, I think elitism (or populism) depends on context and being attuned to your specific market. But in terms of music, I love the Duke Ellington quote: "If it sounds good, it is good."
" The big question/challenge is: How does the listener sift through all of the music (both good and bad) released today and not totally tune out?"

- Jamie Bonk
Bill: In regards to your latest release, 5, why did you only release an EP, instead of waiting for enough recorded material for a full-length album and what were the reasons for offering it digital only instead of digital with a CD-R available for those who prefer "the real thing" (i.e. a physical presence not just a virtual one)? I realize pressing 1,000 copies might have been a poor business decision but why not at least offer a CD-R?
Jamie: Selling a CD-R EP either through retail or via an on-line retailer doesn't make financial sense for an independent artist like me. To give you an idea of my costs... As I said previously, the price per unit for CDs has fallen dramatically over the last few years. I believe that consumers like to see CD albums priced in the $10 range. This is partly due to the influence of iTunes and partly due to retailers using CDs as loss leaders. Many, many times I'll walk into a store and find CDs for $6 or $7. Walls of $6 and $7 CDs. I feel this definitely affects the overall perceived value of CDs. But let's be generous and say that an "average" CD has a market value of $10. An EP has a lesser value -- maybe somewhere around $5-$7, but we'll use the higher value.

If I use an online retailer, they'll take a flat fee of $4 from every sale, which is fairly consistent in the industry. That leaves me with $3. Pressing up CD-Rs, whether you do them yourself or outsource them, will cost you in the $3 per unit price range. So now I'm left with $0. But I still have to mail the CDs to the online retailer. That will cost anywhere from $1-$2 per unit depending on how many CDs you mail at any one time. So now I'm $1-$2 in the hole. And we still haven't factored in other costs like studio/mastering fees. Of course, going into bricks and mortar retail adds another level of cost (depends on their margin) and will put you further in the red. The only way, that I can see, to make a $7 CD-R EP work is to charge more per CD, drive down your manufacturing costs by printing up thousands of CDs (I think there's a price break point around 5000 units), ship large numbers of CDs at one time to reduce your shipping costs and/or re-negotiate the distributor/retailers rates. None of these are options for me as an independent and that's part of the reason for my move to digital only.

The other part is that I believe the LP album format and the CD are dead. I personally don't know anyone who listens to albums in their entirety anymore. It's all about playlists. And it's all about iTunes/iPods. I can't remember the last time I saw someone on the road here in Toronto with a portable CD player. Everyone has an iPod. So the market has spoken and the format has changed. I don't think this is anything to be alarmed about -- we've had plenty of format changes over the years (i.e. wax cylinders to 78s to LPs, etc.) -- but, it does demand a different way of thinking about music and the market. And that's why I went with a digital only EP this time out -- it wasn't due to a lack of material. I'm just listening to what people want and trying not to go broke.
Bill: You've gone completely solo (e.g. your debut release) and included various accompanists as well on the last two releases. What determines how many guest artists appear and which instruments they play? Is it an artistic decision, i.e. the songs will "sound better" with certain instruments played "live" or is it an unrelated factor, e.g. cost, when artists are available or who is available when you need them? And do you prefer one over the other (working with others or depending solely on yourself and your loops/samples/etc.)?
Jamie: It depends on the tune. Sometimes I feel that I can produce a track completely on my own -- that the track works with my own singular point of view. Other times I feel that the music really would benefit from another artist's sound. I don't have a "rule" about this at all. On 5, I had Jeff Oster and Loren Gold play on a couple tracks and they brought those tunes to life. They played the melodies as written, but just about everything else they were free to create on their own. It's my job as a producer to make sure that the parts I play and the parts that the guest artists play mesh together and that the record sounds, for lack of a better term, unified. I should say, the artists I work with I consider friends. I don't hire jobbers to come in and do parts -- that's just not the way I make music. It's not about just anyone playing a flugelhorn or piano part, it's about Jeff and Loren and what they do as artists. Some of the other factors you asked about do come into play when I'm recording. I'd love to have a great big orchestra play my string parts, but that's really not going to happen unless I win the lottery! But if I wanted a certain artist to be on a track and they weren't available, I would rather just wait until they had some time. "... the artists I work with I consider friends. I don't hire jobbers to come in and do parts."

- Jamie Bonk
Bill: Given your status as an indie artist, what (in your recording career so far) has proven to be more difficult or frustrating aspect? What has been easier than you expected? What is most gratifying? And would you sign with a label if the right deal came along or, since you are now committed to digital, is that a moot point?
Jamie: The most frustrating aspect has to be time. I never have enough of it. I think just about any indie artist will tell you that after dealing with mountains of business "stuff", there really isn't a lot of time left over. For instance, I spent this morning updating my website and editing photos. Honestly, I would have rather been making music, but the reality is that as an indie I have to handle these sorts of things. In terms of what's been easy, I'm not sure anything has been truly easy, but keeping my studio up to date has, over the years, become far less of an issue. I find it absolutely amazing what I can do now with a laptop, a guitar, a firewire interface and a USB keyboard. Basically it's a studio in a box now. That's very freeing from an artistic stand point. And the most gratifying aspect has to be all of the positive feedback I've had and the people I've met through my music. So far it's been a great ride!

Would I sign with a label? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly less important today to have label backing than it was when I first started releasing records. Obviously, it's fairly big news that name artists are leaving labels and putting out music all on their own. But I'm not confident that the road NIN and Radiohead have taken would work for lesser known artists like myself. Also, I feel the format (download or physical) that an artist or label uses to release their music doesn't negate the value of a label. In the case of NIN and Radiohead, the labels built, or helped build, their name. I'm sure the cost of doing that wasn't inconsequential. So I think labels by providing capital, promotion and most importantly access, still have a defining role in the music business. Indie artists like myself can make a good sounding, solid record, but we can't do all of the things a label can.
"And the most gratifying aspect has to be all of the positive feedback I've had and the people I've met through my music. So far it's been a great ride!"

- Jamie Bonk
Bill: Do you enjoy playing live more than recording or are they too different to make that kind of comparison? When you play live, do you use accompanists rather than a backing sound source like a DAT or a hard drive?
Jamie: Playing live and recording are very much the same to me. I think of myself as a composer first and foremost, and I'm going after a very specific sound. It's not as if I make a record with lots of texture and depth and then take the music live with a band that's not at all representative of my sound. That said, improv is also very important in my music, so I approach live performances as I do my records -- certain parts are played exactly as written and certain parts are improvised. There's a real continuum between my records and my live performances.

My band always plays with tracks -- I've done this right from day one. Again this goes back to wanting my live sound to be similar to my records. The tracks change with the band though. For example, if I'm using a three piece, the tracks will have more on them than if I have a four piece. Generally, if there's a hard quantized part, a sequenced synth or loop that helps to define a piece's sonic characteristic, and would be played less well by a human, that will always be on the track. The type of playback medium or device (i.e. CD, computer, iPod, etc.) doesn't really matter that much to me. As long as it's rock solid, I'm good to go!
"...I approach live performances as I do my records -- certain parts are played exactly as written and certain parts are improvised."

-Jamie Bonk
Bill: Do you have any long-term plans, goals or ideas about your music? Any collaborations that you hope to see come to fruition? And do you enjoy music enough to see yourself still at it way down the road?
Jamie: I can't see myself ever giving up music. I started on piano when I was 4 and I'm 43 now, so that's a couple years making noise. I could see myself doing different things with music though. I'm hugely interested in music and technology, and I truly love teaching. So who knows maybe in a few years I'll change course towards something different. Never say never, right?

In terms of my music, I just want to continue to grow. One of the challenges of getting older and gaining experience is that you take fewer risks. You have a greater sense of what works and what doesn't and you stick to that. You don't have to look too far to see some artists wearing some very deep grooves in the carpet. It's essentially the same sound over and over and over. If that works for them, great, but it's not the path I choose to go down. And yes, I definitely want to collaborate with different artists! Primarily I want to work with artists with a different perspective than I have and who work in styles other than my own. There's still lots of music to make!
" Primarily I want to work with artists with a different perspective than I have and who work in styles other than my own. There's still lots of music to make!"

- Jamie Bonk
Bill: Any parting thoughts, comments for your fans, or words of wisdom?
Jamie: Deep thoughts from Bonk, eh? Well, okay since you asked... This goes back to digital downloads. Not to be too much of an activist (because I'm not), but digital only releases make artistic, business and lastly, environmental sense to me. This was another part of my decision to go all digital -- the environment. CDs, packaging (including promo materials) and shipping are, in my view, not necessary at this point in time. I have no idea what the overall cost of physical distribution and promotion is to the environment. Maybe it's great, maybe it's insignificant. But there is a cost. I feel every industry has to look at what they can do lessen their impact on the environment. I'm trying to do my bit and maybe if more artists/labels do the same, we can make a tiny difference. In my view, there's no compelling reason not to do it. I'll climb down off my soapbox now..

Bill, thanks for the interview and best of luck taking over this conversation series. I can't think of anyone who would do a better job!
"...digital only releases make artistic, business and lastly, environmental sense to me."

- Jamie Bonk
 
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