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Home > Magazine > Article Archive > News

Interviews: Company Profile: Just Plain Folks
Posted on Saturday, September 09, 2006 @ 14:02:01 UTC
Topic: Interviews

Just Plain Folks music organization was founded by Brian Austin Whitney, an Indianapolis-based songwriter and organizer who gave up the corporate life for a more satisfying career in the arts. JPF describes itself on its website as follows: "We are a community of over 40,000 Songwriters, Recording Artists, Music Publishers, Record Labels, Performing Arts Societies, Educational Institutions, Recording Studios and Engineers, Producers, Legal Professionals, Publicists and Journalists, Publications, Music Manufacturers and Retailers and about every other type of member of the Music Industry. We are glad to have you with us, and our Motto is.... We're all in this together!"

By Suzanne Glass

Brian Austin Whitney - Just Plain Folks FounderIndie-Music recently had the chance to speak with Brian Austin Whitney about Just Plain Folks. Here is our discussion.

Indie-Music: What motivated you to start Just Plain Folks?

Brian Austin Whitney: After leaving a company I had been working for (a long story for another time), I realized it had been several years since I even had a week of vacation. Before getting another corporate job, I decided to take some time off and travel, which is something I always wanted to do. I also wanted to spend more time writing music since I'd been a forced workaholic for many years (a habit I've unfortunately never broken only now it's voluntary). The internet and most specifically email were still very new things in 1998. I wanted to travel across the US but I realized I didn't really know many people outside of a few states I had lived in. So I got on AOL and searched their directory for songwriters. I found 1 male and 1 female at random from each US State. I sent them each an email that said who I was and that I wanted to come and visit their city, co-write a song with them purely for the fun of it, record a version on my portable recording studio, play tourist in their area for a bit and pack up and go on to the next State the next day. Of the 100 emails I sent, 60 people responded and all were, to my surprise, not only interested in the project, but enthusiastic. Many said it was the coolest idea they'd ever heard and they wanted in. Not only that, but they invited me to stay at their home, eat dinner with them to keep costs down and a few even offered to invite musician friends over to join us. Those 60 people were the seed that has grown into nearly 41,000 musicians, songwriters and industry professionals that make up the JPF membership.

I started corresponding with those folks and we even started a chat room on Sunday nights on AOL so we could all talk to each other, share info and ask questions. As the chats grew, we started having guest speakers and most nights people had to wait in line to get in because the room was almost always maxed out. So I decided the best way to communicate would be to start a newsletter. On September 2, 1998 we sent out the first JPF Just Plain Notes Newsletter. People started sending me massive amounts of people to add to the list which I did. We quickly got up over 1000 people but AOL didn't like what we were doing and made me get written and filed membership requests for everyone on our member list. I was a bit devastated that I had to start all over and of course we dropped from over 1000 down to a few hundred members. But much to my surprise, people started sending me email requests to sign up again and by November we were at 400 members. Before I knew it, my 90 days allotted for travel across the US had ended and I hadn't visited a single member. So I asked everyone on the list where the largest number of us could meet, face to face. We decided Nashville was the place. So I packed up the truck a headed out on our first ever JPF Roadtrip to Nashville.

I spent the most exciting 2 weeks of my life down there meeting members, having showcases, networking parties, dinners with industry veterans, meetings with publishers and studios and feeling like I was in a whirlwind. One of our members even had the biggest song on radio while I was there (Wide Open Spaces, our first JPF Song of the Year in our Awards written by JPF Mentor Susan Gibson). It was a magical time and became the model for future and present day JPF Roadtrips. As if the trip wasn't amazing enough by itself, in the next 8 weeks, our group grew from 400 people to over 2000 by positive word of mouth. I was hooked. But I didn't know how I was going to make a living. So I decided it was time to find a sponsor.

I headed out to Los Angeles to the NAMM show where all the manufacturers meet to show their new stuff to retailers to buy. I had made a lot of contacts in my previous job and thought I'd be able to secure some sponsors for a group that was already, in only a few months, over 2000 members large. Boy was I wrong. No one was interested. The dot com boom hadn't quite hit a frenzy yet (though it was on its way) and there were already a lot of heavily funded music start up companies strutting around at NAMM that year who seemed to have no clue at all. I shudder to think of the hundreds of millions (or more) of dollars wasted on music companies who are LONG gone while many of us who started with little or no support at the same time are still thriving and growing today (not the least of which are our good friends at Indie-Music, Muses Muse, CD Baby and the Future of Music Coalition who are all amazing people and who did it on their own without the venture capitalists). I was bummed out that nothing seemed to be happening with sponsors, but we had one more thing to look forward to. A member named Harold Payne (a multi-platinum songwriter as it turned out) had seen I was coming to LA and offered to set up a showcase. Our Nashville Shows hadn't been planned much in advance, so this sounded like a great idea. We had people sign up and Harold invited a bunch of his friends from the LA music community. They included John and JoAnn Braheny, Harriet Schock, Alan O'Day, Jai Josefs, Pete and Pat Luboff, Ben McLane and a bunch of veteran songwriters and artists. In addition, we had a lot of JPF members sign up at the same time. The showcase was a magical night for everyone involved. We had multiple #1 songwriters and artists performing right along side artists who had never even performed live before. Everyone in the room was pumped up by the positive vibe and everyone in the room, including all those industry folks, wanted to get more involved with JPF. That collection of educators and veterans would become the foundation for our JPF Mentor program that still thrives today. It was also the start of our first local chapter (which is ALSO still thriving today). After that experience, I knew I had to keep doing this no matter what. And we've never looked back since.

Indie-Music: How does a musician join JPF?

Brian Austin Whitney: It's free. To join you just visit our home page, click join and enter your email address. You're also welcome to enter more info, but it's totally voluntary. We make is as simple to join as possible and we let the members decide how involved (or uninvolved for that matter) they want to get on their own. You'll get a welcome email back automatically once you enter your email address with more info on what we do and how to get the most out of our organization.

Indie-Music: What benefits does JPF offer musicians?

Brian Austin Whitney: First and foremost we're a networking organization. The best way to succeed (as an artist, writer or industry professional) is to get to know your peers, help each other out and rise among the ranks together. Most organizations and experts encourage people to make contacts with top names around the industry. That's nice when it happens, but the reality is that EVERYONE wants their time and attention and therefore almost no one really gets it. You can waste years trying to network with the top and never get anywhere. On the other hand, if you network with peers or those slightly ahead or behind you, you can share the same resources that you all need, the same contacts, the same information and you can collectively avoid the same predators and pitfalls that most rising artists, writers and industry professionals fall into. And when anyone in the network rises through the ranks, they lift everyone else up a little at the same time. It really works. That's why they when they say it's "who you know" it's really true. You need to know your peers. One day they will be the people who can say "yes" instead of "no." To facilitate networking and education, we have developed some tools and programs:

Just Plain Folks Message Boards and Website: We get app. 100,000 visitors to the message boards a week and you can find information on nearly any topic that is music related there. If it hasn't already been asked, we have topic boards to answer questions and discuss topics and even a Mentor message board where you can get trusted information and answers (or be directed to a resource that can help) for free. If you suspect someone might be a scam artist, you can usually find out by asking on our boards. (We've saved hundreds of members from getting scammed). If you are a lyricist, I believe we have the busiest (and friendliest) Lyric Feedback message boards in the world. The most important thing to remember is that the more you give, the more you will get back in any community. The message boards are like a big family at this point. They'll watch your back, but they also expect you to contribute with your thoughts, knowledge and feedback as well. The first time you visit, try responding to an active post, give an opinion about something or just say hi. Don't simply demand attention, feedback or people to visit your site or you might not get anywhere. If you give a little, you'll usually get twice as much back. Our website in general has information and articles and tons of photos of past and recent events. It's a sort of virtual yearbook and you can find every issue of our newsletter "Just Plain Notes" archived there as well and there are hundreds of great articles and resources inside.

Note: You must register separately to use the message boards. Click "register" and then choose a user name. A password will be sent to you automatically.

Just Plain Folks Roadtrips: These are my favorite. Several times a year we will visit a region of North America and set up venue Showcases, Workshops and Networking events. Everyone is welcome to participate and with a few exceptions, it's free. Come out and perform at a famous venue in a town you want to break into as a performer, come out and meet other songwriters to CO-write with or scout a great voice for your next demo. Come and meet active artists in a new city so you can share contacts. In the past 8+ years we've featured over 15,000 artists of all genres at one of our showcases. We've even had members follow the tour and play in 5-10-15 different cities. Getting to know friendly artists in multiple cities is a LOT of networking power!

Just Plain Folks Chapters: We've had chapters in over 100 cities off and on over the years. Chapters are VERY fluid things and for better or worse, they sometimes come and go and start and stop. Some cities have long standing chapters like Los Angeles, Buffalo and Tampa, and others often struggle to find their place in the community. Every chapter is run by fellow volunteer members and we give a wide range of freedom on how to operate and what to focus on. Active chapters have their own showcases, workshops and networking meetings. They'll have guest speakers from the local community or often from traveling JPF mentors or industry members. We let them serve the needs of the local members involved so they can be songwriter focused in some cities, artist/performance/showcase focused in other cities, business oriented in others and sometimes just a friendly group of peers who like to socialize. If you live somewhere (especially in North America) you can be sure there are other JPF members who live nearby. If there is no chapter currently operating in your town, you can start one yourself with 10 interested members (or with 10 artist/writer friends who want to join). We usually go out of our way to visit Chapter cities during Roadtrip tours and that often brings out dozens of new members to a chapter.

Just Plain Notes Newsletter: We sent out our newsletter usually 1 time per month (it used to be weekly but people get way too much email already). It usually starts with an essay/editorial and includes 1-3 industry articles, several updates on JPF programs and member success stories and other miscellaneous items of interest. Our newsletters are long because we try to include entire articles in the email rather than requiring people to visit a website to read it. Most newsletters are 4-8 pages of text. We also send out an occasional bulletin about specific programs like the music awards.

Just Plain Folks Music Awards: Our biggest program and the thing I am most proud of to date is our JPF Music Awards. What started as a low key friendly way to recognize the best music our members had sent in to us has grown to become the largest music awards of ANY kind in the world (including the Grammys). Our 2006 JPF Awards received 25,500+ albums and 350,000+ songs in nearly 80 genres of music from over 100 countries around the world. Part of this growth is due to our partnership with CD Baby, the largest and best place to sell your music on the net. Mixed in with the diverse genres and countries of origin are all types of artists from well known, famous, hit writers and artists to folks just getting started. Everyone is judged on a level playing field and our voting guidelines have only 1 criterion: Does It Move You? We are just announcing our 2006 Nominees in early September and will open up voting shortly thereafter. Entry is free and we use a combination of Industry professionals, Artist and Writer peers and music fans to judge. In the last awards we had over 4000 judges involved from all 7 (yes 7) continents! If you're reading this and want to know more, check out our website as things are happening while this article is waiting to go to press.

JPF Political Advocacy Network: We are very active politically, along with our friends at the Future of Music Coalition. It isn't a left/right type thing, but rather an issues oriented focus to give our community a voice in the decisions and discussions that will affect us now and in the years to come. The RIAA, who represents the major labels, falsely claims to represent the majority of music copyrights when in truth they only represent a tiny percentage. Indie Artists with no RIAA affiliation make MOST of the music each year in the world and we work hard to make sure our voices are heard and counted and not misrepresented by corporate and other special interests who want us ignored.

And most importantly, we always put an emphasis on meeting people face to face. I know that's a strange thing for an online organization to say, but I spend most of my time on the road meeting members and I encourage our members to get out from behind their computers and into their communities in person as much as possible. This is a people business and as valuable as the Internet and email can be, you can't replace direct human interaction if you want to seal those bonds with the people you meet on line in the industry. It's like getting fans to a show instead of just listening to your songs on MySpace.

Indie-Music: Is JPF for all musicians/players? Or do you focus mostly on songwriters?

Brian Austin Whitney: JPF started as a songwriter organization because there really weren't any "musician" organizations to model ourselves on at the start. But we quickly transitioned into more and more artist focused activities and now in truth we're probably more of an artist organization than a pure songwriting organization such as Muses Muse or NSAI. That said, we have one of the most active songwriting critique and feedback sites in the world on our message boards. But we spend a lot of time helping artists develop their contacts, learn their craft and the business behind it, learn how to sell CD's get gigs, book tours and avoid bad deals as well. We have an amazing array of songwriting educators on board to help educate songwriters and we have a wide array of events and activities designed to help artists and industry folks. I think we offer something for everyone. And when we don't offer something, we often refer folks to our friend's sites who do (like Indie-Music for example).

Indie-Music: What are the JPF awards, and how does one enter? Is there any cost?

Brian Austin Whitney: As I mentioned above, there's no cost to enter the awards. It's not easy for us to do for free with the size it has grown to, but we've managed to do it that way with the help of some sponsors and our friends at CD Baby. Our focus has always been to bring positive attention to amazing music. Keeping money out of the equation makes that much easier. Everyone else seems focused first on making money from the process. With us, there's no pressure from outside forces to choose based on things that have nothing to do with the quality of the music. Many awards programs are based solely on fame, popularity and sales. I think there's a definitely place for that and I'd like to win one of those awards just like the next artist or writer. It marks a definitive success in the commercial side of the music industry. But our awards are different. We judge solely on the merit of the music. All music is blind screened meaning our judges (until the final round when you can't keep it a secret any longer) don't even know who they are voting on throughout the process. Our awards can happily co-exist with all the other large awards programs because we judge the music and that's all.

Aside from being the largest music awards in the world, unlike the televised awards shows you see on TV, real live humans actually screen every single song entered and every song and album is judged based on merit without bias (good or bad) based on who the entrant is. We've successfully mixed famous and unknown artists in the same awards unlike any other awards I know. We're very open to everyone being involved, including major label artists. For anyone surprised by that, consider that we don't want to discriminate against ANY music for ANY reason. It would be silly to exclude people just because they're famous. Good music is good music, whether it's made by a guy in his basement or a well known superstar. It moves you or it doesn't. That's what we judge on. For a great article on our last awards show (and one that will give anyone interested a good picture of the whole thing) here's a link from Singer and Musician Magazine: http://www.jpfolks.com/AwardsArticle.pdf

We aren't accepting entries right now for the next awards. That won't start until well after this year's awards are done at the end of the year.

Indie-Music: What are JPF "Roadtrips"?

Brian Austin Whitney: Aside from the info above, I'll let your readers know that we will be visiting a few cities between Indianapolis and Los Angeles (possibly some of these: St. Louis, Kansas City, Lawrence, KS, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Amarillo, Oklahoma City etc.) in October and November on our way to and from the 2006 Music Awards. We'll post info on our website on how to sign up for whichever cities we visit. We hope to make a trip to Europe in 2007 and we'll be doing a Southeast US Roadtrip soon as well.

Indie-Music: How many active chapters do you have? How does someone join a local chapter?

Brian Austin Whitney: We're revamping our entire Chapter program for 2007. We'll be looking for some new coordinators in key cities and of course we're always interested in hearing from members who want to join or help start a chapter in a new city. We post info on the chapter boards which correspond to the cities we either have active chapters or inactive chapters (that need new coordinators). Check the JPF message boards to see what's going on in your area. (click the word Boards on the menu bar at the top of the home page to get there).

Indie-Music: How does JPF finance itself? Are you an official nonprofit or....

Brian Austin Whitney: We're not a non profit, but we are a free organization. We run on mostly volunteers, so our expenses are generally tied into the music awards (which are substantial), our roadtrips and the equipment we need to run everything (like computers, massive hard drives, camera's etc.). We do have 3 main sponsors, TAXI, Disc Makers and CD Baby, who keep us going along with some smaller sponsors for specific programs and we also sell JPF Hat's and T-Shirts (which usually fund the Roadtrips) and we get member donations for projects like upgrading our website and message boards. We try to make sure it all breaks even. The awards growth might force us some day to either charge a small fee for entries or to find larger corporate sponsors. So far we've made it work the way it is.

Indie-Music: What is your "customer" / member philosophy?

Brian Austin Whitney: "We're All In This Together" That's our motto and sums up our attitude. Here's our goals and philosophy that I created at the start of JPF in 1998 when we only had a small number of members and which still work pretty well for us:

1: To provide a networking environment of inclusion and cooperation between our members for the benefit of the group and individuals involved.
2: To share wisdom, ideas and experiences with others who have been there, and to help educate those who have yet to make the journey.
3: To form long term relationships with a myriad of other industry professionals whose talents and efforts need a venue to be enjoyed and benefited from.
4: To set the example for the world of the power of the Internet and total freedom of communication, when it is not restricted by the boundaries of the corporate world, or damaged by the adversarial nature of the music industry in general.
5: To show others that deep down, we are all much more alike than different. The thoughts and hopes and dreams we all share are much the same whether we are Grammy Winners, Hit Songwriters, Industry leading Superstars in our fields, or we are an 11 year old kid with a new dream, or a 78 year old who still dares to dream!
6: And the most important goal: To have a lot of fun doing it!

Indie-Music: What do you, personally, enjoy most about running Just Plain Folks?

Brian Austin Whitney: Back when I worked in the corporate world before starting JPF, I was always bummed out by how many of my peers and co-workers hated what they were doing. Most of them felt like their lives didn't really begin until after they got home each night. But for many, they were so tired and worn down by the work day that they didn't even get to enjoy that time either before it was the next morning and time to start all over again. For years and years I worked and rose up the ranks thinking the next rung on the ladder would make life better and I expected that the people I would be dealing with "up there" would be happier and would have more passion for what they did. But that never came to pass. Instead I found the same sort of robotic and systematic "time to make the donuts" mentality of work work work with the distant hope that some day they could live the life they REALLY wanted. But few ever get to do that. I didn't want to be one of those people who woke up one day at 65 realizing life had passed me by and it was too late to do the things I wanted with my own life. I didn't want to be my boss, who after 40+ years with the same company was unceremoniously "laid-off" in a corporate downsizing. I saw that happen to many people and it was devastating. Not just the loss of the job, but the realization they had given their life away to work hard doing something that, in the end, meant nothing to their employer and even less to them. So what do I like most about running JPF? I get to do what I want, when I want, for as long as I want. I am my own boss and even though I work longer hours and harder than I have ever worked in my life, I am doing exactly what I want RIGHT NOW, rather than hoping I will get to do it tonight when I get home, or next year when I get a promotion, or in 10, 20, 30 years when I retire. It was a hard and scary decision to walk away from the corporate ladder and stop drawing off the corporate teat, but it didn't take me too long to realize that I should have done it right out of college instead of wasting 12 years. In essence, I am no longer "waiting to live." I am living as I go.

Indie-Music: What about your own music? Any news or new releases?

Brian Austin Whitney: Like many that are likely reading this, I pursued songwriting and performing in between work days and jobs for many years. I played in several bands and reached a point where my songwriter partner and vocalist got us a record deal offer for a pop project I was involved with. Much to his chagrin, I turned it down. I realized that I wasn't willing to do what it was going to take to live that type of life. My passion was for writing, recording and jamming with my band mates. The creation part is what I did it all for. I was an expert in commerce, as I worked for the biggest retailer (at the time) in the world at their headquarters. I didn't want to combine my passion for music with the commerce part. It wasn't an issue of "selling out" or "artistic compromise." It was simply a case where I realized that music was what kept me sane and made my life meaningful. I couldn't imagine making that part of my life my job. So, I said no, but sometimes wondered if it was the right thing to do. Now, many years later, I realize the true level of talent and dedication that is required to have legitimate success in the industry, and how brutal it is to stay on top if you get there. I definitely got out of that pursuit at the right time.

After that era of my life, I kept writing and recording songs. I would do some solo and an occasional gig here and there with friend's bands or as a duo mostly for fun. When I started JPF I used to perform in every city I visited. After I made the rounds of nearly every US State and several major cities in Canada, I decided to stop performing because JPF was taking off and I never wanted to be that guy who used a music organization to self promote. I hate when people do that. (It was VERY common in the late 90's and early 00's). So I made a decision that I wouldn't mix my music with JPF and I have never done it since. To me it's like a separation of Church and State. Just because they are separate it doesn't mean they aren't both important. It's just in everyone's best interest to let them go their own way.

I do have one musical goal which I feel doesn't conflict with my philosophy. That is co-writing a song with 20-30 of my favorite JPF writers and then hand picking 20-30 of my all time favorite artists from JPF to record them. Then I could produce it with some of my favorite producers and for me that would be the healthiest way to mix the two and the most meaningful for me. It's a project I always keep in front of me as a motivational goal and an eventual reward for the work I've done with the group. It would be like coming full circle from where it started.

Just Plain Folks Logo

Website: http://www.jpfolks.com/


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