Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Interview: Scott Johnson of the Positive Music Association

02 February 2008

Interview: Scott Johnson of the Positive Music Association

This inaugurates the visionary music interview series I'll be starting on this blog. The goal is to bring you the fresh ideas of musicians, philosophers, and other luminous minds whose unique insight into the future of art and humanity might well inform a new understanding of the relationship between creativity and culture. My first guest is Scott Johnson, songwriter and co-founder of the Positive Music Association. I met Scott a little over a year ago through Zaadz Visionary Music and it's a pleasure - after six months of living in the same town and playing phone tag - to finally meet up.

Michael Garfield: So Scott, why don't you just talk a little bit about what the Positive Music Association is, and kind of your goal and your direction for that community?

Scott Johnson: Yeah, the Positive Music Association, I co-founded it just about four years ago, and it's a group of musicians, and actually non-musicians too, from around the world, that are using music not only to entertain but to make a positive impact in people's lives and in the world. So it's about promoting music that you can use, and actually one of our visions is creating a new genre of music, called "Positive" or "Poz" music for short, and it's really defined by its intent and its lyrical content. Anything that's healthy, anything that's empowering, inpsiring, enlightening, healing, and definitely inclusive, it may be spiritual but it's not religious - if you're a human being, you're in. You know? And we're promoting all of us. And I see this as the music version of Oprah, or Wayne Dyer, or Deepak Chopra, or Marianne Williamson, or all of those great, healthy people and things out there that are empowering us to live our best life and to make a difference in the world.

MG: So this is clearly kind of a response to the state of music when you founded this company. There's a void.

SJ: Yeah, right...I know I had been, since a teenager - I'm forty nine now, since I was sixteen - the first song I wrote would be considered a positive song, it had some type of constructive message behind it. And a number of years ago, when I was just trying to market my own music, there's just not...it wasn't being played on the radio. There's not a lot of venues for this kind of music. There wasn't, anyway. And so it was filling a void. There are lots of people who enjoy this kind of music. They want to hear something that's not religious, but has maybe more a spiritual undertone, or maybe not even that, but it has some kind of self-empowering intent behind it.

MG: Well you know, most of the history of music, music was a technology for the affirmation of life and the development of community bonds -

SJ: Right, exactly.

MG: - so it's kind of unusual at this point in history to be saturated in so much music that has no clear community intention.

SJ: Right, that's definitely part of it, too. I think you're right on. Originally music was created, came about, as a community-building experience, and sharing and being in communion with one another. And that's what we're also trying to do, is create community among our members, and among the people that listen to this music, and really use music how...I think it's one of the greatest ways of bonding us, binding us together as human beings. And realizing we're all in this together, and what better way than music, and you know, it's fun, it's vibrational, it's total, it's all of this wonderful stuff that just moves you. I mean, it can move you physically from dancing to singing, but it can also connect us as human beings.

MG: So, why don't you tell me a little bit about the role of musicians in this Positive Music Association that you've created? What is it that you guys do for each other, and how are you interacting within the association?

SJ: Well I think for one thing, it's like a trade organization. We're a group of musicians - and we also have some members who are non-musicians and just support this - but it's basically a resource for these musicians to help them get their name out there. On the website, they have a presence on our website with their contact information and a sample of one of their songs, and we also have Poz Radio, that plays only member music, we have a monthly newsletter that goes out with tips and ways to get your music out there to a large audience, ways to do marketing and so forth. We have conference calls twice a month that deal with - last week it was about sharing our best ideas for marketing. My last CD, I raised about eight thousand dollars in a month from the "executive producers" who were basically friends of mine, or family, or colleagues, that donated from two hundred to a thousand bucks to be, you know, a music producer. And in fact some people, on their website, they've said on their resumé that they're music producers, now. So it's kind of a fun way to include people. The people that gave two hundred dollars, they get twenty CDs, and they give it out to THEIR friends, as gifts and so forth, and they get their name on the back of the CD and on the website, and things like that. So it's a fun way to involve other people, and another great thing is that within the first week of receiving the CDs, I had already distributed six hundred of them. And I would just send out twenty or fifty to my executive producers, who in turn were my distributors. So it's a great way for independent musicians to support and distribute their music.

MG: It's really great to look on the back of your album here and see three dozen or so people listed under "executive producers." There are a number of other songwriters who have started to take this approach, a really active involvement of the community in the work. I know even large artists like Billy Corgan, when he was working on - I think it was Machina, one of the Smashing Pumpkins albums - he was posting material from the studio while they were working on the stuff, and getting live instantaneous feedback from his fanbase, and they were incorporating that into the music itself. There's this whole new Web 2.0 philosophy of direct engagement with fanbase, and with other things.

SJ: Yeah, it's about building that community, involving other people, and again, I think that's what music is about, is building community.

MG: You mentioned earlier, music that's "useful." And I know you've talked a little bit about the utility of music simply to communicate a positive message. But it sounds like a lot of the musicians that are involved in your community are also incorporating, explicitly, a lot of benificent and humanitarian projects into their work, and promoting various causes with their music. Can you tell a little bit more about that kind of project? The stuff that your artists have been getting involved in?

SJ: Well, just in my own experience, I did a CD for a local hospice here. And they used it as gifts to their constituents. It's basically a celebration of life coming into the world, and life passing on. There's also an organization that used one of my songs from that, an organization called Reef Haven, that supports families whose children have died - they used one of my songs on their promotional CD. There are other people involved with environmental organizations, having their songs used at their conferences, the expos, or on their promotional videos, whatever, their websites - using songs from our members to promote their cause. Certainly from peace rallies to other environmental-type events...we have a number of our members who go into hospitals and hospices and also schools - but especially the hospitals and hospices - you know, it's healing music that they're sharing. I know some of our members have actually gone and they will write a custom song for a kid that has leukemia, or something like that.

MG: That's wonderful.

SJ: So there's lots of ways to use music other than just entertainment, and that's what we're about.

MG: Just recently, I saw there was a Goodwill commercial that had Willy Porter, and he had this beautiful "give a little bit" kind of song that he'd written specifically for this commercial, and..."sacred" might be too potent a word for this, but a really noblereclamation of the notion of a "jingle." Attaching a person's music to a particular corporate cause, the aim of some kind of conscious business. There's something about music that reaches us on a level that other media does not.

SJ: It's like a mantra, with repetitive choruses, a mantra of healthy things to put in our head, you know? Also, a lot of our members work with well-known authors. They'll open up or perform during talks by Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra and those kind of folks. So there's a nice connection between the authors who talk about this kind of conscious living, and it's a good tie-in with our musicians.

MG: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that there were other similarly-minded groups and individuals who've been working in the music industry for some time. So who are the other people that you're partnering the Positive Music Association with as you spread this life-affirming influence through the depraved music world?

SJ: [Laughs.] I just want to make it clear that we're not pushing against what's out there, not at all. It's not like we're anti-rap or...that's not even in the conversation.

MG: There's a lot of positive rap.

SJ: We actually have a few that have some, yeah. They have some positive rap. And if you know of other ones, please let me know. [Laughs.] I'm sure there is, much more than most people realize. One of our advisory board members, Tim Sweeney out of L.A., he's been in the industry for over twenty six years and he's working with some of the biggest - from Madonna, and David Bowie, and Bob Dylan, he's an artist consultant, and helps either new artists or established artists so they're presenting themselves in the most authentic way and reaching the audience that they want to get to. He's really about supporting our members and other artists to really make a difference with their music. Not just to be famous or something, but actually to do something with your music. And right where you are now. His advice is: don't change, be yourself, work from where you are locally, and spread out from there. Cuz there's so much you can do in your own community. You can make a difference in your own community with your own music now, with the talent and experience you have NOW. You don't have to wait until you're extremely experienced and talented to make a difference. You can do it today. So he encourages that kind of thing. He also encourages collaboration with other artists, to help promote each other. And who else? People like Jack Canfield, who's a supporter, with the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and loves what we're up to, and a number of our artists have performed with Jack at his presentations and so forth. So people like that are drawn to what we're up to. I'm just waiting for the call from Oprah's producers, to say, "We want you on the show."

MG: It wouldn't surprise me if it were only a matter of time. Their team seems to be embracing a new wave of guests. I know that one of them just interviewed Ken Wilber. They're tapping into kind of a more rigorous and applied base of talent.

SJ: I know they did something on Jerry Nester Hicks on her XM Radio show, and they've been talking about the Law of Attraction for years.

MG: So what is your ultimate vision for this? Or do you see yourself as even the bearer of this vision? Is it more of a collective imagining of the role of positive music in our culture?

SJ: Well, I think eventually, yes. I see that as bringing music back to what it used to be, back a long, long time ago, as a community-building experience and not something that was just...like Clear Channel can only air a certain amount of music, and we're looking for people in our own communities to bond together through music. One of my visions is to actually have a separate category of music. That way, I think, for people that arelooking for music, they can go to iTunes or something, and they can go to "Poz," near Rap and Rock, and they can find all of this music that's based on this idea of basically, mostly lyric-based stuff that's good for you. It's healthy. And so I would love to have a "Poz" music category at the Grammys. I would love to have more places in the community, more venues that would be open to this kind of music. So people knew this term and would go, "Oh yes, I want to have more, to see more of that." And I think weare realizing more and more that what we think about all day is what becomes our reality, and if it's looking at the terrible stuff on the news all day or something, as opposed to looking at the futures that we want - people are realizing that this is a music version of that.

MG: I just read Kevin Kelly's New Rules For The New Economy. I don't know if you know him - he was the founding editor of Wired Magazine. And it's this book he wrote in '98 that's remarkably prescient. It's these ten principles by which the informational economy is different from the industrial economy. And one of the things he discusses is that we're not living in The Age of Computers. The Age of Computers is what we'll be living in when computers are so ubiquitous, they're just IN everything. When all of our products are "smart." And connected. And we're living in this intelligent matrix of information. You know, much like we live in the Age of Electricity, unlike when electricity was first discovered, and people were kind of struggling with it. So evenbeyond the notion of there being a positive music category in iTunes, and it being an organizing principle for people to make taste-based purchases, it seems to me like there can and probably will come a point where the notion of positive music has undermined itself in its spread. You know, good teachers are always trying to put themselves out of a job, and in a way your role is to get us as a society to the point where we don't even need to think of music in these terms, where positive music is socommon that to consider it as unusual or specific or unique is...pointless.

SJ: I guess one of my goals is to make the PMA obsolete. To make it so ubiquitous, as you're saying, that there's no real need for a separate organization to promote it. But yeah, I think it's slowly but surely growing. And I think it will be part of the culture, sooner or later.

MG: Where can people find out more about this?

SJ: Just go to PositiveMusicAssociation.com, and you can listen to music there on Poz Radio, you can find out about the different artists, we certainly welcome you to join if you're a musician or you're not. My mother-in-law from Belgium is a member, she gave me fifty bucks last month, she said, "I want to be a member, I want to support what this is about." So if you love this kind of music, or you create it, or you broadcast it, if you write it or you sing it, we'd love to have you join us. I welcome people to call me up, too - you can find my information on the website, as well - and just talk about what you're up to, and I'll tell you more about what the PMA is up to. We have a great music festival coming up called Harmonizing With Humanity outside of Phoenix in the end of March. I think it'll be the first of many like it that is really getting this music out into the mainstream, and that's where my main focus is right now, to make this mainstream, so it's not like, "What is Poz Music?" It's like, "Heck yeah, oh yeah."

MG: It's easy to see the value of participating in something like this.

SJ: Yeah, I think it'll create some more momentum and get more people exposed to this music. "I've been looking for something like this, but I didn't even know it was out there." It's out there.

MG: Well thanks a lot, Scott, for your time.

SJ: And thanks for what you're doing. I think it's very cool, your visionary music, and I think we share a lot in common. Common motivations.

MG: Yeah. I see there being, probably, a considerable overlap of our communities before too long. That kind of mutual support.

SJ: And that's what we're about! Yeah, exactly. So thank you.

MG: Yeah, thank you.

(Written for iggli.com)