Songwriter Craig Bickhardt has seen his songs cut by the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Alison Krauss and tons more, and yet he’s refreshingly honest about the struggles (financial and otherwise) that accompany the life of a songwriter. Here, he talks to us about the extremely creative and humanitarian angle he has taken with his new PledgeMusic campaign, his personal experiences that have shaped his charitable goals and some great advice for songwriters looking to make it in a difficult industry.
Most PledgeMusic artists let fans pledge on their new music and then send them something in return, while also supporting a charity. You’ve taken the charity aspect a step further by weaving charitable elements into each one of your exclusive offerings. Tell us more about this model.
Well, at each pledge level I not only send the pledger some merchandise or an exclusive perk, I also agree to do something as a “give back.” For example, on the low end of the pledge spectrum I perform an arbitrary act of kindness to a stranger. On the higher end it’s things like volunteering an hour for Habitat For Humanity or walking a mile to raise funds for the Epilepsy Foundation, or cleaning up a neighborhood as part of an Earth Day project, or helping a child in chemo with a blood drive on my birthday.
I think this is a unique idea as far as crowd-funding is concerned, and it has been well received by my pledgers, who tend to be the baby boomers. I think folks my age appreciate things like this even more than signed pictures and T-shirts.
What led you to take this approach with your campaign?
It’s very personal. My wife and I raised a son with Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy and mild Autism. Our experiences turned us into disability advocates. We’ve seen first-hand how difficult life can be for the disabled and for their families. My son is 26 now and volunteers at Freedom Valley Disability Center three mornings a week as a way of giving back for what others have given to him. We’re very proud of him.
I’ve played, and will continue to organize, benefit concerts every year for the Epilepsy Foundation, St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Arts Against Abuse and other causes. So this campaign is just an extension of who I am and who we are as a family. I believe that music has the power to change people. Artists should feel a certain responsibility to use their work for the greater good I think.
Why do you think it’s so important for musicians, or really anyone, to give back?
I think we have to stop seeing everything in life as a competition. It’s harmful to the planet to have all of this adversarial “us and them” attitude all of the time. It has fostered too much greed. I’m not criticizing capitalism per se, we need that because it’s good for innovation. But we need to care about the human race, not just win the competition for who has the most stuff, or who has more power and weapons.
Caring about others, seeing that we live on a very small planet with limited resources and doing something about the problems in the world seems to me to be the best way to ensure not only our survival as a species but our survival as individuals. Life really is a chain reaction, I see this all the time. If you need something yourself, just do something good for others and somehow it will come back to you. Music is a natural conduit for giving and taking because it’s a shared dynamic and a shared commodity. Giving back has been very rewarding for me.
Let’s talk about your career for a second. You’ve had songs cut by names like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Alison Krauss, Art Garfunkel and tons of others. What led to those opportunities?
You need a lot of passion for what you’re doing. You don’t get songs recorded by these types of artists unless you’re a committed artist yourself. But you also have to learn to write universally even though every song has to come from personal experience. A lot of younger artists today aren’t put through the rigorous scrutiny, the rejection and the hard knocks. They make a CD as soon as they’ve written 12 songs. That’s fine of course, but there’s a discipline involved in writing timeless songs.
There’s a lot of conscientious refinement, really getting the lyric to the point where every word matters, saying exactly what you’re trying to say in a new way, getting every note and chord exactly where it should be. I never set out to get cuts by other artists. I just wanted to be the best songwriter I could be. I’ve written close to 1,000 songs, so I think at some point I just discovered all the ingredients I needed in order to make those cuts happen. You have to push beyond your limits all the time. Respect the past and the folks who have been doing this longer than you. Then really go for it like your life depended on it. Don’t have a fallback plan.
Despite your success, you talk about how most songwriters don’t get rich. I’m married to a full-time songwriter and have found this to be a common misconception. Have you gone through tight times despite your success?
Oh, mostly tight times for sure! Success for a songwriter is just being able to stay in this business and off food stamps. I know maybe three songwriters who don’t have to work hard anymore. I’m not one of them. You go 10 years before you make a dime, then you get a few cuts that end up buying you a used car, then if you’re lucky you have a hit or two.
The hits earn good money, but if you average out my income over the 40 years I’ve been making music full time, it nets out to be a modest blue collar wage. And I’m one of the lucky ones. People say, “Wow, Johnny Cash cut your song, I bet that was a big payday!” Nope. I earned about $1,000 from that cut because Johnny was dead when they released it and the CD didn’t sell very many copies. I earn most of my living now from live performing, and that seems to be true of nearly every artist I meet nowadays.
What’s your hope for your upcoming album, “The More I Wonder”?
Well, oddly enough, I’d just like it to be accepted for what it is – an artistic CD that harkens back to the days when songs mattered more than they do now. My songwriting success has overshadowed my recording career, but I think this CD will be as good as some of the best singer-songwriter records of the ‘60s and ’70s. That sounds like I’m just a retro act, but the thing is, everybody is trying to capture that magic now.
I hear stuff every day that’s heavily influenced by what Dylan, Van Ronk, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Mississippi John Hurt and others were doing back then. I’m a product of that era, not a kid who is trying to sound like he grew up in 1960s. I’m an artist who was formed back in that era and is continuing to make the kind of music he’s always made. I think this will be the best CD I’ve done