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According to Denver-based guitarist Darren Curtis Skanson, being a graduate of the Do-It-Yourself School of Music has its drawbacks. "If a girl comes up to my friends in a bar and asks them what they do, it's easy for them to answer the question," he says. "But if she asks me, do I say 'I'm a musician' or 'I run a record label'? Or do I say 'I own a successful business'?"
Actually, all three responses are correct. This 29-year-old guitar virtuoso and music-biz maverick has been on the road for over 200 days each of the past two years, playing in over forty states to massive crowds at various concerts, festivals and gatherings. He's also performed, recorded and produced four stirring instrumental recordings (The Guitar Tree, the Christmas-themed Angels, Guitars and Joy and volumes one and two of the Peace, Earth and Guitars series) that have sold many thousands of copies apiece. (For more information on these discs, call Skanson's toll-free information number, 1-800-690-3435.) And instead of chasing after elusive record contracts like so many of his fellow performers, he leapfrogged the whole ordeal by forming his own imprint, Colorado Creative Music.
Skanson believes that these various solo feats put him in an enviable position with regard to the major music corporations he hopes will come calling someday. "I'm a proven product," he asserts with quiet confidence. "I've got CDs. I can write them. I can record them. I can do the covers." And although he declines to make his sales figures public, the numbers are substantial; they might not mean much to bean counters in the big leagues, but they would make many indie-label types drool. Because he owns the company store, his profits aren't too bad, either. "I make money off my records when I sell 1,000 units," he divulges.
Terms like "units" and "inventory" pop up in Skanson's conversations as often as do "melody" and "chord change." A quick look around the ten-by-twelve room that serves as Skanson's recording studio, office and living area serves as an introduction to the multiple personalities at work that are part of his one-man enterprise. On one side of the modestly furnished space, which is located in a house he shares with two pals, are a pair of acoustic guitars--the musical tools of his trade. But just across the way, directly beneath a map of the United States, you'll find a computer, a FAX machine and file cabinets that house the paperwork his business generates. Underscoring the room's sense of economy and practicality is a couch that doubles as Skanson's bed come nightfall. "When you're in business, you need capital," he points out. "The capital that you spend on a nice pad is capital that you can't spend on your business."
This sensible approach has served Skanson well in a field that seldom pays the bills of those in it--so well, in fact, that he's reluctant to give away too many of his secrets. He tries to say as little as possible about the circuit of outdoor art and music festivals that provide his bread and butter. "I make a living playing solo instrumental guitar music, and this circuit is one of the few avenues available for someone like me. I just don't want to see it flooded," he says. "It's going to be found out eventually, and I can already see it filling fast. It's such a haven for an instrumentalist, and in it I can make a decent living...and I can eat." But Skanson does let slip one intriguing detail: "I work completely for free everywhere I go. I don't get paid.
"This is where we come to the crossroads of musician/businessman/entrepreneur," he elaborates. "This is an entrepreneur's gig, in that you get an opportunity to perform for people and to sell your music, but you get no compensation from the venue you play in. I make my living by selling my recordings. It's the hardest gig I've ever done."
Not that he minds. After all, Skanson has been drawn to music since he was a child. He grew up in Fertile, a small farming community in southern Minnesota, and thanks to his mother, a piano teacher, his home was filled with melodies. He played piano and sang in church, but after seeing a local junior-high band play when he was thirteen, his attention shifted to other musical arenas. Confounding stereotypes of new-age musicians, he says that "rock and roll and chicks" fueled this transformation, adding, "Anybody who plays guitar, either electric or classical, who tells you that they got into it for any other reason than to meet girls and be cool is lying."
As a high-schooler, Skanson played in various heavy-metal and progressive-rock bands. After graduating, he enrolled at Moorehead State University in Moorehead, Minnesota, and formed another rock group, Mata Hari, with several name performers on the Moorehead/ Fargo, North Dakota, music scene. During the same period, however, he was working toward a music degree--and the classes he was required to take introduced him to a genre that was new to him. "I had all this experience playing rock and roll, but at the same time I was playing it, I was studying classical music," he remembers. "That's really where I discovered music and how wonderful it is to write and compose."
Still, Skanson wasn't quite ready to abandon rock and roll. Upon finishing his final exam at Moorehead State, Skanson immediately took to the highways with Mata Hari. Over the next three years, the act released an independent CD (Feel the Fire) and appeared at clubs across the country--but it was a show that didn't happen that opened the door to Skanson's new career. Mata Hari was supposed to play a date in Kansas City, but a snowstorm stranded the musicians in Limon, Colorado. When the Kansas City performance was canceled, the band headed to Denver to kill a few days, and while in the city, Skanson answered a want ad for a "new-age/classical guitarist" placed by Boulder violinist Malcolm "Mr." Watson. As a result of his triumphant audition, Skanson spent the next few weeks flying back and forth across the continent, playing with Mata Hari one night, Watson the next. Eventually, Mata Hari folded, and Skanson devoted himself to his quieter side full-time. Following two years on tour as half of Watson and Company, he went out on his own in 1995. Even he's dumbfounded by the number of miles he's racked up since then. "If my butt had an odometer..." he muses.
Unlike most local musicians, who typically drive from club to club in overstuffed vans, Skanson usually travels in relative style. His preparation for a recent trip to Miami provides a glimpse of his routine. "First I will ship my tapes and CDs ahead to the hotel where I'm staying," he explains. "Then on Friday I will take my two guitars, two speakers and my one rack case, and I'll fly to Miami. Saturday morning I will go to the show and play all day, from nine o'clock in the morning until six that night--six or seven sets a day--and again on Sunday. Monday morning I will ship back any product that I have left over, gather up all my equipment and get on the plane back to Denver. It's incredibly focused."
So, too, is his music. Skanson may be bottom-line oriented, but his work definitely is not lacking in emotion. "If a song doesn't move you in some way, what's the point of playing it?" he asks. "My two biggest bitches with instrumental music are that with the ethereal, new-age stuff, it goes nowhere. And with classical instrumental music, it goes everywhere--and you don't really care to follow. My music is very different in that way. The pieces are very short, and each piece has a mood it's trying to capture and some place that it's trying to go."
When Skanson picks up a guitar to play "Hometown Suite," a composition from Guitar Tree, he proves his point. His fingers leap and dance across the fretboard, producing notes that are joyous and buoyant. The music is filled with a wealth of complex chords, but his nimble picking and occasional displays of six-string flash don't overwhelm a basic warmth that seems aimed at the heart, not the balance sheet. As he introduces the song's moving, melancholy second passage, Skanson's eyes roll back and his face beams.
How does Skanson juggle his art and his commerce? "All you've got to do is play guitar to eat," he says. "It's a whole new ballgame then. Once the fear and hunger take over, it's easy." As for other motivations, he's got all he needs. "My whole life has been about forwarding my career--about making records. That's all I've wanted to do. Since I was eighteen, I've been chasing this goal, and that's all that matters. I know that if I stay focused on that, the reward will come.