In his new documentary
Broke*, ASCAP member Will Gray tours with his band, mulls over his finances, contemplates a record deal, practices, thinks, talks. It's an intimate glimpse into the life of an on-the-verge music creator trying to find his way. But Broke* is not really about Will Gray. The film uses his story as a path into a much wider conversation about how artists can thrive amidst the massive changes afoot in the music industry. It's interwoven with commentary from a host of music makers and industry experts, both well known (Kelly Clarkson, Don Was, The Fray's Isaac Slade) and less so. What results is a documentary rich in insight, range and emotional power, but with no detectable agenda. In other words, it's a must-see for anyone interested in where music and those who make it are headed. On the eve of the film's March 1st Los Angeles premiere, Will Gray tells us about putting Broke*'s pieces together.
The title " Broke*" could mean so many different things in the context of this movie. Can you tell me why you went with that title, and what's behind the asterisk?
Generally we associate the word "broke" with money or some type of financial deficiency, but in entertainment people always use the term to mean something successful. They might say, "We broke that artist," meaning that they broke through to achieve some type of success. For me, it was all of that. It was the one word that symbolized deep struggle and endless hope at the same time. As for the asterisk, that word is translated from the original Latin as "little star." So again, it was the hope. We use that symbol to show that something is missing or that there is more to what we are seeing. So it was also hopeful. The logo is a reminder that we all have the ability to break through the barriers of life and become little stars, champions, or the exception to the rules we've always been told to obey. Like, even though you've been forgotten, you can use this logo as a badge of courage while you're fighting for your chance to break.
It's interesting that you undertook such a complex movie at this point of your music career - just one EP out, a dedicated but small following, a lot of reasons for hope but no sure bets quite yet. Why did you decide to make it when you made it?
The film didn't slow down my music making. I have so many songs that I've written and recorded. It just didn't feel right to release them. I took time to practice, to write, to get better. I just needed to hit pause in a matter of speaking on releasing music. I needed to figure out if what I was trying to pursue and achieve professionally even existed anymore. I wanted to know if I was the only person feeling this way. I just felt like this story - not necessarily
my story, but someone's story about their day-to-day existence with music - needed to be told.
How did you decide on your interviewees? Were there any that you had to leave out?
We started interviewing our friends. I really wanted to highlight the shared experience we all have. My story is individual, but not unique. The things you see in the film have happened to every musician that's been working at it for a while, only with different characters. Once we interviewed our friends, they would tell their friends, and it just kind of snowballed. Then eventually, people started calling us. It was very humbling and inspiring. I feel like we were at the pulse of the industry, having the opportunity to speak with so many wonderfully talented artists and executives.
We had so many amazing interviews, we had to leave some out. We made hard and fast rules to help keep us on track, so the thread of the film wouldn't wander. Our editor Stacey Schroeder, who edits for the HBO series
Eastbound and Down, did an amazing job keeping things on track. The film could very quickly turn into an insider's discussion, and we wanted it to be informative, provocative and relatable. So leaving out interviews helped us focus the story. Soon, we'll host more interviews online, so that those who want to dig a bit deeper can do so.
Broke* seems like three movies in one: the story of your tour, a glimpse into the emotional life of you and your bandmates, and an insightful documentary about the place of the artist in the industry landscape. Was it a struggle to make a cohesive single film out of all these strains?
In a word, yes. Ha!! I have to give all of the credit here to our team. In particular, Stacey, who pulled it all together in six weeks! 300+ hours of footage into one cohesive story. My manager, Dan Beck, who has extensive experience in producing film and videos. Our Director of Photography, Jonathan Kofahl, who gave us some perfectly textured footage. That truly told a story in itself. When the footage needed to look rough it did, and as the film blossoms, so does the footage. Truly remarkable. Then my wife, who supported me through the late nights of editing and also was an amazing barometer of truth in the story, pushed it all over the top. There were also several other friends on the team that sat through rough edits of the film and helped to twist it down to the final product.
Will Gray & Reva Williams hash out finances after a tour
The artists that you chose to interview in Broke* come from so many different backgrounds in terms of their relationship to the industry, from unknown acts doing things totally independently to signed, well known artists. What were you most surprised to learn from their varied experiences?
I think the similarities were the most surprising. When you talk to an indie band from Nashville, and then sit down with John Legend, and they both say "All I want to do is make great music," you realize we're more connected than we think. Music really is the common language, and it can produce the same euphoric joy whether you're playing for five people in a living room or for 20,000 screaming fans. When it's done, well, it's magical.
For much of the film, the prospect of a label deal with Warner Bros. Records is this carrot dangling in front of your head, and by film's end it comes pretty clear that it's not going to happen. Did that experience sour you on the idea of pursuing a traditional label deal at all?
No, not at all. That particular story of a label being interested in signing me, and then circumstances not allowing the deal to come together, has happened to me several times. It's just part of the business. I don't make music for executives. I make music for people. If those people happen to be executives at record labels, then great, but it's not my focus.
If an artist is fortunate enough to sign with a great record label, then the possibilities are endless in terms of exposure, and often times artistic growth. I'm always focused on the people. When I take meetings with labels, I'm always sizing them up to see if the small team of people that I would be working with at the label know or care about music. Do they care about the shared experience that music brings people? I think labels get a bad rap sometimes, but it's people, not the system itself. Record labels brought us The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, U2, Dylan, Springsteen, etc. Would we know about those artists if labels had not helped them rise above the crowd? I guess we'll never know.
I'm not indie or major. I just make music, and I'm slowly building a team around me that will help me be the best I can possibly be. If a label factors into that, then great!
Has your journey in the music industry helped prepare you at all for the cycle of festivals, screenings, meetings and attempts to secure distribution that you've undergone with Broke*? What about vice-versa?
I just focus on the work. I can't control whether an executive will like my music or film. So I focus on my work, and trying to get better. I'm putting in my 10,000 hours. I think that it's a much more sustainable path, and one that no one can ever take away from me. You can't steal my joy. I love music and film, and I'm slowly building a tribe of people that love and support my creative endeavors. That means more to me than a record deal or distribution deal.
A deleted scene from
Broke* featuring marketing guru Seth Godin
Do you think it's possible for a songwriter or composer to make music that's completely untainted by commerce?
I don't think so. It's all commerce. The idiom is that time is money...so if you take three minutes and thirty seconds of your time to listen to a pop song you exchanging something. Time, emotion, feeling etc. Tainted implies a negative, and I think that we should all be influenced by this commerce. This exchange. The work that artists and writers produce should respect the listener's payment in whatever form it takes.
What's happened to your career since the completion of the film?
I've been writing, and I recently signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music. I've also been doing a similar dance with a few record labels :) Overall, I'm just trying to make things. One project helps to make the next.
I can definitely see Broke* resonating with a lot of independent musicians who are going through some of the same journeys that you did. What do you think a non-musical audience could take from it?
My hope is that the non-musical audience walks away with a feeling of hope and encouragement. Everyone is striving to do something. Be something. A better husband or wife, employee, etc. So having a great team around you of family and friends that love and support you is the most important thing. Hopefully the film helps us all remember that.
Will Gray performs at the
Broke* wrap party in Nashville
Broke* premieres in Los Angeles on March 1st. Get tickets here.
Find out more about
Broke* at www.brokedoc.com
Will Gray's website: