If you thought Derek Webb was controversial before, you should have seen Stockholm Syndrome’s pre-release showdown. Would INO Records release his song “What Matters Most” even though it contained profanity? Would Derek Webb allow the album to be released without the song (or the song without the swear words)? As it so happened, a compromise was reached—INO kept the song off Stockholm Syndrome and gave Webb exclusive rights to distribute the song as he saw fit.
Of course, Webb doesn’t fault INO for their decision—it was just business, not personal. “INO Records—it’s a great record label. You might be tempted to consider them a core Christian record label because all the music they distribute is explicitly Christian”, says Webb. But, he adds, it’s a company owned by Sony. If his song didn’t fit the mold, then it was a smart business practice not to release it.
A savvy businessman himself, Webb has been giving away his new album, Stockholm Syndrome, for weeks through a USB drive delivery taking place in over 15 major U.S. cities, plus fans could listen to the recording on his website. Not only that, he is co-founder of NoiseTrade, a website devoted to the distribution of music to fans. For a monetary donation or spreading the word to five friends through e-mail, listeners can download tracks and even full albums from their favorite artists, some popular and others up-and-coming. And it works—in less than a year the site garnered 1.28 million album downloads. Webb’s innovative methods are discussed in the upcoming book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price by WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson.
A former member of the award-winning band, Caedmon’s Call, Derek Webb released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free, in 1999. The Americana project was followed by I See Things Upside Down, an experimental rock record. Next up was Mockingbird defined by Webb as “advanced orchestrated acoustic” and finally, The Ringing Bell, which was purely rock and roll. Webb’s latest project, The Stockholm Syndrome, seems to fall into a category all its own—inorganic.
“I think anyone who’s been listening for a long time might have been initially surprised by the sound of the record,” unblushingly admits Webb. However, by carefully following the discography, Webb believes that long-time fans will “get” it. While the previous albums have been laden with acoustic and electric guitars (the only similarity Webb says run through all his albums), Stockholm Syndrome relies on electronic sounds and funky beats, a definite departure from his traditionally folk roots.
Of course, Webb doesn’t see it like that, “I initially got into folk music because of the protest songs of the 60’s and 70’s, like Joan Baez, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seger, Bob Dylan. I was really attracted to the language they were using and the way they were using songs [to communicate a message].” Webb was impressed by how folk artists served as agents of change that upset the status quo. However, today’s acoustic music is a far cry from its roots.
“I traced the thread of folk music, you know, the music of the people and I don’t really find it in acoustic music anymore; I find it in urban music,” shares Webb. “I think today’s folk music is hip hop. I think that’s where you find the real stories of the people and real issues being addressed in an unfiltered way.” Webb started to listen to a lot of hip hop music and it “blew his mind”. He was attracted to the way these artists used sounds, samples, and their computers to “repurpose old music.” The possibilities were endless when an artist used a laptop to make sounds. Webb says, “You can make any sound you hear in your head.”
Therefore, when it came time to produce a new album, Webb couldn’t help but incorporate these inorganic elements onto Stockholm Syndrome, which is full of heavy beats and synthesized sounds. The album’s topics—social injustices, government corruption, and prejudice—are classic Webb. Songs such as “Jena & Jimmy,” “Cobra Con,” and “Black Eye” are lyrically spot-on with what long-time fans are familiar, even with Webb’s new, or rather evolving sound.
“I’ve never made two records the same, never made two a like. Each one is a little different from the others,” states Webb, who still considers himself a folk artist. He explains, “Folk music isn’t really a style; it’s more of an approach.” Therefore, Webb believes he must tell the stories of his culture, whether people like it or not.
“I’m only doing my job, which as an artist is to look at the world and tell you what I see,” says Webb, who adds, “I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of taking anything I say as truth because I don’t claim that. If there’s anybody making secular music, it’s me.”
It’s not that Webb has given up on his Christian faith; it’s just that his job is to write songs, not minister to the masses, though sometimes the two joyfully collide. “This isn’t ministry for me; it’s what I do for money. I love it. It’s a great job. Do I look for ministry opportunities in my job? Yes, I do, just like anybody else. But I don’t do it for ministry. Ministry is something I do in my neighborhood, in my church, and with different organizations that I work with. I’m just looking at the world and telling you what I see.”
And sometimes what Webb sees is heart-breaking. Citing a study from Dan Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian, Webb shares a disturbing statistic—90% of non-Christians think of Christians as “gay haters.” “We should not be known for what we hate and what we’re against. We should be known for what we’re for and what we love,” shares an impassioned Webb. When asked about the hot button topic of homosexuality, Webb says that with every generation there are a handful of issues that get inflated, and for this generation, our battle is homosexuality. In the past, he says, we’ve struggled with race issues, sexuality, and women’s equality.
“You can still see the implications of history today,” he shares. “Even though on paper we’re all equal, there’s nothing self evident about it. Even to this day, there’s still a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It just has to do with white men feeling superior. White men have always felt superior.” He pauses and then adds, “Straight white men. There are a lot of us who feel like combating the idea. I don’t feel like straight white men are superior.”
The key to overturning the status quo, Webb says, is to go directly back to the words of Jesus, observe how He loved others, and ask God to show us how to love people. “We have to remember that Jesus was ultimately hated and murdered, not because He took a radical stand on moralism against sinners, but because He loved sinners so radically that it completely disrupted the world of the arrogant [religious] leadership, who could not make sense of it.” Webb says that we as Christians should have similar reputations—to show love to the most sinful, the most despicable, and the most complicated of people.
But don’t make Derek Webb a poster boy for any school of thought or movement, because he simply won’t accept it. “I don’t want to be known for a particular brand of theology. I don’t want to get tagged with that. It doesn’t help me in any way to do my job and ultimately connect with whoever I can.” The elusive artist adds, “My whole career is a cycle of self-sabotage. I’m always trying to be careful to not let anyone like me too much.” Almost a contradiction for an artist who wants to share his art with the world. But then again, that artist is Derek Webb and he tends to see things upside down.