Thirteen artists came together in early 2006 to form the Square Peg Alliance, a group of singer/songwriters who "really like each other." Finding the traditional mold of the music business was not always suitable, these 13 artists found a home in each other and decided to exist as the Square Peg Alliance for support and encouragement. The "Square Pegs" are Derek Webb, Andrew Peterson, Jill Phillips, Sandra McCracken, Andy Gullahorn, Andrew Osenga, Randall Goodgame, Katy Bowser, Jeremy Casella, Matthew Perryman Jones, Eric Peters, Chris Mason and Billy Cerveny. Peterson, Phillips and Osenga came together to explain the group's purpose, shatter any misconceptions about why they exist, and reflect on lessons learned along the way.
Who came up with the idea for the Square Peg Alliance?
Andrew Peterson It's hard to pinpoint whose idea it was because everyone saw the need individually.
Jill Phillips A couple years ago, Jeremy Casella came up with this idea for this indie community, and as everybody brainstormed together, the idea became too complex with business ideas [selling CDs]. So we revisited the idea after Andrew [Peterson's] Christmas tour this past year and decided, "Let's do this simply." Let's make it about support—no money, no business, just a community that exists to help each other.
PetersonInstead of creating some big infrastructure, we gave a name to what was already there—a bunch of friends playing music, trying to help each other out. That's the only difference between what we're doing right now and five years ago. It's almost a mutual admiration society. All of us like each other friend-wise, but we also admire each other's work and believe in it.
How did you decide on the 13 members?
Phillips I don't think there was a vision of 13 people. It was a lot less thought out than people would think. Basically, it's the people who knew each other and hung out. It's this community of people who work together, travel together, do shows together a lot. It worked organically. We thought that to make it any bigger wouldn't really accomplish the purpose. It would be harder to help each other when you get to 25 people; it's less likely that you'll know each other.
Peterson It's a little bit awkward because we get people asking, "Why can't I be a Square Peg?" We definitely didn't start out to be a clique.
Andrew Osenga: Yeah, I've heard a few people ask about that [being a clique], but the reality of it is, it has to stop somewhere. So, we just thought of the folks in our immediate community until we felt we had a good circle. We are linking [through SquarePegAlliance.com] to a ton of other artists who are great and within the indie community, but for whatever reason, haven't been as involved in some of the things the bulk of us have. The goal was to make it "specific" without being "exclusive." Hopefully, that makes sense.
Can the group be expanded? How would you add another member?
Osenga: Probably a mass e-mail [to the Alliance members]. I'm sure it will grow, and I'm sure it won't be a big deal when it does.It will probably happen as organically as everything else has.
Peterson If it ever worked out to add people who are in our community, we would. I spoke at an IndieHeaven.com summit. There were 400 people [there]. I saw how independent music has beefed itself up and become something viable since I started 10 years ago. It was humbling. I went in thinking that Square Peg Alliance, our little community, was something. Then I walk in and find 400 people all doing the same thing and are part of one organization. We're one of many. We're not trying to blaze a trail.
Outside of vocal support, how does the Square Peg Alliance work together?
Phillips: We want to do a CD with one song from each artist and give it away at all of our shows. Nobody's making any money on it, so it's not going to be weird business-wise. We're saying, "I really love their music, go out and support them." Our audiences and fan bases are relatively similar. There are differences stylistically in the artists, but there's a lot of crossover.
Peterson: Eric Peters [a Square Peg] had a CD come out a few months ago. We had the idea of doing a Square Peg Alliance concert featuring Eric Peters as the headliner. That way all of our fan bases would know about the show and all the fans would come, but Eric would be the one that we would be bragging about that night. It worked great. It was an amazing display of talent that again made me wonder why more people don't know who these artists are.
Do you wish you had seen more artist interaction like that when signed to a label?
Phillips: Many of us are here because of Caedmon's Call [of which Osenga is now a member]. They were always bringing someone new on tour with them. Steven Curtis Chapman has been good at that, too. But in general, you're right, there's a lack of that. I don't think it's a malicious intent on the part of the artists. We're trained [in business] to think of artists in a competitive way, and you get sucked up in it. It's so nice to be removed from that as an indie and not see it in that sort of way—to see it in a helping, healthy way. Andrew [Peterson] and I are going on tour this fall; we think we can draw a larger audience together than if we were out on the road alone. He's always talked about how art is at its best when it's in community. I think we really miss out when we try to go it alone.
Peterson: I don't think those involved in the Alliance would say that they hate record labels. I certainly don't. I heard Rich Mullins talk once about the televangelists that want you to think the more money you give, the better your life will be. He said that those people aren't bad people—they're just wrong. I think that way about the labels. The people you work with at the labels aren't bad people. But the structure itself doesn't always foster good art; it fosters the big buck—and you end up on the short end of the stick. I'm honored to be among people who have kept their heads low and decided whether or not we make a killing and whether or not we're on a label, we're just trying to serve God with our music.
Osenga: When I first signed, I thought that we [The Normals] would end up being friends and spending lots of time with the other artists.The band Bleach really welcomed us, invited us to stuff and was very friendly, but other than that, we barely met anybody on the label [ForeFront Records]. I think that was the label's loss, though, in not fostering relationships between especially the younger and the older artists. We probably could have learned a lot from some of the bands that had been around longer.We did, just not bands on our label; instead we learned from Waterdeep and Caedmon's Call.
Do you have a more restored faith in music being outside the label world?
Phillips: I don't like feeling negative. I think people try to stir that up in us sometimes, "Oh, the evil labels." I don't think we feel that way. We feel like, "Wow, that was a part of our history."
Peterson: That was a good part of my history.
Phillips: Nobody would have listened to my independent record if I hadn't been with a label [before that]. It gave me some credibility. I don't know if that credibility means anything, but if it means they'll listen to my music, then great! Honestly, I'm in a place where I'm very thankful to experience the little success that I did. God knew that I needed that experience for my character, for my humility. If I had some big record out of the gate, I would probably be writing different songs and be a different person.
Even the name Square Peg implies that we're not trying to go that route as signed artists anymore. We're trying to do something different. If we don't fit there, we're not going to beat our heads against the wall. Now, we didn't want it to sound angry because most of us are past that place. We've been through that phase and we don't felt that way now. We just feel very thankful to be doing what we're doing.
Osenga: I have a restored faith in the audience, and in the artists I tend to work with.The business is really screwy and I work really, really hard to stay afloat in it, even now. But playing shows with Matthew Jones or Andrew Peterson is so unlike a marketing meeting back at EMI. There's just no comparison to the freedom I feel now, in playing the music I always wanted to play [as a singer/songwriter].
Peterson: Many times artists can think themselves to be more important than they are, saying, "Because God has given me the gift to write songs, my songs must change the world. God needs my songs." Which is just ridiculous. God is ultimately not interested in our songs. He doesn't care about my career; he cares about my heart. And if that means shattering my career in order to bring me closer to him, then he'll do that.
In thinking about that struggle with "success," I make a very middle class income, and I have friends that make way more than that. There are times that Satan has worked on me, trying to make me feel like I'm not as successful. Maybe I'm not successful because God knows I'd be the biggest jerk in the world. Maybe he knows that if I had a No. 1 song or was a big star that I'd be really selfish with it. What we see as a curse is actually mercy. Now I try to rest in the awe that God will make a way while I'm working away.
How do you answer the question that the Square Peg Alliance might be out to exact revenge on the music industry or change the music industry?
Peterson: The Alliance isn't necessarily the center of what we're doing. We all have our own websites and our own tours and own management. It's not as structured as it might seem like it is. It's just a name for what's already there—which is love. That kind of makes it sound less cool, doesn't it? That's not to downplay what it is. It's not just a side item. We're all proud of it and excited to see what the fruit will be.
Phillips I would say, "Just look around!" We want the fruit of what we're doing to be community, encouragement, love and support. The good thing about having 13 people, if something ever got out of whack, or if someone came up with some business scheme, all of us together would be like, "No, this is about support, help and encouragement." We don't want it to ever be about more than that. If 10 people from Katy Bowser's site find out about my music, and 10 people from Chris Mason's site find out about Andrew's music, then it's accomplished its purpose. Seriously, that's it. That's our expectation, and I've already seen it.
Peterson: Hopefully, it's clear that nobody's bitter. The times we've met, no one has [complained] about what the label did to them. Everybody's past that and we're just trying to be obedient. The Square Peg Alliance didn't go through committee and draw up a business plan and five-year chart. We don't know what we're doing. We're not trying to do anything but serve each other, play music and figure out what that looks like in the Kingdom. How can we help each other do what we love?
As the Square Peg Alliance gives a name to something that already exists, as you've said, how did this community help encourage you in post-label life?
PhillipsIf nothing else, it's nice to know I can e-mail people about my show coming up and it gives me that little extra feeling of support. It's nice to know you're not alone. It gets lonely sometimes doing this music thing. You think, "Does anyone else feel this way?" I can call up Andrew [Peterson] and find out that yes, he does.
Osenga:I feel like I've finally got a place where my eccentricities and longings are shared by other people I love and respect. It's just people like me, or as much like me as other people can get.More than anything, it gives me a boost to keep going.There are at least 12 people out there who appreciate what I do, and I think they're all really good. We don't all play for the same market and we don't all play the same type of music—I'm the electric guitar player in a world of acoustic people. But we believe that this music has the power to bring people together and celebrate the good things.And I want to keep being a part of that.
For more on the Square Peg Alliance, check out their official website, where you can hear samples of each of the musicians' music. You can also read our reviews of the latest indie offerings from Andrew Osenga, Andrew Peterson, and Jill Phillips
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