It’s Like An Ecosystem

Phil Circle and Bob Chin

Usually, when we hear the word “ecosystem” we think of ecology. I know I typically do. For about 40 years I’ve thought of the environmental ecosystem. I’ve always been something a tree hugger. But I’ve also been something of an entrepreneur for about the same amount of time. The thing is that my business skills are exactly what have given me the means to build a life in which I enjoy creative freedom as a singer-songwriter.

The networks we create and communities we belong to, are also being referred to as ecosystems these days. As an example of how an artist with the need for cash flow can utilize an ecosystem to build a life of freedom, I’d like to welcome you to my ecosystem. Here’s how I’ve envisioned the world of Phil within the larger world of Chicago Music. Like the author of Third Coast, Thomas Dyja, I believe that American Music wouldn’t sound like it does without Chicago Music. So, being part of Chicago’s music scene puts me in the center of American Music, in all its forms. Pretty cool. I’ve been very fortunate in my experiences within Chicago music. I’m grateful.

Before I was a songwriter, I was a mediocre poet who played guitar poorly, and mainly as a hobby. But, as I already implied, I was also a very driven young entrepreneur. My oldest brother recently shared something with me. He said, “When you were in 8th grade, you had your entire future laid out from a business standpoint. Every one of the various paths you were planning on taking merged into a whole,” like an ecosystem. Well, I honestly don’t recall what those plans were. Fortunately, the very nature of entrepreneurs is that we are adaptable. So, whatever those plans were, if I missed any goals, I no doubt excused myself and moved on. However, I do recall one major point at which I changed course. It was when I almost died from respiratory failure at age 22 from working myself too hard. After passing through that life clarity exercise, I made the strong decision that my skills in creating business opportunities would be relegated to developing my music career. Above all else, music was my passion. I would follow that path.

After some years of managing my own career and lots of research into the nature of the music industry, I realized it was pretty unlikely I’d ever be signed to a record deal because of my very eclectic style. Eclectic here means I wasn’t in the same style for more than a couple songs at a time. Over time, this habit evolved into my signature style of lyrically driven progressive blues and art-folk. The “record label” I created in 1994 was entirely self-serving until recent years when it occurred to me that I could look for patron-based funding, like public radio or television or the symphony do. This allowed me to make Guilt By Association Records into a service for other artists.

But this didn’t just happen in a vacuum. Throughout my years as a music teacher and coach I’ve been faced with giving my students the truth about an industry that demonstrates no real or apparent interest in serving their (the artists’) needs. I became an advocate of the independent scene and the DIY approach, long before this was even what it was called. Alongside the path of coaching and advocacy I was presented with opportunities to write articles. By request, I even brought my research on the industry, in the something of the form of a treatise, to the Grammy’s organization (NARAS), only to find that they had no real power (or interest) in doing anything to advocate for artists on the business end of things. But I’m fairly incapable of seeing the end of any road. I’ve learned a resilience that I also encourage in others. Not giving up means never actually losing.

My struggles with alcohol and depression became the sometimes center of my life, until I broke through after years of searching for the best tools to cope with life without booze and the like. This inspired my Buddhist practice to blossom like never before. Just a note: the engaged Buddhism I practice has nothing to do with denying oneself of anything or separating from mainstream life. It empowers you to find your highest potential and to grow from your perceived inequities as a human. Lest you wonder how a Buddhist could booze. And it encourages you to never give up, to see your highest self as a goal that is mostly achieved through your own hardships. This may be one reason it appealed to me in the first place. The inability to quit has also given me the wisdom to know when to change course to reach the same goal by a different path.

Back to the evolution of my ecosystem. After literally decades of apparently traversing separate roads, I’ve found them converging to form a cross section of possibilities for ways in which I can use my creative self to benefit others. My online store supplements my musical projects and those of my label mates, while providing quality music accessories (mostly guitar stuff, for now) to anyone who shops there. My low overhead means shipping is always free and I can keep things affordable and offer great service. This provides a place for shoppers to feel like more than dollar signs, because they’re also contributing to a community. The record label is then further supplemented by patronage through our Patreon page. Patrons are usually the types of people who get more from their ability to contribute and the feeling it gives them, than from any of the tangible rewards they’re entitled to for their patronage. This provides a place for music lovers to give unabashedly.

Students past and present utilize the store and the label. They also use my YouTube Channel’s various playlists, including product reviews (something recommended to me by students), backing tracks (often made initially for specific students), and various coaching videos (obviously for students). These same videos share my channel with my entire music catalog covering more than 25 years of recordings.

All of the above allows me that total creative freedom I push students and fellow artists to achieve. And it’s all a result of that kid in the 8th grade who had it all figured out. Honestly, all I had figured out was that I was very willing to take risks and adapt along the way. I was excited by the idea of constantly exploring new creative ideas, because all ideas are creative. As for my love of people and the tremendous joy I feel when I see someone else succeed being underlying motivators? That’s just amazing.

Until I just recently examined things more closely, I hadn’t completely realized that my twists and turns were often caused by the feeling that some other road wasn’t true to who I am. I think I knew at age 9 or 10, a few years before 8th grade, who I wanted to be. That seed may have taken decades to grow beyond a sapling. That sapling may have been buried in the weeds and vines of others’ “helpful” opinions a few times. But each time I tore through them I reached again for the sun and warmth of my true identity. I’m enjoying the maturing. I look forward to it continuing to spread roots and drop the proverbial acorns or flowers or fruit or whatever. And I hope I can provide some shade in this little ecosystem of music. Enjoy exploring and let me know how I can help.

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Phil Circle

Phil Circle

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Phil Circle is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, award-winning music coach and author, and the founder of Guilt By Association Records.