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Guitar monster John 5 on how he released an album, one song at a time, on YouTube

“I wouldn’t care if someone put my new songs up online, because selling records is completely, utterly a thing of the past.”

John 5 has always known which way the wind blows in the music business, and he understands the best ways to adapt to how things are constantly changing. While on tour last year in his longstanding role as the lead guitarist/onstage foil for Rob Zombie, John 5 (whom some of you may also recall from his stint with Marilyn Manson) decided he was going to release the songs that would comprise his next solo album once a month for the balance of a year on YouTube before later compiling them all together under one umbrella in the album format.

Not only did each of these songs have its own individual sonic flavor, each one came complete with quite striking and markedly different visual approaches, from the stop-motion animation of the self-fulfilling horror prophecy of Making Monsters, to the down-home twang-bang homage of Hell Haw, to the Zappaesque backyard slam jam of Here’s to the Crazy Ones.

Now, all of those YouTube-debuted songs have been put together under the auspices of John 5 and The Creatures, and the album has been duly dubbed Season of the Witch, available today in various formats via the man’s own custom label, 60 Cycle Hum.

“The whole idea was to show a variation in style,” John 5 explained to Digital Trends. “Whenever you listen to a CD or an album, it gets tiresome hearing the same thing over and over and over again. Releasing each song individually first on YouTube really worked for me. And now that we’re at the release date, you can get the physical CD if you want it. I’m not looking to sell a lot of CDs; I don’t really care about that. But when people get the CD now, they’ll go, ‘I already know this song, this song, and this song.’ It’s like picking up an old CD you love and going, ‘I know all these songs!’”

Digital Trends got on the line with John 5 at his homestead in the Los Angeles area to discuss the impetus of his clever YouTube strategy, embracing streaming, and why he never imagined being a touring guitarist.

Digital Trends: Whether listeners come to you from your Rob Zombie connection or the Marilyn Manson angle, they’re going to find out the songs on Season of the Witch have many different sonic permutations to them. You’re not a one-trick guitar pony.

John 5: It’s been fun putting it together. People surf all the time, and if they like something, they’ll check out everything there is by that artist. That’s why I did so many videos, and I’m really happy with how things turned out.

That’s the new paradigm, right? In your case, it’s a combination of binge viewing and binge listening.

It’s what you gotta do now, because this is entertainment, and you have to entertain. This is who I am. Inspiration is one of my favorite things. That’s all I want to do — I want to inspire people. I do this for the love of music and the love of guitar.

I watched all the videos as they debuted on YouTube. When you get handed the banjo at the end of The Black Grass Plague, it was an exciting moment to see, because that was also the first time I’d heard the track as well. I didn’t know what was coming, so it was a nice surprise.

“People don’t even download anymore. That’s something of the past. It’s all about streaming now.”

Yeah, that was fun with the banjo and the mandolin. It’s tough, because people’s attention spans are so short now. Especially with the internet, you only get a couple of seconds. Back in the day when you’d get an album, that’s all you had. You listened to every song and every note on that record over and over. But now, people don’t even download anymore. That’s something of the past. It’s all about streaming now.

Right. People might only give an album one listen, decide what their favorite song is, put it on a playlist, and forget about the rest of it.

That’s another reason why I did all the videos for these songs. But there’s gotta be a way for people to enjoy a collection of music. I did it once a month, so I didn’t give anybody the choice to cherry-pick. How do you keep people from doing that? You just give them one song at a time. And people will listen to that one song. It’s such a new way of listening to music nowadays. It’s so different.

So you didn’t get a whole record — you’d just digest this as one song, one video. And for most people, that’s what they did. They listened to it and enjoyed it, and then the next month, they got another song. It was kind of like being part of a fan club.

It’s like a YouTube subscription series. You didn’t know what was coming next, but each one that followed was very different than the one before it, especially the visual style. Every clip has a very distinct look.

It was fun to do, and collectively, there’s over a million views. Nowadays, you’d never ever get a million spins on the radio. I don’t care who you are.

So things worked out really well, doing it that way. Everyone’s trying to figure out what to do, because everyone watches music now. And that’s fine. That’s what kids do on their phones, and I love that. I do it too. I do it all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

We were out somewhere on Super Bowl Sunday and my wife was like, “We have to watch the Super Bowl halftime.” And I was like, “No, we don’t have to rush home and watch it live. We’ll just watch it whenever we get there.”

You watch things on your own time now. You schedule it to fit your needs, not the network’s.

And that’s how it was with the music. People got to see me do this when they wanted to, which was cool. There’s a lot of content that goes into making the videos, too — especially Making Monsters, with all the stop motion.

How long did it take to get that video done?

Months and months and months. That took forever with all the stop animation — pose by pose, movement by movement.

While a lot of people have literally watched the record unfold over a year, people are also going to go to it on Spotify. Are you OK with people streaming the album too?

Well, I don’t think I have a choice. There’s no way you’re going to beat ’em. No way. It’s impossible. If huge, massive record company corporations and publishing companies that have zillions of dollars behind them cannot stop it, you’re not gonna stop it. So I always look at it as like, you have to go with the flow. You have to go with the times. It’s never going to go backwards.

“With streaming, you have to go with the times. Things are never going to go backwards.”

I like streaming music. I’ll be in the car going, “I want to hear Scotty Anderson.” He’s a great guitar player not many people know about — maybe me and two other dudes know him. But I love him, and I can pull him up on Apple Music, and there it is, right there in my car.

It was quite an experiment with this record, and it really, really worked out. I was out touring the States playing these songs, and the fans could buy the single, right there.

You and I both remember the days when we’d see a band go, “Hey, we’re going to play this new single that’s not out yet,” and they could do it because there wasn’t all these people in the audience with the iPhones filming it. They didn’t lose anything.

Yeah, that moment was really special because it was literally the only place you could see and hear it.

If you were in the arena at the time, you got that privilege. I really liked that. But I wouldn’t care if someone put my new songs up online, because selling records, as you know, is completely, utterly a thing of the past.

What was the very first album that you personally connected with?

It was KISS, Love Gun (1977). For sure. It’s got a great cover. I loved it. I was like, “Oh my God — these are monsters with guitars!” I was so young then. (laughs)

And you and [KISS frontman] Paul Stanley have since worked together on some recordings. Interesting how that came around full circle.

I’ve worked with Paul, Ace [Frehley], and Gene [Simmons], and Peter [Criss] is a really close friend. I talk to him three to four times a week. I’m really tight with all those guys. I just took Gene to Ace’s show, in fact.

But here’s the thing — when I was little, I was never like, “I want to be a rock star!” I always wanted to be a guitar player and a musician and all that, but I never wished for any of this, so I appreciate it so much.

All of these things that have happened in my life — the tours, the shows, the gold records… (pauses) All I ever wanted to be was a session guitar player, and that was it! All of this is such a gift, and I don’t take it for granted.

So you wanted to be a session guy. Did you know guitarists like Steve Lukather of Toto and Larry Carlton also did sessions? Did you have a “hero,” as far as that goes?

Here’s what happened — and I don’t think I’ve ever told this story. It’s so crazy. When I was younger, I had a horrible flight. Horrible. It was well before I was 10 years old. So I always thought to myself, “I know I don’t want to travel.” That’s why I wanted to be a session guy, because I knew I could still play guitar and make a living at it — hopefully.

I saw this little short movie called Session Man (1991), and that’s when I thought, “That’s what I want to do. I don’t have to travel!” (chuckles) It’s why I never wished to be a rock star, because I knew I’d have to travel. It’s so funny, but that’s the reason. Now that I’m older, of course, I totally appreciate it.

You’re obviously OK with traveling now.

Yeah, I’m OK with it now. It was just one of those things that affect you when you’re a little kid. I always tell Rob [Zombie] whenever things get heavy or we’re really tired, “Look at this. We’re so lucky. Look at what we’re doing. Look at all those people out there!” We always have those talks with each other.

Do you think this is the way you’ll make albums moving forward — putting individual songs out when you feel like it along with the videos first, and then after you have 10 or 15 songs up there, putting them together in one place?

I’ll always have a plan for putting a new song and a new video up, and I’ll keep doing that again and again. You’ll always have a physical CD at the end too. I think that’s such a great way to do it.

Think of any of your favorite bands. What if we had Led Zeppelin doing a video for Custard Pie when they first put it out, or for Going to California? You’d be going, “Oh my God — this is incredible!! Who knew?”

Some heritage artists are now embracing new ways to get the next generations who are coming up into what they’re doing. Some bands are using things like Periscope to give people new levels of access.

It’s true. It’s a new world. If you try to fight it and not be a part of it, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.