Friday, March 9, 2018

Why Mary Spender Matters

“Nowadays the music industry encourages independent musicians to build their own audience before anything else happens.” (Mary Spender, BBC Bristol Radio Interview)
Mary Spender is a British singer-songwriter who has gained significant notoriety not only because of her beautiful voice, unique guitar style and excellent songwriting, but equally as important, she has found a way to leverage social media to her advantage.  As evidenced by the quote above, she understands that the present day music industry demands that independent artists build a following as a pre-condition to any investment or support from record labels and other industry players.  Her Youtube channel is currently supported by over 26,000 subscribers due in large part to the popularity of her weekly show Tuesday Talks, in which she talks about music, guitars, songwriting, interviews music industry personalities, and generally covers a wide range of interesting music-related topics.

Ms. Spender is about to embark on her first headlining tour of the UK, coming off of a 4-date tour supporting Mike Dawes last month.  I have tickets to her show in London on March 22, and she has gracefully agreed to a pre-show interview with me, which will be part of a short documentary on women in music and the gender-based challenges they face.

Mary is 27 years old and started her music journey at the ripe age of 15.  So although she is still young, she has amassed significant experience, which she has applied with astuteness and wisdom that goes far beyond her age.  Her ageless maturity has led her to find perfect balance in a juggling act that includes creating great music, establishing a relentless presence in the form of her Youtube persona and show, and remaining consistently accessible to colleagues and fans to ensure no opportunity goes unconsidered.

Although I am old(er) and a seasoned musician in my own right, I have found many lessons to be learned from this talented young musician.  Here are some highlights of what I admire in Mary’s approach:
1.      Have a visions and stick to your guns.  In typical formulaic brand creating fashion, Mary has received advice from record labels that she should drop the guitar playing and just be a singer, an advice she was chosen to ignore in favor of following her heart and vision.  In fact, it was her unique and very identifiable style of guitar playing that initially caught my attention, and I would have considered it a tragedy had she chosen to ignore that part of her artistic personality.

2.      Be humble.  In a recent interview with BBC Bristol radio, Mary mentioned that the fact she is about to go on tour as a headliner, and the privilege and rarity it represents, is not lost on her.  Rather than constantly looking beyond at the next step, she chooses to enjoy and savor the moment, learn from it, and use the experience to launch the next step.  Regardless of whatever her ultimate goal may be, her enthusiasm for where she is in her career is contagious.

3.      Capitalize on existing tools.  This is perhaps one of the most brilliant sides of Mary.  She found a way to use Youtube, a tool that is accessible to anyone with a computer or smart phone, in a very creative and original way to enhance her music career.  While the focus of her show Tuesday Talks is her activities, there is nothing pretentious or self-centered about the show.  She always comes off as humble, curious, gracious and grateful.  This not only makes her very likeable, but more importantly it gives the viewer a sense of connection and affinity with her that is often absent in an industry plagued with primadonna egos.

4.      Understand the importance of relationships and networking.  Mary is constantly collaborating with other so-called Youtubers to create interesting and diverse content.  She is also an expected and welcomed presence in international trade shows such as NAMM and Guitcon.  She makes herself accessible not just to industry players, but also to fans.  Mary doesn’t know me, yet in the recent email exchange I had with her where I asked for the interview, I offered to help her in any way I could if she ever chose to tour the Northwest USA.  Her response was: “Hello, well of course I'd be more than happy to be interviewed by you and I'm wondering whether we could meet before my London show? Thanks so much for coming!!!! To be honest I think I'd love to take you up on your offer for Northern Californian shows too!”  Anyway, simply, yes to all of this and thanks for getting in touch.”  Her response made me feel like I was speaking with a friend.

5.      Develop a unique voice.  Not everyone is going to be superbly talented as Mary is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put to practice some of her means and methods.  Rather than practicing to become yet another guitar wanker doing diminished minor scales with sweeping arpeggios and finger taps at 500bpm, Mary focused her development as a guitarist in a style that truly suits and complements her music and singing.  Her percussive right hand approach allows her to maintain a catchy groove in the absence of a drummer or percussionist, and choosing to finger pick instead of flat pick allows her to combine rhythm with tasty melodic lines.  Her guitar tone is as warm and comforting as hot cocoa, as is her voice.  I can think of few guitarists in history that if I hear them in a song I have never heard before, I know it is them.  Eddie Van Halen, Mark Knopfler, Michael Hedges, Wes Montgomery, and Django Reinhardt come to mind.  I will not say that Mary is at the level of these players chops-wise, but her style is as unique, distinctive and readily identifiable as any of them.  That, alone, is a gigantic accomplishment as a musician; one I admire and respect immensely.
I am clearly impressed with this talented artist and I sincerely hope she is able to establish a fulfilling and sustainable career in this very tricky music industry.  I urge you to seek her music out and give it a fair shot.  You can visit Mary’s website, where you can find music, bio, videos, tour info and shop for merchandise and music at  Let’s see if together we can facilitate a U.S. tour for her. You can start by liking her Facebook page at

Thanks for reading! And see you on the dark side…

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Lies Beneath the Surface
Behind the Antarctic Folktronica of Banjo Bones

Spoiler alert! I created a Spotify playlist of the songs listed at the end of this piece, by the artists I mention here.  It may be a good idea to play the playlist while you read this.  I will wait right here while you set that up. 
Ok, ready? Here we go... It is not an easy thing to write objectively about myself.  At times my ego persuades me to overestimate my worth, and other times my insecurities convince me to cut myself short under the guise of modesty.  But for some time I have been thinking about a question I often get, especially in interviews.  The question comes in many forms, such as “what are your influences?” or “what artists do you respect/like?” or “who is on your playlist these days?”  But what I think I am really being asked is: where does the Banjo Bones sound come from?  So putting on my most objective hat I embark on this exploratory essay.
As a matter of background, I was first a guitarist… and I was a rocker.  My early teens influences included Kiss, Peter Frampton, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath (yes I was a child of the 70s!).  I was heavy into Judas Priest before the term Heavy Metal became a household name and a badge of non-conformance, only to be diluted to the hair band tragedy of the 1980s.  So it comes as no surprise that I was not focused on lyrical content or even singing in my teenage years, I was obsessed with crunchy guitars.  Let’s face it, while 1970’s hard rock music is generally alive, energetic and physically moving, for the most part it was not exactly poetry.  But in 1982, just as I was starting my junior year in high school, a friend of my dad gave me as a birthday gift Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska LP (yes, on vinyl!).  I was not a Springsteen fan, so I was slightly underwhelmed when I opened the gift.  But I gave it a shot, and as soon as the needle dropped on the title track I was hypnotized.  Nebraska was recorded on a four-track machine, just Springsteen, a guitar and a harmonica, in the basement of Springsteen’s father’s home, and was originally intended as demos to be formally recorded by the E Street Band.  But the album was released as recorded on the basis of the raw and haunted folk essence of the recording.  I discovered right then and there that music “heaviness” had nothing to do with loud and distorted guitars, chains and leather.  Heaviness could be achieved with just an acoustic guitar and a singer… it is about the mood, the emotional delivery, and the lyrical content, a fact I would confirm years later when I discovered Johnny Cash, one of the heaviest of the heavy.  Nebraska became and to this day remains one of my all-time favorite albums, and perhaps the most influential to the concept of Banjo Bones.  It is dark, real, and crude, and as you can imagine, it never went anywhere on the charts.  To me it is not just Springsteen’s most underrated work, it is his best work as an artist and a songwriter.

Fast forward to my twenties, while living in Washington DC, and shortly after my enlistment in the Marines ended, circa 1988.  There was a magic moment in time where, during a rediscovery period of Led Zeppelin through an unauthorized biography (I believe it was called Hammer of the Gods), I found a quote credited to William S. Burroughs, the patriarch of the Beat Poets of the 1950’s.  The reason I call it a magic moment is that it coincided with a class I was taking in college on creative writing, where I found for the first time that writing came fairly easy to me.  I embraced the Beat Poets, mainly Burroughs and to a lesser extent Kerouac and Ginsberg, because they wrote in a voice that was real to me.  It had no pretentions of being academic or refined.  It was street, dirty, about drugs and adventure and living in a counterculture.  The Beat Poets’ works eventually lead me to Charles Bukowski, who truly had a major impact on my inspiration to write.  Bukowski’s poetry sounded to me like a conversation, not a work of literature.  His obsession with street life, alcoholism, prostitution and the dark side of life in general had a profound effect on me. 
The coincidental nature of this period in time continued when I heard Tom Waits on the radio for the first time.  The song was Going Out West from the Bone Machine album which had just won a Grammy for Best Alternative album of the year in 1992.  That same day I went to a record store (remember those?) and bought the CD.  I obsessed over Bone Machine for the better part of that year and slowly but surely started making my way through the entire Waits catalog up to that point.  Tom Waits did for me musically what Bukowski did for me in literature, and that was the moment I became a song writer.  I married the literature of Charles Bukowski with the musical sensibilities of Tom Waits into a crude and innocent yet energetic song-writing style.  While I love the entire catalog, the Waits albums that really spoke to me from a creative perspective were Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years.  These three records did two important things for me: first, they gave me the confidence to sing because Waits style focused on creating an aesthetic musical landscape rather than on singing virtuosity, and second, they showed me that true creativity lies outside the norm, especially that awful norm we know as pop culture.  I can summarize the latter point like this: Waits approach was "if you need percussion, bang on a hubcap."  You won’t find that on a Kanye West album in spite of his self-proclamation as a visionary.

Although the exact chronological sequence escapes me, it was around this same time that one morning, while driving to work, I heard an interview on NPR with a singer-songwriter named Chris Whitley.  He had an interesting story, I guess, but what really caught my attention were the snippets of his music they played throughout the interview.  I quickly found my way, again, to the record store to pick up the CD.  I devoured the CD, his first major release, titled Living With the Law.  It was an epic sounding album that merged the energy of a young, hungry artist with the aesthetic creativity of young Producer Malcolm Burn.  Musically, two things drew me to Whitley.  First, he was an astonishingly gifted and unique guitarist who defied the artificial limits imposed on the National Steele resophonic guitar, previously reserved for hardcore delta-blues styles.  By amplifying it, distorting it and abusing it on the stage and in the studio, he created a sound that was all his own.  Second, and perhaps even more important, was the character of his voice.  Whitley sang with a howl and a lament that was so introspective and transparently personal I was almost embarrassed to be looking into the window he painted with his songs.  But where Chris Whitley was truly influential to the Banjo Bones concept was in his lyrical sensibilities.  His songs were full of metaphoric references that were surreal and sexy and gritty.  He had no qualms with showing that he was imperfect, flawed, and as humanly real as anyone gets.  He was not the hero; he was the anti-hero of his stories.  As much as I loved Living With the Law, it was 1998’s Dirt Floor that propelled Whitley to the top echelon of my influences.  Dirt Floor was a solo performance, recorded live direct to a two-track analog recorder using a single stereo ribbon microphone at Whitley's father's barn.  It is raw, real, and emotional, and as far as I’m concerned an artistic gem that, other than in the audiophile community, never received the merit it deserved (just like Springsteen’s Nebraska).
I know this will come as a surprise to you, but I have to mention Madonna at this point.  In 2000 she released a song and pretty cool, western-themed video called Don’t Tell Me.  As far as the Madonna catalog goes, this is probably the only song I can say I really enjoyed in both performance and production value.  When I dug deeper into the song, I discovered that it was a cover song, written by her brother in law Joe Henry, and originally titled Stop, released the following year by Henry on his landmark album Scar.  I dove into Joe Henry’s catalog with the typical fervor that drives me when I find a new artist I like.  Henry impressed me as a songwriter and as a singer, but it was the production value of his recordings that impressed me most.  As it turned out, he was the Producer of his records, and he also produced other artists that, although not influential to me, I came to love nonetheless, such as Billy Bragg, Aimee Mann, John Doe, Susan Tedeschi and Ani DiFranco.  If you listen to the albums produced by Henry you will find they all have an organic feeling to them, a sense of real musicians, performing together, live in one room, playing real instruments.  And they all sound exquisite, but without flash, bells and whistles.  In movie terms I would say his productions are more like Bogart’s Cassablanca than the latest summer blockbuster, heavy FX adrenaline fest.  The afore mentioned Scar as well as 2003’s Tiny Voices became permanent fixtures in my CD player, in fact to this day I carry both in my car.  Most recently he released a duo album with Billy Bragg called Shine a Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, which is a gem in its own right.  So Henry continues to shine bright.

In addition to the artists discussed above, there are some honorable mentions I have to credit as influences.  Although I can’t call myself a dedicated follower of the band Wilco, their albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born showed me that being labeled under one genre should not limit creative possibilities.  It gave me the comfort to declare a no-holds-barred approach for Banjo Bones, anything goes when it comes to music styles and vocal performance.  My only commitment is to the song, not its commercial potential, but its artistic realization and impact.  If others are inclined to label it Country, or Hip Hop or Antarctic Folktronica, well that’s just not on me and I don’t care.  Wilco inspired that in Banjo Bones and Beck reinforced it.  Beck dwells freely between modern folk, indie, pop, Hip Hop, and other genres, and has amassed an impressive volume of commercially successful work, including a recent Grammy for Album of the Year, that somehow never seemed diluted of its art by music industry interests and limitations.  Then there are the songwriters Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gautier.   All three have had a profound influence on me as a songwriter, keeping me honest as editor of my songs by continuously asking the questions is this good enough? Is this as good as it can be?
In the end I can’t tell you what the Banjo Bones sound is or will be to you.  Each listener will arrive at that conclusion on their own, based on their personal preferences and frames of reference.  But I can tell you what I aim for in a Banjo Bones production: The emotional sincerity of Nebraska, the musical creativity of Tom Waits, the rawness in delivery of Chris Whitley, the flexibility of Wilco and Beck, the poetry of Williams, Van Zandt and Gauthier and the production value of Joe Henry.  If that is not a lofty goal and tall musical order I don’t know what is.

As I mentioned in the opening of this blog, I created a playlist of some of my favorite songs by the artists mentioned in this piece.  You can access it on Spotify via this link, or search manually on your favorite streaming tool.  Enjoy!

Banjo Bones Influences Playlist
  1. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen (album: Nebraska)
  2. Gun Street Girl – Tom waits (album: Rain Dogs)
  3. Ball Peen Hammer – Chris Whitley (album: Dirt Floor)
  4. Stop – Joe Henry (album: Scar)
  5. I am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco (album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
  6. Farewell Ride – Beck (album: Guero)
  7. Righteously – Lucinda Williams (album: World Without Tears)
  8. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt (album: The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)
  9.  Last of the Hobo Kings – Mary Gauthier (album: Between Daylight and Dark)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When the Neurotic Side is Unleashed

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, musicians are a curious lot, full of life, talent and contradictions.  There is one contradiction in particular I have been thinking about lately: the conundrum presented by the contrast between our seemingly independent and often renegade spirit with our pathetic need for external validation.  In full disclosure, I have been thinking about it because of how it affects me personally.

The process of creativity, by definition, requires an ability to look at the world and the things in it from a less than average and alternative perspective.  Rather than acceptance of norms, customs, rules and socially acceptable values, creativity demands the creator to push the boundaries and think outside the parameters these establish in order to come up with alternative themes, ideas, techniques and ways of thinking.  Throughout history, successful artists have earned their success in spite of, or perhaps because of, their inclination to give the proverbial middle finger to what was up to that point normal or acceptable.  Think of Mozart and Dylan, Da Vinci and Pollock, Hitchcock and Tarantino… all recognized geniuses in their art, yet considered at best quirky, if not anarchic and anti-social.  It would stand to reason that in order to reach this independent thinker mindset, the artist would need to disassociate himself from the common denominator that is public opinion.  More often than not you will find that in any conversation with an artist at his most euphoric creative bravado, they profess not to care what anyone thinks about them, me included, by the way; and I can honestly attest that when I say it I mean it.

But then… comes the time for a creation’s commercial release, whether it is a song or a movie or a painting.  All of a sudden what the audience or critics or industry professionals opine about the work becomes the bar by which the artist measures his artistic worth, which stands to reason because this ultimately influences the creations commercial or practical worth.  At this stage the tables turn and we are suddenly engaged in a popularity contest.  At this point our fragile self-confidence is easily shattered by one naysayer, which we intently pay attention to while ignoring the praise of others.  And thus the insecure, neurotic side of the artist is unleashed.

In my preoccupation with this apparent contradiction I reached my own conclusion: there is no contradiction.  The fact is that both the wildly independent thinking and the need for validation are rooted in perfectly human characteristics reacting to two different phases in a process.  The phase of creation, as mentioned before, requires the disassociation with the norm, where the “I don’t care what you think” attitude is an essential ingredient in asking the questions that lead to a new approach or solution, and which give the artist sole control over the task at hand.  But no artist can live off of their creativity if the creativity is not commercially viable, and that’s where the popularity comes into play.  At the point where the creation phase transitions to the commercial phase, the artist loses control.  This creates uncertainty and, ultimately, insecurity.

I would argue that, ultimately, these reactions are not limited to artists.  I believe basically everyone except for maybe Buddhist monks, have similar reactions to equivalent situations.  The effect may be magnified in artists because the same hyper sensibility required from an artist to create manifests itself when the mindset shifts and control is lost.  And alas, we are just insecure control freaks, which sounds like the majority of the people I know, only hyper-sensitively so.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Naked Cowboys in Death Valley

No, this is not a Brokeback Mountain themed blog, so rest at ease (or sorry to disappoint you, as the case may be).  

Because I tend to write fairly dark songs in spite of my being a fairly happy-go-lucky kind of guy, I have been asked at times where I draw inspiration from.  For some reason the question always catches me off guard and I am ill prepared to answer it.  But a few days ago I found myself wondering the same thing: where the hell do these songs come from.

I decided to track back through my influences for answers.  It is important to note, however, that while I am both a musician and a music fan, I believe my writing is more influenced and informed by the literature I have read than by the music I listen to.  Therefore, while my music composition style may be influenced by the likes of Chris Whitley, Joe Henry and Tom Waits, and my vocal delivery by Howling Wolf and Louis Armstrong, my lyrics have been informed by literary figures such as John Fante, Nelson Algren and Charles Bukowski.

The first person that nudged me in the direction of writing by encouragement was a college professor that taught creative writing.  She told me I had a knack for storytelling and said I should nurture it.  She gave me reading suggestions and when grading assignments she provided feedback that was meant to build up skills, rather than provide reassuring “atta-boys.”  She knew I liked music and one of the books she said I should take a look at was Hammer of the Gods, an unauthorized Led Zeppeling biography written by music journalist Stephen Davis.  I devoured this book because I was already a Zep fan and being these were the days before internet, this was the only way to get some formal information and historical perspective on the band.  In this book several authors were mentioned either as quotes or as influences, mainly, the occultist Alister Crowley, the novelist William S. Burroughs and the journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  I promptly went out and read everything I could get my hands on from these three authors.  I found Crowley pompous, boring and disorganized as a writer, perhaps because the subject matter did not hold my interest.  But Thompson and Burroughs became my first true fascinations of the written word because both, although in different ways, were renegades in  their trade.  

From Hunter Thompson I learned that bending the truth to the extreme of outright fabrication could still be journalism and was much more entertaining than the average editorial.  His streaming flow of consciousness full of drug-infused, colorful descriptions of the surrealism he lived, sparked my imagination and made me want to write.  Burroughs, on the other hand, was the literary embodiment of what Tom Robbins described in Still Life with Woodpecker as an outlaw: not a person who breaks the law, which is a criminal, but one that lives completely outside the law.  Of course I started my Burroughs studies reading Naked Lunch and, while I understood the historic importance of the work, I found it an excruciating reading experience.  But shortly after Naked Lunch, I read The Place of Dead Roads, which to this day remains one of my favorite books, and which many years later would serve as the inspiration for not only the western-flavored background of my act, but also of the title song of an album bearing the same name.

Through Burroughs I discovered the other beat writers, but none of them held the same level of interest for me as the outlaw Burroughs.  Around the same time I was reading Burroughs, I discovered E.E. Cummings in a college class; he sparked my interest because of his disdain for capitalization and punctuation.  In this same class I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, who hooked my imagination with his macabre and eerie themes, a flavor that seeps into my lyrics every now and then.  Shortly after this class, around the late 1980’s, while browsing the Beat Poets section in a book store, I noticed an image on a book that caught my attention.  The gruff, pensive face about to take a drag off a cigarette, along with the book's title Tales of Ordinary Madness, drew me to Charles Bukowski instantaneously.

Bukowski was a revelation to me because he managed to snatch poetry from the scholarly and deliver it to the streets.  He wrote of the derelicts, the drunks, the prostitutes and what happens at the fringes of society, where basic human needs and desires are redefined from the norm most of us know.  While he is best known as a poet, and I do admire his poetry, it was his prose and short stories that influenced me the most.  In addition to Tales of Ordinary Madness, Post Office and Notes of a Dirty Old Man were highly inspirational and influential to my writing.  Bukowski opened other doors as well, as I always tend to go back in history to see what influenced those that I admire.  Arguably, nobody influenced Bukowski more than John Fante and Nelson Algren.  I read Fante’s Ask the Dust and Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side with the zealousness and attention to detail of a 13-year old watching a porn flick for the first time. And while both of those works remain important references for me, Tales of Ordinary Madness is to this day one of the literary works that informs my writing most, followed closely by the works of Elmore Leonard.  

As is often the case, I found Elmore Leonard through one of the movies his books inspired: Get Shorty.  His way of humanizing criminals and showing the “rest of the story” to a criminal character (i.e. what he dreams about, what he eats, what he discusses with friends) may not have been completely original (I had already seen it in Bukowski’s short story “A .45 to Pay the Rent”), but it certainly represented a stylistic upgrade to the approach.  It was Leonard’s Complete Western Stories, made up of material that was written and published in the 1950’s, that made me become a student of Leonard’s characters and planted the seed for he who was to become Banjo Bones.

Banjo Bones is an alter ego of sorts.  He serves as a means for me to explore the Yin to my Yang.  Because I was raised on a tropical island, the idea of the vast deserts of the wild west was enticing, dangerous, and exotic.  Which made the characters that ventured into this landscape the subject of my admiration, fascination and wildest imagination.  Because I enjoyed a very stable, healthy upbringing, the idea of outlaws and renegades was as appealing to me as the forbidden fruit.  When I write with my proverbial Banjo Bones hat on, in my imagination I am traveling through Death Valley, with the same elasticity and non-linearity of time that Kim Carson traveled in Burroughs’s The Place of Dead Roads, with the same moral relativity of Leonard’s Raylan, and rubbing shoulders with the skid row characters of Tales of Ordinary Madness.  

As I travel the dark corners of my imagination, I seek my own practical revelations, hopefully not unlike Algren’s three rules of life from A Walk on the Wild Side:  "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."  And the next time someone asks where I draw my inspiration,  I will know my answer… sitting at an imaginary camp fire in the middle of Death Valley, listening to Burroughs, Bukowski and Leonard trade stories.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A tip of the hat

Being a working musician is like no other job I can think of.  There are many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this discussion I will concentrate on one only: the emotional rollercoaster.

I have had my share of day jobs, in fact quite desirable and committed white collar jobs, in which I had development plans, promotional opportunities and all those nifty long-term goals (some might call it bait) offered by business organizations, and the salaries to go along.  When I have been bypassed for a promotion, or when I’ve had a hard day at work, I get as stressed out as anyone, maybe even depressed for a few days.  But for the most part it has always been a fairly even-keeled emotional experience where one day rarely varied much from any other day, and the reward at the end of two weeks generally made up for whatever minor heartaches you suffered along the way.

But music is quite different.  It is an all or nothing game where you are the product, and every small accomplishment feels like a strategic victory, and every small setback fails like a catastrophe.  Especially if you are a songwriter, and every night you pour your soul out and leave it on a stage at the risk of being thrown out, booed, ridiculed or what’s even worse, ignored.  You bear your soul in hopes of making a connection with at least one person in the crowd, that connection being the real reward for the risk, as the vast majority of working musicians don’t make enough from gigging to even pay the rent.

I remember in my last gig in Folsom, CA, there was a gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, sitting alone towards the back wall, sipping on his beer.  He arrived roughly in the middle of my set, and then only got up to refresh his beer and sat back down in the same spot.  At the end of the gig he walked over to the front of the stage, tipped his hat in my direction, dropped three dollars in the tip jar and with a southern draw said: “nice set.”  He then walked out of the bar.  He made my night.  The three dollars, while not an insignificant gesture, was nowhere near as important to me as the fact that he took the time to acknowledge me and to let me know that he both approved of and enjoyed what I was doing.  I had another similar experience playing in Placerville, CA, where a woman actually got up at one point of my set and danced to my music, which is hardly dance music.  At the end of the show she bought my CD, asked to sign it and took a picture with me because she was sure that someday it would be worth more than a memory.

Then there are the other nights.  Nights where you play your heart out to an empty room because you can’t risk that somewhere, unseen, in the shadows, an important music industry player is silently watching; and the whole time you’re on stage you’re wondering how you will apologize to the venue for the lack of turnout.  Or the other “other” nights, in which you simply fail to make a single connection and you just get through your set hoping the stage will swallow you before you have to walk off and into the cold night, with a couple of bucks in your pocket if you’re lucky, which you would gladly give up for just one sympathetic listener in that crowd.

I have told myself and others, more than once, that my music is not everyone’s cup of tea and I don’t expect everyone to like it.  But secretly, I so hope for popularity.  I also tell myself and others, and I genuinely believe that music is not a competition and should not be rewarded on such a basis (i.e. the Grammies).  But every time I see a fellow musician in the local scene get an opportunity for a prime gig or a media feature, I jealously wonder “why not me?”

For all our bravado and renegade nature, musicians, especially those that create rather than pay tribute, are fragile creatures with very delicate egos.  While this may not be anyone’s problem other than our own, it would be just plain human decency not to viciously rag on music that is not to your liking, instead offer constructive criticism that, while hard to take, may be helpful in the long run to the artist.  And if you ever find yourself in the enviable position to presence a show you truly enjoy, take a few seconds to let the artist know how you feel.  All it takes is a tip of the hat.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Not so Sage advice on Adele, Pedaling and Pushing

As most of you reading this probably know already, Adele recently released a new album.   Let me just stop here and congratulate those of you who don’t know this as you are the only people I know to be sufficiently removed from pop culture to be able to claim that you have a life.  For the rest of us, read on…

I was watching Adele perform her new single on Saturday Night Live with my wife, and after listening to it I said to her: “I get that the songs is good, and she is a great singer, but I can’t help but wonder why this gets insanely famous while other music that I like so much more never even hits the charts.”  This led to what usually happens to me; I try to analyze as objectively as I can the subjective whys and why nots of art.

I am the first to admit that Adele is an exceptionally talented singer.  I can also say that her songs are crafted to the highest standards of songwriting, at least in the popular music domain, that the production of her albums is top notch, as is the skill of the musicians in her albums.  So why is it that I do not, nor will I probably ever, care enough about her music to buy her albums or go to one of her shows (or even bother to sit through a televised performance for any reason other than being too lazy to get up and do something else).  So here’s what I finally came up with: chemistry.  I am talking about the same intangible chemistry you refer to when trying to explain to a friend why the relationship with a dreamy, hot, intelligent and financially successful romantic candidate did not work out.

Think of why you like the music that you like.  Some people might say because it is good to dance to, or because it is relaxing, or because it pumps them up.  Whatever the reason cited, it can be boiled down to how that particular song, artist, or style makes them feel or, as I put it, whether or not the song, artist or style “speaks” to the particular listener.  At the end of the day, it has very little to do with production value, musicianship skills, literary value, etc., except in the case that any of these makes a person “feel” one way or another.

This all creates a very real dilemma for independent musicians when it comes to how to market their music.  The major artists, such as Adele, have a business machine behind them that ensures that masses of listeners will have multiple chances to hear their songs and hopefully make the connection.  You will hear her songs on SNL, on James Bond movies, on commercials and in ringtones, to name a few.   While I am sure that, like me, there are many others that even if you locked them in a room listening to Adele records over and over, would likely emerge still not liking the music, Adele’s sales have proven that she connects with a gigantic mass of people. But independent artists don’t have the business and marketing machine behind them.  We are left to our own devices to figure out how to not only identify, which is a vastly complicated task in and of itself, but then to reach out to the audience that our music may make a connection with.

I don’t have sage advice for the indies on this, I can only tell you how, in my infinite ignorance, I approach it.  As I heard in a recent industry seminar, you have to start with the song.  If you can’t write a good song or a hit (not always the same thing, that’s why I make the distinction), then no matter what you do or how big of a machine you have behind you, financial success will not follow, at least not sustainably so (read Gangnam Style).  If and once you have a good song, let’s call it “the product,” then you should develop a strategy to spread that song in ways that maximize opportunities for an audience to hear it.  Your strategy needs to be sensible and logical; notwithstanding Judas Priest’s cover of Diamonds and Rust, you should probably not include in your plan live performance at the local heavy metal joint if you are a folk singer-songwriter. 

Here three initiatives you should consider in your strategy:

1.     Live Performance Initiative.  The power of live performance cannot be understated and you should be particularly careful not to undermine your product by delivering a poor or misguided live act.  It is through live performance that an audience makes a connection with the artist, not just the song.  So you should be conscious of developing your brand, which includes the aesthetic presentation of your live show as well as your delivery.  I wear a hat.  Not always the same hat, but always with aesthetic consistency to the image I am trying to project.  I also always dress in dark colors and make sure I don’t shave for a few days prior to a show.  This is all consistent with maintaining form to the brand I am selling: the gruff, whiskey-infused philosopher.  The name I came up with for my act is memorable and I have received very positive feedback from industry representatives: Banjo Bones.  It always begs the question, what does it mean? You want to keep the conversation about your act alive.  Finally, you should have the utmost respect and appreciation for your audience.  There is no such thing as too small of an audience when it comes to your show.  As an example, I recently had a gig at a remote venue and the show only drew 6 paying customers.  I happened to be really “on” that night and delivered one of my best live performances ever.  I noticed a lady that got up during my set and danced to my music (which is hardly dance music).  After the set she bought my CD and asked me to sign it for her.  She then joined my Facebook page and she went out of her way to ask me to let her know when I was back in town and to let me know that she would reel in friends to my next show.  To me, that was a very successful night.  Had I delivered a half-assed presentation, I may have missed out on the great opportunity to make a new fan and supporter.


2.     Airplay Initiative.  While live performance is the historically tried and true way of “spreading the word,” it is by no means the only one.  Although its value is highly debated and disputed, radio stations still claim, based on statistics they say, that traditional radio continues to be the number one means by which fans discover new music.  There are promotion services that, for a fee that varies between two and three digits, will distribute your music to a network of stations in their portfolio.  None of these services can guarantee airplay, but I do believe that a station is more likely to play something that has been referred to them by some of these services than they are if they receive the same material directly from the artist; if for no other reason than the ongoing prejudice that if you don’t have “the machine” behind you, then you’re probably a “nobody” and undeserving of their time and attention.  There are exceptions to this, especially in the smaller markets, but it is still an unfortunate reality for the most part.  Whether you go through a promoting agency or you decide to plow forward on your own, there are ways to improve your chances to get airplay.  The obvious one is to target stations that play material that is stylistically similar to yours.  This can be based on the station’s programming as a whole (i.e. a Country Station), or specialty programs they may have (i.e. “the Blues Hour with DJ Famous”).  Be ready for rejection, which will come in the form of “thanks, but not thanks” in the best cases, or in a traditional cold shoulder, which is what most often happens.  Keep in mind that, like job hunting, this is a numbers game: the more contacts the better your chances.


3.     Media Reviews Initiative.  There is another type of specialized promotion service that you can tap into: the media reviews.  There are promotions services that, again for a fee, will distribute your release to a network of printed and virtual media organizations for review.  They also cannot guarantee that their network will review your release, or that if they do it will be a positive review, but I do believe that like the radio station promoters, they have a better chance of getting you material reviewed than if you send it directly.  One important word of caution: the vast majority of mainstream printed media actually operate in a combination of the printed format, enhanced by virtual content in their website.  Many of these will reach out to you once they have written the review, and tell you that because of the volume of reviews, they can’t guarantee yours will reach the printed edition and may be only posted in their website along with two thousand other reviews.  They then proceed to offer you the opportunity to increase the power of the review by securing advertising space in their publication (maybe printed, most likely virtual).  Now I am not suggesting that there are no benefits to advertising, nor am I accusing these publications of being underhanded in their approach.  I am simply suggesting that you make well informed decisions.  Ask them if your purchasing an ad will guarantee your review reaching the printed media, and if your ad is guaranteed to be on the printed media irrespective of the review.  Once you know the answers to that, then you can decide if you still wish to proceed with the ad or not.  There are benefits to these reviews beyond the outreach to potential new fans.  Specifically, you can use quotes from these reviews, along with the reference to the publication and author, in your website and other promotional material.  This gives you another layer of formality and credibility.  So don’t be so quick to disregard the virtual reviews in the 2k+ database they can still be useful.  The good news is that publications that are inclined to offer you ad space will likely only do so if the review is a good one.  You get my drift…

These are just three examples of how you can increase the mass you are targeting.  You may not be anywhere near Adele masses, but you will certainly go beyond the mandatory Facebook announcement to friends that probably already know you have a new CD out, many of which have no intentions of buying it and expect a free copy. 

One final word of advice…  Artists, and I am not exception, tend to see their creations as children.  We nurture and protect them, and treat them with care.  We get personally offended at the mere suggestion that our songs are not someone’s cup of tea, and we protect them with the bravado of standing up for a damsel in distress.  Big name artists can afford to stay in this state of mind perpetually, but the same is not true for indies if we want to reach any level of commercial success and stay independent.  As soon as the creative effort is over, we must remove our creative hats and put on our business hats.   We must look at our creations as product to be pushed and pedaled, and give them every opportunity to reach commercial success.  We must avoid the tendency to blow our entire financial wad in the creative process (i.e. recording, mixing, mastering, and packaging), and be cognizant that in order to reach critical mass we must invest in promotion, advertising, marketing, etc. 

As you embark on your next recording project, think of this and make sure to consider it in a mid to long term budget.  You owe it to your good song to give it the best opportunity to succeed financially.  Rock on Boneheads!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

About the singer-songwriter format…

For most of my almost 40-year relationship with music, whenever I have done live presentations, it has been in the context of a band, where I was NOT the front person.  Since I re-started my live performance career this year, for the first time in my life I’m not only fronting, I am the single performer.  I come out with my guitar in hand, stand in the middle of the stage, and sing songs that I penned.  So why is it that I resist the term singer-songwriter?
Full disclosure: I have absolutely nothing against the singer-songwriter format.  I happen to not only like, but treasure certain albums in the format, such as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James.  But I don’t believe that what I do live properly falls under the label singer songwriter, and here’s why…
Singer-songwriters, as defined, are musicians who write, compose and perform their own material, and most often provide the sole accompaniment to an entire composition, typically with a guitar or piano.  So far it is spot on what I am doing.  But the key difference, I think, is that the singer-songwriter generally composed the song within the framework of that format, whereas I wrote a fully orchestrated song that I then adapted for the purpose of performing it solo.  Therefore, the live song is going to be materially different from the recorded version.  Artists that come to mind that are more associated with my approach are Chris Whitely, Rocco Delucca, and Warren Zevon, all of who have rocking albums that they subsequently break down to their essence, and perform them solo with a guitar or piano.  Another example was the original acoustic frenzy that overtook the industry in the late 80’s and early 90s with the MTV show Unplugged.  Granted, it eventually lost the essence of the “naked” songs on which it was premised, but in its inception, it was exactly what I am suggesting here.  In fact, I clearly remember being floored by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s presentation of his rocking blues on an acoustic 12-string guitar.  But nobody would label him a singer-songwriter, right?
So while a folk artist may be presenting a fairly faithful representation of their recorded product, focusing on the beauty of the lyric, the melody and the message, I am more concerned with presenting the song in a way that captures the energy of the original in a radically different format.  I am not suggesting it is better or worse, simply different.
But at the end of the day I am reminded of what a fellow musician told me before a gig when I was questioning my place in a lineup of heavy metal bands.  He said: “music is music, so just do your thing.”  Wise words…