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…




Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gig Report: August 7 @ Luna’s Café and August 8 @ Clubhouse 24

I really like Luna’s Café.  It feels like playing at home for me.  I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s cozy, that it is a Café rather than a pub, and that Art Luna is such a cool guy.  The night opened with singer-songwriter OLIVIA AWBREY.  She described her music as punk folk, which I think really nails it.  She plays with a very percussive strumming approach that is just short of aggressive, and delivers her thoughtful lyrics with a fantastic voice that I am sure can go beyond the range she pushes it in her performance.  I really enjoyed her set and invited her to join me the next night at a different venue, but she didn’t make it.  I hope our paths cross gain in the future.  I followed Olivia, and had a pretty good set.  I tried out a couple of new songs, one which I was not sure would go over well acoustically (The Guilt Trip), but I received very good feedback form the audience, both right after the song, and after the gig.  I had a really solid turnout, but unfortunately, Olivia was from out of town (Portland), so she had no local followers, and the headlining act never showed, and neither did their fans.  So the 12 headcount that was there were my friends and followers, which is cool, but for Art’s sake I would have liked to see a fuller room.

The next night, at Clubhouse 24, I played with Charles Gunn, and it was one of those nights… I was curious about this gig as it was an exploratory event for me.  I was playing at a gallery on Second Saturday (a once a month event where galleries stay open late and host passers-by.  My goal was to gauge what a Second Saturday gig would be like, if I could live with being little more than wallpaper in return for a significant exposure.  But as it turned out, there was no exposure.  This particular gallery had not promoted and their geographical situation is such that there are not a whole lot of walk-ins.  We did get one couple who peaked in and stayed for a couple of songs, and we had three friends show up.  But other than that, we basically played for ourselves.  The redeeming factor of the evening was that Mr. John Lowry, harmonica player with the Cash Cartell Band, sat in for the majority of my set and I had a blast listening to him improvise over my songs.  Charles was solid, as always, with his laid back approach and excellent songs.  I really enjoy working with him and I believe we complement each other well.  Thanks to Chris Whetstone for the use of the PA, it sounded great in this room!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Gig Report: August 1 @ Press Club

This was an eclectic and interesting show from its inception… the lineup was a roots rock band, a punk band, a modern hard rock band, and me.  Let me first off express my gratitude to Jessica Burke (J. Burke Productions), the promoter of the show.  She has been nothing but supportive and is quickly becoming a close friend.  There is nobody in the Sacramento scene that is more active, and more present than she is.  Hats off to my friend Jessica!

Back to the gig… I was up first and I had a pretty good set in spite of a couple of technical glitches.  I was told after the show that my set organization has improved tremendously and it is becoming a more dynamic set.  This makes me happy because this is something I had purposely set out to accomplish.  I opened with Snowy Mountain and finished with Sin Again, and I think both worked brilliantly.  The way I inserted my more up-tempo songs also worked well.  I will keep improving upon this in my two gigs coming up this weekend. 
The second band, Super Mega Everything, played a solid set of hard rocking numbers.  As I told the guitarist at the end of their set, I paid them the highest compliment I can pay a hard rock band: they were tight as brothers.  After them came The Losing Kind, a straight p punk rock band from Vacaville, CA.  As could be expected, they brought the energy and the attitude.  I personally liked them a whole bunch, but I think they were a little much for some in the audience. 

The show was headlined by the Cash Cartell who is my new favorite local band.  They are a roots based rock band in the best way possible.  They have a seasoned sound that is young enough to keep its energy and urgency, but exuding confidence and proficiency.  Each member of the quintet fulfills their role completely and never gets in the way of the other musicians in the band.  The harmonica player adds a fantastic dimension to the band that, combined with the rhythm section, often left me envious and wanting to put a band together.  And the front man, Chuck Schubert, has attitude, swagger, chops (both singing and playing guitar), and also happens to be a kind and generous soul.  Chuck shares guitar duties with a second guitarist and they trade licks, leads and rhythm effortlessly and seamlessly.  The songwriting is first rate and the showmanship… well let’s just say I was never compelled to go outside for fresh air.  Chuck and I exchanged pleasantries at the end of the show and he opened the door to doing some collaboration as he also dug my set.  I really hope we follow up on that as the possibilities are very cool. 
Peace out Boneheads!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

About paying to play…

This topic has been covered in many user groups, but let me be very clear about how I feel about this: bullshit!  And here’s why…
Business, any business, follows a model of risk and reward.  Generally, the higher risk you take, the higher the potential for reward, and vice versa.  Venues that assume a pay-to-play model basically want to take no risks, and have all or some portion of the reward.  I believe it is utterly unreasonable for a venue, other than one strictly operated for the purpose of live performance (such as a proper concert hall), to expect to cover all or any significant portion of its operational costs from the revenue generated from live performance.  If a venue is a bar with a stage, its purpose is to sell booze, if it’s a restaurant with a stage, its purpose is to sell food and booze.  Under both models, live music is an enhancer to attract patrons to come in and consume their booze and/or food.  Having said that, I do concede that unless they are working through a promoter, a venue has costs associated with the logistics of live performance, such as advertising, sound equipment, and sound engineer, to name a few.  But that’s where risk sharing comes in.
There are some artists that refuse to engage in marketing or promoting a show, mainly on the basis that they are entertainers, not marketers or promoters.  I am not one of those artists; I do believe artists have a stake in the success of the show, and not just as the lowest levels.  Look at movie stars doing the talk-show tour to promote their movies.  Big name bands also have to do their share of promoting products and tours.  So why shouldn’t I?  A concert event is a partnership between the venue, the acts(s), and the promoter if there is one, where each should participate in the risk and the rewards, and each should have a stake in ensuring the event’s success. 

I believe a well-balanced approach is one in which the venue accepts its responsibility for creating a “scene” or environment to attract patrons that hopefully become “regulars,” while the talent assumes the responsibility of promoting their events and creating a following, and promoters assume not only the logistics responsibility but also formulating events that make sense with regards to how the talent is combined and sequenced.  If all three carry their end and do their part in promoting the event, then all three should equitably share in the returns. So I believe that the reasonable way to split the responsibility and the gains is for the artist (and promoters when involved) to get the door (in the case of a bar or restaurant), or a portion of the door in the case of a concert venue.  There is of course the possibility of a set fee paid by established venues, but these are fewer every day.

I live and work in a small market where no musician is really able to make a living just from performing.  Every professional musician I know in my town compliments their performance revenue with giving instrument classes or some other form of “day job.”  It is important that, given this reality, artists don’t stoop to playing for free, and much less paying to play, just because they can afford to.  I’m not talking about open mic’s, that’s a whole other topic I will not get into here.  And I am not saying that you should not consider an opportunity here and there in which the rewards may not be monetary but may very well be worth it, such as a good marketing or exposure opportunity.  All I am saying is that if you are a professional musician or aim to be one, and especially if you take the time and make the effort to promote your shows, you should respect and honor the value of your service and craft, just as a painter or sculpture places a value on theirs; you don’t see painters or plastic artists giving away their creations.  Why should musicians? And of course, there we come to the topic of to charge or not to charge for your music releases.  But I will leave this Pandora’s Box for another post.  Cheers to all!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bad joke of the week…

Allegedly, this is real testimony recorded in court:

Attorney: Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?

Witness: All my autopsies are performed on dead people.

Attorney: Do you recall the time that you examined the body?

Witness: The autopsy started around 8:30 P.M.

Attorney: And Mr. Dennington was dead at the time?

Witness: No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.

Attorney: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?

Witness: No.

Attorney: Did you check for blood pressure?

Witness: No.

Attorney: Did you check for breathing?

Witness: No.

Attorney: So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?

Witness: No.

Attorney: How Can you be so sure Doctor?

Witness: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.

Attorney: But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?

Witness: It is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Musings on the topic of songwriting

I asked myself this morning over a cup of coffee: how can I become a better songwriter? This led me to thinking about what makes a good songwriter, and here’s what I came up with, in no particular order:

  1. The curiosity to wonder about and explore thoughts and feelings;
  2. the creativity and intellect to create story around those thoughts/feelings;
  3. the sensibility to add emotional depth to the story;
  4. the eloquence to express the story in writing;
  5. the musicality to compose a melody around the story; and,
  6. the objectivity to edit it all.

All of the above contribute to being a good songwriter, but I believe that what sets apart the great songwriter from the good songwriters is the last one: the ability to edit.    In a Nashville documentary I saw recently a young songwriter captured this sentiment in his praise of Kris Kristofferson: “He’s thrown away better songs than I’ll ever write.”  A testament to his power of editing I guess.

By the way, do check out the documentary For the Love of Music: the Story of Nashville.  It’s on Youtube and well worth it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

@ Starlite Lounge (the family session)

So I have a family contingent from out of town, including three minors, and they wanted to see me perform.  I have no gigs until August 1, so I contacted Brandon Lee, host of the Starlite Lounge open Mic, and asked him if he could hook me up (I needed to be up front on the lineup so I could get the kids out of there before 9:00, when they stop serving food).  Brandon really hooked me up, he was done setting up the PA by 8:00 or so, and said : “you can have at it until 8:50, when the kids have to be out of here.”  So I got to play approximately 45 minutes worth of music for my family and a few other patrons sitting around the bar.  I confess it was not my best performance ever (technical difficulties distracted for the majority of the set), but it was fun a to share my music with family. 
Lessons Learned: 1) Brandon Lee and Shannon Cannon (owner of Starlite) are truly wonderful and supportive people; 2) Open mic’s are a great way to have an impromptu showcase if you ever need to, and hosts are generally accommodating if you approach them humbly and with respect for their activity.  3) Although impractical for open mic's, never underestimate the value of sound check to work out technical issues BEFORE you start your set...