Arranging (re-blogged from Musicpage.com)

HERE IS THE LINK TO THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE, JULY 2015

I wrote this when I worked for Musicpage.com, and wanted to share it here. This is a pretty zoomed-out exploration of what it means to “produce” or “arrange” music. I will likely write a follow-up piece that digs in a little more to specific strategies I’ve used in my own work as an arranger.

IF YOU WANT TO LISTEN TO THE ACCOMPANYING PLAYLIST WHILE READING, SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE ARTICLE.


I. Diversify, Innovate

Great artists create trends, rather than mimic those that already exist. One way to aid constant innovation is to develop a diverse skill set. We’re seeing this happen naturally as more and more artists pursue a DIY route for both production and promotion of their music. While the recording process previously involved a dedicated engineer, producer, arranger, and artist, these roles are now becoming more blended.

I support this new direction in the industry. I believe young artists of all kinds should celebrate the resources brought upon by the digital age and shifting marketplace. However, as we pursue a new level of independence and self-sufficiency, we still need to learn from the greats that came before. The rules are a little different, but the game is the same. There are people and crafts that prove to be brilliant no matter the era. Process, as much as content, determines the timelessness of art.

One skill set that has evolved (or faded) since the event of digital audio is arranging. It’s a craft equally associated with classical music as it is popular music, and its definition may vary wildly depending on the context, or who you’re asking. This article will cover the craft of arranging music. I’ll look at the process in general, some of the greats who do it, and how it can relate to independent artists.

II. Learn from the Greats

Because part of this article is about acknowledging proven traditions and processes, I’ve reached out to a couple pros for their wisdom. Stuart Epps, a London-based producer who’s worked with Elton John and Led Zeppelin, offers unique recollections and observations from his work on John’s 1970 self-titled album. Trey Pollard, multi-instrumentalist and producer / arranger at Spacebomb Records, gets into the process of his craft.  

Epps helped organize the preproduction sessions for John’s self-titled album. “The songs [Elton] had written were quite complex,” Epps says, “It was semi-classical. Gus Dudgeon was brought in, who’d worked with David Bowie on ‘Space Oddity,’ which was quite ‘far out’ if you will. He heard the demos and said, ‘Well we have to get Paul Buckmaster to do the strings.’ He’s the guy who wrote it all out, it was up to him to come up with the notes.”

Pollard had an early interest in arranging before getting more serious about studying and experimenting in college. “The first time I actually arranged strings for a record was on Matthew E. White’s Big Inner,” he says.  

Big Inner was the inaugural launch for Spacebomb Records, an independent record label and production house based in Richmond, VA. Spacebomb’s process takes its cues from the likes of Motown, using a house rhythm section and in-house arrangers. Pollard has written all the strings for their releases.

Their DIY ethos does not skimp on professionalism, as every step is meticulously thought, if not written, out. Most importantly, the musicianship is out of this world. Among other things, the model works because of their access to quality players at affordable prices.

III. Arranging and Producing

As I have covered, DIY recording methods often blur the different roles of the process. This can make it difficult to define arranging, and how it relates to and differs from producing.

Pollard says, “To me, producing and arranging are basically the same job with slightly different, but overlapping, tools.” They both involve “an arrangement of sounds to support a song. These terms generally refer to deciding what instruments / sounds / production-elements are playing which notes / rhythms that build the song,” he says.  

Epps says, “The record producer is more in control of the sound. They might get involved in the arrangement of the songs, but there’s a difference between arranging the song and arranging strings.” He draws a comparison to the movie world, explaining, “A record producer is more like a film director than a film producer. The producer usually just fronts the money, but the director is in charge.”

Being aware of which hat you’re wearing can be helpful, but just remember each step of production should get you closer to realizing the song.

IV. Mechanics and Mindset

Pollard goes more in depth in his summary of arranging by covering the horizontal and vertical framework of a song. “By horizontally,” he says, “I mean the story of the song, in time from beginning to end. Something should happen, you should take the song somewhere and bring us to the end.”

For a very small-scale example, consider the classic melody “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The very first phrase leaps an octave, and the following phrases descend back down to the starting note. This is only one element of the story, melody, but there is a natural and apparent journey there.

He continues, “The vertical refers to the harmonic / counter-melodic material that fills in the sonic space around the melody. As a reference, when the song ‘Stand By Me’ starts, the vertical space is so perfect and sparse, just bass and percussion. The horizontal growth is built entirely on the vertical structure, which is essentially just that one riff, getting thicker and thicker. It’s a beautiful simple arrangement that works. There’s that nice instrumental bit with a new melody and counter-melody and some weird vocal pads, but there’s really only 2 elements, the riff and the melody. The production and arrangement of that song are one in the same.”

The main texture by the end of “Stand By Me” is the string arrangement. Epps points out that, for tracks like that, “Because they’re being played by session musicians, horn plays, string players, they have to be written parts.”

For many, written notation is a primary difference between arranging and producing. Epps says the arranger typically has a more classical background, while “the producer is on the more technical side of things.”

“I think generally people use the word ‘producing’ as a catch-all for everything else that’s not ‘songwriting,” Pollard says. “It’s essentially deciding how the song should ‘go.’ Whether it’s a bunch of power-chord guitars taking up the vertical space or a horn section or a bunch of electronic noise, there still is a finite about of space” in the mix / arrangement, he explains, “and it should still support the melody in basically… the same way. Range and tessitura still work the same no matter what the sounds are. I’m not going to put any competing sound that is in exactly the same range melody in the track. An example of a ‘competing’ sound would be one that is too active to be perceived as ‘background material.’ It will clash with the vocal and confuse the perception of the melody.”

V. Find Your Groove

If you don’t have a formal music background, and / or  don’t know words like tessitura, do not fret. “I think that a lot of people that think of themselves as producers do the same things” as an arranger, Pollard acknowledges, “they might just get there a different way.”

Quincy Jones and Dr. Dre both produce award-winning music with R&B roots. They do not necessarily sound similar, and their backgrounds are very different, yet their thought process and ingredients are essentially the same.

The idea of notating lines for eight to sixteen string players and ten horn players can seem daunting, but just remember a song is basically a story, and you don’t necessarily need those textures to tell your story. As Pollard explained earlier, a good song takes the listener on a journey, and journeys require a vehicle, an engine, a mode of moving.

“I think a lot about the ‘motor’ of the track,” Pollard explains. “There’s melodic material, there’s harmonic material, and then there’s the ‘motor,’” he says. 

Something like a rhythm guitar or piano often dips into melodic, harmonic, and motor.

He suggests finding out, “What is the essence of this motor, rhythmically? Break it down to it’s most basic form (i.e. maybe it’s a clave or something similar). Decide whether an element of the arrangement can / should add to the effectiveness of the rhythm or if it should exist outside of it.”

Consider “Still Dre” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The piano riff on 8th notes is the motor. Other elements in the arrangement include bass, drums, a string sample, a synth, and of course vocals. Listen to the way the drums and bass accentuate the piano motor. The other elements are less constant so as not to interfere with the motor.

“If an element is not helping the rhythm, that’s fine,” Pollard continues, “but make sure it stays out of the way of it. Don’t have the horns playing some rhythmic thing that confuses the essence of that motor. I’m not saying that everything has to ‘hook up’ all the time, but in general, decide whether it’s helping that motor or not. And if it is, make it sit really nice and accentuate everything that makes it work.”

Popular music especially has long been rooted in the rhythm, the groove of a song. Because of the movement, well-arranged songs in the popular tradition are fantastic for dance parties or blasting in your car stereo. Whatever elements you choose to arrange, try to present some narrative for your listener.

VI. The Rules Have Changed but the Game is the Same

I mentioned at the beginning of the article that the craft of arranging, in the traditional sense, is fading. Resources such as MIDI have enabled producers, whether working in their bedroom or in a state-of-the-art studio, to play virtually any part digitally.

“Everything has changed with sample keyboards that produce the most amazing orchestral sounds,” Epps says. “With budgets now I very rarely get to use a string section. I use a particular keyboard player named Paul Hirsch. He’ll play a whole orchestral part and it costs a few hundred dollars instead of a couple thousand,” he half celebrates, half laments. (Ahem, Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, VA offers very affordable string players / arranging.)

“To a certain extent,” Epps says, “it doesn’t have to be written out anymore. It’s put a lot of people out of work, I think. If they’re good they’ve probably gone into film or TV. Most arrangers probably want to get into TV.”

While traditional arranging is less present in popular music today, it wasn’t necessarily mainstream in early 1960s and 70s rock / pop either (Phill Spector and Motown perhaps being the exceptions). Many of the artists who were doing it in the 60’s were themselves looking back to singers like Frank Sinatra, who recorded with massive orchestras.

Epps mentions the Elton John album he worked on. The production method was not the norm for rock bands even as musically articulate as the Beatles. He says, “It wasn’t just arranged for strings. It was arranged for strings, bass, guitar, everything. What should the bassline be? What should the drums do? It was quite different for a pop album at the time, but it was definitely like the way Frank Sinatra would have done it.”

These bigger, more eclectic sound palettes stemmed from fantastic collaborations. “Paul [Buckmaster] was a young guy,” Epps says, “and just as in-tune to rock and pop as he was classical. That’s part of what’s so interesting about the Beatles and George Martin. They were from different eras. He was not only producing, but was also their string arranger. That’s probably why it worked so well. He was maybe even more an arranger than a producer, ‘cause knew what they wanted.”

It’s nice to romanticize about being part of such a partnership, but do not be discouraged if that doesn’t seem possible. “Process depends on the budget,” Epps says plainly. “In the 60s,” he unveils, “it was about who could afford it and wanted to experiment.”

No matter your budget or resources, you can be an arranger. Give care to the process. Give care to the song. Think about the story and how your arrangement contributes to its drama. I’ve compiled a list of the songs and people mentioned in this article, plus several other songs I think have exceptional arrangements. One of the best ways (I’d say the best way) to get into arranging is to listen to great arrangements.

It’s always unique and interesting to know what a composer thinks of their own work, so I’ve provided a little commentary from Pollard, who arranged the first track on the playlist “Christy.” I unfortunately was not able to track down the other arrangers / producers on this playlist, but if you want to know why I included a track, what I dig about it, shoot me an e-mail.  

Scroll below the playlist for the glossary / name-drop references



Aaliyah “Are You That Somebody” (not on Spotify)

“Christy” by Natalie Prass (on the playlist) 
Pollard says this is his favorite arrangement he’s had the pleasure of writing. “Since it was only going to be strings and harp in the track, I only had to tend to Natalie’s voice and the melody. Not the melody plus drums, bass, a bunch of chordal instruments, etc. That’s fun too, but since you don’t get many opportunities to be the sole-creator of the instrumental sounds that often, when those songs come along, it’s really refreshing. It’s a really dark song too, lyrically, so it was nice to get go down that road a bit. In a track like this, you get to have a bit more freedom with inner voices. In a big track with drums and pianos and everything, you still do your due diligence and make sure there’s good voice-leading, but you never really hear most of that in the final mix. So, it’s nice to be able to hear that stuff and know that every black dot you write will inform the listener’s experience.”

Stuart Epps (is an active Musicpage member and enjoys working with young artists on any number of things from management to production)

Trey Pollard

Spacebomb Records

Paul Buckmaster

Gus Dudgeon 

George Martin

Quincy Jones 

tessitura– the range that the voice / instrument sounds “best.” And / or the range that is used most frequently throughout a piece. 

ARTISTS, RESIST NOW

I grew up listening to my parents’ music from the 1960s: Motown, The Beach Boys, The Beatles. Fast cars and young love. Dancing in the street and holding hands. Also Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sam Cooke, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & the Family Stone -- all full of so-called “protest songs.”

Many musicians in the 60s and early 70s not only wrote songs condemning the Vietnam War and segregation, but they marched and organized, they took action.

Well if Ferguson wasn’t enough, if Standing Rock wasn’t enough, if Congress’s refusal to fill a Supreme Court seat wasn’t enough for us to take action, by golly, the election of Donald Trump better be enough!

Artists, producers, label execs, venue-owners, bloggers, studio engineers:  THIS IS THE TIME TO STAND UP AND SAY SOMETHING. THIS IS THE TIME TO TAKE ACTION.

Some will say, “it’s not the place of an artist,” to get political. FUCK THAT. What is the point of having a microphone if you don’t have anything to say? It is our duty to speak truth to power. It is our duty to give voice (and AMPLIFICATION) to those without.

So people of the music industry: what are you doing to #Resist ?  

Are you playing benefit shows for Planned Parenthood and ACLU? Are you marching? Are you writing protest songs? Are you calling your representatives?

I want action, I want it now, and I want it PUBLIC. This is not the time to worry about keeping your career and your political beliefs separate. That is no longer a luxury we have (if we ever did at all). The risk is too great, the consequences are too wide-reaching.

Artists, if you are not speaking out, if you are not taking action, I will not buy your records. I will not listen to your music. I will not treat you like an artist, because if you do not have the courage to speak out, then you have no business claiming that title.

Whether it’s in your music, or your social media presence, or your direct political action, I want your #RESISTANCE, and I want it NOW.

 

End of the Year Updates and Stuff!

Wow it's been quite a while since I've posted here. I better tell you why-- explain what I've been up to that's kept me away.

In September, my partner and often-collaborator Katie and I moved from Omaha back to Grinnell, IA. We spent the fall living at the artist residency Grin City Collective. While there, I worked on Grinnell's community theater production of The Fantasticks as the lead boy, Matt, and Katie put together some videos for the retirement community St. Francis, for which I composed the music. 

We moved into town this past month and have yet to set up internet. This has led to sometimes increased productivity, and sometimes decreased productivity. So many tasks for freelance artists require the net!! We've certainly been listening to more vinyl and reading more books. 

Right before I came back to Iowa I tracked one last EP at Yorick Studio in Omaha. The 4 songs are now being mixed in Nashville by Derek Porter of Pageant. I met Derek when he and his sister Erica came through Omaha on a mini-Pageant tour. He'll also be laying down some horns and I am pretty pumped to hear it. Stay tuned for info on that release . . . 

Last month I had a crazy weekend in Omaha. With Justin Carter, I arranged and produced the debut album for Collin Smith. Collin's songs and guitar playing are both exceptional. In the span of 2 days, we tracked 7 songs and played a show at the beloved Barley St. Tavern. It was a helluva rock  n roll weekend. We wrapped overdubs just before the holidays and Justin is currently mixing that project. 

Katie and I have been playing more regularly, and already have a few shows lined up in January, including one on the 15th at State Street Bar in Grinnell. We'll continue to play around Grinnell and hope to start booking elsewhere in Iowa.

I guess that's about it! Much of the Midwest got hammered with snow the past couple days, so I'll end this post with a list of songwriting / creative activities to try while you're holed up inside.  Here's to a happy and healthy 2016! Keep supporting independent creatives, keep on lovin your neighbors!

Songwriting and other Creative Exercises
* Talking Heads and Bob Dylan both have songs about a Mr. Jones character. Write your own.
* Write a song on an instrument you don't usually play.
* Write a song based on an image. OR, draw / paint something based on a song.
* Write a campaign song for a candidate from the past, present, or future. 
* Produce a Ryan Adams song in the style of Taylor Swift. 
* Write a protest song.
* Pick three objects within reach, write about them.
* Make a poster for your ideal concert (you may be on the bill if you so choose)
* Play your instrument in an unconventional way (upside down, w/ your non-dominant hand, etc.) 
* Write a song in the voice of yourself 5, 10, or 15 years ago. Bonus if you use voice as a verse
* Write a theme song for your favorite film from 2015 (even the film already has one)
* Make up a dance move. Give it a name. 
* Make a snow sculpture. Bonus points for a snow / ice instrument. 

I'm Not Raising My Voice

I am not raising my voice. I am calm. As calm as a self-identifying activist and musician can be when some nonsense disturbs both those parts of my identity.

Despite rocknroll’s absurdly racist and sexist culture, stemming long before Elvis and long beyond John Mayer, music, particularly popular music (you can interpret this loosely, rock, rap jazz, etc. “not classical” or “concert music”), has also been a refuge for minority voices and social outcasts.

Folk music is about bringing people together through tradition. As is blues music, with the addition of overcoming the blues, whether they came from a shitty boss or a lover. Rocknroll is about fucking The Man, the System of oppression and outdated, colonialist power structures and values. Rap music does all that, and is currently the most cutting edge sonically and socially, which is probably why it scares bigots the most. If you find yourself saying / living the “I listen to everything except rap,” lifestyle, you may need to ask yourself some questions.

Music can be, has been, and will continue to be, one of the most powerful platforms for social change. Not just music, but art in general. If you are an artist and you publicly say “Fuck the po-lice!” or “Mississippi, God damn!” you can keep your job. If you do it as well as N.W.A. and Nina Simone, you’ll have created an anthem that helps to unite people. John Lennon can ask us to imagine no Heaven or Hell. Other humanitarian professions, such as public officials or priests, do not have the same liberty with their message.

But music’s relationship to our social and political world goes far beyond lyrical content. I don’t even want to be writing blogs to articulate this because by doing so I am becoming Chief Hypocrite, however:

We need to be elevating a more diverse set of voices in this culture--- in Omaha, and the music culture beyond.

Celebrating “women in music,” with an all-male bill is absurd. I am aware that most shows in Omaha already have all-male bills, and don’t play ANY music by females. However, if the goal of such an event is sincerely to celebrate “women in music” (which is somehow still a relevant set of words, that’s another issue altogether, Neko Case covers it far better than I could in this essay), the organizers of this event would have booked an entirely female bill.

It would be easy. It would be right.

Instead, this event looks like it comes from the Onion. The flier uses an image of Lady from Almost Famous, who is not a musician, but a fan (no disrespect to fans, and she’s the greatest fan of all). So is the message that women’s place in music is to simply adore the men on stage? (Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies, but it does not have a single scene of a female playing music). Maybe it was just hard to find a good picture of a female performer... 

If it’s truly an extension of the Johnny Cash night, it sends the message that it takes ALL WOMEN IN MUSIC to equal the greatness of Johnny Cash. Furthermore, having females play Cash’s songs is unique and subversive. Having men take the spotlight once again is entitled and mainstream. There is not a single female’s name on that poster.

I am not raising my voice, because it is not the time for my voice to be raised.

Seriously though I think the bill needs a big makeover.

Many of the ideas expressed in here come from other lady musicians. I can give personal credit if they'd like. I am aware that being a white male gives me advantages in terms of voicing these ideas.

THIS MESSAGE IS AS NON-PERSONAL AS CAN BE. I AM AS CULPABLE AS THE NEXT PERSON AND I AM WORKING ON CALLING MYSELF OUT AND SPARKING DISCUSSIONS WHEN I SEE IT ELSEWHERE

Easy thing we can do to make progress on this issue: listen to only female songwriters / producers for a month. If you’re daring, do it for a year (if you did it for the next five years you still wouldn’t have gender balance in your listening lifetime listening consumption, I guarantee it). Check out the playlist below for a start! 

 

1. Strange Fruit by India.Arie-- Haunting Civil Rights song with a modern update. Billie Holliday's version was the first I heard, but this is an incredible interpretation. 

2. Man by Neko Case-- Neko Case is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Her lyrics and production work are always top notch. This is a good one about gender and such. 

3. The Vigilante by Judee Sill-- She's an incredible singer, songwriter, and produced and arranged her second album Heart Food.

4. Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone-- Nina is one of those untouchable artists like Beethoven and Duke Ellington. This live version is her at her best, and shows her belief that politics and art are one. 

5. It's a Mighty World by Odetta-- I don't know if any other singer alive could do this song. Maybe Aretha Franklin. Odetta is the Monarch of American Popular Music. She was also an actress and activist. 

6. Doobie Down by Georgia Ann Muldrow-- I just found out about her and am stunned. I can't find track credits for this song, but she's produced and / or composed and / or arranged an astonishing collection of music this decade. 

7. Supermodel by Jill Sobule-- She's got great lyrics, this one is pretty charged but super fun. Kind of an early No Doubt sound. 

8. Rocksteady by Aretha Franklin-- Aretha is of course a fantastic singer but was also in fucking charge as a bandleader. This is one of the grooviest grooves that will ever be. 

9. Do You Want to Play by Jewel-- My partner and one my best friends from Oklahoma both love Jewel, so I've always made sure to give her an occasional spin. Definitely need to do that more frequently.  Love the lyrics / images in this one. 

10. I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues by Billie Holliday-- She needs no intro. 

 

Spend Money (on music) to Make Money (in the rest of your life)

Last week I read an article titled, "Where Young College Graduates are Choosing to Live." The article mentions that cities like Denver, Portland, and Nashville have become hubs for the young and educated. Read the article if you want, but it never mentions music, which will naturally be the subject of this muse. More specifically, I'll offer a little about how a vibrant music scene impacts a community. 

The cities mentioned above, plus Austin, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Des Moines, are among cities that transformed or grew during the recession. They have become popular hubs for tech-start ups, microbreweries, and not-so-coincidentally also have renowned music cultures, or are making a concerted effort to generate one.

Oklahoma City and Des Moines do not have the music reputation of Austin or Portland, but through projects like Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM, Oklahoma City) and the Des Moines Music Coalition these cities are investing in the infrastructure to create and support music culture. ACM develops the crafts of local players, and draws more music students to the city and state. The sister-school to the original Guilford, UK location, ACM opened in OKC the same year the now-thriving Thunder brought the NBA to the city for good. Since 2000, OKC's population has grown about 20%. 

Recession or not, when you give bands a place to play, and when you give patrons music to see and hear, they'll all go out and spend money. They'll spend it on gas to get there. Tickets or a cover to get in, beer at the show. They'll buy records, and the artist will use that money to pay photographers, web designers, independent t-shirt shops, and to buy more gas to go do it all again. Music enlivens its surroundings. 

me performing at one of Benson's new pubs/microbreweries, the  Benson Brewery. 

me performing at one of Benson's new pubs/microbreweries, the Benson Brewery. 

Consider the layers of economic stimulation that comes with a good music nightlife: cab drivers, restaurants, bar owners,  alcohol manufacturers, farmers who grow the grain for the booze. We could dissect this further-- engineers who built the tractors for the farmers... 

My neighborhood in Omaha, Benson, also demonstrates how music can grow a neighborhood. Over the past five to ten years, several new venues have opened, along with other independent businesses such as microbreweries, cafes, and an arts collective (which also has a venue...and a cafe...). On any given night of the week, Benson offers live entertainment. The five-block strip on Maple St. has become one of the hoppin-est neighborhoods in the city. 

When you go out to a show, or buy an album, or support a crowd-sourcing project, you are not just supporting an artist. You are supporting your entire community. Not only do you get the invaluable pleasure of experiencing the music, you are also investing in healthy growth for your city. Go support some music, you will literally make your home more valuable. 

 

photo by Katie In 

photo by Katie In 



Artist Residency Recap: ISLAND's Hill House

Last August-September I attended the Institute for Sustainable Living and Design (ISLAND)'s Hill House artist residency.  Located in a fairly remote area of northeastern Michigan, Hill House is a solo residency for all types of artists and designers, from musicians to photographers to architects. 

I intended to write and arrange a psychedelic baseball album. As soon as I arrived (to a bottle of red wine and homemade cookies) I knew I needed to mostly disregard any preconceived plans. The energy was wild and demanding, yet tranquil and inviting. 

The experience continues to resonate with me. I know that much of what I gained from those eleven days can't be put into words, but here are some highlights from that journey. 
 

________________________________________________________

Started all 9 songs for a psychedelic baseball album

Listened to many great records: Isaac Hayes, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, Leon Russell, to name a few

Watched most of Archer (had started before I arrived, but damn if I didn’t finish here)

Watched A League of Their Own and Bad News Bears (1976)

Drank beer from Short’s Brewery (Pontius Rd.)

Played songs at Short’s Brewery, got two more growlers and an e-mail requesting I mail a CD to Traverse City

Used a tube pre-amp for the first time

Used the tube pre-amp to record a Kickstarter reward song

And a song for my nephew’s 2nd birthday

Washed my feet in the Jordan River, and wrote a song about it

Took many walks/hikes/runs , and even a couple bike rides (I love that Schwinn)

Got chased by big dog Maddie almost every time

Made bread for the first time

Got very lost on the way Hill House, went to Brad & Amanda’s house

Interactions with Wal Mart: pisses taken in- 2, parkings lots slept in- 1, dollars spent in- 0.

It was my first time to sleep in one of their lots and I loved it--my mini van, Ludwig, is cozy

Read much of Make Art Make Money, a book that uses Jim Henson’s career as a business and life model of sorts for artists

Watched The Muppet Movie (1979) for the first time ever

Ate, prayed, loved



3 Things We Do When We Should Be Getting Better

3 THINGS WE DO WHEN WE SHOULD BE GETTING BETTER

These are some things that often hold me back as a musician. Really if we zoom out enough, we can probably apply similar ideas to other professions. I just happen to be a working musician right now, and hope that by working to overcome some of these things, I can get closer to making a living with my songs. 

1. Blame it on the Venue 

After a great or not-so-great show, we wake up the next day, and instead of focusing on what went well, and taking note of things we could fix for next time, we dwell on the sound guy's inadequacy. There will always be some weird relationship between "musicians" and "engineers," to some extent, but this dynamic does not exist in the great studios and great venues (Fillmore East and West, Abbey Road Studios, etc). So far I'd say my musician hat is way sexier than my engineer hat, but I do have experience with both, and I feel comfortable stating it is not that difficult to eliminate that tension. 

We are all part of a team. The bar owner wants to bring drinkers in, the sound person wants the band to sound good so the drinkers are happy, and the band wants to kick ass so the drinkers like them and the bar owner asks them back. Everyone has an idea about how to make that happen, but in the end, the owner is boss. Shouldn't be too hard to meet their demands, since musicians and audio engineers are great listeners.

So make a plan for "dealing" with venues. Obviously there will be moments you cannot anticipate, that's the glory of rock and roll, but many issues can be mitigated before they even happen. Always introduce yourself to the venue's staff. We know, as lowly musicians, that the workers are the most powerful. We want that bartender who appears to be "in charge" to like what we're up to. She's the person at the business who has the most contact with the patrons, and has the owner's ear. The more drinks she sells, the more money we make. 

Next Saturday, after that show, wake up: think of how awesome it was that the cute bartender remembered your name and sake the owner to invite your band back, let go of the resentment toward the sound person, maybe even e-mail the venue-owner thanking them for having you in, and dammit get back to work. Pick up your guitar, sit down at the keyboard, run your rudiments and crank out more hits. 

 

2. Bitterness toward the Successful 

I often catch myself talking shit on successful bands that are "not that good." Hint: they are always "that good." It doesn't matter what our scale is-- financial, crowd size, whatever. If a band's success is apparent enough to piss us off, they are "that good." Maybe their songwriting is derivative, maybe their shows are the same every time, maybe their album is full of production gimmicks. Guess what? Most people listening to and buying music are not trained musicians. They don't usually notice many of the things that irritate us, and if they do, it doesn't bother them. Plus, don't we all know how hard this game is? To write a song at all, let alone a song that people want to listen to? And then rehearse that song, plus 9-10 others, with other musicians who also have opinions and ideas? Then you have to play that song after a full day's work, after setting up all your gear, without time for dinner? Damn, this band really is that good. 

Rather than spending time and energy undercutting these bands, and their dumb fans for listening to that crap, we could open our ears to the secret in their sound. Why is it working for so many listeners? How come when I try things like that doesn't work? If listening to some bands really does make us bitter, we must stop listening to them! We have buckets of great music available, and we must not waste our time and efforts by gardening resentment. 

 

3. Do it all from Facebook

I am the most guilty of this. Social media sites are enormously powerful tools for artists. When I was living in small-town Iowa last year, I was essentially a digital artist-- not to the extent of Gorillaz, but my main presence was online. With these tools we rarely have to make posters, or send out CDs/tapes to labels and licensing companies, and we can get "press" by sitting in our underwear in bed and snapping off a quick blog. 

However, do not let them suck your time, and do not think they are a substitute for hard work and talking to people about your art. Sometimes I post things on the web, and I assume all the people who listen to/like my music will see it. Even if this were true (which it is not), I'm still only reaching people who already have an interest in my music. It's important to tell your story always. This doesn't mean we should all be "that guy" everywhere we go, boasting and loud-mouthing about how awesome our music is. But it does mean we are confident and comfortable telling people our story, face-to-face. Next time you have a spare $2, get off the couch, pack up your laptop, and go to the coffee shop. If you work on that new banner at the coffee shop, someone might see it and like it and ask about your art. Oh yes, this is a banner for my new website. I'm a musician… 

If you rely on social media to do all your networking because you're agoraphobic, this might not be the business for you. 

If you rely on social media to do all your networking because it's easier, stop being lazy.

 

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Thank you for reading. My name is Erik Jarvis and I'm a musician living in Omaha, Nebraska. I believe in fostering great communities everywhere, I believe the group is stronger than the individual. Collaboration over competition.