Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
I thought this would be a breezy book full of anecdotes of an unarguably spectacular career. Instead it is a densely packed master course in the craft of songwriting full of anecdotes of an unarguably spectacular career. The only place I might quibble is his distaste for home recording studios but when the book was written, the Nineties, he was right. As Terry Woodford at Wishbone Studios once warned me, "They get those fuckin' four tracks and turn into engineers and forget to write songs." Having experienced the four-track to eight-track to sixteen-track to sequencers to samplers and finally to digital workstations evolution and wasted hours and hours chasing a ground fault instead of recording, he was right. Complexity kills creativity. On the other hand, like the character on Night Court, it is much better now and a good home recording system that is easy to operate is within anyone's reach. That said, if you can't just step into the "magic circle" turn it on and start working, get rid of it and buy something simpler. Gear junkies are not the friends of songwriters or music in general. Really.
The chapters on writing lyrics are quite good. I don't know many songwriters who use the term metric foot but those who understand it write better lyrics from a musical standpoint. An irritation when listening to songwriters perform their songs is that they can't precisely understand why a lyric sounds forced or is awkward to sing, that is, getting vowels and consonants lined up with the beats is really not an inconvenience. Musicality and semantics (what do I want to say in this song) contend for dominance but it is a song and musicality or singability should win.
Now comes the part of the book I suspect many people skip: chord theory, progression, substitutions and functions. Here is where the good songwriters and the excellent songwriters part company usually in the snark of a Nashville attitude of chord policing. Webb talks a bit about that but disregards it and goes on to explain the aspects of voicing that make the difference between a guitar player and a guitar thinker, between someone who can sing a Crosby Stills and Nash harmony and someone who understands why Mozart is as good as it gets.
One can network and get a certain distance even a profitable one into the music business. One can study theory and find oneself shut out of certain networks or called "cerebral", but eventually triads run out of steam and writing about daisy dukes, whiskey, and screwing in the back of a pickup means the songs are interchangeable and forgettable, then success or a career is a matter of who you know or blow and not your skill and the elegance of your work. Pretty only goes so far or lasts so long and even cleverness loses to one prettier that day or more willing. Be appropriate to style but don't limit yourself to one. The ability to analyze and write in any style is the hallmark of a professional.
There are singers, songwriters, singer-songwriters and composers and if one wants to take the adventure of a lifetime that is music, it pays to keep at the study of music as much as the practice. And this is where too many who frequent the songwriter nights fall off the chuck wagon.
Life is a long song. If you want to thrive in the multiverse, cross the bridge.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
I've played at the Sunday Songwriters Night which is an audition-filtered event. That is a different show where songwriters who pass the audition can appear when scheduled in six month intervals and play a show with nine other writers one of whom will be the headliner and a professional. The open mic night is a "line up, sign up, get a number, go on when called". You wait in a long line outside because the seats inside are given to the paying customers who also wait in a long line for the privilege of getting a seat. Some pointers:
Take your best song, a guitar with fresh strings and your humility. This is fun, it is good for your confidence and it is The Bluebird. It won't make you famous. It will make you better. As a songwriter AND a musician, get up every day and get better.
A postscript: as I was leaving town, I went into a Burger King to find a bathroom and get a burger. The restaurant manager behind the counter was looking at a rap video a customer was showing him and telling him how to best market his song. This is Nashville: Wall to Wall.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
I find myself thinking about the realities and unrealities of songwriting as a business. As a creative process, it isn't difficult but as a business it seems to be more warped these days by the industry that while saying "it's all about the song" hides the reality that it is all about the deal, the image and the trite repetition of cliches about country life or rock life or folk life or blues life that bear little resemblance to how people actually live while dumbing music itself down. Harlan Howard was the songwriter who made the famous statement that country music is "three chords and the truth".
The music mills have the three chords part down but the truth slipped away. The brilliance of the American songbook has been steadily going down the drain of spreadsheet analyses of what will sell and how to sell it. As the desperation to be part of the market machine in hopes of wealth or fame or a good time reaches out into the C-lists of wannabe songwriters who are told how to "cooperate and network" but little about how to recognize a good song I am struck by a remark by Joni Mitchell passed on by an interviewer:
“Somewhere after 2007, around that time, I think,” she says she heard, on the radio, a record executive “saying quite confidently, ‘We’re no longer looking for talent. We’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate.’ ”
To those who claim it was ever thus, I say bullshit. There was a time when creativity combined with a deep knowledge of music counted for more and if one believes what Howard said, we have to admit that a list of Grammy wins and co-writer credits may only testify to one's willingness to accept that reality, put it over and go along for the ride. One reads blog after blog about what it takes to be "commercial" and nothing about what it means to honestly observe the world as it is and write songs one will be satisfied to sing.
The epitaph of this generation of songwriters and songs may be a single word: "Forgettable."
Sunday, April 26, 2015
It was an intriguing question after our gig last night: can this town or any other audience these days embrace groups that choose to play diverse styles and sounds or are we forced by the narrowing tastes of the loudest in the audience and the curators of local culture to play only one, to take on that image and to rise and fall with the popularity of one style? Labeling for the sake of marketing and clique formation plays a role in selling but when the market controls dominate the creative processes the results are predictable both on the product and the producers.
The explosion of the Sixties was not fueled by one style or lit by the domination of blues, folk, so called roots music, jazz or any other single form but the fusion of them by eclectic songwriters and arrangers who understood their connections and how to create background/foreground compositions both original and enticing. Ever since that time as musicians and writers have been forced into the labeled molds, music has declined in brilliance, intensity and originality.
The Beatles never stopped learning new things. The Beach Boys were the product of a group of jazz players who understood technique and how to fuse different styles. The hits of Glen Campbell were the outcome of the eclectic chordal and melodic reach of Jimmy Webb in defiance of the so-called Nashville Sound whose Chord Police would have strangled them had Campbell not been a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew with access to the best players in the world at that time. Yet just as post after post in social media yearns for those times and celebrates that music, the audience driven by social agendas and self-serving curators keep wrapping steel ribbons of This But Not That around the creative classes as if to say they cannot fly because to allow that is to admit wings are not common among ground walkers.
"Where shall we go now, where shall we go
To hear the sweet voices of liberty?
How shall we come again come to the flaming torch
The light that shines in our memory?
The shattered hopes of happiness
Are lost in foam and splinters
Of men like wooden ships
Broken on the reefs of contentment.
" The Reefs of Contentment - Ground Level Sound (1991) "
Saturday, April 25, 2015
I found this picture on the web and it captures the spirit of trolling: an ugly cuss who quite enjoys vile, who will use the politics of personal destruction early and often even when the topic is abstract and there are no personal issues in play. They collect information, twist it and then in short quick bursts piss in the punchbowl.
I call this fellow iDUBBY to remember how one handles him. With most social media platforms such as Facebook, there is an order of operations that will get rid of iDUBBYs when they invade your space.
Social media implies a responsibility to preserve your own reputation even if it means shutting up. It also implies a responsibility to be smart and non-reactive. Again, sometimes the person stayed too long at the nachos and dip bowl and then failed to slip outside for a smoke before moving on to the anchovies. Best to tolerate what is not too odoriferous or move next to the band where the noise drowns out the heavy sighs.
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Some such as Percy Sledge watched their incomes evaporate not because of streaming but because Sledge's one big hit was recorded before 1972 and copyright law today makes it impossible to collect. So where Michael Bolton got the money (and Percy did not begrudge that because he liked the cover), Sledge got zilch. Nada. Before he died Percy was being taken care of by friends in Muscle Shoals who played help gigs for him. Levon Helm was hurt by streaming and piracy. Once again, the music tribe stepped in to help but it was tough and is still tough for his widow.
The top tier is trying to organize themselves to compete and having a hard time of it because the image they projected for so long is working against them. It is simply hard to feel sorry for Madonna with her leg on the table trying to look young or a guy who walks on stage wearing a mouse head. They look spoiled and that doesn't make a good case for paying more money for their music if it can be gotten for less from legit but shady streamers. Good luck with Tidal but the zeitgeist is against it.
In case the impact of losing record sales revenue isn't completely clear, some years ago when working on web standards I debated those who said this was a good thing for music and musicians telling them that in the future the big bands would be the old bands that made it in the seventies and that ticket prices would be $300 a seat. They said it could never happen. The following is a screen snap of an online ticket ordering form for The Eagles courtesy of Michael Buffalo Smith.
A little depressing, eh? I underestimated by a factor of three.
At the bottom where the overwhelming vast majority of us operate, the ones the curators refer to as "strictly second rate" and are desperate to curate away, the results are mixed. We have to produce independently, watch our pennies and so folks such as I have to scramble and burn 401ks to bury our parents. We see pirates taking our music and streaming it out of Russia, shrug and move on because we can't fight them. Our best gigs are brew pubs that will pay 75 dollars a man a night because otherwise we are working for tips.
We can try to punch through the Nashville-We-Only-Work-With-the-Best crowd that turned Chet Atkins' Music City (a generous man) into a ten year town. We are told if we offend the wrong person at any step, we are done in that town. We are told we have to "write only with the right people" and anything we organize locally that helps locals, they send their representatives to take over. ASCAP/BMI/SESAC are johnny on the spot to collect fees even if all the songs are original and unregistered. They threaten small rooms needed to keep the beginners alive. They are the Mafia For the Labels. Reverbnation and YouTube get our music out there and whatever rate we are, we aren't curated into oblivion to satisfy the social warrior agenda of some industry maven who can't play a note but knows what he or she likes and everyone must like what they like or "it isn't good music". Meh.
For the lower class, these are better times than ever as far as distribution but we won't get paid same as the A-listers.
No matter what class we are in, artists are the losers. Almost all of the publicity you are reading right now about this is designed to help the major labels who are simultaneously buying up the streaming services, making deals and passing none of that to the artists while also asking for more of their touring income. Talk about gang rape; this is buggering by the bundle.
Music is a brutal business with hands out everywhere to take money from the artists. If the top tier is feeling our pain down here, well, they at least get to moan and cry in their Escalades drinking expensive vodka and telling us we need each other. That would be nice but I'm not holding my breath. I'm selling my mom's furniture, clothes and cookware for pennies on the pound because the man at the funeral home gives us six months. Not sure what happens after that. I don't think he can return her. Whatever.
Where money is concerned, we are not all in this together. The haves and have nots of the music business are still pretty much glaring at one another and that won't change. When they beg us to sign their petitions for new laws but can't explain how it helps anyone but the one tenth of one percent at the top, we shrug and go back to fighting each other for the brew pub gigs. As Waylon Jennings once said when criticized for his disregard of Nashville, "Man, I was just trying to survive."
On the other hand the comp-sci industry and the dumb-asses who think they have a valid opinion in the face of the largest hijacking of cultural wealth in history are most certainly the villains in this piece because at least we are producing something and they are taking and gouging eyes out. Like all class wars at some point the peasants will put pick axes through their skulls metaphorically or otherwise. Those servers out there aren't fortresses. Right now Google, Spotify whoever are protected by the rigged laws of the US of The Big Banks and Bought Senators. But there are third world countries where such laws don't exist and where there is plenty of hungry technical talent. Imagine a sharable app that has only one job: to ping the hell out of every streaming server it can find, an app that can be hosted outside the US, and which for those who are sympathetic can be put on their machines and run in the off hours the same way the SETI app was run.
Would I write such an app. Heck no. Even if I had the chops, it is war of money on money and anyone in the middle without the money would be phaser fodder by the time the first server goes blue screen. But as an analyst, I think it inevitable that some will. Consider the Richard Clark speech recently where he apologized and confessed the Internet and web applications are a cybercrime wet dream. There is no securing it and certain agencies who insist on putting their biggest secrets on web servers are stupidly manned. And of that, I am certain. But as the kids say, Whatever.
At some point negotiations break down and all hell breaks loose because the greedy and smarmy fail to understand we may not be in the same classes but we are on the same Internet. And they can be hurt.
I think the artists will still get fucked because when it gets down to it what the best of them and the rest of them care about is their art. Like Lenny Breau they aren't good at taking care of themselves and can end up at the bottom of a swimming pool strangled by persons unknown but probably their wives because they can't quit and they can't pay the bills.
And if the streamers and schemers and curators and mental masturbaters don't get that, may the bird of paradise fly up their noses. They suck.
Respectfully of course. We wouldn't want to offend them. :)
Sunday, April 12, 2015
The morning news is awash in the teasing that today Secretary Clinton will announce her candidacy for "the nation's highest office" along with the expected scree on a "historic candidate" because she is a woman. That is right. It will be historic. Many events are historic, in fact every event is. But the future is not made of anticipating how it will look in the future. The future is made of picking goals and achieving them as well as one can achieve them. There is nothing about being a woman that better suits her to being President. That is all cotton candy politics, the color and swirl of a taste of sugar that has no substance. One doesn't have to look further than next month's bills to know what the issues are, or to look at the massive trash piles in our oceans filled with cotton candy containers to understand what is in our future.
I've been a fan of Hillary Clinton since the Tammy Wynette answer. I have no doubt that she is qualified, capable and can make an excellent President. On the other hand, I am a white southern male and gasp, I live in Alabama. So in today's narrative, I am in the villain class, the hand picked, consensus driven makers of all that is evil and wrong in the world. It isn't so but what is perceived is believed and that is politics as practiced in the age of insubstantial consumption. I am also a musician and in music we have a guideline for communicating musically: when in doubt, lay out. And that is possibly what I should do, in fact, what men should do in this election. It isn't about us and we have no candidates who represent us because they need us to be their zanies, puppet fools for the bigger fool to converse with, to mirror and then make the punch line possible to the delight of the kings and their courts.
Let the women have this one, gentlemen. As long as they are serving cotton candy we can be sure this is a circus and after the elephants have been marched around the ring, pooped on the grass and trumpeted from the whip, after the clown cars depart their tents will be folded and the farmland where they played out their tired acts will be spoiled for the planting, ruined and in need of fresh sod. Unless something changes this piece has a furious beginning, a loud middle and is all rhythm on two chords, a Bo Diddley, a single riff and while you can dance to it the musicians only know when it stops because it stops.
Lay out and tend your own garden. That way when the circus leaves town you'll still have a basement stocked and something to trade for coffee.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
I do not know who is right. I've no first hand experience and the world press is every media is now so pervasively stage managed knowing who or what to believe without first hand experience has become a crap shoot. However, the approach to so-called bad neighborhoods in the US has a history and theories one referred to as "fixing the broken windows".
This approach is in some disrepute but that is how those who believe money applied gets the results desired. Sometimes the desire is more mysterious and if so, the results are uncertain. A seldom noted effect of the US Model Cities projects (urban renewal in the 60s) was the clearing of large parts of the original zones to repurpose the property thus requiring the relocation of the original area to a better neighborhood. In other words, it is a complex endeavor and in such many motives predicate many goals. Caveat emptor.
What is certain is there will be no change from a ZUS if the community to which it is applied does not cooperate or are otherwise dispersed.The fact of the Muslim who saved the Jews in the kosher store is a testimony to human decency and courage. The more powerful lesson in my opinion is the fact that a Muslim was an employee of a Jewish shop owner. By hiring him, the owner saved their lives as well because he didn't let the fact of the man being Muslim stop him from hiring a good man. Of such wisdom is good karma made.
We can take endless treks into the relevancies or irrelevancies of people's prejudices and use those to avoid looking directly at the fact of sworn jihad. If that lets some feel better, then feel better. But the fact of sworn jihad by individuals predicates many kinds of response and only some of them require recognizing sworn jihad is a Muslim oath. The rest are about learning to live together.
For that to succeed, US experience, a place where that challenge has been met again and again with much success and some failure, is the more the people work together, play together and worship each according to their own belief and practice while ensuring the right of all not of their faith to do as well is the paradigm that works. What worked in the US however may not work the same in this instance because a minimum of three religions are involved. In the South the fact of common Christianity helped to build a community. It gave the Bham Church bombing a context that illuminated hate as none other could.
This is not the case today in Europe. Europe must confront not only the fact of multi-culturalism but also the responsibility to be both unafraid and wise enough to hire the clerk who takes the money for services to a kosher business and uses it to build a family free by virtue of peace to learn about their neighbors. And the business person who hires them must take the profits of the laborer to do the same. Everyone is not Charlie. Everyone lives in the basement of a church be it in a poor neighborhood or the finest flat in Paris.
It seems to me that to enable the fact of worship to add strength, real respect, understanding and appreciation of the spiritual life of those not of one's own faith must be a cornerstone of cititizenship and education. We do not need teachers that rail against one or all religions because religion will not be managed or eliminated by such negative emotions. We need teachers and leaders who can honestly and earnestly reveal the great common beauty of these human acts that have as their common goal the well-being of the family of man.