Saturday, November 10, 2018

Short Summer Skirts

Monday, October 15, 2018

Lessons Learned As A Singer - Songwriter

By the numbers:

1. If you sing in a style that no one can harmonize, you are a stylist, not a singer.

2. If no one leaving the room can remember a word of your performance, you are a poet with a guitar, not a songwriter.

3. If you are the only person who can "perform your song". see item 2. A good hook with a standard structure beats a long monotone self-confessional every time.

4. Kris Kristofferson wrote with only three chords too. But the lyrics and melody are memorable. See Loving Her Was Easier.   Find the version by The Glazer Brothers.  Then look them up.  Fascinating fellows.

Your job is to write melody, lyrics and chords. Somewhere in those you have to do something really original. Rewrite until you do. Quality over quantity.

5. If what you have are raw songs that you can't actually sing well but a pretty face, you can be labeled as "an innovator" but your producer has to do all the musical work. What you are is "product" or as the pros say, "meat". That's ok but you have a very short career ahead. Have an exit strategy known as "a day job". There is no shame in it. In fact, in these post-CD-album days where the song is worth almost nothing and the recording has a little bit more than nothing value, more do it than don't.

6. If you pay for the recording, you own the master. Don't leave it behind. Don't take handshake deals.. You will get screwed. I know that seems cynical and well, yah, these are your friends but listen to Cyndi Lauper, The Wise: money changes everything.  Wait for the contract and go over it with a music lawyer.

7. Training. Music lessons on the instrument and voice, analysis of other songs that you didn't write, transcription, all of these pay off big time. You can steal but if you don't make it your own work by knowing how to do that, you can wind up being sued into poverty. It happens. See George Harrison and Ed Sheeran.

8. There are these things called rhyming dictionaries, chord catalogs and yes, progression catalogs. Knowing how different styles of music apply these is your ticket to a long career as a songwriter. The markets change about every ten years and you will have to adapt or retire. See Item 4. The three chord progression is less than a quarter of a page of a progression catalog. Maybe expanding your vocabulary, understanding extensions, substitutions, resolutions, etc. is worth your time. A performer may be stuck in the style that made them famous. You don't have to be and shouldn't be.

Part of your education should be Figured Bass, aka, the Roman Numeral chord system.  Yes, Nashville uses the Nashville Number System, but figured bass is the most common way to write a progression without an assigned key center anywhere else.   You don't know what a key center is?   Ummm... ok.  Good luck with arranging.   No, the main benefit is you will learn chord functions as standalone units of thought.   This is very nice to have when you are writing more advanced work.  Just a thought.

9. Any time an experienced and usually older writer, musician or producer takes the time to give you feedback, LISTEN AND REMEMBER. That they do that is a grace and a blessing. If you are one of those "don't listen to anyone over fifty" folks who love their own generation and like to disregard what came before or who, you are an idiot. That light at the end of the tunnel of your quest for fame and a seat on the square is a train.

If you are one of those people who curls up in a ball and hides in your room anytime you are criticized, YOU ARE IN THE WRONG BUSINESS.   Please, your mental health conditions may interest your therapists but they are wasting your producer and band's time.   Being a head case really shouldn't be part of your "brand".   We all get it that mental health is a serious issue but if you understand the ADA (disabilities act) as applied, it is possible to have a disability and not be disabled because you can do the job and do.  That is your goal.

Stop trying to be cool and start connecting with honest emotions:  yours.  You will get better at that as you age, so be prepared to write a long time before you write well.  Persist.

Don't take journalists too seriously.   A puffer in the music business has the same description as a fluffer in the porn industry, just a different shaft.  Puff pieces are a regular part of marketing and quite legal, but the advice not to believe your own press is good advice.   Trust your ears.  As Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.   If it sounds good, it is good.   Puffery is one means for mobs to take over music scenes.    Puffed acts tend to deflate quickly when exposed to enough audiences.   As they say in the album "We're All Bozos on this Bus", please deflate your shoes.   A big ego is terrible for your posture.

10. Busking may get you noticed but it also means you are a street panderer. It is honorable but come winter, you are just out in the cold sucking in carbon monoxide. The city isn't doing you a favor. It is helping room owners get free music so they can pay real estate developers. You are being used.

An agent that gets you gigs reliably is worth shredding the natch with because they are doing the legwork and political stuff you may not be good at or want to do. Take Care of Business (TCB).  Otherwise, it is a good rule to play every gig you can get.   If you are planning to be a performer as well as a songwriter, you need a fan base.   Live streaming is your friend.

The idea that only the song matters, not the performance, is a ticket to nowhere.   There certainly are those who aren't great players or singers, but they are the exception on the other side of the sidewalk. 

11. If you turn up to Eleven and are Proud to Be Loud, for God's sake, tune the guitar. Pretty please.

12. Tracks and loopers are fine as long as you know how to make good recordings. See items 1 through 11. If you don't, you aren't trying. These days a home recording setup costs bupkus compared to what you will pay to demo your songs in a commercial studio.  The more you can do yourself, the more money you get to keep.   

Get a copy of Guitar Pro or something like it and learn to write out parts.  Get a copy of Finale (easy) or Sibelius (powerful but hard) and learn to score.   This takes time so if you don't have serious classical chops, start with Guitar Pro.  It is a tab editor for midi.  It has chord catalogs and scale possibilities.   Spend time writing out progressions and copying progressions.   Use the import/export function to push the midi to other editors like scoring editors.  You will learn more that way than almost any other.  You can learn what other instruments sound like in your song.  You can discover sounds.   You can expand your vocabulary,  Best of all, you can hand a trained musician a written part.   They may not like it but you will learn from that too.   This is long term studying but very very worth it.

There may come a time when you have access to professional recording.  Very cool.  Better gear, better ears, better sound.   You will know when that time comes and as long as you can afford it or someone else can, very very cool.  Pay attention, don't interfere with the elves at work, do your job and let them do theirs.

Don't be a diva and do prepare.   It can be very scary and the time is limited to the budget.  The more you do your own recording, the more you know about your sound.   Unless you have signed a deal that puts the producer in charge (not a bad thing unless they are bad at this), it's up to you to get your sound.   Relax and understand this really is a chance to learn every time you do it.   Ask questions but during breaks, not while the engineer is engineering.  Above all, keep your hands off the knobs.

13. If you do it for a passion, be passionately good at it. The world is full of mediocrity.  No your Mom is not your best critic. You are. Don't compete with the other writers. Compete with the you you were yesterday.

It is ok to play in "old styles" out of the current trends as long as you can play them well.  The word "tight" has meaning and being tight has value.

Rehearse.  Record your rehearsals and listen.   Use that smart phone to get a video of how you look.  For songwriters, that last bit isn't too important.  For performers, which is what a singer-songwriter is particularly with a band, it is important.  Don't let it get you down or rob you of confidence.  Just work at it.

It's not ok to stare at the floor.

14. Drugs make you stupid. Sometimes stupid is good. When recording, stupid is never good. Party later.  The songwriter drug of choice is:  coffee.

15. Take care of your body. I buried friends. It sucks.

16.  Collaborators.  Some say always.  I say only if you have a good productive relationship worked out on paper, signed and notarized.   Trust but document.   Again, money changes everything including, sometimes, the writer credits.   The money is in the publishing and the masters so be very very sure what you are signing up to.  Music lawyers may be a nuisance but they are necessary.

17.   Some say "always be positive and avoid being negative".  I differ.  Be honest.  Be yourself.  Be strong.   Sometimes you will go it alone.  As they say, the bird flying solo has the strongest wings.

Be wary of those who hide their feelings in music or any business.  Often, these are the snakes, the sociopaths who haunt every hall where money is made and who suffer no pain because their ability to be empathic was wiped out before they were out of short pants.    It seems smart to be inward when you are hurt and in some situations, it is.   But there is a difference between self-control and sociopathy.
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Take a lesson from the #metoo movement.  In situations where you are being used or abused and you keep that to yourself and do not confront that abuser immediately, you will have a very hard time doing it later and meanwhile, you are being damaged.  Sometimes irreparably.   God gave you a mouth and a temper for a reason.    DO NOT ACCEPT IT AS THE PRICE OF SUCCESS.  It never is.  Then get out of that room and don't go back.

Trust your judgement and step up.  It is your song and you are the champion of your song first and always until someone joins your team.  Find them by being open to them and going where they will be.

Avoid clowns and haters.   Take care of business as I said above because if you are unhappy and desperate, it shows.  Desperation is the worst.   It is the grime on your windshield and any serious person will notice it and ask themselves if you are a burden instead of an asset.

18.  Study the craft of songwriting.  That above all else:  get better.  Never stop learning.  There is a book by a master, "Tunesmith".  Written by Jimmy Webb, it covers many aspects of the craft and the business.   It is worth every penny and more.  See Amazon.  Be aware that many many of the veterans are not happy about The Web.   They are right.   No, it isn't going away, but they are right.

19.  You don't have to be a star.  In fact, you may not like that as much as you want it.    One of the best folks to explain it to me was an old country gentleman named Chet Atkins.  He said, "You have talent.  Come as a songwriter.  I have lots of great guitar players but not enough good songwriters."  I didn't listen.  I was young and stupid.  Don't be me.

20.  Live long and leave a beautiful body of work.   Your songs may outlive you.  That's success.

21.  Hi!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Not Marty


I went to a reunion of old picking buddies and some folks I'd not met were singing songs on Tom Shepard's cabin porch when we stopped by to say hey. Tom handed me his guitar saying "len's been known to pick a song or two" and reluctantly I did (unless I warm up, I have vocal control issues these days, so I don't like to do this).   After some kidding from these folk, I played one of mine, Mandy Blue, because I can actually remember those lyrics. 


When done there was a discussion about my voice and these folks all decided it was Marty Robbins. That's no insult but nor is it particularly true. My thought was they keyed on the song being a sort of tex-mex mariachi which it is. The studio version is even more mariachi but I get what they said although I don't and wish I did have a voice like Marty. 



That sound is associated with Marty but is really the sound of the Glaser Brothers who were the session players and backup singers on many of Marty's hits. Also, they were one of the unsung groups who founded the so-called Outlaws who tired of Nashville slick and went their own way. While carefully copied by others, they were an original sound more derived from cowboy music (thus Tex-Mex) than what prevailed in country at the time. Here they are in their last performance in 1990.


Sunday, September 09, 2018

Trumptown



What is the profile of a Trumptown? Political rallies are not random events. The locations are meticulously selected to ensure the biggest and most overly supportive audience. So what about a town makes it delicious for Trump rallies?

There is a wide perception that Trump supporters are ignorant.   This photo was taken in the so-called, Rocket City, Huntsville, Alabama.   Huntsville touts itself as an example of the New South, progressive, well-educated, and frankly, very very rich.   The last two are certainly true; yet, Trump held two of his largest rallies in the state here and in neighboring Madison Alabama.  So that perception is wrong in the particulars of these events.

Because I was born and raised here, I can speculate but having lived under the dome all of my life, I am too close to the subject.   I am appalled and that is not an objective state of mind.   But I do wonder if anyone has looked at the cities where Trump can get such energetic support and asked that question:  what makes a Trumptown?  More important, what happens to that city after Trump leaves office?

Just for historical reference, Huntsville is where Nixon came to start his fruitless comeback and was christened "Fritters, Alabama" in Doonesbury.   Whatever the profile is, it is baked in.

Friday, August 31, 2018

So Will I



Last week I performed this song with a lady at church.   It is a Hillsong United song from their latest album.  I enjoyed the performance and decided to record it myself.

Contemporary worship music is often some of the better pop music on the market.   I recommend that you listen to the versions from Hillsong United.   This one is very well written.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Grace (Instrumental)

"Grace" began as a study of music from Senegal where there is a strong afro-cuban feel. I don't often write instrumentals for DawgHaus, as in never ever, but this one is. It features Rick Van Nostrand on electric lead guitar and Daniel Bullard on lead trumpet. It is a time scaled composition, that is, the first section is clocking at 30BPM and the second section is at 120BPM although the underlying structure is exactly the same. We had fun.

Is this 420-friendly? Why... hmmm..... yes, I believe so. :)


Saturday, July 07, 2018

Writing Songs in the Time of Lawsuits for Fun and Profit


Rick Beato discusses the recent copyright infringement lawsuit where the Marvin Gaye estate won over Ed Sheeran.   Using the a/b technique where the two recordings are played section for section side by side, he highlights where they are identical and where they are similar but different.   He comes down on the side of Sheeran and the usual huzzahs follow in the comments.

Compare it to George Harrison's problems with My Sweet Lord or the Led Zeppelin loss over Stairway to Heaven. This sort of derivative work has been a problem for a while. Pop is narrow and what sells is what has been selling lately. (the love of the ear is to hear what it heard before - neuroscience 101). Neither side gets me worked up that much. It's the risk of being obsessively style-oriented in production and possibly a good thing in breaking up the monotony of the Nashville song factories even if dodgy with respect to what should constitute a copyright.    As long as one set of curators demands "authenticity" while the money managers demand speed of production, the risk of getting sued is always waiting outside the songwriter cube of the publisher.

I think he is missing an opportunity here.

Beato puts a heavy emphasis on theory in his instructional videos and that is a reason for folks like myself, principally songwriters and not instrumental virtuosos, to attend. Lennon and McCartney are said to have warned Harrison about the dangers of derivatives, that one has to do that extra bit of work to change it up. This is when such things as chord substitutions, alternative modes, reharmonization, yadda yadda pay off big.  This danger of the Swamp Lawyers is also why a songwriter should be leary of the Nashville Chord Police and the Muscle Shoals It Must Be Blues or It Isn't A Hit producers. The Money Mold is a sweet temptation but a terrible mistress.   The writers assume the risks of belonging to the current trend clubs.    Chuck Berry could have and should have taken Brian Wilson to the cleaners.   There was more money to be made in rock then and publishers were less prone to sue.  That gentleman's agreement to hold fire when times are good falls apart when there is less scratch to split.

These leagal decisions are as some complain made by people who do not have enough music knowledge to distinguish derivation from outright copying.    Most assume as has been historically true that if the melody is different and the lyrics are distinct, a progression cannot be copyright.  That isn't quite true as precedent shows.   In the case of Stairway to Heaven, the progression is called a line progression, essentially a single voice in the harmony ascends or descends while the others are static.   That particular minor progression is a staple of composition and has been for centuries.   The a/b comparison was not revealing.  The facts that the plaintiff was touring with Zep and that Page had a prior history of infringement possibly weighed heavily in the decision.  So prior knowledge was established.  

Arrangements can be distinctive and the plaintiff can still win.   In the case of Sheeran, though the melody is different and the progression of  the chorus is different, the arrangement is very very derivative.   Where styles are applied without much distinction, an a/b comparison may not be a friend of the defense.   In the end, it does come down to the ears of the judge or jury.

In the case of Harrison vs the Chiffons, the melody was close and the progression was exact.  The arrangements were very different.   The history of how the song came to be in a jam session with Billy Preston could have been considered but I'm not sure Harrison or his defense team brought that up as it might have weakened their case.  In the end, similarities were strong enough to go against Harrison. It is enough to make one give up on pop songwriting or as some in the movie industry have, buy up every catalog affordable and rest in the fact that one cannot sue oneself.  Money is the best defense and without it, anonymity is the best offense or was until the current age of algorithmic sleuthing and snitching came.  YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away.

The other extreme is to give up copyright and embrace the cult of "information wants to be free" which has decimated songwriters or pursue ever more abstract sounds and production that are alien to the ear. Few steal from the poor. The vows of poverty work only as long as the supplicant lives in a poorer monastery,  If the label is profiting bigly on the masters, the fact that the songwriter is not receiving much as is rapidly becoming the case with today's new streaming collection agencies is no protection.   There is still money in lawsuits if the lawyers target the right pots of money.

Artists have to choose if they want to surrender to the monotony of pop art or live impoverished in the wild lands of abstract expressionism. What remains for the centrists is politics. Keep a lawyer on retainer. Lady Antebellum and Chris Stapleton manage cloning and a legal defense.

Or work harder at individualism using techniques Rick Beato is making a career out of teaching. Lennon and McCartney set the example: don't write the same song twice, Contrast that with James Taylor's statement that a songwriter writes the same song over and over. I think that is the very high wall of the formula. A comfortable prison is still a prison.

Or... steal from the dead.   Beethoven's lawyers decomposed faster than his music.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Forever is Never

Musical acts don't seem to have the staying power they had in previous generations. That could be because there are so many, because music doesn't have the emotional stickyness, that there is too much technology and too little reality, that music is more virtual (say streamed - Best Buy just announced it is no longer selling CDs and is returning the ones it has in stock), all or some. But anyway you look at it, the best a recording act that writes and records original can do is get it out there anyway they can and pray those server system versions are still around in the future or that music will disappear as if it never existed.

The bad news here is from their inception and into the foreseeable future, those will be compressed versions with high and low end stripped. So if you as the producer are paying extra for the high fidelity high end studios and recording engineers provide, you are doing that for ego and vanity unless you do have CDs or other high end storage versions created. T-Bone Burnett pointed this out: a whole generation of music is going to vanish except for some lower fidelity cuts popular enough to get stored elsewhere.  One tactic is to allow downloads instead of streams so at the very least there are more copies somewhere.   The song in the video above is regularly streamed in countries all over the world.  While that is cool for my ego and hopefully it means a diverse group of people enjoys it, unless they can download it, it disappears if and when Alphabet/YouTube decides to prune selections just as they stopped paying us if we had a fan base of less than a thousand.

On a friend's Facebook page we discussed the dilemma that mediocrity tends to be promoted over the best musicians, or virtuosos. There are reasons for this but when you look at the technology, not only will the music vanish, what remains may be the least worthy. From the perspective of a musical historian, the younger generation will appear to be musical imbeciles. This also means current popularity past what a live act puts in the bank from ticket sales, merchandise sales and over the transom CD sales is worth less than it ever has been. Get it while you can but keep your expectations realistic.

I have to hope that technologists will step up to the challenges here and they usually do by ensuring good music is rehosted to new media as they come along. In that case, the best master you can make may have real value later although as we discovered with analog tape, that may be an arduous process and a little bit of a crap shoot. As for the original composer's intentions, some of that may be lost to the person who remasters it. Even classical music scores lose information because the performance marks are reinterpreted by performers. Beethoven really did intend some of his later compositions to be played much faster than is common today.

Do your best but forever is never.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

American Love Song



I post this video on the Fourth of July, American Independence Day for reasons both obvious and personal.  Like the country, it is a collage of pieces made up in real time by ordinary people some of whom did and do extraordinary things.   It is itself, imperfect with production flaws the occasional bum notes that inevitably happen but which smooth out over the run time.  Bits are borrowed such as the photos, melody and the lyrics, some recent and some traditional, origins unknown, the voices of the past still resonating in imagination, truthful, tender and evocative, some known and hopefully treated with due respect and affection. 

There is a moody slow pace like summer in the South, an old dog sleeping in the master's chair waiting for the family he is part of to wake up and take him outside before the thundering fireworks send him scurrying back to the porch.  But here at dawn, only the birds are singing, some close, some distant, some insistent, all searching for the morning meal.

Of the productions I've done of late, this is my personal favorite.  I recorded it for a friend in a different part of the country who asked me to write a protest song for a group called The Hoping Machine, a group that goes to activist events and sings to stir the passions of those aggrieved by current events.   I found at that moment that I did not wish to agitate, not that I did not share their grievances but that I believe at this time it is more important to remember what we share, what we care about in concert, what we love about the American experience, what a gift and a responsibility this land is and to whom it truly belongs.

So I sat at my piano and spread before me the lyrics of a traditional American folk ballad, a more recent but much loved song by an American icon of activism whose family I count as distant but much loved and respected friends, and a pop song from a poetess now past but whose song has itself become part of the American folk legacy.  I improvised the piano part and in real time chose and sang each verse as my hands tentatively traveled the keys like a lone hitchiker hoping that at the end of recording, it would make sense, not have too many bad notes, and would express my deep abiding love for my homeland.   There is nothing false in this.  It is as authentic as my emotions and average skills can make a performance.  That is to say, it is real.

So is the American experience,  It is a love song, a hymn to our republic and our shared if sometimes tumultuous lives.   May we continue to receive and merit the blessings this common but splendid love makes possible and share them as possible in common purpose.  God bless America,.  This land is our land.

Monday, July 02, 2018

A Healthy Democracy Requires a Healthy Economy

This is long. I apologize for that.

So we must vote out the Republican Party, yes"  In this cycle, I agree, and as a Democrat I usually do. But rather than being a single loop thinker, we might assess the goals relative to costs and adjust as necessary (double loop thinking). This is important because we are faced with candidacies that claim to be Democrat but are fringe or independents who camp out under the Democratic tent. To those who voted for Bernie Sanders, the fact that he was a Democratic Socialist by label and actively a spoiler for Hillary Clinton did not bother them. The danger of Donald Trump seemed distant. From the perspective of those of us who live in majority Republican Evangelical states, the danger was very real.

So socialism or capitalism?   Or is that a false dilemma?

It's not a good practice to get caught up in labels particularly those used by people who camp in one party to the detriment of their candidate.

Sometimes it is tough to know who is what or which. This is important because we are at the point where the other party has our range, that is, they know which active groups are capable of mobilizing voters and continued resistance. They will use means fair or foul to disrupt those groups and will have inserted disruptors into those camps to destabilize them.

My test is simple: if a conversation started by one party results in someone saying they just aren't going to vote, those who agree with that are not working to elect the party candidate. Every voter for a party that stays home voted for the other party.

This is politics. The first rule is you must win. Somewhat like SEC football.

An argument coming at us since the Sanders candidacy is our form of government is wrong or antiquated or that our economic system is wrong. This has surface merit if one only looks at these two ideas in isolation. However good systems analysis does not rely on the conditions of a single subsystem in a system of interacting subsystems except to assess maintenance conditions relative to repair and replace. Logistics 101. So let me posit this:

A healthy democracy constrains the excesses possible with unhealthy capitalism. Healthy capitalism creates the resources required to sustain a healthy democracy.

Don't let labels confuse you. Look to behaviors and outcomes. If the wealth of the nation is not being applied to maintain the health of the systems that sustain our democracy, it is being misapplied. Look to behaviors and goals, not labels, to make good voting decisions.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Date Night

We seldom go out these days.  The reasons vary.  Age and health concerns (boring), much better TV (Netflix) and our friends are also stay at home curmudgeons.  Truly life among the mammals.

But last night was special because we say it is and that's enough.   We dined at a local Italian restaurant (Carabbas) having an excellent meal (no, no food pictures.  Whaddaya think this is, Facebook?) good service, timed it right so no long lines.   A selfie by the waitress will have to do.  Yes that is my wife.  Nice, ain't she?  Yes the old guy with her is me.   Life.  Whaddaya gonna do?


Then being that far into town, we swung by the Starbucks our daughter manages.   To see our kids these days, we have to go where they are and I will use any excuse anytime to see her.  I am a Dad.  Sue me.  No luck.  She had left early so we assumed she was also having a date night.   No I don't want any details.  I am a Dad.  Sue me.

The son, Dan the Buddha, was a different story.   As a musician and sound tech, he was mixing for a local band that includes his day gig boss at a local club, the Lumberyard.  (Got wood?).  So we made our way there, paid the ten dollar cover charge (jeez, real money for a band.  That's rare.)   After the usual hugs and hellos to the band, guys I know from my days in the trade, we waited for the music.


The band, Sunset Guns, is great.  It was LOUD.   This IS rock.   There isn't that much good real rock these days not being played by the over 50 musicians.   Really.   The music of the young as Gracie Slick says looks sort of dumb when played by old people, but well, it IS their music and they do it better because they've been doing it a lot longer.  
 

 This I accept although I don't want to be one of them.   As my Dad predicted, the older one gets the more one tends to turn to quieter music.  Anyone familiar with my YouTube page knows I am a mellow balladeer.   It is how I started and where I find the sweet spot of voice and instruments these days. 



I am past the time that I want to schlep heavy gear into smoky rooms.  And well, I am not nor have I ever been a fan of being in crowds.   It isn't social anxiety.   I like being me.  It is a sort of claustrophobia with sensitive ears.   So loud and cacaphonic are not my thing.

Then my son came and sat with us.   That is when I realized he was mixing the band on an iPad using wi-fi.   That sucks.   We had to carry ornery large mixing boards that weighed a ton and could be quirky,   He was walking around like he was texting a girlfriend.   I am jealous.   It looked so easy.


Ok, he will never have the pleasure as I have of seeing a mixing board smoke.  Yes, when a power supply on the old rigs died as one did to us one night in the middle of a set, it flames and spews smoke.  It didn't happen often but when it did, it was surreal.  The sound system screams in agony for a few seconds, then POOF!   It is not a nice way to end a set but it is sort of entertaining.  Well, not for the guy running the board.  He was devastated,  It was his board.

On the other hand, and there is always at least one, analog mixing boards don't crash like software does, not with a POOF but with a soft whimper.  Then it is the mixing dude that screams.  YOUR DAY IS COMING, BUDE!

There.  Now I feel better.

There is no point or clever joke here.   It is simply life and on occasion I have one.   It was nice to see the Boy and hang with a band again.   I do miss the life.

Then we came home, fed the dog, and continued date night.   No pix.   I am a Dad.  Sue me.

Friday, June 29, 2018

45 and the Battle for the Supreme Court

What 45 is doing is obvious. We are joining the old school Soviet bloc as a satellite. It's a battle of mega-super-rich money blocs. And some scary resources are in on it. OTW, 45 and members of his organization would not still be breathing air. OTOOH, the number of indictments and guilty pleas are piling up. His time is shortening and the things they want to achieve are almost done. One more supreme and they have a lock on the US top to bottom.

Investments are moving to Huntsville Alabama  mostly in automatic ways. Google and Facebook are building server farms which as thee and me know are mostly bots with a handful of tenders. The employment impact is practically nil. The tax increases are mostly swallowed by the incentives. If Canada comes down hard on the tariffs, the impact on agriculture and my neighbors will be sure and fast. Let it come. It is time for some good Christian folk to feel the impact of using immoral means to achieve moral ends as they see them. We can differ on the actual morality of the ends, but the other is plain to see. So short or long term, no free lunch.

It comes down to the Letter from the Birmingham Jail or the speech in The Untouchables. What are we willing to do, to sacrifice, to endure to achieve moral ends? Maxine Waters goes loud but when advised there are death threats cancels her trip to Birmingham. Dr. King walked right into the fire when it was a helluva lot hotter. He paid a price. He achieved incredible things and left Coretta a widow not by choice.

If 45 is able to get his next justice as many predict he will, what will we do? Secede? Run? Fight? I live in a country where as we are told the very best warriors in the world live. I've worked along side them. Do you think they might decide to frag their commander in chief? I don't.

So that leaves hopefully non-violent but persistent protest. Moral means to achieve moral ends. But we damm well better agree on the ends or the means will surely defeat us by our own hands.

As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Americana and the Six Hundred Dollar Album



I am thinking about a meeting I attended earlier in the week.   It was called by a "a boutique real estate company providing acquisition, development, and asset management programs for its partners".

Just about the time the Indians have created a healthy economy for themselves, the King's Companies arrive, claim the land and tell the Indians they will get beads and blankets if they will put on paint and dance their war dances for the new tourists.   Assets.  

When an European music audit firm shows up in Alabama and begins the presentation with pictures of slaves and refuses to answer questions about money in any but the vaguest terms, hold on and wait for the Vaseline. When one apologizes for a German accent in the town Von Braun built, don't expect much cultural expertise.   When they tell you about getting "the right people in the room", it's that old land grab thing that made Europe rich at the expense of the Africans.

In short:  heads up.  The Imperialists have come to party.

No one asked the obvious question:  why does a real estate company employ an "Artist Development" guy?  If one were to look back over several statements made and events in Huntsville in the last two years, it becomes evident that this company's idea of what constitutes assets extends beyond buildings and land.  It includes people, specifically, musical acts.   These folks have been quietly picking their own tastes in winners and have reached into city government to cement perceptions.  It feels.... slimy, but money gets to do that.   They have a cute term for this:  curated art.  If you are on the list, you can go on public property and play for tips.  If you aren't, they run you off.

Money spent in this town on musicians is a great thing. No doubt. But is that what this is about? Really?

If the money is being invested in the real estate, there isn't a real plan to spend it in an entertainment budget. This isn't about growing a music industry. It is about building and leasing rooms and selling and reselling the buildings. It doesn't matter how many people are attracted and move here if the artists can't pay for health insurance.

By the way, this same hustle is being done in other wannabe cities in our region:  The Americana Music Triangle  (Hey, if you want to be a part of this, lay down the boogie, pick up the acoustic and try to remember your twang.   Three chords and the Tooth!).  Same schtick everywhere they go.

The Schtick.   Complete with Social Media Push.

Notice:  Huntsville is not on The Trail.  Yet.  We haven't passed the audit but be "cautiously optimistic".   It will be after it passes the tests.

So, good for the tourists, but it's a watermelon economy for the artists.   That is a phrase from the tech industry for capturing content for low to no cost by getting the users to supply the content.   This blog is an example and in fact, so is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on.   Low to no pay for work performed.   This is the world the artist faces today, one in which all but a very few hand-picked artists make a living wage because access to capital and gigs is tightly restricted.    As the old song goes, "In the land that's known as freedom, how can such a thing be fair?".   It isn't but that is not exactly the issue here.  What happens to art in such markets?

Products sell for what people will pay for them in the form they will buy.  Products cost what people are willing to accept for making them.   Paul Simon discovered that and as a result takes very good care of his studio contributors.  Share royalties?   Ummmm.....  but a deal is made.

The six hundred dollar album:  really.  Why, who knew?

We all know about Nirvana.   That rube bait has been tossed around the business for twenty plus years.   The reason a T-Bone Burnett album costs $250k to 400K is it is of the very highest quality. He only works with the best.  The top folk are paid well and they earned it.   Top productions use the best gear and the best rooms.   Nirvana made junk with that six hundred dollars.   One can sell junk.  Then again, how well did that work out for Kurt Cobain?   What did Paul Simon's Graceland cost?  What did O Brother Where Art Thou cost?    Try to make Steely Dan's Aja for that.  You can't.

What do union sessions cost?   All the contracts are on line as well as some controversies about playing "off-book".

What?   We have no union here?  Well, maybe that's a clue but a different discussion.

Sure, those of us who have learned the craft and have the chops can make something airworthy for much less (say 10k), but it isn't competitive.  50 to 60 is more in the ball park for entry level acts The $600 album is bullshit and that argument coming from a development guy should be a clue. Cheap clothes made of polyester are still cheap clothes. If this audit starts with those assumptions, you are being had.

The studio is only a lab if you own one.   I do.  I also made indie albums in the 80s and 90s and have been writing and recording all that time since.    I started in the days before digital and learned the old fashioned skills of working with a band recording, songwriting and performing.   We had airplay on those early 1/4 inch 8-track and then 1/2 inch 16 track cuts.  Then we all went digital and it cost less and became easier to do.   It became possible to do good work in a closet.   It became possible for a one man production shop to make good recordings.   Not great.  Good.

So, yes, I know how it is done and how to do it very cheaply.

It is fun.   Songs get done instead of waiting around for a few years while the band argues or has to play cover to pay bills.   In other words, when it comes to the music Business (little m Big B) I prefer the Music business (Big M little b).   A life as a systems analyst was a good life.   Keeping the music and recording going while not having to be indebted to the industry was a real good deal:  no one says when, what, how or why except me.   Then when friends I like to work with come work with me, it is pleasant.   Egos are contained.   No meter ticking.   No managers.

Is that the way to do it when investors are betting big?   No.  As a famous producer told me, "the people who invest are not necessarily nice people.  If you promise them a nickle, you can't return two cents."    Those are bets you cannot afford to lose and the song business is a gambler's business.   People can wax profound about the music garden where we all collaborate and get along learning from each other.   Welcome to Itchycoo Park.   It's all too beautiful.

But you are a cherry fool if you believe that is the business of music.

Put another way: if Chris Stapleton got 1 million for one song on one Adele album as is claimed, you can bet it wasn't a $600 recording. No one at the top of the business for very long would make some of the statements I heard in that meeting. What they are telling people privately is a different matter but are they telling everyone the same thing?

The slightly paranoid but reasonable question is what happens to the artists who are recruited into such schemes?   The fate of the Judas Goat is the same as the rest of the herd.   A few will do well.  A very few.   Then once a reputation is established off their sweat, outsiders will be brought in and the investments required to launch and sustain international acts will begin.  Cost?  Around half a million.   The cost of making an album is insignificant compared to the cost of creating the perception of being really really famous.   See Amy Winehouse.

This was a tactic also used in high tech by the hedge fund managers who wanted to squeeze more profits and rejigger a company for sale.   They sent in an advance team to evaluate the management staff and employees.   Then the top executives and managers were squeezed out and replaced with so-called turn-around experts who would announce a grand but very vague plan to reorder the company's future.   They would recruit the ambitious among the next tiers, sponsor well-advertised progress events using them.   Very little would change immediately but then the layoffs and sales of assets start.  Eventually, the company would be sold and the advance teams plus the high level executives would receive very large golden parachutes while a few faithful who had obediently shut their mouths would be allowed to gracefully retire.

It's ugly but it's business as they say.

The critical issue is access to capital.   Acts make videos these days.   They give away records.   Decent tours are expensive to do.  Most don't.   Someone in the meeting stood up and said "If you got into music for the money, you got in for the wrong reasons."   Along the way I think we've all said that at some time.  It was our excuse for holding a band together that wasn't getting paid.

IT'S BULLSHIT.   You are worth being paid or you are not in the wrong business; you don't have a business at all.   Plain and simple:  you ARE in this for the money.   Otherwise, ask RCP for free real estate and see how well that works.

If the artists cannot access the capital, they are the slaves of the people who pay the developers and development folk. The artists find out why so many famous acts die broke. The cash flow was huge but too many hands are in that till before it gets to the artists.   You may get a mule but the plantation owner is hanging on to the forty acres,

I'm not talking about artistic freedom. I'm talking about living NOT in the low rent district. That is fine when you are twenty but not so fine with a wife and kids.   That is why the development folk are looking for kids.   It is the same as what worked in the tech industry at one time:  young, fresh, dumb and able to be driven like a mule team, and like a mule, cheap and fast to replace.   The music industry does not rely on unique, authentic voices as claimed:  it relies on identifiable trends, mannequins and rapid replacement.   Fungible easily replaced assets.  There is a reason for the Nashville Hat Act with the supporting Chord Police.

This is gentrification of a music scene.  It smells nice and clean but is it livable at those wages?   The economics of social collapse are not a mystery.

Remember, as they gentrify, the price of a house only goes up followed by everything else. That  is killing Nashville and will kill anything where it grows. That IS the real estate model.   Try to rent a house in San Francisco.   You like the living here because it is easy and very affordable, not because the best bands in the world come here.   There was a time when they did, then the economics of the rooms didn't work anymore.   Huntsville was even then, an in-betweener but as the competitive costs of mounting the shows pushed up the ticket prices and larger and larger shows had to be created with massive fly requirements, it became a backwater again. 

Music education?   Let's ignore the several private music schools, the middle and high school band programs, the music departments of three universities and the wealth of private instructors (in a white collar town, blue collar musicians often teach by day).    Let's assume you can't afford these as many can't in the less affluent  parts of town.   Today almost every song ever published is on the web in recorded format, MIDI format, chords, lyrics,  and hundreds of thousands of YouTube instructional videos.   For Free.   There has never been a time when it was easier to get a music education at least to the point of being able to play the Blues.  The question is then how do you pay your bills?  Worse, what happens when the supply of acts overwhelms the opportunities to play live for money?  See Gresham's Law:  bad money drives out good money.   Then the lists of  "approved acts" mediated by talent providers (they used to be called agents) appear and mysteriously the quality of the music drops as too many I Play Too's fill up the space.

So you want to be a songwriter and do originals?  Live performance is paying all the bills these days for any sizable professionally equipped band.   The music industry as a publishing industry has in all but the top tiers, died.   But let's assume you want to be an original recording artist.

If you aren't paying for recording, someone is.  If as a recording artist, you sign away the rights to the masters of the recording for ANY deal, in today's markets (think sound exchange) you just sold the cow for magic beans. Most of the online revenues come from the master recordings, not the songs and not to the songwriters unless they own the masters.

Y'all have done a lot of work to build your scenes. Don't let the folks with big boats and muskets take control of it for beads and promises that seem to get hazier the longer you have to stay out on the road paying the bills. Not my circus but do the math. Huntsville was a city full of good bands with many rooms that paid a living wage.  MADD killed that.    Yes, we worked for the crime bosses who owned the nightclubs.  But they paid a living wage, often in cash.

It was fair although for songwriters, there was nothing and those folk moved to Nashville or beyond.   Most failed because, most do.    In the 70s when I was still a youngster, two things opened my eyes.  The first was living in the building with Robert Byrne (we still called him Bob) who had a Muscle Shoals recording deal with Wishbone.   Robert was very very good and as a songwriter scored hits for other artists.   Yet he was in the trap of being a James Taylor clone and his own performer career fizzled.   Still, as a writer he scored.   I was at Wishbone collecting on my first place prize in the first Panoply songwriting contest when the owner explained to me his legal problems with Robert who had finally decided country music wasn't the pits and had moved on.    Legal gets nasty.   Watch what you sign.  Desperation is bad juju for any person not in the position to sign the checks.

The second was sitting one on one with Glen Frey one late evening in his hotel room after an Eagles concert.   Frey was a wiseguy in public.  In private, he turned into a big brother and sat with me explaining the business.   That was 1975 and the main point he made was no matter how I worked it, I had to leave the small town and go to a major music market such as New York or Los Angeles.   He respected Muscle Shoals enormously but it was not on his list.   Nashville?   He never mentioned it.  No I don't know why.   Perhaps making it out of Huntsville is possible now, but that remains to be seen.   A few have but they followed Frey's advice.  Your mileage may vary and I hope it does.  Along the years I've met and talked to Very Famous People and a few I can call friend, but the story is always the same:  this is a very very tough business.  Unless you can commit 120% to what is at best a long odds bet, you lose.   Really.

Songwriting was and remains very competitive.   But if you think you are different, go pass the audition at The Bluebird.   I did that when Amy still owned the room.  Great fun and a long drive to play three songs.   You will learn lessons about the range of talents around you.   Even then, maybe thirty people were in the line.   Since Callie Khouri used the room as a set for Nashville (the TV show), that line now stretches across several parking lots, say about 200 people and the majority, very young, very eager, and very naive are not very good.   Make sure you are before you try.   I passed Amy's audition in one (Hint: she gave instructions.  They still do,   Follow them precisely or no matter how good you are, you lose.).

How did I pass in one?  I prepared.  Yet as the staff told me later, I got some of the highest scores she and her staff had given.   I played the Sunday nights multiple times.  Fun   You will not get "discovered" there.   That is a myth.   Label deals are struck by music lawyers.   Take your check book or have the kind of online support that they are looking for and which, if you have that, you don't need Nashville.

The Deal with Originals:   Your Originals Have to be As Good As Their Covers.  Or Better.  

Forget what your Grandfather told you about being his little songbird.   Unless you are a honkin' good songwriter, you lose.   Even then, unless you are a good arranger and a player with excellent chops, you still lose because you can't produce credible recordings.   Most here are not.   They are kids with guitars who do not bother to become good song craftsman first.  Once upon a time, that was good enough.   But that was when Elvis was King and gas cost a quarter a gallon.   Unless you really are the next Bob Dylan, you lose.

Why is Huntsville not a Music Town as the founder of Tangled Strings lamented one day.  Huntsville is not a "music town" because music is blue collar work and Huntsville is a decidedly white collar town. Huntsville isn't a STEM city as the branding wonks like to claim.  STEM is what we learned in school. Huntsville is a major weapons development and materiel management center that still has a smidgeon of the space program and the odd bio-genetics company. We are rich because we are floating on a war bubble economy.   We are Republicans.   That is why Trump came here.  (I am a Democrat but oh well...)  Now we have huge craft beer rooms.   Strangely, they charge seven bucks for beer but don't like to pay the sound crews a living wage.   Pay the musicians?   Why, don't they do it for the love of it?

In other words, the smarter richer folks have day jobs. Will that change? Anything is possible but until you see ASCAP/SESAC/BMI opening offices here, or some major labels (dicey though they are) come to town, expect this town to be a C-list music town.

Speaking of the performance rights organizations, they want their piece and they will sue any room into the ground that doesn't pay up.   There is no way to stop that because they are doing what they are organized to do, it is legal, it is a source of income to songwriters and publishers and, well, from one perspective, they work for us.   The problem is the fees aren't cheap and that means the smaller rooms where singer-songwriters get their starts are often forced to stop having entertainment.   The claim that a successful business can easily pay those fees is made but it runs into the realities of Mom and Pop shops already paying high rents in a gentrified town, licensing and product transport among other things.   In other words, it can be the difference between staying open and closing the doors.   Caveat vendor,

A tourist town? If the idea is to make Huntspatch part of the Great Americana Circle, tell me what here is worth seeing from the perspective of music history, rock, pop or otherwise.   Unless astronauts and helicopter pilots are secret music stars, nothing.   Come here to see the Saturn V built by German Rocket Scientists.  Stay for the knockwurst and fried chicken.   Or go to Muscle Shoals where there is a museum or two and really, not a lot else.  Sure, people still record there.  Guess what?   People record EVERYWHERE.   Studios do not an industry make.   I remember when the music died there.   No one floats forever.

Did the auditors know this was the home of the Delmore Brothers and in that case, the tourists get to go to Elkmont? And what is there?  Nothing.   If they don't know that, how in the hell did they become "Americana" experts?   Truth is:  Americana is a con, a garbage bag category to fit any music in that doesn't fit anywhere else.  Or as we say, bitter enough to sell and easy enough to be played by white people.   Notice that bluegrass albums still mostly say bluegrass on the cover.   Real blues artists are blues artists.   Americana?   Great for the folkies who have not had the easiest relationship with the radio in decades.   Otherwise, a marketing label. 

That is not an argument against being a musician or a writer. It is to say don't expect the easy life of A Nashville Hat Act in Huntsville. Why, it is easy isn't it? ;)

A remark made in the meeting was a dis on "your little YouTube channel" and then another about how their experts understand how to get to the "international audience".   I agree that savvy about the distribution channels is sorely lacking.   On the other hand, in the last forty-eight hours, here are the countries where some or one are listening to my music on my YouTube channel and that without me spending a penny to promote or distribute:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Germany   
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • India
  • Philippines
  • Brazil
  • Switzerland
  • Czechia
  • Dominican Republic
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Nigeria
  • Nepal
  • South Africa
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Mexico

Is that significant?   In money terms, no.  In terms that the music is out there and being enjoyed, it ain't nothing.    That is two days.   I check these stats daily and am amazed how far the songs traveled and where.  Senegal?  Zambia?   Wow!    Free and transparent analytics software are nice.   Just saying... YouTube is your friend and any deal you make that locks you out of free server space on the Internet with the reach of YouTube, which IS the radio these days, is a crappy deal,

What can help: access to capital and people who understand today's distribution channels. Anyone who disses YouTube is a con artist. Anyone who tells you you can be Nirvana for six hundred bucks is a street crook.   Caveat emptor.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

CBS Undercover Boss: Celebrity Edition - Being There

On reality TV, the drinks are fake too. The photo is not. The lesson: sometimes when the call comes, raise your hand and take a risk. It was a long day of shooting but it was fun and I learned a lot. No, I didn't recognize Jewel. No, I didn't know this was Undercover Boss: Celebrity Edition. I responded to a call for extras posted on the Nashville Street Performers Facebook page thinking I would not get called. I was wrong. I thought this was a spec-production and nothing would come of it; or I'd find it someday on a D-list cable channel. I was wrong.
CBS. 7PM. Prime time. wow...
I had a great time. It was long and not being able to move around or get a drink of water was grueling. I know the rules: sign up, show up, dress as told, sit where told, shut up and don't bother the elves. It is a bit like being abducted by aliens: entities moving around you and not speaking but examining you with probes. I do have a theatre background and I recognize some bits. Get in character and stay there. If you are the old guy in the hat at the bar, be that. And sign all the papers that if you read you might not sign but sign anyway. Since I am an old guy in a hat and spent time as a musician sitting in the bar, type casting to the rescue. My hat.
What do I get: $100. Standard rate. I am still waiting for my check. ;)
Full Disclosure: I knew the girl was a fake (the makeup and accent don't work on someone who did a lot of theatre at one time, and few singers are actually that bad in Nashville), but not being a Jewel fan (a generation thing, Her music is great), you could have put her in my car without her prosthetic makeup and I wouldn't have known which is why they probably sat me up front: the old guy won't catch on.
And I didn't until last night when my wife, Dana, came upstairs to the studio where I was working and said, "Baby, you know that Nashville TV shot you were at....". She channel surfed into it. I would have been watching Ancient Aliens if I had been downstairs. So.... me on primetime. My 15 seconds of flame fame. Now in the past. sigh...
When I think back over some of the unbelievable moments I've had, and there have been a few, I realize it really is true: if you want the gig, raise your hand. Sometimes....

Here is the show. Enjoy!

Update a friend asked if this was staged:

Yes. Cleverly. It is impolite to say too much about alferic magic. The elves are not pleased. Elf displeasure can be felt when out in the world and tiny arrows destroy your left calf.
Standard extras call. Go on time, go where told to. Do as told. The premise is this is a show or pilot about street singers in Nashville. So the premise is fine. I know how to be in a bar. The premise is believable because The Boss can be hidden in sight of the extras. At no time did I know this was Undercover Boss. I knew it was TV. The conversation around me was plastic enough that my first impression was the House that Amy Built at the Bluebird was in need of new shutters. IOW, yeah, elven.
How well does that work? I can only say I've seen enough elven craft to know when the trees are speaking. I knew Amanda was a maguffin and Andrea (jewel) was a fake. Yes this is staged, do what you do in the situation as given and as best as you can, ignore the elves.

This: a very very professional elf team. Obviously.

And now at home cable surfing, I count two, no three, channels running Undercover Boss and it hits me: this show is heavily syndicated.

Oops.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Insouciant Reality

In these days of manufactured rage, insouciance is a survival skill.

Comment Policy

If you don't sign it, I won't post it. To quote an ancient source: "All your private property is target for your enemy. And your enemy is me."