Is The Song Even Good?

It’s a good question to ask, and the answer isn’t always obvious.  When compiling songs for Chasing Ghosts, I was constantly changing my mind about which songs to include.  I had about ten songs I liked, but wanted to release five.  One of these songs was “Maybe Next Time.”

When my roommates heard it for the first time, it instantly became their favorite.  They regularly requested it at shows and were very encouraging, so I decided to record it.  When I released the EP, a lot of people mentioned that one, and it became my most played song on Spotify.  And to think it was almost a reject!

This lesson is this, we’re not always the best judge of our own content. We see our art in a way no one else does, and what might seem to us like a lame idea could resonate with others.

Did you know that Slash from Guns ‘n Roses originally didn’t like “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”?  In an interview with Loudwire, Slash says, “I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t fond of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ And that gives you a good idea of how credible my opinion is…”  When Ed Sheeran wrote “Shape of You” – currently the most streamed song on Spotify, ever – he wanted to pitch it to Rhianna.  It was the head of his record label who convinced him to keep it.  “I don’t know what it’s like to choose a hit,” Sheeran said during an interview,  “I just like writing songs.”

Basically, our job as songwriters isn’t to judge art, it’s to create it.  There’s going to be a certain amount of self critique and creative decisions on our own, but we can’t neglect the importance of community.  I can become biased for or against a song based on the amount of time I spend on it, how musically complex it is, and how personal the lyrics are.  A person giving me feedback won’t have these biases and can give me a different perspective.

At the end of the day, we are the artist and we make the final decisions, but getting outside viewpoints is useful.  Sometimes we need a kick in the pants that the house track we produced is actually pretty bad and a cheap imitation.  Other times we get the good news that someone connected with our lyrics in an unexpected way.  Whatever it is, take the note and keep working.

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Works Cited

Childers, Chad. “Slash ‘Wasn’t Fond of’ Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.” Loudwire, 15 Apr. 2014, loudwire.com/slash-initially-not-fan-guns-n-roses-sweet-child-o-mine/.

New York Times.  “Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’: Making 2017’s Biggest Track | Diary of a Song,” YouTube, 20 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpMNJbt3QDE.

Krishna, S. (2019). Spotify reveals its most-played music for its 10th anniversary. [online] Engadget.com. Available at: https://www.engadget.com/2018/10/10/spotify-10th-anniversary-decade-of-discovery/ [Accessed 2019].

Are You Too Old to Make Music?

  It’s pretty common for people to believe that there’s a time limit when it comes to making art.  “If you haven’t done it by x, then it’s not gonna happen,” as if these things had expiration dates like milk or something.  We romanticize the past, particularly when it comes to what we didn’t do that we should have.  It’s painful.  Rather than cut our losses and do it now, we believe in a magical time that no longer exists.  “Well, it’s too late.”

I’m not talking about “making it” in music, but that could be a separate discussion.  I’m talking about someone who wanted to play guitar, write, or draw their whole life but never took the chance.  They were too scared or too busy to start, and now they’ve reached a point in their life where (in their minds) it’s too late.

When I was 26, I started piano lessons.  All my brothers took lessons when they were younger but I never did.  I could’ve gotten a book for “older beginners,” but I picked up a kid’s book instead.  It was filled with cartoons and short pieces like “Let’s Go to a Party” and “Dinosaur Stomp.”  It was pretty fun, actually.  I definitely wasn’t too old, but you might be wondering about someone who’s older.  We’ll imagine they’ve never played an instrument before and today is their first lesson.  They’d have to learn their notes, practice fingerings, and talk about boring stuff like tuning and posture.  It can be daunting to begin and the slow process is why so many quit.

Adults haven’t had to deal with the growing pains of learning a new skill in a long time.  They’re used to being capable, so to fumble over a piece of music intended to teach children can feel embarrassing.  Who wants to struggle at something most people master at twelve?  That being said, it’s absolutely worth the trouble, and I believe anyone who’s physically able to, regardless of age, can be creative.  As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.  So do it.”

My advice for the older beginner is to put in the work, and be humble.  No matter your age, it’s not too late.

 

 

 

Small Town Vs. Big City

When people talk about getting into the arts, there’s usually a few cities that come up.  Los Angeles, Nashville, New York.  Big cities, vibrant cities, cities with people who are great at what you want to be great at.  My field is music, but this applies to all art forms.  A big city has a lot to offer, but do the pros outweigh the cons?  We talked about this in class and I thought it would be a great topic to blog.  My own experiences are limited, but I’ll share some observations.

The most obvious advantage of the small town is the cost of living.  Food, drinks, and entertainment are all more expensive in a big city.  Not to mention having to pay for parking, and spending more on gas because places are spread out.  In Minneapolis (population 422,331), a studio apartment will cost you around $900 a month.  Meanwhile, in Mankato (population 39,528) you can rent a one bedroom apartment for as low as $350.  Minneapolis has a price tag, but it also has something Mankato does not.

The most obvious advantage of the big city is the culture.  Music, art, restaurants, venues, and people.  More people = more culture, as the saying goes.  Well, no one says that, but it’s true.  (Not everything that’s true sounds snappy when you say it).  On any given night there’s a concert, art event, comedy show, or something going on.  There’s like infinity bands and a million places to play.  When I lived in Saint Paul, I used to walk by the Amsterdam Bar & Hall on my way home.  I heard new bands all the time.  It was exciting!  My time in Saint Paul was short, but there was always a show.

Deciding where to live is a balancing act of the cost vs. opportunities.  This isn’t a perfect scale, but it’s relatively safe to say that the more opportunities a city has, the higher the cost.  That being said, if you move to a big city you need to take advantage of it; it’s not enough to just live there.  Sure, you can spend over a thousand on rent and live downtown in a cool area, but that means nothing if you’re not actually getting out and going to shows.  What’s the point if you’re not engaging?  I feel like a lot of people move to LA without knowing why they moved to LA.  There’s a lot to be said for someone who lives where it’s cheap and commutes to events.  I’m not saying that’s right for everyone, but it’s an option worth exploring.

The question of where to live, like a lot of questions I ask, has different answers for everyone.  It depends on what your goals are, and what you need to do to accomplish them.  Answering for myself, I’m trying to be a small town hero, at least for now.  I love the sense of community and the low risk factor.  I want to build an audience here before I cut my teeth elsewhere.

Rhythmic Conflict

I had the opportunity to share one of my songs in class and have it critiqued.  The song was pretty much done; I just needed to re-track the vocals, add some layers, and finish mixing.

As soon as he pressed play, my teacher noticed some issues that I hadn’t.  The acoustic guitar and drums were not vibing.  Everything was performed on time, but they had opposing feels.  Basically, I had written a guitar part without drums in mind, and when drums were added they didn’t fit.  Rather than change the rhythm of the guitar to be more drum friendly, I just dumped drums in.  (I could also have changed the drums to accommodate my guitar, but at the time I didn’t notice the issue).

This is common for singer-songwriters.  We outline a song with guitar and vocals, and just add everything else on top.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  What do you do if you like the drum part, but it isn’t working with your guitar?  You change the guitar part!  As obvious as this sounds, it’s never something I try.  I tend to be attached to the first iteration of a song, and changing strum patterns or rhythms isn’t even considered.

You might think of the acoustic guitar and vocal version of your track as the main dish, whereas other instruments (bass, drums, synth pad) are seasoning, but that’s not the case.  The song is the sum of the parts.  All the parts have to play together nicely, and if they don’t, they have to be changed or removed.   Just because a part is cool by itself doesn’t mean it’s right for the song.  How does it sound in context?

If you’re writing a song and you know you want to add drums later, write with drums in mind.  Just like with mixing, you want to be thinking ahead to the next step.  My teacher said, “Writing is mastering.”  If you wrote a song without drums in mind, but later decided to add drums (like I did), be flexible about changing parts.  The part doesn’t necessarily need to be changed, but if it does be open to it.  It’s all about what’s best for the song.

Here is the second version of my song.  I didn’t have time to re-record the guitar before it was due, so I opted to change the drums.

It’s not there yet, but it’s better.  I’m finding out that the more I write, the more I learn.  I’m always uncovering these issues that I didn’t even know I had.  For my next song, I’m going to write with percussion in mind.

First Do It Badly

Lots of people are afraid to start something on the grounds they won’t be any good.  I’m that way.  We’re usually right about it too, but the problem is that if you don’t start you won’t get any better.  There’s a quote attributed to Carl Jung (I couldn’t find the source), “The fool is the precursor to the savior.” If you’re not willing to be bad, you’ll never be great.

You have to be willing to fail until you succeed.  That’s all that practice really is.  I’m taking piano lessons right now, and when I’m learning a new piece, it can be excruciating.  Before I can play the song well, I have to sit there for hours and play it terribly.  I fumble over rhythms, hit the wrong notes, forget to take my foot off the pedal, and lose my place in the music.  That’s after practicing both hands separately.  I trip, stumble, and fail my way through.  And then I do it again, but this time it’s a tiny bit better.  I continue that process 20 or 30 times, and eventually, I can play it.

When talking to students hesitant to begin writing, Jordan Peterson tells them to “Write a really bad first draft.”  That gives them something to edit.  Once it’s out in the world, the problems are no longer theoretical.  They learn exactly what they are, and that makes them easier to fix.  Keeping ideas inside and worrying about them is death.  I’ve wasted a ton of time worrying about how I’m going to write songs, rather than just writing songs.  Once I’m doing the work, my objectives are clear.

I’m trying to have a healthier relationship with failure; by all accounts the arts involve a lot of rejection.  My teachers have been recently pushing the importance of content creation, even if it’s bad.  That’s harder than it sounds.  You think it’d be easy to just write something and not care too much, but it takes practice.  The issue is that once you have an inkling of interest in what you’re doing, it becomes a little bit precious, and that impedes the finishing process.  At any given time, I have two or three ideas that I really like, that I want to flesh out and perfect.  I’ll start a new song from scratch, a project with less at stake, but pretty soon that becomes precious, too.

Allowing ourselves the practice we need will help.  That’s why I’m learning to create on a schedule.  I’ve been been trying to release a video every week.  My first video took me the longest.  I had to decide where best to shoot it, how to get the lighting right, where to place my mic, and how to edit the video and audio together.  It’s been getting easier and faster every time.  It’s helped me realize how I look while performing, which isn’t something I normally think about.

Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, puts it like this, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”  Getting over the initial cringe of sucking is paramount, because it comes up again and again.  Every new piece of music, technique, or exercise, if it’s helpful, will have growing pains.  I remember taking guitar lessons at McNally Smith and my teacher gave me a difficult exercise saying, “This is going to make you feel like you can’t play guitar.” Eventually I want to get into making more elaborate videos; I can tell you right now that my first few aren’t going to be great, but they will give me an education I can’t get anywhere else.  Don’t be afraid to suck!

 

Works Cited

Peterson, Jordan B. “YouTube.” Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham, 2017, 58:30, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmuzUZTJ0GA.

“His Hero.”  Adventure Time, season 1.  Written and story boarded by Adam Muto, Kent Osborne & Niki Yang.  Directed by Larry Leichliter and Patrick McHale.  Cartoon Network, 2010.

How Do You Define Success?

When I tell people I’m going to school for music, they often assume I want be a rock star, or at the very least a full-time musician.  For a lot of students that’s the case and that’s fine, but it’s not what I want.  In his book, How to Make It in the New Music Business, Ari Herstand writes, “It all depends on what your idea of success is.  And no one can define what success is but you.  Remember that.”  (Herstand 29).

Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, puts it like this: “We all grade ourselves by different measures.”  For some people, success is making a lot of money.  For others, it’s about changing lives.  According to Sivers, “It’s important to know in advance, to make sure you’re staying focused on what’s honestly important to you, instead of doing what others think you should” (Sivers 37).

For me, success is finding work I value and consider meaningful, making a positive impact in my community, and raising a family.  I feel strongly that creativity is for everyone, and I want to do my best to encourage it in the people around me.  I’m still deciding what I want to do with my life, but these are my guidelines.

When I’m looking at a long-term career, there are some jobs I simply would not take.  They may be great, well-paid, amazing experiences, but if they don’t align with my goals, I’m out.  If my ultimate goal is to have a family, I don’t want a job where I’m constantly away from them.  If I want work that’s meaningful, I’m not going to take a job just because it pays well.  For other people, it might fit perfectly, but it all depends on what they value.

Rockstar, hobbyist, what-have-you, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as you’re honest about it.  Speaking for myself, I want to create work seriously, whether or not it’s a source of income.  But however you define success, it’s important to follow your values and not someone else’s.  What’s most important to you?

 

Works Cited

HERSTAND, ARI. HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE NEW MUSIC BUSINESS: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following… and Making a Living as a Musician. LIVERIGHT PUBLISHING CORP, 2019.

Sivers, Derek. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. Portfolio Penguin, 2015.

You Don’t Have to Be First

Eddie Van Halen is famous for his tapping technique, but he wasn’t the first to do it.  In fact, hundreds of years before “Eruption,” Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) used a similar technique on his violin.  Jazz guitarists in the 50s and 60s did it, and Italian musician, Victorio Camadese, tapped extensively on his classical.  Van Halen changed the game by applying it to distorted, electric guitar.

Skrillex is often called the inventor of dubstep, but the genre originated in London in the 90s.   Although the style drastically changed later, the characteristic sounds of wobble bass, subs, syncopated rhythms, and drops all pre-date Skrillex.  Skrillex’s flavor of dubstep (sometimes refered to as brostep) favors mid-range frequencies and aggressive rhythms.  This was hugely popular in 2011 and Skrillex’s interpretation of dubstep soon became the standard.

YouTuber, Andrew Huang, is known for found sound sampling.  He records sounds from random objects, processes them in his computer, and uses them to compose music.  He’s made songs from pineapples, Legos, radiators, candy, and lights bulbs.  As you’ve probably guessed, he wasn’t the first to do this.* What made Andrew special was the sheer amount of sampling he did and the absurdity of challenges (my favorite is carrots).

Facebook came after Myspace, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and Spotify wasn’t the first streaming service.  We get so hung up on the idea that we need to be innovators but the truth is that most of our ideas are not original, and that’s okay.  Working is 95% of it.  Don’t think you need to change the game to win at it.  Sometimes putting your own spin on a great idea is all that’s needed.

 

*I couldn’t find who originated the technique, but I remember seeing it on videos before Andrew Huang’s time.