Learning to Finish

“Real artists ship” is a quote attributed to Steve Jobs.  All artists create, but not all artists finish, and even fewer publish.  “Real artists ship” means having a completed product, done and ready to go out the door.  Mastering shipping in this context is incredibly important, regardless of skill level.  It teaches you not only consistency and follow-through, but how to know when something is done.  I can attest that a song never feels perfect; it’s only done when you decide it is.  How much time you spend polishing a track is up to you, but it’s important to have an end goal in sight.  Otherwise you can whittle away time without improving your track much, if at all.

I used to be terrible at this, particularly when it came to mixing.  My song would be 99% done, but I kept working.  I’d imagine the perfect sound in my head, convince myself that it was only a few knob turns away, and be invariably disappointed when that wasn’t the case.  It was a viscous cycle.  I’d check mixes in my car, rush back to make the “one adjustment” needed, only to find that my issues were still there.  This kind of nonsense is why one of my earlier tracks reached version 17.

The problem with waiting for a perfect song or mix is that it doesn’t exist.  It really doesn’t.  Sometimes, after all the techniques and experiences you’ve had, this is the best you can do right now, and that’s okay.  Banging your head against the wall over one song won’t make you a better producer, but finishing songs will.

So, how do you know when a song is finished?  After all, you don’t want to make the opposite mistake and release tracks below your skill level.  You want whatever you put out there to be the best representation of what you can do at the time, but that’s the rub.  Isn’t there always more to work on?  How do you find the balance?  To answer this, I’ll use a Jordan Peterson quote: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”  Before releasing something, I ask myself: is this as good or better than my latest release?  If the answer is no, I either work on the track more, or give it up.  If the song is as good or better, I release it.

If it’s only as good as your latest release and you want it to improve it, be specific.  Otherwise you run the risk of the viscous cycle.  For example, “My kicks are too weak; let me try to fix that,” or “My bass guitars sound lifeless.”  The important part is having an achievable standard, meeting it, and sharing your art.

 

 

Peterson, Jordan B, and Norman Doidge. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. Vintage Canada, 2018.

Holding Yourself Accountable

For my industry class, I was given a PDF version of the New Rockstar Philosophy.  I was looking forward to checking it out, but since I hate starring at a screen for that long, I ended up buying a physical copy.  It’s pretty informative.  It gives some writing prompts and the first one is “Why are you making music your life?”  I’m not going to answer that here, but it’s an important question to ask.  Forcing yourself to be conscious about a goal helps you break down what needs to be done in order to reach it.  For instance, I plan to release an EP by the end of the year.  To get this done, I schedule the steps I need to take each day.  I schedule practicing, recording sessions, additional writing, and mixing.  It’s all accounted for, and if I follow my schedule, I will finish it.

Holding yourself accountable is huge, and if you find yourself struggling to work, self imposed deadlines are a life saver.  This is something I struggle with on a daily basis, and whether or not I’m productive is based on my planning or lack thereof.  Without a plan, it’s pretty easy to put things off.  Missing one day of piano practice isn’t a big deal, but that can snowball into two or three.  Before I know it, the week is gone.

I bring this up because I recently missed a deadline for a revised demo of a song.  I had decided to scrap what I was working on and needed to have a new idea finished.  Due to poor planning on my part, it’s late.  This is a wake-up call for me to be more organized.  I’m not failing the class or anything, but I shouldn’t be missing this stuff.  There’s a lot I want to accomplish and no room for excuses.

For this song, I’m attempting to write more abstract lyrics.  It has a kind of vaguely optimistic, Owl City vibe.  The chorus is a little rough, and I plan on re-tracking my vocals, but I like it.

I wrote this using samples from SwUm drum kit, stock Massive presets, and a free VST called V-Station.  I recorded the vocals at home using my SM7B.  My microphone went through a Cloudlifter and into my Saffire 6 interface.  The guitar and bass were recorded directly into my interface and processed using Guitar Rig.

 

 

Voyno, Matt, and Roshan Hoover. The New Rockstar Philosophy: a Guerrilla Blueprint for Digitally Conscious Artists. Indie Ink Publishing, 2013.

Orientation and Growing Up

On Friday morning I braved the frigid cold and drove to Mankato for my orientation.  I had been taking classes as a “visiting student,” but now I was ready to go full time.  They fed you all the usual crap about housing, financial aid, and joining clubs.  There’s a club you can join where all they do is play Super Smash Bros.  That’s cool, but most of that stuff doesn’t pertain to me now that I’m older.

It’s funny how your perspective changes.  When I was a student at South Central, I used to love when teachers would go off on rants unrelated to their subject.  Personal stories about airplanes and rude McDonald’s workers.  It gave me a break from taking notes and new ideas: I could relax for a minute.  Nowadays, when this happens I feel ripped off.  All I can think is that I woke up early before work and drove an hour to hear about my teacher’s favorite Netflix shows.  Thankfully, all my professors are great and this rarely happens.  I just mention it to note how I’ve grown.

I’m also more appreciative when a teacher challenges me.  I took a songwriting class at McNally Smith and I liked the teacher a lot.  He gave us loads of encouragement and we left class feeling warm and fuzzy about our songs.  He was very nurturing, which was great, but he almost never gave constructive criticism.  Looking back, that was probably good for me.  At the time I was pretty timid about singing and sharing songs; I really just needed a safe place to start doing it.  Now that I’ve been doing it for awhile, more critical comments are necessary.   Dr. Olson is great at giving direct, honest feedback.  He once told me that my chorus was “a bit of a train wreck.”  It stung at first, but ultimately I fixed the chorus and was better for it.  If you can’t get over yourself, you won’t get better.

Speaking of constructive criticism, here’s a song I’m working on for class.  I’ve been through a few demos at this point and have come to the conclusion that I can’t sing it myself.  It’s too high for me the way it is, and lowering it would be untrue to the style.  It’s a Contemporary Christian song, and that means it’s meant to be sung by a congregation.  It needs to be in a key that’s accessible for most people.

As you can hear, it’s a bad key for me.  In my first demo it was about two whole steps lower and I could sing it better, but the song isn’t about what’s good for me.  I hope to find a good female singer at school to rip it.  I like the verse melody a lot and would love to hear it come alive.

Pay Attention and Know Yourself

Music is extremely competitive, and it’s a fight for attention.  How does one break through?  Being attentive to how others have done it is very useful.  For instance, local artist John Mark Nelson put his music on bandcamp and it was discovered by 89.3 the Current.  They do a weekly search for Minnesota music and since John’s album was regionally tagged, they found him.  Lesson: how you tag matters.

Little Falls singer-songwriter, Michael Shynes, used a job-for-hire website and recorded vocals for a cover of “Dying in Your Arms Tonight” by Cutting Crew.  Komodo, the Polish group he worked with, used the vocals in a remix which was instantly successful in their home country.  Shyne was then flown to Poland to perform in front of 50,000 people. Lesson: success can come from unlikely places; don’t be afraid to try new things.

One more example.  Cloud Cult is a successful Minnesota group whose shows have the unique addition of live painting.  Throughout the show, Connie Minowa and Scott West paint beautiful works of art that are later auctioned off to the audience. I’ve been to their shows and it’s a lot of fun to see. Lesson: find creative ways to add excitement to your performances.

Successes like these aren’t common, and when a new song fails to gain attention, there’s poor attendance at a show, or you’re not able to book the gig, you can feel like a failure.  Fortunately, these are chances to learn.  Why didn’t it happen?  What can you do better next time?

Producer and musician, Brian Eno says, “As soon as you externalize an idea, you see facets of it that weren’t clear when it was just floating around in your head.”  When I first started making beats, I thought the process would be pretty easy and straight forward, but when I began checking mixes in the car my short-comings were obvious.  Now there were problems to solve that I hadn’t expected.  I had a similar experience playing live; I didn’t consider the importance of monitoring (being able to hear myself) until I played to a crowded room of talking people.  After that I always set up a monitor in loud venues.  We learn by doing.

To summarize, pay attention!  What works for others can work for you, and success  comes down many different paths.  Know yourself and improve.  There are more possibilities to learn online, more people to connect with, and chances to take.  Let’s get to work!

 

Publishing 101: Performance Rights Organizations

Whenever you write a song you become the copyright holder.  You have the exclusive right to publicly perform it.  BMI defines a public performance as “any music played outside a normal circle of friends and family.”  This includes song recordings played on radio, in restaurants, coffee shops, or anywhere else.  Whenever a public performance occurs, a royalty is due.

Songwriters can sign up with Performing Rights Organizations who collect royalties on their behalf.  Once you sign up with a PRO, you become a part of their catalog.  When a business is looking to legally play some music, they get a blanket license with one of these organizations.  They then have access to the entire catalog.  The number of plays are ascertained by surveys done by the PRO and royalties are divided accordingly.

Royalties are always a 50/50 split between the writer and publisher.  If you’re an indie artist, it’s common that you register twice: once as a writer and again as a publisher, thus ensuring you get all royalties due.

Self-publishing means keeping all the money, but it also means doing all the work.  If you affiliate with a publisher, they will take over the administrative tasks involved, but it comes at a price.  Deciding to partner with a publisher is a serious choice and deserves careful thought.  Just because a publisher is interested doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.

When deciding to join a Performance Rights Organization, there are three names that come up: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.  There’s a bit of debate over which is better but rather than take a side, I’m just going to give some general information.  SESAC, unlike the other two, is invitation only.  You need to be somewhat successful to be considered.  Signing up as a writer under BMI is free, but there is a $150.00 fee to be a publisher. ASCAP charges $50.00 for either license, and is therefore cheaper than BMI for self-publishers.

I recommend doing more research on your own before committing.  That being said, don’t stress about the decision.  It’s not a life or death choice, and there are writers in every group that are happy with their affiliation.

Finding Your Musical Identity (Part 1)

In Activities in Music Industry, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself.  How do you work best?  If you’re an avid procrastinator, don’t work without time frames; nothing will get done.  Knowing that you need deadlines to stay on track doesn’t mean you’re a bad musician.  It means you need structure to be productive and learning that can help you improve.  If you’re not a people person, you probably don’t want a job where you have to interact with people all the time, and that’s okay.   It’s all about knowing how you work best.

This week in Songwriting 1, we talked about lyric writing.  We were given a spectrum between narrative and abstract.  LyricSpectrum.jpgNarrative lyrics give context, tell a story, and are very clear.  Examples of songs that are more on the narrative side are “Speed Trap Town” by Jason Isbel, and “This Year” by the Mountain Goats.   Abstract lyrics capture the essence of something, but without the context they are so open as to be meaningless.   Songs that lean towards the abstract are “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “Four Out of Five” by the Arctic Monkeys.  Non-narrative abstraction is a story represented using a variety of images.  More interpretation is necessary than with a narrative and the meaning is less defined, but it’s clearer than an abstract piece.  Different people can have different ideas of what a song means and it’s open for discussion.

Songs usually fall somewhere between two points on the chart rather than on just one.  For instance, I’m usually between narrative and non-narrative abstraction.

Why does this matter?  It’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish while writing.  It’s pretty easy to write a song, reference this chart, and mark a spot on it, but thinking about this stuff can help us notice trends.  Now that I’ve realized where I’ve been doing, I can decide if it’s what want.  For my next song, I want to try writing more of a narrative and see how I like it.  If I hadn’t stopped to think about lyrics, I never would have thought to challenge myself in this way.

So, how does one find their musical identity?  You try a lot of stuff and fail.  You see what works and what doesn’t.  You write tons of songs and along the way you discover your voice.  I’m still working on it, but I’m always getting closer.

Is Music College Worth It (for me)?

I’ve only been involved in a total of three classes so my answer is bound to change, but do I think music college is worth it?  The answer to this question varies for different people, but I’ll do my best to answer it for myself.

One big objection people have is that the same information is available online.  A self-disciplined person can go far by just watching videos and getting their hands dirty.  In fact, there are a lot of successful producers and musicians that are completely self taught: Zedd, Skrillex, and Madeon, for instance.  Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and David Bowie were as well, and that was before the internet age.  So, what am I really gaining for all my trouble?

A few months ago while touring Hennepin Technical College, I asked the assistant professor that same thing: “Why would I go to college when the information is available online?”  I wasn’t expecting a good answer, but he had one.  “Some people can learn that way,” he said, “But others, like me, thrive in a structured environment.”  I instantly resonated with that.  I had been out of college for years, and despite having access to all this knowledge, I wasn’t thriving.  I had gotten a lot better, but at a slow pace, and there was a lot more I wanted to improve on.  For years I said I wanted to learn piano, but after sporadic and halfhearted attempts to learn online, I gave up.  Only when I started lessons did I consistently improved.

But still, wouldn’t learning to be self-disciplined be easier than paying thousands of dollars?  Yes, and it’s possible for anyone to become self disciplined.  The thing is, I’m not only going to school to be a better musician and producer, although that’s a big part of it.  I’m also looking to gain the benefits of a degree.  My current career path is kind of uncertain, and one of the reasons I like this program is that I’ll have options I wouldn’t have otherwise.  After getting my bachelor’s, it wouldn’t take much longer to get my teaching certificate or my music therapy license.  Also, a lot of the music business stuff is interesting to me, and in my classes I’m required to do things that I could later put on a resumé.  In short, it’s forcing me to get better and expand my career options.

All that being said, I’m kind of playing it by ear.  So far my classes have been useful and I really enjoy what we’re doing, but I’m taking it one semester at a time.  Maybe I’ll go full time in the Spring and then get my degree.  Maybe I’ll drop out after a couple of semesters and move to the cities.  I don’t know the whole game, just my next move.