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.

Creating Consistently

Getting into the habit of creating is essential.  According to psychologist Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be world-class in any field.  I’ve found that musicians are pretty good about practicing their instrument, but usually don’t practice songwriting.  Songwriting is seen as a means to an end; you write enough songs so you have something to play.  Once that’s satisfied, you “take a break.”  Only when you get tired of your songs or feel “inspired” do you write again.  I know this isn’t true for everybody, but this was certainly true for me.

Since then my mindset has changed.  I want to write as many songs as possible.  I’ve mentioned before the dangers of being too precious with your songs, and when you only write ten a year it’s easy to do that.   The more you write the easier you can let go and actually finish.  And finishing is the hardest part.  Those last, nit picky details that aren’t quite right.  I’m learning to chill about those.  I would rather call it quits on a song that’s 94.5% done and actually release it than toil another two weeks to only slightly improve it.   For some important releases it could still be worth the effort, but when I’m just trying to write a lot of songs I need to manage my time better.  As Sheryl Sandberg said, “Done is better than perfect.”

Both of my teachers have spoken about the importance of consistent creation.  It shows employers that you are a creative person that delivers.  Dr. Olson told us about his experience working with a publisher and being able to show them a catalog of  over 300 songs.  One of the reasons I started this blog was to have more practice creating consistently.

I also started a Facebook group called Music Challenge Monthly where I issue a writing prompt each month.  The goal is to motivate each other to finish more music.  We’ve had Lo-Fi July, Synthwave September, and for October we’re writing Halloween music.  If you’re interested in joining, find us on Facebook.  Here is my Synthwave  September track:

Thanks for following my journey!  Stay tuned for more songs, demos, and stories.

Social Media, and Parallel Compression

I was given an assignment in my industry class: identify my top five modern artists.  I then had to find their team (label, managers, producers, ect) and follow them on social media.  The reason?  Like a lot of us, they tend to post about their daily lives, and since they’re in the business they can be a valuable source of information.  Also, most labels have job postings on their websites, many of which are entry level.  It’s amazing what you can discover with a little research.
My list included Porter Robinson, Bon Iver, Daft Punk, Atmosphere, and Sufjan Stevens.  I wanted a mixture of artists from different genres whose songwriting I admire.  I wasn’t able to find all the people I needed, but more than I expected.  A lot of them could be found by just clicking the “About” section on the artist’s Facebook.

The concept of reading articles and paying attention is very useful.  The current goings on in the music industry have more impact on indie artists than I originally thought.  For instance, I learned that CD sales have dropped 40% between January and July.  That’s a significant difference in a short time.  It makes me reconsider printing my next release.  Change can come quickly and if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss it.

I’ve been messing around with music production since 2013, and most of what I’ve learned has been through YouTube.  It’s helped me get a lot better, but along the way I’ve picked up some bad advice.  In my songwriting class I discovered that I’ve been doing parallel compression wrong for years!*  I was taught to simply adjust the dry/wet knob of the compressor.  My teacher said this will not give you the same result as routing the signal to two buses.  I was also surprised to hear that you should almost never put a reverb plugin directly on the track, but should usually use sends.  I’ve now tried the correct techniques and I can say it’s a big improvement.  I feel a little silly not having known these already, but I guess that’s why I’m here.

For my next demo I returned to the studio and re-recorded my vocals with a clearer melody.  I added drums, a synth bass line, and used Melodyne to slightly tune my voice.

 

Dr. Olson said the chorus is nice and the recording quality of the vocals is good, but my instrumentation is bare and we need to work on my vocal sound.  He wants to talk about what artists inspire the sound I’m going for.  He says I need to get my identity to push through the song.

(*Parallel Compression: Mixing an unprocessed signal with a heavily compressed version of the same signal.  This can give you the phatness of compression while maintaining the dynamics.)

Cognitive Disinhibition

 Our Activities in Music Industry teacher, Scott Legere, talked about multiple intelligences.  He says that neuroscientists have discovered that different parts of the brain lights up for a plethora of different skills.  There are a lot of ways to be talented. Because of this we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things.  

 In Quest Love’s book, Creative Quest, he talks about creative disinhibition: getting rid of the voices telling you not to do something. The greatest enemy of creativity is fear.  Dan Wilson of Seimisonic fame writes 350 songs a year. He’s gotten to the frame of mind where he can create without being impaired by self doubt.  I have a long way to go, but I want to be that prolific. I tend to be too precious with my songs and when that happens nothing gets finished.  Our role as students isn’t to write great songs; our role is to finish a lot of songs so we get better at songwriting.  

For my next demo I was excited to get into the studio.  They have a vocal isolation booth, expensive microphones, and pre-amps that are much better than mine at home.  I first tried the studio’s SM7B, but after some comparing I found I liked the sound of the Audio-Technica 4047/SV better.  I recorded in Logic since that’s on the studio computer, but emailed the WAV files to myself to mix in Ableton.  The sound of the electric keyboard is a preset I found in Massive.

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Studio isolation booth, Studio B, Mankato.

 

My teacher likes the synth sound and says the soft percussive vibe nicely compliments my vocal delivery.  He says I need better transitions between sections, and that my melody for the verse isn’t very clear.  I knew that was coming because he talked a lot about clear melodies and how easy it is to write a song without really knowing what yours is, but at that point I had already recorded it.  I’ve found that playing the melody on piano or recording myself singing helps a lot.  Clear melodies separate professionals from amateurs.

 

 

First Two Weeks

I enrolled in Songwriting 1, and Activities in Music Industry. Initially, I wasn’t too excited about Songwriting 1. I’ve been writing songs for years, and had already taken a songwriting class at McNally.  What more could they offer? I was pleasantly surprised. In the first two weeks we’ve talked about copyright law, different songwriting techniques, and learned the signal chain of the school’s studio space.  We’ll have access to it for projects!

 

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Studio B.  Earley Center for Performing Arts, Mankato.  

 Much of the class is devoted to a podcast called Song Exploders: a show where well known artists discuss their songwriting processes.  They share early recordings, rough drafts, and the story of how a song takes shape. We’ve heard Weezer, Chvches, Metallica, the Gorillaz, Courtney Barnett, and Kimbra.  All successful artists, but with very different approaches. Weezer steals chord progressions, Metallica focuses on riffs, the Gorillaz prioritize sound design over form, and Courtney Barnett is all about the story.  I highly recommend it. If you can’t afford an education just listen to the podcasts.

 Activities in Music Industry has been a lot of fun too.  I’ve never looked too much into the business side of music, but it’s been really interesting and useful.  Our teacher said that email is the number one driver of revenue for music. That blew my mind. I always thought of email as being outdated.  When I was in school in 2011, teachers pushed social media as the most useful tool of modern marketing. That’s no longer true. Not only is social media over-saturated with other voices, but the cards are stacked against us.  Facebook will allow only 10% of your fan base to organically see your post unless you pay for them to promote it. Email on the other hand, is a direct link to your fans.

 For Songwriting 1, we’ll each be releasing a three song EP by the end of the semester.  Before the final EP is completed, each song needs to have three demos submitted. The first demo is a basic sketch of the song recorded on a cellphone, the second needs to have the basic song idea finished and recorded, and the third needs to have all the other elements added (drums, bass, synth, ect).  At each stage we’ll be receiving notes. For my first song I’m going for a laid-back, Chet Faker vibe.  

  My teacher likes the piano and the chords, but thinks the melody needs to be cleaner.  He’d also like to hear more contrast on the verse to chorus transition.  Stay tuned for updated demos!  

  (I was originally going to attend MSU part-time, but due to them losing my transcript I am now enrolled as a visiting student.  I’ll still be able to take classes, but since I’m not officially accepted into the college I’m not eligible for financial aid. That’s a huge downside, but I decided to take two classes and just pay out of pocket.  I didn’t want to wait.)

An Introduction

   I’ve recently found myself in the unique position of being back in school at 27. I’m not pursuing anything reasonable like most adults who go back, but instead I’ll be going after my Bachelor’s in Music Industry. In this blog I’ll be documenting the experience and showcasing whatever projects or songs result.

  But first, let me give you some backstory.  

  In 2011 I was a composition major at McNally Smith College of Music. My parents and I had taken out a loan for the first semester, but due to the high cost they decided I couldn’t go back.  I wasn’t able to take out a loan that large by myself, so I had to dropout.  I knew I could afford to go to MSU Mankato, or Winona or somewhere, but I was enamored with McNally Smith.  At the time it was the only school I knew of where you could study and write in contemporary genres. They had rock and metal ensembles; you could even get a hip-hop diploma.  I loved the integration of production, and that composition majors like myself could work in the studios once we passed a competency exam. Teachers played gigs all around the Twin Cities, and amazing local acts would perform right in our cafe.  It all seemed so relevant. Unfortunately, all that charm came with a price tag, and even once I was able to get a loan, I couldn’t justify it. McNally Smith was just too expensive.

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My first day of school (2011).

 Over the years, I did music on the side:  performing live, writing songs, and learning production along the way.  I released singer-songwriter EPs, electronic side projects, remixes, and experimented with videos.  All the while I flirted with the idea of going back to school. One of my issues was not be able to choose between audio production and composition; I wanted a degree that taught both.

 In December 2017 McNally Smith announce they’d be closing their doors due to lack of funds.  I was shocked. (I won’t go into how they handled it or what it did to students, but I mention it here because it was a turning point for me).  What this did was eliminate an option I had been subconsciously clinging to. McNally Smith was out. I could either give up on music school or go somewhere affordable.  The choice was easy.

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Performing at the Contented Cow, Northfield, MN (2015).

 That month I began scanning the music programs page of MSU Mankato, and I came across something new: a major in Music Industry with a focus on Songwriting and Production.  This would be a combination I hadn’t seen before and exactly what I wanted. I learned that you can write in any genre you want, that Mankato was building studios for students over the Summer, and that the school didn’t care what DAW you used (most schools make you use Pro Tools, but I’m an Ableton man so this was good news).  In January I took Music Theory II and I liked it a lot.  This semester I’ll be taking a couple more classes.  Stay tuned for updates and song demos!  

(I should’ve started writing this during my first semester, but as I’ve learned with all creative pursuits, it’s better to start late than never start at all).