MSU Mankato, Songwriter Showcase. Spring Semester, 2019.

On April 2nd, MSU Mankato’s department of Music hosted a songwriter showcase.  It took place at the Halling Recital Hall of the Earley Center for Performing Arts and featured five songwriters.  I had gone to the last showcase in October, and was impressed by the talent.  This year was even better, and I want to share the music with you.

Starting out the night was Alec John and the Sky Surfers, an Indie Surf band.  Their brand of surf rock is mellow and groovy, with influences like Hippo Campus.  They wear bright Hawaiian shirts and perform shoeless.  They’re the kind of band you want to hear outdoors on a nice day, beer in hand.

After that, solo performer, Noah Battles, took the stage armed with an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal.  His voice is mellow and fits well with his folk rock playing.  His style is similar to Neil Young.  Using his loop pedal, Noah peppered in some solos.  The guy can play.

Brandon and the Clubs is a solo pop artist in the style of Lady GaGa.  Brandon dresses in sparkling clothing, and performs with backing tracks.  He is one of those performers who is fearless onstage: dancing and interacting with the audience.  His songs are about self love and acceptance.  He didn’t play this, but his song “Love Club” is really catchy.

Second to last was Anastasia Ellis who took her place at the piano.  Ana writes lyrical pop music and is influenced by Rhianna.  She performed two songs from her new album, Love & Attention.  They were both emotional and raw, in particular her song “Battered Skin.”

Matt Ruff closed out the night.  He plays piano and has a powerful voice, with songs reminiscent of Sam Smith.  Like Ana, his music is emotional and full of stories.  He absolutely kills it at singing, and can play a mean piano, too.  Overall, a great night of music.

I realize this is different from my normal posts, but I’m trying to get away from my blog being all about me and my thoughts.  There’s a lot of great music happening locally that I want to highlight and share.  Please check out any of the above artists that catch your fancy.  You might be surprised at what you hear.

Book Review: How To Make It in the New Music Business – Ari Herstand.

Ari Herstand is an LA-based singer-songwriter, blogger, and actor.  He graduated with a degree in music business from McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  After conquering the Twin Cities scene, Herstand moved to California and made his name there.  In this book, Ari shares his first-hand experience. He breaks down booking, touring, planning a release, recording, crowdfunding, and just about anything else you’d want to know.  He also demystifies Performance Rights Organizations, sponsorships, and placements.  If it’s music related, Ari has done it.  I found it incredibly helpful and enlightening, a must read for serious musicians.  Here are three lessons I learned from this book.

You need to hustle.  According to Ari, “Building a music career requires working at it for twelve hours a day.  Every single day” (17).  He writes that you should “split your time equally between the music and the business” (32).   That’s six hours on music and six hours on business.  If you’re not sure how you would even use all that time, this book will give you some ideas.  Ari says, “If you’re ever bored as a musician, you aren’t doing it right” (32).

Music is a marathon, not a sprint.  Not only do you have to work your ass off, you have to be working your ass off for years.  In chapter 1, Ari makes you write out a spreadsheet and title it “My Music Marathon.”  You divide it into four sections: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and 26 years.  In each section, you write out where you want to be in your career.  Doing this kind of long-term planning really helps you clarify what you want in life.  It’s hard not to think 26 years in the future without gaining clarity about what’s really important.

You must have a story.  “Whether you like it or not, your story is just as important as your music” (24).  Ben Weaver toured on his bicycle, Bon Iver recorded in a Wisconsin cabin, Porter Robinson did the whole anime thing, and Daft Punk were robots.  You need something other than “Singer-songwriter from _________.  Sounds like _________.”  It doesn’t have to be as extensive as the Gorillaz virtual band, but it has to be something.  What makes you special?

The advice in this book focuses on making it professionally as an artist or  band.  If you’re someone less serious about music, it’s still worthwhile.  Plenty of these tips are helpful for hobbyists and artists alike, and the portions that aren’t relevant are still interesting to read.  For instance, I’m not going to be doing a lot of college gigging, but there’s a detailed account of how to get into it that’s fascinating.  I will definitely be referencing this book during my musical adventures.

Rating: 8/10.

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.

Being Your Best Self

I’m not the best guitar player, the best songwriter, or the best anything, really.  This is hardly news, but I bring it up because in the arts there’s a lot of sizing up that goes on.  People get their sense of self worth in how they compare to others and music is no exception.  Whether it’s shredding ability, writing chops, or local clout, we’re always comparing ourselves to our peers.

When I was at McNally Smith College of Music, I quickly realized how many guitar players are better than me.  Around this time, I started singing my songs for people.  You could get away with simple guitar parts if you sang, and although I couldn’t sing well enough to be a singer, I could sing well enough to be a singer-songwriter.  I could write and perform my own stuff and no one would think I was faking it.  This was perfect because at the time I just wanted to see if I could cut it as a music major.  As a guitarist, I could not.  As a singer, I definitely could not.  As a singer-songwriter, sure.

All too often, we quit because we think we aren’t good enough.  We see guys who have been practicing five hours a day since they were three and think, “Whoa, I could never do that.”  And while it’s true that if you strive for that level of musicianship, you do need to practice five hours a day, that level of dedication isn’t for everyone.  For myself, I never wanted to be a virtuoso; I wanted to write songs that meant something.  What I found at McNally Smith is that I didn’t need to be the best; I had to be my best.  What that means is different for everyone, but articulating what you want is the first step.  If you’re not sure what that is, pick something and run with it.  Action is at the heart of discernment.

Whatever kind of music you make, you’ll be tempted to compare yourself to others, but art isn’t a competition.  Nobody listens to music because they want to hear the best in the world (unless they Googled them for that explicit reason); we listen to music because we enjoy it and feel connected to it.  Keep moving forward, and don’t be afraid to share your art.

Planting a Tree

My original plan was to release a singer-songwriter EP every year.  I succeeded in 2015 and 2016, but in 2017 I procrastinated.  I kept giving myself excuses and putting it off.  Other projects took priority and after missing my self imposed deadline, I lost motivation.  I’m just releasing it now in 2019, and although that makes me happy, I wish I had done it earlier.

I was trying to think of a better way to phrase this without using the old cliche, but better late than never.  This phrase applies to many things in my life: quitting a bad job, losing weight, going back to school, and learning piano.  These are all things I could have done a long time ago.  Once I finally took action, that was clear, but just because you didn’t start when you should have is no excuse not to start at all.

Take it from me.  If you sit around thinking about something you wish you had done, and every year is another year you wish you had already done it, do it.  Don’t give into the lie that there was a perfect time to do something and now it’s too late.  The only cure to the regret you feel is to do what you should have been doing all along.  As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ll leave you with the long-awaited EP.

Releasing Original Music: My History

My first EP was released in 2015.  I recorded it in my parents’ basement with affordable equipment and my own limited tracking skills.  It’s not great, but I have a fondness for it.  It’s a timestamp of my skill level at the time, both in writing and producing.  The album art is a shot of me playing at the Contented Cow, a bar in Northfield I frequented.  It’s a perfect cover because back then I was playing at the Cow about twice a month and the regulars were constantly subjected to my originals.

My second singer-songwriter release was in 2016.  I wanted to expand on the sounds of the original so I added MIDI piano and strings.  I also layered in electric guitar and harmonica.  I was happy with the outcome and decided the artwork should be more professional.  I got in touch with an artist I know and gave him a picture to work off.

infamous dog pic
Performing at the Contented Cow with Cody (2015).

I was very pleased with the outcome.  High & Dry was sold on homemade CDs, but for Fade Away I got them professionally printed.  I used CopyCats, a CD and DVD duplication company in Minneapolis.  I opted for the cheaper, paper sleeves rather than jewel cases.

fade away print
Original paper sleeve for Fade Away (2016).

The sales have not been great.  It took over a year for me to break even on the cost of printing and artwork, but I think it was worth it.  The important part for me is that I created a piece of art I’m proud of and have a tangible way of sharing with others.

I’m currently working on a new EP and will be releasing it in two parts.  Part one will be available digitally on January 18th, and part two later in March.  It’s being recorded in my home studio, and I’m utilizing musical skills and production techniques I learned in school.  Here is the first single:

If you’re looking to record and release your own music, I highly encourage you to do so.  It’s incredibly gratifying, and it doesn’t matter if your first recordings aren’t great.  You’ll get better as you practice, just like with your instrument.  And it’s okay if the first song you publish song doesn’t get a lot of traction.  Take it from someone who’s released albums on Facebook with only two likes, the joy is in the making.

 

Semester Wrap Up – Final EP

Well, this semester is coming to a close.  Although I was only in three classes this year, I’ve grown a lot.  I have an arsenal of new writing techniques, a better knowledge of production, and a higher standard for my own material.  The greatest change in my writing is the increased use of layers, both for instruments and vocals.  I always knew about the importance of instrument layers, but I never applied them as much as I could.  Layering instruments can really fill a track out and bring it to life.  Vocal layering is another great tool I hadn’t been utilizing.  Because of my own struggles performing and recording, I shied away from it.  I’ve found that simply adding a unison vocal or singing up an octave can do wonders and is well worth the effort.

My industry class was a one hour a week lecture.  It focused on current trends in the industry, music news, and other things we should be excited about.  The big take away from class was to pay attention: follow successful people on Twitter, read the news, and keep yourself informed.  Solid advice, and if the class itself wasn’t all that informative on it it’s own, it sure was a nice pick-me-up.  Professor LeGere’s enthusiasm is contagious, and hearing his lectures made you share his optimism.

Here is my final EP submission for Songwriting 1.  Originally, three songs were required, but that was later changed to two.  According to the teacher, this was because some people had submitted “dumpster fires” as their first songs.  I wish I had re-recorded the vocals for “Lights,” but I had a cold and ran out of time.

“Let Go” was recorded at the school’s studio, but “Lights” was recorded at home.  The guitar and bass in “Lights” were recorded directly into my interface and processed using Guitar Rig.  The solo for “Let Go” was recorded using a Stratocaster into a tube amp.