The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.

Luke Smith – Chasing Ghosts (New EP!)

When compiling songs for this EP, I wasn’t only looking for songs I liked.  I wanted the songs to have a central theme.  I’ve said before that albums are like a time-stamp of when they’re made, and I wanted to document a lot of the positive change that’s been happening to me over the last two years.  Together, these songs chronicle positive experiences and lessons from a specific time in my life.

Originally, I had a picture of just the piano and guitar for my album art, but for the final version I added the ferret.  Why a ferret?  Well, my previous CD had a picture of a dog on it, which was based on this picture of my friend’s dog smiling at the camera while I performed.

infamous dog picFade Away - FRONT

One of my other friends owns ferrets, and she always said I should put her ferret on an album.  I wasn’t going to initially, but since she’s moved back to town, she’s been to just about every one of my shows, so she’s earned it.  I’m actually really happy with how it turned out.  Her ferrets are pretty photogenic, and they even have an Instagram.

FerretModelsCroppedChasing-Ghosts-bandcamp (1)

My previous EP was professionally printed using Copycats, a media duplication company in Minneapolis, but this time around I decided to go the home-made route.  I burned the CDs from my laptop, and for the artwork I used this company called Avery.  They allow you to upload your design onto their template, and with their custom printing paper I made CD stickers and CD inserts.  This was perfect for me because I knew that most people wouldn’t buy CDs, but a few people would love them.  I could accommodate those few without having to order a lot of product I didn’t need, and I can always make more later.

This is my third independently released singer-songwriter EP, and I’m always trying to improve.  I had these songs professionally mastered by a friend of mine, and distributed through CDBaby.  That means they are available on Spotify and iTunes as well.  I hope you enjoy this.

All songs written, produced, and performed by Luke Smith.
Mastered by Anssi Tenhunen.
Artwork by Phillip Lasfroh.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Big Turn Music Fest – 2019. My Volunteer Experience.

I was already planning on attending Big Turn.  Their lineup boasts some of Minnesota’s most well-known acts: Charlie Parr, Dessa, Gaelynn Lea, the 4ontheFloor, Dosh, Chris Koza, and Lydia Liza, among others.  I’m required to do 16 hours of volunteer work for school, so I decided to kill two loons with one stone.

Red Wing is a cool town.  They’re famous for their shoes, the first established bar in Minnesota, and (now) the Big Turn Music Festival.  The festival involves 23 venues, and over 100 bands and performers.  It’s small enough that it doesn’t suffer from the corporate saturation of SXSW, but big enough to host a lot of artists you’ve heard of.  Nearly all the bands are Midwestern, and there’s a distinctly Minnesotan vibe to it.  Fans of all ages attend, and the crowds remind me of a local bar in a small town.

I had never volunteered at a festival, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  When filling out my volunteer form, there was a checkbox to be considered for Venue Captain.  I checked it because I wanted people to salute me.  I was assigned to 223 Barrel House (the first established bar I mentioned earlier).  We had to check wristbands, answer questions, count guests, and stop letting people in once we reached capacity (75).  My role as VC was to be the main point of contact between the volunteers, the sound guy, the venue owner, the bands, and the volunteer coordinator.  I had to make sure people stuck to their set times and ensure it all went smoothly.  It was a lot of fun!  It was a great excuse to introduce myself to bands and talk about music.  Due to the snow storm, I only volunteered the one night, but it was a good experience.

Before my shift, I had the opportunity to check out some shows.  I wandered into Artreach, a visual arts non-profit, where singer-songwriter Sterling Haukom was performing for about five people.  I took a seat in the back.  Among the attendees, I spotted Charlie Parr in the front row.  Earlier that day, I overhead Dosh introducing himself to someone at the Artist Check-in Hub.  I couldn’t go to their shows because of my shift, but it was exciting to catch them out in the wild.

I only got a small taste of Big Turn, but it was a good time.  Talking with the bands, listening to music, and hanging out with the other volunteers was great.  The community of music lovers was alive and well, and it was an honor to be a part of it.  I recommend volunteering if you get the chance.  It’s a fantastic way to support the arts, and it’s not hard.  You get to meet a lot of cool people and be part of something meaningful.

 

Notable Acts (that I actually saw)

Savannah Smith Singer-songwriter.  Dope vox.  Telecaster.  Former Ukulele-star.   Soundcloud.

Spaceheaters – Brass-based funk rock.  Great for dancing.  Groove city.  Bandcamp.

Sterling Haukom – Singer-songwriter.  Folk.  Powerful, high voice.  Dynamic.  Had Charlie Parr watch his set.  Spotify.