My Internship with the Minnesota Music Coalition

I am extremely blessed to be an intern with the Minnesota Music Coalition. Their mission is to support Minnesota musicians by creating a statewide network, offering educational resources, paid performances, and other opportunities.

I first heard of the MMC when I attended a Caravan Du Nord in Faribault. Caravan Du Nord is a traveling showcase of Minnesotan artists. It features local legends like Reina Del Cid, while also putting the spotlight on up-and-coming acts like Kaleb Braun-schultz. These events frequently take place in smaller towns like Red Wing and Austin, bringing great music to places that don’t often get it.

This bringing of music to small towns is what first excited me about the MMC. I was thrilled when I learned that Frankie Lee, an artist heard on the Current, was going to be playing in my hometown. It wasn’t so much that I was a fan of Frankie Lee, but that an artist of that success could be seen in Faribault. I was used to driving 45 minutes to see ANY show, let alone someone well known. It caught my attention.

That was a few years ago and now I’m an intern helping to put on Caravan Du Nord events all across Minnesota. It’s been an absolute pleasure attending workshops, meeting artists, watching shows, and trying my best to be useful. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m happy to be where I am!

It Takes Practice

This Summer, I started teaching guitar lessons. It’s been interesting learning guitar again through beginners’ eyes and hearing their perspectives. A variation of this question comes up again and again: “What’s the secret?” When they’re struggling, beginner’s tend to think that they’re doing something wrong; they want a quick tip or trick that’ll resolve everything.

The answer I give rarely satisfies them, but it’s the only answer that’s true. “There’s no secret. You just need to keep practicing.” Practicing new material can be frustrating because we’re constantly rubbing up against our own limitations: hitting wrong notes, missing rhythms, and having to work on the same parts again and again. It can be a daunting process, but it’s how we grow.

Audio production and mixing is one of those areas where it’s tempting to think you can just have someone explain it to you and you’ll be able to execute it perfectly. Afterall, mixing is more of a technical skill. You’re turning knobs; you just need to know what everything does and then you’re good to go, right? Wrong. It’s more of an art than people realize, and an ear for mixing needs to be developed just like a musical ear.

This concept also applies to genres. Someone can absolutely crush it at lofi, but when they try to make EDM, they struggle. This comes from a lack of experience in that genre. There’s definitely mixing and sound design skills that carry over from genre to genre, but when writing in an unfamiliar style, you’ll have a lot of new questions. I often hear people say that they are bad at a particular genre. They accept it as an unchangable fact about themselves, when in reality they probably just haven’t practiced it enough.

So whatever it is that you want to improve about yourself, there is no secret sauce that will make everything easier. I only have one tip to give you: it takes practice.

Making a Song List

I’ve always considered myself a songwriter. It’s what excites me most about music! I love being creative and writing songs, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I started taking my craft seriously. I went from averaging one song a month to two a week. As I started writing more and more, I wanted to make a comprehensive list of my songs: a document listing the names and dates I wrote them.

What I did is simple, but effective. I used Google Sheets (which is free) and entered the names and dates of my recent songs. There were several open cells begging to be filled, so I included BPM, key, and genre.


Charting a song’s data was a great reward for finishing, and I never wanted to break my streak. Also, I noticed trends at a glance, like how much I loved writing in the key of C, that I wrote a ton of hip hop, and that I frequently used Bedroom Beats 2. These aren’t bad things, but if I felt like my sound wasn’t evolving or I wanted to do something new, I knew what changes to try.

Later on I started tracking what I offloaded, including where it was offloaded from, and the name of the sound if it came from a sample pack. You can go crazy with a list like this, adding chord progressions, modes, the alignment of the stars, and anything else you want to track.

If for no other benefit, I recommend keeping a list to hold yourself accountable. “Write more songs” is a hard goal to follow. “Write a song a month” is much better. You don’t have to quadruple your output, but you should challenge yourself and do more than you did yesterday. Going from a song a month to two songs a month is good progress. Don’t measure your progress against others, but only against yourself. Now working from a new list in 2021, I have a clear goal: write more songs than 2020.

Pre-save Summertime! Coming out September 10th:
https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/latenightluke/summertime



Creative Offloading

Today I’m going to talk about something I learned in music school. It’s called “offloading” and it’s one of the reasons I was able to write 50 songs in 2020.

In songwriting you have these creative tasks: chord progressions, melodies, basslines, drum patterns, lyrics, sound design, etc. Offloading means to take one of these tasks and rather than generate it creatively, you offload it to a different source. This happens when you take a chord progression from another song, use a drum loop or MIDI pack, or anytime you load a preset. That’s offloading too since you’re offloading the sound design.

This is incredibly helpful for starting and finishing ideas. When you offload a task, you free up time and energy to focus on the next step. If you’re feeling uninspired, a drum or melody loop can be the kickstart you need. Rather than trying to create every piece of your music originally, it helps to decide what parts you want to write and what parts you want to offload.

You might hate the idea of offloading if you haven’t heard it before. It might feel like cheating. I used to feel that way, too. One of my buddies used to Google “Awesome chord progressions” and write songs that way. He even stole a progression from a YouTube ad. He wasn’t afraid to take inspiration wherever found it.

Over the years, I softened to the idea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my biggest problem was my ego. I enjoyed being “creative” more than I enjoyed making songs. Offloading to me is about letting go of my ego and realizing that if I want to make captivating art, I need all the help I can get.

If you haven’t offloaded before, try offloading your least favorite part to write. If you’re a drummer and you love writing drums, offload the melody. If you love melodies and struggle with drums, offload the drums. If you’re really focusing in on sound design, design the sounds and offload the chords. For lyrics, you can even borrow rhymes. There’s a lot of possibilities and room to experiment.

If you feel guilty or think that it’s cheating, realize that it’s a collaboration. Pretend that your friend sent you the drum loop. They want you to use it. That’s why they made it, and honestly, that’s not far from the truth. Producer Com Truise said that sampling is “Collaborating at a distance.” And the big difference between sampling and using a loop (other than the legal difference) is that the creator of the Splice loop wants you to use it.

If you try to be 100% creative in every area of your song, you’ll write a lot less songs. And honestly, no one cares if you do “everything yourself.” They’ll only know if you tell them, and if you feel the need to tell people, then maybe you don’t believe in the song to begin with.

Synth Summer

In the Spring I took Electronic Orchestration, a class focusing on synthesis and sound design.  We would learn the fundamentals of sound, and after learning the basics, make our own patches.  Up until then, we had to rely solely on preset banks, mindlessly browsing for sounds that fit.  Presets are great, but if you want something specific, the search can be frustrating.  Knowing the basics and tweaking can help a lot, but I wanted to be able to build sounds from the ground up.

Of all the cool classes I’ve gotten to take, I was most excited for Electronic Orchestration. Unfortunately, due to covid-19, we weren’t able to continue as planned.  Our next step was supposed to be a deep dive into Native Instrument’s Massive, a virtual synthesizer, but since we weren’t in class, we didn’t have access to the school’s computers that had Massive installed.  The class continued with a focus on mixing and mastering.

When the semester ended, I declared Summer 2020 Synth Summer!  I would spend time each day learning about synthesis and practicing sound design.  (This didn’t start until June because I was finishing up my Songs From Home EP which came out on May 30th).  Once that project was done, I was eager get back into learning.

I began Synth Summer by browsing classes on Linkedin Learning (formerly Lynda.com).  I took Learning Synth Programming by Scott Hirsch, and then Massive Digital Synthesis by Evan Sutton.  The first class refreshed the basics for me, and the second was the deep dive I’d been waiting for.  I’ve had Massive for a couple years now, but my understanding of it was pretty basic.  Most tutorials on YouTube are way too general, don’t explain what’s actually happening to the sound, and skip over settings and parameters entirely.  There’s a ton of tutorials on making specific sounds, but they’re more on the side of telling you what to do, rather than explaining why these decisions are made.  Massive Digital Synthesis is the perfect Massive class in my opinion, not only is everything explained, but you’ve given a lot of ideas to experiment with on your own.

Digital Synthesis Massive

I’m currently reading through Massive’s manual, and trying to take it all in.  I’m far from an expert, but I’m improving and that’s exciting for me.  If you want to hear sounds I’ve made, I have examples in this video, or you can listen to this remix (all the main synth sounds are mine).  I’m excited to keep learning and making music!

 

 

Songs From Home: Quarantine Collabs

In March I had the idea to make an EP of music in response to the covid-19 pandemic.  With the stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines causing feelings of isolation, I wanted to celebrate what we still have.  The idea was to collaborate with artists remotely from the safety of our homes.

When the stay-at-home order was announced, I moved back to Faribault with my family, and it’s there I started writing.  I had a workspace, my laptop, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard.  In one week I completed six demos, five of which would eventually make it on the EP.  From there I announced my plan on Facebook and asked for collaborators.  I got a great response!

great response

Starting on April 18th, I released a song a week on Soundcloud.  I also made a video to document the making of each song.

Since my instrumentals were done, I mostly needed vocalists, so I wasn’t able to work with everyone, but I’m very grateful for the people I did get to work with.  Here’s everyone that helped on the project: Ocho (melody and lyrics for Life on Pause), Jacob Ross (bass for Life on Pause), Luke McGreavey (alto sax for Life on Pause), Anssi Tenhunen (voiceover for Infection Control), SMILEBRO (final drop for Infection Control), Matthew Ruff (melody and lyrics for House Arrest), and Mary Clare Stroh (melody and lyrics for Quarantine).  My awesome collaborators made these songs much better than I could have on my own!

The final EP will be released on May 30th with the final song: the long-awaited Covid-19 Rap.  For some reason, I got a lot of requests to rap about the virus.  If I didn’t do it on this EP, it probably would have never happened.  I guess we’ll find out if that’s good or bad.

Pre-save Songs From Home on Spotify.

Big Turn Music Fest – 2020

I had volunteered at Big Turn last year, and it was a good experience.  I discovered new music and met a ton of musicians.  I knew I had to come back.

One of my favorite things about this festival is that many of the acts are lesser-known, Minnesota locals.  They have a great lineup of successful artists (Lydia Liza, We Are the Willows, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Charlie Parr, ect), but they also showcase artists who don’t have a big following.  Some performers had fewer than 100 likes on their socials, and it’s cool that they were included.

Big Turn hosts a wide variety of music from pop, hip-hop, folk, funk, reggae, blues, EDM, bluegrass, and more.  The audience is diverse, too.  It’s not all young adults, but an age range from tweens with their parents, to couples in their 60’s.  Given the range of audience, you’d expect the older folk to be turned off by metal or rap, but I generally saw age diversity in nearly every venue I visited.  These people, like me, wanted to check out new music, regardless of genre.

My first stop was ArtReach, a visual arts non-profit.  Glitch and electro-pop artist SYM1 was performing with EDM producer Eye Dyed.  They had a fun, high-energy show with lots of dancing and dope beats.

After that I went to Mandy’s Coffee & Cafe where singer-songwriter, Noah Short, was performing.  He is a classic, coffee shop, singer-songwriter: acoustic guitar, pretty melodies, and emotional lyrics.  He was accompanied by a guy playing a cajon-type instrument, and a girl who sang and played piano.  It was lovely.

After that I explored more, checking out random bands from their descriptions in the logbook.  Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters stuck out because their bio boasts songs about video games and nerd culture.  When I first walked in, they didn’t thrill me, but as I stuck around (not wanting to leave after one song) I started to like it.  Having the songs be about nerdy things made me more attentive to lyrics than I normally am; and a few of the songs were pretty catchy.  I recommend “Refusal of the Call.”

After that I started my volunteer shift at the Barrel House.  My job was to check wristbands and make sure we didn’t exceeded our 75 person capacity.  The worst part of the job is explaining to drunk people that, yes, the fire marshal comes through counting people, and my one job is to make the fire marshal happy.  However, I did get a brush with Minnesota music royalty from the experience!  Apparently one of the guys wanting to get in was Greg Norton of Porcupine and Hüsker Dü.  The person he was with kept asking me if I knew who he was.  I kept saying no, and eventually she told me.  At that point, he had already slipped in the back where there was no volunteer.  I’m gonna call that networking.

My time at the Barrel House was all right.  Volunteering is awesome because you get to hear music for free, and the only downside is being tied to one venue.  Aside from having to argue with drunk people from time to time, it’s a good deal.  I would definitely do it again.

 

Notable Acts (that I actually saw)

SYM1, Eye Dyed – electro-pop, EDM, high energy.  Dance-able.

Noah Short – Soothing singer-songwriter, pretty melodies, thoughtful lyrics.

Beth Kinderman & the Player Characters – Nerd narrative.  Catchy songs.  Intricate lyrics.

Soultru -R & B, solid voice.  Soul vibes.

Beat Station EP

My creative projects fell through the cracks during my Fall semester.  Understandably, I was busy with work and school.  Over break I knew I’d have a lot more free time to make music, but I also knew I’d waste that time without a plan.  Thus, the Beat Station was born.  My guidelines were simple: I had to write an EP of electronic music, but I could only write songs while at the Fillin’ Station Coffeehouse.  I could do mixing, layering, and tweaking at home, but not songwriting.

The main reason for this project was to help me finish songs.  I’ve mentioned before that one of my struggles is indecision in songwriting.  Only being able to write at a specific place helped me to hunker down and make decisions.  A lot of times I’d be working and think, “Oh crap, they’re closing in an hour and I won’t be able to come here for a few days.  I need to finish this.”  When a song is coming along, you want to finish it, but being able to work on it whenever you want makes it easy to procrastinate.

This was also a great excuse for me to document something.  My teachers always talk about the importance of documenting, but I never really did it.  Suddenly I had a story to tell about my songwriting challenge, and lots of opportunities for pictures and footage in the coffee shop.  I made three videos about the experience and lots of social media posts.

In retrospect, this challenge wasn’t ideal for my songwriting goals.  Since I was releasing an EP, not only did I need to finish four songs, I had to produce, mix, and master them. That takes a ton of time, and I wanted to focus more on songwriting.  Typically when I write an EP, I write more songs than will actually be included.  That way I can pick the best ones to release.  In this project I wrote four songs and released four songs, so I didn’t have room to curate.  Going forward, I may do something similar, but with the goal of finishing demos.  At the end of the writing phase, I can pick the best ones to produce and release.

IMG_20191223_141255_836

I went into this knowing I wouldn’t do it perfectly, but that I would learn what to work on for next time, not from YouTube videos or by sitting around thinking, but by doing it and seeing the results.  This turned out better than I hoped, and now I know how to improve.

Now available everywhere.

 

Deciding is Creating

I’m the type of person who wants to do a lot of creative projects, so many in fact, that the vast majority never get done.  A lot of times I just don’t know where to start, so I don’t.  What I’m learning again and again is that you need to be decisive to be creative.  Creating involves making a choice, and if we find ourselves unable to choose, we’re unable to create.

In my Music Promotion class, we were given a video assignment.  We had to make weekly videos, three to five minutes long, based on a prompt.  The prompts were short and open for interpretation.  I was excited to make some videos, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

If this had been a self-imposed project – like writing a song – I would have procrastinated and taken a lot of time to get the “best idea.”  Since this was for class, I had a deadline.  It forced me to make a decision and run with it.  It wasn’t so important what I chose, so long as I chose.  This resulted in me actually finishing projects in a timely manner.  As the saying goes, “Done is better than perfect.”

One of the best parts about music school is having assignments that push you to create.  Being graded is a great incentive, and you’re left with a product you’re happy you made.  Unfortunately, we don’t have similar incentives for projects outside of school, so we’re left to our own devices.

I wrote before that I have a lot of ideas, but it’s easy to have a lot of ideas and do nothing.  It’s the easiest thing in the world.  You get a false sense of satisfaction, thinking of all the great things you will do – someday.  In his book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed.”  I have more unfinished songs than I can count,  but when I do finish one, it’s always a win.  Whether or not the song is good is less important than the fact that I’m finishing songs.  It’s practice for creative decision making.  

This is something I’m still working on, but if you want to write more songs, pick one tune and finish it.  It doesn’t matter which one, what genre, or whatever.  Make a decision, then it’s easy.

Getting Back Momentum

I haven’t posted in a hot minute, and it’s pretty clear I’ve lost traction.  I used to post once a week, but it’s been months since I’ve done anything consistent.  I’d like to put the blame on the fact that I’m taking a heavier load this semester, but the simple fact is I could be doing better.

One of the reasons I’ve failed is because I broke out of my routine.  Last semester I had a large amount of free time every Tuesday, and I spent it in the library working on my blog.  It wasn’t hard work – I liked writing and looked forward to it.  I would fill up my tumbler from Jazzman’s Cafe, find a lo-fi playlist, and hide away in a corner of the library.  I’d do my best to articulate my latest discovery or inspiration, and in doing so better understand it.

It’s hard to know why we stop doing things that make us happy.  You’d think we wouldn’t need to worry about it, but we do.  There will always be days where it’s easier to watch Netflix than work on a song, and even though songwriting will bring you joy, Netflix is easier in the moment.  In the short term it’s inconsequential, but in the long term it makes you miserable.  When I go a long time without creating, I’m just not as happy.  Sometimes that unhappiness can cause me to sink into the things that caused it in the first place, but the cure requires an effort on my part.  I have to get to work.