Sunday, September 26, 2010

re: Listen 2 my trax and let me know what u think!

PREFACE: I'm not writing this because I'm in any position to give out advice on how to be financially successful with your music [I'm 32 and my youngest sister buys my groceries so I can try to pay for my new album], I'm writing this because I regularly receive emails from musicians (mostly younger than me) asking me to listen to their music and offer some sort of critique or advice. I'm both flattered and scared of these emails because the musicians usually sound like they're on their way to somewhere, and when I was younger and older musicians would say things like, "Keep at it, you'll find your sound" I found it not only condescending but also a disheartening concept: the act of becoming a musician who arrives at his "sound" and then settle in to it in perpetuity. My view of that advice has shifted somewhat, and now I think, "Keep at it, you'll find your toolset" might have been more applicable (though no less condescending). Most times that's what I want to say to the musicians who email me, and I'm not comfortable saying it. So here are some thoughts that seems true to me right now that may serve as feedback to you who are looking for it:

What is "success" to you?
I think a good way to visualize this question for an artist is to consider where along the life path of an idea you feel fully content. Here's what an idea's life path might look like:
A. An idea is born in your head
B. You sketch out the idea - your idea is realized physically
C. You show the idea to another person or a crowd of people
D. You publish the idea in "final" form
E. You monetize the idea
F. You market the idea aggressively to increase revenue and expand your audience

Surely you could add some steps in there or take some away or reorder them a bit, but the point is that your answer to the question "At which point am I happy?" should determine your whole approach to idea-raising. For me, my answer has slowly moved down the list as I get older and more invested in making music. Currently I am fulfilled at D, but am committed to F because F-ing someone else's A makes me unhappy.
If your answer is somewhere from A to D, you are most likely either young or find fulfillment comes from a different life path (or you're not as happy as you could be).
The big deal about F is that to do it effectively you really have to think much more about steps C-E. Much more. The remainder of this essay will be directed at those who answer "F" because the majority of emails I receive seem to be from F-ers.

I've been thinking about what habitat is the most conducive to incubating a good idea. Portland, OR is an inviting, extremely non-critical and supportive environment for artists trying things outside their comfort zones. New England, where I lived for the first 14 years of my career, is highly competitive, critical, and exclusionary most of the time. I don't think either is the most ideal setting for the full maturation of an artist, but I think a good ratio of the two is. When you're just trying something out for the first time, it's good to have a supportive and forgiving environment, but if that's all you ever get, you may not be challenged and scrutinized enough as an artist to develop a strong voice. Maybe when first fostering your art, the crowd you introduce your idea to is more important to your growth than the idea itself. Do not underestimate the role of the community you hope to grow within. If you can't feel your art improving, than you should consider moving.

A word on humility and balance: the older I get in this career choice, the more apparent it becomes to me that striking the proper balance between ego and humility is the most important step in an artist's growth. To make truly great music you must be humble enough to remove your ego from the songwriting process, and self-confident enough to find and write from your own voice. The two seem contradictory, I know, but knowing when to let your ego lead and when to tuck it away might just be the very definition of wisdom.

So with that in mind, I think if you truly want to grow you have to listen for applicable criticism from honest people that want to understand you, and ignore criticism from those who aren't and don't. You'll want to amass a council of people in the former category, and get to a place spiritually where you can listen to them with your defenses down (if you can't listen to them that way, then don't waste their time asking for an opinion).
My personal policy on reviewers and music critics is that I will not entertain criticism from someone who is not strong enough to expose themselves to the world creatively (and I don't consider writing a music review to be a form of creative nudity, sorry). What kind of coward criticizes the creative efforts of another person when they themselves have never braved the pain and joy of that kind of vulnerability?

I believe this step is the crux whereat our current system fails. We now have the means to publish an idea immediately and make it available to the entire planet. With the question "How will I publish this?" no longer being a hard one to answer, we now have the luxury of asking ourselves, "Should I publish this?" But we don't. What does this result in? Answer: a flood of horrible ideas and over-documentation of the ├╝ber-mundane, the likes of which America has never seen. True, there is no longer a narrow-minded posse of aged white man at the helm of the music industry, standing between you and the next Frank Zappa... in its place is an ocean of autotuned automated mashups to sift through. Has music become a more meaningful part of our lives as a result? I'm gonna say no.

Think of the filter that used to be positioned between the listener and the artist in, say, the early sixties (based loosely on the experiences of Bob Dylan):
1. An idea is born in your head.
2. You learn to play an instrument and surround yourself with others who can as well.
3. You rehearse together incessantly while your parents yell at you to get a job.
4. You play at your high school dance and the county fair and you join everyone else's band.
5. You drop out of college and hitchhike to Greenwich Village.
6. You sleep on couches for a year or two, performing as many sets in a night as you can at as many venues as you can walk to, collaborating with as many folks as possible.
7. You play harmonica on a friend's record and the producer takes a liking to you and brings you in to perform for the head of a label.
8. The label offers to fund a simple record of mainly covers, and allows you to record two originals for the B-side.
9. The label distributes 1000 records to radio stations who do not play it. You tour the country, visiting the stations to perform for the DJ in person in hopes that he will take a liking to you and play the record for the 200 people listening in his town.
10. Eventually you score an opening slot on a national tour (since an independent touring circuit doesn't exist), and gain notoriety as "the guy that played before ______."
11. The label brings you back into the studio with their best producer to fix up 10 of your songs and promote them more aggressively. The label pays DJs around the country to play your single.

This is an extremely simplified version of one's path to some semblance of fame, mind you, and not even close to the path of becoming an international sensation.
Now here's today's filter between an artist and an international audience:
1. An idea is born in your head.
2. Buy a Mac.
3. Watch a Garage Band tutorial on Youtube and record yourself.
3. Sign up for a myspace or facebook or youtube account.
4. Press "upload"

Sure I'm exaggerating, but do you see what's missing in the current routing? Answer: the truly rigorous obstacle course that sculpts an idea into a timeless resonant piece and a child with a guitar into a revered artist with a life-long body of work. It's not a crime to create something and keep it to yourself. If you want to hit the ground running, figuring out the right time to start introducing strangers to your music is crucial. I am still struggling to rewrite some people's impression of me that's based solely on something they witnessed in the late 90's. Had I waited to publish some of that nonsense, or worked with a mature producer (an approach I have mixed feelings about) who could have helped me work through my ideas better, I may be further along today.

This is the easy part. You have a million options for digital distribution, all you have to do is compare prices and potential traffic. Since all of us are graphic designers now, we don't even have to hire anyone with a design degree to make the t-shirts. Just print in florescent colors and GO. Be sure to mention that you DIY'd it. Want to make a music video? Just shake the camera a lot and keep focusing and defocusing the lens. The more edits, the better. Shoot it with your iPhone if you like, and sell it on iTunes. iSimple!

The American definition of a "musician" has changed drastically in the last fifteen years. Where once a musician's duties consisted of writing, performing, and recording, the list has expanded to include engineering, producing, graphic design, videography, video editing, web development, blogging, booking, book-keeping, sales, and most of all, marketing. With the labels mostly out of the way, the musician has more control over her output. But she also has a much much much much much heftier work load. Maybe she gets a higher percentage of her earnings (what earnings?). But the issue that is not being discussed is what happens to the musician and the art form itself when she is tied up in or tied to the money-making aspect of it? Could it be argued that the distance from marketing that a label once provided was instrumental in keeping an artist focused on their craft and sheltered enough to keep from tainting it? Ask yourself how much you enjoy marketing. And then ask yourself what happens to your music when you're the sole source of marketing. Would your music be better if you outsourced the dirty work to a talented agent? Would the internet be a nicer place if bands didn't have to constantly talk about themselves?

Moving forward, I will assume that you, like me, cannot seem to find decent representation, and the burden of marketing is entirely on your shoulders. If your audience is not growing fast enough for you, you have only three options:

1. Change your music
Self-indulgent composition rarely results in what I consider meaningful music. If you want to stay competitive in a market run by children with shrinking attention spans, you should trim the fat. I am obsessed with song economy. When I write a song, I ask myself, beat by beat, bar by bar, "Is this supporting my message or detracting from it? Is this element propelling the listener forward?" Now that's me, and I often make intellectually cumbersome music, so I'm not saying that I've mastered it or that one should spend all their time combing through the song and fine-tuning it. But I'm getting good at it, I enjoy it, and I think the efficiency in my songwriting is increasing my listenership. Someone important probably once said, "A track is finished not when you run out of things to add, but when you run out of things to take away."

A listener of your music should be able to answer the question "How did this song make you feel?" If they can't, I think you failed. [or in the case that your piece was not meant to communicate with an audience, maybe you shouldn't publish it]. Even if you are making background music, or muzak, they should still answer, "Pleasant. Non-violent. Subdued."

When we were only a few years in, people kept telling us (Gruvis Malt) to hone in on one sound. I always felt like they were telling us this because they couldn't handle all of our styles but in retrospect I think they were telling us this because we weren't good at all of them. No one trying to help you tells you to stop doing something you're really good at. If you're not doing something very well, that doesn't mean don't work at it ---on the contrary, you should work at it twice as hard---just think hard about whether or not it deserves publishing.

2. Change your marketing strategy

I. Clarify
Get your misinterpretation-of-what-integrity-is out of the way and define what you're really selling: are you selling musicianship? Are you selling a great lead voice? Are you selling a shocking experience? Are you selling a dance party? Are you selling a sonic hug? Are you selling nostalgia? Are you selling anger? Are you selling a charismatic front woman? I think charisma is the hardest characteristic to find and the most valuable. In my opinion the greatest bands sell a feeling. It is my personal goal to sell several feelings in succession, because that's what my life is like, and I want to be understood. Ask yourself if anything is being "sold" by you that eclipses or even contradicts your best-seller. If you're selling calming atmospheric music but your lead guitarist is prone to chopsy noodling, then you are not thinking clearly as a group.

II. Starve them first, stuff them later
When you are trying to make new fans, give them less (both online and in live performance) - only your very best material. Only thirty to forty-minute sets. When a new listener visits your profile and there are a million things to look at, they will leave with nothing. On the flip side, when you are trying to retain fans you already have, give them plenty to play with. Always diversify and update your content.

III. Stop begging - if your music is strong enough you won't have to.

IV. Stop bragging - if your music is cool enough, other people will do it for you.

3. Change both
Don't be afraid to start over. Starting over is the biggest opportunity that you'll ever receive to improve your music and your marketing strategy.

CONCLUSION: When considering the achievement of "success" as it is often defined (i.e. fame, fortune, cleavage, etc.), there seem to be two schools of thought: those who believe it can be manufactured, and those that believe it is mystical or luck-related. I would like to suggest another way to look at it. I would like to hypothesize that perhaps success is the result of the right combination of three (or more) variables: timing, work ethic, and capital. I made this handy Venn diagram to illustrate this concept:

This theory has been quite consoling to me, as subscribing to it keeps me from beating myself up about the areas that I don't feel in control of (timing, for instance), and inspires me to compensate for the areas that I do feel in control of (work ethic, for instance). So in closing I'd like to say that while the advice that I've given here is primarily about manipulating those three variables into a favorable ratio, I think it's very healthy and humbling to accept that, in your life, there are variables that you cannot manipulate - and that's the exciting part.

Bob Dylan - Chronicles: Volume 1
Malcolm Gladwell - Outliers: The Story of Success
David Bayles & Ted Orland - Art & Fear
Paste Magazine (Rachael Maddux) - Is Indie Dead?


angelapoe said...

Most of the time I completely agree with your missives and would pass them on to friends of mine to whom I feel your suggestions might apply. I am with you most of the way on this, except one point (and strangely it's a relatively small part of this). The bit about not taking criticism from people who have not exposed themselves creatively. I invite you to heed the words of the great Arrigo Sacchi: " "I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first"

Just something to think about, Mr. Ed.

Gavin Castleton said...

It's not because I think they can't possibly be right, it's because they're not invited to the conversation.