Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Next Song has Arrived!

Alright, it's finally here. As you can see, I've switched things up a bit and now moved my songs onto SoundCloud; I'm going to update the older posts in the next day or so. Hopefully it doesn't give anyone trouble. For those unfamiliar with the SoundCloud widget, the download button is on the right hand side of the widget.

White Noise Machine

Creative Commons License

If you read my last post on the subject of this song, you'll see that I never managed to shake the 'placeholder' title. But in writing a set of safety lyrics in case I couldn't come up with anything else- written from the perspective of a man being driven insane by his neighbour's loud sleep aid - I found they actually fit the laid back, trudging feel of the song better than anything else I was coming up with. So, I stuck with it.

I like to think of this tune as my "garage" song. Years ago when I was still playing in a band, we never really made any rehearsal recordings, which is kind of disappointing now that I look back. We didn't do too much in the way of originals, but we did a few. Leaving this song unpolished with its warts and blemishes is my effort to see if I can capture that raw, shaky sound of an idea trying to be worked out, which is probably quite fitting as I think this tune is still at that stage.

I won't say anything more for now, but in a few days I'll likely do another "tools of the trade" post, along with some explanation of the choices and approaches I made when putting this song together.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Covers, Copyrights, and Conundrums

A few days ago my friend Steve asked me whether I would be doing any covers for this blog.  As my response and lengthy explanation unfolded, he suggested it might make a good blog post, and he's right.  For anyone who has ever wondered the legalities and complexities around covering other artist's work, hopefully I can share some wisdom.

The answer to the question is that I very likely won't be doing any covers, though I haven't ruled it out.  This is not because I don't like the idea of covering other people's music.  I would love nothing more than to pay homage to some of my favourite musicians/songwriters and sharing that with you.  Though hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube would suggest there is nothing to it, the truth is somewhat more unsettling.


Before I begin, let me make it clear that I am not a copyright-abolitionist.  The original intent of the Statute of Anne - preventing the monopolizing of creative works so that they may eventually enter the public domain to encourage further creation, while also encouraging authors to engage in creativity by providing rights to them - is a noble goal.  I believe that the idea of providing time limited exclusive rights to the author of a creative work is fair and effective.

However, the two italicized points from the previous sentence illustrate how copyright has become a deformed tool of Big Content.  14 years - renewable only by the living author upon expiry- has grown to upwards of 50 years after the passing of the author; given the speed at which information is being created and the ease at which is can be exploited, it seems more important that work be given to the public sooner rather than later.  One could also argue that the author has less to fear from the public than from the legal entities and corporations who claim to protect their interests yet seem to take a great deal of their creative ownership.  In some cases (possibly many), artists that aren't in a position of power can be forced to give almost absolute control in return for the services publishers and labels provide.

Despite what it's become, I do believe in the principals of copyright.  The songs I've been sharing and will continue to share with you are under my copyright (which under Canadian law I have the moment I put pen to paper or bits to disk).  I'm just being a little more liberal with it.


In order to cover a song, you need a license from the copyright holder (or more often than not in the industry, an organization that handles this for them).  The two types of licenses we're concerned with here are mechanical licenses and performance licenses.  Mechanical licenses apply to physical (or digital) reproductions, while performance royalties refer to live, broadcast or recorded performances.  There are a lot of myths around these licenses and royalties, so let me address a few big ones:

Myth #1: If you're not making any money off the cover, you don't need a license.
False.  Even if you aren't making a cent, you are still required to pay for a license.

Myth #2: I'm fine as long as I credit the original artist
False.  While crediting the original artist is a must, it does not entitle you to cover their song and distribute it.  Only a license from the copyright holder can do that.

Myth #3: When you perform covers live, you don't have to pay for a license
This is a half truth.  Venues/promoters are considered the ones responsible for acquiring licenses for the music performed at their establishments; they are essentially paying you to then perform them (even if in reality you're the one deciding what to play).  So while it's true that you don't have to pay for a license, it's only because someone is paying it on your behalf.

Myth #4: Just like a venue, YouTube takes care of the licenses for me
False.  YouTube has clear statements in their guidelines stating that acquiring licenses for copyrighted material is the responsibility of the uploader.

Myth #5: Samples don't count
False.  Samples DO count.  While in the past sampling was argued to be "fair use" (a legal exception exclusive to the US, though Canada does have a similar concept known as "fair dealing"), the law has shifted.  Whether you agree with it or not, licenses must be acquired.

So now that we've established that licenses are necessary, our next question is how much it will cost.  The normal licensing rate from organizations like Harry Fox for physical copies and digital downloads is roughly 10 cents per copy of the song.  Bear in mind that there is often a minimum license fee; even if you only expect a few dozen copies/plays, you might still have to pay several hundred dollars.  When it comes to streaming services like YouTube or subscription services like, bulk licensing comes into play, and depending on the particular artist/publisher/agency, the price could even reach thousands of dollars.


Legalities aside, the common feeling is that very little policing is done on sites like YouTube, and on the rare chance of being caught the expense to settle would be minimal.  The idea is to take the "easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission" approach.  This may have been true at one point, but more and more artists finding themselves caught as labels and organization like the RIAA are getting better at discovering copyright violations.

There's no risk of being sent to an institution to share accommodations with an individual who is 300 pounds of muscle and refers to you as "sugarplum", but you could be forced to pay a significant amount of money.  Even if payment is not demanded, accounts are often suspended without notice; this can be a major problem if the artist has been using it as the primary channel for interacting with their fans.

If anyone has any solid findings that I've made a mistake in all this, please share it in the comments; I'll look into it and correct the post if necessary.  I can't say for certain where I accumulated all this knowledge came from, but I would say sources include:
  • sites of companies like Harry Fox, ASCAP, and SOCAN
  • Google's terms of service for YouTube
  • blogs of musicians like Adam Rafferty
  • various presentations and lectures by Lawrence Lessig
  • The almighty Wikipedia

So, given everything I just described, I'm a little reluctant to go through the hassle of covering a song.  But I may find something Creative Common's licensed or public domain I can cover, or if I'm really lucky I might be able to make arrangements with one of the artists I enjoy to cover their work cost-free (assuming agreements with publishers don't prevent them from doing so).

Or maybe I'll just get in a rebellious mood at some point and decide "what the hell!"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Behind the Scenes, and Things to Come

Since I haven't really shared any details about this month's venture so far, it's about time.

As I hinted at, it's a gritty, bluesy tune.  A while back I downloaded a collection of freely available drum loops.  While sifting through them, I came across a slow, distorted loop that sounded like it was recorded in an echoing garage on a cheap tape player.  Raw, ragged, and rumbling, I knew I had to find something to do with it.  I've tried to make sure everything else matches that vibe.  The vocals are given a lo-fi, "bullhorn"-like treatment; guitars echo through amps that sound like any minute they could produce a loud 'pop', followed by billowing of smoke.

The one big issue has been the lyrics.  When I worked out the melody, specifically the chorus, I ended up sticking in "placeholder" lyrics.  Much like Paul McCartney using "Scrambled eggs" in what would eventually become "Yesterday", the words "White noise machine" popped into my head while singing it.  Don't ask me where it came from, I have no idea.  Now, here's the problem: try as I might, I can't seem to replace it.  Nothing I come up with seems right.  I'm very nervous that the title of the track you'll be getting this month will be "White Noise Machine", as McCartney described the song being kicked around for months, and I have a strong suspicion he might be better than me.  It's times like this I wish I had some other fleshed-out ideas I could fall back on.  Oh well...

Okay, now for the things to come.  In addition to another tune next month, there's  a couple things I want to take care of:
  • This blog could probably use some improvements.  At the moment it's pretty well just the default, out-of-the-box setup.
  • I've been using the same recording software for all this.  Next month I'm going to try using something different and see how it compares.
  • So far I've just been hosting the songs on Dropbox.  While that's been fine, I've been wondering whether something like Soundcloud would have some advantages.
That's it for now.  Hopefully the lyrics can pull themselves together and I'll have something good for you in a week or so.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Learning from the Pros

While you might guess that this post is going to be about technique, it's actually about the philosophies and personalities I've come across of some professional musicians.  I try never to be preachy, but I feel like it's actually selfish of me if I don't share these and why I felt they were important. Feel free to take these quotes and my impressions of them with a grain of salt.

Showing up

I'm a fan of Jonathan Coulton, who is currently in the process of recapping his Thing a Week project from 2005/2006 (this week revisits "A Talk With George", one of my favourite songs of his). Several weeks ago, he described the week that he felt was the worst of the project, the week he failed to produce anything. He felt out of ideas and that his bold attempt at making music a career was failing, letting those depressive thoughts keep him out of his home studio that week. However, in a few weeks time he'd begin to record some of his best work. He finished with a little bit of wisdom that I liked:
"1. Most of being creative is showing up.
 2. Sometimes showing up is the hardest thing in the world to do."
In the past two months, I've written and recorded two songs. Regardless of their quality, I've still done more in two months than I've done in the past ten years, and it's simply been by forcing myself to suck it up and do it. There are going to be days when I feel like all the ideas I have kicking around are garbage, and there are going to be times when I question whether anything I create or perform will be any good at all. Which leads me to my next observation...

It's all relative

I watched an interview on CBC's Q TV with Dallas Green of City & Colour/Alexisonfire, a musician I greatly admire. Part way through the interview, Dallas talked about his lack of faith in his own work, even with frequent adulation and awards. As an example, he recalled catching a Bruce Springsteen show the night before and thinking to himself, "what am I doing? Why do I even try when people can listen to this?" But he does what he does "because I don't know what else to do."

I've had the same feelings of hopelessness coming back from shows I've been to, walking away with the thought I shouldn't bother picking up a guitar ever again.  But the knowledge that even someone who strikes me as incredible talented experiences those same feelings underscores the importance of me sticking with this project. I will probably never feel like anyone should listen to me instead of dozens of other musicians I could think of at any given time. But knowing what I would be deprived of if some of my favourite artists threw in the towel when faced with similar doubts, I have to keep pushing on. I'm not allowed to judge whether or not I'm worth listening to; I have to leave that up to you.

Of course, sometimes your judgments are not going to be favorable. With that in mind...

Ty Cobb

I read a brief interview with Rik Emmet while flipping through a promotional booklet from a music store. Rik is the frontman for the Canadian rock band Triumph and widely considered to be one of the best guitarists in Canada. In reflecting on success, he pointed out that Ty Cobb - holder of the record for highest career batting average - had an average of .367. In other words, the greatest batter in major league baseball history still failed more than 6 out of 10 times.

A good portion of what I put up here may suck, and I'll have to accept that. I can already tell "Always Something Better" fell flat. But "The Law Did Rise" seemed to be at least good enough that one friend shared it with their friends, and another friend asked me for guitar tab to it (which I still owe him) and led to him asking my advice on stuff he had been working on. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but to me it still felt like a victory, however small.

Okay, last one...

Keep it simple

I picked up a book called Zen Guitar a while back on a whim. At the beginning of one of the chapters is a quote from Neil Young:
"I like to play with people who can play simple and are not threatened by other musicians thinking they can't play. So that eliminates 99% of all musicians."
I'm not against skillful, virtuosic playing; some of my favourite musicians do stuff that blows my mind. But they also tend to know when it's time to hang back. I've made music with people who play like they've got something to prove, and it's not pleasant. Sometimes they're drowning everybody else out either in volume or busyness, even when they should be sitting back and letting another instrument/voice come forward. Sometimes they're so engrossed on what they're trying to do that they ignore everybody else and throw things off. Sometimes they try something they don't have any hope of pulling off and manage to derail everyone.

I've made sure to keep this in mind as I've been jamming with other musicians lately, and luckily none of them seem to suffer this affliction either.