Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sharing is Bad, Apparently

Still working on the next song. Unfortunately it's somewhat vocally ambitious for me; at one point it calls for a three-part harmony/canon. I predict many, many vocal takes and a lot of cutting and pasting. But I refuse to dumb the song down; if I'm not going to try to stretch my limits, I might as well stop now. Hopefully it won't be too painful to listen to.

In the meantime, I've come across a couple interesting items I thought I'd share. I enjoy checking out TED talks, as they have some pretty neat topics and speakers. I recently watched one from Derek Sivers, web entrepaneur and founder of independent music-focused services CD Baby and MuckWork. According to research, those who share their goals with others are less likely to reach them, as acknowledgement and recognition received can create a false sense of accomplishment.

The second is an article shared by Sivers on Twitter (yes, I'm now on Twitter, though truthfully I mainly just treat it as a news aggregator) that recaps a clinic at Berklee given by Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter/guitarist John Mayer. In it he urges the audience of music majors to "manage the temptation of publishing yourself". He cites that not only does it detract from time spent on one's craft, it can end up acting as a replacement creative outlet - or rather non-creative outlet - that dulls your creative ability.

Do I agree with the arguments? Despite that fact that I'm sitting here writing this post, I actually do. I can appreciate the psychology behind the mind confusing saying with doing. I seem to have escaped that so far.  Part of that is likely due to the rather vague aims I've shared, and part of it is that despite the praise and pats on the back I've gotten so far, I've still managed to retain my perspective on how incredibly little I've come and how incredibly far I still have to go.

I also agree with Mayer's suggestion that the desire to promote oneself needs to be managed.  Emphasis on "managed", not discarded. While someone who does want their music out there does need to find an outlet to do so (as we aren't all Grammy-winners with major labels shelling out thousands/millions to promote us), when the temptation of the outlet starts to trump the temptation of the content, you've got a problem.

I also understand where he's coming from with putting stuff out there before it's ready. This approach can definitely work for some, but when you're someone who will never feel like their work is truly ready, it can be paralyzing. Some people can rely on a producer to help make that call for them. In my case, I have to act as my own producer (and I'm fully willing to admit I'm terrible at it).

So, while I'll definitely keep those articles in the back of my mind, I don't think I'm going to change things at the moment. I haven't broadcast any specific goals and I'll keep it that way, though that doesn't mean I won't share progress or minor targets.  I don't think this blog is chewing up too much of my time or having an adverse impact, but I'll keep an eye on myself.

One final article, before I go. Jonathan Coulton shared an article written by David Lowrey (founder of alt-rock band Camper Van Beethoven) that goes back to the topic of unpredictability in the music business discussed in my previous post. It looks at it in a very analytical, scientific way, which I suppose speaks to the engineer/geek in me.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), part III

Alright, time for the grand reveal as to the source of the questions in the previous posts in this series.

The questions came from a blog post a couple months ago by Jonathan Coulton, in response to an interview he did with Alex Bloomberg for the Planet Money podcast on NPR.  While the interview itself was fine - albeit somewhat shallow in its discussion - what transpired a week later was the kick to the hornet's nest.  Two hosts from NPR Music - Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelly - joined Alex for a follow-up analysis of Jonathan's interview.  Both felt that his approach to success was unlikely to work for anyone else, that he "won the Internet lottery", and in Frannie's case compared him to "a Snuggie.... We didn't know we wanted it, and then all of a sudden we did."

Jonathan's reaction, understandably, was one of disappointment and frustration.  His blog post provides a thoughtful and eloquent rebuttal to that assessment.  The gist of his argument is that his model is replicable, that his achievement of success isn't dissimilar to that of other artists, and that what has changed is the landscape of the industry to allow new avenues for these things to happen.

The table below shows my own breakdown and comparison of what I interpret to be the traditional path for artists and the alternative path taken by Jonathan.

The Traditional Path The Alternative Path
The artist works hard to create good music The artist works hard to create good music
The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by record company representatives. The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by market demographic, i.e. potential fanbase.
The record company signs the band and molds them for appeal to their perceived market demographic. The artist engages with fans, allowing them provide direct feedback on their work.
The record company markets and promotes the band to their market demographic through highly-controlled channels. The artist empowers the fans act as their marketing/promotion force through lenient use of works.

See? Not all that dissimilar.

Both approaches hinge on the same amount of luck, reliance on seizing opportunities, and hard work. The key difference is the relationship between the artist and their audience.  Before our modern connected world, such direct contact wouldn't be possible; no mechanisms were available to widely distribute content at almost zero cost, and communicating via word-of-mouth with a sizable group of people could not be achieved so easily and rapidly.  Are these advancements unique to one man alone? Definitely not.

The other key difference, as I've brought up before, is that traditionally a great deal of the ownership of your copyright is handed over to publishers and master recordings becoming the property of the record label. There are no doubt exceptions, but this is the typical case. The new approach is the possibility to retain 100% ownership of your material.  Sure, you might not have the means to collect any sort of mechanical or performance royalties, but as the collection and distribution of these royalties favour larger artists, it might not have amounted to much anyway. In its place, you have the sole right decide what is done with your work. A fan who wants to cover your work no longer has to be worried that just because you were comfortable with it, they might still face the wrath of your publisher.

[Interesting fact: Many are aware that The Verve were taken to task for "Bitter Sweet Symphony", which used a sample of an orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra (a sample which bears very little resemblance to the original song). What many might not be aware of is that the lawsuit was initiated by ABKCO Records, who owns the Stones' copyrights from the 1960s. The Verve had apparently already negotiated the licensing of the sample from ABKCO; it was only after the song's success that ABKCO decided the sample had been used too greatly and sued for 100% ownership. From the sounds of it, ABKCO's CEO and former Stone's manager Andrew Klein was not a very nice guy.]

Lastly, there's the matter of the definition of success. Ordinarily, unless you were selling a ton of albums and playing large venues, you weren't making a decent living. This may seem surprising, but consider that the record label takes a huge cut to pay back advances involved in recording and marketing (and continues to take a significant cut afterwards). In contrast, the modern independent artist may not reach gold/platinum album sales or play in front of a sea of thousands, but the ability to pocket a much greater percentage of the earnings can mean a comfortable income.

If the measure of success is obscene fame and fortune, the traditional model may be the only way to go. But if the aim is to make a modest (or possibly greater than modest) career on your own terms for a smaller but closer fan base, there's definitely an alternative approach, and it's available to anyone.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Fight is Over

So, the results from Song Fight! were posted a few days ago. Out of 17 entrants, I placed in a 4-way tie for 4th. For what I created, I'm happy with that. There were some killer songs put forth by the top three finishers. The three artists I shared my ranking with were great as well, and I feel pleased to be put in their company.

The feedback I received from my fellow competitors and site regulars was nice to get. Many praised the general vibe of the tune, as well as the lyrical content. On the criticism side, not everyone was keen on the murky-sounding guitar tone I used. And while the comparisons from some to musicians such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave were meant as compliments, others felt the song wasn't very original sounding. Both are fair assessments. My choice in guitar tone isn't going to appeal to everyone, and not everyone is going to be impressed by a traditional-sounding 8-bar blues.

Based on that, would I have done things differently? Not much, but maybe a little. If I were to come back to this tune in the future, I'd definitely get a bit more experimental with it.

Overall, Song Fight! was pretty neat to do, and I'll definitely be trying it again down the road.