Sunday, August 7, 2016

Human Art and Technology Will Always Need Each Other

You make some art, then you try to sell it, then you realize you need people to find out about it.  It's when you want to grow your audience that artists run into the unnatural-feeling reality that the internet and tech companies are necessary.  They are the system, and the people who are potential consumers of your art are deeply connected to that system.

You don't want to alienate anyone, and your art suffers as a result.  You don't want to piss off the corporations out there, even when the say they aren't evil, because a vast portion of society share the same fear.  You can't put down technology in a song, because your potential fanbase relies on it.  They are married to it.  Try to make fun of technoconsumerism or social media, and you're being anti-audience.

When an independent recording artist/songwriter gets a small audience, there is recognition, and when you are pretending to be someone else when writing songs, you are sympathetic to your small audience that has given you that small amount of recognition, and you don't want to satirize any of them from an angry point of view.

So, if you're angry at the system, you try not to let it come out in your songs.  The system today means fitting a mold that is like a needle in a haystack, or being a do-it-all-yourselfer outside the mainstream the gatekeepers control.  Getting reviews and recommendation seems vital to growing an audience for the indepedent artist, but goes against their inherent grain to a certain extent.  Doing my own promotion and advertising doesn't feel right.

Paying someone to blog about my songs or put them on the radio is something I do not feel comfortable doing, but it seems like an inevitable path when self-promotion for an independent artist who wants to gain a larger audience is the only option.

Physical record stores have been replaced with on-demand music streaming subscription services, and potential fans depend on the music bloggers and internet reviews as their tastemaking recommendation engines to choose which music to listen to and buy.  Social media can't be ignored by songwriters and musicians like me who work hard for little pay because our potential audience want entertainment that is immediate and cheap if not free since they also work hard for little pay.

Word-of-mouth doesn't happen otherwise for people who spend their free time with their heads buried in their smartphones.  It feels like the big record companies/internet companies have the power of music advertising and influence over the reviewers and promoters of music, but people will not want to support those big corporations and all they stand for.

It feels like my potential audience out there are instead the types who prefer to support local mom & pop businesses, if it's not too expensive.  Herein lies the problem:  the local songwriter/musician can't compete with the low cost of music produced by the music/internet corporations, just like the local producers of other consumer products can't compete with the low cost of Walmart products.

The difference is those large record/internet companies contribute to large problems in the world and I don't.  Do they make long-term investments in songwriter/musical artists like me these days?  No, but they provide a low-cost storefront and platform for self-promotion. The only world I know to try to find my place in as a songwriter and solo artist is to distribute my albums to online music stores and find free or low-cost ways to self-promote online.

It's the self-promotion part that doesn't feel right for the artist, and one the record companies of old took care of on our behalf.  The same is likely true for most types of written or visual art - a novelist who self-publishes is dependent on Amazon, a maker of any video medium is probably dependent on Google and YouTube.  They control the platform of delivery, the storefront, the distribution, the advertising, the recommendation engine.

No one can recommend your music to someone else without their smartphones anymore really.  I wrote a song called Show Up that satirizes this to some degree, and I didn't realize it until after releasing it that I was biting the hand that feeds me.  Technology has changed the playing field for those of us who hope to sell music.  It's not an apocalypse as the old-school tech haters in Nashville would have you believe.

Rapid change is constant.  Online newspapers, magazines, e-books, and Netflix are here to stay.  Those that control the delivery mechanisms for art are worthy of our financial support just like independent artists are, because they play a part in discovery.

We're far from the artifical intelligence of computers producing our art for us and rendering human artists obsolete.  I suppose I'm blogging this semi-frustration with the hope that someone might read and agree and be entertained by my perspective.  Writers write about the human experience to entertain, don't they?  That will never go out of style.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Revenge Of The Real

Maybe the biggest alternative to today's popular music is my style of music.  That is, the kind of music that I make, not necessarily the music I listen to that is made by others.  My music I write and record is a blend of the many types that have influenced me, like everyone else.  I tend to think I don't come anywhere close to the greatness of music I've chosen to have in my collection.  We've all got our tastes and opinions, and regarding my own music, my only claim is that I think I can write and record an interesting and pleasing song from time to time.  I consider many of them to be good songs, anyway.  All musicians have influences, even if the music they produce doesn't necessarily sound like those influences.

If that's true, then what in the world are today's mainstream artists listening to?  It's got to be other mainstream artists of this most recent era.  The styles all sound so similar to me, as if they're all copying each other.  I don't seek it out, but it's unavoidable.  When I'm stuck in a traffic jam, or can't find anything to watch on TV, I sometimes out of curiosity tune in to the popular music of the day.  You know - to hear what the kids are listening to.  It's far from what was popular in my day, and by "my day" I'm referring to those peak getting-into-music years from age 10 to age 30. 

So, since 1996, the past 20 years seem to be a big decline and somewhat drastic departure from what was cool in my range from 1977-1997.  I'm almost 49, by the way.  Aside from the obvious:   the auto-tuned vocals, the all-electronic instrumentation, the perfection that technology allows, I hear a lack of daring to be different.  Seems these major label artists are using algorithms to make cookie-cutter music.

It could be this happens in every generation.  I'm at the age where people are complaining about the new NBA not holding a candle to the 20 years that featured Dr. J, Bird, Magic, and Michael.  The quality of play and the passion for the game are waning, they say.  I find myself in partial agreement.  Comparisons to basketball aside, maybe the big-band swing and classical fans never warmed up to rock and roll, and maybe the folk revivalists still don't like the bluegrassy Americana of today.  We know they all hated disco and new wave and hair metal, right?

The pop music is definitely cookie-cutter, and so is country, which wasn't cool back in my day at all, but now despite its popularity and it sounding way different than country used to, is even more cookie-cutter than pop.  The songwriting might be better in modern country than pop, but that ain't sayin' much these days.  Thank god for classic rock, one like me may think, but how about some deep track album cuts once in a while instead of playing the same fifty songs over and over again?  I'm sick of that now, too. 

Maybe each generation experiences the same, that's there's been a steady decline in the overall craft of songwriting since their time.  So, luckily the internet is my only salvation, and discovery of old music that was popular before my golden 20 years is my passion now as a music fan.  Hate to admit it, but YouTube is great for this type of discovery.  No videos per say, but people will snap a photo of the 45 label and throw it in there.  The old standards, the old blues, the old folk, dixieland jazz, the early R&B, that's what I love now, and it's a far cry from today's pop.

It's manufactured, it's formulaic, it's even robotic, this pop and country.  It all sounds the same to me.  Even when you discover these little pocket trends of acoustic music, you know the ones where young people in bands try hard to make mandolins and banjos sound hip, they take it way too seriously.  Most of it seems to lack daring, and despite being different enough, stays within the confines of what radio and TV will allow.  No drawing outside the lines for the crayola-wielders of the current popular music scene.

Again, maybe it's always been like this, and I just didn't really take enough notice along the way.  Record companies and songwriters have always followed trends, and now they have computers to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them.  More than ever, businesses are data-driven, and it seems now more than ever, they're afraid to take risks and dare to be different.  They're polluting the air waves with what they think will sell, but to me, it's mostly garbage.

Maybe that's why not using synthesizers, virtual instruments, hit-song prediction software, click tracks, drum loops, auto-tuned vocals, etc. is truly rebellious in the this music climate.  Maybe by not having a bunch of virtuoso instrumentalists who technically play great but don't have good songs is brave.  Maybe having good songs but not playing them all that well is bold.  Maybe using standard acoustic instruments instead of the trendy ones is being different now.  Maybe releasing music with a few imperfections here and there is gutsy.  Maybe having a poor singing voice and using it anyway is daring.  Maybe by not having dance moves and good looks in the music business is wild and crazy today.  Maybe not ever creating a music video is bucking the system.

So, yeah, guess maybe I'm blatantly referring to myself in this previous paragraph, in case you hadn't already noticed.  I'm the "alternative" to today's popular music.  Anti-mainstream.  Real and honest in a time of fake and insincere.  In a world of polluted music, mine might just be a breath of fresh air.

Friday, May 6, 2016

$12.49 for an Album? In 2016? Are You Kidding Me? For Past Releases as Well? What Gives?

In short, you do.  My fans do, that is.  They give in the form of payment of this album price for a reason.  They give in support of music they really appreciate for a variety of good reasons actually.  They feel good about contributing to the sustainability of an artist putting great music out into the world consistently, in a time when such a thing is a challenge.  Read on, and you'll hear about what those good reasons are.

I can't tell you how good it feels to be in the process of getting another album out into the world of music I made.  Releasing songs you wrote and recorded gives you the feeling of release, as if you didn't want to die with the music unreleased.  Although there's more competition than ever in the music business, there's simultaneously different levels of opportunity nowadays. 

The ability of the average joe musician like me to do this didn't exist a decade ago, and thanks to the evolution of technology, it does.  Inexpensive home recording equipment, plus digital distribution to online web stores has made this possible.  You hear a lot these days about songwriters and music artists not making as much money any more since CDs, MP3s, Napster, and the iPod changed everything, which is absolutely true.  The only advantages are that it is convenient and cheaper for both consumers and home recording hobbyist / independent DIY people like me.  The word "cheaper" being the most important word.

So, when you see I have albums for sale online for $12.49 and single songs for .99 cents, it's arguably shocking and inexplicable at first glance, I'm aware.  Why does an average joe musician like Scott Cooley charge so much, you might wonder, when you can get the new Justin Beiber or Taylor Swift album for $7.00?  That's the big question, and one I fortunately have an answer for!

I see a three-level pricing stucture in place here - Free (Amateurs, DIY'ers),  Mid (Independent labels) and Pro (celebrity musicians), admittedly with some crossover between levels.  When you scour the internet for places where average joe musicians post their music online - at places like YouTube, SoundCloud, or MySpace, etc., you obviously are prone to finding a lower production quality, lower average talent levels, and a more amateur overall experience. 

When you get beyond the free places, you have music that is being offered for sale, and all said factors are higher on average, as you would expect.  I am in the middle here, and although this may be arguable to you, hear me out first.  Then, at the top tier, you have the aforementioned mega-popular major label artists and bands.

Now, I'll quickly explain why I'm firmly in the mid-tier, with some crossover.  I am an amateur do-it-yourselfer, and my sound quality is not bad, particuarly when you consider I don't use virtual instruments or auto-tune trickery.  Although the all-acoustic instruments and recording of them being played live can sound amateur in comparison to fake drums, bass, horns, etc. made with software loops or midi keyboards, it arguably shows more talent that I play all the instruments myself. 

While I don't give much away for free, you're paying for real music recorded live by a person.  I'd like to think fans of my kind of music are willing to pay a little in support of the real thing.  The mid-tier artists signed to established independent labels actually have recording budgets fronted by the record companies, and said money is often spent in real recording studios with session musicians and professional producers and engineers. 

Again, I'd like to think the kind of people my music appeals to would tend to have a higher appreciation for an artist who did not need to hire pro session musicians and engineers to achieve a desired sound because what I do is way more authentic.  Willing to pay a little extra to support that aspect of it as well, I would imagine.  I can arguably come up with fairly well-produced and arranged songs with a fairly good level of sound quality as compared to what the pro facilities and session musicians can deliver.  To toot my horn a bit further, the quality of the songwriting I would argue is up there quite high, and at times, crosses over into the pro realm.  Fans are willing to pay a little for that aspect as well.

Crowdfunding.  You've heard of it, mostly for software startups, or gadget-makers.  The mid-tier musicians who have that top-tier sound these days get it from crowdfunding.  There are a lot of them - PledgeMusic, IndieGoGo, etc.  There's something that doesn't feel right about it...has an Amway multi-level marketing uneasiness to it, and I have no idea if investors get paid back when the goals aren't met or the projects are delayed, or promises not delivered at all. 

Let's face it, we know that if you heard a robot-tuned version of my vocals, with pro Nashville musicians playing the instruments, my albums wouldn't sound like me, and they wouldn't sound like what you like about me as an artist.  I'm not a puppet, not a karaoke guy who will do a dance routine and lip-sync to fake, perfect-sounding backing tracks with my vocals made perfect via technology.  I'm old, and far from being that kind of artist.  Not a looks-first marketing whiz with a lot of videos.  You'll never see that kind of thing from me. 

So, if I emailed all my friends and relatives and asked them to email all their friends and relatives, and social networked my butt off, and basically begged people to donate money to me to pay for my next recording project, you wouldn't want the end result, even if it was possible.  You already like my style and what I produce, so I charge after I've got a product ready to go.  I ask a little more than average, yes, but I don't ask you to ask your parents to fund me first to pay for fake studio stuff.  For 12.49, you get the best I could do - real music from a real person with a real voice playing real instruments.

It could very well be that as technology has contributed to a declining music business, it has at the same time contributed to a decline in music quality.  I'm not talking about the sonic perfection that is achievable with technology, but rather, the fact that it may be a dying art to play the instruments yourself, and write the songs yourself, and record it yourself.  It could also be that the styles and genres my music encompasses is fading from public awareness and appreciation. 

Maybe the type of sound I get and the types of songs I write won't be as prevalent in the future, you never know.  Maybe younger generations won't understand it as compared with the popular music of their day.  Preservation is a part of what you're investing in with that 12.49, from a known quantity who's proven he can continue to deliver.

If you're the type who is willing to pay a little more for something made in Michigan, pay a little more at the local mom & pop business instead of WalMart, buy art from local artists, support your local farmer's market, write a check to NPR, help the homeless, pay a little more for organic, whatever your thing is, you're the type who is prone to support your local songwriter / recording artist. 

If you like the product, why not contribute a little more than what is typical.  Sustainability.  It need not happen via being hounded to fund a recording project before songs are even written.  Better to have that product that exceeds your expectations, be able to try (stream) it for free first, then buy it at 12.49.  It's not for everyone, but that's my rationale behind the price.  By the way, if so desired, almost like a tip for a job well done, at Bandcamp you can actually pay more than 12.49 for my latest album, Rest Assured, if you feel so compelled.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Getting Crafty: Rewriting Never Really A Wasted Effort

My latest experiences with the craft of writing songs have been part of a long, drawn-out process since my last album release in mid-2014.  That process has included starting with the "leftover" songs in my Works In Progress (WIP) folder on my computer, which houses subfolders for lyrics, session files, and individual recorded song tracks.  When you finish an album, there are inevitably some that didn't make the cut, and these are typically left in an uncompleted state. 

So, after taking a break from writing, recording and release-oriented activities, one of the first things to do is clean up the unfinished stuff if you can.  At least, after having time off you revisit and confirm why you weeded them out in the first place, but with a fresh perspective.  So, I did that, and in doing so, added to my notes of what wasn't right. 

Usually in my case, the majority have acceptable music, but the lyrics and/or singing weren't right.  Sometimes it's a tempo thing, in which I'm cramming too many syllables into too little space, and those are easily remedied by re-recording at a slower pace the instrument tracks, which to me always seems like a hassle, but after the break, no problem.  Sometimes it's an issue with the lyrics not being great, so new ones can be written to fit. 

I did that successfully just this year, and it is one of the few times it's worked and not resulted in the music being scrapped.  Other times it's a case of the lyrics, when read aloud without music, naturally calling for a certain type of music, which isn't the kind of music you already had.  These are really tough, because of the do-over hassle psychologically, but again, after a break, not as daunting.  It's usually a situation where sad lyrics are calling for minor chords and a slower tempo, yet you recorded it major and fast, or vice versa. 

I started doing all of the above, and next thing you know, I'm back into the swing of things again and not only have a couple keepers for the next release, but also get the creative juices flowing again and new songs start to happen.  Some get weeded out again, and maybe get rewritten to keeper status two albums later after being left in the WIP folder again (very rare, but yes, it's happened to me), while with others you do indeed conclude they were wasted effort and perhaps delete entirely. 

My whole point here though is that non-keepers are never wasted effort.  You have to fail a lot to have a good keeper ratio.  I'd be willing to bet the same must be true for even the most prolific and celebrated songwriters out there in the world, it must be the case.  When the new songs arrive, It's like magic to me every time. 

The mystery can only be explained by saying that by doing the "hard work" tasks involved in rewriting or rerecording, you're putting yourself in the best state of readiness for creative flow again.  Breaks are important, and just as important is the manual labor part.  Granted, this is coming from someone who would rather just write a new song than perfect an existing one, but the annoying do-over tasks have both the real-yet-rare benefit of actually turning a non-keeper into a keeper, combined with the inevitable influx of new material as a result. 

Worth it, for sure, because new song ideas are what you're ultimately after, and if you can also do some recycling and reduce wasted past effort, it's a major bonus.  From this, I conclude that all songwriters should 1) save their songs that didn't make the cut, 2) revisit them after a break, 3) start attempting to rewrite them, and good things will happen.  It should be a part of any songwriting/recording process. 

I've heard it said that all artists have an arc to their career, and that there is an average number of albums they release.  Some are ground-breakers with a short-lived period of creativity (Chuck Berry comes to mind), others have long careers (Paul McCartney), others shorter but very prolific (Prince), and then of course you have the one-hit wonders.  When you mention well-known artists there are so many other factors that contributed to their output to take into consideration, but I see some truth in this arc concept. 

Some blast out of the gate and never live up to their first album (Violent Femmes), others hit their stride well into their careers (Bob Seger), but generally (and I have no stats to back this up) I've observed that for most there is a noticeable decline in quality and/or quantity at some point.  Perhaps it's inevitable for us all, perhaps some need longer breaks than others, but I think when faced with writer's block, following this simple process can keep the craft alive. 

It's a matter of forcing yourself to get back into it that makes for the steadiness and consistency.  Just when you think that maybe you just can't do it any more, a little focused effort on the mundane aspects can remove your doubts and make the magic return, which is pretty cool.

Did I mention that I now have my next full-length album written and recorded ahead of schedule?  For the related news item, see

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

New Scott Cooley Music Subscription Service
You can now subscribe to me on Bandcamp! For the low annual fee, you not only get the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting me in a sustainable way, you also receive:
  • All the new music I make, streaming instantly to your mobile device via the Bandcamp app, and also available as a high-quality, DRM-free download. 
  • A free full release from my back catalog, given to you immediately as a bonus when you subscribe. 
  • All tracks I designate as subscriber-only (live recordings, demos of forthcoming tracks, previously unreleased original songs, b-sides, and so on). 
  • The option to purchase any merchandise item I designate as subscriber-only (for first dibs on signed or limited edition items, etc.). 
  • Exclusive access to the Scott Cooley subscriber community, where I will be posting messages and photos, and chatting with just the paying supporters, and more.
What might one have to do to subscribe? Behold:
Sign up for Bandcamp to get started.  Already have an artist or fan account? Log in 

or...just go to and click on the subscribe tab.

Things you may be wondering:

Why are you doing this?

You get everything I make, you never miss out on a release because my announcement drowned in your social media fire hose or got buried under a truckload of spam, and you don’t want the hassle of going through a transaction every time I put out something new. You own the music on your terms, your device, whenever or wherever you want it.  It's about convenience for fans, and it's the future of music.

I get a little sustainability at a time, which is quite different than some big crowdfunding campaign in exchange for you getting your name in the album credits or soemthing.  When you have a desire to help an artist you're into, you sustain the artist so they can keep making more great art.

Does it replace other buying options?

No, a subscription is just another option, just like buying the next album on CD or an individual MP3, FLAC or OGG track.

How much does it cost?

The subscription fee is 15.00 / year, and you can subscribe using a credit card.  Your payment goes straight to me, without a bunch of people taking a cut first (only Bandcamp).  It's the new way.


But wait, there's more: 

This just can now get a giant discount on the entire catalog...and in time for the holidays, you can send it as a gift...

  • Full Digital Discography

    Get all 6 Scott Cooley releases available on Bandcamp and save 25%.
    Includes unlimited streaming via the free Bandcamp app, plus high-quality downloads of Used To Be Good Looking, Cherchez La Femme, Sense Of Belonging, Drive Time Companion, Lakeside Landing, and Moon Dreams.
    Excludes subscriber-only releases.


    Saturday, September 12, 2015

    Progressively More Focused Listening Yields Surprising Fruits From The Unconscious Mind

    Listening Is Learning

    One way to learn more about music is to listen more carefully to music you like.  Combine that with a little Googling of what things are called, and you're on to a whole new way to appreciate music.  This can particularly come in handy when you're motivated to try to write your own songs. 

    When you can discern the number of bars in an intro, recognize the song form, recognize the parts and the arrangement, hear the harmony and melody, notice the time signature, etc., then you're more of a discerning listener than you were when you were just a kid who liked a song on the radio.  Knowing what parts of it sound good to you and why they sound good, knowing why you like certain songs by a particular artist, knowing why you don't like others...all these things tell you about your own taste, but they also inform what kinds of songs you yourself are most likely to write.

    The Ape vs. The Fly

    Practicing cover songs by googling the chords and tabs, reading them as you try them out, playing along with the recordings, memorizing them...these are ways to learn more about music you like, but you can also do it silently - that is, to listen without taking action, using only your mind.  You can train yourself to hear all of the parts and their details that make up the whole of the song.  While listening, and after repeated listenings, more details reveal themselves to you. 

    Subsequently, you can take this knowledge of what works and what doesn't and get out your instrument and word processor and make educated guesses at what will work as you create new songs.  There's no doubting if the Beatles never logged so many hours as a cover band, they would never have become such great songwriters.  That said, although there's nothing wrong with enjoying pure imitation (some musicians never get past being ape men and women who perfect their renditions of other people's songs),  it is quite another and arguably more satisfying way to be a musician when you take it all in and then use that knowledge as creative reserve (being a fly on the wall).

    From Consumer To Preparer

    This somewhat subliminal internal processing of information gleaned can happen on an unconscious level in which your mind works on it unbeknownst to you and then makes sense of it through magical manifestation that surprises you when you start to write.  When you least expect it, it's similar to when you're trying to remember a name and then stop trying and later on it pops into your head.  It's cool. 

    Preparing for doing it yourself as you listen is different than just listening for fun, although it can arguably be even more fun.  It's like when you've never given a speech before, and you know in a few months you'll have to give one, and between then and now you have the opportunity to watch others give speeches, you listen to their speeches differently, listen and watch for different things than if you were just an attendee audience member there for entertainment. 

    You have to take it easy at first, and as you start to train your ears, and as your knowledge increases, you start to notice more and more of what you think works well and why.  You are gradually able to identify rhyme schemes, verses, bridges, turnarounds, song forms, tempos, keys, etc.  More than anything, in order to do this, you need to combine your listening with some basic instruction you can find online about song construction.  Take it in little chunks at a comfortable pace, learn some basic music glossary terms, and then slowly you know what things in songs you used to just hear are called.

    Developing Your Inner Critic

    It's like instead of trying to learn from a teacher when you were a student, you instead thought about how you could teach it better while you were being taught.  As we progress as musicians, we may notice a live performance or hear a recording and think to ourselves about how we could've/would've done it a little differently, how we would re-do it to improve it here and there.  It's imposing our creativity and uniqueness on something we're exposed to, critiquing it as we take it in. 

    More than being able to say negative things about other's music, you are listening with your own personal tastes in mind, only armed with deeper knowledge of what you're hearing.  This allows you to better form your own opinions of what aspects of songs are appealing.  All the music you've ever listened to, whether you liked it or not, becomes an influence (and a tool) as you start to craft your own songs. 

    Easy To Teach, Hard To Do

    Just because you can talk the talk, doesn't mean it's easy to walk the walk.  This newfound power you have can rarely manifest itself in you writing a perfect song or a commercial hit, because it's rare even for the best songwriters to fire on all cylinders.  That's not to say that popularity alone makes a song great.  I generally despise and avoid pop music, which in my opinion has been on a slow but steady decline since the late 70s. 

    However, I have no trouble admitting I like the bubblegum sound of Sugar, Sugar by the Archies, or I'm A Believer by The Monkees.  I like a good pop ballad too, on occasion.  There are a couple radio songs from the late 90s I've heard that come to mind which are near-perfect:  Shania Twain's You're Still The One, and Savage Garden's I Knew I Loved You.  Not sure who wrote each, but these are examples of commercial pop hits that I wouldn't know how to improve.  I doubt their songwriters have come that close to perfection with any of the other songs they've written.

    A Good Place To Start

    Universal appeal is of course something anyone who aspires to write songs should not totally ignore.  The best resource I've found for this online is this wikipedia page:  List of songs considered the best

    It combines many published best-of lists from reputable sources.  There's no accounting for some people's tastes, and although true, it can't hurt for you to recognize the commonalities, know the rules so to speak, so you can then go out and break them in your own unique way.

    Thursday, August 27, 2015

    Some call it Maize

    I call it corn.  By that I mean what I write and record is what others call music, but I call it doing the best I can with what I've got.  I don't claim to be good, nor do I claim to want to be any better than I'm going to be.  I get a kick out of being the best I can, knowing full well that what I do is make up songs, most of which are not that great, and I'm comfortable with that.  I think what I write are songs, and what I record is music, and it may or may not be called something else by someone else.

    In my last post I wrote about what it means to call yourself a songwriter, and I want to make it clear I don't take it so seriously that I pretend I'm something I'm not.  It's just a word, and whether I ever sell a song or become rich and famous from it, I can feel good calling myself a songwriter.  Even if I never play my music in front of people.  Actually, when in a group setting where people I gave my CDs to decide to play them in my presence, I cringe.  Not sure why.  I like making the recordings, but a part of me doesn't want to hear them played back with others around.

    It's okay to suck and be happy sucking at something.  Others may not like it, and I completely understand that.  They might say I produced something good, or something bad, but it's still sounding close to resembling music.  I know my limitations, I know what doesn't sound right and what can be improved in my recordings, even after I've done the best I could.  It's hard to make people understand that.  Sometimes you lose some magic spirit when you keep doing something over and over again until you get it perfect.  It's better to go with the flow, re-do a few things here and there, get it close to what you envisioned, and call it good.

    Be Happy Being Bad

    I say go ahead and be terrible, know it, own it, and do it anyway because it pleases you.  It's probably rare to be bad at something, yet have a passion for it anyway.  I say there's nothing wrong with that at all.  What you have that more gifted people might not have as much of is that very passion.  Take whatever level of skill you do have and work with it.  It's what makes you unique.  Whether it's your creativity for lyrics or melodies, technical instrument playing, perfect pitch, etc., its not the level you're at, but rather, it's what you decide to do with it. 

    It is entirely possible for you as an intelligent human being to be an appreciator and connoisseur of music - to know what's commonly considered good and popular and what's not.  It's also possible for you to choose to look on the bright side of your own levels as compared with the ideals you understand.  So that when you realize you're quite far apart from that high-set bar as a discerning listener, you do not view it as so much of a negative that you give up trying.  Try hard, and perhaps fail miserably, and recognize it, then rethink how you think about the failure to the point that you only see the good, and the potential for more.

    No Need To Rush Into It

    Everyone has to start somewhere, and not everyone progresses at the same pace.  Take it slow, take it easy, let it come to you, let it flow out of you.  Keep it natural, don't force it.  If you're not feeling it, move on to something else.  Wait until the mood strikes you, and then harness the power of the moment as best you can.  Making something out of nothing ... a song from a blank piece of paper and quietness.  You have certain gifts, certain abilities, certain talents.  You can never be great at everything.  If you're like me, your singing voice is politely called "interesting" by others who've heard it.  Hey, that's something, at least.  Stay positive, and be thankful for what you do have.

    Why Not Continue When You Can Amaze Yourself

    Making music is fun for me.  Why would I stop?  No reason.  If you are able and feel the urge, do what you can, when you can.  Find time, make time, do it, make it happen.  It is magic, this thing we call music.  I am amazed by it.  What others would call noise that I make, I call it magic.  It's astounding to me sometimes to come up with what I do.  It's beyond physical.  It's spiritual for me, and it's gathering up invisible forces that exist in the world and working with them to your advantage.  Taking particles and rearranging them with unexplainable power...that's what music making is to me.

    Amazing Others May Never Happen

    If you're like me, a few people close to you in your life who know you well have given you positive feedback about your music, and you actually trust them.  If they liked something you did too about your music, isn't that a huge momentum-building bonus?  It must be.  It might be jokingly what you refer to as not being so great, but it is also you admitting to shortcomings and imperfections, but liking the overall result - the collective good parts that make the thing you created pleasant to hear.  Even when they didn't interpret it as you did, if others liked the parts or aspects that you yourself also liked, then you've got something important.  You've made something someone else enjoyed.  You've made their lives better because of it, however small a contribution.

    Studio Dreams

    The method of delivering songs to people for me is making recordings and letting people choose to discover and listen to them.  All of my songs can be streamed free, and if you want to purchase them, you can.  This seems to be the modern model.  Everyone and their brother has a home computer-based recording studio nowadays, and I am proud to say I was among the first wave of people to do such a thing.  It's where I can be alone and make things up.  It's also where I can take the time to get it right - that is, to get it sounding slightly better than how it would sound if I played it for you live and in person.  A big factor with this is I'm able to record multiple tracks with multiple vocals and instruments (all my own), and blend them to my liking.  This I couldn't do as a solo performer or even with a band, it wouldn't necessarily come out sounding how I envisioned it.  Would the recordings be any better if I practiced them live and solo in front of people a hundred times first?  Due to unlimited "takes" available in multitrack digital recording studios, I agrue no.

    To Perform Or Not To Perform

    Seasoned performers advocate performing to songwriters who are not.  By that I mean that in my life I've run across many different circles of songwriters most of whom cut their teeth and paid their dues playing covers in live settings for many years prior to writing their own songs.  They think their path was one all songwriters should take.  Although I was at one time in my life a live cover song performer on and off for a few short years, I gave it up a long time ago, and other songwriters don't understand why, and when I remind them I'm a terrible singer, they say I shouldn't care and should get back out there anyway, due to the value of audience feedback.  I would argue that many of the best and most beloved Beatles songs came after they decided to stop playing live and focus on songwriting.  Like anything, I advocate for doing it to be better, as in "do songwriting to get better at songwriting."  I'm more like the late career Beatles in that way...I decided long ago to hunker down in my home studio and write and record songs.

    No Yearning To Be Heard, Just A Slight Hope

    Having people appreciate your music is a great thing when you're a songwriter, but it doesn't need to come from being a live performer.  There's no need for people to take it so seriously that they believe you can't call yourself a songwriter unless you become well known, or have popularity in one way or another.  It's a craft, and a hobby, and it's fun.  To me, I have fun with it, and I call it what I call it - writing and recording songs.  That's what I do.  If regular performers want to call what I do something different than that, I don't have a problem with it.  I call it what I want.  I do only what I want.  It's a creative outlet and I like the parts of it I like.  It's my free time.  I don't feel this burning desire to get polite applause and kind compliments from playing my songs in a bar or coffee place in front of people.  Wanting it bad is something that comes from within.  I don't need people to hear my music badly enough to make time for getting gigs or showing up to open mic nights anymore.  I'm happy enough writing and recording songs the best I can and putting them out there and hoping they'll be discovered and liked, while realistically knowing not much of that will happen.  I'm cool with that.

    Saturday, July 25, 2015

    What It Means To Be A Songwriter

    I claim to be a songwriter, and there's proof out there to show that I have written many songs I think are good. People out there in the world might question this claim, so it occurred to me that I should delve deeper into what it means to say someone is a songwriter.

    What Is A Song? Simple Definitions

    First, one must consider whether or not the things in question are what I say they are. It's arguable to say that what I call songs I've written are even songs at all, so I decided to take to the internet to see if mine qualify. "song" has some arguably official definitions you can find online from fairly reputable and reliable sources that are somewhat simple:

    • a short piece of music with words that are sung
    • a short musical composition of words and music
    • a poetical composition or poem easily set to music 

    My verdict then, is that what I call songs that I've written fit such definitions, and thus indeed are actual songs, and hence and therefore, they qualify.

    Proof and Quantity Might Be Important

    Once I've established that I've written songs, a next question might be: how many? As if quantity might be important criteria to establish credibility necessary to call one's self a songwriter. I saw Tom Petty being interviewed on TV once where he said something like:
    "You have to write at least 100 songs before you can call yourself a songwriter."
    So, if there's a quantity issue, I'm close to having that covered, since I've released over 70 original songs on recordings that are currently published and "in print" and being offered for sale that you can purchase in many online music stores like Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Bandcamp. This fact resolves any proof issues as well. One of the reasons I've thought it was cool to get my music into stores online is the fact that I wanted proof to be out there that I have written songs and recorded them.

    I'm well on my way to meeting the Tom Petty requirement if you'll take my word for it that I've written way more than what I've released - over 300 at last count, many more since I stopped counting a decade or so ago. I stopped counting because it doesn't matter so much, when you take into account how many of those are "attempts" that are not good. It's a matter of opinion, as all appreciation of all art is.

    Quality and the Eye (ear) of the Beholder (listener)

    As for the "quality" issue then, know that I've released my best. This means that hundreds of my songs have not been release-worthy. If you write tons of songs, and they are all terrible, are you still a songwriter? Does a bear shit in the woods? Beyond that, one might wonder what even qualifies as a quality song, and what standards exist. You can talk popularity, you can talk hooks, and you can talk "you know it when you hear it" stuff. It's up to the rest of the world I suppose to offer up their own critical judgment about whether my songs are any good or not. So far, there aren't many reviews online, but I hope there will be more in the future, and that they will be favorable.

    I imagine that art for personal satisfaction is one thing, but offering it up to the public for appreciation and consumption is another. I wanted to go there out of curiosity about whether others would like my songs, and would be thrilled if I became aware that more people out there in the world like the songs I've written for any reason. I'd also be interested to know more specifics about why people like them, I'll admit. I'm just happy to know they're out there and available for discovery and liking. It's hard to explain why, but I guess it's because I thought they were personally appealing enough to not keep them totally private.

    Conclusions and Beyond

    My definition of what it means to be a songwriter is that when your enjoyment of writing songs gives you a level of satisfaction with the craft that makes you want to share your creations with others, so that they might also be similarly satisfied from listening to them, you can consider yourself a songwriter. My way of doing that is recording them and releasing those recordings, since I'm not much of a performer, nor do I have a desire to be one. The limitations of my vocal abilities are significant, and quality of singing is important for song performance quality.

    A next stage of considering someone to be a songwriter, particularly when they are not performers themselves, would be whether or not other musicians have performed or recorded the songwriter's songs. I've made no effort make musicians aware that my songs are available for them to perform and/or record other than releasing them, and stating that they are available for licensing on my web site. Not a lot of intentional effort to pitch is happening, but should there be an interest, I'm ready to offer up permission quickly and with reasonable and fair terms.

    Sunday, May 17, 2015

    Why Lyrics Matter

    I am of the belief that lyrics matter.  Although there are times when I love a good instrumental, be it rock, classical, or jazz, when the subject of songs comes up, I am of the opinion that I prefer the types that have lyrics most often, and I tend to value those whose lyrics I particularly appreciate.  Good lyrics make songs good because they are capable as standing alone without music, but are supported well by the music.  As opposed to songs in which the music makes the lyrics stand out, there is no risk of unintentionally remembering lyrics you don't like when the thing you like best is the lyric.

    I saw a documentary of the 70s rock band called Kansas recently on TV, and a moving statement made about one of their songs Carry On My Wayward Son, was that every part of the song was itself a hook - the intro, the melody, the solo, the verses, the chorus, etc. as well as the philosophical lyrics.  Indeed it seems to be a song where the whole thing arguably hooks you into wanting to continue to listen to it all the way through.  It's rare that a song fires on all cylinders like that.

    Fluff and filler without meaning or intrigue can be present in a good song, no doubt.  Often there are only portions of lyrics you like, just as with the music.  Great songs however seem to have memorable lyrics that move you to feel certain emotions and have the power to provoke thoughts in addition to having pleasant music.

    A part of me agrees with people who say the lyrics don't matter.  Particularly with danceable music, if you love the instrumental hooks and the groove, you don't care what the lyrics are about, nor do you even notice much of the time anything beyond a catchy line or phrase from the chorus - usually the title.  Let's face it, lyrics aren't always the most memorable part of a song you like, but another part of me nonetheless believes that they are important.

    Your interpretation is unique, and you create your own images, maybe from subliminal messages, or maybe from indirect things the subliminal messages lead you to think about.  Even with words that just sound cool and are not meant to have a particular meaning, words intended to flow together with other words well, or words strung together in a stream-of-consciousness style that conjure memories or visions in one's mind are all making contributions to the song's likability.

    When music videos were a new thing, it was like sensory overload.  Sometimes the video was so interesting, you found yourself focused on it so much, you almost didn't notice much about the song.  It can arguably detract from the music listening experience.  Maybe in the future we'll have robot massages or even smell maker devices that accompany music, who knows?  Watching a live band is exciting, but sitting in a room with your eyes closed while listening to a record is the best way to enjoy music for me.  And music with lyrics is just enough take me away to a happy place.

    Instrumental breaks within songs with lyrics give you the joy of instrumental music along with that of music with words.  That's why I usually include such a passage when recording music myself.  It gives the listener time to reflect on the words so far, and get lost in thought for a few moments.

    As a songwriter, you can make lyrics fit music, or you can make music fit lyrics.  Every single time, however, it's a little of both, depending on how you think of it.  Maybe Bob Dylan has the lyrics typed out ahead of time, and maybe Paul McCartney has the music completed first, however, when fitting one to the other to form a song that has both lyrics and music, some of the making it fit work happens in Bob or Paul's head.  This means that whether putting pen to paper or finger to guitar string, there is thought involved which serves as a chicken/egg scenario in my way of thinking.

    Sometimes it's obvious when listening to music the lyrics fall short in comparison to the music, or vice versa.  Either can be disappointing.  I don't know if you can call it a poem or not if you're just reading lyrics without music, and certainly a karaoke track of a song without the singing of lyrics would qualify as music.  When both can stand alone and be considered good, then when they are blended together, you've got greatness.

    Subjectivity trumps universal truths when it comes to what makes a good song good.  Computer programs can only analyze so much about hit songs, and these analytics don't enable them to automatically create hit songs.  Your opinion counts, your taste matters, and your tastes change based on many factors.  Maybe unconsciously, a song's lyrics have an effect on you even when you can't recite them from memory.

    Conversely, it's easy to recite verbatim terrible meaningless lyrics from songs you've heard before.  Whether you wanted to or not, they get stuck in your head.  Often I find a classic rock radio station while in my car and realize I know all of the words of some dreadful song from the 80s that was popular when I was in high school or something.  It's hard to admit, but these have other things going for them musically that made them memorable, despite them making you cringe.  So bad, they're memorable, perhaps.

    The introductory overview of the wikipedia entry for the word "lyrics" has a couple sentences that prove my point:
    The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of expression.
    Some come right out and say it, while others allow you to guess at the intended meaning.  Some don't make much sense, but just sound great with the music.   Some spark your imagination of what a music video for the song would look like.  Some are like hearing someone tell you a great story.  Some make you see the world in a different way, while others sink in from repetition alone.

    You can easily study, read, play a game, or just think your own thoughts while instrumental music is in the background.  It's not so easy when the song has lyrics.  When songs have lyrics, you tend to take notice, listen more intently, and have the opportunity to be more fulfilled as a result.  This is why I think lyrics matter.  There is potential for more gratification.

    Monday, April 13, 2015

    Scrutinize Your Music Marketing Methods - A Lesson Learned From the Old Newsboys

    What is the deal with these "old newsboys" anyway?  They've always creeped me out since I was a kid because they are like some strange gang hanging out at intersections who approach your car at stoplights on cold winter nights and hit you up for cash.  They seem to strike just when people are scurrying to do Christmas shopping and there’s the related traffic and stress, when people just want to get where they’re going on icy roads and get the unpleasantness of the season overwith.  People are in a hurry more than ever, and this seems like something that must’ve started in the 1950s in neighborhoods like those in the TV shows Happy Days or Leave It To Beaver, but it may not be right for today’s world, in which you’re just trying to keep those car doors locked and get home safely.

    Then at a red light there’s a group of weirdos who try to get you to roll down your window and give them money, and somehow they are affiliated with newspapers, but you’re not sure how exactly, and nobody seems to know what their deal is when you’re a kid and you ask about them.  So, you forget about it until the next year, and then it happens again.  No one knows the story, but you get the gist that it’s for charity, and most tend not to question the do-gooders of the world.  I do though, and that’s what this post is about - questioning an old tradition that I’ve never understood.  I feel a little guilty it irks me still, but it does due to my own ignorance.

    I would be with my mom in the car and some man is obviously asking people to roll down their windows and talk to them and give them money.  Usually, this is something you avoid, especially in a crime-ridden city like Flint, Michigan where I'm from.  For some strange reason, its ok for people to do this when involved with a charity due to it being a tradition I guess.  Other people in other cars seem to want to engage these people in conversation, as if they know the people or have questions.  All this creates traffic hassles, people not being able to turn and make the green light in time, getting mad about it, honking their horns.

    These were scary looking men who seemed to all be fat and have beards.  Could be it's just a coincidence that a lot of men in Flint happen to have beards.  They always stink because they all seem to be smokers (again, a lot of people smoke in impoverished former factory towns) and I swear many of them stunk like alcohol, probably because people either gave them whiskey, or they brought their own to stay warm out there on a dark cold winter night in the city streets.  Could be it was spiced rum or spiked coffee, since they always seemed to also be holding plastic coffee cups with lids.  

    Something about how old white men talk in these parts added to the intimidation with their aggressive style and low, gruff smoker/drinker voices too.  Come to think of it, writers have always been known to be big on smoking.  Maybe they used to report news stories for the paper, or maybe they used to deliver papers as boys?  They’re definitely now all old, especially to a little kid with his mom in a car.  Granted, they are all freezing probably, but I suspect they must’ve also been wondering in the back of their minds whether or not this was the best approach to getting people to donate money to help others in winter.  Their grammar and word choice, or the general way in which they spoke also arose suspicion in me because they didn’t seem to be smart enough or at the very least speak well enough to be professional writers in the first place, if they were indeed writers or worked for newspaper companies.  

    Needless to say at every encounter they have freaked me out, and I realize this may just have been freak occurrences only I experienced.  They scared you in a similar way that fake Santa Clauses in malls scare little kids.  I think it's because I'm never quite sure what they're up to and why they take the approach they do.  Also, I'm never quite sure who the heck they are exactly.  So, I get the fact that they are carrying the old-school style of shoulder bags full of newspapers, possibly fake spoof newspapers, possibly real.  Like almost all topics in this blog, I can’t help venting about this confusion I have.  If you’ve read others, or talked to me for very long in person, you know I’m prone to dead horse beating, and I’m sure this is yet another expository example.

    Back before vehicle delivery and the internet-driven decline of the industry in general, kids used these bags to deliver newspapers on foot or on bikes.  We've all seen black and white movies where they sell papers out of these bags on the street in big cities.  Invariably, I'd ask the parent in the car who these guys are, what they want, what their deal is, and the parent never gave me an answer that left me satisfied.  (Keep in mind if I was saying all this that you’re currently reading in person, my tone of voice would let you know I’m smiling as I say it, thinking it’s humorous, and maybe with a Seinfeld-esque style.  :)

    I wondered then, and still wonder now, probably because the word "old" is in their group name, "Are they former paper boys?, Are they former news writers?, Are they retired?  Did technology and consolidation in the media business force them to resort to these tactics?  Are they affiliated with the local newspaper The Flint Journal?  Are they unemployed now?  Did they get fired?  Did they get downsized or laid off?  Are they currently on strike and selling spoof papers in the streets to make extra money?" These are all legitimate questions, particularly that last one because Flint is arguably known for strikes as much as poverty and crime.  

    So now that the newspaper business is all online, I thought I'd look into this by searching the web for answers to eliminate some of the confusion.  When I hit up the About page for the Old Newsboys of Flint website, it got even more complicated immediately, because the first sentence tells you about some founder dude whose last name was 'Young'.  Okay, so I quickly got the picture from the next few paragraphs that they help give clothes to kids at Christmas time - a great thing to do we can all agree.  

    So we know they're out to help kids, yet as a kid myself, these guys scared the hell out of me.  Bundled up, some in ski masks, drinking coffee, gruff low voices, smoking cigarettes.  Again, perhaps typical of most old men in Flint.  Then I read on, and it starts to get creepier again.  Early on in the history of the organization, it says prisoners were used as staff members!  Additionally, it says the group actually started in Detroit, and was called the Goodfellows, so I immediately start thinking of the movie Goodfellas and the mafia murdering people.  Still creeped out by their whole approach as an adult here.  

    Google searches bring up the fact that there are other, similar groups out there in places like Lansing and Toledo, all of whom seem to do similar things, some having more of a specialty - like only shoes and boots for kids, while others cooperate with other charities for christmas presents of all kinds for kids and even families.  The Lansing one sells a "spoof" newspaper, which is produced by the local newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, but the newsboys themselves are volunteers and do not work there, and it's not clear whether some of them used to work there or not.  It's a terrible thing to question or criticize or ridicule a charity, but I think they are in need of a marketing overhaul and improved practices.  

    Maybe I'm the only one out there who has ever been scared of these guys as a kid, and maybe I'm the only one who has been and still is slightly confused by these guys.  Charity paper sellers approaching your car at busy intersections and holding up traffic is odd to me, but the more I read, the more I realize these people have good hearts, and volunteers for good causes is something we need more of in this country.  Although I don't know for sure, I've read this is on the decline in our country, and this is not something I should be negative about.  

    Many a blog includes rants, raves, gripes, grievances, and mine is no different, as this post may provide further evidence for.  I’d like to think of this one as an observance of a phenomenon that doesn’t quite seem right to me as I try to understand things I run across in this world.  It’s a sharing of a take on an experience.  I see room for improvement in the approach and method of getting people to donate, not the fact that their intent is good, even though I admit I’m a charity begins at home kind of guy myself.  Getting people to buy your music is basically like charity solicitation come to think of it.  Lord knows the music industry is rapidly changing in the last couple decades.

    The difference with my blog from most is I try to make each post somehow relate to my hobby of writing songs.  Maybe this observance could be used as a starting point to craft a story song, perhaps in the blues or folk traditions.  It would be about a tradition, and traditions should be questioned and improved in my way of thinking, and maybe a satirical parody would be best.  Songs are supposed to make people feel better about their lives, so I just don’t know.  It just occurred to me:   The takeaway here could very well be that it’s the approach to getting people to become aware of and possibly buy your music that you have to be careful about.  The lesson is maybe that being considerate of the methods you use to self-market and re-examining for improvement and appropriateness are important.  Rethink, revise, modernize with the times.  Periodically question what has been traditionally tried and true.

    Maybe it’s just terrible what I’ve done here, being critical of people who try to help other people and help make the world a better place.  I'll probably burn in hell for writing this, but I was already going to do that anyway.  This is just one guy's experience with a charity that has some confusing things about it that don't quite make sense to an inquisitive kid.  As an adult now, that inquisitive kid still can't quite wrap his head around this whole thing.  So it's "no kid without a Christmas" or some similar motto, which is straight-up noble and wonderful and kind, but why the affiliation with newspapers?  Scare mothers and kids in cars to help other kids and at the same time help the newspaper publishing business at the same time?  I don't get it yet, but I see there is a book available for sale about this, which I might buy to get my questions answered.  

    In the meantime, I felt compelled to raise this concerned and confused reaction I’ve had to this organization and their odd on-street solicitation events.  Really, I’m reaching out here, in a quest for better understanding of what the deal is with this Old Newsboys group.  I just want to know more to satisfy my curiosity and hopefully improve my ignorant perspective and change the way I’ve always felt about this group.

    Maybe someone out there will read this, relate to and agree with some of it, and even comment on it themselves. Until then, if you’re a songwriter reader, get opinions on your approach to making people aware of your songs with the hope they’ll buy some, and be cognizant of any potentially creepy sales techniques.  We songwriters and musicians all want a larger audience of appreciators, and actions you take to help it grow require some careful consideration first.

    Sunday, March 22, 2015

    R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 2001 The Complete Sessions - CD Review

    I got the R.E.M. “Unplugged 1991 2001 The Complete Sessions” 2-disc album for a Christmas gift this year.  The wife stuffed it in my stocking, and I’m glad she did.  Now that I’ve found time to listen to it several times, I recommend it to anyone who ever liked this band, and to anyone who generally likes the MTV Unplugged concept.

    Getting the album made me look up stuff about them online while listening as I sort of rediscovered a band I liked back in the 80s. An interesting thing I learned is that apparently, they've called it quits and broken up permanently as a band. That made me think it will be interesting to see if they resist temptation to re-form ten years from now like so many bands have, and possibly even more interesting if they do reunite, because maybe time will show they were better than we all thought and that we missed them more than we thought we would and that a long break actually made them better than ever. Something gives me a hunch they're the types to stay broken up for good, but I'm not sure why.

    They just sort of did what made sense to them at the time each step of the way and lucked out without really trying too hard it seems like. It's cool they split their songwriting royalties equally four ways, all contributing to writing the songs together, and it's also cool they focused on catchy tunes and vague lyrics that let the listener derive their own meanings, and it's cool they both rocked electrically and acoustically, and they weren't afraid to try out a lot of different types of songs. Listening to this double album and learning a bit more about them online made me appreciate them even more. Also, I saw one of those behind the music rockumentary things about them on MTV recently which was cool. These experiences all gave me further insight that made me appreciate them more, and actually made me want to have more of their back catalog in my collection someday.

    Why I’ve always liked them
    I was a fan of the first few albums by this band, and had vinyl and cassettes of them back in the mid-late 80s, which I'd since lost, and never replaced with CDs, nor did I purchase any of their 90s or 2000s releases, although I was aware of a few of their songs that got on the radio during these years.  I honestly can’t say I remember a video of theirs except Losing My Religion, and I don’t recall ever seeing these actual shows when they were on MTV, although I vaguely think I might have seen the first one.

    Like most people back then, I liked them because they were considered an “underground” band at the time, whatever that means, and for reasons unknown, they were a popular college band during the mid-late 80s when I was in college myself.  My roommate even had an REM poster on the wall of our dorm room that was kind of psychedelic looking.  When I listen to college radio nowadays, I don’t get it - the music seems terrible to me, but times change.  The were never awesome, but they were nonetheless appealing.

    Each band member played their instruments well, and the harmony vocals and arpeggio guitar style really made a noticeable contribution.  Overall, I liked the slight hint of folk you could hear in their sound, even though they still rocked hard with electric guitars.  They had catchy melodies for sure, and those stood out as opposed to bands who featured long guitar solos.  Something about them was different from other bands of the day, but it was - and still is - hard to describe.

    Understanding the singer
    You can’t talk to someone about REM without mention of the lead vocalist.  No one could understand the words, but the music was cool and they had a cool name.  So, you have no idea what the songs are about, but the band is really good.  The singer seemed to have some type of reluctant tortured poet type of a vibe.  You couldn’t really sing along, although many tried, and what words you could make out seemed to paint some interesting pictures you thought you could relate to.  That’s all we really knew about them.  There was no internet back then.  

    You weren’t sure about the singer, because he seemed to possibly be ambiguously gay.  This fact probably allowed them to gain a larger following because it wasn’t common in the 80s for straight guys to admit to their straight friends that they liked anyone who was gay - musician or otherwise. REM’s singer was far from Elton John who you would later admit you liked anyway.  Despite the post-80s discovery about bands like Judas Priest having gay band members, straight guys didn’t care as much and didn’t necessarily stop liking those bands.  It shouldn’t matter, and the point is, it seems to matter less now than back then.

    Tolerance and acceptance change over time with the help of television.  Now because of the internet, you can read that Michael Stipe prefers to be called queer and has dated men and women.  This makes straight guys cringe just as much, but then again, you can easily overlook it when you read the rest of the band are straight, some having wives and kids even, and somehow it’s more forgivable when it’s only the lead singer who was/is gay.  This sounds bad, I know, but whether unfortunate or not, I think there’s truth to it.

    The unplugged sound
    The unplugged concept was interesting at the time, and still is, to me anyway.  Rock music played with acoustic instruments.  This album combines the two separate times they were on that MTV show, ten years apart.  The main difference is the drummer played congas/bongos on the first one, and the second had a full drum kit.  I liked both sounds, but maybe the hand percussion session a little better.  There’s something about their songs that sounded old even when they were new, but now they’re not a band anymore, and I’m old.  The acoustic versions make the songs sound even more timeless.  Anyway...

    Best on album:  
    If I were burning a favorites CD or desert island mixtape of songs from this album, I would put these on there probably:

    from Disc One:
    Pop Song 89 (best on this disc)
    Losing My Religion
    Fall on Me
    Love is All Around (cover)
    It's The End Of The World As We Know It
    Rotary Eleven (instrumental)

    from Disc Two:
    Find The River (best on this disc)
    So. Central Rain (a close second-best)
    Losing My Religion
    The One I Love
    I've Been High

    The above were the standouts for me, the others just okay.  I did some skipping to these from others during the first few listens in my car, since I had limited drive time.  During subsequent listens when I had more patience and was in the right mood, I appreciated most of the other songs as well to a certain extent.  Like most albums, some songs you just prefer over others and this was no exception.

    What was missing:
    I wish they would've done unplugged versions of some other songs of theirs I like, of course.  These that come to mind would’ve been interesting to include, and these are songs that would also probably be on my best of R.E.M. mixtape also, whether live or studio:
    Radio Free Europe
    Don't Go Back To Rockville
    Driver 8
    Pretty Persuasion
    Can't Get There From Here
    Orange Crush
    Everybody Hurts
    Man on the Moon
    What's The Frequency Kenneth

    Nostalgia a factor
    This band was one of my influences, just as Violent Femmes and Talking Heads were during this era.  Seems that most people I knew in college in Michigan (1985-1989) liked REM, and most had the Murmur album, although Reckoning was also a popular one, and Document.  They had a cool style about them with almost an element of folk in their rock, and they seemed more intelligent somehow than your average rock band.  You could like REM and still be cool in this time/place, but it was harder to admit the same about Duran Duran, for example.

    The most popular albums you’d see alongside REM back then were James Taylor greatest hits, Bob Marley Legend, Earth Wind & Fire greatest, Led Zeppelin II, Talking Heads Speaking In Tongues, U2, The Police Synchronicity, Violent Femmes, Prince 1999 or Purple Rain, MJ Thriller, maybe some Journey, Steely Dan, Madonna, miscellaneous Grateful Dead, and some Howard Jones album for some god-awful reason.  Just a few that come to mind that I saw a lot of in that place.  The people with REM also probably had some Ramones, Neil Young and some Tom Waits in their collections too, come to think of it.

    So there was some nostalgia to hear a band I like from back in my late teens play acoustic and in front of an audience, playing a few tunes I’d heard, and throwing in some I’d never heard but really liked such as Find The River, and surprising ones like that jazz instrumental which was cool.  You can’t help but wonder what they would’ve been like with a different singer or better lyrics, like maybe if they would’ve stuck with that Warren Zevon side project, and you can see that they sort of ran their course, so it’s not a huge loss that they broke up, not like the Beatles.  Again, the melodies and the overall sound of the songs were very pleasurable.

    What I learned
    I like R.E.M. more than I remembered.  I love this band playing unplugged.  Some bands don't sound good when you're used to a more electric sound, but R.E.M. played this format well.  I like the congas/bongos on disc 1 a lot.  The original drummer was great playing this style of percussion, and it sort of fits the theme, although the second disc with a real drum kit is fine too.  The bass and backing vocals really enhance the sound.  A big part of the sound is good harmony vocals and melodic bass playing.  The keyboards really enhance the overall sound, whether organ, piano, or especially the accordion.  

    The melodies on the songs I like are outstanding.  Probably due to a combination of the guitar playing (or mandolin) and the singing, the melodies are beautiful.  The lyrics are only arguably good, and as is typical, some lyrics you can't hear to make out the words, while others you can make out don't make a lot of sense, but they paint pictures and let you envision your own meaning, so it's mostly a good thing, and the singer’s voice is uniquely good.  This band had a certain magical blend of things, tight, professional, and played really well together live.

    I also learned that if I ever do a live album, I will want to include as many songs as I can that I know are people’s favorites, which is hard to do because of the limited space.  You can’t please everyone.  

    Wrapping it up
    Concluding here, my takeaway is that their overall live & unplugged sound is pretty much how I would like my own live band to sound some day, if I ever form one, which I probably won't.  I would probably augment some songs with marimba, slide guitar, and harmonica, but otherwise, the elements here would be ideal for my music - including accordion, harmony vocals, mandolin, and an extra guitar.  I've learned things from listening to this how I might improve my studio recordings, since I do go for an unplugged sort of a sound on my albums.  They were an odd band that didn’t easily fit a particular mold in the 80s and beyond, they had a great combination of things that made for a unique overall sound, they play well live, and they wrote some great songs.  Playing acoustically, you could hear even better the fact that this band wrote some great songs.  Glad I got this CD.