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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Confessions Of A Closet Musician



If you’re like me, you have a secret-yet-totally public part of yourself that is your online music presence.  You never talk about it with people at your day job, or with your family, or even your friends.  Only a few people you’ve run across in your life know little tidbits - maybe they remember you mentioning you taught yourself a few chords on a guitar, and maybe that you like to strum and try to make up songs once in a while in your free time.  Technically, since you’ve had no formal training, don’t read music notation, and basically don’t think you’re very good, you don’t even qualify to be able to say you’re a real musician.

Most people you know don’t know you have a blog, a website, and your songs for sale in online stores.  You love making music, and can’t go long without getting cravings to do it some more, but few people know about this habit of yours.  Maybe you’ve kept it that way because you’re modest.  Maybe you’re modest because of your personality but also because you’re not confident that this passion of yours will result in your music being appreciated by other people.  A part of you wants people to know, to listen, to compliment you, to buy your albums.  A part of you envies other amateur musicians who go for it, and make it known to everyone they know, even though they’re not that good in your opinion.  No guts no glory, but you want to keep this part of your life separate.  

Even though it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, nothing that could wreck your career if people found out, you keep it hidden, yet it’s out there online for the whole world to discover.  Your music isn’t all that controversial or explicit or even overtly rebellious.  It’s pretty tame and far from being reputation-damaging, aside from the potential fact that it might not be good, which then might cause people to feel sorry for you, or ridicule you, or think less of you.  Yep, when you’re like me, and when you’re kind of afraid of playing in public, and you have a cheap little home recording rig, and a few cheap instruments, and you like to make up words and sing, you put your recordings of your songs online and nobody notices or buys them.  This helps solidify the notion you already had in your mind that you’re not very good at this little hobby.  

You still love doing it though.  You don’t have money for advertising and you have no fan base or mailing list.  There are little things that you can focus on, which might help attract listeners.  For example, since you’re up against short attention spans, which means you’ve got to have short intros in case someone ever hits that play button.  It might help if the songs are really good, but they’re not.  It might help if you have a great voice or great instrumental chops, but you don’t.  There’s got to be a way to improve your chances of gaining an audience.  

You think about these kinds of things when you’re not writing & recording.  You know how it is yourself to surf around the internet and stumble upon music and listen with your headphones on.  Maybe it’s a recommendation, maybe an accident, maybe someone you know, or someone that someone you know knows.  When you’re a closet recording artist, or non-performing songwriter like me, you miss out on audience feedback from playing live, and you’re forced to take into consideration what can get you recognized online.  This boils down to catchy song titles.

A few months ago, I ventured out of my basement studio and performed some of my original songs in front of a live audience for the first time in at least 15 years.  I had been scared beforehand because it had been so long, and also because the audience included many professional performing singer-songwriters.  I decided to go for it and do the best I could, and it worked out fine.  I got the audience to sing along, got lots of applause, and even got compliments afterward.  This made me feel good.  It also made me feel like I could do this more often if I memorized more of my own songs and practiced more.

Overall, it made me look back on my involvement in music – from my beginnings as a music fan, to someone who learned to play guitar, to someone who played in duos and bands, to someone who played solo at open mic nights, to someone who wrote his own songs, to someone who records his own songs while playing multiple instruments and singing.

Prior to the recent live performance, I had evolved at my own pace to become someone who treated music as a hobby – writing songs and recording them alone in my basement.  In my home studio – where I have a computer, audio interface, multitrack recording software, guitar, bass, drums, microphone, etc. – I have taught myself to be able to record one track at a time and mix those tracks together to produce a song that sounds like a band had played it.

With no formal music training and limited natural talent – particularly vocal talent – I do the best I can with what ability I do have, and with the help of the internet, learn little things here and there about music along the way through trial and error.  I take it slowly, and my progression with the craft of songwriting and recording has slowly improved over the years in small ways that may only be noticeable to me.

Live audience feedback can be a good indicator of memorability.  Herein lies a missing ingredient – the input of others.  Although I sell my recordings online, I don’t sell much, and I get very little feedback from those who do buy them.  Playing live would probably help me sell more, and it would also give me an idea of which songs are better than others.  Instead of relying on my own intuition or a review by a relative or friend, a live audience would help as an additional means of weeding out prior to releasing.

So, the pre-conlcusion here is playing live would no doubt help my cause to bring people my best songs.  What works and what doesn’t in front of a live audience would also help me refine works-in-progress.  There is potential to self-market when playing live and get more people to buy my music online.

Another conclusion I came to when playing live recently was that people love a funny song.  In a live performance setting, people remember your funny songs, or your songs about drinking or partying, much more than your love songs or statement songs or story songs.  When you look at the list of an artists songs online, you read the song names and certain ones jump out at you.  The ones that are funny always do, and the ones that are unusual in some way.

What’s going on here is that catchy titles and humor seem to rule the age of internet singles.  Which brings to mind something music consumers have always known - catchy titles are more important than you might be willing to admit.  For the same reason you liked Fat Bottom Girls by Queen or Big Balls by AC/DC, or even songs whose name you remembered because of a memorable phrase it contained like Hair Of The Dog by Nazareth, catchy titles combined with a little humor and/or rebelliousness stick in our minds.  As a songwriter, you don’t intentionally try to write these, but they happen, and even though the artist in you never admits that such cheap novelty tricks work, they nonetheless do.  

There are artists whose entire careers are built around songs about drinking and partying.  They’d be nothing without those songs.  The music business has evolved into more of a singles business versus an album business.  In an era where single-song downloads are the norm, catchy titles rule.  Memorable song titles that grab the attention of potential listeners seems to be more important than ever.  Something tells me that the kinds of songs artists are remembered for most are the ones that are humorous, controversial, and rebellious…and most importantly, have those elements reflected in the song title.

My guess is that a song is more likely to be downloaded when it has a catchy title and poor melody/lyrics, and that a song with great melody/lyrics that does not have a catchy title is less likely to be purchased.  A part of me thinks it’s unfortunate, but a part of me thinks it’s always been this way.  It’s just emphasized more due to the way people find and buy music online now.  Videos seem to have great potential to help a cause like mine, but I don’t like seeing myself on video, and I never like how I look or sound, just like when you first got an answering machine for your phone and recorded your first outgoing greeting message and played it back...you said to yourself “Is that really me?”  People discover YouTubes every day and overnight sensations are made and recordings get bought.

Just like no one will ever discover this blog if I don’t do anything different than continue to write rambling posts like this one, findability, “sticking outedness,” getting noticed, getting remembered ain’t gonna happen by happy accident.  Naming is important.  Artist/band names get noticed first, followed by album titles, then song titles, and it helps for all three to be attention-grabbing in some way.  Nailing down what constitutes ‘attention-grabbing’ is part user preference - that is, based on the individual’s personality and taste, but also part advertising.  General advertising principles apply, such as the fact that babies and sex sell products.  Songs that have familiar places, famous people, or that have blatant nose-thumbingness in their titles stand out in the crowd of song titles online.  Other qualities that appeal to the masses include anything popular - from popular phrases to cultural colloquialisms to well-known slogans to favorite words, etc.  These same principles are similarly important for books and movies as well.  

Theme time could be the right time.  Just as authors become known for a certain style of writing, songwriters/performers become known for a style of songwriting and performing.  Take Jimmy Buffett for example - chances are if you brainstorm a list of words that are tropical (coconuts, palm trees, sandy beach, ocean, etc.), you will find them in his album titles, song titles, and within the lyrics of the songs themselves.  There is a clear theme to his music.  You can say the same about instrumentation for certain musicians, as well as their clothing, performance style, dancing, etc.  Certain musicians are well aware of the importance of aesthetics - Jack White of White Stripes fame comes to mind here with the red & white theme he created for that band.  Album art can no doubt draw people in, but not as much as the old LP brick and mortar record store days.  Not only do you have a theme in visual style, but you also have a theme of musical style, and a big part of musical style involves the lyrics.  Lyrical themes delivered consistently create an expectation, and thus, draw an audience accordingly.  Here you get into pigeonholing, labeling, classification, categorization, genres, tagging and so forth, which goes against the grain of artistic freedom.  Having a recognizable signature style evolves out of experimentation, and can eventually help one build an audience.

Figuring out what people like while not repeating a formula is something to keep in mind.  Rather than taking a risk of your music being considered contrived, you can blow off trying to repeat something that appealed to many.  Record companies who get a hit out of an artist want another just like it, and rightfully so.  However, no artist wants all of their songs to sound the same as each other.  AC/DC stuck with a formula and have had a consistent signature sound, whereas Led Zeppelin included more variety in tempo and style, doing reggae, country, folk, and ballads as well as hard rock and blues.  You can change tempos, instruments, song forms, singing style, etc. and still sound like you, but sometimes, it’s contrived when it’s obvious you’re intentionally stretching too far from your home base.  

Punk rock musicians who suddenly switch to classical, or jazz musicians who change to recording country are rare.  Crossover attempts sometimes occur, but other times they are more contrived like when Garth Brooks recorded a rock album as a different persona.  Nashville songwriters seem to successfully pitch formulaic songs to mainstream country artists and it’s noticeable.  Sometimes you notice, and you don’t care, you like it anyway, and it just works.  There’s no accounting for people’s tastes, except that you can bet something fairly new and different will come along eventually that will be a breath of fresh air, and then others will try to emulate it.

Dealing with this knowledge can be tricky.  Despite knowing all of the above, I still just write what I feel like writing, and record the best of what I come up with.  The self-rated keeper ratio remains about the same from year to year, and I throw away about three fourths of what I write.  The remaining one fourth may suffer further weeding out due to not sounding so great after my best effort with the recording process, and then I’m left with a handful of songs every year that I consider “release-worthy”.  The songs I release are perhaps unconsciously influenced by my knowledge of what works, but I never set out to try to write a hit according to my knowledge of what worked in songs by others I enjoy.  My songs just happen, and although I’ve done some rewriting that worked on occasion, it’s usually a case of trusting the weeding out process I use.  The song has to be pretty good from the get-go to make my final cut.  The best ones fire on more cylinders than others right from the start, as if by pure accident.  More often than not, those that make the cut have some of the important catchiness in their titles and lyrics, and always in the music, but getting people to hear the music is greatly aided by the title.  

We’re in a try before you buy world now, where you stream it online first.  Prior to hitting play, the song title matters.  Can you rename a great song so that the title stands out more?  Yes, but only if it doesn’t take away from the song.  It usually means rewriting the chorus too, so you have to be careful.  The bottom line here is if you have a few attention-grabbing song titles, you’ll maybe be lucky enough to get fans who want the whole album.  They might be intrigued enough to try out the more boring-sounding song names as well.  Catchy titles happen naturally for me, but I never start writing with a title in mind.  It’s an accident, but when it happens, it helps to have a catchy song title.  The beauty of it is when you’re writing a song, maybe mid-way through, and you realize it’s going to be good, and then you realize at some point it’s going to work out that it has an attention-grabbing title according to the aforementioned criteria, you’ve got a definite keeper.  It’s cool when that happens, and I know that if I write enough songs, the keeper ratio will produce another.  It’s just a matter of time.

From a bedroom, basement or woodshed, you can get a somewhat decent recorded product, depending on your quality standards.  Nowadays you can record at home, then sell online, and never have to get out of your pajamas.  You can remain anonymous if you want to, and develop a following without ever needing to play in front of people though viral online recommendation.  Since I don’t even have a good voice, and am not a great guitar player, I shy away from playing in front of people.  I’m realistic in knowing I’m not a good performer.  Yet, I think my finished recordings show that my songs are pretty good.  It’s not that I doctor them up with fancy digital trickery - in fact I intentionally resist these temptations and try to produce a very realistic version of each song using the bare minimum of effects.  I must admit that I wish my music could reach a wider audience.  I’d love it if people liked and bought my music, and so that’s why I’ve made it available for sale in digital retail stores.  So my main confession is that I want that to happen without having to perform live.  Secretly, I’d like to maintain a slight bit of mystery, and maybe someday there would be a demand for me to play live.  If that ever happened, I would definitely be excited to learn my own songs and play them for people.