Saturday, February 1, 2014

About My Output – Behind The Scott Cooley Release Schedule Commitment

The countdown continues.  It’s a permanent advertisement of an expectation for fans and for myself that I’ve established as a constant reminder at the bottom of the left sidebar menu on  I’ve created a pattern that was premeditated to release a record of new songs every two years, and the countdown timer widget displays how many days remain until the next one.  As I post this, that number is 141.  When you’re an independent recording artist and do-it-all-yourselfer, you can put out new music whenever you want to.  I could just wait until I’m ready, take my time, and leave people up in the air and wondering without a clue.  Instead, I choose to reassure existing fans another is on the way, and when they can get it.  I do this according to a schedule for several reasons.

It’s self-imposed, for starters.  Every two years, in even-numbered years, on my birthday (June 21st, which usually coincides with the summer solstice), I make available for sale a new album that has 13 songs on it.  There have been a couple original instrumentals, a few “Trad. Arr. By’s” a.k.a. public domain cover songs, and one or two co-writes with my lovely wife Lenore, but otherwise, they are all new original songs where I wrote the music and the lyrics.  Additionally, aside from my lovely wife Lenore occasionally playing accordion, keyboard, flute, marimba, or singing background vocals on a few songs here and there as a live-in “guest” studio musician, they all feature me singing all the vocals and playing all the instruments myself. 

I sing lead and background vocals, and play all acoustic instruments, including rhythm acoustic guitar, lead guitar on acoustic, slide guitar on a Weissenborn Hawaiian acoustic lap steel guitar, acoustic non-upright bass guitar, harmonica, marimba, snare drum with brush, djembe, congas, bongos, bhodran, wood slit drum, tambourine, hi-hat cymbal, shaker, washboard, and some cowbell, but never enough.  I think that about covers it, but anything else you hear in any of the songs, I made the sound.  These are the things each album have in common with each other.  As a music consumer, I like knowing what I'm going to get to a certain extent, and there's value in knowing an artist I like will not let me down with their next album.  It's comforting.

I decided on this schedule due to my typical output, and like it or not, I put out 13 new songs every two years.  Maybe I should say “ready or not,” because I don’t spend too much time perfecting the recordings, and even if I had more time between releases, I wouldn’t want to get them all perfect.  I come close to how I originally envision each song, get the basic idea down with a few tracks, usually arranged how I wanted, and produced how I wanted, and call it good, and then move on to the next song.  Listening back now, there are a few things I would re-do if I ever hit the lotto and could afford time in a real studio.  A few where I’d change a couple words, sync up the pronunciation of certain syllables in my singing with the music a little better, transpose a few songs into a better key for my vocal range, play the instrumental break in a different spot in the song maybe, touch up a few things here and there I guess.  For the most part though, they’re the best I could do without spending too much time on it – that is to say without it feeling like a big hassle to start over.

Although I’ve recently committed to writing one new song per week, which I’ve previously blogged about here in a recent post, overall through the years prior to the new 2014 1song/week thing, my average productivity level and keeper ratio seems to be about one good song per month, even though sometimes I might go months without writing any songs at all, or write three good ones in one week.  So, the resulting output gave me approximately 24 songs to choose from in a 2-year period, so a little over half of them would end up on an album.  It just seems to work out that way over time, and I’ve managed to stay steadily employed for over a decade now where I have a regular day job, generally working 8-5, M-F.  That leaves me a couple hours in the evenings on weekdays and several hours on Saturdays and Sundays to spend on writing and recording new songs.  I don’t always use those available times, but I would say out of maybe 20 hrs. of available time per week for these activities, I average using about 7 hours per week.  Another way you could look at it, when averaged out, would be one hour per day on this hobby of mine, even though I have long droughts.

I don’t know how people with kids and other free-time pursuits could do much more than me, but I know some who manage to.  I wrote my first song in 1990 or 1991, and I think I’ve written over 500 songs since then, maybe closer to 600 by now, and here it is 2014, so call it 25 years and 600 songs, rounding a little, and by my old way of doing math, that’s about 24 songs per year, or two per month.  Those are total songs though, and the keepers are essentially the ones I’ve released, which when I release my 2014 album later this summer, will only be around 75 released songs I considered keepers.  Looking back, some of those 75 songs wouldn’t make the cut now, but for whatever reason, my weeding out criteria at the time told me they were good enough at the time to release.

Crunching numbers and figuring out averages isn’t really what dictates my commitment though.  The main thing I notice about recording artists I am a fan of is that when you look at their discographies, they rarely release an album every year, sometimes every two years, but usually it’s more sporadic, where they’ll go three or more years between releases .  That has always bugged me a little, since they don’t have day jobs.  When you’re a fan, you crave more, and you’d like it to be predictable.  You figure the major label artists who are popular and famous have plenty of time to focus on writing and recording because they’re not doing gigs non-stop, year-round and they don’t have a 40+ hr per week day job taking up their time like me.  So, I figure I can at least come up with 13 decent songs every two years, and although I’ve felt ahead of the game a little at times, I’ve also been worried I won’t be able to deliver and meet my own self-imposed release schedule deadline at times.  Yes, it’s true that with so many songs already written in my catalog, I could always resurrect an old borderliner, spruce it up enough to pass my criteria when it came down to the wire, but I generally want new songs written since the last release on each next album.  Right now, only a few months away from my next release, I’m a little worried I won’t be able to pull it off, but I’m getting there.

I have to bring up Sufjan Stevens in a topic like this since he sort of supposedly claimed at one time he was going to write an album for each of the fifty states, and he was around age 30 at the time I think, and so far, only wrote one for Michigan and Illinois.  He later said it was sort of a publicity gimmick when people asked him if he could pull off such an ambitious commitment.  I don’t know what was said or not said exactly, but that was the gist of what I read about it online.  I don’t know the guy, but it just so happens I have a distant relative who is married to his sister…I think.  Just an interesting side note there, and I suppose I could get his official contact info and ask him myself if I really wanted to know badly enough, but I don’t care.  The point is, I’ve come up with a reasonable release rate for me, and so far, I’m mildly comfortable with being able to honor it as advertised.  Actually, I’ve never specifically said I’m going to keep this up indefinitely, but I guess that’s what I would like to do if I can, and if I remain interested in it.  I can only imagine the pressure some artists must feel when there’s a contract involved. 

We’ve all known about popular recording artists who just mysteriously stop releasing albums despite apparent demand.  Why didn’t a great songwriter like Chuck Berry keep cranking out new songs all these years and release more albums of new material?  Some lose their mojo maybe, some find new passions, some get dropped from their record companies.  Others take long hiatuses and are wildly popular again when they reunite, maybe they release a new album ten years after the last one and it does well.  Bands break up, then reunite, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s just nostalgia and touring to make money again with no new album.  Sometimes members quit or get kicked out or die, sometimes they get replaced, some could never be replaced.  Who wouldn’t buy a new Beatles album with Paul and Ringo playing with John and George’s offspring in the band, or a new Led Zeppelin album with John Bonham’s son on drums?  Albums like that would sell like hotcakes you would think.  Other artists who are long dead somehow magically keep having new releases of previously-unreleased material decades after they’re long gone.  Record companies and the estates of the departed artists know there’s a demand, so it happens.  People like Bob Dylan and Neil Young seem to be releasing the “basement tape” types of recordings, outtakes, b-sides, rare demos, alternate versions, etc. while they’re still alive, which is cool I think.  I’m sure they’ve each got tons of non-keeper songs no one will ever hear though.  That’s the case with me.

Sometimes you need to make a personal commitment, or even a public one for that matter, to keep you properly motivated to keep going.  There is a ton of great music in the world today made by artists who dealt with years of rejection, negative critical reviews, and the like.  They stuck with it, kept going, didn’t give up, and it eventually paid off.  Some get more famous and popular after they die, which is weird.  Others finally get recognition and gain a larger audience later in life.  In this era of the music business there’s no excuse for not releasing new material since the cost of production and distribution is so low.  I’m proof you don’t have to spend much of your own money, nor do you need to be signed to a record label, to gain a following and create a demand for your music.  It’s a DIY business now more than ever, and we now know that this rock and roll thing isn’t a fad that is only for the young.  It’s totally possible for recording artists and musicians to continue to have an increasing following well into their 50s, 60s, and even 70s. 

I’d like to hold out hope that I’ll be in that category, where as time passes, more people will take notice of my music, and that they’ll appreciate the consistency and quality of the output.  As a music fan myself, it’s great to discover a band or solo artist, check out their past releases, and then also know you can look forward to new records in the near future from them.  My release schedule of a new album every two years also allows me to ensure a quality level I’m comfortable with.  A quality level that is good for me, anyway.  Delays are commonplace in most construction projects.  Building things, creating things, they often take longer than you originally envisioned or estimated, and unforeseen circumstances beyond your control crop up.  Consistency and quality, yep, that’s what’s behind this little unofficial deadline I’ve set for myself. 

If I continue to gain fans along the way, it will make me feel good that they are not only discovering my past catalog of material, but also that they can look forward to new future releases too.  Music is fun, and I have no intention of giving up any time soon.  Saying I’ll release a new full-length album every two years creates a little extra motivation to stay in the game and keep having fun with it, and then delivering on that promise gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I’m not disappointing myself or the growing group of fans out there either.  If all goes well in the coming months, six albums in one decade, 2004-2014 will be currently available come June 21.  For the first five officially-released albums, there are only 1-2 songs on each I might consider leaving off if I were to do it over.  So far, so good, and 2014 is looking like it will live up to the promise as well and not let anyone down.