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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Riding the Drought Out


Thanksgiving is a time of abundance ‘round here, a time of overeating and napping and leftovering and bulking up to survive the winter ahead and watching a favorite movie like The Big Lebowski, and yet, it can also be a time of doing without and being hungry.  We reflect on our fortunes, thankful we’re able to contribute to the world in some way.  A big contribution of mine has been the ability to put music out into the world that didn’t exist before, even though I know all art is derivative of other art in small ways.  Having learned a little about writing and plagiarism over the years, I’d like to think if I’m copying, I’m not creating, but I know some can be unconscious.  None of us are immune to influence.

Feeling bad about past mistakes, mostly those of the foot-in-mouth or impatience variety, I’m coming to realize those are normal, and it’s okay that they happen.  I’m at that age where I’m taking notice of the inevitable decline of my parents’ generation, the decline of loved ones, of people’s bodies wearing out, of time being precious.  It’s also a time in which I’ve paid closer attention to advice about aging gracefully, and that includes not stopping what you’re passionate about.  Keep working, they say.  Don’t retire.  Stay active.  Have a purpose.  Do the things that get you excited to be alive.  For me, one of those is writing songs and recording music.  I’m thankful I have this hobby.

It’s been a while since I updated you in this blog on my activities.  I’ve been hanging out, enjoying life, going to the day job every day, boldly trying new things, tolerating, abiding.  Not much going on as far as creative output for a while, blogging or otherwise, but I remain convinced the future holds more.  You may have already become aware of the recent addition of more music videos on my official YouTube channel for your enjoyment.  The good news is there’s at least a couple more new albums on the way, and a lyric/chord songbook project.  As another winter approaches, you can hunker down for the holidays, get out and ski, and be assured that droughts don’t last because they never do.

Writer’s block or not, focusing on other things and waiting works, important things like family and survival, and the tension of expectation and demand can motivate.  I can only assume from the analytics that there are people who want to know about these things, that I have actual readers of this blog, that there are actual fans of my music and that they might be curious to learn more, although I know not who you are.  With all the competition for our free time and all the creative works out there to discover, it’s a wonderful thing.  I’m fortunate to have creative outlets, but as I’ve said before, just knowing there’s the potential for appreciators is an exciting boost to wait around for more inspiration to arrive.

Throughout my pretend “career” as a songwriter and recording artist, I’ve felt the need whether in blogs or real conversations with people to use my self-deprecating style to downplay the quality of my music secretly hoping it will make people pleasantly surprised should they actually make a decision to check it out.  Maybe the wisdom of age has taught me such an approach protects me from negative reaction pain, but at the same time it has taught me that talking about it at all in the first place helps it happen.  Telling people about creative projects you’re thinking about taking on makes them more likely to happen.  The fake-it-‘till-you-make-it approach works.

When you tell someone about a project you might take on, that in itself becomes a seed that can lead to germination.  Similarly, experience has also taught me that it is the ideas for songs that are the most important part.  Have a good enough idea for a song, and it will practically write itself, I’ve found.  The same theory applies to an idea for a blog post, a book, a project of any kind.  Writing this post will probably get me back on track, because I’m admitting to you and myself that if experience is a guide, more will materialize.  The complete opposite approach can work as well.  The prolific Stephen King doesn’t believe in ideas or outlines, and instead just starts typing his way through to completed works.  I guess I’m sort of doing that here in this post, with no concrete point in mind yet.

I am currently experiencing another prolonged period of abnormally low occurrences of songwriting, leading to a shortage of new material to record.  I’ve ridden out many since I wrote my first song back in the winter of ’89-’90, my first living in Vail, Colorado.  Many of the early songs I wrote in my ski bum days have made their way through rounds of revisions to become “release worthy” by my own weird standards, and new recordings of them in their final states will be making appearances on my next two albums – Bluebird Days I and II – which not surprisingly will include several that are either about skiing, mention skiing, or that were inspired by skiing.  If you’re into skiing, Vail is an inspiring place.

Speaking of inspiration and rocky mountain winters, riding out creative droughts for me is usually a microcosm of life in that it’s a temporary low, and like life, it’s full of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, strikes and gutters as the fellow says.  Dudes, and I’m talking about ski bums here, back in the early 90s, like me who were out there at that time and place, skiing, fitting in, takin’ ‘er easy for the rest, were easily inspired to write songs.  I was young, everyone around was young, the mountains were beautiful, the girls were beautiful, the powder and vertical capacity abundant, weed burning, beer flowing, etc.  I was also flat broke and in debt the whole time.  I learned life is about balance:  don’t get too high when things are going your way, don’t get too low when they’re not.

I try to not worry when the hobby of writing/recording is on hiatus.  Just like the weather, the situation is guaranteed to change based on history.  With a couple albums ready to release (one of which got pre-released already due to a distribution snafu beyond my control), it’s even easier to take it easy.  Everyone needs and benefits from time to reflect to get a fresh perspective, just as they need time off from a regular day job.  Time away makes you appreciate it more, as can be the case with love relationships too.  Most of us with a passion this hobby don’t do it for a living, and so we wait for the muse clouds to show up again. 

I feel lucky every time they do, as if it’s an honor and privilege to be chosen, so I am careful about not abusing the power or taking the gift for granted.  I realize that could arguably be construed as a self-deprecating sarcastic or ironic joke to those who don’t like my songs, but I assure you it’s unintentional.  It’s truly a blessing from a higher power to be able to write songs and record music at all.  Sometimes you deserve a break, and sometimes that break really sets you up better than ever to be prolific again.  Weather the dry as you do the stormy, appreciating the upside of both.  Balance.

Some claim you can force it, treat it like a job, schedule regular time for it, which can work.  I’ve tried that here and there, and the ratio of keeper to weeded out material is about the same.  You end up with more recyclable bits and pieces of songs that way, which can be good.  On the other hand, I tend to just wait and go with the flow when the songs rain in again.  It’s not unlike a ski bum waiting for a powder day.  It’s going to happen again whether you pray for it or prepare for it or not, and when it does, you’ll know what to do and be “stoked” which is far from some kind of Eastern parlance.  Here in the lukewarm midwestern swing state of Michigan, there’s a lot of abiding going on.  You’ve got the guitar, the computer with word processor and audio interface, the microphones, etc. all ready to be fired up again.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then certainly a temporary lack of creativity will make you like it even more when the new songs show up again.  Meantime, you find other free time pursuits, keep busy, try to help make a difference in the world in other ways.  Yes, adding songs to the world that didn’t exist before is a contribution to society, one that is in my humble opinion, a noble pursuit.  It shows you have fine personal qualities and high moral principles and ideals if you want to put new artistic creations into the world for people to potentially enjoy.  Knowing even just a few people out there are entertained by your music is very satisfying, and it’s worth riding out the droughts to be able to do it again.

Good art imitates nature, and it’s natural for seasons to change, and good art imitates good art, and to everything there is a season, mistakes happen, shit happens, dudes abide, all things must pass, and in turn whether it’s a movie or skiing or music, the world will not run out of it, you just might have to wait for a little while is all.  Re-use clich├ęs, be not tired of the trite and contrived, everything is a re-hashing of everything that came before, and whether the art be high and fancy or lowdown and dirty, or not someone’s cup of tea, there’s nothing to worry about or fear – that would be a waste of time.  Live each day like it’s your last, seizing carp, and you might die in a song drought, but overall, you died with many songs because you rode out many a drought.  

I’m not clear on the psychology to explain why I always feel the need to warn people my music likely won’t be their cup of tea.  Lowering their expectations and hoping they’ll be pleasantly surprised is the opposite of tooting your own horn.  The confidence to admit you think your own creative work is pretty good is the same confidence that kicks in when you say you’re going to do something and then end up actually doing it.  Being true to your word aside, sometimes you have to commit yourself to things in life, dive in and start swimming, whether you think you know how to keep yourself from sinking or not.  Go without fear of failing, I say, because failing is not the end of the world.  Don’t freak out about the ideas not materializing, be calm knowing they will eventually, and when they do, run with them.  In times of creative famine, know a feast of excitement will return.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Compilation Contemplation: Inclusion Decisions and Feeling Like The Whole Idea Is Bad and Wrong


A relative asked me a simple question a while back, something along the lines of "what are your best songs?"  Fair enough, but so hard to answer.  I thought hard for longer than the normally expected pause duration, like a full 20 seconds, with some head scratching and "hmmms" along the way to finally buying myself a little more time by saying something like "wow, that's so hard...," until finally blurting out, "Shoreline Miles is a pretty good one I guess."  Then I thought out of courtesy I should tell her which album it was on, and so I did (Lakeside Landing, my 2006 release if you didn't already know and were curious).  One was all I could muster, and I'm not sure at all if that's my best song, and now in retrospect I'm even less sure.

She had been making polite conversation with me at a family gathering, and as one does, asked me about something she knew I was interested in.  You make rounds at family gatherings, try to get to everyone if you can, try to be sincere yet keep it brief in the interest of time.  So, I knew a part of her motivation to ask me was simply that.  Much later on, of course, as I was recapping who said what with my wife on the way home, she asked the inevitable "I saw you talking to so and so (I'll just come out and admit here, in this particular case, it was my cousin Mary) in the other room, what did you two talk about?"  I told her what I've now told you about the encounter, and in doing so, wondered aloud to her if Mary could've actually been asking because she sincerely wanted to later go online and check it out.  "Maybe" my wife and I both agreed, but you never really know for sure unless you directly ask, which I had not done.  So, I have thought it was a mistake ever since.  In case she sought it out and listened to it, it's not reflective of what I'm all about as a songwriter and musical artist.  It is in some ways, but it doesn't necessarily define a signature style.  You don't want people to get the wrong first impression! 

If indeed it was her first experience listening to one of my songs, which she did not indicate one way or another, and if she indeed was genuinely interested in checking it out, I should've provided her with a few more to get a representative sampling or something.  Better yet, I thought I should just give her free CDs next time I see her.  If I did that, however, I'd feel like I'd need to give her a copy of all of them.  If she was just being polite though, that would be bad form on my part.  Personally, when people force something on me unexpectedly like that, I'm even less likely to ever put it in the stereo and hit play.  I gave my sister and my uncle a few of my early CDs years ago, and I highly doubt they ever opened a single one.  It's just like when people give you a book to read, you feel obligated, and that's uncomfortable.  I should point out this cousin is a lot younger than me, so it's highly unlikely any of my music would be her cup of tea anyway.

Then the idea popped into my head:  people want a "best of" album for starters before they dive any deeper, if at all.  As a consumer of movies myself, for example, I do a google search on "best movies of the 1990s" before searching on my cable or Netflix to see if any are available.  People want curation.  Artists typically have a dislike of critics, but they serve a great purpose.  Siskel & Ebert lists, that sort of thing.  It helps you narrow things down and do a little weeding out first before you decide what to watch.  Same is true for music.  When you're young you might like a radio hit, then buy an album, like it, repeat, and back in my day, you'd even make your own "favorites mix tape" by that artist, burn a CD of what you think are their greatest hits, then when the band you like finally comes out with a true greatest hits album, there's always a few songs you love that aren't on there that you would've chosen.  I'm guilty of that scenario, but I've also heard about bands, had them recommended to me, and since they were established in their careers already, I actually started out by buying their greatest hits album first, which sometimes was enough to satisfy my curiosity, in which case I'd never buy a regular studio release by them, but other times, it would prompt me to want more.

In this day and age, everyone pays the ten bucks a month for the online music subscription and then they can cloud stream every song and album ever released by every artist.  The albums don't even matter as much now, it's as if they're all singles.  Unless you're talking about The Dark Side Of The Moon, Tommy, or Sgt. Pepper, and the like, the album experience is only for the old-schoolers or new-schoolers who are into vinyl again after it came back recently from near-extinction, but sadly, they are the minority.  That said, a best-of album is always a good place to start when motivated to try out some music by an artist you're not familiar with that has somehow sparked your interest.  So, if you're like me, you at least think about which songs you'd include on there. 

There is the limitation of the 74 minute playing time duration of a standard compact disc.  You attempt a list of your best, but of course, when you've got 10 albums under your belt already, you can't fit everything on there you would want to include.  Then you figure you should have a Volume I and a Volume II, the former covering your best from your first 5 albums, the latter covering the second 5.  This makes it a lot easier.  Some artists will drop a greatest hits after only 3 or 4 albums, but 5 is a decently reasonable number in my mind.  So, that decision is made, no problem.  Except for the fact that you're going to feel like in the case of my cousin, two whole CDs with 17-19 songs each (maxing out that CD space) will potentially be overwhelming.  A snack-sized EP sampler or two might be a better approach, who knows?

Some artists are on their Volume IV of their greatest hits already.  There are probably a few bands and solo artists out there who have unique record contracts that allow them to never release best-of albums, but not many.  Not many mainstream, major-label acts anyway.  Neil Young, for example, waiting quite a long time (like about 25 studio album releases) before releasing a true Greatest Hits compilation album, which I have respect for.

Another issue I have as a music buyer myself, is that established bands go way overboard with these compilation albums, particularly late in their careers.  You never have one that would match what you'd put on your ultimate mix tape.  They always leave a few off the best-of that are on the greatest-hits, but then that one is missing a couple of your favorites as well.  If that isn't annoying enough (and it's probably the record label companies, not the bands and artists that do this), you get composition album titles like these available for a single artist:
·       The Best Of
·       Greatest Hits
·       The Essential Hits
·       Biggest Hits
·       Golden Hits
·       The Number Ones
·       The Ultimate Collection
·       The Immaculate Collection
·       Anniversary Collection
·       Box Set
·       The Hits
·       The Hits/The B-Sides
·       Gold
·       Archives
·       Anthology
·       Collector's Series
·       Super Hits
·       Greatest Hits Live
·       Chronicles
·       Retrospective
·       The Very Best Of
·       Ultimate Hits

Not to mention the Volumes I-V of each.  You get the idea.  Their ultimate is never quite your ultimate.  But again, in today's landscape, you can stream any/all of it for your $10/mo. and the albums don't really matter.  Release dates don't matter as much anymore either, which is good and bad I guess.  I have the dilemma of deciding I need a Vol. 1 to cover the best of my first 5 albums, and a Vol. 2 to cover the second set of 5 albums, all of which will be previously-released, but the Vol. 1 will be made available after all 10 have already been available.  So, I wish I would've thought this all through after the fifth album was released, which means I should've release the first volume back in 2012, hindsight being 20/20 to throw even more numbers at you.

Another typical thing to do on a compilation is to include a "previously-unreleased" song on the best-of album, an "alternate take" one, a "remix" song, or a "live version,"  but I've decided against all of those options.  I will have enough trouble as it is narrowing down 128 songs to the best 36, or however many will fit.  I don't find those enticing enough to drive me over the edge to buy if I was on the fence about buying a compilation album by an artist.  They're more irrelevant, if not slightly annoying, than they are a major bonus, in my opinion, although some do turn out to include a pretty darned good previously-unreleased track.  I'm fully aware that I'd be basically re-releasing 1/3 of the total released catalog on two best-of CDs that the streaming people already have access to, so it might sound like a pointless endeavor.  People who actually still buy CDs might dig it though, and although I've avoided getting actual vinyl records made due to the cost/benefit ratio, if I was going to offer vinyl, this would be the perfect opportunity to dip my toe in that water of untapped potential.

Back to the curating thing though:  people like the pre-weeding out, the time saving that the careful selection, sifting through and pulling together provides.  So, on the other hand, it will be helpful to people, and maybe even give the appearance of being more established and noteworthy somehow, which could make them more confident in trying out the music and giving it a chance in the first place.  As with songs, it's a "hook" of sorts to possibly sway your decision to check it out for the first time, or to dive deeper into the catalog.  To offer another analogy, when deciding to check out a restaurant when travelling, it's all about reviews and recommendation and best-of lists, isn't it?  It helps.

What to leave in, what to leave out - therein lies your difficulty as an artist contemplating the compilation album.  What to call it too is a decision you have to make.  In my case, I don't have any true "hits" to select, so I can't call it a greatest hits.  Best of will work, but I need to have two of them.  Even so, it won't please everyone.  People are going to be mad if you leave off the popular favorites you get positive comments about and requests for.  There are a couple of mine that I don't think are anywhere close to my best, yet lots of other people love them.  What do you do?  You put them in, but you cringe as you make the decision to do it.  "Can't believe you didn't include Puttin' Up A Pole Barn" is what I can imagine hearing already.

A part of me thinks this whole idea might be bad and wrong though.  It doesn't feel right because it's really up to others to decide what they like the best.  I'm finding it hard to even contemplate myself which are my best.  You create songs, they're like your children, you send them out into the world, and hope they do well, but a part of you wants to not play favorites with them, and instead love them all equally.

Yeah, I'm thinking about it anyway, making those preliminary lists, trying to rate my songs, put them into tiers, etc.  I am guilty of really liking certain songs for certain personal reasons no one else knows about that cloud my objectivity, and I am certain most people would question their inclusion on a compilation, but I might do it anyway, retain and exercise my veto power over the mass appeal.  Not that I actually have any sales charts or any mass appeal at all to speak of.  However, in addition to my personal opinions, and the feedback I've received from actual fans here and there, I also have an online survey going on my web site that has produced some aggregate data.  I also do have analytics from some online music stores, as well as some actual sales data from the singles I've sold downloads of.  The cloud streaming, on the other hand, I have no idea.  All that said, there is some fairly reliable information I will take into consideration if I do decide to release the first two volumes.  I am one of millions of independent nobodies with no real business even having music for sale in online stores to begin with, let alone claim some are hits.  A best-of would be beneficial for the potential fan base out there though, for all the reasons I've stated here, so there's compelling evidence it's not a bad thing for me to decide to do.

I pride myself on variety, and as a music appreciator myself I like variety, but some people are fast-rock only fans who won't want those slow ballads or reggae songs on there, and those with narrow tastes will surely be disappointed.  You can't please all of the people all of the time, it's the nature of the best (notice I intentionally didn't spell that as "beast").  It's premature and unlikely at this point, but I'll let you know when/if, so stay tuned blog readers, and as always thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Average American Open Mic Scene Revisited


When I was in my early 20s, soon after learning a few chords on a guitar and hanging around other amateur musicians, I went to bars with them where they would let anyone get up on stage and play and sing popular songs.  I quickly figured out I was definitely not ever going to be a great singer, and playing covers was not going to be my thing.  What I liked was making up my own songs.

We've all been there - songwriters, that is - to the event at bars known as open microphone nights - or just "open mic" for short.  Mostly frequented either by people who know the performers well, or other performers who have put their names on the sign-up sheet list.

We've all seen that poor soul who has barely learned three chords get up there and do his best and struggle to get through a classic rock cover song.  We may cringe, we may smile, we may think to ourselves we can do better.  Many of us have been that guy ourselves.  We patiently endure his struggle and politely clap until it's our turn. 

Those guys may never show up again, they may keep at it, they may get better, or sometimes, they keep coming back but never really get much better at all.  As more than just supportive friends or family, we who have been there, done that, have respect for those guys. 

If you're not a musician yourself and don't hang around musicians, you've likely never been to an open mic night.  If you have, and you weren't a close friend or family member of a performer, you probably instantly make fun of how bad they are compared to the mainstream famous musicians whose music you own.

Otherwise, we admire their courage and confidence.  We want them to improve.  It can be fun to give them encouragement, because as performers, after the polite applause and we put the guitar back in the case, get a beer, and re-join the crowd, we never forget the random kind comments, deserved or genuine or not.

Let's face it:  the guys who start that way rarely turn out to be performers with paid gigs.  The guys who get paid gigs and maybe even go beyond that to become famous at some level always start out at a young age, often with lessons and experience in bands as teens.  So by the time they are 20-somethings, they already have something more serious and professional happening than an open mic night.

Or so it would seem.  There are all sorts of peaks and valleys for the guys who start young too.  There are one-hit wonder guys who had record deals teaching guitar lessons.  There are a ton of former members of regionally-famous touring bands working at your local Guitar Center.  Some may seem like they have bad attitudes, as if they're frustrated with their lots in life.  We know the types.

Music careers are short.  Few are sustained for longer than five years of legitimate notoriety.  I'm not talking about symphony orchestra types.  Which brings me to a funny phenomenon, speaking of classic rock - people will still buy concert tickets to see a band play their two hits that made it onto mainstream radio in the 70s, even when the band is only made up of one original member.  You have one really old guy who somehow found himself with rights to use the band name, and who fill the vacant positions with young guys.

Sadly, nowadays there are some open mic nights that feature really good singers and musicians, often who previously had some sort of formal professional involvement in music.  In fact, some open mics require you supply to the organizer/host person some sort of credentials in order to be able to sign up - a "places played" or "played with" list.  Not really "open" but they are good for the live music fans with a high entertainment quality to cost ratio.

When I've been to such places recently - secretly scouting them out as a fan before mustering the courage to sign up myself - I am dumbfounded that these guys are not playing at more prominent venues with paid gigs on a Saturday night.  Usually, open mics are on Monday nights or some slow night for the bar owner in an attempt to drum up more business, but in some places, they are the on the busiest nights of the week.

They come and go.  Some of the prominent ones last indefinitely though.  I'm not talking about the kinds where people do comedy or acting skits or poetry.  I'm not talking about the songwriter group get-togethers in some guy's living room.  And I'm not talking about the ones in music hotbed places like Nashville or Austin or NY or LA or even most university towns - totally different ballgame in those scenes.  I'm talking about dive bars outside major metropolitan areas - the only types of open mics I have any significant experience with - where there are normally no songwriters to speak of.  Trying out your own songs in these places is rare - and if you attempt one, it better be funny to go over well with the drunk crowd.

The typical open mic I'm familiar with used to be dominated by baby boomer folkies, but now they are dominated by generation x'ers like me.  Old overweight white guys with beards and day jobs and acoustic guitars wearing jeans.  To stereotype a bit more, at least half of all performers at these places will know how to play "Amie" by Pure Prarie League, for example.  You know the types.

At one such place in the small town of Holly, Michigan recently, I went in to check it out.  I sat at the bar, ordered a burger, and watched an unusually well-organized open mic with a great mixer and PA system.  The kind that is narrow with brick walls and has the stage behind the front window of the place.  Unsurprisingly, it was all cover songs, but surprisingly, it was run by an older, seemingly well-intentioned guy instead of some 20-something guy like I used to be who was never really good enough to get real gigs and this was his big night to also play himself in addition to hosting.  Also surprisingly, it was on a Saturday night and had unusually good singers and players.  Shockingly high-quality for a small town in the Flint area.

When I commented to bartender lady that these guys were so good I couldn't believe they were playing at an open mic on a Sat. night, she said something like "oh, you have to be a pro to play here."  Then I said "usually open mics are for amateurs who aren't very good," to which she replied "no, that would be karaoke night."  Really funny, I thought, but also too bad there must not be much of a live music demand in the area anymore.  I should tell you that I don't drink, and don't get out much, so I've been intentionally absent from the open mic scene for several decades.  I'm in my early 50s now.

In areas that don't have a music scene to speak of, let alone a songwriter community, the few who self-identify as songwriters will inevitably show up and maybe try an original, but they also have to have an Eagles, James Taylor or Bob Seger song ready to throw into the mix.  It's weird, but it's just the way it is.  A lot of them are just amazingly good nowadays though, which is a reflection on the state of the music business I think.  They should be playing paid gigs if not touring, yet here they are in a dive bar on a Saturday night.

Lots of ways to be employed in music, lots of ways to have it be a side gig to the day job.  In recent years, you have guys like me who really have no business calling themselves musical artists, yet have inexpensive home recording equipment and songs for sale in online music stores.  I really was among the first wave of people who did this when such a thing became possible with the internet and inexpensive aggregator distribution services.

The "record" part of the music business has also changed drastically to allow in the average open mic guys like me.  Sort of.  It doesn't mean you can quit the day job.  It's easy to make fun of all the hacks out there with homemade music on the web who seem to think they are really good, but probably don't have many who agree.  I don't make fun of them.  I am one of them.  I have respect for them.  There are probably 50 rappers from Flint with music online, and 25 punk rock bands. 

Those two genres are wildly popular around here for various reasons.  I'm not sure where the rappers start out performing live, and I know of one all-ages punk place a guy I know runs in Flint, but it's classic rock that dominates the open mic scene I'm aware of.  Still, after all these years away, I'm rediscovering it, and there's one big difference - these guys seem exceptionally good now, which makes me feel even less like I am worthy of putting my name on the list than in my 20s when I actually knew how to play a few classic rock songs all the way through.

Aside from the rap genre - where "dissing" is an acceptable thing, you rarely hear famous musical artists saying anything negative about other famous musical artists in the press.  They even go so far as to be careful about saying which artists or types of music they personally like or don't like, I think.  It must be because they have respect for what their contemporaries have gone through to get where they are, even if it's not their cup of tea.  It's the same reason you won't hear doctors telling you some other doctor isn't very good.  It's just not professional.

I should probably be embarrassed to even call myself a songwriter or musician, let alone a "recording artist."  I'm an amateur hobbyist at best, but it's a great feeling to know my music is "out there" in the world and publicly available for people to potentially discover and hopefully appreciate.  I have to admit that.  If it wasn't possible, I would still be happy to make up songs in my man cave, but it's a bonus to know of the discovery or recommendation potential.  A few people have checked it out and even fewer have said they liked it, but a little of that goes a long way for guys like me.

I make a few acquaintances aware of the fact that my music exists, and there's that possibility - a slim chance they'll click the link to the free streaming.  Even slimmer is the chance that strangers all over the world could and can discover it and enjoy it.  It's happened a little bit, and it's just very cool, so it's a part of the motivation.  There's the nagging feeling you're not worthy though, and that maybe you should be ashamed for even trying.  It's weird.

In the same way that famous musicians are often quoted as saying they intentionally disregard reviews and criticism, the average joe songwriter/home recording guy like me benefits from keeping those kinds of self-defeating thoughts at bay.  Yes, they creep in.  Yes, I know I'm not as good as most of the people who have their albums for sale on Amazon or iTunes.  I try to not let it detract me.

I am a realist in knowing taste in music is a very individual thing.  People's preferences are what they are regardless of reviews.  Not many people will ever discover my music, and most who do will not like it.  The one thing I claim to be somewhat good at and proud of - songwriting - is probably not that good in the grand scheme.  But hey, there are people who don't like Bob Dylan's songs, Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing, or Elvis Presley's singing too.

The average joe American open mic night performer is vastly better now than what I remembered.  It must be there just aren't many opportunities in this depressed, poverty-stricken area than there used to be for musical acts and solo artists to get paid to play in bars on Saturday nights anymore, so they are relegated to "premium-level" open mic nights now.  A sad state of affairs.  Anyone can record themselves and put their music on the web now though, so that's an interesting and possibly sad change, too.

I think it's a good thing though, obviously.  The "kind words" about your online recordings go just as far as the kind open mic performance comments at bars.  As rare and minor and insignificant as they might be, they are nonetheless fuel.

Just because you can afford a computer and a microphone and learn a few guitar chords and write a few lyrics doesn't mean you can actually sell the recordings you put online though.  There's the possibility you can though, which is one of the reasons why people do it.  You know if you have the right song and video on YouTube, you can be one of the .00001% who gets lucky and makes some money with the viral social media recommendation thing.

The bottom line for me is I have to sell about three albums to recoup my distribution expenses (not considering my own labor and equipment purchases) for releasing an album online.  Without any promotion, marketing or advertising to speak of, other than posting to social media a simple release announcement, it's possible. 

So, I keep doing it out of a love for writing songs and recording them.  Performing them is another story.  With recording, I can take my time to get it as right as I can - do several takes and use a few software tools to make myself sound as good as possible, and this is probably better than I would sound live, so I'm willing to go for it with releasing the music in the online music stores. 

I'm seriously not good enough to perform live, and even at the old kinds of dive bar amateur open mic nights I used to frequent back in my 20s, I was a notch or two above the newbie who really shouldn't be there yet, and quite far from the guys who people can't believe aren't famous yet.  I'll never be a great singer, and I've never been one to focus on being a great guitar player, let alone the other instruments you hear on my recordings.

Like the average open mic night guys who keep showing up to play classic rock covers and never really get much better, I am kind of that way as a songwriter and recording artist.  I'm not very good, but I keep doing it anyway.

I just like writing songs, and although most of them are terrible, some are not so bad, so I record and release them.  It's a thing you can do nowadays.  While the few who've taken the time to check out my music may not have noticed, I've noticed slight improvements in various areas over the years.  Onward and upward, steady as she goes.  It's a fun hobby.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

My Secret Weapon: My Wife, Accordionist Extraordinaire Lenore Cooley


Did you know that my released albums contain 7 songs that feature the awesome accordion playing of my lovely wife Lenore?

So far, they are:
Three Mariachis
Cherchez La Femme
If I Had Time
Smitten With The Mitten
Good For Me
Something About New Orleans
Any Port In A Storm

These are among my best songs because of her serving as my live-in home studio session musician wife.  I hope there will be more in the future.

That's not the only way she's helped me out though.  She's also helped answer some of my music theory questions, and painstakingly listened to countless songs to advise me on which were release-worthy.  Additionally, she has augmented my sound with contributions of background vocals on a few, some lyric editing suggestions on a few, a true co-write on one, flute on one, keyboards on two, and marimba on three.  In later releases, I play the marimba and piano myself, but only because she's helped me along enough with advice to get me started to be able to do so.  Needless to say, the Lenore factor cannot be underestimated when it comes to my music.

One instrument she'll never be able to teach me to play on my own recordings, however, is the accordion.  It's intimidating, complicated, and fascinating.

It's one of the greatest-sounding instruments there is though to me, and she's one of the best.  Many of my fans agree and are demanding more.  In fact, it automagically skyrockets my songs up many quality levels.

She has the ability to listen to my guitar chord progressions and vocal melodies, and by ear know exactly what to play without any sheet music.  It's extraordinary, and she's a genius.

First thing you think of when you hear the word accordion?  It's likely to be polka. My music is pretty far from falling into that category.

If you're from around where I'm from, your only exposure, if any, is likely to have occurred when you went to Frankenmuth, Michigan for a family-style chicken dinner.  Unfortunately, it really does seem to be old people's music.

If you're pretty old, Lawrence Welk for sure, or maybe even Myron Floren may come to mind.

You may be surprised to know that there are probably artists you've heard of as a non-polka fan that actually have accordion as a part of their sound, if only occasionally.

If you're more of a mainstream popular music fan, yet more than just a casual fan, and are middle-aged, you may know that The Band, John Mellencamp, Bruce Hornsby, and  Bruce Springsteen have featured the accordion.

A little younger than that and if you like alternative or indie rock, and you might've heard Barenaked Ladies or Arcade Fire playing it.

If you're in that same age range, and a fan of MTV and parody, you've probably heard of Weird Al Yankovic, and you definitely know accordion is a part of what he does.  If you're even geekier than that, and/or a childrens music fan, you may know They Might Be Giants' music has accordion.

If you're into Norteno, you know about bands like Los Tigres del Norte.

If you know about zydeco, you've heard of Clifton Chenier or Buckwheat Zydeco.

If into more of a celtic vibe, you know about The Poges and Dropkick Murphys.

If you're more of a pseudo-intellectual type, you might know Tom Waits has incorporated it.
If it's folk punk you like, maybe you know Ramshackle Glory or Gogol Bordello.

There, I've given you a great starter list as an introduction to artists whose non-polka music has accordion.

You can now be sure to add Lenore Cooley to that list.  I'm not saying she can't also nail many a polka tune - she is in fact a master virtuoso at that genre as well.

I played an early demo tape to my young nephew once who said "all the songs sound the same" or something to that effect.  Upon further digging, I came to understand what he was really referring to was the basic signature core sound the songs had of my singing voice combined with my acoustic guitar playing, acoustic bass playing, and minimalist drums & percussion.

He made a good point, and that sparked the idea that I needed to get some more variety in there.  Although I've since ventured farther into the territories of different genres and added other instruments such as harmonica and ukulele, the light bulb finally went off to get my secret weapon involved!

Again, the Scott Cooley songs list featuring Lenore Cooley on accordion are:

  • Three Mariachis
  • Cherchez La Femme
  • If I Had Time
  • Smitten With The Mitten
  • Good For Me
  • Something About New Orleans
  • Any Port In A Storm  

Although I've been sure to give proper liner note attribution, I've never given her the credit she deserves for such an important contribution to the Scott Cooley sound, helping me become a better songwriter and musician, adding to the instrumentation variety, and helping me really improve the quality of the recordings.   I hope this post will make some amends in that regard.

Stay tuned for a future album release with even more Lenore!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Old is new, future is now: new album out early !!!

A while back I decided I would do a songwriting/recording project that included revisiting/rewriting old previously-unreleased songs from my early days of songwriting back in the early 90s when I lived in Vail, Colorado.  As the project work progressed, an unintentional theme revealed itself:  I had several songs about skiing; several that were either about the blues or the color blue or had blue or blues in the title and/or lyrics; and several that were about birds or flight or at least included that subject matter in the lyrics somewhere.  A logical album title emerged:  Bluebird Days -which seemed to cover all three aspects of this unifying common denominator and tie it all together neatly. As work on the project progressed even further, I realized I not only had bird and blue and ski songs, but that work on old ones sparked the creative muse to write some new ones as well, and next thing I knew I had enough for not one but two albums. 

So, the old songs got refreshed to become new, and then I thought why not name the second one with a roman numeral two after it, since both followed the same overall concept?  I could even re-purpose the same cover photo that my dad proudly took of my sister's old ski chalet on a sunny day after a bunch of fresh snow had fallen the night before:



It all made great sense to me, it was all coming together, and before too long I had 26 "new" original songs recorded, two albums done, ready to upload to my digital distributor aggregator CD Baby, who deliver to their partner site online music stores for purchasing, downloading, streaming and whatnot.

I thought it was cool that CD Baby delivers your digital album (not CD) to stores like iTunes, Spotify, etc. at "future" release dates you specify in a calendar picker widget thingy on their website.  So, as an artist, I sent them two albums a while back - one to be released in 2020, the other in 2022.  That way, I figured, if I die skiing or something, I'd have two more albums that would automatically be released in the future, and the massive royalties would sustain my heirs for generations to come.  Ha ha.  It's a nice feeling to have two whole albums "in the can."  This feature also allowed me to continue with my predictable, consistent release schedule commitment I made to my fans decades ago:  which was to release a new full-length album of self-written, self-recorded songs every two years in even-numbered years on my birthday, June 21st. 

I had just released "Missing The Boat" album in 2018, so with 2020 and 2022 all set, I wouldn't need to have another album's worth of material again until 2024, which would give me five glorious years of being able to really take my time to bring fans my best stuff.  All was going according to plan and life was good.

Then all of a sudden I noticed one of them was already in stores!  What?  And not even the first one, but the second!  Made no sense.  When I inquired with CD Baby, a series of email exchanges and even a phone call resulted in trouble tickets, research, vague and inconsistent answers from multiple employees, the last communication of which attempted to summarize the problem as follows:
"Both "Bluebird Days" and "Bluebird Days II" have correct metadata in our database and have not been released on the CD Baby store. However, it seemed that the more than three year timeline was too long to wait for activation on the partner sites.  Because this is an unfamiliar problem there are no fail-safes that would help to avoid a submission going live upon delivery despite having a release date in the distant future.  It's unclear what the specifics are for an acceptable timeline for future releases at partner sites."

Blah, blah, blah...

They gave me a free "future" album release credit after I complained nicely yet firmly.  Maybe I'll use it for a "best of" package, who knows.

Now you can see the remaining issue - you get a follow-up, sequel album before you get the original or what I'm now calling the prequel.  The II before the I.  The first Bluebird Days (which has no roman numeral I) apparently was somehow not affected by the same snafu, so is still scheduled to be released on June 21st, 2020 as planned, so you'll have to wait a year and a half for that one, but the second one from the future 2022 release year you can have way early (3 1/2 years early) and it's available now (in stores as of Jan. 29th, 2019 actually).

Similar things have been done before.  Guns N'Roses had a couple of albums called Use Your Illusion, but their first one actually had a roman numeral one in the title, whereas mine does not.  Later they combined the two into a compilation without the I or the II, or something like that.  But they intentionally used an "N" instead of the word "and" in the name of their band.  Lots of greatest hits albums have a volume I, II, or even III, which sometimes have songs on subsequent ones that were from the time period of previous ones if that makes sense, so that's a thing.

What's really weird is that Neil Young released a Chrome Dreams II album before the original, which wasn't released at all I don't think, which just happened to have as its first song a song titled "Beautiful Bluebird," and although I'm a fairly big Neil fan, I don't have that album, and I only learned this after reading about it on wikipedia a couple days ago.  Yet another example of the many strange coincidences surrounding this album of mine, such as the fact that it got mistakenly released on one of the coldest harshest winter days on record in Michigan during a polar vortex.

Sometimes things don't go according to plan, and sometimes it's good to break from tradition, shake things up.  Things happen for a reason.  It's best to go with the flow.

Some links for your listening pleasure:
Also, here's a page with more info:  http://www.scottcooley.com/albums/bluebird-days-ii
For good measure, here's the page for the one you can't hear yet:  http://www.scottcooley.com/albums/bluebird-days

A link to a last-minute press release I scrambled to put together to embrace this mistake:

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Setting the Record Straight - Each Scott Cooley Album Contains the Best Available Songs at the Time of Release

Back when I used to stretch the truth to impress people more than I do now, in conversation and even in my blog and web site, I would make it seem like I saved my best songs I'd written for submitting to artists to record.  I try not to do that so much anymore, if at all I guess.  With few exceptions I pretend to not remember, for the most part I try to be honest in my life now - with a take-me-as-I-come, warts-and-all approach to most people.

The truth is, I record and release my best, and always have.  Although I have submitted songs to artists before (which they never recorded), and they were usually among my best, I've released my own versions of them on my albums.  If I'm being honest, I have to admit there's no pending possibility that the world will soon hear the better songs I've written as recorded by their favorite artists on the radio, and there never has been.

As a matter of fact and to set the record straight, I release anything closely resembling a song on my official album releases.  Yes, it's true I've weeded out some of the worst, and yes, it's true I've written way more songs than I've actually released, but if they were even half-way decent and somewhat complete, I've recorded and released them.  Every two years, you get the top 13 I had available.

As I've alluded to in past blog posts or in person to a few people I know, I have my own weeding out process to arrive at which songs make the cut on my albums.  Many remain on the cutting room floor still, but what I release are the best I could do at the time, so as disappointing as it may sound, in a way, each record is like a mini greatest hits of the two years leading up to its release.

Since I'm not a great singer or instrumentalist or live performer, my thing has always been that I'm first and foremost a songwriter above all else.  It's truthfully the one aspect of music that I'm most proud of:  the fact that I've written a bunch of songs that can actually pass as sounding like real songs.  Particularly when that's your deal, you tend to make that a part of your identity in your own mind.  It is indeed a big part of who I am.

I'm many things - a son, a brother, a husband, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a neighbor, etc.  Among the first things I'd add to that are that I'm a skier, and also that I'm a songwriter.  It's a hobby I've had since I was about 20 years old.  People tend to like the things they're pretty good at, and there's not much on that list for me, but one of them is songwriting.

Granted, being "good" at songwriting is my opinion, and one that is shared by some but not all who've heard my music.  The number of people who have actually listened to my music is relatively small, and of those who have, there are some who do not find it to be their particular cup of tea.  I am a realist who takes into consideration that judgment of creative works in general is a matter of personal opinion and taste.

We have all heard songs written by professional songwriters and recorded by popular recording artists that a vast majority of people in the world think are good, yet we disagree.  Some people don't think Smells Like Teen Spirit or Like A Rolling Stone are good songs.  Some people don't think Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis or Graceland by Paul Simon are good albums.  Same goes for singers, bands, and songwriters.  For example, there are people out there in the world who don't think Aretha Franklin or Elvis were good singers.  There are people who think the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were not good bands.  There are people who think Bob Dylan or Smokey Robinson are not good songwriters.  It happens.

So, I thought if I pretended that the songs I write, record and release were not my best, and that secretly, I'd saved the best for ones I'd submit to mainstream major label recording artists to record, that people would think I was better than there was evidence for.  Possibly I did this out of insecurity or as a preemptive strike to soften the blow of them not liking my songs that I did make available for people to hear.

I'm not one of those people who have obvious successes in areas of my life such as an impressive career or fancy material things.  Maybe when one doesn't have those kinds of things, they tend to make themselves out to be something they're not to make up for it somehow.  Present yourself as a starving artist creative type who is probably on the verge of finally having their unconventional path pay off, after which people would be impressed that you followed your passion for so long.  Guilty.

My dream is to have scottcooley.com list as its primary content artists a who have recorded my songs.  The list would be enough:  Famous Artist Name, Name of Scott Cooley-penned Song, etc.  I would maybe then eventually release a couple of albums called Cooley Sings His Own Songs, parts I and II, or something like that.  Maybe throw a couple pictures on there of me accepting songwriting Grammy awards and hanging out with those famous singers and bands.  That would be about all I'd need on my website if my dreams came true.  The life of Scott Cooley, Professional Songwriter, would then consist of collecting royalty checks, recording newer, better songs in a kick-ass home studio with expensive equipment.  No day job as a technical writer anymore.  That's the dream.

Instead, my website is all about me pretending to be an actual recording artist, which I'm not really.  Yes, I've sold some albums and individual songs I've written and recorded myself performing, because anyone can do that nowadays.  It's a site that is a mess, made by a guy who doesn't really know anything about making websites, and it's full of me making myself out to be something better than what I really am.  This is my perhaps sad but true reality - one of a million guys who figured out how to write and record some songs in his house, make them available for sale in online music stores, and put up a website that probably claims he's better than he really is.

So, to sum up and set the record straight, my records contain the absolute best songs I could come up with.  There are approximately 100 of them on 8 album releases for you to discover.  Despite all of this (and maybe because of all this too), I love doing it and will continue!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Wouldn't You Want To Buy The Next Scott Cooley Album?


I'll answer it for you.  Maybe the "wouldn't" should've been italicized in that title, as if you'd be hard pressed to come up with a legit reason, but preemptive lists are easily brainstormed, so here you go:

• You have no idea who Scott Cooley is
• You didn't even know Scott Cooley made albums in the first place
• You don't buy "albums"
• You haven't bought music since the early 90s
• You've never bought an album by an artist that isn't on the radio
• You've never bought an album by an artist who doesn't have videos on TV
• You don't buy music that isn't already popular and mainstream
• You've never heard of Scott Cooley
• You don't buy albums of music by some guy you know somehow
• You don't believe Scott Cooley really has music for sale
• You'd be secretly scared/embarrassed to have friends discover you own it
• You only like the early Scott Cooley albums
• You have no idea what an album is other than a collection of digital photos
• You thought it was a vinyl record and were disappointed it's only available as a CD
• You only rock out to cassette tapes
• You know it'll never top his live apres-ski gigs at the Sundance Saloon in Vail
• His style of music is just not your cup of tea
• You don't even try music by an artist whose music you haven't heard before yet
• You can't afford it
• You don't have a payment card and only pay in cash
• You don't have anything to listen to it on
• You're in a good mood and don't want to ruin it
• You don't want to be cheered up
• You only like live music
• You don't care for Scott Cooley as a person
• You've heard his music before and think it sucks
• Despite not hearing any of it yet, you just have a feeling it won't be any good
• You never buy music online
• You don't believe in buying anything online
• You have too much music already
• You never like DIY indie stuff
• You don't like anything that is "acoustic"
• You don't like listening to music
• You don't like the album cover artwork
• You don't like the name Scott Cooley
• You've heard it is the devil's music and you don't want to burn in hell
• You tried Scott Cooley music once, and it led to harder stuff
• Any money you have left you're planning to blow at the casino
• Your tux didn't come back from the cleaners
• Your dog ate your homework
• You heard your mom calling you
• You are a player hater from way back
• You ran out of gas and got a flat tire
• An old friend came in from out of town
• You didn't have change for cab fare
• Someone stole your car
• There was an earthquake, a terrible flood
• Locusts!



Thursday, June 7, 2018

What They Don't Tell You: Music Publishing IS Spreadsheets


Not that you care, but it's not about sheet music so much anymore, nor is it about advances on future royalty income.  It's not even that much about finding commercial placements in movies or recording artists for the songwriter's works.  Licensing and royalty collection are administrative tasks artists can do themselves, or they can hire agencies to do it on their behalf so they can avoid the annoyance and focus on writing & recording. 

What these people need more than anything else to do this grunt work for you and take their cut is data and metadata, and the way you provide it is spreadsheets.  There are so many different types of rights and royalties out there to be had, there are specialists and no one-stop-shop for all of your song and music publishing needs.  So, whether you attempt DIY publishing or agree to give a cut to someone else to do it for you, they're going to need you to get the data to them, and like it or not, there's only one good way to do so.

Just as Soylent Green IS people, what "the expert advice-givers" never tell you about music publishing is that it is nothing but spreadsheets and copy/pasting.  Get used to your keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl+C to copy and Ctrl+P to paste) because they're going to come in handy if you have your own music publishing company. 

In this day and age anyway, that's pretty much all music publishing amounts to - in order to have a chance to get any royalty money at all from songs you've written, you submit spreadsheets to organizations who find you that money, most of whom take a cut first, then they give you the rest.  They can't do any of it for you, nor can you do any of it for yourself for that matter, if you don't first have a bunch of data in spreadsheets.

In the digital era, although vinyl records are experiencing a temporary resurgence in popularity, brick and mortar record stores are not.  When you write your own songs, record your own versions of your own songs, and sell those recordings online, you have certain licensing rights.  So, with that in mind, perhaps it shouldn't be too shocking that digital metadata about your songs and recordings needs to be uploaded to databases, and one known, somewhat easy way to do that is via spreadsheets.  Yes, it's true, spreadsheets are therefore the basis of making sure you get paid for all the various licensing rights you have.   

These organizations and agencies who collect your various royalties for you each need slightly different data, so they each have their own spreadsheets, their own templates, their own formatting, their own requirements for submission, etc.  So, get ready to copy certain things like your song titles from one into another.  Some care about ISRC #s, some care about ISWC #s, some care about UPC #s, etc., and some care about the same ones as each other too, but no two ever care about the same exact numbers as each other.
It's a royal pain when you have a 100+ song catalog like me.  Ultimately, these collectors take a cut to do the  even more painful tasks of bugging the online music retail stores, download stores, streaming services, etc. to check their records for your songs and get them to pay fairly.  Unless you have tons of free time and you are a lawyer in addition to being a songwriter/recording artist/publisher, you're generally glad to give them their fee upon collection.

Can't do it without populating and submitting those spreadsheets though, which I suppose you could pay someone to do for you, but this is the part that you must get right from the get-go, so it's better to trust yourself, particularly if you're like me and represent yourself alone.  Some have a web user interface with fields to populate, some even taking advantage of auto-complete, so that helps.  Even so, when you upload one at a time in that manner, they often then allow you to download what you entered as - you guessed it - a spreadsheet.

Who are these organizations who need the spreadsheets, you might be wondering?  All of them, basically.  Even those whom you'd expect would have awesome software to handle this kind of stuff, like Google and their YouTube Content ID RightsFlow Partner program, still have a bunch of dreaded spreadsheet templates!  Other "tracking companies" for lack of a better thing to call them might include some names like Harry Fox, SESAC, Kobalt, AdRev, Re:Sound, SongTrust, Songfile, TuneCore, TuneSat, Rumblefish, etc.  Quite often music-related companies that provide other music-related services such as distribution or cover song clearance also offer publishing administration services like the ones I'm referring to here.

Whether they call it import/export/ingest or some other term, it's all about unique identifiers and codes.  People have to act as liaisons to the number-crunching machines, and one of them in the process is you doing your copy/pasting and attaching those .xls or .csv files to an email.  Other people then have some grunt work ahead of them - which may be as easy as connecting to YouTube's database, performing searches, finding matches, comparing ID#s, doing some accounting, etc. - in other words, all digital computer-based work;  whereas it may be as hard as making actual phone calls to real people, sending emails, or even getting lawyers involved.  Machine automation and artificial intelligence can't read your mind for much of it yet, so human beings are still required.  Now you know what most probably don't about music publishing - in a nutshell, it is mostly spreadsheets.