Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Songwriting, It's A Lifestyle

I guess more than anything, this blog is a lifestyle blog.  It’s about songwriting, which is something I like to do.  It’s a part of my lifestyle.  It’s one of the many things I do fairly consistently in my free time.  Once in a while, I blog about it here.  I just sort of share my experiences for no apparent reason.  I’m not good enough or expert enough or experienced enough or credentialed enough to write a column for American Songwriter magazine, for example.  This blog is not meant to be educational necessarily.  I don’t know why anyone would read it, really.  I don’t specifically provide instruction to people who aspire to write songs.  As a recording artist, I don’t share my experiences on the road during a tour like touring musicians would, because I’m not a touring musician.  So, it’s not aimed at my fans either.  Maybe by the end of this post, I’ll figure out why this might be of interest to anyone.

More than anything, what is notable about me being a songwriter is that I am self-taught in all aspects of the craft.  I suppose if you’re someone who has already figured out how to write songs yourself, you might be interested in the struggles I share, as a sort of misery-loves-company type of thing.  Like many a blogger out there, I tend to rant and rave about the frustrations I experience related to writing and recording songs.  Actually, I love the writing and recording part, but it’s the “getting an audience” part that has been difficult for me.  I’m not someone who will ever aspire to be a performing songwriter who plays gigs and gets fans from playing live shows.  I hold out hope that I can gain an audience just by having an online presence, and that eventually, recommendation will increase my fan base and music sales.  I’m not big on promotion, advertising, or marketing myself, so herein lies a dilemma that is at the core of what I blog about most – the desire to be heard by more people, combined with a passion only for the creative part of the craft.

It used to be that record companies sunk tons of money into an artist they signed to get them publicity, and that this was the only way the famous bands we all know and love became famous in the first place.  Technology has made it possible for musicians to be self-contained, self-employed professionals who can gain large audiences without record companies.  Although there are some overnight successes and those who have the right idea go viral at the right time, the majority of these acts pay dues by building a fan base by relentless touring, and by having teams of people who help them handle the promotion and publicity.  Creative types typically don’t have much interest in the business side of music.  With a day job, no desire to play live, and no extra cash to hire people to help grow my audience, I’m one of several million.  Although I’ve found free ways to have an online presence and cheap ways to get my music in online stores, and cheap ways to record my songs with a decent level of quality at home, it’s not enough.  I may have been among the first wave of people to do all these things totally alone and very inexpensively, but now everyone and their brother can record a song at home and put it on iTunes for sale and have a website.

Writing about your struggles to gain a greater audience is one thing, but sharing the joy of your passions is another.  Maybe this blog would be more interesting to more people if I wasn’t trying to get them to buy my music, but rather, just to focus on what it’s like to spend a few hours a week writing and recording songs.  Since I know there are millions of others like me out there, maybe they’d be interested in reading about the experiences of someone else who has a similar life.  That’s got to be the audience this blog will gain, if any.  Fans of my music might like to hear how the next album is coming along too.

The best thing I can say about this hobby of mine is that I can’t go very long without doing it, without thinking about it at least.  I wrote a song recently that started in my head on the way to work one morning.  I’d written about half the chorus during my 10 minute commute.  Then I worked all day, and when I got home, I had the whole chorus in about 5 minutes.  Then from that, I knew what I wanted the verses to include, content-wise, since this was a story-type song.  So, I made a few notes, and then all that was left was looking up a couple rhymes at (free rhyming dictionary online) and writing a bridge.  After about 20 minutes, I had the whole song typed up in a word document.  What I’m really glad about was remembering my morning thoughts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had great ideas and lines for a song in my head just from thinking in my car, but no recorder or pen and paper to write them down, then forgot them, and they’re lost forever.  All I remembered was that I wanted to remember the great song ideas, but when you wait too long, it’s all over.

The beauty of this hobby is, you can always write more, even when you lose a song.  My memory ain’t what it used to be, but that’s why a big part of my time spent on songwriting is actually typing the lyrics and typing the chords once I have those figured out.  So, with this song, I already had one of those things they call a dummy melody in my head.  Just reading the words to myself in my head made me envision the music, since the lyrics were intentionally written with a certain meter in mind – you know – close to the same number of syllables in each line and so forth.  I never have trouble picking a key, due to my limited vocal range, so then it was just a matter of getting out the guitar and finding some chord changes that worked.  Typing up the lyrics is the key, because after I do that and just read them to myself, I can “hear” in my mind where the chord changes will be.

Sometimes I will even type an X above the word or syllable where the chord would be strummed throughout the song.  Then I’ve got lyrics, and where the chords are to be played, and all that is left is choosing those chords.  Typically, certain chords in a song in a certain key go well with each other – you know, those “chord family” deals.  Sometimes though, you can go outside those rules and still make it work.  This song was one of those.  So, after about 10 more minutes, I had the chords nailed down and I just reach over the guitar in my lap to type those on the lyric document.  I’m lazy, so I only put the chord letter symbols in the first verse, chorus and bridge, knowing they repeat for subsequent sections.

The next step was to hit record on my cassette recorder I use for first takes.  I recorded it once all the way through, rewound, then listened back, when I discovered a few little things to tweak pronunciation-wise and arrangement-wise, then made those adjustments to my document and hit record again.  This time, when I listened back, it was exactly how I envisioned it that morning in my car.  Keeper, done with the songwriting part.  Now, when I get (make) time to record next in my digital multitrack software on my computer with microphones and everything, I’ll do that again, and separately record bass, drums, etc.  That’s another thing – you can “hear in your mind” what instrumentation is appropriate for the song as well, very early when writing it.  So, there I had a finished song in maybe 45 minutes.  It will probably take me, for this particular one, about another hour to get the final studio recording done.  So, yeah, about 2 hours per song, start to finish is not too far off from the time spent.

I release a new album of 13 songs every two years, so it’s like one every two months.  It’s usually a an hour or so on a weeknight, a couple nights per week on average, and then about two Saturdays per month for longer recording sessions where I crank out two songs in three hours or so.  Some songs don’t come so easy, and those are the ones that don’t end up being that great.  All of the above is fun for me.  It’s literally a blast, and if I go a month or so without doing any of the above, I get a little bummed out from missing it.  That should give you a glimpse into what the time spent is like for people like me who consider themselves songwriters.  If you look at it this way, it’s a fairly large part of my lifestyle, and I’m thankful I’m able to do it, whether I sell any records or not!  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why The Pope Shits In The Woods

To answer this question, and relate it to my free-time hobby of writing songs and recording them, I have to express my thoughts about wanting people to have access to my music while not wanting to spend money on promoting it or playing live shows.  I need to reach deep into my psyche and try to examine why just writing songs and recording them for myself is not enough.  Wax warning:  This post might be construed as all three, but do you ever notice anyone waxing anything but philosophic, poetic or nostalgic?  Maybe some novelists with PhDs and knowledge of literary criticism do to impress each other, but we aren’t them, are we?  Songwriters write songs to try to impress each other I suppose, but what does that say about us?  The pseudo-intellectuals of the world and those who self-identify with being some variation of geek/nerd/dweeb, etc., and who also happen to write songs, may very well get into using big words and trying to out-do each other that way.  Some with songwriting expertise advise the twist on a tired cliche thing as an ingredient for a good song, so if you follow that, maybe you are going to wax something else in your song, or maybe waxing bikini, as in to assume the identity of a hot babe’s bikini.  I’m getting away from the point of this post already - which is to answer the question in the title as it relates to the craft.  

I know, it’s a wacky proposition, but I’ll get there, and if you read along, you’ll get the point, which is that if art is only appreciated by its creator, it doesn’t really exist.  Another way to put this idea is that you must make people aware of your music, like it or not, to truly get the most out of the craft of writing songs.  My wife cured me of being a swearer long ago, but I thought using the only swear word I’ve ever used in one of my songs was necessary for this topic, just as it was absolutely necessary in my most popular song, Mackinac Island (HS&F).  In the continuing saga of the non-performing songwriter/home recording hobbyist and hermit who knows deep down in a bygone music era not too long ago he’d have no business in the music business, but now finds himself able to just barely get a virtual foot in the door, I’m going to attempt to answer one of life’s funniest questions and relate it to my sad struggle to be discovered, heard, and appreciated.

“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”  I’m pretty sure this was a line from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Big Lebowski, delivered hilariously by the main character the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges.  It’s a funny twist on “Is The Pope Catholic?,”  which is what you say in place of “of course” in reply to a yes/no question.  

There are a lot of variations of this we’ve heard throughout our lives, which all sort of combine elements of philosophy, science, and comedy:
  • If a bear shits in the woods, and there is no one around to smell it, does it still stink?
  • If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
  • If a man speaks in the forest, and there’s no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?

The answer isn’t always so obvious though, in my way of thinking.  People tend to immediately accept an intended meaning when hearing these, and after laughing, rarely discuss alternate meaning interpretations.  Without delving deeply into metaphysics, and hopefully not getting myself into deep shit for using a swear word and speaking my mind and offending people, I’m going to describe how the classic tree version applies to songwriting.  If you write songs and never play them in the presence of other people, or never record them and make those recordings available for other people to listen to, then they are the trees.  

If you don’t take a risk, you can’t get the reward, but then again, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself up shit creek without a paddle.  That is, with no income to offset your albeit modest investment in making your music available, which frustrates you to the point where you become a harsh ranter, raving foul-mouthed filth to offend and thereby hypocritically use your way with words to criticize and cause harm instead of helpful laughter, you blog it out and carry on.  Some bail out and swim to shore, admitting defeat, but not me.  I’m raging on in a changing music business that allows amateur hacks like me to peddle my wares, trying to remember not to take it all too seriously, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that many who’ve come before and achieved sales, did so with wares I personally consider substandard to my own.

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream

That’s a great song we all know.  If life is but a dream, then you’re not really reading this blog, and the moon in the sky at night doesn’t exist, whether people see it or not.  This concept applies to music marketing/promotion/advertising.  It used to be you could put the CD in the brick-and-mortar record store, and there was a chance a shopper would see it, be intrigued by the album title, the artist name, the cover artwork, the song titles, and/or the liner notes.  Those stores don’t exist anymore, but the same principle on the web means people have to visit the music store site, otherwise, the music doesn’t exist either.  The science behind audience definition/targeting and search optimization isn’t applicable and doesn’t matter when there’s no physical matter to apply it to.  But there’s a revelatory philosophical principle about this simple old tune that is not only a good approach to music, but also to living your life:  Don’t try too hard, and have fun.  I take it, and I advise it, for life and for songwriting.  You typically want to share the things you’ve had fun creating though, with the hope that they’ll be appreciated in a positive way.

Those seven words sum up my approach to this songwriting hobby very well, but the reason I record and distribute (the part that’s not fun) is based on a lack of certainty that this is all a dream.  The “what if?” thoughts of there being no afterlife, along with a belief that art doesn’t exist without appreciation, drives the “work” I put in to be an independent recording artist.  Fortunately, I’ve become aware of some appreciation of my art due to this work.  That appreciation is my fuel for continuing to be a songwriter.  Let the trees continue to fall.  What if the pope, while shitting in the woods, notices a bear also shitting nearby, while simultaneously hearing a tree falling nearby, and a woman is there to verify and provide feedback that it’s all sick and wrong? Songwriters need the feedback, or else their songs don’t exist, so they can either play live in a bar, or use CD Baby to get on iTunes.  It begs another question:  If you’re like me and people won’t pay to see you play live, despite trying, why shouldn’t you also give up when no one will pay .99 to download your MP3.  The answer:  a few people actually have paid that .99, which gives me hope that more of the same will occur, that I’ll get repeat customers if I repeat the process of releasing more trees into the wild, so at a nominal cost, why wouldn’t I trudge on?

We’ve all been alienators and bridge-burners at one time or another in our lives, and some find those personalities a little more interesting.  Maybe the rebels, the ne’er-do-wells, the slackers, the class clowns of the world write better songs.  If you’re going to answer a question with a question, it helps if it’s both funny and deep.  Serious questions are no fun at all.  Take the typical cop question “do you know why I pulled you over?” and think that through.  I always want to say something like “I’m flattered that from briefly glancing at me and my car, you had enough observatory power to gather information and surmise that I might have the type of extra sensory perception that has given me the ability to read your mind.”..and then follow that up with the word “Yes.”  Not a wise strategy.  The cops I’ve met don’t seem to be deep thinkers.  And one might think the smart and expected answer is simply “no.”  After the yes, the cop would then likely retort with something like, “why?,” to which I would then reply, “how would knowing the answer to that help you protect and serve any better than you already are?”  If life is but a dream, a maximum fine and jail time is a nightmare, not to mention the risk of random violence cops are prone to committing, such as being shot and killed by the cop right then and there.  

The “their word against yours power” isn’t fair, and if you’re dead, you don’t care if a passerby got it on video with their phone as evidence for justice in court when the cop lies and claims you were reaching for a weapon, especially if there’s no afterlife.  When a question isn’t funny, and it’s totally on the surface, it’s meant for places like courts of law, not private life conversations with real people.  Lawyers are skilled with asking questions they already know the answers to, and seem to in a sick way really take joy in playing dumb and acting as if they really don’t know the answer when they ask the question.  It’s too bad that their profession trains them for this, which they then inevitably use in their personal lives.  

What you do for a living, unfortunately, can shape the person you are, and certain traits don’t work outside of work.  Winning friends and influencing people is not accomplished by beating people up with words and using questions as weapons.  On the other hand, the hand I’m talking about here, replying to a question that would seemingly have a simple, predictable answer with a funny, philosophical question is always pleasantly thought-provoking.  Add in an unexpected swear word, and you’ve got the makings of an almost sure-fire way to get people to crack up and like you.  When you hear such a question, there’s a brief second before you laugh where you think of the alternate implications it presents - you may not want to admit it, but you’ve experienced it.  

Those who like to self-identify with being intellectual, pseudo or not, will take this ball and run with it, making a game out of pointing out the technicalities and logic flaws involved.  They’ll have follow-up questions of their own in response to your question replies, such as the living thing argument - creatures present with the capability of hearing, the possibility of aliens in parallel dimensions travelling faster than the speed of sound past the tree when it fell, ad nauseum.  Your stereotypical comic book / science fiction fan will have a field day, and it will annoy you, because you’re not like them, and you’re sad realizing they’ll never think it’s funny like you do to hear someone say “Does the pope shit in the woods?”  You’ll glaze over as they ramble, and you’ll start thinking of great new song lyrics but have no pen and paper or recorder.  That’s a bummer, man.  Makes you want to say “fuck it, let’s go bowling.”

To truly expose the underlying, hidden truths behind a question where the answer is obviously going to be yes, you’ve got to talk about why the Pope would shit in the woods in the first place.  You figure they mostly hang out in big cities, travel in luxury popemobiles, spend a lot of time in churches with modern plumbing.  You can brainstorm this.  You can try to think pope, papal, paper, toilet paper, papal paper, no paper handy while in woods, the convenience of the robe vs. pants, you picture squatting, them being right-wing conservatives, yet probably not opposed to walking in woods.  Say you’re a pope, the urge hits, and you happen to be in some woods, it could happen, probably has happened.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say there have been a lot of popes, and I hereby submit they’ve all shat in the woods before,  because there ain’t no papal porta johns in woods, not even when in Rome.

I’m digressing, so to get back on track and do as they do, I’ll write a prayer:  Dear God, please let more people hear and appreciate my songs.  That’s another thing with the internet lately - with all the free streaming going on, you don’t know if your song was played and liked by someone or not. Yes, star trek fans out there, some such services have analytics available, but most don’t for free anyway, and because of google, who pays for analytics nowadays?  People who work in sales I guess. The sales aren’t there, but who knows, maybe lots of people listened and loved my songs, but didn’t feel like e-mailing me to let me know, or didn’t feel like posting a kind review,  or recommending it, or clicking some sort of Like or +1 button.  It’s a hassle to do all that when you’re just out to find and listen to some interesting music for free and move on.  So there’s the finding it thing, and then there’s the liking it, and then there’s me finding out about any of this actually occurring.  

Even the best, most famous songwriter/artists out there don’t get paid for their art like they used to, and even the ultra-popular make more from playing live shows than selling records now.  Despite the business changing, it’s pretty cool that the potential is there for someone to be present with hearing ability when the tree falls, and at least I’m doing what’s necessary to stink up the Amazon, Google Play and iTunes forests with my shitty music, and it’s better that someone could smell it, than to not be that bear at all.  For you fellow songwriters out there, remember:  don’t work too hard, have fun, be the bear.  Luckily, technology has made it so that there’s not much to lose.  There are a billion others like me - with a microphone, computer, and guitar who make up words, try to sing, and hold out hope for something accidental and viral to happen with little expense or effort to boost our audience.  Like the lottery, you can’t win it if you don’t have the ticket.  Well, I’ve offended the intellectual community, the legal community, and the religious right community, so I’ll conclude with a question for you left-leaning, tree-hugging hipsters in the forest out there:  If an internet music fan finds and free-cloudstreams a songwriter/recording artist’s song, and the songwriter never becomes aware that it happened, did it?