Friday, December 22, 2023

To Scott: You Won’t Get Paid Next Year For Your “Art”. Merry Christmas! (From Spotify)

The Inevitable Return Of Music Gatekeeping And Long-Tail Culling Will Cause My Demise As A Solo Artist

I sometimes read articles about the music industry, since I consider myself somewhat of a musician.  I'm a pretender, I admit it.  As someone who writes and records songs at home, I've been releasing albums for many years now as if I'm a real solo artist.  As a result, I'm always curious to learn about how I could get more people interested in my music, how to increase the chances people will find it online and stream it and enjoy it.  I would like fair compensation for my creative works, like we all would.

Most people are probably aware that in recent years it has become increasingly easy to do what I do.  Inexpensive recording equipment and music distribution services have allowed nearly anyone to get their music on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music, right there alongside the likes of popular megastars like The Beatles or Taylor Swift, whether signed to a record label or not.

I am a huge fan of YouTube Music myself, but am glad my music is available on all of the major ones.  If you cared to, you could find information online that would show labels, distributors, publishers, and audio streaming services arguably don't want to have to pay artists.  The labels seem to have lost the most power, and want it back, so naturally want to convince the streaming service providers to make changes that benefit them.  Like politicians, they seem to say one thing and do another.  Make promises they don't intend to keep.  They want to cut costs wherever possible, and if they can devalue the creators along the way, and get away with paying them less, they will.  

The whole music business is full of companies that claim they don't make enough money, and they're constantly laying off employees and trying to find ways to pay artists less, while claiming to want to pay them more.  Somehow, artist-friendly companies like Spotify claim I wasn't going to meet the royalty threshold by the distributor to get paid anyway, so might as well make a policy to give my pennies to the artists with the 1,000+/yr streamed songs.  Doesn't seem very friendly.

Such companies probably don't consider me an artist to begin with.  They might call what I make "noise".  My music might not be "art" depending on who is judging it.  It's probably amateurish and not high-quality to most.  Poor singing voice, sloppy instrument playing, lo-fi production.  Anyway, it was already practically impossible to get noticed, and the powers that be are now making it even harder.  

Not long ago I read there are 100,000 new songs uploaded to those types of services every day.  As a result, the record labels don't make as much money as they used to, and so now they are going to propose increased "gatekeeping" (more control over whose music gets released) and get the aforementioned music streaming platforms to agree to it.

Their pitch will include a focus on improving the music streaming experience for the consumers.  Fewer choices, higher quality music to choose from, more consumer satisfaction.  It's really about getting a bigger slice of the pie for the superstars they've signed, and I doubt they care that there's a moral dilemma in kicking and keeping people like me out.

Gatekeepers at Spotify have already returned, and others are likely to follow suit.  They dominate music streaming.  They’re like the government if you want people to hear your song nowadays.  This isn’t China, where you can’t criticize the government, and it seems they’re wielding a bit too much power while constantly complaining they’re not profitable.  As a solo artist who also claims I’m not profitable, their recent changes aren’t helping.

On Spotify in 2024, if I release a song and it doesn't get streamed 1,000 times in a year, I don't get paid.  Rewarding popularity is fine, but not paying for creative works is not fine.  Everyone wants everything to be free.  Everyone has a cousin who downloaded all the music ever recorded back in the Napster days who will put them on a USB drive for you.  I'd rather pay.  

Music streaming services, like any tech company, can just change their terms whenever they want and you can choose to play by their new rules or not.  Whether it’s an artist’s first release or not, until they achieve a certain amount of popularity, they are basically distributing their songs for free streaming, just like they would on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, or Free Music Archive.  

Tracks must have reached at least 1,000 streams in the previous 12 months in order to generate recorded royalties.  Less than that don't reach artists because they supposedly do not surpass distributor's minimum payout thresholds.  The reason is to increase the payments to tracks that do reach at least 1,000 streams in 12 months and deter artists from gaming the system with more tracks per album and more frequent track and album releases, I guess.

The powers that be in the “professional” music business probably freak out any time a DIY artist does well without them.  The bar to music creation and distribution has been lowered for a long time now, and record company executives are probably having meetings about devising methods to separate the wheat from the chaff, but at the same time discussing their fear of missing out on signing talent that they could have “nurtured”.

Who says I need nurturing by a record company?  With their lemming mentalities of copying whatever the latest successful trends are, their “support” would turn me into a cookie-cutter mainstream artist.  They would preach that I should respond to every social media comment about my music to “engage” with the fanbase.  They’d have me lip-syncing for sure, doing short tik-tok videos and AI remixes of my own songs, or whatever they think is the next new cool thing.

Everyone with a computer – or even just a smartphone nowadays – can create their own beats and tracks and rap profanity over them and then submit them for streaming on Spotify, but that doesn’t mean they are skilled in the craft of songwriting.  The record company “experts” say they are not deserving, legitimate creators because they threaten their slice of the royalty revenue.  They complain about a wasteland of vapid garbage tracks uploaded by novices who do not possess innate talent. 

They probably don’t like a lesser-known DIY artist like me who writes emotional music from the heart not caring how many streams I get or how many playlists I’m on.  I don’t pay any attention to what is popular at all because I don’t care.  I contribute to what they see as over-saturation by hobbyist amateurs and they’re trying to find a way to weed me out and regain their industry gatekeeper status and giant profits.

The funny thing is, today’s record companies seem lazy, never taking chances, and simply waiting for artists to create their own buzz before pouncing.  If they can’t sign up the next viral sensation like that average Joe guy with the beard who wrote a song complaining about the rich men controlling his county in Virginia or wherever, they’re going to criticize him.  Then if they do sign him to a deal, they’re going to ruin his appeal.

I would hereby like to criticize them.  The major labels are the biggest contributors to the deluge of watered-down music in the world.  Ever since the 1970s, music has seemed to go downhill.  The fake drum loops of the BeeGees and polished perfection of ABBA in the disco era led to the use of drum machines and synthesizers and rap in the 80s, on through to today where virtual instruments, quantization and auto-tuned vocals are the norm.

Music tastes are subjective, and advances in music technology have always happened and will never stop.  Generally, it makes music more palatable, but too much of it makes you wish you could transport yourself back in time to enjoy music live and acoustic and real.  Pop music today is drastically different from pop music when I was a kid.  People used to play real instruments and write songs with melodies.  Not as much anymore.

It's easy to complain, easy to say each generation is worse than before, easy to be an old nostalgic person yearning for the way things used to be.  Hits are hits, unless manufactured by marketers manipulating the system.  Payola has always existed, paying for fake streams, appearance of popularity causing more actual popularity.  You like what you like, and that’s okay.  Music was fed to me by radio, and that shaped what young people liked, and shaped my tastes.

For an enthusiast/hobbyist like me, the streaming royalties are nominal anyway.  Although I've sold some physical CDs, there's no demand for them anymore.  Streaming is so convenient.  By now I am possibly what they call a more established "long-tail" artist, having released 11 albums so far, but the more of me there are out there, the less we all get.

As a self-releasing singer/songwriter "niche" artist, mainstream popularity was never going to be in the cards for me, nor was getting signed to a record deal even at an independent label.  Lets face it:  even in the pre-digital music world, the middlemen gatekeepers would not have let me in.  AI curation in the future will limit exposure to artists like me somehow.  They'll make sure I don't get suggested or recommended in those "you may also like..." lists.

Inevitably, the music streaming services will have more quality control in the future, using algorithms to weed out the really bad music, and they'll also probably hire young people to be music screeners.  It is highly likely my music will not suit their taste in music.  They'll probably start charging way more to get your songs on the services as well.  The nominal pennies I would've made next year will go to those who get (or purchase) more streams than me.  Merry Christmas more popular artists, from Scott.

What young 20-something kid Music Screener / Curator / Sounds Like Recommendation Programmer is going to like an artist who primarily strums an acoustic guitar, doesn't have a great singing voice, and is an old white guy with obviously home-recorded music?  I see my future, and as a pretend musician in the first place, I won't survive.  It will be increasingly difficult for people to find my music online, so there will not be any lasting impact at all.

I'm not giving up yet, but I'm realizing the end is near.  The writing is on the wall. The beginning of the powers that be weeding me out, not letting me in the gate.  It was fun for a while to have my music be "out there" and discoverable, and to know that a few people did discover some of it, and a few of them liked some of it, and a few of those looked for more and looked forward to more.  It's a strange industry that has been through significant changes, and at least I can say I was a part of it for a while, on the fringes anyway.

I recently thought I’d check my popularity on Spotify.  For song streams, they say they have (suspiciously) ended support for data leading up to the year 2020.  When I check my “all time” stats, here’s my top ten:

#         Title                             Streams

1. Mackinac Island                25,884

2. The River of No Return             281

3. I Did a Bad Thing                     251

4. Puttin' Up a Pole Barn             125

5. Whatever Floats Your Boat     101

6. Smitten With the Mitten              89

7. Shred Betty                              66

8. Algoma Central Blues              52

9. Cherchez La Femme              51

10. In My El Camino                      43

Looks like unless I become a 2-hit wonder next year, I’ll only get paid for one song, and not the other 140 Scott Cooley songs you can stream on Spotify.  Maybe my “hit” Mackinac Island will continue to bring in a few fractions of pennies for a while, but the writing is on the wall.  Thanks Spotify.  Merry Christmas.  They tell you that you likely won’t get paid at all except for that one song probably, but then they send you a “wrapped” gift link thing to make you feel great about it with a bunch of other meaningless stats that don’t monetarily amount to anything.  Hit play to watch me click through it:


Friday, November 3, 2023

Just Some Guy Who Will Die Eventually...Who Likes Trying To Write Songs

Someday, I won't be alive anymore.  The bleak thought of the grim reaper coming for us creeps in from time to time, so why not write about it to my non-existent readers?  It's what you do when you have your own blog.  You do it because you can.  Just like you write and record songs because you can, releasing them to non-existent fans of your music.  There's always the possibility readers and fans will materialize, and if not while you're alive, maybe after death.  Hope.

I will be remembered by a few close family and friends, some of whom knew I liked to write and record songs....and then write about writing and recording once in a while. Beyond them, there are some other people out there in the world who became aware of my music somehow, listened to it, and actually liked it. I can't tell you how much this pleases me. Maybe my music will still be findable for a while after I'm not around anymore, and I like knowing that. Some of it I am proud of, and until that day comes as it does for us all, I will have had a really fun creative hobby I'm thankful for.
You think about these kinds of things occasionally when you're an aging pretend solo artist.  Aside from that, some of those people may have also discovered I had the boldness to create and maintain a web site about myself as a solo artist, and further, a personal blog I wrote about my hobby. These probably won't be around long after my demise, and eventually, only a few scraps of information about me will remain.
A guy with a bad singing voice who could barely strum some basic chords on a guitar wrote what he thought were pretty good songs, recorded them, and then released them as albums every couple years for a couple decades. Bold is probably the best word to describe all of this, and I've been bold during a time when changes to the music industry made it possible - inexpensive home recording equipment, the internet, aggregator distributors, streaming tech, etc.  

I haven't been fearless, but I faced the fear and released the music anyway...consistently.  Bold might be another way of saying things like: doesn't know when to give up, confident without a reason to be, blissfully ignorant of lack of talent, or should've been embarassed or ashamed, but wasn't.
I took advantage while it was possible to do it all myself and get it out into the world. The powers that be are certainly already having meetings about how to curtail people like me in the future. I'm sure the gatekeepers will exert their strength again soon. But while such a thing was possible, I had the guts to give it a try, be vulnerable, put my music out there, all while knowing it wasn't anywhere close to being as good as music that I myself enjoy listening to.
I've done all this at a time when the hard rock music I grew up on was fading from popularity. Also during this time, it was hard to find any rock music where the strumming of an acoustic guitar was the primary instrument. Instead, I released music during a couple of decades in which rap and hip-hop and electronic music rose in popularity and dominated. I basically did the complete opposite of what a record company would have wanted me to do.

From the scraps of remaining information about me, if there is still any interest, curious fans might wonder why there's no live footage of me performing shows. Well, I never played shows because I know I'm not very good, and I only release recordings because I can make myself sound a little bit better than if I were playing live. I did play live in the late 80s & early 90s for a few years, but it was before the internet and cell phones caught on. It's a unique hobby in that the writing and recording parts that I enjoy can be done from your home.
I'm basically a private person and probably an introvert who doesn't like to venture out in public much, and I don't crave attention. I did love the applause and compliments when I did play in front of audiences, but I had stage fright, and I knew bars full of mostly people I knew who were drunk was only "polite" applause and not that real.
When you don't ever play live anywhere, no one is ever going to write about you, and I'm not going to submit my music to hopefully get some music blogger to review it. If someone out there wants to find my music, listen to it, and then write about it and post it online, they can. They haven't yet, and probably won't. If it's positive, yeah, of course I wouldn't mind knowing about it, but if negative, it might crush me.
It felt great and like I didn't really deserve it at the same time, and I realized I wasn't ever going to be a great performer or entertainer or band member. I was realistic about my chances of ever going beyond being a guy in some lame local rock band playing covers, and there wasn't any scene I was aware of for a solo acoustic guitar guy playing original songs. So, there, now the curiosity will be satisfied if people find this old blog post after I'm not around anymore.
If I could talk to my younger self fresh out of college in my early 20s, I might suggest heading to Nashville and trying to just be a songwriter. That's the part of music I love most and would have the best chance of doing. I would tell that self to get a day job while not giving up on writing and pitching for at least a decade. If that didn't pan out, maybe some other job in the music business would present itself that I thought would be interesting and that I could be good at.
How to sum up how I think I'll be remembered for a while? Some guy who liked to write songs, started releasing his home demos of them, couldn't sing or play very well, or be a recording engineer for that matter, but just did it anyway, for a couple decades, and didn't give up because it was an inexpensive, fun hobby. None of his songs ever became popular, hardly anyone ever found out about him or his music, and his songs weren't that great, unfortunately, but he was a decent guy who had fun trying.
That's probably just about it for the public persona stuff. Oh, and he was bold enough to write a web site and blog about himself as a solo artist too. He thought it would help, but it didn't. Oh well. If you never knew me personally, the music might live on for a while, along with a few photographs, but that's about it. Birth and death dates, basic stats, an obit, etc.
It's all somewhat a posing, pretending thing, but on the other hand, the songs and music are real, at least for now, they're still floating out there, ready to be found and listened to and liked and recommended. Some of that has actually happened, and it makes me feel good to know it. My music is not for everyone, and I'm not sure what it is people like about for the ones who do. I can only imagine that they appreciate that I'm just some guy - a self-taught, do-it-all-myself guy, who just decided to go for it.
Maybe you can hear what I'm not writing so far, which is that what I'd really like is for someone to actually say they like my songs and music, that they hear great potential in them...beyond the few close family and friend politeness compliments that are guaranteed for everyone with a creative hobby. Strangers writing publicly that they hear something special that I can read while still alive. Maybe that is the pipe dream I'm wishing for but not admitting.
It's probably not in the cards for me to have a posthumous increase in popularity like Nick Drake who went from unnoticed obscurity in life to people showing up at his grave and childhood home and bugging his sister and stuff like that starting a decade after he died until today. 

 Highly unlikely, but isn't there a part of all of us who can admit now while living that such a similar thing happening to us after we're dead would at least be just a little bit cool in some way?  Am I self-deprecating as a shield for potential negative reviews, so I let it be known I never thought I was better than I really was?  I wish I didn't care about how I'll be remembered, but admit I do a little bit.
I have a style of my own. I don't know how to describe it though. Just a guy with a background and influences like everyone else, having a good time with a hobby, but without a clue what makes it interesting to others. I wish others would describe it for me, but no one writes about my music, nor have I ever asked anyone to. It would be interesting to learn why people like it and how they would describe it. I literally have no idea.
Maybe that's why I still do it though - because I don't have any critics bringing me down and making me want to quit. I'll keep at it until I die probably. I've been a quitter in several other areas of my life, but so far, not with songwriting.  It's an enjoyable quest to keep trying to write a really good song someday. Actually, I don't try at all, I just write when inspired to do so without any goal to intentionally write a good one, but it would be cool if I did accidentally. The dream lives on.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Feeling Like An Outsider

When you're an amateur songwriter and solo artist like me who releases music to stream in the same places where you can stream the professional mainstream artists, you definitely feel like a pretender and an outsider.

Could my music be "outsider" music?  Maybe.  There are so many styles of music and genres and sub-genres out there, and this is another one I've become more aware of recently.  It's a way of describing music that borrows from the term "outsider art" which describes art made by people who didn't have formal training and didn't hang out with any other artists.  I say that in past tense because usually their art was discovered after they died. 

Here are a bunch of aspects of outsider music and my thoughts about how if at all, my music might qualify:

  • The "Un"s:  Untrained, unpopular, uncommercial, underground, unconventional, unwilling to collaborate, unintential renegade, under the radar, untalented, unsophisticated, etc..  These could all apply to my music I suppose in one way or another.

  • No traditional experience:  Other than playing in a few very short-lived bands and/or duos with only a handful of actual paying gigs in bars in my early 20s, and a few public performances at open mic nights over the years, I've only played live in front of family and friends.  My musical experience has been very infrequent and sporadic in that sense, and I never really practice at all.  However, I've consistently written and recorded songs by myself for a few decades now.

  • Lo-fi overlap:  Outsider music is not typically made in a real recording studio.  I record everything myself in my house using cheap equipment I've purchased, and it's definitely independent and unprofessional.  I have an acoustic, analog sound but I use some digital technology.  The production quality is low, and I don't use much quality control.  Leaving in accidental imperfections is a deliberate choice for me.

  • Lack of self-awareness:  I'm self-conscious about my music, I know it's not anywhere close to the popular mainstream, yet I do it anyway.  Releasing my music to the world despite being laughably incompetent is to me just being bold.  I am afraid of the vulnerability, but I've consistently concquered that fear by hitting the Submit button to distribute the music.

  • Self-taught:  I took a few piano lessons as a child, then was permitted to quit by my parents after requesting it.  I also took an Intro to Guitar course my Senior year in college, and got a B, and didn't learn much except a few blues boogie patterns.  In both cases, the teaching approach was to learn to read music notation first, which was intimidating and overwhelming to me.  I also took Intro to Poetry, which may have helped me understand some basics of lyrics, but it was before I learned to play guitar.

  • Naive:  This means no formal education or training, which I just covered in the previous bullet.  I admit my music is rough, raw, unsophisticated and primitive - all adjectives for naive art and naive music - but I've not been completely isolated from listening to music, which I've done a lot of.  Also, I have very occasionally jammed with other musicians and learned from them.  I've also had the internet, which I've used to look up a few music-related and songwriting-related bits of information.

  • Childlike qualities:  I have some songs that might be considered children's music, and I know some children like some of my music.  I definitely have some novelty songs, and my lyrics are occasionally funny.  I'm not burdoned by a lot of knowledge about music, and I'm definitely an immature person even though I'm a few years away from senior citizen age.

  • Mental illness:  Marketing-wise it makes for a better story if a musician has a serious diagnosis like schizophrenia, but I have no such diagnosis to report.  It would be easy to make a joke about this one, but there seems to be an undercurrent of this in creative people who are not in much contact with the conventions of mainstream culture.  I am not a part of any sort of music scene at all.  I definitely make my music in total isolation, and I have experienced some mental health struggles.

  • Posthumous discovery:  Not many people have discovered my music and it is possible more will discover it after my death.  I would like that, if I were able to become aware of it somehow, but who knows?

All of those points could be construed as either negative or positive depending on your perspective.  The positives of outsider music are:

  • Complete creative control:  Most music people listen to is the result of major corporate record labels following trends and marketing plans to make a profit.  Sometimes even governments pay to train kids to be superstars like these K-Pop artists.  Photoshopped and focus-grouped.  Mine is not "music by committee".  Mine has no outside influence at all.

  • Authenticity:  I write and record my music exactly how I intend it.  I'm influenced by music I've heard before, but don't ever intentionally try to copy anyone.  I get it close to how I imagined it as best I can with my limited abilities.  I don't release it if I don't find something about it pleasing to me.  Whether you find it aesthetically pleasing or not, is a matter of taste and philosophy.

I conclude that I just don't care.  If I label my music as such, and it attracts fans of The Shaggs or Captain Beefheart or Larry "Wild Man" Fischer or Daniel Johnston, then that would be cool and all, but the music journalists and critics who come up with the definitions of these labels would probably say I don't qualify, and that is also cool with me.  

Although I love outdoor recreation, like skiing, sailing, hiking, and even playing music outside, I spend most of my time indoors.  I am likely an introvert if you care about such things, I think because I crave time to myself.  I know when I've hung around other songwriters and musicians I've definitely felt like an outsider, and I prefer to just do my own thing alone.

Don't get me wrong though - in the highly unlikely event that my music all of a sudden became popular and some record company or manager thought I could sell tickets to shows and tour and suggested I put a band together - I would do it in a heartbeat.  I'd find a drummer, bass player, and keyboard player, practice to learn my songs, then go out and play and love it.  Then I'd no doubt get tired of the traveling and decide to take a break, but they wouldn't want me to.  Pressures would set in.  If you watch music documentaries or read interviews with popular musical acts, you know how the story goes.  It would be fun for a while though!  As an arguable outsider musician, fortunately I have no such pressure.  :)

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Acoustic Guitar Solos - Why They Are An Important Part of the Scott Cooley Signature Sound

As a music consumer, I love perfect music that uses electric instruments, don't get me wrong, but as a musician, I prefer unplugging, especially for solos.  I know this drastically goes against mainstream music trends.  Boston's first album was one of my first albums I owned as a kid and I loved their perfect sound with awesome electric guitar solos, harmony guitar, and electric organ.  Every song was flawless and sounded like it was from the future.

As a musician though, there are times when you are sitting around in a basement, living room or garage with at least one other person and you're both jamming together on acoustic guitars.  Inevitably, in such sessions, you will get an opportunity to play a solo during an instrumental break section of a song.  

You're so excited about your chance to really shine that you grip the pick a little too hard and overplay a bit because you're a tad overenthusiastic.  The results can often be underwhelming as compared to what you imagined in your mind because you picked too harshly, which is an easy mistake to make with an acoustic guitar.  

Although I'm not sure how to explain exactly what is going on, but there's like an unintentional muting that can happen.  In these moments, you find your fingers press down too hard on the strings too.  Somehow you sort of want it to sound more like an electric guitar solo, and to stand out volume-wise over the other acoustic guitars, but overdoing it takes away some desired sustain so you overcompensate for that subconsciously. To me, despite being sonically imperfect and possibly undesirable, it is actually pleasing to my ears.

I am of the opinion that the aforementioned sound is more fun to listen to than an electric guitar solo played through an amp with effects.  You can hear the purity and joy and desire in there.  There's a raw sound of passion, and it produces fist-pumping adrenaline in the listener, which I suspect releases a rush of dopamine.

It's times like these that are often the most memorable as a musician participant, and for the audience.  Through my own informal research and testing and observation over many years, I've come to believe there's some honest truth to this theory, despite a lack of any real scientific proof.  When someone wants to rock harder than they're capable of - either with their technical ability or their equipment - you can hear that.  It's hard to explain but you know it when you hear it.  I happen to love that, whatever it is.

This is why I prefer to record such moments and incorporate them as key ingredients in my signature sound.   Yes, it has an amateur quality to it, but there's something about hearing great potential in your mind of what could be or could've been that is arguably better than a fully realized perfect version with high production value.  I argue it IS better to listen to this way.

We can't all play smooth and fast on acoustic like Billy Strings, and we all have our own style and influences.  In the 70s and 80s, I grew up on what is now called classic rock, but there was also punk, disco, and new wave in there, so it was confusing.  The music I liked best had great guitar solos, which may not happen much anymore in modern music, but I also loved acoustic music, and in my mind I've always had similarly weird ideas that acoustic music doesn't have to limited to folk and can have drums and bass too.  I also think leaving in a few imperfections in a recording can be fine.  Happy accidents.

I actually like knowing my signature sound makes people envision being at a house concert, or just hanging around their musician friends jamming in someone's house.  Informal, intimate, not doctored up too much with technology.  Maybe it's my fond memories of such times that skew my preference for the acoustic guitar solo, making me think it's cooler than it really is, so I can consider that.  

In the meantime, the best advice I've ever heard about being a songwriter/recording artist is to simply do what pleases you.  If you yourself like it, chances are others probably will too.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

A Would-Be Songwriter's Conundrum

It’s confusing to know whether you’re a songwriter or not.  It’s difficult to know what the qualifications are, as there is no one authoritative source that defines such things.  The question is one of earning money and popularity.  You can tell people you are one, and then you can worry if that is being dishonest.  You don’t want to be dishonest.

Since you’re reading this, you likely already have an idea that I’m one of the many people in the world who write and record songs that you can listen to via web streaming.  I used to tell people I did it as a hobby, and then technology evolved to allow me to offer my recordings of my songs to the world.  Does this make me more of a songwriter, or am I still just a would-be songwriter?

I like to write songs and record them, and I’ll probably keep doing it because it’s fun.  I shouldn’t care if I’m self-taught, and I shouldn’t care if I can safely say it’s something I know how to do or not.  A part of me feels like a poser and questions the legitimacy of what I do.  I can’t help it that my thoughts drift off to wondering whether I’m faking it or not, whether I’m a fraud, whether I can claim to be one or not.

You can write a song and play it, that’s one thing.  Another is you can record it.  The permanent record serves as proof.  It can be an art and a craft.  There are basic elements songs should have like a melody, and unless an instrumental composition, lyrics and rhyme.  Some of the definitions you can look up say in addition to writing the music and the words, you can especially be considered a songwriter if the song is popular.  Defining popularity is another conundrum.

I call myself a songwriter, but a part of me wonders if I’m qualified to be able to say that.  I write songs, record them, and then distribute them to music streaming services.  As someone who takes an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach, I produce and publish music independently from commercial record labels.  If I were young, I would try to achieve both professional status in some way and popularity with my songs.

I would definitely feel more confident telling people I am a songwriter if I achieved any of these:

Hit:  I wrote and recorded a song that had mainstream popularity

Signed:  I wrote and recorded songs but was signed to a record label

Staff:  I was a staff writer under employment contract for a publisher

Cut:  I could say I wrote a song that a label-signed artist recorded

Placement:  I could say I wrote a song used in a movie or TV show

I’ve done none of the above, so you could say I’m definitely not a professional, but as an amateur using a digital aggregator distribution service with my own publishing and label, I have actually earned some royalty income.

From my humble home studio near Flint, Michigan, I’m not in the ideal situation for going after any of those.  I’ll never be a great singer, so if I was advising my 20-yr. old self, I’d tell me to move to Nashville.

It’s important to focus on what you do have going for you though.  Occasionally taking stock in what you’re good at, and what you have to offer, can get you fired up to keep doing more of it.  It also presents an opportunity to tell people what makes you unique and stand out among the others.  Some people have more natural abilities than others, and you can’t be good at everything, but it’s fun to try.  Although delegation and collaboration and specialization can have benefits for songwriters, it is very satisfying to be able to say you did everything yourself without anyone’s help when it comes to anything creative.

Some things I’m proud of:

I‘m the sole writer of my songs

I write the music and the lyrics

I play all of the instruments

I’m the beatmaker

I’m the top-liner

I’m the arranger

I’m the producer

My house is my studio

I’m the recording engineer

I’m the mixing engineer

I’m the mastering engineer

I’m the video producer

I’m the publisher

I’m the label

I’m the marketer

My own webmaster

I’ve released over 100 songs

I am self-taught in all of the above!

I don’t co-write, and in this era, in which a famous artist like Beyonce lists 20 different songwriters on a single song, it is somewhat unusual.

I’ve had no lessons other than a single Intro To Guitar course my Senior year in college, yet I can play rhythm, lead, slide, fingerpicking and bass guitar.  Piano, organ, harmonica, ukulele, mandolin, marimba, drums and percussion too – all me, all self-taught.

I’ve never used a real recording studio, and I’ve never had another musician play on any of my songs…except accordion by my wife on a few.

I would be willing to bet that even though I think figuring out how to do all of the above myself makes me special, there are millions of others out there.  The world is a big place.  Many of them are probably also good at skiing.  Nonetheless, I think you should be impressed, because looking back, I’m impressed I figured all this out too.  I’m not sure why all of this seemed interesting to me, but it did.

As you can see, I am a lot more than just a songwriter, and being able to do all of these related things might help my case for being able to rightfully call myself a songwriter.  

I think the quantity thing has to score me a few points too in favor of being able to self-apply the songwriter to my identity.  A lot of people with a guitar or piano will tell you they’ve written hundreds of songs, but there’s no proof.  I have actually publicly released and formally published and copyrighted around 150 original songs.  You can find the proof online, so there’s that.  One could argue that I’m quite prolific.

Popularity is another thing.  How to define it?  All you can do is compare the streaming stats in this day and age.  It’s relative.  Some of my songs have a measure of popularity then, and some of them are mor e popular than others, and some of them are more popular than other songwriter/artists’ songs.

Let’s face it:  Although I’ve made a little money, I’m not a professional.  Although I’ve had some streams, I don’t have any real popularity.  People wouldn’t say either of those about me, and I don’t say them about myself.  Not a pro, not popular.

You can’t argue against those two statements, and being a popular pro is a part of most definitions of ‘songwriter’, so therefore, I am not a songwriter.

Being good is another thing, the whole judgement thing, appreciation being objective and all that.  Everyone has close friends and family who dish out compliments about their creative art projects.  Polite applause at the open mic night, the gig at the bar filled with people who know you.  Sales and streams can be measured, yet we all suspect that record company promotion and marketing and advertising can manufacture success through hype and create popularity when it isn’t necessarily deserved or organic.

You can write what you think are songs, you can play them, you can record them, you can even try to sell them on the internet.  You think they not only might qualify as being actual songs, but also you think they might even be pretty good.  You wonder if a great singer could really make them sound like great songs, like way better than even you could've imagined when you wrote them.  

You wonder if such a thing might even be a realistic possibility.  When you're not a good singer or performer yourself though, and thus can't really deliver the songs in a state that would prove they're pretty good, you think to really be able to call yourself a songwriter, you need to have someone who is a really good singer and performer record your songs.  Getting "cuts" is the one thing that would certainly validate your hobby.  

Are you really a songwriter?  Most people can hit a dance floor and move around a bit, but can't really call themselves dancers.  Lots of people go on talent shows on TV thinking they can sing, but the millions of viewers think otherwise.  Getting a song you wrote recorded by a famous singer is the holy grail if you're like me and can't sing well yourself.  You think your songs might be good enough for such a thing, but you're not sure.  So, you look into how to go about making such a thing happen.  

You'd like to be a songwriter who has his songs recorded by famous artists, but you don't live in a place like Nashville or New York or Los Angeles where the famous artists are.  You know the experts advise you to move to one of those places to have a chance among the massive competition, but you're not willing to do that.  You can try to pitch via email, have an online presence, even release your own demos, but dread the hassle and fear the rejection, so you don't do it.  You know the successful songwriters move to Nashville and pay for top-quality demos, then pitch them in person after networking like crazy.  

You know that your singing and instrument-playing and home recording capabilities on your self-made demos are not that good, but you can't afford to pay for pro session singers, musicians, recording engineers or real studio time.  You research services like TAXI who supposedly once in a while get songwriter's songs to famous recording artists, movie/TV music supervisors, record labels, and publishing companies, but in reality, they are in California and primarily get radio-ready songs to their connections in the movie and tv business.  They also offer critiques and tell you your demos do not have that radio-ready quality yet.  You pay them to tell you this, which you already know.  So that won't work, so you don't pay them.  

You're not a great performer, so you don't go that route of trying to get paid gigs as a solo artist yourself.  Such is the conundrum of the non-performing songwriter who doesn't have much money and doesn't live in a place like Nashville.  You can't really hit an open mic night at a bar and have an A&R guy in the audience approach you to have his major-label artist record the great song you just played.  

There's not even much of a songwriter community for you to network with locally where you live, or even much of a music scene for that matter, so the odds are not in your favor.  About the best you can do is to keep writing, recording, and releasing, and hope you can increase the sales without any money to promote, market, or advertise your records.  You can't afford to have decent music videos.  You hope for viral recommendation via social media.  You know some independent artists pay for fake likes and follows to artificially make their music appear to be more popular, which can actually make it more popular, but you refuse to stoop to such unethical tactics.  

Even if you were able to move to Nashville, you know that for songwriters, it's the equivalent of thinking you can act and moving to Hollywood.  There's gonna be a ton of other people from the small towns of America who flock there seeking to realize the same dream.  Where they are from, there were hardly any other people who could write songs at all, or act at all, so of course for their area, they were perhaps not bad, and perhaps think they're better than they really are.  

The cream rises to the top, as you know, and the vast majority of the rest give up and move home or serve people food in restaurants or whatever.  You don't really know for sure if you don't ever try, I guess.  It can take years of putting yourself in the right places with the right people at the right times for the now-successful ones who "made it" to get where they got.  

You know all of this.  You also personally know people who made the pilgrimage to Hollywood or Nashville or New York and came back being able to say they at least tried to be an actor or dancer or musician or singer or songwriter, and you wonder if they'd been better off never having attempted it in the first place.  You learn from hearing their stories, reading on the internet, forming your own opinions, taking it all into consideration as you wonder if you could have better luck.

Sometimes I think I barely know what I’m doing.  Lyrics, melodies, harmony, rhythm, vocals – yes, what I make checks these boxes.  Words set to music, meant to be sung.  I’ve created a lot of these.  Based on that alone, I guess I can say I’m a songsmith.

At this point in my life, I’m not going to move to Nashville or subscribe to pitch sheets and submit my demos to labels, publishers, agents or artist managers.  I’m not going to network in person or online.  I’m not going after cuts, placements, employment, or record deals.  What I am going to keep doing is writing songs, recording “demos” and just releasing those demos as a pretend solo recording artist myself.  Maybe the streams will increase, maybe not.

You only really wonder about these things when not in creative mode.  You’re wishing you were more popular, more legitimate.  You wish you made more than fractions of a penny for each stream.  You are reminded of this type of thing when you get a report on your “success” from one of the streaming services such as this one from Spotify that I just got:

Some creative art works can be easily made from your home, and songs are included.  They can also be made available for public consumption from your home.  Twenty years ago, this was not the case.  In May of this year, according to Spotify, I had 186 listeners, an increase of 94% over April.  Might even add up to over one penny this time, who knows.  Does having a monthly increase in streaming stats mean I can call myself a songwriter yet?  Still don’t know.  Does the appearance of popularity beget more popularity?  They say it does.  Does using the word ‘beget’ make me cool?  Definitely.  Is this all an example of humble bragging?  Yah, you betchya.  I write about this kind of thing a lot to make sense of it, and I keep coming back to an overall feeling of being in the right place at the right time for this to be possible, and feeling fortunate I am able to do it.  Thanks for being a reader and listener!

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Twitter Blues

Short bursts of inconsequential information.  Microblogging.  Not for me.  I'm a long-form blogger, here on Blogger.  I prefer long bursts of inconsequential information.  Nonetheless, I joined Twitter in 2008 and have tweeted a few times per year on average I guess ever since, mostly just to tell the world I have new music out there.  

A part of the appeal of social media for musical acts is to update existing fans about your music-making activities and to hopefully attract new fans.  Most social media is free, so that aspect is also appealing.

Another part of the appeal is to appear more important than you really are.  People seem to use it to make themselves out to be authorities on various subjects, and experts in various things.  They even go so far as to use it to become influencers and to get famous for fame's sake.

In case you're a new reader to my blog, I am an entertainer, but not a famous one.  I write songs and record them, and social media helps people like me "establish an online presence" which presumably helps with making people aware that I have music available to potentially enjoy.

Like a lot of musicians and artists, I prefer to focus on the creativity and don't get into self-promotion, but at the same time, wish my music was more popular.  I dread even the smallest activity like a short simple tweet to announce a new album release, but I do it anyway because it's somewhat necessary.

I've never warmed up to social media and mostly think of it as a waste of my time.  When it was new, I tried to snag the "scottcooley" user name before the other Scott Cooleys did, so I'd have that coveted URL suffix or whatever those are called.  You wouldn't think I'd have much trouble like the John Smiths out there do, but there are a surprising number of Scott Cooleys in the world.  One where I got in and snagged it early enough was twitter, so my handle on there is @scottcooley, and the link is

You won't find much on my Twitter profile, and a lot of it is just me posting a share of a link to a post from this blog, if I remember to do it.  I actually tweeted my qualifications for verification a while back, and those tweets are still there, even though I am now pretty embarrassed by them.

I can't believe I actually got upset that although I was "verified" as a legit musical artist on a bunch of different music and social media platforms, I never got verified on Twitter, despite actually applying for it.  I was authentic, somewhat notable, never that active, but never misleading or deceptive.  It's funny that Twitter fired all the people who work toward detecting impersonation, manipulation and spam, then started making people pay an outrageous amount of money to appear authentic.  

I'm not a regular social media consumer or poster.  I have profiles on several of them, however, because they are free accounts and I just thought having them would be a way to let people know I have music available for them to listen to.  

Having worked for software companies in the past, some with open source products, I am aware that they always want to have a "pro" or "premium" level of products and services for those wanting to pay more to get more.  Company owners can't help this as they exist to make more money all the time.  Google used this approach with many of their software products and services, in which they would lure people in by offering them for free, get people hooked, then make them pay.  It's arguably evil but probably does help pay for their mission to organize the world's information.

I suppose this is also the case with musicians - there's an argument to be made that if you offer free music early in your career, you can later get people to pay for it.  Indeed, many of my songs are available for free, and I'm not sure if this has helped me sell or get paid for my music at all.  

As an emerging independent recording artist with many album releases available on the major music streaming services, I thought having verified social media profiles might help to increase my popularity.  I'm not out to become a famous celebrity, but I would like it if more people discovered my music and liked it.  I have in the past thought having one of those check marks like they offer on Twitter might help that desire.  I filled out the form three times over the past several years to request the blue check mark unsuccessfully.  

I thought the appearance of legitimacy, like the appearance of popularity, would lead to more actual popularity. Ethically, I would never pay for fake streams or fake followers, but I've heard it is possible.  Like all artists though, I would be happy if anything helped my music reach a larger audience.  I've never paid for promotion, marketing, publicity, or advertising of any kind, and do not plan to.  Like most artists, I hope for "going viral" organically, and do not enjoy promoting myself in any way other than letting people know I have albums available.  

I don't have any budget whatsoever such activities to begin with.  So, aside from announcing my releases, I'm not going to pay someone to write about my music to gain notability.  I'm hoping you, my fans and followers and friends, will help to create the buzz and hype through recommendation.  

I can't fathom why anyone would want to pretend to be me, but I know wrongful impersonation happens, and without profile & content reviewers, there's only so much AI can detect, so now, if I wanted to, I could pay a bunch of money to show I'm the real Scott Cooley.  I suspect it would have zero positive impact on my music "career".  

As a humble songwriter and musician, I'm not aspiring for legitimacy, I already have it.  I am the artist Scott Cooley you will find when searching for music on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, YouTube, Pandora, etc.  So, wherever you like to find and stream your music, mine is there, and I doubt a blue check mark on my free Twitter profile would sway your decision-making about whether to listen or not.  

No one is searching for me on Twitter anyway, so why would I pay for prioritized search rankings?  Makes no sense for me. I will continue to use it for announcements of music availability.  It's one thing to release music into the world where it could possibly be discovered, but another to make people aware of the fact that it exists.  Free social media is another way to make this second important part happen.

I watched The Social Dilemma documentary, and agree that social media can be harmful to society in many ways, and honestly, I struggle to see what benefits it has other than communication and combating loneliness.  When I'm in the mood to be entertained, I seek out music, books, movies, and live performance.  I admit that some social media content like jokes, memes, video games, and pet videos can be also be entertaining, but I'm not really interested in people's posts of the minutiae of their everyday lives. 

I remember when Twitter was new, I told someone I had an account on there, but didn't really know what it was for or what I could use it for.  They replied that they use it primarily for news, and that it was the primary news source in their lives.  This made absolutely no sense whatsoever for me.  News articles are way longer than the tweet character limit, so how is this even possible, I wondered.  

I guess legitimate (blue-checked) news sources post links to their articles on twitter, so you get the snippet and the link, so maybe that's how its meant to be consumed.  I'd rather just go to their website or get the actual printed publication if they still have one.

This all goes back to the fact that in the last twenty years or so, amateur musicians not signed to record labels have been able to offer their music in the same online places where the truly professional major-label artists do.  Anyone can write and publish a book on Amazon now, anyone can blog and pass it off as news or journalism.  The World Wide Web eliminated gatekeepers in various industries, and digital mediums have replaced tangible ones.

I view this as nothing but good luck and good timing for amateur hobbyists like me.  I do have a small fanbase, even though I never play live shows anywhere in public.  People have told me they like some of my songs, and even that they look forward to when I have more new ones available for them to listen to.  For a guy who just likes to write songs and record them for fun, this is a cool thing.  I wish it was lucrative, but so far, it has not been in any way.  That said, I still like knowing my art is out there and can be discovered.  The Web has allowed people like me to say "I was here.  I created things that didn't exist before.  Here they are for your entertainment."

To get the blues about not being perceived as notable is inconsequential.  It has to be an earned thing.  I've made music that has entertained people, and I'm still planning to do more of that in the future, and also, I blog about how I feel about it.  If not signed to a real record label, I suspect self-published artists like me feel like posers.  I have, and there's a part of you that hopes and wishes for legitimacy.  Although it can be purchased, that would never satisfy the desire.

I pay for online distribution of my independent music.  Also known as a digital aggregator service, for a fee they send my music to Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, and a bunch of others.  There are several of these types of services available, and they have existed for approximately twenty years.  

I was among the first wave of artists to send them my music and pay them to send it to the places where people go to get their music.  I've come close to recouping some of that expense, so it's practically paid for itself, but the real value is knowing my music is out there where people can find it and appreciate it.

I started playing guitar in 1989 and wrote my first song in about 1990 before there was a world wide web.  It's just pure fortune that this inexpensive music distribution service availability coincided with inexpensive home recording equipment and the internet and social media and my hobby - all in my lifetime just as my new hobby was starting to take hold.  Like a tweet, all this is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but nonetheless something I get a big kick out of.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Songwriter's Block Antidote Recipe

I hadn't written any new songs since October 2022, and now at the beginning April 2023, after a 5 month dryspell, I got back in the swing of my hobby again.  It's happened before, and when asked what got me back into it again, I always struggle to remember the exact circumstances that helped, so this time, I decided to write about what might've caused this while it's still fresh in my mind for future reference, and now, I'm sharing that with you.

A quick summary list of the combination of factors that worked for me this time:

1.  Hope:  a couple job interviews gave me hope for a better future recently, and although I didn't get the job, it got me excited about the possibility and lifted my mood.  Just a general feeling that you have things to look forward to in life can help the muse come back I suspect.  Some of the songs may indeed be blues and have negative or depressing subject matter, but even so, it's being excited about potential improvements in your life and in the near future that can get you thinking creatively again.

2.  Discovering New Music:  using my music streaming service, I put together a playlist and similar music got auto-suggested, and in the process of checking out new (actually old, but new to me) music that was interesting got me back in the mood to want to write something like what I heard, which is quite different than my usual style

3.  Reduced Stress:  having fewer pressures on me for a few weeks in a row helped me finally get into the right mood to start thinking creatively again, and maybe it's being in more of a state of relaxation that seems to help.

4.  Lack Of Sleep/ Too Much Sleep:  Changing up habits of sleep and getting away from a predictable daily schedule helps.  After consistently having a steady boring schedule where I got adequate sleep for many months in a row, I actually experienced a few alternating nights of either not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much, and this jolted me out of the rut I was in somehow.  Being too tired might've helped more than too rested, and once back in a flow, it was hard to shut of the creative faucet when going to bed to finally get sleep, new ideas would come to me and I'd have to get up and go work on them.

5.  Rain:  the surge of a weeklong creative output period of time coincided with heavy storms and on/off rain for an entire week, and flooding, so this may very well have been a contributing factor in some way.  You tend to stay inside where you have a guitar and a phone to record ideas on and a computer to type lyrics on.

6.  Forcing Myself To Finish Old Lyrics:  I have electronic documents with tons of song ideas and partially-written songs, and I forced myself to revisit them, forced myself to revise them, forced myself to complete one, which led to finishing another, which spurred me on to finish the music for them, and finally all this spurred me on to write new ones from scratch.

7.  Uninterrupted Quiet Time Alone:  you need the long stretches of quiet time to get back into a flow, and you have to actively get started on doing songwriting instead of just watching movies or other free-time pursuits.  Starting small, I told myself I would at least complete one song and this definitely got me back on a roll with the creative juices flowing and the muse returning.  Just going through old lyric documents and recorded musical ideas on my phone and spending time on this instead of surfing the web or whatever really helped.

8.  Riding The Wave To Completion:  Leaving songs partially written is never a good idea.  It's always better to make yourself ride out the wave to completion of a song while you're in the mood for it.  Doing this gets you in the right frame of mind then to continue on with more.  Just making yourself get started on it, even by just reading notebooks with old lyric scaps and listening to past failed recordings of songs or beginnings of songs can help.  Then it's crucial to keep going while you're on a roll with one song before moving to another or stopping.  Completing one helps you know it wasn't as daunting as you thought, and then finishing the next one comes even easier, because you've reminded yourself you can do it.  When inspiration strikes, it's good to push past logical stopping points so you don't lose the ideas.

9.  Telling Someone About The Drought:  it seems that before this recent wave of songwriting began for me, I told a friend I hadn't written anything in a really long time (for me), and just getting that frustration off my chest by itself may have also been a factor.

10.  Free Time:  Just generally having some actual free time, and not necessarily uninterrupted quiet time alone, still seems to help.  You can't write songs if you never make time for it, and if you're so busy with other things, you'll never get around to it.  So, free up the schedule once in a while.  I can only imagine how awesome it would be if you were one of those people where all you did for a living was write songs - think of the potential for productivity!  I'm sure being a real professional would come with pressures a hobbyist like me wouldn't understand, but still, I'd like to have that problem.

You have to write about "what worked" while it's fresh in your mind, and I'm doing that now for the first time ever.  Journaling about motivating factors quickly right after the creative period and before it starts to go away again or start to settle down is not something I've remembered to do before, and you forget if you don't capture it right away.  

The Actual Output Stats:  I had this rush of creativity writing a lot of lyrics for multiple songs - some were scraps that became full song lyrics, some were from scratch, some used existing musical ideas, and others were new music from scratch, resulting in about 5 completely written new songs in about 7 days, and progress on several more rough drafts.  One out of the 5 is definitely a keeper I will record and probably release someday.  That's close to my usual keeper ratio, and if I only have a couple spurts like this per year, that's only 2 good songs per year, but usually I have 4 or 5 spurts like this per year, and rarely a drought this long (on average), so that's why it takes me a couple years to have a new album's worth of decent material ready to release again.

Other free-time demands have crept back in that interrupted the flow a bit very recently, but it is still fresh enough in my mind to be able to think about what helped me get out of my funk.  Now I can refer back to this post the next time and although I'm not sure if the creative spark can be manufactured by following a checklist, it might help.  There are times during long periods of inactivity in a hobby like songwriting in which you question whether you'll ever be able to write a song again.  You start to dread this situation of wanting to write more, but not being able to, and you are quick to say you're just "not feeling it" and move on to reading or walking the dog or watching TV or whatever.  It's sort of like your procrastination becomes the new habit.  On the other hand, trusting your own experience that your lifelong adult hobby will eventually re-enter your life again is always a good thing to remind yourself of.

One final thought is:  lower the bar for yourself, don't expect too much.  It's counter-productive to say to yourself that you will never be able to top your best songs, but the reality is you kill that potential to think that way and not try.  It's even worse negative self-talk to think you'll never be able to write a hit like your favorite hits from artists you enjoy listening to.  Keeping your expectations low and not caring if you ever come close to those standards or not is way healthier, because it gets you back into your creative hobby of writing songs again, and if you write five and only one of them sounds pretty good to you, you wouldn't have otherwise had that one additional new song you wrote that you like according to your own standards of quality.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Mystery Of Folk Revisited

Ramblin' Scott Cooley here, back to make another long-winded (or should I say mighty-winded) attempt at solving the mystery that is folk music.  I can go on and on about this topic, so buckle up, for this may be yet another long read.  The motivation here is I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint what folk music is or isn’t exactly, and many listeners of my music tend to immediately use this genre as a label for it, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.  So, in case you’re not sure either, read on, for I intend to provide some clarity.  

People who are music journalists or reviewers of music or critics tend to talk about anything that features acoustic guitar as folk music.  I’ve been a reader of enough music reviews to know this.  Thankfully, I’m a nobody, and thus my music never gets reviewed.  If it did ever get reviewed, I’d say I wasn’t going to read it, but then I would anyway, and I’d probably see the word “folk” used somewhere in said review, and then be miffed about it.  When you look up a definition of folk, you’ll see “unknown authorship” and “transmitted orally through generations,” so my songs do not qualify for either of these.

There are a bunch of other modifying words you’d have to look up the definitions of to have an idea what qualifies as any of the various subgenres of folk too.  Contemporary folk, indie folk, folktronica, freak folk, industrial folk, alt folk, folk metal, progressive folk, psychedelic folk, neofolk, country folk, folk punk, or anti-folk to name only a few.  Reading lists and definitions add to the confusion for me.  Folk metal sounds oxymoronic, but again, I’d have to look up that definition too to know for sure or at least have more clarity.  Not sure I have the energy to go there.  I’m apathetic about all this, but something makes me care just enough to blog about it.  I wonder what that says about me?  Hmmm…I’m guessing the vagueness bugs me, and I’m unsure if I should take the accusation of the label being applied to my music as an insult or not.

I am sure that with any genre or subgenre and/or style or substyle of music, it will be a challenge to find authoritative definitions.  I can’t even really say off the top of my head what the difference is between a genre and a style, but I do appreciate a good explanation or description of what type of music is being written about.  A part of me thinks there are way too many of these, and they’re always debatable and imprecise, yet, there’s a need for them to exist in the world.  Another one that is challenging to figure out what qualifies as “pop,” but that’ll have to be another post for another time.

I am also sure that just as the dictionary itself is constantly evolving, so are definitions of various types of music.  Classifications and categorizations and labels and comparisons to other artists help people understand what kind of music someone is talking or reading about without hearing it I guess, and in today’s digital consumption world, such words help the algorithms narrow down your taste, which is very helpful when there are millions of new songs to choose from every year.

Like all genres, Folk is broad, conjures up different definitions for different people, and will probably always both evolve and remain ambiguous.  Somewhere in this blog’s post archives, there is at least one other post about this general topic, and I would link to it if I could quickly and easily find it.  Therein lies the problem – we’re lazy and impatient with the technology we’ve become accustomed to – and if I’d only tagged my posts with topics, it would be way easier, but the impatient writer wants to just hit that publish button when done writing and move on.

The word 'folk' conjures up the common man, regular guys, down-to-earth people, average Joes, not necessarily exceptionally trained, talented, skilled, or educated.  Even if you're not like them in many ways, if you show up to a party at their house, they're the types who will still say "come on in."  I've met many folk like this in my life, especially in Flint, the home of the blue-collar man who will help you fix your car even if he doesn't know you.  These are not the types of people who like folk music though.  

I've probably come into contact with more folk musicians than I have fans of folk music.  Based on what I've run across, I'm of the opinion that in reality, the folk musicians of today are usually exceptional in those aforementioned ways, and are not typical or normal, but rather, closer to aristocrats.  They can be uppity, snooty purists who are close-minded.  They don't care for rock music strummed on acoustic guitar with bass and drums.  I'll admit it:  they bug me.

Due to the fact that I record my songs using all acoustic instruments and microphones because I just like the way they sound better than if I used electric or virtual digital instruments, some people automatically want to call it folk music.  I like to keep it real, and I want people to know I play everything myself and don’t cheat in any way.  I like knowing there’s some honesty and skill and talent, and don’t want people to think I just clicked a mouse on a computer to make my music or whatever.

Despite others wanting to categorize my music that way, just because it's acoustic doesn't mean it's folk in my way of thinking.  This kind of thing bugs me, because I think folk bugs me, folk fans bug me, and folk musicians bug me, for reasons that sort of remain a mystery to me.  It also bugs me that I find it difficult to succinctly say why, so here I go again, trying to think it through.

In my own mind, and sometimes verbally or in writing, I'm a stereotyper, I admit it, and I know it can be hurtful and all, but it comes naturally to a lot of people to at least form stereotypes in their minds based on observation and experience, whether they talk (or type) about them or not.  Not all stereotyping is bad though.  When you distribute your albums to online music stores, some of them expect you to supply them with a list of genres and styles so they can classify it to make it findable, which is understandable.  Others do it for you.  When such stores get my music, they often label it folk and therein lies not only frustration for me, but for music seekers.

It's been difficult to describe my music to people in a way that might interest them.  The best way I can think of is reminding them of the show on MTV called "Unplugged" on which rock bands known for electric guitars played acoustic instead.  I really loved this stripped-down sound, as if the band came over to your house and was jamming sitting around in your living room.  

Detractors thought these shows were disappointing because the bands they knew "didn't rock hard enough" like on their albums or normal live shows.  A lot of people who saw the show also realized these guys didn't sound so good without all the effects and everything, maybe that they weren't as good at singing and playing as the studio records made them out to be.  Perhaps noticing for the first time what those songs must have sounded like when they were first written.

Indeed, many established bands later in their careers release "demo versions" of songs that were hits, and from them you can hear what they were like when first written.  To me, this is very cool stuff I love to hear, and often enjoy these types of versions better than the fully-produced ones.  When you take away all the polish and sheen, you hear the song for what it is, it's essence I suppose.  That's really appealing to me, and I'm not sure why.

Needless to say, the unplugged shows and demo version releases have been a big influence on the sound I attempt to achieve with what I consider to be my main studio album releases.  I’ve explained in this blog before that I’m not averse to the sound of electric guitar, but prefer writing and recording on acoustic.  I like to go for a real, natural, raw, organic type of overall sound without using autotune or quantization or tons of digital effects editing, and that same approach is why I’m not crazy about using a bunch of electric guitar pedals because they sound farther from being real to me.  

Now that we have Artificial Intelligence writing good songs for us, I want to stay far away from anything fake or robotic.  All the digital trickery and virtual instruments can make someone sound way better than they would otherwise sound if just playing live in a room with only acoustic instruments, and I certainly could benefit from that, but I prefer a clean and natural sound for my signature sound.  I think a part of the rationale is that if I ever wanted to do shows, I want to be able to play my songs solo and live with an acoustic guitar and no backing musicians, so even though my studio recordings sound like there’s a band, it wouldn’t sound drastically different because the acoustic guitar is the main instrument anyway.  As a music fan, however, I do enjoy listening to electric guitar music, and sometimes those effects like distortion, chorus, delay, flanger, phaser, or reverb, etc. can without a doubt sound pretty cool.

To get people interested in your music, you have to describe it, and therein lies the trouble I have.  However I attempt to describe it, when you make it available for sale in online music stores, those stores sometimes categorize it for you.  Even when I have control over it, it's challenging.  It's made me wonder though, could it be that the music I release on my albums actually is folk, and "they" are right, and I'm wrong?

I think I previously blogged about the difficulty I have with figuring out what folk music is, and I decided to blog about that topic some more here to see if I can figure it out better.  When you're an artist like me, you write songs you like, assuming it's been influenced by the kinds of music you like as a fan or have been exposed to somehow, but not really paying much attention to what kinds of songs they are.  

I grew up mostly listening to what is now called classic rock.  With an open mind (and ear) I later came to enjoy lots of genres of music, including what I think is folk.  However, folk has to this day (many decades later) remained a mystery to me.  

Defining it is so difficult, but I'll give it a quick try:

·       serious singing (outstanding vocal chops, duos and groups doing intricate vocal harmonies)

·       serious guitar playing (formally-trained fingerpicking on small body acoustic guitars)

·       serious subject matter (battles, tragedies, disasters, supernatural events, murders, work songs)

·       serious lack of percussion (maybe a tambourine at most, but no drums allowed)

My music rarely if ever features any of those four, and it's rarely very serious.  When I have played live where there are a lot of folk fans and/or folk musicians present, I've intentionally tried to play my more serious songs, and they never get a good reaction.  I think these people are purists, and delivering serious subject matter on an acoustic guitar, but in a strumming rock style, just isn't acceptable to them or something.  The only way I can ever get a positive comment from this type of crowd is to play one of my really funny songs.  Those always work.  It's frustrating though.

·       The form:  There is a common folk song format known as AAA, which is basically three verses, typically with a refrain as the last line of each (many variations possible).  I've written several of these, and even tried to finger pick them (although I'm not formally trained), but they never seem to work well.  I don't know why.

I think I just have some sort of aversion, they don't jive with me somehow.  All I can liken it to is that there was a friend of mine I used to jam with who was a really good rock bass player, and every time I played a blues song - thinking that's an easy type of song for people to easily jam along with - he would get lost.  He confided in me that he always has difficulty playing blues with people, and it was hard for him to explain, but he just could never really get into a groove with that type of song.  So, I know this kind of thing can happen - even to great musicians - and I have to conclude this must be how I am when it comes to folk songs.

There are some artists whose music you can safely label as folk without argument from anyone:

·       Woody Guthrie

·       Pete Seeger

·       Peter, Paul & Mary

·       Kingston Trio

Add drums and electric instruments, and you get folk-rock such as:

·       The Byrds

·       Bob Dylan (after he "went electric")

If folk-rock is folk music played on electric instruments, would rock music played on acoustic instruments be rock-folk then?  And if said rock-folk also has drums, then what do you call it?  You might think to be called rock-folk it technically should be rock music played in a folk style without drums, right?  The logic is there, but it's not black and white.

The grey area is where my music falls.  It's acoustic, and it has drums, and the songs are more rock than folk.

Back to folk though, and don't even get me started on what Americana is, folk has roots in music immigrants brought with them from Europe to this country from places like Ireland.  There, those songs were referred to as "ballads," even though many of them were really fast, further adding to the confusion.

Can't leave out of such a discussion a few other important aspects of defining folk:

·       the oral tradition (passing songs on from one person or generation to another, sharing via singing without the benefit of sheet music or recordings)

·       the uncultured, commoner thing (music of the uneducated, lower classes)

·       the isolated, rural thing

These points seem pretty far from describing present day folk artists.  My guess is that in reality, today's folk musicians learn from recordings, sheet music, the internet, and formal lessons.  Further, I'm guessing they're a fairly well-educated bunch, more likely to have higher levels of education than rock musicians, for example.  Far from being "peasants," folk folks are probably middle class (or higher) types nowadays who are fairly sophisticated.   Some might even be more inclined to perceive them as elitists as compared with artists in other genres.  Most of the folk scenes I've run across are a part of university towns and big cities, so these areas are far from the sparsely-populated areas of the country.

Then there's this last aspect:

·       the "world" music thing (culturally exotic, includes just about anything, vague)

This one is completely confusing, but I take it to mean you can be a folk artist from America or Ireland and still throw in a Caribbean song in your reperatoire and have that be acceptable.  Maybe it also includes permission to sing a song in a language other than English as well, such as Spanish.

What am I getting at here?  After a bit of soul-searching, I think I envy folk musicians for several reasons.  I wish I could sing and play guitar as well as they can.  I wish I could write more serious songs like they can.  I have an appreciation for the old-timey stuff, even though I would be hard-pressed to define that too.  I think it bugs me that the serious folkies don't ever rock out.  It seems that bluegrass and blues are somewhat acceptable to them, but not rhythm & blues, soul, or funk, for example.  

When you think of the 60s and hippies and baby boomers and the folk revival, you think of people who should be open-minded, welcoming of all styles of music, and inclusive.  The modern-day folkies seem to be pretty particular about what they approve of though.  You would think it would be ok with them if you're not a great guitar player, not a great singer, not formally trained, but hey, you're trying.  The self-taught, do-it-yourselfers experimenting with different styles should be respected, you would think, but for some reason, they're not.

There were a lot of people born in the 50s, and being in the generation behind them has been frustrating.  They took all the good jobs, and never retired, for one thing.  When I see an old white guy with a beard and a guitar - and he's wearing a beret - I cringe a bit.  I've met so many like that, and you know darned well what kind of music they like to listen to and to play - that serious shit with finger picking.  They're just not my kind of average joe.  They seem to look down their noses at those who are different than them.  

This awesome video from SNL:  hilariously reveals in a fake game show the issues younger generations have with boomers.  Contestants with master's degrees working at fast food restaurants compete for social security while boomers taunt them with their home ownership and debt-free college degrees, and they only win if they don't interrupt them.

A part of me knows there have always been these generational differences.  The generation before them, like my grandparents' generation, didn't approve of men wearing an earring.  Later on, old people didn't approve of the crazy piercings and tattoos you see kids sporting today.  Somewhere in between, especially old white people, couldn't understand black kids pulling their baggy pants down low on their waists and showing their underwear.  Heck, there was a time when old guys who were baseball fans didn't approve of young guys wearing a baseball hat backwards, back when that was cool for a while.

The pop music of today is just so much drastically different than the pop music of the 60s or 70s.  Today's old folk guys wearing berets probably didn't like the Monkees, and instead were getting a kick out of discovering old field recordings from Alan Lomax.  There's nothing wrong with that.  I'd much rather listen to the Monkees though, than today's top 40 pop acts.  

I have a feeling that every generation grows up on popular music of their time, but always grows to appreciate the decade before.  I was born in 67, so started buying records and getting into music in 77, and then the 80s were pretty crazy - from hard rock to disco to punk rock to new wave to hair metal.  I've always really loved the rock from the late 60s and early 70s though, and even discovered some classic country from that era that I liked as well.  I even went back far enough to appreciate the 50s guys like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry.

I still have a sort of feeling of mistrust toward anyone who doesn't like two bands though:  the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.  The greatest from each of my favorite decades.  The hard -core folk people seemed to have totally bypassed and disregarded that stuff though.  It's a mystery as to why.  I'm sure today's teens can't fathom people not liking Justin Timberlake or Beyonce or Justin Beiber or Billie Eilish or Drake or The Weeknd (or whomever is popular these days) though.  So, I kind of get it, and I kind of still don't.

I can't not talk about Jazz in all of this too.  The Jazz cats, like the Bluegrass boys, are known to have great chops, their musicianship always respected, in a similar way as the folkies, if I'm not mistaken.  This is a genre I have a great appreciation for - it's totally American, and I love the improvisational part of it.  To me, the Jazz musicians don't seem elitist like the folkies though.  Maybe they are too, but they seem like more down-to-earth, regular guys.  They like to have fun.  Not afraid of trying new things, giving new ideas a chance.  Just an impression I have, not sure how accurate it is.

Whatever people are into, I'm all for it.  I like to be really accepting and encouraging to younger songwriters and musicians, even when their style isn't my cup of tea.  I should point out that as a music fan myself, I like lots of good songs from lots of genres and styles of music.  I try to find something to like in anything I hear.  I'm open to trying out new kinds of music.  It's fine with me if people are totally different than me.  If they get into a certain type of music, or become involved as a musician in some way or another, that's cool.  I have friends who never write songs, play only electric guitars, and are happy spending hours and hours trying to nail an Eddie Van Halen solo.  Not for me, but more power to them if that's what they like.

Folk artists always throw in some funny novelty songs into the mix, and those are great, so it can't be said they are so serious they don't appreciate humor.  Otherwise, though, they just seem to have this better-than-thou attitude toward guys like me - a generation younger recording rock music on an acoustic guitar...with drums, heaven forbid.  My style isn't for them, and they let me know it - usually very indirectly.  I always think they'll show me some encouragement, but they never want to give me the time of day.  They just simply do not care about the kind of music I make.

Acoustic rock with bass and drums?  In too many worlds at once, too hard to wrap your head around, things that shouldn't go together?  Is the reaction like Pete Seeger getting mad at Bob Dylan and pulling the plug on his Newport show?  Don't get me wrong - I love that folk expresses culture, and I love the protest aspect that can serve as a powerful check against authority, like the press has against the government.  I just don't like the fact that there seem to be so many invisible boundaries in folk, which is supposed to be the voice of the people in a free world.  Don't fence me in, and don't treat me like a trespasser.

I should just do what I do and not worry about how to describe it to people.  When it's mis-categorized online with the "folk" tag though, people won't get what they expect.  Lately, I've started to think of it as garage rock, because it's sloppy and imperfect and has a certain spirit and attitude about it, and it's pre-punk in that the songs are not super fast, but the only weird thing is my music doesn't feature electric guitars, which is an important ingredient of punk and garage.  If I would play electric instead of acoustic on my recordings though, I would feel like it needed really good drumming, and I only have a minimalist hand percussion kit, so that wouldn't quite cut it.  You can't be good at everything.

If you self-identify as a songwriter where I'm from, and you go out looking for others, you inevitably end up hanging out with baby boomer folkies, and that's where I've found cold shoulders.  I have no idea what it's like in Nashville.  I expect if I went there, trying to get into the songwriter scene there, I'd quickly develop a similar attitude.  I have a negative prejudice about this style they call "bro country," and I imagine I'd be disappointed that they wouldn't welcome someone like me into their world either.

A welcome shift has begun to occur in my local scene recently, so there is hope.  I've noticed the old white folkie guys who frequent the open mic scenes at bars now have gradually been replaced by old white classic rock guys more and more.  Every single one of them knows how to play the song Amie by Pure Prairie League, I guarantee it.  More stereotyping, but more palatable to my tastes.  I'm a hypocrite, I know.  I think it's awesome they're out there going for it though, whatever they want to play.

If you can remember back in the days when there were brick and mortar record stores, and then imagine yourself owning one all of a sudden.  You have a bunch of records and you have to label them in sections, grouping similar ones together, so it's easier for people to find what they like.  You have to call it something.  I just can't figure out what mine should be yet, but if it's in Folk, the New Main Street Christy Minstrel Singers fans will probably be bummed if they bought my records.

My music is definitely not folk, then, I've decided it, even though a few songs would definitely qualify.  Neil Young did albums where the entire album focused on a certain style - folk, country, rock, rockabilly, blues, etc., so they were fairly easy for record store owners to place.  It's way harder when you have one of each on the same album - that's how my albums are - maybe a little bit of everything.  I like albums like that.  Most people don't though.  They don't want the Stray Gators, The Bluenotes, the Shocking Pinks, CSNY, and Crazy Horse all on the same album, I get it.  It's a challenge.  The lesson?  Wait until I have a bunch of similar songs, then release them all on the same album.  People like that better.

So, back to what folk is.  The 2003 mockumentary "A Mighty Wind" really nailed how easy it is to make fun of folk.  I loved this movie.  Laughed my ass off.  It shows how folkies can definitely be "smug", so I know it's not just me who thinks this.  Every stereotype you can think of is covered in a hilarious way.  The music is really good, too.  Even though it features original music that totally pokes fun at the whole genre, they're excellent songs in spite.

It reminds me that when I wrote what I thought was a satire of a country song, "Puttin' Up A Pole Barn," friends of mine who were country fans thought it was actually a really good country song!  You can try to capture the essence of what something is, and in coming up with your own version of it as a parody, it can accidentally become something that seriously qualifies.

Today's folkies will tell you about how much they believe in equality and inclusiveness in the world, while at the same time be very discriminating about who belongs in their folk world.  They are a class of people who might like to think they're plain, but are far from it.  It's a paradox, and they know the meaning of that word, unlike the common man.  Pseudo-intellectual, college-professor types who love NPR and PBS and study music theory are far from the image of the uneducated, hardworking, moonshine-drinking original hillbillies in overalls playing old Irish ballads on homemade fiddles they brought to West Virginia from the old country.  Folk has come a long way.

The bottom line here is, as a young generation x songwriter hitting the open mic and songwriter scene dominated by condescending baby boomer folkies, I was startled by how rudely I was treated by them, and about how consistently they made me feel like I didn’t belong, and subsequently formed a negative stereotype in my mind about them I’ve had ever since.  There are exceptions like Joel Mabus, who has a great sense of humor and went out of his way to be cool to me, and I realize stereotyping is mostly a terrible thing to ever do.  In subtle ways, however, most let me know I wasn't allowed in their club, despite my aspirations and efforts.  The Mighty Wind movie proves I'm not the only one who thinks those folks take themselves way too seriously and need to lighten up!

I’m a purist when it comes to some things, and I’m guilty of not always maintaining an open mind to change, and I occasionally end up sounding like a grumpy old man.  For example, I love the sport of Tennis, and to me it is a shame that people turn perfectly good tennis courts into basketball courts or, even worse: pickleball courts.  So, I’m the Pete Seeger of pickleball.  Times change, trends happen, people plug in, etc.  I love the fact that certain songs become "standards” – which is yet another thing about music that is hard to define.  

I know some of what were once considered folk are now also considered standards.  Oldies, public domain, traditional, unknown authorship, passed on through generations orally (or by recording).  Standing the test of time is a great thing about the oral tradition of folk, and now in the era of recorded music, the same can be said for standards.  Perception is key.  In my mind, when I think standard, I think Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson comes to mind, Dylan too.  In the future, you wonder if any of today’s hip-hop and rap become standards?  Maybe.  What about death metal?  Not as likely, but who knows? 

It's only when you tell the world you have some recorded music available that anyone cares how it’s described.  When you distribute to Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, etc., they want you to classify, categorize, describe, tag, put in some keywords for genres and styles, and this forces you to think about it and realize it’s difficult to explain your own music.  Since it has to be done, you need to think ahead of time about what you sound like, who you sound like, how their music is described, etc.  I don’t really care, and now that I’ve typed though my thoughts about folk and whether my music is or isn’t, I realize I don’t care either way.  

The risk is that the label of folk may make close-minded people immediately dismiss it, and not give it a chance.  For example, when they see it’s described as folk, they might instantly write it off as a genre they don’t like, and automatically think of Pete Seeger or the Kingston Trio, and then not ever try it out.  Rock fans would never then learn that I’m far from artists like them, like way less hokey-pokey or kumbaya-ish, and instead have way more rock in there.  You don’t want people to be turned off and get the wrong idea before giving it a fair shake.

So, yeah, wrapping up the mightily long-winded read here, as a music fan, popularity that endures is what is most appealing to me, regardless of genre, and if people describe it as folk, that’s fine by me.  If people describe my music as folk, this too is fine by me.  If people don’t think I belong being associated with folk, also fine by me.  I mostly play an acoustic guitar, I’m American, I like to have bass and drums in my music too, I’m influenced by roots music, whatever that means to you.  To end with a quick pun, I probably won’t revisit the folk topic again, so I’m not going to fret it any more.