Monday, April 22, 2024

When the Cream Don't Rise, Is it Time to Kill the Cow?

Popularity, Deezer Deletions and New Weird America Preservation

I recently discovered that Deezer removed the following albums from their platform:

  • Cherchez La Femme
  • Used To Be Good Looking
  • Rest Assured
  • Bluebird Days II
  • Lockdown Leftovers

That's almost half my catalogue.  Entire albums of mine, without warning, for no apparent reason, gone.

You would think that as a French streaming company, they would've at least chosen to keep Cherchez La Femme!  They said au revoir.  I've heard it's really hard to find music on their service and that their software est nul.

They recently changed their logo to a purple heart.  To me, this represents me being wounded by them, my music being killed by them, while serving the music community with my music, my battle for popularity lost, my heart broken.  C'est la vie.  When I went to Paris once, little French children pointed at me, laughed, and made pig snorting noises and "moo" cow noises, presumably due to my appearance.  Oui, I was an overweight, loud American tourist, probably wearing cargo shorts and a baseball hat.

My immediate reaction is to never recommend Deezer to anyone, but I'm about to distribute another album to them.  I guess they might choose to keep it around, like maybe for a year, and if it doesn't get streamed enough, they'll just delete it.

It got me thinking about how a part of my motivation to release my music is that I want it to be around after I'm not anymore.  How to leave a legacy so future generations can discover and enjoy it?  That's the next question.  I'm sure great works of art have been destroyed permanently throughout history, many of them by the French.  Get enough attention in your lifetime, and your painting winds up in the Louvre.  Posthumous attention is rare, and I'll admit it:  my music is not museum-quality.

Who is behind this?  Greedy major record labels.  They lost some power and control after independent online music distribution became possible, and they desperately want it back.  A glass-half-full Scott Cooley would say "at least they still offer Bluebird Days, Missing the Boat, Sense of Belonging, Drive Time Companion, Lakeside Landing, and Moon Dreams."  Maybe I should consider myself lucky that those albums met their threshold of 1000 streams per year, or however they make such decisions, and remain on their precious platform.

Consider this:  You're at a funeral for someone you knew well, a friend or family member, and you hear their spouse say they wrote songs their whole life but never recorded them.  The only person who ever heard them was the spouse.  You liked the person and now wish you and everyone else could've heard those songs.  You wish you could've heard the person perform the songs they'd written, but also, you wish you could continue to listen to them.  Even the spouse who heard them wishes they could continue to hear them.  You'd like to hear what their singing voice was like, what their instrument playing sounded like, what the melodies and lyrics of their songs sounded like.

It's the classic "when a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, did it make a sound?" scenario.  Then you can get into physics and talk about measuring observers and observing measurers, and cats.  Did it happen, did it exist?  Time, space, light, lines, particles, etc.

You're happy to hear that they enjoyed the hobby, of course.  You know that creative pursuits give the creators great joy while creating them.  You would have the same interest if you learned they had some other hobby.  If the now-deceased person painted paintings or took photographs or made pottery or clothes, you'd like to see them.  If they wrote poems or novels, you'd like to read them.  You wish you would've known about this personal, private, secret thing they did.

Then you have to consider that they kept it private because they did it solely for the enjoyment they got out of it, and never needed or wanted anyone else to enjoy it.  Maybe they didn't think it was good enough for anyone else to enjoy.

It's easier than ever to make your creative content publicly available for the world to consume because of the world wide web.  Upload your recorded music, your e-book, your art, your photos, your words, and let the world either buy them or enjoy them for free.  Type up your life story, or record a video of yourself explaining your life story.  It's all inexpensive if not free and easy to do, especially for intangible items that can exist as electronic files.

With physical objects like furniture or sculptures, maybe the surviving spouse or other descendants will enjoy/use them, sell them, or simply give them away.

It's wonderful to have in your possession a creative work of someone you were close to.  A reminder of your memories of the person, it can be comforting and inspiring.

I think those two things are the essence of what I hope for with my music.  That people will be able to get comfort from it and be inspired to be creative in their lives.  If they knew me, it might also have the benefit of reminding them of things I did or said when they spent time with me.

The benefits of music include improving memory and improving mood.  It can help reduce stress too.  I want people to get these benefits from being able to enjoy my music.

If I want my music to be available for people to get these benefits from it, I have options, but unfortunately, they cost a little money.  It seems like streaming is the way people are going to enjoy music well into the future, and that turns out to be the least expensive way to make it available.

Therefore, I distribute to the streaming services.  I want people to be able to tell their Siri/Google/Alexa speaker to play some Scott Cooley and have it work.  So I need to be on Apple Music, YouTube Music, and Amazon Music for that to be possible.

I have a website, but it costs a little money to keep it up and running.  Free places to stream music like Bandcamp or Soundcloud are limited, might not remain free, and might not stay around due to lack of profitability.

There are trends of change with the streaming service providers having way too much music available.  There are cost-cutting efforts being made to reduce how much music is available, and the only thing they have to go on is popularity.  Deezer is one such streaming service, and they recently removed several of my albums, without warning, and presumably because they weren't popular enough.

The question I have is what if the music on those albums suddenly saw a surge of popularity elsewhere, would Deezer reinstate or re-enable them?

My guess is the files are gone forever already.  They removed my albums because they had not been listened to enough within the span of a year or something like that.

Just as with Tain Bo Cuailnge, which in Irish mythology was a story about the "driving-off of the cows of Cooley," the streaming services are putting me out to pasture.

Photo of the statue of Donn Cuailnge by Eric Jones

The bottom line is if your song doesn't get streamed enough - up to some predefined threshold such as 1000 streams per year - then no royalty payments will be issued.  This was a recent Spotify decision, and the other services will likely follow suit.

Now, as is the case with Deezer, if your song doesn't get streamed enough, they remove it.  If items don't sell in a store, they go on sale at least in an attempt to liquidate the inventory.  They call this "decluttering" to be a part of their "artist-centric" model, which means increase the market share for artists whose songs are already popular enough.

The writing is on the wall for independent artists like me who don't do anything to promote, publicize, market, or advertise their music.  Unless we spend more time on those things, our music will be removed.  Gone forever.  Preservation is reserved for the popular.  Maybe this is how things have always been in the grand scheme.  I could warn you that if you want to hear my music well into the future, download it now.  I could make it all free and downloadable from, but after I'm dead, no one will want to pay the domain fee.

I don't necessarily want my music to be popular, I mainly just want it to be available and discoverable.  I know it's not the type of music that is likely to ever get really popular anyway.  However, if you think of all the musicians and songwriters in the 60s who were inspired by the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music, or whatever that was called, and the great music they created as a result, you're glad someone went to the trouble to preserve those songs.  Even though those songs were varied and strange and not likely to ever be popular.

I'm a part of the New Weird America, if you want to call it that.  I guess we have the Internet Archive as a potentially viable option, but Soundcloud is already doing whatever they can to monetize, and I'm sure Bandcamp will too.  In other words, even the once-free places for independent artists to share their music won't remain free.  Purging and decluttering is inevitable for all the streaming platforms.

The cream shall rise to the top, I guess.  I lived during a time when my music could exist publicly and commercially and be findable and playable.  These times, they are a-changin'.

But when the cream doesn't rise, is it time to kill the cow?  Got milk?  There’s this idiom most of us have heard before – at least I think it’s an idiom – that the cream rises to the top.  Unless you’re in the dairy business, you probably don’t fully understand it, but nonetheless you get the gist that the best at something eventually get recognized.  There’s another saying we’ve all heard some version of before that some who are not the cream “don’t know when to quit.”  There’s a lot to be said for not giving up.  We sometimes admire these people, while at the same time feel sorry for them.  Finally, we’ve heard the phrase “quitters never win,” which also has great merit.

Throughout history, there have been great stories of successful people who failed miserably numerous times on their way to success.  Maybe as a songwriter, I’m one of them, but probably not.  More likely, I’m one of the lower forms of dairy in the world of music.  There are people who pronounce the word “milk” as “melk,” and as my sister likes to point out, those who take it a step lower and pronounce a variation of “melk” as “mewk,” both rhyming with the word “elk”.  My music is more like mewk, if you’re comparing it to categories of word mispronunciation.

People generally tend to be pretty good at things they enjoy, and inversely enjoy things they’re pretty good at, but that’s not always the case.  Someone has to lose, someone has to be bad or mediocre, otherwise we couldn’t have the winners and those among the best.  Not everyone can be great.  Some try hard and improve, find a niche, become supporting role players vital to teams.  The world needs the people who are not very good at something, but are passionate about it and do it anyway.

When it comes to songwriting, playing instruments, singing, and making music, I’m one of them, but I’m not in a band, I’m a self-contained solo artist.  I know I’m probably a little better at the songwriting part, but have never had the guts to move to Nashville and pitch my songs to great artists to record.  There’s a ton of competition out there, as most are somewhat aware of, just like there are lots of people writing movie scripts who have not dared to move to Hollywood.

Places like these are full of people with similar unfulfilled dreams.  People who eventually gave up.  People who maybe found a way to stay connected to the thing they were passionate about, perhaps finding work in the business side of the industry instead of the creative side.  People with day jobs who enjoy being immersed in the scene.  Places like Nashville have seen many come and fail and leave, returning to their less exciting home towns with their tails between their legs.

I come from a place where the people who are really in their element and fit in are people who love playing golf and fixing up old cars.  Punk rockers, rappers, and people who like to run in road races too.  The one guy I idolized most from these parts was Mark Farner, not the best songwriter, singer or guitar player in the world, but a guy who was confident and passionate and in the right place at the right time to live the dream of becoming a rock star in the band Grand Funk Railroad, and people around here like me lived vicariously.

The cream rises to the top naturally, separating from the rest of the milk to form a layer at the top.  It’s considered to be higher quality.  It happens in the music business.  Most people agree that Bob Dylan is a good songwriter, that Elvis, Aretha and Robert Plant were good singers, that the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were good bands, that Jimi Hendrix was a good guitar player, etc.

Homogenization artificially applies intense heat and pressure to make the fat mix into the milk so that it doesn’t separate naturally.  Artists signed to major corporate record companies concerned with profit are subjected to homogenization, which makes all of the music the same.  It can’t be stopped or changed.

Skim milk doesn’t come from skimming it off the top, but rather, letting it drain out the bottom.  You would think unsigned independent artists without being subjected to homogenization would be able to rise naturally, but with all the competition out there, most become skim.  They play a vital role in the music business by making others look better by comparison.

You would think in today’s world in which music is streamed online that cream would occur naturally.  There’s always been marketing, and payola, and now the record companies pay for the appearance of popularity via fake streams, likes, follows, etc. because they know it begets actual popularity.

Consumers of music need tastemakers and curators and marketing for discovery.  If it already appears to be popular, they’re more likely to give it a test listen to see if they might like it or not.  There’s just way too much music already in existence to ever try it all out in a lifetime.  The web offers great recommendation engines and artificial intelligence.

AI is actually creating its own fake music now that sounds a lot like real music.  Gone are the days when you went to see a bunch of bands and decided which you like best, but you can still get recommendations from friends and/or strangers who are like-minded music fans.

Talentless average Joes like me can add their music to the vast ocean of what’s available to find and enjoy, and never make back the amount it took for them to distribute it online.  This is maybe more like powdered milk for people who are really hard up to pour something on their bowl of cereal but have run out of real milk.  You have to make it yourself out of desperation, and you have no AI, no money for playlist marketing or fake streams.  You hope for simple, organic, natural rising to the top.  

When no rising occurs over a long period of time, maybe it’s time to kill the cow and cook the meat to get by.  Stop producing milk no one discovers or likes.  You enjoy the process of writing and recording, and that’s why you do it, but you know it’s not anywhere close to what you choose to listen to as a music consumer yourself.  It’s not that you were completely unaware of your limitations like some of the terrible contestants on the TV talent shows, you’ve known all along you’re not great at any aspect, but you like doing it anyway.

Maybe it was better in the days of old when the gatekeepers at those big record companies would never allow the average joe’s music to be heard in the first place.  Affordable home recording equipment, including computers, plus the world wide web changed all that.  

There’s no shortage of music in the world now, nobody’s ever out of milk for their cereal.  Very little barrier to entry now, but is that better for the consumers of music in the world?  Probably not.  It’s likely we’d be better off with more evaporated milk, condensing out the skim music like mine that waters everything down.

Humor is one way to separate yourself from the rest, and it’s a little easier to get recognition with anything that gets attention like controversy, swearing or humor.  There isn’t much room for humorous music though.  And if you’re like me, you never went all-in with it like Tenacious D or Steel Panther or Spinal Tap or Weird Al Yankovic who all turned it into a cash cow.  

People remember my funny songs the most, so maybe that’s my form of natural cream, but it’s not what I want to be remembered for.  I have too many serious songs I’m proud of in my catalog.  The few people out there who’ve bothered to check out any of my music, however, only seem to remember Horseshit and Fudge (Mackinac Island), unfortunately.

Even though I’ve always been cautious to not appear to be someone who thinks they’re better than they really are, I’ve nonetheless had great audacity in releasing my music on the web alongside the greats.  

What was I thinking?  Did I really think anyone would find it and like and recommend it?  Yeah, sort of, I guess a little part of me did, or I wouldn’t have done it.

Now, with a couple decades of trying and failing under my belt, and another album that I think is one of my best on the way, maybe I'll end on a high note before the inevitable slaughter.  Some of my music is still out there, and more is on the way.  Drink it in while you can.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Home Recording The Scott Cooley Way - My Method in 2024

Things.  I basically do two things:  1)  write songs;  and 2)  record them.  Well, I also 3)  release them publicly.  If anything at all, it's the third thing that makes the content of this blog potentially interesting.  If I just wrote and recorded songs that no one ever heard, it wouldn't make as much sense to write about doing those things.  It was more interesting earlier in my "career" because I was among the first wave of DIY artists to release home-recorded CDs on Amazon and downloads on iTunes back in the days when such things first became possible.  Now, of course, everyone and their brother has things like a computer, a microphone, an audio interface, and a little money to distribute through an aggregator to the streaming services without the need for a record label contract.  Since my last public release of music in 2022, as has been the case for over 20 years now, I've continued to write and record.

I'm getting ready to release another album soon.  The target "drop" date is June 21st - my birthday - as usual, and I'll probably include 13 songs, again as usual.  Every two years I weed out about half the songs I write, record the rest, and I typically record a song in about an hour.  So it's not like it takes me a ton of time to record an album - it could be done in a couple days, but I spread it out as free time allows.  I usually average writing about one song per month, but they come in spurts.

I generally write a song and then record a first take on my phone's audio recorder app with just my voice and acoustic guitar.  Then if after listening back to those first takes I like them, I record them on my computer and add additional parts.

The phone recorder app is easily scrollable and shows the record dates organized by month.  Looking back at my writing/recording productivity since the last album released in June 2022, here's how it broke down:

  • Jul. 2022:  Wrote two, only recorded one of them
  • Aug. 2022:  Wrote two, recorded both
  • Oct. 2022:  Wrote one, recorded it
  • Apr. 2023:  Wrote six, recorded all of them
  • Aug. 2023:  Wrote two, recorded both
  • Oct. 2023:  Wrote two, recorded both

So, this time around, I only weeded out one, and that gave me 12 songs recorded since the last album, within the last two years, but I haven't written any since October of last year.  I have several recorded that were previously weeded out, so I'll be choosing one of them to include...unless I write & record more between now and June.

Evidently, there was no activity in Sept. 2022, then a huge gap of 5 months time between Nov. 2022 to March 2023 with no activity, then another 3 month gap in May/June/July of 2023, another no activity month in September 2023, then nothing in about the last 6 months.

I don't know why I wait 2 years between albums, and I don't know why I choose 13 as the number of songs on my albums, but as you can see, it just sort of works out that way.

I usually have way more to choose from in a 2-year span of time, so I'm a little nervous about that. Also, I usually weed out way more of my first takes on the phone, and never record digital multitrack versions of them.  You might think the song quality will suffer as a result, but one never knows.  I like to keep a low bar for myself, yet it feels like my hurdles have been higher this time around the track.

The writing may take only a few minutes per song, but sometimes I'll recycle old scraps of lyrics, and sometimes I'll sit on musical ideas for a while, so there can be a long span until finalized.  Then I really do crank out the recording part fast once I have a finalized song ready to go.  Obviously, I'm not a perfectionist.  I just like to keep things fresh, get each song recorded close to how I imagine it sounding, get 'er done, then move on to the next.

How do I record my songs so quickly?  How do I get the sound I get when recording in my little home "studio"?  What order do I do things in when recording?  What equipment and software do I use?

The short answer is I have a desk in a spare bedroom now in my house, and on it is a computer, a small midi keyboard, and a small audio interface that allows for software insert effects.  On a shelf above it are two small speakers, a single microphone and a printer.  Next to my desk is an acoustic guitar.  That's it.  I use software for everything else.  Pretty simple and low footprint.

Most people wouldn't want the Scott Cooley sound, but people have asked me how I do it over the years.  I am completely self-taught.  How you record can be thought of by some people as almost being like a proprietary trade secret.

I don't mind sharing my approach, but the overall sound I get is probably well below the level of quality anyone else would want to strive for.  Also, it's important to note that my approach has evolved over the years, and there are always variations depending on the song.

As a home recording person who does everything alone with zero training, I've just figured out through trial and error what works for me.  That, and reading the user guide and/or online help that comes with the DAW software.  I've googled how to do things, watched a couple youtube how-to videos, and learned from a few online forums too.

If curious at all, you might like to know this abbreviated sequential list of steps that I usually follow:

  1. turn on the metronome in the DAW and set it to desired click tempo
  2. while listening to that in one headphone with the other off my ear, record the rhythm guitar track into a microphone clean, angled from neck to soundhole about 6 inches away
  3. record a scratch vocal track into a mic, clean, while listening to the rhythm track with one earphone off, so I can hear my own voice too
  4. record bass track, used to always do a mic'd acoustic, but sometimes a direct electric bass, and more recently, just play a MIDI keyboard, tried a mic'd amp w/ electric, but never got good results, and the DI electric into audio 1/4 input can have bass eq/comp and/or bass amp sim plugin with mixed results, the keyboard way offers the best sonic quality so far, but this one is always a challenge to get a good sound
  5. record kick, then snare, then toms, then hat, then crash each separately, all with midi keyboard and virtual sounds, used to mic a djembe and use a nylon brush on a snare various mics, but virtual on keys is my preferred method now
  6. record percussion - tambourine, shaker, etc. into mic if desired, also mic'd congas/bongos if desired, or cowbell ocasionally (never enough)
  7. mix the drums, muting other tracks, adjusting volume and pan for each, doing the kick centered, each of other panned wider as desired
  8. mix the bass volume to fit in with the drums, panned center
  9. mix the rhythm guitar to fit with the bass while muting rest
  10. record backing vocals, usually 2 takes, then pan L & R
  11. record lead vocal, with large diaphram condenser, usually takes many tries, then I pick the best, I've comped before, but prefer do-overs until I get it as good as I can all the way through in one take
  12. record lead acoustic guitar into mic, doing intros, fills, instrumental break solos, outros, etc. as desired
  13. apply effects processing to each track, and by this I usually mean EQ, but sometimes a little compression, and sometimes reverb.  I have presets and saved scripts for a lot of these, and I usually leave the bass and kick pretty clean.
  14. mix down to stereo wav, listen on speakers, car speakers, etc, take notes, then return to make volume/pan adjustments (pre-mastering)
  15. master the wave with some overall eq/compression - again, I have some saved scripts I run for these
  16. done!

That's generally "how" I do it, but here's "what I use" to do it with:

I used to do all of the above in Adobe Audition v.3.1, then I tried Cakewalk for a while for just the recording part only because it was free and supported the new MIDI keyboard I purchased, and now I use Logic for just the recording part and some of the effects, then bounce and export/import into Adobe Audition for the mixing and mastering still.  I still love Adobe Audition because it has outstanding noise reduction features that just don't exist in other DAWs, and these are necessary when recording everything into microphones from real instruments, and the mastering tools are also on par with out-of-box Logic or even Ozone, which I've also experimented with.

I've purchased and experimented with about 5 or 6 different microphones over the years - dynamics, condensers small and large, but have now replaced them all with a Townsend which has simulation settings to make it sound like any mic, and integrates well with my Universal Audio Apollo interface and Logic.

I've purchased and experimented with about 4 different audio interfaces over the years - a Roland, a Focusrite, a Tascam, but now replaced them all with a UA Apollo Twin lightning bolt.

For years, I used a Dell running Windows 7, and still use it for mastering with the Adobe Audition, but now I use an iMac with Logic for the recording steps.

I've had two MIDI keyboards, but the one I use now is a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol because it integrates really well with Logic.  It's the smallest one they make, and has software that lets you play a piano or organ chord with a single key, and also to make the keys sound like drums, bass, etc.

The Mac/Logic/Townsend/Apollo/Komplete is the ultimate setup for me, it all plays well with each other and makes things efficient and easy.  If Logic had good noise reduction, it might replace the need for Adobe Audition, but I also have all these batch scripts that run customized effects processing sequences I created in there, so that's a big time-saver.  Spent hours of my life A/B testing them all 'till I found combinations I liked, so I keep the AA for now until my old Dell dies on me, then I'll have to consider other options.  There are so many options in Logic I've never even tried, so might experiment in there further someday, but I like my process the way it is for now.

I have a Fender Jazz bass, which I love playing but hardly ever use anymore for recording, and a bass amp that is totally unnecessary, and a Martin HD-28 acoustic that is too bassy/boomy, but still great.  I have a Takamine non-upright acoustic bass guitar, but hardly ever use it anymore.  I have several electric guitars, a multi-effects pedal board, and an amp.  Similar to the various ways to record electric bass, I never seem to get a good electric sound no matter what I try, and I just prefer the sound of an acoustic.  However, it's fun to crank it up to 11 sometimes and jam.  I have the percussion stuff, the bongos, a set of Hohner special 20 harmonicas, a ukulele, and a hawaiian weissenborn for acoustic slide playing, and still have the old snare drum, the djembe, and cymbal I used to use.  Small JBL monitors and Sony MD headphones.  Oh yeah, I've got my wife's marimba I record with quite a lot too.  I've borrowed my friend's mandolin a couple times, but just can't get into it due to fat fingers.

Now, I've evolved to not needing much to get the sound I get.  I pretty much do songs with the full (acoustic) rock band treatment with only my voice, my Martin acoustic, and my keyboard for the bass, drums, piano, etc., so almost all in-the-box now.  All the other crap is in the basement storage now, awaiting my death after which my nephew will likely take it all to his basement and possibly use and/or sell some of it.

As you can hear with my studio recordings, I don't use many effects at all, just some EQ on most tracks a little reverb on the vocal.  I like to keep it clean, real and acoustic sounding, even though I've embraced virtual instruments.  No racks of hardware, no preamps, nothing like that.  It's all done in the software.  Everyone says I should use a preamp, but the ability to do "on the way in" insert effects on my Apollo interface combined with the virtual microphone simulation and insert channel strip effects on my Townsend mic negate the need for one.

Where the magic happens:  My dusty home studio 

You can see earlier incarnations of it here:  I don't like a cluttered room.  No room treatment either.  I do also have one of those acoustic foam things behind my microphone, but I don't know that it makes any difference or not. I don't really have any desire to add any equipment or software for recording.  As long as nothing breaks, I have everything I need and want already.  Took a long time to arrive here, a lot of trying out different things to see how they sound, a lot of mistake making and learning, and quite a bit of money.

Future Plans Beyond This Year:  My next thing will be to try to get a good electric guitar sound with software only and just directly plugging it into the audio interface.  I'm not much of a fingerstyle player, and realize the types of songs I write would probably lend themselves well to being electric guitar rock songs instead of acoustic.  Also, I can now appreciate the value in releasing singles - so I might try the staggered release of one song at a time approach in the future.  For the few fans out there who enjoy my music, and crave hearing more, they wouldn't have to wait as long to get their fix.