Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Intersection of Art and Commerce

I've been thinking a lot about this particular topic lately.

At first glance, it would seem that it has to do with the ability for art to be sold, but it goes way beyond that. Can true artists expect to make a living in the DIY age? Can musicians, and songwriters in particular, be expected to be able to survive after the music business as we knew it has ceased to be?

One of the first things that has to be grappled with is the idea of, don't go all Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) on me and wind up in the laughing academy for thinking about this...but pondering the question "What does Quality mean?" is extremely useful and will teach you volumes about what kind of artist you are, and about what kinds of art you want to make. Obviously, you have to keep yourself from disappearing down the rabbit hole forever, because the questions you start asking are have ambiguous answers that only lead you to more and more questions (that also have no real answer)...and so on.

So here we go: what is Quality? Is there QUALITY inherent certain pieces of art that cause them to be universally accepted as such?  That's the trap Mr. Pirsig fell into, I think, because he assumed there was SOMETHING that all great art has that is so OBVIOUS to anyone that experiences it they automatically can tell the Quality art from the Shitty art. I can already tell that you're way ahead of Mr. Pirsig, because, obviously, that kind of inherent "goodness" doesn't exist...even art that is in high popular esteem is hated by SOMEONE. The inverse, of course, is also that is popularly hated is loved by SOMEBODY.

Basically, Quality comes from what YOU (as the receiver) bring to it.  You bring your tastes, your experience, you relate the art that is before you in the present to art that has lived up to your definition in the past. The relativity of Quality.

Never has this been more apparent than in the current popular music scene. It becomes really strange when the entire focus of a particular style of art becomes DRIVEN by commerce. In the music industry, only those songs that record companies thought they could SELL would be recorded and marketed. When there is huge money to be made, there tends to be a watering-down of what I would call "True Art." Naturally, I probably have to define what I mean by that....from the above definition of "Quality,"
you can tell that I have my work cut out for me...but here goes anyway:

Something is "True Art" (to me) if: it is something that is consistent with my own internal quality compass independent of its commercial viability.

When a definition is worded in this way, it is changeable. Your definition probably changes as your  experience or education or mood changes. Finally, the point of my post: there are songs that sell millions of copies that I would claim are not congruent with my personal definition. And here's the rub: in the town in which I've chosen to live,  there is a certain credibility lent to songs that have been recorded and had some success whether they have met the "True Art" definition or not. It's as if some of these songs are somehow imbued with QUALITY having made it through the publishing, pitching, holding, recording, releasing, and charting phases of the hit-making processI don't think so. If a song does not fit within the bounds of my "Quality" defintion, it deserves to be treated as a waste of time.

That is why I tend to drift towards artists that are internally consistent. Artists that are TRYING to make ART. Artists that are walking in their own definition of quality. Artists like Lyle Lovett,  James McMurtry, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, John Prine, Willis Alan Ramsey, Jason Isbell, Joe Pug...and lots more...

I guess the lesson is be internally consistent. Know what YOU mean by quality. Don't think a song is a quality song just because it has been cut...or even because it has had chart success....and make sure that when you are writing, you are trying to write things that fit within the bound of your definition of quality...write songs because you have to, not because you think there's going to be a huge payoff waiting for you someday if you find the magic song success formula...

Just write and keep advancing your quality until you are proud of what you're doing (or at least don't hate it so much...).

...And I think you will be rewarded...somehow...

...and even more obviously, I've only answered one(?) question from the beginning of this post....much more to talk the state of the music business and the problems and benefits of the DIY revolution...and how that all relates to the problem of "Quality."

oh! and it seems like I'm avoiding the intersting and seemingly Buddhist cosmological dichotomies that beg the questions, "but Seth, aren't the people writing these lame songs that end up selling zillions of records operating from their own definition of "Quality," and therefore, by your definition, they would be internally consistent and therefore, true art?" about quality as not being measured by dollars....please...


This week:

Finished recording a song of mine that I've recorded like 3 times in the past...but this time I think I got it!
Lee Clayton
The Band
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Jerry Jeff Walker
B.W. Stevenson
Rodney Crowell
ubuntu  11.04 natty narwhal

Sunday, April 10, 2011

...About Talent

OK. I'm sure you've heard it: "You are so talented. I would never be able to do that."

If someone says that to me, I am always humble and thank them for saying such an apparently nice thing, but I never get to reveal what I truly think of "talent."

Allow me to do that here...talent is BS.  I do not have ANY "inherent" talent to write songs or to play guitar or to sing. I do, however, have a high frustration tolerance when it comes to those things...and that's actually how I would define "talent" --the capacity to work through the frustrations associated with learning how to do something....that's all.  The person that pays the complement definitely has the ABILITY to be as good as ANYONE on the guitar, as good as ANYONE at singing, as good as ANYONE at writing songs....

Obviously, I am a HUGE believer in human potential.  EVERYONE has the ability to do ANYTHING. I think it's a matter of what you focus on and what your frustration tolerance is.  Think about it: a lot of people like the IDEA of playing the guitar, but few have the patience to do the work to become great.  Most people try guitar for a while, even learn a few songs, but as soon as they encounter something that tests their ability to WORK THROUGH DIFFICULTY, they bail. Sometimes they move to a different instrument, sometimes they abandon music altogether. Sometimes they find something that turns them on so much, they are able to work through the unique obstacles associated with that new interest: software engineering, finance, guitar building.

I had that happen with calculus. I met with something that was difficult and my patience was at an end...and I had no capacity to push through the discomfort of the difficulty. So I bailed. I had had enough. I chose to seek other ways to test my patience.

Maybe "talent" is just personal taste.  Can  you develop "talent" that you currently have no capacity for? I think you can.

Let's say I think it would be useful and gratifying to learn calculus so that I can better my life and the life of my family. I can use the mental picture of what being good at calculus is to me to fuel my study and give me the strength to push past all the difficult roadblocks I will encounter on my path to calculus greatness. As long as I can keep my goal in mind, I can train myself to take on and work through more and more frustration.

In your songwriting, what are you aiming for? I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to be able to write. I am always measuring myself against my heroes. Constantly working my way up the Olympus that is the Guy Clark/Townes Van Zandt/Steve Earle/James McMurtry/Lyle Lovett standard. That's the other thing: I know it's pretty much impossible to reach anything approaching the accomplishments of my heroes...but the pleasure is not to be found in the achieving, but in the TRYING.

This week:

The Silmarillion
Recorded a cover of a John Hartford tune
Remixed two of my tunes
Received Jason Blume's Critique on Jodi's song that we recorded last week.
I didn't go to the songwriter's night this week.
Got some good ideas for future songs, wrote them down in my hook book
Hoyt Axton
Buck Owens
The Band
Early Bob Dylan

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Chorus Petal

What is your preferred mehod for writing a chorus? For that matter, what is your preferred method for writing songs in general? Do you write whenever the muse strikes you, or are you more disciplined about it?

There are probably as many ways to write songs as there are writers. There really is no “right” way, there is only “your” way. But by studying the working methods of others and copying some of their methodologies, you might be able to work yourself out of a rut.

This week, I'm going to tallk about how I write and what my process usually drifts towards. Maybe you'll find something useful, maybe you'll think that everything I do would be like putting vise grips on your creativity. If you think what I'm doing sucks, by all means post a comment and share with all three of us your process so that we all might learn from it.

First of all, let me encourage you to keep a book of titles. Whenever you think to yourself “I think that would make a good song title,” write it down in the book. Some people in Nashville like to call this book their “Hook Book.” If not an actual physical one, keep a document specifically for titles in googledocs, or if you are a person that believes that google is swaying more toward the evil side than the good these days, you can use Zoho Writer , or some similar online office application should be just as good. You could even set up an OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Word Document, PDF, textfile and  or other such page in a perpetually synced  folder with Dropbox, so it would always be accessible from any machine you set up Dropbox on. Again, I prefer to leave the thing in online storage because I just want this document to be accessible from any computer, anywhere.

I think my current list of titles has something like 30-40 in it. When I decide to write a song based on one of the titles in this document, and actually finish it, I use the strikethrough option and cross it off.

I work from the title backwards through the song. So, I take the title, and from the title, I usually have a feeling about whether the song will be a verse/refrain or verse/chorus type of a song. If it's a verse/refrain kind of a song, I start thinking about the story I want to tell and try to figure out what kind of a rhyme scheme would set that off the best.

If it's a verse/chorus song, I start to write the chorus. 

...And this is the part that is hard to teach someone, because it's all about taste. 

I remember in a songwriting class in college, the professor (I believe it was Jimmy Kachulis) asked the class why they thought the chorus is called the "chorus" when generally only one person is singing it. I liked his answer: he thought that is was like classical Greek drama.  In ancient Greek drama, the chorus is a group of "homogeneous, non-individualized performers, who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action."  (wikipedia) In other words, the chorus serves to comment on what is going in the play, and often, the chorus provides us with insights about the character's mental state that we wouldn't have through the character's words.  Sometimes, and I think this is the key:  the chorus serves to give voice to the audience...asking questions the audience should be asking here was Jimmy's point: the chorus is called the "chorus" in popular song  because that's the part where the voice of the audience is heard--where the singer is accompanied by the voice of the audience,  functioning like the classical Greek chorus.

That's your job when you write a chorus: to make the audience sing along with it so they will REMEMBER it. How do you do that? There are several ways: 

Writing the chorus is about contrast--in all ways. The harmonic rhythm of the chorus should be different, the harmonic structure should be different, the range should be different. The chorus should be more intense. Generally, the way you make the melody more intense is to put it in a higher register.  Think about that as you're crafting your chorus. Make it catchy, make it memorable. Make it so people can't help but sing along with it. 

Don't be afraid to try EVERYTHING. Do not be inflexible in your conception of what your chorus should be...that way there be dragons.  Try it all. Rewrite the thing so that the hook appears in the first line. Write another version where the hook only appears in the second line. Write a third version where it appears in both the first and last line. Write a fourth version where the hook is repeated over and over again.  Then, let your taste be your guide and go with the one you think is the best...but  only after you have explored all the possibilities.  

Also, keep this in mind- the chorus should be the distillation of what the song is supposed to mean. The chorus should contain the "world view" of the song, and all of your verses (and your bridge, if it comes to that) need to point to the chorus, needs to reinforce it, sometimes casting it in a new light in different verses. Make sure all your verses work well thematically with your chorus. 

Keep a hook book, in some form or other...write some choruses, paying close attention to the above....rewrite your chorus a lot. Make it kick ass.

This week:
Finished recording "Felt Like Flying."
Reading the Silmarillion.
Working on a sound alike recording of a Guy Clark song.
Working on recording one of Jodi's songs so she can get it critiqued tomorrow.
Went to writer's night Saturday....did ok....forgot some words, forgot some chords...but did relatively well. 
Haven't sold my kidneys yet...but I think I'm about to ;-)
Guy Clark
Lyle Lovett
Townes Van Zandt
Tolkien Professor