Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Weirdness of DIY

Hey there 5 followers! Hopefully this post finds you well.

This week, I'm going to ramble on about what the DIY revolution means to music publishing and songwriting.

As traditional publishing gets weirder and tries to retain their "members only" mentality, the Do-It-Yourself path becomes a more and more viable option for the contemporary is not without its dark side, however.

What Traditional Gatekeepers Did

Before computer recording was ubiquitous, if the songwriter wanted to get a professional-sounding recording of their song, they needed to lay down a fairly sizable chunk of cash at their local recording studio. This was a rather high hourly rate that would pay for the tracking room, the audio engineer, the tape and the musicians. To ensure that they would not waste the studio's time or their money, the songwriter, ideally, would have thought about the arrangement, made accurate chord charts, and have attended a few rehearsals to run through the song with the musicians. If you were trying to do ANY of those things during the recording session, you were lighting money on fire.

So there were some barriers to entry for even being able to book the session: you needed to have the song written, arranged, charted and rehearsed, and you had to have the cash to book the session.

Usually, before it got to this point, you would have first played the song for your family and friends (who of course loved it, because they wanted to be supportive, while keeping their TRUE opinions to themselves) and hopefully, you would have played the song for complete strangers and had a good enough response to justify the studio expense.

If you were in one of the "Major Songwriting Markets," it was a little different. Normally you would try to get a meeting with a music publishing company to get some HONEST, professional feedback on the new "Hotel California" you've just written.

If you weren't that great, and you still needed to learn about the craft of writing songs that they might be interested in someday, they would tell you to join NSAI or the Songwriter's Guild, or some other organization that could help you to learn what publishers were actually looking for in songs.

If you showed a glimmer of hope, like maybe you understood how songwriting was supposed to work, but you hadn't written enough songs yet, they would refer you to a performing rights society like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC, and tell you to go talk to the songwriting liaison there.

If you had written a song that was head and shoulders above everything they had heard in the last week or two, they would offer you a single-song contract and continue your relationship professionally. At this point, they would either record a demo to play for producers and artists, or start pitching the song directly.

So all of those are Gate Keepers. Their job is to weed out the people who aren't ready and only let the obviously talented through to the next step.

There are obvious benefits to doing things this way:

First, you eliminate the junk that is 95% of people trying to make music.

Second, you have a tiered, ladder-style system that can allow the untalented to develop their craft.

Third,  songwriters can focus on the thing they SHOULD be focusing on: SONGWRITING. They do not need to be concerned with recording equipment or techniques of mic placement and such. They are able to devote themselves with limited distraction to their craft, and become better by WRITING GOOD SONGS.

But there are also problems. Chief among them is that corporate executive-types become the arbiters of cultural taste. I don't really want business people deciding that "good" is equivalent to "sell-able."

Also, it is entirely possible to discourage those that need encouragement and encourage those that need to speak.

The Do-It-Yourself Revolution

Computers have changed everything about music publishing, except in the rarefied air of major-label recording contracts. Now you can buy recording software for about the same price as it used to cost us to record in a nice recording studio for a few hours. Instead of jumping through the hoops of trying to land a publishing deal or a recording contract, you can spend some time recording in your bedroom and immediately upload your song, EP or "Album" (for lack of a better word) to iTunes.

Legitimately talented artists that are a little too avant-garde  for the mainstream record labels can find an audience directly through small tours and nicely designed websites.

But has all this new found freedom come at a cost? While I admit, there has never been a time in the history of the world when it has been easier to self-publish your own music, I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. True, there is more music than ever available for us to consume, but at the same time, it also means that there has never before been as much terrible music to wade through.

And while in the former music business model, the artist was able to concentrate on being an artist, now the creative personality-type has to wear many more hats. Just to compete with the status quo, the independent musician must be the producer, engineer, manager, and booking agent all at the same time. Before, there were people whose job it was to be an Audio Engineer and that was their focus, to make instruments and voices sound good as an aggregate. Now those who can make their living as a dedicated Audio Engineer are becoming fewer and farther between. Same with producers, managers and agents.

In order to be successful, you are going to have to separate yourself from the chaff. So how are you going to rise above the 98% of the junk that is out there?

Here's what I propose: start a songwriting community in your area. get together once a week with other songwriters and critique each other's latest songs. Be nice, but don't pull your punches either. Then write and write and write.  Keep improving your craft...focus on writing. Learn what good songs are. Improve your understanding with every song.  After you've done that for a while, only record and distribute the ones that are GREAT.

This Week: 

I've been trying to figure out what to do with my positive song...I think I need to re-record it at a faster tempo and do a quick re-write to get it closer to what I actually mean...not much time, though, I've got to get it in by the 20th or something.

Kris Kristofferson
Guy Clark 
Darrell Scott
Jeff Black

I've also been producing, engineering and playing instruments on a new 5 song recording project!

Stay tuned!

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

...Masonite Telecaster?

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