Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Being Useful

Last night I had the opportunity to be useful-- a surprisingly rare occurrence for most artists and musicians. The act of creating art, despite what most may claim, is largely a selfish, navel-gazing pursuit. We sit in our respective ivory towers, basement rooms or garage studios doodling love letters to ourselves while some people feed the hungry, heal the sick, invent something that makes the planet better.

A fellow musician, Bill Kahler, invited me along with Jeff Silver and Pat Walsh to perform songs in the round at his house last night. There was a very specific goal for the evening: to raise enough money to purchase at least one bicycle for Rwandan coffee farmers. This simple thing, from what I've come to understand, is life changing for these people who must otherwise transport their harvest on their backs sometimes ten or fifteen miles. By the end of the night we raised enough to actually purchase two bikes.

I am increasingly moved by people who find ingenius ways to solve very real, specific problems with very real, specific solutions. I owe thanks to the kind folks who own Land of 1000 Hills Coffee in Roswell. Part of their business supports the non-profit group, Do Good Initiative and without them, I would not have had the chance be a small part of the solution. As an added bonus I got to sing with the lovely and talented Allison Adams who joined me on After All (see video below).

While I'm on the topic of wonderfully specific ideas to change the world, I'd like to shine a light on another recent venture that came to my attention a couple of weeks ago. The BioLite camp stove is a revolutionary invention that makes wood burning fires safer, more efficient and provides a means of generating power to charge USB devices. Another great example of smart people making a good product that people want and need but also makes a better life for people on the other side of the planet. Check out the video below to find out more.

Friday, November 4, 2011

No Really, I Wrote a Novel

Incredible, how time folds in on itself - it's been over a year since I posted a blog.  After the last post about the show I did in Birmingham, I made the decision to take a year off of music and I actually did for the most part.  I had to.  I had worked myself into a corner, entrapped by my own cynicism and bitterness about the music industry and the whole quandary of what it means to be a successful artist - a phrase I was convinced to be an oxymoron.

It was a liberating thing to set it down for a while and to suddenly see an open landscape in front of me.  After a couple of months, I realized there was something in the back of my mind that I had always wanted to do but was too afraid to try.  So I bought a gun, a bottle of Jack Daniels and I went down to the race track...kidding.  I wanted to write a book.  I really didn't think I could stay the course.  I've written all my life, but mostly in the form of a four minute song - a 100,000 word novel is quite a departure.  But I did it.  

I gave myself a year to complete the book.  I started at the end of January and finished at the end of June writing for an hour in the morning before work, an hour during lunch and whatever I could cram in on the weekends between family activities.  I didn't tell anyone around me for a while, dreading the to-be-expected chuckle or eye-roll.  "So, you're writing a novel... riiiiight." I wanted to be sure the bridge could hold my weight before I let anyone else know I was walking out over a new creative chasm.

I have to say it was an awesome ride - a catharsis.  Every time I sat down to write, I completely fell into the story and became the characters.  Like reading a good book, I didn't want it to end.  A lot of that, I believe was the freedom of space - the opportunity to explore depths you just cannot go to in a song.  Since then I've made two editing passes through the manuscript and had a number of friendly readers as well as a couple of critical ones.  So far no one's given me that face - the one with the squinty eyes as if there's the smell of something dead.  I take that as an encouraging sign.

So now, I'm learning the ropes of what it takes to get a book published.  It turns out selling is about the same whether it's wrapping paper, songs, books or software.  I've written a lot of query letters to agents and accepted the obligatory gauntlet of form rejections back, but I've had a couple of requests to read my book which makes me hopeful.  Of the army of literary agents I've researched in recent months, Chris Parris-Lamb is one that stands out as a guy who might really get my book. However it works out, I did the fun part - the part that keeps me going. The rest is gravy.

The working title is WINDY GAP BREAKDOWN.  I'll post an excerpt soon.  In the meantime, I'm playing music again.  I recorded and released a new single Two Shadows and I'm planning my next book. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

My New Road Manager

9:53 pm – Birmingham, Alabama – I’m back in the hotel room after the show tonight where I opened for Jennifer Daniels at a great little listening room called Moonlight on the Mountain. There was a rather sad turnout for the show so it ended up not being much of an “exposure” gig. Under normal circumstances this would ding my confidence and spiral me down into the always fun: what-the-hell-am-I-doing-this-for-nobody-likes-me syndrome, but tonight I had secret weapon and he’s snoring quietly in the bed across the room.

My ten year old, Dylan, made the trip with me from Atlanta and stood in as my road manager, merch guy, cameraman and all around traveling buddy. His presence changed everything. It’s all so new and exciting to him – the hotel keycards, the turned–down sheets on the bed, sound checks, patch cables, merch tables, the green room, the stage lights. Being able to see all of these details through his eyes is a wonderful gift and reminder of how much I typically miss or completely take for granted.

He handled all the money and transactions at the merch table with a complete seriousness and sense of purpose. In between customers he read the latest saga of Artimus Fowl and sipped a bottled water from the green room. He started the video camera when it was time for me to take the stage and held my hand after I got off, making a point to tell me he thought I did a good job. I think I did play well – maybe even better than that because he was sitting out there in the audience in his tucked in button-down shirt and freshly combed hair.

In the dark of the van on the ride back to the hotel he was all talk about the nice man working the door who gave him a free T-shirt promoting a local festival that happened four years ago. In the morning, our plans are pretty clear - we will find a place to have pancakes. It’s really that simple, living. How do I ever manage to convince myself otherwise?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The War on Obscurity: Fighting for Fans in a Facebook World

It’s 6:30am, I’m walking my dog through the sleepy neighborhood still processing the credits from a dream and this process segues into the beginnings of a new song idea. Before I get beyond the first two lines, a familiar voice stirs in the back of my mind with his favorite line of questioning: "Why are you writing another damn song? Who needs another song? Who is going to listen to another song?"

The inspiration bubble bursts, I pull out my iPhone and begin checking my traps. I have increased my Facebook fan list by exactly two since last week. I have squeaked out five new fans on Jango. There are no new Twitter followers this week. The latest video I posted to YouTube has only garnered 54 views. My CD is still pending review at Pandora and nine out of thirteen Radio Paradise listeners think my music is better than a poke in the eye. I could keep going down the list, but you get the idea.

To the uninitiated, being an artist is increasingly more about the hustle than it is about the art - that is unless you write for an audience of one. In 2010, the hustle is a complex and dizzying dance done everyday across an almost infinite number of online services. Never in history have there been more ways to fight obscurity as an artist and never before have we had so many dashboard metrics to measure exactly how invisible we are. Making the rounds to check my stats is like a thousand tiny paper cuts some days.

It’s a very lonely slog, self-promotion, which I find terribly ironic given the fact that there are literally millions of other poor bastards just like me online saying "Hey, look at me!" Of those millions there are thousands who are rare talents. Of those thousands, there are hundreds who are also PR ninjas and of those hundreds there are ten or fifteen who capture the squirrel-brain attention span of the energy-drinking multi-tasking billions in the social cloud who are each struggling to attain their own ten seconds of fame via their last carefully whimsical Facebook status.

How to Buy Fans and Pay to Play

After a couple of weeks of feeding all the hungry little mouths that comprise my online presence, I soon reach my WTF moment and realize that my life is no longer LOLs. All this energy focused on getting my music to the people through the Internet is a bit like trying to charge the US power grid with an AA battery. My Facebook statuses, my Tweets, my email newsletters are just wearing out the handful of friends, family and fans in my line of fire. In short, I need new blood so I set out to find new ways to crop dust the world with my songs. Below is the breakdown of what I discovered in my meanderings. Your mileage may vary.

Jango - Pay a monthly subscription fee and have your songs played to the demographic of your choosing. You can tag a list of other artists that you think are similar to you and have your songs targeted to listeners who like those artists. The more quarters you drop in the machine, the more "spins" you get in one of the many Jango streaming music stations. The hope is that if you pay enough money you can begin to generate "organic" spins, which means people, actually request your music on their own. Despite the undeniable whiff of payola here, it is the most direct service I found that serves the goal of getting your music heard by new people.

Taxi - Pay a yearly subscription fee and receive a list of opportunities you can submit to have your music published, licensed and sold. Of course, there is an additional fee every time you want to actually submit for one of these listings. They do have a panel of experts who critique your songs and let you know why they won’t be forwarding them on to the "hot producer looking for ‘real’ songs" which is a bonus. These guys position themselves as an independent A&R company that gives unsigned artists access to what the record labels are looking for. So what are the record labels looking for? That’s easy: an established, touring artist who can bring out a minimum of 500 people in 3 major markets and has sold at least 10,000 copies of their independent CD - in other words, a sure thing. Note, if you are this artist, you don’t need Taxi because you really don’t even need a record label.

Facebook - You know those annoying ads you see on the right side of your Facebook page? I put one there because I happen to know you are between the ages of 15 and 38, a female who likes Starbucks and a fan of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. It only costs me 25 cents every time you click on it, but hey, maybe you’ll "like" me. Once you "like" me, I can begin to hurl my bits of whimsy and desperate pleas for you to come out to a show or download a new song. That is until you "unlike" me. Copping the auction based advertising model invented by Google, Facebook allows you to exploit the treasure trove of their user database. I ran an ad budget of $8 per day and ran an ad for about three days. I earned 15 new "likes" none of which actually converted into CD sales.

SonicBids - Gone are the days when you could actually talk to another human and send them a CD when you wanted to book a gig. For a yearly subscription fee and a fee between five and thirty dollars every time you submit, you now have the pleasure of tossing your EPK (electronic press kit) into the spam folder of the promoter you used to be able to call up and plead with when you did not get a call back. Not only is it much easier for promoters to completely ignore you, they can actually take your money to do it and book the three artists they always planned to anyway. This one is perhaps the most frustrating of all the online services for musicians because they practically have a monopoly on the independent booking world now. To be considered for the biggest festival or even the smallest slot on a cable access show in nowhere Kansas, you have to go through SonicBids. As an extra bonus, they will spam you within an inch of your life daily.

YouTube - YouTube is now what MTV was to my generation, but multiplied by a factor of a thousand. Anyone can be a star at least for one Twitter cycle. If you want your video to spread like a virus, simply performing a song won’t be enough unless of course you are covering a Kenye West song in the nude, with Manga hand puppets dancing behind you and at some point there is an unfortunate accident where you are injured in some way. Interestingly, the video I posted that has gotten the most views is the one where I talk about "promoting my CD."

Pandora, Radio Paradise, etc. - Good luck. You can submit your music to these wonderful streaming music services for free, but the MP3s you upload are likely to never see a play button. There are simply too many other people who know how to encode an MP3 and click an upload button. Since this is the only barrier to entry, those poor reviewers will never in a thousand lifetimes listen to all that music, much less be able to filter out something they like without some external influence.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

With all this technology, we have completely streamlined the process for delivering, consuming and ignoring music. Put another way, the level of noise out there has made most of us immune to the signal. Promoting my music online for the last few years has underscored one very important fact: people are influenced most profoundly by other real, live human beings. The steady assault of digital media that canvases their daily lives is a fly buzzing in the corner of a gymnasium compared to their best friend calling them up from a coffeehouse where they just heard the most amazing songwriter.

There have been nights where I was that singer in that coffeehouse and I watched as a group of four people grew into a group of twenty. Nothing will ever replace the sweaty, analog delivery of a song from one human to another - everything else is about as hopeful as broadcasting a signal out into space and waiting for a call back. But what choice do most of us really have when faced with the merciless enemy of all artists: obscurity? We will always need a bullhorn and in most cases, someone else to shout into it.

So for all the hype and promise of the Internet being the great equalizer for musicians, it would seem that in most of the important ways, we have traded one middle-man for another. The fat cat record label execs are all but fossils in a museum now and their replacements are automated, faceless online services not unlike lotto machines happy to make the transaction. Someone is still cashing in on the hopes and dreams of musicians, but now they’re able to do it with a much lower profile one "micro-payment" at a time. Step right up kid, just login and I will make you a star.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

5 Records that Changed My Life

I'm not a big list guy, but there is something compelling about distilling a thing of infinite proportions down to a few representative elements. I was inspired by Kim Ruehl's blog post on the same topic as this one -- she has such a great list.  Like most artists, in my youth I took great offense when asked who I sound like.  How could I sound like anyone but me? I am the center of the universe after all.  Now, the older I get the more I realize how little I really know and how profoundly I have been influenced by other artists.  In an attempt to better understand where I come from and how the music I make fits into the larger world I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about my musical DNA.

There are so many other albums I would have liked to included in this list but I think the ones I've chosen here frame me nicely when you step back a few paces. If you get right up close to the canvas, you would see a lot more brush strokes, some old like Sam Cooke and some new like Iron and Wine, but then you might miss the bigger picture. So here they are: 5 records that changed my life.

James Taylor's Greatest Hits (1976) - I'm not too proud to reference the elephant in the room here. Maybe not as hip as Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" but JT is my earliest memory of music. I remember being 10 years old in my older brothers' room with a pair of enormous brown headphones - the kind with the curly cord, singing every song through over and over again. I don't think I chose him anymore than I chose my own mother and father. He was just always there and his voice made a deep imprint on me.

Jackson Browne - Running on Empty (1977) - I liked the Eagles, like every other red-blooded American, but I think the part of their music I was really drawn to was the part that was Jackson Browne and he was never a real band member - just a dude who hung out with them and co-wrote some songs. I was working my first summer job in a restaurant at the age of 16 and I wore out this old cassette that I stole out of my brother's car. This record was for Browne probably a tosser, a whim and certainly not filled with the "serious" songwriting he's known for, but I romanticized this account of life on the road. I loved the pedal steel and the sound of the crowd and of course the ridiculous falsetto Browne does on "Stay." There's an honesty and genuine sense of fun in this record that spoke to my adolescence.

Bring on the Night - Sting (1986) - I was a huge Police fan and anxiously watched as Sting made the left turn that was his solo career. At 17 I was not a jazz fan and knew nothing about it. Looking back, I can't think of a better introduction for me than the insanely talented band Sting put together for the Dream of the Blue Turtles record and tour. This live album does not have a single weak link. I learned how to play every song on it and memorized Brandford's solos - my two best friends and band mates at the time must have watched the documentary on the making of this record about 25 times the summer of our junior year. I think "Consider Me Gone" and "I Burn for You" are still my favorite tracks off this double album.

Solitude Standing - Suzanne Vega (1987) - In the sea of hair gel and synthesizers that was the 80's, I was taken in like everyone else by the parade of bands like Duran Duran that dominated MTV, but there was always something about these hollow calories that left a film in my mouth like eating a bowl of Captain Crunch. When I heard the song "Luka" on the radio, there was something substantial there that made me go down to the local record store (remember those?) and buy the cassette. Every song on that album spoke to me - Vega's breathy, innocent voice and her wonderful gift for words awakened me and made me feel like there was a whole world of possibility in songwriting that I had yet to discover.  I think my enduring love for the minor 9 chord began after I heard the song "Night Vision."

John Gorka - Temporary Road (1992) - I don't think I ever studied a record like I studied this one during the summer of 1992 in that first tiny apartment that Catherine and I shared on Hill St. in Boone, North Carolina. The lyrics on this album are so thoughtful and intricate. After every listen I would hear something that I missed before -- peeling back the layers of meaning in a simple line I discovered John's mastery of language and his playful approach to sometimes use words for their own sake. His phrasing, delivery and the warmth and complexity of his voice were a revelation to me.  I had never heard someone sing so plaintively and somehow deliver such an emotive performance. Actually getting to interview John for my Take Me to the Bridge podcast a couple of years ago and hearing him perform "Gypsy Life" just for me was a watershed moment.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Alternate Album Covers

So in the making of any great piece of art, whether it be a film, a painting or an album, there are great ideas that end up on the cutting room floor. In an effort to give you some behind the scenes look at the creative process that goes into the making of great album artwork, I thought I might share some of the earlier incarnations of the cover for "I'm Just the Same as I Was."

This one was my favorite because it really spoke to my passion for mud-flap babes. There's also something innocent and fresh about it like the cover of a Raffi record. Sadly, it was shot down in some early focus group testing because apparently people thought it sent the wrong message.

As an artist, above all else, I challenge myself to be as honest as I can be. Because we can't all be beautiful without the help of some creative camera angles, plastic surgery and photoshop wizardry, I wanted to go with this raw, untouched image. Something magic happened in this photo that says: "here I am, a little bloated, a little wall-eyed, but hey, love me anyway."

The camera is a fickle mistress. Jason O'Donnell, the masterful photographer behind the lens worked very hard to capture my best side during this shoot. I think in this shot, he nailed it. The only reason we did not go with this one was because Jason is a real stickler for technical details and he felt this shot was just slightly out of focus.

This cover idea was something my wife came up with. She's always felt like my arm is my best attribute, so we should lead with it in all the marketing materials. I thought it was a wonderfully unique cropping choice and invokes a sense of mystery that I always enjoy. Unfortunately, this idea too was shot down by some early critics who felt it was important for fans to actually see my face. Go figure.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

FREE iTunes Song

In celebration of the new album's release, I'm giving away a free song off of I'm Just the Same as I Was to the first 200 folks who send me an email with "Free Song" in the subject line. No strings attached, just a free song for you to enjoy.

If you are inspired and want to help my music find a wider audience there are a few simple things you can do to help me break through the noise out there.
  1. After downloading your free song in the iTunes store, purchase a track from Josh Ritter’s new album, “So Runs the World Away” or James Taylor and Carole King’s new album “Live at the Troubadour.”
  2. Rate my album and write a review in iTunes.
  3. From iTunes, click the arrow next to the “Buy” button on one of the songs from my album and share it in your Twitter or Facebook account. 
Believe or not all of these little things make a difference in getting my music more visibility -- your small effort counts for a lot.  In these digital times where anybody with Garageband can make a record and sell it all over the world instantly, there is an overwhelming amount of music out there competing for listeners. You can help these songs find people who will hopefully wonder where I've been their whole lives.

I hope you get a chance to enjoy the free song. If you have a request for one song in particular, you can preview all the songs in iTunes and let me know which one you want when you send me the email request.