Today’s Music Business vs. Artistic Vision

I just read the Bob Lefsetz article on Today’s Music Business.

The short of it is that data on social media dictates the business above any of the music. Record labels capitalise on that which already gains traction.

And usually what gains traction needs that viral train wreck, shock value so it’s instantly shareable and can catch fire.

That’s not music anywhere near in it’s full art form.

But labels, don’t care about that, they care about money.

So, if you are keen on garnering as much attention as possible, getting mindshare and being talked about so much it leads to a major deal and beaucoup bucks, get cracking on with your short hooks on Tik Tok.

Otherwise, the better approach is to accept the reality of the situation, then ignore the business trends of today and steer your own path with your own vision.

You might not make any money at all, but you’ll be fulfilled knowing that you’ve made that which you want to make without pandering to any of the lower common denominator nonsense.

You might build an audience, a small viable audience that appreciates you for who you are and respect your integrity and willingness to dance on the edge. And if Kevin Kelly is right, 1000 true fans is all you need to get somewhere.

Dreams to Ashes

Track 1 of my solo debut album was initially written in 2015 and completed in 2018.

Musically, it’s a progressive metal track through and through with 5/4 being the opening time signature amongst other jagged rhythms and riffs.

Most of the track is guitars, bass and drums but there are moments where I use acoustic guitars, synths and other textures. The ending is particularly dense.

Lyrically, the album is about what has been called by some as the lost decade. The growing chaos and division that occurred from 2016 onwards and futures being determined by lack of upward mobility, soaring house prices and inequality, prejudice and hatred.

This opening track was one of the reasons I wanted to include the word ‘disillusion’ in the album title.

Amidst all the frustration I expressed in this track, and my observation of it all, I throw in an element of hope in there. The problems are definitely there, but many of us see them and are doing something about it. Here is to changing things for the better.

Become an audiophile

Most people listen to music in a way that is average in quality.

It will be most likely that you are listening to music in ear buds from your phone or worse, a laptop.

This undermines the work that producers and artists have done to make their record sound as good as it possibly can, spending hundreds of hours carefully writing, engineering and mixing their music.

Listening to music through well designed speakers or headphones and if you get the chance, atmos can open up an absolute world of sound quality you didn’t realise was there.

Companies are starting to work hard to make break throughs in quality sound systems that are affordable and it is an exciting time for that development taking place. The development of atmos is also a really exciting where you have a fully immersive sound set (2 speakers at the front, 2 at the back a sub and 2 to the side above).

If you get the chance to listen in a system that is high quality, take it, you will not regret it.

Judging creative productivity

There are several traps that cause creatives to feel anxiety.

One is writer’s block or more specifically a fear of bad writing. The other is getting the most out of a day and feeling that you have done a substantial amount of work.

There are four stages of creativity:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification

All four of these happen interchangeably and I know that I can spend ages on the fourth one where I am listening back to work I have done and trying to find ways to either develop it or affirm that it is finished. My first solo album took 6 months of post-production before I could say it was ready to release.

I remember hearing acclaimed singer songwriter Diane Warren talk about how she spent an entire day working on a couple of lyric lines because they were important.

That statement itself reveals the importance of revision, rewriting and giving time and effort to a small amount of quality material.

There is also some reassurance in that statement. Especially if you feel you aren’t producing enough. Giving time to intricate details can allow them to blossom with profoundly rewarding results.

The Ravel Affair

I am currently attempting to write my first string quartet. It is a significantly new creative path for me and very challenging but nevertheless rewarding.

Upon my research of different quartets, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major is one of my favourites. I consider it to be a beautiful piece with extraordinary passages and details typical of Ravel’s musical personality that would continue to evolve later on in his career.

What I find remarkable about the story of this piece is that it was his final submission to the conservatoire de Paris and Prix de Rome competitions to which both rejected the piece. Aside from having mixed reviews from the Parisian press, his teacher, Gabriel Faure, to whom the piece is dedicated to, dismissed the last movement as ‘stunted and in fact a failure’. Ravel himself believed that the quartet was an inadequate realisation.

Thankfully Debussy, whose own string quartet piece, which was written ten years previously and most likely had some influence on Ravel, wrote to him a letter with some words of encouragement and insisted he did not touch a single note of the piece he had written.

From what I’ve read, the truth appears that Ravel was an unconventional character with unconventional approaches to musical composition that was difficult for the conservatoire’s ultra conservative director to accept. He had enough resilience, or indifference to any other criticism than his own to keep going on his own path and it just so happens that the frustrations and failure he dealt with led him to propelling forward in his career and eventually being revered as one of the greatest French composers of all time.

Sometimes, art and the work created just so happens to be received in a time where the culture is not ready to accept its value. Some works find that appreciation is manifested at a later date, in some cases even beyond the life of the artist. Ravel’s String Quartet is now one of the most played chamber pieces.

The reason I like stories like this is that it reaffirms that steering your own creative path and focusing on what it is you want to achieve is better than changing what you do and who you are merely to fit in.

More often than not, innovation comes from the outside.

‘Perfect’ Recordings

I listen to a wide range of recorded music. In fact, I would go so far to say that I have listened to music that spans the history of recorded music. From Vinyl to Cassettes to CDs and now streaming.

What is interesting about recorded music is just how fast the technology has advanced. You can hear real stark differences in the recording quality of music so much that you can hear incremental advances through each decade. One of the most particularly fascinating period was during the 60s to 70s where artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were making records alongside the evolution of mixing desks having more inputs, as well as the development of electronic equipment.

The turn of the century did see a turning point with the development of computers and software. Namely through mixing in the box, via software and then the egalitarian way in which everyone could essentially record music on their laptops via DAW and plugins. It is really great that everyone has access to this technology now and create for themselves.

The knock on effect has been fascinating, and one in which recording quality and aesthetic has been a very interesting and highly debated topic. There are plenty of arguments for the fact that recording in earlier decades was better because generally more expensive hardware and microphones were being used in purpose built studios. There is the digital vs. analog argument and the listening of music has also been a fascinating topic. It is more likely that your average listener hears music in a car stereo or on ear buds than they do a decent stereo system. I remember becoming conscious of this when Steven Wilson started smashing Ipods in numerous ways and decrying the quality of Mp3s. He was right, Mp3s are awful but streaming in some ways has solved this due to the fact that most streaming services play songs at 320kbps.

When I teach, it is funny to see how aware the kids are of autotune and how blatantly it is used in tracks and generally, they do speak of it rather unfavourably. The choice to use it appears to be a timbral or aesthetic choice as opposed to one that merely corrects the singing pitch. The prevalence of it in genres such as Trap are significant.

If you listen to pop music today, the production of some tracks has been done with mathematical pinpoint accuracy to which everything could be deemed ‘perfect’. Quantising, pitch correction, rhythmic hooks – but the defects still occur, some of which could be considered significant. Over-compression being a big one or the lack of human authenticity in the performance. It is unlikely that you will hear a pop song today with anywhere near the same warmth and charm as a Frank Sinatra record.

During my ACM days, one of my lecturers got us to listen out for discrepancies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. The vocalists heard about 12 in the first 90 seconds. That doesn’t make the song any less good, in some ways, it can be argued that they are enhancements. The same case could be made with some of Lindsey Buckingham’s vocal screeches in ‘Go your own way’ and the heightened emotion that comes as a result of them.

They fundamental thing that makes this such a fascinating area of discussion for me and one I love working within, is the subjectivity. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ record.

Ultimately, it comes down the intention of what we create, how we achieve that intention and doing our level best to get as close to that as we can.

My top podcasts – A remedy for self isolation.

Self isolation is becoming a situation that more and more people find themselves committing to. With that, there is the challenge of overcoming the pitfalls involved in this process, namely trying to resist climbing up the walls!

One of the best things I do on a now routine basis to pass the time when I am on my own is listen to podcasts.

Podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular media platform and I’m glad that this is so: because podcasts offer lots of opportunities for many beneficial experiences, namely:

1.) An opportunity to learn something new

2.) An opportunity to find out more about interesting people with interesting stories.

3.) It makes you a better listener. It increases your engagement in discussions.

4.) They encourage you to try something new and explore your own ideas.

5.) Keep up to date with current affairs and developments.

At a time when self isolation is becoming a reality, I thought I’d share some of my favourite podcasts. I hope it gives you an opportunity to find something that interests you and you can engage with over the coming weeks.

Happy listening!

Akimbo – Seth Godin

Link – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/akimbo-a-podcast-from-seth-godin/id1345042626

Topics – Culture, Business and Marketing

I’ve been following Seth Godin since my university days. He is an extraordinary writer with a fascinating philosophy of business and marketing.

It’s a heartwarming, empathetic and optimistic podcast to listen to and it’s an easily digestible average run time of 25 minutes.

If you are interesting in doing better work and levelling up, this podcast is for you.

The Bob Lefsetz Podcast

Topics – The music industry, Culture

Link – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-bob-lefsetz-podcast/id1316200737

If you are in the Music Industry, you really should know who Bob is. His weekly letter is read by tens of thousands, many of which are some of the most well known people in the business.

He’s opinionated, fiercely honest and that is a breath of fresh air in an industry that seemingly has plenty of nonsense.

On his podcast, Bob interviews a wide range of musicians, managers, engineers, CEOs and beyond. Some of the stories are incredibly funny and remarkable.

As a starting point, his conversations with Canadian manager Jake Gold (The tragically hip) are incredibly useful for anonymous artists such as myself.

Kermode on Film

Topics – Film and Cinema

Link – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/kermode-on-film/id1436700945

Mark Kermode is one of my go to people for reviews and discussions about film and cinema and as a result I have discovered a lot of films I adore.

His regular conversations with Film reviewer Jack Howard offer a funny almost father and son dynamic and there are some great episodes where they share their opinions, debate and amusingly throw digs at one another.

There are also some live shows with great interviews with actors/actresses and directors as well.

Song Exploder

Topic – Songwriting and production

Link – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/song-exploder/id788236947

This gem of a podcast is wonderfully insightful and you get a glimpse into the minds of many brilliant music artists.

The premise is simple. An artist unpacks the songwriting approach and explains the demo process as well as demonstrating different parts of their songs including sounds deep in the mix that you wouldn’t always expect.

Other noteworthy podcasts I listen to –

James O’Brien – Full Disclosure

Tifo Football podcast

The Intelligence by The Economist

If there are any podcasts you highly recommend, feel free to suggest them in the comment section below.

Julia Holter – Aviary

And they say the album format is dead…

It may well be on a monetary level but needless to say, it does not stop artists like Julia Holter from using the album format to make her statement.

And quite an artistic statement is Aviary.

Clocking at just under 90 minutes, the record is a experimental odyssey with so much depth and beauty, it is initially overwhelming. Similarly to the first time I heard Kate Bush’s ‘The Dreaming’ or Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, the album reveals its’ magic and gradually blossoms with repeated listens.

The title is inspired by Lebanese American writers Etel Adnan quote ‘I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds’. Such a sound collage can be blissful, peaceful, quietly unsettling. Julia achieves this in fifteen tracks that don’t have a distinct structure as such but dive into experimental explorations, build in tension and widen up a panoramic canvas of sounds consisting of piano, strings, drums, trumpets and even bagpipes; as well as Julia’s typically layered and ambient vocals.

This is demonstrated in ‘I Shall Love 2’, the first track to be released. There is not too much more needed to be said about the music as it is far better for it to be experienced. That being said, the noticeable trait of Julia as shown in her previous works is her evocative ambiguity. Julia didn’t really know how to articulate herself when I saw her live, she appears introverted and coy on social media. Ultimately, her goal is to get lost in the Music. There is no conventional structure, no direct meaning to the songs she does, instead there is an internal dialogue, a collection of sounds and words that may at times be on a lyrical level non sensical, outright bizarre but ultimately so satisfying.

And when so much Music out there is so formulaic, so lacking in it’s risk taking and no more than chewing gum for the ears; this record is a breath of fresh air. I have listened to this record with headphones on by a beach, I have listened to this record whilst turning the lights off in my apartment with dimly lit candles. Whatever way I have enjoyed discovering this record, ‘Aviary’ is truly an exhilarating musical experience.

The best records for me have been released by three women this year, Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’, Natalie Prass’ ‘The Future and The Past’ and now Julia Holter’s ‘Aviary’. All of which showcase in their own way a defiance to the current chaotic climate we find ourselves dealing with in 2018. They are a celebration of opening up to vulnerability, love and truth…and that is when Music becomes so powerful.

‘That is all’.

 

Journey of The Effervescent by Kinky Wizzards

Over the last year, me and the brothers have been busy planning new things for the Kinky Wizzards.

Simultaneously, the boys decided to put a new live Music video together by themselves where they explored some of the older material.

It is safe to say after watching this video of the brothers do their thing, the song title says it all. Vivacious and enthusiastic.

I look forward to joining them for our string of shows this summer.

Ryan

A Farewell to Rush

‘Hold your fire 
Keep it burning bright
Hold the flame
‘Til the dream ignites
A spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission’ 

Mission, from Hold Your Fire (1987)

This band is part of my DNA.

Earlier this week, Alex Lifeson had revealed that Rush had spent two years no longer recording and touring and there were no plans to do so in the future. A totally quiet and un-rockstarlike way to bow out gracefully and to be honest, I would expect no less from such a band.

I discovered the music of Rush at the age of 9. The same time I had just started learning to play the guitar. My Mum had decided to buy me and my brother one of those Portable CD players each. The year was 2001 and the mp3 players and iPod had still not quite hit UK stores. My Mum decided to test the CD player with ‘Presto’. Now every Rush fan knows how that album starts; ‘Show Don’t Tell’, those quiet drums, at which point she is convinced that the CD player is a bit quiet, whacking up the volume at the point to which the full band is about to kick in with the riff and subsequently, having the shock of her life.

There you have the introduction of Rush into my life. I listened to ‘Presto’ religiously, and my teenage years saw me embark on a journey of discovering their entire catalogue. From the weird and wonderful 70’s era that saw the band dressing up in Kimonos delivering sci fi concept albums, 2112, ‘A Farewell to Kings’ and ‘Hemispheres’ to the thought provoking more concise and synth dominated records of the 80’s to the heavy guitar driven records of the 90’s.

The band ignited my love for physical records at a time where it was swiftly disappearing for my generation. I  couldn’t just listen to the music, I had to own it, unpack the concepts within the artwork and the deeply thought provoking lyrics. Listening to their music became a way of life.

For those who like myself, had Rush as a pivotal soundtrack in their lives, there is just so much to admire about them. For a start, their untempered ambition to do whatever they wanted to do, despite the initial pressure in what was a considerably shaky start to their career. Three albums to their name and a fair amount of negative criticism, particularly with ‘Caress of Steel’ and less than satisfactory sales. Their label pushed Rush to develop a more commercial friendly album and how did they respond? By making ‘2112’ a twenty minute Ayn Rand inspired epic about a futuristic totalitarian state! The result…unprecedented success.

The second is their musical prowess. All three musicians are simply insane at their instruments, Alex Lifeson is one of my favourite guitarists, Geddy Lee’s driving bass and his ability to simultaneously manage singing and playing bass and synths…with his feet! Of course, Neil Peart’s presence behind the kit needs no introduction.

The third is the philosophy and the lyrics. Not to say I don’t love Led Zeppelin and AC/DC but unlike most rock bands, Rush were willing to dig deeper into a wide range of themes. I can think of four love songs that they wrote off the top of my head! Beyond the initial records where they let their imaginations fly, they managed to explore so many dimensions that covered science, society, suicide, ambition, probability, fame and conflict. ‘Subdivisions’ is often mentioned with praise for the way in which it captured that feeling of alienation in an incredibly heartfelt way for those who felt like an outsider. It was an anthem for me in my high school days. That is one of many songs I could delve into. There is so much about Rush’s music that resonates.

The final point that has to be made is that Rush were a definitive rock band, but they carried such a sense of humility about them. All three members are intelligent individuals who have always been weary of the weight that fame could have had on them. They never took themselves too seriously, and are just seriously cool and interesting people and always remained captivating, grounded and funny in interviews and documentaries.

Rush is a band that not everyone knows, yet they are the third most successful band in terms of gold and platinum albums, behind The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Arguably, they are the biggest cult band ever. The ones who do know of them and are fans truly stand as one of a kind in terms of the abundance of passion they have for Rush. So much so that it became a central theme in the 2009 comedy ‘I love you, Man’ where the two main characters share a crazy love for the band. Admittedly there is much of that sensibility in myself and my fellow Rush fans. Take one of my Science teachers as example. When he found out I was a fan, he grabbed every opportunity to talk to me about 2112. My brother also told me small anecdotes of times he would play the record to the entirety of his form group, trying to convert unimpressionable teenagers into embracing the trio.

I saw Rush three times. 2007’s Snakes and Arrows tour, 2011 The Time Machine and 2013’s Clockwork Angels tour. The first time I saw them was one of the most exhilarating live shows I have ever been to. Their live show is utterly mesmerising, the power they can carry as a trio was just unbelievable as is the overall production of each tour they did. To have seen them live three times was a privilege.

And then there is the influence they have on my Music.

The first time I met the Kinky Wizzards, I distinctly remember myself and Miffy talking about our love for the band after commenting on the R30 T shirt he was wearing at the time. Incidentally, one of the first songs we learned to play together was YYZ and we still cover it live to this very day. The first song I played when trying to find musicians for Eden Shadow was ‘Tom Sawyer’. There is no surprise as to why so many listeners and critics of my own music often compare it with Rush.

Rush is part of my DNA.

And I am eternally thankful that this band exist. They have taught me so much and have inspired and continue to inspire me. After four decades of music, the band are done with their work, but their legacy will remain a long, long time.

To quote Alex Lifeson’s ‘Hall of Fame’ speech;

‘Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah Blah.’