Since this year’s FAWM was a bit more varied song-to-song, I thought it was worth talking about all the songs.
Most of the notes here are directly from my “liner notes” posted with the songs on FAWM.org, but I’ve updated the entries with my current thoughts. I hope this proves useful to other songwriters and home recordists.
Before you click “more” I want to stress that, while I’m happy with the recordings — and some people have even paid money to download them — these are still home recordings, recorded on a lot of DIY gear, good quality budget stuff, and using comparatively simple production techniques with mostly real instruments. I think they’re good quality demos, but I can still tell the difference when I listen to something recorded in a real studio and can definitely tell the difference next to something that’s been professionally mastered. Continue reading →
I do a lot of stuff. That’s a bug, not a feature.
Grassrootsy ran an article yesterday, discussing whether quality of product or publicity is important. This is a quick excerpt from Joy’s post:
Just to clarify: content is quality. The music has got to be great. Totally agree with you. But just b/c its great doesn’t mean it gets exposure. And just because its great doesnt mean people will listen to it. That’s where solid promotion comes in. Otherwise all the talented independent artists out there, would be famous by now.
I agree with this, just like I agree with Joy on most things she writes. Getting exposure for things is clearly important. But the reason this came up for me is that recently a friend wrote to me asking for press contacts for Baltimore. Three years ago, I might have had something useful to say. I even landed Midway Fair’s second album a few reviews, so obviously I must know something about promoting music to “the press” (even if none of those reviews were by anyone in Baltimore).
But I had to type up an e-mail that explained that, now, I know nahthing. I shared what information I had, but it was a couple years old.
At some point, I realized that there’s really only so much time in the world, and promoting my music is probably my least favorite activity ever. It makes me feel really distasteful, and not just because I’m (apparently) antisocial and don’t want to talk to people. I don’t even like to sell the albums that I’ve spent thousands of dollars recording. When I’m allowed to, I sell the albums for whatever people are willing to pay. That’s pretty inconvenient for making the money back to make more recordings, though.
Instead I just decided to spend the time spent doing halfhearted promoting on things I apparently do enjoy: writing, playing music, and building little electronic boxes (that I barely use at all).
Building little electronic boxes obviously does nothing for promoting my music, except, well, in a way it has, because almost every video on my YouTube channel has more views alone than the entire Midway Fair channel had (back when it had videos, before YouTube inexplicably deleted them all). It’s taught me a lot about the science of sound, about really listening to how sound actually works. When I started doing some home recording recently, I was able to transfer that knowledge to better arrangements. When working in the studio in January on our forthcoming Most Distant Star EP, I had a better sense of what to grab to get the sound I wanted … and when not to grab anything. And when to do nothing at all.
Most of the writing I do these days isn’t the sort of writing I really want to do … I’m not writing fiction, and I certainly don’t write as many songs as I ought to, but instead I spend a lot of time writing about how to build little electronic boxes and helping other people do the same. Is it a waste of time? I don’t know in the long run. But I don’t think it is. It has actually forced me to think harder about whether someone else can understand what I’m writing. Sometimes the target audience is one person. Sometimes it’s several people. But I can say for sure that I didn’t think quite as deeply about how well I was communicating when I was just writing fiction. I think my songwriting has also become more facile simply by staying in practice writing anything instead of only sitting at the keyboard when I had the intention of creating something “great.” (Which does not work and never has for anyone ever, not even for the one person somewhere reading this who thinks it worked for them. I just want to be clear on that.) Maybe I don’t end up making great songs, but at least I make songs when I want to.
I guess my point is that just because something doesn’t accomplish a specific end goal doesn’t mean that it’s not worth pursuing, and even getting good at. I’m doing a lot of things that don’t advance whatever minuscule ambitions I have for my music, and yet somehow those are still useful in making better music.
And you know what? I bet there are also people out there for whom promoting music is a way for them to get better at being a musician.
At some point, I realized that I really only have time for a certain number of things in life, and actively promoting my band takes time and energy, so when it came up on the chopping block, I had to see if it accomplished any of my goals in life. You know, those nonexistent goals. I don’t tour, I’m not trying to get on a label, I don’t play pop music, and I can’t even name a venue in Baltimore I’d like to work toward playing. In fact, the only definable goal I could come up with for my music was that I wanted to be really good. And if I thought about it, that’s the only thing I’ve ever cared about … I just want to be good. When I record an album, I want to be able to listen to it and say, “This is actually good.” When I write something, I just wanted it to be good. Once it comes time to do anything with them, I lose interest quickly. Which is stupid, I know, but I just can’t see the point. What would I do if I worked hard at publishing my writing? Give up playing music and continue writing fiction all the time, so that I build a body of work and eventually enjoy the modest success of having someone, somewhere, download and read my book? I like playing music too much. What if I focused on just music and worked hard at making a living at it? I could spend a lot of time getting good enough at promoting music to live out of my car when I’m 50 (i.e., modest success) and sell out a small venue 200 times a year, but the trouble is I also like doing all this other stuff. I also want to be good at having a house and sleeping in it.
All this is sort of another way of agreeing that quality is of supreme importance, but that you can’t ignore publicity if you want anyone to know your music. If that’s what you want.
But as someone who doesn’t rely on selling CDs to pay for his next meal, I wonder, what would the world would be like if more artists just ditched their ambitions to be famous, important, or even known outside of a handful of friends and instead just tried to be really good at what they do?
Of course, wanting to be good at too many things in general means I’m not really that good at any of them, just good enough to realize how much better a lot of people are at it. But maybe someday I will be, if I don’t get bored and move onto something else.
Slate had a cool series a while ago now called “Daily Rituals” about the habits that one should have to produce art, specifically writing. The 15th part is about ignoring inspiration.
William Faulkner: “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.” George Balanchine: “My muse must come to me on union time.” Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” John Updike: “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” George Gershwin said that if he waited for inspiration, he would compose at most three songs a year.
Great advice if you’re in a situation where producing art on a nearly constant basis will be meaningful. My question is: What good is writing 50 or 100 songs a year if you can’t reasonably work on more than 20 (notice that tag “work ethic”)? Or play more than 10 of those 20 live, or practice them all to figure out which ones are good? Or take advantage when you pull The One out of those 50 (because who cares if you write the Best Song Ever and only 5 people hear it)? This is just songs. I’m not even going to get into the implications for writing fiction.
Originally I was going to post about what a great idea Faulkner’s was for professional artists, but then I thought to myself: this is my blog, and I’m not a professional artist. Instead, I’m just going to point out a major difference between truly professional artists and … the rest of us, good or otherwise. That difference, I think, is that professional artists have the time, resources, and opportunities necessary to make writing constantly not a complete waste of time.
I do know that professionals also get roped into publication, release, and promotion schedules that overwhelm the ability to work on something and get it to the point of greatness. That’s a separate matter. I’m sure it has something to do with many people producing their best work early in their careers, even accounting for the two decades they had to write their first album or novel (versus a year or two for each successive).
I hope no one thinks this post is overly negative … maybe if there ARE some professional artists reading this, they will chime in with whether they are able to take advantage of “excess production.” This is, after all, just speculation on my part. The closest I’ve ever come to that is when I took a summer off after college to work on writing a novel, and spent 8-12 hours a day doing nothing but writing.