My blog

My blog is a place where I can tell you a bit more about me, the venues I have played and other things I have found or done in my life’s travels!

You can read in more detail about how a gig went, how great (or bad) the venue was and if anything new or exciting happened as a result of my playing somewhere!

I will also tell you about any new updates and releases I may be making or thinking about, things I have done, and quite possibly just the odd rant about things now and then.

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Streaming music, Spotify and a bit of Taylor Swift

Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 6.56.00 PMIt was the announcement from CNN that first got my attention really. I was listening to them talk about it on the CDBaby DIY Musicians Podcast (and if you are an Indie musician, you should be listening to this too! Find it on iTunes or go subscribe at http://cdbabypodcast.com/) while I was running one morning Here’s a quote from the actual story:

“Interviews with college-age music fans suggest that more and more are choosing to stream music instead of downloading it. After all, why pay for music when you can summon almost any song you want, at any time, for free?”

The CNN article points out that music streaming sites such as Pandora and Spotify are becoming increasingly popular  — mainly because of the price-tag, but each service offers its own particular advantage over outright ownership of music. In fact, the whole idea of what “ownership” means is changing.

My reaction to all that was, basically, “uh-oh”. Because not that long ago, I was listening to these same people discussing the fact that David Lowry, of the band Cracker, had posted his statement of royalties from Pandora, and it was pretty shockingly small, given the number of plays. He also posted his statements from satellite (Sirius) and terrestrial radio stations.

The Pandora payout lost the comparison by a huge margin. Here’s a look at the statements he posted:

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So , if these streaming services are becoming popular to the point where they are displacing buying the CDs, or even the single songs, the average independent songwriter is about to experience a significant drop in income (I say it that way, because one of the things I learned while researching this post was that independent songwriters are paid at a different rate than corporate entities by the streaming services.)

Up until recently, while it wasn’t easy to make one’s living from music, it was possible, for some more than others, I’ll admit. The best way to monetize your music, as it ever was, and maybe ever will be, is by live appearances. And selling ones own music at those live appearances. Despite the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands of marketing strategies out there that claim to have “the answer” to how to market music, the truth is, few have been able to do it without at least playing live locally.

To put it in the words of a recent post on the streaming situation by one of the more successful songwriters in Austin, TX, Raina Rose:

“The 20th century was the only time in the history of music where some musicians got very well paid for their work.”

 She follows that with: “Those days are over”

Ms. Rose’s post was prompted by the commotion caused by Taylor Swift’s announcement a week or so ago about how she was pulling all her music, including her newly-released album, “1989”from Spotify, one of the lowest paying of the bunch. Taylor Swift had this to say about her decision:

“All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment,” Swift told Yahoo.“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.”

And she added, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In this decision, she was joined by Nigel Godrich, of Cracker (and some others). Said Mr. Godrich:

“We’re off of Spotify. Can’t do that no more, man. Small, meaningless rebellion. The reason is that new artists get paid f**k-all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work. Plus, people are scared to speak up or not take part, as they are told they will lose invaluable exposure if they don’t play ball. Meanwhile, millions of streams gets them a few thousand dollars. Not like radio at all. If you have a massive catalogue—a major label, for example—then you’re quids in. It’s money for old rope. But making new recorded music needs funding. Some records can be made in a laptop, but some need musicians and skilled technicians. These things cost money. Pink Floyd’s catalogue has already generated billions of dollars for someone (not necessarily the band), so putting it on a streaming site makes total sense. But if people had been listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973, I doubt very much if “Dark Side” would have been made. It would just be too expensive.

“However, Spotify needs the new artists to be on the system to guarantee new subscribers and lock down the “new landscape.” This is how they figure they’ll make money in the future. But the model pays pittance to the new artist right now, an inconvenient fact which will keep surfacing.”

British pop singer, Ed Sheeran, has said that he sees the services more as a discovery mechanism, which would certainly be true of Pandora, which doesn’t let the user choose which music they will listen to.

Russ Mitchell of the LA Times agrees, saying:

“His argument falls in line with recent data from audience measurement service Nielsen that showed that those who pay for streaming services are about twice as likely to buy a CD or download an album than those who freeload on advertising-supported outlets.”

However, on Spotify, the user can create their own playlists, excluding any music that user is not familiar with. Discovery falls by the wayside. And also, on Spotify, there are two tiers, a premium tier with certain advantages having to do with quantity and, I believe, quality of streaming, and a free tier. Which is what the CNN article was talking about when they asked “Why pay, if you can get it for free?”

I try not to be cynical. I’ve been trying all my life. But I couldn’t help but notice how many “column inches” were being devoted to Taylor Swift and her decision. Part of me wanted to agree with her. But part of me was also thinking “Wow! She certainly generated a LOT of public attention!” (I know. Shame on me.)

But then I saw this yesterday from Billy Bragg:

What a shame that Taylor Swift’s principled stand against those who would give her music away for free has turned out to be nothing more than a corporate power play. On pulling her music from Spotify recently, she made a big issue of the fact that the majority of the streaming service’s users listen to her tracks for nothing rather than signing up to the subscription service.

 “These worthy sentiments have been somewhat undermined by Swift making her new album and back catalogue available on Google’s new Music Key streaming service…..which also offers listeners a free service alongside a premium subscription tier.

 “If Ms Swift was truly concerned about perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free, she should be removing her material from You Tube, not cozying up to it. The de facto biggest streaming service in the world, with all the content available free, You Tube is the greatest threat to any commercially based streaming service.

Google is going after Spotify and Taylor Swift has just chosen sides. That’s her prerogative as a savvy businesswoman – but please don’t try to sell this corporate power play to us as some sort of altruistic gesture in solidarity with struggling music makers.”

 And I thought that was being cynical! In fairness, I must mention the following, from a different article:

“However, a statement released by Swift’s spokesperson to NME reveals that Swift has not joined forces with the new initiative. It reads: “Taylor Swift has had absolutely no discussion or agreement of any kind with Google’s new music streaming service.”

Tune in tomorrow for the next episode of our continuing saga …..

All of which brings me back to that disturbing conversation on the CDBaby podcast about how more people were streaming than buying music. To my (sort of) relief the CNN article ended with this:

“The music fan never ceases to surprise me. If you told me five years ago there would be a boom in the sale of vinyl records I would have laughed. But people are buying them, and I think there are some people that will continue to buy music [and not just stream it].”

And thank goodness, people have still been buying my own CDs – though, for the most part, I have to be there to sell them … at live shows.

 

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Flying with Guitars

Ask any musician what is the most challenging part of traveling by air, and they will all say the same thing.

At its worst, it results in situations like this one:

or this:

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And breakage is not the only thing that can happen. I have talked with many people who checked their instrument and never saw it again. I think the normal response to that (according to me, so FWIW) would be to want to be able to see your instrument at all times.

But … help is on its way. Sort of.

According to a document from the Transportation Safety Administration (the people who x-ray your baggage and you when you are flying) dated 9/28/12, you may carry on your guitar. Here is a copy of the document. I carry it with me when I fly, in the same envelop with my boarding pass and ID. You can get it at: http://local1000.org/2013/01/download-forms-and-contracts/#.VD1b1CldWiQ

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This document mainly has to do with carrying instruments through the security checkpoint, but in fact, Congress passed a law to allow you to bring your instrument aboard as carry-on baggage. According to John Thomas at Fretboard Journal:

“Section 403 of the legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, provides:

“An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage ….”

But at the end of the same article is this:

“Alas, we’ve fallen into a black hole in American jurisprudence. Recall that the law was to go into effect when the FAA promulgated the corresponding regulations. Recall also that Congress commanded the FAA to promulgate those regulations by February 6, 2014. Well, that date has come and gone and the FAA has not even begun the process of drafting the regulations. And, that black hole? There is no legal mechanism by which Congress can force an agency to do its job. As a result, members of Congress have been reduced to pleading, threatening, stamping their feet, and holding their breath until the FAA acts. So far, the FAA has not been impressed.”

In other words, we cannot rely on the law-makers to fix this problem.

American Federations of Musicians (of which I am a proud member, Local 1000), has been working with TSA to try to adjust the situation so that at the very least, every airline has the same rules. According to Ray Hair, AFM International president, there is progress being made in this, their second meeting with TSA and the Department of Transportation.  All interested parties were represented at these talks, and in his message this month, there was this:

“The major takeaway from our July meeting was a general acknowledgement from DOT and the airline industry that most major and regional airlines have adopted company policies concerning the air transportation of musical instruments, most of which closely mirror the requirements contained in the 2012 law. The DOT is now bringing both sides together to help clarify and negotiate protocol differences, while ensuring that the airlines’ published policies are clear and will be adhered to, so that musicians can rely on them while flying with their instruments.

“We gained tremendous insight and engaged in productive discussions during our July meeting about the obligations of the US airlines toward musical instrument air travel. The need for the dissemination of information about existing policies, protections, commitments, and remedies avilable for musicians from government and industry, prior to the issuance of final administrative rules, was well recognized by every stakeholder.

“As a result, our September meeting would concentrate on the following agreed-upon items, including but not limited to:

  • The creation of a webpage to provide public information on transporting musical instruments.
  • Improved airline communication of musical instrument policies to frontline staff, ticket agents, gate agents, and flight crews.
  • Group review of AFM member survey results concerning instrument air transport.
  • Development of a public document summarizing musical instrument carriage regulations in plain language.
  • New options on how to file air travel service complaints
  • Development of a tip sheet for musicians traveling by air with instruments.”

Despite all this progress, there are a number of people who have come up with solutions for the problems that remain formidable — the flight attendant or the gate agent who has the final word, a concept designed to strike fear into the heart of every traveling guitarist.

At this point, I’d like to insert that I fly Southwest Airlines whenever I can. This is not because I’m affiliated with Southwest in any way. I’m not. But of all the airlines I’ve flown, I can count on Southwest not to give me a hard time about my guitar. I once got aboard a flight with a 9-piece band, all carrying instruments, and me with my guitar. No one batted a single eyelash, nor was there a single murmur. (BTW, if Southwest is not an option for you, the next best choice, running a distant second, is American Airlines. They usually don’t have a problem, but you can’t count on everyone who works for them to follow through. Not affiliated with them either, in case you wondered.)

Lots of people have lots of advice, but the best I found online was from CDBaby’s DIY blog. Their 5 tips included

  • Try to get aboard early. Southwest takes care of this with their “Early Bird Boarding”, which you pay a little extra for when you buy your ticket. If you’re on another airline, try to choose a seat at the back, which allows you to board first after First Class.
  • Ask if your guitar can be stored in the closet up front. If there’s room in it, this is convenient for all concerned, since you won’t have to carry it through the plane, though I always wonder what would happen if someone else took it from the closet before I got back to it when we landed.
  • Have it in a case that could weather the conditions either in the cabin or in the hold. My guitar is in a foam case that fits in the overhead (like the TRIC case that comes with the Seagull guitars – though you can buy them separately. Again, no affiliation.) and will protect it if you have to gate check your guitar – though not from theft.
  • Make sure your guitar is protected against conditions in the hold. Loosen the strings, add a humidifier, wrap the headstock, add some padding, if you can.

And my personal favorite:

  • If the gate agent tags your guitar to be gate checked, and tells you to leave it at the end of the jetway, just cover the tag with your hand, and try to board with it. Pretend ignorance, if you get caught. Flight attendants are too busy to pay attention to that stuff.

Far and away, the best advice I found was, ABOVE ALL, BE POLITE. Ask with a smile. All the airline personnel are people with families, issues, feelings, worries, etc. just like yours. Play nice, kids. Bon voyage.

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So what is “Americana” anyway?

Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 2.56.37 PM From Wikipedia: “Americana is an amalgam of roots music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influences.”

Says it all, right? Well … no, actually.

How about this from the Americana Music Association?

Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

Not much better.

The word “Americana” already existed in the lexicon, before its introduction into popular music styles. According to The Atlantic,

“Before it became a term for a musical genre, “Americana” was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store — things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. In the 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: “Americana” became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song as a bottle of beer (easy enough), you’ll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer’s tears mixed in.Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 2.57.12 PM

But the genre defines itself by its progenitors more than its present. Any Americana artist working today ought to know his Woody Guthrie, his Carter Family, his Willie Nelson, his Blind Willie McTell.”

While this is all true, the assumption here is that there is a limit to what may be termed Americana. Despite the fact that there are many genres that were generated first in America, besides blues, country, rocknroll, and Indie-everything. I’ll grant that European-style art music is not Americana. Likewise, what is now termed World Music is not Americana (though some has been adapted into the Americana music of late.) But let’s consider jazz, a unique American form, or even the Great American Songbook.

A lot of the songs in the Great American Songbook were born at the same time as those needle-point pillows and engraved silverware sets. If you google the term, you find out “The Great American Songbook is a term used to denote the canon of the most important and most influential American popular songs of the 20th century – principally from Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.” It includes songs like Stardust, Over the Rainbow and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Frankly, I think the major difference between “Americana” and other popular American music styles is mentioned in the article above. It is based on rural-sounding music.

That lets out anything done by Tin Pan Alley. I remember noticing the rural connection when I was living in Greenwich Village in the late 60s, so I was always delighted to find anyone amongst those musicians that loved “city music” the way I did. Unfortunately, it also lets out anything that doesn’t fit the White Male Southeastern (born in or admiring of) idea of the way things should be. And The Great American Songbook is but one example of what is left out of a supposedly all-encompassing American music, as implied by the name.

The other operative idea behind Americana is that it is Male (capital M not an accident).

I know that there are some female performers who designate themselves as Americana. Lucinda Williams, Terri Hendrix, Susan Gibson and, very likely, Emmylou are on that list. However, they are few and far between. This is not their fault, but I’m beginning to think maybe women should just group themselves in a style that is all their own. Just for awhile. Until the guys catch up.

There is a new form stirring in country music, as exemplified by Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, Kacey Musgrave and Ashley Munroe. More properly, this is Alt. Country, as it has a distinct rock flavor, but it could also be termed country-rock music by uppity women (color doesn’t seem to be an issue, although so far, all the stars of this genre are white. Uppity women come in all shapes, sizes and colors. A generation ago, Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading would have been good candidates for this genre).

According to the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica:

[The music] “couched tough-talk rural feminism in music that paid deep respect to country music tradition. [They] understood that making changes is easier when you slip in the door unnoticed.”

And the country stage has been far more accepting of these women than the Americana stage. And if you check the showcase listings for the 2014 Americana Conference just passed, the overwhelming majority of performers are Male, with a sprinkling of female acts here and there. None of them were any of the women listed above.

This same rural, male segment of the musical scene has been separated out many before in our cultural history. I’m thinking that the problem I’m having here is the name. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around “Americana” that does not include so much of American music. Do you think it’s too late for them to call it something else?

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UPDATE:

From (of all places) the Wall Street Journal:

“And it can hurt the Americana movement: If it permits itself to be defined primarily by retro-minded country and twangy folk, Americana runs the risk of appearing as a subset of country. Given that contemporary country album sales are flagging, one can imagine executives on Music Row swooping in and signing some Americana artists in an attempt to rebrand modern country as music of integrity.”

and

“Here, at this year’s awards event, there was ample evidence that members of the Americana community are aware that minimizing the natural diversity within American roots music is a sorry way to go. The show opened with a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” popularized by Bo Diddley; later in the program, during a tribute to the music of Mississippi, Ms. Wilson sang Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved.” Flaco Jiménez, the Mexican-American accordionist, was presented a Lifetime Achievement award by occasional collaborator Ry Cooder, who performed with the house band. Taj Mahal, who embodies all that Americana can be, revived “Statesboro Blues,” a Blind Willie McTell tune he released in 1968. “Now that’s Americana!” shouted Mr. Lauderdale, the affable master of ceremonies, as Taj Mahal was greeted with a standing ovation.”

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The three Rs: Re-writing , Re-mixing, Re-recording

Every songwriter, every storyteller, every painter, every choreographer, indeed every creator, knows the rush of well-being that comes from bringing their creation out into the world. Something from nothing. Often that creation has kept its parent up all night, tweaking the details until everything is just “so”. Only it doesn’t feel like it’s keeping its parent up all night, as the creator doesn’t feel sleepy or hungry or in need of anything but bringing that creation as close to perfection as is possible for humans.

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 9.52.42 PMNothing compares with that feeling, the one Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “Flow” and describes it as “the secret to happiness”. (If you’d like to hear him talk about it, go here.)

Speaking, of course, from my role as songwriter, I know that there is another side to this. I go to bed, the song “completed”, and when I wake up in the morning, I’m excited. It’s time to learn to play and sing my new song, so that I can show it off to its best advantage. I begin to sing, and… Uh-oh…. There’s a part here that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t sing smoothly. Perhaps a few too many syllables, perhaps the word here is too harsh, not concrete enough. The song needs more “furniture” to make it a more sensory experience for the listener. Whatever.

 

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 9.54.55 PMAt that point, I have a choice.

I can shrug my shoulders and say “Wow! I put in so much work on this already. No one is going to know about this little flaw I think I’ve found. Maybe it’s my imagination. No one is going to be a picky as that. If they’re focused that hard on the details, they’ve got the problem, not me. Well, maybe so. But every time I sing the song, I know it’s not quite right. And so, probably it’s time to knuckle down and re-write. (Ugh. Drudgery. I’d rather do housework.)

Not long ago, I discovered that seeking out just the right word, changing the phrase so that it fits snugly in the format, exploring metaphors until the exact right one is found, is also a flow experience. Plus, the added attraction of saying exactly what you meant, and OMG, it rhymes! I invite you to try it. You can get so involved in the investigation, and the hunt, and the performance of the necessary surgery (please pardon the mixed metaphor), that it begins to feel just like writing the song in the first place. Flow. Surprise!

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 10.02.07 PMNow it’s time to record. And again, it feels great. The arranging, the inviting of other instrumentalists to contribute, their contribution (I try not to control that beyond a few suggestions to imply boundaries.), et voilà! The recording. Let’s put it on and listen. Oh dear. The flute’s a little too loud, isn’t it. And there’s a bad note in the bass. Not the end of the world, though. Because we can re-mix. (Ugh. Drudgery. I’d rather clean toilets).

And again, it turns out that the process of re-mixing is so absorbing that hours later, you had no idea that much time has passed, until someone calls to find out where you are, because you’re supposed to be somewhere else.

And, even if the recording needs to be done over, which it sometimes does (*sigh*), I’ll bet you’ll find that it’s not quite the chore you were expecting. You may even find some new, better way of treating the song that makes it a better song.

Oh …. and the housework? That can turn out to be a “flow” experience too. A lot depends on your

attitude.

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International Sing Like a Pirate Day

Arrgh!!!!

There are so many aspects to what we here in the United States call “folk music”, it is difficult to keep track of them all. But, as it happens, I had a friend, no longer among us, who was a student of sea chanteys, and as a result, I have a special affection for them.

So imagine my delight to find out that the Folk Music Society of New York was going to host an evening of sea chantey singing they are billing as “Sing Like a Pirate Friday” on International Talk Like A Pirate Day, the 19th of September, 2014.

According to Evy Mayer, sea chanteys are easy to sing, as they were once used to keep the men at the same tempo as they hauled in lines, or rowed, or any other jobs on a sea-going ship that required a steady rhythm. Of necessity, they were simple songs, with call-and-response and easy-to-remember choruses.

Like this one, that you can’t swing a dead cat without hearing as you grow up:

Or this:

(Listen closely for the “Arrrrgh!” near the end, tucked under the music!)

Story songs abound, full of derring-do, and swashes buckled and unbuckled. One of the more famous ones involves Captain Kidd, out of New York City, who became a pirate in 1699, but ended up hanged not long after.

And finally, as a tribute to my friend, Caryl P. Weiss, here’s one of my favorites of her performances:

If you’re in New York City and you’d like to partake of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, by singing like a pirate, here are all the details:

The Talk-Like-a-Pirate Extravaganza and chantey sing will take place Friday, Sept. 19th at 7:30 P.M. at OSA Hall, 220 East 23rd St, suite 707, Manhattan (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues). Snacks will be served. Contribution is any pieces of silver one might wish to spare. For more information, call (718) 549-1344 (after 11 AM) or see http://www.folkmusicny.org/.”