Archive for category Labels

Demoitis

Studioitis isn’t the only widespread malady in the world of recording. There’s also the much more serious demoitis.

Artists often make quick ‘demo’ versions of songs they’ll consider recording properly later on. In fact, during the making of an album dozens of versions of a song might circulate for the consideration of the creative team in the studio, and sometimes the business team at the label. The differences in the demos may be subtle: slight variations in volume levels, an altered word here and there, a few bars edited out. Or they may be sweeping: a new draft of the lyrics, a different tempo, drastically rethought instrumentation. But when a collaborator or an executive fights to retain elements they’ve become attached to in an earlier iteration of a track they are said to have a case of demoitis.

Debates follow. Often heated, sometimes explosive.

‘I just can’t get used to that new line in the second verse. It feels awkward to me.’

‘Cut those four extra bars before the bridge. The demo got right into it…I wouldn’t have changed that.’

‘This new tempo doesn’t give me the energy the demo had. What happens if we speed up the final mix digitally?’

Though experienced musicians often agree when something is ‘wrong’ with a song, music is ultimately a subjective thing. And it can be particularly difficult to maintain perspective on an ever-changing song you’ve heard played back a hundred times. How do you decide what goes out to the public?

First, try to hold back on presenting a song to the label or the artist’s management until it’s as close to finished as possible.

Making creative decisions by committee can leave a piece of music bloodless. Especially when the incubatory environment of the studio has been opened up for business executives to phone in some input from their offices. I’ve been involved in situations where two ‘final’ versions of a song were given to a room of A&R people at a label to vote on. In the end they asked for the two ideas to be merged, creating a frankensteined chorus that didn’t really preserve what was good about either version.

In my opinion, the Clive Davises and David Geffens of the world—music business executives who aren’t necessarily experienced in creative work but have a golden ear—are few and far between. (Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Berry Gordy at Motown are examples of label presidents with an inside understanding of craft. They spent a good amount of time writing and producing themselves.) From what I’ve experienced, the majority of music executives are business-minded people with a love for music. While they will jump at the opportunity to participate in a creative decision, much of their input seems arbitrary. Suggestions seem to be lifted from trends or rules they’ve heard bandied about in the office.

‘How about a dubstep breakdown in the bridge?’ was popular this past year.

‘What about a filtered radio voice in the intro?’ was big with executives around the turn of the millenium.

I don’t want to fault execs for wanting in on the excitement of making music, but if it’s actually a situation of ‘I want to be able to tell people I suggested this [obvious, trendy] idea in a successful radio hit’ while at the same time being vague enough to claim no responsibility if the song flops…well that’s not helpful. Nine times out of ten the suggestion made becomes an awkward corporate mandate for some clashing parameter the studio peeps now have to work into the song. It’s not a solution; it’s just created more problem-solving work. As evidenced by the most successful labels and managers, who send a trusted producer and artist into the studio and have the wisdom not to open the door until the souffle rises, I think it’s better for all involved if executives use their creativity to come up with a kickass marketing plan instead. That’s something the artist likely can’t do, and the expert executive can take full credit for.

Ahmet Ertegun: Good Executive Input

What about the decision-making that happens between the creatives behind that closed studio door?

Many times I’ve worked with a relatively green artist that wants to take demos home to get the input of their friends, family or significant other: input from people who aren’t necessarily creative but are either regarded as a Average Joes in the target market or a good barometer of whether the song is right for the person they know. I get it. Songwriting is new and mysterious, and on top of that you’ve been thrown into the studio with an opinionated person like me that you don’t know well enough yet to trust.

To be frank, it takes time to develop a sense of what’s working in the studio. When people have to go outside for input, it’s because they’re aware on some level that they don’t have enough experience to feel it when something—a line, a snare sound, a chorus vocal has squarely hit the mark. It’s a palpable feeling most experienced people in the room agree on when it happens. I started to recognize it after I’d been recording for about 6 years, and it took another few years to begin to know how to problem-solve things that weren’t giving me that ‘right’ feeling. (Don’t panic. Some people are faster at getting it than I was. And I make it my mission to help new artists get there ASAP.)

There’s a strong argument against doing a whole lot of market testing in lieu of relying on the gut instincts of a few professionals when you’re being creative. I’m gonna go all granola here and say that the origin of the song’s feelings and ideas is situated inside of the writers. I don’t see how polling others outside of the process can bring the song closer to its emotional center, and therefore closer to emotional impact for listeners.

The beauty of making music is that any new song you work with may have its own set of rules that generate a new approach. When you’re truly open to where a song wants to go, there are always new worlds to visit. No one person in the room has the answers, but if everyone drops their egos and taps in to what the song is dictating, a common direction usually emerges. In some cases of an extreme loss of perspective on the part of the makers, I think you can get an opinion about structural issues or the overall approach from another trusted professional who has their craft down.

Sometimes the demo does have something special about it.

For my solo work sometimes I like to write lyrics at the mic, changing words and lines until the puzzle pieces come together. And I usually feel the most effective vocal deliveries are the takes I record while I’m writing, moments after I’ve come up with the words I’m about to sing. That’s because I’m usually writing about something that’s going on with me at that time, and there can be an honest moment of catharsis or discovery in that first take. I’m not averse to re-approaching the vocal later on to try different things, but almost inevitably I end up with final vocal tracks made up mostly of my ‘discovery’ takes. One great thing about modern recording technology is when I’m co-writing with an artist I can get proper recordings of everything we come up with, using the same microphone as we go. This is like shooting a documentary film, trying to capture something that’s happening now to the singer, or even just a moment of honesty as they recall something in their past with great clarity. You never know when you’ll capture lightning, and I think it’s valid to fight to preserve moments like these from a demo, tweezing out individual recorded lines and conforming them to a later version of the song if necessary.

Other times—usually with seasoned performers that possess both highly developed vocal control and an actor’s ability to inhabit a song—I’ve found that capturing a great performance is a two-step process toward the end. 1. Have them take it home and learn the finalized version of the lyrics. 2. Have them come back in and record it three or four times, more or less straight through, over a fully produced track. The disjointedness of recording line by line with this type of performer tends to break their flow. What they want is to hear the song roll for a while so they can get inside it again and access the emotions of what they’re singing. As a producer, this is more akin to letting an actor play their part in a fictional narrative film. They’re skilled at using the power and nuance of their voice to create an illusion that this is happening to them right now. In truth it might be something they wrote years ago, or a fictional situation someone else wrote about.

When it comes to choosing vocal takes—or guitar solos or drum tracks—it doesn’t really matter how you got there. Whichever take gives you a chill down your spine is the one to go with. Though another version may be sonically better, or tighter, or more lushly produced…I’ll always feel that the version to go with is the one that made me, the producer, feel something. That’s a distillation, ultimately, of a producer’s job.

, , , , ,

No Comments

Platinum Hit: Under The Hood Of The Music Industry

I am LOVING this show. For all the wrong reasons.

I’m not a fan of the Idol franchise because it’s put in place a concrete, standardized checklist by which the general public believes singers should be judged. The idea, alone, that a vocalist should display versatility within a range of genres disqualifies the Billie Holidays and Neil Youngs of the world.

Before Idol, artists signed to labels existed in a reality parallel—but separate from—the rest of the world. Someone who ‘knew something about music’ had given the stamp of approval, pulled all the levers, and forevermore the glossy finish of album jackets and posters would seal that artist away, just out of fans’ reach. Talent was curated primarily by savvy executives like Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun, who certainly had a basic checklist for their signings (‘Can Sing,’ ‘Has A Look,’ ‘Has Presence Live.’) But, with a similar latitude that radio DJs had decades ago, one tastemaker’s gut instinct could play a large part in an artist’s destiny.

Today, with profits plunging and monster record labels merging to survive, indie labels have risen again to service niche markets while the majors pump out increasingly formulaic product. Those executives simply cannot afford to experiment, so clunky corporate procedure is de rigueur. I’m loving Bravo’s new reality series Platinum Hit because, perhaps for the first time, the curtain has been pulled back…the average music fan can get a relatively true-to-life view of the working parts inside the LA machine.

Platinum Hit on Bravo

Appropriately, fallen singer-songwriter Jewel hosts. Her mis-step in 2003 with dance-pop single Intuition alienated her audience after her earthy image had been solidified with five ubiquitous alt-country radio singles. (We certainly saw under the hood of the industry for a moment there.)

The show is a competition in which 12 songwriters get thrown in rooms in various combinations to come up with hit songs…usually with a specific topic or genre, and sometimes for a specific artist. They work against the clock to deliver material to a panel of executives who then analyze the structure, melody, lyrics and chord changes to measure market potential.

This is exactly what goes on in Los Angeles.

I’m into this show because the corporate standardization of songwriting is in plain view. Heavyweight-songwriter-turned-reality-TV-judge Kara DioGuardi lobs constructive advice at the contestants, guiding them on how to get a green light from executives. Label-executive-turned-reality-TV-judge Keith Naftaly’s feedback often hinges on how well the song hits a market demographic. When in Episode 9 he told contestant Scotty Granger that he believes the lyrical content of his dance song is a little deep for high school kids, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.

This is the type of ‘dumb-it-down’ thinking that permeates the industry. Scotty’s song was barely ‘deep’—in its narrative, we find out there’s just one day left on earth and everyone’s decided to dance all night. A bit dark, maybe, but hardly deep, and quite appropriate for the angst high school kids feel. Maybe this is why Britney Spears’ conceptually identical single ‘Until The World Ends,’ tore up the charts recently.

Regardless, kids, like anyone else, sense when they’re being talked down to, and this usually results in them finding a counter-culture that reflects their feelings more honestly. I remember a DJ friend pointing out to me that in the early 80s MTV was the only source for music videos, so all demographics were exposed to everything from Kate Bush to Run DMC. No one suffered from it. To the contrary, I believe it was a time of rich musical cross-pollination.

The last few episodes of Platinum Hit have gone slightly off the rails in the sense that contestants have clearly been eliminated not based on the quality of their songwriting but rather in order to maintain dramatic tension between characters: this still has to be entertaining TV. Nowhere was it more blatantly obvious than in shots of Granger’s own disbelief at having his song—which he had just described as unsuccessful—come in first at the end of an episode.

Scotty Granger: How Is It Possible That Our Song Won?

Artificially-imposed narrative aside, Platinum Hit is an interesting first glimpse into the world of beatmakers and topliners. The role of melodies, titles, song concepts, and chord changes is contextualized within the construction of a successful artist’s facade, giving some much-needed perspective on all that’s behind the front end of hit music.

The final episode of Season 1 airs this Friday August 5th.

, , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

Pop Smarts: Robyn

In 1997, RCA Sweden and legendary writer-producer Max Martin unleashed cute 18-year old popster Robyn on the world, sending flares up international charts with the R&B-tinged ‘(Do You Know) What It Takes’ and ‘Show Me Love’. The rest of the world was left to wonder once again how—from Abba to Roxette and The Cardigans—many a Swede has been able to tap in effortlessly to the North American pop sensibility. Further, she was a nordic girl with a measure of genuine soul in her voice. After a few more minor hits in Europe, Robyn disappeared from the world stage as quickly as she had arrived.

Body Talk Pt. 1

Self-Packaged Pop Heroine Robyn

Fast forward a decade.

Word of mouth began rippling through the English-speaking world: undefeated by her major-label crash-and-burn, she’d quietly and intelligently risen from the flames. Taking the reigns both creatively and businesswise, she’d honed her songwriting craft with some hot producers and tested a new electro-pop direction locally with singles like ‘Dream On’. After necessary alterations, a deftly conceived full-length album—titled, simply, Robyn—followed on her newly christened Konichiwa Records. (The album also kicked off with the braggadocio rap ‘Konichiwa, Bitches’ — it’s Japanese slang for ‘Good Day’.)

A further revised version of the album arrived internationally and was supported with exhaustive touring. In concert she gives 110%, with heaps of cover songs along with her extensive canon of self-penned work. Her choice of covers shows a wide appreciation of other artists’ work: ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry, ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ by Alicia Keys and ‘Hyperballad’ by Bjork. Why all the YouTube links in this post? Because each one is worth it.

What’s special here is not that she’s come with great material, or that she put in the grunt work to rebuild the value of her brand from the ground up. It’s that she has the rare gift of self-awareness as an artist; the intelligence with which she’s packaged and marketed herself.

This year was the best example of it yet. After a couple years of radio silence, late 2009’s stunning collaboration with Röyksopp, ‘The Girl And The Robot’, primed us for a well conceived three-part ambush in 2010. Rather than releasing an album, she presented three shorter EPs. Distilled, the contents of Body Talk, Parts 1-3 would make a solid longplay album. But in an era when digitally downloaded music makes the number of songs on a release irrelevant, by conceiving a flexible new model like this she’s found a way to keep the excitement going all year long. Installments arrived in June and September. The final disc is slated for November 22.

Musically, the Robyn formula is smart. By giving us 1 part emotionally-level dance fun (‘Handle Me’, ‘Dancehall Queen’, ‘We Dance To The Beat’) and 1 part pseudo-gangsta attitude (‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’, ‘Fembot’) upfront, we’re ready to go the distance with her as her heart bleeds through the remaining third of the material. And this is the material that really sticks: ‘With Every Heartbeat‘, ‘Be Mine‘, ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Hang With Me’, ‘Indestructible’.

Cleverly, the first two EPs also contained acoustic ‘preview’ versions of the lead-off single planned for the next EP, guaranteeing a boost of familiarity when the single versions of ‘Hang With Me’ and ‘Indestructible’ arrived with a Giorgio Moroder-esque thud.

What’s also striking is that Robyn, the artist and the businesslady, seems to have captured a demographic few else realized was there for the taking: the 30-something ex-raver that still craves rap and club music but wants something personal, melodic…clever.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

The Creative-Commercial Cycle: How Pop Eats Itself

If it’s agreed that the following creative-commercial cycle occurs continuously in popular music…

The Cycle Of Music

The Cycle Of Music

…then there are a couple of things I find interesting. Namely, the process by which naturally compelling artists learn to create music with mass appeal, and the fact that this cycle seems to be speeding up as the executives get quicker at identifying and exploiting new trends.

U2 In 1980

U2 In Their Freeform Days

For an example of the cycle, we can look at U2’s output. In the early 80s they had underground ‘alternative rock’ cool factor. The songs on their first two albums Boy and October were somewhat freeform.  Melodies were cockeyed and noncommittal, lyrics never too direct. Bono’s voice and Edge’s guitar sound, together, supplied compelling personality. Steve Lillywhite’s production captured the band’s raw electricity without stylizing it.

War and The Unforgettable Fire followed, with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ showing the first signs of a desire to write for radio. However, an inspired change in personnel brought a new depth to the sound of that fourth album: ambient visionary Brian Eno and roots musician Daniel Lanois were brought in to produce.

Not surprisingly, the subsequent writing on The Joshua Tree was significantly distilled.  The straight-ahead stock chord changes and emotive melody of ‘With Or Without You’ as well as the clear, sweeping subject matter of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ brought a mainstream audience to them as if by magnetic pull. If Eno and Lanois hadn’t purposely educated the band about mainstream pop writing, some form of growth-through-osmosis had happened as they opened up their creative circle.

Here’s a wordy section from ‘Drowning Man’ on War, followed by the confidence of the continuously building ‘With Or Without You’.

Since the watershed success of that album and the Rattle & Hum stadium tour–amid their core audience’s protests that the band had sold out–U2 has ridden out the last 20 years in various states of expectation-busting experimentation (Zooropa, The Passengers’ Original Soundtracks project) and pop duty fulfillment (All That You Can’t Leave Behind).

Bjork Exploring Blindly

Bjork’s Explorations With Kukl

Bjork–who, incidentally, at first used her voice much like Bono had in the early 80s–first helmed Icelandic band Kukl, followed by The Sugarcubes. Her childlike voice and persona showed commercial promise amidst the disarray of the bands’ post-punk art-rock.

Teaming up with respected electronic producer Nellee Hooper, she emerged as a solo artist in 1993 with Debut, securing her place in pop history. The follow-up album was Post. ‘It’s Oh So Quiet,’ the big band single America loved to hate, was as straightforward as she would ever get before making her way back into ever-deeper experimental waters.

Compare the atonal rant from ‘Copy Thy Neighbour’ by Kukl with the soaring melody on the chorus of ‘Hyperballad’.

10,000 Maniacs Before Leaving Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs Of Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs is an interesting case that I made an effort to crack recently. I always had a like-hate relationship (as opposed to love-hate) with their In My Tribe, Blind Man’s Zoo and Our Time In Eden albums because I never quite understood how a band could sabotage moments of melodic virtuosity with such poorly considered arrangements. Or how such a compelling voice–meaning Natalie Merchant’s vocal instrument as well as the interesting angles she took on the songs’ subject matter–could be ruined by an equal helping of preachy condescension. As well, even after a string of five pop singles (‘Like The Weather,’ ‘What’s The Matter Here,’ ‘Trouble Me,’ ‘These Are Days’ and ‘Candy Everybody Wants,’) the band seemed to retain ‘alternative’ cred. Surely it couldn’t just have been based on their name.

A listen through their early recordings, reissued later on Hope Chest and The Wishing Chair, explained much. Like early U2 and Kukl, these songs are meandering stabs at writing, with hookless melodies, wordy, unclear lyrics and unremarkable chord changes. Also like Bono and Bjork, Merchant’s singular personality came through in her voice and the way she used it.  10,000 Maniacs guitarist Rob Buck, too, had an original style. Perhaps not as iconoclastic as Edge’s, but enough to show promise to a record company like Elektra. The band’s ‘alternative’ roots show in these recordings: in addition to the beginnings of their brand of quirky rock, we’re taken through painful world music experiments in Soca, Zouk and Dub Reggae.

‘Death Of Manolete’ from Hope Chest demonstrates the freedom of their wide-open creativity while the exquisite ‘Dust Bowl’ from Blind Man’s Zoo shows us the focus that took hold by the band’s second album with major label producer Peter Asher.

And so we have the artists, feeling around for something new to chew on, and the executives, racing to learn how to capitalize on a movement, a sound, an idea, a persona. They can’t exist without each other, so I don’t mean to imply that executives are the Cruella DeVilles of the world. But the crops need time to grow before the combine comes along to harvest. And in the age of the internet, traces of new artistic energy are identified and absorbed into the machine with breakneck acceleration.

One such ‘absorption cycle’ that makes me shudder is what occurred somewhere between 1995 and 2008, when Jill Sobule and Katy Perry each released a song called ‘I Kissed A Girl.’ Sobule’s song felt like the honest confession of a woman testing the fluidity of her sexuality. Perry’s felt like a market-researched ‘girls gone wild’ capitalization on straight mens’ fascination with girl-on-girl action. The sincere feminist perspective of artists like Sobule through the early 90s was officially absorbed into the machine when Simon Fuller auditioned British Barbie dolls for the Spice Girls. What was their mantra?  ‘Girl Power’? Fast forward a decade, and it’s as though the feminist consciousness of the early 90s never existed. Lillith Fair sales are slipping this summer while the promo machine runs full-tilt for Katy Perry, who’s selling an updated Betty Page wet dream. Well, straight men still pull the budgetary levers at the major labels.

I was never fond of the smugly-named British band ‘Pop Will Eat Itself.’ As this creative-commercial cycle accelerates, however, I’m beginning to wonder if they were onto something. Adding momentum to this cycle is the fact that music went post-modern about 20 years ago. That is, sampling signified the gradual decline of truly new forms of pop music in favour of mixing original combinations of retro styles. If artists’ formulas weren’t made of old ingredients, it would be that much harder for executives to hack the recipe.

Janelle Monae Now

Janelle Monae Now

The ‘no rules’ artist to watch at this moment is Janelle Monae. She’s 24, she’s thoroughly disregarding anything that might be put on her as a female or a person of colour (in her own words: ‘I don’t have to do anything by default’), she’s got a big budget and she’s interesting. And–oh yes–she can sing. She can perform.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast began working with her years back, and P. Diddy, of all people, has diverged from pop formula long enough to sign her and give her the kind of backing true artists only dream of in 2010.

Her trip is highly conceptual. Through a four-part suite, she’s reportedly telling the story of a robot named Cindi Mayweather who orchestrates an uprising in Metropolis. Her lyrics are so cryptic, however, that this storyline is barely apparent in the songs. At this early stage her output is coming across as a whole lot of disjointed concept, borrowed from many sources. If Fritz Lang doesn’t turn over in his grave at her shameless appropriation of his story, other visionaries like James Brown might. Virtually every song ends up a pastiche of the styles of several decades over the last century.

Melodically, the material is somewhat flat, the most memorable hooks lifted from elsewhere. Near the beginning of  ‘Many Moons,’ a single from 2008’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite, she blatantly bites a riff from the Sesame Street pinball song we all know. After escaping the distraction of the very high budget of the ‘Many Moons’ video, it struck me that the most memorable moment of the song itself was that riff.

Selections from the new album, The ArchAndroid, include: ‘Cold War,’ its arresting single-shot video summoning the moment Sinead O’Connor shed a single tear for the camera in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’; ‘Tightrope,’ with its main ‘on the scene’ hook lifted from ‘Sex Machine,’ (something she appeared to cop to as she donned a James Brown cape while performing it on David Letterman); ‘Sir Greendown,’ something like Shirley Bassey singing a version of ‘Moon River’; and ‘Make The Bus,’ like an outtake from David Bowie’s 70s trilogy produced by Brian Eno.

Another album track, ‘Locked Inside,’ feels good because it’s written over the chords of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Golden Lady’. It’s all crammed in there, cryptic and disorganized, from cabaret to hot jazz horns and 80s hip hop. And though it’s the work of an artist getting her bearings, both overdoing the concept and underdoing the original substance, she does appear to have the potential to change the game.

In order to keep that high budget record deal so she can mature creatively, it’s important that she have a bonafide hit sometime soon. And for that to happen the songs may have to fit into a framework that people understand a little more readily. There’s the catch-22: before the artist can ignore creative boundaries and lead the way, it seems she must first learn to simplify her writing. In days gone by labels could allow an artist several albums to reach a commercial stride. These days, it’s possible that other executives may be able to pinpoint what’s special about Monae early on and manufacture other acts that are capable of overtaking her. Hurry, Janelle, hurry and grow your garden!

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

The Polaris Music Prize

Have you noticed in recent years that Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have performed on every major American awards show? As much as I respect Ms. Keys (and am not particularly offended by Beyoncé) the only way I can explain their awards-show ubiquity over, say, The Roots, is that they’ve made it into The Club…an elite club of ‘artists chosen to be promoted by the majors’.

Widely accepted as the institutions that bestow the highest honours in music, England has the Brit Awards, America has the Grammys and Canada has the Junos. As viewers we watch thinking that we’re seeing musicianship rewarded…yet it always feels curiously like we’re seeing advertisements for pop albums we are expected to buy.

But last week I attended a refreshing and inspirational night here in Toronto: the Polaris Music Prize gala. There’s been an alternate reality taking shape in the world of music awards: since 1992 the UK has had the Mercury Prize, since 2001 the USA has had the Shortlist Music Prize and since 2006 here in Canada we’ve had Polaris.

Awards

Anarchy in the UK, the USA...and Canada.

All three Prizes are similar: the award goes to the band responsible for the best album released that year. Not the album that sold the most copies, but the best album…determined via large numbers of music critics submitting lists and/or voting. For the American Short List prize, nominees’ albums must not have reached Gold sales status (500,000 copies).

The Polaris winner gets a $20,000 cash prize, often used by the band to fund their next endeavor. This year’s ‘long list’ of 40 nominees included veteran folkster Leonard Cohen and newly-indie rapper K-Os.  The narrowed shortlist of 10 bands performed live at the gala, simulcast on MuchMusic and CBC radio. CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was one of ten Canadian luminaries that each introduced a nominee, waxing personal about how the album affected them.

At one point a food-fight broke out between the tables of the obvious forerunners: celebrated new wave band Metric, Somalian-born rapper K’Naan and esoteric rock band Patrick Watson–who won the audience over by performing as a marching band weaving through the audience, wearing backpacks that sprouted bouquets of lights over their heads, the singer manipulating his vocal with effect pedals hanging from his neck, the rest of them handing out cookie sheets and wooden spoons for the audience to bang together as a room-wide rhythm section.

Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! stunned the audience with a performance that came in like a lamb and out like a lion, featuring a huge ensemble of supporting musicians crafting a painstaking climax around singer Tim Baker’s unmistakeable voice. The surprise of the evening came at the end, however, when hardcore punk band Fucked Up took the stage as the final performers and then walked away with the prize. Indeed, we’re looking at an unbiased jury process here!

I was shocked at the sheer amount of talent laid out before us that night.  I was exceedingly proud to be doing music in Canada, which the world has begun to recognize is a disproportionate exporter of great music. Ask me if I cared about the Grammys after that…?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

On The Radio

Tuning In

Tuning In

Radio was initially a live medium of announcers, actors and orchestras. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that it became widely acceptable to play records on the air. A royalty system then had to be developed to pass on some of the income from the advertisers to the songwriters and musicians for their content.

Regulations were soon put in place (by the FCC in the United States and the CRTC in Canada) to cap the number of stations a parent company could own; to prevent the conflict-of-interest that would be brought on if record companies were to own radio stations and try to control what was played; and to ensure that radio DJs had a degree of freedom in selecting music they felt their audiences would enjoy or benefit from.

In the 50s a handful of radio DJs were paramount in breaking rock’n’roll.  Late in the decade America began a federal investigation which effectively stamped out payola (the practice of record labels bribing DJs to promote specific singles), helping to cement the DJ’s role as trusted tastemaker, and eventually, provocateur. In the 60s radio DJs were key figures in a rising counterculture and the 70s brought FM radio, where jockeys had the freedom to present entire sides of albums in high quality stereo if they so chose.

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey'

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey'

Since the 80s, however, a series of policy and practice changes as a result of the mergers in big business have, in my view, pretty much castrated the radio DJ. Huge chains of stations are owned by single companies. Clear Channel monopolizes the U.S. with 1240 stations nationwide; Astral Media (the company behind Virgin Radio), CTV, Rogers and Corus Entertainment are the big ones in Canada.

DJs are handed playlists that they cannot stray from. (Actually the music is on hard disk now, and the next song on the list comes up in computer-selected order, eliminating the possibility for the DJ to stray.) Those playlists are determined by program directors who tend to add songs that are a) performed by established artists on major labels (because unfamiliarity would greaten the risk of listeners turning the dial and missing advertisements); b) no longer than 3:30 (because the shorter the songs, the more of them you can play between commercials); and c) rated highly by focus groups (who tend to react positively to songs that fit an immediately recognizable mold, ruling out many of the songs that would grow on people and promote change or growth in music).

Radio stations identify themselves by a particular ‘format’ – that is, they categorize themselves by the style of music they play. These formats are constantly in flux: if a chain of stations decides to alter what they’re playing and rename the format to appeal to a slightly different demographic, the rest of the stations in that format tend to follow suit. ‘Adult Contemporary’ used to mean Perry Como, and now it means Katy Perry––because it’s a format that plays music by the artists adults are listening to. (It’s also apparently on the verge of being renamed ‘Mainstream Soft’ to try to shake the Perry Como image.) A quick rundown of the formats:

  • CHR – Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40/Mainstream – for the tweens and teens, currently includes pop, dance and rap
  • AC – Adult Contemporary/Mainstream Soft – for adults, including pop, rock, soul, dance that is quieter or a little slower
  • Hot AC – for adults, but a little rockier or dancier
  • Triple A – Adult Album Alternative – for 30-somethings looking for subdued album-oriented artists like A Fine Frenzy, Missy Higgins etc. – there are currently only 2 stations in Canada in this format, both on U.S. border towns
  • Modern Rock – Punk pop, a la Sum 41 or Hedley
  • CAR – Contemporary Album Rock – Rock, a la Nickelback
  • Urban – the latest euphemism for ‘black music’ – Rap and R&B – there are no longer any urban stations in Canada as Toronto’s Flow 93.5 has changed to CHR

As well there are Jazz, Classical, Country and, in the U.S., plenty of Christian format stations listed by Nielsen:

Nielsen's Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Nielsen's Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Since songwriter(s) get paid anywhere from $1.65 to $25.86 per radio play (SOCAN’s payout rates depending on the station) you’re ideally hoping to get your single charting on as many formats as possible, as Jason Mraz recently did with ‘I’m Yours‘.  It broke a record by hitting number 1 on the CHR, AC, Hot AC and Triple A charts.

The major labels feed their new singles to radio stations instantly through a digital delivery service (such as DMDS in Canada). Established artists’ singles get de facto rotation, newer artists get test spins. With such a closed system, now, how does a new independent artist get a song on the radio?

Generally, by paying an independent radio promoter to get it past the gates. Radio promoters have usually been in the industry, in various capacities, for a while…long enough to develop relationships with program directors at the key stations.  In a sense, radio promoters have supplanted DJs as the tastemakers because they are relied upon to do quality control on the material they pass through. In another sense, however, they have their hands tied just as much as anybody else in the chain: nothing over 3:30, big chorus hook, no long intro without a vocal…all of the same rules apply.  There is not much chance that a radio promoter is going to be able to sneak through something utterly genre-busting by an unknown artist.

Expect a radio promoter to charge $3000-$5000 to take on your single, send it digitally to the stations in the format that supports your genre of music, and then follow up with the stations’ program directors by phone and e-mail for a 3-month period.

In English-speaking Canada, some of the most successful radio promoters include Toronto’s Dulce Barbosa (who graciously educated me about radio formats recently), Dale Peters (also in Toronto) and Oscar Furtado (in Vancouver).

Further words about Canada: federal CanCon (Canadian Content) laws exist here to ensure that our own homegrown music is promoted at radio. So, 35-40% of the material Canadian radio stations play must fulfill two of the following ‘MAPL’ designations:

  • M – Music – The music was written entirely by Canadians
  • A – Artist – The recording was performed entirely by Canadians
  • P – Production – The recording was made entirely in Canada
  • L – Lyrics – The lyrics were written entirely by Canadians

I used to feel that CanCon laws skewed my perception of what was really going on in the world––that radio play should simply be awarded to the best songs by the most polished artists––and I resented the fact that some of the artists Canadian radio had led me to believe were bonafide ‘stars’ hadn’t even scratched the public’s consciousness anywhere else in the world. But I appreciate the unique contributions Canadian musicians have made on the world stage…contributions that were possible in part because they were at first protected here by CanCon laws next to the more powerfully promoted American and British artists. We are roughly 10% the population of the United States, so labels down there have 10 times the selection when looking for an artist to promote. This also means Canadian labels have roughly 10% of the budget their American counterparts get to throw behind their artists’ promotional plans. CanCon laws are a necessity.

The burning question of the moment, however, is how much radio play even matters to an artist’s success these days. In an age when music is increasingly discovered virally on the internet in blogs and links to YouTube sensations posted on Facebook, less people spend time waiting around for a song to come on the radio. Even fewer seem to be sitting around watching music video channels. However one unique feature radio does provide is a linear, programmed stream of music and news that can be enjoyed in the background while at work or in the car, not to mention that bit of human presence the hosts bring. So for the time being, new songs will continue to be broken at radio and songwriters will continue to profit from broadcast. For the independent artist, it’s a question of whether investing in an independent radio promoter will pay off short-term, financially, or in the endgame of building a fanbase.

It is possible to do the legwork yourself, getting your single heard by individual station managers or programmers in hopes that they’ll put it into rotation and, best case scenario, cause a domino effect with other stations. But if you want to hit everybody at once and stay on top of the stations, it’s best to get serious and hire a radio promoter.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

Before The Music Dies

Hot documentary alert: I just saw a 2006 film discussing the changes in the structure of the music business that have led us to where we are now.

Before The Music Dies

Before The Music Dies

Erykah Badu, Bonnie Raitt, ?uestlove, Eric Clapton and Branford Marsalis chime in, describing the frightening effects of changes to radio station ownership laws, the practice of song testing and the merging of hundreds of record labels into four majors. The film’s directors, Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, demonstrate how a songwriter, producer and video director can manufacture a pop artist out of a young female model with virtually no musical talent.

Definitely worth watching, though the filmmakers seem to have a strong bias in favour of retro blues-based music.

Watch the trailer here. Download the film here. Thanks to Steve and Chris for passing it along.

, , , ,

No Comments

People In Your Neighbourhood

Boy George: Your Tranny Brother

Boy George: Your Tranny Brother

At the height of Culture Club’s success I remember people complaining that Boy George should have been able to make it solely on musical talent, without needing to resort to gimmickry…ie dressing in cosmopolitan drag. He was a talented writer and singer, but–consciously or unconsciously–he realized that audiences are not attracted to artists purely on the merit of their musical output.

We know this is true because there are endless examples of uniquely talented musicians that never garner a substantial following. That’s because what actually attracts us, as listeners, I believe, is an artist’s identity.

It’s true that this identity is built in part around the style and content of the songs, including the lyrics and the overall tone/sentiment. But for a star to be born, it’s critical that the music align properly with a host of other attributes, including the voice they were born with and the way they choose to use it; the physicality they were born with and how they choose to dress it up; how they move; and how they interview. The persona constructed with these tools needs to be instantly recognizable and compelling. (I won’t go so far as to say ‘appealing’, because there are plenty of celebrities that we love to hate.)

Speaking recently of the Supremes, Diana Ross wasn’t the lead singer of the group because she had the best voice in a technical sense. But her effervescent look and pastel-sounding voice combined to make her a compelling figure: she had instant identity.

Whether it’s the first few lines of a song, or a photo in a magazine spread, the audience needs to get a sense of the artist’s identity similar to the impressions we form of the people in our neighbourhoods we see around but haven’t had personal conversations with yet.

Here are some artists with identities so clear and compelling, whether we like them or not we all feel as though we know them from around.

50 Cent: The Thug That Wants A Hug

50 Cent: The Thug That Wants A Hug

Bjork: That Girl Down The Street That Was Rushed To The Hospital After Swallowing Marbles

Bjork: That Girl Down The Street That Was Rushed To The Hospital After Swallowing Marbles

Tina Turner: That Survivor Aunt Of Yours

Tina Turner: That Survivor Aunt Of Yours

Stevie Nicks: Your Friend's Gypsy Mother

Stevie Nicks: Your Friend's Gypsy Mother

Bruce Springsteen: The Guy Who Works Down At The Factory

Bruce Springsteen: That Guy Who Works Down At The Factory

Prince: Harlequin-Gigolo In A Fairy Tale You Once Read

Prince: Harlequin-Gigolo In A Fairy Tale You Once Read

David Bowie: The Alien In The Book You Read In 6th Grade

David Bowie: The Alien In The Book You Read In 6th Grade

Pink: That White Trash Neighbour With The Pit Bull

Pink: That White Trash Neighbour With The Pit Bull

Madonna: That Brazen Girl In High School That Was Always Saying Trashy Things For Shock Value

Madonna: That Brazen Girl In High School That Was Always Saying Trashy Things For Shock Value

All musicians are driven to make music. Those that are also driven to author every aspect of their public persona–from clothing to video treatments–end up having a lot less time to sleep but they have an edge over the rest, both in terms of career control and potential for success. That’s because most of us lack the ability to stand back and get a clear perspective on who we are, pinpoint what’s compelling about ourselves and amplify it.

Those who can’t must rely on industry executives’ abilities to look inside them and tailor the right persona…a rare feat in itself. If they get it wrong, the project will fail either because the identity won’t be compelling, or the artist won’t be able to carry an ill-fitting persona for very long before the audience sees through it.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

To Sign Or Not To Sign

Courtney Love

Courtney Love, Mathematician

In 2000 Courtney Love made a speech at a music conference. She got out her calculator and demonstrated what happens when a band signs a dream deal with a major label and has a hit album: the label makes an average of $6.6 million and the band makes an average of $0. The way things are structured in those deals, all of the costs of recording and promoting an album are passed back to the artist, and unless the band has multiple hit albums in a row they don’t actually make money.

This is not to say that the band isn’t living a suitably Hollywood lifestyle–touring and enjoying the trimmings of success–or that they might not benefit in the long run from having their identity erected to ‘household name’ status above the deafening din of all of the other aspiring musicians in the world. The major labels have built networks of promotional resources around themselves precisely for that purpose.

However, almost ten years after Love’s math class, the sea change in the music industry has lumbered forward. File sharing has won: physical product and the ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores that stock it are no longer necessary. All the filler labels used to cram onto CD-length albums is systematically ignored now that legal and illegal digital downloads are the norm. The majors have eaten up the rosters of even more independent boutique labels, destroying the influence of some of the innovative thinkers of those startups in an attempt to eliminate street-level competition.  Sony and BMG merged, bringing the major label count down to four…that is, four clumsy multinational giants plagued with red tape and corporate approval hierarchies in a business that is utterly out of touch with ‘what the kids want’ because gut-level instincts have given way to copycat marketing models.

Essentially, it’s become common knowledge among insiders that for the foreseeable future, the major labels are going to be good for one type of music: music mass-marketed to 11-year old American or British girls. The artists doing that kind of music are often primarily concerned with fame, so they’re not thinking much about the money, assuming it will follow.  They will rarely make a cut of the most potentially lucrative income source–writing royalties–because the labels will bring in professional writers who will come up with commercially viable material…or at least material that the radio stations will throw their support behind when they see writers with a track record of radio hits in the credits.

The labels all have sister companies in the music publishing world (Sony has Sony ATV Publishing; Warner has Warner-Chappell Publishing; EMI has EMI Music Publishing) that represent hit-making writers, and the cut those companies make gets routed back into the machine. It is true that often, however, the artist’s manager will insist that their non-writing artist come up with a line or two in a verse so that they’ll be cut in to the royalties at least in a minor way…and with their name in those credits, they’ll be perceived by fans as a singer-songwriter. (And this eventually leads to non-writing artists being offered lucrative publishing contracts, if their records are selling well.)

If you’re doing music aimed at anyone other than tweens, it’s probably a safer bet to stay indie, own everything and work hard to cultivate a solid grassroots fanbase.  At this point in time, the majors are hemorrhaging money, so they expect artists with loftier musical ambitions to have done their own ‘artist development’…ie come up with their own image and styling; work out the details of their stage show; write some hit songs and grow an audience.  So, ironically, if you do find yourself in the middle of a bidding war between the majors you may realize there’s not much more they can do for you. You might as well keep 100% of your profits rather than turn over 50-90% of your profits to somebody who didn’t show their support by investing in your potential earlier on.

Atlantic Records Founder Ahmet Ertegun

Atlantic Records Founder Ahmet Ertegun

There is no one ‘evil person’ at the helm of all of this financial deception. Artists are often focused on making their music and consider themselves not particularly business-minded, so they ignore the work they need to do to educate themselves.

Many execs at labels and publishing companies are failed artists, or people who dreamed of being artists but never believed in themselves enough to give it a real shot.  They want to stay involved in the industry, for the love of music or the cool factor, but how many execs could possibly have the instincts of industry legends like Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, a man whose understanding and raw passion for music led him to build a diverse stable of equally legendary artists?

These days there are so many jobs on the line in these multinational record companies, risk-taking of any kind has consequences…hence the constant references to existing successes: ‘make a track like Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis.’  And the writers and producers all scamper off to study how the reference song is constructed, coming back with paler and paler imitations; further and further from what a hit song is supposed to be: an epiphany.

Town Crier Bob Lefsetz

Town Crier Bob Lefsetz

It’s a simple fact of the economy that growing a band on a global scale over a series of albums is now financially impossible. So, as Howard Jones would say, no one is to blame. I suppose you could waste your time blaming the forward march of technology, specifically mp3 compression and high-speed internet, the way the advent of sampling was once demonized. But industry guru Bob Lefsetz, for example, trumpets on a daily basis in his blog that the majors are on their last legs because they constantly miss the boat by fighting technology rather than finding ways to capitalize on it.  He also repeats relentlessly: be a good, original musician; write good, original songs; do it because you love it and not because you’re looking to get rich.  In other words, Build It And They Will Come.

I think most musicians commit to their vocation at an early age with the erroneous belief that a good song by someone with a great voice becomes a hit because everybody in the industry goes out of their way to make it so in the name of sharing exceptional new music.  Most music fans who are industry outsiders exist their whole lives believing that this is so.  They may have heard that the entertainment industry is full of sharks, or that it’s a hustle, but people rarely hear concrete explanations of shady practices.

A few things to think about when considering signing with a label, publishing company or manager:

– Most radio stations are corporate entities now, often with multinational parent companies, and they have strict ‘formats’ detailing specific parameters (style, length, song structure) for what they play.  The major labels have departments that feed the stations with material, and the stations trust the labels to bring content their listeners will be excited about.  If you go the indie route, expect to pay an independent radio promoter several thousand dollars per month, per song, to try to get your material played on a specific format.  The success rate for the investment is lower than if you are with a label.  Material rarely gets in the door without a promoter. Whether radio is important anymore, with YouTube promoting most music, is another discussion entirely.

– If you do not live in the country where the head office of the label or publishing company you’re interested in is located, you will be trying to attract the attention of executives who have limited power over their artists’ destinies.  In other words, if you sign with EMI in any country other than the UK or you sign with Universal, Warner or Sony in any country other than the US, your music will never be released in other countries unless the head offices there can be persuaded to back you as well. Writers signed to the offices of major publishing companies in countries other than the US or UK have their material pitched for use in movies, television and ads after domestic writers’ material is pitched as the head office stands to make less of a cut on foreign writers’ material.

– It’s critical to get the right fit: if you sign to the biggest label or publishing company because of their clout, and the individuals working at that office are not particularly excited about your music, you may find your project constantly blocked or shelved.  Then it’s a waiting game to be released from your contract so your career can move forward. It’s also not unheard of for labels to sign artists with no intention of putting out their music…rather, the goal was to eliminate competition in the genre of one of the company’s existing artists.

– The same goes for managers.  If you sign to the most powerful manager in your city–paying them 20% of your income for a period of years–make sure that they’re interested enough in your career that you are a priority for them. If that manager has another artist that blows up worldwide, you may find your needs ignored.  It’s often better to be self-managed than managed by the wrong person.

– Because of their unique position negotiating contracts between parties in the industry, music lawyers know most of the players…be they labels, managers, publishers, producers, artists or writers. Often lawyers will help people network with each other, but watch out for biases and vested interests.

– Owning all of your publishing on a hit song can be very lucrative, however owning 100% of a song that isn’t being pushed to the right artists or advertisers is owning one hundred percent of nothing. The right publisher can help you make a living by pitching your material and setting up writing opportunities with artists.  However if a television series is looking to use one of your songs, for example, they must clear its use with all parties who own a share. The more parties involved and the bigger the publishers, the more red tape…making it too much of a hassle for some agencies to bother with.

, , , ,

No Comments

Cashflow In The Music Industry

 

The industry is huge.  There are all sorts of organizations that funnel royalties down to artists, writers and producers.  I couldn’t keep it all straight in my head, so I finally made a couple of flowcharts.

One flowchart illustrates the traditional flow of cash, and the other gives some shape to the new model that we see forming, wherein the major labels are replaced by investors (of any kind) and each artist releases their material digitally on their own indie label.  Right-click or Control-click (Mac) to download a legible PDF.

 

Traditional Model

Traditional Model

 

New Model

New Model

 

I recommend reading these from the top left corner.  That way, your eye will guide you through the information in a way that makes sense.  Colour coding is by ‘branch’ of the industry (income from sales of recordings, income from performance of songs etc.).

This is a work in progress.  If there are errors or omissions, by all means let me know.  For example, booking agents will be added in the next iteration.

,

No Comments