THE TOP FIVE THINGS EVERY SINGER/SONGWRITER IS DOING THAT NEED TO BE FIXED

There are at least a hundred ways for every singer/songwriter to improve his or her chances of success, but these are the five I already know that need to be addressed without even seeing your show. They are inherent the performance of virtually all aspiring (and sadly many seasoned) singer/songwriters.

FIX #5: WHAT’S YOUR NAME?

How many times has someone told you about a great act they saw the night before but had no idea as to the artist’s name? Hang a banner in the back, put a logo on the front of your keyboard, have your name in pearl inlays on your fretboard, whatever. Make sure that there’s something on stage that somehow visually embeds your name into the mind’s eye of each audience member so that they will remember you, your music, and your name.

FIX #4: NO VISUAL VARIETY

If all of your songs are sung into a mic standing at center stage, the audience will be bored by song three. Move the mic stand to different places on the stage, sit on the front of the stage, go into the crowd, use a bar stool, sing something a cappella away from the mic and get the audience to sing along. Every song must be presented with a different visual; otherwise all of your songs are going to all “sound alike” to your audience.

FIX #3: TOO MANY DISTRACTIONS

The audience only needs to see your mouth, your eyes and your hands. THAT’S IT! Other than your name on a banner, everything else on stage that may divert their attention away from those three visual means of communication is an unnecessary distraction. That means no flowered shirts or pants, no red boots, no wild hats or hairdos, no white guitars, no musical instrument logos, and above all, no skin.

FIX #2: TOO MANY MID-TEMPO SONGS

Mid-tempo songs are stock in trade for all budding singer/songwriters, but performed live to an unfamiliar audience, they’re boring, boring, boring. The first and best way to get to an audience to respond to you right away is by the FEEL of the first song of your set. An up-tempo song (preferably a shuffle) gets their heads nodding and their feet tapping. Always start and end your set with an up-tempo song.

AND THE #1 FIX EVERY SINGER/SONGWRITER NEEDS TO DO: STOP EATING THE MIC

Again, you have three ways to visually communicate your emotions to your audience – your hands, your eyes, and your mouth. If you eat the mic, no one can see your mouth. Lose the SM58 and get a mic you can sing over the top of. I recommend a Telefunken M80 (women) or M81 (men). (Side note: lose the shades as well.)

The 96 other ways to improve your show and your career are spelled out in greater detail in my newest book – The Singer/Songwriter Boot Camp Rule Book: 101 Ways to Improve Your Chances of Successavailable at Amazon/Kindle and in digital and book form at http://amzn.to/2o4osB8.

TEN MUSIC BIZ PREDICTIONS, HOPES & DREAMS FOR 2017

Here’s to all of these things coming true in 2017 so that there might be a happy and fruitful 2018!

1. Return of Real Songs

Millennials will come out of their collective fog and realize that what passes for pop music these days – well-produced, pleasant, beat-driven, formula, lyrically repetitive, singsongy, non-melodic music – are not really songs. Real songs – narrative stories with beginnings, middles and ends (as well as the clever bridges) – will stage a comeback, and real songwriters and performers will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

2. Mic Technique Revolution

A superstar singer will set an example on proper microphone technique for the rest of the pop and rock entertainment world by taking the mic out of and away from his or her mouth, allowing us to not only finally see the singers’ facial expressions but to also prevent them from popping their p’s. This epiphany will not spill over into the rap world.

3. Live Performance is Everything

Concert promoters, club bookers and agents will refuse to sign or book any act that isn’t any good at entertaining an audience in a live performance situation. The result? Only artists who have developed an entertaining live show will be allowed to perform. That will bring ticket-buying audiences back into venues and no more pay for play. It will also require artists to learn how to entertain instead of just singing and playing at the same time.

4. Who’s your agent?

As live performance revenue becomes the gold standard for music artists, booking agencies will become the most influential aspect of artists’ careers, surpassing record companies and managers in that respect. Again, an artist’s live show will be the centerpiece of their careers.

5. Local Radio Plays Local Music

Terrestrial local radio stations will regain control over the music they play from their national conglomerate home offices. Music fans will have some sway in what gets played on local radio though real-time mobile apps linked directly to the local radio station studios. The rising tide of listenership will raise all advertising rates boats. Win/win.

6. Performance Royalties from Radio

Congress will expand current performance payments made by radio stations to writers and composers to include master rights holders and, hence, the performers (as it is in the rest of the world except mainly North Korea, Iran and China – great company we keep, huh?). When this long-overdue slight is righted, American master rights holders and performers can then additionally start collecting those performance royalties that are currently being collected (but not paid out) to US-based artists from 75 other nations around the world. All in all, it will mean millions of dollars in windfall to the American music creative community from both here and abroad.

7. Better Streaming Rates

The Constitutional right to a regulated and fair compensation for writers, composers and performers will be enforced on digital streaming companies and extended to all future but currently unknown methods of an audience enjoying an artist’s creative endeavors.

8. Music As Merch

CDs and downloads will be officially relegated to the merch table, websites and indie stores, as artists and record companies finally concede that streaming is the preferable (and more profitable) way of buying music for instant and daily consumption.

9. Record Companies Evolve

Record companies (still the best source of funding, marketing and promotion of an artist’s music career ambitions) will rightfully continue with their 360 deals, but will divert attention away from music sales and focus more on the revenue that can be generated (and commissioned) from live performances, publishing and merchandising (which now includes CDs and downloads). The strength of an artist’s live show will weigh in larger than before in evaluating label signings.

10. New Artists Breakthough on Indie Labels

Indie labels will continue to be the grass roots discovery and nurturing ground for new and developing artists. Many will offer all the services of a major by utilizing third-party independent marketing and promotion companies such as The Artist Cooperative.

We can all dream, can’t we?

QUICK LIVE PERFORMANCE QUIZ

There are a lot of things we all know (or think we know) about the ins and outs of live performance, since most of us have been dealing with it professionally for years. But do we? Take the Quick Live Performance Quiz and see! We’ll start with some stuff most of us already know:

IT’S FAIRLY COMMON KNOWLEDGE THAT…  

…developing a great live show and building a live show fan base are essential to entice the attention of a manager, agent, record company or investor these days. If you don’t have a great live act to back up your music, the odds are decidedly against you.

…the ability to sing and play your songs at the same time is a craft that can be taught and learned by rote. But to entertain? That is an art, and it can only be realized by taking the learned craft up one level into experimental rehearsal.

…the first two things a performer needs to do in order to win over an audience are the same two things you need to do when meeting people for the first time. Make eye contact and smile – and do so frequently during the entire time you’re on stage.

…when a performer is uncomfortable on stage, the audience is uncomfortable as well.

…most recorded songs should be moved up a key or two for live performances in order to project more emotion.

BUT DID YOU KNOW THAT…

…90% of singer/songwriters make 90% of their income from live performances? The rest generally comes from publishing and merch, particularly if you look at music sales as merch. And you should.

…most members of an audience make up their minds whether they like you or not within the first ten seconds you enter the stage, even before you get to the microphone?

…your “snazzy” outfit, jewelry, hair style and even showing skin can work against the effectiveness of your performance?

…most live performers today are blocking out a third of their visual communication with their audiences by bad mic technique?

a set list needs to be constructed according to feel, beat and tone, with a pattern to attract, entice, hold and excite an audience? And that a set of four songs may be a wholly different list of songs than a set of eight?

WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT…

…there are three ways to entertain an audience musically (melody, lyrics and rhythm) and you should aim for at least two of the three with every song?

…in addition to planning a set so that everything goes right, a performing artist should have a secondary plan for when everything goes wrong?

…the logos and wild colors on your wardrobe, instruments, amplifiers, and backdrop can provide unnecessary distractions to the audience?

…a note-for-note duplication of the recorded versions of your songs may not be best suited for live performance?

…a visual representation of your name on stage helps the audience remember you?

AND DID YOU REALIZE THAT…

performing artists need to commit their songs and patter to memory so that they will stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about entertaining the audience?

…when all of the songs in a set are performed from the same place on a stage, they all seem to sound the same to an audience?

…what happens between the last note of one song and the first note of the next is as important as the songs themselves?

practicing is not the same as rehearsing?

…how a performer exits the stage is almost as important as the entrance?

AND FINALLY…

…probably 90% of the audience knows nothing about how music is created, played or performed. Therefore, since the audience doesn’t know a verse from a chorus from a bridge, you as the performing artist have to visually let them know when you’re transitioning from one to another.

…an effective way to get the attention of an audience is to briefly get very soft or really loud.

familiarity should dictate set length. If the audience is completely familiar with you and your songs, you should play for at least an hour; however if they don’t know you or your songs, you should play no more than a half hour TOPS.

…an audience member will be more likely to buy your music after the show if the song that really moved them during the set is available at the merch table.

…a performing artist should do things on stage that the audience could never do or would never think of doing anywhere, let alone in front of other people.

How’d you do?

15 – 20: Come on. You’ve done this before.

10 – 15: A little refresher course might be in order.

5 – 10: You need a good Live Performance Coach.

0 – 5:  You need a great Live Performance Coach.

A Live Performance Coach is aware of all of these things and more. All the more reason for musicians and performing artists to work with one before embarking on a stage career. More next month.

 

HOW TO GET ALL THE CRED OF SXSW WITHOUT THE TIME AND EXPENSE

“Music is spiritual. The music business is not. – Van Morrison

It’s almost that time again – that time of year when every band and singer worth their salt makes that annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Austin) for the week-long SXSW festival. A week of no sleep, watered-down drinks, bad food, unrewarding performances and the heartbreak of the ultimate realization that it wasn’t really worth it. Never have so many spent so much time and money for so little notoriety and reward. 

So, here you are, another year goes by and, once again, you still can’t afford to go and you can’t afford to not go. What the hell are you going to do? Simple: Don’t go….and just say you did.

“WHAT?” you’re probably asking yourself right now. “What kind of fool would give out this sort of advice and what kind of fool would take it?” Hear me out.

Now I’m sure that you think that you might be missing out on something and that you were at least hoping to network and snare some sort of deal. After all, this could be the year! This could be your big break! This could be your time! Or not.

But you CAN still get the promised SXSW payoff even if you don’t actually go! It’s really quite simple. Just follow these six steps:
Step 1)   Two weeks before SXSW: Announce to all your friends and post to all your fans that you’ll be playing multiple cool, hip private parties every night at SXSW. Let them know that most of the parties haven’t been announced yet and you can only get in by special invitation but that you’re going to work on getting a guest list for your friends and fans. Whenever anyone calls or texts or emails, don’t respond right away. Then later apologize, but remind them how busy you are setting up your shows at SXSW.

Step 2)   One week before SXSW: Remind everyone of your trip but that you don’t know where you’ll be staying yet because everything is booked up, but that you’ll try to keep in touch with them on FB or Twitter but to not expect you to be able to answer calls, emails or texts, because everybody knows that since all 20,000 people (maybe it’s 200,000, I don’t know) will be sucking up all the bandwidth in town, it’s going to be hard to get messages back and forth. So tell them to just keep checking the SXSW website, or some such silliness.

Step 3)   Three days before SXSW: Announce that you’re leaving for Austin and that you’re hoping to take advantage of some pickup gigs along the way, hard to say where or when.

Step 4)   Then: You pack up your gear and head out of town to some place where no one knows you. Check into a cheap motel and shut off your phone and your laptop/tablet. Relax. Read. Write a new song or two. Catch up on your sleep. Occasionally you should send out a tweet or FB post about what a wonderful time you’re having and how great you sound, blah, blah, blah. Tip: shut off your GPS location tracking, just in case.

Step 5)   The day after SXSW is over: Turn on your phone again and let everyone know you’re heading home after a very successful trip to Austin. You played to full houses, got drunk with all your idols and made a lot of contacts with some very important people. You even wrote some songs in someone’s van.

Step 6)   Once you get home: Send emails or texts or call every important person that you know was at SXSW and tell them it was so cool to meet them and how much you appreciated the nice things they said about your music and you’re following up on their offer to get together for some lunch to discuss how you guys might work together in the future and that this time, you’ll buy!

Whoever gets your message will have little to no memory of SXSW anyway, since it’s really just an excuse for the industry dweebs to get away from their miserable existences and drink and get high for a week. And since there are over 2,000 performances (I really don’t know how many; maybe it’s 20,000), there’s no way in hell that they can say that they never met you there. They may be a little embarrassed and apologize but you assure them that you meant everything you said and that you’re a person of your word and your word is your bond, etc. – whatever it is you need to say to make sure that they meet with you anyway.

Unless they, too, have read this post and never went at all. But then, they couldn’t admit that, could they?

BTW: This same routine works well for CMJ but not so much for the more limited single-venue events such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza – too easy to get caught and, besides, those are way more fun. You should actually go. Have fun.

(Editors note: You may be thinking that this plan is not foolproof (and I agree) and that only a fool would try this stunt. Foolish? Or just foolhardy?  The former implies not noticing risk; the latter, continuing despite it.  Admittedly, it would take someone with a lot of swagger and confidence, plus the ability and desire to pull one over on unsuspecting industry-types. Not only pushing the envelope, but breaking out of it altogether. Do it.)

BTW – I’ve seen it done and it can work.

“I think that the rock ‘n’ roll myth of living on the edge is just a pile of crap.” – Robert Smith

 

A SUCCESSFUL MUSIC INDUSTRY PANEL DISCUSSION – SERIOUSLY!

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the music industry has been subjected to (or participated in) an inordinate number of pointless panel discussions. A lot of my jaundiced view stems from the experience that the people who populate panels are doing so more for the prestige and notoriety of proselytizing to the converted than actually saying anything meaningful. Let’s get real: anyone who knows anything about how to get ahead in this business is not about to reveal it to a room full of competitors. Actually, while the panels are going on, the real business is being carried out in the adjacent hallways, or at lunch, or in the hotel lobby bar. Enough said about that.

But after all these years of spending time on both sides of the dais, I recently witnessed a panel situation that actually worked! In reality, I was more than a witness; I was one of the panelists, although that certainly wasn’t the reason it worked. Never in my experience have I been involved in anything so well planned, so well produced, so well done. It was put together by the organizers of the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation’s Bringing Down The House program. It was held earlier last month, not just here in LA at the Live Nation studios in Hollywood, but also Skyped to House of Blues clubs in seven other US cities where similar events were being held. Bringing Down The House is a national program sponsored by the HOB Foundation where local high school-aged artists and bands compete for the chance to perform on stage at their local House of Blues in a special evening performance. This year, they decided to take it one giant step further and incorporate a series of Saturday morning educational panel discussions covering virtually every aspect of pursuing music as a career.

My panel’s subject matter covered everything from songwriting to home studios to label A&R to performing rights organizations, for which real experts had been invited. Then there were the “kitchen sink” topics, which had apparently been left for me to address. The questions came fast and furious from a panel moderator, but the best stuff came from the high schoolers themselves, not only in the LA studio but also from kids in each of the participating cities in a kind of Face Time, real-time, large-screen situation. How refreshing to find a crowd of young, talented musicians and performers who seemed to be soaking up everything we had to say. A rare audience indeed. Read on!

HOB post panel shot

Continue reading…

THE SIGHT VS. SOUND PERFORMANCE THEORY – WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT NECESSARILY WHAT YOU GET

“Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

In the course of the last 40 years or so, I’ve attended perhaps 5,000 musical performances of every genre and circumstance imaginable; from audiences of six to those of 60,000; from solo performers to large orchestras. In almost every one of them, I’ve been somewhat appalled by the reactions and impressions taken away by many of the audience members as to the relative value of the performances. Far too many times, I’ve found, the general public has little to no idea as to the quality of the songs or musicianship, but are way more impressed by their visual acumen. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but rather how the confidence exuded by the performers, their appearance and stage presence, trumped even the most obvious less-than-stellar renditions of the artists’ material.

My consternation led me to formulate my Sight/Sound Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 90%/10% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 90% of what they see vs. 10% of what they hear, whether they realize it or not. This is not meant as an assault on the intelligence of the concert-going public. It is a well-documented natural tendency of humans to evaluate (and believe) what they see long before surmising what they hear, as evidenced by the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong lyric above.

Until recently, I have not seriously avowed my audio/visual theory, as I’ve had no real backup for my statistic; it’s based on nothing but my own experience. But then I came upon two published studies which supported it, if only obliquely. The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s widely read 2005 book Blink, and the second from a Harvard doctoral thesis on classical piano competitions, neither of which is nearly as boring as it sounds. Read on; you’ll be glad you did. Continue reading…

A BOOMER’S TEN CONCERT RULES FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties.” – Bob Dylan

 

Ah, once again, a toast to the good old days of Baby Boomer music – back in the previous millennium when artists only had to churn out two great and ten good rock or pop songs and then their record company would handily foist those songs, 12 at a time, onto the waiting general public sponge through an all-too-willing radio station arrangement and a voluminous 9am-midnight record store.

That was the machinery that then allowed the artist to tour, virtually at will, to play all sorts of dumps and dives (and later the lawn seating general admission heat fests) at any time of the year that they so chose. Everyone had to put up with the long lines, the late sets, the uncomfortable (if available) seating, the bad food, watered down drinks, dark and scary distant parking – because we loved the music and we were all in it together. We needed to see and hear our favorite artists, live and in person, and we would go to any lengths to get there. It was a red badge of courage to detail to friends, family and co-workers the ordeal one had to go through to get tickets, fight the crowds, and stand for hours on end to catch the show. After all, the artist wouldn’t be back in town for at least another year or so, depending on how long it took to write and record the next album, which we were already craving. Continue reading…

THE MUSIC BUSINESS RUNS ON SUSHI – BUT ARE YOU DOING IT RIGHT?

Back in the early ‘80s, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, after signing Irish-rockers U2, decided to stay ahead of some imaginary country-of-origin curve and signed Japanese art/punk rock band Plastics (or The Plastics). As Island was at the time distributed by Warners, I was assigned to accompany the band on their maiden tour of America to facilitate promotional activities.

The best thing about the tour was that we would entertain radio and press at very nice Japanese restaurants in America where the band would order dishes not on the menu that defied description and pronunciation. Outside of the major markets, however, we would have to sublimate on just the sushi and sashimi on the menu. But as a result, I learned a lot from the band about the etiquette and procedure for properly ordering and eating sushi.

Fast forward to a sushi restaurant the other night (before a show, naturally) where I realized that, for all of the sushi consumption that keeps the music biz running on a daily basis, most of my colleagues are not aware of the correct ways in which one orders and consumes sushi. In fact, most of the others at the dinner admitted that they were only copying something they saw someone else do years ago, which wasn’t necessarily correct. Therefore, as an apparent altruistic public service, allow me to pass on a few major points about sushi given to me in the nicest possible manner by the members of The Plastics.

CAVEAT: A full comprehension of Japanese dining etiquette and the extensive nomenclature surrounding the art of sushi are way beyond the scope of this blog. But it’s kind of like publishing – if you know anything at all, you know more than 90% of anyone else in the music business.

First of all, some DEFINITIONS are in order: the word sushi refers to the sticky, vinegary rice that serves as the basis of the cuisine and which, by the way, is considered to be more important than the fish. Here are some things we call sushi which aren’t: a sushi roll is maki; a hand roll is temaki; a strip of sushi rice with a piece of fish stuck on top is nigiri; and strips of fish without the sushi rice is sashimi – OK, you probably knew the last one.

NOTE: The sushi bar is for ordering sushi only. If you or someone in your party would prefer teriyaki, tempura, edamame, or the like, sit at a table.

 As you’ll be eating with your hands, begin by wiping your fingers with the provided warm, wet towel. (If a wet towel is not offered, the place might be a little suspect. Move to a table and order the teriyaki.) After the hand cleaning, put the towel aside. Never apply it to your face (or anywhere else you might think to use a wet towel).

Greet the chef and, if he speaks English, ask what he recommends. Do not talk to the chef during preparation or dining. Never offer or attempt to hand money to the chef as a tip. Afterwards you may offer to buy two shots of sake – one for each of you. And if you have the occasion, compliment the chef on the rice. Again, it’s all about the rice.

Pour only a small amount of soy sauce in the small cup and add to it as needed. Never leave soy sauce in the cup at the end of the meal – bad manners.

Do not mix wasabi in with the soy sauce, unless you’re eating sashimi. BTW, real wasabi is an expensive vegetable found only in Japan. What you’re getting is horseradish dyed green to look like wasabi. The chef has already put the correct amount of real wasabi in the sushi. Do not add anymore unless you really HAVE to. It insults the chef when you do. If you MUST add more wasabi, use your chopsticks to pick up the smallest dab and brush it on top of the fish – never the rice. Same thing with the soy sauce – only a brush on the fish at the very most. Do not dip or soak. Bad, bad, bad.

EATING SUSHI

Lift the sushi (actually nigiri) between your thumb and middle finger. In a deft manner that requires some practice beforehand, turn the nigiri upside down in a counterclockwise motion (sorry – it may seem as if I’m making this stuff up – I’m not!). Lightly brush only the fish in the soy sauce – never the rice. Never shake any soy sauce off of the fish; in fact, never shake sushi for any reason. Any item with sauce or other ingredients already on the top, i.e., eel (unagi), should not be turned over and brushed with any soy sauce at all.

Place the sushi upside down in your mouth so the fish is directly on the tongue. Savor it on the tongue for a moment before chewing or gulping or whatever it is that you do with your sushi once it’s in your mouth.

Do not bite or cut off half of the serving; eat the whole thing. If sushi sizes are generally too big for you, ask your chef to prepare smaller versions for you. The exception is the hand roll, of course, that you have to eat in several bites. Hand rolls are generally more of a fast food, take out item in Japan.

Eat a piece of the ginger between mouthfuls – it cleans the palate. It can be picked up with chopsticks or your fingers. Never mix the ginger with anything or put it in your mouth with other food.

Do not order more than you can eat. Eat everything – never waste food that you have put on your plate.

Miso soup is meant to be consumed after the meal as a way to help settle the food. Ask for it after the sushi, but before the check. If no spoon is provided, pick up the bowl with both hands and bring it to your mouth. Slurping your soup is encouraged – it shows you’re enjoying it. Honest.

More recent etiquette says leave your cellphone shut off in your purse or pocket. No posting food photos or checking email. Rude!

With the exception of sashimi, all sushi is to be eaten with the fingers. For everything else, there are CHOPSTICKS. There’s way too much information about the care and handling of chopsticks to even begin to list here. Safe to say there are a few basic rules that, if followed correctly, you’ll never get called out at any location where they only speak English and take dollars.

  • Do not rub chopsticks together to remove splinters. Do not play your favorite drumbeat with them. Do not wave them around or point them at anyone or anything including the food. Do not pass food to anyone using chopsticks. Do not suck sauce off the ends. Do not nibble on them or use them for any other activity. Do not cross your chopsticks – unless it’s your objective to show everyone the symbol of death.
  • The “secret” of using chopsticks is to only move the top one. Do not hold them in your hand using all five fingers. That’s all I can tell you – you’re on your own from there. Like any skill, it takes practice, which would be best done in the comfort and privacy of your own home before you try it out in public. I’m still working on it.
  • You are allowed to use your chopsticks to tear apart larger pieces of food, although you should never stab your food with a chopstick. It’s not a knife or a fork.
  • When not in use, place your chopsticks to the right of your serving area, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and NEVER point them in anyone’s direction.
  • Putting the chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you’re done and the server will remove everything immediately. You’ll want to avoid that.
  • When the meal is completed and if you were provided with disposable chopsticks, place them back inside the paper wrapper as best you can and leave them to the right of your plate.

Now you’re ready for your big coming out sushi dinner. Enjoy!

PLASTICS TOUR FUN FACT: When the band arrived and the tour began, one minor problem surfaced – the band spoke little to no English and my Japanese was, of course, non-existent. I bought Berlitz Japanese/English dictionaries for everyone, but that didn’t work. Somehow in the back and forth though, we discovered that both the lead singer and I had studied and remembered enough high school French to carry on a decent conversation. So we spent the rest of the tour communicating in bad French. For press and radio interviews, I would translate the question into some basic French and the singer would discuss it with the band in Japanese, of course, and come back to me in French; whereupon I would try and interpret it as best I could back to the writer or DJ. Most of the time I just made it up.

STINGER: Halfway into the tour, the lead singer approached me, acting very nervous, and in broken French pointed out that the band members eat Japanese food back home all the time and, while in America, they would rather experience some American cuisine. Well, duh. I apologized profusely and from there on out, it was my turn to do the ordering.

WHY NOTHING COMPARES TO PRINCE

There’s always been a notion that if we could emulate the lives of those we admire, then our lives would have the same outcomes as theirs – talented, successful, rich, famous, happy, whatever. That, of course, explains all the “Seven Secrets of…..” books and the popularity of biographies as treasure maps to our desired fortunes. Although the lives of successful music artists fall into that same category and there are certainly crafts and skills to be mastered, there are two areas that cannot be duplicated, which are, unfortunately, the two most important things required for success – artistry and luck. Which is why nothing compares to Prince. His was the perfect storm of skills, artistry and luck.

His talents were unparalleled in the world of popular music and so heralded so much recently that there’s really no reason for me to list them here again. Know that each of the skills he mastered required the now-proverbial 10,000 hours of learning, practice, and self-discipline – each of them. All the talent in the world still requires that amount of woodshedding, trial and error and back to the drawing board perseverance. Who among us has that drive? Who’s out there now picking up the torch? 

Even putting in that kind of life-long work doesn’t necessarily produce a successful career in the arts. You have to have the inborn talent to take those well-honed crafts and elevate them into art. Prince had that talent. I don’t and probably neither do you.

And even putting that innate talent aside, there’s the inevitable requirement to be in the right place at the right time with the right thing. Here’s where luck favored Prince. His heritage was black music from Louisiana but he grew up in white bread Minneapolis. That meant he had parental music influence from an early age but wasn’t hampered by local customs of what music he should or shouldn’t be doing. That way, much as the Beatles in Liverpool, he opened out of town so that when his time came, he was ready.

His artistry was influenced by the immediately previous two decades of black music crossover and he blatantly stole from the best of them (a la the Beatles again) – Little Richard, Elvis, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. The time was ripe for someone to combine all of those performance elements with the music of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. And that’s where he set himself apart from all of those who preceded him and apparently all of those who followed – live performance.

And speaking of luck and live performance, I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the Warner Bros. Records Artist Relations staff in the early ‘80s, which provided me with the assignment to go out on tour with Prince, mainly to work with whatever other talent he had found, developed and brought out on tour with him, i.e., The Time, Vanity Six, Apollonia 6, Sheila E.  That afforded me the opportunity to witness any number of Prince shows and see first hand on a nightly basis how he had amalgamated all of the now-standard performance tropes into one concert – essentially a history lesson in showmanship, drawing on what had preceded him in the previous two or three decades.

His shows were non-stop music – no between-song tunings or swigs of water from plastic bottles – non-stop music. Just as an example, you can Google the late 1982/early 1983 Controversy tour and find video of the opening numbers. During the course of the first song, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, he went from an a cappella gospel intro, into a funky pop/rock band groove, to an Allman Brothers twin guitar break with Dez Dickerson, to a James Brown thing with the mic stand, to a Hendrix-inspired solo guitar break, to a hair band pose with Dez and bassist Mark Brown, to a stage right stunt playing guitar with his left hand on the fretboard and his right hand banging out a riff on a synthesizer, back to center stage for a heavy metal band bombastic ending, which included a directed vamp to the final chord, à la James Brown on the TAMI show. All in the 12-minute version of the first song! And it went on from there – stopping along the way to visit every possible 20th century musical style – all done seamlessly and with professional panache.

And that’s why nothing compares to Prince.  It’s hard enough to imagine that such an artist actually existed and in our lifetime, let alone thinking someone might be able to duplicate his artistry. Although the luck of being in the right place at the right time with the right thing certainly played a part, this guy had it all. He taught himself how to do it all. He had the drive and the talent to do it all. When his big break came, he was ready. Like no one before him and, from what I can tell, no one since.

Epilogue: Everybody I know has a Prince story – most are either strange or befuddling, but here’s one with an amusing ending. My wife and I attended the “1999” tour show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA later in 1983. We had some great seats in the Warners allotment, about 15-20 rows back, center section, left aisle. Actually we were seats 3 and 4, no one was in seats 1 and 2. Then about two or three songs into the show, two big guys came stumbling down the aisle stairs in the dark looking for what ultimately would be our row. The first guy in apparently couldn’t see a thing and the other guy had to help him into his seat  – it was Stevie Wonder. His security guy asked him if he wanted anything, Stevie said no, and the other guy left, leaving Stevie sitting next to my wife.

We naturally thought that this was pretty cool as did everyone around us and we went back to enjoying the show. Prince kicked into I think “Let’s Go Crazy” or some big rave up song and Stevie turned to my wife and shouted, “What’s he doing?” My wife shouted back, “What’s who doing?” and Stevie replied, “Prince! What’s he doing?” So my wife proceeded to describe to Stevie, to the best of her ability, what was happening on stage.  He thanked her and said, “I love your accent!” Next song, same thing. Every song after, same thing. By the end of the show, she was practically in tears from the ludicrousness of the whole situation.

When Prince left the stage for the false exit, Stevie’s guy reappeared. “C’mon, Stevie,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before everyone else.” And Stevie shouted back for everyone to hear, “I’m not going anywhere until I hear ‘Little Red Corvette!'”  Sure enough, Prince came back on and played “LRC”. Stevie got up for the first time and danced like a wild man, singing along with every word until the final chord of the song. Then he said to his handler, “OK, we can go now.” He thanked my wife for her help and disappeared up the aisle into the passageway out.

Footnote: I happened to be at the House of Blues Foundation’s Music Forward show at the Wiltern in LA the night everyone heard about Prince’s passing. Local KABC Ch. 7 news was there and asked me for a few words in reflection. Here’s the link to an otherwise really nice piece:

R.I.P. Prince

SIX STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT SONG: 45 TIPS FROM 45 FAMOUS SONGWRITERS (and from one not-so-famous)

“I really wish I knew what I was doing because I’d be writing hit songs every minute.” – Bruno Mars

This ongoing music blog has carried the overarching moniker of IT ALL STARTS WITH THE MUSIC for some time now. It’s a lofty notion, touched with just the right amount of vagueness to seem proverbial.

Recently, however, I’ve had to take that notion off the shelf and boil it down to its granular form. The result? It actually all starts with the song. Music is a wonderful thing, granted, but what really brings the emotional reaction home to us all is THE SONG. Music is way too general a term and it’s incredibly subjective; but a great song is a great song. There are thousands of talented musicians and composers in Santa Monica alone making great (OK, maybe just good) music, but only a handful of great songwriters.

As an aside, from what I’ve read and been told by publishing experts, the only things that are considered to comprise a SONG and are 100% COPYRIGHTABLE are MELODY and LYRICS. Period. Attempts to copyright guitar lines, keyboard parts and beats (let alone chord progressions) are a gray area at best and should be considered questionable when confronted by those who claim otherwise. I’ve always sided with the practice that anything other than melody and lyrics belongs in the arrangement and/or in the master or sound recording copyright. Now let’s go back to classic songwriting – melody and lyrics.

So how do they do it, these incredibly creative alchemists who toil over keyboards and guitars, ProTools and sheet music software, humming and whistling, day in and day out, looking for that special “something” that turns a magic combination of twelve notes and maybe two hundred words into gold? In order to look into the thought processes behind all of that, I referred to my own daily Twitter feed of a variety of pithy quotes from highly regarded musicians, artists and songwriters from the last fifty years (@larryfromohio).

Most of the 365 quotes appear to be stream-of-unconsciousness threads of thought on the subject of popular music and performing, wholly taken out of context, but sure to interest those who generally are interested in such things. For the rest of us, however, I’ve arranged the pertinent songwriting quotes below into general chronological categories for easy and somewhat amusing consumption. I’ve given the list a ponderous designation:

THE SIX STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT SONG

  • PREPARATION
  • INSPIRATION
  • CREATIVE DRAMA
  • WORDS FIRST OR MUSIC FIRST?
  • WRITERS ROOM
  • AFTERMATH

Please note that I’ve taken some editing and paraphrasing liberties from the original quotes in order to avoid the inevitable meandering on the subject by the creative artists. 

1) Before the writing can begin, there’s got to be a certain amount of PREPARATION, which can vary wildly:

Don Henley“I’m always jotting things down on pieces of paper. I’ve got pieces of paper all over my house.”

David Byrne“I don’t have any agenda or plan when I start writing stuff.”

Lucinda Williams“I write first for myself as a therapeutic process, to get stuff out and to deal with it.”

Jackson Browne“I used to write extra verses to other people’s songs that I liked. That led to writing my own songs.”

Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park)“At first we were waiting for a new sound. Then we got tired of waiting, so we did it ourselves.”

Bruce Springsteen“I think you have everything you need by the time you’re 18 to do interesting writing. Maybe by 12.”

2) But then, where to start? At the point of INSPIRATION, of course:

Tom Waits –“Inspiration? It’s like nature photography. You sit there watching for three days. And then it happens!”

Billy Gibbons“Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Keep your head on and your ears open.”

Melissa EtheridgeMy songs are inspired by my experiences. Sometimes they are more than my real life and, conversely, my life is more than just my songs.”

Mick Jagger“A lot of times songs are very much of a moment. When they come to you, you write them down, no matter if you feel like it or not.”

Brandi Carlile“Songwriting isn’t something that I do or command; it just happens. I can either choose to stop and acknowledge it, or put it off and hope that it won’t fade.”

Chris Martin – “I don’t expect people to understand where songs come from, because I don’t understand either. I have a song ‘A Sky Full of Stars’. I had the title for a long time. I had written seven other songs with this title but none of them were right. Then one day this song just came through in one go. I don’t know who or what inspired the song and I don’t really want to question it.” 

3) Once INSPIRED, then there’s the songwriter’s emotional mood, the CREATIVE DRAMA if you will, that comes into play. By and large, it would appear from the quotes I found that being upset and depressed is a great resource, although you would have to assume that a certain amount of alcohol would be involved.

Adele – “Heartbreak can definitely give you a deeper sensibility for writing songs. I drew on a lot of heartbreak when I was writing my first album. I didn’t mean to but I just did.”

Eminem – “If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs would be really whack and boring.”

Gwen Stefani – “My songs are basically my diaries. Some of my best songwriting has come out of a time when I’ve been going through a personal nightmare.”

Joni Mitchell“You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it’s just complaining.”

Taylor Swift – “I’ve only thought about songwriting as a way to help me get through love and loss and sadness and lonliness and growing up.”

Robert SmithI’ve always spent more time with a smile on my face than not, but the thing is, I don’t write about it.

John Lennon“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.”

4) So the INSPIRATION has struck and we’ve settled into our CREATIVE DRAMA. Now we must decide the age-old question of which comes first – THE WORDS OR THE MUSIC?

Bob Dylan – “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second.”

Hozier“Sometimes you just kind of collect lyrical and musical ideas and don’t actually complete the song until you feel like they work together and have a home.”

Axl RoseI write the lyrics last, because I want to invent the music first and push the music to a level that I have to compete against it with the melody and lyric.”

Don Henley “Sometimes songwriters and singers get a melody in their head and the notes will take precedence, so that they wind up forcing words onto a melody. It doesn’t ring true.”

Rod Stewart“All of my songs are written with the same four chords. That says a lot about the value of musicianship in writing hit songs.”

Steven TylerGreat melody over great riffs is, to me, the secret of it all.”

Larry Butler – “Everybody loves a shuffle.”

5) Now it’s time to get down to the real business of songwriting – taking the inspiration and emotional largesse into the WRITERS ROOM. Here are some samples of that endeavor from those who should know:

Sheryl Crow“The writing process for me is pretty much always the same – it’s a solitary experience.”

James TaylorThere’ll come a writing phase where you have to spend the time, unplug the phone and put in the hours to get it done.”

Grace Potter – “Every single song I write has to feel like it has a beginning, middle, and end, like a movie or a short story.”

Paul McCartney“The trick is to go off on your own and finish it. Separate yourself from others. Toilets are good for that.”

Alanis MorissetteWhen I start writing songs and it turns into an overly belabored intellectual process, I just throw it out.”

Chrissie Hynde – “Songwriting is like working on a jigsaw puzzle, and it doesn’t make any sense until you find that last piece. It has to make sense or it doesn’t work.”

Jason Mraz“The easiest songs to write are pure fiction. There is no limit to how you can tell the story.”

Neil Young – “I have so many opinions about everything it just comes out during my music. It’s a battle for me. I try not to be preachy. That’s a real danger.”

Sting I don’t write the first line of a song. I write backwards from the chorus line or hook to come up with it.”

Lady Gaga – “If it takes you longer than, like, ten to thirty minutes to write a song, it’s probably not a good song.”

Smokey RobinsonI always try to write a song, I never just want to write a record.”

Wayne Coyne – “Sometimes the song title comes with the songs, other times you just sorta make something up afterwards.”

Van Morrison – “You take stuff from different places, and sometimes you stick a line in because it rhymes, not because it makes sense.

Lily Allen – “I think my songs are like nursery rhymes – little ditties that I write for myself.”

Pete Townsend“I’m not writing songs about me; I’m writing songs about YOU.”

6) And finally, there’s the AFTERMATH. How do songwriters live with the reactions to their creativity?

Stevie Nicks“People try to find deep, hidden meanings in my songs. Actually, they’re just songs.”

Dave Grohl“You can sing your song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back to you for 85,000 different reasons.”

Banks – “I never judge my own songwriting. It’s just my heart. What’s there to judge about your own heart?”

Vince Gill “The funny thing is, people’s perceptions of what a song is about is usually wrong a majority of the time. But they’re still going to read what they want to into it.”

Ed Sheeran – “Writing a new song, finishing a new song, is the best feeling in the world. Nothing compares to it.”

So there you have it – THE SIX STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT SONG! Based with all of this insight, it shouldn’t be any problem for the reader to embark on a successful career in writing hit songs for the masses. Good luck!

BTW – Over and above these 45 quotes, there are 320 other insights from noteworthy musicians, artists and songwriters available in 140 characters or less on my daily Twitter feed – it’s really the only thing that Twitter’s good for. @larryfromohio

“Look, I don’t know how to do this. ‘Yesterday’ came to me in a dream.” – Paul McCartney

WHAT NEW ARTISTS CAN LEARN FROM THE EVERLY BROTHERS

Recently a friend who has the advantage of being an astute student of the music business from the outside – the advantage being that he doesn’t have to rely on the music business to make a living – threw out the trial balloon statement that what we should be looking for is the next Everly Brothers. (Phil (l) and Don (r) are pictured above in a backstage photo at the Ryman with publisher Roy Acuff and “Bye Bye Love” co-writer Boudleaux Bryant circa 1957.)

My friend had recently purchased (!?) a box set retrospective of their career and, in reading through the liner notes, came to realize what a touchstone their sound was to not only nascent rock ‘n’ roll but also to the generation that followed. Lennon and McCartney referred to themselves as the English Everly Brothers early on in their careersSimon and Garfunkel invited them share the stage for their 2003-04 “Old Friends” reunion tour. Neil Young, in his induction speech for the brothers at the very first Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, said that all of the bands he had ever been in had attempted (and failed) at trying to duplicate the Everlys’ harmonious sound.

Of course, not only would any attempt to duplicate the Everly Brothers sound be difficult, for reasons I’ll explain, but when you know their story, you realize just how much perseverance and timing played in their success. And since you can’t predict timing in the music business, let’s call it by its real name – luck.

What I’m getting at is that there’s no sense in trying to emulate the Everly’s path (or that of any successful musical artist) as all those same stars are not going to align for you in the same way as they did for them. But there are some overlying lessons we can take away from their story that were signposts on their journey for us to look out for in the careers of budding new artists.

In fact, I can come up with ten things to shoot for if you want to be the next Everly Brothers. Just hit the Continue Reading button below, if you would.

Continue reading…

YOUR NAME IS YOUR LIFE BUT HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT?

FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. FAME. WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” – David (Jones) Bowie

This year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie for the second year in a row. Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam both correctly spelled through the list of 11 championship words, which included such everyday terms as boquetiere (an assortment of fresh vegetables) and hippocrepiform (shaped like a horseshoe), to share in the trophy. I would suggest that there could have been an obvious tiebreaker to establish a true winner of the spelling bee – each of the finalists should have been asked to spell each other’s last name.

But I really feel badly for them. They’re both going to be spending a good portion of the rest of their lives spelling their names for school administrators, government workers and, dare I say it, their fans!

And what’s worse, sociologists tell us that your name is your life. It shapes who you are during your formative years and changing it after you go out into the world will have little to no effect on who you really are. All your personality traits are instilled by that age and whatever name you carried around up to that point, that’s who you are.

So Marilyn Manson is still Ohio-born Brian Warner, Lil Wayne can’t shake being Dwayne Carter, Jr. and Queen Latifah is Dana Owens underneath all that talent. Calling herself St. Vincent doesn’t cover up the real Annie Clark and recent RnR Hall of Fame inductees Richard Starkey and Joan Larkin only pretend to be Ringo Starr and Joan Jett, respectively.

Regardless, everyone who wants to become an entertainer should at some point early on decide if their given name is indeed befitting star status. Or, more objectively, can it be pronounced and spelled by the general public? I would have to assume that that would be the underlying reason why Farrokh Bulsara came to be known as Freddie Mercury. And why Calvin Broadus, Jr. decided that perhaps his fans might find Snoop Dogg easier to spell. And obviously who would want to be Chiam Witz when Gene Simmons was available? 

Of course, there are many reasons other than spelling and pronunciation to change your name to get into show biz. Is your current name unattractive, dull or unintentionally amusing? Is the new name more memorable or attention getting? Will it automatically depict you as an entertainer? Does your original name brand you as someone other than what you’d like your admiring public to think of you? You’ll find some surprising examples when you hit the Continue reading button below.

Continue reading…

A TRIBUTE TO THE ARTIST BIO WRITER

Is there no greater work of fiction in the English language than the artist bio? You know, the three-page laudatory pronouncement of some new musical genius suddenly discovered and spotlighted. Or how about the one that signals the mid-career change of musical direction? Or the end-of-career, where-have-they-been, and what-now variety?

The first is largely platitudes of the “most astounding debut of this or any previous musical season” variety, ultimately based on nothing but wishful hoping. The follow up bio usually has more meat to it, especially if the artist had made some kind of mark in the musical world in the interim; although it can become fairly evident by the third paragraph that the creative juices have dried up and they’re going to try something else now, in hopes of maintaining the already waning attention of a fickle audience.

But it is the final level of hubris that is the saddest of the three and generally the easiest to see through. The early promises and successes have been worn out and the second act didn’t prove nearly as fruitful. Worse, all of the previous character flaws that had gone overlooked or unnoticed now glare through. Then it becomes the job of the harried bio writer to take the facts of the matter as they lie and put that famous spin on them in hopes that this last gasp may catch the wave.

If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, read on. Even if you are sure what I’m getting at, what have you got to lose but maybe another few minutes? Like you have something WAY more important to do? Oh, come on.

Continue reading…

SO WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE SHOW?

THE UNCOMFORTABLE BACKSTAGE AFTERSHOW MEET & GREET

There comes a time in the life of everyone in the music business when one must suffer through the dreaded aftershow meet and greet with the artist. To Fred and Marge from Iowa, it probably sounds like a dream come true – meeting the artist they’ve always loved and admired where they can gush over about how wonderful the show was and how the artist is their favorite all-time performer and how much they enjoyed hearing the song that was played at their wedding, ad nauseum. But we know it’s not like that, is it?

Now that all of the fan/winner/VIP hoopla has been relegated to the before show meet and greet, the aftershow is strictly the domain of the industry (agent/label/promo person), being coerced by management and tradition to meet with the artist on the artist’s turf and try and have a painless conversation, not unlike the photo above of the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records with Crosby, Stills & Nash circa 1974. How uncomfortable do they look? Actually, Ahmet seems fine.

Regardless, here’s how it works: Initially, you gather near a backstage entrance, like cattle being led to slaughter, if only to listen to a diatribe from a security or road person about having your stick-on pass visible. Then, like sheep, you’re led down a dimly-lit hallway or two (should you drop breadcrumbs?) to a large room, which is conversely lit up well enough for open-heart surgery. There you will congregate with the bass player’s distant cousins from Peoria and end up in a conversation with them over warm beer and vegetable/cheese trays left over from the before show function. After some interminable amount of time, the artist’s personal assistant will gather you and the other unfortunate industry dweebs for yet another journey down a few more hallways until you are shown into the inner sanctum – the artist’s dressing room.

First, there will be some embarrassing re-introductions because no matter how many times management has told the artist who’s coming backstage, it’s all forgotten. Then you’ll try and help the artist put together who you are, when you last met them, and what you mean to his or her career, oftentimes inflating it more than it really is just to get some kind of positive reaction. Then you’ll talk about what efforts you’ve been making on the artist’s behalf recently and what the results are so far. You can only hope that the artist isn’t more well informed than you are on the subject, otherwise a cross examination could begin that will turn ugly.

But in the end, since there’s really nothing else to talk about, the artist is going to ask you what you thought of the show. Now you have to make a choice. If it were a good show, you’re safe. You can go ahead and say complimentary things and the artist will bask in your intelligent opinions. But what if it were a bad show? What would you say then? If you want to get out with your pride and your pants still intact, read on for some tips. Continue reading…