Unpopular Music Biz Truth – Readiness

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Something I notice often about the highest achieving musicians and artists I come across is their constant state of performance readiness. More than just their readiness to jump up on stage when called, I am talking about cats who get phone calls and an hour later they are on their way to the airport to join a world tour. Or bands that have it together collectively to co-ordinate filling in as the opener of a touring act on short (or no) notice.

When an act is poised to strike at a moments notice it shows two things. First, that the musicians have their act and craft together and they are confident in their material and abilities. And second, that the musicians are fully committed to being musicians. That they are willing and able to leave everything to follow a musical opportunity.

I’ve had lots of musicians tell me that their past bands had big opportunities they had to pass on because one or more band member had job or school commitments.

That combination of having ones act together and being in a constant state of performance readiness, along with heaps of persistence and determination, describes the best most called upon musicians I know.

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Unpopular Music Biz Truth – Attitude

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There is no place like Facebook to see the same situation distilled through different attitudes. Like yesterday the citizens of Toronto were hit with yet another snow storm. Scanning down the FB news feed I could see that some people where “thrilled and blessed that the beautiful white snow has been delivered again from the heavens,” and others were less enthusiastic. Much less enthusiastic.

Why the discrepancy though? The situation is the same for everyone (even the strange ones who live north of Bloor). It appears that some people just prefer to be positive (even upbeat) about things. They seem to have the ability to be positive and upbeat about almost everything. Others are dancing on a thin line between being cynical and being an asshole.

A few posts back I wrote about the need for others to help you. As an indie artist/musician living in Canada you need an enormous amount of help and support from a healthy pool of talented qualified helpers and supporters. In that post I mentioned it was important to hire professionals and pay them what they are worth. But its more than just hiring and forking out the cash. You need to also inspire people to help you.

If you are a complaining, miserable, cynical, always tired, always down, always with negative comments and excuses about the music biz type of person then you are doing the opposite of inspiring people. You are annoying them.

You absolutely should hire the best people to help with your music and development. But it goes deeper than that. When they show up to the gig, at the very least be in a good mood and give off positive vibes. Its your project, why would you be the one to bring down moral?

This post may seem obvious to some. But you would be surprised at how many people I come across who seem absolutely tortured by their music business or aspirations. You have to remember the little kid in you and what you were feeling the first time you thought “I’m going to be a recording artist and performer and bring my music to the world.”

I can guarantee that little kid wasn’t thinking “It will be so great to be a miserable, washed up old musician, who inspires no one but other cynical old washed up musicians.”

Closing thought. A few years ago I caught a couple minutes of a yoga instruction video by a yoga master named Rodney Ye. During the warm up stretches Rodney gave a little pep talk to his audience. He said that during yoga practise one must be “Light and Humorous.” I would like to borrow Rodney’s thoughts and echo them here by saying, “during your music career one must be light and humorous.”

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Unpopular Music Biz Truth – The Comfort Zone

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Your comfort zone is the enemy. Its a place you gravitate to because its familiar, easy, everyone likes you there, stress is minimal, there are fewer conflicts, the temperature is perfect, a fully stocked refrigerator is in close proximity, your favorite people are always ready to help you with whatever you need there, the music playing is your life playlist of favorite songs, there is a large buffer zone around your ample personal space. In the comfort zone you are always the guest of honor, featured personality, center of attention and life of the party.

Even though the comfort zone has everything you need to make your life easier, there is one thing that isn’t immediately apparent upon entering this particular zone. Its stagnant. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t challenge you. It doesn’t take you anywhere.

The opposite of the comfort zone is the unknown zone. Artists by nature must exist there most of the time. The artists role in society is to survey the environment and situations revolving around the human condition. When the artist makes their art they are in essence reporting back to the rest of humanity what they discovered while traveling through and observing things related to themselves and other human affairs.

Marshall McLuhan, when describing the artists role, said that “the artist is the antennae of the human race.” The artist plays a damn important role in this society. Even though its not always appreciated by each and every human benefactor, its generally understood that life without artists and art would be cold, empty, directionless, uniformed.

Originally I had decided I was going to write about the artists personal benefits of operating in the unknown zone. That post would have looked something like this:

You need to work with people who challenge you, play shows in cities where you have a small (or no) support base, you need to step away from your habits and write a song utilizing techniques you haven’t used before, you need to network at places and with people you aren’t familiar with, you need to initiate conversations with people you don’t know after your set, etc etc.

I was going to go on and on in this fashion and really try and spell out the personal benefits of breaking free from the comfort zone. But once I got started this idea popped into my head regarding the more important societal benefits instead. Frank Zappa once said that “human progress cannot happen unless people are willing to deviate from the norm.” The comfort zone is ground zero for the norm. All deviation from the norm starts at the comfort zone.

The unknown zone is big. A lot of it sucks. Move quickly through it. Scan, probe, search and take notes. The more time you spend there the more comfortable you’ll get navigating around it. Opportunity and inspiration live in the unknown zone so go get some of that and report back with your songs and stories!

Would love to hear what some of you do to mix things up and break free from the shackles of comfort.

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Unpopular Music Biz Truth – Authenticity

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Authenticity is the thing fans connect with. Being “real” is really important. For everyone making non-instrumental music you are making verbal statements, or better yet telling stories. The most compelling stories are either based on real experiences or are an amalgam of real experiences sorted through, filtered and reconfigured in song form.

The average person can smell when things are not authentic. When an artist is 17 years old and 12 older people (over 22 in the music biz) write a song for them in a board room about love and loss, it just doesn’t feel real. How can a 17 year old have experienced these things in such a powerful way (I suppose its possible), but there is nothing like experiencing loss and truly being lost and alone while experiencing it (as opposed to experiencing it in a bedroom or basement paid for by your parents).

A few weeks ago I was encircled by a group of serious heavy weight musicians. Not a recording session just a hang at the studio, lots of fun, lots of bullshit being thrown around, all light and good spirited. An interesting thing happened. Some of the younger generation started criticizing singer songwriter types saying they were all the same and that singer songwriters are basically musically stunted having only access to 3 or 4 chords to build songs on. What they said about emcee’s was even worse.

Then, one of the older (and most respected in the room) musicians, who had been quietly taking the conversation in started defending the singer songwriter. He said these people tell beautiful personal stories that others can relate to. The singer songwriter is important, because they make others feel less alone and understood.

Musically what they put together is purposefully basic and simple. The music itself is not the emphasis. Its not the art form per se. The realness and the authenticity of the artist, which comes across through their songs, IS the art form. The singer songwriter takes their humanness and human experiences, mixes and reformat’s, then through a combination of metaphor and phrasing they give us a song. The best of these songs is like 100% pure human oil (extracted directly from a human tree), cooked up in someones song writing kitchen then given to the world. The label on the packages of these songs (if there were a label and physical package) would read 100% organic made with 100% natural ingredients.

This is why the singer songwriter will always have a place in this world. No they don’t have the musical chops that so called great musicians have (people studying jazz, contemporary classical, technical prog metal, etc.), what they do have though is something outside of musicality. They have authenticity and they express it through a high level of song writing craftsmanship. These people don’t work in odd time signatures, rarely modulate to other keys, their songs are built on diatonic derived harmonic foundations, and the beat is never hidden with fancy sophisticated syncopation.

What they do instead is something more like shinning a light, or focusing a lens, which allows others a glimpse into areas of human experience normally shrouded in darkness. Through their craft and their commitment to authenticity the best singer songwriters make powerful lasting impressions on their fans. As long as they keep it real, people will always love the stories that singer songwriters tell.

All musicians (instrumental or not), regardless of which idiom you are focused on, can learn something about authenticity from singer songwriters. So instead of looking down on that girl with the acoustic guitar and flower dress, I suggest you listen carefully to what she has to say. It might not be the best song ever sung, but I can almost guarantee it will be authentic…and that is today’s lesson

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Unpopular Music Biz Truth – What is the music industry?

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What is the music industry and why do so many people outside of this industry have such strong opinions about it?

The music industry is diverse, spread out, has multiple levels, genres, markets, niches, has segments backed by rich people, and segments ignored by most people, it has starving artists, successful global artist brands, trends, fads, a history and a lineage.

The music industry is complicated, and hard to define. The only thing I know for sure is the music industry is not what most people will have you believe it is. If you get your music industry news from big media you will think that the pinnacle of the music industry is Lady Gaga, Rhianna, Drake, Bieber, etc etc. What you won’t know is that, while these artists do generate massive revenue, they are a small fraction of the people participating in an industry built on music.

If you over hear people talking on the bus about the music industry they will probably be talking about Jay Z, Kanye, Beyonce, Chris Brown, etc etc. This could also lead you to the conclusion that the artists backed by big media are some how the only musicians that matter. They dominate the music conversation so its no surprise many people think the mega stars are where its at. Big media sets the agenda of most interactions people have in every day life.

The mega stars are so not where its at. Where its at is wherever you’re at. If you are standing 20 feet away from musicians in the middle of an act, and others are also in close proximity listening to the act, then you just may be a music industry participant. Jay Z is no where to been seen or heard but never-the-less the music industry is upon you.

As long as commerce is happening as a direct result of incorporating or featuring musicians and their products then its safe to call that the music industry. While the mega stars with the help of big media are the most ubiquitous music makers, they are not the only ones doing it, and they are not the best at it. Not by a long shot.

I don’t mean to dis anyone’s taste in music. But, the mega stars are vanilla flavored ice cream at best. Its not so bad though vanilla ice cream is still ice cream, its just that after years of eating ice cream, studying it, making it, supporting it, finding new an interesting uses for it…you start to grow tired of vanilla. You start searching for new textures; chucks of fudge, cookie dough, streaks of caramel, almonds, etc etc.

Fans of music also come in different flavours. The vast majority of music fans fall into the “casual fan” segment. These are the people most likely to have their image of the music industry painted by big media. Who cares though, these people aren’t that interested in music, they can be as wrong about an industry they don’t care that much about as most musicians are wrong about other industries they don’t care about.

Its not for people outside the industry to know what’s up with our industry. Its for you, who is in this industry, to know what’s up with it. You should seek to understand all sides of it. Where and how is commerce generated from music? Who are the artists outside the big media radar that are successful? What are those artists doing that makes them successful?

Noam Chomsky was quoted as saying something along the lines of the North American public has a high level of intelligence and understanding of matters related to sports entertainment. The average football fan can recite arcane statistics, and speak intelligently about complicated nuances and strategies about whatever “game” they are into. Average sports fans have an insane amount of knowledge about a series of on-going events, controlled and mediated by big business, who want your attention so they can advertise to you. Chomsky was pointing out what a vast waste of human resource that is. The mental energy expended on knowing the ins and outs of the games as well as trivia related to the participants could be focused on something that serves human interests instead of entertainment interests.

The mainstream music bushiness is like that. People know way too much about the personal lives of celebrities, famous musicians are at the top of that list. It is a statement on the global village connectedness of the world when an average person can name all of the members of the big media pop rock flavour of the week, but can’t name any professional musicians that live in their city.

American guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter (in the video embedded below) gives his opinion about the music industry that IMHO is bang on. Unlike sports entertainment, where the best quarter back the country has to offer gets the starting position on the top NFL team, in the big media entertainment industry, the talent level is not the priority. Charlie talks about the big media world’s music industry as one that celebrates mediocrity.

Mediocrity, middle ground, vanilla, generic, bland. The actual music industry (the one that exists outside of the fantasy construct of big media) is not something that I would describe in those terms. Sure there are lots of sucky underground indie artists making a mockery of things, but that’s cool, there’s a place for hacks too. The real music industry, the one I can literally reach out and touch, the one I participate in, the one that I have countless friends making waves in, the one I wake up every day and jump into face first, is a hundred million billion times more diverse and interesting than anything typical of the Grammy main stage.

I don’t know much about cars. I’m not interested in cars. As far as I’m concerned there is Ford and Honda and Toyota and Chevrolet. I don’t know anything about niche cars outside of those commodity vehicles in mainstream culture. Because my knowledge of cars is so limited I usually don’t go around talking about them. You won’t over hear me on the bus saying the new Toyota is the greatest car ever built. But you will hear people, lots and lots and lots of oblivious sweet little souls, who will go on and on about how One Direction is the greatest band ever formed. Laughable.

The real story is that the music industry is the most amazing, fascinating, vibrant, diverse, colorful human notion that most people think is something else.

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