Playing Live and promotion: Circle Theory or Fact

Here is an interesting piece which I often share with those who ask where to start if they want to play out live. I like to call it the Circle. Whether it a theory or fact depends on you and your desire to work. Simply restated it means it works in theory and only becomes fact when one is willing to do the things necessary to put the theory into action. The basis for the Circle Theory is about more than circles and has nothing to do whatsoever with math of any kind, so don’t get nervous if you think you are expected to do some geometry or any advanced math.

Here is goes.

You are a performing artist who has actually recorded, at minimum, a demo CD. (a demo CD is short for demonstration CD which means just that. It is meant to demonstrate, roughly, to the person you send it to what you sound like.) Now you are ready to start trying to find places to play or to begin promotion of your group in general. Here is where the circle comes into play.

Take where you live and find it on a map. Print a copy of that map. Put a small dot on the town or city you live in and then draw a circle encompassing a certain size area. I usually tell people to go 50 miles in each direction and draw a circle. Everywhere within that circle becomes the area you are going to focus.

****SIDE NOTE****
There might be some who will now states the obvious: what about the internet? Does it not make focusing on a single area obsolete or too old school? Yes and no.
For the purposes of this circle theory I am considering this to a beginning band or performer who needs to learn the ropes and get an idea of how to promote themselves. Many times this is a younger act who, even given the opportunity to play a show 2,000 miles from their door, are limited to places they can actually reach as a live act. Also the things they learn and glean from this experiment can be a template transferred to a national or even international scale. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
********END of SIDE NOTE************

This approach can keep you from banging your head against the wall after many post rehearsal talks along the lines of “hey we don’t have any shows.” Is it the only approach? Probably not but it is the best way I have seen work and some people do it without even realizing they are doing it.

Take your circle on the map and look at it. Then go do your research about the area it encompasses. Where are the clubs? Where are the places to play? Where are the events that need live entertainment? Where are the opportunities to do your thing?

If your circle happens to extend into or is at the epicenter of a large or medium sized city even better but do not feel like giving up just because you live in a rural area. There are always opportunities to play you just have to look for them within the circle.

The goal then becomes getting proper copies of your CD made and putting them together with one sheet describing your band and a great photo of you, not a camera phone pic or something silly, a real picture taken with a very high resolution camera in something besides your usual gear,the clothes you would normally wear onstage. This will be a good place to start locally. More advanced users might immediately scream “what about your online kit? And your website! and Myspace, youtube, facebook, etc.!” These are all part of the bigger package but one thing I believe and will until someone sets me straight stems from this belief: It is difficult to be huge where you are from. Look at Jesus for example, he was not that popular in his own turf. The less “big time” and more accessible you seem to locals and the more “real” you seem to them the more likely they are to want to work with you. When and if they think of it as doing you a favor because you asked and worked at the shot the more likely they are later to feel a kinship with you after you create a following, like “I gave that kid his first gig.” People like to feel important and often they are. When you say to a local “check out my web page or any web content” it is much less personable and has much less resonance than if you go, “here is my CD, check it out, we would like to play at your club.” This makes this a direct contact and you become a face in their mental friend list and not the “schmuck who tried to lead you to their lame website.” Not that your website is lame but you will make it so if you come off anything less than genuine.

Let’s continue this in a part 2


Overblown You: Part One

I think someone called it an overblown perception of you or an amplified or even megafied version of yourself that gets you more attention. This all is leading into the person who is promoting you and the music you create and hope to have millions of people, or at least a few hundred thousand listen to.

Granted some of us may naturally be more forward in the presentation of ourselves but most likely most of us are just hanging along the periphery, our few friends and family in tow, just trying to get on with life and not get too much attention. This does not work when promoting your music. If you chose to remain in the corner in the shadows as you are trying to promote yourself then that is most likely where you will remain at the beginning and for the rest of the show. (no pun intended.)

I am not asking anyone to create multiple personalities and if you do have MPD (multiple personality disorder) this might work if one of your personalities is all about getting the other guy, the musician’s music out there. But on the whole you have to realize that the waters of the music industry, if it can even be called that anymore, are murky and shark infested. Meaning there are many others out there willing to do just about anything, and I mean anything, to get themselves over. There are the middlers who do a little in the way of promoting themselves to the public and then there are the wall flowers, none of these groups you want to be a member of.

The first group is annoying and desperate, two traits which are not appealing to anyone no matter the profession. If you are being asked to buy a new razor or some new perfume it is going to be much more difficult to do so from some one who gets on your nerves and acts as though if you do not make the purchase from them an entire village is going to starve to death or they might even take their life. Don’t be that guy or girl.

The middler is that person who sends out press releases, CD’s, Mp3 cards, etc but when they are in person at their events they are just kind of blah. They might talk about their music but when others leave them are they going to remember talking to them the next day? Probably not. They have no Stickiness which is essential for your music to have and this begins with your ability to be sticky. (more on this later.)

Then there is the person sitting in the corner, maybe a rough demo in hand who just sits there, and sits there, and then cries at home that night out of frustration because they just can’t make it work. You get the idea.
Also there are hundreds of variants on these models and mixtures. One could site artists who were so talented someone heard them and said “let me be the person out there promoting your music” and whalla there they went. First, this is not reality based and has never been. Even if it was 5, 10, or 15 years ago it is not the case anymore. And even so the person had to have had a performance to begin with which meant they got off their A$$ and at least drifted over to the role of a middler and their talent got them the rest of the way.

I want us to focus on the first two examples and glean them. Have you ever heard of making something into a strength that otherwise is usually considered a weakness? If not let me give you an example that is aimed at the first example, the annoying as all get out desperate I wannabe a performer so bad I would die and want the world to know it. They have enough drive to embarrass themselves to the point of “making it” or getting themselves heard. Annoying? Yes. Fruitful? Sometimes but most of the time the exposure their receive is just for the entertainment of others so they can make fun of them. Think of the crazy girl on American Idol, Lamerisa or whatever her name was. Granted she was annoying, over dramatic, and glaringly overblown but she did get her shot, and considering her talent, or lack there of, she would not have gotten this shot if not for her sheer will to make things happen for herself. Plain and simple she wanted something and she was prepared, at all costs, to see that through. Get this example clear, I am not saying any talent show is a path to success, what I am saying is that in that moment or those moments she did whatever she thought it took to get noticed.

The good and the bad.
She was annoying. Another example: old school telephones. Think of when a phone rings. It is helpful in a way because it lets you know there is most likely someone on the other end of the telephone waiting to communicate wit you. Useful. But if left unanswered it just rings and rings unless the other person hangs up on the other end. After 3 or 4 rings it starts to grate on your nerves. I find myself, when they are used on a movie as a dramatic devise, saying “someone answer the thing!” Amerisa or whatever her name was became just like that telephone. The first few times, “ok she can kind of sing, and man she really wants this, I mean she really wants to be a star.” Later “lord I wish they would not only banish her from the show but obliterate her forever from this planet.” Just joking but guess what? She got noticed and I bet if she had her stuff together she could have left that stage and sold a bunch of CD’s and booked a ton of shows just from her exposure. Crazy? Yes. Driven? Hell yes!

Let’s Break this into 2 parts.

Equip thyself: Part One

I get asked this a lot. Enough that I will remark here in this forum.
What do I need to record?
In the words of Tom Waits “well we will have to go all the way back to the Civil War.” Well, actually not that far back but close, when Edison invented the ability for humans to record themselves doing whatever.
This technology, which seems so paltry in our digital age, was so revolutionary it probably appeared like magic to those first exposed to it.
The question is a simple one, what do I need to record? whose answer is simple and again vast.
The first thing I tell anyone, as always, is to empower yourself with as much information as possible. It is really easy to go overblown and be several thousands of dollars in the hole with all the options out there. It is also fair to assume many of us do not have a few thousand dollars lying around at our disposal.
The easy answer, with all the economic concerns aside, is this. Buy a computer based input/output device, the software that is compatible with it,a dedicated computer (one that never gets online except to update software and operating systems), and some decent microphones. There you have it. This can be had for anywhere from $1000 to $3000. Set it all up and get in there and do it. There will be some serious learning curve issues which will need to be overcome and depending on your comfort level with technology these can be tedious or as simple as a good set of ears and a few mouse clicks.
This set up can also increase financially however far you want to take it. Be aware though that even the most basic digital recording suite that can be had today is about 200 times, if not more, cleaner and versatile than anything the Beatles, Hendrix, Zeppelin, and anyone else on the classic album list you can think of. The technology before you, when applied with taste and care, is very powerful as a recording medium. But many people overdo it and this we will explore in other installments and will just leave it for now with this: Just because you have 50 tracks or more at your disposal does not mean that you have to use them all. The same goes for every effects plug-in available now.

Another option that many folks, especially the “young un” with a guitar, three chords, and the truth, might consider is a stand alone model which is a simple four track recorder. These can be had cheaply and with some acceptable microphones can produce some very good results. Besides there is a great deal to be learned from this “primitive” approach. I encourage many to start in this way because you truly learn the basics and get them down and it transfers so well when you decide to make the leap up another level.

I learned on a very basic 4 track machine which had, aghast, a cassette tape as its capture device. I learned over many hours of mess ups and sometimes my mess ups ended up not so much a mess up as a discovery which I still apply today in the digital world. Always remember that the classic hits from years gone by are classic for a reason. They involve some intangibles that can never be reproduced with any device, whether it be a vintage analog microphone or a state of the art studio. You cannot polish a turd.

Which takes me back to the original question: what do I need to record? which I always answer with: something to record. If you just want to record for the fun of it or to learn with the hopes of working as an audio engineer or a producer by all means jump right in there and the same can be said for anyone. But, but, but if you are the aspiring artist my answer is directed right at you. Have some dang songs you have worked through and are prepared to try to capture as a song. There is nothing more frustrating for me as a producer to have someone want to record, have them show up, many times with a support staff in tow, and then realize this aspiring artist has no material other than the oft covered version of “Me and Bobbie McGee” with them on acoustic guitar, and not that good either.

An artist, the recording kind, has this thing called material,which they have a good idea about how they want it to sound in the end because they have spent thousands of hours working on it and performing it in front of people. So to simply answer the question you need to have material as an artist before you ever think about recording it. This is the first step. Get some songs together, play them in front of everyone you can, record them on your phone, or some other way you can listen back, then when you think you are ready, you will probably know because this feeling will come over you and a little voice will say “I think we need to record these” then you should start saving your money for a recording apparatus of some sort.

More to come later on.

The Michael Grimm Conundrum

First let me congratulate Michael Grimm for winning America’s Got Talent. He did so with a soulful handling of classic material which is often attempted and rarely realized by most artists. He seems like a genuine, easy-going songster from southern Mississippi so anytime a good southern boy does well I get a smile.
Yet here is the conundrum.
I noticed at the end of the show, in a really quick flash, the terms of his “million dollar” win. Michael Grimm does not receive a million dollars right off the bat. The “flash” I noticed had to be paused, thank you DVR, and I read something along the lines that he was now eligible to the balance of an annuity which matures in 40 years. Or he could take the face value as it stands now.
For those of us who are not familiar with these terms it basically means that NBC will place an amount of money and in 40 years Michael Grimm can hope that it will be a million dollars, dependent on the terms of the annuity and how much interest it compounds and generates over that 40 years period. I did the math in my head and that would be roughly anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 dollars. Just looking at him I would guess he is in his early to mid 20’s so when he hits his 60’s and is still alive he can receive his million dollars. Way to go NBC for the false inference.
But this is not my point it merely illustrates how this relates to you, the independent artist, the guerrilla.
In the sense of what NBC is doing we are all millionaires who have simply not redeemed our million dollar annuity. If someone works really hard and saves part of their money, puts it in an annuity in 40 years pretty much anyone can expect to collect one million dollars.
So what is the deal?
It shows you that you do not need to win America’s Got Talent to make it as a professional artist. Sure Michael Grimm can pretty much live on the platitudes he has gained by winning the contest if he follows through. And he definitely has the talent and the soul to do so if he makes the correct steps. These are two very big “ifs” which are applied to anyone.
Could Michael Grimm possibly fail after such a big win? Absolutely. I hope he gets some original material together, an ace producer, a tour, and makes his mark in the world because he is unique. The point which applies to the indie artist is we all have the capability to accomplish these things with the proper work, granted not at such an accelerated pace but there in also lies another conundrum.
Michael Grimm is under the gun so to speak. There will be an enormous amount of pressure laid on his young shoulders. Does he have the talent? Most assuredly. A voice which is uncommonly real and good. But he is at a precipice which his learning curve has shrank drastically from a guitar player doing one nighters to a national celebrity expected to make good doing songs besides the ones already made famous by others years ago. He can’t do live Karaoke and expect to be anything other than the dude that won America’s Got Talent.
The point to you the artist is this. And while it might seem like a weakness in the light of the instant start status Michael Grimm has been thrust into it is actually a great strength.
Imagine the artist you are now. The songs you know and the work you are prepared to put in to grow and become 5 or 10 times the artist you are now. When the time comes for you to “show whatcha got” you will be prepared, a veritable catalog of songs at your disposal, a great understanding of the industry and its changes, and the confidence to fulfill your self as an artist. Not to say any of this is lacking for Michael Grimm. But if it is this may be a one shot deal where failure is hard to overcome. The point is as simple as the old children song of the wise man who built his house on the stone. I hope this is the case for Michael Grimm because the world can never have too many soulful singers who sound so authentic. I also hope he gets his million sooner than 40 years.

To Spend or Not to Spend and Where to Spend It (Part 2)

Attack of the Zombie Producers

Ok first of all I am a huge admirer of record producers. I have albums which I worship for their beauty and am quite sure, from reading and listening to them over and over, that the producer had a large part to do with the sonic beauty I was experiencing. I do not want hate mail from producers who think I am throwing flak their way.

What I am addressing are the producers who prey on artists who are at the entry level or worse have gained a bit of notoriety and hunger for a bit more and think a producer is their gateway to that notoriety.
What saddens me is the fact that some of these artists, some I have known or admired, are not shrinking daisies by any feat of the imagination and have been independent musicians working the grind since they decided to explore music. Not someone who sits at home, watches Idol and thinks, “if I could just get discovered”, but people who, at some point said, in some fashion, “I am good at this. I don’t have to wait around for someone to do it for me I can do this on my own.” I am guessing that some producers have the “talk” down these days now that things are hard or have gotten harder and are able to shake the reality and common sense out of these self driven motivated people who have, to this point, made it on talent, drive, and get with it-Ness.

Here is the big crux and I first have to break it down to the business side of the matter, because at the end that is what this all really is about. When they say “the devil’s biggest trick was convincing the world that he didn’t exist” it could also be said that his next trick was convincing some people its “all about the music.” So often artists get so wrapped up in getting “their sound” or furthering themselves they forget the simple pen to paper that even a child on the corner selling lemonade does not forget. At the end of the day you have to come out with a profit or at least break even. Let’s use the $15,000 example.
Artist A records CD with 10 tracks for $15,000 and it does sound great. So they have a great sounding CD and let us assume that it has been mastered so it is radio ready. Now let’s get busy with hiring a promotion team.
Oh yeah right we just spent $15,000 on a CD. Oops! No money left to promote the CD. Now granted if it sounds great people will buy it and if the artist plays out religiously they can probably recoup their recording costs after they move a thousand discs.

Here is the crux: even record companies do not make much money anymore and when they do it is because they have an army of media manipulators at their service. A small boutique label may make a profit but it is not done for anywhere near $500 to (sic) $1,500 a track.

To spend or not to spend and where to spend it.

This is a dilemma that comes to my attention every so often with recording and/or performing artists I know or hear talk about this issue. I also have a personal experience with this same dilemma, which I will share later, but first, the dilemma: you are asked to work with a “big name producer” who is “only going to charge you” cost for the production or at a “reduced rate” will record your album because they like your sound and think you “have something.” This money will come out of your pocket and will be paid directly to the producer for them making you sound phenomenal. I cringe every time I hear this story and I am, sadly beginning to hear it more often as of late. I have a reason for that which I will get to after the rant I am about to go on right…NOW!

This is a prime example of huckster, snake oil selling 21st century style. I am not doubting that there are producers out there looking for talent, as there have always been. But in times past producers found the talent, worked with them, and then turned around and got that talent a record deal on the value of the work they created together, no charge directly to the artist because they were there for a reason, to make great music which would be sold to a record label in the form of a record deal. With record labels, the old kind which now look like stage coach factories, shuttering up their doors this paradigm has been shifted out and many are waiting around for the next model and while they are waiting they are trying to keep the money rolling in any way they can, who can blame them.

But this blog is aimed at the aspiring recording or performing artist, not studio owners o producers. It is hear that I divulge some of the obvious information everyone should know before they get going or need to learn as they progress making their thing do what it do. Most of these deals end up being anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a track. I am not sure if this includes mastering as the finished disc that gets handed to them or not, but holy smokes. In this day and age, with the amount of quality studios available to the recording artist, forget the amount of home recording gear out there, there is no way an artist has to spend that kind of money.

The reason so many “top name producers” are all of a sudden “available” is because work is drying up or the traditional way of doing things has changed for so many and they have not adapted and have to shill the savings on to you, the unsuspecting artist. Am I saying that in every case these producers are ripping you off? No. You can check their track record quick enough and if it comes back that they have done great work then you can rely that they will do the job for you but also who is to say that you cannot get an equally sufficient product yourself on half or even a third of that budget, squeeze it tight enough and you might get it for a 10th of it. On the high end of what one producer offered I have recorded an entire album which managed to chart, receive airplay all over the globe, and helped me secure two tours to Europe. My 1,500 was well spent.
Join us next week for
To spend or not to spend and where to spend it (Part 2)
Suggestions on Alternatives to Hiring Big Joe Producer Guy

Career education for Music Performance: Yeah Right!

The Music Industry

I get asked by many people what path people should take educationally for a career as a performance artist in rock, folk, or other styles of music not related to the theater. Of course college drama and music would be an obvious path for the theater but here I am talking about an education you would get if you wanted to be Bob Dylan. There is my example.

There is no school to teach you how to be Bob Dylan. Or Kayne West. Or Swizz Beatz. Or any original performer because they are the production of themselves. And there is only one person who can teach you how to become an original, unique, and sought after artist: you. This frustrates so many aspiring musicians, performers, or singer songwriters who have few clues about this thing they see clearly but have no idea how to become. There is a reason for that, there is no School of Rock out there and probably never will, effectively, be one or should I say be an effective one.

I will avoid the tales of “school of hard knocks” and simply say this artist you foresee coming forward one day has to be less born than berthed. When I use berthed I mean much more struggle than release. Struggle that at times will seem at odds with oneself and its goals but work and struggle which must be consistently done, sometimes with factory like drudge, day after day, and sometimes with every ounce of energy you have to give away.

When I get asked by the oft musician here and there “what should I study in school? I want to be a rock star.” I sarcastically answer “Rock Star 101 at Angus Young “U”” sometimes but really go on to tell them that they need to find an educational option which will provide a career for them and will allow them to develop their performance chops along the way, as well as some common sense which is many times none existent in the 19-25 year old crowd. This is not always the rule but have fun during those years, there is a time and a place for everything, and this place is called college.

When you have a job, which pays actual money, from your studies, you will be much freer to travel away to a low paying but high profile gig across the country or afford to have that demo mastered at a wonderful studio as opposed to the cheap mail order route where at best you talk to some engineer on the phone as opposed to sitting down and watching the actual process, thus learning a bit about the business as well from a potential sound guru. (these type guys know so much that I have never failed to learn something from them while in their midst.)

There is always the alternate route, or actually, the more traditional, tried and true method, which is leave high school, pick a town, and start booking gigs and shows immediately. I would not suggest this unless you are very confident of your abilities and willing to live on nothing. (There is nothing wrong with living on nothing for some time. I have done so and can remember the experiences being some of the happiest moments in my life). Sure there are the super success stories which are one in a million in the old days, one in three million now, but do not get lost in this dream. Your dreams need to be about performing one day in front of thousands of people, on your own terms, because of your own hard work, not because someone caught your set at the micro brew pub one Wednesday.

These days the music industry is a constantly changing field where many skills are required to have a successful job or even a career. With the advent of the internet and later file sharing the entire model of the industry was set aside and there has not been a consistently successful new mode for the industry to follow. Where this becomes bad business for large corporations it can be a boon for the independent artists and small groups willing to help and share information. Not only does the internet provide an artist or producer with the ability to instantly share music to a worldwide audience within seconds it also allows these individuals to access ideas and other routes for sales, promotion, and performance opportunities.

The old idea of signing a record deal or getting “discovered” is no longer a real option short of the two or three talent shows on television. Labels work with artists who have already shown themselves capable of getting material out there and doing the work themselves. Because the industry is no longer set up like it was they cannot afford to pour the money into artists for development and wait years to see this artist reach a level where this money is recouped. Now the artist has to show a label radio play, sales, internet activity, and a fan base which they generated from their own hard work before they will even be consider worth looking at for even a showcase.

Many young or novice performers, song writers, or producers still, in 2010, cling to the idea of the old way of doing things, ideas like “I will record a CD and blow up” or “I will be singing at some open mic and get discovered” when in reality this is not going to happen. The record company is a business and its business is to make money. With the condition of the recording industry as it stands now they can ill afford to take the chances they once took, especially when they do not even have a salient business model to fall back on should the artist fail to make money. In the old days labels could sign “discoveries” and have 9 fail and 1 succeed enough that it paid for the other 9 and allowed them to make a huge profit, it was a calculated investment that in today’s world has changed and the odds have become much leaner.  Sure there are artists like Lady GaGa who make tons of money but in the big picture she is a rarity and worked her way up from inside the business as a songwriter first. Her talents and abilities were already proven by her hit writing, thus she had shown she had the ability to create engaging material and was worth the risk. This was merely her in which she had to back up with talent and many other things.

For every Lady GaGa there are at least 500 artists who make a career by utilizing the tools out there now and adapting to innovation which is constantly in the mix. An example would be Blogging which most artists have no clue about but many have used as a vehicle to make others aware of them and share personal insight into them for their fans and blog readers.  Today’s artist has to be able to take a beginning (a song or an album worth of songs), get it there (self produce a CD), and keep it on the road (promoting it, building a fan base, and countless other tasks). Today’s serious artist creates the routes for themselves and has everything figured out or at least a broad understanding of where things should be.  It does not happen overnight and those that expect to are going to be constantly disappointed when it does not.

If all this sounds like too much then stop reading and just continue to do music for fun. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you are serious about the prospect then you have to empower yourself with the correct amount of information and then act on this information. It will not happen for you if you do not make it happen for yourself. Listed on the back are web links which are great place to start. Also any books you can read dealing with the subject , there are tons, will be helpful and give you new ideas to explore.




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