News at Zen

Hendrix v Nutini

I watched two music shows on TV. One was a documentary about Jimi Hendrix and in the other Paolo Nutini performed at T In The Park. Paolo Nutini, I was surprised to hear, is a very good singer, even if his music isn’t my cuppa. But it struck me like bolt of lighting just how original, groundbreaking and remarkable Jimi must have been in his day. He was so unique that his work blows people out of the water 50 years later.

I had a conversation with a young band about why so little of modern music breaks new ground, a supposition with which they agreed. The unwillingness of record labels to take risks is often mentioned in this context. Meh…. labels don’t make music. Musicians do.

Besides, there are many like us in the business who actively look to work with weird and wonderful new music. So it’s just not true to say that there are no channels for new music to blossom.

This young band, all recent graduates of music schools, said the schools foster a culture of “being professional” that equates to playing it safe, not rocking the boat, being accessible, malleable. With their emphasis on “the business”, these schools may well feel they are manufacturing astute musical entrepreneurs, except that:

 

Notice that bit about taking risks. If you’re unwilling to rock the boat, why would kids wanna rock?

I dropped out/was expelled from my music college for refusing to sing Lionel Richie’s Hello the way they wanted it sung. My small act of personal rebellion aside, the important thing I remember from those days is that there was, among my peers, a big drive to find something new. We’d purposefully attempt to do whatever everyone else wasn’t doing.

It’s baffling to hear so little of this desire in new bands’ demos. It’s as if the competition is to create something that “the market wants”. A lot of them actually ask about it, as if anyone had a clue as to what it wants.

Some say that it’s hard to do anything new and original because everything has already been done. Did you know that in the late 1800s people in the science community declared that science had come as far as it would go?

 

In addition to musical risks, there must be a willingness to take “life risks”, i.e. do things the inevitable outcome of which is that you’ll be broke: something lower than a cockroach on the Richter scale of social status in a world devoted to affluence.

Many a wannabe is able to spend a few hundred quid on a holiday, while not wanting to do a gig that costs them £30 in petrol.

I often hear: “if given the opportunity, we’d quit our jobs and focus on the band”. Not one of the victorious German football team got the opportunity to drop everything so they could focus on kicking a ball. All of them had been kicking a ball for a very long time, playing on shitty pitches fighting against tough people who didn’t want them to get one bit of their meal ticket – all this LONG before they got good enough to be able to compete at “the next level”. It cost a lot of money, time and effort to get there, without any guarantee that it would happen. The life risk was huge.

For those unwilling to take such risks, there are some good news: there is a seat reserved for you at your local where you can pass judgement on guys like Paolo Nutini and anyone else who has made it. Fellow experts on how the music business conspires against true talent will strongly agree with you.

In the meantime, a hungry bunch of crazy weirdos are creating something crazy and weird in a rehearsal room that stinks of beer and sweat. I hope they find me. They won’t if I find them first.

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Big Announcements on Facebook

If you recognise your band from this video, stop what you’re doing and terminate your membership of that stupid club.

Once you’ve ripped up your membership card and you wonder what you should do next, try this: for the next month sit down every day to write new songs. You have to come up with a handful of ideas every day. Develop songs out of the ideas that seem to want to progress. Some ideas won’t want to. Ignore them.

Take the songs into rehearsals and develop them further.

At the end of the month, you should have one very good new song. Bin the rest.

Repeat this process for twelve months. In a year you will have a strong setlist.

If in the meantime anyone talks to you about exposure and marketing, better/bigger shows, some PR or whatever else of that nature, ignore them. The world is full of good bands with good songs and they’re all making big announcements on Facebook about something cool about to happen.

And it never does.

Why?

Because their songs are only good and the world demands great.

Spend your time wisely.

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Seinfeld’s Productivity Chain

I was engaged in a conversation with some friends of mine, who are all in proper jobs, about how to be more productive and get stuff done. Someone mentioned the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity chain. It works like this: if you want to be truly great at something you have to do it every day.

Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page. Put it somewhere you can’t ignore it. Every day work on the one thing you want to be great at. When you’ve put the time in, you get to draw a red cross over that day. You do it for days on end and a chain develops. You don’t want to break the chain. If nothing else, the chain looks nicer without gaps in it.

That’s how you could, for instance, become a good songwriter, should you feel that becoming one will be of use to you in your chosen field.

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In Utero

In his letter to Nirvana producer Steve Albini makes a few good points about making records.

In our daily business we, too, talk about making records with artists. In Utero often gets mentioned as the kind of non-polished, gritty record bands aspire to make, usually in response to a discussion about budget, I guess, in the expectation that polish costs (which is undesirable) and grit is cheap (very desirable).

In his letter Mr Albini speaks a lot about understanding the band and the kind of record they want, about letting the band’s personality shine through, about the overriding importance of vibe over control, of playing over tweaking, of the band’s sound over stock sounds.

They are great things to aspire to, as most people can wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone can pull off making music the “old school” way. The band has to be very good, the producer very experienced and the equipment very good. Mr Albini had done hundreds of records, Nirvana many tours prior to entering the studio to record In Utero. Both parties were very good at doing the thing they were in the room to do. They had the best tools of the trade at their disposal. That is why In Utero feels and sounds amazing.

A band who would agree 100% with everything Mr Albini says in his letter may, with a straight face, suggest working in a cheap little demo studio so it “doesn’t sound too polished”. They’re right about that, for sure. It won’t sound polished.

The following applies to project management:

It’s quite a suspension of belief to arrive at the conclusion that an inexperienced band working with an enthusiastic amateur in a badly equipped, often run down studio will come up with anything even remotely comparable to a major milestone in rock history. The most likely outcome is that the record ends up a turd. Which, as everyone knows, you can’t polish. Mission accomplished. ;-)

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3 Things That Every Artist Needs To Hear

Someone who used to work as an a&r in one of the major labels told me about his new job in music. It was unsurprising to hear him say that he enjoys being free of the relatively small confines of what he used to do for a living. That visible part of the music business, the one most readers of this blog, I would guess, aspire to, is one where a bunch of mates get plucked out of obscurity, land a record deal and become rock stars.

The likelihood of it ever happening to anyone like that is very small. Those involved in the food chain know it and they have few illusions about how hard it is to find success in that world.

The dream of success is irresistible to those desperate to make it. They will believe anything, as long as it supports their unified grand theory of how the music business works. It’s all about who you know and those in the know can push crap music down people’s gullets. It conspires against “true talent” (theirs) by signing shit bands (others). And so on. Fill in your favourite gripe.

In this scenario the victim is always the band. The villain is always the faceless corporate dude doing his evil corporate thing in the impenetrable corporation building.

Knowing both sides of the argument gives me the confidence to say that both parties are closer to one another than they think. Both are chasing an improbably small chance of success in a setting where numerous variables can and usually will go wrong.

Most people in bands don’t seem to actually like being in them. I mean, they don’t spend nearly enough time doing the thing that they’re meant to do. A band is meant to create music, practice, play gigs, make records and look cool.

It’s hard writing great songs. You have to write so many bad ones to get anywhere near a good one that most just go: aww… can’t we just make do with these ones? C’mon, man, we’ve got nine songs already. We need to make an album. Now.

Looking cool is, of course, subjective, but man boobs on a twenty something bassist is not it. If nothing else, try not to look past your peak. Am I fattist and superficial? Don’t care. As Steve Tyler from Aerosmith said: nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.

Doing gigs is really hard work. Night in night out. Same nine songs. Same audience. Month after month, year after year. Only… most bands seem to think that doing a handful of poorly attended shows qualifies them to join the super elite of professional musicians, who make a living because there are enough people willing to buy tickets to their shows for it to be a profitable endeavour to an entire value chain of band, manager, promoter, venue and fan.

How is it profitable to the fan? They get a fulfilling experience for their buck. Why does that happen? Because the band do the thing that they’re meant to do really well.

Become that band. Seriously. A big announcement on Facebook won’t address the root of the problem. A badly spelled email with shit grammar and hyperbole about insignificant achievements won’t either. Hiring a PR guy won’t. Nor will doing the “right gigs”.

A manager might be able to help, especially if he tells it to you like it is.

I read a cool quote recently. It went something like: before you open your mouth, check that what you’re about to say passes three tests. The first, is it true? Second, is it necessary? Third, is it kind?

This is true: the main reason your band is not successful is because your music doesn’t connect with anyone. People don’t like it. It’s not exciting enough, doesn’t sound good enough, it’s not unique enough, catchy enough, weird enough. Any of the above.

This is necessary: you need to be told, because if you don’t know, you will never start working the problem. Most bands who hear this advice ignore it, because it’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t fit their belief system. You can be the exception. Start now. You will reap the rewards in a year or two.

This is kind: the pleasure you get from making music is reward enough. Go back to the reason why you started making music. You did because you loved the sound of music. You may even have loved the musical by the same name… ;-) Either way, you thought at some point, while listening to your favourite record, that it would be so cool to make something that moves others just as much as this moves me.

Somewhere along the way your mind got corrupted by bullshit you heard from people who shouldn’t have opened their mouths. You didn’t get into music to do the right shows, work with PR companies, managers, labels or waste time on social media.

Your focus on those things is the main reason you’re unable to give your muse the attention it deserves. Which is the main reason your music doesn’t connect with people. Which is the reason why the gigs, managers etc. elude you.

It brings us back to the start, to the relatively small confines of the record business. It’s very hard to find artists whose music, personas and work ethic make you believe that success, as improbable as it always is, may happen.

In stark contrast we, the creators of music and good vibes, live in a world that is mind bogglingly exciting and full of opportunity to explore coolness. Here’s the first step:

And then write a song.

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Hard Work v Goofing Off

I spent a long weekend in training at Pontefract Squash Club. To the uninitiated, it’s one of the centres of excellence in world squash. Having produced two recent world number ones and countless competitive players of all standards, players from the world over go there to train. I tenuously fit into this set up because I have made good friends with the people who run the show there. To my extreme pleasure, they don’t appear to mind having a very enthusiastic club hack tagging along.

At one of the sessions I was on court with three junior players. They hit the ball unbelievably well. One of them, aged 11, is the UK number one in his age group. I asked him how often he does this, “this” being the sort of structured two hour training session we were doing. Every day, apparently.

I started playing the piano aged 5 or 6. Sure, I practiced quite studiously, maybe for 20 minutes on a good day. When I picked up the guitar aged 10 I did spend a lot more time jamming and noodling. But I can honestly say that I never actually practiced anywhere near two hours a day. Eddie Van Halen did. That’s why he’s a rock god with his place in music history.

On Facebook someone was ranting about the footballer Emile Heskey, calling him all sorts of names. I wonder if people like that realise just how good Mr Heskey actually is to have made it as a top pro. Similarly, wannabe musicians in bands are quick to dismiss artists who’ve made it, forgetting why the latter are there while the former are not: hard work vs goofing off.

Of course, in sport you succeed if you beat your opponents. It’s unlikely to happen without great technique. That is, I guess, why they train so much. In music, you have to do something that other people like. Being a technically amazing guitarist will get you a great career, but it’s not a prerequisite for one.

Please read this interesting article on how records get chosen to be played on Radio 1. Notice the big emphasis that “do other people like it?” has in the decision making process. In a way, it’s quite liberating to know that no matter how much money you spend on hiring pluggers who know the right people, the right people will still only play your record if other people already like it.

How do you make stuff that other people like? Writing lots of songs and doing lots of gigs may have something to do with it. It’s a good start.

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The Great Escape – 5 Things To Make Things Even Better

Last Thursday, walking into the foyer at the Dome in Brighton where the music business convention takes place during The Great Escape, the realisation that I belong to the community of people who make up the music business in this country almost startled me. Even after twenty odd years of working in music I feel that at best it’s a cool lark. But when people we’ve employed, whose first jobs in the business they got from us, come up to say hi, as do strangers asking for advice, it is, without a doubt, a nice feeling.

The best kept secret ingredient of success in music? Refusing to give up.

This year’s TGE was, as ever, very enjoyable. And…

Five Things To Make Things Even Better

1. Music could be more fun. Far too much of it is up its own arse, made and promoted by mind numbingly tedious and pretentious twerps.

2. Music could be angrier. Far too much of it is just jolly nice. It’s not as if we don’t have a lot to be angry about. Take a look around your neighbourhood. Posh boys from posh neighbourhoods are excused.

3. Music could push boundaries. I understand the fascination with lumberjack shirts and banjos, but really, that shit is regressive. The opposite of progressive. Those in the electronic corner can’t get too smug, either. Those bleeps are about as new as Tetris. And that little dance you do while you’re looking down at your drum pad is not cool. Really, it isn’t.

4. We could go for stuff just for the hell of it, especially if we don’t understand it. We should encourage stuff we don’t get. How could anyone know that “the market wants”? Why should anybody care about what’s going on in “the A&R village”? No one truly knows what the hell they’re doing, anyway, and the sooner everyone admits to it, the sooner things will get even better. We’re here to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

5. Everyone could remember that it’s far less about the “right team” than it is about how a record connects with a person.

Everyone could think about points 1-5 and accept that not enough music really connects with anyone. Agreed, much of it is well liked and some of it sorta sells, but, as the erudite New York A&R executive said: “It doesn’t make kids wanna fuck ass.”

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Majors v Indies – Music v Business

At AIM’s Music Connected conference the opening speaker said that traditionally major labels have been good at business but shit at music. “I mean, they release Miley Cyrus records…” he said and followed by saying that independents are known for being great at music but not so good at business.

OK, so he kissed a little bit of indie ass. Nothing wrong with that. Back in the day when daddy used to rock one sure fire way to get the crowd going was to diss boybands.

When the speaker said his bit about Miley, however, I turned over to the person next to me and said that I bet every one in this room wishes to (enter favourite deity) that they had a record like Ms Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. If we did, we wouldn’t be attending a discussion on how to break a band for £1000, which was one of the topics of the day.

Put that in your book. Have a great weekend! Hope to see you at The Great Escape next week, where we are hosting a showcase. It’s gonna be the mother of all wrecking balls!

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