Thursday, September 27, 2007

Great Demo! Now Why Does My Master Feel Like Shit?

I was going back and forth with my friend Pieps today via email and he brought up a great subject. I started to discuss what I felt but as I have only so many keystrokes in me, I chose to save them for this entry.

I've said a lot in this blog about broadcast standards and recording techniques, how to mix a demo to portray a song effectively and the benefits of professional recording when attempting to actually sell music. But Pieps raised an extremely valid point that I have failed to discuss. This concerns the "spirit" of musical creation as opposed to the technical aspects of recording.

When it comes to recording the art of music, one size does not fit all. Carnegie Hall is regarded by many to be a nearly perfect acoustic environment. But would you really want to see Rammstein perform there? Sometimes a bedroom recording rig is the perfect environment to create an ethereal sound collage not requiring an acoustic environment. Or, in the case of a young bunch of musicians playing their hearts out and recording their inspirations on a laptop, will a professional recording environment improve the spirit and intense vibe of their efforts.

So what's more important, ass-kicking feel, vibe and honesty, or a proper equalization curve? Well, I want it all...all the time. But I have to side with Pieps' opinion that properly recorded crap is still crap...and that there is a huge amount of great music out there that bears listening because of what it is, not how it is recorded.

And this brings me to the title of this entry. What the hell are you supposed to do when you record a demo dripping with vibe...and you take the song into the studio only to find that the "moment" will never allow itself to be recreated? This is absolutely the most frustrating experience an artist can have when working on a record. When you're watching the clock, paying triple-scale musicians and have some idiot suit breathing down your neck it can make delivering pizzas seem like a viable option.

When we were recording the "Windows" album with Beej Chaney, we ran into that situation a lot. Beej recorded his song ideas on cassettes. He would make up a kooky drum loop, play his jagged style of guitar and sing the song at the same time. Now this guy only had one way of doing things. It didn't matter if he was playing to a cassette, 2 inch tape or 50,000 people, he made his music with every cell of his body. The cassette demos were technically horrible, but there was an honesty, feel and vibe that would prove to be difficult to capture in the studio. Luckily, he owned the studio and we did settle into a work routine that allowed us to come damned close.

We decided to track only one song a day. We would convene at about 2:00 pm, shoot the shit and hang out for about an hour with the demo playing in the control room. Then we'd drift into the studio, pick up our instruments while still visiting and absent-mindedly start noodling along with the demo which was still looping over the speakers. Gradually, the feel of the demo would start to infect everyone in the room because each of us was playing along with the wacky little drum loop and all the other idiosyncrasies on the cassette. After about 2 hours of jamming with each other along with the cassette, things would start to bubble along. Then we would take a dinner break, come back to the studio where the guitar player would make a round of ridiculously strong cappuccinos, and hang out at the back door smoking cigars and farting til about 8:30 or so. We'd go in, tune up, mount up and push record. Many times the first take would be the track but we always did at least three just because it was fun.

It sounds like we were just fucking around, doesn't it? Actually a lot of thought went into the process. Any of us could walk in, play whatever was on the music stand, collect a check and be home in time for American Idol. But the idea was for all of us to become Beej, to play our parts as if he were playing them. In the end, we were fairly successful in capturing the vibe of eighth-graders with studio chops. But I did get spoiled and that's why I say that I want it all...vibe and quality.

There was another instance at Shangri La in which the compromise between capturing a vibe and recording properly became a hands down decision to opt for the vibe. John Hanlon was producing Belgian artist Admiral Freebee's album "Songs." We had the grand piano mic'd up for a ballad. While we took a break, the Admiral went across the room to the old upright and started to play through the song. As he noodled, he started to sing the song to himself and also to play the harmonica which he still had on his neck holder from a previous track. Suddenly, John reached over and put the tape machine into record. I told him that the upright wasn't mic'd but he said, "Listen to that man, he'll never sing it like that again!" It didn't seem to matter that the upright and the vocal were all being recorded through microphones that were about twenty feet away from where they should have been. After the song was over, the Admiral pushed back the stool and walked down the hall to the control room, opening and closing doors as he went. John caught it all on tape and that's the last track on the album. We could have worked that song for the next two days, but we never would have caught that moment again.

Yes, there is a lot of great sounding, technically correct crap out there. Some music doesn't warrant the ridiculous piles of money and resources thrown at it. But that's the nature of the business sometimes. Wouldn't it be great to be a fly on the wall when a bedroom recording genius kicks one through the goal posts? Better yet, wouldn't it be great to be a fly on the wall with a nice pair of C-12s so the moment is recorded properly? I can't help it...I want it all. Thanks Pieps, you always make me think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

We've Run Out Of Dilithium Crystal!!

I had planned to take some time off from writing Sellaband articles for a while. I had the distinct feeling that this blog was being perceived as having official ties to the organization, or that I was in some way attempting to endear myself by writing articles which cast too positive a light on a music marketing system still involved in working out its organizational kinks.

Well...FUCK THAT! I write what I write and tonight It's going to be about Sellaband. And if you don't want to read another review here's a link to some fart noises. Have a ball!

Now, before I get to the artist of the evening, let me explain that my personal tastes read like the menu at Jerry's Famous Deli. I started as an eighth grade garage musician, studied ethnic music at the East West Center in Honolulu, Renaissance music in Vienna, Jazz with Monty Budwig, blah blah blah. My first love is the music of Brahms, and I'm a Motown freak. I've been around great singers, musicians and songwriters for thirty years.

I enjoy music from the inside out and it is from this vantage point that my observations are made. My opinion is no more valid than the guy living in the dumpster behind the supermarket nor less valid than the Pope's. I prefer to write about things I like and leave the negative comments to the pros. And when I write my impressions of an artist's work, I mean every word.

Tonight's guest of honor is a most interesting artist working in Portugal who goes by the name of The Average Person. TAP is not a writer of pop songs but rather a serious composer who demands full attention of the listener. A receptive mind and disregard for the usual genrephobic comparisons, difficult for genuine "average" persons, are essential listening tools if one is to appreciate the striking soundscapes created by this artist. This is indeed music at another level and some listeners may require program notes when attempting to make their way from one end of a track to the other. I don't see that as being a detriment, as program notes are quite common in the opera house or concert hall and this music would most definitely feel at home in such a venue.

The song "Fugitive" unfolds in a most visual way. My first impression was the memory of walking down the hallway of the practice room wing at college. On a busy day, every step would be a fresh turn of the musical kaleidoscope as you walked past the rooms of practicing students. But within seconds, the image changed. I almost smelled cigar smoke and felt as though I were listening to the last few moments of finger loosening before the tango ensemble counted off the first song of the evening. But the "uno, due, tre..." is not forthcoming. Suddenly I realize that The Average Person has caused me to" feel" more in ten seconds than most music can squeeze out of me with repeated listenings.

The Average Person demonstrates a high level of accomplishment in putting his visions to sound. His work is a collage of traditional orchestral instruments very skillfully punctuated by seemingly arrhythmic percussion motifs. He uses the human voice, in this case, that of the extremely talented and flexible Chris Tanzi, as another instrument which just happens to have the power of words in its musical vocabulary. The result is 3 minutes and 55 seconds of raw, gut-wrenching emotion that may be uncomfortable, and may be difficult to digest for some. But the listener free of prejudicial expectations will experience a remarkable journey into the depths of a most creative musical mind.

The Average Person's three tracks on Sellaband are collaborations with vocal artists also on the Sellabend roster. There is the above mentioned "Fugitive" featuring Chris Tanzi, "Drift Away" with Outrance singing a vocal track that could hold its own with Peter Pears, and "Only If" with the voice of conscience hauntingly performed by Kane Sol. Three pieces that provide very distinct images but with the soul of a distinctly unaverage person woven throughout.

Whenever I listen to an artist, I can't help but wonder what influences may have served to hammer a style out of the original raw materials. In the case of The Average Person, the music itself holds the answer. One dark, moonless night, his craft took a wrong turn and crash-landed into an abandoned warehouse full of musical instruments. Thinking the instruments and electronic recording devices may be helpful in repairing his craft, The Average Person tinkered away but to no least as far as repairs to the saucer were concerned. What we hear are the results of that tinkering. This guy is not from here, he just ran out of dilithium crystal. But he's here now and that's all that counts.

I have to be honest, I had a hard time starting to listen to The Average Person...but now I find it much harder to stop.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"One of Us...Or One of Them..."

There are times when being good at something can be a real pain in the ass! One of the really dumb-ass things I'm pretty good at is being big. Now there is something to be proud of, isn't it? I had to really hit the books for that one.

During the second half of the eighties, I graduated from "bass player" to "musical director" for a national act and I'm certain that the gig fell into my lap because of my size. Our drummer was a big, burly guy who wasn't to be fucked with. Added to his less than sunny disposition was the very fact that he hit things for a living. Quite simply put, the artist was scared to death of him...and the drummer knew it and used this to his advantage. I know that I was given the job just in case this guy would ever need to be fired. Well... fuck it. A raise is a raise, right?

All I ever really wanted to do was play bass, keep my head at a reasonable cruising altitude, and learn to fall out of limos without spilling my drink. But somehow, here I was again, writing arrangements, running rehearsals and sweating bullets while trying to get my band through customs.

Our operation ran on the streamlined plan. All the musicians sang and the keyboard player had a lot of string and horn parts to cover. But at a certain point, I was able to talk the artist into spending some of the substantial money he was making on a horn section. We had three weeks off and I made the calls, hired the players, wrote the charts and booked the rehearsal hall for a week. After the break we were to leave on a four week stretch of dates, following Michael Macdonald into a San Diego Venue and ending with a week in the Caribbean. My guys were going to make some good dough and fill the dead time with decent rehearsal money.

I learned a lot during rehearsals...about sequencers. I was always amazed at how Tim, our keyboardist, could cover all of the horn and string cues and still be the consummate showman. Turns out that he had most of the parts sequenced to trigger off single keys. Now that we had the horns in place, all he had to do was play the piano and organ parts and a few string pads. The only problem was that his set up had become so complicated and the choreography of his deception so intricate that he no longer knew the goddamn songs. What he had accomplished was cool if he were doing a nightclub act, but the artist found it unacceptable for the concert stage. (Little did we know how prophetic Tim's system would prove to be).

Tim had recently hooked up with some very notable songwriters and had been doing the odd writing sessions while we were off the road. At the first rehearsal, Tim strolled in two hours late with the excuse that his morning session with so-and-so had gone over. We waited while he set up his keyboard rig and started rehearsal a full three hours late. Afterwards, I had a word with him and he assured me that it wouldn't happen again. The next day, same trip...only worse. Tim was an amazing musician who had actually played with Freddie Hubbard as a teen-ager. We were playing songs that were hit records and the parts needed to be played accurately. But this was boring for him so rather than memorize the correct parts, Tim improvised. It was really hip shit too, but way too hip for the gig. Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with Roy Orbison and you get the idea.

Now, Tim was one of my closest friends. I hired him the moment he moved to LA and let him stay at my apartment, so we were close. But he was keeping me from effectively doing the job I was paid to do. So I had more words. I told him that the five hours we had lost waiting for him, when multiplied by the seven other musicians, represented thirty-five man-hours that I, through lack of leadership, had cost my artist. I told him that if he was planning to be late again, that I would like to borrow his phone book so I could get a good replacement.

When Tim wasn't there at the start of the third day's rehearsal, I made a phone call to another old mate who was dying for the gig. He met with me at the artist's home that evening but not before buying the records and learning the songs cold. That night I had to drop the hammer on Tim. It went something like this:

"What time is rehearsal tomorrow?"
"I might be late."
"No Problem. Don't bother."
"You don't need me? You working on horns?"
"Nah, the whole band, but I'll need the time to teach the new keyboard player the vocal parts."
"Yeah, right."
"No bullshit man, here's two week's pay. You're off the band. Sorry."
"You can't do that man, we're leaving in three days for a month of gigs!"
"Already did it... and we're still leaving in two days."
"You'll never find a guy that fast and he'll never learn the show!"
"Found him...and he knows it already."
"I thought we were friends man!"
"We are."
"What do you mean man? You can't fire a friend!"

And this is where I lost it. I let him know that from my perspective, he had used our friendship in a way that made me look like an idiot to my artist. If we were such good friends, why would he force the issue and cause me to do less than the best job I was able to do? As far as I was concerned, we could be the best of friends, but the business between us had come to an end.

As with all shitty situations, I try to glean through the rubble for something positive. I'll never forget his last words to me as he left the apartment to stay with his girlfriend. "Well man," he said, "you're either one of us or one of them." I know how he meant it and I know that he was throwing a cheap shot and refusing to shoulder the responsibility of fucking up. But the statement itself has stayed with me since that time. If "one of us" represents the guys in the trenches and "one of them" stands for the guys standing over them with the lash of authority, I'd rather think of myself as "one of us."

I've always prided myself on having a thick skin, getting the job done, being a good man in a storm, making the tough decisions...fuck that. Being in charge is just the seat closest to the door. I play what I want, write what I want and say what I want to whoever I want. I'd rather stick around for a while, sleep good, have some laughs and be the last guy to the airport for a change. I'm done being "one of them."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Music!

I feel a rant coming on...yep, a wicked rant is threatening to burst the old medulla oblongata and I better puke it out before some brain shrapnel shatters the window and knocks the paperboy off of his bike! This goes out to all the aspiring artists out there in cyberland who think that a self-produced gar(b)ageband recording will get their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. Take the needle out! It's probably not gonna happen.

Sellaband is a fantastic idea...raise $50K and make a professional level recording of your songs. The concept is eloquent in its simplicity. The plan is obviously aimed at artists who: 1. Do not have the financial backing of a major label (unsigned), 2. Desire to maintain artistic control in a business where financial investment is frequently infected with "a great idea for the chorus." and 3. Artists in a genre not necessarily in the cross-hairs of the mainstream music buying constituency. Sellaband, like the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, says to throngs of independent artists and those who believe in those artists, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." (free of the fetid stench surrounding the recycling dump that the music industry has allowed itself to become)

Think of it... artists can post representative examples of their music on the web, the public invests in the artist based upon belief in the artist's potential to make professional recordings, and, with patience and hard work, a high quality version of the artist's vision may see the light of day. Elegant and functional as an iPod. But, humans being human, even something this uncomplicated can get bogged down in a morass of "what ifs."

It's getting difficult to go into the supermarket without being accosted by chiselers. My favorite is the teen-aged candy salesman who offers overpriced boxes of four-year-old peanut brittle remnants. I have actually offered to buy the entire inventory on condition that the miscreant eat the crap while I watch, and not puke for at least thirty takers yet. Then I ask, "Who gets the cash?" "Well, If I sell enough candy, I can go to summer camp and don't have to get involved with gangs." Oh... I get it. This kid's proclivity for gang affiliation can only be curtailed by sacrificing my teeth to a five dollar handful of candy factory scraps swept up by the late shift. "What are you, on glue?" I ask, "So If you don't go to camp, you'll join a gang?" And he answers, "Well, I don't want to...but..."

At that point, I become the kid's worst nightmare and give him some fatherly advice. I point to the newspaper dispenser next to the supermarket entryway. "See those?" I ask, pointing at the papers. "See all that black stuff on the paper? Those are words, and if you take your young ass to school you can learn how they work...they mean things. When you learn how to read, you can go to the laundromat and find a newspaper for free. Look at the biggest part with all the small words on it. That is called the classified ads. It is rammed full of something called 'JOBS'. Go and get one. As long as they still print that part of the paper, it means that there are more jobs than there are crap-candy salesmen trying to scare me with some bullshit about staying out of gangs...lazy bastard!"

You see, the kid is a liar. He wants me to give him five dollars for a box of crap that claims to be fresh from Auntie Helga's candy kitchen on the premise that this transaction will have a positive effect on his future. A gross misrepresentation of the product followed by a gross misrepresentation of the business plan. Bullshit on top of bullshit.

Here is my interpretation of the Sellaband transaction. I listen to an mp3 demo, decide that there is potential, buy a share at ten bucks, the artist goes on to raise fifty grand, and makes a professional recording of the music I believed in by virtue of the mp3. If, after reaching the $50K mark, the artists decides that he wants to spend the budget on promoting the original demo versions, or on touring so that he can sell his demos side-stage, I have to feel that I've been lied to. I didn't invest in a box of crap to send a kid to summer camp. If an artist were to say out front, "Look, I've already made my recordings and I just want the money to buy a van so I can drive along the highway and sell my peanut brittle at rest stops," well, then I have the choice to invest in a van for this artist or a recording for another. I've written about the value of a professional studio experience before, but my position also concerns the very integrity of the business transaction between artist and believer.

There is a link on the Sellaband site to the Sellaband Club area where one will find various playlists compiled by members of the community. One of my favorites is called "Songs with Hit Potential." Notice the wording? It doesn't say "Recordings", it says "Songs." I interpret this to mean that the compiler of this playlist feels that the songs on this list could be made into hit records. If the recordings were radio ready, they might be hit records now. But they aren't. The idea of spending $50K trying to get an mp3 on the radio is absurd. Without a top-notch recording, promotion is a moot point.

As always, I will accompany this rant with a discalaimer. Yes, There are artists capable of producing their own music. and yes, I may be as full of shit as the next guy. But if you are a highly talented and creative musical artist with limited experience, limited funds, and limited knowledge of the many ways to completely fuck yourself in this business...AND you have Sellaband staring you in the face with the perfect plan...Wake up and smell the music.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"You Never Know..."

"...where the hits are gonna come from." These are words of wisdom from studio legend, and I'm proud to say my friend, Dennis St. John. Listening to the music of Sellaband artist Mark Supsic this evening, I remembered some of the great conversations Dennis and I had while sitting at the old API desk in Shangri La. I'll get back to Marc, but first a few words about Dennis.

You may not know his name, but unless cultural or religious constraints have prevented you from listening to the radio during the time that rock, pop and soul records have been invented, you know Dennis' work. Dennis cut his studio teeth playing with artists like Otis Redding, The Classics IV (who can forget "Spooky") and The Boxtops. He was responsible for making "Let Your Love Flow" a hit for the Bellamy Brothers and was at his peak as Musical director for Neil Diamond, producing "The Jazz Singer" and appearing with Neil in the Band's "Last Waltz."

The two Dennis stories that Marc's music reminded me of are these. After the Boxtops' "Give Me a Ticket For an Airplane" had gone to number one in the billboard charts, Dennis was having coffee with songwriter Spooner Oldham. They had an interesting problem on their hands. A number one hit single...and nothing to follow it up with. It seemed that Spooner's well was dry and the chance to capitalize on the record's success would pass them by. Spooner looked at Dennis over the rim of his cup and lamented," Yeah man, Ain't that a bitch...makes me want to cry like a baby!" Dennis looked at Spooner, Spooner looked at Dennis and they both saw lightbulbs! They hurried back to the studio and "Cry Like a Baby" became the next hit from The Boxtops.

It was from Dennis that I adopted the mantra, "Without a hit song, you don't have a record." And Dennis knew hit songs, after all, he played on literally thousands of chart recordings. While Dennis headed Neil's publishing company, he held what he called "Demo day." Once a week, he had a rhythm section set up and anyone in the company, from the mail boy on up, could bring in songs. A few hit songs were discovered in that way, hence the title to this entry.

Sellaband's Marc Supsic has a lot going for him. He sings what he writes with sensitivity and expression. He is an accomplished guitarist and all around musician, playing all the instruments on his recordings, and he has a gift for writing fresh, catchy instrumental hooks. The three songs on Marc's profile page represent three distinct approaches but there is a definite thread representative of Marc's personality connecting the songs.

I couldn't decide if "Lonely One" was Country-Rock or Rock-Country. Marc plays excellent slide guitar on the track and the vocal melody has a bit of Neil Diamond behind it. A really nice bit of songwriting in a neo-Nashville/Americana sort of way. Up until the entrance of the drums, "Invisible" evokes the qualities that made Cat Stevens' records so charming. Again, a very well written song. My favorite of the three is the last. "The Universe is Burning" is catchy without being trite, and again, Marc's excellent musical skills are evident in every track.

I do have a few kind words to say about some of the choices made in the production of these tracks, but knowing that Marc is a virtual one-man band, I hope that my criticism will be taken in the intended spirit. Besides, I could be just as full of shit as the next guy, but I think that Marc is really close to the mark in a lot of departments. One immediate observation is in regard to the vocals. Marc is a very skillful singer with a wide range of dynamics, but I find myself wanting to hear him cut loose. The way he whispers the verse of "Universe" is very effective but when the track opens up on the 'B' section the urgency isn't met by the vocal. It's nice...but it could be great.

"Invisible" is compelling from the start. As the instruments enter, each adds a new flavor and tension. And each instrument has importance with relation to the vocal message...except the drums. The song is sensitive and charming and I think the layered guitars and strings are brilliant on their own. I wonder if Marc has ever mixed the song without drums. I think the track would be mesmerizing.

The only other comment I have will be a moot point after Marc reaches his recording budget goal and walks into the studio. These songs have a size and spaciousness that are very difficult to achieve in a home recording environment with one guy wearing all the hats. Marc Supsic is an excellent songwriter and an accomplished musician. The songs he has posted on his Sellaband profile display precisely the kind of potential for development that Sellaband's system of crowd-funding is designed to nurture.

I look forward to this artist catching the eyes and ears of the Sellaband community and having the opportunity of making a first class album of his songs. As Dennis St. John so wisely said, "You never know where the hits are gonna come from."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Trading Fours With Foreigners

I just finished recording in what could be the largest recording studio in the world. I've worked in a lot of studios, some bigger than others. But this one takes the cake. The guitar room is in Groningen, The Netherlands, the vocal booth is in Basel, Switzerland, the room we used to record bass is here in California and the programming/production suite is in Veendam, also in The Netherlands.

It's a cool studio though...each room has its own kitchen and bathroom, I had no problem finding a parking spot, and my equipment was already set up and waiting for me. The only thing missing was the hang. Because we were all at extremely distant corners of the studio, we never really got to hang out. Such a pity...the band seems like a nice bunch of people.

It all began about two weeks ago. I was going back and forth on the Sellaband forum with a guitar player/songwriter from the Netherlands by the name of Pieps. I can't remember what the discussion was about or if we agreed or not on the point of the thread. But Pieps and I ended up in a corner of the virtual broo-haha talking porn...guitar porn that is. Pieps and I found that we share a passion. I think my pal Jamie Shane put it best when he said, "I like skinny women... and big fat guitars." After looking and listening to what Pieps was all about on his Sellaband profile page, I found that he kept a harem of his own and he knew how to bring 'em to their knees.

At some point, I told Pieps that it would be fun to jam together but with the price of gas, I couldn't justify driving all the way to Holland. About five minutes later I had a guitar track in my in-box along with an invitation from Pieps to lay one down. The track was to be a song which Pieps was writing with another Sellaband artist, Alexia Gardner. I visited Alexia's page to see what I might be letting myself in for. And after changing my underpants, I went immediately to work on the track.

Alexia has one of those voices that appear rarely in the life of a bass player. I have a dear friend named Angela Carole Brown who is just that type of talent. The times that I've had the good fortune to play behind Angela, I spent most of the evening trying to lift my jaw up off of my shoes...she is just that freaking good. I have yet to meet Alexia in person, but once I heard her sing, well, don't tell her this, but I'd pay to lob some big fat low stuff under that voice. I mean, putting some bass under Pieps' fat-ass guitars was already going to be as much fun as I thought legal. But the two of them? Now you're talkin' my language!

I imported Pieps' guitar mix into a Cubase4 project and, listening to the track, started the process of deciding which bass to play. I had just played a blues gig on the '64 Fender Jazz so it was first up. I went directly to the computer through a Millenia TD-1 mic-pre/direct box. This thing is probably the most transparent DI I've ever heard and is always my first choice. The old Jazz practically plays itself, I just have to make sure my fingers are in the right place at the right time. I had no clue what the vocal melody was going to be, so I had fun playing as many notes as I could all over the track as I tried to come up with something complementary to Pieps' well-executed guitar parts.

Hmm, I thought, I think I'll play a mellow thumb-slap part. So I switched to the Zebra-wood monster 5-string and had at it for a while. I came up with plenty of sophisticated jazz-funk riffs that were very clever...and had nothing to do with the tune. I decided to go back to Alexia's profile and see if I could get some direction from just the sound of her voice. Hearing her voice is like looking up and down an empty elevator shaft. Her voice is spacious and no matter where she takes a line, you always know that there is plenty more where that came from.

And that is when my part started to gel. I threw cleverness and the two basses out the window and started over. My part would have to be the glue between what Pieps had already played and what Alexia had yet to write. I plugged in the trusty fretless Gibson Ripper and attempting to channel what would become the melody, I closed my eyes and pushed "record."

After I sent the track back to Pieps, he sent the track to Alexia who then recorded her vocal track in Basel, Switzerland. At this point, I finally didn't meet the rest of the band, Pieps' brother Joris, whose name I know through having reviewed his band, Radio Orange, yet another group on the Sellaband artist roster. I finally saw a picture of Joris on his profile page and he didn't look anything like I had imagined. Listening to his programming and mixing work, I would have thought him to have ears the size of trash can lids. What Joris brought to the table was musically very sophisticated but sensitive and humble. Alexia's lyrics and that juicy, gooey voice had all the room they needed. Wearing the track like a floor-length mink coat, Alexia seduces each listener into a private corner to tell her little story.

The song, "Why Don't You". is now getting the attention it deserves. It was great fun and I've never not played with better musicians I haven't met. Thank you Pieps, Alexia and Joris. The bottom line from the Bottom-end is that I can't wait to do more of the same...but it would be nice to hang out with the band at the espresso machine in the studio lounge some time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I Discovered My Roots on Sellaband

Years ago one of my sons was given "A Tale of Two Cities" as a reading assignment in school. I still have to laugh when I remember the evening he opened the book to the first page and began to read.

"This guy Dickens is full of shit." he said, closing the book in disgust. I looked up from my crossword puzzle and asked him what he meant. "The guy can't make up his mind. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' I mean, make up your mind, what frigging time was it?!"

That bit of wisdom from the mouth of a teenager sums up the current state of affairs in the pop music industry rather succinctly. Music technology is at an all-time high, while music education is at an all-time low. Quality and talent have in large part given way to fame and controversy. Artists who haven't recorded new material in years are making more money on the concert stage than artists with new "hit" records. What was once known as "Pop, Rock and Soul" has been sub-divided into genre too numerous to remember. The proliferation of self-produced music has democratized the market in a very exciting way but has also lowered the bar of what was once acceptable broadcast standards.

New web sites seem to appear daily on which aspiring artists can market products that would once have been considered "demo quality" at best. That's not to say that the music doesn't have merit. But let's face it, ear buds, mp3s and liver-pulverizing car systems don't require the same level of production values that made recordings sound like a million dollars on anything from a home hi-fi to the family station wagon radio.

One web-based organization that is attempting to bring the promise of high quality recording values to aspiring artists is Sellaband. Sellaband does not market previously recorded material, but rather gives artists an opportunity to promote musical potential in hopes of making a professional quality recording. Of Sellabands many attributes, the most intriguing is the potential for international exposure. I say "potential" because, although there are now 5000 artists from every corner of the world on Sellaband, the majority of funding is currently being provided by investors from Europe and the UK. When the crowd-funding concept catches on in the American and Asian markets the full potential of Sellaband may be realized.

Another aspect of Sellaband that I find attractive is the internet-driven ability of artists from smaller, regional markets to reach an ever growing international audience. But again, international support for these artists will depend upon Sellaband's ability to market their crowd-funding concept to an ever-widening international crowd...with funds.

I joined Sellaband in June and the first day my profile was up, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a message from a band from my home country of Austria, inviting me to their profile page for a listen to their music. Looking through the artist roster, I found that there were three(now four) Austrian bands on the site. The four bands cover a wide variety of styles and range in age from the just out of school Rooga to the mature rock,statesmen Confused5. In between there are Kontrust, just a ripping, rapping rock band, and Solidtube, a country flavored bluesy band more reminiscent of the late 60s bay area than Vienna. Ah, the internet is a great development. Here I am, a career musician in LA who still thinks of Austria as home...hooking up with four bands from the 'hood for the very first time.

All four of these bands have recently posted new material on their Sellaband profile pages. Rooga, the young aggressive funk/rock band from Vienna have posted "Me", a powerfully progressive song recorded at Vienna's Fast Forward Studios. The song is rhythmically ambitious but never loses the groove. The vocals and melodic lines are executed with patience and maturity beyond their years. Rooga are sophisticated musicians and play with all the fire of an early No Doubt.

Kontrust, another Viennese group offers their new song "Si Je" which was also recorded at Fast Forward Studio and mastered at Gold Chamber. I've written a full review of Kontrust in the past and this new song only reinforces what I've already said...I don't understand how this band has escaped the attention of major labels. Absolutely original and one of the best bands on the Sellaband artist roster. Lead singer Agata is a star. Period. And the band absolutely rises to her level. I don't go out much, but this is an act I would pay to see. Great writing, great playing, great look, unlimited potential.

And then there is Solidtube. Until recently Solidtube was a trio consisting of very capable guitar, blues harmonica and one of the most sincere and honest voices I've heard in a long time. Mandana sounds as if she grew up playing the San Francisco bay area circuit rather than the Viennese coffee houses and restaurants that the band call home. Their new song, "Perfect", is really indicative of what they do best, write good songs and perform them with heart. Solidtube's recordings are done on consumer equipment, but the message is abundantly clear. When the right producer gets this trio into the studio along with their new rhythm section they will make an album worth listening to.

Markus from ConFused5 was the first musician to post a comment on my Sellaband profile and he is really responsible for causing me to look further into the fine european artists I've grown to admire on the Sellaband site. And this band has a great story. Markus and two of the current band members played as a band over twenty years ago. They put their tight jeans and hairdryers in the closet and went about the business of being responsible adults when along came Sellaband to fan the dormant flames of their rocking youth. Their brand of music centers around the big, overdriven guitars of the late seventies but their latest song is a catchy, minor blues laced with the distinct flavor of New Orleans. Their recordings were done at
Sonic Flow Studio of Salzburg. This is another band that does great live shows and has a loyal local following.

And speaking of a local following, ConFused5 and Solidtube, joined by Swiss artist LorraineJones will be rocking the Rock House in Salzburg in a joint effort to bring attention to their Sellaband quest on November 9th. It's a long way from LA but this is just a train ride away for many of my European readers and I hope you can join the party.

And so, this being the best of times and the worst of times, I take heart in knowing that there is something new on the horizon. Sellaband can be a lot of things to a lot of people. For me it has been a place to meet musicians from a home I left long ago. For those musicians, it represents an opportunity to realize the dream of making the quality recordings that their fans deserve. And to tell you the truth, I don't know if my son ever finished his book. Knowing him, he probably bought the Cliff notes, took the test and forgot all about it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Revolution vs Evolution

When a regime becomes unresponsive to the society from which it derives its power, a segment of the society, having exhausted all legal or peaceful means of implementing change, may sometimes engage in a revolution against that regime. This "turning upside down" of the status quo requires that a new regime replace that which was ousted. In the arena of consumer economics, given a free market and freedom from predatory monopolies, consumers revolt by means of boycott or organized exposure of faulty products. But, as in political revolution, that which is revolted against is replaced by another, new and improved, crunchier, carb-free product, usually packaged with 25% extra.

We hear of revolutions every day. The revolutionary new SUV, the digital revolution, the revolutionary new painter, novelist, film maker, sculptor or composer. And then we have the revolution taking place in the marketing of recorded music. If there is indeed a revolution occurring in the business of music sales, the current regime will be replaced by a new regime. Authority revolted against must be replaced by another form of authority. And in the case of the music business, the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for" has profound meaning.

I would hope that the "revolutionary" methods by which music is beginning to be marketed are not revolutionary at all. The artists who make, and the consumers who buy music may perhaps think that iTunes, Amiestreet or Sellaband are the battalions leading the revolution for the overthrow of the old guard. Again, I hope that this is not the case.

The leadership of a successful revolution becomes the new regime. And a regime will retain authority in two ways, responsiveness to it's constituency or brute force. The first is sure to fade and the second will eventually result in another revolution. Slogans are written, battle lines are drawn, scapegoats are slaughtered and the big picture may get a photo-shop update, but nothing of substance really changes.

Here is the way it really works...

Once upon a time, the world (the music business) was covered in nice warm water. In this water lived a few giant dinosaurs (record companies). Living in the water, the big dinosaurs did not notice how heavy they really were. They frolicked weightlessly along, unaware that their huge feet were crushing the smaller organisms(Indie companies and consumers) living on the bottom of the water. Because the dinosaurs were so heavy, they never left the water, not even to shit. So they gamboled about in the water, shitting enormous piles of waste (flooding the market with new releases) which began to choke the smaller organisms.

The dinosaurs thought that this Eden would last forever. They really enjoyed living in their own shit and feeling it squishing between their toes as their huge feet mashed their shit and the smaller organisms into the sea bottom. But over the years their shit started to pile up and the water began to recede. The dinosaurs were beginning to feel their weight but couldn't stop shitting. The more they shit, the shallower the water became until the day came that they could no longer move about. What was once a fresh blue sea was now a muddy shit wallow with a few huge dinosaurs struggling to survive.

And then one day, out of the dry shit there crawled a few of the smaller organisms. Because they had to struggle in the shit all those years, their fins had become strong and their breathing mechanisms had learned to survive out of the water. The smaller organisms grew strong enough to go out on the dry land and some of them even developed a taste for dinosaur meat. The dinosaurs begged the smaller organisms for help but the smaller organisms had had enough of living on the shit of dinosaurs. They ate what was left of them and moved out over the land to have adventures of their own.

That... is called evolution. Some organisms learn to adapt to changing conditions and thrive in the new environment. Others try to hang on to tradition and fall by the wayside, becoming the fossils that give us a glimpse of what once was. Stagnant conditions can cause unrest and even revolution. But when conditions change, courageous organisms adapt to the new surroundings, adopt new methods of survival and thrive.

The advent of digital recording technology, widespread access to all corners of the world via the internet and the stench of shit encrusted dinosaur feet have changed the conditions surrounding the music industry forever. There are those who cling to tradition or shy away from the learning curve of new technology and become museum exhibits. And then there are those who become strong on dinosaur meat, embrace the technology and become compassionate agents of positive change.

Sellaband in particular is in the unique position of becoming such an agent of change. I would hope that those in the Sellaband community reject the temptation to take on the mantle of revolution in hopes of becoming the new regime. The effects of revolution can be short-lived...but evolution, by its very nature, offers an exciting future to those eager to adapt to changing conditions. The biggest price to pay is patience and the realization that those who follow will benefit more than those who are first out of the water.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How to Blow Fifty Grand Without Getting Laid

The content formerly under this title has been deleted. What seemed funny at the time proved to be hurtful to an old friend and this was not the intention nor the motivation of the author.