Spent some more time this last weekend at the studio. Now we're getting to the tail end of the recording process, we're recording with Rob Stroup at 8-ball studios, in Portland.
Thursday night I drove down from Seattle, and rested up for Friday. Friday was a ton of fun - I got to play a Leslie organ/speaker for the first time. They way they recorded it is by pointing mics at the back of the leslie speaker, and then turning the volume WAY UP (by way of volume pedal) so that the signal would be loud enough that the mechanical noise wouldn't show up on the recording.
This was my first time at playing an organ like this and it was a bit embarrassing that I couldn't even make the classic organ glissando sound quite right at first. The sound was also so loud that it took a bit for me to calibrate, I had to remind myself not to be tentative. But soon enough it started coming together. Jake Oken-Berg was there next to me and was stomping on the pedal button that turns the vibrato on and off while I was playing, a true collaborative effort! I had Jake also take over and play organ on a couple of the parts while I did the bridge and the last few choruses.
After that it was cello time. Skip vonKuske came over and did a great job - from solo lines, to layering, to some tremolo stuff on the song of mine that Jake is doing his own arrangement for.
After the cello, it was time for me to finish recording the piano part for Damn My Eyes. We've gone back and forth on this song a few times, there was some concern that it would sound too "classic jazz", but that was never really the direction I intended for it. We made a couple of short cuts, and over the last week I had been working on a piano part that sounds more intentional, and a hell of a lot more aggressive. I love it now, and for the first time I even think the song works live as just voice/piano - I'm looking forward at trying it out at an open mic sometime. Anyway, it works really well with the bass and drums now, and I'm looking forward to hearing how it shapes up after we finish layering.
We ended the day with me doing some lead singing - finally! It was funny a couple of times because I'm so used to singing at the piano that it felt alien to sing standing up. I had Rob change the mic a couple of times until I finally decided that standing up was better so I could have more breath. We ended with Not Today and I felt really locked in on it, to the point that I was demanding to sing more takes after we were done just because I was enjoying it so much.
Day Two of the weekend was all about the guitar. Guitar is an instrument I haven't really been able to wrap my head around for these songs, but that's where Jake and Rob were very helpful. We had Bob Dunham in to do the guitar, he brought along about fifty thousand guitar pedals, and we basically just experimented all day. It might be that we strip down some of the choices later in the editing/mixing stages, but I think a lot of the material and choices work really well, and Bob did a great job.
What's left? Well, there's more organ to do... a couple of specialty instruments, the possibility of some string playing, and then just a whole lot of singing. We're definitely in the fun stages and I'm realizing that I absolutely love the recording process, at least when I'm on mic. It's even more fun than the gigging and the rehearsing, although I have to say that there's still nothing that tops the feeling of playing through a new completed song for the first time. Writing is painful, but the sense of victory you get at the end, that's really something else.
Still definitely on track for 2011 being the year of the cd release. More later!
Some technical difficulties and a greater reliance on facebook and twitter have caused a certain lack of updates here, but that will be remedied soon. :-)
The news, though, is that 2011 is the year of the cd release! Quite possibly more than one. I'm fiddling with discmakers right now for one vague purpose, and will be visiting the studio to hit the home stretch of tracking for another. Stay tuned (ha) and I'll have information soon.
It's been quite a crazy experience trying to understand the pop and singer/songwriter scene as it applies to piano.
Here's the situation. You have a piano, some piano skills, and you can sing a little. You write some songs for the piano. In any batch of songs, you're going to have some songs that absolutely require a band, some songs that absolutely require a real piano, and other songs that are still just fine for a random electric keyboard with no backing musicians.
When you're starting out, you're basically limited to the third type of song. All your band songs (for me that would be Damn My Eyes and Not Today) can't really even be performed. Other songs that really should be played on a grand (for me that would be She Believes and Old Friend) sound more like a pale imitation of themselves when you play them on a keyboard pumped through an small sound system.
And so for piano songwriters, it becomes a sort of permanent treasure hunt to find where and how to play. Every once in a while you think you find a possibility and then you get a curveball. Here are some of the recents.
- Jo Federigo's in Eugene - I traveled down there with Debbie, after hearing Lisa Forkish rave about playing on their piano and for their audience - their website said they were still open, but their telephone had a mysterious voice mail message explaining they were closed until further notice.
- Martin's off Madison in Seattle - I heard there was an open mic night here with a real grand piano and was very excited to attend. Took Debbie and loved the atmosphere and the food, and they had a great pianist there. Soon it dawned on me, however, that all the piano music was loungy jazz standards, heavy on Bacharach and music theater, and that Debbie was the only woman in the entire place. And I confirmed with the waitstaff that "open mic" basically meant singing karaoke while the pianist backs you up. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but disappointing to find a cool piano bar only to find that it doesn't cater to your style of music.
- 88 keys in Seattle - there is a monthly songwriting event here at a dueling piano bar. I attended tonight - it was pretty funny because the pianos aren't even real - they're digital keyboards in grand piano shells. It actually wasn't bad, because the stage and sound were quite good, but the event is on a Tuesday night when the area is completely dead - it's tough as a songwriter to sign up for a 30-minute showcase slot and have no one in the audience other than the other songwriters that have showed up. It's not a good way to build an audience.
I had a great meeting with Jake Oken-Berg recently and we talked about other venues in town that are good for various levels of local songwriters. There's a good piano at Wilf's Restaurant, but it is more for jazz musicians that can fill up a three-hour set - I'm not sure they are amenable for a shared bill where each person might have forty-five minutes. There are venues like Jimmy Mak's with a great piano, if you can guarantee that you'll fill the room pretty well. There's a nice-looking smaller venue in Seattle named Egan's in Ballard that might have possibilities for if you can't guarantee a big crowd. The entire question is how to get started and put on enough of a good show with the puny songs and the electric keyboard and the small sound systems, to gather up enough fans to be able to justify the nicer venues. Tough road.
What seems like a possibility is the house party circuit - finding a collection of folks with grand pianos in their homes and putting on small concerts. I've got some brainstorms in the works for that, as I get closer to having a good hour of original material.
I have some rehearsal recordings posted - I'm letting some of my mailing list subscribers hear them because more ears are always better! If you're interested in hearing them and sharing what you think, come on over and join the mailing list. Here are some former rehearsal recordings that I've worked up and deemed good enough to release publicly: http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/1378735.
Last.fm and Jango are both systems that will recommend your music to others based off of similar tastes. Users of the sites listen to music through their online players, and they get a mix of artists that are their favorites, and new artists the system believes they will like based off of analyses of "similar artists".
The question for independent artists is how to break into that and get your music recommended to new ears. On the one hand, the whole point is for listeners to find new artists - that's you! On the other hand, the system needs to know about you, which requires many listens from many people. It's a catch-22.
So the way around that is to buy plays from these services. There are of course a variety of opinions on whether a good artist should even need to do this, but listeners need to hear about music somehow.
I decided to test Last.fm against Jango. I used two of my songs, She Believes and Damn My Eyes, and I picked the smallest play package for each. Here are the results:
- First, I signed my last.fm copy of Damn My Eyes up for a promotion of 100 plays for $20. I chose similar artists of Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick, Jr., Randy Newman, and Marc Cohn.
- Full Listens: 71
- Skips: 27
- Loves: 3
- Bans: 1
In addition, another last.fm user recommended it to a friend of theirs.
- Then, I signed my last.fm copy of She Believes up for the same promotion - 100 plays for $20. I chose similar artists of Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, and Harry Connick, Jr.
- Full Listens: 75
- Skips: 23
- Loves: 0
- Bans: 0
In addition, two people outside of the campaign "loved" the track during this time.
- Then, I signed myself up for Jango - on my artist page you can see the rough results. I ran two separate promotions. The first one was for Damn My Eyes. The minimum was $30 for 1000 plays. You need 50 "likes" for a song to get into general rotation. After 1000 plays, I had somewhere around 200 likes, and 10-12 fans.
- After that, I signed up again for She Believes, for another 1000 plays. I got another 150 likes and another 6-8 fans I believe. It's hard to tell which stats are for which songs because their stats page doesn't list a complete history, but that seems to be the rough breakdown.
To judge these results you can go listen to my songs to get a relative sense compared to other music you like. But when judged against each other, my rough conclusions are that Damn My Eyes is slightly more likeable (in a broad sense) than She Believes - however I find that She Believes tends to make a stronger impression on the people that like it.
But regarding the services themselves, while it was fun getting the extra listens, I'm still not sure of the benefit of either of these services, for a variety of reasons.
- Last.fm does not give you a sense of where that critical mass point is. How many listens does it take for them to start recommending you after a paid promotion? After the conclusion of my promotion, I haven't noticed any additional plays of my tunes through last.fm. Having no sense of how many listens it takes, I don't find it worth the money to pay for additional promotions.
- It's too early to tell with Jango since my promotion just ended, but I think I am getting at least a couple of plays a day out of Jango now, after the conclusion of the promotions. That's not a lot. I'll report back here if that jumps up at all.
- Response rate sucks. I tried writing my last.fm listeners to say thank you, and I got some new last.fm "friends" out of it, but out of more than 100 messages that I sent, only two wrote back, and I only got one new signup to my mailing list. I am sure this is because many of the plays had to have been to passive listeners.
- It's the same with Jango. I've tried writing all of my 18 fans independently and I got one signup - a guy that joined my facebook group. This is better than last.fm, but Jango is still confusing here - I can see on my page who has "liked" me and who has signed up as a "fan". In terms of functionality, there is absolutely no difference. I can't write all my fans at once.
My whole strategy at this phase of my career is to build my mailing list and write songs. I don't yet have a cd or a product to sell, so I use my music to build my mailing list so I have as many likely buyers as possible when I eventually do have something to sell. So from my perspective anyway - and factor in your own opinions of my music quality - it doesn't look like these services are worth the results. I basically paid $50 per lead. (Update: Jango response rate is getting better - their listeners might be more active.)
Now, there are several things that could moderate these conclusions:
- Continued future plays could yield more mailing list signups, which could make the services feel "worth it". I'm noticing Jango plays, but not Last.fm plays.
- Since my two tracks are well-mixed but one-off rehearsal takes, better produced studio versions of the same songs might yield better results
- Flat-out better music might yield better results, but that would always be true even if you're Mozart.
- I'm sure I could design a website that would better designed for increasing mailing list signups.
But overall I think it's important to note that both of these services appear geared to the listeners, not the musicians. It does a good job of introducing new music to listeners, but neither do anything towards encouraging the listeners to become active supporters of the musicians behind the music. There is a lot of music out there, and you're really just sort of being anonymously presented to people. This creates a low likelihood of building an actual relationship.
Update: I'm informed that Jango is only a few weeks old. My impressions of Jango overall are positive, and it's clear they're actively working on functionality. After getting another 3-4 mailing list signups I'm more optimistic that Jango's promotions might be worth it.
You might notice some small changes around here. I've cleaned up the right sidebar and the tabs up top.
One of the things that is interesting about slowly adopting and growing into the self-definition of a songwriter is watching old expectations and theories fall away as they get replaced with new ones. They can be as minor as believing it's essential to have all my social links on the right sidebar. I guess I've switched to thinking that cleanliness is more organized and more attractive to whoever might come and blaze through the site. In the future I'll probably rework my bio (it's already a bit dated) and maybe the site design itself.
Each time I post a new song to my site, I'm hoping for another microscopic (or macroscopic) boost to find new fans. But creating the music isn't enough, I have to find new ways to get the word out - and that's where you can help.
The number one best method is for you to use your own creativity - if you think there are professional opportunities for any of my songs, then go ahead and follow up and see what happens - it couldn't hurt! But beyond that, here are some simple ideas:
- If you're on facebook, join my facebook group. Facebook is a highly connected place and it's very possible to recommend music to friends and start pushing things in a viral direction.
- Check out my player on the right sidebar - there are ways to share it and republish it on your own web page or blog.
- Go through the links on my right sidebar and if you have any memberships to any of the relevant sites, "add" me, "like" me, do whatever seems appropriate to boost my numbers - most of these sites react to additional popularity by increasing the likelihood a song will be recommended to new people.
- Simply recommend the site or the songs to friends you know - the more people on my mailing list, the better.
- Send me suggestions! I'm always curious about other effective ways to get the word out.
In the meantime, I'm continuing to work on writing new songs and coming up with enough repertoire to be able to gig in a variety of circumstances. In addition to the songs on the Songs tab, beyond Damn My Eyes, I have two more songs completed, one other mostly completed, and three others in workshop mode. They'll all exist soon enough.
I dug up one of my old songs from my back catalog. This song isn't particularly representative of my current direction (for one thing, there are no instruments), but I'm fond of the memory. College a cappella goodness, and much more difficult a song than those guys had any business being subjected to. Kudos to them for getting through it. Vagabond Blues.
So one of the cultural realities of being an online musician is the whole routine of trying to find fans. There's all this advice out there about how to not approach finding fans. You're supposed to not talk about yourself, but also sell yourself, but only ask others about themselves, but find support, but not look for them, but make it easy for them to sign up, but don't look too available, and... urf, this reminds me of my dating life. It's ridiculous.
So, this all plays out over in facebook too. About a year ago I created a facebook "fan" page, because it seemed like that was what you were supposed to do. Then I wrote my facebook friends and asked them to become a fan, but you know, only if they were interested! And then I watched the fans roll in... well, not. Because at the time I only had fifty or sixty friends, which translated to about twelve fans.
It's amazing how your first impression of something - a price, any number, whatever - can set your economic expectations. Twelve fans! You immediately make that data point somehow line up to being roughly proportional to your amount of output. So maybe writing another song would mean two more fans. I completely accepted my twelve fans and took that to mean I only had about twelve people on facebook that were interested in hearing more. I'd dreamily fantasize about the days of reaching 20. (I have 19 right now.)
Well a couple of weeks ago one of my college-age buddies got all ridiculous with facebook and created an event for himself and managed to invite 900 people to it. Which led me to look more into facebook's different viral marketing approaches. Here's what I found.
- Fan pages suck. They're really only for entities that have a large devoted following already. They're not viral. They get indexed by google which is cool and all, but it's not the way to build your fan base. If you want to write your fans, it doesn't even go to their inbox.
- Group pages are great. They don't do as much as fan pages, but you can email all group members, and group members can easily invite others to join the group.
- Events are nifty because you can invite every one of your friends to the event, and you can even email the entire guest list - even if they haven't rsvp'd yet
So I figured, to heck with it. My facebook friends are already my friends. They're not going to hate me. (Please don't hate me!) They won't mind getting a firm invitation from me to join a group - it's not like I'm pestering their inboxes all the time with gigs or anything.
And by now I have about 215 friends on facebook anyway - too many to email 20 at a time. So, I created a group, the Curt Siffert Music Fan Club. And I invited everyone to a group, even though that won't show up in their facebook inbox.
And then I created an event giving instructions on how to join the group, and I invited everyone to the event - and then emailed them all with similar instructions. The event is also three weeks long, so it will be in their sidebar for a while until they RSVP.
You can see - I basically decided, to hell with the blasé approach. I said, "I promise I will make you happy!" and "I need your ears to make my fingers work!" To hell with shame, right? And depending on how people have their facebook configured, they're getting pounded with three notification emails (sorry, Kira) in addition to the facebook inbox message.
Response rate is vastly different. Most people are joining the group. More than 3/4 still have yet to respond, and 40 have already joined. Plus, they can invite their friends if they want. So now I have an outlet to send out my next new song, and ask them to add it to their profile or invite their friends if they like it. And I'm looking back at the 12 fans I have on my fan page and scratching my head at the whole thing. Sometimes it really is just about how you ask.