Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Making of an Album


As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics and world history, and explorations of the minutiae of the daily life of the working musician. This one belongs in the latter category.

It's been years since I've had much time for watching movies -- there was a brief period between children when there was a bit of time for that sort of thing, but not much. When I'm on long plane flights is when I get to catch up on a little bit of movie-watching. The noise-canceling headphones I had the good sense to buy a long time ago help a lot with the din of the airplane engine constantly in the background, but they don't come close to getting rid of it. Despite the adverse viewing and especially listening conditions, I often watch movies about musicians.

I've never been a rock star and I've only known a couple of them, a little bit, so whether the movies about rock stars are realistic is hard for me to know. The movies about working musicians who aren't rock stars are more the ones I can relate to, the ones that are depicting what we might call working class or middle class musicians. The movies about these musicians are often just a good vehicle for telling the story of loneliness, to explore the creative tension inherent in the contrast between the excitement of the gig and the alienation of the highway truck stop.

While they sometimes get that part right, the sort of essence of the story, they rarely get the details. You can forgive them when it's obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments. But other times it's harder to suspend one's disbelief, if you're a working musician watching a movie that's supposed to be about other working musicians. There was an especially memorably cringe-worthy scene in what was an otherwise charming love story called Once, about an Irish guy and a Czech woman falling in love on the streets of Dublin.

They're both musicians, but how this classically-trained pianist is so good at improvising is never explained or explored, it just is. For anyone who is familiar with classical music circles, that needs to be explained. But then they're in a studio together, recording an album without a producer, and the engineer tells them to listen to the click track, but there isn't a click track. There was so much wrong with that scene, it would be hard to know where to start.

If you're recording an album without a producer, the engineer is unlikely to suddenly assume the role of producer and tell you to listen to the click track. And if they do this, then there will presumably be a click track to listen to. Of course, most viewers of most movies wouldn't know this, or even know what a click track is, and they don't need to. If you don't know what a click track is, there's nothing to cringe at in this scene, it's just fine.

Of course, movies like this are not made for the tiny minority of the general population who are working musicians. Just like the articles in Forbes or on the BBC. It just so happens that I am right now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to record an album, which I will hopefully be making with a bunch of other musicians in Ireland later in the fall. And then yesterday, listening to BBC Newshour as I often do, came another story about the death of the album.

Sure enough, Forbes agrees, album sales are a tiny fraction of what they once were -- not just in physical forms, but in any form. It's all about streaming, all about singles, or shuffle play, or playlists. The big hiphop artists, they say, are abandoning albums altogether, and just releasing singles, in more of a trickle, so each one will get a bit more attention along the way, is the idea.

Reading this music industry reporting is interesting, partly because of the assumptions that are made. For example, if albums aren't of interest to consumers anymore, says the press, artists will naturally make the transition and start recording singles, and releasing songs one at a time every couple weeks, rather than a new album once or twice a year. And when we talk about releasing singles, it needn't even be said that we're not talking about recordings you made with your iPhone, we're talking about professional-quality, produced stuff.

What they don't mention, or don't know, or don't care to figure out because it doesn't matter for the top 1% of the scene that they're actually covering, is that this kind of transition is relevant mainly to the stars with huge budgets for recording -- and for those way on the other end who are playing all the instruments themselves and recording everything on their laptops with ProTools and a USB mic. You'll find little or no mention of the middle class of working musicians, those of us who, if we do keep on recording albums, even though there is basically no direct money to be made in recording either albums or singles in the free streaming era, we will be making them not just because it's a wonderful, transcendent phenomenon, the album, but for very simple practical, and totally overlooked reasons.

If you're going to record your music -- and you'll be forgiven for not knowing this if you're not in certain niche professions -- it's much more economical to do it in bunches.

If you've ever made an album in a studio, you'll be very familiar with the sight of a collection of musicians sitting around on couches with laptops, phones or other devices, quietly whiling away their time, waiting to be called on to do something. This is partly because playing music is only a small part of the process of making an album. So much of it is getting the sound right for each instrument. Just getting a drum set well miked for recording can take several hours. The drummer and the folks at the studio know this in advance, and this process is scheduled in to the whole thing. Studio musicians are usually hard-working people who put in very long days and show up early. They're accustomed to doing exactly what they're told to do by producers with high expectations. The good ones rarely complain.

When you're one of the regular working musicians who used to populate the recording studios of the world that are now rapidly closing shop -- when you're one of the ones who didn't have unlimited budgets to spend months or years working on an album, but who took a break from touring for a few weeks each year to focus on making a new album -- the idea of hiring a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and whoever else you might be hiring for a recording project, just to record one or two songs, is completely ludicrous. It makes no economic sense. If you're going to spend four hours just getting the drummer miked, you want to then use the rest of the day, and the next day, recording with the drummer. If you're working hard and just getting decent takes of songs you've spent plenty of time rehearsing together, you might record the basic parts for two or three songs each day -- after spending all the time setting up for each new instrument you're recording.

The same is true for the mixing process, which often takes almost as long as the recording process. For many albums of other artists, I hear it takes longer. Any element of the recording or mixing processes can potentially go on forever. As with other things, it's sometimes just a matter of stopping when you've got something that's good enough, rather than aiming for perfection, which would simply take too long, it would require more time and effort than is available given your limited resources. But once you're set up to start mixing an ensemble you've recorded, it will take less time to mix the second and third song than it will take to just mix one. Much of the setup you do for one song might be the same as the setup you'll do for other songs, so again doing more songs will certainly take longer, but it will take less time per song to mix ten of them than if you just mix one.

Once you make that album, you may decide to release one song at a time on streaming platforms as they recommend these days, but there will still be basic logistical reasons why the album is likely to stick around as a phenomenon long past the time no one is buying them at all anymore. Because actually we're already at that stage, and I'm still making another one.

For those of you listening to this in podcast form, I'll close with a song that's going to be among the songs to be recorded for this next album, if all goes according to plan.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Winning Hearts and Minds in August



It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever -- they just don't tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.

I heard some professional musicians on a BBC program talking about how their feelings of self-worth and general contentment in life are directly related to whether or not they're working on a regular basis.  By "working," they mean playing music in front of an audience, which is what they all do to get by.  They were specifically talking about taking time off from touring because of having babies and raising small children.  There was a general consensus that while raising kids could be hard, they could deal with everything involved as long as they had access to the outlets of playing music regularly, and sharing it with people now and then.

I'm very familiar with this whole thing, being a professional musician with children myself.  I took a year off from doing any long tours when my first child was born.  At the time I was probably more focused on the financially disastrous aspects of unpaid paternity leave, but the psychological ones were intense, too.  It would have been too hard to ply all that apart from the emotionally overwhelming experience of raising a baby, but in retrospect it becomes clearer that these are different things, separate reasons for feeling small and inadequate.

If I had been one of the guests on that BBC show, I probably would have mentioned something about the cyclical nature of this self-worth phenomenon in the course of a typical year, for a touring musician.  I usually do long tours in the fall and spring, so it's right around February and August that I'm generally in peak panic mode, wondering if this next tour will be the last tour I ever do, since maybe it will only have ten gigs in it and I'll return home with more debt than I left with.  So far, most of the time in the end the tour pans out OK, at least since I stopped doing big driving tours around the US, where that was no longer reliably happening.  But this time of year, in August, I'm often a bit of a mess, looking at the empty calendar for the next few months, knowing that on the first of each of those months, the landlord will be demanding that I legitimate my existence by forking over yet another hard-earned $1,200.

Maybe, I always ask myself in August, it's time to consider another line of work.  Actually this summer I am fully engaged in another line of work, running a small cafe with my family, and it is so much more work than I ever thought about.  I'm an espresso snob and I like making good espresso drinks.  My family is not big enough to satisfy my daily desire to extract a few more shots and foam at least a bit more milk than I can possibly consume in a day.  So when my friend Mette suggested I bring my family to Denmark and run the cafe for a summer, I more or less jumped at the opportunity.

I'm glad I did, but I was so naive.  There's so much more to running a cafe than what happens, say, during opening hours.  Shopping, cleaning, fixing broken appliances like espresso machines and keeping them running well.  Paperwork, complying with health and tax authorities -- all kinds of stuff.  And then there are those many, wonderful suggestions from friends and customers that usually begin with "you should," as in "you should sell beer" -- often it's a suggestion related to things the cafe should sell that we're not allowed to sell because we don't have the right kind of license for that, such as alcoholic drinks or cooked meals.  Other suggestions include things like "you should be open for longer hours" or "you should advertise in the local paper."

All these sorts of suggestions are very familiar to me in my life as a touring musician, too.  They're just as common.  "You should play in that venue, they'd love you there."  Who is they, exactly?  The audience that was at the last gig the person went to at that venue, who they're assuming would show up for my gig there?  Or is they the people who organized and promoted that gig, who probably had no association with that particular venue, aside from the fact that they were using it to put on a show?  Yes, I generally agree.  I should play there -- and I leave it at that.

In the depth of August I might be desperate enough to follow one of these suggestions.  I have barely any gigs for the fall tour, maybe they're right, I should just email this venue and see if they want to have me open for that guy.  But it doesn't work that way, and I know it.  I know a lot of things, because I'm an expert at this, even though in August I generally don't feel expert at much of anything.  I'm trying to book a tour, but it's not really working.  Maybe all these people who are on vacation are never coming back from vacation.  Maybe they're just pretending to be on vacation because they really don't like me anymore.

I wrote a song last week about the power of songs to win hearts and minds.  I'm a firm believer, but I wrote the song because I was still stewing on a conversation I had with a radio journalist I used to admire who made dismissive comments about music and the role of people like me in public communication, such as a radio news and information program.  "Just songs" is the phrase that has been ringing in my head for about a year since that conversation with that particular radio host.  So the song is a defensive song, a defense of what I do, and why it can be such an effective means of communication.

Probably I'm remembering that conversation so much lately because it's August, and the fall tour is only in a very skeletal state of existence.  Probably by next month I'll be feeling like the expert at public communication and popular education that I am.  I am, I remind myself.  This is why one of my songs is the centerpiece of Haskell Wexler's last documentary.  This is why they use my songs as tools for teaching high school teachers in Germany and Sweden how to teach their students.  This is why my songs appear in songbooks put out by the national labor federations of several countries, this is why the unions and political parties in different countries employ me on a regular basis for the purposes of educating and inspiring their members.  Music is effective as a means of communication -- my music in particular.

I'll share a message, the sort of message I'm sure all kinds of people in the public communication fields get on a regular basis.  I found it only hours after I finished writing the song about that conversation, in one of the various inboxes that each of the social media platforms has.  Here are a couple excerpts:  "Thank you for making music and getting the good message out.  Your music taught me never to give up no matter how hopeless things seem.  Your music has gotten me through depression, protests that didn't go smoothly, and many other hardships I've faced.  You're a beacon of hope to me and even though we've never met you've made a huge impact on me and my life.  You'll always be my comrade."

These sorts of messages help a lot, especially in August.  Because it's not enough just to write songs that I know are really well-written and probably effective at what they're trying to do.  It only begins to be enough when you can bring the song to an audience that is effected by it in the ways you intended.  It's only culture when it's something people participate in together, in the same physical location.  That's when people get the feeling that they're in something together -- when they're together, doing the same thing, such as singing.  People know they're in a struggle together when they laugh at the same jokes and cry at the same sorrows, and experience these things collectively.  These kinds of things have been studied and proven to be true in peer-reviewed publications, incidentally.  We're fundamentally social animals.

We also hear differently and process information differently when the information is sung.  The reason music has been used as a tool for inspiration and education and for fostering a sense of community over the course of millennia by every form of institution that's ever existed, from governments to churches to armies to labor unions, is because it's so effective.

But for me to be effective, for me to have a chance at winning hearts and minds, at keeping people involved, to be able to share thoughts about tomorrow with people, I need an audience.  Just as with a cafe that barely has any reason to exist from a financial standpoint, "you should" statements don't actually help.  Yes, I'd love to be open longer hours and to hire more staff and advertise in the paper.  I'd love to do all those things as a musician, too.  This isn't how it works, though, in practical reality.  Those staff need to get paid, advertisements cost money.

When this goes out on my blog and in podcast form, I'll undoubtedly get lots of well-meaning messages from people saying "if you come to my town, I'm looking forward to seeing the show," and "you should check out this venue."  Seriously, this is going to happen.  Maybe those people aren't the ones who finished reading the column, but the messages will come.

There will also hopefully be a few messages from people who are members of organizations that have budgets who want to put together a paying gig for me somewhere, for a union, a political party, an arts center, or some other kind of community group.  Those are the messages that will once again restore my sense of self-worth, which is tied not just to being able to communicate well, but having access to people with whom I may communicate -- in the same physical place, at the same time, somewhere in the world.

There is probably a nagging concern aside from the fact that it's August and all the good folks in Europe who will probably be putting on gigs in various places are still on vacation and haven't gotten in touch yet.  Maybe a couple nagging concerns.  One is that the social and political structures I used to rely on for touring in the US have since collapsed, three times, maybe four, depending on how you measure these things.  In Europe that hasn't happened, things are much more consistent for many reasons.

But the other thing that keeps me up at night is this terrible conundrum:  I have noticed that when times are hard -- when there are multiple massacres in one day, half the world is on fire and the other half is flooding, fascists are coming to power in major countries around the world, and so on -- this is when a lot of people tend to stay home.  People don't stick their necks out unless they're feeling optimistic, and at times like these, optimism is scarce.  People stay home, which also means they don't go out to concerts and they don't organize them.  This is, fairly obviously, the opposite of what would be best for everyone.

It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever -- they just don't tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.  It's not just about winning the hearts and minds of fascists and lemmings, but about dreaming of a better world.  And to dream, you must sing.  But if that singing is going to involve me, you need to do more than share this message on social media.  You need to be involved with an organization or other actual, real social network, not one that calls itself a social network, but which is actually a social network, and then you need to use this social network to do things like organize events that I sing at.  Drop me a line.  I'll see you in the streets, and in the living rooms.

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