Bare Bones: “Like That”

Last night, after days and days of delay, I posted a guitar/vocal demo of my song “Like That.”  I’ve been playing it out for a couple months now and it’s quickly become one of my favorite originals to perform.  If you haven’t seen the video (and would like to), you can check it out below.

First, let’s talk about the song itself.  It is not about my relationship, although I have been in relationships where I was the one under and over invested.  The first couple times I played this for friends, they politely asked how my relationship with Attractive Young Man was going, faces creased with with concern.  Things are great, guys; all’s quiet on the home front.

Singer-songwriters sometimes document their own lives through their writing and we often expect that the content someone is performing is drawn directly from their experiences.  A lot of what I write and perform does come from this place.  This song, however, comes from a conversation I overheard another couple having.  I didn’t choose the second person to distance the singer from what she’s saying, I chose it because the vocalist has a purely voyeuristic role in the situation.

I was hanging out with a group of people I didn’t know terribly well and we were cutting up a bit.  The woman in this couple tells the man, giggling, that she doesn’t love him, clearly intending it to be a joke.  Of course, this was not funny and he got pretty understandably pissed off.  But beyond just being mad that there are chairs with a better sense of humor than his significant other, it was clear that this struck a nerve with him because he worried it might be true.

I didn’t know these people very well and – after that awkward moment – didn’t seek them out again.  But that little vignette struck me.  I’ve been with someone who didn’t love me as much as I loved them and I’ve been the one who couldn’t give their heart away.  The pain in that guy’s face, the insecurity and the heartache; it was difficult not to empathize.  And she didn’t seem to get it, which is what inspired the bridge.  We all have our own way of loving and showing love; and the level of importance we assign to others, their feelings, and our relationships with them differs as well.  From that interaction, I got the distinct sense that she may not feel as strongly about anything as he did; their value systems might be intrinsically different.

Again, I didn’t know these folks and haven’t seen them since.  For all I know, she may have grown to “love him like that” or they may have broken up or the may be living miserably-ever-after.  One of the coolest things about songwriting, is that I got to take this one snapshot and extrapolate a whole story from it.  My assessment of their relationship might have been completely off (maybe they have some weird, kinky thing where they hurt each others feelings and then have crazy sex), but it’s my prerogative as a writer to fictionalize the situation.  I’ve never been in their bedroom and hope to gods I never will be, but I can make up a scene where he wakes up beside her and realizes she doesn’t love him.  Plus, I think it’s something we’ve all needed to hear before: “She (or he) doesn’t love you the way you love her (or him) and you may want to move on before it kills you.”  Or maybe it’s something we’ve needed to say but can’t work up the nerve to spit out (which might be why people worried this was me trying to dump by boyfriend via musical number): “I can’t love you like you need; please leave me so I don’t break your heart.”

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“If you could just dump yourself, that’d be great.”

So now you know where the song came from.  As far as the recording goes, it was series of errors.  I’ve only been playing guitar for about two and a half years and, although I’ll begrudgingly self-accompany live, I haven’t committed my instrumental mediocrity to film before.  I’m still learning and it frustrates me to be so much less competent on guitar than I am with my singing and songwriting.  So actually getting a take that I was happy with was a huge headache.  On top of this, I was serving as audio engineer and film director in addition to my role as artist.

After an hour or two I finally had a take that I liked and quickly mixed the audio before going to sync it with the video that I had simultaneously recorded.  Apparently there was a warp in space-time, because the video was a few fractions of a second slower than the audio even though they were captured at the same time and remained in the same key.  This was, unfortunately, an unfixable issue so I cursed the wasted hours and recorded it again the next day.

The next day, I tried to dress and do my makeup the same as I had the day before since I had posted a teaser photo.  I borrowed a nicer camera to hopefully avoid the whole wormhole conundrum and took a couple takes, including some different angles to hopefully cut into a more exciting video than just one continuous shot of me sitting with a guitar.  Thinking I had gotten what I needed, I downloaded the videos and cut together a new version of the demo.

And then I noticed there was lipstick.  All.  Over.  My. Teeth.  In every shot.

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Like this, but worse.

The day after that, I employed Pete (Attractive Young Man’s secret identity) to operate the camera, gave up on recreating the same outfit a third day in a row, and completely opted out of lipstick.  Third time was the charm and that’s the version that ultimately went on the web – three days after I said it would.  I may have ruined the song for myself and my next-door neighbor definitely never wants to hear it again.  But it’s up!  And you get a couple great shots of my office.  I have a fun blue wall, life’s great, I never want to record this song again…

But seriously, I’m happy with how this came out and I hope you all enjoy it as well, along with the little sneak peek into the writing and recording process.  Every song has it’s own unique, weird journey and this one has a better story behind it than some.

Peace and love, guys!  See with you some more content after the holidays!

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The Rise of the Bard: Part 1

If you’ve read some of my other posts about the music industry, you’ll know I have some strong – and mildly fatalistic – views on where the business is headed.  For the most part, I’ve spoken about why we’re all doomed because the same too-close-for-comfort perspective that let’s me speak to the current state of the business means that my views are pretty emotionally driven.  It’s my day-to-day life, my career, and – as much as I’d like to be academic in my views – it is deeply personal to me.  When it feels like your industry is collapsing around, it can be hard to visualize what comes next or what will survive the massive paradigm shift.

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Basically, I’ve been channelling my inner Chicken Little and shouting about the sky falling.

It’s a bit like watching an avalanche come down a mountain towards your town.  Will your house survive the impact?  What will be left of it?  Will you make it?  Why did you build a house on this stupid mountain anyway?  But mostly you’re probably filled with the wordless, pants-shitting fear that all creatures share when facing impending doom.  You don’t worry what your property taxes are going to be next year or how you’ll rebuild in that moment; you’re too busy doing the mental math on your chances of survival.

But recently I’ve seen some incredible musicians getting out there and doing it and some of my avalanche-induced terror is subsiding.  Let’s face it, even if there’s still a couple snowballs rolling down the hill, the town’s already buried.  The music industry is a gaunt shadow of it’s former glory.  We’re seeing the last, desperate throws of a dying beast.  Labels are manufacturing pretty-but-unartistic “artists” with songs and careers that aren’t meant to have longevity.  Material gets pumped out as quickly as possible because they need to make as much money off of it as they can before the well finally dries up.  I’ve heard plenty of people of all ages complain about the quality of material that’s currently dominating radio.  Is it so surprising that folks aren’t spending their money on music any more?

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For example, Fifth Harmony’s song “Worth It'” has a second verse that’s so poorly written, English professors across the nation clutched their chests in pain when it hit the radio.  Seriously, Google the lyrics.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the problem with the music industry isn’t the music, it’s the industry.  Labels and radio used to serve as a sort of filter.  They were the gate-keepers and taste-makers that found the best of the best and brought them to the populous so that consumers didn’t have to do the sorting themselves.  This isn’t to say that there haven’t always been shallow, nepotistic practices within these systems.  Just look at the disgusting practice in the 50’s and 60’s of having white artists cover black music to make it “suitable” for white audiences.  But I would argue that things have skewed even farther towards the shallow end of the pool, if – hopefully – for less racially motivated reasons.

One of the biggest issues facing both consumers and artists is that the filtration systems of radio and record label are broken.  It may be the single biggest issue in the business today.  The distribution and renumeration systems are dated in a way that will not ironically come back into fashion in twenty years.  Rather than fixing this problem, our filters have chosen to lower product quality.  We have some incredibly talented artists like Adele or Hozier breaking through, but we have a lot more that are developed not because of a talent or creativity that brings something special to the scene, but because their physical appearance and/or backstory are marketable.  It’s no longer about music, it’s about pure profit.

As much I would like it to happen tomorrow, I suspect it will take a few more years before this system finally breaths its last, and it may never completely die but rather reinvent itself.  Even though we’ve seem mediums (i.e.: vinyl, tape, CD, mp3) evolve over the decades, this is a young industry and it has yet to be faced with a paradigm shift of this magnitude: it’s product (i.e.: recorded music) losing the majority of its value.  Perhaps we’ll see companies like LiveNation that handle ticketing and touring take more of a “filter” role as profits shift from record sales to live shows.

But at the end of the day, we’re still faced with the issue of the broken filter.  There are a lot of catch 22’s to overcome as you start in the music business and one of the biggest is getting past the gate-keepers of the industry to actually get heard.  Many of these large corporations can feel inaccessible and insurmountable to the DIY solo artist.  If these companies are mostly beneficial to that top tier of artists – largely associated with a label of some sort – it doesn’t really help new, genuinely different music get heard any more than record labels or radio do.

So what do we do?  We work outside of these systems.  More and more – at least in Nashville – I’m seeing solo singer-songwriters or duos touring, just them and their guitar.  This isn’t a new thing; artists have followed this model for the last several decades, if not the last several centuries.  To put it through a romantic lens, we’re seeing the rise of the modern day bard.  And there are some incredibly talented musicians making a living doing this.

Broken filters and out-dated business models might kill the industry, but they won’t kill the music.  These modern bards are picking up a mantle that has existed for ages.  Musicians have historically been tradespeople, middle-class artisans that weren’t rolling in money but were sustaining themselves.  Although we’ve had celebrity musicians for centuries (Liztomanio isn’t just a word the band Phoenix made up as a cool song title), it has by-and-large been a middle class profession.  In the past few decades, we’ve seen the musical middle class shrink dramatically and in the last century recording artists have gained a level of celebrity to rival – and, in some cases, surpass – that of political and social figureheads.  This hasn’t elevated the industry as a whole any more than Walmart has helped local, family-owned businesses.

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In case you forgot, this is what Walmart did to locally-owned chains.

Those of us who choose to reject the Walmarts of music will walk a hard road, but it’s one that’s been traveled by thousands of years of kindred spirits.  And the more that choose to walk this path, the better the music that survives the journey and makes it to the public will be.  You can build a career on crap when you have a multi-million dollar marketing team behind you; but when you’re relying on your own talent and business savvy to engage people, you need to have a genuinely great product.  There are artists that have become mainstream that did just that and I think this number will increase as the major players in the industry either catch-wise or fail.

As far as I can tell, I have the best job security in the business.  I’m working towards creating a product that won’t require clever marketing to engage people; I can stand in any venue and tell stories that will touch a soul or a play a groove that makes people tap their feet and I don’t need someone to auto-tune it into listenability; heck, I don’t even need to rely on someone else to write content for me.

Towards the end of my college career, I began to get the first inklings of the avalanche-fear and it only grew as I sat in at internships in the business side of the industry.  But roles like managers, publishers, and distributors are relatively new and rely on a system that may or may not be part of history by the time my future children are entering the work force.  I’m picking up the mantle of the musician, the story-teller, the bard that millennia of artists have worn before me and will wear after I’m gone.  I am both the creator and deliverer of content and it’s that content that will survive any cataclysm.

You can kill the business but you can’t kill the music.  Long live the bard.

Check back soon for part two, where I talk about why solo artists are on the rise and delve more into the new Age of the Bard.