How to Make It in the New Music Business by Ari Herstand

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’ve been working on an EP release on Bandcamp, Into the Darkness, a set of four synthesizer improvisations (one of which is featured in the video below). This comes at a time when I had to make some decisions about my future in terms of grad school. Financially, it just hasn’t worked out, so I’ve deferred to next year on one condition–that, in the meantime, I leave no stone unturned in learning how to get my music in front of more fans. I’m going to go about this like I am in school.

That makes this a perfect time once again to dig into Ari Herstand’s excellent book, How to Make It in the New Music Business. (A second edition is being released this November which, given the fast pace at which things change, I highly recommend getting.)

I discovered this book by cold emailing Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby, who bravely announces on his website that he responds to all emails. I told him that I was trying to find a label for an album I’d made–one that to this day hasn’t been released–and confessed that I had no idea what I was doing. He pointed me to Ari’s book, which he wrote the introduction for, and I will be forever grateful to him.

Ari is not intimidated by what many have described as a bleak landscape for independent artists in the 21st century–the paltry returns on streaming plays, the ubiquity of would-be music stars, or anything else the naysayers might mention. Instead he offers by a point-by-point how-to on making your own success. And much to his credit, he points out that fame and success are two different things, and that fame isn’t necessarily desirable. (I like to say that I don’t need to be rich and I sure as hell don’t want to be famous. I just want to make enough money from my music so that I can focus on making music.)

Usually a lot of music business information is shared by people on the business or legal side of music. This material can be dry and, worse, lack empathy. What makes Ari’s book so good is that he is an artist himself who’s sharing a lot of information about the very kinds of nuts and bolts that musicians dread. While he’s encouraging, he also doesn’t pull any punches: One section is entitled, Why No One Cares  About Your Music. He admits it’s an uphill battle, but he shows you the path to take. It is wonderful tough love.

I’m not going to get into all the details here, but if you have questions about recording, releasing, and performing music, they are likely answered in this book. Same with touring, internet marketing, finding royalty money, getting your music placed on radio and TV, and a whole lot more besides that. I read through it once, and now I use it as a reference guide. Right now I’m focusing on his checklist of 26 things to do before releasing an album, which was the subject of his appearance on the DIY Musician Podcast. I was also able to get a review of 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia by researching blogs on Hype Machine, which is another gem that Ari talks about. I’ll freely admit that I have had the temerity to occasionally lay aside his advice, but only after careful thinking about its relevance to my particular work.

I suspect I’ll be living in close proximity to this book long after my newest record is released, and as much as I try to get things right the first time, I’m sure there will be issues I need to revisit, with Ari’s help. Trying to get people in a noisy world to listen to your music, let alone any music at all, is a hard sell, and I have no idea where the future will take me, but if it in any way involves even modest success at selling records, I will have Ari Herstand to thank for it.

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Jose Maceda

Aki Onda’s talk on Jose Maceda

It was about a year ago that Aki Onda delivered a lecture on the work of Filipino composer Jose Maceda at the Asia Art Archive of America, which is located in Brooklyn right down the street from the promenade. I attended and enjoyed it very much.

Last week Aki Onda announced on his Facebook page that there is now a transcription of the talk available. I encourage everyone who head over there and check it out.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I’m breaking a rule with this post. I only write about music on this blog, but this book explores themes so obviously important for the work of a musician I thought I could get away with discussing it. It may even prove to be an indispensable conversation. You be the judge.

I first heard of Deep Work by Cal Newport on the Tim Ferriss podcast, if I’m not mistaken. The title instantly appealed to me, and I added it to a long list of books I keep that I intend to read eventually. A few weeks ago, in need of new material, I found it on this list and grabbed it from the bookstore.

This is not a quick-fix life-hack book as so many seem to be. The author does not attempt to make the objective seem cheap or easy, particularly given the prevalent culture of shallow work that permeates most workplaces. If you want to really dig into a task, you often have to risk coming off as antisocial, or worse. The makers of shallow work (meetings!) and small talk seem to have hijacked the high ground of social acceptability. The person who does not want another meeting or dinner to attend is the one who has the explaining to do, no matter how productive such “loners” might be in the workplace.

Against this culture of shallow work, Newport outlines the virtues of deep work and, perhaps most frighteningly, points out that our capacity for prolonged concentration can be permanently damaged by constant distraction.

In reading this book I’ve come to understand some of the mistakes I’ve been making–trying to cram important work into the cracks and edges of my schedule, trying to shoehorn a little bit of meaningful work amidst a legion of distractions–and often trying to do it in the wrong places–restaurants, coffee shops, or any other place I’m more than likely to be interrupted. The white-knuckled desperation out of which I did this was not enough to overcome its counterproductive nature. Thanks to the advice in this book, I’ve been getting better at marking out the proper blocks of time to do the work that really matters to me in an appropriate environment.

To cut through the culture of shallow work, Newport offers four rules to follow, along with the tactics that go with them. As I read through these pages I could feel my blood pressure dropping, like I was finally finding my way out of the hectic morass that is contemporary life.

The first rule, simply, is work deeply. To do this, decide on your depth philosophy, that is, how you engage in deep work. There is the monastic approach, which is more or less what it sounds like. People who take this approach are often nearly impossible to reach at all–a luxury most of us don’t have. The bimodal approach employs short periods of monasticism, kind of like a retreat, in order to get things done. The rhythmic approach is the one I most often use–scheduling deep work throughout the weekly routine, when no distractions are allowed in order that the flow state can be achieved. Finally, there’s the journalistic philosophy, which involves dropping into important tasks more or less on cue, as necessary. This last one is the most difficult but can be helped by the second tactic–ritualization. The ritual can be almost anything–time, place, drink, a specific order of operations. I even read somewhere that letting out a long string of expletives can be a good ‘cue’ to achieve the flow state, a suggestion I have more than happily embraced. Josh Waitzkin has a lot to say about entering the flow state in his book The Art of Learning.

Making grand gestures is the third tactic to achieving deep work. Newport notes a story about J.K. Rowling, who was languishing in distraction at home as she attempted to finish The Deathly Hallows in 2007. She rented an expensive suite at the Balmoral Hotel, the investment of which helped to propel her to the finish line. Newport gives other examples like this, but it seems to me that grand gestures don’t have to be expensive, necessarily. I think of Townes Van Zandt literally locking himself in a closet until he finished writing a song. I often do something similar when I write music but might be short on ideas: I force myself to sit in front of the blank page for a predetermined amount of time. A commitment like this makes magic: it is nearly impossible to have a blank piece of paper after an hour of staring at it.

Newport’s fourth tactic is not to work alone. This seems counterintuitive, especially as he criticizes, as many others have, the open-office plans so prominent in workplaces today. The author is referring, however, to well-honed collaboration between people with a shared goal. Each feeds off the other. I think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and there are certainly a thousand other examples.

Next, Newport advises his readers to execute their tasks like a business by focussing on the wildly important, maintaining accountability, and the like. This can be counterintuitive to many artists, but as Steven Pressfield notes, the professional artist shows up every day, no matter what. As a counterpoint to this, the last tactic for working deeply is to be lazy. Newport notes the many benefits of downtime, along with the diminishing returns that we get with a grind of constant work.

The second rule encourages us to embrace boredom. Noting that we crave distraction once we’re wired for it, as many of us surely are in the digital age, Newport’s first tactic with this rule is to take breaks from focus. This involves scheduling internet time rather than constantly running back to email and social media with every urge that comes along in a fleeting idle moment. The second tactic is to work like Teddy Roosevelt, which is more or less Parkinson’s Law: pick an important task, then set a slightly unreasonable time limit for accomplishing it, in order to create a very fast and intense work pace.

The third tactic is to meditate productively, i.e., focus on a single problem while being physically active–walking, jogging, etc. This is a piece of advice that I see repeated over and over again in interviews and books: get out of your head and into your body. I find it to be an extremely reliable way to get un-stuck. The last tactic is to memorize a deck of cards, as memory training improves the ability of humans to concentrate. This isn’t for me, though–but come to think of it, maybe I should start memorizing music again.

The third rule gives the provocative advice to quit social media. This headline is a bit of an attention-getter, as Newport does not demand the reader delete Facebook completely. Though he has never used Facebook, the author’s real aim is not to eschew social media entirely but rather to get it under control and only use those platforms that truly add value to one’s life, rather than falling for the “any-benefit” approach which is far less discerning. He advocates a craftsman’s approach: use tools that bring the most advantage with the least amount of drawback. Newport insightfully compares the quality of interaction over social media as opposed to in-person encounters, something I think most of us have forgotten about from time to time. Do we remember the time a friend ‘liked’ one of our photos, or the time we went on a road trip together? (At this point I may be confusing some of what’s in Digital Minimalism, another excellent book by Newport that focuses more on the internet specifically.)

Perhaps the third rule’s most important tactic is never to use the internet for entertainment. This can be a tough one, especially if you’re stuck in a boring place that prohibits deep concentration and you can’t get out. But I’m trying to remember this rule and employ it as much as possible, even if it means I end up counting the dots on drop ceiling tiles for a few minutes.

The fourth rule is to drain the shallows. I love this phrase. It has the ring of ruthlessness of someone who means business. The first tactic Newport offers here is to schedule every minute of your day. This is precisely so that the truly important does not get buried by the merely urgent. He also advises the reader to quantify the depth of each activity and to ask supervisors for a shallow work budget. While this is discussed within a workplace paradigm, it can be applied to all aspects of life. This lays the groundwork for the next tactic: finish work by 5:30 every day. (I suppose the time can be adjusted for circumstances.) This is only possible if priorities are respected and shallow work is kept to a minimum. I would think this also keeps burnout infrequent. Finally, Newport advocates becoming hard to reach, particularly through email. He suggests both making your correspondents do more work when they write, and also doing more work in the reply. The point of this, he says, is to reduce back and forth, as the initial message will have been more thorough and less in need of follow-up.

This summary will hopefully show the compelling nature of Newport’s work, but it cannot possibly do justice to his thorough research and compelling rhetoric in advocating a culture of deeper work, without succumbing to thoughtless Luddism. Almost anyone could benefit from it, and I highly recommend it.

Clip from Wednesday Night’s Studio Session

Here’s a synthesizer improvisation I did on Wednesday night in the studio. Featured equipment: E-mu Virtuoso, Vintage Pro, and Ensoniq Halo. Hopefully I’ll be able to smooth out some details in MIDI and polish this thing off. For the time being, if you enjoy the raw footage, click Like and Follow.

 

John Prine’s Cockeyed Genius

I don’t remember who first told me about John Prine, but it was while we were discussing the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. My enthusiasm for these two convinced my interlocutor that I’d be into Prine as well.

At first my friend was only half right. I tried out some Prine and liked his music. His goofy sense of humor, they way he paints a portrait of the world and hangs it on the wall crooked,  charmed me–but it wore thin after a while, as the goofy songs were the only ones I’d listened to at that point.

“I want to like John Prine,” I would tell people, but I just couldn’t quite go all the way. I persisted. I had a hunch there was more to this guy, so I kept digging. That’s when I discovered Sam Stone, a song about a war veteran turned oppiod addict, in which it is readily apparent that Prine’s cockeyed view of the world, when paired with tragedy, packed devastating power.

“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes

Jesus Christ died for nuthin’ I suppose.”

Prine was born in 1946 in Maywood, IL and has been an active performer since the early 1970’s. Until he was discovered by Kris Kristofferson, he worked as a mailman. He would write songs in his head as he made the rounds every day. Sometimes the work itself would be a catalyst for a song, as Prine explains in the clip below:

John Prine is probably most gifted at writing lyrics. He is not a virtuoso guitar picker like Townes, and I would not say that he has the most beautiful voice on earth, though its gravelliness has a certain attraction to it, but these shortcomings fade in the presence of his keen skills of observation and his willingness to be honest about what he sees in the world. I’m reminded of what an acquaintance recently told me: “I don’t care if somebody can sing; I care if I believe ’em.”

His believability comes at least in part from his lack of pretension. He is not trying to look like a genius, which is exactly what frees him up to become one. “My style is a mistake,” he said in a recent interview on CBS Sunday Morning, “a mistake I repeat every night at 8 o’clock.”

He has conquered his share of adversity as well. In 1998, after undergoing surgery for squamous cell cancer, his voice dropped a third. The difference can be readily heard by comparing earlier recordings with later ones. This might have been enough to send some people into early retirement, but Prine just kept singing.

As it happens, he has also covered songs by Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark–and many others as well. If you can listen to his version of Loretta with a dry eye, you’re a better man than me. His inflection in “tells me lies I looove to believe” is a perfect signature of his appreciation for irony.

And he teamed up with EmmyLou Harris to cover Magnolia Wind, another one of my favorites.

John Prine is probably an acquired taste for a lot of people, but sometimes acquired tastes are the sweetest ones, since they come at a higher price. I can say that a lot of music I took to much more quickly has ended up not withstanding repetition well, but John Prine’s music just keeps getting better and better.

 

William Byrd and His Contemporaries–essays by Philip Brett

Philip Brett (1937-2002) was a British musicologist who eventually settled in Southern California, where he taught at UCLA and eventually UC-Riverside. Widely admired by his colleagues, he was a pioneer in what you might call the musicology of the oppressed, being the first to openly discuss the impact of Benjamin Britten’s gay sexuality on his music. Although Brett made similar observations about William Byrd as a recusant in Elizabethan England, he also pushed back on some of the more extreme takes popular among some modern Catholics about Byrd’s underground activities.  A gay man himself, Brett’s work often moved beyond mere commentary into the realm of activism. This collection of essays on the work of William Byrd does not invite the same level of controversy, yet the author’s passion is evident at every turn.

William Byrd worked in a wide array of genres. Though he wrote some music for the Anglican liturgy, most of his sacred music was written during the English Reformation for underground Catholic Masses sponsored by recusant aristocrats, who likely protected Byrd from the legal repercussions of participating in such activity. He was also known as a writer of consort songs and, if I understand correctly, was writing madrigals before they really took hold in England, perhaps thanks to the influence of Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian composer who frequently took up residence in England and was known to Byrd.

Although Byrd was a recusant, it’s unclear if he was raised a Catholic from the time he was born in the early 1540’s. In any case, from about the 1570’s he was increasingly involved in this movement. A student of Thomas Tallis, his first composition was a collaboration with John Sheppard and William Mundy. In 1563, he was made organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral, and in 1572 was made Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. In 1575, along with Tallis, he was granted a royal patent for the printing of music and manuscript paper that lasted twenty-one years–an extraordinary privilege for someone with such a complicated relationship with the crown. This was, as far as I know, the beginning of what we now know as copyright. He did not write his Mass settings until the 1590’s, and his other major sacred music project, the Gradualia, was released in two volumes in 1605 and 1607, respectively–quite late in his life.

Joseph Kerman and Davitt Moroney compiled Brett’s work on Byrd into this volume. It is clear from the preface that they put it together with a great deal of love and respect for both the author and his subject, who was surely one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, and probably the greatest of the time in England. Occasionally in these essays Joseph Kerman ends up the target of Brett’s criticism, but he admirably resists the temptation to plead his own case, which could easily be done with a footnote. It helps that Brett’s criticism is as constructive as it could be, adding all light and no heat, a splendid unpacking of the material that leads to a deeper understanding of the composer, an experience that is usually far more rewarding than merely being right.

I’ve had this book for years but repeatedly struggled to finish it. My last attempt was in 2012, if the bookmark I found inside it is any clue. That was probably right before I got a smartphone, so when I needed to reference something Brett was talking about, it was not readily at hand unless I was near a computer. This time, determined, I walled myself off from the world, and when a composition I didn’t know was discussed, I headed straight for CPDL. This time, I made it, and it was extremely rewarding. I am not a musicologist, so I’m not the most qualified reviewer of this book, but I would like to relate those portions that seem to be sticking with me.

As I read this collection, it kept occurring to me that Byrd might be somewhat like Bach, in that he was the old man doing old things but in new ways. Brett points out the influence of John Taverner, his teacher’s teacher, on Byrd. In fact, the Mass for Four Voices bears some remarkable similarities to Taverner’s Meane Mass. In a few instances, they are almost identical, which reminds me of Stravinsky’s quip that good artists borrow but great artists steal. But as much as Byrd paid tribute to the art of traditional English counterpoint, he was also influenced by the melodic style of John Redford, which undoubtedly enhanced his approach to counterpoint. This is similar to Bach, who mastered the synthesis of counterpoint, harmony, and melody.

Byrd was not, however, just trying to pour old wine into new wineskins. As much as he owed to the past, he was as forward-looking as can be, and he wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was allowable at the time. At Lincoln Cathedral he was cited for some unspecified violation; there is speculation that it related to music considered too elaborate for that Puritanical locale. His Anglican polyphony also pushes the limits of what would have been acceptable to a people far more concerned about the clarity of the text rather than the development of the music. And as much as he holds to conventions when writing his Latin sacred music, the passion boils just under the surface, for instance at Laudamus te in the Gloria of the Mass for Four Voices. I have commented on this before. Brett points out that Byrd’s secular work, particularly the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 91, which are technically not written for sacred use, reveals just how much he was restraining himself in the sacred realm.

There is also evidence that Byrd was a progressive Catholic, despite his attachment to earlier musical models. When setting his Gradualia, he relied heavily on liturgical sources of the Roman Rite rather than those of the Sarum Rite native to England. The Mass settings also include polyphonic settings of the Kyrie, something that was not done in the Sarum Rite. Perhaps Byrd was reading the signs of the times and seeing that regional rites were becoming increasingly a thing of the past. More than that, women were allowed to sing in his choirs. Maybe this was a matter of sheer necessity in the underground environs of England, but in Catholicism at the time, and until relatively recently, choirs were to be comprised of men and boys only.

Brett’s essay on word setting is probably the most interesting in the whole book and could be called instead “Byrd’s Musical Language,” since it turns into such a profound explanation of his compositional approach, especially with respect to his secular music. Brett spells out how Byrd, rather than composing programatic music responsive to the emotive aspect of the text, instead is guided in his writing by the poetic structure, taking “What Pleasure have Great Princes?” as a fine example. In other works, Byrd employed rhythms that respond to the long and short syllables of the poetic meter, rather than to the intuitive inflections of the language. That must be interesting music to hear.

 

While Philip Brett was a highly accomplished academic, he was also concerned about the practical application of knowledge about Byrd’s music in order to reach a wider audience. He published performance editions of the Gradualia over five volumes, the prefaces to which were compiled into this book as a concluding monograph. Those who enjoy liturgical trivia will find this to be a fun read, but more important is Brett’s care in making practical performance suggestions. Here he suggests using the English pronunciation of the Latin. It is indisputable that this more accurately represents the musical sounds Byrd had in mind, but how practical is it for most choirs? The English pronunciation of the Latin takes a language with five vowel sounds and straightforward rules about consonants and makes it nearly as complicated as English itself. Not every ensemble has the rehearsal time to deal with such a tricky endeavor. But Brett is to be commended for giving practical advice a place in his work, and I have to wonder if he’d rather hear Byrd in ecclesiastical Latin rather than not at all.

Earlier I compared Byrd to Bach. As it turns out, Brett compared him to Beethoven in a rhapsodic passage near the beginning of this collection:

“While Elizabeth’s court was playing at being medieval by holding tournaments, building castles, dressing gothic and reading and writing vast chivalric epics, this stubborn outsider at the center of the establishment was taking the literary and musical values of an earlier age seriously, and reinterpreting them in terms of contemporary technique. The result was an art which in the twilight of his composing career became, rather like that of Beethoven’s late period, inaccessible to his contemporaries for the most part, but which is also, in the best sense of the word, timeless.”

Many of us were taught the three B’s–Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms–in school. Though his music is too early to be considered “classical,” I propose that we add a fourth B to the list–Byrd. In addition to the timelessness of his music, the fire in his gut was unquenchable, and in Philip Brett, Byrd has an advocate with a zeal to match his own. Those interested in learning more about him could not possibly go wrong by starting with this book.