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Category Archives: Making Music Work

Making Music Work: Write It Down, Pt. 1

Keeping track of what we play is a key to getting better, faster … so why do we all avoid doing it?

Every musician wants to improve their craft. That’s why we take lessons, play scales, and rehearse! If there was a secret to saving valuable hours of rehearsal time, we’d all want to know it.

The secret isn’t a secret at all, because the answer is quite simple: write it down.

My songs were scattered across multiple notebooks and sheets of loose paper until 2006, when I organized them into a single database. Fifteen years later you can barely read the penciled lyrics in my 90s notebook.

There is no substitute for having a written record of lyrics, chords, and performance notes on how you play a song. It will help you remember your songs and can lock in all the little touches you’ve added over time.

“But,” you might protest, “I do write things down. I’ve got a notebook of lyrics, plus some files on my laptop, plus loose paper where I’ve jotted down ideas.”

That’s not what I’m talking about. “Write it down” means more than scribbling chords out on cocktail napkins. It’s about being organized. Read more…

How To Do It

Decide. How are you most likely to stay organized? The method of a plugged-in gadget geek will be different than a paper-loving pen-and-pad devotee.

Collect. Gather your various notes on songs into a single place. Put physical notes into a shoebox; email scattered files to a single address. If you play a lot of songs from memory, start jotting them down after you rehearse them.

Sort. Organize your new pile of songs in a way that’s meaningful to you. Alphabetical order or chronological? Should covers and originals be separate? Maybe you’d prefer to have them organized by key!

Input. Choose the format of your permanent collection – it could be a notebook, a binder, or files on your iPad! Then, enter all your songs. This will take a while, but hang in there – and don’t take shortcuts! This is your chance to get everything down perfectly.

Rehearse. Once you’ve created your central archive, use it to rehearse from once or twice. You might find some corrections to make, or things you missed.

Store & Backup. Make sure your new archive is unloseable. If it’s in hard copy, find a secure, permanent place for it in your home or practice space. If it’s electronic, back it up.

Maintain. Whether it’s every time you learn a song or once a month, make sure you don’t wind up with another collection of scattered notes.  If you work out a new song on a cocktail napkin or the back of a receipt, simply log it into your central archive before you lose it.


I hope getting organized is as big a help to you as it was to me – it made a huge difference in quality of my performances and the size of my repertoire.

In my next column I’ll talk about taking that organization to the next level – creating consistent lead sheets of your most-performed songs.

Making Music Work: Should You Say Yes To Everything?

This a post in my new column, “Making Music Work,” where I take a look at the challenges facing local, indie musicians.

As a musician it’s hard to say no. But, should you always say yes?

There are a lot of positives to saying yes. More chances to play, which means more experience and more audience. Networking opportunities. A chance to pad your resume of shows. In the words of actress and singer Ashley Davidson Hughson, “work begets work; you never know who might be in the audience that night.”

Except, playing your music isn’t all about you. It’s about your music. It’s about your fans, both old and new. It’s about the person running the room making a profit. It’s about other acts on the bill getting exposed to a new audience.

With that in mind, when should you say no? I polled my network of professional and amateur performers, and we came up with these major reasons. Continue reading ›

Monday Morning Remainders

Some links I’ve been meaning to share for a while that don’t quite merit their own posts, but work well traveling as a pack.

Last week Ad Age ran a great article on Social Media taking cues from indie music. They highlight four artists taking the lead in connecting to their fans on the web, and the #1 example is my personal fav Amanda Palmer, about whom they gush, “[She is] more sophisticated than almost anyone on the internet — musician, brand or otherwise — when it comes to gathering her audience around her and keeping the conversation going.”

In a not-dissimilar topic, NYT ran an article highlighting how bands are increasingly eschewing labels in favor of self-releasing or seeking alternate funding. Fluffy on content, but features Metric, whose self-released Fantasies is killer. Metric is my Garbage replacement while Shirl and the boys chill out. Metric’s manager just detailed the funding behind the record in an open letter; dense, but a fascinating peek into the Canandian indie industry.

Nerd Boyfriend is a photo blog that posts modern and vintage photos of well-dressed nerds you’d probably like to date, and offers suggestions of how to match their look. Their Scott Walker post is one of my recent favorites, both for fashion and photography.

How to decide if you have a good job” is a fantastic post about start-ups, stress, and loving your life. It also give a bit of background inside into, a novel start-up that regularly delivers all of your household necessities to your home at a discount over big box stores.

On the flipside, big box corporations are co-opting the “buy local” movement, the same way they’ve all undertaken “green-washing” their businesses. Disappointing on the surface, but there is certain a local element to chains with e-tailing encouraging people to continue to hit their brick and mortar locations or customizing their sales to a regional audience. Neither are bad things.

Um, the melting arctic has released a torrent of “biological goo” on the Alaskan coast and we are not alarmed why? Sounds like the beginning of a terrifying episode of X-Files to me. (via Cecily of Uppercase Woman).

September is a month dedicated to raising awareness of cancer in children. I’ll be busy planning Blame-a-Thon, followed by my corporate charity campaign. If your month isn’t so insane, you could host your own Alex’s Lemonade stand. If you don’t know much about Alex’s history, check out how Alex’s little stand can teach big marketing lessons.

That should be enough to keep you occupied on your lunch break.

Did CD Baby sell out indie artists on digital distribution?

Earlier tonight Twitter was abuzz with news that CDBaby would be increasing their take on digital downloads from 9% to 25% to coincide with the relaunch of their digital shopfront.

I quickly called foul. That’s a fourth of your profit just for distribution via a paid download, and an increase of over 275% from the old model. CDBaby didn’t help to develop your talent. They aren’t doing anything specific to promote or expose you. We’re talking about charging 25% of your gross profit to host files and process transactions.

CDBaby noticed my cry, and tweeted in to placate my concern:

It was the only way we could offer single song downloads which is what artist said they wanted more than anything else. … we were actually losing quite q bit of money on 9% (losing, not breaking even). You’ll still make far more than any other store

Also, a good friend chimed in:

it’s sad that cdbaby increased their cut of digital sales, but they’re the highest payout & let u set ur own prices = lesser evil

Losing less money in a bank robbery is still a bank robbery. So, why are we settling for evil?

As a musical artist there are only three reasons to let someone who isn’t contributing to the content or quality of your music profit from you – exposure, ease, and expertise. Exposure means finding an increasingly wider audience. Ease is making things simpler and more affordable from a time/resource standpoint than if you did it yourself. Expertise is finding people who have talents and technology you don’t have on your own.

At a 9% take CDBaby lowered the cost of entry into digital downloads (iTunes takes much more). Since indie artists were using their expertise to sell records, it made their ease a big win over the enhanced exposure artists might get elsewhere being digitally stocked alongside with major label stars. CDBaby was taking a loss on album sales and hearing demand for selling single tracks, but the best answer isn’t wielding an outdated model in a field where they were hopelessly outmatched by competitors operating at a much larger economy of scale.

At 25% CDBaby is losing its edge on ease – even while implementing an artist-friendly uploader to take the physical middle-man out of their digital distribution. It all stems from flogging an expired business model – trying to find a way to profit on $.99 micro-transactions. If they’re making a profit on downloads, it’s a bare one – it’s mostly going to their credit card processing companies. And, their exposure level is still in the indie-leagues. They’re down to trading on expertise.

Having said all of that, the moral of this story isn’t the evil of CDBaby. I believe they’re trying to do something good for their artists that will also keep them afloat. I don’t envision or recommend a mass exodus from CDBaby.

Instead, I think it’s just one more sign that indie artists need to find a new way to turn a profit. I can give you a hint – it’s not by shilling their entire catalog for a $.75 on the dollar. How long will it take to recoup the five or ten thousand they spent on recording in $.75 increments, not to mention paying off producers, managers, and supporting musicians? Even longer than it did when they were selling CDs out of the trunk of their car, that’s for sure.

What’s the solution? I’ll share my ideas in future columns, but right now I want to know your thoughts. How can an indie, local musician turn a respectable profit with their online presence?

Making Music Work: An Introduction

After a few months of worrying about the big events in my life more than my music, I decided to spend the past week focusing on my musical life.

Well, that and American Idol. (Hey, at least it’s thematically connected!)

Here’s a list of what I did:

  • Installed backend software on my band’s webpage
  • Worked on a new layout in Photoshop
  • Ordered new recording hardware
  • Uploaded videos
  • Talked to Gina about band strategy for the upcoming months
  • Listened to some new recordings for changes to EQ
  • Scheduled a rehearsal with a drummer
  • Changed my guitar strings
  • Networked with other musicians
  • Practiced piano with a metronome
  • Played through 20 or 30 cover songs looking for a new one

Do you notice anything missing from that list?

If you said, “playing your original music,” you’d be right.

Now, imagine if I was on a record label … or on American Idol. I certainly wouldn’t be doing any design, or working with software or hardware. Someone else would probably help me steer my strategy and mixing. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even have to change my own guitar strings, and I could hire someone to play piano for me!

If I was a major label musician the only thing on the list I would have definitely done for myself is the last thing – choosing cover songs. And, you know, maybe I would have fit in some practice time on my own songs.

Clearly, being an independent musician isn’t easy. Not only do you have to learn how to make compelling music, you have to take care of all of the other facets of being a musician on your own or with your bandmates. You don’t have anyone to do those things for you. You either do it yourself or make do without it.

This post is the start of a new CK feature aimed at sharing knowledge with other indie musicians to make all of those non-musical tasks easier to understand and achieve. I’m not an expert in the field, but I’m a rare Type-A musician that loves the process of making music as much as the music itself, and I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned so far.

Whether you’re a musician gigging around town or just someone thinking about writing a song, you can help me get this series started. Is there something you can’t figure out how to do? What do you wish you had some help with? And, how often would you be interested in reading about this stuff?

How To Edit Your MySpace Music Profile

Editor’s Note: This brief article has helped thousands of musicians begin to gain control over their MySpace pages. If it also helps you please consider friending me on MySpace! In your “ADD ME” note make sure to mention that you found me through my blog. Or, comment below, including your url, to share further tips or tricks you may have uncovered.

I just spent a boggling amount of time (inclusive of intensive brain-process time while asleep) trying to learn how to update the layout of my MySpace music profile.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details. The upshot is, MySpace operates on its own peculiar set of rules, and 99% of websites proffering updated MySpace layouts (AKA “MySpace Codes”) do not care one iota if you understand them. They just want you to pick your layout and be happy.

(Even if you’re a savvy web-user it might not be immediately obvious where you paste the layout, as there is no obvious “backstage” area of MySpace. Improbably, any code alterations get pasted into your About Me box – or, if you’re a Band, your Bio box.)

My problems were twofold:
(a) We all know I can’t be happy until I understand how something works.
(b) Normal profile codes and editors don’t necessarily work they way you want them to on a Band profile.

Now, allow me to provide other musicians with the benefit of my 16 hours of experience in this field. It’s not a tutorial, so much as a guidebook. For this to be of any use you should have a basic understanding of HTML and CSS, and a high capacity for trial and error testing.

First: Understand what you’re getting into. Read an awesome article by Mike Davidson that gives a detailed overview of how MySpace layouts work, and what you have to do to alter them. They’re effectively a series of nested tables altered by simplistic CSS code – not so bad, right?

Next: See Mike’s explanation at play. Visit Views Under Construction and then visit their sample profile and band profile. Now you understand the degree of manipulation you can put your profile through!

Then: Look before you leap. Dip your toe in the alteration waters by checking out some isolated edits you can make at Pimp Web Page, pasting them into your profile to see their effects. Note that you can do more than just change colors – you can resize, move, and hide most elements of a profile.

Finally: Head to the best editor I found, Real Editor. It’s meant for normal profiles, but you can still load up your band file. Here you can tweak just about any element of your page!

My suggestion? After you’re through playing around copy out the complete code for reference. If there’s any of it that doesn’t make sense, go back and work out one element at a time. Each time you finish an element, get the HTML. It will have some other junk in it, but it should be easy to pull out the one element of the code you actually altered. After a few iterations you’ll begin to understand what’s what. Try starting with your Contact Table, which is called contactTable in CSS.

When In Doubt: It’s not always obvious what certain page elements are named, or how they’re manipulated. If you’re stumped on how to get your intended result, trying viewing the source code of your profile, or another profile that you like. Zero in on the thing you’re trying to change.

If it’s an element like your top friends, search for text inside that table – you’ll discover the table class is friendSpace. If you’re viewing a cool profile that has altered that particular element, search again – this time for the name of that class. Now you should see the CSS that’s driving their manipulation.

If what you like is a minor element, like a certain border or text treatment, try searching for that color’s hex value (grab it beforehand by taking a screenshot and using an eyedropper tool in Photoshop, or similar).

And: Every time you arrive at a non-objectionable result copy out your code into a text file and save it before you keep working. If you’re having trouble with one tricky element, just work on that element in an otherwise blank About Me box, and add it to the rest of your saved code once you get it right.

Hope this helps!