Monday, March 29, 2010

Top 5 Mistakes Musicians Make on their Art and Career

We all make mistakes. When it comes to music, there is undoubtedly no one way to go about it. There are however a number of things that musicians do on a regular basis that are counter-productive to their development. Sometimes it's just a matter of not knowing another way. Most of the time it's simply a matter of not taking the time to evaluate the process and and deciding on the best course of action.

A lot of things we do, we do without thinking. We simply take a particular route the first time and let it go at that. For simple, unimportant things, that's fine; but when it comes to your career, it's not.

There are better ways to do things but we don't find them because we fail to examine the process in the first place. How many times have you taken a particular route and then use it for years without thinking? One day that route gets shut down and you're forced to reevaluate, only to find there was a better way to get there. When it comes to your music and career, it pays to take time everyday and make sure you're heading in the right direction. You need to stop and think, evaluate what we want, how to get it done, and make sure you're making the most of your time and resources.

Here are the top 5 mistakes musicians make when working on their art and career.

1. Not getting out there/the artist recluse - too many times I've heard musicians complain that there is no support in their community. Or it's too hard to make connections and a living in this industry. Everybody knows the saying that 'it's not what you know but who you know'. The fact is that in order to make the necessary connections, it's going to take time. Nobody is going to work as hard at your career as you are. Like working on your craft, it's something that has to be done everyday. Whether it's making industry connections, getting gigs, or trying to get fans on your mailing list, it comes down to getting out there and connecting with people. If you do this on a regular basis, you may find things happen unexpectedly. Many times something will come up just because 'somebody heard your music somewhere'. As you get to know other people and players in the music community, your learning goes up exponentially. Everybody you encounter has their own experiences and wisdom which they're usually all too happy to share. Make sure you're spending just as much time making those connections as you are in the studio.

2. Doing it all on your own - in this day it's easy to think that you can do it all on your own. All of the tools are out there. You can record your next CD on your computer, set up a website to market it, and use the internet sell your music and get people to come to your gigs. The trouble is that not only is this a staggering amount of work, there is a learning curve involved in each. It's not easy to write and record your music on your own. Marketing and PR are a whole other ball of wax that takes time and money to be effective. A lot of musicians try and do this all on their own. Not only is it not wise, it's actually counter-productive. You're much better off sticking to what you do best and getting others to help you with the rest. Find others that are good at the things you suck at; then help them with the things that you do best. Also, have a support system. It's a full time job trying to get your music out there and you can go crazy trying to manage it all. Having a support group helps keep you motivated and your spirits high when you get down.

3. Not learning the business - being musicians we're good at the creative thing, not the business thing. The fact is that you have to work hard on both. Once you've got a handle on your art, you have to think about the two other major principles: marketing and distribution. Marketing is all about getting your name out and to connect to as many people as possible. Distribution is getting the material into the hands of the people and hopefully making some good money. This is a lot easier now with all of the online tools, but still takes a lot of time and energy. When finishing up your first demos, you should be thinking about how to get this to as many people as possible. The fact is that once you make the music, marketing and distribution should be your two main concerns. It's important that you take time out and think about the band as a business. Think about how specifically you're going to get your music out there and how you're going to make money.

4. No practice regimen/program - musicians are well known for being unorganized. Unfortunately, this applies to their practice regimen too. Musicians love to learn new techniques and skills on their instrument. Unfortunately, a lot of techniques are learned once and then forgotten. We learn through repetition. It's not enough to simply read and try something once; especially on your instrument. The new material must be studied, practiced and then reviewed. The material can be understood but without the practice (real world use), and review (making it part of your musical language), the material simply won't be absorbed. You may spend some time learning a new scale, but without practicing the scale in different applications and reviewing the scale over and over, the new material will simply be lost.

How many times have you started something without thinking about the results or what you're trying to achieve? How many times have you learned a new skill on your instrument only to forget about it the next week? How many times have you practiced a particular technique only to learn you were doing it wrong? This is because some musicians take a haphazard approach to their development and career. They try/learn something one day, only to forget and not follow up the next.
5. Practicing mistakes/the same old thing - this is the number one reason why musicians take longer to learn new skills on their instrument. When learning a new piece, you're eager to get it up to speed and make it sound good. So you take a minute or two to learn the fingering and then try and play it up to speed. This is the worst thing you can do. First of all, you're fingers aren't ready to to play the notes properly. It's important that you take the time to play the piece at a slow tempo and make sure that you can hear every single note. Every note (including mutes, scratches and slides) must be deliberate. Too often in their hurry to learn a piece, players will fluff over certain parts and carry on. What happens in effect is that they continue to practice even though they can't play the piece properly. They will practice the difficult parts, mistakes and all over and over again, thereby reinforcing the errors in their playing. As hard as it may seem at first, it's much more beneficial to practice at a slower speed for a longer time at the beginning and work up the speed gradually.

How much time do you devote to learning new skills on your instrument as opposed to going over the same things. Musicians will pick up the instrument and 'just starting noodling'. Is this is your usual method of practice? Not only is nothing new studied, the same old things are gone over without any thought. There is no program and there is no actual development. This also applies to writing and improvising; you need to challenge yourself daily. It's all too easy to get into familiar habits and go on without any development.
Putting It All Together

It's easy to get into some bad habits. It's easy to think you're actually making some progress and getting something done. It's much harder to gauge for musicians because you're usually on your own. To be the most effective, you're going to have to get organized and get some systems together. This includes: a regular practice regimen/program, a business strategy, time management skills, and a support system. To be a really effective musician you have to make sure you're doing the major three on a regular basis: creating your art (product), connecting with your fans (marketing), making a living from your art (business). Remember, you need all three. Creation without marketing and distribution is not a business, it's a hobby.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting Your Music Done

After reading numerous articles about getting things done and seeing projects to completion, I realized that a lot of these same principles can be applied to making music. There are some general principles that can be applied to getting your music done and out there, and then there are some principles that do need to be clarified.

  1. Keep it simple. This is actually more true for art than most things. Musicians try to do too much. I don't know how many songwriters I've met who don't finish songs, or bands that don't finish demos. Mostly because they're trying to do too many things at once. Finish the songs first. Just do one at a time. If you can't produce a good demo, get help. If you can't manage all of the marketing and PR, get help. Do one thing at a time and stick with it until it gets done.
  2. Practice 'good enough'. If you are an over the top perfectionist (like myself) then this applies. But to many other people, this is a bad way to go. Artists are told to just do it and get it out there. This isn't as black and white as it seems. Too often I see artists release something, or create something and leave it as 'good enough'. It can do some damage to your career to release something, or to try and push something down people's throats when you know that it isn't the best that you can do. If you're a new songwriter, write a bunch of songs. Get feedback on all the songs you've written. Then release the top 3 to the world. If you're working to good enough, make sure that your good enough is the absolutely the best it can be right now. If it's not good enough you need to either a) get help (hire a producer, mixer, or hire other musicians) b) realize that you're not quite ready and keep working at it, or c) try it from another angle.
  3. Kill the extras. This goes along with number 1. If you're working on a project and it just isn't getting done, you may have to take some things away. This doesn't mean lowering expectations as it does trimming the fat. Do you need a full over the top production? Or can you go with bass, guitar and a loop for now? Or, you wanted to do a full length album but it's taking way too long. Try finishing just 3 songs and doing a couple of smaller shows first. Write 3 great songs instead of 15 mediocre ones.
  4. Get the ball rolling. This is really important. If you're working on a project and you're having trouble getting things done, you need to simplify and then just get to work. Take a couple of items that can be done today and do them. Don't put a million things on your list. If you have a master plan, take a couple of items, put them on today's list and then get going. Have your master list in another place so that you can reference it whenever you want. For daily items it's better to have a short list that you're pretty sure that you can get done and isn't too overwhelming. If you have a big item on the list, just have the one item and do it first. 
  5. Make it public, quick. This applies to musicians as a cautionary note. It's along the lines of the first item in that you want to get the work done but you don't want to put out something that isn't as good as you would like or doesn't represent you. In today's DIY artists, making things public can go a long way for PR. If you have a project you're working on, you could let fans know about it. You could release day to day details of the work. You could also release some stripped down demos of the songs. Be careful here though. Even though it's just a demo, try and have the best performance possible. You still want to connect with your audience. That doesn't mean it has to be technically perfect either, it's all a matter of artistic taste. If you can try and get the production as good as you can. Get help if you need it. If your production is good but the song needs work, get some help on that. Even if it's just you and a guitar, poor quality isn't going to do anything for you or your fans. 
Your Art

As you can see, for musicians it's about getting it done and out there while still maintaining your high level of quality and artistic vision. Getting stuff out there and getting feedback from your fans is a great but make sure that you're releasing quality stuff. Don't release 'beta' stuff. If it's crap and you're making excuses to a) why it doesn't sound like you'd like or b) that it doesn't really represent your sound (bad production or worst, bad performance), or that c) you have 'better material' that you're working on now, then wait and release that.

Enough is Enough

If you've been working on the same material for a couple of years and it still isn't done, then stop. It's done. Get feedback on what you've done and either cut off all of the fat and get it done, or leave it and move on. Maybe you're trying to do too many things at once. Are the songs there but the production isn't? Is that chorus still bugging you? The vocal sucks? The truth is that most people (especially industry people) don't have patience to listen to less than stellar tracks or really poor production.

Please Release Me

In the end you want to get your music done and out there. If you're like most musicians, time and money are scarce. You're going to have to trim the fat and get down to the essentials if you want to get it all done. A lot of what you write may never see the light of day. Make as much quality art as you can. Rewrite and tweak until you have something that you're proud of. Then release it to the world. Rinse and repeat. One day you'll look and see that in spite of everything, you have some great music to share with the world.

    Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    The OpenEnded Group: Upending - World Premiere

    The OpenEnded Group: Upending - World Premiere
    A stereoscopic theater performance, which will premiere at EMPAC on March 26,2010

    "Upending, a work commissioned by EMPAC and appearing here in its world premiere, is a revelatory stereoscopic theater performance, an actor–less drama of disorientation and reorientation that compels us to rethink our relationship with the material world. Using ordinary flat photographs and processing them with non-photorealistic rendering and stereoscopic HD video, Upending transfigures familiar objects, spaces, and persons in ways that are both beautiful and uncanny. "

    EMPAC @ Rensselaer
    110 8th Street
    Troy, NY 12180