Sunday, December 30, 2012

Original music in coffeehouses

Coffeehouses requiring only original music from their performers would seem to be a boost for singer-songwriters, until we look a bit closer... One of the revenue streams for musicians has been what is known as "performance rights" i.e. funds collected from performance venues on an annual license basis and distributed to members of performing rights societies (ASCAAP and BMI) based on an algorithm that no one understands, but in practice means independent musicians get very little, and major-label artists pretty much divide the pie up between them. One of the means for determining who gets what are set lists (songs played on a given night) with title and composer submitted by the venue, all of which go into the database at BMI (etc) and get munged by the algorithm. Performing rights societies, in the meantime, have realized that an increasing number of their members are 1) independent, and 2) playing in venues like coffeehouses that don't pay license fees. The societies have reacted by asking independent songwriters to submit set lists directly to them, and by descending on the coffeehouses with demands for license fees and/or fines. Songwriters have hesitated to submit set lists, since the net effect could be the closing of the venue. The loophole for the coffeehouses is to only allow songs to be performed "with the permission of the songwriter" i.e. by the songwriter him or herself. The performing rights societies are then out of the loop, and no money changes hands if the songwriter doesn't submit set lists. The songwriter is often performing for tips, meaning the event contributes virtually nothing to the economics of a music career. This is the downside. The upside is that coffeehouses do furnish a space where songwriters can perform in public, though without payment or promotion, audiences can be minimal. All this is a bit technical, but the phenomenon is part of a series of issues that have undermined the economics of song writing and performance, including rampant piracy of recordings, and lack of adequate payment for internet streaming of recorded songs.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Notes from the House Concert on October 27

On October 27th, Ruth Hendricks hosted a house concert for 25 friends and fans at her place in Highland Park. A finely tuned audience who mostly knew what they were there for and gave us great feedback on the evening. Marc Reisman commented "This is the perfect way to hear your songs!" and I tend to agree. It's a listening environment, the lyrics are crystal clear and the acoustic instruments much more audible. David Hart was with me, and contributed vocals, mandolin and second guitar. This is the second time we've done the duo format, and it works really well. David, like me, has a busy professional life, but loves music and knows what it takes to put on a performance worth listening to. Keep an eye out for his bluegrass encarnation--the Stillhouse Pickers.

 Ruth as a first-time host couldn't have been better. She made everyone feel welcome, contributed hors-d'oeuvres and sweets and collected the donations. Ruth is a blogger herself, so you can get her take on her blog, where she's posted some photos as well.  I'm in France as I write this, but the good vibes from the evening are still with me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Report from the CD Release at Shadow Lounge

A great crowd turned out for the release, in spite of a bit of rain. There were people from the theater, poetry, songwriting, art, community organizing and academic circles as well as some people who actually work for a living ;-). Ben Shannon did a half hour to start the evening which (as usual) got peoples' attention. The octopus behind the musicians (see below) certainly set the tone for the evening. Justin Strong did a good job juggling the 9 musicians who kept popping up and down during the show--a soundman's nightmare, but he often does it twice a night, while managing events in his other room on South Highland. Speaking of working for a living... A vital venue in a hopping part of Pittsburgh--great to move across town for a change. Next Friday Karen, Bev, Dave and I will do it again at Natasha's in Lexington. The musicians visible below left to right are Dave Gillespie, Vince Camut, CMJ, Jim Spears, Karen Jones, Mark Weakland and Marc Reisman. Bev Futrell and David Hart are at the bar on this one...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Suburban 2-Step complete

The amount of work and agonizing that go into an album recording process are pretty amazing. And then it's over, and time to move on...

 Suburban 2-Step involved 12 musicians in total, making the last step in the process--the mixing--especially delicate. As you listen to the song for the 100th time, and you bring the mandolin up and pull the tuba down, you're not quite sure if it wasn't just yesterday that you did the opposite. As performer and writer, I also know the lyrics backwards, so may not be as demanding as necessary in terms of audibility on that front. There's a reason that the classic division of labor has an objective pair of ears or two making final judgements about levels and sound treatments (EQ and reverb, for example). In these days of self-recorded and self-released albums, however, these roles (producer and recording engineer) often get rolled up and handed to the songwriter / singer / musician. This is both a good thing (wow, the control!) and bad (the blind spots). Not much choice, in many cases: sustainability doesn't apply only to energy use, at some point the ledger has to balance, and that is increasingly problematic for musicians, either from performing or recording.

 The CD Release Concerts will happen in Pittsburgh and Lexington, with a follow-up duo event at Harmony in the House in Zelienople in June, so things will be properly launched. Both physical and download version will be available on-line mid-April.

 Next step: new tunes! I've written three already: The Best I Got, Dans la ville (first song in French) and The Blackstone Rangers (about the Southside Chicago legendary organization). Never a dull moment..

Monday, October 17, 2011

Album progress

Great progress on recording. An outing to Bloomfield Hills, MI (Dave Gillespie's place) saw most of the harmonies getting done with Dave, Karen Jones & Bev Futrell, plus lots of fiddle, mandolin and guitar parts. Back in Pittsburgh Paul Eiss came over to put down two sax tracks and David Hart added tres on The Numbers and mandolin on The World Rolls On. Other than a little guitar cleanup and a tuba bass track that Roger Day has promised for next week, all the tracks are down. Mixing seriously will begin in November.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Writing songs

With the new release (Heartland Variations) successfully out the door in April, and the reissue of my 1978 vinyl for Transatlantic (No More Range to Roam) taken care of in October, I’ve been able to turn my attention to songwriting—for popular writers a murky process if there ever was one. Here are a few meditations on various points in the process.

Unfamiliar as I am with classical processes, I still tend to guess that Mozart began with a melody and moved onward to orchestration—I can’t imagine him working from a couple of chords he liked or a rhythmic feel. But maybe I’m wrong…

For myself, there is no set pattern. The spark can be those guitar chords or a rhythm, which then are suggestive of a melody and evoke an emotional or topical sphere that leads to lyrics. Or it can be absolutely the other way around: a set of lyrics—often but not always a chorus first—which encapsulate something near the surface in the subconscious and then lead to conscious choices of rhythm, melody and harmonic underpinnings (chords). The more toward pop one moves, the more emphasis is placed on the “hook” or melody+lyrics+rhythm of the chorus. Of course in hip hop you can sometimes circumvent the compositional process for the chorus by licensing (hopefully) a sample of a hook that already been around once and proven its mettle. That’s not where I work, however. In spite of the fact that I have no pop pretentions whatsoever, the basic structure of the popular song is very strongly part of my DNA, so the notion of a repeating chorus which is in someway memorable is part of my process, as is some variant on the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus song structure. The bridge, for those whom this is jargon, is just “something different” in the middle of the song, which tends to lighten the repetitive traditional structure, but is by no means universal.

For me the frosting is always something in the lyrics for which the source is unclear, but which resonates immediately. Here are two lines from “Bread & Justice” (written for my early 80s electric day band, the Regulars) as an example: “Nathan oozed good fortune / He held his life by a silver chain/ All around him, like a pool of light / The shimmer of his capital gain”. To find this sort of expression, you mostly have to be patient, or relax, or recognize what’s not that. It’s not a rational process, other than sitting down at the table or computer with enough frequency and time so that it will have a chance to happen.

I’ll detail the creative process for two very different songs to finish this exposé, one from London 1976 or so, the other one Pittsburgh 2009.

This tune was written as nearly in a classical process as I’ve ever come. At the time I was living in a squat in Islington (north London), eating erratically and having virtually reversed the normal day/night living patterns, as sometimes happens with musicians, so most of the work happened after midnight. The rather straightforward narrative lyrics came first, and were polished to a fine sheen before beginning the musical writing. For the latter I actually took a sheet of partition (music) paper and wrote the melody first without the guitar. I then actually wrote the guitar part note by note, a process that is almost totally foreign to most folk and rock composition (including mine). For the recording, Mick Linnard came up with a nice second guitar part, and my brother Jeffrey arranged some (in-house, literally) strings and the whole thing is pretty precious. Not surprisingly, this was my late father’s favorite song of mine. He was a Ph.D. in music theory…

Gas It Up
This one is the opposite extreme. Written as a groove tune for the Uptown Combo (it appears on the “Bloodshot Moon” CD) , it was re-recorded on Heartland Variations in an acoustic version. Here the inspiration was an A minor groove that suggested road movement, then an ode to another time (my youth) when cars were huge and gas cheap. I wrote the chorus first, then left it first so the song goes chorus/verse/chorus/verse/chorus with lots of space for instrumental improvisation and stretching out. The lyrics are minimal, but use the car metaphor in a reasonably effective way. For example: “The girls have got the top down/ stopped and laughin’ at the red light / I can feel that motor runnin’ / Underneath the hood tonight.” This one wrote itself quickly, I stopped my impulse to complicate things, and it has been popular and a fun tune for performance purposes, since I mostly have excellent musicians with me who need a little space on occasion.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Club Café

The Club Café , for those who don’t live in Pittsburgh, is a small room (150 capacity) that acts like a big room: excellent sound system, pretty good lights, sound man, booked by a promoter (Opus One Productions) who took over that function when the owner, former restaurateur Marco Cardamone, apparently decided it was too much for him. The room schedules national touring bands and songwriters as well as regional acts. For regional acts, most of the door goes to the artist, after a promotional fee that covers the sound man and some useful listings legwork. For national acts, the promoter sometimes risks a guarantee if they know both the touring act and the local audience—it’s a tightrope. On many nights there are early shows tending toward acoustic or solo acts, while late shows can be anything from punk to jazz.

I put together a mixed group of Pittsburgh (Mark Weakland, drums, Jim Spears, bass and Jack Bowen, piano from Uptown Combo) and Lexington family (Karen Jones, fiddle, Bev Futrell, mandolin/harmonica, Jeff Jones, guitar + cousin Dave Gillespie from Detroit on lead) musicians for the Heartland Variations CD release at Club Café. A great crowd of family, friends and fans both local and far-flung (José and Evangelina from Portugal won the distance prize), a big party afterwards… A nice step forward, and part of the equation in terms of figuring out how to make music work for me again not just one night but frequently enough to keep momentum going, have musicians to work with who remember the tunes, and bring in enough income to pay them something. The Club Café is one of the venue profiles that keeps live music alive, with the promoter working overtime to fill it (and the Brillo Box and Mr. Smalls theater in Pittsburgh) with viable artists who can generate enough income to keep the whole think working. The other two venue profiles are community-based organizations and individuals/couples running events in their homes. More on these later, but to get a flavor of the event and the venue, there's a short video on my web site by Bill Wade of the Post-Gazette , who was at the event as a friend.