Monthly Archives: March 2012

3 Tips on Surviving a Mix

I`ve worked for a long time on my songs that I`m about to release — two years.  Only me, a few drum gurus, and my family have heard anything I`ve been working on.  Pretty much I`ve holed myself up in my personal studio perfecting my sound.  I wrote literally dozens and dozens of songs narrowing them down to just the best of the best of the best.  Seriously, if someone doesn`t like what I`ve done on my upcoming 7-song EP, `1234567`, then they probably just don`t like my take on music.  Period.  And that`s okay.  At least I know that at this juncture in my musical life, it`s the absolute picture perfect spot where I should be.  It`s the best of me.  And… at the end of the day, I hope people get that I`m going for a unique sound.  For better or worse.

But I digress.  I had researched studio equipment; purchased most of it second hand off eBay and Amazon; learned how to use the gear; wrote and recorded a bunch of songs — over the course of about a year.  By the end of 2011 with all my raw sounds, I was ready for mix down.  Believe me, I had toyed with the idea that I would mix the tunes myself.  I mean, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver could do it.  And if Mark Foster of Foster the People could write/record/mix a hit song like `Pumped Up Kicks,` then certainly so could I; right?  I`m not saying I`m more talented then any of those guys, but as talented… who knows?  We`ll see.  So I worked and worked on doing mixes myself.  And I got better and better at it.  I was of course mixing everything in the box.  Meaning, it`s all done within the software realm.  No outboard mixing console.  No cool analog this or that.  Here is a list of my gear, which is not too shabby, but certainly not a real mix down studio…

Then I hit a brick wall.  I realized that the problem is not with the gear or the software limitations.  The problem is me.  Without delaying the release of my EP for another 15 to 20 years — just enough  time to start to learn the art & craft of mixing — I was never going to be able to mix one of my songs to a suitably high enough degree to be satisfied with.  That`s when I went on a search for a pro mixer.

I had heard of Lee Bridges from hearing his work on the Phil Wickham `Canons` record and quite honestly, I fell in love with the depth and breadth of his mixes.  Then a friend of mine used Lee on a mix of his own and I was blown away by the results.  Lee has mixed a ton of extremely well known Christian bands.  Namely,  MercyMe, Paul Baloche, Tenth Avenue North, Bebo Norman, Third Day, Newsboys.  But that`s not necessarily a good thing.  Yes, I`m a Christian, of course, and those bands and artists are superb at what they do.  But I`m not interested in sounding Christian.   (Perhaps fodder for another post is the subject of why Christian music tends to sound so safe, so samey, vanilla and — Lord, forgive me for saying this — boring.)  It`s not Lee Bridges` fault, by the way. 

Anyway, I digress again.

So when it came time to select my mixer, I discussed my project with Lee and he seemed a good fit for the way I work.  I would give him one song at a time, he`d do the first mix, I`d listen and request tweaks as necessary until the song was perfect.  And that`s exactly how things went except for one small detail…

My songs had never left my precious sight before.  They had never been outside of my control even for a second.  So to have them all of a sudden be in the hands and scrutiny of someone else was uncomfortable and scary.  It`s like someone else driving your car.  It just feels weird.  I learned several valuable lessons along the way.  Here are a few, in no particular order:

1.  A song is not ready to be mixed until it`s ready to be mixed. 

The basic feel of a song has to already be there in the basic tracks otherwise it`s simply not going to be there when it`s mixed either.  I sent Lee one song that I, in my inexperience, thought he could sprinkle some fairy dust upon to make it come alive.  Boy was I wrong.  Mix after mix came back which were disappointing to say the least.  It wasn`t Lee`s fault.  It was mine.  I had sent him a song that I thought was ready, but wasn`t.  In the end, the solution was to merely redo all of the drums.  That`s all.  No big deal.  Not!  Tip No. 1 – make sure the song is really in the can before handing off to be mixed.

2.  Never make snap judgments on a mix. 

My first reaction to hearing a new mix for the first time is to be so stoked on how it makes me feel that I immediately want to tell the world how great it is.  Barely having finished listening to the song, I`d be emailing Lee telling him he`s a genius and a saint.  And I can`t believe he hasn`t won a Grammy already for my song. I`d hit send on the email while the song would repeat and then all of a sudden, I`d be thinking, Well, I do love that part, but this part over here needs a little work.  And I guess maybe I jumped the gun on saying how awesome that part was.  Maybe I`ll have him change this or that.  So by the end of listen number two, I end up feeling guilty about thinking about all the changes I want to make right after telling him how spectacular the mix was. 

Tip No. 2 – never provide feedback on a mix until at least 24 hours and a ton of listens.  Don`t put your foot in your mouth like I did on several occasions.  (Lee, of course, was a patient professional so all my back and forth issues got resolved eventually.  He suggested I take a few extra days here and there to be sure of changes I was asking for.  Most times he was absolutely right.  My ears just had to adjust to the new normal of the mixes.)

3.  Organization and specificity are the keys to getting what you want. 

I rightly assumed that the more organized I was in delivering my raw tracks to Lee the easier it would be for him to quickly accomplish a great mix.  Instead of handing him wav stems that had names like 01-acoustic 12142001.wav or noise-duplicate-fuzz-bender-raw2.wav,  I carefully created a track listing and renamed all of the wavs to be self-explanatory: electric-guitar-main.wav, electric-guitar-solo.wav,  vocals-main.wav, et cetera.  This accomplished a couple things.  First, it allowed Lee to know exactly what kind of track it was.  But secondly it allowed a clearer communication when it came time for me to explain the changes I wanted on a mix.  So instead of, Hey, Lee.  The guitars sound too bunched up.  Please untangle that mess. I said, Hey, Lee.  `electric guitar-tremolo.wav` is too loud, please lower it.  Since the naming conventions I used were easy to define, my feedback to him on a mix was clear and concise and things went smoothly.  Tip No. 3 – Be specific and organized!

So those are some of my take-away tips for surviving having your songs mixed.  What others can you suggest for me for next time?

How To Build A Fan Base

I`ve decided to build a fan base.  Maybe you have too, if you`re an independent artist/musician/signed/not signed, etc.  Basically without an audience, you`re singing in the shower.  So I`ve decided to share what I have learned and currently am learning about fan base building.  I will be adding to this list as I go.  I reserve the right to modify these things any time I want.  Feel free to leave me comments about what works for you or where you think I`m way off base.  Now let`s get to this audience building stuff.

  • Release your music under a consistent name

    I know this sounds obvious but nothing throws your fan base off track like constantly changing band names.  Imagine if an author always used a pen name for each book.  How could he/she garner momentum?

  • Clearly identify who your audience is

    A generic music lovers is far too broad for it to be of any use.  Be specific and as narrow as possible.  My audience — as currently defined — is Christian rock fans, worship pastors, indie rock fans, indie music bloggers.  Yours is obviously different but the point is you need to have a clear picture of your target person before attempting to reach them.

  • Release music that resonates with your target audience

    This might sound too obvious to mention but sometimes our idea of what we are targeting and what we are really targeting is different.  If you are into Chinese polka music – if such a thing exists, I don`t know – but are targeting punk rock fans… you are not going to get very far.  It`s obviously okay to change styles, just be ready to find new fans within the new category as the old ones will fade off.

  • Are you Woody Allen or U2?
    Woody Allen releases a new film every year –  rain or shine, year in, year out… whether the world needs one or not.  Woody makes many, many films of dubious quality (IMHO) and a few that are of genius, must-see quality.  U2, on the other hand, only releases music of the highest caliber (IMHO) and only when they are good and ready.  U2 has released relatively few albums (compared to Woody Allen) but have a much higher quotient of quality to quantity. 

    What`s my point?  I`d prefer to release fewer songs on fewer albums but have the quality be the highest possible rather than ever subject the world to mediocre stuff.  Come on, let`s be honest… does anyone really have 12 excellent – A-level, genius, one-of-a-kind — songs all at one time to put on an album?  Aren`t even the best albums approximately 50% too long?  I`d prefer to release an EP of 5, 6 or 7 of my absolute best songs than water it down by also releasing B-level songs.

  • Don`t (always) charge money for your music

    You might disagree with me but the numbers don`t lie.  100 out of every 100 people on the planet will not become a fan of your unless they get the music for free.  Music lovers these days can easily rip, steal, share, bit torrent-ize, copy, or download any song in the world for free from the internet.  If you have made a video of your song and have placed it onto YouTube, it is as easy as pie to steal the audio and download it to an MP3 player. 

    So, given that environment, there is no point in placing your music behind the facade of a pay-first, then play mentality.  That business model is dead and buried.  The new model is to give away your music so that people share it, so that things go viral, and so you harness the power of social networking to build an audience. I`m not saying never charge for your songs – I certainly do, especially for physical CDs — I`m saying give some of your music away (especially your best songs) in exchange for contact information.

  • Build your email list

    In exchange for giving away songs, you MUST get their name, email address and zip code.   This list building is the number one metric for how big of a fan base you really have.  YouTube views is nice but since you can`t harness or control the list, it`s of limited value.  Twitter and Facebook are better but they are still limited.  Build your own list.  I use MailChimp.

  • On Twitter, give value

    Nobody is going to follow you on Twitter just because.  Who cares what you had for breakfast?  Unless you are famous already, nobody has time for you.  So, the only way I know how to build a following is to constantly be giving value.  Give tips, tricks, lists of things… basically anything that your audience will find useful.  Remember, it`s got to be all about them — and not you — in order for people to want to follow you.

    Two-fold strategy on Twitter… (1) follow people who are leaders in your target demographic.  For me that means bloggers, Christian musicians, indie artists, etc.  (2) tweet things that those people would find useful.  Not things about yourself (except the occasional release or link to your blog).  But most of your tweets need to be offering your core group some valuable tip or trick or information to make their lives more easy, fun, engaged, enriched, blessed, etc.

    I would suggest that you stay within the 80/20 rule.  80% of your tweets should be useful, re-tweetable, helpful information that your target audience will love.  20% of your tweets can be about you.  Any more than that and you`re that guy (or that gal)…

    Hey, check me out. 
    Hey, check me out again.
    Hey, check me out some more.
    Hey, check me out as I check myself out.
    Hey, check me out as I check myself out.  Again.

  • Be your own archivist 

    You can`t build something and not have an organization underneath you.  Your back catalog is the foundation upon which you build your current release mechanism.  Don`t you hate it when you fall in love with some song by some band but the song is impossible to find?  Even on the band`s own website it`s buried or non-existent. 

    I experienced that when I tried to buy John Mayer`s song Say.  You know that song from that movie… say what you need to say, say what you need to say.  It`s a cool little song that starts on the ukulele, and has a pretty cool sound.  Well, try buying that song anywhere.  I couldn`t find it on CD.  And I don`t typically buy MP3s. If John Mayer was a better archiver of his own stuff, that song would be easily purchased in any format right from his own website.  But it wasn`t so I didn`t. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for people in the future to enjoy your material from the past.  Remove barriers to people discovering your past works by getting organized and archive, archive, archive.

    Did you know that The Who have written and/or released around 800 songs?  Apparently, though, only 4 songs get much airplay or licensing money.  The other 796 songs sit idle in the back catalog waiting for people to re-discover them.  Recently, Pete Townsend sold some of the licensing for The Who`s music so that those 796 songs are marketed better and placed with synching departments at television and movie studios.  The Who realize that they are sitting on an untapped gold mine all due, simply, to their back catalog.

  • Remember that there is no one riding on some big white horse coming to help you

    As a Christian, I believe Jesus is going to return to earth to collect his church.  Other than that, there is no hero on his/her way to come discover you and elevate you to super stardom.  Unless you self-fund your music, build your own audience by utilizing the available tools, create your own back catalog, apply entrepreneurship all along the way… you will not get very far.  If you are still hoping to get signed or be discovered or be plucked from obscurity or get connected with Mr. Big… please do yourself a favor and stop.  Those people do not exist anymore.  You have to build your own brand, one fan at a time.

  • `Blog` is a verb not a noun

    Blogging is vitally important in building an audience because it allows people to get to know the real you.  Blogging is very hard to do correctly.  And by correctly, I mean consistently and with the right content.  You should be blogging at least once a week, if you want your audience to build.  You should be blogging about useful things by which your core audience will be enriched.  I would suggest you employ the old 80/20 rule.  80% of your blog posts should be something useful for other people.  20% of your blog posts can be about you.

    Blogging is hard because it forces you to be disciplined and creative and selfless.  And during the beginning, it may feel futile.  Like, is anyone actually reading this stuff?  I would suggest NOT getting discouraged during the first two years of blogging.  As long as you are doing it consistently, people will show up and comment.  If you do not do it consistently, however, you might as well forget about it. 

I`m just getting started here.  I haven`t even brought up playing live, touring, radio promotion, press releases, etc.  Plenty more to add here, I know.  But what are your thoughts so far about this fan base building topic?