How to Write Your First Song

OK. Several people have asked why I have not reviewed my own book here. Seriously, what do you think I’d say? After working on it for months, trying to create a book that would help the novice songwriter, as well as one who has “hit the wall”, to find their own process and create a song that they are truly proud of. One that they would not hesitate to play for friends or critics. Of course I think anyone thinking of writing their first song, or getting back into it should buy the book. But for good reasons, not just because I wrote it. I felt that there was a need for this book and I remember the agony of writing my very first song, that took one year to write, compared to my second which I finished in one day. But it took me a year to learn what I needed to write a song that I still like, decades later, and one that helped me to get into the Music Composition program at the university of my choice.

I wished I’d had a book like this when I was starting out, so I wrote it in the hopes of helping people in similar situations. I have unique training, with advanced degrees in computing and music, as well as Music Criticism, Music Theory, Computer Music, and Education, but my most practical qualification comes from decades as a music reviewer and listening to over 1,000 LP’s and CD’s most of which were from people trying to break into or make it in the music world. I’ve heard the same mistakes repeated countless times, but I have also found some true gems, all of which defied convention in their own way but still evoked a strong response in the listener. So while I can’t tell you how to write a guaranteed great song (no one can)  I can tell you what will ruin even a great idea that could have been a hit. To get that hit, or even songs that you like consistently, you need to know your own process for writing, and I can help you to find that.

How many Grammy speeches begin with “I’d like to thank the author of the book …” Not many, and yet so many song writing books promise, implicitly or right out there, that you will end up creating a huge hit, and if you don’t, it’s your fault. It’s more realistic to listen to the “overnight sensations” who tell you that they have written 100 songs and finally learned their craft by trial and error. My goal was to help you find your own process to write a good song without having to go through the 100 duds; to shorten the “error” period. Maybe it won’t be a hit, maybe not “commercial” enough, but it will be a song that you like and are proud of. And with a start like that, you can only improve.

Hits are a combination of craft, hard work, and luck. Good songs are a combination of craft and hard work — no luck required. You may not get wealthy, you may not even make a living at it, but you will be able to write songs that you like and even build up a modest fan base who enjoy your music. That’s a lot better than sitting and dreaming of “making it.” And you have to start somewhere. (And yes, I suppose you could use the concepts to analyze hits you like and maybe write a hit yourself. Maybe.) I’ll tell you what my aims were in writing the book, and you can see if they reflect your situation and might help you.

The BIG ONE is to get you over the hump of wanting to write a song but not doing it. (This includes established songwriters who have hit a wall and may even feel “washed up.”)  Maybe you’ve tried and got bits and pieces of several songs that you just can’t finish to your liking. Or you’ve written one according to a formula or copying a song you like that you can’t be proud of. An important step that you might be wondering about is to determine if songwriting is something that you really want to do. I won’t try to talk you into it, and you might discover that you’d rather just listen to songs. Even if that is all you get out of the book it will save you lots of time and frustration and let you get on with what you really want to do more.

But if you find that you truly want to write songs, I will help you to find and refine a process that works for you. There are lots of ways to approach songwriting, and the book is written so that you can try different things and see which ones produce results you like. It’s a very personal activity that reflects who you are, and only you can decide what you want to express and how you will do that. I don’t want you to copy how I go about writing a song, but rather to discover how you do. At the end of the book you will have written the first song that you really like and are proud to play for anyone, from a close friend to a record producer.

How do you get that kind of confidence? Together we look at building on your strengths and getting past your weak spots. Maybe you don’t have the theoretical background you feel you need. I’ll show you what you need to know without any extras like, say, the range of the piccolo or the notes to beware of when writing for clarinet. Or maybe you have lots of theoretical training, so much that you become “rule-bound” and have to loosen up your concepts so that you can move ahead just as music has moved past the “rules” that were established for music of the past. (Music theory always lags behind practice!) In fact, songwriters have a different perspective on music theory from classical composers, whose works form the basis of most standard music theory. The introduction of guitars and drums, as well as digital music sources, has given new life to older concepts that have been refined in new directions, as in jazz or progressive rock, or kept as a basis for new uses in popular music from country to hard rock and its more metallic derivatives.

At its most basic level, music comes down to repetition versus novelty, with enough repeated material so that we can recognize it as the same song but new parts that give variety so that we don’t get bored. Every genre or style does this in different ways, popular and classical, Western or Eastern. Music is truly infinite in its possibilities.

The book has access to all the musical examples online, where they can be played or downloaded. I personally created over 100 audio examples so that you hear our topic rather than just read about it. More importantly, you can decide whether you like it, and how you might improve it to make it more to your liking. You need to learn to critique your own ideas, but it is often much easier to start by critiquing the work of others. The difference here is that we will be concentrating on one aspect at a time, so that you refine what harmonies you like, what rhythms speak to you, how lyrics fit the melody (or don’t!), and many more aspects that are personal to you. I can tell you that the reason I prefer to be a reviewer to a critic is that I don’t assume that everyone shares my musical taste, so I point out what I find interesting in a song but leave it open to the reader and listener to agree or not, and to find more in it. Read old critics’ views of many songs that have become legendary over time and you will inevitably find articles saying how awful they are and how the artist will disappear, just as that very artist is starting a decades-long career as a major star. You might not like songs that I do, but you should like, or love, every song that you write. It should speak to you, even if to no one else.

Rather than go on and on, I’ll let you read the first page of the introduction to the book here. You can find a little more on the Hal Leonard site here, and order it from there or from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, or find it in your local music store.

 

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Make Money While Practising

Every few months the guitar magazines rediscover that regular practice improves playing. This is often touted as the “secret” of the current great guitar player. I’m going to assume that you all know that by now. (If not, try doing 15 minutes of focused practice every day for a few weeks and see what happens.)

I have a few suggestions for your practice sessions that can actually save you money, which is like having more money to spend on that dream instrument while being able to play it better when you get it. It’s like getting paid to practice.

Here’s how: Focus on something you need to learn, not something that you can already play in your sleep (chances are you stopped hearing it a while ago). If you don’t know the whole neck of your instrument, learn it several ways. Up and down one string, across every position, skipping notes, in scales and modes, there are all sorts of ways to make sure that you know where Bb is on the D string, for example.

The second thing is to listen as you play. This will train your ear, and it will also let you hear your guitar (or any other instrument you play). This is crucial, because if you don’t know what your guitar sounds like, and what you can do with it, you won’t be able to spot a better-sounding one in the music store.

Third, I suggest having a set routine that runs through the whole neck, every string and at least every three frets. This should be short and one of the first things your play every day. Notice the changes in tone in all of the various ranges of your instrument. That’s why you want to cover the whole neck.

Finally don’t forget to learn a few songs so well that you can play them perfectly even in front of the person who wrote or played it. You want to be able to listen to the tone you are getting without worrying where your fingers are or if you are hitting the right string.

OK, now that you’ve done that (or when you have) let’s save you some money. Most players tend to freeze when they go into a guitar shop and there are a lot of players there. “Man, is everyone else great on the guitar but me?” Naw, they are just playing their “store set” of exercises and songs. But now you have a store set too! So no matter what that guy in the corner who thinks he’s the second coming of Eddie van Halen is doing, you can do your own thing and listen to the guitars you play. And play a lot of them. Bonus tip: there are subtle differences between every guitar, even ones from the same company in the same model with the same configuration that come off an assembly line. The great thing about wood and the other materials that make up guitars is that you never really know how one piece is going to react to sound. A tip that you won’t need if you listen is that the price of a guitar has little to do with the sound of a guitar. I did a test one day of 15 Les Paul’s in one of my favourite music stores, about half Gibson and half Epiphone (actually 8 were Gibsons). The best two were about the same with slightly different tonal ranges, and they were both Epiphones, over $500 cheaper than the cheapest Gibson (in THAT shop on THAT day; your mileage may vary). The point is that it’s always worthwhile to compare. A friend did a similar comparison with Telecasters and found a Godin that was the best sounding one in the store for less than half the price of a Fender Tele. In that case he wasn’t sure which sounded better, but since I knew a song he’d just learned I suggested he play it on all of them and see which one sounded best. There was no doubt in his mind when he bought the Godin.

You probably see my last example coming, but I’ll tell you anyway. Years ago a friend in a band I was in wanted to upgrade his “Strat knock-off” with a real Fender. We both knew the sound of his guitar well, so we expected great things at the store. He played three Strats and asked me to play them too. Our consensus was that they sounded no better than his guitar — no worse, but no better. In this case we were lucky enough to find the same type of amp that he used, because a better amp can bias you, but in this case he made the biggest savings of all and had a new respect for his knock-off guitar.

So a regular focused practice routine can save you money. At the very least you will end up as a better player. You will also be ready to try out instruments at unexpected places and times. Look into how Geddy Lee and Jack Casady found their favourite basses — the ones their signature models are based on — and you will realize that it was their ability to hear the special tone of the instrument that was crucial.

A lot of the guitar biz is based on players not realizing what they actually have already. As with anything in life (cars, significant others, phones, etc.) be sure to know what you have before you try to upgrade. And if you do upgrade, check out what you are really getting.

 

 

One-Man Band LIVE (and what a band!)

A lot of us find ourselves in remote places at times, or in other situations where we ourselves are the band. It helps to be able to play a number of instruments if we want to record something “band-like”. Even those of us who are able to play a number of instruments well enough, and to sing without inspiring washroom breaks for anyone listening, it can be an exciting if somewhat nerve-wracking experience each time the red-light goes on and the recording is happening.  But of course we can always re-record, although finding the acceptable version without the need for “just one more tweak” can be a mind-killer without a producer to say “Good enough; now move on.”

So I salute all of you who produce your own music because you have to, or because you <…shiver…> want to. Now, that said, there is a level that only a few enter into, and of those who do, it is no great shock to find musicians of the calibre of Jacob Collier.

I found out about Jacob Collier from NS Design, who are stoked that Jacob plays their new NTXa bass (which I guess makes my old NXT bass a ‘vintage’ model now), but this is just one of the many instruments he has mastered, which helped him to win TWO Grammies:1) Best Arrangement: Instrumental or A Capella and 2) Best  Arrangement: Instruments and Vocals.

The NS Design artist web site for Jacob Collier says this: “Based in London, UK, Jacob has been inspired by many sounds – his music combines elements of Jazz, A cappella, Groove, Folk, Trip-hop, Classical music, Brazilian music, Gospel, Soul and Improvisation (to name a few), which culminate to create the world of ‘Jacob Collier.’ ”

Jacob’s own web site features his debut album and live dates, as well as quotes such as these:

“I have never in my life seen a talent like this… Beyond category. One of my favourite young artists on the planet – absolutely mind-blowing”

— Quincy Jones

“Wow!! Jacob, your stuff is amazing”

— Herbie Hancock

“Staggering and unique… Jazz’s new messiah”

— The Guardian
It also features his astounding “Jacob Collier and his One-Man Live Show Creature perform[ing] ‘Don’t You Know’, an original song from Jacob’s debut album ‘In My Room’; filmed live @ Village Underground, London, May 28th 2016.
This is a pretty amazing tour de force of technology, and I applaud him for being able to put it together and use it so creatively. Maybe it will inspire some of you to make music you never thought possible. Or maybe it will just make you appreciate your current band mates a bit more. Either way, you win.

#Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent — by Mixerman

This is a brilliant book. Buy it!

mixerman-fron-small

#Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent is one of the best books I have read in years, and THE best one I’ve ever heard, so I suggest buying the audio book. I’ll come back to that. The story is a hilarious satire on the current state of the music industry. Most of us still have the idea that music is the same as in The Beatles’ time, where a group of talented kids from the sticks can make it big by playing endless shows and recording their own songs for a company that provides them whatever they want. In fact, the continuing spate of “new” Beatles products, while in some cases excellent, also prolongs the myth. Even better, bedroom studios are within the budget of any musician, and with the Internet anyone can become rich and famous as long as they have talent, right? The reality is very different. This book presents an industry where those four guys would be working minimum wage jobs and becoming famous, never mind rich, is like winning the lottery. Repeatedly.  The book is especially funny for those who have read Mixerman’s first book, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, and so are familiar with many of the characters who reappear, although this is by no means a requirement. This is the story of an Indian billionaire father whose son wants to be a producer, so naturally dad wants him to be the greatest Bollywood producer of all time. Of course, the son prefers rap and wants to create his first big hit with a ditty about oblivious Prius drivers who slow down traffic, not the most urgent problem in the hood from which famed rappers such as the Pharcyde see the world.

The book revolves around Mixerman getting an offer he can’t refuse to tutor the son and heir (the “billionheir”) of this Indian billionaire in music production. This is the first appearance of money making the seemingly impossible happen, but it won’t be the last. As Mixerman teaches this gifted intern the basics of music, his understanding of the business of music (and ours) is turned upside-down as the very presence of the billionheir changes his world. Along with Mixerman, we learn how money is not a power, but the power, without which success is denied to even the most talented and hardest working musician. Billionaires (and billionheirs) are a club into which not all are welcome, and which can control membership as easily as they control everything else. But our hero Mixerman is a fast learner who has some tricks of his own. Will he and his team ultimately prevail? Read the book and find out. It’s a real page-turner, so you may want to set aside some time for it. Also, if you haven’t yet heard the hit “The Douchebag Song” you might want to wait until it is recorded (or at least written) in the book to get its context. In the audio book, this process is heard, which makes its ludicrous creation, and that of its video, all the more obvious.

Like the best satire, this one does not stray far from reality, and who better to give us an insider’s view of the music business than Mixerman, whose previous four best-selling books have dealt with how grueling the work can be, as well as in-depth technical details for recordists, mixers, and producers. Again like the best satire, there is a darker side to this “American Dream” that begins to surface in short asides from the author, but comes to full fruition in the book’s hysterically funny climax, where the line between the truly absurd and the actual modern world is shown to be an illusion. And in one of the most inspired moments in modern writing, the lens on the oligarchic control of music suddenly pulls back to reveal this undemocratic control of virtually every important aspect of life.

So there is a serious and sad sub-text to this book, but it is embedded in a truly great story. It shows that Mixerman is as brilliantly creative at a word processing keyboard as he is at his beloved Slate Raven MTX recording console. Don’t worry, this is the same uncensored, fattie-loving, musically amazing Mixerman we have learned so much from, but his writing has a new depth and flow to it now that he is free from having to present so many technical facts. In his own inimitable style, Mixerman presents the most important issues of our time that affect every one of us. I found the audio presentation even more immediate, with great performances by a huge cast that really puts you into the middle of the action, and things get quite active.

This is a book that will appeal to two groups: musicians, and everyone else. Musicians will see that they really are up against a system virtually designed to deny them success, while non-musicians will see the way that the systemic inequalities that they find virtually everywhere in life are at their worst in the creative arts. Let’s look at one change in technology that has been in the news lately: streaming. Many of us don’t realize much difference between streaming songs and songs sold on CD. Streaming is touted as being more convenient and cheaper. Why buy a physical object that you have to store yourself and find when you want to hear music when you can just stream it on demand to whichever of your devices is closest to hand? The problem is that far fewer people are paid from streams, and they are paid far less (if at all). Many producers, songwriters, and artists count on their royalties to carry them through retirement, but with those royalties gone with the disappearance of CD sales, so is any thought of retiring. The even more devious catch is that with so many new artists, songwriters, and producers trying to get into the business, the resulting price war means that many will work for free just for the experience and exposure. How does one compete with free? (I’ve faced this myself with guitarists who pay bar owners for the chance to play in public!)

We are all familiar with the huge disparity between the 1% of the ultra-wealthy and the 99% of “everybody else.” In music, this is even worse. If this sounds like a bummer to read, many of us are living it. And kudos to Mixerman for blowing the whistle while still keeping the tone hilarious even as he teaches us the harsh truths of modern music. He achieves this through his deft touch, his wonderfully ingratiating characters, and his ability to make his point effectively and move on with the story. The audio book adds music to the story, using leitmotifs (identifying tunes) for each character that describe them as well as pointing up their similarities and differences. Music also provides moments to reflect on how this situation affect us personally.

The situation is ultimately bad for music, and for most of us in general, but unlike doomsayers Mixerman does point to a way out, if only enough of us demand it. The first step is to discover what is going on, and this book makes it clear, but with enough humour to keep you laughing, which ultimately helps you to remember his points. Then you can discuss this with your friends and colleagues. No one of us has an answer to this dire situation, but unless we work together none of us ever will. This is how we are controlled: distract and separate. And it works — if you let it. For example, if you feel that you are the only one not getting rich despite your state-of-the-art home studio, you are going to keep your “failure” to yourself. However, if you discover that every one of your colleagues is in the same situation and feels the same way, you have the start of a discussion. And it’s OK if it’s an angry one.

For those of you ready to fire up a torrent client I’d suggest actually buying the book because you are going to feel pretty guilty while reading or listening to it. With streaming services paying the bulk of their “royalties” to large corporations (tech or music), the songwriters and artists (including writers) make little enough as it is. Ripping them off by pirating their work only adds injury to injustice. It also takes away the incentive to create new works when you would make more money at a minimum-wage job. And we all owe a debt of thanks to Mixerman — one of the most pirated authors around (8 pirated per one sold) — for bothering to write what is a very important book that is also hilariously funny.

A note on the audio book: It is supposed to be available on audible.com (“an Amazon company”) but after more than two weeks they still have been unable to get my legally purchased copy to work on my Macintosh computer (where it can only be played in iTunes). In fact, they have ceased to communicate with me at all. Some “customer service.” Mixerman himself tells me that the iTunes store is a more reliable place to purchase it.

I’m glad to have both print and audio versions of this book. I like to read in bed, and after a hard day, reading a very funny book about music is the perfect way to wind down. In the car or just some down time, the audio book is a perfect companion. The production of the audio is as good as you would expect from a master producer, and the theme music for the characters is just as great as the hit single itself. The voice actors are excellent and Mixerman does himself proud to keep up with so talented a group.

So get a legal copy of the book, audio, or both and join in the fun. Then join in the discussion on how all people in the music industry, and your own, should make a fair wage. Include your elected representatives in your discussions too. You may have to remind them that they represent you too, and even a billionaire has the same one vote that you do. Money has a powerful voice, but a majority of the electorate has a more powerful one. Join the conversation.

Jim Lill

JimLill

I’ve been meaning to tell you folks about Jim Lill since I started this blog, and today’s the day. Jim is a guitar player. He specializes in country but he can play in any genre, and best of all, he will show you how to do the same.

Jim’s not just a top-notch guitarist and teacher; he’s also a great example of how to create and grow a musical presence and business on the Internet. I first noticed his YouTube channel when it was mentioned in Guitar Player, and then learned that Jim gave a free video lesson every week! Each one combines good humor with solid information. Is there anyone who doesn’t like the combination of high-quality and FREE? So this was the perfect way to get noticed at first, and I suggest that you all head to Jim’s home page and sign up for these free lessons.

Jim has since expanded to Instagram, where he posts a lick a day (with TAB) and now onto Patreon, where you can get more advanced stuff in return for a fee (you choose the level at which you want to participate and support him).

Because we have so many readers from Just Jazz Guitar I thought I’d link to one of Jim’s shorter videos on How to Fake Jazz Guitar. He also shows you how to fake most other styles, how to improve your harmonic vocabulary, gain speed in your playing, use pedals effectively, and much, much more. These are all short, no-nonsense videos that get right to the point and teach you something useful that you can use right now! Check out Jim Lill today.

The Indie Band Survival Guide

Once you have some music ready to share with the world you need to learn how to navigate the modern world of music. No doubt you keep hearing about the “new and unlimited opportunities” for musicians without the need for a recording contract, but how do you take advantage of these opportunities? The best source of  information and step-by-step instruction is The Indie Band Survival Guide. This is THE guidebook for any independent (i.e. “unsigned”) musician or group, regardless of style.

Indie Guide

The book begins by telling you how to get prepared to use all of the services that are available to you by assembling your team and networking, setting up a “brand” that will identify you in many different places and circumstances, and most important of all, getting to know your rights. Many musicians leave a LOT of money “on the table” because they don’t know to ask for it, or in some cases demand it. After this you are ready to use their strategies for getting gigs and making money selling your music and related merchandise. If you are not already familiar with the companies that will sell your CD’s as well as “merch” to your fans on demand, then you are missing out on a potential goldmine and probably spending money that you don’t need to. In exchange for a cut, there is a whole network that will package and sell music in whatever form, T-shirts, ball caps, anything that identifies that brand you set up while getting prepared. Yes, you give up some money but do you really want to get into the manufacturing business? Or be an order-taker? These kinds of deal let you stick to the music while your brand gets around and you get cheques from your merchandising partners.

You will need a marketing strategy, and these days a web presence is essential. Social media is a must to interact with fans and potential fans, and an official site can be invaluable in getting the word out to fans about new music and gigs as well as turning people who are just browsing into fans. The authors show you how to set up various internet services, some specially for musicians and others that you can tailor to your own needs. They even provide a web site that keeps the information in the book up to date, so that as new services appear you will know how to take advantage of them. And then, of course, you become a fan of Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan for providing this service for you. A nice example of practising what they preach.

The flip side of this new accessibility for indie artists is that more and more people are getting out there. Chertkow & Feehan give you great advice on getting heard and seen through all of the competition. All you need is some talent, music that you want to share, and the motivation to do what it takes to find and connect with your fans. These guys know what they’re talking about, having run a successful indie band for years, while keeping their day jobs as an IT expert and a lawyer. No matter what style you play, no matter how big you want to get or small you want to stay, if you want to make money in music, this book will pay for itself many times over. It belongs in every musician’s case, dog-eared from being read over and over.