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5 Ways to Improve Your Music Now!

 

jon levin stars

  1. Tune Up!

It might sound overly simple or even ridiculous, but being diligent about tuning will actually help you hear music better. With singing, if the music is slightly out of tune, you’ll have trouble getting your pitch center, singing slightly off but not knowing why. Your brain is trying to find which instrument’s tuning to lock to. Also if you’re doing anything more advanced than power chords, different intervals can sound really bad when slightly out of tune, notoriously major and minor 3rds.

When all the instruments are in tune with each other and well intonated, the music takes on a certain power, like a sonic sledgehammer.

Also when the tuning is locked it will be easier to hear vocal and instrumental melodies. Maybe they sound better than before, or maybe there is something that now sounds really sour, so you know there’s a dissonant note that might need to be addressed. When the whole band is out of tune everything sounds like a sort of sonic mudpie and it’s difficult to tell what’s in and what’s out.

[note: one way to improve your tuning is to get a more precise tuner than the basic one you probably already have.]

 

  1. Write Daily- Then Revise!

Rome wasn’t built in a day and Old Man in the Sea wasn’t a first draft.

You’ve heard the sayings, writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,

writing is rewriting, etc.

It’s true.

Get yourself in the habit of writing everyday, even if it’s just an idea or melody. If you are really focused on an idea you just wrote, spend the next day crafting it into a fully-fledged song.

If you need to, come back to your song later and re-examine it. Does it still convey the original feeling you had when you wrote it? Does it still flow and make sense? Is it too wordy or can you simplify/streamline to make it more powerful/thoughtful/intense/polished?

This is the reason most professional bands and songwriters do what’s called preproduction. It’s putting down what you have in the best way you can, then revisiting it for the final record once you’ve had the chance to live with it a bit and hear any changes you might want to make before it goes on the actual record.

They are actually recording the record twice. The first rough draft, then the final copy.

[note: Make sure you record your ideas in some way or you will forget them! Most smartphones are up to the task, but there are some small digital recorders that you may want to check out if your idea output is high.]

 

  1. Seek Critique/Mentorship

We all know it can be ego bruising, but seek out critique of your work.

Many pros do this, even if it’s with a person with no musical training. Check with friends who singer/songwriters or in other bands, get their input. You don’t need to necessarily change your song to suit them, but it will give you an outside perspective. If several people are saying the same thing, like the tune drags in the verses, you should investigate what you can do about it. Which leads right into my next point…

Get a mentor of some kind if possible. A professional seasoned writer is great if you can find one. They don’t even have to be in your area, thanks to the ability to send files via the internet. Please ask the person before you send them files if it’s ok to do so. Also you might want to think of what you can do for them. Maybe you can trade some helpful skill you have in exchange for their knowledge and help, like painting, organizing, car washing… you get the idea. That is how you build a relationship instead of coming across as pushy and all-about-me. These are busy people and you want to show that you value their time and input.

 

  1. Seek Co-Writers

The go-it-alone approach works well for some but most professionals I’ve worked with have remarked that having a sounding board in the form of someone you respect and click with can be invaluable. I’ll get more into this idea with interviews later, but basically the premise is when you get stuck, your co-writer can often bring the next piece of the puzzle to the table. I know a team where one guy wrote great verses and choruses and the other guy wrote great bridges.

Sometimes your co-writer will spur you on to greatness with an idea that you thought was ready to be 86ed. Or maybe they might add the finishing touches that didn’t occur to you, like the perfect harmony in the perfect part. Trying to write lyrics can really benefit from having a sounding board, much more so than from a thesaurus.

 

  1. Play Often!

It can be small gigs or coffeehouses or even backyard parties, but you

need to hone your craft. The best way to do that is play! When you play in front of a crowd you can get instant feedback on your songs. Take note of which songs in the set get the best reaction. When you get back to rehearsal mode, start making little tweaks to the ones that didn’t go over as well. Maybe you need to streamline the arrangement? Or you might need to strengthen the chorus or add a harmony, or maybe the song is just a mess and needs to be rewritten. Refer to your mentor if you can for advice and direction when you get stuck.

 

These are 5 ways to improve your music now, relatively easy ones. Have you found different ways not listed here that have worked for you? Post them in the comments below!

 

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On the Passing of Icons

princebowieWe’ve taken a few big hits lately. Not stars but Icons. This will have cultural ramifications. The bad, ostrich-head-in-the-sand inducing news is: it will get worse.

The human condition dictates that no one lives forever. When we have the likes of Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger getting superannuated, their ultimate passing will create huge waves striking the cultural edifice. And what about Madonna? The Queen of Icons? And in this climate, are there others ready to take their place? Will Katy Perry become an Icon in 20 years? It’s possible, but I don’t see it.

One thing these icons have in common is they took great risks. They have all weathered great criticism. It takes great sense of self to get where they are. Paul was attacked for his post Beatles material, Mick has probably been criticized since Exile On Mainstreet for not living up to previous material. Book after book have attacked his personality. Prince, the guy who took on Sony and lived. It takes a lot to run an empire without label support. And at the end he was doing solo piano renditions of his songs. No band. That takes guts. The fans loved it. How about Bowie and Madonna, the King and Queen of Reinvention?  And further back, Michael Jackson, probably the inventor of the modern solo pop superstar. These are not normal artist career paths. I believe a normal person can’t weather the storm that this approach brings. This is the way to Icon Status.
And that’s what we celebrate. Individuality, creativity, reinvention. These are some of the bases for western culture. We thrive on leaders with these qualities. Whether it’s David Bowie or Steve Jobs, when a real maverick Icon passes, we are culturally the worse for it.  We need our new batch of Icons. I don’t see them.

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Yesmen & Fanmoms, Part 2

number-one-fan
For The established artist, there is a common predicament. It is the situation of being surrounded by Yesmen. People who tell them everything they do is incredible. This necessitates being a hard self critic, but sometimes the artist is too close to the material or project, or perhaps even begins to believe the hype. Many of us have seen this transpire. It’s an unfortunate aspect of success and popularity.

I believe the answer to this problem is to have a go-to person of your peer group to whom you can turn for objective critique. Ideally an artist from outside your group but on a similar level of success.

A side benefit to this is the possibility of collaborating with your newfound critic, as well as play the role of trusted critic for him/her to bounce their material off of.

It’s difficult not to get a giant ego when people are telling you that you’re the greatest 24/7, but by staying grounded, not buying into the hype but remaining objective, and soliciting critique from colleagues whom you trust, it’s possible to continue to make valid, relevant, great art.

The longevity of your career depends on this ability to keep your art both fresh and great. There is an artistic minefield littered with the corpses of bands who are forced to only play back catalog, 20-30+ year old hits because nobody wants to hear any of their recent music.

Keep it fresh, keep it great, and put on your flame suit to prepare for solid criticism that can elevate your work.

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Yesmen and Fanmoms, Part 1

number-one-fan

There is a phenomenon that artists of all types are susceptible to which can be detrimental to their art and career. It is the influence of people inside of their circle who mean well but are too close in their personal relationships to be objective critics. In the first part of this blog I will look at the influence of these people on a band or artist which is just starting out, unsure of their talent level and unconfident in their ability to make art their livelihood.  In the second part, we’ll examine the effect on a more established artist who has already reached some level of success.

People starting out in a new endeavor deserve encouragement. This is the role filled by fanmoms and friends who are very supportive. Parents often tell their kids they are wonderful and talented because…. well, they are parents. This can impart an encouragement to continue forward when one is unsure of one’s ability. Friends and early fans can be very supportive also which can get young bands or artists into a mindset that they are destined for greatness. This can help imbue a dogged dedication to practice and improve to fulfill a perceived destiny. However… there can be a negative effect.

Some artists will believe this hype to the extent that they don’t believe they have to do anything to improve. Why work at it when everybody tells you that you’re great? I’m sure many of you have come across the drummer, guitarist or singer who has been playing for many years but never seemed to progress after the first year or two, remaining at a beginner level, sometimes even for decades. Then there are others who make astonishing strides in just a few years, completely dedicated to their art. The brutal truth is that not everybody is cut out to be an artist. Some people have great personalities and social skills but no talent. Ironically many talented artists are often the opposite, having poor social skills and laden with self doubt.

I’m going to be blunt about this. In my opinion the long-term beginner should have fun with music and be in hobby bands, but be discouraged from thinking he has a chance at being a professional musician. On the other hand, the young artist who is obsessed with their craft would need very little encouragement, maybe just a bit at the very early stages, since they are driven by an inner desire to improve and are trying to satisfy some inner need for self validation, not a superficial extended high school popularity contest. In short, they are driven by their art.

In other arenas this is readily accepted, one example being sports.  A kid may train for years trying to be a shortstop but the system of scouts determines that only the most naturally talented kids can move up the ladder to farm teams and eventually professional play. This is readily accepted by parents, although it can sometimes be a hard reality if the kid gets passed over.

In music, there is no longer any system of scouts. The weeding out that needs to happen naturally no longer does. Mediocrity rises and the musical landscape becomes saturated with lackluster good-enough writing and below marginal playing.

The solution lies with the artists themselves. Don’t listen to close family or fans, listen to your own voice. Be your own worst critic. Compare yourself to the greats, to your heroes. You may think there is no way you can measure up, but if you aim for the stars and only reach the moon, that’s still some achievement. The people you should be listening to are your peers. Or even better, highly successful artists who offer real critique, if you are lucky enough to come across them. These are people who know what it takes to get to the top level and can offer real insider knowledge that comes only from experience.

Fanmoms are wonderful, nurturing people, but they shouldn’t be drivers of art.

That drive, that compass, must come from within.

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Reinvention

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The sad news of the passing of David Bowie this week has got me ruminating on reinvention, a craft of which he was a master.

If you’re a semi established artist, you eventually hit the fork in the road where you decide if you want to take a new path or remain on the one that got you this far. The advantages of reinvention are the promise of longevity in your career, a creative freshness and rejuvenation of your image/persona/show, as well as possibly picking up some new fans.

The disadvantages include alienating previous fans and leaving the security of what you know, what you’ve done well, and what got you to this level of success in the first place.

It’s a scary prospect for many, with good reason, but my belief is that reinvention should be chosen to some degree both for longevity, to avoid burnout and for an infusion of creative energy into your art and career. It’s difficult to keep churning out great work in the same style which may have lasted a decade. I think there’s a natural drive to change it up. You will absolutely gain some detractors, but these people will come around once the cycle hits full circle with the “band plays first three albums live” phase of the cycle. You’ve got a long way to go until then.

I don’t want this post to be about David Bowie as there are many far better qualified than me filling the aether with their views, reviews and retrospectives.

I would, however like for you to think on just a moment all the many phases of his career, his transitions, how he solidified & validated many of his new directions with hits. He did it better than most. He even went beyond music into painting, fashion and many other aspects, not as many pop stars today with the never-ending desire for new revenue streams, but to satisfy his passion as an artist to explore new worlds and directions.

Reinvention will invigorate your creative process and if done well and done honestly, will breathe new life into your career. Put your heart into it just as you did your original vision, be true to yourself and don’t worry about what the fans think. If it’s real and honest many will take the journey with you. If upon reflection you feel it was not the right direction and return to something closer to your original path, it will still give you a break from that part of the journey. You’ll return with a fresh energy and avoid burnout.

And be straight with the fans. Explain to them that you need to creatively try something new and fresh, and either it didn’t work out or it ran its course and you are ready for your “comeback” record. Many of them will understand. They will support your need to take chances if you explain it to them. They want you to keep it fresh. These are the best of fans and will be with you for the long haul, through all your reinventions and incarnations.

Long Live Change.

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Taking Chances

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I recently watched a Charlie Rose interview with George Lucas. In it, Lucas laments the current state of big studio moviemaking, where experimental films are not given the go ahead. He decided to sell his company to Disney, set aside some of the money in an account, and make non-commercial, experimental films for himself in an effort to advance the state of cinema. He said he may only show these films to other director friends as a sort of proof of concept, not meant for mass consumption, but for the sake of art and to push what is possible with moving pictures.

I believe this corporate play-it-safe mentality he spoke of has permeated the music business as well, although perhaps not to the same degree. Music has always had an experimental sect, an avant garde. Unfortunately, this was often the domain of the independent labels, which historically took more chances than the majors (they has less invested in each project). In the 90s/early 2000s many of the successful indies got gobbled up by the majors. They shared the same accounting (read: risk management) team. As the label system started to fall apart and record sales dropped, many surviving true indies went out of business.

Today I believe we are at a turning point. I don’t believe the majors will ever again get behind experimental groups. In the 70s many bands were pushing the envelope musically, supported in their vision by the majors of the time. Many of these groups would later became popular. This support has given way to the current risk adverse climate. However, it’s now possible to release a record on your own, without the help of a label, selling it online via itunes or several other outlets. I believe we as a society must support artists who push the envelope and take chances. This is essential for the vibrancy of art. Without these outliers, there is a homogenization which leads to stagnation.

If you’re a fan and you see a group or artist who is way out on the edge, with a unique approach to musicality or arrangement or sound, and something resonates with you, buy their album. Purchase their art. Support the outliers. If you’re an artist, take a chance. If you have a wacky idea, try it. If you hear music in a strange and different way, pursue it. Don’t try to conform to what has already been a hit sound because real art is not copying. That is merely technical. Create a new sound or form or artistic vision that others will want to copy. Try something you’ve never tried before. Put that new turnaround chord in the chorus, or try that odd meter arrangement in the bridge. Whether or not you liked the music, now more than ever we need a Yes, a Genesis, Return To Forever, Weather Report, etc.

I’m not saying don’t write a hit, merely put something unique in that hit. You can still go for commercial value, but don’t lose sight of artistic value. Take a risk. The artists and fans of the future will thank you for it, guaranteed.

What’s your take? Have you found a band out artist that is out there taking real chances?

List them in the comments below, or drop me a note in the contact form.

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Mentorship

mentorOver the years I have been lucky enough to have several mentors who have been very successful in the industry. From Michael Wagener and Don Dokken to Joe Barresi, these are industry heavy hitters who are not afraid to pass on the knowledge they have learned over many years and many albums. They themselves have had great mentors who have helped them along the way to where they are now in their career paths.

My concern is that now many artists no longer have access to mentors, and this powerful fast track connection is becoming lost. Many times a mentor would come via a record label or possibly from a more experienced band or artist with whom you have played many gigs and built up a rapport. With more of the medium sized venues closing, this connection is becoming more difficult for new artists to make.

The impact of mentorship is invaluable. It can kickstart your knowledge, professionalism and understanding of concepts which you may never have even been exposed to. In my view it’s imperative for new artists to find mentors who are willing to help, not by badgering them but by offering something in return. Can you help with office skills? Can you help them with their social media campaigns? Can you take photos for them or even wash their car? Don’t expect something for nothing, be considerate and offer up whatever you have or can do of value. Try to focus on people in the areas you need the most help. Do you need to bring your songwriting to another level? Are you in need of better legal understanding? Do you want to learn better production skills?

Reach out to people but always think to yourself what you can offer the other person.

If the best you can come up with is a “ground floor opportunity”, you’re being a selfish dick. Real help is ALWAYS a two way street. Real relationships can last a lifetime. Careers have been built on them.

Questions? Or do you have a great mentor story yourself? You can reach me by leaving a comment below or on my contact form.

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Refine Your Vision

glasses 2 medThe fact that so many artists are putting out their own albums is empowering. It also means they lack the ballast of a label and producer. Today’s artists must steer the waters with less guidance and general help from outside sources. One thing you can do to improve this situation is find a mentor, someone who has been in the business many years longer than you and someone whom you respect. It can be anyone from a band member to an ex-A&R person to an old entertainment attorney.

It’s not as though you need to blindly heed everything they say as everyone’s situation is different, but it can help to hear outside input from someone who has been there.

Also, realize people are inundated by the noise online, millions of artists plus ridiculous cat videos and silly memes all vying for attention. What can you do to stand out from the crowd?

In short, bleed excellence. Make sure the material, look, feel and overall vision of your project is 100%.

Are there any songs that you felt maybe you rushed through because you needed more material? Rework or replace them. Is there a bridge in a song that you never really felt came together, never really clicked but you just couldn’t figure it out? Work on that bridge until you figure it out. Some famous bands go through many revisions of a part until it becomes part of the hit song we know today. Are the harmonies in your song guesswork because you don’t really know about harmonies? Get someone from another band who is great at harmonies to help you out.

Do your band photos look like someone took them with a smartphone? Hire a professional to help you look as good as you can. If you can’t afford that, there are many art school grads who would love to add to their portfolio and would probably do a pretty good job because they are trying to get known for THEIR work, and they would probably do it for free.

Speaking of photos, the reality is that most bands need a video today so that’s another thing to think about.

I’ve seen great performance videos that really capture the personality of the artist, or you can be more artsy. The choice needs to fit your vision but also realize the artsy videos can get much more costly. The hungry film student approach can apply here also.

How about your show? Is the band a bunch of greek statues on stage? Start filming your rehearsals or shows and see what you can improve upon. Even high school football teams watch films of games to see where they can improve. I think you’ll agree that you want your career in music to be much bigger than high school football.

People who take their careers more seriously and live and breathe the life of an artist are the ones who tend to become successful. If you are really serious about music, take it very seriously. Otherwise, keep it as a fun hobby. There is nothing wrong with that.

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