Being a writer has been forefront on my mind lately. My lovely partner is a writer, and I watch her struggle with the business side of things – researching literary agents and publishing houses, writing query letters, dealing with rejections, and all that. I’m impressed by her commitment and fortitude, truly, but I also get to think about my past desire to be in the writing game.
There was a time when I wanted to be a writer. I wrote short stories as a youth and poems as a teenager (of course I did). Somewhere in my digital archives I’ve managed to keep works from my early adulthood: there are poems, stories, and even a book! I haven’t read them but I can assure you that they are terrible and probably quite embarrassing. I’m not willing to open them and find out.
That unwillingness to open up the archive, refine the work, and pursue the story until it’s finally told and in the world – that’s why I’m not a writer. I’m not a writer because it doesn’t interest me the way other artistic pursuits do. Sure, if I were famous enough where I could just get that book deal – I’d do it. Putting in the time and effort, though, to actually make it happen? No thank you. This blog is the maximum amount of effort I’m willing to put into writing and this basically sums up to being a public journal.
I try harder with music. I research song structures and how other producers make music. I submit to contests in the hopes of getting my name out there. I submit songs to playlists. I release to Bandcamp and successfully submitted to the editorial staff for my last album. I always release my music with a release date that’s 30-60 days in the future – for playlist submission to Spotify mostly. (Fun frustrating fact: you can only have one active pitch to for a single song to Spotify for playlist submission and it’s only available during that pre-release period. You get zero notification if the pitch is even viewed and zero notification when you aren’t put on a playlist.) Every now and again, I remember to get on Twitter and see what other musicians are doing.
Maybe next year, I’ll figure out how to actually do the marketing part…
Obviously, my past self was naïve. My past self thought that publishing a single book would bring untold riches and allow me to live the most luxurious life. It wouldn’t take any work and everything would be easy, because that’s exactly how the world works. It is nice to dream…
I can’t say I remember exactly where I was trying to get in this post so I’ll just wrap with this. If you’re among the creatives out there struggling to be heard, don’t give up. There is an audience for you, it just might take some time to find them.
September is here and that means Autumn is right around the corner. In my area, it should remain warm for another month or two but it will still be a marked change from the summer months. It’s time for things to cool off a little – just enough to make you think it’s time to get out winter attire. Then you’ll get it out and it’ll heat up again forcing you to find those summer clothes again.
On the upside: it’s not much of a problem for me since I don’t really have separate wardrobes but I do hear the complaints every year!
Autumn is the time of year when I put away my water shoes and find the hiking boots. It’s time for the mosquitoes to go away and that cool, crisp air to come in. The humidity finally fades and it no longer feels quite like walking through a think water blanket whenever I’m outside. (Admittedly, I like the humidity… until about mid-August. By that point, I’m ready to move on!)
This time of year, you’ll find me dragging my family to the nearest (and safest) mountain trails to go “hiking”. It’s less proper hiking and more a long walk with some trees around and periodically coming across other people out for the same thing. You can’t deny the views are beautiful, though, and combined with that crisp air – it’s a refreshing experience.
One thing that I like about experiencing the changing seasons… No, wait, one thing that I’ll miss the most when climate change takes away our seasons, is the change that comes with every season. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not fond of winter – the thought of it brings a bit of heaviness to my heart. The idea of being home bound because it’s too cold to do anything outside and, even if it were warmer, too dark.
I do like the change though. By the time I’m sick of the summer, it’s gone and I’m left with my happy feelings about all that warmth and sunshine – waiting for it to come back again. With autumn, there will be different activities and experiences coming just in time to save us from the activities we’ve been doing for months – and getting a little bored of doing.
Change is an important force in refreshing our creativity. It’s too easy to get stuck in routine, it’s too easy to get bored. Change can be forced on us from the outside or we can enforce the change ourselves. Whatever the case, though, the most important thing is to not be afraid of the change and embrace it for what it really is – a new opportunity.
I’m looking forward to the new season and starting a new project. I’m looking forward to closing out the project I’ve been working on for months. I’m looking forward to the change that is Autumn.
Maybe I mentioned this before, maybe not, but just in case: I’m a runner. I actually enjoy running and I gather that many people think this is weird, because most don’t find that same enjoyment. Granted, some days are tough and it is a chore but mostly it’s just great to be alive and active. Health and mental benefits aside, one thing I enjoy is imagining the lives of the other people that happen to be out and about.
On most days, I’m time-bound in my runs meaning that I have a set amount of time when I need to be done so that I can get back to my desk and do the work thing. As a result, I tend to run the same route every time I go out because I know exactly how long it takes and there are multiple shortcuts I can take to get back home in the event that I need to cut the run short.
This route takes me through some busier areas in my little city so I’m always seeing people. Sometimes, I see the same people. Sometimes, I don’t see those people but I know they are out because I see their car parked in the usual spot. At least twice, I’m pretty sure I saw the former mayor out for a walk but since he’s not wearing a “I was the mayor” t-shirt, I can’t be sure.
There’s usually at least one person out practicing guitar, a few people experiencing homelessness, the obvious tourists, a couple people on a coffee break, younger moms with their pre-school children, and pretty much always the same people running. I always love seeing the other runners because there’s nearly always a wave and a smile, like, “Yeah, I’m crazy too!”
When I don’t have pressing issues of my own to solve, seeing all of these different people is a fantastic exercise in imagination. I like to imagine what they are doing out and the decisions they made that led to this point. Sometimes I might think about the decisions I’ve made that got me to where I am today, how different decisions may have landed me in their positions. I might imagine an entire alternative life where had I made some series of other decisions, I could be that other person.
Going through this imaginative process often leaves me feeling pretty good about where I’ve ended up. Have I made choices in my life that were bad? Yes. Some of them were likely downright terrible. There are things that are cringeworthy and just stupid. (One upside to being a little older: none of my bad decisions are recorded on the internet!) But that’s life, and sometimes making a wrong turn can lead you to something unexpected and fantastic.
Going through that imaginative process also leaves me feeling creatively refreshed. It’s not that I’m going to capture those lives in my music – it’s just that I’m reminded that I wouldn’t be pursuing any art if not for the decisions that I’ve made in life. Some were good, some were bad, but they all led me to the place I am today.
I was recently at a local outdoor music event, eating very interesting (also very good) Moroccan red quinoa tacos and listening to live music. After a while, I realized I wasn’t hearing the whole music anymore – instead, I was trying to find the song structure and the chord changes. Was that a 12-bar blues I heard? Was that a major turnaround? What was that drum pattern? So this is where I am at now – finding enjoyment in deconstructing other music to see what I’ve learned or what I can learn from it.
Song structure is important when you’re working with lyrics and vocals. The reading I’ve done on this seems to reinforce the idea as almost all the descriptions revolve around the lyrical portion of the song. All examples provided are lyrical songs – no instrumentals. It leaves me wondering how important having a formal song structure is to my own music.
I mean, in the strictest sense of the thing, any song I create will have structure. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be volume changes and instrument drones that fade in-and-out. There will be chord progressions and multiple instruments, but many of the songs I’m working on don’t follow standard structures (12-bar, ABABCB, verse-chorus, etc.). Does it matter?
Well, what I’ve found recently is that songs following a defined structure definitely stick around in my head longer. I’ll walk away from working on the piece and still be humming a catchy part of the song later in the day because there’s some repetition in the music and using a common structure leads to having certain expectations. It’s like watching a movie – once you’ve seen enough in a single genre, you know what’s coming next.
The music I’m creating that is free-flowing and doesn’t focus on structure? Mostly, I walk away from these songs with just a feeling. The melody is forgettable, nothing more than a snapshot in time from the day I originally played the part.
I call it forgettable but that’s not the most apt description. The goal of the music isn’t to have a melody that sticks out or be distracting in any way. It’s music that goes in the background. It fills the void of silence, but it doesn’t have to draw you in. When done right, you will enjoy the music enough to remember the artist name but forget all the song titles.
Hopefully, you’ll be left with a good feeling and forget all the rest.
Artists are a quirky bunch with odd mannerisms and whatnot, so I guess I’m not too far removed when I wonder how many of us have a favorite key to play in. I suspect everyone making music probably has a favorite chord progression or beat pattern, but what about a favorite key? Or a favorite time signature?
You may be wondering why I would even be curious about such a minor thing. That’s fair.
There’s two things really: the first being that I have my own favorites. There are time signatures that draw my attention – I love 3/4 or 6/8 time – and there are keys that I prefer to play in. While I try to branch out a bit, most of what I work in is C major (because it’s the easiest), F major (because it adds interest while still being easy to play), and C minor (because it’s more complex but easy to shift chord progressions from C major).
My favorite is F major. I can also name my favorite chord progressions:
6 -> 4 -> 2 -> 1 : Just sounds nice to me
2 -> 5 -> 1 : For resolution
Not that you needed to know!
These have become my favorites over time because they work, proven by other musicians, or maybe they’re just easy. They’ve become familiar, comfortable. That, though, brings about a different problem: repetition in work. That is my second reason for wondering about people’s favorites. Do we know our own favorites because we need to avoid them?
An important part of growth, as an artist – or really, as a human – is expanding your horizons and trying new things. Not being fluid, always doing the same thing on repeat because it’s comfortable…? Well, that works for a while but if you never grow beyond that, the art never improves because there’s always more out there. There’s always something new to learn, something new to try, or just a different perspective available to you if you seek it out.
So while I’ll still use my favorites, I’ll shake it up and try new things from time-to-time because who knows? Maybe I’ll land on an even better favorite.
P.S. One thing that I feel is fundamentally true is that an artist’s vision can be improved by having life experience and perspective. Getting involved with your community, traveling outside your home town, being around other cultures – these things give perspective that can inform your work or give you inspiration. Most importantly, it just makes us better humans to have that understanding.
I’ve said it on this blog in the past and I’ve seen it written in a lot of places, “Art is subjective.” It’s typically added on as this reminder that when your art is rejected by someone, for whatever the reason, it’s a subjective opinion. Unfortunately, this is only part of the truth. Sometimes, art is just not good.
The hardest part is putting your finger on specific things that make art bad. Is it bad music if the vocals aren’t in tune? A bad singer is a bad singer, right? Is it a bad movie if the acting is terrible? Is it a bad drawing if the shading is inconsistent? What if these things were done intentionally as a statement within the art?
Two paragraphs into writing this and I’m already losing track of my original thought that some art is just bad because every single example that comes to mind really is just my subjective view. What I consider bad, someone else might really enjoy – something that is very easy to spot by visiting your nearest art museum and keeping track of just how much of that art you don’t like. So now where do I take this entry?
I’ll detour. One thing that stands out to me, as an artist, is that mediocrity in art is a harder place to be than in the bad art section. People appreciate really bad art – either because it was intentionally bad to be funny or because the creator thought it was the greatest thing ever but it really, really wasn’t. In both cases, those of us on the outside are getting a laugh – and people like to laugh.
People also appreciate great art. You know, the kind of art that was obviously created by someone who is a master of their craft. The kind of art that when I say “great art”, some image or song just pops into mind and you smile. The best of the best.
You know what people really don’t appreciate? Mediocre art. Any art that’s between really bad and really good falls into a tough spot because it’s not at the extremes that people go out of their way to promote/share/whatever.
I feel a lot of my artistic efforts fall into this category as well. It’s most often not bad enough to make someone laugh at the effort but it’s not good enough to make people need to have more of it. Or more specifically, most of it is not bad enough or good enough to compel people to share it with their friends.
There’s a lot of mediocre art filling the world. There’s plenty of music you’ve enjoyed but don’t know who performed it because you weren’t motivated enough to look it up. There are a lot of paintings that fill walls around us which you appreciated but didn’t think to invest in any of them. This is all around us thanks to people showing up every day, putting forth effort, and producing something decent.
Coming back to this whole “art is subjective” thing, when you submit a piece somewhere what you are really asking is: “Is my work commercially viable enough that you are willing to support it?” That is a hugely different question compared to, “Is my art bad?”, but it’s still a pretty subjective thing. How many stories do you know of artists being rejected only to have them move on to be famous for that same work of art later? (Living with a writer, I know a few.)
So, how do you know if your art is bad art? Honestly, you have to soul search and figure that out for yourself. For me, I know it’s bad if I don’t love it. Beyond that single qualification, there are questions I ask of myself depending on what type of art I’m producing – but mostly, I just accept my art as mediocre and that’s a great place for me to be. There will be a small audience that likes what I offer and I never wanted anything more than that.
Feel free to send me your take via Twitter or email! Until next time, take care of yourself and keep creating.
P.S. I should say that I don’t use the term mediocre here to mean anything negative. Some people won’t rise to the level of superstardom because there’s a finite number of positions at the top. Others probably don’t want to be there and are content with just steadily working in the field they love. You know those actors that are in a billion movies but you still don’t know their name? They aren’t superstars but they show up, put in a good day’s worth of work, and have success. And, frankly, we wouldn’t have superstars without them.
I’m not going to lie – this article isn’tgoing to make you rich and successful. If anything, I hope it will give you a reason to support your local artists next time you’re out and you see an artist selling their goods at a local market or shop. Because that small amount of support could go a long way, if we all invested just a little bit. If you’re not the type to go out or you live away from a big city, check out Bandcamp for music or find local artists on Etsy.
Anyway, let me give you some background and tell you what I have spent thus far on my musical journey. These goods and services are things that I’ve invested in to help with music making and marketing. (Costs are rounded for simplicity or estimated where appropriate.)
Service / Good
Purpose / Additional Info
Arturia Keylab 49 Essential
This was the MIDI keyboard I started with.
Arturia Keylab 49 MK2
This is the MIDI keyboard I am using now.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Closed-Back Studio Headphones
Bought for music mixing.
Logic Pro X
While I used GarageBand for “Inside the Red Room”, I wanted to step up and chose Logic as my DAW.
Mac Mini (M1 Chip)
I traded in an older Macbook Pro to get a new M1 Mac Mini. I love it, by the way.
I used Tunecore for distribution of “Inside the Red Room”. I later switched because the annual recurring cost of this service seemed… excessive.
Note that this is a yearly cost per album. $30 for the first year and $50 for each year after.
This is a yearly fee paid for unlimited distribution through LANDR.
Yearly payment for premium WordPress stuff.
I actually own numerous domains but I’m only going to count achira.art in this post for simplicity which runs $14/year.
This is a monthly cost of $20 for automated mastering. I’d rather pay a proper sound engineer but… you know, costs.
I’m paying for the $8/mo plan in order to easily get access to samples.
$6/mo plan for more samples and to compare against Splice.
Here are some items that I know I may need to pay for at some point but I haven’t paid for as of the time of this article:
Audio Control Interface
Additional Plug-ins/Software Instruments
Additional Hardware Instruments
Band Name Trademark
Music Submission / Marketing
One thing I have purchased that I’m not including here is an Acoustic-Electric guitar which I don’t need strictly for the music I’m making today but I wanted to learn and incorporate in the future. I also didn’t include things like computer accessories/monitors, that digital piano I owned for a while, groceries, rent/mortgage, and a number of things that have costs and have been part of the process over the years… because you have to draw the line somewhere.
So, my initial first year costs come out to$2,688 dollars. My current recurring requirements assuming no changes or hidden renewal fees come out to $608 per year or about $51 per month. Though I do expect this to grow as the modern world relies heavily on subscription fees and those monthly fees are often easier to swallow than massive upfront costs.
So now, let’s add in something a bit more nebulous. Let’s assume that I spend 20 hours per week working on music, marketing, or any of the things related to my project and my initial hope is to make a minimum hourly wage of $15 per hour. According to one calculator on the internet, at $15 per hour, 20 hours per week, I could expect to bring home approximately $300 per week before taxes and deductions. Assuming I work 45 of the 52 weeks in a year, this is approximately $13,500 pre-tax dollars.
Running with that, to recoup material and labor costs for the first year I would need to make roughly $16,188 in streaming royalties, sales, or selling a kidney. Given that streaming revenue will be pennies at best – my main hope would lie in selling music and merchandise directly to fans. Assuming that, if I were to set a full-length album price to $7 per sale, I would need a minimum of 2,313 album sales just to meet my goal, and I still wouldn’t make a living wage or be in a place to make this my full time job. (Note: Okay, the platform gets a cut of sale, the payment processor will get a cut of the sales, and you have to account for taxes. So the actual need is higher.)
I know artists and musicians have been saying this for a long time and I’m just another voice lost in the cacophony, but I chose to write about this and be transparent in my spending in the hopes that you’ll come to the same conclusion that I have over the last few years: support your local artists. If you have a few extra bucks to spare, give one to an artist because art is important. Art makes our lives better. Art can make the world a beautiful place and you’re doing humanity a favor by supporting those artists.
For the artists out there, if you happen to see this, do me a favor and set up at least one digital way to accept cash. It’s 2021 and so many of us don’t carry cash – I never do and I always feel bad when I want to chip in a couple bucks and can’t. Cash has advantages, I’m aware, but you should weigh out if it’s still worth it when so many of us are going full digital in our money transactions. (For the love of all that’s holy, if you’re going to use Venmo or similar products, set your profile to private. No one needs to see how you send or receive money.)
Anyway, that’s my plea, get out there and support the great artists in your area and if you don’t want to go outside – find a way to support local artists online. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but you could be helping someone else with their grocery bill.
P.S. You should know that I am aware of my own privilege that I can afford the things I’ve listed above and this, in part, is why my article is not a plea for you to support my work. For now, I’m just asking that the next time you have the opportunity to support an artist in your community – do what you can. It’s tough for everyone out there.
Also, to play with numbers more, in America the definition of poverty for a four person household is $26,500. (Reference: here and here.) Sticking with the $15 per hour rate and assuming you worked 40 hours per week, you’re looking at $600 pre-tax dollars and after 45 weeks of work (of the 52 available weeks in a year), you could expect about $27000 pre-tax dollars. At $7 per album sale and no streaming royalties, you’d need 3,858 salesper year to meet the minimum goal. More is required if you need to cover any new material cost. (See my previous comment above about how you don’t get the full $7 per album… so you actually need quite a few more sales.)
Thing is, all this talk about money… none of it is even targeting being ultra-successful. It’s just about making the “minimums” so you one can eat, live, and produce some art they love.
It’s been a flurry of activity here over the last few months. When I made the decision to try and put out music, I didn’t really think about it beyond that. How does one get music into the world? What else do you need to put music out there? As it turns out, it’s a lot more than just pounding away on a keyboard. Damn.
But, hey, good news! I’ve been working through this process and have an album, “Inside the Red Room,” on its way February 26th! The album features seventeen songs composed with relaxation and general ambience in mind. I expect that if you’re into this type of music, you can turn this album on and let it fade into the background while you study, read, or otherwise go about your busy lives. Rest assured that there are no vocals or hidden messages so if you were to fall asleep to this music, you don’t have to worry that I’m trying to convince you of anything!
This album was a very large learning process for me which I intend to complain about document in this blog over the coming months, so stay tuned for more to come!
P.S. Special thanks goes out to my partner (read her work here: https://katelanders.com) who suffered through my iterative creative process and was kind enough to provide all the track and album names!