Gye Greene's Thoughts

Gye Greene's Thoughts (w/ apologies to The Smithereens and their similarly-titled album!)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wisdom for aspiring musicians

In my youth, I was in two different bands.  I think we wrote good songs -- but the bands didn't "go anywhere".  

My impression is that it happens a lot.

And now I'm middle-aged, have a wife and kids (who I like to be around), and don't really feel like spending months of the year driving from gig to gig and sleeping on strangers' sofas.

So, this is my sharing of what I think I've learned about making it -- or not making it -- in the world of music.  The following applies mostly to alternative rock, and probably folk and country as well.  It probably doesn't apply to classical musicians, jazz artists, and other types.  But you may as well have a glance, regardless.

Most of the following applies both to bands and to solo artists (or singer-songwriters).  It's in a vaguely narrative order.

(Note:  I'm having trouble getting a blank, un-numbered line in between the numbered list items.  So I guess my items will all be odd numbers...)
  1. Face recognition:  put your face on your albums.  Even if you don't want to put it on the front, at least put it on the back.
  3. Branding:  Have some quirk that people will remember you by, that (ideally!) your fans can emulate -- and a logo that you can put on your merchandise, and your fans can doodle on their denim jackets and school notebooks.  Madonna wore her underwear on the outside.  AC/DC has that cool logo.  Devo wore those flowerpots (technically, "power domes") on their heads.  The Ramones all wore leather jackets, jeans, and Converse.  Pink had pink hair -- until she became famous enough that she could stop.  The White Stripes had a red-and-white color theme.  Do **something**.
  5. Make your band name Google-able:  Either mis-spell a common word (e.g. Korn), or make your band name an unlikely combination of words (e.g. They Might Be Giants; Owl City).  One of my favorite bands from Seattle (sadly, no longer active) was "Bell" -- and it's really hard to do a web search on them.
  7. Do a web search for your band name before you get famous:  Rock music is full of bands that had to change their name because someone else already had that bandname.  The Mission/Mission UK is one example; also Yaz/Yazoo.  If you Google the band "Plan B", you'll find quite a few of them already.  Think ahead.
  9. If there's already someone (semi-)famous with your name, consider using a stage name:  I was inspired to write this blog entry by doing a web search for a local artist named Clare Quinn.  Turns out that there's an aspiring actress in the UK who's also named Clare Quinn.  If they both become famous at the same time, someone's gonna have to budge. It makes sense to just avoid the problem, either by changing your spelling, adopting a new surname (David Bowie is actually named David Jones -- but "Davy Jones" was already in the Monkees), or adopting a whole new name (e.g. "Sting", "The Edge").  But note that if you have a one-word nickname, it may be hard to Google (unless it's spelled oddly -- e.g. "Gye"). 
  11. Get a name that people can remember:  Our band was originally named "Quiescent Stridor" -- but people kept going "Huh?"  But we already had shirts with a "QS" logo, so we had to come up with a new name with "QS".  Luckily, my cousin's dad's girlfriend came up with "Quiet Storm".  Similarly, I'm toying with the idea of subsuming "Gye Greene" under an easier-to-spell band/project name -- much like Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails.  
  13. Get a name that's not R-rated:  Unless you're totally punk rock and intentionally want a name that isn't allowed on billboards and in newspaper ads, get a band name that won't embarass your nana.  And you twenty-year-olds probably won't believe me -- but band names that seem hee-larious in your youth will just make you feel like an idiot when you're older.

  14. Register the web address:  As noted in this guy's blog entry, you need to own your own website (and the URL), rather than rely on a Facebook page, because (1) Facebook calls the shots, so ultimately you have no control, and (2) Google searches don't like Facebook.
  16. Make money off the tours and merchandise, not the songs:  My impression (and based on some things I've read) is that it's hard to make money off of album sales.  An alternative approach is to make your money of your performances, and off your merchandise (e.g. t-shirts, stickers, keychains).  People can copy and share your mp3s, but it's harder (and less likely) for people to bother ripping off your t-shirts -- until you get **really** famous.
  18. Put some downloadable demos on your website:  In this day and age of reasonably-priced technology, there's very little excuse for not having a few downloadable, demo-quality songs on your website for people to share with their friends.  (If you're not technologically-minded, surely you have some friend who is, and can record you.)  You can still save the "good versions" for your pay-per-download transactions.  And if it's a good song, a "demo" version will still be enjoyable to listen to.
  20. Post some YouTube videos of your music:  The video doesn't have to be fancy; it can just be you singing and playing.  But -- once again -- it's something for people to share and spread the word.
  21. .
  22. Get songwriter royalties (and producer points):  I could be wrong on this, but my understanding is that if the recording of you song sells, the songwriter in the band gets paid twice:  once for the performance (split among the band members), and again for the songwriter royalties.  And if your song is famous enough to generate cover versions, only the songwriter gets paid!  Also, the producer gets the song royalties as the songwriter.  It's very important, then, that the Beatles included some songs that Ringo and George wrote.  It's also interesting that R.E.M. songs list all four of the guys as the songwriters -- which means that they all get equal royalties.
  24. Get out of the garage:  Devo spent a few years in the basement, practicing and honing their weirdness.  Eventually, though, they started playing for other folks. In contrast, my second band (Sacred Cow) only played in the guitarist's garage.  We never went anywhere -- and so we never went anywhere.  (Note:  In this internet age, regular posting of YouTube videos may suffice.)

  25. Make sure that everyone in the band has the same goals:  I was the youngest in Sacred Cow, my second band, a four-piece.  Two of the guys were married (one with kids), and the third guy was seriously partnered.  They all had rents or mortgages, and "real" jobs.  I wanted to start booking gigs in Seattle (about an hour away); they wanted to play at the local bar for their friends (in a relatively small town).  I think that if we had all been willing to gig in Seattle, we could've generated a following.  But, nope.

  26. If you have musical family or friends, consider yourself very lucky; doubly lucky if they have the same musical tastes:  I was lucky enough that my cousin and I are of similar ages, and had overlapping musical tastes.  And when my new co-worker at the movie theatre mentioned that he played the drums -- a convergence! But after a few years of practicing, the co-worker joined the army and got shipped out of town, my cousin and I placed an ad and auditioned a few drummers but no-one clicked, and I eventually went back to college (out of town).  If only my cousin or I knew someone else who played the drums...
  28. If your musical friends have similar tastes, but play unusual instruments -- go for it anyhow:  Let's say you're starting a rock band, but your buddy plays the violin, not the guitar.  A violin with a pickup, through a distortion pedal, can do some serious "lead guitar" work.  Your drummer only has conga drums, not a regular drum kit?  Make it work.  Plus -- the unusual combination will make your band memorable (see above).  Examples:  Jethro Tull, with that guy playing the flute.  Men at Work, with the flute.  INXS, with the horns and such.
  30. If you lose a band member, make it work anyhow:  After my cousin and I lost our drummer, we should've just used a drum machine and kept going.  It worked for Sisters of Mercy.  And They Might Be Giants, in the early days, played along to a pre-recorded backing tape. The White Stripes (and The Grates) didn't have a bassist.  You do what you can (small plastic man).
  32. Don't have jerks in the band:  I was only in bands with nice people.  And that wasn't an accident.  Being in a band with a musical genius who was also a pain in the butt would've been... unpleasant.  It would've made the whole process unpleasant.  Portions of your journey will be a hard slog:  no need to make it worse than it has to be. 
  34. The music business is a business:  Once you try to make a living from something, you become market-driven:  if you want money, then you have to do what sells.  Ideally, you can follow your own tastes and the people will come.  But sometimes not.  Having to respond to public tastes can also kill your love for the activity.  For example, I once (briefly!) thought it would be great to own my own recording studio -- until I realized that I'd have to accept any old band with money in their pockets, no matter how wretched their music -- just to keep up the cash flow.
  36. Do it while you're young and unencumbered:  Once you have a family, once you have rent, it's harder to work a crummy day job and play gigs and live off spare change while busking for gas money while sleeping on your brother's sofa.  I reckon you have about a ten-year grace period -- say, ages 18 to 28 -- before it gets awkward to go back and get a degree, start a career, and start saving for retirement.  I don't mean that you need to stop playing music -- just that you should probably start implementing your backup plan.
  38. Going it alone is harder for different types of music:  Most of the music I write doesn't sound right in a busking or solo situation.  To go anywhere, I needed to be in the context of a band.  If I was a folk musician -- and possibly a country artist -- busking on street corners and attending open mic nights would've been more of an option.
  40. Recognize your gift:  This always surprises me, but regular people can't write a song.  Even people with musical training often can't make up a simple, catchy melody:  they can only reproduce (and interpret) what's already been written.  And most non-musical people can't write lyrics.  It's weird.
  42. It's even harder to write a good song:  Among the people that actually can write songs, not everyone can write a good song.  And even those that can write a good song can't write a good song all the time (e.g. the solo work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney).  
  44. There's no shame in being a one-hit wonder:  If you write a song that millions of people enjoy, remember, and possibly play at their wedding -- consider yourself lucky.  Very, very most songwriters don't get that.
  46. Fame and popularity is poorly correlated with merit:  A lot of my favorite songs, and favorite bands, I discovered by accident in the three-dollar bin.  And one of my top-ten favorite bands ever (Bell) had a few albums, then ended.  There's a whole lotta randomness involved, including whether you fit with current trends, where you live, who you know, who sees you -- and whether your drummer joins the army right after your first gig.
  48. Even if you can't make a living at it, never stop the music:  I still write songs; I don't play as often as I'd like; and one of these days I'll record some of my recent songs, post them on YouTube, and see what happens.  But it would take a few weekends to become recording-worthy, and woodworking and yardwork are currently higher priorities, because they address the needs of my family.
  50. Appreciate the journey; avoid regrets. :)

That's it for now; I may add more as I think of them.


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