Monday, December 8, 2008

CD Release - Setting a PR/Marketing Timetable

I've been taking a few weeks off from songwriting as I process the boxes containing many copies of my second digiPack CD that I just received from DiscMakers. The PR/Marketing process is a little bit easier the second time around, because I have a bunch of notes from the last CD. This got me thinking about suggesting how to go about making an action plan timetable for your CD marketing efforts for those who may be doing this for the first time.

1. The first thing is to get the CD sounding perfect of course. This usually means first being satisfied with the tracking, then being satisfied with the production and mixing, and lastly being satisified with the mastering, whoever is performing these roles. If you are not progressing through any of these stages, get help (producer, (multi-)instrumentalist, engineer, mastering engineer) and/or a fresh set of knowledge ears involved.

2. Once the 'product' per se is done on the audio side, you of course need to get the CD packaging done, which may involve a designer who specializes in this sort of thing. If you have the chops and want to attempt it, download the templates and have a go. Remember you will need to use 3 main inks on the CD, include the fonts and images used, note the song order and durations, get the bar code art.

3. At this point (and to get the bar code), I go the CDBaby route and fill out as much of the CD info I know and pay for the CD and the barcode, which gets me the bitmap UPC code I need to finish the design.

4. I send the audio CD and data CD off for replication, which takes about 2 weeks or so. I try and get 50% of them poly-wrapped. It's up to you, but some stores and places like Amazon require the wrap. As soon as I get them back, I send the 5 that CDBaby requires (which starts the 3 week process of digitizing the CD for digital distribution), and I send copies to Amazon as well, separately uploading the higher-res CD art and 30 second sound clips Amazon wants. At this point, I assume the music will show up on iTunes in 2 months or so from when CDBaby receives the CDs, this is only a guess, but in terms of setting the actual 'release date' of the CD, it seems sensible to pick a date when people can hop over to iTunes and find it.

5. For the next 3 weeks while I'm waiting for CDBaby to do their thing, I start to focus on reviews. Though sources like the Indie Bible are useful for this, I find it helpful to make a priority based list of where would most like to be reviewed and work down from that. Of course, may reviewers only want mp3s and don't want you to follow up and probably will never respond or review your work. But this is part of the drill. So I start by listing all the review sites that would influence me to buy something (about 20 or so): a combination of blogs, podcasts, web sites, local press, weeklies. For this, you have to switch hats and regard the situation from their point of view - they want good narratives, interesting stories, something exciting, different, coupled to an event, with an attractive picture. Imagine also they get 100 CDs a day. Pick your targets carefully, think about what your larger goals are (driving traffic to iTunes?) and proceed.

6. A subeffort of (5) might be directly soliciting a few quotes that you would like to use on PR material. Once you have something in hand, many artists make up posters and start planning a CD release party and date. The assumption is you can do your songs justice when playing them live. Oasis has a whole CD about CD release parties.

7. The next step would be to start booking shows corresponding to places where you have some fan base or draw or other connections. If you are just starting out, try organizing a show with performers who already have some fans - everyone likes an organizer...

Hope that provides some food for thought. Look me up on CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes if you are curious.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Songwriting Tips: Major/Minor Modulations and Interesting Progressions

I'm always looking for interesting harmonic progressions in my songs, and some of the most satisfying results are subtle modulations that appear simple but are actually more complex than they appear. Growing up as I did on the songs of The Beatles, I do of course take a lot of my inspiration from their examples in this vein, which have been scrutinized in great detail by Alan Pollack.

Take this example from a song I wrote last week. It starts off with a I - ii - V progression, much beloved in all of Jazz and used in songs like Home (as recorded by Bonnie Raitt) and I Shall Be Released (where iii and V substitute for each other).

section 1: A Bm7 E7 A

section 2: Dm7 - C B/G Am7 - , Dm7 - C B/G Am7 - - -, G - , F - - -

which can be written (with the 7ths omitted and 6 implying 3rd in the bass) as:

I ii V I

( or written as modulation as if it were a modulation to III/C: ii I V6 vi V IV)

What's interesting here is the ambiguity created by the I / III relationship. On the one hand, it could be that the sunny A major of section I gives way to a change to A minor in section II, with the relative major (C major) substituting as the perceived tonic instead of A minor.

Composers since Wagner and Beethoven have been exploiting modulation by a third because it brings with it all kinds of interesting properties. Going from an A major chord directly to an A minor chord (David Gray is a big fan of this, see also the song I'll Be Back) is dramatic but a bit predictable. Going from A major to D minor (minor iv instead of major IV) is interesting because it serves as pivot chord, and following it with a C sounds like ii - I now in the key of C, a third away. Changing from section 2 back to section 1 uses a similar F > A movement by a third where the net effect is the sudden sharping of the C note (FAC > AC#E), a minor>major shift that is also more interesting than a parallel minor/major (same chord) change.

In terms of the structure of the song then what I had so far was

section 1 I ii V I
section 2 iv => aka ii I V6 vi V IV (all /III)
section 1
section 2

I decided the best end of the song (as usual trying to keep under 4 minutes if possible) was to use an extension followed by a slight variation of section 2:

F -
- - - -
C - B/G - Am7 - F G
C - B/G - Am7 - F -
G - F - - - -
G - F - - - -

the extension on F is a classic way of making a final push to the end. The harmonic rhythm of the section 2 chords are here elongated to a full measure each (C , B/G, Am7), twice the duration of before. The last variation is the F G C (where before we had Am7 G F), finally making it clear that C and not A minor has become the key we are in.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Twyla Tharp on Creativity vs. Recognition

I saw this on LifeHacker and thought the Twyla's message was definitely worth thinking about for songwriters..

Choreographer (and author of The Creative Habit) Twyla Tharp briefly discusses the roles of failure and money in creativity in a short video interview below. There are several good tidbits here, but in the instant-publishing internet age where everyone seems to be competing for the most YouTube views or highest web site traffic, I especially love the bits about how being creative for the sake of admiration and recognition is different than being creative simply because you want to make something. Here's the three-minute, 22-second clip.

How do you get your creativity on without getting obsessed with whether or not it's made you a superstar? Let us know in the comments.

[via Kung Fu Grippe]

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

MusoWiki: A Wiki for musicians

Here's another well-intentioned entry with the idea of creating a Wiki space geared for music community, resources and sharing. I think the measure of success for ventures like this is if they achieve a critical mass of ongoing participation, and certainly, understanding the psychology of what motivates people to contribute to such enterprises is an art not a science that many of us would like to have the answer to. As musicians in this era, I think we all are working on how best to redefine and redirect our efforts at community building, so case studies like this are always interesting to watch and learn from.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Songwriting Competitions and Song Contests

It must be Fall again because all those announcements of song contests just keep coming. Personally, I think it's the same as buying a lottery ticket and there really are better ways to develop an audience. But having said that, I thought I'd go ahead and summarize some of the ones floating around at this time anyway:

Deadline: Ongoing
Mountain Stage NewSong Contest
Sponsored by Folk Alliance. Seems a worthwhile cause.

Deadline: 10/10/08
Great American Song Contest
They promise written evaluations and no competing against professionals.

Deadline: 11/15/08
21st Annual International Folk Alliance Conference
In Memphis, TN and via SonicBids.

Deadline: 11/15/08
SongDoor International Songwriting Contest
Claims to judge only the song not the performance or production.

Deadline: 12/15/08
Session II - John Lennon Songwriting Contest
They sure have a nicely painted bus.

Deadline: ?
International Acoustic Music Awards
Factors in performance and production. Somewhat folk oriented.

Deadline: ?
The Nashville International Song and Lyric Competition
This seems dubious.

Deadline: Annual
USA Songwriting Competition
Lots o' Sponsors.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Song starters: Straw Man

I worked out a basic musical idea for a tune this weekend and started floating around for words and a narrative idea. I don't think I'll be going in the 'story song' direction necessarily, but that's what came up first:

The straw man boarded a bus in the winter of '85
With a pint of jack, a pack of smokes, and a little girl by his side

A do kind of like opening a bunch of narrative possibilities like this, despite some of the obvious clich├ęs involved. I was looking into how to connect the idea of a Straw Man logical fallacy with this possible title for the song. Perhaps studying some Dylan lyrics would help.

Normally, I would probably reveal the singer as the little girl some time later, and try to find a perspective where some positivity can resolve the initial tension of a deadbeat kind of Dad going off on a journey with his young daughter. Overall, though, I would find it very hard to write a song like this because of the immense number of narrative pitfalls to be avoided. Perhaps the 'Clark Rockefeller' story is a bit too fresh at the moment.

On the other hand, who knows? Maybe they would up world famous playing in a band together...

This week's handy web links:

Tips for Songwriting - How to Write a Song
Andrea Stolpe: Where Did Our Craft Go?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Free plug-in: Rough Rider vintage compressor

I usually discuss the freeware audio plug-ins on my All Sounds Considered blog, dedicated to electronic and bent music, but it occurs to me that an important part of songwriting is making demos and finished tracks that sound interesting and distinct, and a big part of that is production, instrumentation and timbre. Listening to tracks by artists as diverse as Gomez, Iron & Wine, Dr. Dog, Radiohead, Peter Bradley Adams, or The Weepies - I'm always struck by the command they have of an array of interesting sounds. So, if you're feeling a bit stuck with the same old sounds, by all means try some interesting recording and instrument techniques first (more on that later, I promise), but it never hurts to fool around with these plug-ins and try to see how you can alter your dry sounds...

So the pick of this week is the Rough Rider plug-in from AudioDamage. Try it on your drum submix and feel free to generally experiment, it is, after all, free (and not all of us can afford a Distressor...)