“Listen Up!” by Mark and Chris Howard

I’ve read quite a few music related books. Some books were for school (i.e. the history of a particular period in time or on orchestration) and some books were more for enjoyment. “Listen Up!” by producer/engineer Mark Howard and his brother Chris is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. The writers found a nice balance between the industry/gear talk and the social/personal aspects described in the book. And wow, there sure is a ton of stuff discussed. “Listen Up!” is like a freight train of activity — one project directly following another project following a tour and then followed by yet another project.

Besides Mark’s own production/engineering projects, he has worked extensively with producer/guitarist/singer/songwriter Daniel Lanois. Lanois’s approach to recording was often installation based — in other words he would set up a studio in a nontraditional setting such as a house. In many cases, it was one of Mark’s roles to “build” the studio. He would scout out a location, get the gear and assemble everything. He also spent a fair amount of time considering the decor of the studio. The feel/vibe of a space can absolutely affect how musicians perform, so it makes sense he thought about things like lighting, rugs and accessories.

A few things jumped out at me while I was reading the book. First was the incredible level of detail. Mark either has a fantastic memory or he kept a journal, but regardless the details help paint a very clear picture of his various interactions. And that was the second thing that caught my attention — all the interactions. It’s no secret that much of the music industry is at least partially based around personal, social interactions. If you work well with one artist then other related artists may want to work with you. The best networking and marketing is good work, which Mark obviously has, but he also has the ability to connect with artists on a personal level.

The third thing I found interesting was the importance of money. Obviously, recording with good gear, an engineer or two and a producer is going to cost at least a few bucks. While I’m aware of albums, like Chinese Democracy, Tusk and Random Access Memories that pushed their related budgets into the extreme, Mark’s recounting of Neil Young’s Le Noise was eye opening. Produced by Lanois and engineered by Mark, they spent six months making the record and when Lanois had the bill for $250,000 handed to Neil Young’s manager, there clearly was a problem. The record label had given Young a budget of $25,000 for the album. Without a doubt, there was a massive disconnect and I’m sure it was a painful lesson for both Lanois and Mark.

If you’re like me and you like to read about artists, the industry and have a look behind the curtain, then Mark and Chris’s writing will absolutely pull you in. “Listen Up!” is a good book and well worth picking up.

“To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker

I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.

For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.

I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.

Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.

Bob Dylan – “Chronicles (Volume One)”

Chronicles (Volume One)

Sometimes your expectations can play with you.  That certainly was the case when I started reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (Volume One).  I figured with the book titled Chronicles I would be reading a mostly point A to point B, story of my life biography.  Well, I figured wrong.

Chronicles certainly has its fair share of “and then and then and then”.  Most biographies have at least some degree of that sort of thing.  But Dylan also leaves significant gaps in his story line.  Gaps big and odd enough that I actually went back and looked to see if I had missed something.  Or whether there were missing pages. The book also follows a circular structure – early life/career – middle life/career – early life/career.  Couldn’t help but think of Pulp Fiction and how the film used a similar method to tell a story.  Maybe Dylan was thinking about that too.  Or maybe not.

It’s no secret that Dylan is a good songwriter and musician.  Chronicles gives us a glimpse into just how well studied he was.  He read, listened to and watched just about everything.  He learned song after song after song.  Played loads of gigs.  He worked hard.

I learned a lot from reading Chronicles.  Dylan has a brilliant way of looking at something and shifting perspective.  Quite a few times I was left thinking, “Now that’s a unique way to think about that.”

Happy I read Chronicles (Volume One) and hoping for Chronicles (Volume Two).

Willie Nelson – “It’s A Long Story – My Life”

Willie Nelson - %22It's A Long Story - My Life%22

I’ve always been drawn to artists like Willie Nelson.  Artists that are completely themselves and yet also have the ability to navigate the popularity game.  It’s not an easy road to take and Willie Nelson’s new autobiography, It’s A Long Story – My Life, gives a reasonably detailed account of his struggles to make it to where he is today.

And where he is, is awfully impressive.  As he writes in the Introduction: “I’m thankful that I’m still here.  By the time you read this, I’ll be eighty-two.  I’m pleased to tell you that since turning eighty, I’ve written a couple dozen new songs, recorded five new albums, and performed over three hundred live concerts.  I don’t say that to boast but to reassert my belief that the essence of my work as a songwriter, singer, and performer is based on the simple task of telling stories.  Telling those stories has kept me alive.”  I can’t imagine doing all of that music making by the time I’m eighty, never mind in a two year period.  Willie’s certainly a creative powerhouse.

But the book is not all roses and like many artists, Willie Nelson is highly complex.  Loving and cruel.  A music industry insider and yet a rebel.  A laid back homebody and a wandering troubadour.  And ultimately, that’s what makes It’s A Long Story – My Life such a fun read.  Go buy the book – it’s good.

Willie Nelson: ‘Ain’t Many Of Us Left’ (NPR)

Willie Nelson: ‘Ain’t Many Of Us Left’ (NPR)

NPR: Producers would tell you your phrasing is off. What does that mean?

Willie: It means change producers.

————

Yes!! That’s one of the reasons I like Willie. Joni Mitchell said a similar thing about how/why she produced her own records in her fantastic book, In Her Own Words. Going to have to pick up Willie’s new book!

“True North” by Bernie Finkelstein

true_north_bernie_book

“Time it was and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences” – Simon & Garfunkel

When reading True North, I had the overwhelming sense that Bernie Finkelstein was way ahead of the curve.  He was, in fact, so ahead of the curve that in many cases he invented the curve.  Finkelstein played a role in many things that are now part of the Canadian music industry landscape.  Things like: CanCon, MuchFACT/VideoFACT and FACTOR.  But the curve I’m referring to also includes how he did business.  There’s a lot of talk these days about 360 deals and the Terry McBride income-through-music model.  Finkelstein was doing this sort of thing way back.  He was/is a manager, a label owner, a producer, a concert promoter and a publisher.  Maybe back in the day that’s just what you had to do in order to survive or maybe he saw how all of the pieces of the music industry puzzle fit together.  Either way, it’s impressive.

What’s also impressive is quality of the artists he chose to work with and that many of those artists dealt with challenging subject matter.  Bruce Cockburn has throughout his career written socially and politically charged material.  Likewise Rough Trade’s lyrical content was beyond risqué for its time.  I’m sure Finkelstein had the opportunity to work with “tamer” artists but he didn’t.  And he still had hits!

True North is a terrific book.  If you’re a music business student like myself, I think you’ll absolutely love the inside look into early days of the Canadian music industry.  Even if you couldn’t care less about record companies, concert promotion, management etc. the technicolor stories of copious drug use and snapshots of the glory days of Yorkville make this autobiography a real page turner.

“Ignore Everybody”

If you’re just visiting my site and wondering what the heck I’m doing writing about Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody, I’ll tell you.  Derek Sivers (Founder of CD Baby) sent out an e-mail asking if anyone would be interested in receiving a book and then writing about it.  Derek’s other criteria was — must be a working musician, currently releasing and promoting music and have a blog.  A lot of people responded, and I was one of the lucky ones Derek chose to be involved.  I should also say, Derek sent out these books at his own expense, which was incredibly nice of him, and I’m also very thankful for the time he’s put into organizing this project.

Now Derek wasn’t interested in a simple book review, but a working musician’s viewpoint — “How can I apply this to my music career?” [As an aside, I truly enjoyed Ignore Everybody.  Lots of great insights that pushed me and I liked that.  Also I found the book funny and engaging.  Okay that was my review.]

For me, the main thing that I took from Ignore Everybody was: Be less vulnerable.  Notice I didn’t say don’t be vulnerable — I don’t think you could be an artist (musician, painter, writer, whatever) if you weren’t vulnerable to some degree.  But making yourself excessively vulnerable (no I can’t define excessively and I think it’s different for every one) is, as Hugh illustrates, counterproductive to creative freedom.  Whether the vulnerability comes from the need for external approval, laziness, lack of money, buying in to the “artiste” mythology or any number of other pitfalls, excessively or blindly falling for these traps almost always ends up in some sort of artistic compromise.  So, know yourself and get out of your own way!

The book is broken down into 40 short chapters, each with it’s own take on how to be more creative or more effective in what you do.  I think I’m already doing some of the things Hugh recommends and there are a few similarities between Hugh’s and my own approaches.  Like Hugh I’ve “put in the hours.”  Lots of hours. I’ve also reserved a pure art/music side that’s for me alone in conjunction with the corporate jobs and more commercial music that I do.  I like them both.

Where I do less well though is that I often don’t know how to say no.  Do I want another plugin for my DAW?  Yes!  Do I want to play two three-hour gigs in one day?  Yes!  Program my own database?  Yes!  Learn a few more classical guitar pieces?  Yes!  At a certain point, and I probably reached that point years ago, your focus gets blurred.  Where do I use my time and resources most effectively?  Right now I don’t know that answer, but Ignore Everybody has me thinking.

Still I’m not going to dodge Derek’s initial question: “How can I apply this to my music career?”  I want to give some concrete examples.  First, I’m going to spend more time on music and less on business.  Music is the core of what I do.  So to give me more time for music, I’m going to streamline how I do business.  I don’t need the complexity of FileMaker Pro, Bento suits me fine.  I don’t need to be on ten social networking sites, a few of the big ones are enough.  And if the workload gets too heavy, I’m going to outsource the jobs.

Second, I’m going to look at how I make music.  I need to narrow my sonic choices — more is not always better.  This is going to mean reducing the number of plugins and samples I have (I may take them right off of my computer) and committing to the remaining ones.  I also need to practice guitar more — to practice every day regardless of how many phones calls or emails I have to answer.  This matters.

Third, I’m going to try to ignore everybody and be, as my wife calls it, fearlessly myself.

Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business

Just finished reading Hank Bordowitz‘s Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business.  To cut to the chase, I liked it! The book is very well written and is a first rate overview of the record business. Anyone who’s interested in the underpinnings of the record industry could do worse than pick up DLSRB.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. Firstly, and perhaps selfishly on my part, there is little that relates to an indie artist like me. This is a criticism I have with many music business books though. And secondly, for media junkies like myself, some of the info in the book seems dated.  A lot has changed since DLSRB came out in 2007. To be fair, that’s true of anything written about business and/or technology.

That’s about it — all in all a great read!