Go Ask Alice

I fell down a rabbit hole the other day. I really, really did not want to open the South by Southwest 2010 email that was in my mailbox as there is not much chance I’ll ever be springing for a trip to that long-running music festival again. Now if they invite me to waddle up the aisle for some kind of lifetime achievement award in the year..ah, 2025, that’s a different story. But til then I think I’ll keep sitting it out, having had a great time in Austin for many years since the thing was held in a tent with a case of beer and everyone in sleeping bags. Back before the internet was invented.

But my hand slipped on the keyboard and next thing I knew I was reading the SXSW newsletter, where they were giving people a chance to vote on potential panels. Then my hand slipped again and I was scrolling through eight or nine pages of panel proposals, mostly along the lines of “Making Social Media Work For You” and other promotional workshops that made my eyes cross with boredom just reading the titles – marketing was never a big interest or strength of mine, but apparently it’s pretty much all anyone involved in music thinks about any more.

There was a time when that selling business was the (usually neglected) job of a record company. Now it is apparently possible to make a pretty good living at this music game, if you’re willing to put in your time at the keyboard. Not keyboard as in piano keys but to sit in front of the computer constantly reminding people of your existence. Damn, I’m doing it myself right now – when I could be coming up with some excellent music. But who would know, if I didn’t make a point of keeping in touch at all times?

One title caught my eye – something about writing a song a week. I clicked on the proposal, where a singer/songwriter said the old model of putting together an album of 12 good songs every two or so years was not going to work anymore – that now it was all about providing new content for the fans as often as possible and by challenging yourself to write and make available a new song a week, you’d be giving them just that while keeping yourself creative, exercising those songwriting muscles.

People were allowed to comment on the panel proposals and someone wrote in saying you couldn’t force creativity, sometimes it takes a while to say something meaningful or interesting, he resented the whole idea of a song a week.

The song-a-week guy then replied to album’s-worth-of-twelve-good-songs man, first saying he was entitled to work any way he chose but then s-a-w got warmed up and his creativity really started flowing as he made all kinds of suggestions for what the (obviously) old codger could do with his prehistoric mindset – I got the feeling it was the most emotion s-a-w guy had felt about anything in a very long time.

The sad part, aside from the time I was wasting playing imaginary referee, was that this is just the type of lively argument that would have once occurred in real time, in front of a crowd who could have also joined in the debate. Blood might have even been spilled.

And now I can’t decide who to cast my lot with – accept that fans will take what you give them as long as it’s with some regularity, that if they believe in your “brand” well that’s good enough for them? Or have faith in the possibly archaic form of the record album itself, a collection of a certain number of songs that go together, some kind of perfection worth aspiring to, whether anyone hears it or not?

10 thoughts on “Go Ask Alice

  1. Someone Said

    As a person who grew up listening to vinyl, then saw then replaced by more expensive compact discs, and who is now confounded by the unbelievable amount of material available electronically; I'm finding it harder and harder to discover a good twelve song release by an artist or group anymore. I'm not saying they no longer exist, or that their creators should no longer strive to do this, but this is what I hear. There's a lot of great music out there, more so than at any other time in our history. My problem is finding a trusted guide to find it. There are plenty of sites, and a lot of amazing songs, and I think that's the problem. The excess is becoming harder and harder to filter out. So do I go all gaga over the new one by Meyer Hawthorne, or spend my hours listening to all the mono/stereo differences in the Beatles remasters, the last, great gasp of the compact disc as a sound medium?So what do you do Amy? Release twelve songs every three to four years, in a limited, independent release. Or one song every three or four months and hope that someone finds it on iTunes? I do not envy your choice.

  2. sdn

    thank you so much for this post. all blogging and "frequent content providing" is creative energy, and i'd rather see people working on their art than self-promotion (of which a little goes a very long way).

  3. clr

    I think there is a happy medium somewhere between getting sucked into the morass of internet thought where NEW is what is important. I watch bloggers who churn out 6 posts a day that are just stupid but people eat it up. I don't do it and it took longer to build an audience and it takes more to sustain them but I'm happy with the audience I have. But who's to say that I'm right and they're wrong?And you can refuse to create some kind of virtual platform for yourself and wither away in obscurity or you can stand up and make the kind of presence you are comfortable with. I would prefer the latter. As someone who is a digital native it drives me insane when talented musician friends won't do something as simple as enable a RSS feed on their blog so that people who want to keep up with them, CAN keep up with them. There's nothing noble in that. You can say "Oh I only want the kind of audience who will go to my web site every day because they love me so much" but I don't know what that gets you, really.

  4. Non Je Ne Regrette Rien

    after your visit, i realize there is no end to what i do not know about the music industry and its artists.i did get a clear sense of the frustration there with creating a sustainable living while maintaining one's integrity to their creative process.i also do know, because i have experience with it, that writers have long been told that in order to be successful one must do it daily. like other jobs. but i've always been loathe to think of writing, my sole creative outlet, as a job. and yet i would love to earn or supplement my living with my writing. so maybe i do understand your conundrum a bit. but alas, no answers as to what to do … !!!

  5. Mike

    Brand schmand. Tell me one good batch of songs that was ever the result of a brand exercise and I will show you a contractual obligation filler. I don't 'brand loyalty' was what Van Morrison had in mind when he recorded Astral Weeks.Nope, there are plenty of punters out here who would be delighted if you (and Eric) never went anywhere near SXSW. But came to some other parts of the music appreciating world. Melbourne, for example.

  6. Ed Ward

    The commenters have touched on some of what annoys me about this, but the big thing — and SXSW is guilty, I guess, for pointing the way to this for years — is what a friend of mine has called "cultural overproduction." There's too much stuff and too much of it is "good." Which is to say, I'll give it a 5. Given today's technology even I, the least musically-talented person you've ever run into, could make an album on which I sing in tune — and in harmony with myself — and all the instruments are right there, playing together. And far too many people do just this and expect us to pay attention. Um, guys? Form a band. Have a bunch of people in the room playing live and together. Disagree on what you're doing and resolve the problem. Find new ways to do stuff. But even then, the problem remains: waaaaay too much "product," waaaaay too much of it is a 5. I've written a lot about this, and am aiming to write a great deal more, but my sympathies are with anyone who's come up with the old ways and now has to share space with a flock of mediocrity. Keep striving for a 10 and let the 5s fight it out among themselves.

  7. KudzuCarl

    It's a really interesting question. I spend a lot of time writing for at least part of my living, and have for years. I think that you can force good (technically acceptable) writing, but it is nearly impossible to force good creative writing. Some of what I do is document policies and procedures for various types of businesses. There's a formula: you gather the information, fill in the blanks, make sure it is at a 7th grade reading level and submit it. No problem just sitting down and knocking it out. I also write magazine and newspaper articles, marketing material, ad copy and so forth. For that stuff, I might think about just the lead for a week or two or more. Hit on a good one, sit down, and allow the whole piece to flow from there. I've done it in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night, it just depends on when it hits and getting to a keyboard or scratch pad.Relating this to music, at least as I see it, I was raised on vinyl and remember great albums — Ziggy Stardust, Can't Buy a Thrill, London Calling — where you listened to it from beginning to end (including flipping the disk) and then did it again and again. There don't seem to be many CD's being put out today that are good enough to listen to all the way through. Just a couple of decent cuts (designed for download) and a bunch of filler. Amy and Eric excluded.

  8. amy

    Damn – I was so touched by all these thoughtful comments. I sat down and wrote something in response to every one, and then the computer crashed. I lost everything I'd written! And have used up my more than my allotted social networking time. I really appreciate the input, I wasn't even sure where I was going with the post when I started it but it's helped me confirm how much I still aspire to making albums, even if it takes longer and longer to get the songs together. it also reminds me how I value this online interaction. Not for "getting anywhere", just for its own sake.

  9. Murray

    I like to think that people still like to own stuff, so actualy physical albums will always have a place. BUT I cant remember the last 'new artist' album I bought.I'd imagine that having cheap or free downloads once every couple of months or so of unreleased material (stuff that used to end up on good b-sides in the olden days, stuff that didnt fit on albums but still had merit on their own) would keep the fans interested and releasing a 'real' album when it was ready keeps people interested. But who knows ?

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