Friday, October 04, 2013

Recap: Exploring songwriting with The National and The Recording Academy

Last night the Bay Area chapter of The Recording Academy hosted a special evening with Matt and Aaron from The National, as part of an ongoing 'exploring songwriting' series. 

At the onset, Matt mentioned that The National has been a band for 14 years, but that it took eight before the band garnered any real attention. Overnight success is rare in this industry, even when you're a master of your craft. (Shout out to my former colleagues at Paste for what I think was The National's first major cover story and 'Album of the Year' nod?). 

The duo played four songs, including "Pink Rabbits" and "I Need My Girl" from the new album Trouble Will Find Me, and sat down for a Q&A about what it's like to be songwriting in a band with five "smart and stubborn" people.

Here are some of the quotes I caught through the evening. 

"It took a few years before we knew what we were doing -- the alchemy of the band.... We never wrote big hooks... we weren't influenced by that desire.... But eventually we did write infectious songs."

Aaron: "You realize you have to have a sense of conviction because if you release a record and you tour, you're going to live with those song for two years, so you better have conviction, and you better love it.... The first two records [The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers] were really about figuring it out."

Matt: "I will pop [an instrumental] track on Garage Band and mumble along.... It's hard to tell which pieces of music will create the chemistry I can connect to.... For each record, we have 50-60 pieces of music, and only 20 I connect with."

Matt: "You get five people who are smart and stubborn... pulling it in different directions.... We were afraid the band would break up. We were desperate to make it good...Boxer, we got thru it... though Aaron's lung collapsed..."

Aaron: "We call our songs ugly ducklings... It takes a lot of hard work, and faith that you will get [to a final product]."

Matt: "I'm never worried I'm going to write a sad song. I always do... But it is never depressing; it is cathartic... Once lyrics start to get fleshed out we think, 'Maybe the strings are too much now'.... We have to be careful of the melodrama."

Thanks to The Recording Academy and the band for the insight.

If you're a musician or otherwise involved in music creation, definitely consider membership in The Recording Academy. I've been to a number of events like this and they just keep getting better. Great people in attendance, too.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A letter to Matt Nathanson, regarding the money I surely owe him

Dear Matt Nathanson,

A friend RT'd about your upcoming show at Amoeba, and I thought, "Sweet! A free Matt Nathanson gig?! In my neighborhood?! Heck yeah!"

Then it occurred to me that every interaction I've had with your music so far has been "free"... and that made me pretty sad and also a bit embarrassed. 

You see, back in 2004 I went to see The Darkness perform in Atlanta. On the way out of the venue, a slightly aggressive college kid (presumably on a street team) gave me a swag-bag from Tower Records (RIP), which contained your single, "Suspended." Though I'd seen your name on some adverts for The Cotton Club (RIP) I had never heard your music until I got home and put that CD in my computer.

Holycow! I wore that single OUT! I listened to it so many times that I could name-that-tune as soon as I heard that first snare note.

A year later, I went work at a music magazine and discovered even more of your music, like At the Point, in the CD library and, well, borrowed it for long periods of time. When this thing called Pandora happened shortly thereafter, your music was all over my stations. I wasn't surprised when a Pandora exec told me that "Curve of the Earth" was surfaced more than any other song at the time. I probably contributed to a lot of those Thumbs-Up votes myself.

So back to the Amoeba thing, because this isn't meant to be a gushing fan letter...

I realized when I read your tweet that I've never paid you a single cent for all the music I've consumed. Not a penny.

You know how much money I've given The Darkness? $60.00, give-or-take... and I'm not even a fan!

I still work in the industry and know that there's a prevailing argument that, by listening to your music and recommending it to my friends, fans like me have had some kind of pass-along economic impact. Yet in my case, I don't think that's anecdotally true. In fact, I asked my four closest friends, "How did you find out about Matt Nathanson?" hoping they would say, "Because of you! Because you teach me everything I need to know about music!" Instead, two cited Pandora, one thought it was because of the radio, and the fourth said she covered one of your early concerts for a college paper and was probably the one who introduced ME to your music...

Maybe the radio royalties have added up, and maybe every fan who feels like she discovered your music has made an impact, but the fact remains that I've never consciously paid you for your work and I know I've consumed my fair share of it. So, I'd like to remedy that -- not by buying merch or sending money through a long chain of middlemen who will take a cut... no, I'd like to write you a personal check. 

Even for that original copy of "Suspended" I'd owe you, like, $3.40 if we considered interest and inflation. That's almost enough to get a good cup of pour over coffee in the Mission. But, heck, I've listened to a lot more than that single: let's one-up The Darkness with $61.00.

Should we arrange a hand-off at Amoeba? Do you prefer PayPal? Square? Venmo? I'm serious about this. It'll be like supporting a retroactive Kickstarter campaign. And maybe that's where this industry is heading.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Independent musicians and Google Play Music All Access

If you ask me, I have one of the coolest jobs at Google: to create success stories for independent musicians on Google Play.

From my time as a music critic and band manager, I can tell you that no two musicians are the same, whether it's in the art they create or the ways they want to share that art with the world. Some artists will put their music anywhere to gain exposure with new audiences, while others are more particular about how their music is sold.

There's no right or wrong answer in this brave new digital world, which is why I'm proud of what we've built within the Google Play artist hub

Through the artist hub, independent musicians make the decisions about how their music is distributed on Google Play. Since there are no limits to how many albums you can distribute, and no per-album or annual fees, we've seen artists doing all kinds of interesting things with their music, like posting recordings from live shows. Still others, like The Civil Wars, Lindsey Stirling and Kopecky Family Band, have climbed our charts with studio recordings, after distributing through the artist hub.

Many musicians don't realize that iTunes isn't available on Android devices, but Google Play is. With over 900 million activated Android devices out in the world, that's a lot of potential fans for any musician to reach.

With the roll out of the All Access service on Google Play Music, we're giving musicians another option for distributing their music via the artist hub. Just as you can choose how and where your music is sold on Google Play, you choose whether to make your music available on All Access.

When you do, any All Access subscriber can easily add your music to their collection. Imagine your tracks popping up in a personalized radio station, or in a playlist handcrafted by the Google Play editorial team. I've been blown away by how spot on the recommendations are. Opening a Third Eye Blind radio station delivered songs more fitting than what I put on my own mix tape in 1998.

Independent artists can opt-in entire albums or just specific tracks for All Access.

1. Log-in to the artist hub at
2. Click on an album you want to add to All Access
3. Select "Edit Album Details"
4. Review the "All Access Setting"
5. Click "Publish changes"

The best part is that music fans in the US, Europe and Australia will still be able to buy your tracks, too (if you've opted-in to international distribution). Now you have two ways to earn money and find more fans.  

We know the money stuff can get confusing when it comes to streaming, so we've provided transparency and clarity in our Support Center.

At the end of the day, musicians want to create music, and not TPS reports, for a reason. It's our goal to help artists spend less time on the business of their music so they can get back to making it.

Cheers to the next chapter of Google Play.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Find your Simon Cowell

Everyone likes to paint Simon Cowell as the mean guy. After all, the thing he says most often is, "I don't mean to be rude, but...."

Even if he's a little mean, Simon knows what he's talking about and he tells it like it is. That honesty can break fragile hearts, but you know what? It's better to hear that kind of feedback and learn from it than it is to keep unrealistic expectations and wonder why your dream hasn't come true.

When I see a musician (or any artist, really) who is blindsided by criticism or else very defensive, I guess that he or she hasn't had a Simon in their life. It's a rare but valuable person who will tell you what you need to hear.

It can be hard to find someone who will be honest with you about your talents. People who are inclined to love you and celebrate you, like your family and friends, are bias. These people make a great support system, but probably not the best critics.

I love what Alex Day wrote about this a few months ago, too.
"... my audience like me so I don’t trust them to be objective about my music. 'This is great! It’s new music from you!'.... If the people that listen to my music have good ideas about writing music, then they should be writing music. But if they don’t, they shouldn’t. It’s like any job – if there is someone who doesn’t have experience of working in that industry, you don’t ask them for advice. I like cars, but I don’t know how to build a good car. It’s the same thing. Just pick out two or three people you really trust and listen to them. If a band plays a new song at a gig and asks if the crowd like it, of course they are going to cheer. It’s not as if they are going to say it’s shit!"
If you believe in your dream, be confident enough to solicit and accept feedback. Too often people turn to "vanity stats" (such as the number of Facebook 'Likes' or Twitter followers they have) for positive reinforcement. But those things don't really tell you why people do or don't like your music.

Find someone who's opinion you trust and ask them to maintain honesty with you, especially before you find your success. As one musician reminded me, "The more popular you get, the more people will tell you what you want to hear so that they can get close to you."

Friday, March 22, 2013

Caren Explains 400 Concerts

Tonight marks my 400th concert (yup, I keep track of them all... I'm even nerdier than you thought).

By my even nerdier calculations, that means I've spent approximately 1.39% of my life at gigs. (You're welcome, Live Nation). Malcolm Gladwell believes that if you invest 10,000 hours in something, you're an expert at that thing... so does that make me an expert in concerts? I'm putting it on my resume.

Much of my gig-going was inspired by my parents, who are also music fans and would drive me to shows when I was in junior high and high school. At numerous HFStivals, Dad would sit in the upper levels of RFK Stadium and work on budgets and other grown-up things, while my friends and I roamed around from stage to stage. So long as we checked in with him every few hours, we could see as many bands as we wanted to. I always appreciated that my parents trusted me and encouraged my love of music. I'd say it's paid off.

Here are some highlights from all the live music I've seen so far...

The first concert I ever went to 
(a great icebreaker question, if you ever need one)
The Monkees @ The Patriot Center at George Mason, Fairfax, VA, 1996

In 1996, my parents took me and my sister to see The Monkees reunion tour in Virginia. I went home that night and wrote my first concert review in my lock-and-key diary, which I published here for laughs.

The furthest I've ever traveled to see a concert
Robbie Williams @ FILA Forum, Milan, Italy, 2003

My dear friend Maddie and I were both HUGE Robbie Williams fans, which is notable because we were American and no one in America seems to know who Robbie Williams is. Unfortunately for us, that meant the chances of seeing him perform in America were slim. So during our semesters abroad in Europe, we bought travel packages to see Robbie play in Milan. I remember showing up in the city without much of an idea of where the heck we were going, yet somehow finding our way to a bus that took us to the FILA Forum.  It was a special memory (and boy, can Robbie put on a show).

The first concert I ever planned
Paste Rock'n'Reel Festival @ East Decatur Station, Decatur, GA, 2005

This was an ambitious undertaking and my naiveté was consequently a good thing. While the crowds didn't turn out in droves like we'd hoped, there were some amazing musical moments for the music fans that did show up, including beautiful sets by Low, Brandi Carlile, Anathallo, Cary Brothers, Buddy Miller and Mindy Smith.

The most surprising concert
Zac Brown @ The Rock Boat, the Atlantic Ocean, 2004

I was a college senior and had, through a totally random series of events, ended up on The Rock Boat (a concert cruise) over my fall semester break with my friend Kristen. I was interning at Paste during that time and was excited to be around dozens of musicians and thousands of fans. Throughout the week, I tried to see as much music as I could, which brought me to a small stage at a sushi stand, about three levels below deck. There were a few fans dancing around to a catchy song about fried chicken. After the set, I talked to the singer, who also lived in Georgia, and mentioned that I worked for a magazine. He gave me a homemade CD, with his name and cellphone number scribbled on the front. I unfortunately never listened to it. Sorry about that, Zac, but I guess you've done okay for yourself.

The "I can't believe I saw this at a dive bar" concert
Janelle Monae @ Lenny's Bar, Atlanta, GA, 2008

In 2008, Tim and Leila Regan-Porter had been singing the praises of a local artist named Janelle Monae. We all went to see her at the dark and grungy Lenny's Bar in Atlanta (R.I.P.), where you were more likely to see a metal band than a future superstar. Janelle and her band played as if they were performing for an arena, yet still managed to play to the dive bar crowd (this is a hard balancing act and if you've seen it done badly, you'll know what I'm talking about). It was clear her star was rising and that we'd never see this future Cover Girl at Lenny's Bar again.

The worst concert I've ever attended
I don't even remember the artists name @ Red Light Cafe, Atlanta, GA, 2006

When people woo you to shows with promises of free wine, be weary. At one record label showcase in 2006, the moody singer-songwriter took the stage an hour late, performed a mediocre set and, when she caught me quietly yawning, yelled at me from the stage. "What, is this BORING you? Am I not ENTERTAINING enough?" she asked. Needless to say, you've never heard of her.

The concert I didn't go to, but should have
The Nightwatchman @ Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA, 2007

I was never a huge Rage Against the Machine or folk fan, so in 2007 I sold my tickets to see Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman. That night, at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, Bruce Springsteen was also in the small crowd. Doh.

The "I'll tell my kids about this one day" concert
Mumford & Sons DJ Set @ Public Works, San Francisco, CA, 2011

Whey my friend Kate won tickets to a "Mumford & Sons DJ Set" at a scenester dance club, I expected we'd see Marcus hitting 'Play' on an iPod playlist and nothing more, if even that. Imagine our surprise, then, when said "DJ Set" was actually an acoustic jamboree with members of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show, on the eve of their Railroad Revival Tour.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

New albums to add to your playlist: The Last Bison, Satellite, Hey Marseilles

It's a pretty stacked day for new releases today. Here are three I've been looking forward to that you should give a spin.

The Last Bison - Inheritance 

Wikipedia tells me that, in 1909, chamber music was first explained as "music of friends." It's an apt description for what The Last Bison has made. Fronted by Ben Hardesty, the band includes Ben's father, sister and close friends, all from colonial Virginia. The music maintains the rustic nature of the environment in which it was created, which, in an age of over-production and computer-powered soundscapes, is refreshing for both the soul and the ears. 

Standout track: "Switzerland"

For fans of: Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists

Fun fact: Six of the band's seven members were homeschooled (like some of the coolest people I know). 

Get it on Google Play

Satellite - Calling the Birds 

I first heard about Satellite from To Right Love on Her Arms and just loved Steven McMorran's voice. It haunted you long after a song ended. On this new album, what could have easily become generic and glossy radio rock instead feels like a series of fragile and honest confessions about love, loss and our mortality.

Standout track: "Brooklyn"

For fans of: Switchfoot, Mat Kearney

Fun fact: The band recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville. 

Get it on Google Play

Hey Marseilles - Lines We Trace

A few months ago I got to see Hey Marseilles open for Sea Wolf and wondered how the heck all its members fit on the stage with their instruments and still played so well. It was graceful, not chaotic, as is this poignant album. 

Standout track: "Heart Beats"

For fans of: DeVotchka, Blind Pilot

Fun fact: Most of the band has lived in the Seattle house where the album was written.

Get it on Google Play