In this blog, I thought I’d share the stages my tracks go through, from the initial demo stage, all the way to the fully produced, “radio and sync ready” master stage. This particular song, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, I wrote last year when I was vacationing in The Dominican Republic, right before the Covid pandemic started and I ended up effectively trapped there for several months due to the airports being abruptly shut down and my flight cancelled.
I wrote this particular song, if my memory serves me correctly, in about an hour. It was one of those songs that sort of just poured out of me. I was on the balcony of a small studio apartment I was renting at the time and this song came to me in a moment of inspiration early in the morning around 7 am.
A few days later I recorded the following very simple, rough demo:
As is often the case, this song sat on the shelf for a good long while. I tend to have a pretty large back catalog of un-recorded tracks at any given time, that I often circle back to when I go into the studio to record.
Fast forward to earlier this year and I was with my friend and collaborator MJ and we were going through my demos deciding what songs we would work on and we came across this one. My friend MJ really resonated with this track and he was one of the main reasons I decided to revisit the track and finish it.
So, for the next couple weeks or so, MJ and I worked on the track. MJ came up with some really cool harmony parts, a great piano part and helped write the song’s outro. One of the things I love about collaborating with MJ is having an extra set of ears that is able to hear things slightly differently than I do and come up with different parts and ideas that really enhance the song. Ideas that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.
After a couple weeks, MJ and I then created the following, more fully produced demo:
I then sent the demo, along with a few other tracks to my publisher to get her feedback. My publisher is cool with checking out songs in their demo stage, in order to see if it’s something she wants to move forward with or not. This is extremely helpful as I’m able to get a good sense for which tracks she thinks she’ll be able to successfully pitch before I go through the longer process of creating the actual fully produced and mastered version.
One of the other tracks I sent her was produced by Gary Gray and featured a different vocalist, Joseph De Natale, who has sung several of my tracks. My publisher loved his voice and requested that I use him on, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”. Since I aim to please I said sure, I will see what I can do and that I would get back to her.
I reached out to Gary, who is friends with the vocalist to see if he could arrange to have Joseph sing the lead vocal on the track and help me finish the production. Gary, being the agreeable guy that he is said absolutely! Over the next few weeks, using the initial tracks that MJ and I laid down, as well as adding their own parts and tweaking the arrangement slightly, Gary and Joseph created the final version of the song, which you can hear below.
I’m really, really pleased with how this track turned out. I think it’s one of my best sounding tracks overall. Joseph nailed the vocals and both Gary and Joseph nailed the production.
Have you ever reached a point on your journey where you thought about just giving up? Have you ever been so frustrated you thought it would be easier to just throw in the towel and walk away from your crazy dreams and aspirations? I know I’ve felt like this on more than a few occasions over the years. But for whatever reason, there’s something inside me that just won’t let me quit. Although I’ve come close several times.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately and to be honest, looking back, I’m sort of surprised I didn’t just give up at a few different points. Although I certainly felt like quitting a few times, the real simple reason as to why I didn’t, is that I love making music. Somewhere along the line I realized that my love and passion for music was greater than any sense of frustration or disappointment I felt related to the music business.
When you reach a point where you realize that you’re in it simply for the love and joy of making music, it’s incredibly liberating. Because if that’s your true motivation, it’s a lot easier to be detached from the outcome and enjoy the process and paradoxically, when you stop worrying so much about “making it”, it becomes lot easier to move forward.
Over the years I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing and recording music. To this day, I get the biggest thrill from watching a song come to life in the studio. To see and hear a song that I created slowly become realized over the course of days and weeks is a feeling that I live for. Anything that happens after that point is really icing on the cake.
Don’t get me wrong. Having goals related to your music is important. It gives you something to work towards and will help keep you focused and on track. I’ve had the most success with my music in licensing. If I didn’t have goals related to licensing to keep me motivated and focused, there’s a good chance I would have given up along the way. Because as much as I simply love making music for the sake of making it, I still want my music to be heard, valued and enjoyed. I first and foremost make music because it brings me joy, but I also want to share my music with the world and find as many outlets as possible through which I can get my music out there.
A good analogy is that of being single vs being in a relationship. Have you ever heard the idea that in order to attract the right relationship, you need to be happy on your own first? I feel like there’s a lot of truth to this. When you’re able to find fulfillment in your life and create an amazing life when you’re out of a relationship, it becomes much easier to attract quality people that want to join you on your journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with desiring relationships and connection with other people. It’s a healthy motivation as long as it’s not coming from a place of lack and desperation.
For me, making and marketing music is very similar, in the sense that first and foremost I want to make music that I’m happy with, that I’m inspired to write and that I feel like is an authentic expression of who I am as an artist. Then, when I’ve made the music I’m inspired to make, I seek out connections and people in the industry that support my vision and believe in the music I’m creating.
So, should you give up your dream of music? Not if you love making music. Why would you stop doing something you love?!
Speaking of music. Here’s my latest release, a song called “Oh, My Love” that I created with my friend and musical collaborator, MJ, with production and engineer by Gary Gray. We recently signed this track to North Note, a boutique music licensing agency out of London. One of several new agencies I signed with last year.
Check it out below:
2020, to put it mildly, was not a good year for the music industry. Many facets of the music industry were hit particularly hard. Most strikingly, revenue from live music plunged by 75%. For many artists whose primary source of revenue is from performing live, 2020 was a particularly brutal year. For many musicians, who were already struggling to make a living wage, 2020 was a major setback.
My personal income from both performing live and from online sales all took a major hit in 2020. My income from performing live went to zero for most of the year, due to local lockdowns and regulations imposed due to Covid. My income from internet sales of music business related products, which I’ve used to supplement my income for over a decade, also declined pretty sharply in 2020. This downturn was primarily due to the overall downturn of the economy at large and the fact that the music industry and musicians, who are my primary demographic, were hit particularly hard economically due to the pandemic.
The only revenue stream that I saw an increase in, over 2019, was licensing and publishing revenue. 2020 was one of the best years I’ve had in licensing in several years. I signed five new publishing and licensing deals for multiple songs in 2020 and earned consistent revenue from sync and performance royalties throughout the year. I’ve never been happier to be a musician involved in sync than in 2020.
Although 2020 was a monumentally difficult year for the music industry, and how quickly things will rebound remains to be seen, there is reason for long term optimism. Goldman Sachs’s new “Music in the Air” report forecasts that, long term, the music industry is expected to grow in several key areas.
Revenue from streaming is expected to increase by 18% over the next decade. In terms of live music, 79% of music fans have indicated they will return to seeing live music events within four months of restrictions on public gatherings being lifted. 74% of people polled also say they will continue to watch live stream concerts post-pandemic.
“According to researchers, the pandemic will “accelerate the shift” from offline to online music, prompt more “reliance on social media and streaming for music discovery and promotion,” and up direct-to-consumer efforts in merchandising and live-streaming.” According to the “Music In The Air” study, “While user time spent may shift away from music streaming to other forms of entertainment in the short term, overall we believe the industry’s long-term growth outlook is intact, driven by the secular growth of paid streaming, growing demand for music content and live events, new licensing opportunities (e.g. TikTok), and positive regulatory developments,” the report finds.”
The forecast is for the music industry at large to hit $142 billion in revenue by 2030, up 84% from $77 billion in 2019.
Music publishing revenue actually increased 3.5% in 2020 over 2019 and is expected to continue to grow in 2021 and beyond.
So, while 2020 was undeniably a really difficult year for the music industry and for most musicians, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future. Music isn’t going anywhere and one day, in the hopefully not too distant future, this pandemic and its negative impact on the music industry will be in the rear-view mirror.
In the meantime, my humble opinion is that musicians should double down on what’s still working. Focus on things like licensing and publishing, that for the most part, have not been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Work on growing your catalog and repertoire and build connections and plant seeds now, so that you’ll see things come into fruition in the next few years.
2020 sucked for musicians, there’s no way to sugar coat it. According to a recent study conducted by Encore Musicians, 64% of musicians are considering quitting music altogether. I get it. We all have financial needs and making money from music is challenging even in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
With that said, we won’t be going through this situation forever. As my research points to, long term forecasts for the music industry are optimistic about the future of the industry. If you can get through this, undeniably rough patch, there are better days ahead.
This too shall pass.
How were you impacted as a musician in 2020? What lessons have you learned? Were you able to find any silver linings? How optimistic are you about 2021 and going forward as a musician? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments, the good, bad and the ugly.
You would think that after 25 years of being a professional musician that I’d have it all figured out. You would be wrong. One of the exciting things about being a musician and songwriter, is that you never run out of ways to keep moving forward and improving. The opportunities for growth as a musician are never ending. There is no final destination that you’ll arrive to and have it all figured out as a musician. As a professional musician you need to constantly grow and adapt to the changing environment.
2020 has been one of those years where, despite all the craziness, or perhaps in some ways because of the craziness, I’ve been able to move forward and create new and improved routines and systems for writing and making music. I’ve been able to refine and improve upon past methods and approaches to recording and develop ways to work more efficiently and quickly.
I did something sort of spontaneous and a little crazy this year, in large part because of the Covid pandemic and some of the unexpected changes that came as a result. A good friend of mine and a long-time musical collaborator and I had talked for years about spending an extended period of time together writing and recording music. Over the years we’ve made many trips to visit each other and would spend up to a few weeks at time working on music together. Many of the songs we’ve collaborated on over the years have found their way onto tv shows, video games and more, but we always felt there was potential to do even more, if only we could find the time. Well, 2020 has delivered the time we were looking for!
[Here’s a track called “Breath Divine” we collaborated on that was recently licensed by the UK supermarket, Tesco. (Production by Gary Gray)]
This year, my friend lost his job due to the Covid pandemic and we decided to seize this opportunity to do what we’ve talked about for all these years and rent a place together with the sole purpose of making music. A few weeks ago we signed a year lease on a four bedroom villa in the Caribbean, where we’re setting up all our recording equipment and we'll be embarking on a year’s worth of writing and recording. We chose the Caribbean due to its lower cost of living and the inspiration from all the beauty of all the nature that surrounds us. 2020 just seemed like a good excuse to step back, unplug for a bit and get back to the basics. Which in our case, is simply focusing on making more music, with as few distractions as possible.
Preparing For Recording Sessions
One of the advantages of being in the same space as my songwriting partner and collaborator, is the ease of getting together to work on music, schedule rehearsals and schedule recording times. Since we’re in the same space, we can literally just walk out of our bedrooms and meet each other across the hall in our studio. Being in close proximity is allowing us to easily schedule all the necessary time together to rehearse sufficiently, work on new material and schedule consistent blocks of recording time.
In the past, we would sometimes run into issues when we got together to record music where when we went to work on a track, certain aspects of the performance weren’t quite right initially. Maybe it was something about a particular vocal phrase that was a little off, or maybe it was a harmony part that didn’t quite work. Perhaps it was a rhythm guitar part that wasn’t quite tight enough. It could be any number of different, usually, small things. We would always find ways to fix these issues. With modern recording software and plug ins there are ways to “fix” just about anything. The problem is it can be time consuming and the digital “fixes” are almost never as good as simply performing things correctly in the first place.
My biggest challenge over the years has been with vocals. I’ve come a really long way as a vocalist. A few months ago I went back and listened to my vocals from about 20 years ago. I cringed. It was that bad. Over the years I’ve practiced countless hours, I’ve performed hundreds of shows as a vocalist, I’ve recorded around 100 songs where I’m the lead vocalist. After a lot of work, I’ve gotten to the point where my vocals sound pretty damn good, if I must say so myself.
But as anyone who records music can attest to, recording vocals in a studio setting and singing live or just sitting and singing with a guitar, are two completely different experiences. When you get into a studio, put the headphones on and go to sing a vocal, where you hear your vocals loud in the cans, with other tracks in the mix, it’s a totally different experience. To sing well in this setting, you need to be really prepared. You need to know the part inside and out. There needs to be no hesitation or uncertainty. The more prepared you are, the more you can let go and get a really great, emotional performance.
The main thing my friend and I are doing differently now in terms of preparing for our recording sessions is simply spending more time rehearsing, prior to starting the recording process. In particular, rehearsing vocals. We did a recording session for vocals last night on a new track of mine. This particular song has a two-part harmony throughout the track. It’s a pretty challenging part for me, as it covers a really wide range that is both at the edge of what I’m able to sing in my lower and higher registers.
We decided to spend a week rehearsing the song, pretty much every night for an hour or two, prior to going into the studio to get it as tight as possible. We would get together and record the track, with both of us singing our parts and then play it back. We’d make note of anything that sounded off or needed tightening. Then we would do it again. Then we’d listen back again and simply repeat that process until we worked out any kinks or parts that didn’t sound tight. Once we get our parts locked in, it’s simply a matter of rehearsing them consistently throughout the week until we feel like we’re ready.
After following this method for our latest track, when we went to record vocals last night it was a piece of cake. It was the smoothest, most painless vocal session I’ve ever had. The first take was completely in tune and on point. Then I just sang it a few more times so that we had a few extra tracks to work with. There was no punching in or needing to record things one section at a time as I would often need to do in the past. We both looked at each other in awe.
Who would’ve known, practice really does make perfect!
This might seem like an obvious suggestion, but if you’re struggling to get great, impactful performances in the studio, spend more time rehearsing your tracks before you record them. Get to know each song intimately. Memorize the lyrics. Be able to sing and play your songs in your sleep, backwards and forwards. This sort of over compensation will make your recordings sessions a breeze and will allow you to capture your best performance possible.
PS. If you're interested in studying music licensing and songwriting in a tropical environment, send me a brief email, with a few details about yourself. One of the things we'll be using our space for in the Caribbean, starting in 2021, will be to host small retreats and mentorships for songwriters and composers interested in moving forward in licensing and related music endeavors, in one of the most peaceful, serene environments on the planet. More details coming soon!
When the quarantine/lockdown situation started back in March I found myself effectively trapped in the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic, in a little beach town called Cabarete, on the north coast of the DR. The borders and airports were abruptly closed two days before my scheduled flight back to the states. Unable to get out a flight out prior to the airports closing, I was forced to spend the duration of the lockdown in the Caribbean.
March through June was one of the most creative and prolific periods I can recall having in my entire life. I wrote and recorded dozens of songs, made about 30 videos for my Youtube Channel, formed a Caribbean quarantine side project called “Bandits Of The Apocalypse”, and dove head first into music production and video editing. I instinctively immersed myself in music and music production as a way of dealing with the surrealness of the situation I found myself in, to combat the boredom of a 5 pm daily curfew and most businesses and activities being shut down.
I’m now back in Chicago and I find myself reflecting on the last seven months or so. I look back at this year so far and I’m in awe of both the sheer strangeness of this year and my own resourcefulness for dealing with a truly unprecedented situation. My own creativity seemed to go into overdrive much of this year. It felt as if my creative output was in direct proportion to the stress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and the lockdown. Music and my creative pursuits provided a great distraction from the heaviness and surrealness of 2020 and writing songs felt more cathartic than ever this year.
But was my experience typical? Did most artists have a typical experience during quarantine? I decided to do a little research to determine whether or not my reaction as an artist and creative was typical of what other musicians and creatives experienced.
From an article in Psychology Today called “Creativity In Quarantine”:
“What’s unique about this quarantine is that it constrains us in so many ways, creating what philosopher Bertrand Russell called “fructifying boredom.” Our typical means of working, socializing, and even provisioning ourselves have been dramatically restricted. And while people tend to think that constraints limit creativity and innovation, research proves quite the opposite to be true.
When there are no restrictions whatsoever, people become complacent. They follow the “path of least resistance” and go with the easiest and most obvious choice. Constraints, however, act like a reverse Occam’s razor: They provide specific focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to seek out diverse perspectives and connect ideas in dynamic ways to produce novel solutions.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. Too many constraints and our focus becomes too narrow. It becomes more difficult to stumble across those “eureka” or “aha” moments of creative insight that occur, not when we’re laser-focused on a problem, but when we let our minds wander. And as it turns out, these boredom-born moments of clarity may just be one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary adaptations.”
It's interesting that the research suggests that restrictions, to a certain point, improve creativity. We tend to think of restrictions as an obstacle to creativity. For example, the idea of writing a song that works in the context of commercial music or music licensing, can, at first glance, seem limiting and contrived. The thought of forcing our music to a fit a certain mold or make our lyrics fit the parameters of sync licensing, can be perceived as a hinderance to our pure creative expression. But yet, within these parameters and restrictions, there’s tremendous room for being creative. By limiting the number of creative choices we can make, it’s actually liberating in a sense, in that it tends to focus and guide our creativity. Too many choices on the other hand, can be overwhelming and lead to a sort of option anxiety, where we’re not sure which way to turn or where to start.
The quarantine and lockdown was restrictive in a different sense. In my case, I was forced to stay inside during specific hours, and I was restricted in terms of movement and places I could go during the day. I recall having a conversation during this period where I explained the feeling I had to my Mom that my life “had become simplified in a beautiful way”. By having the number of things I could do and places I could go dramatically reduced, it became much easier to determine how I wanted and needed to spend my time and energy during this period. Much of my time was spent on creative pursuits.
I recently created a poll for members of HTLYM Premium where I asked whether the quarantine had led to increased creativity, diminished creativity or a neutral effect on creativity. The overwhelming consensus has been that quarantine led to increased creativity. This really comes as no surprise to me, since the quarantine and lockdown were so conducive to creative pursuits, in many ways.
Of course, we don’t need to wait for a pandemic to have periods of increased creativity and we needn’t stop being creative when the pandemic ends. Many of us were spending extended periods of time focusing on our art and music long before the great plague of 2020 came along. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world where my movement and choices are restricted indefinitely. This goes against my freedom loving nature and would be a net negative in the long run.
For me, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from 2020 is that by being forced to simplify my life, my life paradoxically became much richer and more focused.
Sometimes less really is more.
What about you? Did you find your creative output and overall creativity increase during quarantine? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve had enough. I’m sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of watching talented, hard working, passionate musicians being tossed by the way side. I’m sick and tired of watching musicians invest their blood, sweat and tears into creating beautiful art, only to eek out a meager living, if they’re fortunate enough to even be able to do that. I’ve had it. I’m done.
I’ve grown disgusted by how music has become less and less “valuable” in the marketplace with each passing year. I’m tired of watching super talented, hard working musicians struggle to make a viable life for themselves.
I’ve always taken a half glass full attitude to life and the music industry. I’ve encouraged artists to hustle and carve out a name for themselves in a marketplace where music has become more and more devalued with each passing year. In life, you have to focus on the things you can control. Sometimes you have to make lemonade out of lemons. We don’t choose the hands we’re dealt in life, but we choose how we play them.
But with all that said, I’m tired of musicians simply resigning themselves to the idea that this is simply how things are and if they want to compete in the music industry they have to accept giving their music away for next to nothing. I’m tired of musicians putting up with sub-par work conditions, no health care, little to no safety net, no job security and so on. I’m tired of musicians lining up to get proverbially screwed.
Have a few musicians figured out how to “succeed” in our modern-day music industry? Sure, there are examples of musicians who are able to support themselves solely from their art. To those of you who have figured this out, more power to you. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to carve out a decent living primarily from my art and endeavors closely related to it and I’ve invested the last 12 years of my life to helping other musicians figure out ways to make money from their music. But having a small percentage of unknown artists able to sustain themselves from the music they create and pay their bills isn’t going to fix the music industry or the declining state of contemporary music in general.
In my assessment, and I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last few years, the music industry is deeply broken and fundamentally flawed. The music industry has become a race to the bottom. I’ve broken down all the depressing stats for you about the state of the music industry in previous blog posts. See this blog post as an example. The problems that ail the music industry are deep seated and widespread. There are no easy solutions or simple fixes. However, the first step is correctly diagnosing the problem. After all, we can’t fix a problem if we don’t know what the problem is.
In my estimation, there are essentially two fundamental problems plaguing the music industry. Here are the two main issues holding most musicians back in terms of making a real living from their craft:
In some cases, musicians are able to generate enough streams to make “decent” money. But in my own experience and according to the research I did for this piece, these musicians are few and far between. In fact, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone, called “Spotify Dreams Of Artists Making A Living. It Probably Won’t Come True”, the average artist on Spotify makes just twelve dollars a month. That’s right, that’s not a typo, just twelve dollars a month. The article is a great read and provides an in depth breakdown of how much money Spotify takes in and how it trickles down to artists using the platform: https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/features/spotify-million-artists-royalties-1038408/
Even when musicians do manage to generate hundreds of thousands or even millions of streams, the money that is generated, after it’s split with fellow musicians, recording and production costs are deducted and expenses are paid, it’s usually a pretty modest payday at best. Of course there are a few exceptions. If you’re reading this and you’re doing well on Spotify, or even if you know someone else who is, I’d love to hear about it.
Let’s take a look at some hard stats. The title of the blog post takes aim at Spotify, but to be fair, it’s really the entire streaming industry. All of the platforms pay next to nothing. Some are closer to nothing than others.
Here’s a breakdown of what the major streaming platforms pay per stream.
As you can see, it’s fractions of a penny per stream. It’s literally, next to nothing. But how does this work out in terms of streams and generating money? How many streams does it take to add up to a live-able income? Well, fortunately Youtuber Damian Keyes broke down the math for us. When it comes to Spotify, it takes about 15,000 streams a day, or 450,000 streams per month for one person to make the equivalent of a 40 hour minimum wage work week with their music on Spotify. That's just per person. If you're in a band with other members then multiply that figure per band member. What percentage of musicians do you think generate these kinds of numbers on Spotify? I don’t really know off the top of my head, but I’m guessing a very small percentage.
See the following video for more:
Now you might be thinking, but Aaron Spotify isn’t about making money, it’s a platform to promote your music. It’s the new radio, that we all have access to. I’ve heard this argument a lot. That Spotify has essentially replaced terrestrial radio and has become the new radio and that musicians should be grateful for a platform in which they can get their music out to the masses.
The only problem with this analogy is that when terrestrial radio reigned supreme, we had something called CDs, that music fans would go out and buy. If you heard a song you liked on the radio there was a good chance you would go out and buy the CD to get the full album. Well, consumers don’t really buy CDs anymore. They rarely even download music anymore. Why? Because of services like Spotify! Why would you go pay for an album or a single when you can listen for free on Spotify over and over and over? There’s no incentive to buy music anymore. If video killed the radio star, the internet killed the recording industry.
So if consumers, by and large, aren’t buying the product we create, why are we giving it away in an effort to promote it? Hmmm. You could say that it’s promotion for your live shows, if you actually play live. Ok, after all, this is one part of the music industry that the internet can’t kill. Unfortunately, a pandemic can though. So, for the near future at least, this money-making option is largely off the table. I know in some areas, musicians are finding creative ways around not being able to play live; outdoor shows, implementing social distancing and so on. Again, if you’re able to get gigs right now, that’s great. But these opportunities have been dramatically reduced for the time being, unfortunately.
Ok, so I’ve outlined the problem. Most of you were probably already aware of these issues. What can we do about it? Well, I’d be lying if I said I had all the answers. Like I said, there are no easy solutions this far down the hole we’re in. There are no quick fixes.
However, I firmly believe that musicians and creatives are the most important part of the music business. After all, we’re the ones making the music. We have to start to take our power back. We have to unite together in an effort to drive the industry in a more sustainable direction. We have to start valuing our art again and refusing to sell ourselves and our art short. Easier said than done, but in my mind, it’s imperative that we start having these conversations. I don’t know anyone in my circle of musician friends and colleagues who think the state of the music business is better now than it was in the past. Although the music industry collectively generates billions of dollars each year, most of it isn’t going to musicians. (See https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/music-artists-make-12-percent-from-music-sales-706746/) Something has to change.
So what now? The title of this blog post is “Us Vs. Spotify”. How are we going to change things? How can we take our power back as musicians, collectively, and work towards creating a more equitable music industry? Well, obviously we can’t do it alone. We as musicians need to come together, united, to forge a more sustainable path. It’s really the only way we can make any real, significant change in our industry.
To that end, over the next few months, I’ll be exploring this issue and ideas related to it on my podcast. I have lots of ideas. Some of them I’ve had for years. Some ideas I have will be fairly easy to implement and others will require a lot more work and planning to execute.
First and foremost, I’ll be bringing on different guests on my podcast to explore this issue and to get the conversation going. I’ll also be launching a second, new podcast, soon that will be strictly a platform to promote new up and coming artists to help them get their music out there and encourage people to buy it. I have other plans related to this mission that I’m not ready to share yet. I’ll be announcing more efforts in the near future.
The music industry is broken. It’s high time we do something about it.
I was playing music in the Caribbean when the Covid situation took a turn for the worse in the USA. I had planned on heading back to Chicago in late March to begin a new music project with a friend of mine. My plans were de-railed when just two days before my scheduled flight back to the states, the borders in the Dominican Republic, where I was staying at the time, were abruptly closed, with no flights allowed in or out, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
After a few weeks of uncertainty and several cancelled flights back to the states, I realized this wasn’t a situation that was going to quickly resolve itself. I was essentially trapped in the Caribbean for the time being and would likely be stuck for several months. So, instead of flying to Chicago to begin working on our project together, my friend MJ and I did the next best thing, we started collaborating remotely.
The last few months have been, ironically, some of the most productive months for me musically in years. In part due to being stuck indoors for much of the last few months due to the pandemic, and also in part due to the fact that in many ways the pandemic was a huge wake up call and reminder, that you never know just how quickly life can change and throw you a giant curveball. For me, the pandemic and lockdown has been a reminder to pursue the things important to me while I still have time. Things like music.
In this post I thought I’d break down my process for collaborating remotely over the last few months. Even in “normal” times, there are situations where you’re simply not able to be in the same space, at the same time, with people you’re collaborating with. I’ve collaborated remotely for years with my producer Gary Gray, as well as a variety of different vocalists, and we’ve had a lot of success finishing songs this way.
This time the collaboration was different, in that I was collaborating with a musician friend of mine, during the beginning stages of writing and arranging, all the way through to the final production. After a month or so of collaborating this way, we refined our system of collaboration down to a pretty tightly run machine and we’re now averaging creating a new song every week to ten days.
Our goal has been to get songs up to professional level demos which we can release on Youtube to grow my Youtube Channel, which I’ve recently monetized, and also potentially go on to create full blown, licensing ready mixes of the songs that get the best feedback and that we feel have the most licensing potential.
Here’s my remote collaboration routine:
Since the music is primarily for my own Youtube channel, the only gatekeeper I have is myself. However, for songs that my producer Gary and I feel have strong licensing potential, I’ll be sending Gary the stems to finish up and do a final mix. This adds an additional week or so to the above process.
For me, one of the biggest take-aways from the last few months, is that there are simply no excuses. If you want to make music, regardless of where you are in the world, you can find a way to make it happen. When the lockdown and airport closings happened, my friend MJ was really bummed because collaborating remotely isn’t the same as collaborating in person. He kept saying it would be so much cooler if I was there. Of course, collaborating remotely isn’t the same as being in the same room, but it’s still a completely viable way to collaborate. The last few months have been as productive as any period we’ve had collaborating before, in person. In fact, in many ways the last few months has been more productive. I’ve definitely been more prolific than usual.
With the technology and tools we have at our disposal in 2020, you can be almost anywhere in the world and be collaborating with musicians almost anywhere in the world. Just because you don’t live in a major music city, doesn’t mean you don’t have access to the same pool of talent. Use the tools you have at your disposal and make the most of whatever your situation is.
Here’s the most recent track I collaborated on with my friend MJ, as well as a few musicians I met during my time in the Caribbean. This one is called “Lost In A Dream”. I also did the video editing for the video. We’ll be sending this one to producer Gary Gray for the final mixing and mastering, as we feel this one has strong licensing potential.
Check it out and let me know what you think! Subscribe to my Youtube Channel here.
It took me a long time to develop a workflow and work routine that was consistent and that I could commit to on an ongoing basis. It takes a massive amount of momentum to see any sort of real, sustainable success in the music industry. For this reason, developing a workflow that fits into your overall life and that you can commit to on an ongoing basis, is one of the most important parts of realizing success in music licensing and the music business.
I used to have a sort of two steps forward, one step back approach to making music. I would work really hard for a few months and make a little bit of progress and then inevitably start feeling burnt out and take a step back to rest and regroup. The first few years of my music licensing career I had very sporadic success as a result. I’d license several songs and then there were often long stretches where not much was happening. I’d then frantically go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and throw myself into the process of music making again, see some renewed success, slow down and take a break again and repeat the entire cycle over. This went on for several years as I was also juggling the duties of several internet businesses and different projects.
These days I have a much different and much more consistent approach to making music. It’s very simple and my workflow and creative process has become much more efficient and dialed in. I write and record one song a week and release one music video weekly. It’s still a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. I can easily spend 30 to 40 hours a week or more, mixing, rehearsing, writing and video editing. But it’s a schedule that I can commit to regularly without getting burnt out doing. I still have plenty of time to manage my other duties and I really enjoy the time I spend making music. And if takes me ten days to finish a track instead of seven, it’s not the end of the world. I simply aim for averaging a song a week.
A lot of people ask me how many songs they should be aiming to record weekly and monthly, and like a lot of things related to music licensing, there are many variables. It depends on what kind of music you’re making, how efficient you are at writing and recording, what your goals are, etc. But really, the most important variable, is you. By that I mean, it comes down to what you can commit to, how skilled and motivated you are and so forth. I like the song a week model because, after a lot of trial and error, this is the schedule that feels right to me. My goal is to consistently make music and put it out into the world, without getting burnt out or stressed about it. There are enough stressful things in the world right now that the least thing I want music to be is a source of stress or frustration.
Aim to setup your schedule and life in a way that you’re excited about and brings you more joy than stress. If making a living from music if your goal, you’re going to be doing it a long time, so make sure you’re creating a workflow that’s sustainable and enjoyable. If you’re pushing yourself to the point of burn out you’re not going to be able to sustain that.
What is your workflow like? Do you have a set amount of songs you record each week or month? Have you given this issue much thought? One of the keys to success is consistency. Just keep showing up and putting in the work. There’s a lot that’s out of our control in the music business, but the one thing you we do control entirely, is our output. And like I’ve said before, more songs will generally lead to more licensing opportunities and more money. In my own experience, I've seen my licensing income go up significantly over the last several years as I've simply been writing and recording a lot more music. It's sort of a no brainer. More songs = more licensing opportunities.
I’ve also been ramping up my efforts on Youtube ever since the pandemic started and have been releasing new music videos each week. Here’s my latest effort, a video for my song “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”, shot in the Caribbean during lockdown with my quarantine project, Bandits Of The Apocalypse. Check it out and be sure to subscribe to my Youtube Channel here.
As many of you know, I’ve worked with producer Gary Gray a lot over the last few years. When we collaborate, we have one singular mission in mind for the music we’re working on together, which is to optimize each track for licensing opportunities. We’ve racked up quite a few syncs the last few years and recently had our biggest ascap payday yet, for several dozen tv placements in 2019.
We recently completed and signed a publishing deal for a track that I feel is one of the strongest overall tracks we’ve done together. I thought I’d share what the collaboration process was like to give you an idea of how songs can evolve and go through a few different stages, until they are ultimately completed and ready to shop to licensing opportunities.
Our latest track, Lost And Found, took several months to complete, from its inception to the final mix. We recently signed this one to my primary publisher in LA and I’m confident, as confident as one can be in this industry, that this track will get syncs going forward. We sent this one to our publisher and she responded right away, enthusiastically, that she would love to sign it. That’s always a good sign. As opposed to when you submit tracks and weeks or months go by and you ultimately never hear anything. Submitting music is sort of like going out on dates with prospective partners, if someone is really interested, they’ll let you know sooner or later. On the other hand, sometimes people just aren’t that into your tracks.
I started writing this song last year and made a basic guitar/vocal demo that I sent to my friend and frequent collaborator, MJ. A few weeks later MJ and I got together in person and we spent about a week creating a full band demo and fleshing out all the parts. MJ came up with a great 2nd hook, the line “gonna turn this thing around”. (See below)
After MJ and I finished our version of the track we sent our mix and the stems to Gary to start his process. Like I said, when Gary and I collaborate, our main goal is to create tracks that have the best chance of getting placements. Sometimes this could mean making changes to the track’s arrangement. Sometimes it could mean changing certain lyrics or re-writing tracks to make them more “universal” in terms of subject matter. Other times, like in the case of Lost And Found, it could mean doing a completely different version of the track with a different vocalist and even different instrumentation. I give Gary carte blanche to make whatever changes he feels necessary to optimize each track for licensing.
At the time Gary and I finished this particular track, Gary and I received a playlist of the types of songs my publisher is most in need of for a variety of shows she pitches to. Gary used these tracks as reference material when it came to arranging and mixing my track, “Lost And Found”. Based on this playlist and the style of production these songs had, Gary ended up completely re-doing Lost and Found using a different vocalist and also re-doing the guitar parts in a different style.
When I got the track back from Gary, I was a little surprised at first, because I didn’t realize he was making such drastic changes to the song. But, when I put my ego in check and just objectively listened to the song, I was blown away. Of all the tracks we’ve done together, this might be the one I’m most proud of and excited about. Gary’s mix and production sound so solid on this one that I would be really surprised if this one doesn’t get some great syncs.
You can check out my demo version below I did with MJ, as well as Gary’s final version below. I’ll probably do another fully produced version with MJ at some point as there are elements of our version I really like, but I can’t deny how undeniably great Gary’s version is. Listen for yourself below!
Lost And Found Demo Version
Lost And Found Final Mix By Gary Gray, featuring Joseph De Natale
2020 is one of those years that will go down in the history books, for all the wrong reasons. A pandemic, a recession, record unemployment, mass protests and riots, lockdowns, curfews and mad hornets! Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, the world seems to somehow keep one-upping itself. At this point, if we had an alien invasion I don’t think I’d even bat an eye. I’m sort of half expecting one.
As I’ve discussed in several different blogs and podcasts, I’ve been essentially trapped in the Caribbean the last few months, due to the airports here being shutdown in March. It looks like, if everything goes as planned, there will be flights available again in July. I feel relieved at least knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel and I have a tentative date of when I’ll be able to leave.
It’s reassuring, sort of. I say sort of because it’s clear that the USA I will return to is not the same USA I left, when I flew here in January. Chicago, where I’m from, has been particularly chaotic the last few days. Buildings have been burned. Police cars have been set on fire. Stores have been looted and vandalized. There have been multiple fatalities. Several of my friends have lost their jobs.
I try not to spend too much time watching the news these days. I do my best to stay informed, but not overwhelmed by the state of the world. It’s a difficult balancing act. I spent last weekend in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, on an island in the Caribbean, with my band and a few friends. It was my first trip since March outside of the small beach town I’ve been stuck in the last few months on lockdown. A few hours after we arrived, I received a text message from a friend in Chicago. “It’s crazy in Chicago! There are riots, buildings on fire, a curfew has been imposed. Check the news!” Here I am trying to get a small respite from the madness of the world in one of the most remote places imaginable and I still can’t escape the craziness.
Of course, putting your head in the sand and ignoring the state of the world isn’t the answer. My friends and I spent several hours discussing everything that was unfolding. In the evening, we even wrote a song inspired by the protests and the death of George Floyd. One of the great things about being a songwriter, is that no matter how crazy the world gets, there’s always something to write about. In some ways, the crazier things get, the more there is to write about.
Adversity and hardships force you to dig deeper and find strength that in many cases, you didn’t even know you have. Here’s what one of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, has to say about adversity and what we’re all living through at the moment:
“Adversity forces you to awaken to the deeper dimension of who you are. Why does adversity force you? Because life becomes almost unbearable when you live only on the surface, the surface of sense perceptions, and your conceptual mind.”
The last few months has been, strangely, one of the most productive periods of my life. Once I realized I was likely going to be stuck here for at least a few months, I got into a really productive rhythm and have since written and recorded dozens of new songs, many of which have been inspired by everything going on in the world. I have, you could say, dug deeper and discovered a fortitude and strength I didn’t know I had. I’m working harder than ever to realize my goals in one of the craziest times we’ve ever known. Something about that feels comforting and right and to be honest, despite everything going on, I wake up excited every day to get to work. I can’t change the entire state of the world, but I can at least be in control of my little slice of reality.
If history is any indication, what is happening in the world and everything unfolding will eventually come and go. Eventually the pandemic will come and go. Eventually the protests and rioting will stop. New challenges will arise. Those will also come and go. The sun will continue to set and rise.
I don’t know how to change the world at large. I wish I did. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all the injustice, inequality, anger, frustration, sickness, political corruption, sadness and rage come to an end. I wish I could. There’s so much I would change if I had that kind of power.
All I can do is focus on what I can control. Things like how to be a better friend to my friends, how to be a better partner to my girlfriend, how to be a better son, how to be a better songwriter and musician, how to be a more compassionate and empathetic citizen of the world. These are the things that motivate me to keep going every day, in spite of and in many ways, because of all the craziness unfolding.
Maybe, just maybe, if we all focused on making our little piece of the world we live in better, we could slowly change the world into a better place, one person and one day at a time.
Check out my newest song inspired by the lockdown, Killing Time, performed with my Caribbean lockdown band, Bandits Of The Apocalypse.
When all of this Covid stuff first started getting serious, there was a part of me that was fearful. It was the unknown element in all of this. I was in the Caribbean. I still am. The borders were abruptly closed. Then all the businesses, except grocery stores and pharmacies were closed. The little beach town I’m in almost overnight turned into a ghost town. The streets were mostly empty. A 5 PM curfew was imposed. There was tension in the air that was palpable. Everything felt strange and surreal.
After a couple weeks or so, once I realized the grocery stores would not run out of food, the internet and power would continue to work and the sun would continue to set and rise, I settled into a new routine. The fear I initially felt gradually shifted to something unexpected... joy. I found myself surprisingly really enjoying my new routine and the surreal nature of the experience. My mood brightened.
I started taking long daily walks alone on the beach to contemplate everything happening. This is something I did frequently before quarantine, but these walks felt different. Everything felt heightened. In some weird way I’ve felt more alive throughout all this. Whatever was happening with the pandemic was so intense, it was as if it woke me up from a slumber and now I was really paying attention.
To be clear, I wasn’t enjoying the fact that there was a pandemic or that I was effectively trapped in a developing country. I was enjoying my reaction to it. It’s sort of hard to put into words, but I just felt strangely more awake and in tune with everything around me. As if the situation shifted my perspective slightly, just enough to let me see things in a new light. I realized much of life is completely out of my control and although that’s kind of scary on one hand, in a way it’s also completely liberating and humbling. If it’s out of my control, why waste my energy worrying about it?
Of course, life has always been largely out of our control, but when something like this comes so unexpectedly, you realize just how little we do control individually and just how quickly it can all change. I guess you could say quarantine has taught me to surrender. To let go of worrying about the parts of life outside of my control, which it turns out, is most of life.
But, of course, there are things in my control and even in a crazy situation like this you can find normalcy and joy. I’ve found having a routine helps, especially during a time like this.
Here’s what my quarantine schedule the last couple months has looked like:
1)Wake up around 8 am
2)Make coffee and do morning meditation
3) 9 am play guitar and work on songs
4) 10 am – work on business projects, courses, etc
5) 2 pm – break for lunch with girlfriend
6) 3 pm - Work for an hour
7) 4 pm – go to beach for a walk and swim
8) Return by 5 pm curfew
9) 6 PM – jam with new quarantine band, “Bandits Of The Apocalypse”
10) 8 pm – finish jam and edit / render video from nightly jam session
11) 9 pm – answer any unanswered emails, work on music, etc
12) 10 pm – chill with girlfriend, watch Netflix, etc
13) Sleep by 1 AM
I found myself, after a few weeks of this routine, feeling incredibly relaxed about things. I adapted to the situation and I’ve developed a new, quarantine rhythm. I started focusing much more on taking life one day at a time and not trying to figure things out too far in advance. Once the initial fear and uncertainty subsided, I realized that although there were many restrictions placed on me that were new and there was a lot up in the air, I was still free to pursue most of the things I wanted to pursue. And in fact, in many ways, it has never been a better time to pursue these things. After all, I have far fewer distractions than I normally do and a lot more forced time inside to get things done. It turns out most of my big life goals are best pursued indoors; music, songwriting, marketing, business, etc.
I’ve grown much closer to my two band-mates who live in the same building I do and who I’ve seen nightly throughout all of this. We’ve had so many strange and interesting conversations ranging from our shared concern about the pandemic to expressing our gratitude of being able to share such an interesting, surreal experience together. We’ve also spent countless hours jamming, recording and making Youtube videos. These our experiences that I’m sure when I’m older I’ll remember much more clearly than the months and years that preceded all this.
I’ve seen so many people step up and go out of their way to help others. I’ve helped as many as I’ve been able to and people have come forward to help me in unexpected and beautiful ways. It seems like humans are often at their best in times of crisis. It shocks us all out of our collective slumber and forces us into action. I think most humans are good people, we just tend to be so busy during “normal” times that we forget to take a break and check in with each other.
As we move forward, a lot of questions remain. I sometimes catch myself wondering about things in the future. When will the airports here re-open (no official date yet but lots of speculation)? What will the long-term impact on our economy and my business be? What will the music business look like a year from now? Two years from now and going forward? When will live music resume? What will life be like after all this is over? Will there be a “new normal”? Will there be a mandatory vaccine? Will we end up losing more of our freedoms and liberties? Am I going to be micro-chipped??
There are so many questions I don’t have the answer to and occasionally I catch myself thinking about and pondering these things. These are the only moments throughout all this when I feel stressed. Once I realize there is a lot I simply don’t know or have answers to yet, I remind myself to focus on the here and now and the fear and stress subside.
What can I do today? What do I want to do today? What inspires me today? When I focus my energy on these questions I quickly get inspired again. I realize that I, nor anyone else, knows exactly how all this will unfold and play out and that it makes little sense to use my time worrying about these things.
So for now, I focus on what I can control. This is always where our true power resides. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search For Meaning”, in which he chronicled his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War 2. An experience far more horrifying than being stuck at home watching Netflix on the beach.
The quote is:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Check out my latest original song that takes a lighthearted look at the lockdown, "Bottle Full Of Wine", I recorded with my quarantine band, Bandits Of The Apocalypse.
What if for the next three months or six months or however long this thing lasts instead of focusing on the pandemic and the virus and all the bad news that seems to be all around us, what if, instead, you decided to use this period of time to make massive leaps forward with your music and with your life?
What if, instead of worrying about all the things out of your control, you decided to take ownership of what you do control and take advantage of this unique time in your life and the unique moment in history you’re experiencing?
Before I go further, I want to preface all of this by expressing my sincere condolences to those of you who have been impacted by this situation. To those of you who know someone who has fallen ill or succumbed to Covid-19, my heart goes out to you. To those of you who have lost revenue because of this my heart also goes out to you. There is no doubt a tragic element to all of this and this post in no way is meant to do downplay that reality.
With that said, as in all “negative” situations, on an individual level there is an opportunity for growth and the chance to take a quantum leap forward in a number of areas in your life. Over the last few weeks, I’ve observed myself vacillating between being very concerned about the future and questioning how all of this is going to impact my business, the music I make and my personal life, to feeling a sense of excitement about ways I can take advantage of this very unique, surreal moment in time.
Since this whole thing started, I’ve found myself instinctively drawn more and more to music and making music as a way to mitigate the stress I’m feeling and also create a sense of focus and productivity during this period. I’ve been, ironically, writing and performing much more music than usual during these times.
The more the days stretch on and the longer this situation lasts, I find myself less concerned about the future and more focused on how to make the most out of the here and now, one day at a time. It occurred to me, as I was doing my morning meditation a few days ago, that there is the possibility, at least on an individual level, to turn this into not only a “positive” situation, but perhaps even a period of time, that when looked back on retrospectively, could be one of the greatest periods of your life.
Sigmund Freud once said, in one of my favorite quotes, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful”. I love this quote, because it gets at what I think we’re all seeking in our lives, which is a sense of meaning and purpose. What Freud meant, was that when we sit back and do nothing, and don’t engage in challenging situations, we don’t grow. Often times, when we’re going through difficult periods, we don’t realize how important they were to our own growth and progress and how "beautiful" they were, until we look back, in hindsight.
As I find myself frantically writing music and recording and posting performance daily videos with my lockdown/quarantine side project, The Bandits Of The Apocalypse, I sometimes catch myself feeling even more excited than I did before all this started. Again, don’t get me wrong, I would prefer that none of this ever happened. I miss being able to travel freely, go out to eat and socialize with my friends and I look forward to, hopefully, being able to do those things in the near future.
But I also sense a unique opportunity in all of this. This is one of those moments in our lives that we will all look back on when we’re older and recall exactly how we felt, what we were doing and how we spent our time during this unique moment in history.
The question is, years from now, looking back on this strange period of time, will you look back with a sense of fondness or with a sense of regret? Will you choose to seize this moment and use your time in a way that is meaningful and important to you? Or will you choose to squander this period of time and give in to fear, doubt and inaction?
What you do with this period of time is of course completely up to you. If you’re stuck at home and you feel compelled to rest and meditate all day, do that. That might be the best thing for you. If you’re on lockdown and the thing that is most meaningful to you is to take a break and binge for a month on Netflix, do that. I spent the first few days of all this simply resting and contemplating the situation that was unfolding. That felt right to me at the time. As the initial shock wore off though, I’ve turned more to writing music and being productive, because that’s what feels right to me now. Follow your own inner guidance and instincts.
I hope to look back at this time with a sense of pride in knowing that I did my best in dealing with a situation that was out of my control and that I chose to take advantage of the opportunity to grow and move forward during a unique moment in my life. How will you look back on this period of your life, when this is all inevitably ends?
One of the things I've been doing most days throughout this lockdown period, is posting a video of me performing with my lockdown/quarantine side project, Bandits Of The Apocalypse. Bandits Of The Apocalypse consists of myself and two other musicians who are in in the same building, where we are all currently under lockdown, stuck in the Caribbean, due to Covid-19. Here's us performing the CCR classic "Stuck In Lockdown Again", aka Lodi, a few days ago.
We are living in unique and unprecedented times. The situation we are facing is one unlike anything we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes. Depending on where you live, your life may have changed quite dramatically over the last few weeks. I realize some of you are in locations where your day to day life may have not been as dramatically affected, and perhaps some of you are going about your day to day life more or less the same as before. But all of us have been impacted by the Covid-19 situation in one way or another at this point, directly or indirectly.
I’m doing my best to make lemonade out of lemons throughout this situation. I’ve developed a new routine in order to adapt to the situation where I am located currently, where life has changed dramatically in a very short period of time. As I mentioned in my last post, for the moment I’m stuck in the Caribbean with no flights going in or out for the time being. I’ve purchased two flights back to the states, on two different airlines, and both were cancelled due to the Covid-19 situation, with no refunds, only a credit to be used at a later date.
Originally there was a curfew from 8 PM to 6 AM, but that was changed to 5 PM to 6 AM a few days ago. So that means, any errands I need to run, like getting food, walking my dog, getting water, etc have to be done before 5 PM. Anyone out after this time risks being arrested. All the restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses have been shut down for now.
So, that’s my current situation and one of the things that has surprised me the most about this whole experience is just how quickly I’ve adapted. I now have a new daily routine that revolves around the new rules and restrictions in place. It goes like this…
I get up early, around 7 AM. I make coffee, eat fruit and do my morning meditation. I work for a few hours on HTLYM and make daily updates, answer emails, etc. I break for lunch around noon. I come back and post my song of the day (I’m posting a song a day on social media throughout my lockdown). I work a few more hours. I do a daily walk/swim on the beach around 4. I’m back home by 5 to avoid being out after curfew. I then meet my neighbors, who live in the same building and both play music, on our rooftop for our nightly, open air jam session, which we’ve been filming and posting highlights of on my Youtube Channel, which you can see here. Then I eat dinner and usually work on new tracks for several hours. At the end of the day, I usually hang out and watch Netflix with my girlfriend and then proceed to fall asleep, exhausted from a full day of activity.
In many ways, life feels quite normal, until I stop to think about just how strange the entire situation really is. But, humans are incredibly adaptive, and certainly my ancestors lived through much harder and more arduous times than this. This whole thing has really made me grateful for just how easy my life has actually been, relatively speaking, up until now. Suddenly, all the petty things that bothered me a few weeks ago don’t seem like such a big deal.
The upside for me is that I’ve been writing, recording and sharing more music than ever. I’ve been writing new songs almost every day and sharing more music and performance footage online. Although the restrictions on my freedom and movement feel confining, it’s also made my life, for now, very, very simple. I joke with my girlfriend each night and say, “What should we do tonight? Hmmm, I say, after a thoughtful pause, how about we just stay in tonight”. Then we both have a good laugh. Humor is important in times like this.
When your options are limited, life becomes simple, and in some ways, actually less stressful. I’m using this period to catch up on all the things I’ve been putting off due to my normal schedule and I’m choosing to view this as a great opportunity to be productive and creative in areas that need more attention.
In terms of HTLYM and HTLYM Premium, I’ve been making some major changes to the site and using this time to update the content in the member’s area. I’ll be announcing a major promotion later this week, the biggest in our history, that anyone who wants to use this time to further their licensing, songwriting and composition careers will be able to take advantage of. Look for an email with all the details in a few days.
In the meantime, stay safe, stay productive, stay creative and keep the music flowing.
My neighbors and I have put together a band, a project that will last as long as the lockdown/quarantine lasts. We're calling ourselves "Bandits Of The Apocalypse", which is a pretty kick ass name for a band if you ask me. We're doing a series of rooftop concerts which we'll be posting footage of on my Youtube Channel. Here's a clip from our first performance:
Listen to the audio version of this blog on my podcast:
First of all, my heart goes out to all of you that have been impacted by the Covid-19 situation. A lot of musicians, particularly performing musicians have been hit particularly hard and have had months of events cancelled. So, if you’re in that category I feel for you.
I don’t make a significant portion of my income from performing these days, but I was in the midst of performing in the Caribbean when all this started and have lost several weeks worth of gigs as a result. It was really bad timing for me because I was experiencing a real rejuvenated passion for performing again and was busier performing live than I have been in a long time when this whole situation took a turn for the worse.
But, in this post I want to discuss ways we can all make the most out of this strange situation we find ourselves in and make a little lemonade out of the big bowl of lemons we’ve been abruptly served. None of us can entirely control the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can always control how we respond. This entire situation is a great reminder of that fact. I really would love to go back to several weeks ago when I was out playing gigs, rehearsing with my band and going about my day to day life doing all the things so many of us take for granted.
But, here we are and to be honest, there’s something about the entire situation that I find oddly inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks on one level. But there’s also something about the intensity of the situation and just how much things have changed in such a short period of time that I find awe inspiring.
Like I said, I was in the Caribbean playing gigs when all this unfolded and my flight back to Chicago which was scheduled for the 21st of this month, was cancelled at the last minute due to the Covid-19 situation. I have another flight back to the States that is scheduled for the 31st, but there’s no guarantee that it will leave, as things are changing day by day and no one seems to know exactly what’s going on. The US Embassy is closed due to The Corona Virus, the Airlines seem as clueless as everyone else if and when you can get through to them at all, and no one seems to really know exactly what’s going on. I have surrendered to the fact that this is out of my hands at this point.
So here I am, for the moment stuck in the Caribbean, not entirely sure when I’ll be going back to Chicago. And before you think oh cry me a river, you’re trapped in paradise, it could be a lot worse. Well, it's not as ideal as it sounds. Pretty much everything is closed, with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies. There are long lines to buy food as only a handful of people can go in at a time. The streets are eerily empty. Most people that you see are walking around with masks on. The only place that seems somewhat normal are the beaches where you still see a few kite surfers that have remained and seems to be the only place where the expats that are still here quasi-socialize, with a healthy amount of social distance and fresh Caribbean air between them.
So, I’m more or less on lock down and with the exception of my daily walk on the beach and my bi-weekly trips to the supermarket, I’m spending most of my time in a little apartment I’m renting here with my girlfriend, across the street from the beach. There’s an 8 PM curfew, so everyone is required inside from 8 PM to 6 AM. Not that there is really anything to do outside anyway.
That’s my situation. It’s taken me a few days to adapt to the unfolding situation, but like I said, I’m now finding the experience strangely inspiring. I’ve already come up with some really productive ways to pass the time and make the most out of this experience, however long it lasts and wherever I am.
Here’s a list of things I’m doing or will soon be doing to fill the extra time inside, stay inspired and make the most out of this situation:
Write New Music - This one is a no-brainer, but if you’re a writer and/or composer now is a great time to write and record more music. What I've heard from all of my contacts in the licensing industry that I’ve been in touch with the last few weeks, the licensing industry is moving forward relatively unscathed for now. Content is still being curated, shows are still being scheduled and strategized, music is still being created and supervisors are still looking for music. Some productions will definitely be affected in the short term, but I’m still getting requests for music almost daily for ongoing projects.
Regardless of what happens going forward, now is a great time to beef up your catalog, finish your tracks that are unfinished, write and record new music and keep moving forward as a writer/composer. Writing music is a fairly solitary endeavor anyway, so in many ways now is a really ideal time to be a songwriter/composer and many of us are probably already used to spending a fair amount of time alone working on our craft.
Post Music Online - Like I said, I’ve found this whole situation strangely invigorating and I’ve actually decided to write, record and post a new song on Facebook every day throughout this ordeal, inspired by the whole experience (see below).
In many ways now is perhaps the best time we’ve ever lived through to be posting and sharing music online, because there are way more people online with a lot more time to kill than ever before. I’m finding that people are really receptive to checking out music right now. Plus, people need music and connection at the moment, and since many of us are locked inside, I don’t think there’s been a better time to express yourself and share your music with the world. My plan, like I said, is to write a song a day, for however long this lasts and then at the end of all this, take the ones that have been best received and package them together into an official release for Spotify, Bandcamp, etc.
Practice – Now is a great time to practice your instrument or instruments. I’m spending at least an hour or two playing guitar each day. I play a lot in general, but when things are “normal” I tend to go through spurts of practicing where I’ll practice a lot for a few weeks and then something will inevitably come along and rob my attention and push my practicing to the back-burner, whether it’s a new business project, my social life, etc.. But now, however long this lasts, I’ll have an extended period of time to focus on all those new licks and songs I’ve been wanting to learn.
Live Streaming – I’ve seen a ton of musicians live streaming the past week or so. It’s been really cool to see so many musicians I know playing music online and getting their fans and friends to rally around them. Many musicians are asking for donations, linking to where people can buy their music and support them. Again, with so many people stuck inside and going online, now is an amazing time to get your music out to a larger, more receptive audience online. I haven’t started doing this yet, but my band and I are trying to figure out how we can live stream together, while still adhering to safe social distancing guidelines and plan to do something soon.
Sell Music Online - Bandcamp had their single biggest day of sales last Friday, when they waived all their fees for musicians for a period of 24 hours. Again, people are online and they’re receptive. I also think people in general are very empathetic right now. They understand we’re all in this together and are willing to help in any way they can. So, if you have music online for sale, now is a great time to put together special bundles and promotions for your fans. Let people know if you’ve been affected by the Covid-19 situation. Tell people how they can help and support you. They won’t know if you don’t tell them.
Podcasting – This whole thing has actually motivated me to re-launch my podcast. I haven’t done an episode for a few months, for a variety of reasons which I’ll explain in more detail in the future, but I’m really feeling inspired now to stay connected as best as possible to the outside world and help my fellow musicians out in any way I can during this time. I have some great new ideas on how to do that via my podcast and blog, which I will be exploring in the near future.
Meditation / Reflection / Awareness – Finally, this one isn’t exactly related to music per se, but many people, myself included, have noticed and mentioned there is a spiritual component to all of this. It’s hard to put into words, but I certainly feel like something is different, apart from the obvious. Maybe it’s the result of our lives being disrupted so much, in such a short period of time. Or maybe it’s because in a sense we’re all being forced to take a step back, slow down and reflect. Whatever it is, I feel it, as have many people I’ve spoken to and I think it’s contributed to the sense of inspiration I’ve derived from all of this. It sort of feels like this is one of those very significant cultural moments where we need to collectively come together and raise our frequency. I realize I sound a bit like a hippie here, but, well, so be it.
Surrender – And finally, also not directly related to music, but I feel like this is one of those events, so big, and so clearly out of our individual control, that ultimately there’s not much we can really do but take a deep breath, relax and surrender. I think one of the reasons I’m feeling more and more relaxed, after a few pretty stressful days, is that I realize this whole thing is out of my hands. All I can do is do the best to focus on the things I can control, one day at a time. For me that involves staying healthy, staying calm, making and sharing my music, keeping my girlfriend and dog safe, and getting a good night’s sleep.
Everything else is out of my hands. In the meantime, the birds are singing outside my window and I’ve never heard them this loud and this happy. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention before.
Like I said, I’m writing and recording one new song a day, however long this whole Covid 19 / Lock down situation lasts. These are all very sparse productions, using one mic and one or two takes, guitar and vocals. My idea is just to focus on writing and connecting with people for now. At some point I’ll go back and pick the strongest songs and record them and release them “properly”.
You can check out my first Covid-19 / Lockdown inspired track, “A Couple Months Ago” here:
Well, it’s been an interesting few weeks to say the least. We have all watched the events unfold over the last couple months, culminating in all the recent changes that have affected our way of life and economy in a very short time. I can imagine we’re all experiencing a lot of different emotions right now. I know I am. It feels like I went to sleep in one world and woke up in another.
In late January I started really paying attention to the Corona Virus and was following closely the events transpiring, at the time, in China. I started following a couple different Youtubers that were breaking down the data and what to expect going forward. They were urging people to start stocking up on food and start taking precautions for what more and more was looking like a probable pandemic based on the known rate of infection and the mortality rate of COVID-19, aka "The Corona Virus".
For several weeks, I vacillated back and forth between being very concerned, and even urging several friends to consider taking precautions and start preparing for something big, to assuming this would all just blow over like previous health scares in my lifetime have. Most of my friends playfully made fun of me and assured me there was nothing to worry about. I’m somewhat of a hypochondriac about germs and disease by default, and so I thought maybe I was just blowing the whole thing out of proportion. I mean, after all, I’m no virologist and what do a few random Youtubers really know anyway.
So, eventually I got tired of paying so much attention to the whole story and since no one else seemed very concerned, I sort of forgot about it for a couple weeks. I even wrote a blog post back on the 9th of March, less than two weeks ago, where I downplayed things and basically said there’s not much to see here, which more and more was how I was starting to feel at the time.
Since then, as we all know, things started taking a much more serious turn in parts of the world and in the USA, where I’m from. First a few dozen cases, then a few hundred, then a couple thousand and growing. As of this writing, there are now 10,781 cases in the USA and over 230,000 cases worldwide, with cases doubling on average every four days.
The last few days in particular have seemed somewhat surreal. I’ve been describing the feeling to friends and family as the feeling of being in a movie. I feel like I’m the character in the latest Hollywood blockbuster about an outbreak. Except, as we all know, this isn’t a movie. This is our reality at the moment.
When I was younger, I used to always say that I wished I was living in a more interesting time. I would read about more tumultuous and volatile times in history, like the 1960s for example, and look at all the amazing art and music that was inspired by the challenges of that generation and wonder what it would have been like to have been alive in such interesting and culturally vibrant times. And, well, although this isn’t exactly what I was hoping for in terms of living in more interesting times, I think we can all sense the historical significance of what we’re living through at the moment. The significance is palpable.
It’s taken me a few days to sort of begin to process the changes we’re going through and will likely continue to go through for the next few months, or possibly longer. A lot of questions remain unanswered. How long will this last? What will the short and long term impact be on the economy? What will the impact be on the music and music licensing industries? What will the impact be on my business endeavors? What will the impact be on our social lives and our mental health?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone does at the moment. For now, I’m simply taking things day by day, doing my best to adapt to what’s unfolding in the world. I think that’s the best we can do; just deal with things as they come.
As a fellow musician, I hope it goes without saying that my thoughts are with everyone affected by the COVID-19 pandemic both in the music industry, and in general, around the world. The good news is that since HTLYM and HTLYM Premium is for the most part online, and doesn’t require offline interaction, my team and I will be continuing to operate as usual. Myself, Gary Gray and everyone connected to HTLYM remain committed to providing the best resources available to songwriters and musicians working in the licensing space during these challenging times. Regardless of what changes happen as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, we will adapt accordingly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of different ways that we can better help our community of songwriters and musicians out there during these difficult times. At some point I’ll likely be introducing several new programs and discounts our community will be able to take advantage of during this period of uncertainty and increased time spent inside. At some point, when the timing feels right. For the time being, I’m just going to take this all in and focus on living life in the moment.
For now, I just want to say, hang in there. I’m here for you in whatever capacity I’m able to be. If you need anything, feel free to reach out or leave your comments below. How has your life changed the last few weeks? Are you working from home? Have you lost gigs? Are you working on more music as a result of spending more time inside? What good do you see coming from all of this?
Every crisis presents both danger and opportunity and this situation is clearly no exception.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. - Franklin D. Roosevelt
For weeks now I’ve been putting out content in the form of blogs and videos, doing my best to go about life as usual and ignore the giant, crown shaped elephant in the room that’s on everyone’s mind and being talked about non-stop in every news outlet around the world. I’ve avoided discussing it because it doesn’t really have anything to do with music or being a musician directly, and since I’m not a medical expert, I didn’t really feel qualified to discuss the subject. But it’s such a prevalent part of what’s going on in the world at the moment and it’s having such an impact on the world, including the live concert industry, that I feel it would be somewhat out of touch to not saying anything at all about it. Of course, I’m talking about the Corona Virus and like many of you I can assume, it’s been on my mind a bit the last few weeks.
When I was younger, as in my pre-teen years into my early twenties, I was a pretty major hypochondriac. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I used to spend a lot of time at my local library researching different diseases I thought I might have and I would freak out every time I had what I thought was a symptom related to one of several different possible diseases or conditions I could hypothetically have. Once I had an episode of chest pains that led me to the emergency room. Six hours later, after several tests I went home with a clean bill of health and a 900 dollar hospital bill.
As I got older, these sorts of irrational fears and worries and episodes of over- reacting gradually subsided. I think at a certain point I sort of got bored with my own fears and realized the futility of getting worked up over every possible thing that could go wrong health wise. Every once in a while, if I have some sort of new or unexplained symptom, if I’m not careful, I can temporarily fall down the rabbit hole of fear and dread that is the internet, trying to self-diagnose myself and getting sucked into worst case scenario outcomes listed on different medical websites. These days I’m able to avoid letting my mind go there for very long. I approach things more rationally and objectively.
When I look back at all the wasted energy and time spent worrying about things that never came to pass, I realize that all my worry and fear accomplished nothing, or at the best very little. You could argue that evolutionarily speaking, a certain amount of fear is healthy. It’s our survival instinct. If I’m afraid that there’s something wrong with my heart and that motivates me to get it checked out and I discover there is something wrong and I catch it early, then that fear served a purpose. I’m being proactive about my health. And a certain amount of concern over health and well being is good. A certain amount. Just enough to get you to take the necessary action. But anything over that, any time spent ruminating or being anxious or wasting time fretting about things you can’t control is pointless. It accomplishes nothing and robs you of energy that could be channeled into more productive pursuits you could be focused on during your finite time on earth.
It’s the same with over arching fears we have about our lives and our ability to survive. Think about how fear effects the choices we make in the context of something like pursuing our goals related to music. If we fear for our security and survival too much it can hold us back from chasing our dreams and achieving our goals at all and we’ll resign ourselves to living a safe, but unfulfilled life. On the other hand, if we simply throw caution to the wind and go after our dreams with no safety net or back up plan we could, worst case scenario, end up homeless or destitute. So, a little bit of fear is healthy. It’s our mind’s attempt to mitigate the risks of life. But when we let fear dictate our lives and control us, it holds us back. Like the Buddhists say, take the middle way.
It’s been interesting to see the reaction of my friends and acquaintances to the Corona Virus. It runs the gamut from little to no concern on one end, to one of my friends buying hazmat suits for him and his family. And everything in between. I’m somewhere in the middle, leaning towards, on most days, not really giving it much thought. I bought a jar of hand sanitizer and about two weeks worth of Vienna sausages, pasta and water last week. I’m doing my best to stay informed but to also approach things rationally and calmly. I won’t get into the statistics or data in this blog post, because I’m certainly no epidemiologist, and there’s so much conflicting data coming out of an endless stream of news outlets, who all have their own agenda, as do the governments reporting the data, that it’s almost impossible to interpret intelligently or accurately.
But I will say this, even based on the absolute worst-case scenario, in terms of statistics being reported and data we currently have available, the vast majority of us will survive this. Just like we survived H1N1, Ebola, Swine Flu, Sars, Influenza and countless other outbreaks we were told to fear. In the meantime, life goes on and I personally refuse to be overcome by or give in to fear. Plus, fear and stress lowers your immune system, so it’s counter-productive to fighting viruses anyway.
I was talking to a friend recently about the Corona Virus and he seemed concerned. After several minutes of reciting data I had heard and assuring him we’ll probably be ok, I looked at him and said, you know, either way, we’re all going to die in the end anyway, so it’s probably not worth losing sleep over. And with that my friend smiled in agreement and we moved on to a different topic.
I’ve spent the last two months or so playing shows in the Caribbean to tourists from all over the world in my Caribbean bar band, The Garden Slugs. Here’s a short clip of one of our recent performances (that's me playing lead guitar):
I’ve had so much fun the last few months playing live shows that it inspired me to write a post about playing live and how it compares to pursuing something like licensing music. They are clearly much different endeavors and they each have their own pros and cons to consider.
Playing In Bands
I’ve been performing live since I was 16 years old. I played in a hard rock band in high school with three other guys that were all in their thirties and forties. This band played a handful of outdoor shows in and around Kankakee, IL where I lived at the time. This was my first experience playing in a band, rehearsing and playing shows and it gave me a glimpse of just how much fun being in a band and playing live music can be.
Since then, I’ve played and performed with probably a dozen or so different bands, duos and ensembles over the years. Some of my fondest memories as a musician have been hanging out and performing in bands. When everything lines up, nothing beats the feeling of being part of a group, working together to create a collaborative musical experience. From the rehearsals, to the camaraderie that develops as a result of spending so much time together and the experience of playing live shows, playing in a rock band, when it’s working, is the ultimate experience that can be had as a musician. For me at least. There’s nothing quite like it when your firing on all cylinders and things are going well.
Of course, things don’t always work out well and often times bands have a high turnover rate and a tendency to self-implode due to inflated egos, creative differences, pressure to earn money and so on. It can be challenging to get four or five people on the same page, working towards a goal that in many cases takes a long time to realize, if realized it all. They don’t always work in the long run, but when they do work, playing in a band is a great vehicle for creative expression, camaraderie and friendship. When a band works, you literally “band” together with a group of people, while working towards a common goal. Pretty cool.
On the other hand, when they don’t work out, there can be a sense of wasted time and spinning your wheels. I’ve spent years playing in bands that, in the end, abruptly broke up and went their separate ways, with little to show for our time together. That’s life of course, there are no guarantees. I used to feel really discouraged when things didn’t work out with different musical projects I invested time in. It was one of the experiences that motivated me to pursue licensing in the first place.
Over the years though, I’ve realized that each project was a stepping stone to the next one and although a project may end up not going the distance or achieving as much success as I hoped, there have been valuable experiences that I’ve gleaned from every band and project I’ve participated in. I’ve also found that with age and maturity, I’m either getting better at picking the right people to play with or I’ve simply become a more agreeable person, perhaps a bit of both. My last couple projects have been much less dysfunctional and just more fun in general, which is my main goal with playing and performing music.
Another great thing about playing live is that you get immediate, real time feedback. My current band plays both covers and originals. I love playing new originals live because it’s really easy to figure out which songs people respond to and which ones don’t elicit a great reaction. Most crowds don’t lie or pretend to like you in my experience. If you play something and it sucks, most crowds will let you know with a lackluster response.
But on the other hand, if you play something and the crowd is really into it, you can feel that based on their response. My current band has tried several of my originals and there have been two so far in particular that crowds seems to really love, so we’ve kept those two in rotation, while dropping a few others that didn’t seem to go over as well and we’re constantly trying new covers as we go, to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
This sort of immediate feedback you get when playing live is great compared to something like recording music by yourself while pursuing licensing opportunities. Often times it’s really hard to get quick, objective feedback while pursuing licensing opportunities. The process of writing, recording and pitching your music can play out over months, and it can take a long time to really figure out and get a sense of what’s working and what’s not.
When you play live, you know in that very moment whether people like it. This of course doesn’t necessarily translate to what works well in the context of licensing, they are two very different mediums. But to a certain extent, a good song is a good song and getting feedback on what people generally respond positively to, or not, is very valuable and serves as a good gauge in terms of whether or not what you’re writing resonates with people.
You Get Paid Instantly
One of the other great things about playing live is that if and when you get paid, you get paid on the spot. There’s no waiting around for months and months like there is with music licensing. If you’re playing a gig for money, you get paid at the end of the night. Well, usually, if all goes smoothly. Normally it goes smoothly.
Recording And Music Licensing
The process of writing and recording music is obviously much different than playing live. I love writing songs and the entire reason I’ve pursued writing and recording music is that I want people to hear my music and I want to present my music in the best possible light. I know that in order for my music to have the impact I want it to have, it needs to be “packaged” well in terms of the production and performance.
One of the great things about recording is that you can take your time and make sure each performance is the best you can get it. You can fine tune and edit things. If you record a take and you make mistakes, you can simply do it again. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it allows you to re-do things until you can get them as good as you can get them. It’s bad in the sense that if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get lazy and to simply fall back on things like auto tune, rhythm correction and so on.
There are some amazing production tools that we musicians have at our disposal these days, but they are just tools to enhance and improve our natural talents. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re more talented than you really are if you’re only confined to your studio, using plugin after plugin to make yourself sound better. Of course, production is a skill and an art unto itself, so it’s not to say there isn’t a certain amount of “talent” that goes into creating great productions, there clearly is, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to performing live and into other facets of the music business.
At this point in my musical journey, it’s clear to me that what makes the most sense for me is a combination of both playing live shows as well as writing, recording and licensing my music. It’s not an either/or thing. Also, live music is one aspect of the music industry that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Although the internet had a dramatic impact on the recording industry and has decimated CD and download sales, the live music industry continues to thrive and is expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future. (See: https://www.pollstar.com/News/the-growing-impact-of-the-live-business-138039)
So, to the extent that there is job security in the music business, developing and cultivating your performance chops will give you another tool in your toolbox when it comes to securing a career in music. While you’re waiting for your licensing checks to come in, you can be out playing shows making cold hard cash and having a lot of fun at the same time.
Follow me on Spotify
I’ve been playing a ton of music lately. I’ve been rehearsing and gigging with my latest project several nights a week and practicing, writing and playing guitar at least a couple hours each day. I love periods like this because the progress I make is so obvious and tangible. It reminds me of when I was studying music and guitar at Berklee College of Music and used to spend hours each day in a practice room, practicing guitar, and then hours more each night at the end of the day in different jam sessions. I progressed more during my two years at Berklee than perhaps any time before or since. It was non -stop music, all day, every day. I couldn’t help but to get better.
But there’s another kind of progress that’s more gradual and less noticeable until you look back over time. I was going through my archives of old recordings of different bands and projects I’ve played in over the years a few nights ago. I was listening to a show I performed in Chicago in 2004 with my old band Continuum. The first thing that struck me was how much I’ve improved as a vocalist. In fact, I was shocked at how bad of a singer I was back then, compared to now. My vocal performance on every song I heard was really bad. In fact, it was atrocious.
I was so taken aback at how bad I was that I immediately went and listened to a recording of myself singing at a recent show from a few days ago to make sure I don’t still sound like that. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was much, much better. It was night and day in fact. It didn’t even sound like the same vocalist.
This realization that I had come so far as a vocalist over the last 16 years gave me a huge sense of satisfaction. Although at first, I was shocked at just how bad I sounded back in the day, compared to now, I was also really thrilled to hear how far I had come.
The more I thought about the progress I’ve made and just how gradual it’s been, the more elated I felt. Over the years there have been times where I would get sort of hard on myself in terms of feeling like I hadn’t progressed as much as I wanted to or “should” have in music. It’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at over the years. But at times I used to get pretty hard on myself when I felt like I wasn’t progressing fast enough. I think a lot of us creative, artistic types are. Art and music is so important to us, that some of us have a tendency to get down when we’re not progressing or moving forward at the rate we think we “should” be. Whatever that means.
But, despite my own inner critic, I’ve kept going over the years, writing my songs, performing as much as possible, practicing guitar and vocals, licensing my music in as many places as possible and so forth. And lo and behold, I’ve improved immensely, albeit gradually. I’m not sure if the old adage practice makes perfect is true, but practice certainly makes better.
All this is to say, wherever you’re at with music, keep going. Sometimes it can seem like you’re sort of spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere. But if you keep putting in the work, day after day, year after year, you will improve. The longer you go, when you look back, the more stark the contrast will be compared to when you started. And as you improve, you will see results in terms of more gigs, placements, success and so on. It’s inevitable.
To be honest, I still don’t really consider myself a great vocalist, in the traditional sense. Singing, for whatever reason, has just never come naturally to me and it’s taken a long time to become comfortable as a vocalist. But I’ve been compelled to sing and work on my singing because I write songs, and although for recording and licensing I sometimes recruit other vocalists to sing on my tracks, there’s nothing like getting on stage and singing something you wrote, from the heart, for a live audience.
Like I always say, focus on the things you can control. You might not be able to control the entire industry, or the gatekeepers, or the tastes of a fickle public, but you can always focus on improving your craft. Whether it’s improving your singing, an instrument you play, or the songs and compositions you write, your production chops, whatever it is you need to improve… these things are in no one’s hands but your own. When you focus on what you can control, you take your power back, and when you do this consistently, over time, you’ll see incredible growth, which will inevitably lead to more opportunities. For me, this growth and progress make the whole journey worthwhile.
In what has become somewhat of an annual tradition, I’ve spent the last six weeks playing music in The Caribbean with a group of friends I made in the beach town of Cabarete in The Dominican Republic during my travels here over the last few years. Our drummer is Canadian. Our rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist is from Boston. Our saxophone player is from Germany. Our bass player is from Wyoming I believe (or maybe it’s Utah) and I’m from Chicago. We’re an international group of misfits that together our known as “The Garden Slugs”. Whenever we are all here at the same time we get together and book shows around the local area.
Winters are high season in the area and the small, normally fairly sleepy, laid back Caribbean beach town comes to life with thousands of tourists descending on the area. It’s an ideal time to be here playing music as there is a built in, ready-made crowd of tourists from all over the world who all love going out and hearing live music. Minimal promotion is required. It also happens to be really cold in Chicago during this time of year, so it’s the perfect time to get away and recharge my batteries. It’s one of the perks of being a childless, self-employed musician.
When I’m here, rehearsing or playing live most nights, I really come to life musically in a way that I don’t when I’m focusing strictly on songwriting and recording, which has been my main focus the last several years. Which isn’t to say I don’t love writing and recording music. I do. But, there’s just something about the excitement and energy of playing live for a crowd that can’t be replicated in the studio. There’s an immediate sense of gratification to playing live that is in many ways the antithesis of something like music licensing where the rewards unfold much more slowly, over time, in a fairly anti-climactic nature.
One of the great things about playing with “The Garden Slugs” is that we’re under no illusion that we’ll ever be anything outside of Cabarete. Which isn’t to say we lack ambition, but due to our circumstances and all being from different parts of the world, we realize our time together is limited and consequently our focus is on simply having fun together and making the best music possible. So, there’s none of the typical pressure that comes with forming and launching a band. There’s zero tension or disagreements. We all sort of take the path of least resistance. If the majority of the band wants to play a song, I’ll play it, even if it’s not my first choice. Conversely, I’ll present songs that I write and want to play and nine out of ten times everyone is enthusiastically on board. This is in stark contrast to other bands I’ve played in where every step of the way seemed to be fraught with disagreements and disputes about what direction to go in, what songs to play, how to market ourselves and so forth.
When I’m here, playing live music, my passion for performing music live is re-ignited. This latest stretch of time here playing music has really inspired to start booking more shows in the States, in Chicago and elsewhere, something I haven’t done for a few years as my focus has been more on writing and recording.
Here's a clip from a recent Garden Slugs performance here in Cabarete, featuring yours truly on lead guitar.
I ran into another musician here from Georgia at the gym recently and we got into a conversation about music and the music business and I shared with him my excitement for wanting to return to the states and get back to playing live music and how I really wanted to push myself to go further in terms of playing live again. His response sort of surprised me, but it inspired this blog post and got me thinking about the broader topic of exactly what success in music looks like in 2020, so I’m grateful for his response. He said something along the lines of, “It seems like you’ve already made it to me. You’re a great musician, you license your music frequently, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have a beautiful girlfriend and you get to come and play music in the Caribbean. Isn’t that enough to make you happy? What would make you happy?”. Something like that, I’m sort paraphrasing his response.
His response took me back slightly because I feel like he sort of misinterpreted my goals and the implication was that one couldn’t be simultaneously happy and reach for greater goals. Which I don’t think is true, at all. I feel really happy most days, yet I also want to push myself to continue to grow and become a better musician and person. Happiness and pursuing goals are not mutually exclusive.
But our conversation really got me thinking about how we should define success in the music industry and how much of our happiness should be contingent upon reaching specific goals. What does success in the music industry, realistically, look like? Why are so many of us chasing success in music (40,000 new songs added to Spotify daily)? What are we hoping to ultimately attain? Fame? Money? Validation from our peers? Self confidence? What really drives us? What really drives you?
The more I reflected on his question and my time spent in the music industry over the last 20 years, in one capacity or another, the clearer the answer became. It’s actually really simple. When I think back over the last twenty years, it’s clear to me that I’m the happiest when I have something I’m working towards and involved in something that motivates me to grow, overcome challenges and so on. For me, a lot of that revolves around music; playing music, writing music, licensing music, etc.. But I think it can be anything really. Whatever excites you enough to get out of bed in the morning, brush your teeth, shower and give this crazy thing called life another go. For most musicians, we need more than just the prospect of working to pay bills and taxes as a reason to keep going. We want to actually be excited and passionate about what we do. We’re crazy like that.
The potential pitfall, in my experience, is thinking you have to reach a specific destination in order to be happy. You could just say, it’s about the journey and not the destination, but I think that’s an over-simplification. You do need goals and targets to guide you and give you something to aim for. But the joy and happiness is a result of the process and the journey and ultimately the growth you experience, as a result of pursuing your goals. I’ve always intuitively felt this, and neuro-scientists have actually proven this recently; that it’s the seeking of goals that brings us happiness, not the fulfillment of our goals. See: https://qz.com/684940/neuroscience-confirms-that-to-be-truly-happy-you-will-always-need-something-more/
Of course, just as there is the pitfall of hinging your happiness on achieving your goals, there’s also the trap of not having any goals at all. Or not having goals that sufficiently motivate you and push you to grow. The realization that your happiness isn’t contingent upon reaching specific goals, isn’t an excuse to simply not have goals or things to strive towards. Because again, seeking goals does bring satisfaction and living an aimless, goalless life is a great recipe for being miserable.
So back to the question at hand. How should we define success in the music industry? Well, for me, I would say it this way; Success is doing everything in my power to move towards my goals and being ok with whatever the outcome is. Fortunately, I still have a few goals left.
To kick off the New Year, I spent the last two weeks with my good friend and songwriting partner, MJ. We spent most of our time together working on several new tracks and collaborating in the studio. MJ and I have been making music together since I was a Sophomore in High School and MJ was a Junior. MJ has performed and sang vocals on multiple tracks I’ve placed over the years.
We had a really fun, productive visit and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of collaborating with other musicians. I don’t really co-write that often these days, but when I do, especially with the right person, it’s a really enjoyable process that brings a new creative dimension to the songwriting process, with results that are often above and beyond what I’m able to do in isolation.
Of course, collaborating with the wrong musician can also be a painful process where you’re constantly butting heads. Collaborating with the wrong person can slow down the songwriting process and hinder creativity. It’s important to choose your co-writers wisely.
Today, let’s look at the pros and cons of co-writing and collaborating, starting with the PROS:
Synergy – There’s a synergy that happens when you get two or more people together that simply can’t be duplicated when you’re alone. There’s something about being together in the same space and bouncing ideas off each other in real time that you just can’t get when you’re working on music in solitude. Which isn’t to say you can’t write or create great music alone, you of course can, but the process is very different when you add other people to the mix. We all have our own unique way of looking at things and it can be extremely valuable to have someone else give input and direction during the songwriting process, especially during moments where you’re feeling stuck or not sure where to go.
For example, one of the tracks I collaborated on with my friend MJ during our most recent visit (which I’ll link to below), was about 75% complete already when we met up, but I was stuck on the bridge in particular, and wasn’t quite sure where to go. I had a bridge that just didn’t seem to take the song anywhere new, it was sort of boring and really similar to the verses and chorus. MJ pointed out this out and suggested we try something a little different and start on a minor chord instead of the major chord I had for the beginning of that section. We bounced ideas back and forth for about fifteen minutes and we ended up coming up with a bridge we both really love, that was completely different than the rest of the song, but still fit perfectly. I most likely would have never approached the section the way we did had I been left to my own devices.
Immediate Feedback – Another great aspect of collaborating is the ability to get immediate, real time feedback about your songs and musical ideas. Music is of course subjective, but it’s helpfule to know how other people respond to your tracks. Especially if it’s someone whose musical sensibilities you respect. When MJ and I got together for our most recent co-writing and collaborating sessions, I played him several tracks I had been working on to see which ones he was most excited about. I ended up playing one song I started two years ago that had been just sort of sitting, collecting dust and MJ immediately responded to it positively. I hadn’t really even thought much about the track until I played it for MJ and he perked up instantly. I had been sort of on the fence about the track, as it’s much more poppy than what I normally write, and I was worried it might be a little on the “cheesy” end, but MJ immediately convinced me otherwise. Having a fresh set of ears to provide this sort of instant feedback can be very valuable and gives you a broader perspective of your music.
Social Outlet – The life of a songwriter/composer can be a bit lonely at times. Many of us spend countless hours in our home studios alone, plugging away at our craft. These moments in solitude can of course yield inspired results, many of my best musical ideas have been born in solitude. But, doing this day after day, year after year, can also become lonely and isolating. One of the great benefits of collaborating and co-writing are the relationships and the socializing that happen as a result. Many of my best friends throughout my life have happened as a result of musical collaboration. It’s just more fun to make music with other people, and I got into this business to enjoy myself, not to become a music making recluse.
Although, co-writing can be a great experience, it can also be a frustrating experience if you don’t mesh well with your co-writer. I suppose it’s like any relationship, you need to have a certain amount of chemistry and connection for the co-writing relationship to work smoothly. It goes without saying if you’re going to be co-writing you should seek out co-writers that you click with, but even in the best-case scenario there are things about the co-writing process that could be looked at as negatives.
Let’s take a look at a few things to watch out for when co-writing:
When you’re writing music alone, you get to call the shots. If you’re a bit of a control freak like me, this is extremely liberating. One of the potentially frustrating things about co-writing, if you’re at all like me, is that there are going to be times where you and your co-writer look at things differently. It’s inevitable. This is of course the whole point of co-writing, to have two sets of creative eyes and ears come together, where the sum ends up being greater than the individual parts. The Beatles became the legendary group they became because of this sort of creative synergy. Of course, The Beatles also fought and had creative differences and would break up after just ten years as a band due in part to their creative and personal differences. That and Yoko.
Many bands throughout rock and roll history have succumbed to these sorts of creative and artistic differences. Watch any documentary about pretty much any rock and roll band and a part of their story usually involves intense creative differences between bands members. Pink Floyd, Oasis, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Chicago, Kiss, Simon And Garfunkel, The Yardbirds, Aerosmith, The Smashing Pumpkins, Journey, The Kinks, The Beach Boys and many more, have famously dealt with creative and personal differences as part of their history. It almost seems like a certain amount of creative tension is a pre-requisite for success in commercial music. Or, perhaps, where there’s a yin there’s always a yang.
My take, after many years of writing music both with other people and alone, is that you simply have to take the good with the bad. Any relationship involving more than one person involves a certain amount of compromise and give and take. The co-writing relationship is no exception. For the co-writing relationship to work, you have to be open to other ideas and input.
A part of this is simply maturity and openness to other ideas. When I was younger, my knee jerk reaction to people wanting to change my ideas was resistance and shutting them down. Now, I’m much more open to hearing people out and giving their ideas a chance. I might not ultimately agree with everything that’s suggested, but I’m open to trying anything musically to see if it works. When both co-writers have this sort of open and flexible approach you can get to really interesting places creatively that you can’t get to on your own.
Another pitfall to watch out for when working with co-writers and collaborators is differences when it comes to the business side of music. These issues have been the downfall for many creative partnerships over the years. When I write music alone, in addition to making any creative decision I want, I’m also free to make any business decision I deem appropriate. I can take chances business-wise and make decisions that I might not be able to if I have another person’s opinion to contend with. I don’t have to run new contracts by other people that might have veto power. Being a free agent comes with a certain amount of freedom you don’t have when working with other people who might not have the same vision.
Like dealing with creative differences, differences when it comes to business issues need to be dealt with maturely with an openness and ability understanding where the other person is coming from. I strive to be as fair as possible when it comes to these matters so there are no hard feelings and so ultimately everyone feels good about the situation. For example, I tend to do a 50/50 split with co-writers on all monies earned, even if in my mind, I wrote 75% of the song. My theory is that any small change in the song could make the difference in the song working or not working, and it’s impossible in retrospect to know what elements of the song make the song work. For example, the perfect bridge could be the difference between a song becoming successful or not, even if all the other elements, that I wrote, were “perfect”.
I’d rather err on the side of caution and be overly generous than squabble about trying to figure out who contributed what, exact percentage of each song. I find that in long term partnerships these things tend to balance themselves out anyway. Maybe I contribute more to one track in terms of songwriting, but my co-writer does more in terms of the production. Or maybe I contribute more on one track, and the next track my partner contributes more to and so on.
In my mind, the pros of co-writing tend to outweigh the negatives. I end up with new material that is much different than what I’m able to do on my own and when things go well, I also end up with strengthened friendships and partnerships. Done right, co-writing, is a win-win.
Here’s one of the tracks MJ and I collaborated on during our recent two week visit called "Light Ahead". This track actually came to me, in large part, in a dream a couple years ago. I woke up at about 4 am, stumbled to my guitar and managed to remember the verse and chorus I had dreamed, sans lyrics.
MJ, in addition to helping write the bridge, also sings lead vocals, harmony vocals and played piano, engineered and co-produced the track. I played guitar and bass and sang a harmony part on the chorus. We hope you like it.
Without further adieu, Light Ahead:
2019 is almost behind us. I’m not sure about you, but I’m really excited for 2020. I’m more excited for next year than I have been for the start of a New Year in a really long time. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why, I just have a general sense that 2020 is going to be a great year for many of us, especially if 2019 is any indication.
2019 was a great year for me personally, both in terms of music and business endeavors. These two parts of my life have become so tightly intertwined that at this point it’s hard to tell sometimes where my musical life ends and where my business life begins. It’s all part of the same over-arching mission, which is to move independent music forward and help foster an environment where passionate artists, myself and others, can comfortably sustain ourselves from our art and live our dreams.
It turns out that’s easier said than done, but 2019 has left me feeling more inspired than I’ve felt in a very long time. Personally, I’ve been making music that I feel is the best I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve signed several really exciting licensing/publishing deals this year that are starting to pay off with a variety of new placements and new potential placements. I also made my first foray into session work this year and played guitar on several tracks for a huge recording project commissioned by Disney/20th Century Fox (I should be able to share some of these tracks in the near future, the project is still in development). I finished a new EP of original music and started a new Album of spiritually themed Indie Folk music that I’ll be releasing next year.
A variety of members of HTLYM Premium have also done some amazing things as well, including securing new placements on Netflix’s The Charmed, The Amazon series Jack Ryan, a variety of placements on The Young & The Restless, Showtime, Netflix, A & E and many more. One of our members has racked up 30K to date from just one song we helped her pitch several years ago. Another has seen their music used on multiple new shows as a result of pitching to the leads she found in our daily leads section. Another has scored multiple film projects. Our members’ music has been heard around the world in countries including The USA, Germany, England, France, Canada, Turkey, Greece and Italy.
And many more. We’ve heard from many of you this year who are doing great things as a result of our coaching and resources. Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to reach out and share your success stories. Please keep them coming! (If you’ve scored new placements as a result of our service, please reach out and let us know, we’d be happy to brag about your accomplishments and help you promote your music.)
So, maybe it’s the momentum of all the good news that’s been coming in lately, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we’re moving into not just a New Year, but an entirely new decade, or maybe it’s just where I am in life at the moment, I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things. But for whatever reason I’m really stoked for 2020 and I’m going to be making some pretty substantial changes next year that symbolize just how stoked I am.
What changes you ask? Well for starters, in addition to everything I’m doing here at HTLYM Premium, I’m going to be really getting back to my roots in terms of the music I make and making that the focal point of my life and my teaching. After all, that’s where my real passion has been all along and what inspired me to start How To License Your Music dot com over a decade ago.
Fortunately, I’ve never stopped making and licensing music for the last ten plus years I’ve been running How To License Your Music. But at times, especially in the beginning, the demands of running and growing my own business have consumed much more time than I anticipated and I ended up unintentionally putting my own music on the back-burner, in terms of my day to day priorities. It turns out that launching your own internet business is pretty challenging. A lot harder than it looks from a distance. But over the past couple years I’ve been shifting back to making my own music be, if not front and center, at least share an equal amount of focus as my day to day business endeavors.
My ultimate goal all along has been to lead by example and share my successes, setbacks, frustrations and breakthroughs with you all, so that you can learn from my own trials and errors. I feel like I’ve finally struck a very healthy balance in terms of educating others, keeping my own musical career progressing and sharing my own journey in a way that’s hopefully both inspiring and informative.
In 2020 I’m going to bring things into even greater alignment. I plan on dramatically upping my own game in terms of the music I make, pushing my tracks even more, making new connections and so on in 2020. I’ve always done my best to lead by example, but next year I plan on making this even more so the case. In fact, I’m so motivated and excited to move things forward in 2020, that I’m going to be moving to an entirely new City and making some pretty major changes in my personal life in order to facilitate my growth and progress. All entirely positive and exciting changes, but to be honest, a little bit scary too.
I consider myself a highly adventurous and open minded person and as a self-employed musician/ entrepreneur, not exactly risk averse. But I’m also a fairly routine oriented person and sometimes, like all of us, I get stuck in ruts. And although I wouldn’t exactly characterize 2019 as a rut per se, (it was a very prosperous year) I know deep down I could be doing more in terms of pushing my own music forward and being an even better example for my subscribers and readers. The last thing I want to be is a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of person.
So, next year, I’m going to be starting a new chapter and taking my blog, videos and podcasts in a slightly different direction. In terms of what to expect, I can’t say exactly yet, I’ll be sharing more details soon. But to give you a hint, I plan to share more of my musical journey with you all, what projects I’m working on, my own networking strategies, what’s working, what’s not working and so on. Basically, the same kind of content I’ve been sharing, but with more of an emphasis on really making an impact in the music industry and really hustling and going for it and sharing the entire process, as opposed to just the successes. (I’ll be sharing some big news related to this on January 1)
In terms of music licensing, all the training and resources we’re offering related to music licensing are now under one roof at HTLYM Premium. My team and I will be continuing to release new courses, webinars and training related to music licensing throughout 2020 at HTLYM Premium, which is where when I’m not busy creating new music, I’ll be spending most of my time and energy.
If licensing your music is your goal and you want to get access to everything we’re doing in terms of premium content and in -depth, cutting edge training, that’s where you’ll find it. You’ll get access to hundreds of hours of premium content as a premium member, including one on one coaching, daily leads, live webinars, weekly mastermind and much more. Remember, you’ll save over 50% off the full cost of a premium membership between now and December 31.
Join today here:
Happy New Year!
One of the awesome things about running my website, hosting my podcast, interviewing people in the music industry and so on, is that I get to keep learning about the music industry. In many ways, I selfishly run my business as much for my own benefit, as for my readers and subscribers. I want to learn as much as possible about the music industry, and what makes the industry tick, as possible so that I can continue to learn, grow and move forward. I want to get close to people in the industry so I can learn from them and potentially work with them.
Although I’m doing this in many ways for my own benefit, I’m also more than happy to share what I learn along the way via my blogs, podcasts, Youtube videos and so forth, because I also want to serve the community. Why? Why would I want to “serve” musicians and a community comprised of people that, for the most part, I don’t even know?
One of my biggest insights over the last few years and after interviewing and working with hundreds of musicians is the idea of shifting to a mindset of service, as opposed to a mindset of “what’s in it for me”. This is a theme that has come up, in a variety of ways, over and over again, in different conversations I’ve had, different podcasts I’ve done and in webinars I’ve hosted. It’s a powerful mindset shift and in this article, I’m going to explore different ways you can apply this mindset to your music licensing and music business journey and explain why it’s so effective.
First, let’s state the obvious. You want to achieve your goals. I get that. It’s totally normal and understandable. We’re all looking out for ourselves. We all have our own needs to meet. We all have to look out for #1. So, none of what I’m about to explain is an attempt to get you to deny that. In fact, I would say that if you’re not more concerned with your needs than those of others there might be something wrong with you. That’s right. I said it. I don’t buy into this whole idea of putting others needs before yours. That sounds a little masochistic to me. How can you actually be of service to others if you’re denying your own needs and goals? How can you be effective in the world if you’re denying your very real and important drives to make your mark on the world? How can you actually be happy and at peace if you’re putting yourself last?
I have a slightly different take on the whole be of service to others mindset that you may have not heard before. I think your needs and goals are actually the most important thing to you. They’re numero uno. But, here’s the catch, the same applies to EVERYONE else you’re working with, trying to work with, networking with, etc.
We all have our own needs and goals, and they are the most important thing to ALL of us. You want to achieve your goals, and so does everyone else you come in contact with. We’re all a bit narcissistic in this sense. Although, really, it’s not narcissism. I mean, it could be narcissism for some people. But really, it’s just survival. It’s the way we’re wired to experience the world. We view life through our own subjective lens and live life from our own unique vantage point. Of course we’re more concerned with meeting our own goals. Our life is the only life we fully inhabit.
Ok, so how does this apply to the music business and achieving your goals? That’s what you really want to know, right? (See what I did there) Well, here’s the thing, since your goals are the most important thing to you, and since this is true for everyone you come in contact with, doesn’t it make more sense to actually consider the goals and objectives of the person or people you’re coming in contact with, first and foremost, if you’re trying to get something from them (help, attention, feedback, etc)?
Wouldn’t it actually be more effective, in terms of making a good impression, to approach someone with the mindset of how can I help you or “serve” you, as opposed to “what can you do for me”? Think about it. Since we’re all basically, on a fundamental level, looking out for ourselves, wouldn’t it be more powerful to start by addressing this base need in those you’re interacting with?
Wouldn’t someone be more willing to help us, if we’re first willing to help them? Wouldn’t people be more willing to want to work with us if we can demonstrate we want to help them achieve their goals? Put yourself in their shoes, aren’t you more likely to want to help someone who has helped you? Can you see how in the long run, by helping others reach their goals, you’d be in a better position to achieve your own goals? My experience, and the experience of dozens of other professional musicians I’ve talked to is a resounding yes to all of the above.
I realize this can sound sort of calculated and methodical. Aren’t we still being narcissistic and self-centered if we’re helping someone with the expectation they help us in return? Maybe. I don’t think it really matters though. It only seems calculated when you analyze it as I’m doing in this article. When you put this into practice, it feels like the most natural and organic thing in the world. It’s just the way the world and human interactions work.
Social psychologists actually have a term for this. I’m not just making this stuff up. Social psychologists refer to the impulse to help others that first help you as “The Law Of Reciprocity”, or the “norm” of reciprocity.
In social psychology, reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.
Reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. Fukuyama  states that “If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist within certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning” (p. 11). He goes on to say “Law, contract, and economic rationality and prosperity…. must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust…. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but rather the sine qua non of the latter’s success” (p. 11) According to the sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1960), this norm is nearly universal, and only a few members of society—the very young, the sick, or the old—are exempt from it.
So, as you can see, this isn’t just anecdotal evidence from a few different people I’ve talked to. This is a principle of social psychology that has been studied and documented and is in fact a universal principle.
Let’s take a look at a few different situations, hypothetical and actual examples from my own life, to see how this principle can be applied:
Scenario 1 – Let’s say you approach pitching your music the way most musicians do. You have a batch of songs you’ve poured your heart and soul into and you understandably want to get them heard, make money from them etc. So, not quite knowing what to do or who to approach, you start blindly emailing anyone and everyone you can think of trying to get them to pay attention and listen. You basically say something like, “look at me!”. “I made this awesome music. Check it out!”. Messages like this tend to be ineffective, because you’re basically doing what everyone else is doing. You’re not really taking into account the law of reciprocity. You’re not really thinking about how you can be helpful to the person you’re contacting. These sorts of messages are all about you, and what you want. Now, granted, if you have amazing music and by chance, someone actually clicked on your link, or opened your mp3, a message like this could work every once in a while. Sometimes we just get lucky and happen to approach someone at the right time, with the right song and the stars align. It could happen. It probably happens every once in a while. But what would be a more effective approach? Let’s look at scenario 2.
Scenario 2 – Instead of just blindly throwing your music against the proverbial wall and hoping someone likes it, let’s approach someone through the lens of reciprocity. What if instead of just randomly hitting people up with random messages promoting your music, you instead actually put a little effort and thought into how you can uniquely contribute to the needs and goals of those you’re contacting.
How? Well, this does take a little work and effort, but it’s worth it. Instead of just sending the same copy and paste email over and over to anyone and everyone, take the time to research those you’re contacting. Try and figure out as much as you can about whoever you’re contacting, before you contact them. Look for ways you can contribute to their goals and mission, with your talents. Research the projects they’ve worked on and are working on (when possible) to determine how you could potentially help out. Do you have music that is relevant to the types of projects they work on? Is your music a good fit overall for the places you’re pitching to?
These types of questions are surprisingly overlooked by most musicians. Most musicians aren’t thinking through the lens of how they can be of service and contribute. Most musicians are thinking of themselves and their music. Again, this is understandable. I get it. But can you see how the second approach would be much more effective and powerful?
Real Life Examples – Think Long Term
The above example is a way the law of reciprocity plays out in the short term in the music industry. Of course, there’s no guarantee that if you approach people this way that they will automatically want to work with you, or like your music. Ultimately it depends on the music you’re making and each the variables of each unique situation. But it will help you get your foot in the door and get your music heard, and that’s a big start.
There’s another way I’ve seen the law of reciprocity play out in the music industry in my own life and that’s simply applying this mindset to all people you work with, over time. Sometimes your actions and goodwill won’t be reciprocated for a long time. You really have to think long term and not be overly concerned about how or when your good deeds will come back to you. But if you approach people this way and adopt this mindset you will see your good deeds come back to you eventually. Call it karma. Call it reciprocity. Call it human nature. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It works just the same.
For example, I’ve been working closely with two musicians for my member site, HTLYM Premium, Gary Gray and Eddie Grey the last few years. Gary and I have been working together since 2012 and Eddie and I have been working together since 2016. There’s a lot of reciprocity flowing between the three of us. Gary and Eddie have both gone above and beyond to contribute to HTLYM Premium and as a result I feel obliged and more than happy to help them out in return. When I see how much work they’re putting into our website and the community we’ve created I want to “pay them back” out of a sense of gratitude. It just feels like the right thing to do and when they see me return the favor, they continue to contribute, I continue to pay them back, and so on and so forth.
Gary recently hired me to perform guitar on six songs he’s recording for 20th Century Fox and Eddie and I have been collaborating on different projects. I don’t think either of these things would have happened had we not had a history of working together, helping each other out, etc. We all help each other. We’ve created a situation where everyone wins.
And to sum up, that’s really what the “law of reciprocity” is all about. It’s about creating win-win situations. Instead of leading your interactions with people with a what’s in it for me mindset, instead shift to asking how you can those you’re interacting with reach their goals and look for ways to create long term win-win situations. That way, everyone wins.
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side. - Hunter S. Thompson
I’m going to go ahead and just say it. The music business is stupid. If my primary goal was to make money, the music business would probably be the last business I would go into. Think about it. It’s over saturated and filled with a ton of competition, all trying to create a product that consumers, for the most part, aren’t even willing to pay for. Let that sink in. The industry is filled with millions of people all lining up, for the chance to give their product away.
The music business is an industry where artists are convinced, after they’ve given their product away for little or free, to then play gigs for nothing but “exposure”. Exposure for what? To promote our free music. Awesome. Sign me up.
The music business is a business, where even when we do discover a way to monetize our music (ie music licensing) we have to wait up to a year to collect royalties (which may or may not be fairly distributed) and most of the time we aren’t even notified that are music is being used when it’s being used, so we have no accurate way to budget or account for the money we’re earning, until after we’ve received our funds.
The music business is a business where of the money that is generated, only about 12 percent actual flows to the artists (the music creators). https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/music-artists-make-12-percent-from-music-sales-706746/
The music business is a business where only about 0.9% of artists ever actually attain mainstream, commercial success.
The music business is a business where if you do actually “succeed” and “make it” in the traditional sense, statistically the odds are you will likely die an entire 25 years before the general population.
The music business is an industry where you’re much more likely to suffer from fun things like mental illness and substance abuse than the general population. According to a recent study, 73% of musicians report suffering from some type of mental illness. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8509490/mental-illness-independent-musicians-study-73-percent-record-union
Many studies have shown that musicians are much more likely than the general population to struggle with drugs and alcohol:
Ok, so now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you with the cold hard facts about the music business, let’s look at the bright side. Thank God there is a bright side. And what exactly is the bright side in all of this?
Drum Roll Please…..
So why in the hell are any of us still making music? Why am I still making music? Are we all collectively insane? Well, that is a distinct possibility. Musicians are known as being a bit of a crazy breed (literally, see above). But I think you probably already know the answer to why musicians keep making music, despite the difficulties we face in monetizing our “product”. I think you already know why, despite the vast array of challenges we face in making a living out of our passion, why musicians feel the need to continue fighting the good fight. I think you and I both know, why despite everything working against us, and why even though the odds might not be on our side, why we have to keep making music.
Why? Because music isn’t just something we’re doing to try and make a quick buck. Music isn’t some sort of get-rich quick scheme we devised to cash in on the latest fad. Music, if you’re anything at all like me, is more like a calling. It’s something that you feel compelled to do on a deep soul level, in spite of what on the surface may look like a bleak and depressing industry.
For most musicians, we’re not doing this for money, first and foremost. We’re doing this because we have to. We’re doing this because if we didn’t make music, that voice in our head would nag and prod us until we simply had no choice but to pick up our guitar or go to the piano, or whatever our instrument of choice is, and allow ourselves to be a channel for the music that wants to flow through us. That, or jump off a bridge.
And here’s the thing. Despite all the challenges and inevitable setbacks, when things are working, when you’re in the zone and writing and performing music from your heart, it’s magical. There’s nothing quite else like it, that I know of. If you’ve been there, you know it too.
Pursuing a career in music might not be the most logical or pragmatic endeavor. But I think for most musicians, we’re not doing this because it’s a “logical”, or practical thing to do. I’m sure we all realize there are easier and more conventional ways to make money.
Most musicians who go into the music business, especially the ones who keep going year after year, with no tangible form of commercial success, are doing this for one primary reason: they love making music and couldn’t imagine a life where they weren’t able to make music. I would even go as far as saying if you don’t feel that strongly about the music you make, if you don’t feel like you absolutely have to make music, you should probably quit and find something else more productive to do. Seriously. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have the fortitude to carve out a meaningful career if you don’t feel this strongly about the music you make.
But here’s the thing. If you really do have a pure, unrelenting drive to make music, you’ll figure out how to make money from it. Even in our current musical economy. I truly believe that. And I’m living proof that’s true, as our countless other artists I’ve worked with over the years, in licensing and beyond. In over 20 years of making music, I’ve never once been without shelter, or without food. Not even close. Sure, I’ve had to take a few odd jobs here and there to pay the bills, especially when I was starting out. There’s no shame in that. But every year it’s gotten easier, and more lucrative. Every year I get a little more in the flow and more and more opportunities show up. And I’ve found that the more I embrace what it is I really feel called to do and trust that things will unfold smoothly, that’s exactly what happens.
There’s also a lot of positive news coming out about the music business in general as we head into 2020. It’s not all doom and gloom. Things are improving. For example, Global music revenues grew at the fastest rate in more than two decades last year, as the streaming revolution more than made up for the plummeting popularity of CDs.
Rolling Stone recently declared we’ve reached a new “golden age” for up and coming artists, as more and more indie artists are succeeding on platforms like Spotify and there’s a been huge resurgence of indie acts playing small theatres and clubs.
Success in music is about working hard, but it’s also about something much more than that. It’s about getting to know yourself on a deep, spiritual level and going to places that most people don’t have access to and channeling that through your music. When you’re able to do that, people will respond positively to your music and even if for some reason they don’t (they will eventually), the satisfaction you’ll get from accessing those parts of yourself will make it all worthwhile. You’ll also develop a deep inner confidence that transcends things like worrying about money, the more you access the creative, expressive part of yourself. I don’t worry about money anymore because I have faith in myself, the music I make, my ability to be resourceful and at the risk of sounding a little cheesy, life itself.
In a not so subtle way, the path of the professional musician is a spiritual path. Regardless of what your religious beliefs are, your faith and inner resolve will be tested as a musician. So, it’s best to have faith in something. If nothing else, faith in yourself and your ability to rise to the challenge of being a musician, because being a professional musician is challenging in a variety of ways.
But, that’s ok. Confronting and overcoming challenges is what makes us stronger. The more you face and overcome the challenges on your path, the stronger and more resilient you’ll become. As Bruce Lee, who was an artist in his own right, so eloquently stated:
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of musicians from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing over 100 different songwriters, producers, publishers and so on for my podcast and website.
I’ve had the chance to see first-hand what goes into creating numerous successful indie music careers in both licensing and beyond, and although there is a lot of common ground in terms of what contributes to a musician becoming successful in 2019, no two stories are exactly alike. Although hard work, persistence, dedication and an “eye of the tiger”, never give up sort of attitude are shared by all, there are a variety of ways to become successful in a variety of different niches.
One of the keys to success in the modern-day music business is finding your niche. Finding the particular part of the industry that you best fit into and can thrive in. I don’t think anyone can really teach you how to find your niche. It’s something each one of us has to figure out on our own, through trial and error. My niche might not be your niche and vice versa.
It’s sort of like dating. There are lots of different types of people out there, and not everyone fits with everyone else. I tend to click with Latin and Spanish women. Almost all of my serious relationships have been with Latin women. Of course, this doesn’t mean all men are going to click with Latin women. There’s something about my laid-back musician vibe and the carpe diem (seize the day) sort of approach to life that many Latin women possess that seems to work well together. But that’s me. What works for you or someone else is obviously going to be completely different based on personality, tastes, background etc.
I feel like finding your niche in music is similar. Part of finding your niche will obviously be based on your unique background, skill-set and interests. My niche is writing singer/songwriter/indie-folk vocal tracks. That’s what I enjoy doing the most and it’s what I tend to focus on the most. As a result, I’ve had the most success with these types of songs. I’ve had a few other styles placed here and there over the years, but my niche, my bread and butter, has been my own blend of singer/songwriter/indie/folk music.
What’s your niche? Do you know? Are there one or two styles you really excel in? Have you figured out one or two niches within the licensing world that you can focus on and dominate in? Or are you all over the map, not quite sure where you fit in?
If you’re not sure yet, that’s ok too. Part of the journey to success in music involves trial and error, experimenting and trying different things, until you find what best works for you. Sometimes we just stumble onto a niche through dumb luck. For example, when I first got started in music-licensing I stumbled upon the niche of writing music for soap operas by accident. The first publisher I worked with, and still work with to this day, places a lot of music in soap operas. For the first few years of my licensing career, I placed music in soaps exclusively. I wrote music for The Young & The Restless, All My Children and One Life To Live. Eventually I was able to branch out into other shows and projects, commercials and video games. But getting music placed in soaps is surprisingly pretty lucrative and I was able to make great money from this niche alone for several years. I still get music placed in soaps to this day. The Young & The Restless, in particular, use my music frequently.
Check out this Y &R playlist for the current season that features my track, Be On My Mind, for an example of a recent song of mine I’ve used. Track #7 below.
So, one of my niches has been vocal tracks in soap operas. But again, this niche might not work for you. Your music might not work in the context of these shows. Perhaps your music would best work somewhere else, in a completely different niche. This is something you’ll need to explore and figure out.
Here are some examples of a few other niches that writers and composers I work with have discovered.
Royalty Free Music Libraries
I worked with a client recently who informed me they were bringing in an average of 5k a month from just two royalty free music libraries. The libraries are both well known, easy to find royalty free libraries that are both pretty easy to get accepted into. I won’t tell you the exact libraries and give away my clients source of income, but there are plenty of royalty free music libraries to choose from. Just Google “royalty free music libraries” and hundreds of sites will come up.
A lot of writers sort of look down on these types of libraries due to the fact that they sell music so cheaply. I used to have this attitude as well. But, then again, this is a case where it’s more about quantity than quality and although I’m not big on cranking out mediocre tracks just to pay the bills, I’m all for writers figuring out how to support themselves from their music. This particular writer came to me because he was looking to branch out and expand his licensing work int other areas. But, hey, having a consistent 5k a month coming in from royalty free tracks is nothing to scoff at.
I’ve talked about my buddy Chuck Hughes a lot on my blog over the years, because he’s a great example of an artist who has found a successful niche. Chuck and his band “The Hillbilly Hellcats” create very well produced and well-crafted Rockabilly music and Chuck has done a great job at getting tons of placements for his and their music over the years. Over 3,500 placements last time we talked! I think one of the main reasons Chuck has done so well in licensing, apart from the fact that his music is great, is that Chuck’s music addresses a specific niche in terms of genre; rockabilly. Rockabilly might not be the first style that comes to mind when you think of music licensing, but Chuck’s music has been used thousands of times in TV shows and commercials. He's a big fish in a relatively small pond you could say.
Check out my recent conversation with Chuck about his success in licensing here:
My producer, Gary Gray, has discovered a lucrative niche within the licensing world, which is doing re-records for companies like Disney and 20th Century Fox. Gary has been contracted to do multiple re-records of well known, existing songs for use in commercials, tv and films. I’m not sure if I’m at liberty to say how much Gary earns from these projects, but suffice it to say, it’s a very lucrative niche.
I’ve worked with and have created composers with a couple different composer/writers that have specialized in writing music for commercials. This is a great niche if you can break in. Commercials tend to pay more than songs used in TV Shows. In some cases substantially more.
To learn more about this niche, check out my podcast with Michael Lande from Orange Music:
Production / Instrumental Music
Another niche I’ve seen multiple writers excel in is music that could broadly be defined as “production music”, or as Joel Feinberg from De Wolfe music described it on my podcast, “functional music”. Music that serves a function. I’ve worked with multiple writers/composers who have carved out careers in this specific niche, creating background music for use in TV shows. Like royalty free music, this is a case where you need a lot of music for the math to make sense, in terms of creating revenue. The good news is these tracks are much easier to create quickly and efficiently than fully produced vocal tracks with real instruments.
I created a course with a composer who makes a full time living just from Youtube ad revenue alone. Dhruva Aliman is a composer from California who figured out how to generate enough ad revenue from his Youtube videos alone to support himself. He teaches you how to do it here.
I’m sure we’ve all heard about Spotify by now. Although we all know how little Spotify pays per stream, if you get enough streams, it adds up. I’ve worked with several different artists now who have figured out how to generate substantial revenue from Spotify by getting millions of streams.
Check out these recent podcasts for two examples of artists getting millions of streams on Spotify and how they did it:
These are just a few niches to consider. There are many more areas you could look into within the niche of music licensing. Things like creating trailer music, specializing in other specific genres, creating your own music library and so on are all worth exploring.
Ultimately, a big part of success is figuring out what niche or niches you can excel in and doubling down on those. It’s hard to get any real traction in this business if you’re all over the place. It’s sort of like life in general I suppose.
I turned 45 years old a few months ago. Although I still feel more or less the same as I did 20 years ago, and as far as I know I’m still in good health, the truth is that with each passing year, my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber decline. Not that my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber were ever very good. But each passing year, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that my dream of becoming a teen heartthrob/pop star are slowly diminishing.
Jokes and sarcasm aside. Just like you, I’m getting older each passing day, each passing month and each passing year. Let’s talk about what it’s like getting older in the music business and how our age affects our role within the music industry.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves. Becoming a rock or pop star at any age is a one in a million sort of endeavor. The odds of “making it” in the music business arguably get harder as you get older, but it’s not really easy or likely (statistically speaking) at any age. Most musicians don’t become as famous as Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift at any age, and the odds are even more against you as you get older.
So, although the mainstream music business is arguably a very youth and looks oriented business. Most artists never become mainstream at all anyway. Most artists will remain in the realm of “indie” artist throughout their careers. According to my research, only about .4 percent of artists make it into the “mainstream”.
That’s the bad news I guess you could say. But it’s also sort of liberating when you think about it. Screw the mainstream music business is what I’ve always said. Actually, I’ve never said that, but I’m going to start saying it, because, the reality is although “making it” in the music business was always a long shot with the odds stacked against us, making a career out of music isn’t, and it’s something we can do at any age. in many ways it actually gets easier and more likely the older you get and there’s new data coming out that suggests it’s never been a better time to be an “indie” artist.
The Advantage Of Age
The reason age is advantageous in terms of building an “indie” music career is because building a viable music career takes time. Let’s take something like licensing. Licensing, although a competitive industry, is still a totally viable way of making money with your music. The main obstacle in terms of building up income with something like licensing is time. It takes time to create music. It takes time to network and build contacts. It takes time to build up a revenue stream from music that’s sustainable. It can take years to build up a licensing catalog to the point where it generates a sustainable revenue stream and as the years accumulate, you will of course be getting older. I think most musicians who fail to make it in something like licensing, simply give up too soon.
The good news is that, for the most part, no one really cares how old you are when it comes to something like music licensing. No one has ever asked my age when screening my tracks and to the best of my knowledge no one really cares.
Age is also an advantage in terms of simply getting better at the craft of writing and playing music. It takes time to learn and master an instrument. It takes time to excel at songwriting and composition. There’s really no end to growth in either of these endeavors. I feel like I get better at songwriting with each passing year. I have more life experience to draw from. I have more to write about. I have more to say. The same is true in terms of my skill as a guitar player. I continue to improve each year and I feel like I’m playing much better now than I ever have because I’m continually racking up more and more hours as a guitar player.
Also, depending on what style of music you play, age isn’t necessarily a factor in terms of playing music live. For example, I’m really into jambands, blues and jazz, in addition to songwriting. These genres are much less age-centric than mainstream pop and rock. There are plenty of thirty, forty and fifty somethings and beyond, playing live in these genres. Of course, having time and youth on your side never hurts. It’s arguably easier to deal with the stress and overall lifestyle of pursuing a live music career when you’re younger. But don’t discount the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.
In many ways I’m grateful I didn’t go further as a performing musician when I was younger, because I don’t think I was mature enough in my twenties and early thirties to deal with the lifestyle in a healthy way. In retrospect, I could have easily fallen into a very unhealthy lifestyle in terms of things like alcohol and sleep deprivation had I had more “success” when I was younger. Thank God I didn’t.
With age comes experience and wisdom. And although I’m not currently touring, I still perform live an average of once a week and I always make it home at a reasonable time and manage to get in a full nights sleep and wake up refreshed and hydrated, bright eyed and bushy tailed.
My buddy Chuck Hughes from the Hillbilly Hellcats (see previous podcast here) didn’t start touring until he was 45, my age now. Now in his 60s, Chuck was able to carve out a great indie career both touring and licensing his music, and he didn’t even get started touring extensively until he was 45!
One of my favorite guitarists, from one my favorite bands, Nels Cline of Wilco, is 63 years old. Nels didn’t join Wilco until 2004, when he was 48! The music business is filled with examples like this, if you know where to look.
Focus On Building A Career
One of the reasons I’ve focused so extensively on things like licensing and simply becoming a better musician and songwriter, is that I want to focus on things I can control. I don’t need the added pressure of worrying about getting too old hanging over me. It’s hard enough creating a viable music career as it is, without worrying about something that’s inevitable and completely out of my control.
The bottom line: Don’t let something as natural and inevitable as aging deter you from pursuing and doing what you love. I’m a big believer that having things in your life that you’re passionate and fired up about will actually keep you younger and more youthful longer. There’s absolutely no reason to stop doing something like creating and performing music just because you reach a certain age.
It might be too late to become the next Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, but it’s never too late to keep doing what you love. If you’re still alive, you can still make music.