A Blog About Nothing

No, there is no connection to Seinfeld and the notion of “a show about nothing” implied by my blog title. It’s just that I’m starting out writing not having the slightest clue what I’m going to write, or even what topics I might address. I just feel a bit guilty for not having written a blog in something like four months. I’d originally hoped to be writing on the order of once every week or two, or at least once a month, then it got to more like once a quarter year, and now it’s even past that.

It’s not even that I don’t have anything to say. I’ve probably written enough words since my last blog to more than fill daily blogs, or even come up with a few books’ worth of material, if that is, they were on any single subject or set of topics that related to one another somehow. Some probably were, but most were just reactive responses to questions someone posed, be it via personal e-mail or messaging or on a public or semi-public group. Then some were responses to statements someone made, where I just felt I had to speak up with another point of view however similar or dissimilar it might be to the original post.

Somehow, though, writing a blog always seems to feel a lot more daunting. It feels like it should be about me, or at least my first-hand experiences, yet it should also be related in a way that would be interesting to others.

I’m just not all that interesting, and my day-to-day activities just aren’t all that exciting most of the time. I mean I get up, make breakfast, do breakfast dishes, fire up the computer, and sit in front of a screen most all day. I occasionally get up to move to a musical keyboard (as opposed to a computer keyboard) or microphone, or just to go get a drink of water or whatever. At some point I’ve got to cut out to make dinner for my family. After that, they’ve pretty much got their own stuff to do. Thus, after playing some piano and singing for a while, both because I enjoy it and to keep my chops in shape, I generally catch a short nap to catch up on some needed sleep. Then I’m usually back at the computer until the wee hours of the morning. Isn’t this paragraph making you yawn?

The largest percentage of my workday is spent working on recordings. They tend to take me forever since I’m doing everything myself. Occasionally I also get to write new songs, which, of course, adds to my backlog of songs needing to be recorded. Oh yeah, then there’s a lot of time spent at e-mail, mostly discussing the music business, songwriting craft, or music production technology (I also write music technology reviews for an e-zine a few times a year). There’s also the research side of trying to figure out what I need to do to take care of business and other administrative dealings in the rapidly changing world of the modern music business.

When people ask me what I do, I generally say I’m a songwriter. Honestly, though, it often feels like I spend only a small minority of my time writing songs. The vast majority of my time goes toward doing all the ancillary things that are involved in trying to get those songs out into the world and to figure out how to try and eke out a living in this industry. I’ve had some success in the former, but not much in the latter.

Speaking of getting my songs out into the world, my ideas of what that means have, perhaps necessarily, changed over the years I’ve been doing this. When I started out writing songs, back in high school or junior high (if you don’t count that one-off three-line song I wrote in the fifth grade — “I really like to fish/And have a little wish/I wish I’d catch a fish”), it was mainly because I had visions of becoming the next Elton John. I figured I’d need some original songs to do that. There really wasn’t any question of how I’d get my songs out in the world. I’d be recording them, selling millions of records and cassettes (yeah, I know, I’m dating myself — at least I didn’t say 8-tracks, though that might have been the operative format when I started writing), and touring the world performing to large audiences.

I have to admit that idea still appeals to me, albeit probably replacing “records and cassettes” with “CDs and digital downloads”. Nevertheless, somewhere in my late twenties or early thirties — I’m 47 now — I figured the odds of my making a living that way, in a music industry that was heavily focused on youth and visual image, were decreasing rapidly and getting to the point of near extinction. I shifted my focus to the notion of my songs’ getting out into the world through other people who could take them a lot farther than I could. It wasn’t until I got on the web, in the mid-to-late 1990’s, though, that that notion started to bear some fruit. Since then, my songs have literally been all over the world, recorded by artists as far away as Norway and Mongolia. Still, the notion of those songs’ actually working their way into any sort of public consciousness has remained elusive. The closest I’ve come thus far is having one song go top five for both radio and video airplay in Mongolia, a country of less than three million people, via a budding young pop star over there named Nominjin. I’d had a few single song publishing deals out in Nashville that I’d hoped would lead to cuts with big name artist here in the USA. While my songs did get pitched to some of the biggest names in Nashville, as well as some up-and-comers, in the end, nothing came from those deals.

What really struck me at that point was how dependent I was on other people, sometimes multiple layers of other people, for getting my songs out there. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but in a music business that is increasingly dominated by financial interests, with the music taking a back seat, the decisions at each layer of possible acceptance or rejection increasingly become less about the music and more about vested interests. It’s not even a case of, “all things being equal, we’ll go with the one we’ve got money invested in.” Rather, it’s more like, “unless there is a massively compelling reason to do otherwise, we’ll go with the one we’ve got money invested in, then the one with at track record, then one from whom we need brownie points, then the one recommended by someone we know personally, then…” I know I am risking sounding like sour grapes, or like I’m making excuses. However, I suspect anyone who’s worked in big corporate environment, be it in the music industry or otherwise, will probably understand how this can happen. And anyone who’s listened to commercial radio in the last decade has an idea of the results.

I might add that it’s not all that different in the independent music world when you’re relying on other singers to get your songs out there. Some of the political pressures go away, and there generally aren’t many layers — often I’d be dealing directly with the artist or one of his or her parents. Of course, there is very little money in that market, and the great hope is to find someone with great potential early and develop a relationship that can provide for future opportunities if that artist makes it big. In that world, the dependencies are different. First off, only a minority of the artists truly has the level of talent that could take them very far. I have heard some artist demos of my songs that have made me absolutely cringe — think an order of magnitude worse than William Hung. Then again, there are some immensely talented ones, too. (I’m still not parting with the early 1999 demo cassette I received featuring a then high school-aged, but already immensely talented, singer from Oklahoma named Carrie Underwood!) The second barrier in that arena tends to be change. It seems that most of the artists looking for songs are young, typically in their teens or early twenties, though occasionally there are some older ones, too. Things start out with the artist going gung ho, then some major life event happens, such as graduating high school, getting married, becoming a parent, having family or health issues, etc. All of a sudden, the music takes a back seat. This is probably as it should be in most cases, but this doesn’t change the fact that all the time you’ve spent on something is dependent on someone else whose priorities have changed. Those artists who get past the first two barriers are generally the ones who truly have talent. The next barrier tends to be when they start writing their own songs, and decide they will be doing those exclusively from that point. Or, alternately, they get other, better-funded individuals or companies interested in helping them out, and vested interests enter the picture again. At this point it becomes much like the major label artist scenario (if it isn’t literally one of those scenarios).

Wow, I think I’ve been whining! They whined a lot in Seinfeld, too. Hmm….

Anyway, while I’ve never really giving up on the notion of other people recording my songs, over the past year or two I have also begun trying to begin getting my songs out into the world in ways over which I have more direct control. Besides performing a little more regularly, I’ve put a few of my own recordings out there via iTunes and other e-tailers. (Besides just the downloadable recordings, there are also on-demand CDs, downloadable lead sheets, and now even ringtones available — see my web store for the latest list of products and stores. Hey, Seinfeld had commercials, too!) I’m not exactly setting the charts on fire, but each month my music gets into the hands of a few more people. Every once in awhile I’ll hear of how one of my songs and recordings has played a part in someone’s life, from being played in a church just before a couple’s wedding vows to being used to underscore a milestone in a man’s AA program progress. When I think that those people could have much more easily chosen a song from any number of artists other people had actually heard of, those moments become all the more satisfying. Of course, that also begs the question as to how they heard of me, or at least how they stumbled on my music and decided to give it a chance despite never having heard of me.

Lately I’ve been working on a full-length album. If you’ve been checking out the songs I load on my MySpace profile, you’ve already heard a few songs that are at least good candidates for the album. Which specific songs end up on the album and when the album will be released are still to be determined, but I’m shooting for a total of twelve songs, and my best guess at a release date is sometime during the first quarter of 2008. How long it takes me to finish the recordings is the biggest near term bottleneck, then I’ll have to deal with licensing considerations for co-written songs once I’ve got the list narrowed down.

Another area I’m hoping to target in the not-too-distant future is getting my songs into movies, television shows, and other multimedia works. The main bottleneck there is also getting recordings done, so getting the album recordings finished is more or less a prerequisite.

While my performances have been limited to Southern California for quite a while now, I’ve at least been starting to think about the notion of trying to get out a bit further afield. I love traveling, and the notion of combining that with performing for live audiences (another of my favorite things), has always felt a bit like the Holy Grail to me. Of course, the obvious challenge is trying to find a way to do that practically since people don’t generally come out to hear singer-songwriters they’ve never heard of. It seems like the few who have heard of me, and like my music enough to go to a live show, are fairly well dispersed around the USA and overseas. Who knows, though? Maybe there are people who’d like to see me perform in their town that I just don’t know about? Just to get an idea, I’ve just added a “Demand It” control, from Eventful.com, to my MySpace profile page and the Gigs page on my main web site. I figure if there are enough demands between now and Summer 2008 to do some kind of house concert, coffeehouse, or stadium tour — hey, I can dream, can’t I! — I’m game.

In the interim, for anyone who’s in Southern California, I do have a show coming up in late November. I’ll be adding some Christmas songs, including all the songs from my 4-song Christmas EP, That Time of Year (hint: you can “gift it” at iTunes or get on-demand CD versions from Lulu — oops, another commercial message from our sponsor), to my normal fare for that show. I’ll probably be adding another date or two in early December, but I’m still waiting for confirmation of any additional dates at this point. My show list on MySpace is always up-to-date, though, so stop back anytime for the latest list.

Okay, well, I guess I’ve made enough ado about nothing. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rambles.