Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tom Petty & the Dying Breed of Singer/Songwriters

I’m writing this a couple of days after the death of singer/songwriter Tom Petty. I’m not one of those people who likes to wax eloquent on social media every time some musician or entertainer dies. Nor am I someone who dwells on the circumstances of their death or the pathos of it all. But when I heard that Petty had died, I felt sad. For myself mainly. There is one less good singer/songwriter alive. As I said in a simple post on Facebook, “In this unpredictable world one could always predict another great song from Tom Petty!”

Singer/songwriters like Petty are literally a dying breed. I am talking about people who sit down with a guitar or piano and pull out something magical out of thin air to share with the rest of the world — completely on their own. This is a unique gift that is not given to all musicians. Even the most talented ones do not have this ability to put lyrics and melodies together time and time again. Full disclosure: I am a singer/songwriter. It is also the genre of music that I enjoy the most.

The singer/songwriter era started in the 1960s with The Beatles and Dylan. Until then, songwriters worked mainly for publishers and created songs for other people to perform. This meant they only wrote songs that had commercial value. Singer/songwriters, on the other hand, could express their emotions more freely. And so it was for the next few decades. The sheer volume and quality of songs created by singer/songwriters during this time is quite mind-boggling. However, this is a genre that is slowly dying out. I think humanity will be poorer for it.

In the world of rock music today, one can literally count the prolific singer/songwriters that are still alive: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, Carole King, Sting, Paul Williams, Barry Gibb, Ian Anderson, John Prine, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Steven Stills, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot, John Fogerty, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon... I’m sure I’m leaving out a few, but my point is that these numbers are not being replenished in great numbers by young singer/songwriters today. I will add John Mayer, Sufjan Stevens and Jack White to the list of younger songwriters. They are prolific and write good songs even though they are not that young anymore.

I am not considering songwriting duos and collaborations in my definition of singer/songwriters because I think their songs are different from a song created by one person completely on his/her own. Partnerships like Bono/Edge, Jagger/Richards, John/Taupin, Henley/Frey, Gilmore/Waters, etc. have created some memorable songs. However, they usually don't reflect the soul of the writer the way a song written by a single individual does. I am also leaving out professional songwriters who pitch songs to other artists. They are craftspeople who have an entirely different raison d'ĂȘtre than singer/songwriters.

Maybe, it's just me, but I like seeing the soul of the artist reflected in his or her work. Most of the authors and singer/songwriters I like have this in common. Even in detective fiction (the genre I like the best for easy reading) there's a big difference between the novels of John D. McDonald, Colin Dexter or James Lee Burke to those of Agatha Christie, Lee Child and James Patterson. Although I enjoy all these authors, I appreciate the former more at a deeper level.

It's the same with music. I can enjoy any song with a good melody and lyrics that I can relate to -- but songs that come from the heart and speak of a personal truth of the performer are far more appealing to me. Once you discover a singer/songwriter or an introspective author, you are in essence taking a journey with them as they live their lives. What they go through, what they believe in, who they are, and their view of the world is usually reflected in their creations. You don't need to read the tabloid papers to find this out. And, what makes them artists is their ability to express the core of their humanness that audiences can extrapolate to the human condition in general.

This is what I lament the most about Petty's death and the marked decrease in the numbers of singer/songwriters today. Who are the prolific young songwriters of today who will someday have a body of work like those of the songwriters mentioned above? Jackson Brown was sixteen when he wrote "These Days." Cat Stevens was 21 when "Tea With The Tillerman" was released.

I've been at open mics (the first stop for any aspiring singer/songwriter) for a few years and I find that most performers these days do mainly covers. Others have a couple of original songs but still usually perform covers. Some have original songs, but sound very unpolished and have no aspiration beyond it just being a hobby. Very rarely does one see a singer/songwriter with material that is original and convincing.

Maybe the musical tastes of audiences have changed. If Dylan had appeared on the scene today instead of in the 1960s would he have had the same impact?

Or maybe there's no future in being a singer/songwriter these days... and any money in it either. I'm not very encouraged by some of the related news I've been reading recently. Guitar makers like Fender, Martin, etc. are posting big drops in sales. The percentage of kIds learning how to play an instrument is at an all-time low. Record companies that take on aspiring singer/songwriters are almost non-existent.

I was watching an excellent interview with Petty on YouTube from a couple of years ago, after the release of his last studio album, Hypnotic Eye." One of the things he talks about is the magical nature of where his songs come from, and the ability to tap into a certain place to get the songs. "But I'm afraid to stare into the light for too long," he says. I know exactly what he means. It's the same place I get my songs from. You don't know where the songs come from but you feel fortunate to be able to get them.

So, what's the future in music? I sometimes sense a regression to a time before the advent of singer/songwriters -- when songwriters and performers were two separate professions. Most popular music has followed that dichotomy and continues to do so today.

Or, I could be wrong about singer/songwriters dying out. The Internet allows songwriters to reach audiences they never could before. This may produce a new breed of singer/songwriters who can write, record, and get out their music successfully without a middleman. I'm trying to do it myself.

Time will tell. But right now, I'm looking at all the singer/songwriters who have shaped my life dying one by one and feeling sad that I will not be hearing anything new from them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A not so brief introduction – Part 4

I didn’t write a lot of songs during the rest of my years in college. I was too busy with my course work and other things. But I did write one or two songs every now and then. It’s hard for me to pick up my guitar and not get pulled into a new song. I’ve let a lot of songs go by as well over the years. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to write it down or to make a recording. These days, it’s almost too easy to record song ideas, and even videos which allow you to put down chords and strumming patterns, on a smart phone. I have dozens of them on my phone at any given time. We didn’t have it so easy those days and I’ve lost many a song idea that came to me.

Another reason I didn't write many songs around this time was that my apartment was broken into and everything I owned was stolen. They cleaned out everything including the furniture. The thieves posed as movers so the neighbors thought I was moving. I came home around 10:30 at night and found literally an empty apartment. My cat was so scared, it took her a day to come out from somewhere. Among the items they stole were my acoustic and electric guitars, my amps, and my computer. The cops went through the motions but they basically told me that the chances of recovering my stuff was zero. It took a couple of years to replace the guitars with my current duo -- a Taylor 310ce (which has the best plugged in sound for live performances and a real sweet tone for recording), and a deluxe American Start (which is also the most versatile electric guitar). I also have a cheap Ibanez bass I use and a Line6 POD for guitar effects.

By the end of 2000, I had graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and had been working as a creative director for several years. I also had a catalog of almost 50 songs. I decided to experiment with recording. I picked up a MOTU828 and an Audio Technica studio microphone. The MOTU came with a slightly stripped down version of Digital Performer. I started recording at home on my iMac with this set up.

I learned how to use the audio interface and the software entirely on my own by getting totally immersed in it for a few months. That’s how I usually teach myself stuff – by getting into it intensely. I learned desktop publishing the same way… and Photoshop… and Final Cut Pro… and GarageBand… and Adobe Muse. In a few weeks, I had learned how to record and mix a song completely. I bought some drum loops from Beta Monkey and added drums to my songs. Finally, I could slowly hear my songs come to life.

Of course, my biggest impediment then (and now) is my ability to play what I hear in my head on guitar. I decided to find a producer and musicians to help me record my songs. I met with a few producers and finally settled on one. I started recording my first album, “The Dark Edge OfThe Light,” in 2000. I picked songs that reflected the theme of the album – dark but with a ray of hope! It took about a year to complete the 10 tracks, mix it, and make the cds at Disk Makers. I couldn’t afford to waste studio time, so I made multi-track recording of each songs and took them one by one to the producer. In many instances, they were almost complete. I was listening to my originals the other day and it was remarkable how close they are to the studio versions. It cost me about $700 for producing each song with full instrumentation… times ten for the album! That was a lot of money. I was recently married then but we didn’t have kids yet. So, my wife allowed me the indulgence. I don’t think I’ve got back the money I spent on it yet. I still have 500 CDs sitting in my brother’s basement in New Jersey. Send me 5 bucks for a copy!

I did learn a lot about playing, recording, and mixing during the process though. I insisted on being there in the studio and mixing booth for every second I was billed. I watched and learned. I loved the experience of being in a studio and having a producer deconstructing my songs and offering suggestions for the instrumentation. I still enjoy watching a song come alive slowly track by track. I went on to record a few more songs in a professional studio with other musicians. After my kids were born, I could not justify the expense of recording my songs professionally any more.

My next major project was writing my novel “Bangalore Baloney.” I wrote the whole novel thinking it would have a companion cd of songs. I couldn’t find a publisher for it with the songs and I didn’t have the means to produce the 16 songs in it on my own. So I decided to publish the book by itself. I managed to record a few of the songs in the studio before realizing I couldn’t afford to do it on my own.

By this time in my life, my songs were getting more mature. Songs from the novel, like “From There To Here,” “Butterfly’s Dream,” and “Time Will Show,” are all important songs in my body of work as a songwriter.  I released another cd, “From There To Here.” It was a compilation cd of some new and old songs. By this time music distribution had changed considerably. I released it on cd – but in much smaller quantities than my earlier one. I’d started playing live and started selling it at venues where I played. I sold enough for a second pressing of the cd this year.

Which brings me to how things are today. The music industry has been turned on its head now. It’s very hard for independent songwriters and musicians to even consider making a living from their music. Most full-time musicians have to hustle just to get by. Many survive by offering their services in music production or graphic and web design to songwriters. As someone once told me, if you want to make money from music these days, offer a service that independent singers and songwriters need. Derek Sivers realized that early. He was the musician and songwriter who started CD Baby in 1997 offering music distribution to independent songwriters. He sold it to Disc Makers in 2008 for $22 million.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how someone like me – a singer/songwriter who wants to record and publish his own music – can make any money today. I’ve been looking at my digital sales and trends online. The good news for me, and anyone who produces digital content, is that if you own it completely, and once you bear the initial cost of putting it online, you can (in theory) collect money on it in perpetuity.  So far, I have a book and about 20 songs online. I usually make about 20 bucks on them in a month if I am lucky – just from random sales and song plays without any marketing or publicity efforts on my part. My goal is to have all my songs for digital distribution and a couple more books at least. By adding a little marketing to the mix, I may be able to finally start making some real money someday.

Looking at sales and plays around the world for my songs, it appears that catchy titles grab peoples attention. Short titles work better than long ones. Arresting album art that is easy to see and uncomplicated visually even in thumbnail form gets more clicks (my argument for releasing singles rather than albums). Up-tempo songs do better than ballads. Of course a good song stays on someone's playlist and keeps making money.

It is disheartening to see what people are paying for music today. Most listeners want to pay NOTHING for the music they listen to -- it's almost an accepted norm. Even in the years when I struggled to make ends meet, I spent at least $20 a month on buying music (a couple of albums). Now you can subscribe to a service that offers you all the songs you can listen to for less than 10 bucks. Guess who's getting screwed in this arrangement -- the musician and songwriter who make a fraction of a penny (specifically $0.004891) for each song play. No one buys songs anymore. Even paying 99 cents for a song is considered too much by the average music listener. A million song plays earn you about $5,000.

This lack of commitment and the general reluctance of the average listener to pay for music will ultimately be met in kind from people who make the music. That’s the law of demand and supply. These days you can’t justify spending thousands of dollars on producing an album for the fraction of a penny you get for each song play on Spotify. People don't pay anything for music so their standards for audio quality are also low. Music purists are few these days. Most of the music out there is low-res mp3 files. No one seems to care. I’m going to write a longer post on this subject soon, but my point here is that I’ve decided to consider getting out as much of my songs and stories as possible in the near future on the cheap. If I produce the song myself, it costs me $23 to master it and release it digitally through CD Baby (including the cost of the ISRC code). This allows me to sell my music on all the music outlets worldwide forever. Putting my songs out there also protects the songs from copyright infringement. I can't even make a video for myself anymore without CD Baby stepping in to claim royalty on my behalf.

So even if I don’t become rich in the near future, maybe my songs will generate some income for my kids for years after I am gone.Or maybe I'll get a licensing deal... or someone famous will steal my song. I wish!

Thanks for reading. Buy a few of my songs and support independent music. Now on to the real posts...

Friday, September 22, 2017

A not so brief introduction – Part 3

I’ve been working for a living and supporting myself completely on my own since I was about 18 years old. I got my first job was when I was 17. It was as a copywriter at Perceptions, a small ad agency in Bangalore. I was hired on the strength of my lyrics. I used to carry a journal where I scribbled words, chords and other ideas. I showed it to the owner as examples of my writing. I was offered the job. During my tenure, I also came up with music and words for a couple of jingles in addition to standard copy. I worked at Perceptions when I wasn’t attending classes in high school, or pre-university as it was called – and then full-time once I graduated. I also wrote album reviews for a couple of small newspapers on the side. The best thing about this was I got the latest albums to listen to, even though I had to return them when I submitted my article.

Things were a lot different those days. Most young people couldn’t afford to buy musical instruments, unless they had rich parents. I didn’t. After some months of working, I bought an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar and amp. My friend, Krishna (who wanted to be a drummer) and I, had dreams of starting a band and playing only original songs. We even recorded several of our songs on an old cassette tape recorder. He couldn’t afford a drum kit so he banged on an old suitcase with his hands. Sometimes he brought along a bongo that he had at home. We kept the neighbors up, playing well into the night in my parent’s garage.

I started my own design studio and ad shop when I was 19. Things were a little hectic after that and I didn’t have much time to spare anymore. Krishna and I would still hang out late into the night swapping songs, and talking music. He had convinced his parents to buy him a drum kit by this point. We were obsessed by music and writing songs. Those were heady days and I can still remember the excitement we felt at being able to write songs. We didn’t know what to do with the songs though. If you played Western music, covers were the norm those days in Bangalore. There was no interest in original music. Other musicians didn’t want to play our songs. Several people even laughed at our enthusiasm and ridiculed our efforts. But I simply felt we were ahead of our time and shrugged it off.

And life went on…

Fast forward to some years later, and I was in New York City doing an undergraduate degree. I was also barely surviving. I was on a student visa and allowed to work only a few hours every week. I had a full international scholarship which paid some of my tuition. I supplemented this by working for the college dean doing publicity for student programs. I was also the editor of the college newspaper. At night, I worked for a printing company doing mechanical layouts, cutting paper, operating the bindery and anything else. This was before they had computers or digital printing. Most days, I got to work only after the sun went down and worked past midnight – locking up the shop when I left.

I barely got by that first year. To stretch my money, I usually had a full breakfast of 2 eggs, 2 sausages, 2 slices of toast, orange juice and coffee at the pharmacy counter next to my college. It cost $1.25. I skipped lunch and bought Chinese take-out for dinner (usually fried rice and chicken wings) for $3.95 which I ate for 2 days. I had no money to hang out with anyone after class for a couple of years until I started earning a little more money. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to further my musical ambitions. It was so near and yet so far! I was close to all the clubs and music venues. But I didn’t have the time or money to do anything.

However, one thing I did consistently was write songs. And I wrote a lot of them. Many of these songs were sad and full of despair. I still remember a few of them, but I haven’t performed or recorded almost anything from that period in my life. Here's one I sometimes play called "Morning Light," and the link to a live performance of it.

Morning light wakes me up to another day
Feel its gentle glow wash all my blues away
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

When I was young I thought I could make it on my own
But as I'm getting older I find my fears have grown
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

As night time comes I turn and look for a friend
But I was born alone and I know that's how it will be in the end
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

And I know I will be all right
By morning light

 It’s almost like I was a different person then. Someone I can’t relate to anymore. I bought a cheap Casio keyboard and tried to teach myself to play. I gave that up quickly. But, it had a drum machine so I was able to get a beat going in the background while I played guitar and sang over it. I also used the chord function to add a bit of organ and piano to my songs. That was my first stab at DIY recording. I used to get creative by moving the Casio around the room until I got the sound I was looking for. I had a double cassette boom box with an internal microphone. I experimented with that as well. I also recorded songs from the radio on cassette. The highlight of my day was when I recorded a new song I liked from the radio without much DJ talk on it. I copied from tape to tape and sent compilations to my friends in India.

Yes, it was a pathetic existence and I can still remember those days clearly -- maybe even with fondness now! I lived in a tiny basement studio apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It cost me $325 a month. My landlords were a sweet, old Greek couple (little did I know then that I would become a Greek by marriage a decade or so later). They were very nice. I often got home to find a plate of stuffed peppers, moussaka, pastichio, or grape leaves on my dining table.  My kitchen and bathroom was at the bottom of their stairs and was always accessible to them. There was no privacy. The apartment was old and dingy with a couple of small windows at street level. My kitchen consisted of a small electric plate and ancient refrigerator in the boiler room. My sink shared a connection with the clothes washer. I didn’t have a TV for almost 6 months. My boss at the printing company took pity on me and gave me an old portable black & white TV he had in his basement. I could only pick up 3-4 stations on it. I didn’t watch much TV. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of songs. That’s all I did when I wasn’t in college or working. I didn’t have any friends. I had no one to invite home. Nobody invited me to theirs. Or to a movie. Or for dinner. I remember one incident during the first month of college. I was sitting in class and talking to a bunch of freshmen. One of the girls went around giving out printed invitations for a party she was having. She gave one to everyone in the room, except me. I realized that I was the only foreigner/brown guy there. Sadly, I was also probably the only one there that didn’t have even one friend in New York City. I sometimes repeat this story to my wife and kids now and they can’t understand why I still remember this incident. I don’t know myself. Maybe any perceived slight was all in my head. Or maybe I remember it so I never forget what it feels like being all alone… or of being a stranger in a city full of people… or of being a minority and an immigrant… or of the sense of confusion and embarrassment of being shunned because you don’t look or talk like everyone else in the room.

Fortunately, the gloom and doom didn’t last for long. In a couple of years, I had a lot of friends and was invited to several parties. My elder brother also came to the US as an immigrant during my 3rd year in college. He got a got a good job in advertising on Madison Avenue and graciously invited me to stay with him in his brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I also met the girl who I would marry around this time. Things started looking up from that point on.

To be continued…

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A not so brief introduction – Part 2

I am a self-taught guitarist and musician. I am not so great at either of these. I can’t read music and I don’t know music theory or scales other than some positions of the major and minor scales. I’m not proud of this -- but I know I am a good songwriter. Maybe when the songs dry up, I will spend my time learning music theory and how to play the guitar better.

When I was 15, I taught myself to play guitar just so I could put the tunes and words in my head in some tangible format. I couldn’t get my dad to buy me a guitar or take lessons. I used to borrow my older brother’s guitar when he wasn’t home and teach myself to play and write songs. We didn’t have electronic tuners those days. Someone told me the phone’s dial tone was an A note and you could use it to tune your 5th string. I doubt if my guitar was ever tuned correctly until I had an electronic tuner many years later. I started writing songs almost as soon as I learned to play a few chords. I learned the open chords G, D, Am, E, A and C first. I wrote over a dozen songs with just those few chords in the first year. Even now, I usually start writing in G major and transpose it later.

I’ve tried to teach myself music and to play better several times but within 10 minutes of picking up a guitar, I tend to drift into songwriting. I can’t keep up with all the songs that come to me sometimes. I feel very fortunate to have this gift of words and music. I usually write all my songs completely on my own. I have collaborated with others though. When I was 17, to about the age of 21, my friend Krishna and I wrote about 50 songs together. They were more the Lennon/McCartney sort of collaborations. We each brought words and music to the table and the other person made suggestions to make it better. I recorded a few of those songs as demos that you can listen to on my website. I have also collaborated for fun on music forums many years ago. But I prefer to write on my own.

These days, I produce all my songs on my own as well. In GarageBand... in my garage. I wish I could play better. It would make the process much easier and the songs much, much better. But with modern advances in recording technology, even my playing can be made to sound presentable. I recorded my first CD as well as four singles at a studio with professional musicians. It was quite expensive -- but I appreciated not having to stretch my skills as a musician and sound engineer. Now I record everything on my own. It’s great having the time to try different things instead of rushing along because you’re paying for every minute of the musicians and engineer’s time. My vocal performances are certainly better. Mastering, which was the last barrier to DIY recording, has been broken down by automated online mastering services like LANDR.

I consider myself a truly independent musician. I do everything myself – from songwriting, producing, and playing… to website design, videos, album design, photography, marketing and anything else that is needed. My other career as a creative director and marketing expert supplements the music perfectly. I feel lucky to know what I do. Many of my musician friends are unable to take their songs to distribution because of the expense involved in producing and creating the collateral needed to distribute their music.

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A not so brief introduction -- Part 1

I’ve been writing songs for over 35 years and have over a hundred finished songs. I also have hundreds of snippets of songs, lyrics, song titles, and hooks on napkins, books, recorded on my phone, or rattling around in my head somewhere. I enjoy a career in marketing which pays my mortgage, but songwriting is what I enjoy doing the most. It is also what I believe I was born to do and a true reflection of who I am as a person.

I am not famous as a musician or songwriter. But in the small music circle I hang out in, I am respected as a prolific songwriter. I perform at a few open mics and small venues in the New York Hudson Valley region – mainly to road test my songs. I have released a couple of CDs of my music which are available in all the digital music stores worldwide.

I was about 17-years-old when I wrote my first song, “Distant Thunder.” I made a demo recording of it last year which you can listen to on my website. I grew up in Bangalore, India which is now considered the IT capital of the world. In those days, it was known as the Pensioner’s Paradise for its salubrious conditions. It’s crowded and polluted now because of expansion gone amok. I wrote a song about it called “Bangalore."

I loved growing up in Bangalore. I went to Bishop Cotton Boys’ School which was modeled after a British public school. People are surprised by the fact that, until I graduated from high school, I only spoke English. India is a land of many languages and it was just easier for everyone to just use English all the time – at least in school. We only spoke English at home as well. Many of my friends spoke in their mother tongue at home. But when we were together, we only spoke in English. Kids who went to schools like Bishop Cotton also shared a common culture – which comprised of a mixture of British, American and Indian influences. We used American slang, aped British accents, watched only Western movies, read British and American fiction, wore imitation blue jeans, went to restaurants where they served steaks, chicken pot-pie, and spaghetti Bolognese, and listened to folk, country, blues, and rock music. We still enjoyed our Indian food, and for many of us that was the extent of our Indian-ness.

My musical influences from a young age tended to be singer/songwriters or bands who wrote their own music — Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, The Beatles, The Eagles, Dire Straits, Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep, ELO, Jim Croche, JJ Cale, Gordon Lightfoot, The Grateful Dead… I was drawn to intelligent lyrics and good melodies. I got into Dylan only in my early twenties. He was a bit too rough musically for my ears before that. However, in the years since, he has become my biggest influence as a songwriter.

To be continued...

Tom Petty & the Dying Breed of Singer/Songwriters

I’m writing this a couple of days after the death of singer/songwriter Tom Petty. I’m not one of those people who likes to wax eloquent on s...