Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More Trouble With Radio...

I've responded to Doug Erickson on AllAccess, hehe.....
Here's what I wrote:

Doug's insights are of course spot-on. Content IS king. But there's more to it than just that. But what? A growing number of radio experts realize that "something" in radio just ain't right.

But so many of them, present company excluded, hack at the leaves only. In order to know how to fix a problem, you first need to understand what it actually is. But, just like auditing the Fed, the very fact that people finally notice that "something's" rotten in the state of Denmark is a very positive thing. If this reaches critical mass, who knows - we just might get some real change. For a change.

To be sure, there is no easy recipe here. We're not just dealing with years of self-imposed and deeply-entrenched rationale for why the status quo is great. The real problem with radio these days is the spirit of the times. It's the Zeitgeist, folks!

It's that same centralized corporate-wanna-be-governmental structure which is eroding the individual liberties of ordinary citizens one at a time; it's that same bottom-line-obsessed chicken-sh*t attitude that forces record companies to churn out mindless cookie-cutter songs performed by people in diapers, while discarding patient artist development; it's that same flock mentality coupled with obsessively-controlling mindsets of station owners, which forces straight-jacket-like "formats" on presenters and deliberately divides and polarizes their audiences.

You a triple-A listener? Well then top-40's not for you! And you ain't ever gonna listen to jazz either. Don't you dare surprise anyone with your radio shows!

Does someone here actually know ANYONE (just ONE person!) who ONLY listens to ONE kind of music? Only one "format?" If you do, I bet they ain't much fun to be around! WHO invented this drivel? Who wants to be Big Brother here? Since when do ordinary intelligent people need this kind of thought-control? We ordinary folks like to mix things up a bit y'know. You can't "make us" care for your programming if YOU don't care! And DON'T tell me that you also ONLY care for JUST your station's format!

When an "elite" station decides on doing just ONE thing for a select audience, that's, erm... ONE thing. But when an ostensibly "popular" or "commercial" station decides on polarizing their listeners, treating them like a "really large elite"... Dude...! There's no such thing as a "large elite". It's an oxymoron. Look it up, I swear I'm right.

But then, you see, virtually ALL commercial stations have adopted this INSANE model by now. And they've all developed an acute case of F.I.B. (format-induced blinkers), not even marginally aware they're just going in circles! And have been blissfully doing so for the better part of the last 30 years. No wonder everyone's all dizzy!

Does it mean there's something wrong in playing just rock? Or just hip-hop? Well, no, not really. But if you're gonna do it 24/7 then dontcha think you're missing out on something? You MIGHT be pleasing that oddball 1% of your audience who really are too darned THICK to enjoy anything else, but you're LOSING your remaining 99% who WILL switch to an R&B station now and then. And while switching, they will NOT think of you as their heroes either. When switching back, they'll tune in to ANY other station, because it SOUNDS THE SAME as yours. "Yea but we have these great DJs with their special voices and 'characters'." Sure, man. You do. But if they're not allowed to speak their MINDS and play what THEY like, then they're just cute VOICES. Form over substance.

The normal intelligent listener who only has a little time to listen to radio is looking for something that will hold his or her attention. Something that will give them that "gee I didn't know that" experience, or "wow, that's so cool - I'd never have heard THAT if it wasn't for THIS wonderful station!" kind of thing.

Variety is the spice of life. Modern popular radio has forgotten that, big time.

Internet is winning with radio because people make their own variety. Only thing is, it's so darned confusing for even the savviest web-surfers, that finding something fresh and new - and GOOD - is not all that easy. THIS is where radio has a HUGE OPPORTUNITY. Be the taste-makers. Not reluctant-but-willing major-label followers (hehe, I think this summarizes the paradoxical conondrum radio is in pretty nicely).

Think about it. Radio and Records eat out of each other's hands... while growling at each other. It's a case of one hand washing the other, but not really wanting to. And WHO is responsible for this? The short-and-sweet answer is: ANYONE who supports this!

I suppose there is just one way to solve this problem. It's hugely unrealistic, I know. Because it involves letting go, relaxing controls and allowing oneself just a touch of humility. Something like "gee I DON'T think I know everything, so maybe I should take a chance on this thing..." And that of course means guts.

You might think that the root of the problem lies with the TOP brass. Not with the fine men and women who actually man the mics. You'll rightly point out that it's because they want to CONTROL everything, they don't TRUST YOU the presenter to know what you're doing, they're AFRAID to lose even a quarter rating point on trying something new, and they are therefore the corporate equivalents of the NANNY STATE. They crawl up your backsides with high-powered microscopes, treat you like idiots - and convince you that you really, really LIKE IT!

But then... you know what happens next? When YOU are asked what YOU would prefer to do - you wholeheartedly endorse the current model. You wouldn't change a thing.

So - that's who's responsible.

Content costs money. Yes. I can attest to that more than most. But what price integrity? Vision? Passion? Guts? Honesty?

This is why people like Doug need a bigger following.
Create an "eye-openers' club" or something, Doug.

Best of luck!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Trouble With Radio...

It's been a while, eh? That's what a 24/7 working week can do for ya. No time to write blog posts. But today I felt strongly compelled to comment on a post on AllAccess.com. I quote what I wrote below - it was written in response to an article by the rather legendary Guy Zapoleon (you can read the original article here, it's most interesting: http://www.allaccess.com/consultant-tips)

Excellent and insightful analysis, Guy. Thanks!
But in my view, it's just one aspect of the problem.
Would you indulge me in a little rant?

Mainstream radio strives to second-guess their listeners. It's a "taste filter" on the one hand, and a "trend-follower" on the other. Already here you can see a contradiction in terms and the reason why this is all but an illusion.

Today's mainstream radio neither shapes the taste nor does it truly follow (monitor & reflect) what the public is listening to - or may want to listen to. And this, more than anything is the root of the problem. This is why people are turning to the jungle that is the internet, and reluctantly go back to radio for some guidance, and quickly return to the web filled with disappointment. There's such a huge need for guidance through the maze of new music, and radio doesn't even BEGIN to address this vacuum.

The perceived "folk wisdom" among radio programmers seems to me to be to follow the major record labels. But to make matters funnier still, the opposite is equally true. The labels follow what they think radio wants to do! And this, we know, is a case of the blind leading the blind.
The result? Even the "extremes" sound like "doldrums!" Flicking from one station to the next, the listener is soon filled with a sense of boredom. And it's not just that all stations sound virtually the same these days. It's compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the music is cookie-cutter, square and simply uninspired. Who picks all those gawd-awful songs?!

So what does radio do to address this problem? Do they seek out NEW music? New ideas? Better DJs? No. But they SAY they do when they do their "new music discovery" shows, which are nothing new at all, as we all know. Do they keep their hand on the pulse, try to figure out what listeners want? Nopes again. They SAY they do, because they receive listener feedback (but they "interpret" that feedback through the prism of what they think they know about the market, through labelling genres and styles and through mind-boggling over-formatting).

I'm old enough to remember the days when a station might play King Crimson right next to the Stones, followed by Bobby Vinton, and then throw in a little comedy track perhaps. Hell even an occasional Classic! Days when the DJs went out and soaked up the music of their communities and then played whatever THEY liked.

I don't think I know anyone in my immediate surrounding who only listens to one style, or only to the latest music, or only to the oldies. And I interact with hundreds of people of all ages, regularly. In fact, just about everyone I know is genre-agnostic and much, much more open to TRULY new music than ANY radio station seems able or willing to admit.

Radio is running around like a headless chicken now and it's looking for solutions to its woes in market analyses like this, and relies on artifically-imposed "rules" for what sort of balance their programming needs to have in order to retain their listener base. Mind: not "gain new ones" - they're happy just to hang on to what they have!

But the answer is so much easier than most programmers think - and it's also a lot harder. It's harder, because it requires guts (hey, anyone remember what that is?), and imagination (I'm not even gonna ask...) - and keeping your ear close to the ground. And it's easier, because all radio needs to do is to allow some fresh blood into the system. It's that simple!

Want proof?

Check out the little internet-based radio show called Fame Games Radio (www.famegamesradio.com). It's also being broadcast terrestrially in the States (as of recently through Envision and Triton/DialGlobal; previously through ABC), as well as in various countries around the world. The show's mission is simple. Play the BEST new music in the world (and "new" in this case means "unsigned" or "independent"), and let the community decide what the station should play, i.e. what really is "best."

The "community" is made up of listeners, artists, music professionals, radio jocks, PR people, licensors... but most importantly - they are real FANS of music. As a result, you'll hear FameGames shows with heavy metal right next to light pop, right next to some jazz...

And you know what? ALL the music there has immense crossovver potential. The show is formated as a "competition" with 6 lively hosts representing widely different demographics - Americans and Brits, kids and older people, rockers and hiphoppers, professionals and fans.

They meet the "populist" requirement (catchy songs, crossover potential, popular competition) with more "elevated" demands (not just slickly produced pop tracks get airplay, but ANYTHING which is "credible" and good and which people get behind!). The result? Some of the best and most insanely compulsive music you've never heard.

So how's this "proof" you may ask? Well, okay. After four years on the web, well over 5 million listeners. And that's not counting terrestrial. And continued growth plus a huge following and loyalty from the stations that do take a chance. And all that against ACTIVE opposition from radio stations which COULD help. Not just help "FameGames" along with all the great new music they promote, but also help themselves!

Want proof that radio has lost its edge and vision?
  • CHR stations don't want FameGames because it's not "new music." It's "unknown music." Huh? (So now we know that "new" doesn't mean "unknown". Cool, let's alert the dictionaries).
  • Rock stations don't want the show because it sometimes plays hiphop.
  • Urban stations dont want it because it plays too much rock.
  • Talk stations don't want it because there's too much music, and music stations don't want it because there's too much talk.
  • Extreme stations don't like the occasional doldrums, and the doldrum stations hate the occasional extremes.
Meanwhile listeners vote with their feet.... erm... ears...dials - whatever.
Also meanwhile, the radio industry is analyzing what to do.

But it's like the four blind man examining an elefant. The first one has the trunk, the second holds it by the tail, the third's got one of the legs and the fourth is touching the belly. What is an elefant? It's like a snake, says the first, so be very very careful! It's a kind of whip, says the second one, so use it like one. It's like a pillar, says the third, so clearly it's meant to support things. It's like a drum, says the fourth, it's for banging!

Analyses, like yours, Guy, are precious and invaluable. But if they aren't taken in context and if radio professionals don't become LISTENERS themselves - radio will never recover, simply because it will never know what that elefant really is.
Kind regards,


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Improving Your Songwriting Skills

Let's face it - songwriting is not just an artform. It's also a craft. If it wasn't - a monkey could do it. Many artists visiting Fame Games are already excellent songwriters, but others only show potential which is yet to be fulfilled.

Amateurs often have a common argument against "learning" songwriting. It goes something like "you can't learn this thing, you're either born with it or you're not." Needless to say, and without much additional qualification, this is one of those "leave me alone I'm afraid to learn and fail" kind of arguments. You may be born with a special talent for something, but it will come to nothing without further development.

In my previous posts, and probably in some of the upcoming ones, I'll touch on some useful techniques for getting "more" out of your songs. There is an element of subjectivity in this, of course. But it's a bit like listening to someone speak. Some people bore you to tears even if the subject of their talk is very interesting. Others keep your attention even when they talk nonsense. We all have a radar in us which somehow knows what is "good" and what it not. We may differ on that point from person to person, but the overwhelming majority will tend to agree with each other at least on the general principle. It's just a fact of how our psychology works.

Some key points to keep in mind, when writing songs. And it's just a small sampling.
  • Keep it real. Avoid meaningless and boring topics unless you really feel they need to be told.
  • Keep it interesting. It may be just a key hook line or the entire lyric, it can be minimalistic or slightly wordy, but it needs to mean something to your listeners. Tell this story to a friend and see if he gets it. This doesn't have to be anything high-flying or philosophical. You may just want to write a song about partying and having fun with the opposite sex. But you can say it in a way which makes your listeners fall asleep - or you can put a smile on their faces.
  • Ensure that the lyrics have a strong and balanced meter, and rhymes (if used) are strong and not banal. Don't "settle" for makeshift solutions. Make sure you know what your lyric "wants" to say and then find a way to express it. This will more often than not mean a LOT of revision.
  • If your lyric has a good rhythm, so will your song. A well-written lyric virtually "sings itself." Many songs have "forced rhythms" - for example cases where a syllable is stretched unnaturally in order to make the rhythm work. This is not the same as extended syllables which are there for special effect or because they just need extra emphasis or styling. This is about those lines where the writer simply couldn't think of a way to make the phrase balance and he's cheating by stretching or contracting words until they fit. This technique CAN work, but all too often it comes across as simply amateurish.
  • Learn about chordal progressions. Some progressions "flow" and are natural and some are... erm... challenging. Some progressions are so well established that they're known as "power chords" and you'd be surprised at just how many songs rely on them. The familiar C-Am-F-G progression works with children's melodies but it's also the basis of many classic hits. If arranged well (the right inversions, clever dynamics and rhythms) you might not even recognize it. Don't be afraid of using "standard" chord progressions, but do challenge yourself to ensure that they come across as fresh.
  • Ensure that your melodies aren't "glued to the chords." Melodies which follow chords have been done to death in the past and any new song which uses that technique immediately sounds boring and dated, with few exceptions. Deliberately "flip out" some notes in your standard melody and see how the song gets transformed. Try your melody against different chords. Does it sound more interesting? But keep in mind that melody lines are like lyrics: you're always re-using familiar elements, but you need to put your own stamp on them. Between intervals, meter, rhythm and dynamics - and a bit of divine inspiration - you have all the tools you need to write something that nobody's heard yet.
  • Push yourself. Subject your songs to analyses and cold-listens by unsuspecting strangers. Clock their facial expressions more than their words (which are often cautious compliments, even when they're not deserved). Find ways to write your songs so that the physical reactions you get become undeniably positive.
  • Come up with tricks to improve your songwriting. One such "trick" isn't really a trick at all, but it can completely transform the way you write your music. Get another singer to sing your song. Not because they're "better" but because they're DIFFERENT. If you know a singer who's great get him or her to "interpret" your song. Try it with your melody line first, then ask them to just feel it and do their own thing with it. Then, get a "poor" singer to sing it. Watch him or her kill your song and unconsciously deliver a parody of it. The lessons you'll take away from this can be invaluable.
  • Study other great songwriters. Note that songs by greats such as Lennon-McCartney, Elton John or Diane Warren survive decades and lend themselves to virtually any musical style. How did they do it?
  • Always ensure that your demos are done properly. They can be simple or complex, "produced" or not - but the basic values need to be there. Strong confident instrumentation and vocal, "flowing" arrangement, hooks, little surprises - and a decent mix.
When reviewing demos, "the song" is always the biggest consideration. Given two songs, one of which is beautifully written but poorly produced, and the other hastily written but beautifully produced, all too often the latter will win out. This is because "production" is just another word for "presentation". We all know that it's not clothes that make the man and we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. But the fact still remains that first impressions are always going to be critically important. So have the depth and the content and all that - but also ensure that you grab their attention from the start with your craft - even if it's basic. "Basic" is ok, as long as it's "proper!"

Don't forget to check out my sub-blog "Write a Song About This"

Monday, October 5, 2009

Never Mind The Styles (Or: What Is Art?)

What's with all those genres? Country, hip-hop, rock, folk, etc... New artists often define their songs in those terms. "This is a country-style tune" they might say. And then you listen to it and discover that it sounds nothing like what YOU think of as "country." The world is full of hybrid songs which don't really belong in any clear box or category.

So what is it about those styles? What's in a name?

It seems to me that inasmuch as any of those labels convey any meaning, it must have something to do with "belonging" and by extension, with an "idea of belonging." Think of it like this. In the days when Western movies were king, young people everywhere idolized their gun-toting heroes, they wanted to be a little bit like them, and do what they did. The music those horoes listened to (or at least the soundtrack made you think so), was mostly Country & Western. It comes as no surprise, then, that this genre was doing really well in the mainstream back in those days.

But as cultural icons change, so does the music which accompanies them. Folk was the music of rebellious intellectuals who wanted to question everything. The likes of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen opened up popular music to meaningful lyrics. Rock in almost all of its early guises was the music of liberation and a break with convention. And so was punk and - perhaps even more so - hip-hop. All of these styles came from real environments and as the public-at-large learned to identify with them, the style would enter the mainstream consciousness new idols would appear and imitators would spring up like mushrooms after rain.

Many of the subsequent superstars were not, by any stretch of the imagination, the real thing. Was Johnny Cash a cowboy? Was Cliff Richard a rebel? Was Vanilla Ice a boy from the hood?

So, while the music by many contemporary artists may not be totally true to its roots, and is, for the most part, only a vague imitation of the originals, one must not jump to the hasty conclusion that it is therefore invalid or too derivative to be worth anything. In fact, it might even be quite the contrary. Do you have to be an astronaut to be able to imagine how he or she feels? Does it mean you aren't allowed to study astrophysics? Or at least to make "space" tunes? Do you have to live in the ghetto to empathize with those people's plight and later write a passionate song about it?

Clearly, no. In fact, we must remember that all art is just a synthesis of influences, and those influences can not only be widely divergent, but they can also be personal as well as imaginary. A song - or any piece of art - needs to be judged not so much on the "authenticity" of its originator but on the cohesion, poingnancy and beauty of its creation. Does it create something within the listener? Good art, good music, is completely capable of doing just that! In fact, it may even be the very definition of art, that unless it contains the power of creation within itself it isn't really art.

And what is it that good art might "create?"

Starting with provoked thoughts, vague or particular emotions, feelings of sadness, happiness, anger or joy, a wish to enhance the communication with others, or the wish to retreat and think some things over - that's what art is all about. And never mind the styles...!

Don't forget to read my newest sub-blog - "Write a Song About This!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Makin' It - Part 99999.....

So how DO you make it as an artist in this world?

I'm not sure I can tell you anything beyond what you probably already know. You have to have superb songs, produced just right and you have to present yourself as an attractive (not necessarily "pretty") package. That's step one.

Then, you need to perform live and showcase your music in any way you can think of, premier among these outlets being your local radio - and other radio if you can get to it (tough one, I know!).

Next, you need to be in a community, be it your local musicians, music and media people or an online group. You need to be active, friendly and supportive of everyone you meet.

Furthermore, you need to invest some funds into your own promotion, be it newsletters, press releases, posters or merchandise - and ensure you start actively building your fan club. When you have an active database of a few thousand fans and you can pack a local venue, you need to start inviting the "right" music business people to come and check you out. And by that time you already need to be friends with music lawyers, A&R men and other artists. And, finally, you need a little bit of luck at each step of the way.

But most importantly, you need endless perseverance. That's not as hard as you might think, if you actually LOVE what you're doing. You'll need to secure some financial backup, of course (and that might be a night job somewhere), but if you persevere and never get daunted by setbacks, delays and critiques (all of which makes you better and stronger!), you will increase your chances tremendously.

But among all those do's and dont's the one thing that will ALWAYS stand out is THE SONG.

If you can write a GREAT song, you'll shortcut the above process by a factor of 1000. And THAT is why it's so important to write songs that are REAL and unique to YOU. But also structured cleverly enough for them to find a wide audience who understand what you're talking about and want to hear that message again.

Take the time it takes!

Ultimately, what wins out is well-organized TALENT THAT PERSEVERES... who has GREAT, TIMELESS songs!

Make sure you check out my sub-blog "Write a Song About This" - http://writeasongaboutthis.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Fallacy That Is A Hit Song

One of the things we do here on Fame Games is try to find a "hit song" among all the independent material submitted to us, and then push that along to our contacts in the industry, in the hope that some of our artists will be rewarded with lucrative deals! Wouldn't that be a perfect proof of concept for Fame Games! (We're now beginning now to slowly fulfill that dream...)

And yet, none of us support those cheesy manufactured "hits" written with only one goal in mind: to make money on a musical format for as long as possible.

We come from varied musical backgrounds. Even though some of us have been quite involved with some very successful artists, producers and managements where having "hits" was certainly never spat on, we are quite unanimous in our agreement that the creation of music must be organically driven and "real" and that contriving your arrangements against your instincts only so that they might have a chance of becoming "commercial hits" is a path of self-destruction - and it harms the public ears!

But we're also open to the reality of life. For an artist to be able to sustain themselves from their art, they need at least a degree of recognition. And this, quite often, means that their music must have "credibility." It must be well executed, it must deliver its message in the best possible way for the target audience it is aimed at, and... it must be a "hit" if it is to get the artist noticed. And for us, to have credibility as an A&R platform we must prove that we can indeed find the "best of the best." And only then will our artists truly stand to benefit from those efforts.

The way we think of a "hit" is a song which "hits you over the head" and makes you remember the particular artist. If you produce, listen to and "consume" music for a living, and in the quantities that we do, you soon develop a sense of what "connects" and what doesn't. Erm... except that we don't always agree. (Which is why we've spent years fine-tuning a system which is supposed to help us in making those decisions...)

When we recognized how futile it is to look for a "hit" song, we dropped that word from our vocabulary for quite a while, until... we got picked up by a major radio network whose affiliates didn't want to play unknown music! For them it's not enough that a song is "good." It's got to be a hit already. No, not "a potential" hit. A bona fide hit.

You can't believe the struggle it was for us to convince our reluctant affiliates that radio CAN help DISCOVER future hits (like it used to). We're still fighting this battle. As we reconize that giving our artists maximum exposure can only be helpful to the vast majority of them, we also recognize that we must meet our affiliates (and especially the undecided affiliates) half-way.

So we started using the slogan "Looking for the next big radio hit!"

What do you think? Does this work? What would you do differently, if anything?

Don't forget to check out my other blog "Write A Song About This!"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Swimming Against The Tide

The world of corporate music and radio is a frustrating one. For one thing, it's got absolutely nothing to do with "music" or "radio." It's all about the bottom line, supporting data, and business drivers.

If you're an idealist who just wants the world to be a better place, you're gonna have a little problem. For the world to hear you and graciously accept your message, you'll need the largest platform you can find. But when you finally find it, you'll discover that nobody wants to support you if your vision breaks any of the established paradigms. As if it wasn't hard enough already!

There are two main ways of having it your way.

Neither is guaranteed to work. In fact, both are nearly guaranteed to fail, but it's all we've got. The first way is to simply do what you do and disregard the opposition. If your goal and message are powerful enough, then enough people will get behind you and your music or ideas will eventually sweep the world and it will become a better place at long last. The second way is slightly more underhanded. You blend in with the establishment, establish yourself more and more, and when you're ready you start executing your noble agenda - eroding the system from within and the world becomes a better place at long last.

The trouble with the first method is that I can't at the moment think of anyone who's actually succeeded in it and is around to tell the tale. The trouble with the second method is that before you start breaking the rules, the system corrupts you and you become "one of them." For example, did you know that Alan Greenspan was an outspoken critic of the Fed and an ardent supporter of the gold standard? Until he joined them.
  • Joining the elite in order to introduce change is a near-certain recipe for losing touch with your base.
  • Going it alone is a near-certain recipe for alienating your base - because you're the lone nut after all!
So what gives? How can we achieve something better if none of the systems seem to work?

Perhaps we have something to learn from the spy business. And from Sun Tzu's Art of War . Or Machiavelli's. Double agents have infiltrated governments and organizations and have successfully managed to bolster the interests of their "base" (until they got caught). Couldn't we all become agents for change? Only trouble is... "change" without a precise definition can be pretty problematic. There has to be a definition of what "change" is "supposed to" mean. Perhaps it's best then if I finish by quoting Sun Tzu: "So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a thousand battles without a single loss."

What does all this have to do with music or radio? The sooner you find out, the sooner you can become part of the solution, and help move your dreams that much closer to reality.

Also check out my other blog Write A Song About This.