Saturday, July 30, 2016

Size Matters

Let's talk about music (rock and metal music, anyway), especially the media on which it's produced now. This is a point I've made pretty consistently over the years, more so since things have shifted so drastically to a la carte digital -- the traditional cycle of a 50-60-minute album, usually containing at least 25% "filler" tracks, supported by a tour of 9-12 months in duration, is (or should be) dead and buried. The only reason it persists is because most bands (that is, bands who are not at The Top, whatever that means these days) spend at least some of their touring season at festivals, where the costs are more scalable and the crowds are much larger (even though you're competing against dozens of other bands for their attention).

The paradigm shift of the past decade in particular points (at least to me) in the direction of shorter, tighter "album" sets, supported by shorter tours, peppered with "special" releases of one or two "bonus" tracks in the middle of the season.

In the past, the length of the work was circumscribed by the absolute limits of the medium, starting with vinyl. You had forty minutes to work with, twenty minutes per side. For some bands, that meant getting nine or ten songs asshole-tight, and figuring out how to most effectively sequence them on the record. For the prog-rock bands of the Seventies, that meant writing a side-long suite for side one, then maybe populating side two with somewhere between two to five shorter songs (even though the "long song" on side one was typically, as mentioned, a suite, a composite of several shorter, loosely-connected songs). Typical examples of this format might be Yes' Close to the Edge, Rush's 2112 and Hemispheres, Genesis' Foxtrot (although technically in the last example, Supper's Ready is side two and preceded by a very short classical guitar piece).

The prog format ran out of stem when it became clear that the more self-indulgent bands were simply writing for the medium, letting its limitations dictate the ultimate structure of the songs, which became more and more disconnected with the realities of normal people, who wanted something to listen to at a party or trying to meet someone to go home with. Most people -- and as a lifelong musician, it took me years to understand this -- do not want to listen to your concept album derived from some book from a hundred years ago that they never heard of. That's not necessarily anti-intellectualism, it's simply a recognition of the primal effect of good rock music.

Then compact discs came along, first with roughly sixty minutes of available space, gradually increasing to about eighty minutes. It made sense at first that musicians and record companies would try to give people "their money's worth" by filling the thing up as much as possible. It took them years to realize that people would usually rather have forty-five minutes' worth of good or great songs, than thirty to forty minutes of hits, and another thirty to forty minutes of stuff the musicians would otherwise not have released.

The economic reasons existed on both sides of the equation, of course. If you're already spending five or six figures on a studio and producer, and you can squeeze in an extra few tracks in the block of time you're already paying for, it makes sense to get the most out of it. You never know what B-side or "deep cut" is going to capture people's imaginations and become a cult or long-tail hit down the road, even if it never makes the radio.

And now with the convenience of MP3s and FLAC and all that, and the tempting ease of swiping music, there is no more filler per se. People listen to the tracks they want in the order they want, pure and simple. This allows the listener to disengage from the artists' intent even more.

Despite the fact that music is no longer the product, the fact is that there are more and better musical artists out there than at any time I can recall in my lifetime. Even prog has made a comeback; a better way to think of that music (which I love, by the way; I listen to bands like Riverside and Soen just as much I listen to Motorhead or Primal Fear) might be as headphone music. Those bands can and do play live, but it's a type of music that is most effective one-on-one, introspective, contemplative.

Anyway, calling back to the "new model" I alluded to back there, if I were in a (low- to mid-level) touring band today, this is how I'd go about it:
  • Keep the recording process as simple as possible. Fuck expensive studios and producers; you don't need them anymore for rock music. Get a copy of Pro Tools (or Cubase, Propellerhead, whatever) and a decent laptop. Get a handy friend to help you frame a 10'x10' or 8'x8' mini-studio in your garage. Get a couple of cheap mikes (SM57 for guitars, SM58 for vocals) if you must, but these days you can line-in dry and add a few effects in the mix, and it will sound fine.
  • All of the above equipment, by the way, should cost you less than $2k total, and probably a lot less. Places like Best Buy and Guitar Center will give you a card if you have a pulse and a job, and are usually interest-free for 12-18 months, so rather than putting it all upfront on a regular credit card and carrying the interest out the door, you get them to carry the interest while you pay maybe $50/month. Unless you're a broke-ass moron, you should be able to scrounge up fifty bucks a month. (By way of example, when I was in high school in 1983-84, I typically made $100/month in-pocket running football pools and selling term papers. And I'm lazy by nature.)
  • Then again, if you're in a band that is actually covering its nut or making a profit touring, you should have all this equipment anyway, but if not, go get it. You never know when your drummer or bassist will get married or get a day job or just move out of the area, or someone just can't along, and then your band is fucked. Be as self-contained as possible, just in case.
  • Anyway, here's the main part of the model:  assuming you are writing and recording as often as possible, plan on releasing about 30-35 minutes of music at a time, so ideally six to eight songs, no more than ten if they're short. Make sure to have two or three songs in the clip, to release mid-tour as "bonus" tracks.
  • If there's one thing I miss about the old days, it's packaging. Album art could be really intricate, and even the old cardboard "long cases" CDs came in at first managed to get some cool visuals in there. Graphics aren't as important as they used to be, but don't neglect it either. Get an artistic friend to help sketch out some ideas, or learn how to use GIMP and create your own. But sometimes, especially if there's a common lyrical thread to your songs, a good visual theme can bring that out. Think of it in terms of creating an avatar -- it may be small, but a good one can be powerful. (Please, no dick jokes.)
  • If you're dividing your touring season (whether it's six, nine, twelve months, whatever) into three or four roughly equal segments, you can push out the "main" collection of 30-35 minutes first, start touring, then release each of the "bonus" tracks at those critical intervals during the tour. This is a great way to win over crowds; everyone in an audience loves to be the first one to hear a new track, and help to build the buzz.
There are so many cool things about this self-contained album-tour cycle, starting with the fact that, if you're sharp and on the ball, you can control every single aspect of it yourself -- recording, promotion, distribution, graphics, swag, everything. No company weasels, unless you want to outsource the tour management (which might not be a bad idea; the farther you travel, the more attuned you need to be to the logistical aspect).

This is the freedom, real freedom, that every musician has wanted since the beginning of recorded music. With it comes some challenges; most of the activities required to create and promote are essentially sweat equity, and may not be recouped at the hourly rate you might like, especially at first. But I'm old enough to remember what it was like back in the day, when all this stuff was terribly cost-prohibitive, so unless one of you had a rich uncle with money to lend, your band was essentially spending all its time chasing the elusive brass ring of a Record Company Contract -- after which, of course, you were well and truly fucked.

I get why long-established musicians hate the new paradigm. They sweated through the traditional process, got the breaks, and managed to make it with hard work and luck. But those elements are still crucial to success, perhaps even more so than ever, because everyone can get in the ring now. Everything has been flipped on its head, all you can do is figure it out and re-orient yourself. More and more it seems that the best way to do that, where the musicians make the most money for their efforts, and the music is as good as it can possibly, is to shorten the release-tour cycle, and break out of the traditional medium-based confines.

No comments: