ASCAP Expo 2010: Day 1

I went to the ASCAP Expo in Hollywood!  I met a number of interesting people, and the sessions were very informative.  I was there mostly to see how viable a career as a singer-songwriter would be and to hear other people’s stories about their experiences in this industry.

Here’s the blow-by-blow of my interpretation of the things I saw and heard.  I apologize in advance if I inadvertently misrepresent anyone’s words or opinions; it’s not intentional.

“Think Outside the Box” presented by David Issac

This was a technical session on how to fine tune your sounds in the studio.  He, being an engineer who has recorded Corinne Bailey Rae and Stevie Wonder, introduced me to a couple of things I was unfamiliar with as a hack home studio engineer.  He prefers to use Logic Pro, btw, as do I.  He emphasized the importance of these things:

  • Power supply / conditioner – Apparently having a good power supply will not only help clean up noise and hum, but also help to prevent those annoying freezes that sometimes occur when using Logic Pro.
  • Clock – I’m still not sure what this is exactly in relation to my home studio, but apparently makes a difference when you’re sorting out wave patterns and can make the difference between muddy and clean.
  • Converter – I assumed this to mean that it’s important to have good digital conversion units.

This is where Sinbad came in and sat on the floor to listen (!)

Here’s the quick list of the advice David gave:

  • Use your ears:  turn out the lights and just listen.
  • Envision the instruments in a 3D space and place them there in the mix according to their height, width and depth.  Move them.
  • Pass the instrumental focus around, especially near the beginning of the song when all the instruments get “introduced”.
  • Give frequency focus to different instruments.  Make good use of frequency filters to this end.
  • Find frequency “holes” and fill them.
  • Side-chain bass and drum.

“Hit Songwriters”

This was a panel that consisted of Ashley GorleyKuk HarrellJean-BaptisteJane’t A. Sewell-Ulepic and Gregg Wattenberg, all talking about how they write their music, how they got to be where they are now, and so on.

One thing I liked about the panel was that they talked about their families and how they’d found ways to juggle their songwriting career (which for some is a 9-5 job) with their home life.

Regarding the making of “Umbrella” performed by Rhianna, Kuk came into the studio during off hours to mess with Logic Pro in order to learn how to use it.  His collaborators just happened to show up at the studio around the same time, they liked what he was doing, and it all just came together.  They made a demo right there that day that Mark Stewart (Tricky Stewart‘s brother) marketed to every A&R person he knew.  Eventually L.A. Reid made the connection with Rhianna, who recorded it and made it BIG.

Finer points that came from the various songwriters:

  • Inspire your team.  If they believe in you and your music, they won’t ask for payment (though they may ask for a percentage).
  • Conflict in the studio can be good.  (I interpreted it as a sort of “crucible for songwriting”).
  • Careful what you sign, and hold out for the right deal.  It may take a long time, but don’t give up.
  • Don’t make excuses (for not having enough time, etc).
  • Get rid of the negative voices around you.
  • There is value in all songs you write.  So be prolific!  (Jane’t: “A song a day keeps the IRS away”).
  • Always believe you can do better (don’t get complacent).
  • Write for the song.  Not for the check or the company or out of desperation or to chase the radio.  Write from the heart.  Keep it organic.  LET IT FLOW.
  • Find an attorney!

“Mastering” with Bob Owsinski

I just caught the tail end of this one (the session I originally went to was so-so), but this is what I got from what little I saw:

  • Listen to your songs in mono to check for phase issues (apparently you’d be surprised how often songs are listened to in mono)
  • Don’t over-EQ or over-compress, etc.
  • Do alternate mixes of everything (apparently clients will ask for all sorts of mixes; e.g. guitar up, guitar down, guitar out, different balances, etc)

“We Create Music”

This panel consisted of Paul WilliamsJason MrazC. Tricky StewartBrian Tyler and Phil Vassar.

Highlights from this one:

  • Separate writing from production.  Better to sit down with a guitar and sing first before going nuts in the studio.  Write the song first.  (I think this mostly came from Tricky).
  • Again, the mantra, LET IT FLOW.  (All of them were in on this)
  • Do what you love and find a way to make a living at it.  Don’t make a living and try to find a way to love it.  (I think from Tricky again).
  • “I’m Yours”, which is apparently the best selling single of all time, was originally cut from a prior album.  It wasn’t until Mraz played it in Sweden and found that everybody knew the words that they properly released it.  Basically, it had been inadvertently pre-tested in the market.
  • Brian Tyler sometimes writes tunes he wrote before, so he has a small team that knows his repertoire and double checks his current work against prior work.

“How to Outsell a Major Without a Label”

This panel consisted of Jeff Price of Tunecore, William FitzsimmonsGeorge HowardMark IshamAlejandro ManzanoLiam Sullivan

The session started off with notes about Tunecore:

  • You keep all your rights
  • You can cancel anytime

ASCAP vs SoundExchange in digital media space:

  • ASCAP collects $ for you as a writer
  • SoundExchange collects $ for you as a performer

Apparently, we should be encouraged, because there is more music sold now than in any time in history.

Liam, a comedian first, decided to create a music video called “Shoes”.  It went viral on YouTube, and eventually led to selling 2 million copies on Tunecore.  Says he got lucky with the timing and rode the YouTube popularity wave.  He also ended up getting hired by Marshall’s (the clothing retailer) to create a viral video.  Also has been selling t-shirts and other merchandise based on his skits (e.g. a t-shirt with “Betch” written across the front).

Alejandro’s band hit a wall gigging, and decided to change tacks.  Used deliberate strategy that started with a video of them performing a cover song (which is free of royalties on YouTube).  Gained popularity, developed a fan base and periodically released original songs with videos.  Led to 1 million sales on Tunecore.

Mark Isham, jazz musician and film composer, had number of bad experiences with major labels.  Right now if you’re a film composer, you give up copyright and do not collect royalties, but new deals are being made to change that practice.  He’s forming a soundtrack label.

William was formerly a psychologist.  Wrote depressing songs.  Didn’t know much about the music industry, so did a lot of stuff on own, but did intentionally make use of the types of communications that are conducive to building a community.  Managed to get a song on Gray’s Anatomy.  Led to 0.5 million song sales.

Collective advice:

  • Don’t suck, but do take a risk.  “Dare yourself to suck.”
  • Don’t depend on playing in clubs to get ahead, but if you do play live, convert it into contact information; e.g. email addresses.  Make it an offer; e.g. $10 without an email address, $5 with.
  • Keep your content fresh (e.g. Mark Isham posts videos every week).
  • Make your own press.  Booking agents and TV opportunities will find you.
  • Use YouTube annotations.  Inject calls to action, tour dates, etc.
  • Pay attention to holidays.  Holiday tunes sell well.  Just make sure you register with Harry Fox first!
  • If you want to break into scoring film, just do it.  Score some films.  Find student film makers.  Show off your work.
  • Don’t try for airplay on standard radio.  It’s not worth the expense.

Note that 98% of major label acts fail anyway.

“Record and Release Quality Material at Home” with John Jones

When I walked in (a little late), he was playing “Come Undone” by Duran Duran, which he helped to produce.  I think I missed the biggest point he was trying to make, but what I did manage to catch was that today’s home equipment far surpasses what they had in the studio at the time and that what’s most important is the song.  He noted that No Doubt’s first album had horrible production quality, but was popular nonetheless because of the strength of the songs.  This album “Duran Duran”, by Duran Duran, had the cheapest production cost of all the Duran Duran albums (about $100k), but was their biggest seller.

I think the best advice he gave was to train your ear to make the recording sound like what you hear.  In order to do this, he suggested that you stand near the instrument and listen to it.  Then listen to the instrument through the monitors.  If they don’t sound the same (i.e. don’t have the same timbre, etc), then change out the mic, tweak the eq, or whatever until you can get the sounds to match.

Quick list of advice:

  • Train your ear to make the recording sound like what you hear.
  • Keep distance between vocalists and mics (don’t let your singers eat the mic).
  • Don’t use headphones.
  • Turn speakers down to the lowest you can hear to get the best balance.  In the UK they use the term “balance engineer”.
  • Look out for noises, clicks and pops.

Some asides:

  • George Martin apparently did not know how to work a sound board, but knew how to listen.
  • If I understood correctly, he favors using a U87 microphone with a UA 1176 compressor

John Mayer interviewed by Erik Philbrook

It was a pretty entertaining interview (especially the part where he told Erik that he loved him in Lord of the Rings and the part about banging a hot chick).

The finer points:

  • Recommended mostly:
    • Train your ears
    • Don’t be ashamed to go to classes; e.g. songwriting, lyric writing, etc.
  • He doesn’t read or notate music.
  • His move to Atlanta from Connecticut was good because people in Atlanta actively look for music, unlike other places where people go out and music just part of the background.
  • He’s gotten frustrated in the past with some collaborations or attempts to do so, because he doesn’t want to have to teach others to give a shit.
  • ASCAP had a role in helping him get a start by showcasing him at SXSW.  He hadn’t actually been one of the SXSW acts, and ASCAP gave him a break.
  • Emphasized that a record contract is not the end goal; it’s just the starting gate.  It’s really just a way go get more work:  “A lifelong contract to do work.”
  • Considers Continuum to be his best album.  He had lots of time to work on it and so had the luxury to just relax and write.
  • Likes Gravity the best because he got out of his own way, so to speak.  Usually things like trying to impress people or seeking a rise out of people get in the way of true expression.
  • It’s always time for the next big thing, so just be true to yourself and don’t try to be like whoever is big now.
  • Went on a little bit of a rant about Twitter, saying that if he knew he’d end up with 1 million haters, we probably would not have done it.  We all like to say we should just ignore negative comments, but really, you could have 1000 people laud you, and it would be that 1 person who said something foul that would ruin your day.
  • Said his personal goal right now is to do away with his need for external validation (though, in my opinion, this is part of the reason for his success).
  • Wants to be like Bob Dylan and just deliver a tune without trying to prove something or make sure everybody listening is pumped up.
  • Also thinks it’s time for a change, and made reference to the movie Comedian about Jerry Seinfeld, where he decides to retire his current material and start over with a blank slate.
  • Said that he doesn’t feel like he’s super at any one thing or instrument, but is good at seeing the big picture.
  • Is moving to support a charity that helps veterans transition to civilian life.

“I Create Music: Center Stage”

I didn’t see much of this, but it was cool to see original songwriters performing their popular music.  I especially liked hearing Stephen Bishop sing “On and On” and “Separate Lives” and Natasha Beddngfeld sing “Unwritten” (note: she doesn’t actually play an instrument, but has an amazing voice).

That’s it for Day 1.  Stay tuned for notes from days 2 and 3!

– Daniel Lee James