Saturday, November 24, 2012

"You Should"... Be Blogging More (A Trakan Music Update)

Funny thing, making this indie project.  You hear all kinds of "you should…" or "you have to…"  advice from literally everyone and... 

I KNOW. I know...  

I should blog on a more regular basis.  And I really want to - there is so much great genuinely-indie stuff happening behind the scenes of the Trakan project.  I really do need to find more time to maintain this journal.  But man, been busy.  Sorry for that cliche excuse, but really man, been real busy behind the scenes and it cuts into time I can spend on hanging out here.  Let me explain...

Recording and promoting music isn't just about writing songs.  In fact I almost never get to write songs at my level.  Most of those "you-should"-advisers end up looking at me confusedly when I lay out exactly how much goes into making indie music behind the scenes.  I found this checklist recently, a long 10-point checklist for indie musicians to help them organize the efforts they "should" be doing.  

I was excited to read that checklist too because I spend a lot of time thinking about such things - how to balance everything big famous bands do (with their teams of agents, artists, film-makers, and other executives that manage their production, distribution, marketing, etc.)  We indie artists have to do all that stuff too (we are often reminded by the "you-should"-ers that "Radiohead did [whatever], so you should [do that too], Trakan!").  But we have to do it by ourselves, independently, with no budget, and to the best of our ability. And damn anyone who doesn't agree that there is some great indie music projects happening these days on shoe-string budgets around day jobs.  I know I'm proud of mine.

Well anyway, I looked at that checklist, and reflected on myself and how many things there really are to do, to do this "right," and I've begun to imagine that the tasks fall into the hands of imaginary "departments" in my imaginary production "team" (because of course, it's almost all me on those department "teams," but what the hell - if this is an expensive hobby, I might as well imagine it's a business and I'm the staff, right?

So let me expand on that checklist, highlighting everything I've been up to the past eight months, during the time you've been asking why I've been neglecting this here blog.  Please read to the end, friends - things are clearing up!  More blogs more regularly soon!

First, to do this making-music thing right, obviously an indie musician needs to find time to write good songs.  The checklist doesn't mention this, I suspect because it seems so obvious, but you have to have cool music to promote. 

I savor the moments I get to take new songs I've written to my band, because that’s why I'm doing this ultimately – I'm a musician and a song-writer. And unfortunately and somewhat ironically, these times don't come around much over the course of the year, where I actually have time to actually write music for the next album.  We just finished writing my upcoming third release, due out in 2013.  Not sure when writing for the fourth will commence.

Roxy tracking bass at The Hatch Studios (photo by Trakan)

Because you also have to spend a lot of available time-in-the-day as "band manager," "graphic designer" and "producer," recruiting band mates, teaching/refining the songs, tracking the parts in a studio, editing/mixing the songs, mastering the final record, creating the album art (I’ve gotten pretty good with Photoshop and Illustrator I think), and working with the factory that takes your master and your graphic design files and actually packages the final music into large cardboard boxes full of hundred of CDs (that your "fulfillment department" will need to find room to store. Mine are in my back room, which also serves as "Trakanland Studios" when I'm the acting engineer, sinking hours and hours into editing tracks we've recorded.) 

I know - it all sounds fun as individual tasks... and it is!  I'm living a dream.  But there are only so many hours.

And a lot of those hours remaining go to additional roles once you have a product, such as "booking agent," "promoter" and "street team" (with more design, PR and band management roles). You have to book shows which is a black art for another discussion another day.

When you get a show, you have to book rehearsals and manage the band's schedule (they have lives).  You manage the rehearsals, coordinating set lists and what you’re going to do/say on stage. Then you promote the shows (with social media outreach, designing handbills/posters, distributing the handbills/posters – by the way, band mates and the venues themselves aren't always helpful here, so you have to do more than you hope by yourself).  Finally you manage the day of the show itself (distributing a pirate's share of about $10 a person at the end of the night after the club takes all the money).  

Elbo Room 2012 (photo by Gaczol)

I swear though, even after all the expense and pain that goes into taking a show to stage, that 45 minutes you're on stage with your guitar, looking past the stage lights, actually performing... well not to get too sappy, but it's priceless at that moment - actually doing musician-things again for a few minutes. 

Then, the days following a show, you send thank yous and listen to friends who didn't come to the show ask you, "when’s the next show?"  Hahaha.  

(I haven’t toured yet.  I’ll get back to you on what that takes later.  I also, so far, tend to avoid festival bookings.  As you know, I hate summer.  But I’m told that this is something I "should" look into as well.)

Then, assuming you didn't sell out all your CDs from the merch table at the show, the "distribution department" in you has to find ways to distribute the music – both digital copies and physical copies.  It cost you thousands to make the music.  Kiss that money away, because after the five you sold at the show, good luck finding anyone who isn't advising that "you should" give the songs away for free (Radiohead did after all, fool!...  An aside - these same people are often the ones who tell you you should play more shows, even if they haven't been to one in almost ever). I digress... you already know you have to play more shows and probably have to give away your music for less than it cost to make, but you play along anyway, enjoying the attention you're getting from a dude in a bar stool who's got all your answers.

All joking aside, it does actually occasionally happen.  Some awesome local music lovers DO actually buy physical copies of the records (thank you!!!).  At this point, you become the "shipping/fulfillment" department, and find yourself waiting in long post-office lines, learning all sorts of packaging and customs rules.  

For those who prefer to purchase digital copies, you have to set up Paypal accounts and configure online stores to handle digital distribution.  In either case - digital or physical - the person who bought your songs (unless they're musicians who understand your pain) will rarely tell you what they thought of the music, leaving you somewhat empty inside - we all hope people like our music.  (Ever since I started doing this indie project, I make sure to contact musicians when I hear their music I like.  Musicians are nice people in general.)

Then there is the "Business and Legal Department."  It took me a long time to find a lawyer I like and trust.  I now handle all the artist agreements (from templates my lawyer provided - when I don't need specific help), and I handle all accounting and inventory.  I fill out all the copyright forms and make all the submissions to the copyright office, and I maintain my ASCAP artist membership, in the case one of my songs ever end up in a film.  (I’m told that I should look into film licensing opportunities.  It’s on my short list, if I find the right people, after weeks of upcoming research.)

"The Bridge" Video Shoot (photo by Gaczol)
Then there is the "video department."  

Thanks for reading this far into this article by the way.  I know I "shouldn't" write so much.  And that instead people prefer visuals and brevity.  So, while brevity is shot today... visuals - right...

I've made two videos so far with one more for "The Bridge" in post-production (created over the past few months when I haven’t been blogging), and one new video in pre-production for a song from the studio work we've been doing over the past few months (during time I haven’t been blogging).  

Video – wow so much goes into video.  It’s been a great learning process and they are becoming a lot of fun to make.  First you have to pick a song and have a basic concept (not nearly as easy as it sounds), then you have to find a director and/or film-maker (one you can afford) that wants to turn your concept into something video-worthy (because you’re a musician – what do you know of film?  I learned this lesson on my first video for "Summer" which I went into way too heavy-handed on the concept).  

Then there are months of coordinating schedules, putting together shot-sheets and brainstorming.  The whole time, all of the producer roles land in your lap and all expenses land on your credit card.  Roles such as finding any actors, tracking down Sean the Devil, managing the troupe, securing lighting/locations/wardrobe/props.  Then you have to film the thing of course.  Then weeks of editing, and finally of course, distribution/finding an audience.  

"The Bridge" Video Shoot (photo by Gaczol)
Most people are used to Hollywood-sized productions and see billions of videos online, so don't expect a lot of slack-jawed admiration from the masses.  I'm still not totally sure how to distribute them. That said, I am a firm believer that a cool concept trumps a lack of production budget and I feel we're getting better at all this in general.  So here's hoping when you to see the video in early 2013 for "The Bridge" you dig it. I can't wait to get to work with the cool video team I now have for the next video.

Next there is the "marketing department" - PR, marketing, radio, outreach.  Unfortunately this is an arena that I find difficult.  Its so vital and I just don’t have the patience, the connections, or the time to be great at it.  I’m considering paying for these services moving forward instead of doing it all myself (even though I hear horror stories about big expenses and small returns on investment). That said, for now, I am the marketing department as well.  

I spend much of my "marketing" time researching how to write press documents, then actually writing my press documents and one-sheets, then obsessing and modifying the language of those press documents over and over and over again, always searching for bloggers and folks in the press or radio who might like my style of music.  Then you have to figure out how each writer or music director prefers to receive the songs so I don't piss them off out of the gate with something they don't want (sending a CD for instance, instead of the download link they specifically require).  So it's always a game (when you don't know them) figuring out what kind of lead time each person needs, how do you deliver the songs, what are their pet peeves?  

Expensive trips to the post office to mail packages of demos/one-sheets/customized cover letters follow. You're excited for a potential review in Pitchfork while waiting in line, but you know that in all likelihood, the package is going to land on a pile of hundreds of competing submissions and probably, ultimately, into the garbage unopened.  

The goal of the marketing department as I understand it at this point is to hunt for reviews or radio play that lend credibility to the project and maybe draw a little attention your way, so you wait, hoping they listened.  You Google yourself shamelessly searching for a playlist or a review because they usually don't contact you when it happens (hell, I’ve begun hoping for rejection letters, which are better in some ways than silence).  You follow up when you don’t hear back, and then follow up again, savoring and publishing any radio play, reviews or feedback (as good or bad as it is.  I delighted in Richard Milne of WXRT telling me "you don’t suck".)  
Click here to see my press stuff

Then it’s off to the website and your press documents to add any victories like “You don’t suck. - Richard Milne” to the top of the one-sheet.

If you’re lucky after all this, you don’t have to replace band mates along the way, causing you to have to re-teach songs, and slowing your ability to push forward with the incessant needs of other "departments." So far in 2012, I've managed to keep rolling.

Oh and don't forget that you should be managing your photos/files/posts daily on a myriad different social media sites. (I'm still sorting through thousands of photos various photographers have been kind enough to take for me to document this whole thing.)

Which reminds me - are you tweeting every day?  They say I should. Lately I've been hitting FacebookReverbnationTwitter and Soundcloud the most, when I find time.

Are you adding new content to your website (I build my own website too - months at a time - which I use as a hub for all my social media/online presence).

Oh and - are you blogging regularly?!?!  Right!  This brings me to my original point.

Sorry not blogging like I should lately.  Just simply been busy in 2012 with that other stuff up there, my friends.  (Alongside a job hunt that just landed me a great day job - because as an uncle once not-so-encouragingly reminded me, "you shouldn't quit your day job."  Which IS actually true – after all, all that stuff up there is really expensive.)

Am I complaining, by the way? No.  Let me sum up this long-ass post...

In fact, I’m just trying to organize everything I've been up to, outlining everything I need to start finding time to share with you on this blog. 

Because I've done all of that stuff I just mentioned the past eight months.  And I'm not quitting.  We have a new record tracked for 2013, a new video coming... still shamelessly Googling myself most days in search of new press while writing unreciprocated emails to others in the press by the dozens... and I'm always thinking about better ways to handle PR/Booking.  So this whole thing is just a cycle that you get better at each turn, hoping for some luck, meeting better people along the way that believe in you and help you out, and ideally find time to blog once a freaking week.

So bear with me as the dust settles.  Stories and photos and new songs and videos coming soon, mes amis!

(And as always, these are just my experiences.  Feel free to contact me here via comments, or via the website if you want to share ideas!)