September 2, 2009

How to Lead People to Your Music in a Digital Age

With the maturity of digital delivery and a proliferation of websites that allow easy uploading and legal downloading of music, the old models of making and marketing CDs are gone. The shift from an album-based economy to a track-based economy spawns many new considerations for the Indie artist when the time comes to go into the studio and record.

In the old days, the typical strategy was to record an album, release a featured "single" and people would then purchase the whole album, never having heard the other songs. Albums often contained several 'filler' tracks of songs which never would have stood alone.

Today, anyone can easily hear up to 2-minute samples of tracks before purchasing, so the notion of using filler tracks is essentially useless – ALL the tracks have to be good or the consumer will just bypass them and download the ones they want. More than ever before, the quality of the songs is important helping your music rise above the baseline of filler tracks that are out there on CD Baby, i-Tunes, and other internet music stores. If you spend the time and money to record a filler track, it's not going to give you the return on your investment in a track-based music economy as it might have in the old album-based economy.

This leads to the obvious question, is the concept of an "Album" even valid anymore? Should an artist spend time and money making a physical CD, when CD sales are rapidly declining and digital sales are increasing? If you are a touring artist, you'll still (for now) want physical CDs to sell at gigs, but remember that the ultimate goal is always to be able to generate income without having to be physically present.

Content is King

Consider how a typical listener comes to find new music. As an Indie artist, it's fair to assume that most people have never heard of you. How will they find your songs? The most likely path to your music will come from consumers doing Internet searches on topics which have nothing to do with you. However, if your website contains content that might be of interest to particular groups of people, they will find you and then discover your music. For example, I have lots of website content about hunger and homelessness, and also about songwriting techniques. I've had lots of folks around the world find me and my music because they were searching on those topics, and now they've become fans. Think of the content on your website as a net to catch Internet searchers.

Another way to increase the effectiveness of your net is to put the lyrics to all your songs online as a separate page for each song. If you write songs about various topics, people searching those topics will be more likely to find your content. Again, the importance of the songwriting comes to the fore. If you just write generally about love and how you broke up or got together, you're going to be lost in an ocean of similar content. If however, you want to write about those things and use some interesting metaphors, like "your love is kryptonite" (a Superman reference) or "My heart is as parched as the desert of Tatooine" (a Star Wars reference), you're now providing potential hooks for people with specific interests. In this age of niche marketing, specificity is always going to be a big plus. Over the years, I've been commissioned to write songs about a submarine, a river, a statue, horseback riding, Special Olympics, and various other unusual but specific things. These songs get found by people searching for related content. As an example, my submarine song about the USS Connecticut is often mentioned on websites of Navy personnel.

In a track-based digital music world, there are some things we've lost from the album-based model. Concept albums like the "Days of Future Past" (Moody Blues) , or "The Who Sell Out" (The Who) don’t translate well to a track-based model. The order of tracks and the transitional content between them were essential to making concept albums work as a whole. With individual digital tracks available in any order, the artist can no longer control how the listener will hear the content. Each song will have to be able to stand alone, and transitional material between songs is meaningless, and complicates where to place the track markers. If you want to do a concept album with transitional material, it is a good idea to submit a different version for digital download, where any inter-song transitional material is omitted. With most sites giving a 30-second clip to preview the song, it's important to limit the length of musical introductions and get right into the song, unless you can specify the section to use for the preview clip.

Critical Mass

Similar to a concept album, but more in tune with today's market is the themed-album. This is a collection of individual songs, each of which could stand alone, but all of which relate to some common and specific theme e.g., high school life, baseball, rural life, spirituality, boats, etc. This serves two purposes. It makes it much easier to identify a target audience, enabling you to focus your promo efforts. It also provides a critical mass of content on the Internet, making a much bigger net for catching Internet searches about that topic. The more specific the theme, the better.

What's In a Name ?

One of the most important things to think about in a digital world is the song title. Typically the title of a song going to be a phrase in the first or last line of the chorus, as that is the most easily remembered part of the song. But it might not be the most unique phrase as far as search keywords go. So you can use the technique of double-titling, where the song has one primary title, followed by a second in parentheses. An example would be Rupert Holmes' song "Escape (The Pina Colada Song). In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I produced a song by a fellow writer called "Daydream" about memories of growing up in New Orleans. I suggested that it would be advisable to double-title the song calling it "Daydream (The Levees of New Orleans)". You can see the difference that would make in number of search hits the song receives.

If you can come up with a title which is similar to some word or phrase which is commonly searched, it will be a big help to you. Before there was the "High School the Musical" phenomenon, I released my CD and song "High School My School". This gets many hundreds of hits each day from people searching "High School Musical". If you can generate high web traffic, you only need to convert a small portion of that into sales to start seeing meaningful royalties.

To Summarize:

In today's world of individual tracks and search engines, make it a part of your overall planning to think about how you can maximize the web traffic that each of your songs can generate. Think of lyrics, titles, and subject matter as web content. Make sure each song is truly strong enough to stand on its own as if it were a featured single. Learn how search engines like Google work and optimize your website content to draw people to you. Cast a well-thought-out net, and you'll be well-rewarded.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

September 1, 2009

Expression vs. Communication: The Golden Key to Effective Songwriting

Picture yourself in Africa, wandering aimlessly through the jungle with tears streaming down your face and your heart broken because your pet gorilla has forsaken you and run off with a group of other apes.

You stumble into a village of natives, known as the "Audients", who gather around you and seem curious as to what’s going on in your life. Unable to choke back the sobs, you spill your life story, your hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. The natives just stand and stare at you, as you hear a few snickers and see a few smiles. You grow irritated that they have not responded the way you thought they would, so you jump up and down and yell angrily at them about all the pain and injustice you have endured. They still stand and stare, their snickers growing louder, their smiles wider. You can’t understand how it can be that you have expressed such intense feelings and emotions to these people and have gotten no reaction, no sympathy, no connection. Quite simply, you don't speak their language and they don't speak yours, and you were too wrapped up in your own despair to notice. You most certainly have expressed yourself, but there has been no communication.

Expression is the outward display of that which you think or feel inside. It is a process of sending signals or transmitting messages. Expression does not address what happens to those messages after they are sent. Communication deals with both the transmission and reception of a message. If a message is received the way it was intended, then communication has occurred. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve words, although this is the most common method. Communication can occur via sign language, images, Morse code, etc, but whatever the method, communication is made possible by the existence of rules which both parties understand. Communication is the glue that connects people with others. When expression is mistaken for communication (i.e., “I expressed myself so you MUST have understood me…”) we get all the unhappy social situations that result from not being connected.

So what does this have to do with songwriting? Quite a bit when we remember that in general, songwriting is a two-phase process i.e., creating and crafting. The creation phase of a song is universal in the sense that everyone “does” it. Unless creation occurs, there cannot be a crafting phase, since there would be nothing to work with. The creation process is very individual, without rules or restrictions. Everyone finds inspiration in his or her own way, and expresses it with individuality. However, this is where some of the major areas of confusion arise in discussions and critiques of songs and songwriting.

How often is it heard at song critique sessions or among groups of artists that “there are no rules in songwriting” and “how can anyone else critique MY song” and that “I won’t compromise my artistic integrity for the sake of commercialism!”

In the world of creative expression, it is true that there are no rules, because everyone is free to think and feel what they want and to share those thoughts and feelings. The creation phase of a song is directly connected to inner feelings, thoughts, and emotions; thus, music and lyrics that come from that process are usually quite personal and genuine. If those lyrics are never intended to go anywhere else beyond the writer, then nothing more needs to happen. The song does not need to be performed for an audience or brought for critique. However, if the writer really wants to share this snapshot of his or her inner self with others, and wants others to connect with it, then all of a sudden, it has entered the realm of communication, where, like it or not, there are rules that determine whether or not the words will elicit a desired feeling or action.

Thus, the first decisions a writer faces are “what do I want to have happen when someone hears my song?” and “How important is it to me that the listener understands what I am really saying and not just overlaying their own interpretation?” The question of interpretation is a key one for a songwriter. If you want to maintain control of your message, then you don’t want the listeners to impose their own belief about what they think you are saying. If you really want some vanilla ice cream and you say to your significant other “please go to the store and bring back some of that delicious white creamy stuff that I love”, you really can’t blame them if they then present you with a bottle of milk or a jar of mayonnaise. By not being specific in what you said, you left it open to interpretation and didn’t get the result you wanted.

Quite often, a song is music-oriented and is driven by a beat or a groove, with lyrics that remain vague and non-specific. This is fine as long as the intent is only to evoke a mood or feeling or to get people to dance. By definition, music itself, without words, is an abstraction and can only express, not communicate. Great orchestral works like “Peter and the Wolf”(Prokofiev), “The 1812 Overture” (Tchaikovsky) , “Petroushka” (Stravinsky), or “Rodeo” (Copland) are all written around very specific stories or events, but the music, as great as it is, cannot convey any of the specifics, and can only evoke general feelings and images which a listener flavors in his or her own way. Without the verbal explanation of the roles of the instruments in Peter and the Wolf, or the Mardi Gras setting of Petroushka, the chance of anyone actually understanding the story from just hearing the music is nil. In expressive songs or dance tunes, where the music is the driver, the words are not functioning as carriers of meaning. They are really functioning as an additional part of the music, to enhance a mood.

To actually communicate effectively though a song is an amazing challenge when you think of what’s going on. In normal human interaction, there is constant two-way checking to insure that meaning is understood. Phrases like “What did you mean by that? ”; “Could you please re-phrase that?”; “Let me see if I got this right”; “Is that what I heard you say?” all serve to get people aligned so that there is one common interpretation. In a song, the communication is not interactive – you have three minutes to speak your piece with no feedback from the person(s) on the receiving end to tell you if they are “getting it” or not. Thus, the rules of communication become extremely important.

The number one rule of course is specificity. Using concrete references (nouns that are accessible by at least one of the five senses) is a must. If all the reference words (nouns) in a song are abstract, you are opening up the message to broad interpretation. Of course most songs are about abstract things like love, loneliness, friendship, happiness, peace, etc, but in order to communicate, those abstractions have to be put in concrete terms.

A second principle is to address the six W’s: Who, What , When, Where, Why, hoW.

Look at these opening lines from three hit songs, and see how much detail and sensory input they provide:

Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say, “Please share my umbrella”

Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows, under my umbrella.

All that summer we enjoyed it, wind and rain and shine

That umbrella, we employed it, by August she was mine.

(Bus Stop, by Graham Gouldman, recorded by the Hollies)

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Illinois Central Monday morning rail

Sixteen cars, sixteen restless riders,

Two conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail.

(City of New Orleans, written by Steve Goodman, recorded by Woody Guthrie)

Hot August night and the leaves hanging down and the grass on the ground smellin’ sweet

Move up the road to the outside of town and the sound of that good gospel beat

Sits a ragged tent where there ain’t no trees, and that gospel group telling you and me its’

Brother Love’s Traveling’ Salvation Show

(Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show written and recorded by Neil Diamond)

For other great examples of conveying lots of information in a very compact way, look at TV theme songs like The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, etc. The whole story is told in a minute.

Another principle of communication is semantic field, which is closely related to context.

Take the simple sentence “That was the finest set I have ever seen”. If you think you know what that means without any other information, you’re betting against the odds. That line can mean completely different things depending on whether it was said by:

A maker of chess pieces

A tennis player

A volleyball coach

An antique TV collector

A leering guy in a bar

All the words in a lyric have to work to provide clear context, which is accomplished by keeping all the words in the same semantic field (if you’re writing about apples, don’t talk about oranges, if you’re writing about fruit, then apples and oranges are okay, but don’t talk about celery, etc). This is called tone constancy. The semantic field is determined by the overarching metaphor that governs the song – and there can be only one in a song – remember, it’s hard enough to communicate clearly about one idea in three minutes, let alone more than one idea. It is important to set your overarching metaphor to match the audience you’re trying to reach. Consider these lyric references from the hit “Backfield In Motion”.

Backfield in motion, I’m gonna have to penalize you,

Offside and holding, you know that’s against the rules

These references are completely tone constant against an overarching metaphor of love=football. This of course only makes sense to people who know the details of football, but since that number is millions of people, it provides a large audience who will “get it”. Perhaps one of the best examples of this aspect of communication was depicted in an episode of Star Trek Next Generation, called “The Children of Darmok”. This race of people spoke in English words but no one had a clue what they were talking about because everything they said only made sense if you knew the characters and events of a particular story from their culture. Similarly, if you’re writing a song and use images and references known only to you, or a select few, you seriously compromise the chances of being understood. You’re expressing yourself, but not communicating.

Another element of verbal communication that we often take for granted is the effect of dynamics (loud/soft) and cadence (pattern of accents). In typical communication, a word in a sentence which is stressed (louder than the others) automatically conveys “as opposed to”. This is called the principle of contrastive stress. For example:

He didn’t drink his beer TODAY. (as opposed to having drunk it some other day)

He DIDN’t drink his beer today. (as opposed to the fact that he usually does drink it)

He didn’t DRINK his beer today. (as opposed to having eaten it or snorted it)

He didn’t drink HIS beer today. (as opposed to having drunk some else’s beer)

Thus, the exact same sentences have totally different meanings, depending on where the accent falls. And when you’re putting words over music, the music forces accents to go in certain places. Thus, to communicate effectively, the natural verbal accents (both words and syllables) have to align with the natural musical accent, or else you change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.

Whether or not a song needs to communicate is completely a matter of what the writer wants to accomplish. If the only desire is to have people dance to the music, then the words really don’t matter much and they can just be expressive to convey a mood, or they could just be nonsense. If the purpose of a song is to make a connection between writer and listener, and create a specific response, then the lyric needs to communicate clearly.

There are no rights or wrongs about what a writer wants to accomplish with his or her song. It is completely up to the writer. Problems arise when there is a mismatch of the desired outcome and the means of trying to achieve it. One of the best things that a songwriter or songwriter’s association can do when critiquing a wide variety of song types in a single session is to clarify up front whether the writer really cares if the audience understands what he or she is trying to say. If it doesn’t matter to the writer, then the listeners can focus on different things like a general mood or the musical groove. If the writer does want the audience to “get it” then the song needs to be listened to and responded to in a different way.

From a commercial perspective, songs are successful because of either their mood/groove, or for the impact of their story or message. Either element alone can make a hit. Songs that sit in between which have no distinct musical or emotive identity and which do not have a clear and cinematic lyric, are the ones that are going to need significant re-working.

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©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

Playing the Field

Along with the concrete/abstract balance, one of the most important tools for communicating effectively through lyrics is the concept of “semantic field”. It is this aspect of a lyric that determines whether or not it appears focused and cohesive, or diffuse and wandering. Most English words have multiple meanings. The particular meaning intended is clarified for the receiver by the other word preceding and following the key word.

For example the words “set” and “jack” each have more than 20 meanings. The sentences “That set of Jack’s was the best tennis he’s ever played” and “This set of jacks is the child’s favorite play toy” are made clear only by the words other than set and jack. Those other words provide context and define the semantic fields being used.

Key words in a lyric should stay with a single semantic field and not bounce around... i.e., if you’re writing about apples as the semantic field, talk about Delicious and Macintosh and cider, not oranges and pears. If you’re writing about fruit (a broader semantic field), write about apples, oranges, and pears, not carrots, celery, and turnips. If you’re writing about edible plants (a still broader semantic field) then you can mix apples, oranges and carrots, but not poison ivy or redwood trees. If you’re writing about all plants...well, you get the idea. The semantic field is defined by the main metaphor of the song, and straying outside that semantic field essentially means you’re mixing metaphors, which generally dilutes the impact of your lyric. So it’s not enough just to balance concrete and abstract references, but they should all be consistent within the context defined by the governing metaphor of the song.

Of course we have exceptions. There is a technique where it is highly desirable to switch semantic fields in midstream... this is the essence of punning, irony, and related wordplay. It can be the source of memorable titles and lyrical hooks. “We live in a two-story house” is an example. By itself, this sentence places “story” in the semantic field of “words relating to houses and buildings”. But the rest of the lyrics, dealing with deception and cheating, create a semantic field where “story” means a lie or deceitful tale. Switching semantic fields can be done locally (within a line or verse) or globally (from one verse to another). In a song about going back in time to change the mistakes in your life, the line “An hour, a minute, a second chance” clearly uses “second” simultaneously in two ways, both of which are embodied in the premise of the song (time, and correcting mistakes). This is the key point... it is not good writing to use double meanings just to be clever; Both meanings of a word must be fully supported by the song and the lyric must contain words from both semantic fields. This creates a no-lose situation for you-- the listener gets two chances to hear it right, and if they only get one of the two, it still makes sense, because other parts of the lyric are supporting the meaning. If they get both meanings, they appreciate your crafting that much more. Another example:

Ten thousand faces, I see only yours

I hear your heartbeat over all the applause

You are my shining sun, but everybody thinks it’s me who’s the star

It’s you helped me get this far...

The word “star” has both meanings clearly referenced in the rest of the verse.

It takes a good deal of practice and craft to do this effectively, and here in its entirety is one of the very best examples, written by Greg Ham and recorded by Men at Work.

Snakes and Ladders (©EMI-Blackwood Music)

I could stand but I don’t like the feeling

I could fall but I’m always on the floor

You can make a million staring at the ceiling

You can break your back and still be poor

One for the liar, one for the cheat

One for the man who you’ll never meet

He saw the action and a portion of pie

He’ll be there waiting when your big chance comes by

There a snake at the top of every ladder

Who will tell you that he’s your best friend

Everyone important needs an adder,

But subtraction gets you in the end..

One for the liar, one for the thief

One for the man who’s time is so brief

He saw the action and a portion of pie

He’ll be there waiting when your big chance comes by

This whole song converges at that one key word “adder”, which is a kind of snake, and which is also used in the math sense of an accountant who adds up your money. The snake reference is supported immediately before the word, and the math reference is supported immediately after (“subtraction”). Let’s look at some of the craft elements of this lyric: The title immediately sets up the song premise, that when you climb the ladder of success, there are people waiting to prey on you to get a piece of your pie instead of one of their own. The title is a common phrase based on the name of the popular children’s game (also known as “Chutes and Ladders”). The chorus explicitly supports the premise, and sets up both semantic fields for the key word to follow. Notice the technique of subtly changing the chorus the second time around to balance the familiar with the new. The second verse is a shining example of lyric craft. Not only does it effectively switch semantic fields, but the word it pivots on, “adder”, is an unusual, fresh , and memorable word. The “snake” reference is literal and concrete, while the “accountant” reference is figurative and abstract. An excellent lyric.

Thus, once you’ve gotten a handle on balancing concrete and abstract references, you can turn your attention to semantic fields, first to insure consistency of the metaphors you use, and then for seasoning your songs with wordplay that enhances the communication effectiveness of your lyric. And if it all works out, you’ll have to hire an adder of your own...but watch out for adders.

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©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.