a Listening Experiment

I recently read that the means that the music industry uses to create interest in their products is repetition. The idea that if you hear a song more than a half-dozen times you’ll find yourself liking it, no matter how awful it is (this could explain why people find themselves singing songs to themselves that they know are bad, but can’t seem to help themselves).

Let’s also take into account the fact that big name shows are usually quite expensive (I payed about a C-knote for a ticket to the last Soundgarden show I went to). This brings us to an experiment I’d like you to try, which could also save you a bunch of money:

  1. Pick a local band in a genre you like 2.Find an original song of theirs 3. Listen to it everyday for a week (or more)

You may find that you like the local band song as much as any “major label” tracks. Since local groups charge way less for tickets, you get to go to a show that you like w/out having to spend such unholy amounts of money (and as a plus, you can actually see the band. Probably even talk w/ them afterward). Also, since they’re local, you’ll have more opportunities to witness them, rather than having to wait a year or more for them to come around.

I’d suggest you try this a few times w/ a few different groups. I’m not saying you can’t like national or global acts. But participating in your local scene has financial as well as other advantages.


P.S. There are plenty of local musicians who will read this and think “Yeah, other people should do this.” I know plenty of musicians on my scene who find the time to go to a lot of big names shows but never show up at their peers’ performances. If you want people to attend your shows, try going to other local shows. It’s that idea that if you want something, give it away.


I’m reading two books: the Coltrane book by Ben Ratliff and “Latin Jazz” by John Roberts. In the first Ratliff says one of the reasons the modal thing caught on in the early 60s was because jazz musicians were tired of the restrictions of playing over so many chord changes, and reveled in the freedom of having fewer harmonies. In Roberts’ book, he points out that the reason Bossa Nova caught on in the early 60s, when the more Cuban oriented jazz didn’t, was because salsa typical has very few chords, and jazz musicians enjoyed playing over a lot of chords.
Of course, the fact that they’re saying opposite things about the same group and the same time period is humorous, but I think the bigger thing to realize is that: 1. to take any group of people and try to treat them as a homogeneous mass doesn’t yield true results and 2. I doubt if we ever really know why things happen. At best we’re making correlations between events and convincing ourselves that A causes B. But w/out a controlled study (which you can’t really do w/ real-life events) we never know for sure.


There a Buddy Hackett joke, presented here in abridged version:

I’m playing roulette, and after losing the guy next to me tells me to spread my bets more. I lose again, and he says to make sure I’m evenly spread across red and black. I lose again, and he tells me to make sure I’m on both odd and even numbers. I lose again. As he starts giving me more advice I notice he’s dressed in rags and has no shoes, and I ask “Why am I listening to you?”

This is how the field of music marketing and promotions feels to me. I am constantly getting advice from others in the industry, who in general aren’t very successful themselves. (Though they’re always quite willing to offer me a detailed analysis of what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing, even if I haven’t asked for it. It’s a constant source of amusement for me when someone at a show of mine takes it upon themselves to critique my act and tell me all about how to bring people to performances, and when I go to see them play I’m the only one there.) I even went through a period of reading interviews and biographies of successful musicians to determine how they got where they are, and quickly came to the conclusion that they don’t know, either.

Some people I know in the advertising/marketing industry have suggested surveying audiences to find out what it is they want (and then giving it to them). This led to two issues: 1. audiences aren’t all that sure about what they want. 2. When it comes down to it, people seem to want to to hear music they like. What do like: stuff they know. Audiences are predisposed to hearing stuff they already know they like, and aren’t interested in being exposed to anything new or original (musicians most of all). But if the idea is to promote my own music, then I’m starting out w/ something unpromotable in this regard.

(as an aside: I’ve played in a lot of cover bands, and they have trouble with promotion and marketing as well. I think for one thing if the field is glutted w/ artists doing covers, then how to convince audiences to specifically check out your cover band, and also with YouTube readily available on everyone’s phone, why even go hear a cover group trying to duplicate a recording that you can listen to anytime you want)

My conclusion: I’m an anomaly. I don’t like hearing cover bands, especially ones that attempt to duplicate the original arrangements. If I’m going to go hear live music, I want to hear something I can’t get at home. If a group does a cover, I’d rather they did it in their own original way (Devo’s take on the Stones’ “Satisfaction” is a great example of this). So in creating the kind of performance I would want to attend, I’m probably alienating the majority of people.

I don’t think there’s a solution to the above dilemma, other than redesigning the human race.


What are you, really?

Someone recently asked me a question, one I’ve been asked quite often, and it always confuses me. This person (who may even be reading this blog), having witnessed me perform on guitar as well as bass, asked me if I was a guitarist or bassist. I replied that I consider myself proficient on both, and he asked “but which are you, really?”.

First, I expect that Diana Krall isn’t asked “Which are you  really, a singer or a pianist?”, or Steven Wilson: “Are you a guitarist or a composer or a singer? Which are you really?”. It’s accepted that someone can be a singer and an instrumentalist, and those are very different skills. So why can’t someone be a guitarist and a bassist, especially considering that since both are string instruments there is a lot of overlap in technique between the two?

And I doubt if as baker was also a saxophonist if they would get asked “which one are they really?” Or an accountant who is also a golfer. So why is it that bass and guitar are considered mutually exclusive?

Also, I tend to get this question from bassists and guitarists. Other instrumentalists and non-musicians tend to be more tolerant of the idea that a person can do more than one thing. Is it that guitarists and bassists are more fragile and feel more threatened at the idea of someone doing their job and another one besides?



I recently read an interview w/ Marcus Miller where he said “the worst thing you can do is try to out-authenticize somebody’s native music.” and I thoroughly agree, but I feel that it’s deeper than that. Just ‘cos someone grew up in, for instance, Thailand doesn’t mean they should try to play “authentic” Thai music. I feel that just leads to sounding like you’re trying to be something, rather than just playing the music you hear. And if there’s some Thai in there, be fine w/ it. And it it doesn’t sound like stereotypical Thai, then be fine w/that (I’d suggest even being elated over it). I feel too many people today judge other musician’s on how “authentically” they play whatever genre they’re in, and I feel real authenticity is when you sound like yourself.


I recently read (and commented on) a Facebook post by the mandolinist Buddy Merriam. He was making a plea for support of his music. Now, to me, Buddy is a bluegrass icon on Long Island.  The idea that he has to ask for support seems utterly ridiculous. But thinking about it more carefully, I feel there is an even deeper issue here, and that’s not the way the general public treats musicians, but the way musicians treat each other.

I’m constantly seeing posts of local musicians promoting their own thing. I do it quite often myself. But how often do you witness a musician speaking in praise of a peer? We’re so concerned w/ getting our own thing across that we neglect those around us (usually ‘cos our heads are so far up our assess that we forget that there are other local artists). I’ve seen people post rants about how no one supports the local scene and only are interested in name acts, and then a day or two later the same person will post a link to a Van Halen video or mention that they’re going to see Muse the next weekend, and never talk about anything in the local scene other than themselves.

Here’s why this struck home w/ me: I once was checking out a YouTube clip of the M. Shanghai String Band (doing one of my favourite songs of theirs, “Another Day On the Train”) and decided to share it to my FB page. I got a post from a friend of mine saying “Thanks, Jimi. I really liked that one”. This friend lives in Japan (I think) and so may never go to an M. Shanghai show, but he might buy some of their music online. Or he might tell someone else who will buy their music or attend a show (or both). Or nothing may come of it. But if I hadn’t posted the vid, nothing would definitely happened (sorry about the grammar, there).

It occurred to me that it’s highly likely that when I post my own stuff, I come off as a salesman (which I am, but in this case a passionate one). But when I post the music of someone else who I enjoy, it comes across as me just sharing something I think has value, and as such, people are probably more likely to check it out. Imagine if we would all do this for other local artists? And you don’t have to be disingenuous about it. If there are local artists who you don’t like, just don’t say anything about them (“If you can’t say something nice…”). But there are probably plenty of grassroots groups you could be supporting. They don’t even have to be local, considering how the internet works. I have a connection to a group in Denver (Them Raggedy Bones, great old school Americana stuff). I’ll advocate for them, and maybe there are people in Colorado who’ll get wind of it and become fans, or maybe someone else will just purchase some mp3s of theirs.

There’s a concept in New Age thinking that whatever you need, you should give away. If you need to promote your band and develop a fan base, advertise someone else’s group and become their fan. If you want more people to come to your shows, go to more other folks shows (and not Bon Jovi, for one thing ‘cos they don’t need your support as much as your local artists do, and for another thing they totally suck).

There are plenty of local acts that I enjoy and will continue to endorse. Here are some:

John Wilkes Booth (dirt rock)

Orange Television (sort of a “Pink Floyd meets Dave Matthews on an angry day” kind of thing)

Kevin B. Clark (modern jazz guitar)

Melody Rose (modern pop and jazz)

Jerry Willard (classical guitar)

Evolfo Doofeht (goddammned funky!)

the Coyote Loops (new age guitar)

Nathan Hanson (modern sax)

Audiopharmacy (dub)

Medecine Fish (raw jam band)

(If you’re wondering why I didn’t put your name up here, don’t take offense. I’m doing this all very quickly, and am bound to omit some important folk)

I sincerely hope this post inspires some folk to really become advocates for their local music scenes, and for anything else going on in their community. But if it even gets one person thinking about these issues, I’ll have accomplished something.




Hugh Laurie and the state of music

I saw Hugh Laurie being interviewed, and he had put out an album of old blues and swing tunes. Asked why, he said that these old songs mean so much to him that he doesn’t want them to be lost to history. This created some mixed feelings for me.

On one side, I also feel strongly about a lot of music that I would hate to see become relegated to museum pieces. There’s plenty of old blues, jazz, folk, and even rock & roll that has had such an impact on our culture that it’d be a shame for it to disappear, so I think it’s great that people like Laurie are keeping it alive.

But at the same time, I’ve seen our culture become increasingly nostalgic about music. I’ve seen so many jazz jams (and jazz acts) that don’t play any songs newer than 1950. So many rock acts are focusing on music from the 60s and 70s (and there are the more modern cover bands that play music from the 90s). When I was playing classical guitar I remember someone looking at the composers listed on a program of mine and exclaiming in dismay “But these people are still alive!”

I feel there has to be a middle way. We don’t want to lose the treasures of the past, but at the same time we don’t want to cling to that past to the point of stultifying anything new from emerging. I see a tendency for people to polarize to an extreme; either they’re only interested in the “authentic” music of the past (in whatever genre they appreciate), or try to distance themselves from anything that’s not new (those these seem to be the less common these days). Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stay appreciative of those who forged the paths in the past, but still support those that are creating in the present?



Buddha with Guitar 2


Genesis of a Song

I recently wrote a new song, though “wrote” doesn’t feel like the best way to describe it. Often, songs seem to more “appear” in my head, generally a bit at a time. This one was no exception.

It was a Tuesday night, probably around 11ish. I had been at an open mic (whether that has anything to do w/ it or not, we’ll likely never know) and was sitting around winding down, and I heard a drumbeat in my head (a lot of my songs start w/ drum beats or rhythmic ideas, which is funny considering I don’t play drums at all). So I sketched it out on whatever paper was handy, figuring maybe I’d do something w/ it someday.

(Here’s an important point: I’m constantly coming up w/ ideas and writing them down. I have a file called “composition ideas” that has close to fifty things in it, none of which has become anything yet, and maybe never will. I figure this consistent creation just keeps me in shape for the things that are worth completing).

But as I was drifting of to sleep hours later) I started hearing a guitar riff to go w/ it (The drum pattern and basic guitar riff I put on SoundCloud). A very punky, Nirvanaish thing. I figured I’d put the two together the next day, but the riff kept playing over and over in my head, and I even heard it go to two other chords (starting in E, it proceeded to A and Ab). Having experienced this before, I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep w/out addressing this song in some way, so I got up and turned on Pro-Tools (I no longer use the Amateur Tools). I programmed in the drum beat, turned on my guitar amp and started playing along w/ it. A curious thing happened here: once I hit the Ab chord, I instinctively knew that there had to be a C chord before returning to the E riff. Where do these things come from? The subconscious? Some divinity?

So I jammed the riff and changes against the drum pattern for a while, and then went to sleep. But at this point I started hearing lyrics. Just a line or two at first (and for some reason, i was hearing them sung w/ Greg Lake’s voice). So I would periodically turn on a light and write what words I was hearing in a notebook I keep handy. This went on for a while, and when I woke the next day, i had two-and-a-half verses complete. (I put one verse up on SoundCloud)

So that day I recorded the guitar against the drum pattern, but I was also hearing a tag by now (when that happened I’m not sure). So I finished the verse lyrics and recorded them, but I needed lyrics for the tag. This was the only part that felt like “work”. I would try and think of what would make sense (lyrically) to conclude w/, and ever recorded two of those ideas. But I knew that neither of them was right (and there have been times when I wanted to finish a song so badly that I went w/ whatever I could come up w/, and regretted it every time, so I’ve learned not to rush these things). But as I was playing around w/ these (dreadful) ideas, they formed into a melody (w/ a harmony part). Words slowly appeared to this melody, and I finally had the tag and the song was complete! (The final version is also on SoundCloud)

This tends to be the way songs appear for me. If it occurred slower I would’ve put up more samples detailing the process, but maybe the next one will happen over a more extended time period.




Why do we like what we do?

My recent comments on the new Black Sabbath (and the replies to it) caused me to wonder about what makes us like certain things and not others. And not just in the sense of why do I like Wolfmother but not Justin Bieber (that one’s pretty obvious). Or even why such a Rush fan as me doesn’t like the “Hold Your Fire” record but really enjoys “Vapor Trails” (whereas I expect for some Rush fans it’s the reverse), but what’s fascinating to me is how at this point I can’t listen to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” anymore (what some call the “Stairway to Heaven effect”) but can still listen to “I Can’t Explain”, even though I’ve likely heard the latter more times. Compound this with the fact the “Won’t Get Fooled” has a variety of sections and harmony and dynamic changes while “Can’t Explain” is mostly three chords pounded into the dirt. One would think if I was going to get sick of a song it would be the simpler one.

(And why do I have so many Bill Frisell albums but only two from Larry Coryell? The first response would be that Frisell is so much better, but are there people who would dispute that?)

Maybe it’s due to where and when I first encountered the song/artist/genre. Like the idea that if you eat a certain food and get violently ill you will find that food less appetizing in the future. But I doubt that’s it. I think we’ve all had the experience of being on a date and this person who we’re really into decides to play us their favourite song and we think it’s crap (of course, you don’t tell the other person that, you smile and tell them how much you like it). We should really appreciate this music if it’s linked with this wonderful event, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.

And to being the idea of food back (as I often like to do): nobody ever discusses these things around that subject, do they? I’ve never heard anyone asking “Why do I hate coffee but like coffee flavoured ice-cream?” or “How come you’ll eat raisins on their own but not in muffins?” Do people have these conversations (just when I’m not around)?

Or maybe it’s like that old saying (I’ve heard credited to Frank Zappa): “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”




What If? (solo show jitters)

I’m currently preparing for a solo performance, where I will play and sing all by myself, w/out any backing band to lean on. This is of course fairly frightening. But there’s a great technique I know of that works well w/ these kinds of scenarios.

It’s basically to imagine the worst case scenario, and discover that even at the lowest things might not be so bad. For instance, one worst case might be that no one shows up, and I’m performing just for myself and one barista (or whatever the coffee makers at Sip This like to be called). However, the bright side is that there’s really no one to tell the tale of how awfully my performance was attended, and so I can just serenade the counter-person for a few songs and then pack up early and do something else, which isn’t such a bad fate (and they do have some gorgeous women working there).

So what might be a worse predicament? Maybe if a crowd does show up but my performance is terrible. Like my guitar keeps going out of tune, and I have a scratchy throat and sing out-of-tune, and forget a lot of lyrics. Well, first off I’d say this is a worse fate for the people that showed up than it is for me. They have to sit through it, whereas at least I’m doing something. And even though it’d be a shame to have a dreadful show turn off these folk from ever coming to see me again, the next morning my life would be much the same as it had been the previous day, so it’s not all that horrid an outcome. My potential audience will just have become a bit smaller, which though not something I want, wouldn’t be something that would totally disrupt my life. It would just set me back a bit.

So the worst possible thing that can occur at this show isn’t something to be all that concerned about. And it’s highly unlikely that the worst thing will happen, which of course also means that it’s equally unlikely that the best thing will happen (like Katie Sackhoff happens to break down while passing through w/ an A&R friend of hers and they stop in and I do such an amazing performance that she becomes quite taken w/ me and the A&R tool insists on signing me to a mega-deal w/ his label. As I said, highly unlikely). So the actuality will probably be somewhere in between the worst and the best. So I guess the lesson is if one is focused on the best outcome, one will likely be disappointed, but if one is focused on the worst, then one will be pleasantly surprised.




Buddha with Guitar 2