Why songwriting is the key


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for.

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How it works….getting to the top………


I spent last night with a new band that I will be producing. A bottle of good whiskey a couple of marginal vintage acoustic guitars and a good meal naturally evolved into a people taking turns showcasing new songs or playing masterworks of America’s rock history.  The band had just fired their most recent drummer for being an asshole. The new drummer, an old friend, of course, fit in perfectly. This band is playing Alt Country. The drummer rose to the occasion and shaved the middle part of his beard to create truly impressive mutton-chop sideburns.  He fit right in with the bands look and attitude. To take the gig he dumped a girl, walked away from a job he hated, put down the guitar and picked up the drumsticks. Those are the actions of a real musician.

It's a brawl motherfucker! First you better pay at the door!

Later in the night, as the band got remarkably drunk, before they reached the stage of sending me nonsensical text messages, the conversation turned to how to get ahead, how to get to the top, how to put on a better show etc. I of course, being an arrogant ass, gave them plenty of advice. If you are reading this blog some of the points that came up may be news to you.

The band are amped up. They’re flat-out excited. A producer had come to see them play, loved the show and agreed to produce some music for them. This is an exciting moment in any band. We hashed out the basic plan before the Johnny Walker ran out. Was this their big break? Perhaps. Time will tell. It also could be the wrong move. No one will know until years from now. One thing I have seen repeated with every band that succeeds is the series of small breaks that lets the band climb to the top.  This is the true system to becoming a star and a working musician.

Let’s use this band as an example. They have a manager/producer, a completed album that is released locally and a full gig schedule. All of this happened before I ever heard their name. How did they get that far? Hmm… it’s easy to guess. They all spent countless hours learning to play and listening to music. They fell in love with certain bands, particular songs and the stories they heard about other bands they admired. They all played in shitty bands. This taught them the difference between good and bad from the inside looking out.

Sure, this is how everyone dresses...right?

They all played in bands that were better. This is the winnowing process that every musician lives through. Some of them switched instruments as they realized where their true talents lay. They all played some local shows. Some of these shows sucked, bad. They learned how to get the audience engaged and how to make the girls shake their asses.  They all came to the realization that their heroes didn’t dress like the audience so they cautiously start to acquire stage clothes. 

As their set became a winner they started to branch out to new towns. Soon they won fans in these towns too. Then they heard of a studio owner/producer that seemed to have something good happening. They booked time and soon he was a fan too. They talked him into being their manager. This caused the local press to start to mention them.  He produced a brilliant but spotty first record. He dropped by my house for dinner with two of the band members in tow. By the end of the dinner I could see they had talent. I hadn’t even heard the recordings but I was interested. All I had to do was talk to them and I could see that they understood how it worked. I could see their passion and their ambition. So now they have a new producer.

The point to this little history is that you get ahead with mountains of little breaks. You create these breaks by working hard to make music, by getting yourself talked about, by not fitting in, by being a little bigger than the stage you step up on.  If you work hard enough and have lots of luck you make it to the top. At that point looking back down the mountain you will see that there is never a big break. There is never one thing that gives the band the attention of the world. You hear stories of big breaks because this myth is manufactured by the big labels that need people to believe that they create stars.  They never mention how many great musicians they bury.

Summing it all up – work hard for lots of small triumphs. Pile these up and you have a story of how a band succeeded at rock………

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to release your own music…………


I asked for suggestions. I received quite a few.  I start by covering Dave’s suggestion that I provide a timeline for a band releasing their own music.

Let me start by repeating some advice I have proffered in the past. Releasing your own music is an excellent idea.  There seems to be an old wives’ tale that if you release your own music this will scare away labels. This is utter crap. Often people who have never worked in the actual record business will act as if they have all the answers. Invariably they will tell you “wait! shop the labels, wait until the market is ready…” – it’s all the same idiotic claptrap.  Thousands of worthy bands have expired waiting for their “big break”. The term “big break” points to the stupidity and misunderstanding that underlies this philosophy. Band’s don’t get a big break. They get ahead by hundreds of little breaks that bring them into a position to move to a large label and finally sell millions of records.  If you ever get to that point, don’t worry. The music business will go out its way to advertise the fact that the label created all the buzz and lifted you out of obscurity while ignoring everything the band and its fan base did to get ahead.

Think of any huge band. There are always “early recordings”, “demos”, “bootleg recordings” etc. These are all recordings created as the band rose to the top. You often can find members of any huge band appearing in unknown bands before they make it big. All of this illustrates that the path to the top is a series of small steps and the associations you build with other musicians on your way up.

One final thought on recording and releasing material. Just do it. Don’t fuck around. Don’t wait for that producer to find time for you next year. For any new band the first year should have fifty gigs and at least one full length recording.  Write the material, practice it and then record it. Certainly take the time to get it right but get it down on tape.  You can always rerecord material later.

Okay let’s move on. For this blog I will assume that you are recording a full length release and all of the sessions are worked out or complete.  Often bands concentrate on recording and ignore everything else. This works great if you are U2 but it causes problems if you are a little band. You need to be thinking about releasing the record as you record it.  You should be setting up a mastering engineer. They often are booked months in advance. Mastering is expensive and necessary. It often makes your material sound pro and much, much slicker.

 At the same time you MUST be working on cover art. It takes longer to manufacture the CD sleeve than to duplicate the CDs. I recently had dinner with a alt country band. They have tons of talent. More songs than they could ever use and a gig schedule that would make any young band jealous. They fought for months over the album art after completing the recording of their first record. This delayed them months and, in the end, they ended up with a lousy cover that has little to do with their music. Work out your cover art while you are making the record.  By the time you finish your mixes and are working on a sequence you should have your artwork locked in. Make sure someone is taking notes for the album cover. These notes are the classic choice to contain a few inside jokes.  Please remember that these jokes will not be understood by your fans. Do not make the whole cover an inside joke. This invariably leaves you with a cover that the fans hate and do not understand.

Now you’ve reached the point where you have a finished set of mixes and an album cover. Pick a date about four months in the future and decide that will be your release day. Book a date at one of your strongest venues.  This will be your release party. If you don’t give yourself a release date as a goal you and your band will likely stall and delay yourself into obscurity.  SET A DATE!

Once you have picked the date count backwards from this date six weeks. This should be the date that your promo copies (and your copies to sell) should be in your hand. Now that you know the production date (that’s what it’s called after all..) you can contact the CD duplicator and find out how long it takes them to duplicate the master and produce the art. It’s usually best to give both these duties to the CD duplicator. Yes you can save some money if you find artwork manufacturing separately but putting 2000 cds into their sleeves sucks so just skip it. At this point you will likely notice that you are already behind schedule. Try not to worry about it and just press ahead with mastering and setting up various things to promote this magical recording.  As you move towards the actual release don’t be surprised if you grow to dislike the recording. THIS IS COMMON AND YOU MUST LEARN TO NOT SECOND GUESS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE! If you do start to meddle and change things you will fall down the black hole that often consumes bands and leads to purgatory.

With all of this behind you it is time to work out how you will promote the recording. Here’s some standard ideas:

1. Book a tour that covers every market where you are known and any geographically related market where you can scam your way into a gig.

2.Collect lists of every magazine, E-zine, website and blog that writes about music similar to your band. These will all receive a press pack (see my blog on this) photo and CD in the weeks before your release.

3. Set up an account to upload to Itunes and other sites. (CD baby is quite popular) Design and arrange for your website to have a new look and copious verbage about the brilliant release, all primed and ready to go on the day of release.

4. Dig around on the internet for info on Indy distributors. Call other bands, ask how they sell product. Take notes. (product is one of those nasty music industry terms for music…)

5. Design a tour shirt and some kind of Choch-Kee (sp?). This is some small cheap item that has the album art or title or band name that can be given out to people to promote the release. (I have suggested fortune cookies that contain the band’s album title in some clever way. No one has ever used this idea so maybe it’s a tacky idea …hey you can be the first) Be creative, hand puppets? key chains? Kites? Hand grenades? This is your moment to shine.

6. Think of possible promo stunts…. the album is called Pig Fuckers? Hmmm…. what could you do? Creativity goes a long way towards getting people talking. When people talk CDs sell.

So now you’ve got the machine in gear. All of these things need to be timed to happen in and around the “Album Release Date”. It doesn’t matter much if you are a little early or a little late. You need college radio play (oh yeah get a list of college stations for mailing), press and local TV during the two months when your release will be new.  Don’t worry about shopping the release to labels. You can send out mailings if you like but the way to get signed is to get more popular. It’s a simple as that.

Columbia Records “discovered” Janis Joplin, the legendary blues rock singer at a show in San Francisco. She was given one of the most lucrative contracts up to that time. No one mentions that Columbia A & R guys first saw her at a 7000 seat theater show.  Those guys were a long way behind what every kid in Frisco had known for a year…Janis Joplin will melt your shoes….that’s how you get discovered.

I am sure I missed some points. Post questions, I’ll answer promptly….Oh yeah…if you are putting out a record you better be writing the next record or you will once again fall into the black hole……..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to create a final mix (pt 2)


So now we move on to adding the effects, compression and fader moves to your mix. I am assuming that you have read and understood part one. You have your mix up and running and it sounds completely balanced with drums, bass, guitars and vox. Now it’s time to add in all of the other ear candy such as background vocals or car crashes – whatever is left. As you do add elements find their proper position in the stereo field first, then find their level. This is important. If you set level first and then pan it somewhere it will be very hard to achieve balance.

This is the point where you sit back and think about the mix. Does it feel right?  Too dry? What does it need? This is the point where you may decide to add effects to instruments to achieve particular colors or atmospheres. Don’t add reverb to the vocals because all vocals have reverb. First this isn’t actually true and second it should be added in an attempt to achieve something particular.  Over the years I have spent endless hours screwing around with effects at the demand of musicians, all of that time was wasted. It rarely comes out better. On the other hand when a musician has something in mind you can quickly move towards a better mix. For example the singer might say “the vocal needs to sound more lonely”. Well that might seem vague but it gives you somewhere to go. You might add a small room reverb and pan the instruments slightly away from the vocal so it seems like it’s by itself.  By contrast the guitarist might say “the solo needs to sound grand, like a choir or something” . This leads you to push it back in the mix and add big church reverb. Most musicians understand how things should feel. They all use different terms to describe these variables. You need to take the time to understand what they mean by “it needs punch” or “it has to rock more”. Everyone seems to use these kind of terms differently. if, on the other hand, the drummer says, “I wanna sound like Bonham on When the Levee Breaks remind him that he plays like a pussy, Bonham was no pussy and that he still owes 9 bucks for last night’s food. In short ignore him.

Now is the time to think about EQ changes. Does the bass lack bottom? Is the vocal dull? When you identify a problem like these two attempt, at first, to remove things from the mix to see if the problem goes away. The most common problem that I have seen in mixing is caused by each individual element having too much top, bottom and mids. When you put it all together it makes mud.  THIS IDEA IS IMPORTANT. LEARN TO THINK ABOUT IT!

All of the great remix engineers spend most of their time removing frequencies from tracks to achieve clarity. Muddy mix? Take things out.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to lose the guitars. Instead you may need to EQ them and remove some well-defined frequencies. As you rebalance the mix and add in effects be careful to carefully remove bits and pieces of the different tracks frequency spectrums to allow other elements to shine. If you follow the rookie system of adding top and bottom to every track as it enters the mix you will end up with mud that smells of shit. I guarantee it.

Another important point about effects. Less is more and whenever you add reverb to a track it makes that track LOUDER. That means you must lower the dry track and add the reverb return track. Then rebalance the two elements, then rebalance the whole damn mix. If you put effects on everything then the mix will become an insoluble rubic’s cube. So don’t do that.

Next element to consider is compression. I am a big fan of compression. It makes tracks flatter dynamically and as a result adds detail which makes them stand out in the mix. It also controls big jumps in volume (very useful on vocals). This allows you to get a balance that continues throughout the whole mix. Again, if you compress a track you need to rebalance the mix.

Often I will run the mix through matched compressors to flatten the whole mix and make it all sound louder.  In this case both compressors must be the same with one unit “slaved” to the other so that only one set of controls runs both units. If you know how to do this and have two nice matching compressors give it a try. If not it’s best to leave this to the mastering engineer.

One final comment – always listen to the mix on as many different stereos as possible before deciding it is done. Play it in the car. Play it on your iPod through your girlfriend’s clock radio, play it on your kid brother’s karaoke box, play it anywhere that is a challenge. This will show you what needs to be changed and will show you how it will be listened to by your fans. Remember, no one is going to listen to your mixes on a studio rig so get used to it and mix it so it sounds good on ANY system……….

©Copyright 2011 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

oodles of recording noodles……………..


So let’s swing back to the core of what a band does to promote itself – recording music.  Recording, the private, back room activity that an active band engages in, should be central to a your band’s development. You should always be setting something down on tape. This could be demos, live tracks as the band plays out, major sessions with a producer, a running project to rerecord “Dark Side of the Moon” as a salsa album or collaborations with other artists. It all counts. It is all central to being a great band and it all should be DONE WITHOUT DELAY!!! Stop fucking around and make the record.

Over the course of my career I heard the same lame excuse with sickening regularity. There are many variations but it basically goes like this ” We’re waiting for Tyrone Mablamawitz to find time in his schedule so we can work on some tracks” The key word is “waiting”.  Your waiting for the studio. Your waiting to finish writing two more tracks. Your waiting for label to show some interest. Your waiting until you buy that new compressor. Your waiting for your lucky groupie to get outta rehab…..Bullshit. Why wait? Never wait. If you are going to be a band that records songs then FUCKING RECORD AND DON’T BE AN IDIOT ABOUT IT! Great records are made by bands that actually push the RECORD button. If you are too timid to do it, if you are always finding an excuse why you’re not ready, then you’re not a great band.

You have to feel the fierce urgency of NOW!

Look at it this way. You’re in a band. You have the lives of four or five people tangled up and committed to the crazy campaign to make great rock. How long can this last? How long will the band hang together? How long until someone pisses off everyone else and things change? I have thirty five years experience in this subject and I can tell you with no reservation that answer to all of those questions is “Not long at all”. All bands are temporary. The only ones that stick around for decades are the ones that make it big. Once that happens you will have already figured out that you need to get it down on tape.

All of the arguments that you are not ready don’t really add up. For example if you find yourself arguing that the tunes need to be practiced in order to have enough polish then get to it and knock out the practices. That is part of the recording process. There is a subtle but important difference between “Yeah we have just been practicing” and “We’re doing preproduction practices”. One is the humdrum pace of a band wasting its time and the other is a band working towards a short-term goal.

Let me sum up this rant. ALWAYS RECORD WHAT’S GOING DOWN IN THE BAND. It all has use and if you are not recording then you damn well better be playing out live. Oh yeah, if you are playing live you damn well better be getting some of the shows on tape. Listening back to a live shows tape is a great way to figure out that it’s time to fire the drummer or that “I’ll cry over your puppy baby” really sucks and the band should finally drop it from the set list. (which, of course, will mean you can finally fire the drummer since it is his only song)

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This post looks like a few random recording topics. Since there are always lots of brief comments rattling around in my skull I will occasionally spit out these disjointed posts. I hope that they fit in with all of the other more structured posts.

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How do you get good tracks in the studio? How do you make a recording really special?

Getting great tracks

This, of course, could be a huge post with lots of subchapters and scores of stories. Tonight, at least, I am going to give a few quick and dirty tips and rules to help ensure cutting great tracks.

1. Great tracks are based on great, relaxed, well centered playing. It all starts with everyone in the band being in a great mood (by great I mean appropriate and intense in some way) Everyone should be well fed, and focused. The band should try to record at the hours where everyone involved is working at their best. If your bass player just spent 14 hours unloading UPS trucks and arrived with no sleep and utter exhausted then you are on course to cut lousy tracks. Another piece of this core idea is that you should never work really long sessions. I have seen it tried hundreds of times and it has never worked. The best tracks are always cut when the band is relatively fresh and everyone’s ears are fresh.

2. Always keep practice takes and shoot for cutting the base tracks in one or two takes. If you find yourself playing a song again and again then you either need to go back into the preproduction rehearsals or the band needs a break.  The ideal session should run around 10 or twelve hours maximum. This is important. If you think you are smarter than me on this one good luck. You will spend lots of studio time banging away at the same song  and the tracks will sound lame when you go back and listen with fresh ears.

At my residential studio, Morrison Hotel, I always recorded from noon til twelve with a two-hour break in the middle. During the break I would cook a big meal. Get the band loose with substances of their choosing and tell them a bunch of rock stories to get everyone in the proper mindset. 80% of the tracks on my recordings at Morrison Hotel were cut during the two or three hours after coming back from break. The really great tracks, the ones that I can look back at and say they really rock were first or second takes.

If things start to get stale while recording take a break and do something fun. Go throw snowballs at the Hookers on the Avenue or go to the piggly wiggly as a group to see what trouble comes up. Stick together but take a break.  When the lead singer needs to “go for a pilgrimage into the woods for five hours then you are going to be getting a new singer soon.

3. Break the rules and experiment when you hit a roadblock. Every band finds themselves frustrated and stalled at some point while trying to record. When this happens use some strategies to break out of it and reenergize the session.  I think the key here is to do something creative and impulsive.  Try to rewrite a Beatles song. Record the song with the structure backwards. Cut out the chorus and try rewriting a quick and dirty version of the song with new verses and a new bridge.

Brian Eno, one of the world’s most creative producers, invented a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in the early 80’s. The purpose of these strange Tarotlike cards was to shake up the creative process. I believe you can still buy them if you are curious.  They looked like a Taro set. On each one was printed a command like “Erase and Start again” or “Take a minor element and make it a primary element”. When you got stuck you cut the deck and did what it commanded. Simple, brilliant, inspired. If you want to hear the result listen to “The fly” by U2 or any of the tracks on the Talking Heads “Remain in Light”.

4. Work on the band’s sound and get it to sound amazing before you put mics on it. Yes, the recorded tracks should be cut with the best mics and compressors you possess but the secret to a great sounding recording is to get the band sounding amazing and then capturing it. The mics, compressors, recording console and effects will not create world-class recordings by themselves. They can add to the sound. They can sculpt the sound but they can’t make it sound great when it sounds like shit in the tracking room.  THe first thing you do is get the drums, guitar amps, bass amps, leslie cabinets etc. sounding like the Voice of the Great God Jupiter. Once you do that it becomes a simple process of capturing the sound on tape.  Another way to put it is great tracks are not created in the mix room they are created by the players themselves using gear they understand.  GET IT RIGHT IN THE RECORDING ROOM FIRST. MAKE THE AMPS AND DRUMS SOUND LIKE MAGICAL SPIRITS AND THEN PUT MICS ON IT AND HIT RECORD!!! That’s the way professional, world-class records are made.

OK that sums up tonight’s advice. Of course there will be more to say in the coming weeks…. stay tuned…..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

Let’s all beat up a demo!!!


The title of this blog takes a small liberty. I am going to commit all of the beatdown. You, the reader just get to play along and, perhaps, add a pithy comment after you have absorbed my mystical wisdom.  I have been threatening for over a month now to take one or two of the submitted demos and critique them publically. Now I will make good on that threat. Tonight’s blog will be about a demo from the band Spiral Jetty Club. The next blog will cover a demo from Oliver of Melbourne Australia. I belive that is on the other side of the earth from New york. Since I haven’t visited Melbourne there is a good chance, as far as I am concerned, that it is mythical, like nirvana. Oliver may be some kind of Unicorn/hobbit creature for all I know.  Well, in the world of how to succeed at rock even hobbit/troll/fairy bands need to make great demos so OLiver is gonna get his nosebleed next week. This week, as I have just said, the honors go to Spiral Jetty Club.

Queen of Coincidence

Here’s their submission “Queen of Coincidence”. Give it a listen, not once but twice.

Here’s a link to a page with the song’s lyrics.  Are lyrics important? Hell yes, they are important.  Can you have a hit without lyrical talent? Yes, Huey Lewis and the News proved that point in the most mundane fashion possible. Led Zeppelin also wrote some monumentally crappy lyrics as well. At least they, unlike Huey Lewis, dressed cool. 

So here is my first take. I’ll throw in all the good stuff. Decent tune. The woman singing lead (perhaps it’s a ladyboy but I’ll go with woman for simplicity) can sing. She has a classic post nirvana cute girl persona. It works well with the material. The demo is simple acoustic and keyboards. It has a simple, straightforward arrangement Verse — 1/2 Chorus,Verse !/2Chorus, Full Chorus x 2, Bridge, 1/2 chorus, Full Chorus…..Cute ending. The keyboard textures fit and fill out the song. The lyrics based on the romantic notion of chance and meeting the right guy are cleverly built and conclude, as expected, with a note of hope.  As a song it is pop, has a decent hook and an interesting sound……….

If I was listening to this recording from the standpoint of production I would say that it works well as a production demo, something to build on and a good starting point. As a demo to send to a label I doubt if it will seriously interest an A & R person much less land the band a deal.  First it has a catchy hook but doesn’t sound like a hands down hit. Labels want every song to be a hit. This, of course, is impossible but they want it anyway.  The performance and writing fails to set the band out from the background of thousands of competent writers with decent singing voices. It takes no chances. It sounds like many other things that every label has heard. Labels want unique, compelling, hits.

To start with the song could modulate up a whole tone half way through the song to build tension. Her vocal performance could go from calm and studied to frantic and desperate or weird and disturbed.  At no point does the song offer any surprises or hooks that shake your soul.  Hard to do in a simple demo? Sorry but that is just not true. Listen to Beatles rough demos. Listen to Pete Townsend demos. Listen to the demos of almost any hit and you can hear some magic. It’s in there from the beginning. This song has a long way to go but a serious rewrite, taking the basic ideas and developing them to throw in some surprises and a few hints of great performance and the song will be closer to a real, pro demo.  The singer, Caylin Sanders has talent. She obviously knows how to write. Does she know how to rewrite? Does she know how to arrange a song in a way that isn’t tied to the first arrangement that the band stumbles onto? Can she recut the vocal so that it really comes across as  person looking for something and wondering if they found it? Music must have emotional content to communicate with the listener. This track ends up being pleasant.  Do you think pleasant lands a band a deal?

The song tries to pull you in in the beginning. It comes close but the arrangement offers up no tricks to ensure that the listener stays tuned. This is key to hooking an A & R person. By the time you reach the chorus the A & R person should be praying that the chorus is as great or greater than the verse was. Does this song reach that goal. No.

I encourage all of you to post comments with additional criticism. If all you can come up with is that it does rock like your favorite headbangers then skip adding your voice to the blog. I’ll just delete you anyway. Instead your comments should be designed to help the band make the track better. The best way to learn is to teach others…when you can do that then you will be on your way to succeeding at rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Queen of Coincidence © Spiral Jetty Club

Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………


About a month ago I ran a posting asking people to send in their demos. As I mentioned in that posting the idea was for me to criticize the demos in an effort to teach you, the reader, something about songwriting and recording. I got quite few submissions and, in general, there was some good stuff. Nonetheless I intend to kick the stuffing out of the songs I have picked. I am not doin’ this to discourage the musicians that were brave enough to go through this process. Instead I am going to give you an idea of how tapes are torn up by label people and producers.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs almost everyone in the music business can come up with one solid criticism of anything they hear and that is that whatever it is, no matter how good or bad, it would have benefited greatly if the person doing the talking had been involved in its creation.  The music business is full of people who are firmly convinced that they know everything there is to know about writing songs, recording music and turning that music into a mega popular world-wide hit.  In the few cases were I have seen this actually happen it usually results in something like “The Witch Doctor Song” as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks or the Macarena. It is useful to remember that very few of these people actually have any talent. If they did they would be musicians. During the Golden Age of record companies there were A & R people who really knew their stuff. There are even a few of them alive now. ( I’ll mention Joe McEwan and leave it at that…Hi Joe..How’s the wife?)( I should also admit that this whole blog is based on the premise that I know something about writing songs, recording songs and creating hits. At least I have succeeded in all three activities so there is a chance I am qualified)

Sadly, if you are determined to be involved with a large label then you will end up dealing with dullards, power mad gay hobbits, Human version of Jabba the Hut and slimey limey Simon Cowell types. You may even get lucky and find yourself attached to one of the people in the business that understand that it is a business but at its heart it’s about music. Good luck.

Tonight’s blog is not going to actually get around to presenting some music and then pulling it apart. In order to reach that point I must talk about what demos do and don’t do for a band. I must also address some of the stupid misconceptions about demos.

The first grand misconception..”In order for a demo to be effective you’ve gotta break the bank and spend as much as you can on recording and producing it”. This is completely untrue. I suspect that this fallacy is kept alive by studio owners and indy producers that make serious coin when they run into a band with a rich daddy that will pay the bills. The truth is that the value of a demo is determined by the quality of the songwriting and the fire in the belly of the band that cuts the track. It’s that simple. Good recording, bad recording, 24 track digital, two-track kids cassette deck it doesn’t matter.  If you can’t hear the song, if you can’t really hear the band then that’s a lousy demo. If the band spends lots of money and time recording a demo they will get nothing other than a lesson. The lesson will end up being that it was a waste of time and money.

Second misconception “The formula for a demo is ____________. ” I’ve heard many things used to fill in the blank. “It’s gotta be just three songs” “It should be two upbeat songs and a ballad” “It needs to have a hundred-dollar bill and a gram of coke tucked into the CD sleeve” . This last one might actually get you the attention of the kind of record executive that will spend your whole recording budget on coke.  Truth is there is no formula. Demos shouldn’t be really long since it will never get listened to all the way through.  Demos should consist of a few great songs with enough material to show exactly what a band sounds like.

Third Misconception – ” A great demo will start a bidding war and land a deal overnight” I’ve heard this one ever since I entered the music business in 1978. That’s …hmm let me think…32 years ago. In all of that time I have never met a band signed as a result of a demo. I think that ends that rumor.  The way that a band gets signed is a result of many factors adding up. This has to be matched by having contacts and interested people working for you. When you put great shows, great songs, great demos, popularity (the most important factor), buzz, press attention together with a network of people who know about you , you end up with a recording contract.

In short your demo can have things about it that sucks but if the band is great that should shine through. If, as is usually the case, the band is just OK, perhaps good in some ways and not so good in others, then you will not get a deal due to those factors and the demo will just show other people the band’s weaknesses.

So now we reach the question “What do record companies do with demos? Who listens to them? How do I get them listened to?” These are all part of the same subject.

All of the major record labels do not accept unsolicited demos. Why do they do this? Why are they so mean? It’s simple really. They believe that any band that is worth listening to will have people promoting them. They will have a manager or a lawyer or they will have devoted fan that IS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. They believe this because it is true.  Promoters, agents, managers, producers, lawyers, road managers, film makers, DJs, studio engineers etc. all have their ears open for a great band. These people insulate the major labels from the mountain of demos that are not worth listening to. All of these characters have their ears open in an effort to find the band first and get onboard to make some money as the band succeeds.  Many musicians have a problem with this concept. They view all of these people as parasites. This is a stupid, self-destructive attitude. These people are not parasites they are symbiotes. What does that mean? It means that they do not feed off of the band and bleed the band and weaken the band, no, instead they work alongside the band and help them succeed. They teach the band the craft of being rock stars and the tricks of the trade. They produce and promote records. In general the further a person is from the major labels the greater the native talent they need to survive. An independent producer must search out and discover band after band and then convince them to let him produce a record. Then promote this recording. These are all valuable services for the band.

Now I can hear a certain number of you out there saying “Not me, I’m the next demigod of rock and no one knows it. All I need to do is walk on stage and the world will crawl to my feet.” Gee I hope that is true, for your sake. Even if you are Loki, the god of the underworld, you need to learn how to put on a great show and how to arrange your songs. You need to learn how to record. You need to learn how to talk to a writer and how to do a radio interview without sounding like Bozo the Clown.

So now that you know that you can’t just send in your demo – why should you make a demo? Well, you need the demo to get the other characters interested. You need to make a cheap, dirty beginners demo to turn on a producer or engineer. This allows you to make a better demo that ends up getting you a lawyer and catches the ear of a booking agent that will pick you up as your audience starts to grow.  This gets you to a label that finances some development demos that lands you a publishing deal….Are you starting to see the sequence?

So let’s go back to demos and the major labels. I will take the time to answer a few basic questions just to get them out of the way.

“How do I get them listened to?” Demos that make it to an A & R department of a major label get there by being passed on by an established manager, lawyer, producer or booking agent.  They are the gatekeepers. The status of the person that submits the demo determines who will listen to it.  For example I managed three different acts on Columbia records at one time. The PResident of Columbia was (and I think still is) Don Ienner. Don and I have met professionally many times. We’ve met to discuss promoting my acts, releasing various items from these acts, coordinating tours of these acts etc. If I were to call him he would pick up the phone. He would do this for two reasons. First he knows me professionally and respects the fact that I manage bands that have enough clout and status to be signed to Columbia. Second he knows from his experience with me that I only call people when I have something concrete to talk to them about. He also knows that whatever I want to talk to him about WILL LIKELY BE ADVANTAGEOUS TO HIM AND COLUMBIA. This is an important point. Always call people with something that might help them. This will make your phone calls wanted rather than an annoyance.

If I were to call Don Ienner and ask him to listen to a tape he would tell the VP of A & R to listen to the tape and give him his opinion. Then, if that opinion was favorable he would listen to it and call me up with a reaction.  If the music seemed like something Columbia might want he would suggest a showcase and ask questions like “Are you planning on managing or producing?” You might be surprised to know that, although I have known Don Ienner since 1988 I have only called him about a tape twice.  Why? Because I have only found two occasions where I was in the position to pitch him a tape that fit with Columbia’s interests and I had the job of pitching the band. In both cases Columbia did not offer the band a deal. Since one of the bands was the band Phish and they went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s I expect that the next time I call him he will listen to whatever I send him.

Let us compare that scenario with a different, fictional one to help explain how the system works. Let’s say that a junior lawyer at an Entertainment Law Firm in Minneapolis,MN calls Columbia to pitch a tape.  Columbia will take him seriously since he is a professional and is in the business. They will probably tell him that someone will call him back. This call will get routed to an A & R co-ordinator. This is a person in the A & R department that works out all kinds of things like flights for A & R staff, showcase arrangements and, as in this case, calls from unknown law firms and managers. They won’t ignore the call. What if this band turns out to be the next Phish? Every major label is haunted by stories of how they turned down an artist that went on to fame. As a result they try to at least chalk up a rejection for everything that someone in the business shops to them.

In this case the A & R co-ordinator will pass on the contact to a junior A & R guy. He will call the lawyer, listen to the pitch and tell the lawyer to send in the tape. He then lists the tape in the incoming demo log. He is supposed to listen to the tape shortly after it arrives. Unfortunately he may make ten calls like this every day. The stack of unlistened to tapes grows and grows. As it does he pushes his boss to let him hire a “listener”. This is a person, usually an intern that gets cheap wages to listen to mountains of tapes. For each tape he writes a little blurb and rates it. He may get to pick out three or four as his favorites which the Junior A & R guy will then listen to.

So, it’s obvious that your chances of getting a deal through the junior lawyer in Minneapolis are slim. Even if the tape does get someone interested this is just the beginning of a long process with showcases, various demos and finally the word that they are gonna pass.  During that time you can grow old and die. NEVER WAIT TO GET SIGNED!!! It’s fine to pursue getting a deal but  never put of making records and playing live while waiting to get signed. This is a common and deadly mistake.

Next blog I will post two demos, one from the band Spiral Jetty Club and the other from the ever-present reader Oliver from Australia. I will then pull them apart and tell you how a label would view them, how a manager might view them and how a producer would hear them so stay tuned…………………………………………….