Queen or AC/DC?
Music Business

Queen, or AC/DC?

Queen or AC/DC?My buddy and I talk about this regularly — Queen, or AC/DC? Not, who is the best band, but which is your philosophy? Both bands are great. But they take two different approaches to music.


AC/DC does what they do, and they do it very, very well. It’s hard-driving, tight, stadium rock ‘n roll. They’re not going to make a disco album. Their lyrics target specific emotions and a specific demographic. They don’t try to be anything other than what they are. There’s something to be said for that.


Queen, on the other hand, is more difficult to categorize. Their songs range from the fairly simple musically, straight ahead rock of Tie Your Mother Down, to the complex, musically sophisticated and heavily orchestrated Bohemian Rhapsody. And you can throw some songs that sound like they’re from the 1920’s. There are rock influences, blues influences, operatic influences, and Crazy Little Thing Called Love sounds like a rockabilly tune.

Which are you?

So, one of the things you have to do is a musician, is ask yourself — Are you AC/DC, or are you queen? Are you going to do one thing, and do it well? Or are you going to musically stretch yourself and your fans? Let me be clear — I don’t think one approach is better than the other. Sometimes you just want to bang your head. Other times, you might want something more cerebral, or just to experience a different emotion.

But when you read stuff about marketing your music and getting fans, the message is clear. You need to niche. If you sound like Tom Petty, you can sell to Tom Petty fans. In fact, if you follow any big musicians on Facebook, you just might see an ad pop up. “Love Bruce Springsteen? Then you’ll just love this new band that sings working-class songs!”

How things went wrong.

Unfortunately, that’s how music went stale in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Big corporate record companies would see a band have a huge record and they’d say, “Find me a band that sounds like that band.” To the band that had a hit, they’d say, “Write another song like that one.” The music became ‘corporatized’ and stale and it took new wave and punk music to add the freshness and rawness back.

So, here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like it when musicians try to be something they’re not. Tony Bennett made a disco record. Prolly a mistake. If being true to yourself means playing straight ahead rock and roll for 40 years, do that. But Queen wouldn’t have been Queen, if they limited themselves to one kind of music. So, if that’s what’s in your psyche, spit it out!

The golden age of radio.

As for me, well… I grew up in a golden age of radio. Look at the top 10 from 1968.

Hey Jude — The Beatles
Love Is Blue — Paul Mauriat
Honey — Bobby Goldsboro
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay — Otis Redding
People Got to Be Free — The Rascals
Sunshine of Your Love — Cream
This Guy’s in Love With You –Herb Alpert
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Hugo Montenegro
Mrs. Robinson — Simon & Garfunkel
Tighten Up — Archie Bell & the Drells

You’ve got pop rock, ballads, R&B/soul, straight ahead rock, folksy rock, and Latin influence. And all of it in the top 10.

In later years, radio changed from broadcasting to “narrow casting”. Radio stations had a demographic and I was a young male. Radio airplay was tightly orchestrated and a butt rocker (like I was), only heard a narrow range of music.

Lots of influences.

Fortunately, I got involved in the burgeoning Seattle music scene of the early ’80s and then worked in recording studios for years, cutting all different styles of music, as an engineer and producer. I even ended up touring the country a couple of times with a punk band.

In the ’90s, I ended up in Russia, as Program Director for a rock radio station in St. Petersburg. We played everything from James Brown to Green Day. There was nothing like it that I knew about in the U.S., and I loved the variety. Years later, Jack FM started playing a wide variety of hits from different eras. People liked it.

I sometimes say my influences are the Monkees and Blue Oyster Cult. I’m only being partly facetious. I can talk about ABBA AND Frank Marino in the same breath. I’m not ashamed to say I’m a fan of Celine Dion. I can listen to AC/DC right after.

And the winner is . . .

So, I think you can guess which camp I fall into musically. I fall into the musically diverse (Queen) camp. I’m not saying I’m Queen (there can be only one). I’m saying I’m going to let creativity go where it goes.

There are elements of pop, rock, Latin, funk, punk, speed metal, and even a tiny bit of country in my music (yeah, the country surprised me too). I don’t feel like being told what I can’t put in my music. I love the whacka-whacka of funk guitars, the double bass drums of speed metal, the slow triplets against 4 beats of Latin music. I love James Bond sounding guitar riffs, interesting, plaintive minor scales — and melody. I love a good, pop melody. I just laid down a Chuck Berry style solo tonight, and a Santana style solo last week. I like good music, wherever I find it. I appreciate a good song — whatever the genre. And I like musical music; music that has depth and melody. It can be very simple and good. Or, it’s as complex as it needs to be, to get across a complex emotion.


PS: The Beatles are an obvious example of a musically sophisticated and diverse band. They started out as a simple pop band, but really allowed the music to go incredible places. In fact, this whole article could have been Beatles/Stones (although the stoners are certainly more musically diverse than AC/DC).

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Music Business

Sax Playing Septuagenarian — I Salute You

saxThe other evening, I stumbled into a local establishment where there was live music going on. Soon, up to the stage stepped an older man with his saxophone. He was well dressed. As he started to play, he swayed to the beat and obvious joy lit up his face. You could tell he was really into it by the way he moved. He’d obviously been playing sax a long time. His was playing some fairly difficult stuff.

I was interested to hear how the crowd responded. They clapped about as loudly as they had for the previous act. And I was surprised.

You see…

He really sucked

He was slightly out of tune with the music (to me, that’s like fingernails on a blackboard) and what he was playing didn’t go with the music at all. He was playing musical scales, but those scales weren’t closely related to the music. It was to me, the definition of bad music. It was painful to listen to. But to a lot of people, if you look the part, they think it must sound ok.

And who am I to judge? Well, I’m a record producer and recording engineer, that’s who. But music is subjective. And it’s not.

Flaws, talent and skill

If you are a basketball player and have a serious flaw in your game, unless you are extremely talented otherwise, you won’t play in the big leagues. You succeed or fail largely on your abilities.

Music is that way too — but less so. If you’re a musician and go on American Idol or The Voice or interact with any serious music professional you’ll probably find out what your flaws are pretty quickly. But personality, stage presence, networking ability and a host of other factors not directly related to playing music are also larger factors.

But, in general, there’s a baseline level of musical ability that’s needed. You have to turn whatever talent you have into skill. And sitting at home, playing sax in front of the mirror, this guy didn’t get a big piece of it. He’d mastered some advanced stuff but not the basics — staying in tune and playing something related to the rest of the music. He probably either never stopped to get a pro’s opinion or ignored what he heard. Or maybe he didn’t care.

Maybe he was doing it for fun

And in spite of the fact that almost everybody you see on TV or in the movies has met that basic level of musical ability and gone beyond, it’s not easy for everyone. For me, some things are pretty easy and some aren’t.

Sometimes I talk to people about struggles I’m having with something musical. Maybe I’m having trouble getting a vocal part to sound the way I want it to sound. Maybe I’m struggling with a technical guitar line or wrestling with the limitations of my recording setup. They almost always tell me they don’t hear the problem and that it sounds good. They think I’m looking for reassurance.

I’m not.

I’m a frickin’ record producer. I know what sounds good and what doesn’t — most of the time. It’s actually really hard to have perspective on your own songs sometimes. But as far as musical performances go, I know when it’s good and when it’s not. When I complain, I’m just complaining about my day at work.

Music (for me) is an art form that constantly confronts me with my limitations. I’m always pushing to be better and always at the limit of what I can do at the moment. Sometimes I’m happy with the way it turns out but I’m only momentarily satisfied with my progress. That’s the way it works. That’s both what sucks about it and what’s great.

And there are so many frontiers; singing, playing guitar, arranging, songwriting, engineering, producing, mixing. And that list, any of which can take a lifetime to master, doesn’t include live performance or marketing. And I admire anyone who takes up the challenge. Even if they miss something basic. Even if they suck.

So, sax playing septuagenarian — I Salute You! You worked on your instrument. You got up on stage. You looked good, you had good stage presence and you played your heart out.



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Music Business

I’m Irrelevant — And I’m Fine With That

KeithLI ran into some music business folks the other day. We talked a lot about nurturing young talent in music and how cool it is when a up-an-coming act really digs in and learns about songwriting craft, arrangement and applies it to their art. To me, what’s important is (in this order), the quality of the songs, the arrangement, the musical performance and stage presence. There’s nothing better than an act that’s hitting on all those cylinders!

Personally, I’ve spent years of my life involved in bringing new talent up. I’ve taught scores of engineers and producers technical skills, engineered/produced acts and given recording classes to singer/songwriters. I’ve been on the receiving end too. I’ve taken songwriting workshops, vocal lessons, guitar lessons… People have given me gigs with nothing in it for them, offered advice and help and lent me their gear.

For such a cut-throat industry, there are a lot of helpful people in it 🙂

But the other night, I ran into something I’d never experienced before. Before I talk about it, have you seen this video of the old guy throwing away his canes and dancing?

It’s cute, right? Most of us like to celebrate when someone triumphs over limitations.

But are you going to hire him as a dancer? Probably not. He’s not being taken seriously as a dancer (I’m sure that’s not his goal).

I’ve been marginalized

But I’ve seen the same attitude toward me (and others in the industry). It happened to me the other night. People think it’s cool that I’m out there playing original music in my mid-50s. But they don’t take it seriously. It’s cute; like the old guy throwing away his canes. They think music is a young person’s game. The world is not exactly clamoring for the next 60 year-old rock star, are they?

But the problem doesn’t end there. Some people don’t take female songwriters seriously; others because a songwriter is too young. Female drummers and guitarists still get, “you’re pretty good for a girl” comments. Sexism, racism, ageism — you name it — it exists in music too. Talented musicians are being marginalized.

But it’s a different world now…

It used to be that being successful in music meant having a major record deal with one of a very few record labels. Selling 200,000 albums was considered a bust. Now, with just a few thousand fans, a musician can make a living. And there’s no gatekeeper in the way. A songwriter can record a song on their phone, in their living room and put it up on YouTube. Potentially, millions of people could see it (they won’t, but cutting through the noise is a separate problem).

I (and other musicians) don’t need to think about the people who would marginalize us. My music is irrelevant to billions of people. I’m fine with that. Let the pop stars worry about being “relevant”. As musicians and artists, we need to focus on the people who value what we do. If I can get enough of those people passionate about what I do, I’m golden. If not, that means I’m not good enough as either a musician or marketer.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.



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Music Business

Is Your Song Worth 2/3 Of A Cent?

What's your music worth?So, you spend hours writing a song. Then you record it, perhaps spending thousands of dollars. I added it up once and figured I spend about 60 hours writing and recording a song. That’s equivalent to 1  1/2 work weeks.

And how much do you get if someone plays your song on Spotify? About 2/3 of a cent. To put in perspective, it would take 1,000 plays of your song just to pay for the set of strings on your guitar (if you can find a set for $6 – $7).

That’s right, Spotify pays somewhere around $0.006 per play. Unless you get to be one of the top artists in the world and are streamed hundreds of thousands of times, you’re not likely to support yourself with a product that pays you  $0.006. For most independent artists, Spotify and similar services are never going to be a significant source of income.

Spotify claims they pay out 70% of their profits to artists. What’s wrong with this picture?

Some People Think 2/3 Of A Cent Is Too Much To Pay To Listen To Music

I got some insight recently when a new new Spotify/Pandora competitor launched, offering higher quality recordings. They were advertising on Facebook @ $19.95/month. The comments sections was sprinkled with “cut the price in half and I’d consider it” comments. In short, a lot of people aren’t willing to pay much to listen to music. And if they don’t know who you are, they’re probably even less willing to pay.

Here’s my advice. Don’t give those people another thought. They’re not who you should worry about connecting with.

Where Should You Focus?

Let me ask you a question. If you ran a software company, how much time, effort and money would you spend marketing to people that don’t have computers? If you sold pet food, would you focus on people that have pets or those that don’t? If you make custom floor mats that only fit Teslas, would you put a lot of effort getting your product in front of 12 year-olds? People that will only spend $0.006 to listen to your music shouldn’t be the centerpieces of your sales and marketing strategy.

Who Should You Care About?

But what about a fan who comes to a live show ($10 cover) and buys your CD there (another $10). They just spent $20 on you, you might profit $12. You just played a 12 song set — you made $1.00/song, or 167 times what you’d get for a play on Spotify for that same person. Maybe there’s another 50 people in the room who paid to get in or bought a CD (or more). Those are the people who deserve your attention. If you can get them on your mailing list, maybe they’ll buy your next CD or download when it comes out too.

Think about your favorite musician or band. How much have you spent on them over the years? I’ve seen Blue Öyster Cult 7 times. I’ve bought several of their albums. Add up all the concert tickets, t-shirts, CDs and you’ll likely get a figure in the hundreds of dollars. What would it be worth to you to be able to hang out with them for a couple of hours?

I Knew Them Before They Were Big

Have you ever liked a band before they hit it big? I have friends that saw U2 in a small club in Seattle (Astor Park) before they hit the mainstream. Do you know that feeling of pride you have when you knew about it first? You feel invested. You want to tell your friends about them. If you ever get to meet the band, you’ll tell them about how you saw them way back when. You’re a true fan.

These are the relationships you want to cultivate. This is where you should spend the bulk of your time and effort — not chasing the possibility that someone might hear your song on Spotify and fall in love with it.

And what about falling in love with a song? All of us have songs that reach in and grab our hearts. We have songs that make us pump our fists in the air, songs that make us cry, song that have special meanings for us. Your songs can do that for someone too. Find that someone and cherish them.

So, What’s Your Music Worth?

Your music isn’t even worth 2/3 of a cent to some people. To others, it’s priceless.

Your job is to get your music in front of people and separate out the ones who find value in it. Get those people into your world and nurture your relationship with them. Forget about the rest. If you’re a music fan, support the music you love however you can. Musicians really love it when you like their Facebook pages, tell their friends and share their posts :-). To me, the support is more important than the money. Not everyone has disposable income.


PS: You probably have noticed I use words such as “product,” “marketing” and “profit.” I don’t think about the business side of things when I’m writing a song or recording it. I do music because I love it. I’d do it even if there were no money in it. Once the recording is done though, I put my business hat on. Why? Because I want to be able to do more music. I want more people with me on this journey. I’d like music to be a major part of my life. To accomplish those goals, I’ve got to make good business and marketing decisions. Those are the facts. Thinking otherwise is silly.

PPS: Having some music on streaming services is not necessarily a bad idea. People can discover you there and then become fans. However, it seems to me that there are better strategies to getting new fans. A good percentage of tracks on Spotify have never been played once. So, it’s not the first place I’d put my efforts, unless you have some strategy I don’t know about.

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