Regina Spektor, Orson Welles, and Fear in Creativity

My little boy wants to marry Regina Spektor. He’s five. I had to make a poster of Regina to hang on his wall so he could gaze at her as he falls asleep. It’s adorable, and I cannot tell you how pleased I am it’s not Taylor Swift he’s in love with. So the upcoming release of Regina’s new album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, has been big news at our house. I checked out a pre-release stream of the new record, where she yelps, breathes quite frighteningly, does a few silly accents, and sings a drunken trumpet fanfare. On previous records, she barked like a seal, sang in at least three languages, and used lip-smacking sounds as percussion. So she’s not afraid to experiment.

And then I found out from this NPR interview that she doesn’t write songs down, content to remember what she remembers, letting the rest flutter back out into the ether. In 2005, she wrote the song “Fidelity” at 3:30 in the morning, then played it a few hours later in her first ever NPR interview, not sure when she started playing it if she would remember it all.

These things are stunning to me because of their utter fearlessness.


I share a feeling common among many songwriters — that each song I write will be my last. Or, at least my last good one. The thought, then, of letting a good song flutter away is terrifying. Hell, if I bang out a drumbeat I really like on the steering wheel, I grab for a digital recorder.

This all got me thinking about art in general, and how important fearlessness is to it. And more specifically, being unafraid to experiment and fail. When I started playing music, I was introduced to the idea of “the woodshed.” You go out to the woodshed, metaphorically, to practice.  No one can hear you, it doesn’t matter if you screw up, and you do the work. As a writer, I love the similar concept of “the drawer.” The drawer is where you put the stuff you write that sucks. It’s ok you wrote it, it’s ok it sucks, and it’s ok to put it in the drawer so nobody can ever see it. I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the drawer.

There’s a big push right now to “Make Good Art.” The only way I know how to make good art is to make a lot of art. The more you make and the more things you try, the better you get and the less precious each subsequent thing becomes. The less precious something is, the easier it is to stick it in the drawer if that’s where it belongs or beat it and bang on it and change it until it qualifies as “good.” It doesn’t matter if it’s good, though, really. It matters that you do it. You think it might be a good idea to bark like a seal on your accessible, mainstream record? Try it. Maybe it’ll sell 50,000 copies in its first week. Or maybe it will hardly sell at all.

Orson Welles made a lot of radio in the 1930s. A lot. And today, we remember one hour of it. But it was a great hour. There are lots of fears that stand in our way as people who want to make things that don’t strictly need to exist.  Hell with it.  Orson Welles also said this, in his outstanding documentary F for Fake:

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Go on singing.

(And Regina, next time you’re in LA, drop me a line. I was told to let you know you have a standing invitation to come to a picnic in our backyard.)

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Cutting a Swath Through the Self-Releasing Jungle

Years ago, people started sounding the death knell for traditional music distribution models, and now much of the doomsday scenarios have played out exactly as feared (or hoped, depending on your particular relationship to the mainstream). Unfortunate casualties have been the record store, many independent radio stations, livable advances for musicians signed to labels, and – divorced of a physical product (CDs, etc.) – the erosion of public sentiment that musicians should be paid. We have lost much, but before us, as always, is the horizon. For independent artists, these changes have resulted in the barriers to entry crumbling and an unprecedented opportunity for connecting directly with fans.

But that also means that independent artists – like me – who self-release an album have so many options for seemingly every single decision-point in the process that it can be crippling. What I decided to do, then, was just walk through the vendors that I used for our release of The Ghost of John Henry and …and surrender my body to the flames before it. I don’t know that anyone else has aggregated the entire process start-to-finish, so hopefully this will be valuable, or at least open up discussion in the comments section below for alternative approaches. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a guy who’s been through it a couple times.

Off we go!

Recording & Mastering: For The Ghost of John Henry, we hired the wildly talented Jaron Luksa (www.jaronsound.com) in Burbank, California, to handle the recording stuff, and we tracked to Pro Tools HD, which Jaron also used for mixing and mastering. If you’re in LA, you should use him, too. I performed and recorded …and surrender my body to the flames on my own using Adobe Audition for tracking, mixing, and mastering. For the drums, I recorded all of my own samples using my kit and loaded them into Reason. Then I used a Midi drum kit for the actual performance, because micing a drum kit would’ve been way to expensive and difficult on my own. Micing one drum at a time though, I could handle. You can hear the finished results of each at our website. Update: We recorded album #3 with Tim Moore at York Recording, and you should use him, too. 

"The Ghost of John Henry" Cover Artwork

“The Ghost of John Henry” Cover Artwork

Physical CDs: The first time I released a CD was many years ago, and I had to pull together several vendors for the CD replication, the jewel cases, the printing, etc. Discmakers does all of that, and they also publish a number of free DIY guides each year on topics like getting your music to blogs, how to get college radio play, and mastering tips. I never really considered any other alternatives, and used Discmakers for both albums. Couldn’t be happier with the finished products.

Digital Distribution: I actually use two distributors, Tunecore for singles, and The Orchard for albums. I’ve been with The Orchard for over 10 years, and these guys are the real deal. They don’t have an open sign-up policy, however. If they’ll take you, I can’t recommend them highly enough. They have a flat release fee of $35, and then keep a small percentage of your sales moving forward. They release to over 40  (Update: over 240) digital channels worldwide and have a tight integration with YouTube. Tunecore offers album distribution for $50/year, and singles distribution for $10/year, both renewed annually. You can add stores beyond the initial 12 (I think) you’re offered for an additional fee. Financially, it makes sense for us to use the two different channels for the two different kinds of releases. The big drawback of Tunecore is that it takes 2 months to see sales activities. We released our single version of “House of the Rising Sun” in late March, and I’m still waiting to see any of the sales activity on it. With The Orchard, sales are usually reported after only one month, and iTunes sales are reported daily. Daily! If you cross a certain sales threshold (Sci-Fi Romance does not), The Orchard also offers physical distribution. Update: We have since moved all distribution to The Orchard, chiefly because we were paying the album rate for the “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” single.

Physical Distribution: If you’re kind of a big deal and Amoeba Music is going to be ordering your CDs to keep stocked on the shelves, you probably want to use somebody like Super D Distribution. We’re not there yet, so I content myself with the CD being available on Amazon. I set this up through the Amazon Advantage program. You can sign up as a vendor, add items, and sell them on a consignment basis, with Amazon handling all fulfillment. It’s a good system, and when they run low or out of stock, they issue a PO for more items, and you send them in. Easy. Update: I still use this, but Amazon is a harsh mistress. They once issued me a PO on a Saturday, I wasn’t able to send the CDs in the mail until Monday, so when I didn’t get the CDs to them within a 48-hour window, I got a red-mark against me and they started charging customers over $18 for Sci-Fi Romance CDs as a punishment. Buyer beware, I guess. 

UPCs, Barcodes, and ISRC Numbers: This is super-important, but it’s very hard to get good information on it. Some people will pay up to $300 for a barcode for their CD, when they could’ve gotten one for $7 from Nationwide Barcode. Yes, if you use Tunecore or The Orchard, or probably CD Baby or anybody else, they will issue you a UPC/barcode. But that is for the digital release only! If you are creating a physical CD, you need a different barcode/UPC for it. They are technically two different products. ISRC numbers are the numbers SoundScan and everybody else uses to track digital sales. Tunecore issues you a TC ID number, which is not an official ISRC, but serves the same purpose and works just as well. The Orchard issues actual ISRC numbers for your tracks. You can also apply for a block of ISRC numbers and pay a bunch of money, but don’t worry about it, even if you’re a small record label. Update: National Barcode now charges even less for physical distribution UPCs. These guys are the best. 

Embeddable Players: This question is really “Bandcamp or Soundcloud?” To be honest, they’re two entirely different things, although they have in common a feature that allows you to stream your music on other websites. At their cores, Bandcamp is a sales tool, and Soundcloud is a collaboration tool. I use each. It seems like bloggers prefer Soundcloud, and that’s probably because the widget is extremely customizable and looks pretty awesome. Here’s an example: You get up to two hours of storage free, and can make tracks downloadable. However, if you want any meaningful statistics on who’s playing your music or downloading it, you have to pay a pretty significant annual fee. So it looks cooler than Bandcamp, but Bandcamp is pretty bad-ass under the hood. While a lot of people may be more comfortable using AmazonMP3 or iTunes to download paid music, fans can buy your album through Bandcamp in whatever digital format they want, including highest-quality, uncompressed FLAC audio. Great for audiophiles. Bandcamp keeps a small percentage of sales, but the basic features of the site are at no additional cost. You get meaningful play statistics – how people found your site, how many people listened to your tracks, where they listened from (ie, embedded on other sites), and more. Plus, you can give away tracks for free on Bandcamp in exchange for a fan’s email address, which is in many ways the lifeblood of independent musicians.

Mailing List: I’m a regular person, so I don’t like spam emails, and I feel very icky about sending people emails about my band. But Jimmy Kimmel’s not calling anytime soon, so if I want anybody to know about our new releases or when we’re playing, I’ve got to suck it up and send a couple of respectful, and infrequent emails. Facebook is great, Twitter is great, but a direct email drives more traffic, downloads, and sales than anything else I do. At first I used ReverbNation because it’s free, I already had a profile set up with them, and my email list was small enough to where it didn’t really matter. But once I started having email addresses coming in from Bandcamp, the ReverbNation profile, PayPal sales, and two or three other avenues, I had to step up my game. The lovely and talented Joan Hiller of Riot Act Media recommended MailChimp to me, and I do everything Joan tells me to do. MailChimp has a free option, and then tiered paid options available above that, which offer larger lists, greater segmentation, and other features. They have a simple and powerful interface, and offer a ton of customization and options. They are a tremendous resource, and after using Constant Contact and looking at other options like Aweber, MailChimp seemed like the best option, hands-down. Very pleased to be with them.

Social Networks: People tell me I should still pay attention to MySpace, but I don’t. I was super happy to get an early invite to Google+ from a friend, and haven’t been back since its official launch. I do a Facebook page and Twitter, and if I’m missing out on sales or fans that would’ve found me through other networks, I may sleep a little restlessly, but at least I sleep. Because trying to keep up with two or three more social networks would make an already difficult task that much harder. If you can do it, God love you, I wish you the best.

I think that’s it. Did I miss something? Please let me know in the comments. Was this helpful? Please let me know that, too. If you think I’m an idiot…well, that’s what YouTube comments are for.

Obsolete Technology Will Demand a Reckoning: The Ghost of John Henry

Our new album, The Ghost of John Henry, is available today. The folk tale about a railroad worker who raced a steam drill has stuck with me since I was a little kid, and so in a lot of ways it feels like I’ve been leading up to this record my whole life. That makes the response we’ve received to it so far — the wonderful reviews, pre-orders, internet radio play — tremendously moving. Thank you to Kurt and Jody for not turning around and running the other way when a crazy man (me) asked them to be in a band so we could make a concept record about a 150-year-old legend.

Why John Henry? This is from the album’s liner notes, and about as good an explanation as I know how to give:

After the Civil War, railroads spread out across the country, built on the backs of immigrants, convicts, and men who left their lives and loves to lay track beyond the horizon. But to the rich men who controlled the rails, their eyes fixed only on balance sheets, these workers were cogs in a machine – easily discarded, easily replaced. Into this world walked John Henry, said to be the strongest man to ever swing a hammer or drive a spike.

On his heels came steam. New steam drills appeared with the inevitability of tomorrow, intended to conquer mountains and make men obsolete. Faced with the loss of his livelihood, John Henry challenged the machine to a race. The details are lost to history, but what remains is the legend of a man who fought a machine and won, though the effort cost him his life. His stand was noble, proud, and futile. As technology continues to press against what it means to be human, we persist in his struggle, and walk with his ghost.