Walk a Mile and The London Games

At the beginning of July, Stacey Haber of the Music Firm UK reached out to me to find out if I’d be willing to write and record a song for a social awareness campaign launching in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The campaign is called “Walk a Mile,” and draws its name from the familiar notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s an off-shoot of the State Department’s “Hours Against Hate” initiative, which encourages inter-faith and inter-cultural tolerance, and is sponsored by the International Olympic Truce Centre. Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) contributed the theme song for the whole thing. All of that sounded pretty good, and I was flattered to be invited, so I wrote a new song. You can listen right here, and read on below:

But the clock was ticking. It was July 1, I was in a hotel room in Florida, and my house had just been burglarized in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t sure if I even had any guitars apart from a battered old acoustic I had with me. The band and I only had two weeks to get them a finished track of a song that didn’t exist yet. Jaron Luksa, the inimitable force of nature who recorded our record The Ghost of John Henry, was on tour with Amanda Palmer, and would not be able to record us when I got back to town, so I had to find a studio, too.

I wrote the song in my hotel room that night, and recorded a demo of it on my phone (on my phone!), which I sent off to the band and the Music Firm, to make sure everybody was ok with it. I believe deeply in the importance of empathy, but not so much in pithy expressions — especially in lyrics — so I only wanted to move forward if I could come up with a song that got the idea across without actually saying “you should really walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before you judge them.”

When I put out the first Sci-Fi Romance album, for the first year that it was out, I donated every cent that came in from it to a group called Charity: Water (and if you haven’t read the story of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith’s Charity: Water campaign, which raised over $1 million dollars after she was killed in a car accident, please do so). Charity: Water helps people in developing nations get access to clean drinking water by digging freshwater wells, so people no longer have to carry dirty water miles a day in old gasoline cans.  That image was the first place my mind went when thinking about this new song, and from there, the other three lyrical vignettes came very easily.

The world does not want what’s best for us. We’re all struggling daily against entropy, and fighting to stay upright in the face of circumstances that would knock us down. The only thing we have, really, is each other. We’re all in the same boat, and it will stay afloat or sink based on our willingness to help each other out. In my mind, that’s done best by recognizing that though our paths diverge, the people walking them share much, much more in common than we may differ.

To me, that’s a joyful realization. So I wanted the song to feel full of life and joy and camaraderie. If you know many of my songs, you know I don’t do “joyful” very often, so I hope you enjoy this one. I don’t know when you’ll get another like it from me…

We wound up recording the day after Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday with Eric Rennaker in a fantastic studio called Bedrock in Echo Park, and the track was mixed and mastered by Tim Moore at Mas Music Productions in Highland Park (both in Los Angeles). They are good folks, and you should hit them up if you need studio time. And THANK YOU! to the wonderful people who gave up their Sunday afternoon to come sing in the Sci-Fi Romance Choir at the end of the song — Molly, Emma, Oscar, Rebecca, and of course, Kurt, Jody, and I joined in, too.

You can download the song for free right here:

Also, nothing much was taken in the burglary. We were lucky.

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.

In the Studio, Final Weekend – Video Blog

We wrapped all of the recording for the new album, “The Ghost of John Henry” this weekend with our final cello, guitar, and vocal sessions, in addition to getting some miscellaneous percussion tracks. Percussion “instruments” on this record will include chains, old cast iron jail keys, artillery shells, homemade stomp box, a “thunder tube” (not a double entendre) and regular, more normal things like drums, shakers, tambourine, what-have-you. That was a fun session to do. Also, I shaved my beard to celebrate. Here’s a look at the weekend, and how everything came together throughout the sessions:

I jokingly gave Jaron, our engineer, a hard time in this video — he just got back from a tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Dresden Dolls and has been working literally around-the-clock mastering another project that’s way more high-profile than anything I’m likely to do, but he still made room for us. I have to be serious and thank him publicly for his ability and insight throughout this process. The majority of my previous recording experience has been decidedly lo-fi, so the sound and performances on the record owe a tremendous debt to him. If you need studio time in the LA area, www.jaronsound.com gets our official endorsement (expect the Sci-Fi Romance bump now, my friend).

You can hear the first record “…and surrender my body to the flames” over on our Bandcamp page.