Friday, December 17, 2010

RIP, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)

Captain Beefheart Dies at 69

Iconoclastic musician and painter Don Van Vliet died today after a lengthy battle with MS. Many of his recordings including Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, and Clear Spot where game-changers for me. A true original who will be missed.

Check out Van Vliet's paintings here: Run Paint Run

C-SCAPE: Curation, Consumers, Convergence, Content

""How do you get people who can talk about anything to talk about you? The answer is to offer them something new and interesting to say - to chat about, blog about, tweet about, and spread the word about in all media, new and old and in between."
- Larry Kramer, C-SCAPE

Veteran media executive Larry Kramer's book on the influence of social media and the Internet postulates that today, all businesses are in the media business. He identifies four key trends; the convergence of consumers and media producers, the increasing power of consumers, the need for trusted curators, and the importance of content. These ideas have been explored in depth in many other books (such as the Groundswell series) but I find his writing concise and actionable. His enthusiasm is contagious and many of these ideas are directly applicable by musicians reinventing themselves in this massively disrupted industry.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The John Scofield Quartet: New Morning, The Paris Concert

Check out this  video by the great John Scofield and a killer quartet. I was very fortunate to know and study with John when I first arrived in Boston way back when. He is a wonderful person and a phenomenal jazz musician and innovator. This is a particularly good DVD with some nice extra footage.

Selling the DIY Dream

The larger music business has always contained a smaller industry focused on selling the dream of success to independent musicians. In the Go-Go record label days, this involved access to decision makers and copious amounts of advice on making your music more “commercial”. Musicians hoped that  Mr. Big would hear their amazing song, fall in love with it, and next thing you know, the band is flying around in private jets.

Today's pitch is that relentless, athletic Internet marketing will eventually build a brand and a full-time career. While many of today’s tools are powerful and can be very effective, the business models of these companies are built on selling services to musicians and are not necessarily dependent on the success of the artist.

Marketing is key to the execution of every business plan, but by no means the whole enchilada. Successful businesses create products and services that meet fundamental human needs. DIY Internet music companies are serving the need of the musician to be acknowledged and feel empowered. Are you  just as clear about your market and the needs you are addressing? People don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Without a clear vision of what makes your music extraordinary, and who you are serving, all the marketing in the world will not create a mega-successful brand.

Most pro musicians have multi-faceted careers (performing, recording, producing, writing, publishing, teaching, orchestrating, etc.) and have spent tens of thousands of hours developing their craft. If you are seriously committed to a long term career in music, I suggest studying these people as well as general business and marketing concepts. Be very realistic about circumstances that have influenced individual successes and may not scale.

Internet music marketing is powerful and exciting but it is also a huge time suck. If your marketing is not carefully aligned with a larger plan, you may simply be feeding another industry: the DIY Dream Machine.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why you don't get anything done at the office...

Take a look at this TED Talk by Jason Fried of 37signals. He argues that the traditional office structure is counterproductive to getting real work done. If you haven't read it yet his book Rework is a must.

You can read my conversation with Jason on entrepreneurship and the music business  in a previous blog post.

Another excellent read on productivity is The Way We're Working Isn't Working by Tony Schwartz  of The Energy Project.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The amazing Sid Jacobs pays tribute to Jimmy Wyble...

On April 17, 2010 a host of guitarists paid tribute to the late, great Jimmy Wyble.  Sid Jacob's performances particularly hit me. I have the honor to share a chair in the LA Wirechoir with Sid and I am always in awe of his guitar mastery.

Terry Carter documented the concert and you can follow the link to both of Sid's performances here:

Sid Jacobs from the Jimmy Wyble Tribute

Jimmy was an extraordinary musician and human being who deeply touched everyone who knew him. The memorial concert was heartfelt, drawing stellar musicians from all over the country to pay tribute to this wonderful man. Thank you Jimmy!

Enjoy Sid Jacobs' Gershwin medley below...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Social Media Marketing: Is This Really a Conversation?

Social media is hyped as a powerful tool for ‘connecting’ with your audience. While the technology creates this potential, my experience has been that most social media usage is essentially one-way, direct mail. 
There are many people I have relationships with in the ‘real’ world whose communications with me via Facebook, email, Twitter, etc. are unsolicited self-promotion, certainly not a ‘conversation’. This can be annoying, and the net effect is to reduce the level of trust and credibility. When I receive unsolicited promotional material from strangers I immediately cross them off the list.
When we opt-in we intentionally agree to accept ongoing promotional blasts but we can always unsubscribe if these communications don’t add value. 
An authentic conversation adds value in both directions. The real question to ask yourself is, “How can I help you?” 
If a band or artist I follow comments on a post of mine it means something, and of course it works the other way around. 
Before you hit the ‘Send’ button think about what you are really giving to your audience.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 3

Photo by Andrew Keller

Chi McClean is an independent singer-songwriter currently touring in support of his 2009 release, Something Out There.
In Part 3 of our conversation Chi discusses music publishing, endorsements, branding, and his next release.
How are you handling your music publishing?
CM: I set up McClean Music Publishing. I received my first BMI check a few months ago and it (the importance of publishing) really hit home for me. The more I know, the less I know (about publishing). It’s a labyrinth. I went to a Music Row Magazine awards festival at BMI in Nashville. I also met with Stage Three Music Publishing. (Songwriting ) is huge business down there.
At a certain point whether it’s managers, booking agents, or publishing, it’s about bandwidth and how much you can realistically tackle in a meaningful way. You’re not doing yourself any good if you’re spread too thin. 
What’s the timeline on your new record?
CM: I hope to have it out by the holidays. I think it’s going to be more focused on the songs. We were talking earlier about what people react to. I think it will be a simple, honest record. I’ve found my voice a bit more. There are some good songs here. 
You have endorsements with Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings. How did you put that together and how have the endorsements worked for you?
CM: Whether I had an endorsement or not, I love my Taylor. (I’ve been playing them) since 1999. I’ve been playing a lot of alternate tunings. On stage it’s a pain to retune in-between songs.  So, I put together a kit. You have to have a press kit, a calendar, an album out,  and show that you’ve got something going on and you’re serious. (Taylor) has been really helpful, not only with guitars but with career advice. Taylor is very well networked. They’ve got Dave Matthews, Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz, Leo Kotke, and Doyle Dykes Signature models. Through them (Taylor Guitars) I got an introduction to the Elixir Strings artist program.
Do you do clinics for them?
CM: I don’t. I’d be delighted to. They’ve been so supportive to me. I give them a shout out whenever I can. I don’t really have to do anything. At gigs people come up to me, “What kind of guitar are you playing? What are those strings?” “Well, it’s funny you should ask…” (laughs). It just sounds really good.
Whatever you’re doing, it comes back to being in the relationship business. I just think it’s really important to try and stay in touch. Simple things, wish somebody a Happy Birthday… I once saw a quote, something like, “They’re not going to remember your music. They’re not going to remember anything about you except how you made them feel.” 
What are your thoughts on the ‘1,000 true fans’ theory? Can you make a living off a dedicated segment of the Long Tail?
CM: I think you can do it but it’s hard. You have to control your expenses at home and be out on the road. If you build that network of places to stay you can make a go of it. 1,000 people is nothing to shake a stick at. If you have 1,000 people you can really communicate with, who will respond to your emails and come to your shows, that’s powerful. I think it’s manageable. You have to control your expenses carefully. I’ve been looking into crowdsourcing. As an independent musician you have to get really creative. 
How do think about your brand?
CM: It’s tricky. I come from a marketing background but my focus has been on the music and getting out there. Keyboardist/singer Dave Yaden has been telling me I need to dress like a rock star and walk like a rock star to the point where the first thing that goes through someone’s mind when they see you on the street is, “What band is that guy in?” If you’re a lawyer you wear a suit. If you’re a baseball player, you wear a uniform. There’s a certain look. If you’re a musician, that’s your job. That really stuck with me. Figure out who you are and go for it. Like my music, I just want to be honest and who I am, but in this day and age everything is so competitive, you have to develop a brand that goes beyond your music. It’s a whole marketing package.
I was fortunate enough to work with the Art Director from the last company who did all my packaging design and developed a logo for me. It’s important to think about what you’re saying with your CD cover, your posters, your emails.
What’s your long range plan?
CM: To keep this sustainable. Make records, keep playing. The plan is to develop a plan (laughs)…
You can find out more about Chi McClean and his music at:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Recommended reading...

Check back often to catch the ongoing updates on my favorite books…
Skill-Building and Performance
Outliers - The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell - New York: Little Brown, and Company, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell explodes the myth that excellence is the result of some mysterious, innate talent. By examining research and the lives of a variety of “outliers’ he explores the logic of extraordinary success, delving into the impact of ‘deep practice’ (10,000 hours…), family, and birthplace.
The Talent Code - Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Here’s How
Daniel Coyle - New York: Bantam Books, 2009
Weaving together real world examples with brain science and behavioral research, Daniel Coyle breaks the process of expert skill-building into three main pieces: deep practice, coaching, and motivation.
Talent Is Overrated - What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
Geoff Colvin - New York: Portfolio, 2008
Geoff Colvin explores ‘deliberate practice’ in individual and group contexts. This book covers much of the same ground as The Talent Code with the inclusion of a section describing organizational applications.
The Way We're Working Isn't Working - The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance
Tony Schwartz - New York: Free Press, 2010
Tony Schwartz covers a wide range of topics in this actionable book focused on creating efficiency in the workplace. His premise is that people need four types of energy to perform at their best; physical (sustainability), emotional (security), mental (self-expression), and spiritual (significance). He provides practical steps and illustrations for each section. For example; we work best in 45 to 90 minute, highly focused sprints intermixed with periods of renewal.
Practicing, The Psychology of Creation, and Overcoming Creative Blocks
The War of Art - Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Steven Pressfield - New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2002
This classic book (by the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance) should be read by everyone. We are all artists and have a gift to give the world. Steven Pressfield inspires in this funny, straight-from-the-hip, kick in the pants, identifying the roadblocks that keep our potential under wraps and prescribing strategies that take no prisoners. 
Free Play - Improvisation in Life and Art
Stephen Nachmanovitch - New York: Putnam, 1990
This is one of the best books I have ever read on the essence of improvisation and the creative process.
Effortless Mastery - Liberating the Master Musician Within
Kenny Werner - New Albany: Jamey Abersold Jazz, Inc., 1996
Jazz piano virtuoso Kenny Werner shares his approach to practicing, getting out of the music’s way, and developing a state of relaxed focus.
The Art of Practicing - A Guide to Making Music From the Heart
Madeline Bruser - New York: Bell Tower, 1997
This book describes both a physical and spiritual approach to practicing a musical instrument. While most of her instructions are for pianists, the principles can be applied to any instrument.
Practicing - A Musician’s Return to Music
Glenn Kurtz - New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Classical guitarist Glenn Kurtz describes his personal journey as a music student who eventually drifts away from his passion only to return years later. The book is largely a memoir but contains many vivid descriptions of the process of practicing.
The Pat Metheny Interviews - The Inner Workings of His Creativity Revealed
Richard Niles - New York: Hal Leonard, 2009
With the unique perspective of a fellow guitarist and long-time friend, Richard Niles captures the essence of Pat Metheny’s creative evolution, process, and work ethic in a collection of conversations culled from a three-part BBC radio series.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

California Copyright Conference : “The Music Industry: A Survival Guide for the Future”

Tuesday evening’s panel at the California Copyright Conference dinner in Sherman Oaks was quite upbeat considering the many uncertainties of these times. The panel, moderated by Shawn LeMone, ASCAP’s VP of Film/TV and Visual Media, and Diane Snyder-Ramirez, VP of Royalty Accounting and Administration at The Royalty Review Council, consisted of:
  • Russell Emanuel, CEO, Extreme Music
  • Amanda Marks, EVP/GM, Universal Music Distribution
  • Patrick Russo, Principal, The Salter Group
  • Kari Kimmell, Recording Artist and Songwriter
  • Victor Rodriguez, Music Director THQ, Inc.
The theme for the evening was, “synch licensing.” Traditional music industry boundaries continue to blur and each panelist discussed evolving practices from their individual perspectives. 
Patrick Russo began the discussion with an entertainment industry revenue analysis. The larger segment is growing and diversifying, although music revenues will continue to decline. The good news is, music is ubiquitous and a key component in a wide palette of entertainment properties. This creates new opportunities for licensing and publishing revenues.
Russell Emanuel described the huge shifts in the music library business. The industry is moving into what was once considered independent label territory. Extreme Music is courting independent, niche artists (mostly songwriters) rather than the more traditional jack-of-all-trades composers. 
Victor Rodriguez is producing video game scores with traditional film composers as well as scoring entire properties from music libraries. Music is being licensed for virtual social networks and multiple co-branding opportunities are emerging across media platforms.
Kari Kimmell’s music has been featured in over 100 film and television shows. She controls her catalog and handles the licensing and business development with music supervisors herself. Although business takes up 50% of her time these days, Kari is very excited about the successes and opportunities available to her as an independent artist. 
Amanda Marks is anticipating a surge of tablet devices, providing a compelling entertainment experience for consumers. She is excited about the potential of apps to filter music, cutting through the noise in the channel and bringing the cream to the top. App developing tools are becoming more affordable and available to artists. Amanda feels that music distribution will be firmly ensconced in the cloud in a few years. A licensed experience where listeners can get anything, anytime, anywhere, will be a game-changing alternative to pirated music.
Revenue opportunities for creators are a mix of licensing fees, back-end residuals and exposure (the highly coveted “Chyron”). How these trends can benefit musicians working in non-pop genres is not as clear but one thing is certain: The music industry is a moving target, accelerating every day. The keys to “Survival” are making great music, working hard, and staying ahead of new revenue opportunities.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 2

In Part Two of my conversation with indie singer-songwriter Chi McClean we discuss the importance of building personal relationships with fans and industry partners and the challenges of doing it all yourself…
Chi is currently recording his second record. You can find out more about Chi on his website: and pick up his music at CD Baby,, and the iTunes Store.

Read Part One of our conversation here...

You are handling PR and marketing yourself. What’s working for you? How do you decide the best ways to invest your time?

CM: I pick my battles. If I’m going out on a tour, I’ll look at those markets, figure out what the weeklies are (and) target the music writers who have been writing stuff I genuinely like. You have to show that you are interested in them. For example, I got this great review in the San Francisco Chronicle. I liked this guy’s style of writing. I liked the artists that he covered. In my email to him I told him, “I really enjoyed (your) article about so and so, I heard him on KFOG, but this other guy (you) recommended I’d never heard of. I checked out his music and it’s awesome, a great find. What other artists could you recommend? Incidentally I just came out with a new CD (laughs). Do you ever write about independent musicians?” Within ten minutes I got an email back. I know that’s a total exception to the rule, because it’s so much about luck, but I think that stuff helps.

You never know what people are going to be interested in. You have to figure out what’s unique and original, and different about you. For me, when I’m going up and down the coast it can be surfing. There’s a guy who has a surfing blog and is also a music writer. We happened to connect through a booking agent. We start talking about surfing and next thing you know he’s doing a feature on me. That helped me promote the shows in the area. It’s challenged me to think about the other stuff I do that might be of interest to people. You have to figure out, what’s the story? Is there something deeper to tell?

Are you using Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with fans?

CM: Facebook is the most productive for me. I use it for all of my show invites. Sending an email blindly, often times you just get nothing. With Facebook you have an opportunity to re-engage people. I use Twitter. I use Posterous. It’s free. You can set it up to feed Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, any number of social networking sites. I’ll take a photo with my phone of a set list or a marquee. It’s a really easy way to get stuff up there.

Are you blogging? Do you get a lot of comments?

CM: More often than not I’ll get comments on the blog posts on Facebook. I try to do it every day. Sometimes I run out of time, or the surf is really good! (laughs). It’s important to do it every day. You have to give people a reason to come back to your site.

Have you found it helpful to attend industry seminars?

CM: The first time I went to SXSW was really cool. So much of this business is common sense but it takes on a different tone when you hear it from somebody else. There were some demo listening panels that were helpful. The discussions on music publishing and licensing were interesting. I went again last year (and) felt that the panels didn’t change enough. The networking was helpful, not even talking about music. At the end of the conversation you exchange cards (and) both realize you can help each other in some way. I found out about the unofficial showcases. You just have to meet a couple of people then suddenly you’re showcasing SXSW. (It) means a lot when you can put that on your Sonicbids gig calendar.

West Coast Songwriters has been very helpful. They have monthly songwriting competitions. You get feedback from judges and get the temperature of the local songwriting scene. You can see who’s doing what, figure out if there are other people you might want to share the bill with.

How do you update your email list?

CM: I get fans on Facebook or ReverbNation, but mostly it’s going out and playing shows. One of the toughest things, especially if you’re traveling alone, is to pack up quickly and get out there and start working the crowd, selling CDs, giving away stickers, getting people on the email list. If people like you they want to know where you’re playing again. If you go out and talk to them you meet some pretty cool people. That’s the way to build a meaningful list of people that are going to stay your fans.

Are you selling more CDs or downloads?

CM: (Online) I’m selling more downloads than physical CDs. The CD Baby admin tool tells you who streamed (or) downloaded what song from what service, and your net earnings. Whenever I tour I see a spike in CD sales and downloads. I sell CDs on the road when I’m playing.

Are you giving away music or using freemium strategies?

CM: I haven’t yet and I’m trying to figure out if I want to for this next one. I’m thinking it may be an added value; if you buy the CD, you also get something that wouldn’t be on the record like a solo acoustic performance. I want to get something in return if I’m giving something. I gave away pint glasses at shows if you signed up on the email list. That’s relatively cheap for a good email contact. People want to support you but you have to give them choices.

Are you getting terrestrial and/or Internet radio play? How’s that driving traffic to your gigs?

CM: I’m getting a little college radio through places that I’ve played. There are Chi McCLean stations on Pandora and

Showcase gigs are sometimes 40 minutes or less. You plan something for the day, playing in a bookstore or a radio interview to promote the show that night. Also, rallying the people who are on your email list. It’s about giving people a reason to come back and see you again. It can be hard to find time to really meet (fans) and hang out. When people come out to see your show it means a lot, especially in a town like LA.

Where are you seeing the most revenue, live shows, CD sales, downloads?

CM: It’s gigs. That’s where I connect with people and sell CDs. You drive people to the online stuff when you’re not touring in their area.

Are you pursuing a traditional record deal? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons for your career today and in the future?

CM: It would be really helpful in some ways; a marketing machine to help build a brand identity, (getting) bookings as a supporting act for a more established artist...there is stuff to be gained but you give up a lot in terms of ownership. I’d like to do that but it would all depend on the contract. At the level I’m at right now there is no reason I can’t build my own team. You need to have an established business before they (labels and managers) are going to consider you.

Have you been using online marketing platforms like Topspin or Nimbit?

CM: At the level I’m at ReverbNation is (a good fit). Topspin is really interesting. I’m on all these online sites but I don’t know anything about the person who is streaming or buying downloads. For the physical sales CD Baby gives me an address and an email. That’s great. I can send thank you notes and collect that data. It’s weird not being able to correspond with your customers. With Topspin I think you can. One of the things I’m looking at for this next record is crowd-sourcing.

One of the biggest challenges for me is time management. Where should you be spending your time? I think the answer is, on everything! You can’t afford to not do anything. You need to keep writing music and practicing. You need to book shows with a minimum two to three month lead time. You need to send out posters, make phone calls to confirm, reach out to the press. You need to keep reaching out to your fans and remind the venue that you’re coming and make sure everything’s good. You have to figure out a place to stay and how you’re making money to pay for all this stuff (laughs). None of it is hard in and of itself, but it’s an exercise in time management, discipline, and follow up. It is easy to feel like you’re getting nowhere then when it rains it pours. Somebody you have been contacting for a year suddenly has a slot. You go down, play a gig and establish a (long-term) relationship. The sales pipeline is so unpredictable. One guy said he had 100 MySpace messages a day. Even if you write the best email and your music is awesome, what’s the likelihood that he will even see your email?

What are your priorities in building a team? What questions would you ask to vet potential partners?

CM: Before you do anything with PR you have to have something to talk about. You need a record, then you book shows. The first thing for me would be a booking agent and a PR team to send out posters and contact local press. Booking shows that are pairing me up with people on that next level, bigger venues, getting me more exposure. I’m doing OK on my own but I’d much rather be playing every night.

I’m a lot further along (than a year ago). Exposure will ultimately be the most valuable thing to me in the long term.

Are you going after synch licenses, or writing for other people as revenue streams?How are you managing your publishing catalog?

CM: I went aggressively after music supervisors. “We’ll keep it on file.” (laughs). Who knows? I wish I had bounced instrumental takes of everything from the first record. A lot of places want background music.

I have a song preloaded on a Phillips MP3 player. I retained the relationships I made at Liquid Audio. People get word that you’re trying to do this for a living and they want to help if they can, if they like your music. One friend of mine in that space has been a great supporter of my music. God bless him! You never know. Suddenly you get a phone call, it’s a free thing but there are 50,000 players out there or something. It’s really amazing what some people will do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Musician Profile: Putter and VR Smith

Thelonious Monk, James Bond, and a life of music…

Jazz bassist Putter Smith and his wife, singer VR Smith, have devoted their lives to music and the arts. The music room in their South Pasadena home is filled with instruments, original artwork, and oriental rugs; a welcoming refuge from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Putter is a Southern California jazz legend who has worked with an astonishing array of great musicians including: Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Diane Schuur, Lee Konitz, Bruce Forman, Jackie and Roy, Carmen McRae, Gary Foster, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Mason Williams, Percy Faith, Burt Bacharach, Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, and Johnny Mathis, to name but a few. He worked steadily in the Los Angeles rock and roll recording scene, playing on classic records by Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers and many more. Putter had a brief acting career, playing the villainous, “Mr. Kidd” in the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. He is highly sought as a performer and teacher and is currently on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Originally from the now infamous Bell, CA, Putter began playing bass at a young age. “My brother Carson Smith was a famous bass player.” he told me in a recent conversation. “He had gone to New York when I was eight and had left a little half size bass I used to fool around with. By the time I was eleven I was playing along with his records.” Putter’s first paying gig was at the Compton Community Center playing a bass with only three strings. “I think I made three dollars and I was stoked. Making money as a musician!”

VR Smith began singing in the Los Angeles area over ten years ago and has recorded two CDs of jazz standards, 2004’s
VR & The Cafe Beaujolais Band, Lost and Found and her 2009 recording, Beautiful Love, both available at CD Baby. VR acted in improvisational theatre for many years before beginning her singing career. “We did workshops in colleges.” VR says. “Robin Williams came out of one of those. He had so much information he could just incorporate into his “in-the-moment” spiel. (We) always felt like we had really done something there.” VR began singing regularly in a band with Putter and guitarist Dave Koonse at The Cafe Beaujolais In Eagle Rock. “We worked there for six and a half years and brought a lot of people in.” VR says. “The food was great and we were in the newspaper every week.” In those days the LA Times reported on jazz in the weekly Calendar section but has since dropped local coverage.

VR’s vocal style is intentional and introspective. “The words have to mean something to me.” she says. “Having acted I learned that you have different choices on how you say a thing. I try to let the tune be 
the focus and let the words fall into that.”

Putter and VR met when invited by friends to witness the first performance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Neither of us had ever heard of The Beatles.” says Putter. “We were into Charlie Parker!” VR adds.

Putter played bass on many famous rock and roll records recorded in the 1960s, including The Beach Boys', Good Vibrations. “They did something like 25 different dates.” said Putter. Seeking greater musical challenges he turned his focus back to jazz.  “I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. That isn’t why I played music.” he recalls. “When you’re a musician it’s because you want to play music. There are so many better ways to make money. (At times) I regretted it because we really scuffled. Then when I was in my early forties it turned around.”

Putter’s time spent with iconic jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk has been a cornerstone in his career. “I heard him live years before I played with him and I thought it sounded like (Hungarian composer, Béla) Bártok.” Putter says, “Very modern and at the same time having that old New Orleans background to it. Monk had five-tuplets together. That kind of infuses his time feel. People say he plays these triplets that are dragging, but they’re perfect fives. He was a real intellectual guy. That’s what people miss.”

“I was a young, white jazz musician in the 60s when Black Power was prevalent.” Putter continues. “We had this great history in jazz of what they used to call, ‘integration’, long before anybody else. I’ve always tried to go into any gig with someone who has a rep, with a clean brain. All of the media on Monk made him out to be a mysterious, strange person. But I knew from my own experience that whatever they say in the media is almost always wrong. (Thelonious) was a beautiful person. He was like a fountain of sweetness.”

“I got the call because I had done quite a bit of transcription of his (music). I had about two weeks (to prepare) and borrowed every record I could and went through everything. I flew up there. No book, no rehearsal. I go into the dressing room, twenty minutes before the gig. There’s Thelonious, smoking a cigarette and doing his dervish thing, spinning around, and saying cryptic things. Finally he stops and looks at me and says, ‘Are you the new bass player?’ He had this rough, Hell’s Kitchen voice. I said, ‘Yeah’, and he says, ‘White is right.’ (laughs). I knew at that moment that everything was cool.”

“We got on the stand and the first tune he plays is one he never recorded, a beautiful tune called Ugly Beauty. By the end of the second chorus I had it down because I knew the ‘Monkisms’. I knew his vocabulary. He gave me a few more little tests. By the third night I was in. I wish I could have spent twenty years with him.”

While Putter was working with Thelonious Monk at the famous LA jazz club, Shelly’s Mann-Hole, he caught the eye of the director of the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. “I got a call about three months later and went down, thinking they wanted a bass sideline.” recalls Putter. “They handed me a script and next thing you know I’m in a James Bond movie. I could not believe it!”

Putter’s bass playing is rich and expressive. He is intently focused when he plays, finding the center of each note and listening deeply to the musicians around him. “Being a musician is something that takes focus, disciple, and regular, unrelenting practice and study.” he told me. “If you want to be an improviser you need to improvise almost every day. To me a performance is 90 minutes of full out playing with someone. It doesn’t matter where or for who. It’s always your full effort.”

“I equate jazz to poetry.” Putter says. “I feel like this music is going to live forever like Bach. It’s a great thing to have in your life, you know, a reason to live.”

Video: Putter Smith, VR Smith and pianist Jim Szilagyi perform George and Ira Gershwin's, ‘Love Walked In’

Friday, September 3, 2010

Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 1

Photo by Andrew Keller

This is Part 1 of an interview with indie artist, Chi McClean, the latest installment in the occasional Career Tracks series of interviews. You can read Part Two of our conversation here.
Chi McClean is a singer-songwriter with an intimate, down-home style and classic California good looks. Originally from New York, Chi moved to California to sample the surf and take a shot at the music business. With the release of his 2009 debut recording, Something Out There, (co-produced by Chi and Boone Spooner) he dove full-time into the indie DIY life, touring extensively across the United States. Chi has performed live on national television (The Early Show) and earned several songwriting and performance awards. He is sponsored by Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings, is touring continually, and in pre-production for his next record. On a recent stop in Los Angeles we had a chance to talk about music, the importance of building relationships, marketing yourself, and the power of the national media. 
You can find out more about Chi on his website: and pick up his music at, CD Baby, and the iTunes Store.
Your songs have been described in the media as “Southern Rock” or “Classic Rock”. What do you think is unique about your music and the way it connects with people?
CM: People say that the recordings and the live performances, particularly when it’s just me and a’s an honest and true performance. People like the fact that you can hear the squeak in the guitar strings and some flubbed notes. They identify with that and like that it’s not over-produced.
There’s a directness and an honesty. That’s what I get…
CM: There’s a lot of introspective stuff in there. I think people grab onto that as well.
You have been touring in different parts of the country to support this record. Where have you gotten the best response? How would you describe your audience?
CM: The release at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco was awesome. I find that on the Central Coast of California, the beach towns, people seem to really latch onto the music. Most of the time I’m touring solo. I sell a bunch of CDs. I get radio play.
Are you selling merchandise as well?
CM: Mostly CDs. I have some glasses and stickers. I have yet to design a t-shirt!
You’re a surfer. Do people know that about you?
CM: I think so..long blond hair, flip flops, sunburned (laughs)!  On my website ( there’s some talk about surfing. Generally when I go up and down the California coast I’ve got my boards with me. On the blog there’s always a picture of ‘break of the day’ or whatever it is. 
Has your ability to do solo gigs given you a better opportunity to build an audience?
CM: Honestly, for me, it’s the only way to really do it. I would love to have a band that was really well rehearsed and play out with them all the time, but it’s just too expensive to do. Logistically it’s really hard. A lot of (industry) people have told me, “If you write something, make sure you can play it solo.” It makes sense now that I’m out there.
You’ve got to be able to stand on the song too…
CM: Exactly.
You worked with independent artists and record labels at Liquid Audio in the early days of Internet music distribution...really the first wave of Internet-driven DIY. You also have a background in sales and marketing. What have you been able to apply to your music career from those experiences? 
CM: There are all these one-stop shops. For example, I printed my stuff through Oasis. You print 1,000 CDs, they have a hook-up with CD Baby, within a month you’re up in iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, Walmart. It’s just so easy to get your music in as many place as possible so people can easily find it. 
I’ve got a background in sales, marketing and business development but the most important thing is just being a nice guy on the phone, being persistent but friendly, doing what you say you’re going to do, sending things on time, showing up on time, being honest with people. If you are trying to play somewhere you’ve never played before and they ask you what your draw is, don’t tell them you can bring 100 people and have 5 people show up. That’s going to be catastrophic for you and it’s not going to do the venue any good. Like any business, it’s all about relationships. 
Put yourself in their shoes. They deal with maybe a thousand people in a week, just blasting them with music. How do you make your email stand out, and if you’re lucky enough to get the gig, how do you make sure they remember you? Maybe they won’t remember your music but they might remember if you did something nice for them, if you offered to coil some cables at the end of the show, asked how they were, or just said ‘thank you’. Even if the mix wasn’t any good, you say it was good (laughs)! Send a ‘thank you’ note after the gig. I think people remember that. Many of the people who book (venues) are also musicians. Maybe you can offer to book a show where you’re from, or turn them onto some musicians that are hot. Share contacts in a way that builds relationships. 
At the most fundamental level you need to have music that people are going to like, but, it really is a relationship business. If you get the call for a local support act when a big name comes through town, they might be thinking, ”The last band was great but they were complaining about the mix the whole time. This guy is really nice. He showed up on time and did what he said he was going to do. He promoted the pants off of the gig and the mix engineer thought he was a nice guy. He was really easy to work with.” They want the easiest possible thing. Have everything lined up so they can just email you once.
How did you build your website?
CM: My friend Boone Spooner is also a web designer. He was really instrumental in getting everything online. He arranged the site so I can add, edit, and create content. Everything is set to go. He was a huge help.
You recently appeared on national television on The Early Show. How did you hook that up and what did the exposure do for you?
CM: A good friend in that business liked my music enough to make some introductions and get my CD into the hands of the right people. It was a really amazing experience. I think I sold, in a day or two, over a thousand downloads, and a bunch of CDs, a big spike for me. It was also a great resume builder. I can say when I’m trying to book a show, “I just recently played on national television, CBS, The Early Show.” That’s a huge help. People start to pay attention. I may have an invitation to come back when this new record comes out which is fantastic.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Can Positive Deviance identify successful outliers in the music industry?

Positive Deviance (PD) is an approach to problem-solving that has proven to be highly effective at facilitating systemic social change in situations that appear hopeless or intractable. The basic idea is simple: focus on the successful exceptions, not the failing norm. In their fascinating book, The Power of Positive Deviance - How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems authors Jerry Sternin. Monique Sternin, and Richard Pascale, present case studies describing applications of PD including; arresting the epidemic of childhood malnutrition in Vietnam, reducing the practice of female circumcision in Egypt, and decreasing infection rates in US hospitals.

"The basic premise is this: (1) Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist, (2) they have been discovered by members of the community itself, and (3) these innovators (positive deviants) have succeeded even though they share the same barriers and constraints as others." -The Power of Positive Deviance, Harvard Business Press, Boston MA 2010 

PD is a 'bottom up' approach driven by the community itself. Facilitators do not act as experts but ask the questions that will help the community identify its own successful outliers. Once the community has discovered how its own members are able to succeed against all odds, they can scale these solutions and integrate them into their culture.

While the music industry is much too eclectic and broad to apply this approach unilaterally, it occurs to me that a PD perspective can be helpful in identifying successful trends. Clearly, the DIY dream will not replace the traditional record industry, but nonetheless, individual success stories can scale across specific industry segments. Professional musicians continually adapt their career models to accommodate disruptive changes in technology and business.

What’s working for you?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Record Labels & Modern Music Industry Careers

In the DIY discussions of the last ten years the utopian idea that artists somehow don’t need "record labels" has been promulgated as the beginning of a new era, but how that career management void would be filled has never been entirely clear. In the most general sense, a “record label” is the total, organizing, business entity that markets an artist, directs their career, and distributes their music. Whether a boutique imprint run by the artist themselves, or a larger partner entity or team, the basic model is the same and the need has never gone away.

The downfall of the major record label system has largely been driven by a lack of scalability and a serious loss of the musical vision that started this industry in the first place. In the Fifties and Sixties record labels were more genre specific and run by business people that were fanatical about the music they sold. Years of consolidation and a focus on generating profits by selling new formats, as opposed to creating extraordinary new music, made the industry less competitive in the face of rapidly developing digital technologies. The label business became dependent on creating massive profits from international mega-hits. The ‘middle-class’ models for marketing artists to smaller, dedicated, sustainable audiences fell by the wayside. For example, jazz, roots, or classical musicians who at one time maintained longstanding relationships with independent labels began bouncing from imprint to imprint as these once highly focused companies were assimilated by the corporate borg, soon disappearing altogether.

Today an artist starts as their own label (whatever that may look like), learns the business, and grows into the right partnerships as their career develops. There is a greater need than ever before for independent record labels, that are focused, frugal, and run by smart business people who are absolutely passionate about the music they promote. It takes a strong, dedicated team to build and sustain a music career amidst all the noise of today’s world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Entrepreneurship and the New Music Industry

I recently interviewed Jason Fried, co-founder of technology company 37signals for Berklee Today magazine. The article draws parallels between starter companies and music careers. If you haven't done so already check out 37signals' great little business book, Rework.

Thanks to Mark Small at Berklee Today for making this happen...

You can read the full article here:

Entrepreneurship and the New Music Industry