Posts from the ‘Entrepreneurial’ Category

Covers vs Originals … ?

Many of us start life as creative, professional musicians with an absolute aversion to playing anyone elses music ever at all. No way! We want to tell our own stories and have something original and unique to say that no-one else has. For others, it’s the opposite – not everyone is a natural at songwriting and composing and there is a fine career to be had just playing and interpreting what’s already been written.

I prioritise my own material 95% – confident to call myself in general terms a ‘jazz musician’ as the idiomatic jazz references in my work are unmistakable. Over the years I’ve found an increasingly interesting (and sometimes rocky) relationship between covers and original music and getting known for doing both.

Here’s my Top Ten (and somewhat random) Tips and crazy notions to navigate and have fun with the covers/originals balance.

  1. Never forget that what lies in your own brain, imagination and invention is your gift to the world. You have a duty to bring it forth. Original art is everything. You’ll know if you have something to say with your songs as they will write you – you won’t have a choice. Never block the flow, you will make yourself ill if you do. Trust that you have something to say and get out of the way of creation speaking through you!

  2. As a child, I was told off, (in a grudgingly admiring way) by my piano tutor for using our lessons to show her my own compositions. She wanted me to focus on the Purcell (yuk …) and Mozart (yawn …) that we had to study. In her head, this was clearly the concert pianist path. I was more interested in making up my own chord sequences, although I felt guilty for including a hooky progression from a current TV show.

  3.  It was at this point that she was more helpful and told me not to worry about little steals and derivations and that the famous composers quoted from each other all the time – both deliberately and unconsciously.

  4. One huge and obvious advantage of sticking to your own work is that the royalties and rights are yours. No need to negotiate or buy access or clear it with anyone before you record. If original work is your default process then you find yourself wanting to record a cover and then sell the resulting album, it can feel (and is) somewhat more complicated.

  5. An advantage of doing covers is that (for me) there is a blissful and much needed buffer zone of objectivity. What a relief to leave my own stories behind and put something less risky on the line! If the audience rejects it, (either the storyline or the melody) it’s so much less personal.

  6. Approaching and arranging  great popular standards can and will make you a better player and composer for your own stuff. Tackle John Coltranes ‘Giant Steps’ just for fun – it’s such a good theory lesson and can be treated and redone in endless ways. (A repertoire of classic covers also serves as ready teaching material.) Program your set so that you hit a new audience with 4 originals, then a really popular standard that shows off your skills but continues the theme. Like dominos, make sure they’re connected by something – subject matter/mood/tempo/key. If you can get your original songs mistaken for classics then this is a good thing and means you’re writing the standards of the future! I had a (not very pleasant but certainly interesting) post gig scenario once at the Isle of Wight jazz festival. A well known festival director accused me of plagiarising my own songs. He was drunk and out of order and quite aggressive. Horrible – but it was proof that my songs are strong!

  7. Unless the fee is really good, (weddings!) only choose covers that you genuinely love and will stand the test of time and endless repetition as part of your set. Be steadfast in refusing requests (to perform/arrange/prepare/record/deliver) popular songs that you honestly don’t like – it will erode your soul.

  8. Check out other musicians who’ve covered songs maybe more or less successfully than the original songwriter. What makes a great song? One that can be endlessly reinterpreted or one that is untouchable? I fell in love with Carmen McCraes version of ‘New York State of Mind’, then Oleta Adams version – long before I realised that Billy Joel wrote it. It’s a truly solid song, great melody, feel, structure and storytelling. Removed enough from the author that it can live an independent life. In my own set, I include a few K pop songs – which have been translated (into Japanese) for the (huge) Japanese market. One of these, ‘Juliette’ started off as ‘Deal With It’ released by ‘High School Musical’ singer, Corbin Bleu. Then K pop giants Seoul Media bought the rights and transformed it utterly for their top boy band ShinEE – but kept the melody and structure. (Geeks and enthusiasts, listen to the original HERE. The Korean cover/transformation HERE and the Japanese translation HERE.)

  9. Choose wisely – though if you fall on your face, that’s half the fun. I refuse to do Joni Mitchell covers, despite being asked. To ‘superfans’, she is an immortal (rightly so!) and only Joni can do Joni. Likewise Prince – if you attempt it, better do it right! When choosing a cover, have fun taking it as far away from its original incarnation as you can. Mess with the tempo and instrumentation. Strip everything back to the song. See if you can take an industrial metal number and redo it for acoustic jazz guitar. Check out Amy Winehouses version of The Beatles ‘All My Loving’ – which in my opinion is better than the original.

  10. In these days of social media and Youtube – well placed (and non copyright infringing) cover versions and treatments of other artists songs can really work in your favour by drawing fans into your world, your website, your mailing list. The next generation of music lovers is always growing up in waves, discovering the great artists for the first time – they may be led to your version first – or next – through search engines, key words and hash tags.

No one has covered my work to my knowledge. How would I feel … I think I would hate it! I want to be the unique legend that non-one else can do! (But one day I guess it might happen.)

 

Here’s a clip of me singing ‘Feeling Good’ (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly) in Trafalgar Square, with my own pre-recorded piano arrangement. (I like this song so much, I later did a different version for guitar.)

Lastly, find out what you need to know to protect your work (copyright – there’s more than one way to do it) and tread respectfully and honestly around others. If your songs are out there, live, recorded or online – there are multiple royalty avenues that you can and should access. Be clear (onstage and everywhere else) about the intellectual ownership of your own work and seek advice before recording others.

 

Resources:

 

Musicians Union – Benefits, protection, legal advice, community.

 

BASCA – British Academy of Songwriters, composers and authors.

 

Performing Rights Society – Music copyright, royalties and licensing.

 


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Guy Kawasaki – those ’12 tips’ reframed…

 

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In this post, I thought I’d revisit some ideas I picked up (and am still processing) from author, entrepreneur, public speaker and self-styled business ‘evangelist’ Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki worked at Apple with the late Steve Jobs. He now has dozens of free videos online, books, a blog, courses and classes. (His recent book, ‘Enchantment – The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions’, is available through his website. )


 

As a musician, I am still getting to grips with this new business model of the 360 degree DIY artist/’solo-preneur’. No matter how many times I hear that the industry is now better for us – a global, open playing field where we can sell our wares directly to our customers via the internet and social media – I still find business speak difficult. At times I think artists are more vulnerable than ever to marketing gurus willing to take our money, in return for a kind of bogus access to the wider world via ‘tweets’ and Facebook ‘likes’.

Most of us weren’t taught this at school, and the learning curve can be steep. The myth of the rock star is etched into our modern culture. Traditionally, musicians are supposed to be volatile, semi-nocturnal, booze-addled egomaniacs with little thought for routine, pre-planning or self-analysis – at least not the business side of what we do. That was left that to managers, fixers, agents and record companies – with positive and negative results. But what does come naturally is: flights of inspiration, ‘blue sky thinking’, spiritual reverie, spontaneity and lateral thinking. Creative people already live in that space. That’s why I like this inventive and irreverent list – based on broad, sometimes random, cross-disciplinary principles. I’m going to unpack it from a musicians point of view.  The original film is full of humour and some great anecdotes – well worth a look.

Here we go with:

Guy Kawasakis 12 tips learnt from Steve Jobs:

1. Experts are Clueless. In other words, beware the aura of respectability that goes with traditional education. True knowledge comes from the bones, the body, the years and years of doing it. Trial and error. Experience. The humility of knowing that as we perceive something – it changes and so do we. The more we think we know, the less we know. There is everything to learn and nothing is ever quite what it seems. I’d like to expand this point to say that true experts can be found away from the self-appointed gurus or motivational speakers, scholars or graduates of any field. The best speakers and educators teach through the power of story, anecdote, humour, proven success, spectacular failure, exceptions to every rule, last minute turn arounds, luck and co-incidence.

2. Customers Cannot Tell You What Whey Want.  Most people do not know what they want and are highly suggestible. However, generally we all want to feel these things: prosperous, attractive, sexually desirable, powerful, youthful, respected, inspired, hopeful, loved, comforted and connected – to belong. Part of the whole, yet, special.  Advertisers know this and exploit it to the hilt, whether they’re selling beer, movie tickets, cars, razors, depilatory cream, ready meals, extreme sports holidays, condoms, clothes, weddings, perfume, luxury flats or organic produce. For artists, remember, the power is  in your hands. Despite what others may tell you, you do not have to conform to the latest trend. Write your music the way you hear it and speak your truth. Know yourself and stick to you plan. Bring the audience round, win them over, reel them in. The vast majority of potential customers quite like to be told what to do, what to wear, what to listen to, what products to buy, relieved of the burden of choosing, in a busy fast paced world. Every weekend people buy sunday papers with a colour section filled with explicit consumer directives, lists, selections, reviews and surveys. Literally, ‘Buy this. Eat this’ etc. That’s in addition to the adverts.  You can manipulate this too, to a degree. I believe artists make art primarily for ourselves – our sanity depends on it. If we can sell enough to keep doing it that’s a bonus and if we discover some sort of spiritual mandate about raising the collective vibration in the process, so much the better. Remember your art comes from you, or at least through you. You are the boss. believe it. Embody it. Love it. Then let your natural persuasion flow.

3. Biggest Challenges Beget the Best Work.  If something scares you – do it. If you feel the urge to resurrect  an aspect of your skill set that you neglected, but which your soul is crying out to express – do it. Bite off more than you can chew, feel the terror and watch as your entire career grows and expands. This is hard for artists – every day already feels like a challenge, in terms of money, time, sleep, energy levels and the ongoing search for recognition. It’s worth reaching for the impossible and expanding beyond your limits. However it’s also worth saying that you have to balance this with adequate self-care and nurturance of yourself as the art-producing organism. Give yourself a time frame for your challenges and take yourself seriously enough that when you leap for the stars you have some support in place. Victory loves preparation and I think that fortune favours those who are ready.

4. Design Counts. There is an initial moment in every encounter where style does trump substance. It’s the first impression and it’s usually visual. People respond on this level in a way that’s instinctive and emotional. Something that looks and feels visually coherent and harmonious invites further engagement. Past this point, the non-visual qualities take over, but if you want to hook people in from the get-go, visuals matter. For musicians, decent photos are a must – so are clear graphics, text and pleasing colours for websites, posters, album covers etc.

5. Big Graphics/Big Font. Obvious and yet sometimes overlooked in attempts to be overly artistic and clever, especially in publicity and marketing. Make sure the information you want to convey is coming across. It can make the difference between customers buying your music, or proceeding to the next new face on iTunes whose biog and links they can actually decipher. There are people who willing to go the extra mile to read smaller text and rules can be broken in the name of artistic license. I write this blog with pale text on a brown background – which is not to everyones liking – but the overall impression reflects my style better than a more conventional black on white format.

6. Jump Curves not ‘Better Sameness’.  I like this – and also find it scary. It strikes a chord which applies to all learning. Jazz musicians know that true improvisation is not about playing your known scales as competently as possible. It’s about leaping into the ocean and letting intuition take over. Musicians need to respond to the changing times. What worked for the last year might suddenly not be relevant anymore. There’s no point in doggedly finding better, more persuasive ways to get record label execs to listen to your CD. These days, you’d best get your YouTube channel up and running, because that’s what they’ll expect to see. As an artist, you may have a trademark –  a good line in sad, bluesy love songs, or an affinity with an instrumental sound for which you are known. One day, be prepared that you may never write on that theme again, it’s time for a make-over and having previously been a guitarist you now only want to play the trumpet. Or ditch your backing band, shave your head and release a solo unplugged album. Which your existing fans may hate – but which your expanding audience is ready for. Embrace these quantum transformations wholeheartedly! The emergent butterfly no longer needs to excel at being the best caterpillar. Things move on. Respond. There’s enormous freedom in editing, speeding and cleaning your flow – be it songwriting, recording, networking or marketing. Minimum effort, maximum result is a mantra that works for me.

7. Something Works or Doesn’t Work. The best songs? Nice hooky melodic flow, not too long, beginning, middle and end. The best singing? From the heart, keeping it real on a subject you know about. The best breathing technique? Get it in, get it out. Best customer/fan PR? Draw the people in, give them something real, communicate your message, honour the time spent together, give thanks, let them choose whether to deepen their relationship with you. Be excited about what you do – desire is the rocket fuel that drives any project and pulls people in, making them feel part of a wider community all buzzing on a compatible vibe. Lack of desire for your own art will repel people. All artists go through ’empty shell’ periods where their marketing speak or concert patter becomes reactive, repetitive. Times like this, it’s worth stepping back from the public eye and rekindling the passion.

8. Value is Different from Price. Very important when a musician is negotiating for  session/gig/consultancy/teaching wages. If new instrumental students baulk at my fee, I remind them that the expertise I will bring to them is literally priceless. An investment that will give them hours and hours of potentially infinite satisfaction and empowerment beyond the initial lesson. Same for a gig or function. I’m confident that my value far exceeds the amount of money paid – which is really only an offering of energy in return for the raw material of my soul. Knowing your worth is hugely important these days, more so now that music has been devalued by a saturated marketplace where entertainment is free and ubiquitous. It’s hard not to be affected by this, lowering your prices and standards and also saying ‘yes’ to engagements which are exploitative. When there is a lot of genuine talent out there, how do you price yourself above or below the next person? Only you know if you have something that makes you truly special. Know your value. Then be bold and communicate that value through your actions and words.

9. ‘A’ Players Hire ‘A’ Players. A difficult one, as we’ve all hired staff who are functioning at a sort of intern level and whom we have to train on the job. This is ok for secretarial staff. It’s not so good for band members, session players, business consultants, photographers, engineers or publicity and marketing assistants who are going to be making crucial  phone calls to industry figures. How do you know at interview stage, if you are dealing with an equal and potential peer? They will not be awed by you, they will come across as genuinely self-possessed. They’ll be honest about their experience level and able to negotiate and discuss their own wages and value with an air of confidence. They’ll know your industry and the people in it and have shared reference points, gained through experience. They’ll be able to challenge you in a constructive way and have the right strengths to compliment your weak spots.

10. Real CEOS can Demo. The classic application of this is the music teacher who can play the piece, who knows the landscape inside out, has travelled the territory that the map indicates. Not all music teachers can! The practitioner who is immersed, body and soul in their craft. Not just the musicianship, but the realities of the industry coal face. Taken to a more metaphysical level – like Thomas Dorsey, if you are ‘living the life you sing about in your song’  if there is a congruence between your walk and your talk – this will translate to the punters. So many of whom are looking for something authentic and soulful with which to resonate.

11. Real Entrepreneurs ‘Ship’. Unless I’ve hilariously misunderstood this – this does not mean ‘shipping in the US slang sense, meaning relationship (like customer PR in this context.) This means get your product flying off the shelves  – let go of it and send it into the marketplace even though it may not be flawless and may have elements that could be improved. In other words, ‘done is better than perfect’. Be careful with this one. If it’s your musical product, it’s you that has to live with it being out there in the public domain and it’s counter-intuitive to plug and promote stuff that you feel is not your best. Still, I like the concept of not being too precious and embracing that moment when our art has to live independently.

12. Some Things Need to be Believed to be Seen. Popular books about the ‘Law of Attraction’ talk about this a lot. Have a vision. Everything that has ever existed, existed first, in the mind. See it. Make it real. I’d extend the definition of believed to also mean ‘felt’, in a vibrational sense. If you only work with what you know to be possible, or what you previously thought to be doable, you are not open to the unique path that is your very own. The future isn’t written, nor are the tools for writing it fixed, nor is the vocabulary set in stone. This is very true right now in music and entertainment, concerning media technologies and consumer habits. On an economic, ecological, global and galactic level, all is subject to change. So let your music career truly become a vision quest, holistic and grounded, right from creative inception to the online music store, to the movie sync deal, to the world tour, to the guest appearance at the protest march. Live your dream whilst creating the kind of world, you want to create music in and for. Let your ethical values shine through. If you don’t have some kind of  spiritual practice in your life, now is the time to explore that and to start working in a deliberate way with the tools of visualisation and manifestation. Guide your life from the inside out, design your own path and enjoy the journey.

 I hope you enjoyed this journey!

 


 

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online, graphics-design service, trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, and executive fellow at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is the author of The Art of the Start 2.0, The Art of Social Media, Enchantment, and ten other books.

Here is the original film from Silicon Valley Banks CEO Summit in 2011: 12 Lessons Steve Jobs Taught Guy Kawasaki.

 


 

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