Posts Tagged ‘Demo’

Hustle

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Music
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One word that comes to mind when I think of those days is hustle.  We hustled a lot. Not just back and forth to auditions and lessons, but we had hustle. I mean…I was pitching demos left and right to anyone that would listen. When I started writing and recording on a regular basis, we’d basically give out the demos to our industry contacts and friends. I mean, if I was meeting you and I shook your hand, I would pass you a demo tape. Most didn’t get listened to, I’m sure – as Grandma might have said, they no doubt wound up in File 13 – her word for the office trash can. Some probably listened out of curiosity. I was a savant, a boy wonder (or whatever…pick your word) and they wanted to see exactly how good a 10 year old kid could write. I enjoyed the attention – almost all of it was supportive and positive – but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder if they were listening because it was good or because I was a novelty. I thought it was probably the latter, and that depressed me. Listening back to my old stuff now is a cringe inducing experience. I imagine it is for most writers. Some, like myself, are bound to have a book or a room or a case where they put all their bastard children (artistically speaking, of course). If they’re anything like me, visits are difficult and rare. Songs I thought were great when I was 8 or 10 I listen to at 30 and cannot believe I wrote such a tremendous mound of dung, let alone peddled the demo tapes to everyone who would listen. They were good for my age, but I realized very quickly that in order to not just be a novelty, I had to be as good or better than the adults who were writing (and who already had dozens of years more experience than I did). I saw this, and worked harder. I put my nose to the grindstone until it was bloody and raw. I don’t like my old work, with only one or two exceptions, but I’m proud of it because it allowed me to cut my teeth and develop as an artist. Someone once said that 90% of the stuff you will write is useless junk, if you’re lucky. The other 10% is hopefully worth something.

Anyway, I used to do a lot of jingles – don’t know if I mentioned that before. It’s an industry that is all but dead now, but in the early 90’s it was still booming. We would get calls (sometimes from jingle houses, sometimes from agents), I’d run in with maybe 3 or 4 other people, we’d harmonize a few times and crank out something great. I’ll see if I can’t find a few jingles that I did and link them at the bottom of the post.

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (or Mom got the idea) that I ought to write jingles. I hit every jingle house I knew with demos, and most of the ad agencies too. In retrospect, they were never going to hire a kid to do anything like that – it was too much of a gamble – but we didn’t know that. What Mom also didn’t know – or at least didn’t put together properly in her head – was that giving demo tapes to the jingle houses created a conflict of interest for them. Let me explain. Most of the people who worked at the jingle houses were writers and musicians – hired by an ad agency or other client to write, play on, and produce a jingle. Giving them a demo of some songs was in and of itself not a bad idea, but giving them a demo and asking if they were interested in having me write jingles was in poor taste. It would be like walking into a store, handing your resume to the manager, and trying to apply for his job. Rather futile, somewhat offensive, and mostly dumb. But since we didn’t know what we were doing, at least in regards to the music business, we ran around acting like a couple of rubes. Everyone was very gracious in accepting the demos – I never heard anyone say a bad word about it. But in the end, I don’t think they knew what to do with it, even if they wanted to help. I did, somehow, come into contact with a very nice guy who ran a major ad agency. I had done some work for him in the past, and had handed him my demo. Not only did he very graciously listen, but wrote a letter to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how he would gladly consider me as a candidate if I wanted to apply for a position there in the future. The guy was a giant in the industry – he coined the phrase “It’s everywhere you want to be” for Visa, for instance – there was no reason for him to take the time to listen to some kid’s tape. But he did, and I still have the letter.

A friend in the business told me once “If you were sitting in a theater, and somebody like Madonna was sitting behind you, you’d reach under your seat and hand her a demo tape.” He was joking (kind of) but he wasn’t wrong. I would have. And if I didn’t think of it on my own, Mom would have insisted I do it. I remember sitting in a diner once in rural Pennsylvania, and Mom and I overheard a conversation at the next table. The guy had worked for Pepsi or something, and somehow Mom got the impression he was important. So she sent me over to ask him what he did for Pepsi. This was very rude,  since it would have been obvious we were eavesdropping, but it was also tactless. You just don’t do that sort of thing, you know? Anyway, I did as I was bid and found out the guy was a truck driver for Pepsi. We had a polite (but very confused, at least on his part) chat. He seemed to have no idea why I was explaining that I was a songwriter. I sat back down in the booth, and related our conversation to Mom.

Mom: So he wasn’t important?

Me: I guess not. He drove truck for Pepsi, he wasn’t like, in an ad agency or anything.

Mom: Oh.

I went back to my food.

Mom: Well, hand him a demo tape anyway. He could know somebody.

And, once again, I got up from the table and trotted over to where the poor bewildered soul sat. He thanked me for the demo tape, handed it to his wife who put it in her purse, and smiled at me oddly. He probably thought I was the strangest freaking kid he’d ever run into. And he was probably right.

When I look back on these times, I do feel embarrassed. True, we didn’t know any better, but we could have had a little more tact. Somehow, I blame myself the most, even though I really was just doing what I was told. Mom supposedly knew best, in most if not all cases. In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people – really genuine – they want to help you. I’m not saying I wasn’t genuine, but basically walking around asking people to listen to my demo all the time wasn’t ideal. It didn’t make them want to listen. I was some snot-nosed brat off the street, flinging tapes around like a mad man. I didn’t care about them personally, just what they could do for me. Granted, that attitude was learned behavior, but it is a very sorry attitude. I’m embarrassed to have ever had it.

At the same time, although we wanted people to listen, we didn’t know what to do when offers of help came. We didn’t want to seem overeager or rude (ha ha) by asking for help directly, so Mom’s plan was to simply ask for guidance and advice, rather than direct help. Once, we had a meeting with a fairly famous songwriter.

Songwriter: Okay. So what do you need me to do? How can I help?

Mom and I looked at him blankly.

Mom: I guess…just…offer advice.

And he graciously did. But Mom’s plan of asking for “advice” and hoping to get actual help failed 100% of the time. We simply didn’t know how to be direct when the chips were down. Quite literally, we flopped around like a dying fish – hoping that merely by moving and acting the desired outcome would materialize.

Nowadays, I have the opposite problem – probably because of how I feel about all that stuff. I hesitate to give people a demo, and frankly feel a little chagrined about it when I do. I take very specific opportunities, but they’re ones that I ponder carefully and execute with precision. I no longer crassly walk around asking people to listen to my music, or force demo tapes on them. Mom shakes her head at me these days and tells me I don’t have the drive, that I don’t have hustle. And she’s right – at least, by her definition, I don’t. I learned from carelessness, and it has made me careful. But sometimes I miss the frenetic energy, the constant buzz of doing, and I wonder if there isn’t something to it after all.

 

Kool-Aid, Pink Swimmingo

Sprinkle Spangles

 

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It was decided – I don’t remember how, why, or by who – that I ought to start making demos of the songs I was writing. I had done one or two  before, when I was around 9, but at 12 I was writing several songs a week and it was time to start doing something with them. This is one thing that I’m very glad I did – going to the studio gave me a lot of experience, and as a writer there is nothing like hearing your music brought to life and reduced to tape or CD (though in those days, it was tape). The first few songs I did by myself – they were simplistic, and I was able to knock several out in just a few hours. I played piano myself and sang on them. Conversations were had between Mom, Russ, and myself, about picking a genre of music and sticking with it. At the time, I was writing literally everything – I wrote Reggae, I wrote Pop, I wrote Rap, Rockabilly, whatever came to my mind. In the early 90’s, Country music was enjoying a bit of a boom – Billy Ray Cyrus was dominating the air waves with Achy Breaky Heart  and I think Cotton Eyed Joe had come out around then too (if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and don’t). I remember having a conversation with Mom about which genre I should focus on.

Mom: You should do Country. Joey Lawrence will never go country in a million years. That way, he can have Pop and you guys can both be successful.

I didn’t really care, and I thought Country was pretty good (some of it still is, but let’s face it – most modern music sucks regardless of genre). Somehow, Mom got it into her head that Russ should produce my demos. Initially, he was reluctant – I honestly don’t think he wanted to spend any more time with Mom than necessary – certainly not in the close proximity that a studio would have demanded. Eventually, though, she won him over with the thing that rules us all – the checkbook. She offered him a ridiculous sum of money to produce me. She paid him for lessons he’d miss on either side of any studio gig, plus gas and expenses – in addition to whatever she paid him for coming into produce. Between paying Paul (the studio tech) and Russ, each demo probably cost around $1,000 – easy. That’s not counting if we needed to go back in and remix, either, which we usually did. So the final product was probably a bit more – maybe closer to $1,500.

Don’t get the wrong impression, here. Russ was (in my opinion, anyway) a top notch musician and producer. He may have also been a top notch bullshitter, but anything involving music was relatively bullshit free – at least in my estimation. My feelings about him are complicated – especially looking back over the years with the benefit of hindsight – but my respect for his talent has never waned an iota. Watching him work in the studio was a learning experience in and of itself, and it went a long way to making me the musician (and producer) I am today. He’d come in to Paul’s studio and sit in the “Captain’s Chair” (a rolling desk chair that he commandeered specifically for his use – no one else was allowed to sit in it). He’d rock back and forth, listening to a take.

Russ: No, no. More strings. They need to swell.

Paul played the strings with more swell.

Russ: No, Paul, like this!

And he’d draw an illustration in the air of what he wanted the strings to sound like. Paul got it. If you’re a musician, you can probably understand this too. There’s a secret language among us – a nod, a raised eyebrow, a fist above the head waving in time to a beat. We get it. We know what it means, even if others don’t. From my perspective, Russ looked a bit like a sorcerer – throwing invisible bolts of magic at some unseen enemy. He’d look over at me and grin, smoothing his hair back into place.
Russ: You feel that!?

Me: Yeah!

And I did. I could feel the strings, but it wasn’t just that – the Muse was in the room with us. That’s what he was talking about, I think. It was a trip.

Russ would pack that song with so many tracks it taxed Paul’s systems. Paul used to joke that Russ would look at a blank track sheet and start to go snow blind – he needed to fill that sucker up. Brilliant arranging and producing aside, it always irked me that Russ and Paul never let me play on my own recordings (the ones Russ produced, anyway). As a kid, it pissed me off to no end. They’d let me sing on it (who else would sing on it, anyway? Hiring a studio singer would have just been more money) but Paul played all the tracks via a Midi keyboard. I argued with Russ that I could easily play it live – a real guitar or piano would sound so much better. He waved me off every time. I get it now, though – it was just easier and quicker for Paul (who knew his own keyboards) to jump in and play. Although granted, I did know my own songs better. Having someone else take and mold your songs into something other than your vision can be a horrifying experience – and of the hundreds of demos I recorded with Russ, that happened more often than I can count.

Me: Uncle Russ, the drums shouldn’t do that.

Russ: Oh, okay.

Then he’d tell Paul to keep doing what he was doing.

I’d be furious – I’d spend the whole session glowering at Russ’s turned back. But in the end – when I listened to the track objectively, I’d hear that Russ made the better call. It wasn’t what I had in mind, maybe, but maybe what I had in mind wasn’t quite as good.

I am of two minds about this whole process. Firstly, it didn’t make any sense to do things the way we were doing it. If Russ argued about it (and he surely knew better than Mom or myself) I never heard it. Maybe he just knew that Mom wanted what Mom wanted and there was no point in standing in her way (he’d have been right about that). The way things normally work (at least in Nashville) is that songs go through a process – you bounce it off a lot of people before it becomes the final product you hear on the radio. So, for instance, if I bring in a demo that I just spent $1,200 on, and the head of Capitol Records tells me the chorus needs to be changed totally, I’ll have to re-record my song. Thus, $1,200 down the drain. It ended up locking me into some songwriting decisions I might have rethought otherwise – when hearing from different publishers (or artists, or whoever) that such and such a thing ought to be different, I would realize that the song could have been made much, much better. But to redo it would be too costly, so instead I went on to the next one and tried to make it “perfect” without the benefit of industry opinion (spoiler alert: it never was). The way things seem to be done is you record something simple and relatively cost effective, bounce it off of people, and then do a “final demo” once everything is basically all tightened up song-wise. So I can make a pretty convincing argument (and have, at least to myself) that a small fortune was flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, it was worth every penny to learn the things I learned in the studio. I would be nowhere near the producer I am today (or the writer, for that matter) if I hadn’t watched someone who really, truly knew their craft as closely and often as I did.

On studio days, Russ was either early by half an hour (or better) or late. If he was on time it was a true rarity. Paul, ever sarcastic, called him the Guru of Soul. Tim and I laughed a good bit at that. But you know what? He did have soul – quite a bit, in fact. Sometimes, in my head, I am back in that room – the one that smelled like Yankee Candles and inspiration. I am a child sitting on a couch watching The Guru of Soul work his magic.