The idea is to set up an expectation, and later fulfill that expectation with an outcome that is both surprising and inevitable; inevitable in the sense that there were no other right choices for that moment.
Internalizing our goals is especially useful for those of us in a profession in which external failure is most often the case. Rejection can be a debilitating thing for Creatives, and can have a paralyzing effect on our work. So, the question becomes, "How to live a happy life in the face of disappointment, set-back, and self-doubt?"
In the world of songwriting, the names Alan and Marilyn Bergman are synonymous with terms describing the highest achievements of lyric craft: grace, simplicity, deeply personal, and at the same time completely universal. As husband and wife lyric-writing partners for over fifty-years, they've been honored with too many awards to mention here, including sixteen Academy Award nominations for their work in film.
Have you ever listened to a song and lost all track of time? Was the experience so complete in itself, that you desired nothing else? In fact, you weren't even aware of any lack of desire, any conscious thought of anything? Have you experienced this same thing while looking at, or rather looking into, a work of art, such as a painting? Or watching a champion figure skater perform a routine? An actor reciting a dramatic monologue? If you have, and we all have, then you have experienced a work of fine art.
The word "fine" comes from the French word, "fin" which is, in turn derived from the Latin, "finis," meaning "final" or "finished," the notion being that a "fine" work of art, should be an end in itself. Such a work of art does not coerce the listener or viewer toward desire or repulsion. It does not entice someone to react in a pre-calculated manner. A work of fine art doesn't make an appeal for any immediate emotional reaction whatsoever. Certainly, after the song has ended, or the sculpture is viewed after a time, many emotional, and intellectual feelings can and do arise. More often than not, though, words aren't immediately accessible that sufficiently express what has just happened. Our attention was temporarily arrested, producing in us a condition not unlike a spiritual experience - one of awe. I think that's what we mean when we speak about something being timeless.
Most of our waking experience is spent reacting to external events, subject to the flux of emotions and animal passions that constitute our shared human condition. Liberation from this ego-driven, "I"-centered relationship with the world may be accomplished by peering into these windows of timelessness, however fleeting they may be. Afterwards, we may resume the business of living feeling a little more refreshed and hopeful in the knowledge that, perhaps, "There is another world, and it is in this one."
The qualifications for something to be considered a work of fine art have less to do with the subjective quality of the artwork in question and more to do with the purity of the discipline - the daily adherence to the perfecting of a craft. It's the calligraphy master's brush stroke, it's haiku, it's a Michael Jordan jump-shot, it's a Pat Metheny guitar solo, it's Streisand singing "Send In The Clowns," and its appearance seems as natural as the unfolding of a flower. The curious thing about a work that attains this level of mastery is the almost universal appeal it has. While soliciting nothing from the beholder, it offers an opportunity for shared participation in the beauty of its being. Viewed from its humble plot by the roadside, or not at all, the rose remains beautiful.
The revenue pie has shrunk, and recording artists’ names are showing up with greater frequency in the sacred space traditionally reserved for songwriters: (Words & Music By..) Some of these folks weren't even in the room when the song was being written. Some were brought in to "finish" the song at the last minute. Many aren't very good, and frankly, I'm embarrassed for them.
Now there are some country artists who can really write, and we know who you are! Keep up the good work! To those who can't, but do (or don't, really) I say, "Let me just write you a check. If you're going to hold a portion of my songwriter royalties for ransom because you need to keep your record deal, let's get something in writing (the attorneys could surely use the work, too). Give me an address, I'll do the math each quarter and drop you a check in the mail. Just keep your name out of my parenthesis. It's my house, and the sign on the door say's 'Writers Only.' It took me a long time to get here, and humble as it is, I've earned the distinction. Me and my song-writing buddies were just minding our own 'business' hanging out in our parenthesis and you started showing up.
Most of you are nice people, but it's our tree-house and you're not invited. It's just business right? Ok. Fine. There's the door. The checks in the mail.
When I find myself complaining about the perils of maintaining a life as an artist, I am reminded of two maxims that have saved that life more than once. The first is from a legendary singer-songwriter, the second is from America's greatest life-coach.
Trust your Talent
Janis Ian reminds us that, "Your talent brought you to the dance, it won't abandon you without a ride home." Say what you will about talent being overrated, in the end it's a gift, and one that increases in value the more it is spent. You weren't separated from the mass of men and given the responsibility of proving the worthiness of a self-initiated life, a life based on allegiance to an internal calling, to be made to starve to death. The world needs the fruits of your labor, and never more so than in these times of drought and famine. Trust your Talent, it will not betray you.
Spend to your Genius
Ralph Waldo Emerson, our best friend and teacher, taught to "Spend to your Genius, and the investment is safe." After adjusting income to outgo to cover basic living expenses, spend confidently on the tools of your Genius; in other words, invest in those things that inspire you to improve the tasks of your particular Calling. The investment is safe because the resources are renewable, and talent scales. Under such a natural, self-generating system, dividends will be paid out. For me, it's buying music, books, guitar things, a good computer, basic recording gear, good paper and pencils, and investing in programs that maintain body and spiritual health.
Do that thing that you do best, love best, adjust your budget to accommodate your requirements for time, Trust your Talent, and Spend to your Genius. And remember, a pricey cup of coffee from time to time is okay, too!
It's obvious there's more to a song demo than just words and melody- there's the tempo (how fast or slow the song is), the key (you'd be surprised how raising or lowering the key by just a half-step can affect the dynamic energy of a piece), the overall "feel" of the song; is it straight-ahead country, shuffle, cowboy cha-cha, four-on-the-floor? What's the Intro like? Four measures? Eight? And do you have a particular melody in mind? Played by what? The fiddle? Piano? Both? Is there a solo section? Have you determined which instrument(s) will play it?
In the process of writing a song, these technical and stylistic elements will present themselves. Make note of them in the margin of your notebook or computer screen. When you're writing your charts (or having someone else write them for you) be sure to include them. Knowing more of what you want before you go into record will save time, money, anxiety, and even earn the respect of the musicians and engineers on the session. You don't want to over-prepare to the point where there's no room for spontaneity- for the best stuff can happen this way, but work from a solid base of preparation, this will allow you to adjust to any split-second creative decisions that will inevitably come up. In the process, you may discover there's a budding record producer just waiting to explode onto the scene!
Below is a partial check-list you can refer to in preparation for your next demo session. If you're unclear about certain things, just ask. We've all been there. Good luck!
Off The Chart
- Are you sure the song is ready? Is there something still bugging you? The session's not the place to fix your second verse.
- All the players lined up and ready to go?
- Do you have all the right keys for your singers?
- Are your charts complete with enough copies run off?
- Do you have an idea the order of the songs you'd like to demo? (I like starting with a mid to up-tempo, especially during a morning session- get's the blood going.)
- Are your tunes in the proper order on the CD (or on your phone) for listening down? Saving a few seconds here and there can mean the difference between four or five, or even six songs on a three-hour (union) session. Will you be playing these for the musicians live? Do you have a capo? Tuner? Picks?
On The Chart
- Are you pretty clear about the tempo?
- What style are you going for? An island feel? An Eagles-kinda-thing?
- Production elements to consider:
- Who plays the Intro? Broken down or full on?
- Do you have a particular "hook" melody in mind?
- Is the Turn-Around too long? Same as the Intro., or different?
- Who's "filling" verse two? Maybe keep it open?
- Does the Chorus stay in half-time or go to four (in 4/4 time)
- Who plays the solo? Can you split it up? Is it too long to begin with?
- Instead of an improvised solo, is there a specific melody you want to be played?
- Is the last Chorus "broken-down"?
- Are all the band accents (rhythmic figures played in unison) clearly marked?
- How does the song end?
- Are any changes in the Tempo clearly marked?
- Are Modulations correct?
- Have you thought about Background Vocals- male and/or female? Where in the song they would be most effective?
Keep in mind: this is a demo not a master recording. You won't have time to get too specific ("Hey, could you try that again using a medium-gauge pick?"), but you can control aspects of your demo that show it in the best light. Also, be creative when charting your songs, think "outside the box" a little: nylon-string guitar instead of acoustic, hand-drum and percussion instead of snare and toms, fiddle doubling a keyboard string patch, timpani, penny-whistle, what about using a drum “loop" or no drums at all? Anything that can make your demo "pop" is a good thing, as long as it doesn't sound like you're trying too hard! The competition is tougher than ever. Give yourself the best chance you can. Prepare!