I figured that I should probably write an article about an actual technical issue in live-sound, seeing as how Carlos always introduces me as an audio-human. I mean, it was getting a little ridiculous there (my piece about why some audio guys are unhelpful notwithstanding).

So…

Some of you have instruments with non-preamplified pickups. That is, the pickup doesn’t run to any kind of processor, doesn’t need any batteries, and isn’t connected to an amp that you’ve brought along. Instead, the pickup simply turns your instrument’s vibrations into electricity, and that electricity travels down a cable that gets plugged into the audio rig.

…and some of you have had real problems. I have very definitely heard several variations on “When we played at that other place, we couldn’t get any level out of my pickup. I might need a new one.” It hardly happens to me every day, but I’ve encountered people with similar issues often enough for me to think: There’s something out there that needs to be addressed.

Let me start by saying that the news is probably good, actually.

It Probably Didn’t Break Between Rehearsal And The Gig

Yes – sometimes gear does get mangled on the trip to the venue. You can’t discount that possibility. However, if you just recently plugged your pickup into a practice amp, and everything was fine, it’s unlikely that your gear spontaneously killed itself.

Most instrument pickups that I run across are fairly hardy creatures in and of themselves. These days, the actual pickup part of the pickup should be able to withstand at least a bit of abuse before having an internal failure. (I’m not advocating that you do mean things to your pickup. I’m just saying that riding around in a gig bag probably won’t wreck the actual transducer.)

Oh – if you didn’t know, “transducer” just means “a device that converts one form of energy into another, corresponding form.” In this case, we’re talking about taking the energy of your instruments vibrations and turning it into electrical energy.

Anyway.

The actual transducer is usually attached to a cable. That cable, while probably not delicate, is likely to be far more fragile than the pickup itself. For that reason, it’s worth keeping a mental note as to whether or not that cable might have been yanked, bent at a sharp angle (especially near the plug or the pickup), stepped on, rolled over by a roadcase, smashed during transit, or otherwise treated poorly. That’s just due diligence when you have a problem.

But, what if everything seems like it should be okay? What if you’ve connected your instrument to the PA system via the audio craftsperson’s shiny, new, undamaged direct box…and all you get is a “tinny,” weak signal? Do you need a new pickup?

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

You Probably Have An Impedance Problem, Not A Pickup Problem

Impedance is really the “meat” of this issue. So, what is it?

Impedance, by itself, is not a complex idea. It’s the opposition to the flow of current in a circuit where the voltage changes over time. Yes, that’s right: The signal on your instrument pickup’s cable is a kind of alternating current. Sure, the voltage is much lower than the alternating current that comes out of a wall socket. Sure, the frequency content is complex.

It’s still alternating current, though.

The basic concept of impedance is not difficult to make sense of. What gets audio and music folk into trouble is that impedance issues can have profound effects on how our gear works. What also gets us into trouble is that we live in an age where a lot of “impedance matching and bridging” problems have been thoroughly worked out. We just don’t have to think about impedance issues very much (or at all), and so we forget to consider possible impedance pitfalls when a problem occurs.

I know that this is getting REALLY technical. Don’t panic. Yet.

The problem with us pro-audio types is that we predominantly live in a world that thrives on low impedance. Sending signals across “long” lines (like a 100’+ snake), and then applying a ton of gain to those signals are “Very Pro-Audio Things To Do.” The doing of Very Pro-Audio Things is facilitated by having relatively low-impedance signal paths. Low impedance is great for driving long cables. Low impedance is great for keeping noise manageable.

…and low impedance can make your instrument pickup sound awful. Getting into precisely how that happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that low impedance can result in signal loss, unwanted resonances, and the filtering out of either low or high-frequency signal content (depending upon the situation).

But What About That DI Box?

Now, at this point you might be saying, “But at my last show, we plugged my pickup into a DI box. It sounded terrible! DI boxes were made so that my gear would work with pro-audio gear, right? My pickup must be bad.”

Firstly: You’re correct that DI boxes are primarily used to help with getting different kinds of gear to play nicely together.

Secondly: Not all DI boxes are the same.

(I’ve actually written a whole article about this on my own site.)

These days, a lot of the most affordable DI boxes are basically meant to serve one purpose: They take an unbalanced, actually low-ish impedance signal that might be a bit too “hot” for a mic pre, and turn it into a balanced signal that’s at an even lower impedance, and has been reduced in voltage to a mic-pre friendly level.

These DI boxes are passive, meaning the only electricity that they need is what they get from the signal source plugged into their input.

Let’s be clear. “Passive” does not mean “bad.” I myself have a handful of passive DI boxes that are perfectly adequate – when they’re being used for the correct purpose. The issue with passive DI boxes is that they are simply not the best choice for high-impedance devices, like your “stick it in the soundhole” inductive guitar pickup.

Further, passive DIs are a THOROUGHLY AWFUL choice for really, really, really high-impedance devices, like that “no installation necessary” piezo pickup that sticks to your classical guitar/ mandolin/ violin/ whatever.

The reason is impedance. A passive DI box’s input impedance just isn’t that high, especially for a piezo pickup. A magnetic pickup might get by with some “ultimately tolerable yet still disappointing” loss of high-end, but a piezo pickup might seem like it has no output, no “body,” and a rather disgusting sort of “nasal honk” if you can get enough gain applied to hear anything.

On the flipside, active DI boxes and preamps designed for instruments DO have high-impedance inputs. This is why the question of “did your pickup work with a practice amp” is an important one to answer. If your pickup worked with the practice amp in rehearsal, then the problem at the gig might just be DI box’s impedance. Mate your pickup to an active DI, and chances are that your pickup problems will “magically” resolve themselves. Active DI boxes have undergone significant price drops over the years, to the point that they can be had for only slightly more than a passive model. If you’re using an instrument with a passive pickup, you might want to invest in an active DI or preamp of your own…

…because even an otherwise competent audio human might not be aware of the above, just as you weren’t aware of it. Which leads me into a bit of a rant:

We Seem To Also Have An Education Problem

I don’t want to get too “tinfoil hat” about all this, but it seems like the constant drive to reduce packaging and reduce costs has resulted in the death of The Truly Helpful Instruction Manual. Back when I was much younger, it seemed like all kinds of things shipped with thick, detail-oriented instruction books that did more than just tell you how to plug things in. These Truly Helpful manuals had all kinds of background information in them, which helped you to understand how a product actually worked. If the customer actually bothered to read the book, they stood a good chance of understanding enough to know WHY something might be acting up.

Now, as many things have gotten highly commoditized and much more “stupid resistant,” manuals have been reduced to quickstart guides that tell you very little about the whys and wherefores of your gear. In some cases, this is excusable…especially when the manufacturer has truly eliminated most of the guesswork involved in using the product.

The issue with passive instrument-pickups (and other things) is that the informative manual has been eliminated while the uncertainties remain. Active or preamp-equipped instrument pickups can be plugged into almost anything and work acceptably, so a manual that talks about things like DI boxes and impedance issues would be nice…but not 100% necessary. On the passive side, though, it’s troubling as to the lack of information that would help customers understand what affects their gear – perhaps profoundly.

Of course, this lack of education on the part of equipment manufacturers helps folks like me, in terms of giving us consulting gigs and letting us write articles like this. In the case of someone’s live-performance, though, I think that the cost of saving money on the manual might just be a little high.

I dunno. Maybe I’m wrong.

But I do miss informative, well written, engagingly illustrated instruction manuals.

Anyway – your pickup probably isn’t broken. Just remember that impedance is a factor, and be ready to try a couple of different things when the unexpected occurs.

I sure do spend a lot of time talking about non-audio topics. I guess it’s because I’ve worn different hats in this business. Sure, the sound-dude hat has always been the one that fit me best, and also the one that I’ve always worn – but even so.

There’s a certain point where a production tech starts to notice and internalize various other aspects of the business. Because we see so much of what goes on behind the scenes that are, themselves, behind OTHER scenes, audio and lighting craftspeople can develop a certain sense about how the show fits into a much bigger picture.

For me personally, this “dip” into the other aspects of the business was pretty deep…because I used to run an all-ages venue in Salt Lake. Like I said, my main role was to be an audio tech, but I also did all the booking, financial, general admin, and janitorial work. It was a BLAST, and I developed quite an appreciation for the “full spectrum” of the live-music biz.

I also developed quite an appreciation for bands that were great to work with. Concurrently, I began keeping a mental list of things that made me never want to see a band again, ever. This article is all about putting that list (or bits of it) into a written form. What’s odd about an article like this is that you wouldn’t think it would be necessary – you’d suppose that all of this is common sense. However, these issues do come up again and again, which suggests to me that maybe all of this ISN’T common sense.

…and please be assured that nothing in this article is meant to be “snarky.” I love bands, and I want you guys to succeed.

That sometimes means that things get a little pointed, though.

Also: Be aware that my opinions and perceptions may or may not reflect anyone else’s opinions and perceptions.

Shall we begin? Here’s how to influence people to not book you:

Bring Nobody To Your Show. Act Like It’s The Venue’s Fault.

Before you hit the roof, let me say that, yes, venues should update their calendars, do something to get the word out about upcoming shows, and just generally be a place where people want to go. If a venue has found a promotion avenue that seems to work, they should make sure that every show is announced through that channel.

Absolutely agreed.

At the same time, though, promotion isn’t magic. (That’s a concept that I repeat like a mantra these days.) If the venue has done its due diligence, and nobody cares enough to come to your gig, then laying the full measure of blame at the feet of “the room” is just jerkery. As far as I can tell, folks are very unlikely to go out to see some random act anymore. On any given night, “just getting there” is NOT half the fun for people anymore.

It’s not 1975, folks. People are laser-focused on what they want to do these days. If they don’t care about your act, then there’s probably no reason for them to visit the bar/ club/ theater/ whatever that you’re playing at.

If you don’t draw in the venue’s market, then no amount of venue promo is going to change that.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody will eventually book a room that their fans don’t want to visit. Everybody will have an off night. It’s inevitable, and I think most venues get that.

But if you “fail to convert,” and then start to publicly moan and groan about how the room didn’t do its part (when the room did what it’s done for successful nights), then you are going on my “don’t book these guys again” list.

Steal Or Damage Something…Or Have Fans Who Do

I once worked a show where a relatively spendy mic was on a stand in a backstage area. At the end of the show, the mic was gone – and the “geniuses” who took it were so clueless as to how to get it off the stand that they broke the stand.

I never found out who absconded with my microphone and busted my gear. It could have been the performers, or it could have been “the entourage.” (There was a point where it was hard to tell which group was which.)

Do you think I cared about who it was, exactly? Nope. Not a snowball’s chance. That group was very unlikely to play the room again. (The whole thing was unpleasant, not just getting robbed.)

Yes, accidents happen. Gear gets broken unintentionally. Also, there are bad apples to be found in the nicest groups of fans. Trust me, venue staff are aware of this.

However, gear does cost money and time to replace. It’s the same with the building we’re in, the accoutrements used to serve concessions or drinks, and everything else in the room. If you are intentionally abusing a mic stand, or threatening a monitor wedge with a beverage, you should consider yourself marked for “never coming back” status.

In the same way, if your fans are a pain in the venue staffs’ various body parts, or if your fans are an outright threat to the room’s property, you ain’t comin’ back. Again – one person being a fool is something that can be understood, but the consistent behavior of your fan base has a lot to do with whether or not you’re bookable. If a show with you and your followers consistently ends with something missing or broken, why would the venue want you back? No, you aren’t responsible for the behavior of every individual who comes to see you, but you ARE intimately connected to the general tolerability of your crowd.

If you and the people who follow you are a liability, then there are plenty of other acts that aren’t. They’ll get the nod.

(On the other side, though, being clear that you want your following to respect the venue goes a long way towards venue staff being more tolerant of shenanigans.)

Fail To Honor The Payout

If the room pays you what was agreed, in good faith, and you still get bent out of shape about it, then the booker might just think twice about doing battle with you again.

This applies at all levels.

I once had a touring act come through a venue, and they didn’t draw very well. The deal was that they would get 60% of the door, and the house would get 40%. (The venue didn’t sell drinks or anything else, so the only money for us was the door.) By “didn’t draw very well,” what I mean is that the house cut for the night was $4. (Yikes!)

After loadout, without a word, the band grabbed the entire stash of door money and bailed.

It wasn’t about the amount. I could live without having the $4. The problem was that we had made a deal, the band had suddenly decided it wasn’t good enough, and they took money that wasn’t theirs. I know they needed gas money. If they had asked, I’m pretty sure that I would have “recut” the deal to 100% and wished them well.

Instead, they didn’t honor their end of the agreement, and they stole money from me. Do you think I responded to their “booking manager’s” e-mails after that?

Look, it’s perfectly okay to wish you had made more money on a night. It’s even okay to say it. This isn’t about being happy when you aren’t. The key thing is, though, that acting like the venue screwed you over when YOU AGREED to the terms of the settlement is…well, unfair, unprofessional, and unlikely to endear you to the folks who work at the room. You want to negotiate? Go for it! Just do it at the right time, which is before you agree to appear.

Leave An Unwarranted Mess

So, your drummer got a little excited, and left a pile of wood shavings under the kit? It’s cool! We have a vacuum.

You accidentally spilled your drink when you were changing guitars? Stuff happens!

You threw food at each other, spat a fountain of beer over everything “because rock and roll, Dude,” left bottles and string-package wrappers everywhere, tossed your used band-aid or finger wraps on the floor (EWWWW!), and just generally treated my stage like a trash bin?

Here’s a hint: I am either going to refrain from booking you myself, or urge the booking manager to have you back as infrequently as possible.

Act Like The Venue Owes You Its Profit Center

If you walked into the room, and the venue staff immediately started rummaging around in your merch bins for free stuff, you would be irritated, right?

Yes, you would. It would be different if you were thrilled with us, and wanted all of us to have a free shirt in gratitude – but us costing your band money because “we should just get what we want” wouldn’t be something you’d appreciate.

So, if you’re playing at a place that makes money by serving food and drinks, why do you think it should be automatically free?

Now…I get it. Back in the day, it became a bit of a tradition that the band was fed and watered (or beered and liquored) on the venue’s tab. It was part of the compensation package, because the room would make it all back anyway.

Like I said further up the page – it’s not 1975 anymore, folks.

Those days are gone, unless you have proven yourself to be a huge draw at a particular room. If your show isn’t going to bring outsized profit to the venue, then no, the venue isn’t obligated to subsidize your meals and beverages. If you want to fight about it, do so when you’re negotiating the gig’s compensation. If you didn’t get food and drink explicitly included in your gig agreement, then trying to pressure the venue into it “the day of” is inappropriate.

Being inappropriate makes you less bookable.

Eat, Drink, Or “Guestlist” All Your Profits, Then Complain About It

You: “Oh man, we let a ton of people in for free, and we ran a huge tab. We barely made any money on this gig. Your venue should have a better payout and treat artists better.”

Me: “Maybe you should drink less, and not let all your friends in for nothing.”

Say That It’s Not About The Money, Then Be All About The Money

If you can’t be consistent about what you want to get out of playing, then I will eventually begin to desire that your inconsistency be inflicted on someone else. This connects with failing to honor the payout, and complaining that the venue didn’t do its part (when the venue DID do its part).

If you go through this whole spiel about how music is a spiritual thing for you, and you just want to play, and everything is too commercial anymore…and then later grumble about how venues are greedy, and don’t support musicians, and how “stuff costs money,” then I would just rather not be subjected to it all.

I’m fine with you thinking that money is worthless in music, as long as you’re willing to apply that thinking in a way that’s predictable. Trying to manipulate your way into more money after everything has basically been said and done is seriously unpleasant.

I don’t like being manipulated, so if you try it on me, I’ll be happier when you aren’t around, thanks.

Be Too Drunk Or Too High To Play Properly

Wrecking your own show is never a good idea. (Duh.) It’s also bad for the venue, because it chases away the people who, you know, pay money to see you. If you want music to be your full-time job, then please act like you actually care about doing a good job. That means being in a mental and physical state where you can actually play properly.

…and don’t hand me a bunch of fluff about how “Janis and Jim Morrison and those guys did it.” I don’t mean to be mean, but if you aren’t drawing thousands to arenas then you definitely are NOT in the same class as Janis and Jim and Hendrix and Bonham and [insert classic act here].

At an utterly selfish level, I can tell you that one of the worst feelings I get as a tech is being embarrassed for people. In some cases, I have become physically uncomfortable at how badly a musician has sabotaged themselves. I don’t think – and I’m pretty sure audiences don’t think – it’s “cute” or “rock” when a musician can’t even play their own songs.

Also, when you’re toasted/ baked/ cooked/ whatever, your personality tends to change. That change is rarely a pleasant one. I don’t always get to pick and choose who I work with, but when I do have the choice, I work with pleasant, professional people who don’t undergo frightening mood swings.

Play Too Loudly For The Room, Or Each Other

It’s a little ironic that I left this for last, but here’s the thing:

You can get everything else in this article to be spot on, and then wreck it all by being too freakin’ loud.

I’d have a nice stash of mad-money if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “They were great guys, and really decent players, but they are just too loud for this room.” Too much volume is INCREDIBLY powerful as a factor in whether or not you get asked back, and it’s very rare that I’m successfully able to tame a “too loud” situation in real time. The fact is that what you’re used to doing on stage and in rehearsal is what you’ll always tend to do, so please:

Practice the snot out of being tolerable in very small rooms, and if you can’t hear someone in rehearsal, fix the problem in rehearsal.

Otherwise, you’re very likely to be a pain in the neck, and pains in the neck don’t get rebooked very much.

The Fix

So – there’s a lot up there. What can you do?

Simple:

Be courteous, kind, and professional. Make agreements and honor them. That might seem tough, but it’s actually a lot less work than the alternatives.

Ari Herstand recently wrote a “matched pair” of articles about audio humans. You know – sound guys. Noise boys. Audio craftspersons. FOH engineers. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle over it all, some of it being fueled by musicians who have had terrible experiences with “aerial vibration management technicians.” (Sound guys.)

Now, a lot of my articles put the onus on musicians. I don’t think I’ve been unfair when I’ve done that. At the same time, though, audio humans bear their fair share of responsibilities – and when they fail to uphold their part of the bargain, extremely frustrating situations can develop, and morph, and snowball into a cluster[censored] of epic proportions.

But…beyond the fact that craptastic and infuriating sound dudes/ dudettes do exist, a question remains. What causes certain audio humans to be so painful to work with? I believe that, in many cases, you can trace the issue back to a fundamental, “negative” force, which is:

Lack Of Knowledge

Now, sure, there are some highly knowledgeable audio techs who are jerks. There are highly-experienced and entirely competent people who are the very picture of “a control freak.” However, I’ve found that many bad behaviors are initiated and intensified by having insufficient understanding of a situation that you’re a major player in. There is also, of course, flat-out incompetence…which can actually happen alongside a great attitude.

To talk about this more in-depth, let’s take a look at some of the points made in Ari Herstand’s piece that addresses audio humans directly.

The first heading, “Not All Of Us [Musicians] Suck,” addresses the issue of the sound guy who – from the first moment – is clearly uninterested in working with you. My feeling is that these situations are driven by techs who only want to work with their favorite kind of music, or their favorite kind of people. On the surface, this is about preferences – but I would suggest that the root is “lack of knowledge.”

There are plenty of audio craftspeople out there who are “button pushers.” That is, they’ve learned an explicit procedure for getting workable results, but don’t truly understand why that procedure exists. I would venture to say that most techs spend some non-trivial amount of time in that phase – I know that I certainly did. The problem with being a button pusher is that, when confronted with something that’s unfamiliar, you aren’t well suited to adapt to it. The narrower an audio human’s experience is, the less they will be able to work competently on your show – and this can make the tech feel threatened. Threatened people are often unpleasant, and so if your genre is unfamiliar to the sound guy, or even if it’s just you as a person that’s unfamiliar, you may get the cold-shoulder as a result.

This also carries over into Ari’s second point, which gets neatly wrapped up in one sentence: “You may know how to run a 5 piece rock band, but I have more experience with my gear and my show. Why not put your ego aside for a second and work WITH me?”

Again, the issue is lack of knowledge. The engineer has the procedure for “making a full band work” down to a science, even to the troubleshooting of any problems. Even so, there isn’t enough understanding of the general, fundamental underpinnings of the craft to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.

Lack of knowledge is also why some techs absolutely lose their minds when you move a mic, or your instrument, or want to substitute your own mic, or use your own DI, or sing at the “wrong” distance from the mic.

(Please do sing closely enough that your monitor-mix desires and hopes for the sound out front are in accord with the laws of physics, but beyond that…)

Anyhow.

These folks go bonkers when you change things because they only know how to make things work when the setup is PRECISELY in accord with their experience. Their comfort zone is tiny, because their understanding of their craft is restricted. Mess with their comfort zone – especially when their self-worth rides on their results – and BOOM! You end up with a very pissed-off technician.

Why Is There So Much Lack Of Knowledge?

I could go on, and on, and on, and on with the examples in the previous section, but I think that what’s more helpful is to talk about why you are so likely to encounter audio humans that suffer from “lack of knowledge.”

1) All audio techs have to learn their craft.

There’s not a single audio human who knows everything about live-sound from the moment they’re born. Learning the discipline takes years, and that’s often just for the functional part. The fundamental principles behind everything – the math, the science, and getting a feel for how those fundamentals express themselves in practical reality – can take even longer. In my own case, I’ve been doing something with audio for just short of 20 years…and I can’t say that I was really comfortable with the craft until I was about 15 years in. I didn’t actually become internally confident (consistently, anyway) until I had 17 or 18 years under my belt. I still have a “breakthrough” every now and again.

I wish I was smarter.

Anyway, getting to be competent at real-time audio takes a while.

2) Not all audio techs really want to learn the craft.

Coupled with the first point is that not everybody is fascinated by live-audio to the same degree. Some folks are happy to learn just enough to be able to work in a few specific situations. At that point, they’re done, they’re fine with it, and they may even be highly confident – especially if their experience has been limited enough to fuel that confidence. If that confidence becomes challenged, however, they may suddenly turn into a very unpleasant sort of creature (as described earlier).

3) Misinformation is everywhere.

The world of audio is rife with mythology, and even outright falsehood that becomes accepted as fact. This is driven by how incredibly deep the craft is. There is a massive amount of science that underlies the working of any given piece of live-sound, and it’s entirely possible to reach a conclusion about “x causes y” that seems consistent and correct…and is UTTERLY FALSE. This misinformation can be believed and propagated by even very competent and respected audio humans.

For instance, I was taught by a live-audio instructor who was clearly a knowledgeable guy. He knew how and why things were done, as far as I could tell. He was also convinced that “clipping destroys speakers because the signal contains DC, and the DC stops the speaker from cooling itself via movement.” When he said that, I believed him.

He was COMPLETELY incorrect – but he was still a good sound guy, and an instructor that I learned a lot of correct things from. (For the record, clipping does NOT destroy speakers, and most power amplifiers probably won’t pass DC at their outputs anyway. That’s not the point of this article, though.)

4) Techs are often hired by people who know less than they do.

When an audio human goes to work for a sound company, especially when the founder is still in charge, they’re probably going to be mentored. They’re probably going to grow in their knowledge. They’re probably going to become a better, more flexible craftsperson, and it’s because their boss is better at live-sound than they are.

However, there are plenty of other situations where audio humans are employed by definitely-not-audio-people. The tech gets hired because they can consistently make sound come out of the PA, and nobody else in the building may even know where to start. There are some techs who aren’t even people that are dedicated to live-sound. It’s just that they know enough about hooking up A/V gear to make things work, and that’s it.

5) Really good techs are expensive.

The real, honest-to-goodness top talents in live-sound are very spendy to hire. Some audio-humans charge a “per day” rate that’s a multiple of what a small venue can expect to gross in a night…perhaps even by an order of magnitude. As a result, there are a lot of venues that have to settle for what they can get on a small budget. People with the experience and maturity of, say, Dave Rat, are unlikely to be found at “some bar.” It’s just economics.

Heck, even average techs are expensive. The club I work for pays me more than they can really afford, because they believe in doing the best they possibly can for musicians. People seem to enjoy working with me, but I’m not exactly a guy who could mix FOH for a stadium act, or do realtime, rock-and-roll monitors in Vegas.

6) You wouldn’t believe what floats to the top.

Up there, I said “the real, honest-to-goodness top talents.” This was to distinguish from the folks who are working above their level of actual experience. There are plenty of stories out there of people mixing big acts in big rooms, but who aren’t really “Varsity Level” craftspersons. Politics and “right place at the right time” play a huge role in this business, and it’s not just for the musicians. If getting promoted past your level of competence can happen at the high levels, just imagine what can happen in bar-and-club land.

Anyway – this article could go on for days, but I think I’ve hit the major points. Obviously, the problem of the “sucky sound dude” can’t be fixed by simply talking about the causes. Still, I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of why things are the way they are. If you’re a musician, you can be more prepared to recognize the signs of an impending problem. If you’re an audio human, you can take a good look at yourself…and try not to suck.

No, this isn’t going to be some cheesy-as-all-get-out “hold onto your dreams” article. We’ve all heard that a squillion times, and it’s not particularly helpful. (It IS actually relevant, but as practical advice it has limited value.) What we’re going to talk about instead are the “not quite as obvious” lessons that can be learned from Ms. Swift’s career – and, indeed, from the careers of other stadium-filling acts.

There are a lot of folks who don’t want to learn these lessons, and it’s understandable as to why. It’s much easier to believe in comfortable, but false mythology about the music business than to have the anvil of truth dropped on your head. Ultimately, though, putting one’s hope in a false myth is not a good career move.

I’ll also mention that my experience has told me that, yes, there are true myths…but that’s for an article about philosophy and not the music industry.

Anyway.

Luck IS A Factor

What I’ve read suggests that, contrary to the opinions of folks suffering from “sour grapes” or “it’s all just a bunch of A&R-spun crap,” Taylor Swift worked LIKE MAD to get where she is. She’d sing at Karaoke contests to get opening spots for bigger acts, and when she would lose, she would just keep going back until she won.

She wrote songs, appeared wherever she could, and worked with artist-dev folks.

And she kept grinding at it all, relentlessly.

Here’s the thing, though: She was lucky.

She was lucky that she was being “eaten alive” by the ambition to perform. She was lucky that her parents were willing to support that ambition. She was lucky that her parents had the resources to help her along. She was lucky that she met the right people. She was lucky that her luck changed at EXACTLY the right time for her to be a key player in the “country-pop-rock” crossover that burst into full-bloom. She was lucky that teenage girls actually listen to the country genre, and she was lucky that her songs ended up resonating with them.

Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky…

Taylor Swift’s hard work doesn’t invalidate her luck. Her luck doesn’t invalidate her hard work. They’re inextricably intertwined for her, and luck-and-work are inextricably intertwined for you, me, and all the rest of us.

Hard work and tenaciousness are the tools necessary to help you be “in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, playing the right material, to the right crowd,” but with anything that involves the tastes and opinions of humans, luck will always be a significant factor.

And, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, that’s enough to raise the head of the kid who just bought a guitar, and humble the gaze of a performer as massively successful as Taylor Swift.

Virtuosity Isn’t The Point

I once read a forum post by a fellow audio-human (a much more successful and well known audio-human than myself) that was in reference to Ms. Swift. It went like this: “The guitar is just for show. So is she.”

My internal reaction to that line was, “HAHAHHAHAHAHA that’s was a pretty good burn, yeah…holy CRAP you’re a JERK.”

What brought me around to disliking the zinger was my complete exhaustion with people who label successful acts that they don’t like as “talentless, manufactured crap.” They may actually be manufactured. They may be carefully presented. They may have a media team that tries to sanitize everything. Their shows may be “everything on rails so that it’s all perfect at all times” affairs. You may not like any of that.

But if it didn’t require a certain kind of talent to be a functional part of all that, then everybody would do it.

Taylor Swift isn’t Steve Vai. Or George Lynch. Or Joe Satriani. Or Slash. Or Yngwie Malmsteen. Or Eric Johnson. Or Herman and Sam from Dragonforce.

And it doesn’t matter one tiny little bit, because being a mind-numbingly brilliant instrumentalist isn’t what she’s all about. Heck, being a socks-explodingly masterful vocalist isn’t even what it’s all about.

What she’s all about is writing material (and putting on a show) that resonates with tens of thousands of screaming fans. She plays guitar well enough to write her songs, do the occasional “one woman and one guitar” section at shows, and get her ideas across to an arranger. She has good enough vocal power and intonation to make records and keep live audiences hooked. That’s plenty – and she is REALLY good at fitting into her place with it.

So, yeah, you may be a much better instrumentalist than Ms. Swift. You might even be a better singer in terms of range and tonality. That’s great, but if it doesn’t bring people out to your shows and help you sell merch…who cares? Nobody gives a rat’s dirty buttocks how brilliant you are at weird chord voicings if the songs aren’t fun for them. There isn’t some invisible group of “music adjudicators” who award success points based on how much time you’ve spent practicing. If you think that knowing everything there is to know about instrumental execution and music theory automatically grants you an audience, then you are probably going to be unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong, though!

If you love your instrument to death, and want to become a master at it, YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. Practice 18 hours a day if you want to. That’s fantastic, and I applaud it – but please realize that becoming a virtuoso is primarily a thing that you are doing for yourself. Being technically skilled at music is really good for you, because it means that you have more flexibility to take part in a wider range of projects. (Being involved in a wider range of projects helps you have more luck, by the way.) Skillful execution, by itself, rarely brings show attendees out in force, though. If you have to pick and choose the skills to cultivate, then put entertainment and engagement above technical ability. If you want to play to niche audiences that are interested in technical mastery of your instrument, and you can find those audiences, then great. If you want to play to huge crowds that just want to have fun and don’t care if the playing is transcendent, then your focus should be somewhere else.

Taylor Swift is proof that a professional performer has to play well enough to put on a show in the context that works for their audience…and that’s it. Anything beyond that is a nice extra, but not strictly required.

Marketing Is For The Audience You Already Have

When Ms. Swift (or her media team) Tweet, or Facebook, or put something on her website, or buy a traditional-media ad, or write a press release, it gets a big response. People talk about it. People share it. Ticket sales are driven up.

And it’s not really because these folks know marketing strategies that you don’t. Sure, they know how to be tactful, effective, and exciting when breaking a bit of news, but that probably only accounts for about 5% of their success. The other 95% is that a whole bunch of people are actually listening to them, ravenous to hear what they have to say.

That’s who marketing is for: The people that you either know are listening to you, or who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you. Marketing is NOT for people who aren’t interested. It doesn’t conjure fans out of thin air.

“Now, hold on!” You might be saying. “Taylor Swift got millions of fans from marketing and radio play. You’ve got it all wrong, Danny.” Fair point – but let’s dig a little deeper. Maybe those droves of screaming, teenage girls weren’t specifically fans of Taylor Swift before the marketing and radio play…

…but they were ready to be. As such, they fall under the “who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you” bit from up there. I’m not an insider, so I don’t know the precise story, but here’s how it looked from the outside: Ms. Swift, and the folks who believed in her, got her songs on country radio. Their pitch was probably something like: “Taylor sings these songs about country themes in a country style, and she’s young, so she’ll speak to those teenage listeners that you want to keep listening to your station.” Yes, this is marketing, and yes, these folks were speaking to people that they figured were ready to listen – the radio programming directors.

Not the general public! The actual audience that mattered at that exact moment.

Some number of those programming directors gave Taylor a shot, and everybody discovered something: There were indeed a lot of young girls that listened to country radio, and they were indeed just aching for someone their age to sing songs that they could relate to. (Remember that “luck” thing I talked about? This is an example.) Someone also realized that there was a lot of “pop” crossover potential in Ms. Swift’s tunes, and so they remixed some of the songs for that market. Taylor Swift was the right thing, at the right time, for those audiences.

Blammo! A huge star was born. People wanted to hear more, and they wanted to know more, and be in the loop, and not miss anything. If there was some mention of Taylor Swift in their local paper, they were ready to devour it. If there was something new on her website, they would look for it. They followed Taylor on Twitter. They “liked” her Facebook page. When Taylor Swift’s marketing team talks about a new release, or a huge concert event, they talk to these people. That’s who the message is for, and that’s what the message is for: To get the word out to the people who are listening. The people who are listening then spread the word, which creates more listeners.

And of course the marketing team uses traditional media. Taylor Swift has mass appeal, so traditional media campaigns make sense. That’s what traditional media is for – to send a message that appeals to a very large audience. “Old-media” campaigns help to cover all the bases, and they’re worthwhile…because Ms. Swift’s marketing team can be very sure that a good number of those consumers are listening to them.

The takeaway from all this is that your marketing efforts are best spent on the people you’re already connected to. I run into so many folks that erroneously believe in the idea that just “making more noise” is the key to marketing themselves. They think that marketing is about magically turning people who don’t and won’t care into people who do. It isn’t. It’s about drawing in the people who you already know, and helping them experience so much enjoyment that they can’t help but to spread the word. It’s about identifying who’s listening, and who’s ready to listen, and playing to them – literally and metaphorically.

So, you might not listen to Taylor Swift. You might not even like Taylor Swift. But you can learn a lot about how this business works by thinking critically about what fuels her career.

We’ve all heard it: “The band is currently in the studio, working on their next full-length album. It’s slated to be released…”

For those of us who grew up in the era of dominant physical media (CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and all that), this phraseology was common and expected. Your favorite band would go to work on a project, withdrawing into the mysterious confines known as “the studio.” All you’d have to remember them by were the recordings already available to you.

Months, or even years later, the band would emerge again, their new record held aloft like a trophy. “Here it is!” they would proclaim, and then they would start touring to support the release. It was one of the defining “rockstar moves” of that time, and it remains imprinted on musician psychology to this day.

The problem is that I have this nagging feeling about it not being the best idea these days. In my opinion, it wasn’t the best idea back in those days – it’s just that it was necessitated by circumstance.

How I See The History

As far as my experience goes, I feel that recording and releasing music was a much bigger “to do” in the days when physical media was king. That doesn’t mean it was more significant than it is now, just that it was more logistically challenging. Even when recording equipment underwent a precipitous price-drop, and we had “The Triumph Of The Amateurs,” actually releasing a recording involved a lot of logistics.

Even if you were going to self-release, you still had to get a gaggle of copies manufactured, packaged, and shipped somewhere. If you were a major artist, and wanted to reach a huge audience, you had to get a TON of copies made, assembled, and shipped to a lot of different destinations.

Getting a bunch of duplicates made was decidedly non-trivial, and recording time was both expensive and demanding of a lot of coordination. When this is the case, there is a very strong incentive to go through all that hassle as few times as possible. Thus, the tendency is to go and do all the recording at once, record as much material as is practical, and release it all in one package.

Now – this isn’t to say that “concept albums” aren’t an entity in themselves – an entity that can require a certain workflow for certain approaches. It’s also not to say that people didn’t release one-offs and hit singles. Obviously, they did.

Even so, I’m convinced that the phenomenon of disappearing into the studio was heavily driven by essentially non-musical concerns. The problem is that many of us came to believe that this peculiar sort of hibernation was THE way to handle recording. We erroneously correlated the form of the process with the success of the outcome – we got the notion that doing things that way was the right way, because that’s how the big artists did it.

…and just like the mistaken belief that utilizing stadium volume makes you stadium worthy, I think that adhering to this practice isn’t necessarily helpful.

Off The Radar And Repackaged

I don’t want to give the impression that disappearing into the studio to work on a big project is universally harmful. I DO want to say that I think it can be detrimental to bands trying to connect with a modern audience, often unnecessary, and excessively stressful. Again, sometimes its appropriate to carve out a big block of time to work on a single effort “all in one go.” However, I want to challenge the idea that the classic approach is THE way to get a release built.

The way I see it, the world is becoming more and more “real time.” That is to say, the consumption of information and media is very much a process of experiencing smallish “packets” of content in a near-continuous stream, rather than digging into large, monolithic releases.

Obviously, there are exceptions. The whole Netflix-binge thing, where multiple seasons of a show are devoured over a few days, is a counterexample. Still, these exceptions tend to be rare. Listening to an entire, packaged release of songs (an album) is much less common than it used to be. People tend to build their own packages (playlists, that is) out of individual songs from a number of artists. Technology has made this basically trivial.

This phenomenon of “consumer repackaging” means that putting enormous effort into a monolithic release can be a bit of a waste. If you’re not working on a concept album, and you can do most of the recording work yourself, there’s simply no logistical need to structure a project for release as a big batch. People will probably just break up that batch anyway.

Also, the “real time” experience that people have embraced means that disappearing into the studio can cause you to drop out of people’s consciousness – even if only partially. If a lot of your attention comes from live shows, for instance, then taking a hiatus from the stage in order to craft a bunch of studio material is actually counterproductive for you.

A Suggestion

With media consumption going the way it has, I simply don’t see any particular advantage in musicians locking themselves away for an album project, unless the project’s artistic aims specifically demand it. I do, however, see a number of advantages in recording and releasing songs incrementally:

  • The experience is far more “real time.” As you finish a song, you can release it immediately and have it start generating interest immediately. On your end, there’s less of a wait for the “payoffs” associated with having a release “out in the water,” and for your fans, there’s less of a wait for new material.
  • Because the experience is more “real time,” you don’t drop off of people’s radars. Instead, you stay firmly in their consciousness – even more so if you keep to a regular release schedule.
  • The experience as a whole is far less “do or die” for you. Incremental releases mean that, as a band or artist, you don’t have all your eggs in the basket of a single project. The whole thing doesn’t have to be perfected as a complete package, with all the stress that entails. You just have to get each bit to an acceptable place, and then you can see what’s received well and what isn’t.
  • You can progressively build up to an EP release, and then a full-length release. Releasing each song individually doesn’t prevent you from packaging them later. In fact, doing so later on means you may have an opportunity to capitalize on the attention you’ve been getting from the individual releases. Because you’ve stayed visible, you’ve preserved your momentum with your fans, and this momentum can help propel the packaged version of your songs. (Just remember to make the album memorable in itself. For example, you could hold one or two songs back until the album release, which then provides an incentive to buy the whole product.

No, the concept album isn’t dead – but technology is at a point where the necessity of approaching every recording project as being similar to a concept album is pretty much gone. You may as well find a way to leverage the advantages of this.