Saturday, January 31, 2009

Themes and schemes

Cinder Bridge music fits comfortably within a certain genre, which radio stations have saddled with the unfortunate name "adult album alternative." Think Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, Badly Drawn Boy, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dave Matthews band ... basically pop with intelligence. If you like those guys, you have a shot at liking us.

But we're still having trouble finding our audience. I touched on part of the reason in my last post. If our potential fans tend to like the kind of music described above, they can find it on the radio. They don't need to scour the Internet for bands like us.

Here's the other problem: People who groove on adult album alternative don't form a distinct subculture. (If they did, AAA would have a less dorky name.) There's no one place you can go to find them, either online or in real life. They listen to the same radio stations, but since we're not on the radio, that doesn't help us.

I hadn't given this problem much thought of late, largely because I've been buried in work. So I suppose it's fitting that an idea finally came to me through a work project -- designing a self-help book for people facing momentous life change.

Some backstory: I spent the better part of my twenties in graduate school, where I alternated between wondering if this was really what I wanted to do with my life and trying not to think about it. Though I extracted myself from school before I stumbled into songwriting, the issues I'd struggled with inspired a lot of my songs. Much of my earlier work centers on dealing with change and facing some kind of major life decision or another. As I kept writing, I got it into my head that I wanted to make an album in which this choices-at-the-crossroads theme ran through the entire thing.

A few years later, through an incredible combination of luck and goodwill, the album that had only existed in my head went into preproduction. Our producer had reservations about basing our choice of tracks on a theme. He thought it might be too limiting. But like I said, there were a LOT of these songs to choose from, so we managed to pull it off.

I always hoped that people who'd gone through the same kinds of things I had would listen to our album and love it. Sadly, I had no idea how to find them.

And I still don't know. But it occurred to me that if my self-help author can focus on life change and build a successful practice that way, they're definitely out there. And maybe our music will help them feel like they're not alone.

So I've done one thing. I've changed our album description on CD Baby.

It reads a little too much like a book blurb for my comfort -- not surprising since I write a bunch of those for the day job. Still, it's a start. Maybe we don't know where our audience is, but hopefully this will strike a chord with them if they find us.

Whaddaya think? Might this intrigue potential fans? Or will it make them point and laugh?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The limits of mass appeal

A few years ago, when we were laying down tracks for Highways and Hiking Shoes, producer Drew Raison made the following comment:

"Your music appeals to both men and women, and to people of all ages."

He intended it as a compliment, and I took it as such. It meant a lot coming from someone who'd worked with as many talented people as he had. But a big part of me was thinking, uh oh.

See, if you're lucky enough to have the backing of a major label, and you're also lucky enough to be one of the few bands the label is focusing on, then mass appeal is great. They get you on the radio, lots of people like you, and those people buy your stuff. Happiness. If, on the other hand, you're a total unknown with no hope of conventional radio play, mass appeal gets you nowhere. Why? Because people who are into mainstream music don't need you. They can easily satisfy their listening fix by tuning into FM.

If you're working the long tail of music, you want to have a niche. The narrower the better. Your fan base will be easier to find ... and quite a bit more fanatical.

Put it this way. If you made everyone in the English-speaking world listen to a song by Cinder Bridge, and then made them listen to some song in the wizard rock genre, my guess is that more people would be into Cinder Bridge. But I promise you, Draco and the Malfoys have way, way more fans than we do right now.

The way I see it, either Cinder Bridge goes in a completely new direction and stakes out a teeny tiny niche, or we find a way to sell what we're already doing. We already know it isn't going to be the former. While it's great to experiment and evolve as we go, we're not about to change everything up for the sole purpose of marketing.

So how do we promote what we're already doing?

More thoughts in a future post.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In touch, out of touch

I signed up for XM satellite radio back in 2004. Feeling malnourished by FM, I wanted to expand my musical horizons a bit. So far it's worked out nicely. With around 100 stations devoted to music, XM (or Sirius XM as of the big merger) digs a lot deeper into each genre than your average Clear Channel station could ever dream of digging.

So tonight I wandered into Zia Records to look for a folky pop artist named Peter Mulvey. I'd heard him once or twice on XM, and then listened to more of his stuff on Internet radio station That was enough to make me decide he was worth spending actual money on.

No go. Peter Mulvey wasn't in the stacks. I asked about it and discovered they don't carry this artist. Guy behind the counter hadn't even heard of him.

Turns out that as my musical horizons have expanded, my cultural knowledge has shrunk. Until I failed to find Mr. Mulvey in the Ms, it didn't even occur to me that he might not be in inventory. I have no idea what's getting conventional radio play these days.

Too bad. Half the fun of discovering indie artists is feeling all superior for knowing about them before anybody else.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The snarky muse

There's a great little piece up by WritingHannah about the ever-present voice of self-doubt. She calls hers Ethel.
My latest youtube video ... contained a favorite quote of mine which expressly states that "the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

But that's not entirely true. Because once you're sitting down Ethel is just raring to sink her teeth into all of your ideas... they are either half-baked or derivative. Do you know what people will think when they see what you're doing? Your idea is a dead-end which you're never going to finish, and even if you did it would be offensively uninteresting. People are going to yawn or laugh at you. The Daily Show is on! You need a drink. You need a snack. You are a socially awkward pathetic excuse for a (fill-in-the-blank) and nobody likes you. Nobody.

You should read the whole essay yourself, because it's hilarious, but the main thrust of it is, everybody has these nagging doubts, and you shouldn't let yours stop you from doing whatever you want to do.

Reflecting on her reflections, it occurred to me that I probably wouldn't want to get rid of my personal Ethel. Does she get in the way sometimes? Yes. Does she slow down the creative process? Absolutely. But let's face it: all that angst is also the source of some of my best material. If I didn't have anything I needed to work out or work through, I probably wouldn't have started writing songs in the first place.

The best example of this occurred around seven years ago at an open mic. I had come to listen, not to play. Though I had nine songs to my name at this point and wanted to try performing them, I couldn't sing to save my life. Kind of frustrating. Anyway, a woman named Wendy Adams took the stage and immediately had my full attention. Her unique, powerful voice blew me away. I couldn't figure out why she was in this coffeehouse and not a ten thousand-seat arena.

If I got myself some voice lessons, I pondered wistfully, and if I practiced really really hard, all the time, could I ever learn to sing like that?

Well, said the dry and somewhat snarky voice within, you don't play concertos on a honky-tonk piano.

Hey, I thought, that's pretty good. Concertos on a honky-tonk piano. Hee. Yeah! I have to write this down!

"Honky-Tonk Piano" became song #10:
You never get down so low as when you reach for the sky
'cause it always seems you come up empty-handed
And every time you think you're gonna spread your wings and fly
Before you've even left the safety of the ground, you've already landed

Say your affirmations and you've got yourself a plan, oh
But you cannot play concertos on a honky-tonk piano

You take your inspiration where you can get it, and if self-doubt insists on dogging you, it might as well make itself useful.

P.S. Wendy eventually became my first vocal coach. I still don't sing as well as she does, but I do OK.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Will play for food

Aside from colder weather necessitating heat lamps and additional outerwear, last night's benefit went very well. We played first, which meant a smaller audience, but the people who were there seemed to like us. One of them bought our CD.

The last time I wrote about it, Ron and I didn't know exactly what the benefit was supposed to benefit. Turns out the money goes toward an Inaugural Ball held on (surprise) January 20. The ball will be free to anyone who brings canned goods for the Community Food Bank.

So, hopefully our efforts will help feed people in the near future. That's a pretty good reason to go out and play for people. Not that we need a reason.

Perks of musicianhood

A few weeks ago at Tucson's semiannual 4th Avenue Street Fair, I happened on an artsy patchwork denim jacket for sale. Price: $150.

The following internal dialogue ensued:
Me: I want it.

Me too: It's too expensive.

Me: So? It's an original design. By an artist. It's like ... art, or something. The price is totally justified.

Me too: It's still too expensive. I'm not the kind of person who blows lots of money on clothes.

Me: Jackets are supposed to cost a lot of money.

Me too: That's heavy winter coats, not light jackets.

Me: I want it.

Me too: I don't need it.

Me: I can bring it to outdoor gigs. I get cold really easily. When the temperature dips below 70, I can wear this instead of a dorky coat.

Me too: Okay.

Fast-forward to last night's gig, a benefit featuring a bunch of bands. To the surprise of all the performers, despite the rapidly dropping temperature, they had us play outside.

Being a bit of a geek, I'm not the best judge of whether I really looked cool in that artsy patchwork denim jacket. But I'm pretty sure it was an improvement over any of my other built-for-functionality coats.

Rationalization vindicated. Being a performing musician is awesome.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hello, 2009

Happy new year! Woooooo! *fweeeeee*

I can't believe it's already 2009. The last year of this decade. And you know what that means ...

It means we only have 365 days left to think of an unstupid name for this decade before it's over.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be reminiscing about "the zeroes" forty years from now.

Anyway. Congratulations to everyone out there who survived 2008. Here's to love, hope, endurance, and great music for 2009.