Tag Archives: rock shop

Take Five: Rock Shop #9 – Design Shop

On Nov. 22, the ninth installment of Rock Shop took place at the Middle East Downstairs. This time, the focus was design – web design, graphic design, style, you name it. Design is not one of my strong suits, so I was interested to hear from a designer’s perspective what a client – in this case, a band, though the feedback was broadly applicable – should keep in mind when thinking about their visual branding.

The panelists — many of whom said they got into design by taking on such responsibilities for their own bands back in the day — included:

Aaron Belyea (Alphabet Arm)
Gary Hedrick (ElefhantWorks)
Liz Linder (Liz Linder Photography)
Marc Beaupre (Beagle Printing)
Marcus Ohanesian (Perfect Evolution)

As always, Rock Shop organizer Steve Theo of Pirate! moderated the discussion, which covered the following points:

Preparation: Ohanesian emphasized that the top thing they would advice a client to do to prepare for hiring a designer is to think about the project, not just how much it’s going to cost (that can be affected by variables ranging from content management to complex Flash programming). As Linder put it, doing it right the first time will get you where you’re going much more quickly — a good design is an investment in your future, so value the process. Ideally, said Ohanesian, the client brainstorms first, then calls a designer and brainstorms with the designer. Belyea echoed this, urging clients to do their homework and come up with a concept to share with the designer. It’s on the designers to balance their expertise with the clients’ desires.

Research: Hedrick likes to get in the client’s head, sometimes by pretend he’s in a band with them, just hanging out. He said he learns more from the first 10 or 15 minutes with a client by talking about completely unrelated topics. Belyea said he often asks bands who they would ideally tour with, to get a sense of where they want to push themselves.

Linder, the photographer on the panel, recommended that clients bring in reference images of things they like, as well as things they hate. The process should ideally arrive at the unique message that the client wants to communicate about itself. And if you don’t know what you want? “Try,” said Linder. “It’s all research.”

With bands, music is important. That is the main way they communicate who they are to the world. So, for designers, it is critical to become acquainted with their clients’ music. Belyea said, “We won’t work on a record until we hear the music.” “Music is key,” added Linder. “It’s why we’re all here.” Immersing in the music is part of building the relationship with the client, and achieving the goal of making the client look good.

Efficiency: They urged clients to look at the designer’s time as  a commodity not to be wasted — clearly communicate up front to the designer what you want and like and why you want and like it, rather than waste hours of time in back-and-forths over e-mail. In addition, Liz suggested that one person in the band should manage and own the design process, since not everyone in the band will agree on visual matters. As Hedrick put it, there are two types of bands: democracies and dictatorships. It is most helpful if the band can work as an organism, in order to get things done smoothly.

Branding: “Your band is your brand,” said Linder. An album is a mini-brand within a brand. With design, she added, you are trying to package brand awareness, since people are used to experiencing things at the brand level. The best clients are the ones who get that. Hedrick brought up a few examples from different points on the brand spectrum: Fishbone and Metallica, with their highly recognizable logos; Jane’s Addicition, which has a new brand with each new release; and Fugazi, which champions the anti-brand. Part of branding is a communicating a “feel” that lets people know that this is your band.

Bands, said Linder, should put as much attention into their visual branding as they put into their music, since you need to make an impact to stand out from the crowd. Linder said that if you have money to spend, spare the “cranes and elephants” in your music video and invest in a solid logo instead. “The masses are asses,” said Beaupre, all the more reason is craft distinctive brand awareness. One interesting example that came up a couple time is how powerful visual branding can bind otherwise temporal, ethereal media. When someone snaps a cameraphone pic of a great opening band, if they look at that pic later and see the band name on the drum kit, they can follow up and download songs, look for the band’s next live date, etc.

Take Five: The New Music Industry

In my grand editorial plan, this post was supposed to be a recap of Rock Shop 7: Meet the Press, where music writers from papers all over town held court with local rockers. Alas, I got whisked into the #140conf world one day earlier than I had anticipated and had to miss it. However, at #140conf, I did get to hear the “Rock Stars in Real-Time” panel, moderated by podsafe musician to the stars Matthew Ebel and featuring digital publicist Ariel Hyatt, TAG Strategic’s Ted Cohen and none other than Amanda Fucking Palmer, the poster child for self-made, net-fueled rock stardom. Here is video I shot of the event (in two parts):

I was heartened to hear back a lot of the same things I’ve been hearing from DJs and music bloggers at the Rock Shop panels I’ve been (intermittently) attending and covering: the old model of stardom is dead and artists need to work hard and tour hard to succeed; musicians need to gain a modicum of marketing savvy and take responsibility for their own success; opening up and breaking down walls can make amazing things happen; be listening so you can take advantage of the golden moment when someone mentions you in order to build a relationship.

One really great point the #140conf panel made was that music is returning to being a service from being a product. Implied in the provision of a service is that the recipient of the service — the fan — is now at the core of the enterprise. To the other points made by the panel, it is incumbent upon musicians to capitalize upon the serendipity of the web to make connections and not just have a fan base, but forge relationships with fan. Yes, the music business, now more than ever before, is about relationships.

And what better way to connect with people than, well, music? I am seeing more and more music released for free (or at a name-your-own-price model, or perhaps a song for the price of an e-mail address) than I know what to do with, from John Vanderslice to John Shade. (And guess what? Having listened to his album, I’m totally going to a John Shade show next week.) My friend Mike’s band, the Daily Pravda, is performing this weekend at the Middle East Upstairs, and you’re going to be able to download their new single at the merch table. Tools like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are making it increasingly easy for bands to make their music social and to take control of distribution and sales. The Sheila Divine are financing a new record themselves via Kickstarter. With his Musicians for Music 2.0 initiative, Well-Rounded Radio’s Charles McEnerney is working to create a mechanism to fund the next generation of these music discovery and taste maker sites/technologies:

In short, it’s a really exciting time for music, I think. It’s a really a big bang, with an entirely new way of doing business taking shape centered around the two most important elements of the equation: fans and music. With that in mind, I can’t overstate how much I am looking forward to Rock Shop 8: All Access Arts. Just the idea that a music-focused event is a part of FutureM‘s week of web marketing events pleases me to no end. But to make it a real laboratory of how music performance and social media can interact to build buzz about a band is exciting and curious. The fact that it poses more questions than it answers makes me psyched to attend.

And there are lots of open questions about how this new dynamic is going to work. Heck, if I’m this curious, and I’m just a fan, the musicians must going nuts trying to figure it all out. But this is the time to keep asking, and keep suggesting answers. Who knows what great ideas are out there? All I know is that there is a lot of great music. Imagine what could happen if the two match up.

Next week: A new digest, full of fun links and commentary. Woohoo!

Take Five Goes to Rock Shop: Local Music Radio Shows

Something you may not know: for three years in college, I was a DJ at WTBU. I graduated from the crappy Sunday 10AM-12PM slot to the Thursday night 10PM-12AM slot over six semesters, spinning new and favorite rock on my show “High Fidelity” (named for the Elvis Costello song and not the book/movie, thank you very much).

After I graduated, the radio bug never quite went away. So in 2006, some friends and I got a radio show on WMFO (since they are open to community DJs) and had a 6AM-8AM show (that’s devotion) called “Makin’ Bacon.” After a few months of that, I branched off and got my own show, “Pop Music’s Hard Work” (named for a fateful utterance by Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons). I eventually had to move on from WMFO– other obligations called — but I am very glad I got to reprise my college radio experience. It made me responsible for staying on top of new music, which was a pleasant responsibility to uphold.

So that’s why I was particularly interested in the most recent Rock Shop, which brought together hosts past and present from local music shows on area stations for an audience of musicians and other interested parties. The participants were:

  • Tim Kelly, WMBR, Hidden Capital
  • Dave Duncan, WFNX, Boston Accents
  • Anngelle Wood, WZLX, Boston Emissions
  • Carmelita, WAAF, Bay State Rock
  • Mark Hamilton, formerly of WZBC and WBCN and host of past iterations of New England Product and Boston Emissions, now in LA
  • Angie C, a ten-year veteran of WFNX, now in LA

Steve Theo of Pirate!, organizer of the Rock Shop series, moderated the discussion, which ranged over the following topics.

  • Sending out your music: The popular opinion was that aspiring musicians should send their music out to everyone at once, college and commercial stations alike. “Go for it all,” said Anngelle, adding that the best thing to include is a simple one-pager of pertinent info rather than a fancy press kit. “It can look really pretty and sound like shit,” she said. And even if one DJ doesn’t like a set of songs, said Mark, they might know someone who would and will pass them along. It’s also preferable to direct a mailing to a specific DJ rather than the music director, since the efficiency with which a MD gets new music on the shelves can vary by station.
  • Format: Bands shouldn’t be afraid of reaching out and asking the DJ what format they prefer to receive music in. Many of them even specify their preferences on their websites. (“If you’re in a band, all the research should be done,” said Carmelita.) Dave says CD is still preferable, but if burning a disc, check to make sure it burned properly before sending it off (he’s received blank discs before). Relatedly: don’t write the song names on the CD (where they can’t be read while it’s inside the CD player), but do write them (and number them) on a case.  And that case should have a spine, for ease of filing, with the artist and album name written legibly along it.
  • Swears: If a song has curse words, you’d best do the following: 1) edit them out 2) flag the tracks with curses or 3) just don’t send along those songs at all, if you’re sending a sampler. The FCC is strict about vulgarity, commercial and college alike. When editing, dropping out the curse is better than beeping. “If you want to meow,” meows work,” said Anngelle. (Note: meowing also came up at the last Rock Shop, courtesy of Ryan Spaulding’s cellphone ring. Eerie coincidence, or hidden Rock Shop theme?)
  • Length of song: As much as we all love a good seven-minute epic, these guys are trying to produce a two-hour show. “We’re hoping to play as much quality music as possible,” says Anngelle. A two-and-a-half minute song stands a better chance of getting played than a five minute song; it’s just the way it is.
  • Follow-ups: Reach out, but don’t be a pest. If a band has a show coming up, giving a week’s notice is cool, even if the songs haven’t been played on the show yet. But a weekly e-mail — especially if you have no news — may be overkill. Dave says news will always be more relevant if a band has been played on the show before. “Be gracious, don’t be an asshole,” says Angie C. “Don’t kiss ass, but don’t throw attitude.” “Reach out and rock someone,” said Mark. If you’ve sent your songs to a DJ, Dave says it’s best to wait until it’s been played at least once before asking your legions of fans to call in with a request. To that point, Anngelle recommends being patient — they receive a ton of music and don’t have time to review everything. “But,” she adds, “if you have a big gig coming up, let us know to look for it.” Anngelle and Carmelita also host the monthly Rock and Roll Social at the Model Cafe in Allston, which is a good opportunity to socialize with DJs and other musicians and learn even more about getting heard.
  • How do certain songs get played? By virtue of time, a band has got to make a quick impact, since the DJs will play what they like. “You’ve got 20 seconds to get my attention,” said Angie C. Bands can try things like flagging recommended cuts (but not ones with swears) or only sending along a three-disc sampler from a full album. Also, Carmelita recommends having a friend who works in some aspect of the music industry give songs a listen and recommend which ones to highlight, since programmers have different ears than musicians and even listeners and may know what will appeal to a DJ. Anngelle added that listenability remains key — if a recording has poor audio quality, no matter how good the track is, it likely won’t make it on the air. Off-key vocals, out-of-time drumming or shoddy mastering can all spell the downfall of what might otherwise be a promising track. “DIY goes so far, but sometimes you need help in the mastering process,” said Anngelle. Plus, if you send along a song in MP3 format, the compression may compromise the quality of the audio. As for live tracks, a band stands a better chance of getting a live version of a song played if they are already an established act, though the DJs seemed to take it on a case-by-case basis.
  • Do the work: The DJs have high expectations for bands seeking to get played on their show. “Just have heart,” said Anngelle. “We’re gonna see that. We’ll give you a chance if it is not totally a mess… Just existing as a band is not enough. You’ve got to do some of the work. To run a band is like running a business.” She urges bands to go see other bands and learn how they do it. Beyond friends and family, other musicians are going to be a band’s first orbit of fans, so geting out there and making connections is key.
  • Being online: It seems like there are a thousand and one digital outposts for musicians nowadays, but Anngelle says bands should do “as much as you know how to manage.” The key, they all emphasized, is making sure your information is up to date. If information is outdated or hard to find, to the DJ’s eyes, “it’s like they don’t care,” said Anngelle. Angie C, who is now a social media consultant, recommended having a hub that ties it all together.
  • Promoting gigs: A weekly playlist is heavily influenced by which bands are playing in town over the next week, so knowing about upcoming gigs is important for these DJs. While the emphasis naturally falls on bands playing the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville circuit, Carmelita says she often highlights bands from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, while Dave says he’s happy to highlight bands playing “Joe’s Clam Shack in Gloucester.”
  • Funneling up: These DJs’ shows are speciality shows at commercial stations, and while the regular programming at stations like WZLX (classic rock) and WAAF (hard rock) may not be appropriate for the latest local indie rock track, there are opportunities. At WFNX, Dave says the music director will sometimes ask him for his three best bands on the show at a given time, and one might get asked to participate in a gig. The Rock and Roll Rumble, once the domain of the now-defunct WBCN (where Boston Emissions used to live) will be back, and that is another great outlet for local bands.
  • How to get your own local show: College radio stations like WZBC (Boston College), WMBR (MIT) and of course WMFO have community memberships. While it’s not a guaranteed walk-on role, you can work your way in and up.
  • How can the music industry become profitable again: “If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t tell you,” joked Mark. Angie made the point that labels are no longer a profitable destination for a band and that if a band is very smart, it can be profitable on its own. “You’d be out of your mind to sign with a major label right now,” said Anngelle. “There is freedom,” said Dave. “You can do it your own way.” “With every door closed, a window opens, and this window is doing what you want with honesty,” said Carmelita. “Music is about sincerity. It’s about doing what you feel. Someone will notice when you do the work on your end and never compromise for the money.”

And these DJs operate in much the same way. Hours upon hours of preparation go into producing their two-hour slices of local music programming, and you can tell it is a labor of love. They are committed to the local music scene and highlighting great Boston music. While the guidelines outlined above may make it easier to sift through the sheer volume of music they receive in order to program a show, they are not cavalier in the decisions they make. They understand that local bands are looking to their shows as a platform to possibly leapfrog them to the next level, and they will often go out of their way to make that can happen. It was heartwarming to be around people who not only love local music so much, but want to see these bands thrive.

There’ s some good stuff on deck for upcoming Rock Shops. The next one Sept. 13 will feature music writers from local papers, while the Oct. 6 Rock Shop is  part of the Future M marketing conference. A college radio-centric Rock Shop is also in the works. Stay tuned.

Take Five Goes to Rock Shop

On June 30, I faced a difficult choice: attend the big Social Media Day celebration down at the swanky Seaport Hotel with all the local Twitterati, or hang out in the dank, dimly lit Middle East Downstairs to drink free beer and talk music blogging.

The choice I made reflects why this post is on Safe Digression and not georgycohen.com.

Jay Breitling (Clicky Clicky), Brad Searles (Bradley’s Almanac) and Ryan Spaulding (Ryan’s Smashing Life) spoke at the fourth event in the Middle East’s Rock Shop series, moderated by Steve Theo. They talked to an audience of bloggers, musicians and promoters about how they run their respective music blogs. As a fellow music blogger (who is hoping to steer this blog increasingly in that direction) and occasional music journalist, it was a really interesting and informative evening spent with some very cool people. What follows are more or less my notes from the evening:

  • Ryan: Blogging is all about building relationships.
  • Jay: If you’re going to send a press release, be sure to be personal. These guys can easily sniff out a masked attempt at a mass e-mail or a message from someone who hasn’t taken five seconds to actually read the blog. And passion stands out above all else.
  • Time is short — two of these guys are dads to little kids, after all — so spare the long prose in your e-mail pitch. Cut to the chase.
  • Jay and Brad are more likely to pursue coverage via pitches they get directly from bands or their own musical exploration, while Ryan and his team factor in pitches from publicists a bit more.
  • Local trumps national.
  • When it comes to readership, it’s quality over quantity. The value of the connections is paramount.
  • In response to a question about Pitchfork’s new music blog collective Altered Zones, Jay remarked, “Pitchfork doesn’t care about you; they care about selling ads.” Ryan agreed, commenting, “Music doesn’t ask anything of you.”
  • Luke “Kip” Owen of Hip2BeSquare asked about how services like Spotify, Mog etc. that some bloggers take advantage of benefit artists. The response was unanimous that apps won’t save a band; touring and t-shirt sales are still the path to profit. Relatedly, Ryan warned against agreeing to “pay-to-play” scenarios. “You should never have to pay to perform your art.” [EDIT: Owen has published a more in-depth post as a follow-up to this question.]
  • A point that Jay reiterated a few times that I really liked: There’s a blog for every band, and a blog for every reader. They just need to find each other. This ties back to Ryan’s opening point about relationships.
  • Someone in the audience asked an interesting question about how to write about a band if you don’t love them, or how to write about something that simply doesn’t interest you. The answers? Be honest when qualifying your opinion about music. Don’t take on coverage that is out of your depth or interest. Don’t feel obligated to write about your friend’s band if you a) don’t like them or b) it’s not your genre; if they’re your friends, they’ll understand.
  • If you’re going to monetize your blog (Ryan and Jay do; Brad does not), don’t compromise your blogging in the process. Brad raised an interesting ethical point: if you’re offering up free and legal downloads from a live show, as he has done in the past, can you in good conscious accept money from ad placements?
  • Labels used to be our filters for new music (“Oh, they’re on Label X? I’ll totally pick that up”) but our new filters are, well, music blogs. [Ed. note: This again comes back to relationships, and ultimately trust.]
  • What not to do when reaching out to a music blog?
    • Don’t be impersonal.
    • Don’t try any tricks to make your pitch seem more personal than it really is (e.g. using “Re:” in the subject line to imply previous correspondence).
    • Don’t have a crappy or contrived promo photo. And while you’re at it, make your assets (downloadable promo shots, cover art, etc.) readily available (or else Jay is going to scan your album cover and an image showing the liner note crease will be all over the internet).
    • Don’t send an e-mail where the only link is to a Myspace site. “If it’s just Myspace, you might as well send me a Friendster link,” said Brad. In that vein, there was some interesting chatter about how Facebook has been slow to adapt fan pages to accommodate bands — audio is buried low on the page, tour dates aren’t visible, etc.
  • The best consumers and supporters of music tend to be other bands, which comprise a large portion of blog readership.
  • What keeps these guys going? Sometimes, just a simple “thank you” note from a reader who got turned onto a new band from reading a post.

The more I explore all corners of web publishing and social media, the more the lessons are the same (have great content, build trust and relationships) and the currency is the same too (passion, relevance, making personal connections). These are the things that make or break you, across the board.

The Rock Shop series is a great resource for the local music community. The next Rock Shop will be a CMJ infosession on July 21. Previous Rock Shops focused on how to get shows booked, how to get people to a show you have booked and a SXSW infosession.

Now all we need is a punk cover of “The More You Know” jingle, and we’ll be golden.