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Rick Millward / Blog

Don't Judge

Over the last year I've worked with a variety of artists and it recently occurred to me that sometimes one can forget why they are here. What struck me was how fortunate I am to work with such creative and courageous people. They have a passion to make and share a personal vision and, more importantly, are taking action to make that vision a reality. Seen in that light labels like "good" are essentially meaningless. Everyone is on their personal journey and should measure their progress not by where they are but by how far they have come. Moving from the living room to the studio is a huge step, the first on a long road and no one knows where it may lead. When someone writes a song it's a personal statement, and should they want to make a record of it, whether it's on their phone or in a studio it should be seen first and foremost, as a communication from one person to another, a sharing of experience, and not something that should immediately be compared to what's on the radio. That's only one standard, and not necessarily one that should be applied to every recording. What's lost in that point of view is the beauty of an individual making a work of art.

Value

Occasionally I get an email from someone inquiring about recording asking something along the lines of "is this for real?" or "sounds too good to be true"; referring to our reasonable rates. It's a fair question. As I've said before technology has brought the cost of recording within the reach of just about everyone so I think it's an open question as to what the services should cost, and it's no secret that the traditional studio business is under pressure. In our case I started at a low rate to attract as many potential clients as possible, short of giving services away for free, and we immediately started getting calls. Many of our projects are with artists who have never been able to justify the cost of going into a studio and some are experienced, taking advantage of the rate to spend more time to experiment and take their projects farther than they normally would. What a business charges depends on the return on investment they need to get to service debt and meet expenses. Our equipment is modest, but adequate, and completely amortized. Our overhead is low so we can offer our services at a rate that allows a larger group of potential clients access to recording. Ultimately our rates (which we recently raised 50%), will be determined by the value we give to the market.

Us and Them

Sometimes when I talk with other musicians the conversation moves over to "the business" and how it seems to work. In particular there's often a sense of an adversarial relationship between artists and the infrastructure that distributes commercial music. It's not true. Success in any enterprise depends on cooperation and collaboration and it's no different in the music business. I can't think of any artist who has had success outside of the system. The simple fact is that it takes money and resources to reach the market in any meaningful way and while some artists have self-funded it still has been in a partnership with an established label. So while it may make a struggling musician feel better to attribute their lack of progress to some injustice it's fairer I think to accept that their product isn't competitive and then decide if they want to get in the game. If not, then be content with whatever joy they get from their music.

Why Not 2.0

Since opening my studio to the public I've worked with several songwriters who had never recorded any of their material. A couple of them only had written a few songs and probably would never have considered recording due to the cost, and I was happy to hear from them because that's one of the reasons I set up shop. I encouraged these clients to stick to simple guitar/vocal demos, rather than attempt a full production because I feel that whether one is hoping to pitch a song to an established artist or eventually put out a record, a simple demo will reveal the strengths and weaknesses and point the way forward. There's something about hearing your idea played back to you that changes how you think about it. It's a quirk of the creative process that when one internalizes the work it is perceived in a kind of perfect place and the act of recording takes it from that idealized place to one where it's fairly compared in a more objective way. Sometimes it can be disappointing, frustrating or just puzzling, but I believe a good demo is a great way to develop material and grow as an artist.

Why Not?

In the late 80's the studio I was working at produced the first tutorial videos for a new product called Sound Designer. At the time I was immersed in the traditional analog recording process and, like many of us, viewed the software as an interesting novelty. That changed pretty quickly, but the tape model hung on for a while..my first studio was built around an ADAT...and it wasn't until the end of the century that the cost and functionality migrated to the laptop and home recording really took off. Now for a fraction of the cost of traditional recording a musician can create their art in their bedroom and put it on the internet for the whole world to appreciate. Despite this traditional studios have survived and most of what we hear commercially is still recorded in high end facilities, with state of the art, (read expensive), equipment. They retain this edge because it's still a plus to work in an acoustically treated space, and there's no denying that the current hardware is superior to what most have using in their homes. I've taken a middle route. While definitely a home studio, Songwriter's Studio has some of the attributes of a more expensive facility; acoustic treatment, a good mic selection, a separate studio/control room layout, so we can provide a big room experience and workflow at a much lower rate. More on this next post.

Why Bother?

Last post I started a thought process about what I can characterize as motivation. Of the dozens of folks who have contacted the studio only a fraction have actually followed through, and I wonder why. Part of this thinking is looking at our marketing to see if we could be more effective, and I intend to make some changes to see if that could help those who are hesitating. When I look at the music landscape I see two fundamental "gardens". The first is a small plot with a lot of weeds and a few bright flowers, which is commercial music, the stuff you hear on the radio and streaming sites. This product is heavily promoted, with lots of money ("fertilizer"...though I won't belabor the metaphor any further :), being spent to expose it to the market. Most of it is pretty shallow. As I often say: "Commercial music is the music you hear between commercials", and it has it's place. I've written songs I consider light entertainment, and these songs have a simple purpose: have a broad appeal, bring a smile to your face, and hopefully, make some money. The other garden is huge, acres and acres of every imaginable plant, flower and tree, mostly only heard by a small group of friends and family, if at all. The people who make this music do so for reasons other than to make money, although they'd like to, but for the most part it's a hobby, and they are the ones I want to reach and help with recording. More on this next post.

In The Studio 1.0

Songwriter's Studio is almost a year old. I looked back on all the projects we did and a couple of interesting trends revealed themselves. Our prices are the lowest in Nashville, even with the recent bump up to $15/hr., and I've gotten lots of calls, and if I worked with everyone who inquired I'd be booked 24/7 for months ahead. But only a small percentage of those who contacted us actually followed through. It was enough to keep us busy, but I can't help but wonder what held back the majority who never called back. Did some combination of work, health, family, or personal crisis make them hesitate to make that second call? I can only speculate; maybe for some it just got too real. With the cost factor removed could it be a fear of not being "good enough". If that's true, and I'm just guessing here, it's kind of sad, because one of the reasons I started the studio was to provide a way for those with limited funds to get started with their dreams.

Songwriter's Studio

When I first set up my home studio it was in a space that had been a playroom and was painted in shades of peach and orange, great for kids but not my style. I always intended to repaint it but as time passed there always seemed to be other priorities so it never got done. It's a good sized space that I thought could be divided into a small tracking room and control room, and I spent idle time sketching ideas for a layout that I could build. Since I've built several professional studios I know a bit about sound treatment and one thing I had going for me was the cinderblock walls that are great for soaking up excess bass. Then one day I acquired a double paned glass door (another story) and it seemed like an omen to finally put the plan in motion. It took three coats of paint to cover the walls and I built a partition with the window in it, did some sound treatment, including hanging a quilt my grandmother left me, and set everything up. It sounds good, has a great feel for working so I'm looking forward to doing some projects.

The Big Show

Now that I've been back a while I've been thinking about the short tour I did in July and something struck me I hadn't considered. All the details of booking, practicing, and traveling had me so distracted that when it came to actually play, I didn't completely appreciate how fun it was to do a whole hour of my songs. There was one big worry that had overshadowed my anticipation of the performances: my insecurity about being able to hold an audience. As it turned out that really didn't matter. My plan was to structure the set with some stories about being a songwriter in Nashville; after over a decade in town I had a few. The first three songs were older ones that had been through the rounds and had gotten some nibbles but no bites with the idea to show how capricious the whole pitching process is, and I followed up with some newer songs that I considered commercially competitive, with an emphasis on traditional versus "new" or "young" country/countrypop and then wrapped with some of my personal favorites, the last one being a song about never giving up your dreams. It's pretty much the same set I'd do if I were playing a full on concert with a full band in a big venue, and someday I'd love to put that together, but for now I feel that I've come out of the whole experience at a new level of confidence and I'm looking ahead to start making the rounds here in Nashville with my new perspective.

On The Road

We're back in Nashville after a two week mini tour...5 dates in 12 days. Our first performance was in Nashville and then we traveled to Idaho, Nevada, and California. Coffee Houses, house concerts, and a full on bar... It was everything I'd hoped it would be and more. It's been a long time since I played outside of Nashville and now I'm feeling it was long overdue. The challenge was to break out of the two or three song sets that characterize writer's nights here in town to play a long 10 song (or more!) evening, and hold on to a room full of listeners. That's no small task. In the coffee houses I was more or less background in a sort of quiet environment, but I played one place that was a small, very loud bar and the feeling was of performing in front of a waterfall. Back in my rock band days we'd just drown them all out, but even though I had a great PA, there was no way I'd overcome that, so I just settled for playing to a couple of tables of friends and relatives who were really supportive and though I was apprehensive when I started my set, by the last couple of songs I was having a great time. It was so refreshing to play some old songs, some I'd never performed, as well as new ones too. I can't wait to get out again.