Tag Archives: music

Confessions of a Crowd-Sourced Musician

When I first broke the news to my Facebook friends that I was chosen to play tuba onstage with Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, most of the responses were of the “congratulations!” variety. Several, however, seemed to be far more interested in my financial well-being.

How much are you paying her?” one jokingly inquired. “Make sure she pays you,” urged another. “Hope you’re getting paid,” someone else remarked again.

For the purposes of this blog, let’s side-step the entire idea that it’s no one’s f-ing business whether or not I get paid to do a gig. That’s like asking a co-worker how much she gets paid or someone you just met his age. But the somber reality is that, for many people out there, $$ comes before art.

Amanda Palmer stirred up a hornet’s nest. Her approach to making music and presenting it to listeners breaks all the alleged rules of rockdom. Instead of getting funding from a deep-pocketed empire that puts up walls to control the flow of art in exchange for the lion’s share of the $$, Amanda decided to do it on her own. By engaging directly and honestly with her audience, she was able to win over their hearts, culminating in a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $1.2 million. Raising over ten times her original goal of $100,000, she shattered the music crowdfunding record.

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But she didn’t stop there. She wanted to keep finding fresh, inventive ways to keep her listeners moved and entertained; she wanted them to feel involved. When it came time to tour, she announced that, at each stop along her route, she would crowd-source musicians from the local area to perform with her, reaching out in an unprecedented way to introduce these strings and horns players to her audience while giving them the opportunity to collaborate with the band.

This is where controversy struck.

According to her website, this is how musicians would be compensated:

“We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.”

Some in the blogosphere began to revolt. They began to accuse Palmer of using musicians by refusing to pay them. That when musicians work for free, it somehow devalues what they do.

Look, I get it. Musicians, myself included, work incredibly hard. We’ve trained extensively, and we’ve spent exorbitant amounts of time and money to become proficient at what we do. We deserve to be fairly compensated for our abilities, yet we struggle in a nation where we are constantly expected to work for peanuts and be grateful.

That said, I also think some of us have forgotten why we learned music to begin with. We didn’t pick up our instruments because we thought it would lead to $$ … we picked them up because we thought it would lead to love, art, freedom, therapy, expression, and any number of other intangible rewards.

When I considered the opportunity to join Amanda on stage, I placed more value on being part of a team I greatly admire, performing with folks who make great art and interact with fans as fellow human beings rather than view them as meal-tickets. I wanted to be part of a dream, part of a movement, and part of a revolution. I would have been happy to be paid in hugs and high-fives—and to have been reminded of the spirit of what set me out on my musical journey to begin with.

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And then, I got paid.

In response to all the criticism, Amanda managed to shake loose enough money to pay every musician who sat in with the band during the tour.

Performing on that stage before an audience of a thousand excited fans, I felt like a million bucks. I wouldn’t have traded away that feeling for a million in my bank account, and I would volunteer to do it again in a heartbeat. I was welcomed as part of the family, and that welcome was warm, it was honest, and it came from every single person who was part of the tour.

So, to all the people who wanted to know if I got paid, the answer is YES.

And also, I was handed $$.


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Photo 1: Photo of the audience with their flashlights, taken from the stage!
Photo 2: Photo of the set opener, including the horns and strings, taken by Melissa Axel from the balcony.
Photo 3: Amanda poses with the vinyl record Melissa Axel and I released, available at http://music.melissaaxel.com
Photo 4: Melissa Axel, Amanda Palmer, and ModernTuba pose after the show.

love . humanity . metamorphosis

I imagine that if this were the beginning of a movie, the opening would be like this:

The truth is, that’s exactly how it felt for me … like we were embarking on this glorious action-packed adventure with thrilling romance and great heroism. It was all that and so much more, but it all happened so differently than I envisioned.

Sure, I could go on at great length about the extraordinary amount of hard work, the incredible contributions of all the talented musicians, the ingenuity and brilliance of our producer, the unbelievable response from all 184 of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, etc., etc., but in the end it all amounted to what was, for me, a profoundly moving and life-changing experience.

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When Melissa and I began making this album, I knew I wanted it to sound great and be well-received by listeners, critics, peers, and other industry professionals. What I didn’t realize was how going through this experience would finally help me realize exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. The missing piece of my puzzle was finally found, and suddenly everything made sense.

I am incredibly proud of this record, and I hope you’ll explore it. Wherever it goes, and whatever it accomplishes, it will always remind me of who I was and who I’m becoming. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a direction, following my heart. Maybe it’s foolish … but as Obi-Wan once said, “Who’s the more foolish, the fool? or the fool who follows him?”

I hope you’ll follow me in following dreams.

http://music.melissaaxel.com

 

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Vinyl vs. CD

There was an ongoing debate about the merits of CD sound vs. vinyl over at a Tangerine Dream mailing list. There were valid points on both sides, but no one seemed to bring up the elephant in the room: does CD even have any life-span left?

So I fashioned this response, partly to squeeze in my predictions about CD’s future, partly to give my take on why vinyl might be here to stay, and partly to respond to the idea people liked of including a CD copy of an album with the vinyl so the consumer can get the best of both worlds:

CDs are quickly becoming irrelevant as the digital era moves ever closer to figuring itself out. In our case, the next CD we release (scheduled for April or May) might possibly be the last. Future releases will likely be digital and vinyl with download codes included. (We will be releasing vinyl with download codes this year, as well as CDs.) At this point, CDs are mostly useful as musical business cards and handy merch at live shows. Throwing a CD in with the record is a waste of a manufacturing investment.

The slow media movement is gaining popularity right now, as people increasingly appreciate the tactile experience of playing a record—few of them are motivated by the fidelity argument—but they also want a quick and easy way to store and listen to music. The #1 reason people purchase CDs is to listen to it in their vehicle, but as more and more cars adopt ways to play digitally from a device (or otherwise), that reason will be going away.

Most consumers do not understand there’s a loss in quality from ripping/downloading music as low quality MP3s, so they will notice the difference when they listen to the same album on vinyl in comparison. Also, they appreciate album art on a whole new level with vinyl, so don’t be surprised if there’s a return to more iconic artwork on album covers as a result.

My two cents, at least.

Please continue reading the comments for some additional thoughts!

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(Just a fraction of my vinyl TD collection shown above)

Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz

Tuba music is just getting too darn complicated.

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Of course it’s just a gag—a piece of fun. Truthfully, I think our producer keeps this framed piece of music right by the recording booth just so nervous performers have something more intimidating to look at other than the microphone dangling in front of them. I think my favorite bit is where it reads, “remove valve.”

Speaking of the recording booth, today was another wonderful studio day, during which I did something unheard of for your average tuba player: I sang.

That’s right, I sang!

I sang background harmonies on the song “Every Place Is Home,” which I co-wrote with Melissa Axel and Irish songwriter Andy White (co-writer of Peter Gabriel’s “Whole Thing” and other fantastic music). Since the song has no tuba part, I knew I had to participate in some other way.

We also finished recording background vocals from the super talented Ayo Awosika, who is an incredible songwriter in her own right. We’re very blessed to have her working on this project!

Finally, Melissa sang final vocals on the quirky tune “Merry-Go-Round” that I referenced yesterday (piano, vocals, tuba, harmonium, and glockenspiel), which means just a few tiny details to add in tomorrow morning, and this baby will be ready to mix!

Until then, keep practicing “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz,” and let me know when you have it down.

Once upon a time.

It should come as no big surprise to anyone reading this blog that I play the tuba, but to this day I still find myself quite surprised to be doing so.

I don’t one hundred percent know why I chose the tuba or why I continue to pursue it. It must be one of those enigmatic “it chose me” situations, because I don’t recall sitting down and plotting it out back in 1985.

Here’s what I did know: 
  • My father was a professional drummer for a while in the ’60s. By the time I came along, it was just a hobby he pursued in our den, playing along to records or just pounding out some solo Samba or Jazz or Rock rhythms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him perform with any kind of group.
  • My older brother (3.5 years my senior) tried learning the clarinet in middle school for a year—and seemed to hate every second of it, though nowadays he says otherwise. I’m certain it was a very harrowing year. It was for my ears, at the very least.
  • My musical interests were mostly rooted in the top forty ’80s tunes played on the radio: The Human League, The Police, Thomas Dolby, and scores of synthy hits like “The Safety Dance” and “Mr. Roboto.”
So the tuba? Really?

None of my history prior to the sixth grade seemed to musically add up the tuba. To me, the only “heavy metal” I was interested in by that point was a new Quiet Riot or Twisted Sister song, and those don’t even really count as heavy metal.

But then one day I found myself in the middle school band director’s office, faced with the most terrifying question: “So, what instrument do you want to play?”

Believe it or not, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Furthermore, I was already two weeks behind. I only transferred into the class because my two best friends were in it. They were already learning notes and sounds on their chosen instruments, playing hardcore tunes like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from their super professional looking music books. How could I possibly catch up?

I was practically frozen with indecision. Should I choose the sax so I could wail like that guy in Huey Lewis and the News? No, my friend had chosen that one already. What about the drums? But could I ever live up to my dad’s expectations? I’d already lived through my brother’s squeaky attempts at ear torture, so clarinet was out. There were already too many boys with trumpets, flute was too girly, the trombone was too weird looking, the French horn was too French, and were oboes even real instruments?

The music teacher was a large, sweaty, and very bearded Italian man with round glasses, and he was becoming increasingly impatient. The moment had come, it was time to choose.

And then there it was, sitting on the floor just a few feet behind him, a giant horn clad in gleaming silver. I remember thinking, “Well, it is larger than a trumpet.” A quick panicked look to the band floor revealed an ensemble full of every kind of brass, woodwind, and percussion player possible, chomping at the bit to make music—except for one major instrument.

Swallowing hard, I looked back at the band director and stammered out, “The … tuba?”

Seconds later I had a giant hunk of heavy cold metal in my hands and was being ushered out of the office to my place near the back row.

So, was it divine revelation or just the result of a very complex series of subconscious decisions by a ten year old boy just looking to fit in? Sometimes answers come to you in the most unexpected ways, and I guess along the way you’ve just gotta learn to stop questioning them, lest you spoil the magic.

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[Pictured: ModernTuba, circa 1987, two years playing by this point]

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

Recently, my sweetheart and I have been on a Disney kick.

Mostly we’ve been visiting the glory days of Walt’s time with films like the original Fantasia, Saludos Amigos, Fun & Fancy Free, Bambi, Melody Time, Mary Poppins, and The Three Caballeros. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching the DVD special features, which have all contained a healthy measure of behind-the-scenes materials to fill in the real spirit of the era, living vicariously through the one of the most fertile creative times in film history.

It pains me that I missed all of it.

Walt was gone nearly a decade by the time I hit the world stage, and sure I’ve enjoyed the fruits of those labors since my childhood, but it’s only now that I’m fully appreciating the depth of his accomplishments and what it must have been like to grow up during—or better yet, grow with—the golden age of Disney.

Two recently released documentaries highlight the heyday of the Walt Disney company, and in the past week we have watched them both.

Walt & El Grupo travels with Walt and team as they head to South America on the U.S. dime as part of an outreach goodwill tour during World War II (and just prior to the U.S. entry into the war). The time they spent observing art and culture in countries like Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and others informed much of what they released in the 1940s, but most particularly Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

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Flashing ahead twenty years, The Boys chronicles the history of the beloved Sherman brothers, the songwriting team behind so many of Disney’s most beloved songs and films: all of Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, and songs like “It’s A Small World,” and “(There’s A) Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” to name just a few. Their songwriting genius, fueled by Walt’s inspiration and encouragement—and filtered through a dysfunctional brotherly relationship, practically defined the Disney experience for all generations to follow.

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The one thing both films have in common is that they effortlessly validate every myth I’ve ever heard about the magical Walt Disney himself. There is little or no direct footage or interviewing with Walt.  Instead, he is defined through the eyes of people who worked alongside him or had their lives irrevocably enhanced by whatever chance meetings they had with him.

They speak with utter admiration. They speak with love. They speak with wonder.

There’s no doubt Walt was a savvy businessman—direct when he had to be and hawkish when he needed to be, but his love of art, music, and all creativity was boundless. He was genuinely filled with puckish glee and fed by imaginative ideas; and he built and surrounded himself with a culture that cherished and rewarded all of these things—rare back then, rarer today.

This foray into Disney history has been incredibly inspiring and has driven home the point that I am limited only by my imagination. Truly, everything is possible. For all of us.

We can be more supportive. We can be more encouraging. We can take the time to value more than just our balance statements, our portfolios, our bottom line, our ability to pay the bills. We can change the course of things, with even a single song.

After all, for Walt, it all began with a mouse …