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October 15, 2013

Review: Jason Blume songwriting workshop - Mouthzoff column

As readers know, I'm a keen songwriter and heavily involved in helping Brisbane songwriters develop and grow. So when the opportunity came up for me to attend this workshop by one of the best, Jason Blume, I jumped at it. I was there representing the host - JMC Academy - but as a songwriter it was the best environment to be in. I wrote this review for Mouthzoff Magazine in the hope that other songwriters might benefit from Jason's teaching.

Review of Jason Blume's Songwriting workshop,
JMC Academy Brisbane
11-12 May 2013

When it comes to artists who've sold millions of songs, Jason Blume is usually not the name first that comes to mind. And he likes it that way.

He has a lovely voice, but he doesn't want to be a star. He has access to some of the best studios, engineers, and performing talent in the world but he's happy to appear as a name in the album credits of some of the biggest-selling records in history. See, Jason, who has sold well over 50 millions copies of his songs, is a songwriter. And in an industry that is famous for it's highs and lows, for its brittle and brutal egos, Jason has endured it all for more than 30 years and still loves what he does.

It's tempting to think that a guy like that would jealously protect his knowledge. That he would lock away his secrets and defend his patch. But Jason's other love is to teach people how it's done. "I went to my first songwriting workshop, watched the teacher and I knew that was what I wanted to do," he says. He's written books and recorded audio CDs sharing his work, his techniques and his methods. He travels the world running workshops in which he is open, generous, and supportive of songwriters of all ages and stages of development.

"There are no rules, just tools," he declares, drawing on his own experience of both sides of the music industry's creative process, of brutal put-downs, scathing critiques, and critical breakthrough moments, to provide guidance and inspiration. He examines the greatest currently charting hits to show how they have been constructed, identifying the similarities between pop hits from different eras, different artists, and different genres - though he's mainly about pop and country.

Personable, warm, and always energetic, Jason argues that the Idol franchise and similar shows have been a great thing for professional songwriters, since most of the finalists are great performers who don't write their own songs. Contrary to the general sentiment of in the blogosphere, he's gentle on the contestants and defends 'reality TV' talent for what it is and against what it never pretends to be.

He has seen the American music machine from the inside and talks openly about its practices, its pitfalls and its politics. He plays examples of big hits and emphasizes that this is an extremely competitive world - 'good' is never good enough. "You have to be better than good," he declares. "The only acceptable response to your song has to be 'WOW! That's great!'." Then he explains what it takes to be great, and that "The only thing that's wrong is to settle for something that's not brilliant."

Despite having written some huge hits, or perhaps because he has, Jason acknowledges that his approach to songwriting isn't for everyone. "If you want to write a song to get something off your chest, to explain how you feel, that's great!" he says, "but if the listener doesn't feel it, it's never going to be a hit." In this mode, writing is first and always about connecting the audience rather than making an artistic statement."

Of course, that approach is not for everyone, and that's fine, too. The song critiques that are the backbone of Jason's workshops can be confronting. Each song is preceded by a question: "Is this song written for you as an artist or for pitching to another performer?" Either answer is fine but the distinction frames his - always supportive but sometimes frank - response.

Most of what Jason covers in his workshops is available in the books and CDs that can be bought from his website. Ironically, though, this is where behind-the-scenes, name-in-the credits Jason is not good enough. His teaching and his critique have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

In these events, Jason takes his place as a true star. It is here that he steps into the limelight to receive the appreciation he deserves.

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Posted by Huge at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

October 1, 2013

You need fans before you can ask for fan funding - Mouthzoff column

This is my second column for Mouthzoff magazine. It was published in June. The topic is one that causes a lot of confusion among Indie - fan funding - because they can see it work for others and don't understand why their own efforts fail.

Last edition I mentioned Amanda Palmer, the goddess of 21st century music business methods, who raised almost $1.2million in a single fan funding campaign. That's an all-time record for music and, yes, she has had a long career - backed in part by a major label - to build up that following. But fan funding is still an important part of any independent music career.

Fan funding is quite simply asking your fan base to donate money or to buy a promise so you can raise capital to fund some activity. A new recording, marketing activities, a tour ... could be anything musicians do that their fans will appreciate. And you don't have to be a massive act like Amanda Palmer. For example, Brisbane Singer/songwriter Aislinn Sharp recently raised $1300 for her new single. Also, Brisbane's own international jazz supertars Trichotomy raised just over $5000 for packaging and marketing their new CD.

Fan funding is talked about like a new thing, but it's really a return to the patronage model musicians used to support themselves before recording technology was invented. Composers like Bach and Beethoven were kept in employment by local nobles so the nobles could show off that "my pet musician is better than yours" to the neighbours. This patronage model went on for years and cemented the supposed superiority of "high" art over folk art.

These days, if you want to funded by your patrons (AKA fans) you need to offer a little more than an ego boost to your patrons - and you need a lot more than one. For example, Amanda Palmer offered a range of things in return for a "donation" ranging from a free MP3 in exchange for $1 to a night at the donor's house painting them and singing for $10,000. That's one important point - you don't get something for nothing. Not even from your strongest fans.

Plenty of websites offer fan funding services, and they vary in their terms and their methods. Kickstarter.com, the biggest, sets the standard - it was Amanda Palmer's choice. The deal there is that you set your offers and a target amount and the company keeps 5% of the amount given. If the goal is not met, you get nothing. For other companies, like Rockethub.com, you get the amount you raise whether you reach target or not. Sellaband.com offers a slightly different model, allowing fans to buy shares in the band rather than the stuff they offer. There are plenty of other variations.

Remember, too, that you don't always have to ask for money. Cash donations are the most common form of fan support, but The Beastie Boys and The Shins, for example, have made video clips out of live footage sent to them by their fans. If you have a fan who's an accountant and who can save you time or money on doing your tax, having dinner with them and their friends every now and then is a small price to pay.

The lesson? If you need something to help start a new initiative, fan funding can be a great way to support your plans. Figure out what you have to offer that costs you very little but which fans really value - like your time, or MP3s, or photos - and offer that to your fans in exchange for their support. Of course, to do this you need to build a fan base - but that's a topic for another column.

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Posted by DrHuge at 10:55 AM | Comments (0)
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