Earning a living from music, part 2

In part 1 of this subject I talked a lot about mostly established artists who were “in the music business” . The common themes I observed is that these artists playing at all levels had a very strong work ethic, and usually ensured that they had multiple income streams to support everyday living. They all were great as musicians, but that’s not enough to generate enough income to support yourself.

Even if you have brilliant musical skills and excellent songwriting, there still has to be a delivery system that connects with the wider world. As I said in the first part of this article, the advance of social media and online distribution are two edged swords. I set up Original Ukulele Songs as a project partly to explore this aspect. Originally it was just a FB platform and once we hit 1000 members I added the official site http://www.originalukulelesongs.com. The project continues to gather momentum and in my view this is for two reasons. Firstly it’s very niche and there’s nothing like it on this scale. Secondly I have spent a fair bit of time promoting it to crucially it captures artist and listener’s attention. That’s great, and although it’s not directly generating income it is creating greater awareness as the platform becomes a focus for original material.

Imagination rules the world

Napoleon once said “Imagination rules the world” and certainly capturing imagination is essential in marketing. As I have always said “Difference dictates” so if you want to stand out as an artist you have to be different. This means in the visual medium as well as the actual music. Video, photos etc are essential in creating visual as well as auditory impact. Amazingly many artists don’t invest in good websites even though this is relatively inexpensive these days. Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” is the go to book for learning how best to present a website to capture attention.

All these ingredients help with building a profile which in turn helps in getting live opportunities. When setting up The Small Change Diaries, I was very conscious that we needed a good website and good social media presence. In order to stand out we also use Karen Turner as our band photographer and Max Wootton as illustrator. Both these skilled folks help create a very specific image which helps to make us different. When we had our first play on BBC Radio, Alan Raw commented on the fact that we could be found “everywhere” on social media!  All of the above don’t generate hard cash, but they do help with building credibility. Our first overseas paid festival appearance came from being noticed online and that’s down to these efforts.

Smart investments

My own experience is that as an artist, its crucial to invest in what you are doing. These investments are in time and money. I allocate three hours rehearsal time as a minimum every week and have done so for the last three years. I have also funded the studio time and CD releases to build credibility and awareness of the band. The time investment can be significant. I estimate that I spend 15 – 20% of my working week on social media, blogs etc to maintain a presence online. Many artists will bemoan that they don’t have time to blog and be on social media, failing to appreciate that this is “playing the long game” and essential in building awareness.

Ultimately, for me it’s essential to love what you do. My experience to date, having run some very successful non music businesses is that the principals are very similar. You have to be focused and organized if you want to create something of substance. Many artists imagine that once they have recorded a CD, the work is done! Of course that’s just one small step in a much bigger process that requires ongoing attention. Income will come from lining up all these elements, and writing original material will be a big part of generating potential revenue.  Hats off to all artists that dedicate themselves to creating great music. Many of my favorites are not the most well known performers and I suspect not especially wealthy in terms of money. They do however continue to entertain and inspire myself and many others and I for one are supremely grateful.

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James Triggs ukulele from New York

I just returned from New York and checked out Matt Umanov Guitars which is one of the best music stores in the city. This time they had way more ukuleles than I have seen previously and after trying out a bunch of old Martins I came across this James Triggs uke. I have never heard of James before but discovered that he originally was known for making mandolins and then working in Gibson’s custom shop before creating his own high end archtop guitars.

James Triggs ukulele

I have played a lot of ukes over the years and the sign of a really good one is that you just can’t put it down! This was certainly the case here and after playing it for a while and pondering for a few hours I decided to purchase it to add to my growing collection. This tenor ukulele is patterned after the rare Gibson tenor ukes of the 1930’s. Mahogany back, sides, and neck, and very finely-grained spruce top.

I couldn’t find anything online about James making ukuleles so I e-mailed him! Apparently this was a one off prototype that he made and he commented that it takes as long to make one of these as a flat top guitar!

It sounds and plays brilliantly and crucially it’s very different sounding to all my other instruments. I have been playing it nonstop since coming back to the UK which is always a good sign when buying a new instrument

Back in the studio today to record for the 2015 album

The full Small Change Diaries band are back in the recording studio today to record 3 more tracks for the forthcoming album. We now have 11 fully completed tracks, so this will take us up to fourteen tracks! Special thanks to Jessica Bowie, Garry Jackson, Rob Sayles and Rich Ferdi for making this possible. In the nest few weeks we’ll be announcing more exciting news about the SCD project!
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Music Production and Mixing for The Small Change Diaries

Last week I had my first experience of working with a professional music producer working in the studio. In past times I have edited my own demos in my own studio but this was an entirely new and fascinating experience!

The previous week we have laid down all the raw tracks for seven original songs. Now it was time to review each instrument and vocal and to check that everything worked in unison. Fortunately Carl Rosemond has decades of working with bands and made sure that we matched the best possible microphones to voices and instruments in the original session, so the individual tracks already sounded pretty good. I began to appreciate that before any final mixing stage it’s essential to forensically check every part of every track. This may seem from an outside perspective to be incredibly time consuming, but as the afternoon progressed everything began to sound better and better. After a few hours the developing tracks sounded vastly better than the original raw takes.

studioI also began to appreciate the value of thorough rehearsal prior to stepping into a recording environment and to recruit the best possible musicians. The rhythm section of Garry on double bass and Rich on percussion was as always rock solid and helped us work at a really productive pace. When I first saw the studio I though “Wow we are all in fairly close proximity” but crucially I began to appreciate that this became a massive advantage as we were essentially replicating how we had worked in practice situations. In recent years digital technology has developed at an extraordinary pace and now as Carl pointed out my Tascam 24 track has more technology and features than his original hired studio which cost thousands of pounds! Watching a music producer at work is like watching a master chef. They are acutely aware of the importance of every single ingredient that needs adding or subtracting. In some processes Carl would comment “Now it’s going to sound worse before it sounds better” and he was 100% right! A large part of the day was spent on the a capella track “Amish Frame of Mind” which consisted of myself and Jessica on vocals and Rich on handclaps. Carl described as “a supremely brave choice to record” as with an a capella song there is vocally nowhere you can hide! The UAD plugins worked brilliantly in developing these tracks and bringing them to life in an entirely new way.

nick codyThe second main track of the day was “There’s Only One of You” which is one of my favourite tracks to sing with Jessica featuring the entire band. It’s a simple song with great lyrics and in my view a terrific example of a three minute well-constructed song. The final verse is sung in harmony and this works especially well. A number of people who have heard demos in previous months have remarked that one of the strengths of the band is the harmony vocals and this is a great example of this in action.

This coming week I’ll be back with Carl looking at the remaining five tracks from the first recording session. The plan is to have a promo disc completed by the end of the year and then to return to studio to record the next batch of tracks in early January 2015. When I think about all that’s happened in the previous 12 months, to quote Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead “What a long strange trip it’s been!”

First Small Change Diaries Recording Sessions – Nick Cody

I have a totally new respect for any artist in the recording studio after this recent experience. Its a lot of hard work but also a truly inspirational time working with such superb musicians and seeing songs develop from literally a few notes in a moleskin diary to a fully structured completed song.

There are many moving parts to consider in these situations all of which determine the final outcome of the session. In many ways its quite a cathartic experience to have these tracks finally recorded after hours of practice. Some songs evolve over a period of time, which others remain fundamentally the same as when they were first in demo form. One of the joys of recording is that although we may have plans and aims, ultimately none of us know exactly how things are going to turn out. The role of the producer is also crucial in these situations as they are looking and listening to everything from an entirely different position.

nick cody2There is also the need to make creative and practical calls with time restrictions and when band members can only make certain recording slots. The major lesson for me is that with The Small Change Diaries we need key members for two consecutive days to maintain continuity in maintaining a natural momentum. This is very similar in my experience to writing. When the person or group is in the best flow state, that’s the time to get work done. Yes its possible to add and amend existing tracks but in my experience its best to record batches of songs in specific periods of time.

It’s also important to prepare for the unexpected. Yesterday I laid down some ukulele solos which were originally going to be guitar solos. Carl the producer strongly advised this, so we by day two had seven excellent first mixes. The alternative would have been to have lots of half-finished tracks. Its quite a challenge to work on the fly in this way, but everyone seemed very pleased with the results and we maintained “the feel” that is crucial in these tracks.

Later this week I will meet up with Jessica Bowie to start work on the next batch of songs. We have another fourteen currently from which to choose and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing how these new tracks develop. The plan is to have some of these first seven recordings available on “Bandcamp” by the end of this year if all goes to plan!

The Tiny Tenor arrives

tiny tenorI just took delivery of a Romero Tiny Tenor and have spent the day playing it. I read about this in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and bought one on spec to use as a travel guitar. The fact that it’s made from solid woods and the wood choices ticked all the right boxes, spruce top, mahogany back and sides, 17 inch scale length.

I’m delighted to say that it plays extremely well and sounds excellent. In fact I would go so far as to say its the best value pound for pound ukulele I have found to date. The workmanship is superb and the design means that its very small but really projects well and is far louder than I would have expected. It’s also pretty cool looking which is no bad thing. I had this one shipped from Uke Republic – ukerepublic.com who were excellent to deal with!

This is a great instrument for any player and will happily sit alongside many of my more high end custom ukuleles. I think Romero should be applauded for producing an instrument of such high quality at an excellent price point!

Sound Investments – Collings, Shimo and Parker Musical Instruments

I began collecting instruments two decades ago and it’s been a fascinating journey. In the beginning I was only interested in purchases for playing, but later I realised that these could also be great investments!

In recent years most folks will know me more for my ukulele purchases and I admit to becoming totally seduced by these wonderful instruments. I love the simplicity of a small bodied acoustic instrument and am fascinated by how great these can sound. I have settled mostly on Shimos, Collings, Kanila and Rob Collins ukes. Each of these is unique and inspire different kinds of playing. I recently released a video talking about these different instruments and how they each have very different sonic properties.

The two biggest investments I have made to date are on the Stefan Sobell New World guitar and the Shimo Comet 3. Below you can see these side by side. In my view these are pretty much as good as it gets in terms of custom built instruments. The choice of woods, construction, playability and sound are quite extraordinary. I view these as being my best investments to date and although some folks might have a heart attack at the price ticket, in the world of instruments these are really not that expensive! If I was buying keyboards, saxophones or double basses, the price would be far greater.

In terms of electric instruments the Collings i35 is also about as good as it gets, especially as it is now fitted with the terrific Tom Holmes pickups. I bought the i35 in New York a number of years ago when the dollar was two dollars to the pound, excellent timing. My view is that Bill Collings has created the finest standards in building musical instruments. His electrics, acoustics and ukuleles are all superb. I have never played one that is anything other than excellent. I can’t say this for any other production built instrument and both Gibson and Fender could learn a great deal from Bill’s superb attention to detail and quality control.

Sometimes an instrument can appear out of the blue. Five years ago I spotted a Parker Bronze on ebay six days before X Mas. These were rare back then and even rarer now as the company has been taken over by Washburn and these are only available as custom orders. Both the Collings i35 and the Parker have greatly appreciated in value and remain superb playing instruments.

In an era when you might at best obtain 3% from an ISA there has never been a better time to buy great musical instruments.

Songwriting and arranging material for The Small Change Diaries

Since last October I have been heavily involved in writing material for The Small Change Diaries. There are now eighteen completed songs and two sets of lyrics that still require music. In recent months I have also been co writing with Jessica Bowie. This is proving to be a fascinating process, but one that is working exceptionally well.Sometimes I will get so far with a song and then need a new set of eyes and ears on what I have come up with. This was certainly true with “Miles Ahead” and “One Day I’ll disappear” Jessica very quickly came up with some superb melodies for both these tracks and I anticipate that they will make it to the album.

nick codyOften when you are creating your own material its often difficult to be objective after a while. Usually an idea for a set of lyrics will appear that then spark an entire train of thought. Personally I find many of my best ideas come immediately after waking up in the morning and I always have a moleskin diary close at hand to capture whatever comes to mind. One we have the basic song structure in place, the next stage is to look at final arrangements for the band.

The Small Change Diaries has in my view a really interesting combination of instruments with two ukuleles, guitar, percussion and double bass. This allows all manner of possibilities and sonic explorations crossing over into jazz, blues, ragtime, and roots music.