Most professional artists whether they be musicians, graphic designers, videographers or one of the many other artistic professionals have faced some clients or friends expecting the fruits of our labour for free or for a discount either because they believe our work is not worth the investment or they believe that they can offer something of non-financial value in exchange. I am sure to most individuals, the fact that people like this exist can seem unbelievable but they do, in fact it is common enough that the idea of clients asking for work in exchange for ‘exposure’ has become a meme amongst working artists. So why does this attitude exist and for the few of you who wonder what artists are complaining about, why is our work valuable?
The first problem is down to how we view work in society. Work is seen as something that we would not do in our spare time. Sure some people enjoy their work and find it fulfilling but our society holds onto the idea that jobs should not be seen as a hobby. For many, work is seen as a dull necessity; we work for 8 hours before coming home and trying our best to forget how miserable we are from the hours dealing with customers, filling in spreadsheets or making phone calls. In short work is somewhere to sacrifice our time and energy in exchange for money. The problem with this view of work is that activities that are seen as hobbies like creating a piece of art or music do not fit this idea of work. People believe that work is not meant to be fun, it is meant to be a sacrifice, how can someone who does their hobby for work make any sacrifices?
This idea is rooted in the major misunderstanding that creativity is fun and work should not be. The first major misunderstanding here is the idea that working in the creative arts is always fun, if you ask any creative professional if they love their work 99% will say yes, if you ask any creative professional if they always find their work fun then you will probably find 1% giving the same answer. Yes, we love our work, yes sometimes it is fun, but the two are not one and the same. Musicians have to learn songs they hate, graphic designers have to make designs they detest, photographers have to stand around for hours waiting for the right moment for the perfect shot. The second misunderstanding is that work and fun are polar opposites. In my experience this anything but the case, plenty of people find their work fun and there is nothing wrong with that.
Another problem is the capitalistic view of work. The idea that work fits within the structure of supply and demand. Lots of people play musical instruments so why should someone pay for a band when your next door neighbour has a cover band that played at your barbeque last year. This demonstrates the huge misunderstanding of what it means to be a professional artist. Sure there nothing stopping you from using your next door neighbours band for your event, it will definitely save you money, there is no doubt about that; but if you want a band with tried and tested experience, a large set list of 100+ songs, who are perfectly in synch with one another, sound amazing and know how to whip up the crowd then you are going to want professionals with the skills, knowledge and equipment to do it.
There is a big misunderstanding about what goes on behind the scenes and the time it takes to produce an artistic work. People see what is often many hours of work and assume it took a lot less time. Photography is the perfect example of this. Many assume that a photograph is made in second with a click of a button but this is far from the case. A photographer will often have to scout the location they are shooting to get an idea of the best places from which to take photos. On the day of the shoot they will have to run and direct others involved to get the shots required and after the shoot they will have go through and organise all the shots before picking and editing a number of the photos. This mismatch between people’s perception of the work involved and the actual amount of work involved does not only apply to photography but to some extent applies to all creative arts.
People tend to forget that artists usually do not work for companies but are freelancers who run and operate as a sole trading business. When you pay an artist you are not just paying for their time, you are paying for all the other overhead costs associated with their work. The equipment, software, studio space, travel costs, association membership, insurance, professional development and venue costs are all overheads that have to be taken into account when running any business. So before scoffing at the price offered by a professional artist bare this in mind.
Many also forget to take into account the skill involved in creative arts. We think that what these people do is a lot easier than it actually is. To get to a level where you are doing a creative art professionally requires thousands of hours of practice and study, many creative professionals possess university degrees and there are a considerable number who also possess a post-graduate education. They have spent hours toiling over their craft, rarely make mistakes because they have made them all and have learnt from them, they have had other masters of the art form show them the advanced skills and have worked on countless projects. Remember, when you pay a professional you are paying someone for their unique skillset, a skillset that cannot be attained within the space of an afternoon.
In short, yes many of the skills that professional artists have are hobbies, yes we love our art form, yes if you really wanted you could get a friend to do it for free. But realise if you want someone who has the expertise, the experience, the skills and the equipment to do work for you then do not expect that work to be free, you pay a good price and in return you will get a good product.
The album, for decades, was the cornerstone of recorded music. Often when people talk about great music, they will often talk about it in the context of the album. Think of the likes of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Club Hearts Band, the Darkside of the Moon, Rumours and Rio. We not only appreciate the artistry of each individual song on those albums but the artistry and harmoniousness of the album as a whole. However, with the drop in music sales over the years and more and more people consuming single tracks through streaming playlists the question is beginning to be asked: Is the Album Dead and what does this mean for Artists?
If you ask most people what an album is, they are likely to reply with an answer something to akin to, ‘a CD, Vinyl or Cassette containing around 50-60 minutes or 8-12 songs of music’ but how did this become the standard length of an album. The album came to be in 1948 when Columbia Records began producing 12-inch vinyl discs referred to as LPs (for Long Play). Each side could hold 23 minutes of music. This gave artists and labels the chance to sell multiple songs, or songs of much longer length than before all on one disc. Artists used to only be able to record songs up to 3 minutes in length as this was roughly the amount of time available on one side of the 10-inch discs that pre-dated the LP. It was the length of the LP that resulted in the album as we know it.
Artists sold albums for the second half of the 20th century, its use evolved over time with some artists using them as a way to collate a number of singles, whilst some used it to record performances too long to fit on a single and others even began to tie the music together with a core concept giving rise to the concept album. The album played a huge roll with the growth of the music industry in the 20th century with consistent growth in album based sales from $1.3 billion in 1973 to the all time high of $13.9 billion in 2000 (1). However, that is where the strength of the album began to wane, sales of albums have since fallen to $1.6 billion in 2018 (1), some may argue that focusing on such figures does not tell the whole story and they would not be wrong after all singles on traditional formats like Vinyl, Cassette and CD have also seen a huge drop in revenue from their peak of $441.8 million in 1997 to $5.5 million in 2018 (1); however this ignores the huge growth of singles when you take into account downloads which peaked in 2012 at $1.6 billion (1) and the movement of consumers towards streaming services with streaming accounting for 74.9% of industry revenue in 2018 (1) and most consumers who stream, stream playlists and singles as shown in a 2016 Music Biz consumer report that found that 77% of listeners preferred to listen to playlists or singles (3).
So is the Album dead? I certainly would not say so, it is much more like an old person who despite everyone expecting their demise some time in the near future simply clings on to life and that may not be all that surprising, albums are still a great way for artists to assemble a collection of songs and the album in itself has become a unique creative artform which I do not think will ever fully disappear. There is also growth in the sales of more traditional formats such Vinyl and Cassettes with Vinyl Sales up by 12% in 2018 and Cassettes growing by 19% in the same year (4) (5) suggesting that these formats are becoming valued collectors items. However, we do have to accept that albums will unlikely hold the same place they once did in our everyday lives.
For many, myself included, the fact that the Album is not as important as it once was may be disappointing. This is the case both as musicians and consumers. As musicians, we have grown up with the Album as a mark and milestone of success and though in many ways the Album still represents this, its lack of effectiveness in promoting us as artists means creating a single album for release can in the end be a very large waste of time and money with an album unlikely to create that much more buzz around an artist than a single would. So instead of creating that buzz for one album only for interest to wane after a short period, take each song on the album and release a song a month. As a result, the buzz of each song can build on the buzz of the previous releases helping to create momentum for you as an artist. You can then even re-release the songs on an album after the release of all your songs.
As consumers, there is something nice and tangible about owning a physical album. Having music in your hands can give you a connection with an artist, sitting with a CD, Cassette or Vinyl, listening to the music whilst scanning over every feature in the artwork can be a highly unique experience that does seem to be going to way of the dodo. Add onto this what an album can add musically that a single cannot and you can really begin to understand the disappointment of some consumers that the album is not what it once was. However, it is not all doom and gloom. The album may no longer be the bastion of the music industry but physical formats are still available and there are bands out there still making music with the album in mind. King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard are a perfect example having created numerous albums that utilize the strength of the format as well as Kevin Parker of Tame Impala who has evolved his sound uniquely for each album.
So the album may not be what it once was and that is ok, it does not have to be and just because it is not what is once was, does not mean it will disappear fully or that it will not continue to evolve, you will just have to hunt a little harder to find them.
There is no doubt that learning to play and continually developing new skills on a musical instrument is hard. It requires hours of dedication and diligent practice, however despite this many musicians, including myself, have fallen into the trap of practicing in a very ineffective way. In this weeks blog I try and address those ineffective methods and provide useful tips that I personal wish I had heard a lot earlier.
One of the biggest mistakes that musicians make when it comes to practicing is practicing without purpose. They decide to practice whatever they feel like in the moment, they learn half a song one day and then try developing technique the next. This approach will lead to little development and will result in the player having a large number of half learnt skills. This is why it is important to have specific goals in mind to inform your practice routines. It is well worth using the acronym SMART to help inform your goal setting.
Create a Structured Practice Routine
Setting yourself goals is certainly important when it comes to developing effective practice, however setting goals is no good if you then practice aimlessly. It is therefore important that you come up with a set number of tasks and exercises that you will do in your practice session that will work you towards your goal.
For example, if one of your goals is to play a certain lick or sequence faster you would create an exercise such as playing the sequence to a metronome at a very slow speed and over a number of practice sessions you will gradually increase the speed of the metronome. You will come up with a number of these for each of your goals. Some goals may only require one exercise whilst others may require a few different exercises. Once you have laid out your exercises you can then look at how long you would like to practice for each day and then divide the practice session into set periods to tackle each area. So if you had a 1-hour practice session and 4 different exercises, you would divide up the practice session into 15 minute chunks. The key now is to stick to that plan until you have achieved your desired goal.
A common mistake many musicians make when it comes to practice is not practicing regularly enough. Some aspiring musicians will believe that if they do one marathon 4-hour practice session a week that they will improve quickly. This is far from the case. We learn new skills through our brain’s ability to create neural pathways, once a neural pathway is created it can be fired to allow the quick and unconscious execution of the skill. These pathways develop much quicker from more regular shorter practice sessions. Doing a marathon practice session only once a week may result in you seeing gains within the practice session but by the next practice session the skills you will have learnt will likely be forgotten. It is much better to practice every day for 10 minutes than to do long irregular sessions, so if you have not already, start building the habit with a regular short practice session; If you want to do longer practice sessions, slowly increase the length of your practice session over time to help maintain the habit.
Practicing music can be a very intensive task that requires high levels of concentration for long periods. However, our ability to focus on tasks can diminish over a period of time and can therefore effect our ability to make sufficient gains in our playing. This is due to to an effect called Vigilance Decrement where over time the brain dedicates less cerebral resources to a particular task (more information here). This effect is particularly true for those who are doing very long practice sessions that are well over an hour in length. Taking breaks can help offset Vigilance Decrement whilst allowing our brains to absorb the information from the exercises you have been working on. After a short break you can start practicing again fully refreshed with your full attention.
When we play we often find that we a focussing on a lot of things, the movement of our bodies, what we are about to play, what is going on with the music, staying in time and many more. With that in mind it is not surprising that some of the finer details of the sound and technique of our playing might go unnoticed.
So what is the best way to get around this problem? Record yourself playing. Buy doing this you will be able to hear any problems with pitch, rhythm and tone without the distractions that comes with playing. It is even better if you can record yourself with a video as being able to see you’re the elements you use to play your instrument such your hands, arms, feet and face can help you to diagnose problems with your technique that might be holding you back.
Once you have identified problems with your playing you can then make adjustments to your goals and practice to help address these problems.
Use a Metronome
For a tool that many proficient musicians see as vital to one’s ability to play well it surprising just how often some musicians completely forget to use of even avoid the use of a metronome. Some musicians hold the false belief that metronomes will result in a lack of feel, and though a metronome has a boring, lifeless and a somewhat annoying sound this could not be further from the truth. Music relies the musicians being in synch with one another whilst playing with a regular time and a consistent groove and as simple as it is, a metronome is the best way to develop this skill. Metronomes are also a vital tool for helping instrumentalists develop speed. It is important to use a metronome wherever possible; there are of course occasions where using a metronome is not important, say for example you are playing to a backing track or you are trying to nail the fingering to a particular piece without having to be tied to a rhythm, but for the most part a metronome is your best friend and an amazing tool.
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