Session Singing

By Lis Lewis

Susan Boyd and Jon Joyce are two very successful session singers. Between them they have had a record deal, a two year road tour, have done theatre, live tv, jingles, and backgrounds for recording projects. Jon is also a vocal contractor, i.e. the singer who hires all the other singers for a session, handles budgets and contracts, and is the laison between the singers and the producers, composers and ad agencies.

Susan Boyd

Susan Boyd

After years of working as an actress, singing roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease, Susan started in jingles by doing demos for songwriters. “These two fellows I sang for got a chance to demo the theme song for a T.V. show called Angie and they got me to sing lead. There I met Ron Hicklin, a legend in this town among studio singers, who had been hired to contract the background singers. He has a huge black book with the names of hundreds of singers. He didn’t know me but he said he’d take down my number and he’d call me if anything came up. A year later he called and it happened that [the gig] was for Mazda. He was looking for a lead sound, a kind of Linda Ronstadt sound, so he hired me. I had no idea what I was doing when I went in? I was not as scared as I should have been.” For the Mazda ad she sang ‘Just One Look’, a Ronstadt hit at the time. It was used on network T.V. and radio for two years and earned her enough to buy two houses.

Jon has been singing since he was 12. His first recording was on the song ‘High Hopes’ with Frank Sinatra. With both parents vocalists, he grew up in the studio business. Jon’s father was the arranger for the Smothers Brothers TV show. From ages 18 to 25, Jon was a singer for the Red Skelton and Carol Burnett shows among others. “In those days,” says Jon, “there were regular production singers who did backgrounds for the guests who came on, sang the show’s theme and danced a little bit.”

Jon and one of his many musical brothers sent a tape of original music to RCA. Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, who had a production deal at RCA, really liked their voices. They signed a record deal with RCA on a project “that never saw the light of day”. But Bruce introduced him to Elton John who needed a group of singers to tour with. Jon contracted two other singers and toured for the next two years. “There’s nothing like having a credit like that in the session world. Everyone introduces you as ‘He just got off the road with Elton John’ and then anything that comes out of your mouth is perfect. You had to prove yourself before; now everything you do is just fabulous.”

Jon Joyce

Jon Joyce

It was the tape of his original music that got Jon jingle work. He says that if you send a tape of jingles that aren’t top notch, the producers may not even hear the vocals and may dismiss the spot because it’s poorly written or produced. Instead “put the best stuff of whatever you do on a tape and if it is original songs, give it as much variety as possible. You want the tape to be about five or six minutes long [using only parts of songs] showing a large range [of styles]. And it should be entertaining. The flow from one song to the next should be carefully thought out and fun to listen to.”

The Real Artwork

It is very clear, talking to Susan and Jon, that they think the real artwork lies in background singing. “For years and years, every once in a while Ron Hicklin [the contractor] would hire me to do something fabulous in a solo vein,” Susan says, “but it took another six years to break into doing background singing. He wasn’t about to trust me if I didn’t know what a three plus cut-off was, if I didn’t know how to feather, [see sidebar]. His personal motto was ‘never sing alone’ which means don’t come in early and don’t cut off late.”

It’s one thing to send a solo tape if you want solo work but how do you show off your ability to sing backgrounds? Jon admits that it’s hard. You get that kind of work through word of mouth. But he did hear one tape that was only keyboards and a vocalist who sang all the backgrounds herself. “It was a beautifully arranged thing,” says Jon. “It took your breath away and caught your ear right away. It didn’t show that she would blend with other voices but it did show that she was a wonderful musician with great ears. I don’t hear that very much when I get tapes. Susan adds, “In the case of this one tape where you don’t know her but you like what she does, if Jon had the opportunity he might hire her in a big group and if she was terrible other people would tell him and they would cover for her. And if she was good, he’d find that out too. When Ron Hicklin finally hired me in a group it was a forty-eight voice group for a Carpenters Christmas album. Forty-eight voices! He wasn’t taking any chances.”

“Soloists are not called upon to read alot,” according to Susan. “If you’ve got the sound [the producers] want they’ll teach you the song [but] if you’re a background singer, they don’t have any patience with you if you don’t pick it up real quick.” Background singers are required to read, blend, have good personalities and be team players, i.e. people who can subordinate their personality to what’s going on in the group.

“A producer assumes that you’re going to be able to sing the notes,” says Jon. “The subtlety of expression that he’s looking for is the thing that sets apart the pros from the amateurs, in terms of a phrase or a grace, and it’s inexpressible. That’s why there’s so many jokes about ‘could you sing it more purple.'” In addition, says Susan, “in the jingle business it’s not just ‘can you evoke the mood’ it’s also ‘can you do it in twenty minutes.'”

“The more you do it ,the better. Take any opportunity.” says Susan. “When I first came to town, this brilliant unknown guitarist, Alan Sylvestri, needed a singer for a porno film he was working on. He had three tunes he wanted done. I wasn’t ready to sing in the studio but I learned a lot. Meanwhile Alan is now this huge success writing movie scores.

Jon Joyce is a very active union member of both AFTRA and SAG. The AFTRA hotline number where you can get recorded information is (213) 461-1377.

When Rock Singers Need Help

By Lis Lewis

Rock singers often end up with vocal problems. Too often those problems are exposed in the press: shows canceled, recording dates postponed, bands replaced in tours because the singer had no voice. Rock and roll is a big noisy emotional business and singers tend to rant and rave until their voices are shot. The music industry doesn’t care because there’s always the next young rock singer waiting to take the place of the old used up one. But if it’s your voice, what happens to the rest of your career?

When you start singing in a rock band (or any band for that matter) you sing from an intuitive place. Open your mouth and the song (and the feeling) comes out. But when you start learning the skills of singing, you become more self conscious. You pay attention to details such as pitch, tension and tone. Suddenly you are thinking too much, and that interferes with the emotion.

There is a balance that has to happen between skill and intuition. Part of you should pay attention to the technique and part of you to the feeling and the attitude. If you’ve been singing from attitude for all this time, then there is going to be a serious backlash while you learn skills and it’s upsetting when it happens to you. But have faith; as your skills become more ingrained, the emotion comes back and you’re ready for a long career.

I have a student who is very confused about the fact that his voice is changing. I don’t blame him. Up till not he has been shouting and hurting his voice. Now he’s paying more attention to how he produces sound, and he feels better. His higher notes are stronger, and his voice doesn’t get hoarse. But his band mates tell him that he sounds different. And he doesn’t feel as uninhibited. I know just how he feels.

Imagine that you are an amateur tennis player. You’ve got a great serve and are getting lots of attention from pro trainers. Once you sign up with one of them, they start changing things. You get mad. You say, why did you sign me if you are going to mess with the very things that are good about what I do? The trainer would say to you, as I am now, you’ve got a gift but it needs discipline. You must be able to do it day after day, in bad situations as well as good. You’ve got to learn your craft so you can be on top of your game all the time.

While talking to a very prominent producer the other day, I mentioned to him that rock singers came into my studio for voice training only after they were in trouble. He agreed with me telling me stories of singers he was working with in the studio, singers who were signed to major record companies, who had no idea how to take care of their voice, how to warm up, what to do when they had vocal problems. They hadn’t learned how to play their instrument yet.

I was surprised to hear this from him since he is the producer of some very high profile hard rock acts. I told him that most producers seem to want singers to sing higher, louder, longer and don’t really know much about using the voice as an instrument. He didn’t disagree with me, but he did say that a lot of the time, rock singers making their first record for a big label end up having to start voice lessons in the middle of the recording. He added that their singing usually suffered while they were having to concentrate on their technique. It takes a while for any singer to absorb a new method of singing. The emotion of the song has to be put on the back burner until the new technique becomes intuitive.

Many singers put off voice lessons until the last minute because they’re afraid of sounding “trained”, of losing their emotional connection to the music, of changing. But change can be for the better. You know when you’ve hurt yourself by shouting or pushing too hard; you know when that high note is killing you. Wouldn’t it be great if singing was easier? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a partner who understood your voice as well as or better than you? What a relief it would be to have a person you could tell your worries and fears about your voice and have them be able to help. That’s what a voice teacher does.

What You Learn In Lessons

The kinds of things you might learn in lessons include the basics like proper breathing, pitch and tone control and strengthening. But you also learn how to hit the high note without straining, how to move easily and flexibly throughout your whole range and how to increase your range. You learn how to sing for hours at a time without getting tired, what and when to eat and drink, how to turn in a great performance time after time. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of major artists having to cancel shows due to vocal strain, or having to lower keys the longer they’re on tour. A healthy voice shouldn’t have to go through this. If you know your instrument, it won’t happen to you.

I have a very famous client who has been putting up a good front, acting like his voice is fine – as if it just needed some rest. But he knew he was in trouble. He was afraid to fix it. Everyone around him relies on his singing for their income. He couldn’t confess that he was losing his voice, that the high notes were suffering, that his throat hurt. He was also afraid that his recognizable sound might change. But he overcame his fear and started lessons. He really didn’t know what else to do.

After working on his technique for six weeks he feels stronger, more confident and more in control. He’s been incredibly serious about practicing because he knows how much is at stake – his career and the livelihoods of many, many other people. And it’s paid off. His range is bigger and more flexible, he can sing longer phrases. In fact singing is just easier. Now he warms up before every rehearsal, performance or recording date. He knows he has an instrument he can rely on and he knows how to treat it so it will last.

Don’t wait until you are having serious problems. If you want your voice to last your whole lifetime, treat it with respect. Find a good working partner in a voice teacher who can help you strengthen and maintain your voice. Develop your relationship with your teacher now so you have someone to rely on when you need it.

Practicing Creativity

By Lis Lewis

A singer is an artist. Whether you sing your own material or interpret other people’s, you’re bringing insight about life and your worldly perspective to your songs. You probably grew up singing to records, memorizing your favorite songs and the way your favorite singers sang them. But at some point you had to put away their versions and sing your own. What is your own version? How do you discover what makes you special? How do you make your voice a distinctive one?

Some people sound so much like the singers they admire, that they bring very little of their own interpretation to their singing. When you hear a truly distinctive voice, like Gwen Stefani, Macy Gray or Alanis Morissette, you know you are going to hear something personal and specific, not generic. Their voices are unique and interesting, full of personality. The moment you hear them, you recognize them. But no matter how much you appreciate them, you shouldn’t sound like them.

Don’t be afraid to copy other artists. The great painter, Vincent Van Gogh, greatly admired Japanese art, so he copied Japanese calendars to learn the technique. But when he painted his own paintings they looked nothing like the calendars he copied. All those years of listening to and emulating singers have been your research; you’ve learned from what has come before you. Now you can combine all that information along with your own sound into a new creation – you.

It’s frightening to fly out of the safety of what’s already been successful and into the wide open space where no one has gone before. What if you try and you fail? What if you make mistakes? What if you have no ideas? Yes, these things are all possible, even probable. You will make mistakes; in fact you must make mistakes. Since you are making your own path, there are no right or wrong answers. You are the creator of your own way. Some of the things you create you will love; some will be discarded. If you don’t take the risk of making mistakes, you won’t be able to have the success. Make up a new melody over an old one. Throw your arms in the air when you feel like it, even if you knock the microphone off it’s stand. Wear purple and green together. Try an arrangement that’s just your voice and the bass. Experiment in every way you can. Throw caution to the winds.

On A More Practical Note

This doesn’t mean throwing yourself off the edge of a cliff. Experimenting is like improvising a jazz vocal. You understand the structure you’re singing over and elaborate on it. You aren’t singing a melody in the middle of nowhere. You’re singing over the same chords as the original melody. When you decide to jump onto the top of the speakers, you should know if they are going to hold your weight.

It also means being open to spontaneity, responding to your surroundings. If you hear the little riff the guitarist just played, you can sing it back to him with a variation. Something in the drum part might trigger an idea for a double time feel. One of my favorite parts of being in a band is rehearsing. That’s when you can try anything, experiment, be loose. The collaboration process makes creativity so much easier. One of you has an idea that another might build on. If one of you is blocked another might have something to unblock you.

The ability to be spontaneous is one that needs to be practiced. We don’t get enough opportunity in our daily lives to respond impulsively to situations because we are taught to be careful and polite. We are socialized and that’s good for society. But in your artistic life, you must practice creativity. Allow yourself to have impulses and follow them even if they don’t work. For instance, when you have the idea to grab the mic off of the stand, just do it without worrying if you’ll knock it over. If you feel like spinning in circles or sitting down, do it! Try it. Allow your feelings to show. Don’t judge your actions before you try them.

Here’s an exercise. Go to the art supply store and buy some colors and a big pad of blank paper. There are many different kinds available: oil paints in crayon form, colored ink in squeeze brushes, watercolors and more. Choose colors that are easy to work with and that appeal to you. Set aside twenty minutes in which to paint and don’t answer the phone or allow interruptions. Spread the colors out in front of you and paint five fast abstract pictures. No literal images. Just paint on paper. Pick up a color you like and make a shape or a splash or a line on the page. Don’t labor over this. It should fun and fast. Allow your impulses to lead you to action. The end result is unimportant; it’s the process of being spontaneous that counts.

When you sing, you have very high expectations. You want to sound good, you don’t want to miss a note or forget a word. But that can be inhibiting. You might be paying too much attention to the technical skills and not enough to the emotive ones. When you do the painting exercise, you have no expectations (unless you’re a painter, in which case this exercise won’t work.) You are free to be playful. Try things. Put one color over another. Put water on the page. Crinkle the paper. Experiment.

Grab every opportunity you get to practice your creativity. Take a dance class. Join an improv group. Learn to juggle. Expand the possibilities.

The Art Of The Singer – Ready, Set, Perform

By Lis Lewis

A singer has an intense job. No matter what your mood, or how difficult your day, you need to be able to jump up in front of the audience and do a great performance. This means being able to sing the energized uptempo numbers as well as the blues ballads even if your day was right out of a soap opera. You must make a shift from your daily life into a state of mind that transcends the ordinary.

This state of mind is something you need to build. You probably already know what it feels like. It?s similar to how you feel when you are writing a song and the next thing you know, hours have gone by. Or, in performance, when you feel so connected to the material that it’s effortless. If only we could have that connection whenever we wanted. Every song we write would be stunning, every performance exciting. Without this feeling of connection – to the material, to the moment, to the audience – you can’t make the leap to being an ‘artist’. During your best performances, you will almost feel that the song travels through you if you just get out of its way. When you realize that your job is to move over and let it work, then you will have a great performance.

Soap Opera Day

But back to the soap opera day. Let’s say that your mother called and told you she wouldn’t pay for your voice lessons anymore and asked why you don’t get a real job. Your significant other is having a temper tantrum because you are gone all the time. Your manager called to say that none of those important people you were counting on can come to the show tonight. What happens to the connection? How can you get into the altered state that gives you the freedom you need on stage, when you are so bogged down in the mire of the soap opera?

You need a process that removes you from your everyday concerns and allows you to remember why you felt connected to those songs in the first place. That connection is what brings you into the present, into being in this moment, with this song and this audience. Being present in this way allows you to be creative and intuitive.

Over many years of performing and in working with my clients, I have developed a process to get from daily life into the mindset needed on stage. It takes getting focused, not being distracted by everyday events or even by the worries of making the performance work. It takes pulling your attention down to the quietest, most centered spot inside you where you know how to find the truth in your performance, where you are sure and confident and, therefore, free. I call this process a ‘pre-performance ritual’.

Creating A Ritual

A ritual is something that is done over and over in the same way. It is an ordered sequence of events that helps draw the participant further toward the desired conclusion through repetition. Anything can be a ritual. You come home from work, kiss your mate hello, sit in front of the TV to watch the news and start to relax. Just picturing yourself sitting in your living room can help you start to relax while you’re driving home.

Think of a wedding. There are certain things that happen every time. The bride walks down the aisle, usually in white. Certain words are always said, ‘Do you take this man…’ ‘I now pronounce you…’ The fact that we have heard these words before in this same situation and that we know they are coming give them more power than if we were hearing them for the first time. The symbolism of the events and their familiarity make the meaning of the ceremony more vivid. It connects us emotionally to other weddings that we have experienced.

The process I’ve created for moving from daily life to performance is a ritual made up of activities that draw me closer to my stage self. Your ritual will probably be different but the idea will be the same. It takes me a little over an hour to do mine but yours can be any length that works. Once I start it, I won’t do anything that would draw me out of it, like answer the phone. (That would be like stopping the wedding!)

When you’ve created a ritual that works for you, you will find that just the act of starting it will bring you closer to a performance state. You know from the beginning that you will end up on stage and each part of it draws you further in. That is how rituals work.

Turn Your Attention To Yourself

Create your own ritual. You might like long hot baths with candles and incense. If you have a lot of nervous energy before a show, jog around the block. The basic premise is to turn your attention to yourself. See how you are feeling; tune up your body and your mind just as you would an instrument.

You will need a quiet, private space. Set aside enough time, turn on the answering machine, close the door to your room. As far as everyone in your house is concerned, you’re not home. First do something physical. I love stretching and usually do a 15-minute routine. It’s great to engage your body and watch it move, see how it feels today, get out of your mind for a while. Your body, after all, is your instrument and your major means of expression. You should be connected to it. If you like to swim or run, this is the time. If you don’t do anything physical, you’d better start. If you are ever in a touring road show or have to tour in support of your record, you will need some kind of exercise to keep your mental health as well as your physical stamina.

After stretching, do some kind of meditation. If you have just worked up a sweat, you might not want to do this right now, so play with the order of things. Maybe put it after your shower. Some form of meditation is essential; it quiets your mind, relaxes your body and turns you inward. If you have one you like, use it. If not there are books and classes on meditation. It’s important to find a meditation you can actually accomplish. It should be simple and easy to do. Remember that the basic idea is to work from the outside world to an inside reality and order your ritual accordingly.

Practice Creativity

I am including a simple meditation here which is in two parts. The first part is the quiet meditation and the second is a creative visualization. Since we don’t have many opportunities in daily life to practice creativity, we need to invent some, especially before a performance when spontaneity is so important. Practicing creativity as a part of your pre-performance ritual opens up the creative pathways in the brain so your performances will be more creative.

Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Relax your body. You can think about each body part one at a time, relaxing from the toes up. Concentrate on your breathing and try to clear your mind. When you notice your mind wandering bring it back to the breathing again. Think of it as a child you are holding by the hand as you walk through the park. Your objective is to get to the other side of the park but the child keeps running off, fascinated by some new thing. Each time she runs away you gently take her by the hand again and lead her through the park. Your mind is playful and wants to be entertained. Keep bringing her back to the breathing. When you feel centered and relaxed, go on to the next part – the creative visualization.

This is where you practice creativity. You can do it anytime, not just before a show. The purpose of it is to spend some relaxed time inside your mind. Create whatever you would like to; let your mind wander. Don’t feel that you have to force anything to come to you. Your mind has a million images waiting, but you have to relax to get them. Sometimes that means going into the visualization and seeing nothing for a while. But, whatever you see, accept it and let it lead you. There are no right or wrong images; only your images.

The Creative Visualization

After you’ve quieted your mind, remain in the comfortable relaxed position with your eyes closed. Imagine that you are on a lovely path near the ocean. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is warm and the sky is blue and you feel very good. As you walk along you see the ocean and the waves gently gliding into the sand. You walk barefooted on the warm sand down toward the water. You can smell the salt in the air and feel the sun on your back. You feel comfortable and at peace. As you walk along the shoreline you see many small shells in the sand and one in particular that is very beautiful. As you walk up to this shell, you grow smaller and smaller, until you are small enough to go inside it. First you walk around the outside and see it’s delicate colors and feel the sand where it clings to the shell. You walk around to the front of the shell and stop outside. When you are ready, you will go inside the shell and inside you will find anything you can imagine. It will be completely safe and within your control because everything you find will have been created by you. When you are ready, go inside. Take as long as you like exploring the inside and come back out when you are done.

You step back onto the sand; the sun is warm and there are birds flying overhead. You feel very good. As you walk away from the shell you grow larger and larger until you are back to your normal size. You walk down the shoreline to the path you came on feeling at peace with yourself. You know you will always be able to come back to your shell whenever you want to.
The first time you do this you might find only the inside of a shell. But as you practice it more and more, you will discover worlds inside your shell. Be patient. And on the days when you don’t find anything interesting, don’t push your mind for images. Relax and float.

All The Rest

After the visualization, lay out your stage clothes. Keep them separate from the clothes you wear everyday. This gives them a certain power when you pull them out of your closet. It means it’s almost time. And if your clothes express your stage persona, then when you look at them you should get a good hit of what that persona feels like.

Take a bath or a shower, Use candles, incense – whatever appeals to you. The idea is to treat yourself well, to prepare your body for a special event and to focus on the preparations. Next, look at your face in a mirror. Really look. Most of the time when we look in a mirror, we pose to try to look good. But that’s not what other people see. All of your character, the weaknesses and the strengths, can be seen in your face. I put on make-up and watch my face and talk to myself. Crazy? Maybe. But it works. I start to see how others see me. I watch the transformation from my regular face to my made-up one. It always amazes me. This is also when I vocalize (warm up my voice). I take lots of time with this step. I’m not done until my voice feels good and my face looks right. Then I get dressed.

After this point, the rest of the world starts to get involved. While driving to the show, listen to a compilation that you’ve made of your currently favorite great performances. As other people start to interfere with your nicely-built calm, you will find that it deteriorates a little. You get to the club or the theater and find you have no dressing room or the booker has changed your performance time. You can’t just ignore it all, but if you find yourself unraveling a little you can get reconnected. Fifteen minutes before you go on, go into a cubicle in the bathroom and do a short, but focused, version of your meditation. The feeling of calm will come back and you will be centered again.

Keep At It

You might find the first few times you do this, it doesn’t work as well as I’m telling you it will. That’s because it takes time and repetition for it to gain strength. You also may find it’s hard to want to slow down and turn inward. Performing is a very out-going experience. At the theater or the club all your friends will want to say hello and talk to you about things that are unrelated to your gig. You get caught up in the excitement of the moment – although you shouldn’t be shouting over the loud music anyway. You may feel that all your adrenaline will be lost if you focus inward. But in reality, the opposite will happen. The adrenaline stays but it’s channeled, not scattered. It comes out as powerful, focused personality, as conviction and charisma which is just what you want.

The Road To Artistic Greatness: Doing What You Do (And Not Competing)

by Chris Standring

I watched a fabulous master class recently on PBS hosted by a vocal teacher at a music school. It put much of my thoughts into perspective on a subject I am constantly fascinated with.

The host had each of her students sing a song and then commented on their performance. One particular student sang and her immediate response was,

“We know you can sing well, but if you could just get past the singing we might all have a connection with you!”

Wow! What an amazing insight. This is something I come across all the time listening to singers and musicians, but never have I heard it put so articulately. Let me explain exactly what she meant by this; many artists may be technical experts – you know, vocalists able to do all the acrobatic licks, guitar players able to sweep arpeggios up the yin yang. But at the end of the day, these are merely tools. Too many musicians have a desperate (and very often subconscious) need to show their peers that they are indeed great and that they can compete with the biggest stars. However, many struggling artists get caught in this trap and this competitiveness can be a major stumbling block in the road to their success.

Why do we have to “get past the singing”? Because we need to live the song. This means literally forgetting everything you ever learned (yet having trust and faith in your abilities) and becoming vulnerable and giving in completely to the song you are singing. Deliver the song with honesty and open yourself up to the soul zone, you know that “other place” we all want to get to when we get lost in a performance. That place doesn’t always materialize and it is usually because we are too “conscious” of our surroundings, our audience and our insecurities.

It is a tough thing to “get past the singing”. How many singers have you heard that want to sound like Aretha Franklin? Or Ella Fitzgerald or Chaka Khan? They have learned all those stereotyped R&B licks and they can kick butt with the best of ’em. It’s like a boxing match. But listen to Aretha, Ella and Chaka and there’s simply never a contest going on. They are not trying to compete. Why? Because they are simply doing what they do – and boy can they do it! Of course there were years of practice, no one can simply sing like that without some degree of work, but when you hear them it’s about the song – not about the singing. Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall, Bjork. There’s something else going on – something from within.

Artists want to communicate – that is what we are on this earth to do. There are a million great singers, guitarists, sax players. But not so many true artists. It is also important to remember that the general public has not, for the most part, had a musical training. They do not hear harmony. They simply respond to what they like. And what makes them respond is that little bit of magic that emanates from a vulnerable artist delivering a song – telling a personal story.

And with this new approach I believe comes a true uniqueness as the artist explores his or her own inner feelings, qualities and life experiences and forgets about emulating heroes. Heroes are important, after all they are what initially inspired us. But if we want to be artists we have to move on and discover ourselves. And at the end of the day this is what all record companies are looking for: unique and great artists.

Chris Standring is the CEO and founder of A&R Online. He is also a contemporary jazz guitarist presently signed to Mesa/Bluemoon Records. The music is marketed at NAC and Urban AC radio. For more info on Chris’ recording career go to his personal website at

Packing An Emotional Punch

by Lis Lewis

I’m sitting in rehearsal watching a band. The singer is great – she plays guitar and piano (and she plays them both well!) and sings like an angel. The band is kicking butt. Great arrangements and solid playing. Why aren’t I jumping up and down? Something is seriously missing. It’s FEELING.

There are a lot of great bands with good songs in clubs across the country but only a very few will reach out to the audience in a way that grabs them by the throat and demands attention. Besides all the musical skill, the singer/frontperson has to mean what they’re saying. And what they’re saying has to resonate with the audience. You, the singer, have to look deeply inside yourself for real stories, not glamour or fakery, and tell us something that is so important to you that when we hear it becomes important to us. What kind of story can you tell, and mean, that would make us feel it too?

The Stories You Tell

Tell us stories about the things that have made a great impact on your life. Usually they are small events: when someone important noticed you for the first time or a time when you felt abandoned by someone you cared about, or the fight you had with someone you love. Songs are short – usually around three minutes. You only have the verses, the bridge and one chorus to tell the story because the chorus repeats. So it has to be concise but pack an emotional wallop. Short, to the point and emotional all at once. That’s a tall order.

The most common problem I see in songwriting is that the writer tries to tell too much of the story in one song. Real life is complicated and messy. For a song to work, you should use the real life story as a framework for the song but not necessarily as the actual story. Let’s say you are angry at your father for being too controlling. He doesn’t trust you and won’t give you the freedom to decide things for yourself. There are many songs in this one scenario. You can take that emotional center (the feelings that this creates in you) and write about a boyfriend who is jealous, who is always accusing you of flirting with other guys. You can write another song about trust. It could be a fantasy about how you would trust someone you loved or how you would want your father to trust you. Or it could be about why you should be trusted. Or it could be about how you doubt yourself when he doesn’t believe in you. Or it could be angry – ‘why don’t you ever believe me?’ There are twenty or thirty songs in this one subject. And they don’t have to be about your father even though that is where the real story starts. They can be about anyone who you care about, real or fictitious. You take the central feeling and develop stories around it.

The Feelings You Feel

I have to admit, though, this band I saw in rehearsal didn’t have that problem. The songs were strong and full of meaning for the singer. I know that because she is my student and I’ve watched these songs evolve. The problem was she didn’t show how she felt while she was singing them. Most people who come to me for voice lessons say, ‘I’m fine onstage. I love performing. I just need work on getting my voice stronger.’ But then I go to their shows and I see either someone standing stock still with their eyes closed or someone strutting around the stage imitating a rock singer. There’s nothing real and exceptional going on. They look like they think they are supposed to look. Kurt Cobain didn’t pretend to be anything other than who he was while he was telling real stories about how he lived. The same for Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Gwen Stefani and every other major artist. These are artists who bring their lives to the stage with them. And when they sing about their heartaches, they mean it.

So I took my student for a walk outside the rehearsal studio and we talked. These are the things I said. When you sing this flirtatious song, you have to flirt with the audience. What are you like when you are flirting? Do you get coy or sweet? Or do you get aggressive or biting or clever? Do you use your body differently when you are flirting than you do, for instance, when you’re shopping? Of course you do. In this other song about your childhood are you angry, defensive or hurt? Right now it’s too vague. I can see you’re feeling something but I don’t know what, I can’t relate to you if it doesn’t affect me. You have to show it to us in very specific detail for us to understand how you feel.

Don’t close your eyes and try to connect only to yourself. You did that when you wrote the song. Now is the time to turn it outward and direct your feelings toward the audience. If you wrote the story well enough, it should drive you to express it. Don’t hold back because you’re embarrassed. Give it out. Be courageous. Show who you are. This isn’t the time to be shy or careful. This is the time to reveal yourself in all your tortured splendor. Of course it won’t be all pretty and carefully made up. It’s blood and guts. It’s the real life story of one person. But it will make the people who hear and see it feel like it’s their story too. That’s the real meat of it; that’s what great music is all about. It’s reality made large. And after you’ve done it, after you’ve pushed yourself through the fears and the insecurities, people will look at you and think how strong you are to be able to say those things that no one else could say.

Your Ego, My Music: Conflict Management in the Music Industry

by Stuart Yahm & Matt Kramer

For many years musicians, songwriters, singers, personal managers, record company personnel, publishing company personnel, and others interested in pursuing a career in the music industry had to learn the ropes “on the street”. Talented people with no concept of how to promote themselves, how to maximize their special artistic vision, how the music industry really works, etc., lose their way and fall by the wayside. They are missing the knowledge required to recognize opportunities; they are intimidated by the unknown; they are misled by people writing about the industry from outside the industry; they read success stories blown all out of proportion by publicists trying to make an interesting story; they hear the rumors and the rationalizations of those who have failed; and their own imaginations lead them far from reality. The result is a great deal of waste; wasted time, wasted money and wasted talent.

One of the greatest wasters of all is the misuse of conflict.

Unless you are taking your first step into the world of music, you have some skeletons in your closet. Your first garage band – how did it end? Your first efforts at co-writing — what went wrong?

Many artists form relationships before they have fully expressed their needs and their expectations of each other and the group. As a result, they are surprised and unprepared for the conflicts that will surely arise. Those experiences were necessary steps in which you learned from mistakes that had to be made or the lessons would not have been learned. But at some point, you may find yourself in a magical combination of talents and personalities that has the potential to be great. Then, when problems arise, you want a better solution than breaking up the group. There are better ways to resolve conflicts and that’s what mediation is about. You want a solution that preserves the relationship and inspires even more magic.

Conflict is not a problem when it is treated as a source of information.
Mediation, the ancient practice of resolving disputes with the help of a trained, neutral third party, succeeds by transforming conflict from being a problem into a tool which reveals information that can be used to resolve the dispute. With the mediator’s tools and skills, the parties in conflict are guided toward their own mutually satisfactory resolution. Mediation promotes positive communication and cooperation by reducing rancor and tensions. Rather than having a solution imposed, as would be the case using an arbitrator or resorting to the courts, the mediator helps the parties clarify their positions, surface their needs, and create a workable solution of their own while resolving the underlying issues that led to the conflict in the first place. Other benefits of mediation over arbitration or the courts include greatly reduced costs, complete privacy and a safe, confidential environment in which to discuss all issues of conflict and their potential resolutions, and, perhaps most important, the preservation of the relationship.

It is time to bring in a professionally trained mediator to help you resolve conflict when the conflict has become volatile; when communication has broken down and is simply not happening; when the issues are so sensitive or overwhelming that the parties feel uncomfortable or frustrated when trying to speak to each other; when the parties are stalemated – when the dialogue is trapped in a cycle, repeating the same positions over and over again, unwilling or unable to compromise; or when the parties are immersed in a conflict that is camouflaging other conflicts. It is never too late, no matter how close the court date, or how hopeless the situation appears, to bring in a mediator. When you feel that the argument has reached an impasse, the mediator is ready to begin.

We have mediated between clients who have been in business together as long as twenty years.
They were often surprised to find that all those years they had been misinterpreting or misunderstanding some of each other’s perceptions, beliefs, priorities, and intentions, which had been the basis of many of their arguments. The work they did in mediation resulted in valuable revelations that were both healing and enlightening. The results of mediation are that you, artists and business people alike, can spend more time being creative and artistic, and less time being stressed and frustrated. Unresolved, poorly handled and all too predictable conflicts contribute to the loss of wonderful music and great careers.

By understanding conflict, you will experience better working relationships. You will improve the day to day interactions and underlying factors that affect the ways in which people relate to each other, especially when dealing with the inevitable and inescapable issues that arise between creative people. Conflicts can be faced and resolved before they cause significant damage to the relationship. Here are some of the most common conflicts that come up in our daily lives in the world of music: Who wrote the song? How do we share royalties? Who, and how many, do we get on the guest list? Lateness (rehearsal, gig, airport); Upstaging; Solos; Is the drummer really a musician? Volume; Stage clothes; Girlfriends and boyfriends; Disagreements with managers, publishers, agents, club managers, record company contacts, other professionals; How to split the money; How to split the bills; How to fire a band member; Musical direction; Company politics; Career conflicts; Lack of empathy and acknowledgment; Prejudice and bias; Ego (a certain amount is required but how much is too much?); Who owns the van when the band breaks up?

Pure and simple. Conflict is a message that something needs attention. We are trained from childhood, mostly by example, to avoid, suppress or defend ourselves when in conflict. The result is that the source of the conflict is seldom addressed.

The secret is to close your mouth and open your ears. Allow the other party to be heard – without judging, rationalizing, defending or fixing – just hear the message in and behind the drama you feel being directed towards you. If you can listen – really listen – without interrupting until the person has emptied their cup of angst, you will have taken a major step towards a true resolution. Having been heard, they will be better able to hear what you need to say. You will have established the beginning of an effective dialogue, one which has a good chance of achieving a mutually agreeable solution.

Stu Yahm and Matt Kramer collectively spent over 60 years in the music industry running record companies, managing artists, producing concerts, running nightclubs and, in general, introducing great musicians and audiences to each other. Some of their stories are in their book on conflict management, And The Band Broke Up, You can reach Matt Kramer at and StuYahm at



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Internal Band Agreement 101

by Danica L. Mathes

If you are an artist in a group of more than one person, then you should have a written agreement between the members of the group addressing at least the issues in the checklist below. You might even want to consider forming a corporate entity for your group, which will protect your individual assets from liability related to group activities and address the issues below as well. The Band Agreement should be negotiated towards the beginning of the relationship, when everyone is happy with everyone else. If you wait until there are problems, it will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to address these issues.

Band Agreement Checklist

  • Band Name
    Who owns the band name? What happens to the band name if the band breaks up or a band member quits/is fired? Who, if anyone, can still perform using the name? (Everyone must still be involved? The key player(s)/founder(s) must still be involved?) (Note: You may want to seek advice on trademark law prior to deciding on a name and/or to determine if you want to apply for a federal trademark registration for the name.)
  • Money
    How will band profits/debts be distributed? (Royalties, performance fees, etc.) Do some members receive/contribute more than others? Who will pay for what? Who will be keep track of band monies? What will happen when one band member contributes more time/money than expected? Will band members receive payment for projects completed and/or be responsible for debts incurred prior to leaving? (Does this change depending on whether the person leaves or is removed?) Does the band have to “buyout” the leaving member?
  • Acquisition of Assets
    How will the band acquire gear/assets? (Instruments, PA system, lights, van, merchandise, website/domain name, etc.)
  • Business Decisions
    How will band business decisions be made? (Hiring/firing lawyers, managers, agents, spending band money, signing with a record label, etc.) Majority vote? Unanimous vote? Veto power? Tie-breaker? How can the band agreement be changed?
  • Creative Decisions
    Who owns the songs we write? (Note: You may want to seek advice on copyright law prior to deciding this.) Who decides which songs to perform/record? How is it determined who gets songwriting credit? Who decides what gigs to play?
  • Band Members
    What happens when a new member is hired or an existing member leaves the band? How can band members be fired? Can a member quit at will? What if a member becomes disabled or dies? (This may be important so surviving spouses/parents are(n’t) involved with the group’s business.) What are the members’ responsibilities, relationship, etc.? What is required of each member?
  • Corporate Entities
    Partnership – Partnerships are easier to set up, but expose you and your personal assets to liability. You may want to start as a partnership and convert to a corporation once things get going.

Corporation – Corporations are somewhat more expensive to set up, but provide more protection and shelter your personal assets. A Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) is basically a partnership that provides the limited liability of a corporation.

Note: This checklist provides some business and legal issues you should consider if you are engaging in activities in the music business. However, the list is not exhaustive, is not necessarily in any particular order, and not every item on this list is necessarily appropriate for your situation. Please consult with an attorney in your area who has music industry experience for advice regarding your particular needs and issues. You may also want to engage the services of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to help you with tax preparation and entity-related decisions.

Danica L. Mathes is an Entertainment and Intellectual Property attorney with Blumenfeld, Kaplan & Sandweiss, P.C. in St. Louis, Missouri. She represents and counsels clients in various areas and genres of the arts and has worked with the likes of Nelly and the St. Lunatics, St. Louis jazz label MAXJAZZ, and Oscar-nominated film producer Buzz Hirsch. A musician since the age of 4, Danica has also been a television reporter, radio disc jockey and has worked with several NBC affiliates as well as Walt Disney Word Entertainment. For more information, visit her website at

Writing Tracks First

by John Braheny

In hip-hop and contemporary dance styles it’s common for the writers to have started the process by creating “tracks” (basic

recordings of primary rhythm instruments, usually on a digital sequencer) because in those musical styles, grooves are an extremely important factor in their appeal. Note that grooves are “trendy” and sounds are very important so if you want to write with a track writer, or Beat Maker find one who’s totally involved in current styles and has the tools to create new sounds. Track writers are usually DJ’s engineers and mixers. It’s all part of the art form.

Beat Makers vs Producers

Note, however that there’s a difference between “Beat Makers” and “Producers”.  Beat Makers aren’t necessarily producers but may be on the front end of the process and be employed by producers or sell their tracks to producers. Producers play a much bigger role. They’re responsible for the whole project and should have a vision of the final recording.

Several options are available:

1. The creator of the tracks or Beat Maker will look for a singer/songwriter in their specific genre to create the lyric, melody and performance.
2. They, or someone else will write the lyric and melody.
3. They’ll find a lyricist, then give the lyric to a singer to create a melody.

4. They’ll create a track and offer to sell it to a producer or be a co-writer with the producer.

As in any other approach to writing, there are pros and cons. Let’s start with the pros:

— The writer of the melody and lyric has a structural “roadmap” and tempo already laid out for them. If a bass part is included in the track there is also tonal structure to assist in creating a melody. (The key can easily be changed in the digital realm.)

— It can make it much easier for a lyricist to create lyric phrases that become part of the rhythm of the song. You can think of it as a more elaborate version of the process of writing to a drum machine.

— Frequently, the tracks are created by a producer, or someone who works with the producer which, from a business viewpoint, means that as a lyric and/or melody writer, you’re already involved in the final recording project.

— If you’re a writer with a great groove sense, an ear for street trends and you’re an adventurous creator of new sounds you should be creating tracks yourself.

Now for the cons:

– There is a common tendency for track producers or Beat Makers to ignore the structural and dynamic options that make a song more commercially viable and rely on a singer to create a vocal performance and melody/lyric powerful enough to make up for it. A track that doesn’t change much throughout the song can get predictable and monotonous. It may work fine in a club environment but will be less successful on mainstream radio. Note that the most successful hip-hop and rap records are those with memorable, contrasting choruses, even if they’ve sampled them from other songs (Eminem’s “Stan”). This puts a big responsibility on the writer/lyricist to create those dynamic contrasts. (See Song Form

and Dynamics)

– The Business: This isn’t really a negative if you take care of business up front. But this area is frequently contentious so I’ll lay out a couple basics. Whether you’re a track writer or you’re working with one, make sure your co-writer understands the royalty splits. A track writer should get at least a third but could justify half depending on contributions beyond very basic tracks. Also, if a track writer asks a singer/melody writer/lyricist to co-write and the co-writer says yes without agreeing beforehand to any other split, it will be, by law, 50/50. Work it out, write it down and copy it for both parties. For a good guide, go to: Don’t confuse track writers with demo arranger/producers who charge for their services. They are NOT entitled to any royalties for arranging (creating tracks for) your existing song.

Here’s another scenario. You might want to agree on paper, up front, that if what you create is acquired by a producer and that producer wants participation in the writers royalties as part of the deal,  your contributions will be diminished equally to accommodate the producers’ share. Or you might agree not to share writers’ credits but agree whether or not offer the publishing the producer.

Bottom line is working it out in front so nobody feels burned.


John Braheny is a consultant and coach for songwriters and writer/artists and the author of the best-selling book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. Visit his site at or e-mail him at

Questions About ‘Writing Tracks First’

By Lis Lewis

After I read John Braheny’s great article on writing to tracks, I had a lot of questions which I wrote to him. Here are my questions and his answers.

Why would the split be 50/50 if one person writes both the melody and the lyric and the other the track. The music would be half and the lyric half so wouldn’t the singer get 3/4? (half for the lyric and 1/4 for the melody?)

It would seem logical, which is what gets people into trouble. It would be 50/50 because there are 2 people writing it, and in the event that they had NOT agreed on paper beforehand, by law, it’s automatically split that way. If a track writer asks a singer/melody writer/lyricist to write with him/her and he/she agrees, it’s 50/50 UNLESS, before they agree, they work out a different split. If the track writer initiates the collaboration it’s understandable that it wouldn’t be in their interest to negotiate the split beforehand and receive less than a 50/50 split. That’s a problem if the singer/etc. agrees, does the work, then later decides they should have a bigger split. Lots of great work is abandoned in limbo because bad feelings and intransigence stop it in its tracks. So don’t ASSUME you know what the split is.

Also what happens when you are in the studio with a producer who you are paying and the producer rewrites the song? Do you stop paying him for his producing at that point because he’s getting songwriting credit? Or does he not get songwriting credit?

You don’t encourage or allow the producer to re-write your song unless you’re willing to split
ownership. If you go into the session saying “I’d like some help with this melody”, you are, in effect, requesting a co-write. It’s at that point that you should say, “I’ll offer you 20% (for example) to work on (specific part of the song) this if I’m satisfied with what you contribute.” Otherwise, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, it will automatically be 50/50. If you’re going to be co-writers, also agree to deduct whatever percentage of his/her demo production bill you’ve agreed on. Co-writers should share demo costs unless they’ve worked out other trades (pitching, Web-site maintenance, singing or playing on the co-writers other projects etc.).

Remember that if you agree to pay someone for demo production/arranging services, you are in
control and it’s up to you to decide whether anyone changes any part of your song. There are many individual situations where this gets dicey. Unscrupulous or (giving them the benefit of the doubt) inexperienced, unprofessional demo producers may say after the fact, “What I contributed, that great guitar riff or keyboard figure really made this song work and without my contribution nobody would be interested in it.” The words of a bully and the beginning of an “intimidation ritual.” You can tell him, “I hired you because I expected you to use your talent and expertise to contribute that. Otherwise, I would have hired someone else. If you wanted writer credit for doing what I agreed to pay you for, you should have said so before we started working on it so we could both decide whether it was worth it for you not to get paid and for me to share my copyright.

It’s common for young, inexperienced singers to be intimidated by someone they feel is much more experienced and allow themselves to be talked into something they’ll feel conflicted about later. Always have the producer tell you before you start working, and in writing, what they will agree to do for you. Have someone check it out first. When in doubt, or if you don’t feel right about the person, don’t agree. Say you need to speak to your advisors first. I’ve played that role many times as a consultant. Don’t let anything they say cause you to agree to or sign anything on the spot before you do this. I just talked to a new writer who felt he had to have a demo and let someone talk him into agreeing in advance to pay for several demos (that he hadn’t even written the songs for). The producer didn’t listen to the writer’s musical requests, then, when the writer didn’t like the results and refused to pay for them, the producer sued him for the work still not done. The writer could barely afford to pay for the first demo, let along pay for attorney fees to defend himself. I asked why he hadn’t called the Songwriters Guild (SGA) or L.A. Lawyers for the Arts or someone else who could give him feedback. Unfortunately, he didn’t know they existed. Learn about your resources before you get into trouble.

Maybe I’ve been getting this wrong all this time. Are you telling me that the music/lyric split doesn’t exist anymore? And now it’s a 50/50 split if there’s two people no matter who did what?

That’s correct. What if two people collaborate and both write both lyric and music? What if it’s three people? Whole bands collaborate and split it five ways. One might write the chorus lyric and two others collaborate on the rest of the lyric etc.

How do you know what the split should be until after you’ve written it?

It doesn’t matter. If there are two of you writing, it doesn’t matter. Once you start getting into arguing about who should get what because their contribution was more important, you don’t have a collaboration, you have a war. One writer will fight for a line not because it’s the best line but because he can make a bigger percentage if it stays in.

The only way it works other than that is if you need to have someone finish a song, write a bridge etc. and you offer them a specific percentage to do it and they accept. It’s negotiated beforehand in that case.