What have I learned

Let me lay out a couple of things I’ve learned in the past almost decade of producing free music. They would probably apply to any aspiring musician. Many of them may be obvious and intuitive, but it’s always helpful to take stock.

Lesson 1

No one cares about my music the way I do. There’s no reason for them to – for me its a primary extension of self. It’s what I pour myself into, laboring, debating, molding, and refining everything for a ridiculous number of hours. Then, after all this toil and triumph, I release an album, where all my pride and insecurities are balled up in an explosive state of nervous excitement. My friends and fans will support and celebrate with me, which is truly amazing, but it’s important to recognize that most people don’t care about it, nor understand the effort it takes. It’s important (though almost impossible) not to have expectations of how my music will be received. What’s most important is how I feel about my music. You’ll hear this again and again when you’re an artist – it just took experience for me to internalize it.

This is so true for so many things in life. I watch a movie, and when the credits are rolling I start thinking about what to do next. Only when I start watching the “making of” on the DVD do I begin to appreciate how amazing the process of creating the movie was. I created an interactive “making of” page for one my previous albums to give a listener some insight to the creation process. Hopefully it made the music more interesting to listen to.

It’s always a good idea to talk to people about the process of creating something, be it an event, a piece of art, a cake, or whatever. I’m often oblivious of the extraordinary effort it takes to accomplish a task.

Lesson 2

When I released my first two albums, I really pushed my music on my friends, family, and peers, since, well, there’s already an established relationship. What I didn’t recognize is that many people I know don’t really care about music. Then there’s those who do, but don’t really dig my downtempo stylings. While of course there are exceptions, I finally recognized this isn’t really my target audience. My target audience are folks who dig downtempo melodic electronica, which is a certainly a niche category.

Lesson 3

Why was no one coming to my website to download my free music for the first few years? Because no one knew about it. I had to learn the art of promotion. Since I’m not trying to sell my music, the traditional channels – i.e. labels – are not available. I must contact the radio stations, magazines, websites, blogs, and forums myself. Occasionally a fan will help spread the word – and to those people I am incredibly grateful.

Successful promotion turns out to be cast a wide a net as possible, putting a lot of effort in spreading the word, sending out cds, and getting very little back. You have to accept a lot of rejection. I’ve learned to be happy if 5% of my emails or mailings gets a response – that is, not even a positive response, but a message indicating that the party will or did check out my music. It’s not really something that I enjoy.

Lesson 4

Just because people know about something, doesn’t mean they’ll care. When I hand someone a business card, realistically, there’s a minuscule chance they’ll go check out my website. When I hand someone a cd, there’s maybe a 50% chance they’ll listen to it. The best time to hand someone a cd is when they’re about to go their car, and I can suggest they check it out on their journey. We now live in an era where data is free, and people collect it without using it. Humans like to have stuff. If they do end up on my website and download an album or track, it may get lost in the shuffle of other downloads.

Lesson 5

Unless your music is simple and poppy, or incredibly accessible, most people won’t be able to make sense of it on first listen, and consequently not return for a second listen. I can not approach my own music with fresh ears – I’m intimate with every second of it. It’s great to have someone who’s not a huge music fan listen to my music before I release it to gauge how most people will receive it. It has previously helped shape the ordering of  tracks on an album. Accessible music will always be more popular than complex music.

I’ve learned that it often takes many listens for people to start really enjoying my music. My favorite story is of a co-worker who’s cd player broke with my cd in it, so they had to listen to it all day on repeat. The next day he told me never to stop writing music.

My next album will not be very accessible. At least I now know what to expect. The advantage of being totally independent is that I can choose to make musical decisions like this. I’m writing more complicated music because that’s what I want to do.

Lesson 6

This is the most important thing I’ve learned – the small percentage that do care and listen to my music, don’t think how important it is for me to get feedback from them. This is completely normal. How often to do you appreciate something and think “I should tell the artist (or whatever) how much I enjoy their art?” Not often. Since the process of acquiring my music is completely devoid of personal interaction (click on a link on a website), there’s nothing bonding the downloader to me. They download the music, and perhaps listen to it sometime down the line. Maybe they like it – maybe the don’t. I will most likely never get feedback. The thing I’ve taken away from this is to always contact artists when I enjoy their work. It’s a great habit. Or if an artist is serious about soliciting feedback, both negative and positive, I try to do so. They always really appreciate it.

In Conclusion

I don’t mean to sound like it’s a negative experience to create and release music – it’s not. There’s simply a lot of challenges I never imagined. I absolutely celebrate the tools, ability, and lifestyle that allows me to craft the music that I want to. I’m still in awe that there’s a distribution method that allows me to share my music at almost no cost to the entire world.

We are still very much at the beginning of the musical explosion that’s about to take place. The tools that are available completely eliminate the cost barrier to create music. As this generation learns those tools, the variety and quantity of output will be staggering.

Good times ahead. And good times right now.

I would love to hear what other lessons musicians have learned, or your experiences with anything I mentioned.

About The Author


49 comments

Falls A Star » 29 May 2008 » Reply

In the spirit of #6, then: thanks for this post. It follows closely with my own experiences.

Todd Williams » 29 May 2008 » Reply

Thank you for the insights in to this process. Like you said, a lot of it is “obvious and intuitive”, but sometimes that is the best adviceinfo. Our wives and kids know we love them, but saying it makes a big difference sometimes.
In any case your experiences help me to realize again how difficult and unrewarding this “business” can be and re-affirm the idea that I must compose primarily for myself.
I have been trapped in a limbo of “why bother” and this blog gave me a little step up from that hole.
Thanks and regards
Todd.

Matt Bentley » 29 May 2008 » Reply

Hi Todd-
thanks for the post, if I may offer a suggestion?
You should only ever release an album one or two months after it’s finalised. This is something I’ve learned over the past three years –
if you release it straight away, you’re too attached to it and to the response to it, and the chances are that you’ll get downhearted with the results.

On the other hand I’ve found, when you release it a couple of months later, you’re detached to the response, and whatever small praise you get back is quite heartwarming. It’s best not to put it out there too quickly, while your heartstrings are still entwined with the project.

Otherwise, fantastic post, and I hope you keep writing stuff. #1 absolutely matches my experience, so cheers-
matt

Matt Bentley » 29 May 2008 » Reply

Dar, I meant “Hi James”-
I was reading the above poster’s name 😉
Matt bentley music

nofish » 29 May 2008 » Reply

A sleepless night surfing the net, reading your blog and listening to your music.
Thanks.

jordan » 29 May 2008 » Reply

Killer post, JimmyK. Thanks for sharing.

Sam » 29 May 2008 » Reply

Like the son goes….Video killed the radio star

The internet killed the ability for low sale musicians to make money :(

Good blog though dude :)

Lyn Bishop » 30 May 2008 » Reply

Thanks for sharing your experience in the Music industry. I find many parallels to my own experience in the world of fine art. I appreciate you giving voice to the concerns and realities of artists of all types.

s4w2th » 31 May 2008 » Reply

This post may seem obvious to someone who has been around the block, but to the newbies it’s wisdom from the trenches. I’ve learned to seek out the hard critiques, and to be as thick skinned as possible. Any advance in my music has been from taking a serious hard and balanced look at what has just been my best effort. And yes I did get my nose bloodied a few times at the beginning. But the carnage aside, it is very nice to be reminded what a beautiful experience this continues to be.

AbbyLadybug » 31 May 2008 » Reply

Wow! That was so deep, I’m going to have to write an entire blog back just to comment on your commentary!

Thanks, as always, for sharing your music and personal thoughts with us. That takes guts, courage, and a whole lot of vulnerability… especially for a composer who takes his work as seriously as you do.

One of your biggest fans,
Abby “Ladybug”

gail » 31 May 2008 » Reply

It was great being able to discuss these issues with you in person!

Klemperer » 1 Jun 2008 » Reply

I agree to nearly all you wrote, except part 5. Okay, of course it is partly right too, some people just love the easiest boom boom boom boom techno or chart-smash hits which sound a bit, errm, too easy.
But apart from family and friends who seem not to take you seriously just because they know you (experiment would be to create a myspace or sth site with a strange name not pointing to you and making them listen as they are in your place – would be interesting, in my case reactions differ MUCH if people don’t know the music is made by me;-))) – so apart from them don’t under-rate your listeners. I know a writer who sold quite a few books, but got just 5-10 mails about the book… she got prizes and so on. So I think point 5 may be half or so right;-), but some people will enjoy your music, but just enjoy and re-listen, not talking about it to you. How many times did we enjoy something really, but well, simply like the art of it, without having to really TALK about it.
Very good post, was a pleasure to read thank you!

Fred Laforge » 2 Jun 2008 » Reply

Hi,

Thanks for this insightful blog. This made me think of a quote from the great French poet Baudelaire who was writing to a friend and said, “This poem reminds me of the writing in the famous book “…”; of course you may object that only 4 or 5 people in our circle of friends know this book, but what other definition of famous can there be?”

Bye,
Fred

Erik Willis » 2 Jun 2008 » Reply

Hey bro – Great blog. I appreciate the insight. I absolutely agree that there’s going to be a flood of new high-quality music coming straight from people in their homes. I think we’re already starting to see that happen more and more. Thanks for the free music! My favorite track off of Cool Aberations is “the grenabler.” The electronic synth at the very beginning plus the grimey synth and then the bass throughout the track is really cool. I think I just love funk…

Thanks!

Heinz Karnitschar » 2 Jun 2008 » Reply

Oh, this is so me! It was like reading my own diary. Thank you for posting this blog, it is so good to see other musicians experience the same things as I do …

Rowan » 6 Jun 2008 » Reply

great blog. and given what you wrote in lesson 6: i totaly love your music and im looking forward to hearing your new album, just like some friends of mine who feel the same way 😀

digital lofi » 11 Jun 2008 » Reply

Not only am I a fan of this great piece of writing, I am now a fan of your very cool, music.

See my full response here: http://www.digitallofi.com/words/2008/06/11/homework/

I hope you don’t mind, but I embedded one of your tracks in the post. I’m hosting, and it’s not a download – streaming player – but drop me a line (puffer – at – digitallofi.com) if it’s a problem.

cheers.

Jesse » 17 Jun 2008 » Reply

Very interesting blog.

I’ll put lesson 6 to practice and mention that I have really enjoyed all of your music and really look forward to your upcoming album.

I originally discovered you when I happened to be aimlessly browsing the WXPN website and they had a link to your website.

If I ever get more serious about spreading my own music, I’ll take these Lessons into consideration.

Star » 21 Jul 2008 » Reply

I’ve sent you email before, telling you how much I LOVE your music…. how often I listen to it…. how often I come back to your site hoping there is yet more of it for me to enjoy. Your music is sustenance for the soul… it takes me to places far from the world I am in at the time…

I’ve told many of my friends about your music. Some, like you say, aren’t really into that type of music, but many more are. They have told their friends, and so on and so on and so on. We aren’t just cheering you on and hoping for more somewhere in the future… we are celebrating the essence of life that is within your music, with you!

I enjoyed reading your post. It lets us, your fans, see more of the inside of you, and I (just a voice in the wilderness) think that it’s as wonder-filled and magnificent as your music.

Namaste’
Star

Dane Weasel » 16 Oct 2008 » Reply

I learned about your music thru a friend on the web some time ago… and i have been using/listening to your musig a lot since that. Especially when i am working on complex and hard to break computer problems. It makes me concentrate so much people have to grab me, if they need my attention. And it’s not because i cant hear them 😉 i use loudspeakers – not earbuds or such.

Dave Krause » 9 Nov 2008 » Reply

Found you off the radio one day and then Googled ya – best thing I remembered to do – ha ! … a lot of insightful stuff here – tks for sharing … I just luv your tracks … Comfort Zone, just, speaks to me …

Mrsomuch » 11 Jan 2009 » Reply

I found you through the Charlie and the chillout factory podcast with Charlie North here in the UK. I’m just listening to Cool Aberrations now and thoroughly enjoying it. I dabble making music and have released some stuff in a similar manner – check out Blackearthmedia, I’m part of Sunrise…

It’s lovely to meet people on the journey who are not totally tied into the commercial side of music. I DJ and make music because I love it. It defines me and makes me whole, I could never put a price on that. Of course, if I receive a bit of cash along the way it’s very welcome, but I would never want it to turn into a job. Reading your very erudite and heartfelt experiences is really affirming and positive, and your music is interesting, funky and soulful.

Nice one. I shall be back.

sd » 17 Jan 2009 » Reply

You have no idea how helpful this is. Thank you and from now on I’ll take your advice on contacting the musicians whose work I like.

llltrunkslll » 17 Feb 2009 » Reply

Thank Gen. Fuzz, truely for your time/effort. I first heard of you through the Pandora Music website. Well played strategy my friend! I wish you encouragement and success. You’re definitely a cut above the rest of us Reason beat-makers that only dabble, but as one I can surely appreciate your talent.

matt w » 3 Mar 2009 » Reply

hey i just listened to TC on the spacemusic podcast, i heard some of your work, i really zoned out was great, so im just downloading soulful fillings. Really great site with lots of info, you spoke about creating your own mp3 mixer, how did you actually make it? ie materials etc, sorry if its already on the site,keep making great music, as a film maker i understand the amount of work that goes into creating art. Peace out

Joyce » 29 Mar 2009 » Reply

Very motivational post. I have both computer programming skills and music skills (pianist) but haven’t actually had experience combining both together. Would be certainly an eye opener to combine both to produce something 😀

Matthias » 22 Apr 2009 » Reply

Hi James,
thank you for your music! I met it the first time a few months ago as a soundtrack of a short animation by Sebastian König from Leipzig, Germany:
http://www.vimeo.com/756363

Your music sounds strong and sensitive to me at the same time, very positive and alive. It gives me joy and a smile for my day and the people around me.
Good to know you and your art in the world.

Shane » 28 May 2009 » Reply

Brother, do you jam? I have a strange impression that we might actually be long lost twins. Kicking it in SF 5mo now and looking for someone to toss around some music. I kick it on rhodes as well but never leave the guitar at home. Playing with other musicians as you put definitely breaks you out of the box and some comfortable habits. Hit me up via email or on Electronic Meetup group if you’re down for a weekend song. Thanks for putting a few words out there. Not enough people do that.

Kraku » 2 Jun 2009 » Reply

I realized something while reading the Lesson 5:

This is exactly what the record companies have realized. That’s exactly why they demand that the artist comes up with atleast 2-3 pop songs per album, which they can then use in music videos to reach the largest possible audience. The rest of the tracks can be the artist’s own style non-pop music. When the listeners get hooked to the easy listening pop tracks, they’ll buy the album and the record company wins. If the artist writes enough pop songs in the album, the listeners think they got “enough for the money” and will also buy the following album.

And thank you for sharing these thoughts. They also got my own brain cells working and noticing things from the music business I never really thought about :)

Sebastian » 26 Jul 2009 » Reply

James! I came across your music yesterday and couldnt be happier about finding it. I completely agree with your insights in music and although I dabble at making music my passion is photography. I think that your insights carry over into any art form and I appreciate your taking the time to explain how that fits into your world and your work. The key I think, is to do what you want to do, the rest will just have to fall into place. Keep on doing it and I’ll keep on listening because I can tell that you do it for all the right reasons and that in itself is incredibly interesting and motivational.

David » 16 Dec 2009 » Reply

Thank you so much for your music and your blog. I was having a little problem with my cables while recording the other day, searched “How do I minimize fuzz from my cables?” and came across your blog- 10 tips on creating computer music. I bookmarked it immediately. I came back to your article later and discovered your music in the process, and downloaded the “Soulful Filling” album. It’s incredible- just the kind of music I enjoy and hope to produce myself.
Meanwhile, as you recommended, I make do with the limited resources I have and see what I can do with it. Thank you for the inspiration!

TC » 29 Dec 2009 » Reply

I look up to you. I’m not much of an artists, but the way you have handled your music and it’s presentation is inspiring to me. Thank you.

RH2 » 12 Mar 2010 » Reply

Ha, just found your music today.

You sir, are skilled.

Dom » 22 Apr 2010 » Reply

Nice post, nice advices. I’m a videogame music composer since 2 years now, and wow…

My life is a challenge, day after day…and I love it!:) I found myself in your text, it was really worth to read it.

BTW, good music, keep up the good work!

Dom

ubey » 7 May 2010 » Reply

i love your stuff. think i found it many years ago off a link on the ableton forums. i listened to it for a long time, i moved a lot, sold lots of gear, lost most of my music, hard drive crashes, etc.

was walking home from work today and had ‘ray squared’ stuck in my head. was a great moment getting home and googling you again.

please make more fuzzy style music.

Jim Aikin » 25 Jul 2010 » Reply

Thanks for writing this post. I’ve been wondering how I might be able to promote my music, and you’ve articulated very clearly both some of the problems and some possible solutions.

Keats’ Handwriting » 22 Dec 2010 » Reply

I always try to do lesson 6 – if I like something I tell the musician– I just wrote two emails today before reading your blog– I just heard you on pandora- I liked it on the first listen :) then again, I make downtempo music, so I don’t need as much acclimation. Anyways, love the tunes :)

Braderunner » 24 Jan 2011 » Reply

Well, you just got yourself another listener. As a visual artist, I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything up there. People don’t appreciate my art like I do. Often a piece that I spend hours on and absolutely love isn’t liked by many others, and vice versa. I’d write more, and I probably will, but for now I’ve got stuff to listen to.

Mike Kneller » 24 Jan 2011 » Reply

Totally agree with all your lessons.

I’ve spent the best part of my life performing, writing and recording music and it’s incredibly frustrating when you realise that the majority of the world couldn’t give a ****. Having said that, when you do find someone who appreciates the effort that has been put into a track it tends to make up for it.

Tod » 12 Feb 2011 » Reply

Hello. Just wanted to say, that I heard you on Pandora and was instantly loving it. I have a vary wide taste in music so I revel in hearing something that stops me and I have to find out who made it, and where to find more. I also love your ‘lessons’ posts about creating. I spend time painting and designing and even when you show something hours of your work and passion, they always underestimate how much time you spend on something you enjoy doing. It certainly doesn’t help pay the bills.

I hope to learn more about creating music so I will be reading all of your lessons over the next day or so. Many thanks!

Bobby B » 31 Mar 2011 » Reply

Thanks for the great music and great blog!
Made my evening finding this gem. I’ll definitely be giving soulfull filling some radio loving this week.
thank you for making this music available to the community

Sam » 2 Apr 2011 » Reply

This is a brilliant little article/insight, definitely one under the favorites.

Gina » 23 Sep 2012 » Reply

I am a new listener(approx.10 mins new).
And just by reading your lessons, I feel like I want to like your music. Im sure after a couple of listens it will make me float. I appreciate all your hard word, especially the part when you will not dumb your music down to poppy nonsense.

Ricardo » 15 Oct 2013 » Reply

Man, amazing music and I really like these insights. Brilliant clarity of thoughts and definitely all points very well nailed. Keep the good work! (downloading some of your tunes)

Serge » 18 Sep 2014 » Reply

Lesson 2 is exactly spot on! Love your music, bro! Keep it up!

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