music

Silly/Serious turns Serious

Well… I made it to 15 weeks of my songwriting challenge of 2 songs a week and then could be neither silly nor serious anymore. Also, during that time I put more silly songs onto Soundcloud than serious ones and there is a good reason for that.

Mid songwriting challenge I started sending my serious ones (well the ones that weren’t ridiculously jolly) over to Paul Otten to produce and co -write unaware that it would turn into anything. I met Paul at a Taxi Road Rally a couple of years back and we became facebook friends along with a whole bunch of other really supportive Taxi people. Musicians need this kind of support group to keep going… and cosmopolitans ;)

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Myself with the 2 Pauls – Paul Otten is on the right, the other is Paul Cufflin, another very talented singer/songwriter.

Paul had produced a commercial song called Colour It for me previously and I really liked what he did. But when I sent him my serious songs it turned out that we shared a common love of an indie/folk/rock sound and our voices sounded really good together.

After sending the first song to my publisher they LOVED it but wanted a rewrite of the lyrics and so I entered into my first collaboration for many years. I wasn’t a fan of songwriting collaboration (I know,I know… collaboration is essential to songwriting… blah blah blah) so I was a little cautious. But it was really cool. The beauty of it is that if you get stuck you can ask the other person, but egos must be left at the door. You can’t fall in love with an idea/line/melody if the other person isn’t into it. The power of veto. It works in my marriage and seems to work in collaboration. And Paul is very easy to work with. We put our first song up on soundcloud which you can still listen to here.

So we tried another song which, again, everyone at my publishers office were gushing over so we figured we were onto something. Watching my 15 year old teenage daughter break out into a weird dance every time I played it in the car was also a reassuring sign :)

Six songs later and we are going to be releasing an EP under the project name of Big Little Lions. The name came about because he is really tall and I am… well… a little on the short side!

If you want to know more info as I get it you can either sign up to my email list by sending me an email at helen@helenaustin.com or by following me on twitter and Facebook.

Search for the Unicorn

Part 1 – Finding the photo

One day I came across a photo being used by a friend as her Facebook profile pic and I knew I had to use it as an album cover. There was something about this cute little fella that I just couldn’t put my finger on, something about the snow and the colour, and I knew that no other unicorn would do. When I find what I like I can’t let it go.

I set about trying to find the owner of the picture so that I could ask permission to use it. I asked my friend where she got the photo but all she could remember was that it was from some site with ‘fuckyeahunicorn’ in the url. I lost many hours searching this and so many other variations of the unicorn and expletives. But nothing…. not even close.

I was starting to get obsessed and knew it was time for a different strategy. Someone must have made that unicorn so I started searching for knitted unicorns (oh how I LOVE the internet). I searched Etsy and bay and a whole load of home-made sites. But nothing. I started searching random unicorn images and scrolled through thousands of pictures of, mostly, unicorns… although there are some very suspect images under the heading ‘unicorn’… hmmm. Weird.

Finally I found a tiny image of a green unicorn that had very similar flowers which HAD to be made by the same person. The title under it was cozycoleman.com. I had found it it… woohooo. Feeling very excited (I lead a sheltered life) I clicked on the link and in the flash of a screen I got this

But Cozy Coleman HAD to exist. I had to find them. I revisited Etsy… the home of the knitted items and other home-made treasures. I typed the name into the search bar and… it gave me TWO Cozy Colemans. None sold knitted unicorns so I messaged the first and got a lovely message back telling me ‘sorry… I have never knitted unicorns… good luck’.

The second Cozy Coleman had to be the one or I knew that this was going to be the end of the line. So I emailed and crossed my fingers.

Part 2 – Finding the unicorn

Within minutes I got an email telling me that ‘YES’ she was indeed the Cozy Coleman that knitted the unicorns and we started a dialogue where I asked her if she knew who took the photo that I had found. She was great and asked all the people that she had sold the unicorns to. After a few days of possible leads the trail went cold.

Cozy Coleman turned out to be Sharon Coleman and I asked her if she still had any of the unicorns that she could sell me so I could try to re-create the photo (did I mention that I am obsessive?). She did but only in green and pink. Something was telling me that it had to be the blue.

Then she suggested that if I found a 100% pure wool sweater in the colour I wanted and sent it to her, she could felt the sweater and make one for me. Yay!!!

So I hit the thrift stores and found 2 sweaters that I thought would work and sent them to her. Did I mention that Sharon Coleman is the greatest? :)

A few weeks later I had 2 beautiful unicorns and just before all the snow on our local mountain had melted.

Part 3 – Shooting the unicorn

Karen McKinnon is a wonderful local photographer who is responsible for most of the photos you see of me so, over a social breakfast one morning, I asked if she would come up to the mountain and photograph my unicorn in the snow. Not her usual sort of job, but she is always up for some fun so we headed up one afternoon to shoot the unicorn…. which was the source of many many jokes… a little sad, I know.

We found a spot on the bunny slopes at Mount Washington where the snow was still good and the trees were far enough in the distance to blur out (or some other photographic technical term). I put the unicorn into position while Karen got comfortable lying in the snow and the shooting (tee hee) began. The unicorn was a little temperamental but we got the shot and headed back down to spruce him (or her, we’re not sure) up a bit.

Part 4 – The cover

Originally this was going to be for my LA album but that all changed when the album was finished and the image didn’t match the sound. But when I decided to release a kid’s album, the unicorn was the perfect photo for the cover.

Stacy from Psoma Design Group was the designer for my LA album (out next year) and she did such an amazing job that I asked her to turn my unicorn into a CD cover for this kid’s album. We had so much fun with all the iterations and I really like the finished product… especially all the extra sparkles :)

When it came down to naming the album I realized that I wanted a title with unicorn in it. It would seem odd not to. But I had no song with that in the title. So a week before sending the songs to be mastered I wrote and recorded a new song called ‘Always Be A Unicorn’, using the sentiment in those Facebook posts going around that say “Always be yourself, but if you can be a unicorn (substitute batmen etc), then always be a unicorn.” It seemed to really suit the cover and the feel of the album in general.

“Always Be A Unicorn” is out on October 24th, when I will a guest on CBC All Points West with Jo-Ann Roberts.

Click here for pre-order special.

LA Take 2 – Day 13 – duhn duhn duhn.

I started today with a nice walk down to the Grove to take advantage of the return of the sunshine. Not sure what the weather is doing on the island but thought I’d better get my Vit D fix while I can. I picked up T-shirts for the kids. We always get the kid’s T shirts with the name of the the place we are visiting… eventually they will be turned into a quilt when they leave home. They have a LOT of LA t shirts now.

Back to Bleu’s place and we were checking out the final rough mixes. Listening to the songs next to each other I really noticed that it is such a diverse album but with a lot of stuff that ties it all together. There is everything from electronic 80′s style to quiet songs with string quartet to milder Bjork style stuff… and everything in between. But it does feel cohesive.

Bleu has managed to do exactly what I wanted and that was to put his stamp on my songs whilst retaining the integrity of my vocal style.

Chocolate today was courtesy of Bleu. Another Vosges bar… not as weird as the curry one… and really nice.

Editing continued. For this recording I have pretty much let Bleu do his thing unless something really stood out that I didn’t like. I understand that production is a process and I understand that he gets to his end goal much faster without my input. I figure why get a producer and then interfere too much.

However, I got a bit bored this afternoon and started pointing out stuff in the vocals while he was checking stuff… Bleu gave me a look and promptly put on his headphones. You have to understand that we have all spent SO much time together these 2 weeks that it gets very sarcastic bordering on rude… in a fun way, if that makes sense.

We had to re do the vocals for Anytime Soon so we did that today… it was nice to do some singing… I miss singing every day.

Joe invited us over for dinner at his place so we headed over and were greeted with margaritas and he cooked a lovely meal including my new favourite thing… grilled romaine… yum!

7 Steps to Prepare for a Music Publisher

I’ve had songs with several publishers, from large instrumental libraries to publishers promising me Coke ads. I now write exclusively for pigFactory and get songs regularly placed in ads and on TV and movies (click here for a list of my placements).

I get quite a few emails asking me either how to find a publisher or how to know if someone who has contacted them is legitimate, so I assembled this list of ideas to explore:

1. Is your music ready?

This is so important. You need to critically listen to your music and ask yourself if it can realisitically be placed. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to include your music in a playlist with other successful music in your genre to see how it flows, both in sound quality and writing. If it sticks out like a sore thumb, focus on getting your music to a place where is stands the best chance of getting placements. You only get one chance to make a first impression!

2. Educate yourself!

It’s natural to get excited by the first publisher you encounter, but you could end up learning the hard way if you sign an agreement before learning the rules. It’s far better, if a little painful, to educate yourself in the field of publishing first. I recommend reading The New Songwriter’s Guide to Music Publishing by Randy Poe. It’s a lot to take in, but well worth your time. There are many other great books out there including Robin Fredrick’s Shortcut books – a great education in writing.

3. Google is your friend.

I’m always surprised when I get emails asking me things that are so easily found by using Google. Whether you’re looking for a publisher or want to know more about a specific one, Google them. But you have to look at all the info critically. If I believed everything I read on the internet I would never have ended up using Taxi which, by the way, is a great way to find a publisher. Other places that publishers put out a call for music on are Sonicbids, Broadjam and ReverbNation. There are others and these are all easily googleable.

4. Pick up the phone.

If you find yourself in the position of considering a certain publisher, talk to them. You can glean so much more from an actual conversation than from an email. This is the person who may be controlling your music, so it’s extremely important to have more than just a text relationship with them. Fifteen minutes on the phone can give you a feel for the person and company.

5. Use your gut.

Instincts are there for a reason. If you really want to sign an agreement but just don’t feel right about it, listen to that voice. These agreements can last a long time so it is worth holding out for the right person/company.

6. One song, one publisher.

Don’t sign the same song with more than one publisher, even if it’s a non-exclusive agreement. Music supervisors don’t like that. I have been told by both publishers and supervisors that if they get the same song from more than one publisher, they will not only pass on the song, but blacklist the songwriter (see #2). You can avoid this by writing a lot and having a bunch of songs to sign with different publishers to test the waters. I did this for a while before signing an exclusive agreement.

7. Find a lawyer.

If you find yourself with a contract to sign, find a good music lawyer. A recommendation is the best way to go. It may be expensive initially, but will most likely save you money and heartache down the line. It also gives you peace of mind because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall asleep reading the contract and may miss something.

Connecting with a publisher is a lot of hard work, but for those of us who are driven to make music, it’s worth it. Good luck!

LA Day 6 – last day

Another hot, sunny day here in LA and a little shopping had to be done before our last session. The Grove is a wonderful place to browse and I picked up a few things while managing to resist the Uggs.

Today it was just Bleu and I at his place, going over the 4 songs and checking and tweaking stuff before doing rough mixes to listen to while we take a break until April. We had a quick noodle break and a visit to Joe’s for a Manhattan with the best cherries EVER.

As much as I am looking forward to going home to see my family, I will be sad to leave. There is something wonderful about doing nothing but concentrating on music all day and the experience has been way more laid back than I had imagined.

See you in April Bleu!

LA Day 5 – Knockin’ the folk out of me…

It was a whopping 82 degees today and cake-pops were the first order of the day again. It could become a ‘thing’. Today we started work on another song and after Bleu added some magic somethings, Joe did his percussion wizardery. Although he has a strange way of playing the piano ;)

There was talk of a man-boob track… which is exactly as you would imagine it to be…. hmmmm.

We had a lot of discussion about the genre of this new album today. My other music has been considered to be the in the general folky arena, albeit on the alternative/indie/pop side of folk. I felt like Dorothy today and realized we’re not in Kansas anymore. Joe delicately put it this way…

“We’re knocking the ‘folk’ out of you”

Nice!

While at my interview at Indie 100 radio station this afternoon I tried to sum up the sound and the closest I could come up with was ‘Grungy, electronic with an organic, acoustic basis with a touch of Imogen Heap sound’. Talking of Indie 100, I had a fantastic time there and played a bunch of songs, including a brand new one from this album. They told me that I was the 3rd musician to send them music when they started up in 2008 and treated me like royalty! I think you can hear the show on Tuesday. Check their website for details.

Back to the studio and Joe hit a few more things, Bleu put down some bass and I added some vocals. Then we had 15 mins of hilarity while we stomped and clapped… there is video but it’s not suitable for children.

During today’s session I kept hearing exclamations of ‘This is so frikkin’ cool’ from the guys… and this make me happy. :)

LA – Day 3 – Hitting things.

After a debriefing and delicious breakfast with Keatly from my publishers, pigFactory, Bleu picked me up and we went over to the studio and we “f***ing did some f***ing s***”. This is a technical term for laying down some percussion tracks. And Joe Seiders did a sterling job!

There were weird tambourines, a strange cone with a spring on the end and some home-made shakers which, by the way, I am SO going to be making when I get home. My favourite was the Ramen shaker. I guess I will have to drink some beer to have the cans available to be used :)

So far I am really loving how the songs are sounding. So different to any production I could ever do. The first songs we did Bleu had already done work on so it took a while to get used to the new sound.

The main song we worked on today is the first that we built from the bottom. It is so interesting to see how he adds elements from seemingly simple parts and turn them into something very cool.

Now, not only do we have the pleasure of recording at Taylor Locke’s beautiful studio, but Taylor walked in at 7pm with a bottle of whiskey and 4 glasses… and you can’t say no can you?

Digital Distribution – An Emotional Issue

After my last blog Peter Wells from Tunecore was kind enough leave comments and has answered questions at length. CD Baby was also kind enough to alert me to their offer of half price submission if I want to transfer my albums. But I am looking at this long term.

Sound Business Model?

Tunecore’s business model, which provides a service for a fixed (kind of) price where you get to keep all the royalties, sounds very compelling. And it is for larger artists. A few hundred dollars a year for a handful of albums is a drop in the ocean compared to their sales.

But I think there is a fundamental flaw in the Tunecore model. It is not tied in any way to the success of the artist. Their only revenue is new and existing fixed price subscriptions. So the only way for Tunecore to grow and satisfy it’s investors is to put up prices both retroactively and on new albums.

The big artists are not going to protest the price hike but the smaller ones are. But we are all worth the same in income to them. In fact it is probably the larger artists (and labels… they use Tunecore too) that take up most of the accounting and headache time for Tunecore.

And while the large artists don’t notice the price increase, the indie bedroom artists are really feeling it. I have to sell $555 worth of songs on each album each and every year to match the 9% that CD Baby charge. However if I become wildly successful, then CD Baby’s model will not be in my best interests financially.

I am sure if CD Baby suddenly put its percentage up to 22.5% then ALL their artists would be pretty vocal. The percentage protects those artists from wild 150% price increases.

As I don’t have a crystal ball and have no idea if I will become hugely successful, the choice seems to be coming down to this :

1. Do I want to pay a yearly subscription which, over time, eats up a greater percentage of the income and could go up dramatically again?

2. Do I want to pay a percentage which will cost me way more if I become really successful?

Getting Emotional

In examining this I have come to realize that this is an emotional issue. When I put my 2nd album, One Eye On The Door, with CD Baby I knew that it would cost me 9% of sales. So when one of my songs did really well after being on featured on the TV show ’90210′ I had no problem with paying the 9%. It is what I signed up for… practically and emotionally. I don’t get upset when I get a placement and my publisher takes their cut. It’s what I signed up for.

What I did not sign up for was a 150% price on old albums with Tunecore. Well, actually I did. The small print says that they can change their prices at anytime. But emotionally, I signed up for $19.99 per year.

I have had many CD Baby artists contact me to tell me how great CD Baby is. Not one Tunecore artist has come forward to defend the new features which apparently we have been ‘crying out for’.

If it wasn’t for the loss of my ratings and ‘those who bought this…’ on iTunes, then I would transfer today. But it just may be worth the loss of those to have a long term model that I am emotionally at peace with.

We all need to feel good about the services we are getting.

Why do songwriting challenges?

Before I was aware of the songwriting challenges out there on the web I set myself my own challenge – write, produce and upload a new song every week to my website for a year. I did this from April 2009 – 2010.

Now this may sound a little extreme but it was an amazing way to practice my writing skills and it gave me an excuse to keep up the contact with my email list. In fact, it was how I created my email list. When I finished I got a lot of people telling me they missed the weekly new song, which was a relief, because you never know when you’re bugging people! In May I released an album with 13 of the best songs called ‘Song of the Week‘, many of which have been placed on TV and Film.

Shortly after I had released the CD I noticed a songwriting challenge called 50 Songs In 90 Days and I thought, “Don’t be silly, that’s impossible”.But I couldn’t stop myself and started writing a whole bunch of new tunes. But it was the school summer holidays and there just wasn’t time to keep it up, what with travelling to the UK and other kids stuff. Although I didn’t come anywhere near to finishing, I did get the bulk of a new album, ‘Treehouse‘, which I released January this year.

So it’s FAWM time – February Album Writing Month. I had no intentions of doing this at all. I had just put out a new album and had broken my collarbone… and where was the time? Well it turns out that just about the only thing I could do with my injury was play the guitar for short periods of time. Housework was completely out of the question so I had extra time. So I started on Feb 1st and am just over half way through and I swear it is keeping me sane. Some songs take a day or two and others like ‘Lemonade’ took an hour to write and record. I just love writing and recording. It’s a good thing my kids are old enough to get their own food!

So why do these challenges? Here are some great reasons:

1. With this much songwriting you can only improve.
2. It gives you an excuse to keep in contact with fans.
3. You are giving fans something new on a regular basis.
4. You improve your recording skills and discover new ways to produce.
5. You end with a large catalogue to draw from, which is especially useful if you are pitching to TV etc.
6. You really learn how to finish songs and move on.
7. It gives you something to tweet,FB etc.
8. It’s fun!

Some great songwriting challenges to check out (and it isn’t too late for FAWM)

FAWM
50/90
RPM Challenge

I hope to see you in the forums on any of these challenges and if you want to follow my progress, please visit my FAWM page – http://fawm.org/fawmers/helenaustin/

2010 – an interesting year!

2010 started with a flurry of placements, which continued throughout the year and I was still in full swing writing my Song of the Week. While still reeling from the death of a close friend, a lot of the later Song of the Week songs touched on mortality from different angles, but I ended the project with a song for my amazingly supportive husband!

Song of the week ended in early April and I rewarded myself and family with a trip to Disneyland. While there I got my first network TV placement on Ghost Whisperer.

May 20th I released 13 of the Song of the Week songs on an album and simply called it Song of the Week. I then started the whole marketing thing all over again but it was fun having a whole load of new, beautifully mastered songs to give to my wonderful publishers.

June was a sad month. I lost my Mum while, ironically, while playing the Relay for Life song at our local relay.It was her favourite song of mine and she had been battling cancer for many years.

July is one of my fave months because I get to be mainstage MC with Todd Butler at Vancouver Island Musicfest. We also got to play songs together too, which lead to us doing gig together in November just for the fun of it! July also saw me attempt the 50 songs in 90 days challenge which I failed miserably, but I got a new album out of it (see Dec).

August was New York month. Getting to see a movie my songs were in, playing a gig and lots of shopping and eating with a good friend… what more could a girl want? I was also mid blog challenge for the book Music Success In Nine Weeks, which challenged some of my thoughts on music marketing.

September got me 2 ads and an album release in South Korea. My husband wants me to get a tour there… he loves the food! October I headed south of the border again, this time to Delaware for the DBMC where I made lots of new friends and got to sing lots too! We also started rehearsal for Voices Three, a big concert with Sue Pyper and Judy Wing to raise money for hospice.

November started with the Taxi Road Rally where I learned a ton and finally got to meet both of my lovely publishers who just as wonderful as I had suspected they would be. I also wrote my first serious article about music licensing after being asked so many times about how I got my music onto TV etc. It was a cathartic thing to write, reflecting on the madness of the intense single mindedness that is my life (until kids need feeding and taxiing).

So we’re at the end of December. I have a new album, Treehouse, that I am releasing on Jan 1st 2011 (tomorrow) along with a wonderful video that my talented 13 year old created for the title track. The songs will be on itunes and the vid on YouTube.

After an interesting year I have an interesting story for the end of the year that has nothing to do with music (although may affect my playing anything short term) …

Yesterday while skiing (my fave thing to do with my family) I was taken out by another skier getting some big air on a black run. After being taken down the mountain on a stretcher, had my clothes cut off me and sent to the hospital for xrays, I now have a fractured collar bone and lots of nice drugs to see me into 2011 (so please excuse any typos!).

There are some people I want thank for 2010 – pigFactory and Crucial, my wonderful publishers. Thanks for all the placements. Hans Dekline, the masterful masterer and Brian Hazard for asking me to write the licensing article. I love both of your fb comments and musings… always entertaining! To Jon Ostrow of Mic Control for his support of indie musicians and me! And to everyone who reads anything I write, listens to my songs, comments on my postings and generally makes me feel like I am on the right track. Every little word helps!

Here’s to a fantastic 2011. I hope it brings you great things!