Articles

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.

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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!

Free Download!

I wonder how many people will arrive at this page hoping for free music… well I don’t want to disappoint.

Gone For Now

I have received a few google alerts about my music being available for free download from various sites in the past, but this week I started getting lots of them. This is because someone thought that it was okay to upload one of my albums to Pirate Bay, which then took that album to many other torrent sites. I normally wouldn’t have been too bothered, but the person who uploaded my music had previously put up my bio and a video on his website, along with many other musicians. In fact, I was in quite good company.


(photo bought from istock.com)

This is why I was so confused as to why an apparent fan would then decide to make my music free to anyone. In his defence, he did reply to a post I put on his blog asking why he had put my music on Pirate Bay and, although he took my music down from Pirate Bay, he seemed to think that copyright was a matter of opinion and not law. This seems to be the big sticking point in this area.

Now back in the 90s when Napster first appeared, we were guilty of downloading albums (that are now lost on some old operating system somewhere). There was no itunes and we bought a lot of CDs so we didn’t see the harm. We were wrong. But now music is so easily available to download for a very reasonable price and there is no excuse to go to free sites. I used to spend my pocket money on singles and now my kids spend theirs on downloads. No Limewire allowed in this house and my kids appreciate the value of music.

Today music lovers are lucky that musicians are usually driven to make music for a reason that has nothing to do with money. If it was money based there wouldn’t be a lot of music out there, and certainly not quality, innovative stuff. And many musicians do give music away. I give away a song in exchange for signing up to my email list. I gave away all my music while writing my Song of the Week. Itunes has a free section.

If someone can’t afford to buy my music then I would rather they email me and ask for some mp3s rather than downloading and supporting these free sites, who are not only giving our music away, but they are also making money from us via advertising.

Ask me. It would just be more honest.

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.

Digital Music Distribution – Simple?

I have another new album coming out and normally I would use Tunecore for my digital distribution. I have for all but one of my releases. I used CD Baby for my 2nd album to try something different.

But Tunecore’s recent 150% price hike on all new and existing album distribution has got me looking around at what others have to offer.

A Little Background

I wrote, recorded and produced a song a week for a year. During that year I released some download-only EPs. The at the end of the year I released an album with 13 of the best songs of the week. I also got some songs placed on TV that were neither on EPs or the album so I released them as singles.

So now I have 3 EPs and 4 singles from that project. At $49.99 per album (even a 4 song EP) and $29.99 per single, that’s a lot of money to pay every year for just over an album’s worth of songs. So I had to have a think.

Then, after being asked about releasing more of the songs of the week, I decided to take the best songs from the EPs, the singles and some never released songs, remix, rerecord and master them for Song of the Week 2. So 7 releases become one.

So that is why I started examining where to go for my distribution.

Tunecore’s Price Hike

My problem with Tuncore isn’t that is costs $49.99 per year to put up an new album. I think the price is reasonable for a new album. My problem is the price hike on existing albums. Albums that, over time, are likely to get less sales as the years progress. Albums, where the work to put them up has already been done. Albums that cost around a just a couple of dollars a year to host. It’s not is if we are allowed to modify or upgrade anything about the albums, yet they are costing us more.

They added new features like trending and widgets and bundled them together with the distribution but it feels a bit like they are saying “here’s a bunch of stuff you didn’t ask for, now you owe us more money”.

So the quandary for indie artists is that to take our business elsewhere means losing those precious stars, comments and ‘others that bought this bought…’. We need all the attention we can get.

By all means put up your prices for new business but don’t penalize old customers for something they can’t do anything about.

Attitude problem

And then there’s the attitude to those who were not overjoyed at the price hikes. I think they took take offence to the statement by CEO Jeff Price – “So we just said screw it, simpler is better”…  “Let’s give Tunecore customers all the things they asked for and not charge them for each and every new feature.” (from Digital Music News)

Simpler for Tunecore. I think customers would always prefer to chose what they are paying for. I have a feeling they paid for the development of these features and found that people weren’t as interested as they thought, so, as I said earlier, they have bundled them… for who’s convenience?

Distribution

But enough bitching. I still have the problem of who to distribute through. There seems to be 2 basic options. Pay a fee each year but pay no percentage of sales (Tunecore, Reverbnation) or pay a one time fee and pay a percentage of sales (around 10%) (CD Baby, Indie Pool). I did a little research and came up with this chart so I could see a comparison between many companies now offering music digital distribution. It’s not pretty but it’s as simple as I could make it. (click on the image to see in detail).

The Indie Artist Dilemma

Now if you’re a well known artist it’s a no brainer. Selling a lot means that you are way better off with paying the yearly fee and keeping all the sales. But for less well known indie artists then it’s a gamble. Especially if you have a lot of CDs out there. It adds up. But if I get a song on a TV show, which happens from time to time, then my potential sales make it worth paying the yearly fee. If not then which is my best bet.

What’s Next?

I totally get that it’s all business. I do. And if this was my first album I would most likely go with Tunecore. They have a great website, make it easy to get your albums on iTunes quickly and your money from sales is easy to withdraw. But I have a bad taste in my mouth and I think that there is one simple thing Tunecore could do to keep the indie artists happy, if they really want to… and Tunecore are all about keeping things simple, right?

Leave existing albums at the yearly price that they were originally signed up for. Simple and fair. Those albums require no more work, only the storage cost.

For this new album, Tunecore may still be my best option. I would be interested in other’s thought on this.

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/