Michael Jackson’s Musicians

The world was shocked this week by the sudden death of Michael Jackson, who spent nearly all of his 50 years under the microscope of celebrity and earned universal recognition as one of the best performers of our era.

His influence on popular music and entertainment is so profound and far-reaching that it is inescapable. There is likely no musician on earth that was not exposed to a heavy dose of Michael Jackson sometime since his debut with the Jackson 5 in 1969.

Jackson also worked with some of the best musicians of his time. Jackson’s guitarists included Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana and Billy Idol’s guitarist, Steve Stevens. His long-standing relationship with Quincy Jones produced some of the most significant pop recordings of the 1980s, including Bad, Thriller, Smooth Criminal and many others.

During the Bad tour of 1987, he even hired Sheryl Crow (at that time unknown) as a backup singer.  The album Off The Wall lists a credit for keyboardist David Foster (famous for his score to St. Elmo’s Fire).  His later albums brought collaborations with Babyface and Notorious B.I.G.

You can peruse the sideman line-up of all of Michael Jackson’s recordings at allmusic.com. Here are links to the personnel on his top selling albums:

  • Thriller – Over 100 million copies sold
  • Dangerous – Winner of the 1992 Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Album
  • Bad – Over 30 million copies sold
  • Off The Wall – Many of the tracks were written by Jackson himself
  • Invincible – Over 10 million copies sold

How did Michael Jackson influence your career as a musician?

Musician Business Cards

In an industry that is all about networking and who you know, business cards are a great tool. They are a convenient way to give a new friend or business contact a little pocket-sized reminder of who you are, what you do, and how to get in contact with you. Moreover, in a industry where individuality, creativity and quality are valued, musicians need to use business cards that reflect their personality, artistry and character.

There are a lot of different ways to approach the musician business card. Let’s start with some examples.

We’ll start with my absolute favorite business card from my friend Bart, a musician in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia who was kind enough to let me reprint his card here. He’s a funny guy, and people always like working with him. Read his selling points at the bottom of the card.


A business card that makes other musicians laugh out loud is priceless.

Understandably, though, I think Bart is careful about who he hands this particular card out to. You have to make sure they’ve got a sense of humor first. I believe he keeps another set of regular business cards with him as well.

Next is a card from Jeff Fajans, a member of our Facebook group, who uses a really dynamic design on his card. He told me, and I think he’s right, that the colors on this card make it stand out from the others. In his words, “I really believe that it is important to set yourself apart in any way you can, especially when there are so many talented musicians.” Jeff had his card designed by M13 Graphics and is very happy with their service.


Also from the Facebook group, Kahuna Kawentzmann sends us his business card all the way from Germany. Great use of typography. For you language geeks out there, “Gitarren Aufnahmedienst” means “Guitar Recordings Services.”


Below is fellow MW blogger Cameron Mizell’s business card. Years ago this same image used to be the front page of his website.


Pairing the business card, album and website altogether with one look is a great idea for branding yourself or your band. Check out what MW contributing writer Gary Melvin sent us. Note that the top is the front of the card, and the bottom is the back.


Derek Sivers recently wrote a post on his blog about throwing out the traditional business card paradigm and handing out something more practical to people. Check out his custom made guitar picks.

I think this works out especially well for Derek because his past and future businesses all cater to musicians that are online. A cheap, often used piece of musician flare with his website stamped right on it? You can’t go wrong.

Thanks to David Rose of KnowTheMusicBiz.com for pointing out Derek’s post to me.

For my own business cards, I went for a very professional, almost attorney-like look.  Whether I’m trying to book a cocktail gig at a swanky party, or looking for a spot in a theatre pit, the people that hire me are typically looking for a musician with attorney-like professionalism, and I try to portray some class in my card.  Also, at least in typography, it matches my website and both of my albums.


One website that you should definitely visit for creative ideas in business card design (although not specifically musician business cards) is CreativeBits.org. I’d like to reprint everything on their page here to show you, but I’ll just pick my favorite one and hope that you visit their site and see for yourself.

Here’s a card on CreativeBits.org from a lawn care company. Pretty clever.

Another creative approach to business cards (and album artwork, for that matter) is to hand make each one. It’s a time consuming idea, but would really differentiate your business card from others. Look at this card from Adam Behringer, care of BeeDocs.com.

If you are interested in making a stamped card like this, check out SimonStamp.com. I’ve looked into this option myself and they were the service I had finally centered on.

There are several different online business card services that musicians recommended to us. Naturally there is the inescapable VistaPrint.com, which still provides free business cards for people that don’t care if the Vista Print logo lives on the backside. Cameron tells me that the next time he gets cards it’ll be through Moo.com, and as I said before, guitarist Jeff Fajans suggests M13 Graphics.

Whatever service you go with, my final advice it to pay special attention to, and more $$ for, the details of your business card.  A major rookie mistake in business cards is to pick the cheapest stock and the cheapest printing.  Choose a thick cardstock, embossed printing or a high gloss finish – or maybe a nice matte finish.  It can seem like an unnecessary expense, but it’s worth dropping a little more dough on the project.  These little cards will represent you after you are gone, and you’ll need them to be impressive advocates.

Here’s a short anecdote I’ll leave you with. The story goes that when Lyndon B. Johnson was President of the United States, he would give out little presents to his staff.  One of the presents was an electric toothbrush with his picture on one side and the presidential seal on the other.  As he said, “I give these toothbrushes for then I know that from now until the end of their days they will think of me the first thing in the morning and the last at night.”

Now that’s what I call an effective business card.

What I Learned at My Record Label Job

At 16 years old, I got my first job at a video rental store.  Since then, I’ve worked at a mall, been a waiter, caterer, bartender, bar back, bouncer, sofa bed salesman, and office supply salesman.  I also got my first paying gig as a jazz guitarist at 16, playing at a cafe in the middle of the mall.  I think that gig paid $22.50 (the band leader took a 10% finders fee and split the rest four ways).  That was the beginning of my double life–the kid that worked hard to make a paycheck and the kid that really just wanted to make music.  For the most part, the first kid kept the other one kind of quiet because music is a hobby, not a job, right?

My attitude changed when I quit the office supply business and decided to find some mindless temp work to pay the bills while I tried to get things rolling with my music.  I was completely honest with the interviewer at the temp agency:

“I’m a musician, and I just want a job where I can punch out at 5, forget about everything I did that day, and go focus on my music.”

He asked me what I played, what I listened to, all the typical music related questions.  Then he said he might have just the position for me–Verve Records needed a long term temp to do some data entry.  Perfect.  Sign me up!

I had an interview a few weeks later at Verve.  I showed up early, and in a suit.  I later learned that nothing runs early in the music industry, and my boss would joke with people that came to work dressed too nice, “Interviewing for a new job?” she’d ask loud enough so everyone down the hall could hear.

My first day at Verve was in early 2005. At that point, I had only a vague idea of how any business worked, much less the music industry.  Not only had I never worked in an office, but I was a jazz studies major in college. I studied music as an art, not a commercial product to be exploited as a business asset.  Never the less I kept my eyes and ears open and learned as much as I could about all aspects of the business.  After all, if I wanted to function as an artist someday, I needed to know what I’d be dealing with on the business end.

I ended up leaving the company about 3 years after I’d started.  It was a very tough decision.  If there was a day job designed for me, this was it.  But when I went home at night and looked at my guitars, I got the feeling that I wasn’t using my time appropriately.  My job was stressful and mentally challenging, which put a strain on my creative output outside of work.  There was also a money issue.  Despite what you may imagine, record label jobs pay relatively little.  Most people are OK with this because it can be a pretty fun, socially relevant job.  But I was starting to see opportunities to make a real career out of my music, and knew that if I dug in and worked with the same intensity, I could make the same money and eventually more with my own music on my own terms.

The lessons I took away from this job will serve me for the rest of my career, not because they taught me specific things to do, but because they taught me how to adapt.  What works today will not work in 10 years. But the ability to see changing trends, stay ahead of the curve and ultimately balance my long term revenue streams with low, short term costs–which don’t have to cost money–will keep me in business doing what I love for the rest of my life.

Digital production, strategic marketing.

When hired, I was assigned the digital production responsibilities. I entered boatloads of metadata from out of print albums into a database.  I was perfect for this because I already knew a lot about many of these albums, and whenever I didn’t know something I had access to several complete jazz discographies, the entire Verve library full of nearly every LP and CD ever released, and several very knowledgeable coworkers.

In short, the position straddled the Production and New Media (online sales and marketing) departments and involved coordinating the release of digital products–ie. digital albums, ringtones and other mobile configurations, and videos. I had to make sure the metadata was entered into a few systems properly so it would show up in online stores like iTunes without incorrect track listings, timings, misspellings, etc., and then get the artwork and audio uploaded to some other systems by a deadline.

The term metadata refers to all the information for an album.  Simply put, it’s the interactive digital version of everything printed on a CD booklet, LP jacket, or other packaging, stored in a database.  When I would add an artist to an album, the database would know who this artist was and which recordings they were on (at least whatever had been entered so far).  I would gather my information by looking at the packaging, searching through discographies, listening to the music (timings were often approximate on LP jackets, but they must be exact in the digital era), and using a variety of songwriter dictionaries and online resources to make sure I had the correct composer and publisher information.  There was a lot of research involved.

I could have blown off a lot of the attention to details and it maybe wouldn’t have affected my job, but someday the accuracy of all this information will be crucial.  With trends shifting away from physical albums, liner notes, credits, and anything else printed on the packaging is being lost.  But that information is invaluable, and will eventually be accessible online and embedded into the tracks you download.  I took a sense of pride in thinking my work would give some relatively unknown artist a place in history.  Perhaps this was positive thinking as I faced the grim possibility of obscurity for my own music.

My biggest ongoing project while handling the digital production responsibilities was the Verve Vault, a series of reissues released exclusively to iTunes (here’s a random blog post about the series).  We were looking for out of print albums in the “vaults of Verve” to make available digitally–albums where manufacturing physical product wouldn’t have been cost effective.  In other words, I was working with albums that make up the Long Tail of Verve’s catalog.

This taught me invaluable lessons on working with niche oriented music and how to make the most out of digital distribution scenarios–lessons directly applicable to independent artists.  Albums deep in the Verve catalog, by artists like Illinois Jacquet or Ray Bryant have no advantage being owned by a major label.  They have roughly the same marketing budgets as a Cameron Mizell album, so we had to apply low or no-cost strategies to help these albums sell.  The most effective methods were things like optimized online announcements, creating iMixes or other user generated playlists, and targeting specific niches that would help introduce these lesser known jazz icons of yesteryear to the download generation.  In the exact same way, I learned many strategies to help people find my music online.

In general, the best form of online marketing is to not be a marketer.  Or in other words, just nudge either your music or your target fans towards each other and let them meet on their own.  Ultimately, encourage discovery.  It may just be the illusion of discovery, but it gives the your music greater personal value and the fan’s excitement becomes viral.  Word of mouth begins.

Production, design, manufacturing, distribution.

After a while, I ended up as the head of the production department.  I didn’t intend for this to happen, but the inevitable downsizing of record labels hit Verve pretty hard at the end of 2006 and I was the only person left from the original department.  I didn’t have the official title, but I had the responsibilities.  In a very short time, I learned everything from pricing out packaging to tackling manufacturing related issues at the last minute.  I was also heavily involved with quality control and put my ear to every master and proofed all the artwork prior to manufacturing.  Verve is known for it’s quality releases, and I was lucky enough to learn from some of the best. I wrote an article about preparing to release your next album on this site which applies much of what I learned to indie musician releases.  It’s what I’ve done for my recent albums.

One of the perks of working production was getting credit in all the albums.  You can see a list of my credits on All Music Guide. The credits with Production Coordination or Release Coordination are from my work at Verve.  I hope to some day match those with Guitar and other musically related credits.

A job in production, for those unfamiliar, is essentially that of a taskmaster.  It was my responsibility to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle came together on time so the company would have a CD to sell on the street date.  Unlike digital production, where I was able to do my job pretty much all on my own, physical production put me in contact with nearly every department:

The master came from the A&R department (Artist & Repertoire), as well as all the credits for an album.  Among other things, the A&R department works with the artist and studios to make sure the music will be done on time.  The schedule for “on time” had to be provided by me.

The earlier we had music, the sooner I could create advances and radio singles for the Publicity and Promotion departmentsAdvances are CDs with little or no artwork serviced to writers, radio stations, and anyone else that would need to hear the music early enough to help create buzz around the album.

The artwork came from the Creative department. Along with simply looking great, the text (or copy as it’s called in the industry) had to be free of errors.  This involved a great deal of proofing, a process that started with me, was routed through the Marketing department to the artist, then to the Legal and A&R departments, past the desk of the General Manager and eventually the CEO, and back to me.  Proofing involved looking at all the credits (musician, production, and writer), liner notes, song titles, timings, lyrics, special thanks, legal lines, spacing, punctuation, font styles, spelling, the UPC, catalog number, and anything else the artist wanted in their package.  Needless to say, not everyone looked at everything, so it was up to me to make sure enough eyes were put on it to catch things somebody else might have missed.

Working the the Creative department also taught me a great deal about print production.  Printing is a pretty complex beast, and while the technology is pretty advanced today, at the heart of it people still print with four color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black).  The design files had to be set up perfectly so the right amount of ink was hitting the paper in the right spots.  Things that seem simple on a computer, like white text on a black background, can be problematic for a printer as the ink might close up the narrow white spaces.  Working with the designers and art director, I had to check that the artwork met the printers’ specifications.

Meanwhile, the Sales department was busy drumming up interest in various accounts, so the albums would get as much distribution as possible.  If you’ve ever tried to get your local CD store to sell your CD, you have an idea of what the sales department does.  They have to pitch each album to every retailer (often times there is a one large buyer that supplies several retailers with product).  The only way to pitch an album is to have a story–something that would suggest people will actually go into the store and buy the album.  Their main tool is called a sales sheet, or one sheet, which is kind of like a one page summary of all the marketing, publicity, radio, tour info, artist bio, and past sales performance.

One way to understand the whole process of selling records is to actually start with the Sales department suggesting a new angle on a product, such as a reissue series, that they feel will do well at certain retailers.  Then the A&R, Creative, and Production departments jump into action to make the product a reality.  Sometimes this involves creating exclusives for particular accounts (such as a Borders’ version with a bonus track).  Exclusives are usually added to the schedule last minute and involve some quick manuvering through the processes mentioned above.

I would also act as a liaison between the Sales department and UMG Logistics department which oversaw the actual manufacturing and inventory.  One of my shining moments, which was nearly a nightmare, was when Herbie Hancock’s album River: The Joni Letters won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  In the five months between it’s release and the Grammy Awards, I believe it sold about 50,000 albums.  In the week following the Grammy win, it sold nearly that many again.  It took some quick action and teamwork between myself and the Sales and Inventory departments to make sure we had enough product on order to keep up with the demand.

I remember one day in the thick of all this when my boss came into my office and asked me to create a report of the inventory numbers from all the various warehouses along with what was in production and when those would be delivered and to what warehouses.  And he needed it in an hour so he could get on the phone with his boss, the CEO.  Normally, when I pull these kinds of reports I double check my numbers with the guys in Inventory, but they were in a meeting for the next hour, so it was all on me.  I managed to pull an accurate report but the numbers were a little to close for comfort, so my boss and the head of sales sweetened them a bit for the CEO.  What he didn’t know didn’t hurt him.

I also worked with the Sales and Marketing departments to create POP, or point of purchase items, and promotional tools like t-shirts, match books, cocktail stirrers, chapstick, posters, postcards, you name it.  If somebody thought it would help sell the record, I had to figure out the cost.  If the cost got approved (it usually didn’t), then I’d have to orchestrate the design and production of the item.

While working with all these different departments, I tried to learn as much as I could.  I asked lots of questions, but not questions like “what do you want me to do next?” or even “how do I do this?”  No, my questions were either “why do they do it this way?” to figure out the method to the madness.  I also tried to work things out for myself and then ask the appropriate people whether I’d gotten it right.  I did this with anything involving the label’s lawyer for two reasons–quicker answers, and because understanding how legal issues effect decisions will probably save my ass somewhere down the road.

The biggest lesson I learned here: Marketing is marketing, sales is sales, publicity is publicity, etc.  Just because you’re in the music business doesn’t change the game, and as a musician I can learn a lot from other savvy and creative business people.

In many ways, I was always cut out for a production job at a jazz record label. My training as a musician has developed my ear to the point where I can pick out tiny ticks, clips, distortions, and other non-musical sounds on recordings, even those engineered by the best.  Besides music, art had been a big passion of mine growing up.  In fact, had I not studied music, I was considering an art major.  This gave me an advantage when looking at artwork.  I understood concepts of composition, balance, color and fonts.  I was also a quick study when working with some excellent designers and a very particular art director who had a knack for teaching.  Add to that my natural anal-retentiveness and the job fits like a glove.

Inertia and changing course.

Perhaps the most important but least tangible lesson learned was that of inertia.  Verve was a tiny part of a the largest recorded music company in the world, Universal Music Group.  The collective power of all the UMG labels enables massive distribution leverage.  You needn’t go further than any popular music news website or blog to hear about how UMG uses it’s power to force startups to pay extremely large up front licensing fees for access to the UMG catalog.  UMG managed to even get a royalty of every Microsoft Zune sold (the Zune was supposed to be an iPod competitor).  And just like any other large company, the quantity of work they can give a third party such as a printer or digital aggregator, gives them a strong hand in negotiations.

But this kind of inertia is a big problem when it’s time to change directions.  The times they are a changin’ and the old model is proven less effective.  The cost of running a huge company can no longer be supported by selling CDs, and while monetizing digital assets is promising, it does not fill the void.  There is a lot of discussions of 360 degree deals, where one company controls all the major revenue streams for an artist.  That doesn’t sound like a viable solution for developing artists, and worse, it only compounds the issue of changing directions with new trends.

Large companies also tend to over-insulate their artists.  New generations of fans will want more contact with artists, and when they can’t get it they manufacture it by making their own music videos or other various activities that are technically illegal until the major label attorneys are able to figure out a way to monetize it.  Remember when Colbie Caillat told her fans that Universal artists were only allowed to post 90 second clips of their music on MySpace?  This is just one example of an artist feeling alienated from her fans because of a large label.  The situation could have been handled better, but by putting a choke hold on MySpace using their artists’ music (which doesn’t actually belong to the artists) as the noose, UMG figured they could turn the popular website into another revenue stream.  The problem here is that even though the music belongs to the label, the artists’ reputation and relationship with fans is more valuable.  This kind of relationship is more easily maintained when fewer people are involved.  Fans, artist, and maybe a small team to facilitate the technology.

Looking ahead.

As I mentioned earlier, I resigned from Verve after about three years.  That was the longest gig I’d held, unless you count being a musician.  My record label job was the ideal 9 to 5 for a guy like me.  But then I’d remember that kid with the hobby playing music, and I realized that I had the tools to support myself with my hobby.  In fact, over the few years I’d been working at the label and applying what I was learning to help sell my own music, I was actually bringing in a decent amount of cash for maybe three hours of work each week.  Meanwhile the 50-60 hours a week I spent at the office was bringing in about three times that of my music income.  I wondered what would happen if I applied myself full time to making music?  How long before I could double it?  Triple it?  I struggled with the decision, but after looking at the finances with my wife and painting worst case scenario after worst case scenario, the decision was made.

I write this almost 6 months since my last day at the office.  Each month has brought in a little more money than the last.  One month in particular brought in more than what I had been making with the record label job.  There will be ups and downs in the future, but I’ve proven to myself that I made the right decision.  I continue to diversify my revenue streams to help me through dry spells.  Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to cut my income in half now and build a solid foundation for a long term career.  This foundation is constructed by writing more music, playing more gigs, recording more albums, producing and playing on other people’s albums, establishing a broader internet presence, and building more relationships as a musician.  But the cornerstone of it all is in finding my voice as a guitarist.

While I continue to develop a career of my own music, there are other facets that help pay the bills.  I teach guitar lessons.  I’m a production consultant for a small company that provides sales and marketing expertise to both independent and major labels.  I work on jingles with a fellow musician working on her own music.  And along with some other musician friends, I record niche oriented albums under different pseudonyms to create different brands (as well as avoid confusion with the brand I’m trying to establish with my music).  If I have a slow month in any of these areas, I’m covered by the others.

This is an exciting time to be an independent musician.  I believe the future will be bright for knowledgeable artists that retain ownership of their recordings and understand how to keep costs down. Quality recordings can be made for relatively little when the right group of talented people get together, and once the recording is made there’s no reason to sell it to a label. The business relationships independent artists should cultivate are those of mutual benefit, with a team of experts that believe in the artist and his or her music.

As an independent artist myself, I understand that there is simply too much to do day to day to release an album to it’s full potential.  There is no way I could do everything the people at Verve did.  Proper business relationships are established through repeated business, and if I’m only releasing one album every couple years, those relationships will never fully develop.  But I can establish relationships with other artists, and use our collective continuity to establish working relationships with experts in sales, publicity, marketing, promotion, and distribution.  I envision someday being involved with a virtual label of like minded artists inspiring each other creatively while helping each other stay aware and ahead of current business trends, all to create a new adaptive form of momentum.  I imagine I’m not alone.

Job Profile: Music Editor, Producer and Composer Ethan Stoller

When David Hahn approached me about writing an essay about my career in music, it took me a minute to narrow down what it is I do exactly.  Though I’ve only been in the industry for about four years, I’ve accumulated several job titles: composer, producer, music consultant and assistant music editor.  I’ve worked on major motion pictures, independent films, television documentaries, commercials, industrial films, internet slide shows and a custom project for an NBA franchise.  So if I had to distill what I do into one easy phrase, I’d say I make music for moving pictures.

In my high school and college years, I thought I wanted to be a movie director.  I majored in writing in college, with supporting coursework in cinema studies.  I took a few semesters of filmmaking classes.  They were fun, but I never really loved doing it and frankly, I wasn’t that good at it.  The part of the process that I did love, though, was adding the soundtrack, whether I was recording it myself or using existing recordings.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize then that I could make a viable career out of making music for pictures and I pursued the directing route.  I applied to only one grad school for filmmaking and they declined my application.  I was left with a pretty impractical bachelor’s degree and no ideas about what to do next.

I spent my twenties in a series of crappy jobs including telemarketing, bussing tables, substitute teaching, census taking, and ACT prep tutoring.  I finally settled into a job I could tolerate, driving for a messenger service.  What I enjoyed most about my messenger job was that I could listen to music all day.  I’d grab about a dozen CDs every morning (this was before iPods) and drive around Chicago flipping through my music collection.  I was content but unfulfilled.

On my 30th birthday, I received a $75 gift certificate to Guitar Center from a friend of mine.  I had been writing songs and noodling around with a Tascam 4-track, but never really did any serious recording.  I used the gift certificate to buy a piece of low-level recording software called Plasma.  I fell in love with making music on the computer almost instantly.  I started writing more and experimenting with sounds.  I didn’t have a clue about how to start a career making music, but I knew that I’d love to give it a shot if I had an opportunity.  And then I got one.

My sister-in-law, Meema Spadola, had built a career as a respected documentary filmmaker in New York and she was completing a new piece called Red Hook Justice that was slated to air on PBS.  As she was nearing post-production she asked me if I’d like to take a shot at writing the score for it.  The film didn’t require that much music (maybe seven minutes in total), and I promised her that I’d do my best but if I couldn’t hack it that I’d harbor no ill feelings if she needed to hire a “real” composer.  I learned a great deal working with Meema; it was my first glimpse at the fact that a film score is really a collaboration between the composer and the director.  Long story short, she was happy with my work and the film received glowing reviews from the media.

Working on the documentary was a great experience, but the compensation was hardly enough to consider quitting my messenger job.  I knew I may have had some talent, but I couldn’t figure out how to move forward in the industry.  I had read about a music production and music business “boot camp” school in Chicago called the Music Industry Workshop.  They seemed to offer the type of instruction that I would need to take the next step in my music career, but the tab would run upwards of $4,000.  Now, this is where having an amazing spouse really made my career possible.  My hard-working wife and I were lucky enough to have saved a little money, and she agreed that taking classes was my best chance to pursue a career in music.

Meema referred me to other directors in the documentary community and with the new skills I was acquiring at MIW, I felt confident enough to accept composing gigs from “strangers.”  I worked on a few more independent film projects and reached out to more people in the industry to learn about advancing my career in music.  I connected with an amazing composer in Chicago named Mark Greenberg who was independently making music for commercials.  Nothing happened right away but a couple of years after we met, Mark expanded his business (The Mayfair Workshop) to include more composers and he brought me aboard.

My big break came late in 2005 when I got a call from my friends the Wachowski Brothers.  I had known them since high school, long before they created The Matrix and the media tidal wave that followed it.  They were aware of my fledgling music career but they hadn’t yet found a good fit for me in their business.  Not that I was asking them to employ me; I was just thrilled at their success and happy to keep business and pleasure separate.  So the phone rang and Larry Wachowski said that they had been toying with the idea of using a funny little DJ track I made in the closing credits of their new movie, V for Vendetta.  I didn’t own any of the parts of the song they wanted and was amused that my little mashup creation would be featured in a major motion picture.  But when they told me that they couldn’t get the consent of all the license holders, I volunteered my services, offering to replace the mashup elements with original music.  I gave them the same out-clause that I had with Meema a couple years earlier: “I’m new at this and if you need to go another direction I completely understand.”  The song, “BKAB,” became a minor internet sensation and I started t receive e-mail from all corners of the globe (mostly) praising my song.  In addition to making more money than I ever had before in music, I was gratified to hear that complete strangers were enjoying my music.

Since then I’ve had the chance to work with the Wachowskis on other projects, including Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin.  On those films I got to try my hand at music editing, specifically working on the temp scores.  The temp score is a very detailed music track that plays with the film during the post-production process.  It is used for several purposes: to give the composer an idea of what type of music the directors have in mind for a given scene; it helps the directors and editors gauge the way a scene is paced and how it feels emotionally; and it allows the studio executives and test audiences to experience an unfinished film with a more finished feeling to it.   I worked as an assistant to two top-tier Hollywood music editors, Joe E. Rand and Joseph DeBeasi, and I will defer to them to explain the pleasures and pitfalls of a music editing career (I have enlisted Joseph to write an essay like this one for this website).  But I will just say that music editing is a viable career choice for any creative musician.

I have also continued composing.  I’ve worked on commercials and promotional materials for motion pictures.  Each project presents its own challenges and rewards.  As a composer for moving pictures, I find I have to be something of a musical chameleon, creating everything from hip-hop to tangos, country to techno.  Being versatile is probably an even better attribute than being good!  And as I found from the very first project I worked on with Meema, my job as a composer for pictures is to interpret the director’s vision into something audible.  If the director is satisfied, I’ve done my job.

Though I’ve only been able to finally work full-time as a musician for a couple of years now, I have gleaned a couple of nuggets of advice for others looking to follow in my path.  First, be prepared for the job you accept and be open about any limitations or deficiencies you might have.  If a director knows up front what you can offer them, they will likely work with you if they feel you can handle the job.  Never hesitate to ask questions.  No one will mind if you don’t understand how to do something, but you’ll catch hell if you pretend to know something you don’t.  That leads to my second piece of advice: be someone people want to work with.  Be flexible and friendly.  Be professional but have fun.  Most people I know would much rather work with the competent person that they like than with the genius who is an ass.

Don’t get too caught up in gear.  Be aware of what’s out there, but don’t feel that you can’t compete without the fastest processors or the sexiest preamps.  Compare your sound with the competition and make sure that you’re in the ballpark.  If you are lagging far behind, you will have to invest some capital.  With perhaps one exception, I’ve found that those investments usually pay for themselves.  Just educate yourself on which gear you need most to get the job done right.  There are many periodicals out there that can help navigate the gear-maze.  Read them.

When you are close to getting a composing job, talk about money before you start working.  Even when working with friends, get a written contract.  Good contracts make good friends.  Be clear on what is expected of you and what the timetable is for you to deliver.  Vagueness in these matters doesn’t help you or the process.  Once you are working with “strangers” they will expect you as a professional to discuss money matters up front.

My last piece of advice: be lucky.  Yeah, I know that’s a tough one.   I am lucky enough to have a patient, supportive wife and creative friends (with jobs!)  Of course, to make music for pictures, you need to know people making the pictures.  Find out who is making the movies and TV shows in your community and figure out a way to get on their radar without becoming a pest.  Sites like versusmedia.com are designed to connect indie filmmakers with freelance composers,  You might have to work for free for a while, but be ready for that call from a producer with a budget looking for a fresh voice.

Finding Your Voice: The Basics of Singing

This article is part of a series intended for musicians that are interested in learning secondary instruments & new skills that will expand their versatility.

Also visit: 15 Guitar Tips for Non-Guitarists

This article was inspired by a handful of my instrumentalist friends recently asking me for tips on basic singing technique.  They’ve either been offered gigs in which backup vocals are involved or have to work with singers quite a bit and know that in order to better communicate with vocalists, it’s helpful to understand what they do.

While I was prompted to write this article by those specific friends, it is appropriate for anyone interested in singing.  I’m talking singers of rock, jazz, choral work, opera, hardcore, yodeling… you get the picture.

So who wants to learn how to sing? Who wants to learn how to sing with more control? Who wants to understand his/her own voice better, to be a more confident singer with more flexibility and better endurance?

I do I do!

Great! Come with me…

Helpful Tools:

1. A mirror

2. A recording device

3. Privacy. It is in your best interest to really be practicing and not performing. You want to work and rework your weaknesses, not sing the nicest parts of songs for someone you know is listening.

Diagram 1
Diagram 1

Diagram 2a
Diagram 2a

Diagram 2b
Diagram 2b

Step One- Posture:

1. Stand with your ears, over your shoulders, over your hips. It’s easy to remember and an easy alignment to achieve.

2. When you stand in the above position, your chin will be at rest. Keep your chin down. It is common to see singers lifting their chins when straining to sing a high pitch. One might think, “It’s a higher note, so I’m gonna bring my mouth up higher to sing it.” Nope! Lifting your chin actually makes singing more difficult. It cuts off the air supply traveling through your trachea (less air= less control and focused sound). It also changes the position of your soft palate, which in turn makes it difficult to achieve full resonance through your largest resonating cavity, your pharynx. (Singing is all about air being manipulated into specific vibrations through your vocal chords and then resonance cavities, which are spaces in your head.)

Step Two- Breathing:

1. Keep your shoulders still while inhaling and exhaling.

2. Breathing in is a little more controlled while singing. Physically you are filling your lungs, but it helps to let your lower abdominals release and, for the lack of a better word, your “tummy” to pop out.

3. Breathing out, in the form of singing, is very controlled. Teachers and choir directors often say, “Sing from your diaphragm.” Which is odd because your diaphragm is just below your lungs and they are normally pointing to their lower abdominals at the time. Your diaphragm sits on your stomach like a hat and is not consciously controlled. What are controlled are your lower abdominal muscles and rib-action muscles, or intercostals. (Rib-action muscles are the side muscles at and just below your ribs.) The most controlled stream of air is a combination of the steady contraction of the abdominal muscles in conjunction with the holding of an expanded position of the rib-action muscles.
In other words, your tummy pushes in, while your ribs stay expanded.

Step Three- Sing!

1. Start by singing vowel sounds by themselves (A, E, I, O, U)

2. Here are the variations of vowel sounds I would like you to start with
[ɑ] as in balm [ɛ] bet [a] base [i] bee [ɔ] ball [o] obey [u] boom

(Letters within [] belong to the International Phonetic Alphabet used by singers.)

3. Try singing [ɑ] [ɛ] [a] [i] [a] [ɛ] [ɑ] (aaahhheehhhhayyyiiiyyyaayyyeehhhahh)

4. And then [ɑ] [ɔ] [o] [u] [o] [ɔ] [ɑ] (aahhawwohhooohohhawwaahh)

If this is difficult to understand in print, just sing vowel sounds you know in this same way.

Do this on one pitch at a time, and slowly. If you really focus the sound, you might hear overtones (ringing sounds above the main note), which are beautiful and almost hypnotic. This is a slow droning exercise to help you get to know your range and how your tone sounds and your mouth feels while singing different vowels. It is also a good way to practice your slow and controlled breathing.

5. Now, sing your favorite song, or whatever you feel the need to work on. Record the first try, listen to it, record it again trying to make improvements (but don’t record over the first try.)

6. Next, try singing that same song, only singing the vowels of the words (still singing the melody of the song.)

I.E. “Blackbird singin in the dead of night…”
“aahiihh iihh ih ih uh eh uh ahhhh…” (Don’t breath in between each vowel sound. Sing it as if you were singing with the words, breathing in between sentences or phrases.)

This can be a tricky thing to do, so slow down and be patient with yourself.

7. Once you feel like you’re comfortable doing that, record yourself singing the song with the words again.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the control over your tone, air flow, phrasing, and your confidence with the song will have improved a lot between your first and latest recording. Don’t believe me? Listen back.

In Review:

Stand in front of a mirror with ears, over shoulders, over hips. Breathe in slowly, letting your tummy pop out. Sing the vowel exercise with one hand on your lower abs, feeling them push in, and one hand on one side of your ribs, feeling them stay expanded. Watch in your mirror to make sure your chin stays at rest and your shoulders stay still. Then, record yourself singing, listen back, record again with improvements, listen again, etc.

Good work student! Please leave questions in the form of comments, which I will try to answer during your next lesson. If this was helpful, I will gladly continue to give these Internet voice lessons, so let me know what you think! (I am also a voice teacher in “real life” and if you live in New York City and would like to study with me, just send me an e-mail at erikalloydmusic@gmail.com.)

Diagram #1 and #2a were taken from, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, Second Edition by Barbara M. Doscher.

Diagram #2b was taken from, Your Voice at its Best by David Blair McClosky

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 3

This article is part 3 of a 3-part series by Nathan Whitney, who spent 6 years working on cruise ships all over the world. Please also visit parts 1 & 2 of this series, which discuss the choice of guitar and amplifier/effects for the gig:

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 1
Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 2

After my last article, I had quite a few questions regarding mulit-effect units vs. individual pedals. There are many advantages and disadvantages to both of these systems. Let me list a few:



  • One unit contains all effects, no extra cables/power needed
  • Individual patches can be customized and saved
  • If required, it is possible to go direct to the board
  • Quick set up/tear down time


  • If unit breaks, no access to any effects
  • Tone’s must be programmed for each room/situation and deep editing of patches on the fly may not be quick
  • Quality of individual effects sometimes not equal to that of individual pedal

Individual Pedals


  • One pedal = one job = no confusion of that pedals function
  • Quality of effects usual fairly high (depending on brand/pedal design)
  • Quick set up/tear down time (if mounted on pedal board)
  • Easy access to changes, one knob affects one aspect of tone


  • Can be time consuming when resolving issues (having to trouble-shoot all pedals/patch cords)
  • If required to go direct, tone may not be very good.
  • Requires individual power supplies to each pedal (can be avoided with the use of a dedicated multi power supply)

Although not a full list of advantages and disadvantages, you can see that each option has their own strengths and weaknesses. No matter which route you choose to take, always, always have a back up plan. It could be as simple as an extra overdrive pedal available to use with an amp in case your multi-effects unit goes down. Or in the case of individual pedals, having extra patch cords and power supplies available.

One pedal that either group could use as a back up is an amp-modeling pedal, such as the SansAmp GT2 or one of SansAmp Character Series pedals, like the Liverpool or Blonde. These pedals emulate an amp type response and could be used to go direct to the PA system, in case a multi-effect unit goes down or an amplifier is not available.

Use what you are comfortable with and within your budget. Always have a backup for your backup plan. As long as you have the basics covered one way or another, most ship gigs are fairly flexible tone wise and you can always build your arsenal of effects and gear while on board the ship if you really need to.

Additional Accessories

A list of some essentials that any professional guitarist should have with them:

Strings – Bring extra. Extra’s for your extra’s. You’re going to use them up at some point so it’s better to have extra left at the end of the contract then to have to search for them when you have time off the ship. Bring a string winder/cutter combination tool as well. Wiping down your strings with a cloth or using a string cleaner, such as GHS Fast Fret, will also help extend the life and sound of your strings.

Picks – While as guitarists we tend to gravitate to one type of pick that fits our playing style, often the easiest (and cheapest) tonal change we can make is by using a different pick. I myself am a religious user of the Dunlop Jazz III picks, but for jazz I would use an even thicker, rounded pick like the Dunlop 208. For funk, R’n’B and faux-acoustic sounds, I use Fender Medium style picks. You can purchase picks by the bag and have the bags last for years.

Capos – While I’ve only used a capo once on a ship gig, you should have one available to you. You never know when someone is going to want to transpose “Honky-Tonk Woman” up a minor third and want the open string licks played exactly the same as the original.

Slides – Slides come in all different shapes and materials. I recommend a metal slide, not for tone so much as for functionality. I broke two glass slides while on one ship (I brought one for backup) then I wised up and purchased two brass slides. Brass gives you a slightly different sound, not that noticeable to anyone in the audience, and if you drop them, they won’t break.

Cables – Instrument cables and the small individual cables that you will use for effect pedals have a habit of breaking at the worst possible moment. Always have at least one instrument cable and a few small pedal patch cables available.

Multi-Head screwdriver and Jeweler’s screwdrivers – You never know when you’re going to need to take your guitar apart. Or adjust your glasses.

Power Strip /Extension Cord – Bring your own to plug your gear into. Make sure it’s a dark color and waterproof. Label it!

Flashlight – Stages can be dark. A small LED type is all you need.

Headphones – As most ships are heading towards in-ear monitoring and many shows you will play use click track, make sure you bring your own headphones. Bring ones that fit well and are not obvious looking (don’t wear your iPod headphones on stage). Make sure to bring an extension for your headphone cable and a few of the various headphone adaptor combinations, as the ship will not usually have extras.

Hearing Protection – Your ears are your greatest assets so protect them! Whether custom molds or the standard foam type, make sure you have them available. You never know when you are going to be the guy positioned directly next to the drummers crash cymbal. If you are using foam earplugs, try to find a bag of the flesh/skin tone color variety (not the florescent green type) so that they blend a little more. As with headphones, you don’t want to be a distraction for the audience. And you would be surprised at what audiences will notice.

Practice amplifier/mp3 player – One of the main complaints of musicians on board ships is the lack of space to practice. As electric guitarists we have an advantage of having an instrument that does not generate a lot of sound. This is great for practicing, as we can go pretty much anywhere available, but at the same time makes it difficult if we are in a noisy environment.

I have been using the Tascam MP-GT1 for the last few years. Not only does it allow me to hear myself, but it also has a built in MP3 player and can slow down (in pitch) and loop MP3’s. It also has a metronome and effects built in. The Korg PX5D Pandora is another similar device. Batteries can be expensive and unreliable, so make sure you have the appropriate power adapter for your unit. If you are still using CD’s, there are units that do the same job, but use audio CD’s rather than MP3 files.

9 volt batteries – Bring a few along.

Footstool – Depending on your practice position and the height at which you wear your guitar strap, I would bring along a footstool for my practice sessions.

Pencils, Erasers, Manuscript, Notepaper – Always bring a pencil to rehearsals. You will need to make notes about the show and there will always be corrections to be made on the score. Make sure your notes are in pencil and ask the act if they would like your notes erased after the show is finished. Manuscript and notepaper is for your own personal use. You never know when a hit song idea will strike or when you need to write down some settings or reminders for yourself.

This brings us to the end of this series. I hope it has been informative and helped in making the transition from ship to shore easier. Above all, remember to bring your positive attitude and your willingness to learn. Cruise ship gigs are a great experience that will push you as a musician and in other non-musical ways. Keep that smile on your face and enjoy your time at sea!

Just Play

Sound familiar? Maybe it’s an excerpt from something your high school band director told you when you were asking too many questions, or talking to the person sitting next to you when you should be making changes to your music. It was probably prefaced by “SHUT UP and just play!” or something to that effect. Maybe it’s something a music director told you when you were sitting in a pit asking about what voicing to use or which mallets to play on a marimba. Maybe it’s something you heard when you didn’t know the changes or form to a tune someone called on a particular gig or jam session. Maybe it’s something you told your drummer or guitarist about one of your tunes. Or maybe it’s just something we should all think about a little more carefully here in modern times. Wait… what? Is this just another voice ringing in my head (bad memories from marching band?) or is there something here that holds the key to what we are all trying to do?

If you are determined to be a playing, working musician in addition to or instead of being a composer, here’s an ounce of some truth: marketing, personality, great music, networking, and web presence is vital; but nothing is as important as getting out there and doing what you do: playing.

I remember being back at North Texas and getting close to graduating. There were a lot of really great drummers going out for a lot of the same playing opportunities I wanted. How on earth was I going to get any opportunity over and above everyone else? These guys were extremely talented, top notch, and hungry. I actually broke down and asked some of the other drummers “how am I going to succeed?” Why would I get this job over some of the most qualified musicians in the world? One of the best drummers in town at the time pulled me aside on a set break and told me exactly how I was going to do it. He said plainly, “if playing the drums is what you’re supposed to do, you’ll do it.”

The simplicity of his response took me quite a few years to understand. I was expecting some sort of “secret”, like in a Bruce Lee or Karate Kid movie. I was expecting that if I went and studied hard with a particular teacher, surely he would pass on the secret moves and some sort of shortcut I would need to succeed. Maybe he would make me shine his car (wax on, wax off?) and then I would magically appear on the scene after a very short leave of absence, take the industry by storm, and wow everyone with my skills! I could even have music for my montage… You get the point.

“If playing the drums is what you’re supposed to do, you’ll do it.” How on earth could this possibly be the answer I was looking for? It was way too simple. and certainly not the answer I was expecting. After all, I had a degree in music. I sat through ear training and ethnomusicology! I studied my instrument with some of the top teachers in the world! I understand odd times, polyrhythm, complex music theory, and counterpoint. There had to be something along those lines that contained the “secret”! Change the quote to fit however you need, but the truth is just that simple. “If playing music is what you’re supposed to do, you will do it.”

We live in a computer age where the internet rules and digital audio is king. Rightfully so, it’s all very cool stuff, and computers are a great thing. The good news is that computers will never be able to replace LIVE music, after all, the very definition of LIVE music is music played by people – i.e. NOT computers. While the climate has changed in the music industry, no computer will ever replace music played by humans. There will always be an art to LIVE music, and nothing is as important as getting out and playing live. A shortage of venues and good paying gigs are both realities, but also excuses.

Another reason people avoid playing is criticism. Is my music good enough? Will people like it? It’s much easier to stay home, create music in a home studio and try to sell it online than it is to get out, play, and interact with other musicians. It’s safe, and you can avoid the potential annoying disapproval of an actual audience. Unfortunately, playing live is all part of what creates an actual musician. I’ve received several bad reviews for my work (both live and recorded), but I’d much rather be down on the field playing the game than in the bleachers writing about it. Let the critics be critics and just play.

Sitting at home in front of a computer googling ways to sell 1 million CD’s with the help of an online promotional website might be constructive compared to watching reruns of the WWF from the 1980’s but personally, I would turn off both the computer and the TV and find a place to play or simply practice. An online presence is a must, but if you only exist online, sorry, you don’t really exist. Nobody created a career by spending all day on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or surfing the web.

The music business has always been difficult. It was difficult for the pioneers, it will be difficult for us. Buddy Rich spent his whole life gigging and guess what? Running from bill collectors! Did that ever stop him from playing? At age 67 when asked if he was going to keep playing against the advice of his doctors (he had suffered a heart attack and 3 seizures), he said with all arrogance and honesty, “I’ve got to, what else am I going to do?” Buddy played from the time he was 18 months old until 2 weeks before his death at the age of 69.

Miles Davis played at the Montreux Jazz Festival 2 months before he died in September of 1991. Miles was 65 and had been playing since he was 13. Maynard Ferguson played a week at the Blue Note a few days before he died in August of 2006. He was 78 years old when he died and had been playing since he was 9. Charlie Parker died at age 34 and had been playing since he was 11. Frankie Valli is 75 years old and still out there performing 80 dates a year. He has had peaks and valleys in his career, but he’s been doing it since 1951. The list goes on.

If you are striving for greatness, follow in the footsteps of the greats. Poverty, bad reviews, and obstacles never stopped the greats from playing, why should it stop you? “If playing music is what you are supposed to do, you’ll do it.” Just play.