Shades of Gray

“I haven’t heard anything from you in awhile,” she said, her voice trailing off towards the end of her sentence like an invitation to respond. And, when I didn’t: “Things slowing down over there?” I let the white noise of our phones fill the air for what seemed like long enough, until I exhaled – inhaled:

People think of progress as a straight line – that progressing is just taking a big step to the next cobblestone on the path, and once you’re there, you can rejoice because now you’ve made it, and everyone can see. You are no longer where you once were, and now, everyone can see.  Because, really, that’s the gauge of progress – that metric which decides if we get an A+ on our weekly, monthly, yearly report, turned in and recited to whomever it is we report. I want the A+, so I’ll mention the concrete – the things that I can refer to and say, “Here’s my project, it’s forecast, and possible return on investment,” accompanied by a timeline of when I believe these so-called returns might be taking place, so that whoever is grading me can say, “Oh, that sounds promising.” Then we shake hands and sign off: I get the approval that I think I need, and the other walks away with the belief that time wasn’t wasted and he or she can rest easy knowing that I’m making a real effort.

And, that is how it works in a lot of cases when there are quantifiable factors at play that blink in red when they fall below a certain value. But, unfortunately (in some instances, and fortunately in others), a creative doesn’t have a blinking red light to tell him, “This is leading nowhere – invest in alternative strategies,” or, “Try something else because this won’t resonate.” Sure, there are market trends to analyze, methodologies that people swear by, and pieces of tangible evidence to measure success, but when it comes to the art itself, the black and white of numbers and graphs tends to blur into a swirling mass of gray. And, that’s what an artist deals in – different shades of gray that come together and hopefully convey what he or she intended. It’s a craft that takes time to improve – to realize which shades of gray are your favorite, which complement each other effectively, which are best for the art that you create, and so on.

That’s the progress that’s difficult to document and the progress that goes unreported when striving for that sought-after A+ on your report card. That’s the progress made on a song you’ll never hear because I’ll never release it. That’s the progress made in the hours of perfecting a minor detail that only I’ll notice. That’s the progress made when you may not hear something from me for a while because that’s the progress that symbolizes growth, and that’s the progress that matters.

I started listing the things I’d done in the past month that I thought would have some value to her: “I wrote a song with [insert name she may have heard of] who wrote [insert song she may have heard of] and worked with [insert name of big artist she may have heard of], and I think it’s got a good chance to get picked up by a major artist. We’ll see what happens,” letting my voice trail off and crossing my fingers for the A+. “Oh, that sounds promising,” she said, and I went on with my recital.

New Year, New Me -- Right?

In the days leading up to the ball dropping, you can count on being bombarded with that age-old phrase, “New year, new me,” said by people who are ready for these past 365 days to end – people who are ready to wipe the slate clean and start fresh on a blank canvas. And, I’m all for it. Trust me, I’m a fan of resolutions, believing that you can be better than you were in the past and using this calendar symbol of rebirth to begin (or maybe, try) again. But, even if this year wasn’t what you wanted it to be, there’s value in dissatisfaction. There’s value in all the valleys that you were forced to hoist yourself out of, and I think people tend to think so glamorously of this unknown – but surely better – future because, you know, the grass is always greener.

Social media is probably one of the biggest culprits when it comes to casting out the last year as a botched experiment, and all these memes go viral because, at the end of the day, they’re relatable. Of course, there will be valleys, and of course, there will be peaks, but we never pat ourselves on the back and say, “You know what? Goal reached. Let’s enjoy this.” It’s always onto bigger and better things because that’s just how we are. The Internet is so good at highlighting the downsides – after spinning it to make it funny or pairing it with a picture Kermit the Frog – and unfortunately, that’s what we tend to walk away with because that’s what we remember: how it (or we) could have been better. And it’s not just the Internet – our memories do the same thing because that’s how we survive in a world of mistakes and bad decisions. We learn from them. And really, that’s the beauty in this experiment of life. It can always – or at least we have to believe it can always – be better, whether it’s by tweaking one little thing here and there or, as we often do, by attempting to metaphorically wipe the slate clean.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that life will never be one big mountain where we’re constantly climbing upward, our foot never slipping on an unfounded rock, a branch never breaking when we thought it was grounded, our eyes never looking ahead to the point where we know we need to be (because, you know, then we’ll be happy). Life is an endless terrain of ups, downs, and plateaus. You can pick a direction, but you can only base your decision on where you’ve been and what you can see directly in front of you. So, don’t throw out 2016 as a time when nothing was gained. You took a path. Maybe it led you to a mountain, and maybe it led you to a valley. Maybe you have to move forward, and maybe you have to turn right around and move a few steps back. But, now you know where not to go, and you’re a better you than you were before it. And, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for reaching a peak either because I think if you really tried, you could look back on 2016 and say, “I think I’m doing just fine.”

P.S. Sorry for the lack of consistency on these things. Weekly was a bit too much for me to uphold, and when you miss one, the whole thing kind of falls apart. This time, I'm pacing myself for once a month. That way, these will be a little more substantial, and I can have some time to chew on my thoughts. Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed the blog up to this point, and I hope you continue to enjoy it. As always, I'd love to start a conversation, so ask questions, give me your thoughts. I'd love to talk to you.

Slower Days

This past week was a whirlwind – I don’t think I stopped moving unless it was for sleep. And, there’s beauty in that: being as productive as possible, speeding through days at 100 MPH, and finally landing in your bed at the end of the day with a crash where, the second you touch the mattress, you’re out.  There’s a feeling of responsibilities completed, like you had a to-do list, and you checked that thing off – one-by-one. But, as I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning with the sun rising, with nothing but contemplation and my own voice in my head, I start to be grateful for the times when maybe I’m just going at my own pace.

I’ve discovered a newfound respect for those Type-A people who are constantly thinking of what to do next, where to go, how to further themselves – whether it be in their career or their friendships – because it’s a learned skill and one that I haven’t really had to pick up until recently. It’s tough. I’m an introvert with extraverted tendencies, so I value my me-time. Who cares if it’s Netflix, thinking about a song, or even writing this blog? That’s the time that I have to myself to spend it any way I’d like, and when you’re speeding through the day, the hours go so fast, and before you know it, you’ve lost any chance for yourself. And, then you’ve got to wake up early to do it all again.

I’ll go ahead and claim that one of the biggest changes in my life by going into music is that no single day is the same: there’s no routine, there’s no proper way of going about it, there’s no schedule on which I depend. Sure, there are appointments, and sure, I set goals for myself to finish on different timelines, but it’s no nine-to-five, and ultimately, your day is what you make it. There are days when I’m killing it, finishing all those little things that I forgot to do or just haven’t wanted to do, and then there are days when I do just about the bare minimum to let me sleep at night. But, like I said, there’s beauty in both.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s easy to feel like you’re sinking fast because there will never not be something to do – that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed that you get when you’ve got too much homework and not enough time is a constant – and if you look for too long at the big picture on the scale of the little things, you start shaking your head wondering how they could ever be finished. But I think dreams – and the bigger goals in life that we set for ourselves – are vague like that. We set this image of who we want to be, and though the path might be unknown, we start walking toward it however we see fit. We learn things along the way, maybe take a few steps backward before we can step forward again, but we keep going.

So, rounding back around to the beauty of lazy days: I love them because they’re rejuvenation. They’re a step off of the dream playing field where you can just ride bench for a little bit – because well, you need a rest. You can look at the big picture as a spectator and not as a player – at least for an instant – and remember why you’re here. Every day doesn’t need to be a whirlwind because sometimes, the slower days are just as important. 

Weight of the Name

So, this piece is going to be informational – about what I’ve learned of publishing deals, the benefits (and consequences) of having one, etc., etc. As I go on writing and cranking out songs that I think have potential in the country realm – or even in another realm that simple isn’t my type of music – the idea of having a channel of selling and ultimately bringing these songs into being becomes all the more enticing. Enter the publishing deal.

Before I dive into what a publishing deal can offer, I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do without one: co-write with people who do. Sure, there are ways to be independent and sell your songs freelance, but at the end of the day, it comes down to getting those demos into the hands of artists or the people who make decisions for those artists. One major benefit of a publishing deal is having people called, “pushers,” on your side and willing to pitch your song to those aforementioned important people. Otherwise, you could have written the best song anyone’s ever heard, but with no one accepting unsolicited submissions and no one listening to the new kid on the block, it’s pretty likely that no one will ever hear it. Connections, connections, connections.

With that being said, one major downside of a publishing deal is the percentage the publishing company gets for their services – especially if you don’t lawyer up and have someone actually review the deal before you get involved. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting wrapped up into deals where all they get is an advance – which is stable income in an unstable financial market – and maybe a sliver of the royalties earned on a song, while the publishing company gets the rest. But, I think if you enter into meetings with the mindset that businesses are out for themselves, you can usually come out with a deal that benefits you both.

Money aside, there are things that publishing companies offer that are just simply unattainable on your own – the main one being those, “connections, connections, connections,” I mentioned earlier. I’ve heard a few cases now where artists are actually being developed by these companies, which involves everything from co-writes with big names to setting up shows in well-known venues, and it all comes from the weight of the name. It’s everything in Nashville – where number-one hits can be bought, artists can be produced, and pitch can be tuned.

I did try to keep this short and sweet, so I could highlight the benefits and the major consequences of having or not having a deal. As a sort of exercise for myself, it’s good to write through these things and view them in a tangible sort of way because it’s easy to get swept off your feet in this town by promises of fame, money, success – or whatever – and never see those things come into being. Clarity is key when contracts are involved, and whether you remain a freelance writer or sign up to be on a company’s payroll, it’s essential to know what you’re getting into and if it’s right for you – if it fits into your goals and your path through music.