nashville

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.

Stay Tuned

“Maybe if you just had a few more followers you could get their attention because I hear they look at that first before they even listen to the music. There’s a lot of ways to build it up. Search a few hashtags, like a couple photos, even follow and unfollow if you have to,” she said with a smirk. I pulled out my phone: 919 followers on Instagram, 654 likes on Facebook, 219 followers on Twitter.

Slacking.

In my line of work, there are standards of operation, one of them being social media – the constant production of content for an audience with which to interact, engage, and ultimately (if you’re lucky) “like.” And, there’s no definition of what that content has to be: selfies count, covers count, this blog even counts, and it’s entirely with the intention of building a brand and staying in the focus of people who scroll through a timeline – at least from the artist's perspective.

It’s an amazing tool if you think about it. Connection and capacity for communication are at an all-time high and the degree of separation between strangers is just one DM, but does it become a bad thing when I begin to feel guilty if I didn’t capture a moment that I think my Instagram followers would have enjoyed? Does it become a detriment to my own person when I start to think in terms of likes and follows, retweets and favorites, whatever it is that quantifies an artist’s success these days? Does it become a negative when validation as an artist comes from something that, in many ways, is disconnected from the actual art itself?

Did you know that pictures with faces in them, on average, get more likes that those without? That a little bit of desaturation typically gets better engagement than its more intense counterpart? Well, I do – or at least, I do now because I have to. Now, because I’m forced to care if I get over 100 likes on a picture, I adjust it before I let the world see – add a little contrast, dim it just a bit, crop out that person I don’t like. I make sure that whatever the viewer sees at least looks better than it probably was because the only thing that matters is how it’s perceived, not how it was experienced – in a lackluster reality and all.

It’s starts to be laughably ironic that, as a singer/songwriter – where literally one of the only prerequisites to the craft is honesty – we’re expected to display ourselves in a glamorous spotlight that makes it seem as though all is well when, you know, maybe it’s not. Maybe that selfie that we’re asked to post at least three or four times a week is hollow, and that smile we’re asked to wear is something we put on for validation because well, if everyone else thinks things are going well, they must be (but that’s another blog post entirely).

And, I don’t mean to bash it and those who use it because I’m not. I mean, after writing this, I’ll post it online in a few days, on every platform I just named. Like I said, it’s an amazing tool for artists, friends, single folks and all, but I think it needs to be viewed in that light – as a tool – and this tool can be abused just as much as a gun or a prescription drug. Of course, I haven’t mastered its use from a professional standpoint, as I’m sure those who follow me know (I think the last thing I posted was a few weeks ago). But, I am learning: Sure, I’m learning what filters work, but I’m also realizing the difference between artificial and genuine content, along with the consequences of developing a superficial following and an organic one.

It’s not the first thing on my mind as an artist – to be honest, social media is one of the last. And sure, I understand that that could hurt me, but I also know that I would never vomit something out because I feel like I need some sort of engagement. So, for those wonderful people of you who follow me and my career on these apps, thanks for your patience. Know that I am actually doing things in Nashville, my career is moving forward, and I will have content to show for it soon. So stay tuned.

P.S. I’m sure I’ll post a selfie about it soon. ;)

 

The Learning Curve Is Steep

There’s so much I don’t know about this industry. Sometimes, I feel like it’s the first day of a foreign language class where the teacher only speaks in that exotic tongue, and you’re left to infer and imply – picking out words you understand and going with those for now. The learning curve is steep, but it’s definitely manageable, and how better to learn a language than to immerse yourself in it. Welcome to Nashville, I guess.


I feel like I know a lot about music. I can write a song that’s catchy. I can play guitar pretty well. But, music is half the battle – if not less – and the acronyms are staggering:  BMI, ASCAP, SESAC – all of which are technically the same thing, but different in so many ways. It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon and start just sort of nodding your head – like you’re seeing the words on a page, but not really understanding them. I guess what I’m saying is there’s a reason schools offer majors in music business: being an artist – especially a freshman in the field – is definitely not just sitting around writing songs and playing guitar all day.

Like I said, the learning curve is steep. Research, current events, and law are all part of the Nashville artist curriculum, and I promise you bioengineering does not correlate. It’s an entirely different field. Math – doesn’t matter. Physics – doesn’t matter. English – barely matters. With that being said, I wouldn’t trade my degree in engineering for a music business degree in the same way that I would rather learn Italian by living in Italy for a year than by learning it through a textbook.

The practical approach to learning skills is always so much better – and so much more applicable. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I’d bet that few of us still read the manuals to any new thing – well, unless you’re building some IKEA furniture. We learn by doing. We learn by living. And, sure, you could make the argument that it’s a bad thing: we make mistakes. We live on a Bible of rules of thumb and heuristic principles that do the job most of the time – but maybe not all of the time.


Of course, I wouldn’t want to hire an engineer or a doctor who lives by that code of maybes – in a world where set laws of nature govern how, when, and why things will do what they do. But, music – and Nashville – isn’t that world. There’s no set path that people can point to and say, “This is what works. Do this, and you’ll make it.” All they can really say is, “Well, it worked in the past,” or “Well, this worked for me.” Sure, it helps to know the terms and have some schooling, so you’re not looking at a dictionary every two seconds, but you don’t get fluent by reading a book – you do it through immersion. So, here I am in Nashville – learning.

Gas in the Tank

Well, I can say this: I’m always busy. Whether I’m sending emails to venues, producers, musicians, blogs, radio stations, magazines, websites, playlist curators, songwriters, or the like; whether I’m writing songs, which, according to industry folk, I should be doing at least five times a week; whether I’m playing my old tunes and finding new ways to play the same song or even developing a song that hasn’t reached its potential, music is a constant. But, that’s what I asked for, isn’t it?


I won’t claim that I came into this life thinking it would be easy. If anything, the countless sighs of concern from friends and loved ones, when I told them I’d be doing music full-time after four years of engineering, were enough to put an ominous overtone of the next few years of my life. “Well, it’s a tough place to get noticed,” or, “Well, at least you’ve got a good back-up,” were what usually followed. Sure, I’d shake off the doubt and ask myself the question I’ve asked a million times, “Is this what you really want to do?” to which my heart’s reply was inevitably, “Of course.” But, that’s not the tough question: the harder one to answer is, “Why?” or, more specifically, “What makes you so special?”

I think there’s a sort of innate faith in oneself that has to be burned into his head if he hopes to do something as unstable and unknown as music – a certain confidence that what he’s doing is right, whether strangers believe it or not. Because, well, if you’re not your biggest fan, who else will be? Who else is going to get you through the unavoidable lows that come with rejection? Who else is going to be constantly filling your gas tank when you feel like this might be the end of the journey? You’ve got mom and dad through the phone, friends in a stable job, God, religion – whatever your anchor is – but at some point, it simply comes down to you. You have to have faith.

And, like I said, I won’t claim that I came to Nashville thinking I’d be swept off my feet by a record label or a publishing house the second I got here, but that faith in my music, my lyrics, my talent – all things given to me by the Lord above – persuaded me into thinking that, you know, maybe it’ll be easier for me. Surely, the people out here don’t have what I have – and maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but nothing is given in this world but the drinks at a bar, being bought by someone who wants to shake hands and add you to a contact list.


Nothing is given, but success can absolutely be earned – and half the battle is figuring out how to earn it. And, sure, I’m painting in broad strokes: there are people who have come into my life recently – you know who you are – who’s generosity, friendliness, and sincerity in this strange city have been invaluable. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to you, what you do for yourself, and how hard you’re willing to work. Handouts – if they ever were a thing – certainly are in the past, so now, more than ever, its up to me to fill my tank with gas.


Which Way to Water

So, here I am in Nashville. Granted, it’s been awhile since we last spoke, so I’m sifting through my head like a filing cabinet, flicking my fingers through manila folders and putting aside interesting anecdotes – and trashing the not-so-engaging.  I could talk about the fact that I was the recipient of ten (Count ‘em – ten!) stiches because I sliced my hand open without a single night of Tennessee under my belt. I could tell the story of how, only a few days after the move, my friends and I were nearly assaulted by a pack of rambunctious rednecks who thought we had taken their five-dollar flag on the Fourth (On a side note, I think what dissuaded them from attacking was the fact that my hand, to prevent infection of course, was conveniently wrapped in a plastic bag, which I’m sure from the outside seemed to be far more for their benefit than my own).  I could even tell you of all the songs I’ve been writing – as I’m sure I will at some point – but instead, today I’m concerned with Nashville, the Music City.


When my roommate and I had first entered this kingdom, we were inevitably blinded by the lights of a big city, the massive migration of new faces, and the constant, rhythmic thumping of new and old country hits. It was a brave new world, one that we had never experienced, and we were eager to taste it (Maybe “taste” isn’t the right word – what about “inhale?”). Because, well, this is what I came for: a place to be recognized, a place where music is around every corner, and a place where saying, “I’m a musician,” means, “This is for real – I’m the real thing.” But, doesn’t everyone say that? Doesn’t every kid with a dream say, “I’m going to Nashville. Next time you see me, it’ll be on TV.” Well, I’ll be the first to tell you: yeah, they do, and I’m sure as hell one of them.

Well, at least to people who can help me – at least to people who have seen thousands of kids like me come and go because they just couldn’t break in. Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in America (I read somewhere that about 86 people a day – a day! – are moving here), and it’s easy to find yourself just a minnow, swimming with a school of other fish, hoping to get swept up in someone’s net, so they can put you in their sand castle for an hour – until the tide rolls in and washes it all away, leaving you flopping around like some pathetic thing, wondering which way to water. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But, if water is money and a net is the next big break, it’s accurate enough. Nashville’s fantastic – don’t get me wrong. It’s opportunity incarnate: it’s the Music City, but people get lonely in big crowds, and it’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re flailing about saying, “Look! Here’s what I’ve got – I think it’s great,” and the person with the net doesn’t have time to listen. 


In retrospect, I’ve painted a bit of a morbid picture of my time thus far, but I promise you, it’s been everything I’ve imagined – even the difficult parts (though I did seem to hover on those).  Nashville’s a big city, so just bear with me while I get used to being small – I’ll grow.

Empty Skies

I loaded some gear into my car this weekend – two main speakers, two monitors, guitars, etc., etc. – and filled it to the brim, so until it’s all out of there, no one’s getting in and out of my car but me. Yeah, maybe people could move around a few cables in the passenger seat, put them on the floor, and have enough space to sit uncomfortably for a bit while we get from A to B – but they won’t enjoy it, and when their necks start cramping up after, they’ll try their hardest not to do it again.  Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes, fighting for space against a one-track mind. And, it doesn’t leave much room for permanence: people come and go, and we can both make the effort, but there’s only so much space in a car, in a heart, in a life.


With the prospect of heading to Nashville after I graduate, the obvious questions of money, success, and time come to mind. But, rather than those about what I may or may not become, the question, “What am I giving up?” stands as the most haunting.

I have to be selfish – it’s just the nature of the game. I have to put myself first because there’s no compromise with time.  That’s why, in my last few months here at Clemson, I’m inclined to shrug off any possibility of permanence, whether it be with friends, lovers, and the like. I wouldn’t call it a fear so much as I would call it a premonition. Experience has taught me a bit about how I go about relationships – well, how I go about most things – and it’s nearly 100% tunnel vision. So, if that’s the case, it all comes down to priority, to which thing matters most because the other will inevitably be cast aside. And, I know you’re reading this saying, “Well, I think there’s still a chance,” or “Maybe you’re limiting yourself,” and I’ll agree. I absolutely am. But, the beauty about one-track minds is that they don’t notice many things beyond the number one – or things that could be there but aren’t because they’re so focused on the first.

Now, I’m not saying it’s good or bad: there are pros and cons to it for sure. But, I will say that when you’re pursuing a dream where you’re going to face tons of adversity, having some of the other things fade away is nice advantage. Like I said, I have to be selfish if I’m going to try this, but when you’re plate is full already, it’s tough to add anything new. 


So, the gear’s loaded, the car’s full, and I’ll be gone in three months – not a ton of room left for anything else. Maybe once I get to Nashville, unload, and set my roots, I’ll have space for something – or someone – else, but the current forecast shows empty skies and an open road.

We Came for the Groove

As most of you know – and for those of you who don’t – we’ve been in the process of producing another record for the past few months now, and because I’ll be on my own and living the musical dream soon, having professionally recorded original songs (kind of like what The Weight was plus the professional part) is crucial to keeping that dream alive. From getting into the doors of venues to getting into people’s ears, being able to direct listeners to original music is a must. So, I rallied the troops, and we packed our overnight bags for Nashville, Tennessee, where the music is plenty and the traffic is apparently awful. Little did I know, the address that Ryan – my friend and producer – sent held little more than an unimposing four-bedroom home with a column on the front porch that simply read, “4115.” 


Forty-One Fifteen, Gallatin Pike doesn’t look like much: I have to admit, when I first drove up to its unremarkable driveway and really took in what seemed to be a literal home studio, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is this really where I’m paying by the hour to be?” I mean, you’ve really got to look hard for it. In between its psychic palm reader and chiropractor neighbors, it stands unnoticeably unexpected as a residential building along a strip of commercial ones, and it does next to nothing to advertise itself to anyone who might be passing through. But fortunately, Google Maps is a thing, and we made our way there without a single detour, knocking on a door with the fear that a mother of two might come to the front.

Well, I’m happy to say: books and their covers have never been more misleading. What welcomed us upon our initial steps into the studio was nothing short of a musical amusement park – you know, after you make it through the kitchen. The first room is small, where a previous owner may have placed a dining room table for family meals. But now, it’s essentially a piano/keys haven of tone. From glockenspiels to baby grands, this room had the means to fill the whim of any musician who came in saying, “You know, I really think a(n) [insert obscure musical instrument here] would be great for this record.” But, besides shock value, keys weren’t really the reason we came to Nashville for an entire weekend.

We came for the groove, of course. Bass and drums were the focus of February 19th through the 21st, and man, did we conquer. From personnel to environment, Forty-One Fifteen offered everything a musician could ask for: vibes, character, and even the same brand of coffee I drink back home. Though it was probably just a coincidence of luck – because I drank it like water this weekend – and great taste in coffee, who’s to say it wasn’t meant to be? Don’t get me wrong: Saturday and Sunday were long – especially Sunday since our drive back to Clemson started at 8 o’clock Nashville time – but that’s the beauty of doing what you love. It doesn’t feel like work, even when you start with the sun and end with the moon.


These songs are like my children right now. I know what I sound like when I say that, but there’s really no better analogy. You start with an idea – an image of what could be with a thousand different ways of getting there – and you begin. You set its morals and give it value through lyricism, offering a foundation to start speaking for itself. You dress it up each time in what you think looks good, until it develops its own style and its own way of looking back at the world. You make sure it tries everything because you never want it took look back and say, “What if?” or, “I wish.” And finally, when you’ve done all you can to raise it and make it into the beautiful thing it is, you send it out into the world to make its mark – to fly or fail. I know it’s a stretch, but this weekend, my babies started speaking, and that’s a wonderful, amazing thing because its one step closer to that final image. They aren’t ready to take the world by storm just yet: they’re still crawling around or asking for piggyback rides. But with the right parental figures and all their daily vitamins and nutrients, I know they’ll grow up to be something great. Just you wait.