In our efforts to make available as much music business information as possible for Alabama music artists, Alabama Music Office.com has asked music business professionals from all over the world to share their knowledge and experiences.
Last July, songwriter Priscilla Renea, who has co-written hits for Mariah Carey, Fifth Harmony, Madonna and Pitbull -- including his 2013 No. 1 Hot 100 hit "Timber" -- found herself in a tough spot. Recently married, in the midst of remodeling her home and with the constant pressures that come with needing to come up with another hit to keep money coming in, Renea felt trapped behind the scenes, unable to stake her claim as a recording artist in her own right.
"As a songwriter, people in other areas -- A&Rs, managers, executives -- want to keep you at a certain [level] because they need you to keep writing songs for people," said Renea. "They don't want you to try and go and be successful as an artist, because then you don't have time to write songs for their people. It's just constantly running around, making everyone happy, meet the needs of everyone except for yourself -- they feel like they're just a disposable resource, that if they don't cooperate the industry is just gonna move on to the next hot writer."
Around the same time, Renea's mother was contacted by Sound Royalties, a company started by investor Alex Heiche in 2014 which specializes in providing advances on future royalties for songwriters and musicians who often resort to selling parts of their publishing or songwriting rights to earn short-term cash in exchange for long-term profits, thus surrendering financial control of their creative work."We provide advances that aren't based on 100 percent recoupment, so that enables an artist or a songwriter to keep money flowing in, which means they have a higher percentage chance of success rather than being set up for failure and needing to sell," Heiche says. "Secondly, we don't buy copyrights. We only use their music as collateral, because it's non-credit-based, but we don't buy and we don't own."
Now, Sound Royalties is doubling down on their strategy, pledging to pour $100 million in advances into the music industry over the next 24 months, a figure Heiche feels is reasonable after the company self-funded a $10 million pilot program last year helping artists such as Renea navigate uncertain financials while being able to keep their copyrights. In a music industry that is only now recovering monetarily from a 15-year revenue decline, Sound Royalties is one of several companies providing different options for songwriters and artists who have seen lower advances from traditional labels and publishers over the past several years.
Essentially, Sound Royalties works by calculating future royalty earnings for songwriters and fronting a percentage, gradually earning back its investment over an extended years-long period, allowing artists to take a chunk of future earnings right away and continue to earn during the set agreed-upon period. Where banks and other lenders may take a hard line on bad credit or high interest rates, Heiche claims Sound Royalties is artist-friendly, allowing songwriters flexibility in their needs. Generally, he says, artists fall into three tiers: the largest, between $10,000 and $100,000; a smaller number of artists in the $100,000 - $500,000 range; and a smallest pool in the seven figure realm.
"[The goal is] to get where any songwriter or artist knows that they have options available to them without having to sell their music or their rights," Heiche says. "It happens more than you know; either they have no clue they have options available to them and they're struggling, or they know that they can sell."
While there are some downsides to selling copyrights and publishing royalties, that particular option is not always the end of the world for songwriters; selling a portion of royalties can diversify an artist's income, for example, while royalty auction companies such as Royalty Exchange can lead to large windfalls. Likewise, investors dealing in royalty advances are under fewer regulations than traditional banks with less oversight, opening up the possibility of inflated interest rates and other shady practices. Renea, however, hasn't seen Sound Royalties in that light: "Sometimes you feel like people are leaving something out, or a dot isn't connecting -- it wasn't like that with [Sound Royalties].
"It's important for people to understand that this is not about somebody giving you a check so you can go buy a car or whatever," she says. "This is about giving you the room to breathe so that you can create the scenario that you want to operate in. If I'm experiencing these struggles at the level of songs that I'm putting out, how much worse is it for somebody else?"
The following blog comes from Mark Meharry, CEO of Music Glue (pictured inset). Music Glue is a direct-to-fan platform which enables artists to sell tickets, music, merchandise, experiences and more from a single integrated website. Its clients include Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flume, Metallica, Mumford & Sons and Zara Larsson (pictured).
Music retail is broken.
It’s 2016 and consumers have migrated from the high street to the mobile phone, and despite all of our technological advances we have now managed to create a retail experience for music fans that is considerably worse than it was 30 years ago.
As an industry we are leaving £/$/€ billions on the table because we frustrate fans.
When you consider that retail [merchandise, CDs, tickets, etc] still accounts for the vast majority of all income into the industry (and will do so for the foreseeable future) this statement should alarm you, because it alarms me.
The youth market has disengaged with music retail. If this continues unchecked we risk alienating consumers forever; and once they go, they may never come back.
The problem is vast, deep rooted, complex and highly nuanced. So, where are we and how did we get here?
Let’s go back in time 30 years to a simple ‘supply chain’ world, when music retail was uncomplicated.
Consumers would walk into a local record store, listen to new music, flick through the vinyl racks, peruse the range of T-shirts and posters, chat with the clerk and other customers, then make a purchase that could include concert tickets.
Music formats changed, but the basic paradigm remained consistent.
Then Napster hit, followed swiftly by the iTunes Store, and everything changed forever. Physical retailers started to fail and traditional retail collapsed.
“THE PROMISE OF D2C WAS UTOPIAN. HOWEVER, THE EXECUTION AND DELIVERY WERE TERRIBLE.”
By the mid-noughties a new model appeared called Direct to Consumer (D2C) and a bunch of companies emerged promising a brand new world embracing a shift in consumer behaviour toward the direct relationship with the artist.
We flocked to these new D2C services, with artists, managers and labels becoming global retailers overnight.
The promise was utopian. However, the execution and delivery were terrible.
We were sold automated end-to-end solutions, yet quickly discovered that behind the scenes there were humans processing orders instead of robots.
As the tech companies scaled, so did the problems. Fans complained. Artists complained. Managers complained.
Companies like Trinity Street and TopSpin crumbled under the weight of universal disappointment and inefficient order processing.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon evolved into the ‘go to’ destination for physical music products – for both consumers and the recorded music industry. Jeff Bezos got it right.
Direct to Fan ticketing appeared, merch companies built their own e-commerce solutions, the majors started owning D2C rights and subsequently either built their own systems or acquired multiple technologies with aspirations of integration.
The severe fragmentation of the music industry was then reflected online and the importance of the consumer experience was completely ignored.
We complained about the royalty rates paid by streaming services, yet left £/$/€ billions on the table by frustrating the very fans that fuel the entire industry, fans that want to give us their money – but cannot.
“I CHALLENGE YOU TO ACTUALLY BUY SOMETHING FROM THE ARTISTS YOU WORK WITH, WITHOUT WANTING TO HIT YOUR COMPUTER.”
That is where we are now.
If I go to the website of almost every band on the planet with the intention of buying a pre-order vinyl album, an MP3, a ticket or a T-shirt, I am sent to four different stores, forced to enter my credit card four times, create four different accounts with companies I do not want to be associated with and deal with four different customer support centres chasing the delivery of my orders.
Try it yourself: I challenge you to actually buy something from the artists you work with, without wanting to hit your computer.
Even better, try doing it on your mobile phone! It doesn’t work. The music industry has broken every rule in e-commerce; we have effectively broken the internet!
So how important is this ‘artist direct retail channel’? A good question, that we can now answer.
At Music Glue we know the marketing reach the artist has into market:
We know that when we go on sale for a tour at the same time as all other outlets, and we all keep selling until we sell out, the artist’s Music Glue website always sells on average 70% of the tickets. Every time. No matter the size or genre;
We also know that 1 in 3 customers buying directly from an artist will buy more than one item;
We know that when merch is bundled with tickets, on average an artist will sell an additional £19 of merch per ticket;
We know customers on average buy 2.4 tickets and that over a 5 year period will return and buy an additional £53 of products;
We have been doing this a long time and also know that these numbers are all going up!
So what does the future look like?
If we work together and address this issue then the future is bright. Very bright. We must understand customers better and start affording them the respect and ease of use they have now come to expect from e-commerce.
Amazon have set a very high bar, but that is the bar we must now rise to.
Sending fans away to separate stores when they want to give us their money has got to stop.
Fans don’t care about our fragmented industry, they just want to buy stuff. We must now make it easier for them to do so.Music Business Worldwide
Good morning everybody. My name’s Alex Cameron, and I’m a professional. What kind of professional? The best kind: I’m a bonafide, no shit taking, microphone wielding, three quarter erection having cold-blooded crowd killer. And with the help of my good friend and business partner Mr Roy Molloy, I’ve charmed audiences the world over; from beautiful places like Fort Wayne, Indiana to the famous Vanilla Cafe in Le-Pré-Saint Gervais. I’m the kind of professional that keeps the toilet door swinging, these audiences get so damn excited and damn near piss all on themselves.
I’m the kind of professional that checks theatre seats for wet patches after the show. And I’m the kind of professional that ensures the price of admission is well accounted for, regardless if the show is mine, or some lucky headliner’s that hit the jackpot and decided to hire me n Roy to raise the curtains. That’s right folks. You’re looking at the world’s hottest opening act. You’re reading the words of a man who made a living having his name in the small font. I’m so damn good at opening stages I even managed to put on three kilos this past year. That extra beef was earned from money and a stress related weight condition from working so damn hard.
Me n’ Roy Molloy don’t go half measure, we go full tilt. You ask our friends at Foxygen. You ask the fellows at Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders. You ask Reuben and the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. You ask the one and only Mr Henry Rollins. We don’t fuck around. We earn respect from the bottom all the way through to the top. It’s something that we pride ourselves in. We’re professionals. And over time I’ve learned that there’s a certain way to go about things on tour to make sure your peas stay on your knife. I’ve come close to losing the plot based on my behaviour on tour. I’ve come home from the road only to find out that ain’t my home anymore. I’ve shacked up with people I can barely hold down a conversation with just for a roof. People like to think they could do tours if only people heard their music on the internet, or the national broadcaster cut them a break. But touring is work. It’s a tight ship. You don’t get to have your anxieties. You don’t get to vent your emotions. And if you’re the support act you can multiply the trials and tribulations by a grand fold.
Get ready for some legitimate zero respect circumstances. I’m talking about parking cops laughing at you. I’m talking about in house sound guys eating pad-thai while you’re playing and forgetting to turn the front of house on. And I’m talking about not inviting anyone you love back stage cause the headline act might decide to charm them and steal them from you forever. These are legitimate possibilities. So to avoid certain circumstances, certain emotions and certain sensations from running down my spine, I’ve developed a system for getting by. You don’t become the world’s finest opening act by walking around acting like a headliner. Save the celebrations for the big show when people give a shit about you. You wanna know how to tour right read these tips. These are Roy Molloy’s tour tips for support acts brought to you by Alex Cameron and the Crawfish.
Touring is tough, and being the support act is even tougher. The road is long and treacherous, so heed the advice of the world’s no. 1 support act, Alex Cameron.
Due to Visa issues my dear friend and business partner Alex ‘Ken’ Cameron was runnin’ 5 days behind sched’, so the plan was I’d buy a car in LA and he’d fly Sydney to Reno, where I’d pick him up and drive us to the first show in Idaho. Simple. We’d pooled $2500 US together for the purpose of buying a vehicle and I opted for an ’88 Cadillac Coupe Deville. One of the perks of having the Cadillac is that above the speed of 85 Miles per hour the speedometer just stops counting for sweet ignorance and she lowers to the road and becomes like a leaf in the wind. Driving the way we were we managed the seven hour drive to Boise Idaho into a five hour blissful cruise. If it weren’t for the minor technicality of a time zone shift, “Mountain Time”, the local coats called it, we would’ve been right on time.
Contract complete though. Money in the glove compartment. Man, what a vehicle she is. The Duchess. Take a look at her back seat. That’s two business suits hanging neatly above a couch sized back passenger space. What I’m sayin’ is you gotta complete contracts. If you’re not there outta necessity then you may as well not be there at all. Make the concert. Get the envelope with the cash in it. You need wheels you can trust, like the Duchess, and supporting a headliner is a scavenger job. If you don’t have the chihuahua DNA, and the dog car to go with it then go find a nice standalone in the suburbs and be a golden retriever or some shit.
People often ask me if I’d ever pick up a hitch-hiker. Hell yeah I’ll pick up a hiker. I’ll even pick up any outdoor specialist needs a ride. One time I picked up this rock climber from Los Angeles. He had all this synthetic THC which made me have confused, rage filled thoughts. Made me realise why they call that place the city of Angeles. He had the name of Sandy and he came with me all the way to Reno in me n’ Ken’s 88 Cad. Guy had one clean, low ponytail. Damn. I ditched him at an Indian Casino and I think he stole one of my Adidas. Point is sometimes your business partner is going to be on the red eye.
Sometimes he’s going to making a radio appearance in Maddison Wisconsin. Other times he’ll be coiled up in some hotel somewhere suffering from self diagnosed agoraphobia. You’re gonna need company for the long solo drives is what I’m saying. You need to maintain a sense of urgency, and be adequately uncomfortable so you don’t drift off. My only rule with hitchhikers is if you see em and they look like they need a ride pick em up. What goes around comes around, and I believe in social trust. Make em ride up front and put all their belongings in the trunk.
You wanna make sure you know your weather systems. Know the difference between the coldness of a Colorado bleater and the hot, witch like gasps of a diabetic Georgian rain storm. What I mean is some storms gonna make the road turn to ice, others gonna come down pissing hard make everything in front of you a great river of unknown. What I like to set up is a co-pilot type situation. I get Ken in the back letting me know of any bypassing trucks in the left lane. I slow the Cad down to around 60mph, and I get damn near half off the road with my nose right up on the windscreen.
I also focus on the fact that one untrue move could destroy my reality forever. That makes for a real vigilant vibe in the car, and maintains the kind of alertness that saves rock shows. If you come across a Nebraskan super storm that ain’t my problem. They got lightning over there that runs from the ground up to the sky and all the way across to the horizon. A friendly woman in Omaha told Ken that if we ever see a tornado it’s too late and that we gotta find a ditch to lie face down in. Cars can’t outrun those things and you don’t wanna get chopped in two by a rogue piece of sheet metal. Stay living.
Listen, Ken’s right, bein’ the support act means you’re gonna find yourself in some legitimate zero respect circumstances. You ever felt the wind get burnt from your wings? You ever felt some phantom limb keepin’ your head below water waiting for you to suck in and drown? It can be hard to maintain perspective, but you gotta keep your eye on the prize. In this circumstance the prize is establishing an international business network for the purpose of hot cash injections. Don’t make me spell it out for you, and you don’t have to be an arse kisser, but use respect and your personality to show potential global affiliates you ain’t a total piece of shit.
Be good to people. Don’t be an antisocial coward. And don’t for one second get the self pity in you. I’ve seen acts pick up 30 dates supporting hot bands across the globe and come home with nothing but complaints. The crowds didn’t like us. The rider was warm. The sound guy didn’t respect my requests. No one wants to hear that shit. No one’s forcin’ you to be there. And you know what? The bar manager at one of the venues might a been in a bind with a couch that needs moving or a sick cat that won’t die, so start throwing favours around and watch the work roll in. Trick to killing a cat is use antifreeze. Something about the smell attracts them and the death, apparently, is near instant.
Me and Ken ran outta money countless times. It’s the nature of the experiment. Touring’s expensive. NY was a particularly dire one. We had 45 dollars, a cheque from the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame: Cleveland that’d bounced and a car that wouldn’t start. Trick is if you got no dollars just to use what you got at hand. Engage your skill set. You can stand in the aisles at Walmart and just eat all the package ham you want. Go to the casino and you better believe some large and natural babe’s gonna buy you drinks. Need a place to sleep? Just park up in a council carpark and lay back, friendo.
Sleepin’ in your car ain’t a big deal. I advise you to avoid the back seat foetal position due to spine alignment problems. Just put the front seat back, don every piece of clothing you own and get ready to ride the wave. I had one of the more restful sleeps of my life in the carpark of the Winston-Salem Eldorado Resort. Ken once found a whole row of free seats on a packed delta flight on account of there being bags of sanitary waste stowed there. That’s a free bed to any professional opening act. After he asked me why he smelled of copper and I said I had no idea. What I’m sayin is get ready to get lean. Get your act stripped back to two guys and a sedan and get ready to live the life. Extra baggage and dignity costs money so you’ll have to do without them for a while or possibly forever.
I found showers pretty few and far between when on tour, so leap at any opportunity. In lieu of a shower try brushing your teeth in the carpark by streetlight. In my experience it can be both great for personal hygiene and a wonderful way to meet local sociopaths. You combine that with a change of socks and a terse look in a store front window and you’re basically good as new. When you do get to shower always remember to wash your dick fellers. If nothing else do wash your dick. A simple rule is that if you can smell your genitals from a standing position then you need a shower.
I forgot to wash my dick in Brisbane this year and next thing I’m at a petrol station in Melbourne standing tippy toes tryin’ wash my hog in the sink. Not great for vibe. Need to get clean but you ain’t got a place to stay? Hit up the local pool or community centre. I got a beautiful weights sesh and a swim in Fort Wayne’s beautiful YMCA facility, plus a nice shower with a couple of the local boys. You can form a lifelong bond with a city just by goin dicks out with the boys in the community centre showers you guys. What I’m sayin’ is look after yourself. Bein’ clean and presentable is an easy way to prevent illness and revulsion from people you met. Bein’ a rat don’t mean you gotta smell like a rat. Look after your bodies.
Show Appreciation Through Yard Work
Look, me and Ken spent a lot a time on couches and I gotta tell you folks, when it comes to someone letting in a young dog to their house you really gotta go with the law of the jungle. It’s the support act code: if someone let’s you in their house out the kindness of their hearts you gotta hand em over a gift of whatever you got. And what me and Ken got are young backs and an attitude appropriate to hard work in the yard. Show us kindness and you better believe we gonna get those hedges trimmed up straight and that lawn trim and proper. Trick to yard work is you just grab the tools at hand and start howin’ in.
I once hit a yard flat with a bit a timber I found behind a shed. I seen Ken on his hands and knees with kitchen scissors just makin’ some geraniums act the way he likes. Pictured is us working hard in our mate TD’s house in Asheville. What I’m sayin’ is get stuck in and give it a red hot go. There’s people out there who’ll let a greasy deranged musician sleep on their couch and they deserve tidy yards.
I like Richmond, hell, I like Melbourne. Our good friend Lost Animal put us up a couple a nights. Gave us run of his beautiful semi-detached house and it was a real weight off to have a safe space and a bit a privacy, but there’s a flip side to that coin and that is the Llneliness. Bein’ all alone’s part of the game you guys. Bein’ all by yourself on someone’s couch in a foreign city while your business partner’s out buying hair product is just something that’s just gonna happen and again, it’s all about the mind set. Think about numbers rolling by on a screen.
Think about throwing batteries at a protesting crowd of racists. Do a quick set of push ups. Can’t sleep? Just stare at the cracks in the roof and let your thoughts take a walk. Watch the blinds move. Think about self respect. It ain’t illegal for a young dog to be a confident and independent man, nor is it wrong to be in touch with your emotions. Worst come to you can just get online. Chat with beautiful men and women online. They’re out there. Trust me. I spent the afternoon chatting with some lovely gay gentlemen off the Tinder. It’s quite a life you guys.
The lesson is to learn to love your loneliness, cause it’s gonna get pretty barren out there on the road. Everyone copes with it in different ways. Some people go vacant and stay that way the rest of their lives. Some guys hit the chat rooms. Some hit the parlours. Others hit the booze. I even heard of people who are comfortable with their own presence. Just do what you gotta do you guys.
We played a show at a venue called the Elvis Guesthouse in NY. We’d spent the day drinking with a beautiful Jewish girl known as Em Panic, eating Chinese food, relaxing. We’d been on the road a month and we’d finally managed to book what seemed to be a popular gig in town. When things are goin’ hot like that, even for a morning, prepare yourself for a message from your girl to the tune of “I can’t do this any more”. See, the problem with bein’ a musician is women lose any respect they might’ve had for you in the first place, especially if you’re leaving them at home just to be a damn support act. It’s the kind a game that requires a level of self absorption, and a physical distance makes it hard to remember you’re loved.
If you got a girl, prepare yourself to be emotionally abandoned. And remember this: no show you ever do is ever fun. This where you get to do your complaining. To your woman. Or your man. I don’t care if you just received the Number One Entertainer Award at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame: Cleveland. You had a shit time and can’t wait to come home. Believe me it’s better this way. You also gotta prepare for strange women to contact you online with the words and the pictures. They prey on support acts for reasons of they know you’re in direct contact with the headliners. Playin’ college towns? Dang. Nothin’ stress old Roy out like some young and lustful honeys lookin’ to move their bodies. But that’s your job so swallow any feelings you got and work your body for money.
Blowing off steam
Ken’s got a rule about touring. He says we’ll start partying like headliners when we’re headliners and until then it’s business time. But my finding is that you gotta unleash the beast from time to time. You gotta take a stroll to 70th if the parking’s all full up on 69th. And the best place for that in any city is the local strip joint. Sometimes, after opening up a red hot sold out show and getting zero respect from the staff and audience, the only cure is a cute little arsehole peering out from behind a streak of warm material, flappin’ open and shut amongst a firm set of generosity.
Sometimes when you get paid half of what you’re owed, and the city won’t cash your cheque based on reasons of distrust, you need to see the precision and control a dancing girl uses when she gives you a glimpse of her never not ever and guides your eyes up her body past her little powdered belly all the way to where you’d kiss your cousin in a nightmare. It’s a soothing thing. And it ain’t about disrespecting women. We’re all our here getting paid to entertain. The best thing bout strip clubs is that if you take a photo someone breaks your fingers, and you can always pick up the car in the morning. What I’m getting’ at is that a young dog’s gotta blow off steam, just keep it to a controlled burn you guys, or you’ll end up wrestling with your business partner in the carpark just soaked in rain and surrounded by strangers.
In any career, especially one involving the arts, it’s very easy to get so immersed in the day to day activity of creating your art and making a living that you lose sight of the big picture. While there is real value in simply putting your head down and getting to work, it can pay big dividends to stop from time to time and ask yourself a few – sometimes difficult – questions. Below are a few things that might be helpful to think about as you go through your days as a songwriter.
1. Am I happy?
This is, at once, a ridiculously simple and deeply complex question but here’s what I mean. We all have days when things don’t go well and we feel discontented or frustrated but if that describes your typical day, it might be worth examining how you’re spending your time. Very few of us are taking exactly the same approach to a career in songwriting now as we did when we started out. For example, I moved to Nashville in the early 90s assuming I’d write songs predominantly for myself as the artist and if someone else liked one, that would be fine too.
However, after single-mindedly pursuing an artist career for a number of years, I realized that the profession that had given me so much joy at the outset was making me profoundly unhappy and envious of the talent around me. That envy, in and of itself, is a recipe for disaster in a town like Nashville where there is an endless supply of talent to be envious of. All that to say, by asking myself that simple question and coming up with a “no,” I was able to begin reshaping my career as a songwriter and producer which almost overnight made me happy again.
All this to say, know that there are a variety of ways to pursue your songwriting and being happy on a day to day basis is a huge advantage in that you can get up and do the necessary work in service of a career you love.
2. Am I hearing the same thing over and over from listeners and song critiques?
I’m completely aware – and a big believer – that songwriting is an entirely subjective art. And, on top of that, placing too much weight on any one person’s opinion of your song is never a great idea. In fact, having a thick skin and a bit of a stubborn streak are great qualities to possess on the business side of songwriting. All that being said, if you are getting similar comments from most if not all of the people who hear your songs, it might be worth giving some serious consideration to what is being said.
I’m definitely not saying that you should mindlessly agree and follow these suggestions even if you are hearing the same thing time and time again. At the very least, knowing that your songs are striking people in a similar way is valuable information. In the end, whether songwriters choose to follow the suggestions or ignore them, it should be a conscious decision.
3. What have I done to get my songs out there?
It’s too easy to say the game is rigged and that only people with connections get their songs cut or get film/TV placements. The reality is that writing great songs isn’t enough. It takes professionally demoing your songs, pitching them (many times, not just once) and following up systematically to even have a ghost of a chance of making money from your songs. There’s a tendency – and I was as guilty as the next guy – to get frustrated because you feel like you’re writing great material and nothing’s happening. I’m here to tell you that great material that hasn’t been properly demoed or pitched might as well not exist in the eyes – and ears – of the industry. I hope you get my point. No one is going to do this for you. Get your songs out there!
4. Am I acting like a professional songwriter?
There’s a dangerous thought process that goes something like “as soon as I get a publishing deal, I’ll write songs every day.” In other words, you’re waiting for someone else to decide when you’re a professional songwriter. I’d suggest that you look at it the other way around. If you want publishers, labels and other industry execs to treat you like a professional, you should already be acting like one. What’s to stop you from writing a little every day, networking, pitching your songs and generally pursuing the business of songwriting right now? I’m well aware that you may have a full-time job and other considerations but if you don’t make time for your music now and develop your songwriting skills, you may never get to the level where anyone in the industry will take notice in the first place. Don’t wait. Act like a professional now.
There are obvious benefits in simply putting your head down and moving forward step by step in your pursuit of your songwriting dreams. In fact, it takes that kind of single-minded, consistent effort in order to have a shot at a songwriting career. However, it never hurts to stop from time to time and take a look at the big picture just to make sure that you’re still on the right track and looking at things holistically. It’s the combination of the details and the big picture that makes for a prolonged and successful songwriting career.
Warming up, knowing your instrument, and practicing relentlessly are among the singing tips from Saigon Kick’s Matt Kramer when it comes to delivering great rock vocals.
Earlier this year, we published tips on delivering great R&B vocals with master singer and vocal coach Alvin Fields. While many of the principles that Fields discussed can well apply to any sort of healthy and expressive vocal performance, every genre has secrets and idiosyncrasies that make its singers sound unique.
Take, for example, the wide world of rock ’n’ roll. Whether you want to growl like James Hetfield, soar like Bono, rage like Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, cut like Paramore’s Hayley Williams, or simply be amazing like Freddie Mercury, a bit of thoughtfulness, practice, and study can help you deliver great rock vocals while keeping your vocal cords healthy and able to survive the long haul.
Matt Kramer made his name as the lead singer for the band Saigon Kick. The son of an opera singer, he’s an expert educator and vocal coach as well, and teaches at his Miami-area studio Kramer Voice Company. Here are some singing tips and strategies for producing great rock vocals from the master.
Warm up – always
Just like an Olympic athlete or Formula One racing car, a great rock singer needs to warm up before letting loose – and Kramer recommends starting slow. “See how you are on any given day and go from there,” he says. “Starting to sing isn’t like turning on an electric keyboard. You’re going to be different every day.”
Kramer recommends going through your entire range, finding if you’re having any trouble getting into the tougher spots, and make sure that you work through them before your set begins. “If you go into your set and you’re not ready, it’s like waking up, rolling out of bed, and going for a sprint. It’s better to do some stretching, windmills, jumping jacks, like they taught you in third grade.”
Part of warming up properly is knowing your musical terrain and preparing accordingly. “If you’re going mountain climbing and only brought hiking clothes, you’re going to have a hard time,” he says. “You should have known better and thought about what you were climbing.” That same idea is key for singers, he continues. “I’ve seen singers go straight into AC/DC from the bar and you can’t just open up that quickly.”
To get yourself into prime racing shape, Kramer recommends starting low and working your way up. “If you sing with some grit, get some of that grit in there at the end of your warm up, but definitely not the beginning,” he says. “It’s like having an old car and warming it up on a cold day. Let it get to the right temperature and hit the throttle towards the end. Then you’ll be ready for whatever you need to do.
Study your own voice
Since your vocal cords are inside your body, learning about your own voice can seem like a mysterious thing — but Kramer recommends putting in the time to get familiar with every aspect.
“Know your machine,” Kramer advises. “It’s like learning where the volume knob on your keyboard is or where the tremolo is on your guitar. You have to understand what the whole instrument is, and it’s your whole body. I like to call it a machine, even though it’s an instrument, and it’s one of those manual things like flying an airplane. There’s a lot going on and it’s best if you are able to learn to keep an eye on everything that’s happening, as opposed to just throwing your hands up in the air and seeing what happens.”
Learning your voice may seem like a broad mission, but it can be easily broken down. Does tensing or relaxing your shoulders affect your pitch, or your ability to get the breath you need? Take note of the answer for future rehearsals and performances. Does focusing on relaxing your jaw or throat help make singing painless, or do you get sore more quickly the more attention you pay to such things? Build your awareness of how your entire body works as part of your vocal performance.
Self-awareness as a singer applies both to the naturally gifted and hard-working students alike. “Even if you’re one of these lucky people who just opens up and great vocals just happen, great,” he says, “but you’re still going to have to learn about your voice. Even the strongest guys in the world can end up with broken bones sometimes and need to learn how to use their bodies differently.”
Protect your assets
The legend of rock may indicate that rock singers should stay up and party all night and then get on stage and rage, but Kramer argues that the opposite is true.
“If you’re performing, don’t sit in a club and talk all day beforehand,” he says. “Don’t stay up and scream either if you have to sing the next day. Watch the amount of time you spend talking and try to stay consistent.”
“Lots of singers suffer from losing their high-end or their vocal power or, worse, they get nodules, blood vessel ruptures,” he continues. “That’s all from singing and talking too much and keeping too busy a schedule. So take it easy and make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard before you get on stage.”
Go for consistency
While there’s an element of wildness that can give rock vocals that extra edge, Kramer warns that even the most explosive performance needs to be tempered with discipline and consistency.
“Think of it more like a race car and less like ‘Dukes of Hazard,’” he says. “On a real track, Dukes of Hazard would crash, but a race car driver knows how to stay consistent, even when he’s going 200 miles an hour. When singers do daredevil stuff, there isn’t as much going on as one might think,” he continues. “That’s where a lot of singers blow themselves out. They have the pedal to the metal with the breaks on at the same time. Do that and you’re going to break something.”
To become more consistent when it comes to something like pitch, Kramer recommends taking a couple of weeks to sit at a piano every day and play each and every note of each and every song, singing along and paying close attention to both your body and the sound that it’s producing. “Get a lyric sheet and write down the note that goes along with every word,” he says. “That will help give you the navigational awareness that you need to stay consistently on pitch.”
Another element of staying consistent with pitch, Kramer says, is paying attention to the energy with which you approach any given note. “Rock is power,” he says. “If you’re coming in without enough power, you’re going to be flat, most likely. If you have lots of attitude, you’ll probably end up sharp. Just do it a lot, pay attention, and listen.”
Focus on practicing, not clothing
This one is simple — if you want to be a great rock singer, put in the hours and practice like it’s nobody’s business, and don’t worry so much about which pair of sunglasses will make you look best under the spotlight.
“It’s a job,” states Kramer. “Lots of guys don’t take it seriously. A lot of singers aren’t like the guitar players who practice for hours every day to get their time, tone, and technique perfect.”
“Vibe and mojo are needed to pull off a great rock performance,” he continues, “but don’t be lazy and rely on those alone. The best rock singers have discipline.” Kramer cites Mick Hucknall of the band Simply Red as a prime example of substance over flash. “There are some pretty goofy singers out there, and this guy was one of them,” he says. “He’s this redhead, geeky guy, but he’s the next huge singer. He sure didn’t grow up being cool with the right clothes and the right look. He was busy singing. His voice is what gets him everything.”
Use caution with growl and grit
If gravel is part of your vocal sound, Kramer recommends learning, self-awareness, and practice to keep your vocals, and your body, strong.
“Drill sergeants and babies do it all the time, and your mom does it when she’s pissed off at you,” he says. “It’s all the same thing. You’re overdriving your vocal box. You’re hammering it and trying to keep it steady at the same time. It’s kind of like the motor of a Harley. When you start to overdrive it, it gets throttly, and the more you do it, the more you get into guttural scream territory.”
As Kramer points out, humans have been screaming for thousands of years, and if you’re able to scream, hold it together, and go on the road performing that way for a year, do it. “Some people just don’t have the machine to do that, and that’s fine,” Kramer says, “but I have to say that most people who scream great were not taught how to do it. All the cats that I know who do it didn’t learn it from a vocal coach. They may have gone to a vocal coach to learn how to do it better when they started losing their voices, but it was something that they came to naturally.”
Whether you’re a natural-born screamer or someone trying to add just a touch of grit to your performance, Kramer continues his car analogy. “Guys like Phil Anselmo from Pantera, Bruce Dickinson, and Chris Cornell, who has a range of over four octaves, are the finest of the breed, and if you’re going in that direction, think about it like a dune buggy,” he says. “You need suspension. If you’re jumping off of a sand dune and landing from twenty feet on another sand dune, you need something to catch yourself with. So again, it all comes back to knowing your machine, knowing the track, and knowing how far you can push yourself and how to recover. If you don’t know how to catch yourself, you’re going to have some hard landings.”
There’s more than one way to rock
Think that rock vocalists are all about screaming, or that you have to growl like a chain-smoking tiger to be taken seriously? Think again, says Kramer. Some of the best rock singers sing with clean, undistorted tones.
Just listen to Bono’s reedy tenor on U2 classics like “Mysterious Ways,” or Journey’s Steve Perry or Queen’s Freddy Mercury soaring on nearly anything they ever recorded — without any real growl to speak of.
The lesson? When it comes to delivering powerful rock vocals, let your preconceptions of how a rock singer “should” sound go, Kramer says, and come up with something powerful, expressive, engaging, and unique that works for you.
Play to your strengths, and work with what you have
To the above point, if you are trying desperately to sound like Axl Rose or Chris Cornell and just can’t pull it off — stop trying.
“If Steve Perry joined Pantera, it would last one rehearsal,” says Kramer. “That doesn’t make Steve Perry any less of a singer. He’s just not the singer for Pantera. And if you take Phil Anselmo and put him in Journey, you’ll get the same result, because someone’s gotta sing those crazy vocals clean. Both singers are great in their own right, but a Lexus is a Lexus and a monster truck is a monster truck. Trying to make a voice into something that it’s not is a really bad idea.”
The lesson is that you have to accept what you were born with vocally, Kramer says, and if you can’t growl, for example, it’s probably for a good reason. “A key part of Eddie Vedder’s technique is that he has incredible energy, like a soccer player,” he says. “Is that you? That’s not me. Singing like that is like doing power lifting or playing professional basketball. There may be a few guys under six feet who can do it, but what it comes down to is that if you’re not built for it, you’re not built for it. If your vocal machine is a Lexus, don’t trash it by drag racing it. That’s not meant to be beat up. It’s meant to cruise.”
In short, Kramer encourages you to work with what you have, and make that the best it can be, in a rock context or beyond. And if, at the end of the day, you just want to sing like Eddie Vedder but you sound more like Steve Perry? “Go to a Pearl Jam concert and have fun!” Kramer says with a laugh. “You can love something, but if it’s not you, why the hell would you do it? Just remember that what we love isn’t always good for us.”