Author Archive

Making Waves in Brazil

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to get to travel the world with the Clinton Curtis Band, from Santo Domingo to Turkmenistan. This month, we returned from a 3-week romp through Brazil in the midst of World Cup fever, organized by the US Embassy and consulates. The guys at b2 Filmes did a fantastic job with this clip, detailing 4 days in the state of Pernambuco, engaging in concerts and workshops with Brazilian artists such as Maestro Forró in Recife and Projeto Batuque in Garanhuns.

The problem with Brazil, though, is that the more time you spend there, the more time you want to spend…

Congó drummer Sagrilo in Vitória, Brazil

Subdiversity Blog’s Top 10 Travel Tips

I recently compiled this list of travel tips for my younger sister, traveling on her own for the first time. Influenced just as much by the mistakes I’ve made traveling as by the successful experiences I’ve had, here is a manifesto for getting outside the guidebook, off the beaten path and getting the most of the journey.

Santorini, 2008

1. The People You Travel With Define Your Travel Experience
I’ve always gotten more out of places when I know someone there. They don’t have to be from there, but if they live there, or have spent some time there, they will know where to go and introduce you to other people, and take you to places that aren’t just the normal tourist traps. You don’t even have to know them well. In Perú, I met up with two grade school friends– acquaintances, really– who I hardly knew before we shared an unbelievable few days in South America. In Cairo, I had the time of my life staying with the brother of a friend. In Istanbul, I met up with a dude I had met once in New York through a former professor. In Barcelona, I met up with a fellow bassist who had found me on Myspace. In all of those places, they showed me a fantastic time, introduced me to some amazing places and people that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And it helped me form lasting bonds with them through shared experience.

2. Meet People Wherever You Go
Meeting people when you’re traveling is much easier than when you’re at home in your own social circles. So even when you don’t know someone where you’re going, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Get lost. Be friendly. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, be safe. But there are lots of amazing people out there and I’ve made some lasting friendships and unforgettable experiences through the people I’ve met randomly. In South Africa, I struck up a conversation with a Muslim woman at a university cafeteria, who the following day took me out to a shantytown where I got to hear Zulu children singing songs. So don’t be shy.

3. Keep In Touch With People
You never know when you might be able to meet up with someone on the other side of the world. Facebook is MAGIC for this sort of thing because you can do it passively. A Colombian friend I met at a gig in New York years ago was awesome enough to take my whole band out in Bogotá this past March. I met musicians in Barcelona who then visited New York, and tons of people on board a cruise ship who then allowed me to visit South Africa and Argentina. Travelers tend to pay forward hospitality and generosity, sort of like hospitality codes among Bedouin nomads. (If you’ve ever read the 1001 Arabian Nights, one of my favorite compendiums of crazy travel stories).

4. Not All Good Friends are Good Travel Companions
Obviously, you want to be safe, and traveling with friends can be lots of fun. I would be wary of traveling with too many of them at a time, lest you wind up as a bunch of tourists everywhere in a way that blocks you from really experiencing the places you go. If traveling alone isn’t your thing, try and find a friend who is open to new experiences and challenges you… not one who wants to go hang at an Irish pub when you’re halfway across the world in Thailand!

5. Stay Connected… But Not Too Connected
Document stuff, and share it on Facebook, all that crap. It’s really worth it to keep in touch with people back home. Just don’t let it cut you off from everything you’re experiencing. Take breaks, disconnect… and then reconnect. Lack of 3G/cell data service is wonderful for this, because then you’re limited to where you have wifi.

5b. Travel With A Local Cell Phone
I’ve traveled with and without a cell phone, and you get to do much more when you have a local sim card to get in touch with people wherever you are. There are a couple ways of doing this.

1). You could jailbreak your smartphone to take local simcards. I don’t recommend this for various reasons, not the least of which is that it’s easier/less worry to travel with a cheap cell phone.

2) Get a cheap travel phone and a local SimCard in each country you go. The phone will be maybe $60, simcards can be around $20 depending on where you are. That way, you have a local number where you can be reached by friends and people you meet– and you can reach them.

3) Get a Global Simcard – like this one. You pay a cheap subscription fee and it finds local networks wherever you are.

Note that the point of these is to keep in touch with people wherever you are, not people back home (which you can do with Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, etc). I actually like to keep those lines of communication separate– part of my axiom of staying connected, but not too connected.

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Spend Money
I can be very spendthrift, and I have all sorts of ways for gaming the system for cheap flights and housing. But don’t let the price tag of things keep you from experiencing where you are. This was a mistake I made big-time on my first trips. Would you be happier with $100 in your bank account, or a night that you will never, ever forget? I’ve recently discovered a term for quantifying the value of these experiences– identity capital. According to Meg Jay, in her book The Defining Decade:

“Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are. Some identity capital goes on a resume, such as degrees, jobs, test scores, and clubs. Other identity capital is more personal, such as how we speak, where we are from, how we solve problems, how we look. Identity capital is how we build ourselves – bit by bit, over time. Most important, identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace. It is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships and other things we want.”

6b.…but the Most Expensive Experience Isn’t Always the Best!
Taking a 12€ train ride might afford you much cooler experiences for meeting people than renting a car for 200€. The touristy 30€ meal might not be anywhere near as good (or as genuine!) as the 3€ dive in a back alley.

7. Earn Frequent Flyer Miles
It sounds like a pain in the ass, but it’s VERY easy to sign up for different frequent flyer programs and you’ll be able to use those miles somewhere down the line. You never know when. And nowadays, with the proliferation of airline alliances, you can consolidate your miles on just a few different airlines, track them via AwardWallet, and use that value to generate more experiences for yourself down the road. There’s a whole subculture to travel hacking, but even if you don’t want to dive in that deep, JUST SAVE YOUR MILES.

8. Be Prepared…
I like to read the Wikipedia article on a place before I show up there, giving me more context to know and feel what I’m looking at. Also, it is invaluable to reach out to any friends you might have in a place, or any friends who might have friends in a place! You never know where it will lead, and at the VERY least, they’ll be able to give you good recommendations, if not a place to stay and a great meal. If you’re halfway around the world, aren’t you wasting your time if you’re not meeting as many people as possible?

8b.…but Play It By Ear
Don’t be too regimented with your plans. The best experiences are the random, unplanned ones. Get lost. Get into crazy situations and trust your ability to get out of them.

9. Stay With Friends
AirBNB is awesome– you should definitely try it out. But also, if you have contacts who are generous enough to put you up (and don’t be afraid to ask), it will help you get more out of a place.

10. Always Bring A Bathing Suit
…because, you never know.

Travel is a skill that takes time to develop just like any other skill. The more you do it, the more you’ll have experience to fall back on. When I see people go on vacations that keep them isolated in a resort or a tourist trap, I cannot understand why they would place themselves in the middle of a place that’s different, exciting, exhilarating– and then close themselves off to it. Be open to everything around you.

A Response to Nicholas Payton, re: Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”

Jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton recently posted this tirade, deconstructing some of producer Pharrell‘s comments on the relationship of Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”.

I’m not defending Pharrell or Thicke. Whether or not there is legal grounds for a case of copyright infringement (Thicke openly acknowledges using the Marvin Gaye track as a basis for “Blurred Lines”), Payton’s post is primarily devoted to taking down Pharrell for his lack of music theory know-how. Which may very well be accurate criticism. But Payton pretty much tosses his credibility out the window with this volley:

“Hiphop as a whole is wack [sic]. It’s a parasitic culture that preys on real musicians for its livelihood. I may not know anything about Hiphop, but I don’t have to.”

Not like hip-hop is a major part of Black music. Not like the hip-hop aesthetic for sampling and remixing hasn’t proliferated as the dominant aesthetic for popular music of all types. Payton is a purveyor of “Black music”, in his own words, but writes off the most significant stream in both Black music and popular music of the last 40 years.

Without real artists and musicians like me, you’d have nothing to steal. I know enough about it all to know that.

Now, I can’t say I don’t understand Payton’s gripe with sampling. As an instrumentalist, playing notes with my fingers comes more naturally to me than manipulating pre-existing audio the way that beatmakers and DJs do. When an instrumentalist or vocalist sees a recording artist make a million bucks off a track based around melody that someone else wrote and played, it’s a natural reaction to view it as stealing. In the case of “Blurred Lines”, we’re not even talking about sampling– it’s outright, admitted lifting of certain musical ideas. (“Blurred Lines” is also, to be certain, not a hip-hop track. It’s not even close. But Pharrell is a producer and beatmaker who comes from the hip-hop tradition, hence this discussion of the hip-hop “aesthetic”).

Payton makes it clear that he has no interest in understanding hip-hop on its own terms. But he does acknowledge that:

A lot of our [Black] music has never been written down, it’s an oral and aural tradition passed down generation-to-generation from master to student.

Oral and folk musical traditions are inherently derivative. In fact, I’d argue that all musical traditions are derivative– whether folk, art, or popular music. Artists draw on their influences, and recombine them (hopefully, in novel ways). Beethoven took Schiller’s Ode To Joy and made something even greater. Zeppelin ripped off tons of blues artists and created music that reached a much wider audience.

I am not, repeat, NOT justifying copyright infringement, or stealing musical ideas. If you as an artist are going to say something creatively, you may as well attempt to say something new, and you’re unlikely to garner my respect unless you accomplish it. I’m just saying that the lines between inspiration and derivation are, ahem, blurred, and that Marvin got his ideas from others that came before him, the same way that jazz pioneers borrowed and built on the ideas of their musical forefathers.

Exhibit A: The Lick

The video above, now a common joke among jazz musicians, is actually pretty profound. There are dozens of examples of musicians (unknowingly?) using the exact same melodic fragment. Viewed one way, the ‘originality’ of those jazz artists– allegedly expressing their original improvisations– is no more than a collection of derivative ideas, chewed-up and regurgitated in differing contexts. The same could, potentially, be said for art and literature.

But that’s an overly simplistic view. In fact, watching The Lick, you can hear just how different, and artful (or not) those seven notes can be based on the context in which they are played. I could sort through Nicholas Payton’s (admittedly splendid) playing and identify some of his source material as well. One could call Bird and Miles “parasitic” for lifting Gershwin and Cole Porter’s chord changes, but that would miss the point of jazz music, much the same way Payton misses the point of hip-hop. It’s not your source material that determines the significance of your music– it’s what you say and how you say it.

One other aspect of Payton’s piece strikes me as contradictory. He makes a strong point that music literacy is not critical for musical talent or achievement:

Many of our Kings of Kings could not read music themselves, either because they were blind or just never learned to read. Reading music is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician. All that is required is that you have ears.

But Payton proceeds to tear into Pharrell for not knowing his music theory:

One of the world’s most renowned producers can’t tell the different between a minor chord and a Dominant 7th, something that you learn the first week in music theory class.

Mr. Payton, I’ve gotta turn your words right back on you: knowledge of music theory “is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician”. I’ll get as geeky as the next jazz-head on chord substitution and modal theory, but do we really think Robert Johnson knew the difference between major and minor? Or gave a shit? He had ears– just as Pharrell does– and whether or not Pharrell knows how to describe music in terms that are generally accepted among the jazz police, he’s made a lot of music that speaks to a lot of people.

It just so happens that “Blurred Lines” is not a track that particularly speaks to me– musically, or through its chauvinism-masquerading-as-liberation. But Payton’s arguments against Pharrell’s talent– and against hip-hop as a medium– just don’t hold water.

Who Needs A Manager? – Interview with Tommy Merrill

The music industry is changing, and quick. Artists and musicians take on more and more of the roles and responsibilities traditionally held by record labels and managers. If via various internet platforms, artists can skip the intermediate steps and connect straight with their fans, what’s the point of shelling out money (or a portion of profits) for a manager, booking agent or publicist?

Tommy Merrill spent 7 years as Talent Buyer at Rockwood Music Hall, helping to develop (and vet) artists from the ground up in New York City’s famed showroom on the Lower East Side. More recently, Tommy jumped to The Press House, where as President of Artist Development & Booking, he works directly with artists on the upswing of their careers.

As someone who works with tons of independent artists, Tommy answered some questions about what relevance management and representation has in the DIY music economy and how artists can make the most of those sorts of partnerships.


In the do-it-yourself music economy, what do managers and booking agents have to offer that artists can’t provide for themselves?

TM: Two things, relationships and assistance in planning strategy.  A good manager and/or booking agent can get you in the door somewhere you haven’t previously been.  Managers are wonderful for coming in and really laying down the short and long term goals and strategies needed to accomplish those.  Whether just starting out or being further along in one’s career, introduction to the right people in the right situations can really help.  

Artists were coming to me regularly expressing their frustration at not being able to get an agent because they hadn’t toured in the past.  They just didn’t have the background to know what venues made the most sense and who to contact. There was a huge gap between developing artists and those that were starting to gain traction with larger agencies. This is one of the primary reasons that Dawn Kamerling and I launched this new division of The Press House to come in and assist. We’ve been able to get artists into outside markets, both around the US and internationally, with a good level of success for the past year because of our relationships. 

What do you look for when taking on new clients at The Press House? Besides “raw talent”, what makes a viable artist?

TM: I look for a couple of things when taking on new artists.  First and foremost, there certainly needs to be that raw talent that you describe, but I also think a very strong work ethic is needed to be successful or to even lay the foundation to be successful.  It’s a pleasure when artists bring more than talent to the table.  I’ve always thought that knowing the ins and outs of one’s industry, no matter which aspect you focus primarily on, makes that person infinitely better at what they do.  
Read more

Don’t Get Caught Talking the Talk!

It doesn’t take long playing music to have heard it all– the A&R people coming to the next gig, the big national tour, the record deal right over the horizon. The fact is, sometimes those things happen and (often) they don’t. Name-dropping, telling people about opportunities that haven’t yet materialized, or about all of the gigs to come damages your credibility– and your credibility is some of the most valuable currency there is when it comes to having others take you, your word, and your music seriously.

I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes catch myself “talking the talk”. It’s tough to avoid in an industry based so strongly on people’s perception of status. But when I do catch myself, I feel awkward, as if I’m wearing a mask. It’s critical to take a step back and realize that gratuitous, unfounded talk is not only cheap, but also cheapens you and your image. Whether or not the possibilities on the horizon come to fruition, hopefully, you’re enjoying the gig for what it is now and putting in the hard work required to take your music to the next level.
Read more

Having People Take You (and Your Music) Seriously

It seems simple, but it’s what we all want, right? Taking your ideas and your skills from the bedroom and releasing them out into the world to be judged can be intimidating, but the rewards are invaluable. Reminding yourself of this fact can help inspire you to push yourself to the next level and can get you through even the crappiest four-hour gig playing to three people in a bar with a drummer who can’t hold it down.

The best way to have others take you seriously is to show them that you take yourself seriously. Investing time in good preparation, putting value in developing your skills, and respecting others’ time demands that others respect you. If, as an artist, you throw together unlistenable voice-memos and email the tunes at 11:00pm the night before a rehearsal, or as a musician, if you listen to those tunes for the first time on the way to the gig, you give others the impression that music is not your priority.

The same principles stand for performing and promoting your music. If, on stage, you come off as disinterested, disconnected, or unprepared, how can you expect an audience to feel engaged? Best to bring a positive energy to the stage and to all of your interactions in networking and promotion. Others will feed off of your energy, and will thus foster a lasting connection with your music.
Read more

Maintaining a Good Vibe

It’s easy to get nervous when your music (and money) are on the line, but if you surround yourself with musicians who are supportive and experienced, they can take the pressure off and give you a team to fall back on. People typically work best in a guided but creative environment. Don’t worry about “letting people do their thing”– they’ll do it, no matter what, if they feel like what they’re working towards is valuable and taken seriously.

Nobody got into music to feel stressed out, so take a look at the factors in your musical environment and shape them so that you feel most creative and in your element. Music is fun, remember?

In this telling scene from Let It Be, we see The Beatles on the verge of falling apart. Paul McCartney, who knows the cameras are rolling, has been pushing George Harrison to play less (some might say “more appropriately”) on the classic song “Two of Us”. George, fed up with years of Paul’s pushiness, busts out his passive-agressive side. For me, the most telling moment of the entire interaction is how in the midst of what George is saying, Paul can’t look him in the eye, and continues noodling throughout what is a very tense moment: clearly, a subconscious way of avoiding the confrontation.

Paul may or may not have been right (you can take a guess as to which school I fall into), but it’s undeniable that by putting George on the spot in a negative way, Paul lost out on George’s creative impulses and contributions. Paul (and another one of my heroes, Sting) were both musical visionaries, as well as strong-headed (and sometimes hot-headed) bandleaders. But the proof is in the pudding: The Beatles and The Police would surely not have been the same without Paul or Sting at the helm, but their respective solo material following the demise of those bands never reached the same heights without the creative contributions of their bandmates. You may have an ingenious musical vision in your head, but even if you’re Stevie Wonder, realizing your creative vision often relies on the contributions of others– and maintaining a positive ambience is the best way to elicit those contributions that will take your music to the next level.

Read more

How do I tell the band what I want?

As an artist, you are not expected to be an expert at every instrument– that’s why you have a band! So if you’re unsure how to make the drums sound the way you want, have no fear– you hired the drummer because he or she is an expert at drums and is experienced at writing drum parts. All you have to do is listen carefully and attentively to what your band plays, individually and as a unit, and communicate effectively how it makes you feel when performing the song. Effective communication is a true skill and will help you in all aspects of your music.

That said, while everyone communicates differently, learning the language of music is an invaluable tool to you. Perhaps classical music theory isn’t for everyone, but a healthy understanding of the harmony in your songs– that is, what chords and notes you’re playing (and not playing)– can be a boon to arranging and preparing a band. Learning to differentiate between the kick and snare drum, between the hi-hat and the ride cymbals will streamline communication with drummers (insert caveman-drummer joke) and instantly gain your respect in their eyes.
Read more

Everyone’s Favorite Pastime: Scheduling Rehearsals

Setting reasonable goals for a gig as far as new music and new musicians will save you lots of stress later on. Once you have those goals are set, scheduling the right number of rehearsals in the right proximity to a gig will ensure that everyone is fresh and prepared.

For a 50 minute set of songs that are already arranged– that is, the band is learning off of pre-existing tracks or arrangement, I’d give a pro band that hasn’t played the material before two 3-hour rehearsals. The latter rehearsal should be a day or two before the gig, with a couple days in between the two rehearsals to review anything that needs work after the first.

If the songs have yet to be arranged, you’ll want to budget in time to spend arranging each song in the rehearsal room. Professional musicians who can write their own parts in a quick and timely manner help a lot. I’d add about 30-40 minutes per tune that needs to be arranged assuming that they are fairly typical as far as form without too many twists and turns. If you’re playing a through-composed song with alternating odd meters… well, you could set aside a couple hours of rehearsal to arrange it, or you could have someone arrange it beforehand.
Read more

Do I Need Charts For My Band?

This is an important question to ask, because effective charts can cut down rehearsal time, but ineffective charts can do the opposite.

Sheet Music: Helpful or Harmful?

In a typical rock/pop/singer-songwriter context, professional musicians will be accustomed to transcribing songs from a track or demo and making their own charts, notating exactly what they need to know, which varies from instrument to instrument. I also find that making my own charts helps me to memorize songs, so that later I can get my head out of them and look like (less) of a tool onstage.

That said, there are a few good reasons to have professional charts prepared:

If you are playing particularly complex music, with dense harmony or specific (and varied) parts that you want the band to play, charts can be very effective and save hours of uncertainty in the rehearsal room.
Read more