I've been across the water now so many times
Back in April, Ira Marlowe, proprietor of the Monkey House in Berkeley, decided to announce, as an April Fool’s joke, that his speakeasy performance venue was shutting down. The reveal was “below the fold,” as they say, so of course many people missed the obvious clue as to his intent and there were many genuinely irate and despondent comments.
For those of us who perform in the Bay Area, the prospect of losing a place to perform is no laughing matter. I took the Marker Hotel to task in this blog a few months ago for nearly shutting down Local Vocals at their hotel and am happy to report it’s back and better than ever (even if you do still get thrown down in the dungeon from time to time). We also had reprieve from losing Bazaar Cafe, it's even had it’s first anniversary under new ownership (it turns out we share the same birthday, BTW).
But there’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
We’re losing the Octopus Literary Salon in downtown Oakland.
The location of the Octopus always struck me as a bit odd — as close to the 19th Street BART as it is and as near to the through-fares Broadway and Telegraph as it is, its location feels a bit off the beaten path. Amid incomplete high rises its surroundings exude a sense of desolation — it’s hard to imagine it getting much foot traffic.
For those of you unfamiliar with this little institution, it was first and foremost a bookstore. With a selection of new and used tomes nestled in bookshelves lining the walls and hand-painted signs indicating their eclectic contents, it had a distinctly Bohemian feel, accentuated evermore so by the numerous namesake cephalopods of varying forms and materials strewn about. There was also the cafe in the back with its avocado toast and Vietnamese style sandwiches in addition to the typical lattes and pastries. But most important to musicians and performers of all stripes was the corner to one side of the ramp and railings bisecting the venue. Pressed up next to the window there, with a piano and stereo system, was a little space to act as a make shift stage. An increasing rarity these days.
I had the pleasure of performing a show there about a year and half ago with Matt Jaffe and Rob Jamner, and before that as part of Hurricane Harvey benefit show, but alas, was not able to book anything in the lead up to my album release show this past June. Despite the ample slots, it was also competitive to get a show booked there and you had to book well in advance. I kind of felt they had ideas above their station in terms of their actual capacity (let alone target draw) and that splitting the night between two bills, one starting way too early for Bay Area folk, and one probably too late for most week nights, didn’t do artists any favors when it came to rounding up the requisite crowd. And being in that desolate little wedge of downtown Oakland certainly didn’t help.
But it was a great space, and I always made a point of getting across the Bay, even if it meant squeezing onto a BART train during rush hour with a guitar, to promote an East Bay show at the open mic on Mondays (even if it felt a bit futile in terms of getting folks out to said show). On a particularly ambitious night, I’d play a set at the Carlton or the Marker, hurry across the bay to the Octopus and then back to the Utah in San Francisco for the open mic there.
I liked the vibe they curated and met some wonderful creative-types there — or at least saw some familiar faces. The allowance of half the sign ups to be in advance through Facebook felt like a reasonable compromise for those who couldn’t necessarily be there at the start, even if the exact timing of the advance sign ups was a bit inconsistent (sign up policies for open mics vary and each has its pros and cons in terms of who they tend to favor — I've seen some positively Byzantine sign up processes). I’m sure the comedians weren’t happy when the powers that be put the kibosh on their pre-signups and then participation all together, but I take that as a sign that someone was concerned about the overall feel of the night (there’s a bit of tension at times as to whether an open mic is for comedians or songwriters — it can be a delicate balance where the ecosystem can tip too much one way or the other).
I was hoping the place could hold out until that retail space across the street got filled in and maybe some life would spring up to that otherwise obscure little street. But after what I surmise was a bit of a Hail Mary of “Octopus Days” over the summer and despite a few packed open mics of late, the management has decided to pack it in.
I happened to be up late in Austin Sunday night when I noticed there were still some open slots for the open mic this past Monday (unexpected, and almost unheard of, actually). So despite the fact I was flying into Oakland early, early in the morning — and would have to make the trek back and forth across the bay to my place in San Francisco, I decided to make a go of it, just to make sure I got there one last time. It did, after all, inspire a song of mine — The Octopus Song — which I wrote to promote that show with Matt and Rob (it was also heavily based on the book “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery). I figured having a song about an Octopus might be a useful marketing device. I’m actually quite fond of the end result and was pleased as punch that Vica Hernandez chose to cover the song for the most recent edition of EGPhest. So the Octopus got a final rendition of the Octopus Song (which you’d be forgiven for thinking was entitled “Alien from an Alternate Earth”).
Losing a place like this is tough. There was a lot of eulogizing this past Monday and a lot of people paying their respects, saying it had been the first place they'd ever played in front of an audience. Its absence will be felt. The only remedy I can suggest at this point is that if there is a place like it in your neck of the woods, make a point to support it by at least popping in now and then to buy a beverage, maybe even take in a show.
There’s one more regular open mic left at the Octopus, this Monday plus two more bonus rounds Wednesday and Thursday. The address is 2101 Webster St #170, Oakland, CA.
P.S. give my rough demo of "The Octopus Song" a listen below
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I would now like to expound upon a theory that I have held for quite some time, which is that social media is antithetical to the listening to and experiencing of music.
I would contend the reason that Facebook never has really been a platform for music the way, say MySpace famously was, is because music simply requires time in a way that does not suit Facebook’s business model. Facebook is, after all, most succinctly described as an ad engine with social features. And as an ad engine, one can surmise their primary goal is to maximize the number of ads they show to a given set of eyeballs. More impressions, clicks, what have you, translates into more dollars they can charge whoever bought the ads (and in their ideal world we are all advertisers). So the less time a person spends with any given piece of content, the better.
Yes, they want the viewers of these ads to "engage" — that after all can be yet another measure that they can show their customers, the ad buyers, to prove the effectiveness of the ads, and thus the need to buy more, but to maximize the number of ads they are showing, they need to make that engagement as minimal and instantaneous as possible. They're not going to be looking for long, insightful and thought provoking essays. It needs to be much quicker. They're looking for an emotional response. Does it make you laugh? Does it make you cry? Does it make you angry? The brain’s emotional circuitry is much faster than anything the pre-frontal cortex can hope to muster. It can be done in seconds or less. Make no mistake, this is psychological manipulation, if not warfare, and Facebook has evolved to be the best of breed in that respect.
So even a relatively brisk two and half minute song is just of no interest to the people architecting the social media landscape. You can almost sense the guffaws at the notion of listening through an entire verse, let along multiple choruses. Such an entity might as well be on another plane of existence, a dimension that simply can’t be seen by the algorithms of Facebook. To them, it's a creature of the Upside Down, an artifact from a pocket universe where time runs at a completely different speed. The most they can imagine is it's some sort of background noise to whatever should be really occupying your attention at any given moment.
Evidence for this theory can be seen in the lack of support Facebook has for the musician. The so-called "Musician" pages that Facebook allows you to create have a noticeable deficit of features that allow Facebook users to actually listen to your music. The primary feature of such pages seems to be creating opportunities for Facebook to pester you to boost posts so the people who have already expressed interest in seeing your posts will in fact be given the opportunity to see them. There are third party plug-ins such as Reverb Nation that allow you to play music on Facebook, but they have a tendency to break at Facebook's whims. They tend to be a bit buried in the page layout and don't expect them to even be visible on the mobile apps. A Google search suggests there was once a thing called the Facebook Music Player App but that's gone to the great 404 page in the sky. The platform has become downright hostile to displaying any content not hosted by Facebook itself. Music player embeds for sites like bandcamp and Soundcloud have long since ceased to function within Facebook's walled and increasingly sterile garden.
There's a lot more emphasis on video — but even then its only comparatively recently that Facebook introduced a measure for “ThruPlays” — the emphasis has always been on 3 and 10 second views as far as metrics go … or even just 2 second continuous views. Nothing is more disheartening than looking at your drop off rate for video views (which counts as viewers people just scrolling past and taking a momentary glimpse at whatever is moving on screen before breezing on). The platform has at least made an attempt with videos to allow them to continue to play as you scroll through other content. The experts at Google will tell you that when it comes to YouTube advertising you have just 5 seconds to get people’s attention (made even more compulsory as that’s the point after which the skip button becomes active on YouTube).
As far as Instagram goes (pretty much indistinguishable from FB these days as far as I'm concerned) — well, a 15 second clip is the best you can hope to share of a track in a story and unless you’ve got a sub-minute song, you’re not going to be able to post a full one as a video. And if the video is no longer on screen, playback stops — so no playing the background as the viewer looks at other content. IG is primarily a visual medium anyway — and, along with Facebook, I doubt people are engaging with sound on to the extent a musician would hope. If people have headphones on at all, they’ve probably got something else like a music player app or a conference call to pay attention to through that sort of sensory input. If anything, video on these platforms will break people out of their current music experience like some child who impatiently and insistently demands their parent look up from the newspaper to watch them perform some new trick.
The theory du jour with the 'gram for musicians is that you should use it to build a brand and establish a relationship with your followers — give them insight into your life and your process and the behind the scenes. You know, everything and anything but the music itself. It is more or less meant to be constant guerrilla marketing, a space where all interactions are really just a front for a hidden agenda — you are cultivating assets to prime them for a future operation — a sort of sleeper cell you'll be able to activate with a trigger word when the time is right.
For my part, I do feel it is probably the most fun social media to use because you can enjoy exercising a different part of your brain creatively, to be a bit of a visual artist. But don't think for a moment the whole thing isn't just one massive marketing machine — and I think I've already made my thoughts on hashtag based bots clear. Alas, at best, the music you're creating is just tangental to the whole thing.
If you've ever tried to use these platforms to do advertising, you'll quickly learn they don’t want you using text in your ads or subtitles on your video (unless they’re the ones generating them) so you can’t rely on those either to try and convey anything more substantive. You will even be penalized if not outright prevented from using images with too much text in them from being shown. The powers that be will claim pictures with words get less engagement as people see it as advertising, but my suspicion is this is sort of a self fulfilling prophecy — one might surmise they don’t want you putting up anything that would cause people to spend the processing time it would require anyone to read anything. It's hard to give their own rationales the full credence they expect when memes, which nearly always have text, are one of the most commonly shared artifacts on the web. There are mediums like comics that have always married the picture with the word. And it completely dismisses the notion of "word art" — that text itself can be beautiful and powerful in its own right. I am in part grousing because I've now got some lovely pull quotes for the new album that I payed a princely sum for and would like an effective way to use them, but I think it would be foolish to assume these platforms were necessarily honest about their intentions when they're underlying motivations can be reversed engineered to an extent.
Side note: I was given grief recently by some wag about one of my video ads created from a Facebook template for not having a sample of my music — as if that was even an option given to me.
At first I viewed "stories" as a cynical ploy to avoid dealing with storage of so much useless dreck (yay, more pictures of meals I cannot myself enjoy) but now I understand it's actually a far more devious and insidious plot to turn the whole Internet into a passive experience where you simply watch it as a feed as you would television. All the better to slip some advertising in there, once you've been trained to simply watch what comes up in front of you. Sure it may be rather transparently an advertisement, but if you've been conditioned to just let things float past you, would you bother to proactively skip it? I rather hate the whole mechanism. It feels a bit like watching someone with ADD channel surf. I'll see something pop up and before I feel like I've full digested it, it gets replaced by something else. It gets a bit frustrating — "hey, I was looking at that!" I will exclaim to my phone. The end result is likely we're training young minds to digest information this way, but the consequence of priming our thought process this way will probably lead to a deficit of critical or even contemplative and reflective thought on visual mediums (sorry, art museums). So I guess it's not just music that will suffer, in the end.
So what of Twitter? Twitter is like Facebook, but on speed. It exists in its own hyper dimensional plane where the cycles of relevance are so short, they are microwaves to Facebook’s plodding infrared. Trends crest and crash with such unpredictability sometimes you get trends that are simply unfathomable. Recently actor Michale Cerra was trending and no one seemed to know why — there were as many posts asking why his name was trending as anything else, if not more.
And Twitter feels like a blackhole to anyone who doesn’t already have a following. Unless you post something controversial (or erroneously perceived as such) it’s hard for any given post to get notice (insulting someone seems to be good currency... sorry Maggie Haberman). So many people I know who are also musicians are only making use of the platform peripherally — usually through a third party rather obviously doing reposts from FB and IG in a way that looks rather hopeless (no, I am not going click through to see your IG picture, sorry, it just looks so lazy and I doubt any of my engagement registers with you). I’d say half the conversations on Twitter revolve around people who simply reacted to a headline without reading the details of the actual article just to put their 2 cents in, which if anything, is highly overvaluing their contribution.
It's hard to imagine all this ceaseless chatter making room for a melody.
I often worry that I’m listening to less music these days because I’m getting older and it’s just less appealing, less stimulating, and I’ve gotten set in my ways as far as tastes go. It does happen. But I also think that we are now in a hyper stimulated culture as far as options coming at us to occupy the current moment. The problem of the information age is that there’s simply too much of it and most of it is junk. It's no wonder that provocative "click bait" headlines and easy to digest listicles are the norm — from an evolutionary arms race perspective, these were the creatures most likely to survive in the current environment. While binge watching Netflix is at the polar opposite of the spectrum, the space in between that perhaps was once occupied by music has been eviscerated (hopefully that word's popularity as an attention grabber may have at last mercifully waned) by forces which doesn’t want you to spend any more time with anything than you absolutely have to.
I readily admit this could all be the musings of a curmudgeon who is looking to explain why his music isn’t getting any plays (somewhat ironic as the only reason I set up a Facebook account in the first place was to invite people to live music events — a discussion for another time). Clearly the streaming industry is booming and people do listen to music. But how much of this is simply through playlists and algorithms running largely as a background process while the ongoing drumbeat of their social media feed demands the focus their ever divided attentions? Is the time where one put on an album and simply sat down and listened an activity of a bygone age — as much a cultural anachronism as the walkman or the postage stamp?
One can only hope not. Or maybe we’ll luck out and future generations will rebel against all this nonsense and Facebook and its ilk will join MySpace on the ash heap of social computing history. Apparently Facebook is already regarded as for "old people" — so I guess there's hope.
If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or, perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.
On Friday I posted to the blog to try and solicit some feedback about the album from its listeners on the occasion of the first monthiversary of its release. Little did I realize that I’d already gotten the first “negative" review of my career — a fact to which the PR firm I’d been working with alerted me to later that day (or as they put it "wasn't the most flattering" while trying to salvage a decent pull quote).
I should have keyed into the fact that something was up as I was getting a bunch of listens on SoundCloud for “You Will Sail With Me” — the album’s penultimate track and one that hadn’t been featured anywhere to date save my own attempt to push it a bit post release. I assumed that this was some random SoundCloud noise — you tend to get that sometimes from what seems to be bots or some such. It didn’t help that most of the listens weren’t providing any location data (I suspect SoundCloud was having issues because midweek the system went down). So it didn’t even occur to me to look at the source URI report, which otherwise would have been a big clue. A personal nitpick — since the album has been released, it’s a bit weird that someone would be linking to SoundCloud. It’s all well and good to be paid in exposure bucks prior to release in exchange for getting someone to “write” (I use the term loosely in some cases) an exclusive preview article, but if you have any sympathies for an artist, I think you’d at least link to YouTube or maybe bandcamp when the option is available, which will result in a few cents of royalties or maybe a purchase.
Anyway, I got a review for the full album in Americana UK, which had previously previewed one of my tracks and the take aways were 1) the reviewer doesn’t like my voice 2) the reviewer doesn’t like I use a lot of words 3) something about the production not serving the songs... but this is left vague and sort of isn't my department. He liked some of the songs, but apparently not enough to resist the temptation to write a pithy and, if we're frank, kind of churlish summary.
I honestly don’t know what to say about the voice thing — other than it’s flattering to be lumped in with Tom Waits, Neil Young and… Tiny Tim? Noticeably absent from his list is Dylan (“You know they refused Jesus too” “You’re not him”). I mean, what can you do? There are some singers I’d rather not listen to either. And there is a method to my madness of getting other people to cover my songs for my birthday show. That he thinks I “over-pronounce” is the most actionable note in the whole piece… too bad it didn’t help him when it came to citing lyrics correctly (they’re in the SoundCloud descriptions of the songs… I’m just say’n).
That he’s not into using unusual or multi-syllabic words in songs is his loss. Most people get a kick out of “Your Inexorable Pull” and I see absolutely nothing wrong with titles like “A Finnish Midsummer Midnight” and “The Comet and the Wandering Moon” which he also cites as evidence of my wordiness. I myself can think of a couple of occasions where I fought for an intentionally semi-awkward phrasing — the “glass of water” line from Ephemera — and I’ve thought a lot about that second use of the word “yellow” in Finnish, but even when the lines are syllabically packed (as is often the case in the 3rd verse of Albatross) I’m quite deliberate in what I’m doing. Given that he featured the most lyrically sparse song tells me that we’re just not going to see eye to eye on this point.
That this writer dismissed “The Albatross Song” as a novelty song to be "gotten past" is enough to tell me that he wasn’t paying particularly close attention to the content and maybe lacks the requisite appreciation for iconoclasm and silliness it takes to truly enjoy what I do... which is weird because he's British. I always suspected the genre traipsing wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea (I think genre is particularly irrelevant in a playlist obsessed world) and I honestly don't see some of the comparisons he makes with other artists (I'll take the one with "They Might Be Giants" though — even if I see shades of the press release in it). The real journalistic malpractice, however, was the assiduous avoidance of even mentioning “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World.”
In the end, someone took time to write an album review and apparently took the time to actually listen as it wasn’t just a regurgitation of the PR agency’s summary (with maybe a few extra bobs, usually with their own special typos, thrown in). I’ve indulged myself a bit in writing a bit of a response, not so much because I care so much about what this person said, but as a sort of celebration of a milestone. Being dismissed as totally ignorable and not important enough to listen to is dismaying — provoking someone to actually write something critical means I must be doing something right.
What a wonderful gift.
Read the full review in all it's glory:
Or form your own damn opinion:
YouTube • Spotify • Apple Music • Amazon • Bandcamp
P.S. The t-shirts gonna be a real thing and I'm going to wear it proudly at the next CDBaby DIY Conference in Austin. Let me know if you want one of your own.
They would not listen, they're not listening still
It’s been a month now since the release of my new album "At Home At Sea" — which in Internet time is a dog’s age. I meant to write this post just week after it’s release, but was deep down in the milieu of promotion of the latest EGPhest so it’s even more ancient now than when I first wrote that line. I recently saw a rather depressing tweet saying that the press cycle for a newly released album is 11 days. Such is our attention span and the constant churn of a hungry, hungry content mill we call "The Internet."
The activity streaming wise has not been nothing, but it’s not been overwhelming either. Since I was pretty quiet about my first album and this is the first time I’ve done an all out PR campaign, I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I did try running my own social media campaign with associated music videos back in September and November of last year for some singles without the benefit of a third party and even though the number of streams is still small, it’s clear that I’ve gotten many more times the streams than previously. Alas, CDBaby cuts off your data at 90 days (why so stingy with your storage/reporting metrics, my friends?) which makes it hard to compare campaign to campaign unless your diligently saving this data on a regular basis. Spotify is a little more generous, but won’t let you narrow the scope of your request to anything but “since 2015.” Still, in terms of number of streams, there’s a distinct spike around the album release that is discernibly larger than previous peaks.
In terms of absolute numbers though it's still rather disheartening — the upper limit of the graph for streams is 100 and a mere 16 for the graph of listeners. Clearly the overall publicity effort had its effect — the impact of my previous home brew campaigns are barely distinguishable from the occasional random spike. But, even keeping in mind this is just one platform among many (way, way too many), the totals do feel a bit paltry in comparison to what went into the campaign in terms of time and resources.
It also appears that the current theory about albums vs. singles is likely true as there’s a noticeable drop off from the 1st album track to the 2nd and even more by track 3. Now I could be a negative nellie and assume people just don’t like the sound of my voice (that feels like the "go to" excuse for bloggers when rejecting songs I submit through SubmitHub), but I’d suspect part of it is just the difficulty of carving out time to listen to a full album in this day and age. Especially one that requires some actual engagement by the listener and not what passes for engagement in the world of so called “social computing” — I have more thoughts on this as well as the whole process of going through a PR campaign. Suffice to say you can spend your whole life worrying what other people will think about what you're creating when the fact of the matter is, you'll be lucky if they think anything about what you're doing at all.
But for the moment, rather than dwell on that and impersonal things such as numbers of streams and listeners, I’d like instead to encourage you, if you have not already, to give the album a listen.
More importantly for those of you that already have, first, thank you — and second, I’d like you to share your thoughts on the album in the comments section of this blog, or on Facebook, or even on iTunes or Amazon.
Here are some relevant links:
EGPhest IV has come and gone and I'll post more on that in the days to come. TL;DR: It was a blast.
In the meantime, I just send out my latest newsletter in which I talk a bit about that, my latest film festival success and upcoming gigs for this month and September.
Check it out and maybe even subscribe.
The extended musings of a songwriter.