Monday, August 22, 2016

The Past Three Days

It's Monday morning, and I am seriously tired. I am usually great at getting to sleep quickly, but that didn't happen last night, and I'm running on about four hours (which is four hours less than I generally need). I think that after everything that's transpired over the last few days, it's pretty understandable why my mind was awhirl while laying in bed. Let me try and quickly relate some of that to you.

It was actually late Thursday evening that we released the They Stole My Crayon album. Why? Because Bandcamp, our choice for the place our music would be available, runs on UTC time. That meant that here on the West Coast, August 19 actually started just after 5PM. We also wanted to get it up there so we could make sure everything was functioning as it should before fully unleashing it on the public. It also allowed us to tip off the album's availability to a few close friends who'd been following the album's progress, who went and nabbed it right away. They certainly deserved the early heads-up.

Anyway, Friday rolled around, and it became time to start promoting the album in earnest. We didn't do much beyond making sure that our respective friends and colleagues were aware of its availability. We did take out one "boosted post" ad on Facebook for the princely sum of $15, but beyond that, it was completely word of mouth.

Our album. Give it a listen. Every song will offer something else.

It was a typical Friday. All three members of The Crayon had to work, because... life. So work we did. But we discovered quite a bit about Bandcamp that we didn't know before. One is that it has the most amazing statistics reporting of any music site we've ever seen. We could not only see each time someone listened to any of our songs, but tell which song they heard, and even how much of it they listened to. Insane. And then each time someone purchased our album, we would receive an email notification.

By complete and crazy coincidence, on that very day, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, "Is Bandcamp the Holy Grail of Online Record Stores?" in which the author writes about the qualities of Bandcamp that offer a huge appeal to artists and listeners alike. He called it, "... one of the greatest underground-culture bazaars of our time," and I have to agree.

So the day went on, but something crazy happened. I'm not really sure what we were expecting; we never once spoke about "how many people will listen to our stuff?" or "how many will buy the album?". Not once. But the stats on people listening started piling up quickly. Crazy fast. By day's end, our songs had been heard over 1,000 times. Being in a band and releasing music is a new experience for Christina, but not for Bunny and I, and nothing we'd ever done previously had that kind of response. I'd say we would have been very happy if there had been 100 listens on that day, much less 1,000.

And then, the emails started lighting up with notices of people buying the album. Note that I said "the album". Not individual songs, as has been the standard for the last couple of decades in the iTunes/Spotify era. The whole album. And, despite the fact that we priced the downloadable 12-track album at a reasonable $7, people were often choosing to pay more than the asking price. About half of our sales were in the $10-$20 range, which blew our minds.

We went to bed that night with our heads spinning, not yet fully comprehending what had transpired. That became more apparent the next day.

It's no surprise we were pretty excited the next morning. We got up to check our stats on Bandcamp, but stumbled across something entirely unexpected. Our album was starting to be listed among the best-selling alternative albums for the week. Now, to put this in perspective: each week, thousands of new albums are made available on Bandcamp. Thousands. And ours was gaining on some well-known names as one of the best-selling alternative albums in the world on their platform. It didn't even seem possible, but there it was.

We had a planned task ahead, which was to begin talking to some select record labels about the idea of working with us, now that the album was available for listening. We only chose a few labels whose artist roster seemed aligned with the style of music we appreciate. I have no idea if they will have any interest in a band like ours, which bucks what they traditionally look for in new acts on a number of fronts. What could working with a label give us that we can't easily do on our own? Awareness and attention on a wider-spread basis than we can successfully accomplish. That means reviews, radio play, and more. To be frank, we find it extremely unlikely that this will result in anything. I'll be very surprised if any of the labels we contacted on Saturday even respond to our message. But that's okay; if we were the label, we probably wouldn't respond to us either.

The day went by like a blur. Listens kept coming in (which was a shock, after getting 1,000 on the first day). It wasn't at the same frantic rate as before, but we still compiled another 500 listens of our songs on the second day. What did come rolling in was a shit-ton of sales. Let's just say that if we had any expectations of how well our album would do, the numbers sailed past that pretty quickly. We don't make music for money; that, to me, is a ticket to disappointment. But for the first time, it seemed like we'd created something that, in its own little world, was commercially viable.

By Monday morning, our album sat at the #8 spot for the week in Bandcamp's list of best-selling alternative music worldwide.

This whole process continued on Sunday. We continued to let as many people as we could know about the album, but not because we wanted to keep the sales numbers rolling. That, as I want to be very clear on, is a side effect of people hearing and enjoying the music. All we wanted was for people to listen to what we'd spent the last four years doing, which shouldn't be hard for anyone who's devoted themselves to a project to understand.

Early that afternoon, I was more than happy to take a break from watching our stats and promoting the album; oddly, that break came in the form of a live music show I was scheduled to do. Christina and I are headed to Minneapolis next month for what will be a fun Second Life Jam in the Twin Cities, and they had a series of artists perform live as a preview for the event, and to get some funds for pizza (how musician-ish is that, I ask you?). My 30-minute show was at 1PM, and I had a lot of fun doing Crayon songs as well as my own solo stuff and a few covers as well. It was held at Ground Zero, a great SL venue run by a couple of friends of mine (Thea Dee and GMetal Svartur), and the crowd was lively and enthusiastic.

After three days completely focused on our recorded music, it felt great to get up on a stage and play some live tunes. Photo of me rocking Ground Zero by Kat.

By the time Sunday evening came around, I felt like I was tired, and who wouldn't be? But as I stated up top, my mind was going in every direction as I lay in bed. "What happens next?" I asked myself. The answer is pretty clear: probably nothing, which is what I expected to happen in the first place. The massive attention the album got upon release will fade away pretty quickly, as will the number of listens and sales. But still, we're over 2,000 listens as of this morning, and remain in the top ten of all alternative albums on Bandcamp for this week, at least for now. I think the real payoff to the whole effort is knowing that people are listening and enjoying what we did. I can't ask for more than that, which was our only goal from the start.

Friday, August 19, 2016

They Stole My Crayon: Now Available

No big preamble or explanation; after four years in the creation, the debut album by my band They Stole My Crayon is now available. Here's what I ask of you: listen (for free). That's all. If you like what you hear, the 12-song album can be purchased and downloaded in super high-quality.

But please just listen. That will make the entire effort worthwhile for all three of us. Thanks in advance, and if you can, let us know what you think of our album in the comments below, or by posting on our Facebook page here.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Q: Why does it take four years to make an album? A: It doesn't, unless...

As I've told pretty much everyone on the planet (and perhaps a few extraterrestrial aliens), the debut album by my band They Stole My Crayon finally comes out this coming Friday, August 19, 2016. Because of the wonders of documenting every minute detail of life via this blog, I can tell you the very moment we started this band. It was at the end of September, 2012, as mentioned in this post from October 1 of that year. As I mentioned there, the plan at the time was to quickly knock out an album of music. It's laughable now, but I literally wrote these words in that post from almost four years ago:

"The plan is for us to write and record an entire album's worth of music -- call it 12 to 15 songs -- by Thanksgiving, and put the album out before year's end." -- Me, October 2012

So, yeah. We were going to just spill out a bunch of music, leave it very raw and unpolished, do the whole thing ourselves with no outside help, and put it out in December of 2012. There's actually a good batch of reasons that this didn't happen, and looking back with the clarity of hindsight, we're all glad that we chose a different path.

1. Who Are We?
It's easy to make music. It's harder to make good music that represents a unique listening experience. It took awhile before The Crayon found out who we were. There was a lot of back-and-forth in the beginning days, with many songs that were created and then discarded as we started congealing into something more interesting than the typical band. We didn't really find a groove for quite some time, when we got into a process of songwriting and music creation that worked for this particular band.

While we did some music creation in 2012 and 2013, looking back at the demo recordings that ended up being the songs that make up our album, almost the entire album as it stands today was written and recorded between late 2014 through early 2016. That means the first two years were really all about not only finding our unique sound, but falling into the process that worked for us to do our best stuff.

An early picture of The Crayon, back in 2012 while we were figuring out what we sounded like. It turned out that we sounded like us, but it took awhile to understand what that meant.

2. Got The Time?
Here's the big one. If we'd been some band that was bankrolled by a record label or some patron of the arts, we could have devoted ourselves full-time to music making. That might have been nice, but we'll never know. Instead, the three of us did it the only way possible for us, which meant we kept our priorities on our responsibilities in life of earning income and taking care of our families, and that kind of thing. Doing this meant that our available time to write and record music for The Crayon was severely limited. There would be certain time periods where months would go by while we couldn't -- despite our wishes and intentions -- do anything to move the album forward.

When those times came about, we worked like bats out of hell. For example, we literally did 100% of the vocals for the album over two weekend sessions with Phil O'Keefe at Sound Sanctuary Recording in Summer 2015. There were times where I'd shut out everything else for an entire weekend while recording various guitar and bass parts for the album from my home studio, getting instrument tracks for entire songs created over the course of a few days. Bunny and Christina also worked in these frantic spurts. Perhaps it would have been cooler for us to have done all of the work that was spread out over four years in four months instead, but the end result would have likely been vastly different. Maybe we could have done two or three albums by now, but would they be as good? Music is not something that's measured based on quantity; it's the quality that counts.

The Crayon in Joshua Tree, jamming and laughing in November of 2015. Our album was pretty much done being recorded at that stage, but we also had to take into account the time to mix said album, with single songs that sometimes contained over 70 tracks. Hats off to Spencer Crewe and his seemingly infinite patience in working with us.

3. No Hurry, No Worry
Frankly, no one has been on our backs to get the album done. We're not some well-known artist with a label that was counting on our album to be released on a certain date in order to meet some kind of financial obligation. Again, to be frank: no one cared how long it took, including us. And honestly, the process itself was fun. We are three close friends who enjoy spending time together. We took trips out to Joshua Tree to hang out and get inspired. We spent plenty of evenings holding band meetings that were as fun as they were productive.

The point is this: could we have sped up the process to finish the album? Unquestionably yes. But in retrospect, it might be a really good thing that we didn't. As it turns out, through whatever forces run the universe, the time is perfectly right for our album to come out right now. A number of our musically-inclined friends, both professional and enthusiast alike, feel that it's time for a sea change in music, and that perhaps the Crayon album might represent a new kind of sound that people will really enjoy after the saturation of soundalike music that's been the norm for a number of years.

So, that's why we spent four years making this album. I don't think the next one will take four years. But if it does, so be it. We just want to make music that we like and can be proud of, which is the case for our debut album that comes out at the end of this week. Set aside a little time on Friday to listen to what we've done. Time is a valuable commodity -- perhaps the most valuable -- but we think it will be worth it.

Rocking on Saturday night at Mike Gale's 48th b-day party, this may have been the first mini-reunion of the original Bad Boyz since 1989 or so. Good times! Photo by Christina.

In completely unrelated news, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to my friend Michael Gale. He hosted his own party to celebrate his 48th birthday on Saturday night at his lovely home in Garden Grove that Christina and I attended. Mike and I started playing in bands and writing music together when we were in high school, before we were even 16 years old, and most our our mutual friends are also musicians whom we've jammed with over decades and count among our short list of lifelong friends.

The party Saturday night was completely fun, and a huge departure from my usual solo acoustic performances as well as what we've been doing in The Crayon. We did everything from classic rock to reggae originals, and I got to show off on guitar, bass, and keys. Huge thanks to Mike as well as other great friends Dante Silva, Kirk Makin, Kevin Hicks, John Jurovic, and others who rocked out on Saturday night. Life isn't a destination; it's a journey where you try and make memorable pit stops on the way. This was definitely one of them.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Coming August 19: They Stole My Crayon

Words that have been a long time coming: the album of music I've been working on since 2012 with my close friends and bandmates Christina Lee and Bunny Knutson is done. We received the masters back from Abbey Road two days ago. It will be released and available for listening and downtown on August 19.

That's all I'm saying for the moment. I'd prefer the music tell the rest of the story. See you on Friday August 19.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Triana's Music Trivia (07.31.16)

It's early on a Monday morning, and I'm bouncing off the walls with happy excitement. Those statements may seem incompatible with each other, but it's true. As I mentioned yesterday, my band They Stole My Crayon, having recently wrapped up the recording and mixing of our debut album, had sent off the stereo tracks to be mastered at Abbey Road Studios on Saturday. I must say that at the moment my alarm went off at 6AM today, I wasn't exactly a bastion of cheer. But even before I got some outstanding news, I was already feeling pretty good for a Monday. Last night, I got to perform live for one of my best friends, Jess Smith, for the eleventh anniversary of her Second Life-based event Triana's Music Trivia.

I'll come back to that in a moment. So, feeling pretty good about a very fun show I'd done along with Kat, I showered and dressed, and then (as routine would dictate), entered my office to check my email. Betwixt and between some work-related messages and the usual influx of spam was a message from Abbey Road. It said, simply, this:

Your project has been allocated and it is with our engineer Geoff Pesche, to be delivered to you in 5 days.

Wait... seriously?!?!?! Geoff Pesche?!?!?! Working on our music?!?!?! This is insane! This is amazing! This is... okay, I'll stop hyperventilating for a moment. I'll not dwell on this too much here, but Geoff Pesche is an internationally-acclaimed mastering engineer who is one of the best in the business. We would have been completely happy to have any of Abbey Road's mastering engineers taking on the task of working on our album, of course; just being selected to work there means you are at the top of your craft. But Geoff Pesche, my God! This guy is a hero of mine as an audio engineer. The list of music he's worked on over the last 30 or so years is astounding. It includes some artists and bands you might have heard of, like Coldplay, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Tina Turner, Gorillaz, Daughter, MIA, Blur, Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue... okay, I'll stop now. Wait, one more thing: he mastered the biggest-selling 12" vinyl single of all time: "Blue Monday" by New Order. Jesus!

Here's a recent interview with Geoff that explains a bit about what he does.

So, now I'm finally calming down about that amazing bit of news to the point that I can tell you about my show last night for Triana's Music Trivia. A little background: when Kat and I got into Second Life in 2006, one of the first things we found to do that was cool and fun was an event called Triana's Music Trivia. Held on Sunday nights at 7PM SLT, it's been the one thing in SL that we've continued doing continuously for the entire period we've been in world, close to ten years now. Triana even pre-dates our relatively long-term participation in the virtual world, having recently celebrated her 12th rezday, and it's been eleven years since she started running her trivia game. We go for the trivia, but we've stayed for the people, several of whom have been there with us each Sunday evening for a decade. They've become great friends... especially Triana herself, with whom our relationship has expanded into the real world. We've taken a number of vacations together and she is as close to Kat and I as anyone we know. Once or twice a year, I've performed at her virtual place for special events, and my show there is always super interesting, since I tend to play music that I don't do anywhere else.

Kat joins me onstage for some Bowie and Crayon tunes. Photo and top photo by Triana.

Having way too much fun with our friends at TMT. Photo by Triana.

Rocking Tirana's attic. I like playing house parties in real or virtual worlds. Photo by Triana.

Last night's show was particularly great. For one reason, I was joined onstage by Kat, who has gained more and more confidence in her ability as a live musician due to her work alongside of me and Bunny in They Stole My Crayon. Another reason -- which I didn't bother dwelling on much during the show itself -- is that the set list had some particular significance in several ways. It was the first show I'd done there since the passing of David Bowie and Prince, so I made sure to have some of both artists' music in the set... Triana is a big fan of both, so it made sense. I also did some Beatles, in honor of our music being worked on at Abbey Road. And, unsurprisingly, we did several Crayon tunes for the same reason.

TMT set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Triana (Zak Claxton)
†*Changes (David Bowie)
†*Suffragette City (David Bowie)
†Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
†Vendetta (They Stole My Crayon)
†Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
*Desert Lily (Zak Claxton)
*Good Morning Good Morning (Beatles)
*Not Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd/Zak Claxton)
Take Me With U (Prince)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Tribute (Tenacious D)

*Indicates a song I've never played before in SL.
†Indicates the songs on which Kat performed with me.

Huge thanks to all of our friends who've been a part of our lives through TMT over the years, especially those who were at the show last night. You rule, and we love you all!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

They Stole My Crayon Album Being Mastered at Abbey Road

There are four steps to creating recorded music. There are actually about 700 steps, but they can all be broken down into four main activities:

- Writing
- Recording
- Mixing
- Mastering

So, you write some music, and if you intend on singing, you write some lyrics. Then you record your music. Simple enough. Then your music is mixed, which means that the various parts that make up your song... the drums, the bass, the guitars, the keyboards, the vocals and so on, are literally mixed together in some way you find pleasing, hopefully. But what the hell is that last step?

Mastering involves taking a mixed piece of music and making it ready for listening on various media, from digital downloads to vinyl albums. It's also a final opportunity to make sure that there's consistency throughout a song, or through a number of songs. You don't want to release music where the volume levels are jumping around, or where one song sounds really dull while another sounds overly crisp and brittle. Or maybe you do, but at least you want to do it on purpose. That's what mastering is. However the master turns out is how it will sound when you upload it to iTunes or Spotify, or gets sent to radio stations, or when you have a bunch of CDs duplicated. The art of mastering involves more than great gear in a great room; it's really about the ears and the skill of the mastering engineer, whose work will end up being the final word on what people will hear when they play your music.

Crayon History
As all of my readers know, I (along with my lady Christina Lee and my pal Bunny Knutson) formed a band called They Stole My Crayon back in 2012. For the first couple of years, we were mostly trying to find our sound as a band as we wrote song after song. Side note: I can't tell you the number of songs we wrote and recorded demos for that we eventually discarded, once we locked into what we really wanted to be. It was in early 2015 that we really gained a focus on our band, and put the pedal to the metal in creating the twelve songs that would be selected for our debut album. Almost all of the instrumental tracks were recorded at mine and Bunny's home studios (Frothy Studios and The Rabbit Hutch, respectively), and then last summer, we recorded all of the album's vocals at a couple of productive sessions at Phil O'Keefe's Sound Sanctuary Recording in Hesperia, CA.

The Crayon, July 2016 (Bunny Knutson, Christina Lee, Zak Claxton).

Once everything was recorded, we started sending those tracks to our friend Spencer Crewe in St. John's, NL (that's in Canada, for the geographically impaired). Spencer did a fantastic job, and we continually were still refining little aspects of the songs as we went along. So, steps one, two, and three were handled, but we still needed a solution for that final step. I know plenty of excellent and talented mastering engineers, local and otherwise. We had a limited budget, like most independent bands, and wanted to choose a solution that would fit our high standards of sonic excellence along with the relative lack of money in our pockets. So we made the obvious choice: we're having the album mastered at the world's most famous recording studios... Abbey Road Studios in London, UK.

What the What?!?!?
Yeah, you read it right. Abbey Road Studios. Yes, that Abbey Road Studios. The place where The Beatles created nearly all of their albums and singles. The place where Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon. In more recent years, everyone from U2 to Radiohead to Gorillaz to Lady Gaga have used Abbey Road's services. The list of artists who have recorded, mixed, or mastered their music at Abbey Road is astounding. Many of the techniques for creatively recording music that are now in widespread use were literally invented there.

How, then, can some random band that no one has heard of like They Stole My Crayon be able to work with such a prestigious facility? It's very simple. As the music industry has changed drastically over the past 20 or so years in the digital download era, studios like Abbey Road that formerly had a steady flow of high-dollar business coming in from huge record labels and film studios were experiencing a dramatic drop in business. Many studios have gone under as a result. But Abbey Road did something very smart: in 2009, they began making the technologies of digital transmission work for them instead of against them by offering an online mastering program. I think the video below explains exactly how it works very nicely.

And here's the part that helped us make our decision: it's not nearly as expensive as you'd imagine to have your music mastered at Abbey Road. In fact, it's quite a bit less expensive than a number of the options we'd been considering previous to discovering their online mastering service.

Yesterday (Saturday July 30), we uploaded the high-resolution, uncompressed stereo WAV files that Spencer had helped create to Abbey Road. Within a week or so, we will have those twelve songs returned to us after they've been worked on by one of the several acclaimed mastering engineers who work there. And that is when -- pending a few final details -- we can release the album to the public.

It's all very exciting, and somewhat daunting, but we're finally at the end of the long road of making an album of which we're all extraordinarily proud. And if all goes well, sometime in the next couple of weeks or so, you'll get to finally hear it too.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Elysium City of Templemore (07.16.16)

Contain your shock; I finally played another show in Second Life. Yes, while there was once a time that I happily took on three or more shows per week, it's now about a once per month occasion when I play live in SL. All for good reasons, of course. But when I do play live in SL these days, as rare as that is, it becomes a very special event. And yesterday's show at the grand opening of Elysium City of Templemore was certainly special, in many ways.

First, as most of you readers know, Templemore isn't a new concept. My friend Luis Lockjaw created and ran an earlier version, called Hesperia of Templemore, which I first played in February 2014 and would subsequently play many more times before it closed in July of last year. In fact, I performed at the final show there, which was something that Luis mentioned to my manager Maali Beck when he booked me to open his all-new Second Life sim, Elysium City of Templemore. I'd helped close the old place, he said; he wanted me back to help open the new one.

I couldn't say "yes" quickly enough. Not to spend an excessive amount of time dwelling on this, but Luis is just a fucking genius when it comes to designing Second Life environments. He obviously has tremendous artistic vision, and the vibe of the places he creates is simply like no other. His places are amazing combinations of beauty and decay, dream and nightmare. I've become pretty blasé about design over the nearly ten years I've spent in SL, but every build Luis does is so good that I'd be happy just hanging out there with nothing to do but wander around marveling at the creative skill it took to make it.

As if all that wasn't enough, a few days before the show, Luis announced the full lineup. The event started at 3PM with Caasi Ansar, followed by my show at 4PM. Then came Sassy Nitely, Gravey Jones, and Phemie Alcott, and then DJ Malachi Decuir to close out the evening. All of these people are among my personal favorite talents in SL. I was honored just to be involved. The show itself went really well, I'm happy to say. We had a large crowd that included many friends, and despite my relative rustiness from having performed less frequently, I felt like my singing and playing went just fine, and people seemed happy. I ask for nothing more than that.

Photos by Kat.

Templemore set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
*Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Gardenia (Iggy Pop)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Northern Highway (Martin Courtney)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
After The Goldrush (Neil Young)
*Sassy Take the Stage (Zak Claxton Improv)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Massive thanks to all who came out to the new Templemore to see my show, with extra special high-fives to the following who helped support it.
Diana Renoir, Lilmissbo Resident, JueL Resistance, Grace Sixpence, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kransten Resident, Sassy Nitely, Eli Schlegel, Sesh Kamachi, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Templemore's terrific hostess Bee Blackrain, and everyone involved in the new Elysium City... especially my friend and SoCal homie Luis Lockjaw.