Monday, November 30, 2009

Upcoming Big Events in Zakland

"Zakland" is not a real place, by the way. It's more of a state of mind. And while I do shows in SL quite frequently, there are some special events happening all too soon that need some extra notice. Be aware, ye Zak Fans and Friends, of the following dates.

Wednesday December 9, 12:00PM: Zak at Fibber Magees in SL
What's so special about this show? Well, two days before the official release of the album, we're going to debut my new music vendor, so we're giving SL folks a bit of a head start on getting real, actual music from me. Plus, Fibber Magees shows are always fun, so come even if you're not planning on buying the album in-world.

Friday December 11, 7:00PM: Zak's RL Album Release Party
Here it is: after 40 years of being alive, 36 years of being a musician, 27 years of being a rocker, three years of playing in SL, and almost two years since I entered the studio to start recording, my debut album is actually going to be available to the world. Here's the deal: this is a REAL LIFE event, but we're going to stream the audio into SL so that folks who can't attend in person can still get a "fly on the wall" effect of being there. We'll be hosting the event in SL at our all-new Club at Coyote. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event for all of us.

Wednesday December 16, 6:00PM: Zak Live on IndieSpectrum Radio
The folks at IndieSpectrum are being kind enough to host me at their live music venue in SL, and broadcasting the live show to the entire Internet. I'll be performing live music for a full hour. If you can't make it to the show in SL, by all means tune in at

Friday December 18, 5:00PM: Second Life Album Release Party
You didn't think we were going to leave the album release festivities in real life only, did you? Of course not. While the event on 12/11 is going to be streamed into SL, at this VERY cool show, I'm not performing live at all! Instead, I'm going to play DJ, and broadcast the album in its entirety into SL in high quality, while telling you all the stories behind the music. Trust me, this one will be cool.

So, that's it for now. Keep in mind that there are other shows and stuff betwixt and between all of these other events. For the complete schedule of Zak events, you can always find details at the "Zak Live" page at!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Video: Zak's SL Music Guide 2010

I know, it's not even December yet, and my 2010 version of the official "Zak Claxton in Second Life" video is already live on YouTube. I guess the influence of a four month long holiday marketing season is starting to rub off on me.

Anyway, this year's official "Zak in SL" vid became a journey of epic proportions. Within its 9:17, you get the entire picture, soup to nuts, of what SL is and how live music can be found there. And, of course, there's also the info on me, what I do, how to find me in SL and so on. All of this is interwoven with a soundtrack of my tunes, both studio tracks and live recordings.

Zak Claxton in Second Life (2010)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Making the album part 13,262: The Singles

We live in a weird world. We really do.

Example: I perform live music almost exclusively in a virtual 3D Internet world. That's weird. And while back in reality, people buy singles more than ever before (due to the popularity of digital downloads), almost no one bothers creating artwork for their singles anymore, since online stores like iTunes generally allow only the one piece of cover artwork to represent all songs off an album. That's pretty weird too.

There was a time (he said nostalgically) when people would go to record stores and buy little round pieces of black vinyl that had two songs on it, called the "A Side" and "B Side". The "A Side" was usually the hit song off an album, and sometimes the "B Side" was a tune that wasn't even on the album at all... you had to buy the single to hear it. It was cool, if you were a big fan of a band, to go buy the single. And it usually came in a little paper sleeve that had custom artwork on it.

I was pretty sure that I was done with my album artwork after I handed off the files to be printed on my CD packaging. But lo and behold, my immersion in a weird world has come through for me once again. My record label Frothy Music decided to go with a music vendor system in Second Life that allows people to purchase each single in addition to the entire album as they choose. The cool thing about this system is that people can elect to play the music in SL on their parcel by plugging a code into their media stream, and they can also download the song to their computer for uses outside of SL. But the other cool thing? Each single can use its own artwork, giving me an excuse to show you the following covers! Life: it's weird, but mostly cool.

Each single has some meaning to the artwork that's appropriate in some way to the song, but I've never been a big believer in explaining my art to people. So, here they are! Enjoy.

Lines on your Eyes

Come Around

Falling Down

This Afternoon

Thanks Anyway

The Sands of Redondo

Fade Away

Always Tomorrow

You're Like a Cloud

Waxing Gibbous

Waiting for This

Monday, November 23, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

Or, "How to turn something relatively simple into a giant pain in the ass".

Most people would agree that today's technology is pretty amazing. However, one thing that comes with seemingly limitless choices is the act of actually getting anything done when there are no boundaries to force your decision.

What the hell are you talking about, Zak?
Glad you asked. As you know, I'm putting together the plans for my album release party at The Bean Counter in Redondo Beach, CA on December 11. In case there's any confusion here, this is a real life venue, not a location in Second Life. Perhaps you'd think that I would be wholly focused on the task at hand -- like, playing live music for a bunch of people who will come out to see me that evening, as well as hosting the first public playback of the album itself. You'd think I would be interested in inviting members of the entertainment press to get some real life media coverage. That kind of stuff. Right?

Well, the good news is that I actually am focused in that general direction. However, it seems to me that my friend/fan base in SL is also very interested in how this event goes. It also has been my experience that folks in SL enjoy events that integrate real life with the virtual world. A good example was seeing hundreds of people checking out the video stream from the recent Texas Jam of SL musicians. And yet, anything I do to try and integrate this real-life event with SL has to, by definition, divide my focus between these two worlds.

Hmm, looks real enough. Maybe I should let reality be the star of the day. Or should I?

The best laid plans...
So, I started thinking, which is usually a huge mistake. "Zak," I thought to myself, "Integrating the show into SL should be really easy. Just bring your laptop and audio interface to the gig, and stream the audio from the show into SL!"

Problem solved, right? I'm a genius. Except I'm not. If it was just a live performance with me playing guitar and singing, it would be about as simple as that. The coffeehouse has a speedy Net connection, so there's no worry there. It also has a large TV screen with an HDMI input, so I could send my laptop's video output to the TV so the folks at the Bean Counter could see me doing my SL thing. Fun, huh? However, it's not just a typical live gig. It's an album release event, meaning it's both a live show and a listening party for the album itself.

"No problem, Zak," my brain continued. "Just run the audio of the CD through your system, and you'll stream the album into SL at the same time." Brilliant!

But wrong. See, there are two things wrong with this plan. First, as those of us who do streaming shows already know, it's not simple switching between live sound sources and recorded sources. It usually means stopping your stream and restarting it each time you switch over, and it's a pain in the ass that I'd rather not deal with while focusing on playing and singing. But much more importantly, the CD will not be going through my simple PA system. That would sound really crappy (like, I'm only using one loudspeaker... hello? Stereo?), and the goal of the show is to present my shiny new disc in its best light. So we're running it through the sound system of the venue, which is high quality and is set up to pump music out into the street, attracting more passers-by. Problem: since the CD playback won't be going through my system, it won't be heard in world very well. Are you with me?

Hmm. I thought this was going to be easier. Famous last words.

What to do?
I had to make a decision on this matter, since it was driving me a little nutty trying to figure out the best way to handle it, but I think I came to a conclusion that will work. Here's the challenge:

1. Focus on the live show.
I've played literally hundreds of shows in SL. I mean, hell; I'll be playing twice in SL that same week. For that show, I need to really keep my focus on the real life aspect of it. However...

2. Don't ignore SL.
Even for just the few hardcore fans I have in SL, I'd really hate to ignore it entirely, since it's been through SL that I've gained the confidence to get back to songwriting, recording and performing as a solo artist. As far as I'm concerned, I owe the SL music community a big debt of gratitude, and even if it means jumping through a few extra hoops that I'd hoped to avoid, I'll do what it takes.

The "Fly On the Wall" Compromise
Here's how we're going to make this work for everyone.

• I'll be nearly completely focused on the live show.

• At the same time, we will stream the show into SL.

• It won't be much of a show in SL, but the attendees will be like a fly on the wall for the real life event.

• They'll hear my live performance in a way that's similar to my usual SL shows, except I won't be addressing them directly in world as I usually would. Instead, they'll hear me doing my thing for the live attendees.

• For the CD playback portions of the night, I'll just leave the mics open. Granted, it won't be the best audio quality in the world, but they'll hear the songs in the background, hear the crowd mingling, hear me making comments about the various songs. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing, I believe.

• And by the way: we're going to host a completely separate album release event in SL perhaps a week later, on 12/18/09, where I can playback the album in world and let it really shine. So, that will make up for the deficiencies of the live event.

The current schedule of events

7:00PM: The show starts. We'll begin by playing back a few songs from the album while people are arriving and settling in.
7:30PM: I will perform a select number of songs, maybe 5-6 of them, live.
8:00PM: We'll continue playing back the album and telling people about it.
8:30PM: Show's over... goodnight.

Again, I'm going to basically plop my avatar on a stage and not really have any interaction other than that. However, I do plan on telling my live audience about SL, and showing them why SL is such a cool platform for live music. So, even with a little compromise, I think it will be a cool experience for all involved.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Notes Shack (11.22.09)

As I told my crowd at the Notes Shack today, it's always a better gig when you're in a place where you feel comfortable. The Notes Shack has become the place in SL where I can really just enjoy myself and focus on the music, which is mostly what I did today.

Not much to tell you, except it was a usually totally fun time today. One note: after years of being a fan of the late singer-songwriter Nick Drake, I had still never covered one of his tunes until today. He was an amazing guitarist and singer in addition to his incredible songwriting skills, and playing his stuff is no walk in the park. But after a few practices, I felt like the Notes Shack would be a place where an artist like that would be appreciated, so I pulled out one of his songs today. Check it out, if you'd like...

SONG SAMPLE: "Things Behind the Sun" (Nick Drake)

And here's the whole set list from today's show...
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
*Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Is It In My Head (The Who)
Waiting for This (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to all who helped support today's show!
Triana Caldera, Horizon Darkstone, Diana Renoir, Lolly Gladstone, Jeremy Barracuda, Sunrise Starsider, Rey Tardis, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, and the mighty Krakov Letov!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting Ready to Get Live

I don't have to tell you that since I'm getting ready to release my album, I'll be doing some live shows to help support the album. Not many, mind you... I have no intention of going on tour. The very idea of touring is about as appealing as sticking a fork into my eye.

However, I will do some select live shows, including my album release party on December 11, and to make sure I am heard at the various coffeehouse and bookstore-type places I'll end up playing, I needed a PA system. In all the years I've been in bands and so on, I've really never had a need to have my own PA gear -- it's usually been the singer who had that stuff. So yesterday, Kat and I went up the street to my local Guitar Center store. In my real life (as in, the one where I need to earn a living and such), I do web site development and other marketing work for a division of Guitar Center called GC Pro, and it just so happens that the company recently added a GC Pro representative in my local store (South Bay, CA).

So we went there and met with GC Pro sales guy Chris Brown, who was very helpful and walked us through a couple of options (though I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted anyway). I ended up getting the following stuff...

1. Main PA powered loudspeaker: Mackie SRM450v2.

I had a few choices in loudspeakers. I could have saved some dough with a cheaper system, but this is one case where it's money well spent. Mackie has always made some pretty high-quality gear that has good bang for the buck. The other leading contender for about the same price was the JBL Eon, but I've heard the Mackie SRM450 before and knew it was a surprisingly good PA for the price. There were other brands available, of course, but I really didn't want to end up with something that sounded really crappy, or was likely to break in the middle of a show.

2. PA monitor: Mackie SRM150.

You folks know what a stage monitor is? I shall tell you in case the answer is "no". When you play live, your main loudspeaker has to be slightly in front of you, so the sound from the speaker doesn't start feeding back into the mic. We all know what that sounds like, and it isn't pleasant. But the result is that you can't hear yourself. So, stage monitors come in many types, from large wedges that sit on the floor in front of you through in-ear monitors that work like little headphones. But there's another kind of monitor like this one... basically a little loudspeaker that mounts to a mic stand and faces toward the performer. I went with the Mackie SRM150 because it was the right size, the right price, and hell, I might as well keep it all in the Mackie family (I also use a little Mackie mixer for both live shows and my SL gigs).

3. (2) Electro-Voice N/D767a microphones

Obviously, I own microphones -- I use them at every show I do in SL, since I use only acoustic sound sources (as opposed to keyboards or electric guitars). But the mics I already own are studio condenser mics, which are much too sensitive for live use... plus, I don't want them stolen or broken. For live use, a dynamic mic is a better choice. The classic of all dynamic mics for stage use is the Shure SM-58, but my experience has been that the SM-58 is a little too dull for my voice. There have been innovations in dynamic mics, and one is the use of Neodymium magnets, which are much stronger than the magnets typically used to generate signal in older mics. The EV N/D767a is a relatively new mic from a respected name in audio, and has a good reputation. And there's the fact that I got a killer deal on them. That doesn't hurt. I purchased two... one for my voice, and the other to use for my guitar.

4. Stand and cables

Nothing very exciting here, but very necessary. When you lift a PA loudspeaker off the ground, you are doing two things. First, being higher in the air helps disperse the sound around the room better. Second, you are less likely to get the floor resonating and causing buzz and distortion. So I bought a nice stand that will more than support the 40-pound weight of the big Mackie loudspeaker. Finally (not pictured), I bought a few XLR cables to supplement the ones I already own. These are also called "mic cables"; they connect the mics to the mixer, and the mixer to the speakers.

So that's it! I now own a PA system that I can use for all the types of small venues that would be likely to host a solo singer-songwriter like me. The stuff is certainly good enough for now, and I'm happy to have one more thing crossed off the list of needs for my release party and beyond.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Warmup at The Bean Counter (11.17.09)

I haven't spent too many words on this blog talking about "back in the day". While I'm a big believer in learning from the past, I'm not necessarily a fan of living in it. But, for the sake of this post, I'll let you know that there was a time where I wasn't solely a virtual performer in Second Life, heh heh. A long time, in fact. From my teenage years all the way through 2007, I spent a lot of time on stages, ranging from backyard parties to outdoor festivals to clubs and bars all around Southern California. The majority of that live music performing experience was as part of rock bands. For the past couple of years, though, my focus has been recording the album and playing in SL, and I've been pretty absent from real-life performances.

Anyway, as anyone who reads this blog knows well, I have an album coming out, and to help promote the album, it's always been in the plan to do some live shows. Not a tour, mind you; just a few shows around my local area of Los Angeles. One show is rather important... it's the album release party, scheduled for Friday December 11, at a little place right here in my neighborhood, called the Bean Counter coffeehouse. I think a coffeehouse is the perfect place for my kind of music, and it's no coincidence that Kat and I named our label "Frothy Music".

But I digress. One thing I learned from my years and years of playing live is that going into a venue completely cold and trying to perform there for the first time in front of a large audience is terrifying, for lack of a better word. So, one thing I like to do is spend some time in the place beforehand, making sure that I get the vibe of the place. In a best-case scenario, I can go in and actually do a mini-show during off hours, so that when I actually take the stage, I can have the psychological effect that makes me feel like I've played there before.

And that, ladies and germs, is my long-winded intro to tell you that I marched into the Bean Counter yesterday afternoon with my guitar, told them to turn off the stereo, and played an impromptu warm-up set! The folks at the coffeehouse are very, very cool, and were happy to let me strum a bit while they sold lattes and chai teas to their clientele. I just pulled up a chair and started playing a few tunes, pretty randomly, but focusing on my own songs. My total audience included the owner, his wife, two baristas, and maybe eight people who wandered in to have coffee while I was there, but it was still great to get a little real-life live performance under my belt before doing it "for real".

Here's what I played...
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni MItchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)

My darling Kat came with me to take some pics and video (and because despite having seen me play hundreds of times in SL, she'd never seen me perform on my own in real life). Here is a video she shot of me performing "Thanks Anyway" at the Bean Counter.

Monday, November 16, 2009

SL Neil Young Archives (11.14.09)

On Saturday, I rectified two things I'd overlooked for some time. First, I did a show at a place owned by Kat and I for the first time in many months. Second, I paid overdue homage to one of my musical heroes. Not a bad way to spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon!

On November 12, 1945, a certain guy named Neil Young was born in Toronto, Canada. To commemorate the birthday of this amazing singer-songwriter who has been an enormous influence on my own songwriting style, I decided to perform a one-hour show of nothing but Neil's songs. That's right; not a single original, and not any tunes by anyone else. Just a solid hour of Neil. Trust me, the only difficulty there was narrowing down through the 40-50 songs of Mr. Young's that I'm comfortable playing at any given time.

As mentioned above, we hosted the show at my SL Neil Young Archives, a place I built to showcase Neil's music and life in SL. Hey, nobody else seemed to have done it in SL; why not me? The SLNYA was one of the earlier things I did in SL, back in early 2007 I believe, and many NY fans have dropped by over the years to enjoy the collection of albums and memorabilia. I was planning on doing shows there on a regular basis, but like many good plans, it fell to the side as I began focusing heavily on playing outside venues, doing my own original music.

However, on this special occasion of Neil turning 64, we invited the Neil Young Fans of SL and anyone else who could drop by, and had a really fun show. As I said, the hardest thing for me was choosing which songs to play; I love a great number of songs by Neil, and have tried to play most of them. Narrowing it down to the 11 or 12 that I can do in an hour was rough. So, I stuck with the crowd-pleasers; maybe on some other occasion, I'll do a whole show of super obscure NY tunes.

By the way: extra-special Zak Fan credit goes out to Horizon Darkstone, who not only came all the way from Australia to see the show ( ;) ), but did so on crutches, having fallen down a flight of stairs.

The NY B-Day Set List...
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Down By the River (Neil Young)
Old Man (Neil Young)
For the Turnstiles (Neil Young)
I Am a Child (Neil Young)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Powderfinger (Neil Young)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
Southern Man (Neil Young)
Alabama (Neil Young)
Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young)
Mr. Soul (Neil Young)

Happy Birthday Neil! Keep on rocking on the free world, or any other world you see fit! And also, thanks to the folks who came out to support the show!
claudia Amaterasu, Vanity Sugarplum, Shellie Sands, Horizon Darkstone, Vue Ling, Blindboy Gumbo, melzi Amat, Haroldthe Burrel, and my darling Kat Claxton!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Italian Mood (11.10.09)

Less talking; more rocking.

I've been blabbing a bit here on the blog, and you can't entirely blame me. I mean, I have stuff going on. Know what I'm saying? The prep for the album release gives me a lot of fodder for conversation. But still, isn't the point of being a musician playing music, rather than designing album covers or creating radio commercials?

We all know that every successful musician wears many hats, but I find that if too much time passes between shows, I start getting antsy. So it was time to stop typing and start strumming! I had my debut today at Italian Mood, a place I'd heard about many times but had never played before. Turns out it was a great fit for my music. Run by Second Life music lover Sandy Demina and her musician partner Swina Allen, Italian Mood was a superb spot to showcase my music to an audience mostly made up of people in Italy. We also had a good complement of Zaksters on hand as well. It made for a fun show, and I can tell you, I'll definitely be performing there again sometime.

Apparently, Swina puts together videos of the artists that play at Italian Mood and posts them to their blog. As soon as I see mine, I'll post a link!

The Set List of the Day...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Time Never Waits for You (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Rikki Don't Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
A Day in the Life (Beatles)

Thanks to everyone who helped support my show today!
Diana Renoir, Jordan Hazlitt, Fawn Rexen, Horizon Darkstone, eluna Baramm, Ceridwen Albion, Lilly Dilley, EvaMoon Ember, Enemy Ashbourne, Aurelie Chenaux, and our hosts Swina Allen and Sandy Demina!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Making the album part 10,373: Advertising

Before I write 10 billion words on the topic, I might as well cut to the chase: I created a 30-second radio spot for my album this weekend, and here it is...

Zak Claxton 30-Second Radio Spot

Okay, now I can write 10 billion words. ;-)

Why should I bother doing advertising for my music?
If you're like most people, you think that you are immune from the effects of advertising. You know that there's advertising all around you, as you browse the Internet and see banners, as you watch TV and see commercials, as you drive down the road and see signs and billboards. But you, oh mighty reader, believe you are impervious to the effects of advertising. And it is indeed true that some people are more susceptible to the allures of good ads than other people are.

But if you think that advertising has no effect on you, you're wrong. Advertising is but one step in the marketing of a product or service. How do I know this crap? Simple. In my life outside of being a wanna-be rock star, I own a very small advertising/marketing company. It's so small that my VP is a cat and my senior account manager is a goldfish. It's basically me, alone in a room, creating web content, magazine ads, press releases and so on. I've been in that business for about 20 years, so I've managed to learn a few things along the way.

1. Advertising doesn't sell on its own.
What it primarily does is raise awareness. Long before you feel a need to buy something, you need to know about it. If you're a musician trying to sell recorded music, there are quite a few ways to go about doing this, like doing interviews, and mentioning your music while you perform live, and so on. But sometimes, that's not enough. So the first step in trying to sell music is that people -- also known as "potential buyers" -- need to be aware you have music for sale.

2. Advertising can be expensive!
Whoo, really expensive. And I'm going to take a wild guess here and imagine that you are an indie musician trying to keep eating and paying your rent during a bad economy, and that the very idea of spending a bunch of dough on any kind of advertising is ludicrous. You don't have some big corporation (i.e., a record label) paying for the ads. But do keep in mind: if you don't invest in your own music, it's hard to know whether people would have been into it or not if they never find out about it.

So, faced with this dilemma, musicians often compromise, but in a bad way. "Well," you think, "I've already got my stuff up on MySpace. That will have to do." Sorry to tell ya, but that's not going to be a complete solution. You need something that's going to reach out to people, as opposed to having them come to you. Without giving away all my little secrets, my recommendation is to look for vehicles that are scalable. For example, a non-profit Internet-based radio station might be willing to run your ad spot in exchange for banner space on your web site. Or, perhaps you can look into doing some small-scale impression-based advertising on Facebook, where you can control exactly how much you can afford to spend. There are always ways to gain awareness of your music; just like any other service or product being sold, the more awareness you want, the more it's going to cost.

3. But how do you make an ad?
I promise you, in as much as we advertising people would like you to think there's some magic behind what we do, it's all just creativity. As musicians, you probably have quite a bit of creativity in you already. Now you just need to channel it for this purpose. A few notes...

a. Listen to some ads! See which ones grab you and which ones make you turn the dial (or turn off the radio entirely). Why do you like the ones you liked? Why do you dislike the others?

b. Make sure you have a "call to action". This means you're going to give the listener something to do. In the case of my ad above, I just want them to go to, my web site where they'll be able to listen to more music and make an order for the CD or the digital downloads.

c. Include some music. Sure, you only have 30 seconds, but it doesn't take much to be recognized. In my example ad above, note that I have sections of three different songs of mine: "You're Like a Cloud", "This Afternoon", and "Thanks Anyway". Just a few seconds are enough to give the idea of the tune. I recommend you use the most memorable parts of the song, perhaps the chorus. Since this ad was for a Second Life radio station, I used the songs that I felt would be most familiar to people who might have seen my play live over the last few years.

d. Create the ad. A radio spot is just a recording, and as a recording musician, you should have some idea of how to do that. My ad above has three elements: the voiceover (me talking), the music, and a few silly sound effects that help grab a little attention while the ad is playing. I'm a pretty experienced recording engineer, so it literally took me less than an hour to put this ad together using an audio editing software application. You should be able to figure this out pretty easily.

4. All this talk of commercialism is bumming me out, maaaaaan.
Sure, of course it is. We're artists, and presumably we don't think of our music as a "product". We create music because we love it, and hopefully not just for thoughts of selling it to people. If you're really opposed to promoting your music as a product (the definition of a product being "something that's for sale"), by all means: don't do it. No one will think the worse of you. But in my opinion, you can't have it both ways. If you're so full of artistic integrity that you feel advertising and promotion is beneath you, or cheapens your art, do not complain when the art doesn't sell. It's as simple as that.

In any case, I'm happy with the results of my ad, and pretty soon here, you'll hear it run from time to time on Indie Spectrum Radio. As I mentioned before, the main "call to action" of the ad is to visit my web site, so before the ad starts running, I want to be sure that my web site is all spruced up and ready to provide the next step, which is allowing people to purchase the music. It's all a big process, with one element linked to the next one. That's why I always recommend people to get their ducks in a row long before trying to actually release music for sale; it's never as simple as it appears on the surface, at least if you want a chance at being successful at it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Making the Album part 7395: Artwork

If you are of a certain age, you may share the memories I have of laying on my back next to the big stereo system in my parents' home, or perhaps sitting in a beanbag chair with headphones on, and listening to music on a vinyl LP record while poring over the cover and liner notes of an album. Those were the days for album art, I tell ya (he said, sounding like a nostalgic old geezer).

Seriously, you had this big 12" x 12" canvas upon which you could really get creative, as well as these sleeves for the records themselves (aka liners) where the band or artist had room to thank everyone from their significant other to their third grade music teacher. Having that big ol' album cover to stare at helped you get to know the musician a little better, or at least helped you feel that way. And the art! Oh, the art. There was an entire genre of art devoted to creating great album covers, and some of those liner notes were like great literature, compressed into small font on a piece of paper so thin that it was almost translucent.

Enough poetic musing. As we all know, the next thing that came along was the Compact Disc in 1983 or so. Instead of the 12" x 12" area to express yourself, you now had only a 5" x 5" canvas, so people started printing little booklets and such to go along with the music. It wasn't the same. And then, beginning earlier this decade, the CD started to fade as the primary method of music distribution, and you ended up with the digital download. Now, that download maybe includes the front cover art for the album, which is usually viewable in a tiny 1" square on your computer monitor. And so, the art of album art died a pitiful death, a lost and forgotten form of expression. Or... did it?

While I don't have the luxury of releasing the Zak Claxton album on vinyl (I'd love to, but pressing LPs is more expensive than I can afford), I am releasing the music both as digital downloads and on Compact Disc. Like many broke-ass musicians tend to do, my first inclination was to package the CD as cheaply as possible. When you go to the web sites of various CD replication companies, the first thing they try and entice you with is their "500 CDs FOR $500" offer. But when you start looking into it, you realize that you're getting a jewel case with a small and sad piece of paper shoved inside. While I believe in letting the music speak for itself, I also am aware that this is my first album as a solo artist after a lifetime as a musician, and there's no guarantee that I'll have a second album to follow it up. That thought process led me to a decision: don't compromise too much, dude, or you will regret it.

That's why my record label (i.e., my girlfriend and I) decided to go with a cooler packaging for the album. We're going with a 6-panel Digipak. You've seen the Digipak before... it's that cool-looking CD and DVD packaging that uses card stock paper instead of plastic for everything except the tray which holds the disc. Not only are Digipaks more hip than the old jewel case, but they're less likely to get cracked and scratched up and nasty looking as time goes by. They're also more environmentally friendly, with less plastic, and often made from recycled paper. And, since we chose to go with the 6-panel version, we have a little more room where we can be artistically expressive, and to thank the folks who helped in the creation of the album.

So, how do you make cool album art?
Beats me. I'm kind of lucky in that a) I'm an experienced graphic designer, and b) I've been a nut for music for so long that I have oodles of hours under my belt of looking at albums, so at least I have an idea of what I like and what I don't. In my humble opinion about this subjective topic, some of the most iconic albums have been very simple in their design, while others have been devastatingly cool. Let's take a look at some of the ones I've enjoyed in no particular order (many of which happen to be found in Rolling Stone Magazine's list of 100 greatest album covers).

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon: Floyd's album covers remain pretty legendary. This one in particular kind of defines the iconic album cover image, and makes for a killer t-shirt too. The ray of light; the prism; the rainbow. Read into it what you will.

Fleetwood Mac's Rumors: I have no idea why this is so cool. Giant Mick and little Stevie, in Elizabethan clothes. Meaning what? Who cares!

The Cars' Candy-O: Okay, I'll admit it. I was about 11 or 12 when I got this album, and I spent countless hours staring at this illustration in a purely prurient way. But the artist is Alberto Vargas, who was the undisputed king of pin-up girl art. All those WWII bombers with the hotties painted on the nosecone were based on Vargas' work.

Beatles' White Album: I mean, come on. You're the biggest group in the world. You have a hugely anticipated album. What statement will you make with the cover? A huge one through omission of everything. Does anyone in the world call this album by its proper title (The Beatles)? Nope. Think about that for a sec.

The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers: Well, I'm not gay, or else I'd probably enjoy this cover as much for the well-endowed cover model as I would for the art, which was designed by Andy Warhol. Contrary to popular belief, that is not Mick Jagger's crotch on the cover. The original version of the LP had a working metal zipper built in. Wow.

The Who's Who's Next: In addition to this being possibly the best rock album of all time, the cover spoke volumes. Oddly, I owned this album for years before finally noticing that the band had just pissed all over the monolith. That has to be symbolic of something.

Supertramp's Breakfast in America: Now here's some art! What a great drawing. You're in the perspective of a passenger in an airplane, looking out at New York City, with all parts of the city depicted as breakfast items. Hey, maybe someday I'll be able to have someone who can really draw do my album covers too. This is about as cool as it gets.

Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here: Yeah, it's the second Floyd cover on this list. Don't shoot me. I'm including it because Floyd really went out of their way to have compelling imagery on their covers. Like DSOTM, this one was designed by Storm Thorgerson, who did an incredible number of great album cover designs over the years.

Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark: Ah, Joni. Well, what can you say? The lady considers herself as much of a painter as she does a musician, and she's pretty damn brilliant in any area of the arts she tackles. Nothing wrong with a neat little piece of artwork designed by the musician herself, right?

Grateful Dead's American Beauty: Another iconic album design. Stanley Mouse helped define the entire look of the psychedelic '60s through his concert posters and album covers, and this is one of his best.

That's cool, but are you going to show us the art for the Zak Album?
Well... hmm. Okay, I guess we can take a look at the front cover, keeping in mind that it's one of six different panels of art and words you'll find in the package. A little info... my cover is based on a photograph that was taken just in front of my home, looking westward down my street toward the ocean. You also have a photo of me, superimposed on the right side. Both images are treated in a way that gives it a semi-surreal, cartoony, paper cutout look. After going through a bunch of different ideas, this is what we came up with that we felt was representational of the vibe of the album. There are other things I can tell you about the cover, but they say that a picture says a thousand words, and since I've already written about that much, I don't want to give a thousand more. Here it is.

Side note: we received confirmation today that my album will be received in advance of the 12/11/09 release date, so that's a bit of a relief. And now that we've approved all the final details of the CD for its replication, I'm happy to be able to share this stuff with you... hence, this long-winded post.

More news on the album as it becomes available.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Incredible Mr. Snippet

'The time has come,' the Zakster said,
'To talk of many things:
Of songs -- and online retailers --
Of music clips -- and things.'

Some of you who have had my songs on your respective MySpace or Facebook or iLike pages may be noticing something about now: they're gone! Aaarrrrggghhhh! They've fallen off the face of the Earth! Shall we all panic?

No, let's not. Take a deep breath. First, you can still listen to all the songs from the Zak Claxton album on many places online (just search for me and I'll be there), but instead of the complete songs of the rough mixes that we made available to everyone earlier, you now can hear the actual final, mastered mixes from the album. That's the good news; the bad news is that you only get 30-second snippets of each song.

Before you hang me in effigy, or make dolls of me through which you can poke pins and whatnot, hear me out. I actually have reasons for the things I do from time to time, and I'm happy to say that this is one of those times.

1. Time for the rough mixes to go away.
I've enjoyed having so many friends/fans/frans be able to listen to my album as it's been being created. It's been terrific. At the same time, I like to present the very best of my music, and those rough mixes were, by definition, rough. Between creating those mixes and the final versions we received on Monday, we did some significant detail work that merits being heard. Also, many of the rough mixes were mid-quality (128kbps) MP3 files. You deserve better, my frans. You really do.

2. We're gonna be, uh, selling the music.
While none of the rough mixes have been free to download, all of them have been readily available for listening whenever you were near a computer. While some artists and bands are able to give away their music, we're not in that luxurious position. So, very soon, the album and all of its songs will be for sale. You'll be able to order the CD directly from me, or if you prefer, you'll be able to purchase the songs from places like iTunes, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody, and Amazon MP3. Like most songs, mine are only $0.99. I'm confident that if you like a few of the tunes, they're worth a buck each.

So, point being, we can't have the songs be for sale, and basically give them away at the same time. I don't have a business degree or anything, but that seems to make sense to me.

3. But dude, the songs aren't for sale just yet!
Ah-ha! You have uncovered the problem. It'll take somewhere between 1-2 months before the album is available for sale everywhere. So, what... in the meantime, no one gets to hear my full songs? Poppycock, I say! In the next few days, we're putting together a special stream-only area of the site, where you'll still be able to hear complete streams of the tracks. This will be available by the beginning of next week.

After the album is available for sale, we'll continue to have a few tracks that will be listenable in entirety on the Zak Site. So, no need to worry.

4. Anywhere else we can hear Zak Music when we want to, for the time being?
Yes indeed. You can visit Indie Spectrum Radio and click the "requests" button, and then get to my songs at the "Playlist & Requests" area (listed under "Z"). To make this process a little easier, here's a direct link to the request page where you'll find me. Then choose a Zak Song and just listen up at Indie Spectrum, and my song will probably be on in a few minutes. They're good like that. By the way, you can also find Indie Spectrum Radio in iTunes Radio. Just look for them.

So, that's the deal. As usual, I'll update you when we hit some of the upcoming milestones, like the new site being ready or when you can pre-order the album and so forth. Feel free to send comments, love letters, bomb threats, or anything else that makes you happy.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I thought I'd share a couple of major milestones that happened within the past few hours.

At about 9:00am today, there was a knock at my door. It was Mister FedEx Guy, and in his hands was the priority overnight delivery that was due on Saturday. Yes, it's Monday. Apparently, bad weather attempted to halt the delivery of the master of the Zak Claxton album to my door, but it got here nonetheless, just a couple of days late. And better late than never!

There's probably not much question about the first thing I did when it arrived, apart from delicately opening the package and pulling out the discs. I listened! Ooh, did I listen. See, my main reference for hearing my own music has been the rough-mixed MP3 files that Engineer Phil has provided to me as we've created the album. While the MP3 is an amazing achievement in convenience for music, it's still an inferior listening medium with a lossy compression format, so just getting those nice, uncompressed WAV files off the CD was like, ha ha, music to my ears.

More Listening
I wasn't just listening to the disc to hear myself. Trust me, I've heard enough of myself to last a long time. But this was the final quality control check to make sure the mastered album sounded every bit as good as I was expecting.

Well, it didn't sound as good.

It sounded better. Seriously better. The only time I've heard my stuff sounding this good was while we were at the studio doing the final mixes, but you expect everything to sound great in a studio. Here, at home on my personal system, was the first chance I had to really experience the fully uncompressed CD audio of my album, and let me tell you, Bill Plummer did a simply amazing job on the mastering. Granted, the final mixes that Phil O'Keefe provided to him were terrific, but Bill managed to give everything an amazing level of cohesiveness in volume and tone, and an overall sheen that only a pro mastering guy can seem to impart. Hats off to Bill.

Riding the WAVs
So, I spent a good hour listening to the album. It was a happy hour that spent mostly with my eyes closed, concentrating on the music. The next step was to prepare the songs for digital distribution. If you're a big record label, you probably have a direct relationship with all kinds of music retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar stores. But little indie artists like me don't. Fortunately, there are services now that work as intermediaries between artists like me and places like iTunes. I chose to work with a company called ReverbNation. As you may have noted, I've been using ReverbNation for promotion of my music for quite a long time. They offer a good number of tools, like widgets and banners and so on, to get your music out there on web sites, blogs, and places around the 'Net. Within the past few months, ReverbNation added digital distribution to their list of available services. What this means is that they act as a liaison to the online music stores, and for a pretty modest annual fee, they get your music to a good number of retailers. My album will be available at the following stores:

• iTunes (Austrailia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States)

• Rhapsody (US Only)

• eMusic (United States, Canada, Europe)

• Amazon (US Only)

• Napster (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, European Union)

Before you rush out to buy the songs, keep in mind that it will take somewhere in the range of 6-8 weeks before the album is actually available through ll of these retailers. They all have their own quality control process to make sure that the album and the artwork meets their standards. I'm pretty confident mine will, but I still have to wait along with everyone else. Trust me in that if you're reading this blog, you'll know when you can purchase my stuff. Let's just assume this.

The Well Traveled CD
A couple of days ago, my CD masters were in Maryland, and then they spent a night in Tennessee before arriving early this morning in California. Well, as soon as I finished grabbing my tracks to prep them for upload, the next thing I did was add to my discs' travel schedule. They are, at this moment, being picked up to travel to Texas, where my replication firm is located. As I've probably mentioned in previous posts, we are doing a great-looking 6-panel Digipak CD package for the Zak Claxton album, and since we have our release party planned for 12/11/09, there wasn't a moment to lose in getting the master out for replication. So the masters have once again left the building, folks.

We did cross a couple of big bridges today. Again, it will still be weeks before the album is actually available for sale, but we're one step closer. Just so you know, one of the next steps we have in getting the album ready for sale might not tickle your fancy so much. We're redesigning the entire site (yes, again), and as that redesign wraps up, we're going to be removing all of the rough mixes from the album you've seen floating around the web. It's time for the real stuff to be heard, so we're close to saying goodbye to the roughs. Never fear; we will still have samples of the songs available for listening, but pretty soon here, listening to all the songs will involve purchasing them.

There are other tasks to accomplish, but suffice it to say that what we got done today marks a huge step in the direction of getting the album out there. I'd like to take just a moment to thank my partner in crime, Kat Claxton, whose organization skills and optimism have been crucial toward getting us to where we are now. I'll be needing Kat's skills a lot more as we continue down the road to succeeding with our little record label.