Monday, August 29, 2016

Homes for Our Troops Benefit at Veterans Isle (08.28.16)

Rocking at Veterans Isle for an excellent cause. Photo by Kat.

On the last Sunday of every month, my friend, fellow musician Frets Nirvana, does something pretty incredible: he puts together a lineup of other live performers and hosts a live music event to benefit a group of people who should -- in any decent kind of world -- not require help. Those people are US military veterans who have been severely injured while serving their country, and the help they need is a place to live.

The organization for whom Frets has devoted these efforts is called Homes for Our Troops, and it's a 501(c)(3) non-profit that builds mortgage-free, specially adapted homes nationwide for severely injured veterans from the post-9/11 era. Many people are under the misconception that disabled military personnel are fully taken care of by the government who sent them to war in the first place. Not true. Many severely injured veterans are barely able to get the medical care they require, if that. Without being able to work, and with many of them coming from non-affluent backgrounds even before they joined the military, there's certainly no way that a high percentage of them have the possibility of living in a home that's designed to offer a comfortable existence that is designed for them to live as comfortably as possible with their disabilities.

So that's what HfOT does, and I've spent a number of years answering Frets' call when he asks me to take part in these fundraising benefits that are held at Veterans Isle in Second Life. For a pacifist like me, the obvious first choice is to eliminate war entirely and remove the reason that these men and women are injured (and killed) in the first place. I'm also a realist and know that there will be no end to war any time soon. So meanwhile, it's nice to be able to be involved in activities that let me chip in, even in a small way.

Onstage at Veterans Isle with my pal Frets cheering me on. Photo by Kat.

One of the greatest aspects of Second Life is its residents' incredible generosity toward a variety of good causes. Photo by Kat.

We had a good crowd last night at Veterans Isle during my show, and I saw they gave to the cause with extraordinary generosity. Over L$40,000 was raised in the hour I played, and there were another three artists on the bill after me, so I already know that the evening was a successful endeavor. Many of the attendees in the audience were vets themselves, and it's great to see those people continuing to make contributions and offer support for their fellow veterans.

Veterans Isle HfOT set list...
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Disarmed (They Stole My Crayon)
Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Mad World (Tears for Fears)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Everything Counts (Depeche Mode)
Here I Land (Nicholas Stevenson)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Our House (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Pigs On the Wing Parts 1 & 2 (Pink Floyd)

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show and contributed generously!

Live Vibrations (08.25.16)

Having fun at my first-ever show at Live Vibrations in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I'm kind of having the opposite career as most musicians. Typically, at least in the world of pop/rock music, an artist gets his or her greatest levels of success in their twenties, and then spends the rest of their life trying to find some semblance of relevance again. I imagine it's disappointing to say the least. Well, I'm a lucky person in that no one ever gave a shit about the music I wrote and recorded between my teens and mid-thirties. Granted, I played in plenty of very fun live bands, made some money here and there playing gigs at various bars and clubs, and -- most importantly -- enjoyed the actual creative process, and the act of working along with fellow musicians who I count among my best friends to this day. But it wasn't until 2007 or so, when I began performing in Second Life on a regular basis, that I found an audience for my original music.

It was through the confidence I'd gained as a live singer-songwriter that allowed me to record and release my first solo album in 2009. That album was well received, mostly by my SL fans who'd become familiar with the songs as I'd been playing them live, solo acoustic style, for quite some time before the album was released. Some seven years later, it still gets a fair share of plays... I get a massive royalty payment of $0.03 or so each month to account for dozens of streams via Spotify and the like, and occasional download sales via iTunes. Trust me, I'm not complaining; it's an amazing world where a person like me -- a non-touring artist who is not supported by any kind of recording label -- to be able to release and sell music at all.

So here I am, in my mid-40s, and on Friday August 19, my similarly-aged bandmates and I in They Stole My Crayon finally released the album we started conceiving in late 2012, and out of nowhere and for no particular reason, it flies up toward the top of the Bandcamp charts for best-selling alternative albums of the week. You can hear it for free here. Do we think it's a great album? Hell yeah we do! But that doesn't matter at all in terms of what other people think about it, or if it affects their willingness to spend money on it at a time where supposedly "no one buys music", much less entire albums of music. So, perhaps we're incredibly lucky, or maybe we did something that's different enough that caught people's attention in some way that went beyond our expectations. It doesn't matter. We're grateful to have experienced even this mild and temporary level of success as music creators. Most musicians never get to enjoy even that.

After weeks of focusing on my band's recording "career", it was good to get back to playing live music. Photo by Kat.

Pretty cool place, huh? A good-looking virtual environment like Live Vibrations really does affect my feelings as I perform. Photo by Kat.

All that having been said, I'd intended using this blog post to tell you about my show on Thursday night at the Second Life venue Live Vibrations. It was the first time I'd played this place, and from what I was told, it's recently been fully remodeled. It looked great to me; a nice open space with a classy vibe. The people who ran the place were very nice, and the show went off without a hitch, which is all I ask. This was also the very first show where I played my new Takamine P5DC guitar. Switching guitars might not seem like a big deal, but this was in more than one way. First, the feel of this guitar's neck and its overall balance is very, very different from that of the Martin D-18V that I've used for literally every other SL show I've ever done over the last ten years. I actually like it a lot, but it takes a little getting used to. Second (and perhaps more important) is that I'd never used an acoustic-electric guitar for SL shows before. Instead of putting a microphone in front of the instrument, I just plugged it straight into my mixer and she-bam... it sounded really, really good. I couldn't have been happier.

We had a nice-sized crowd at Live Vibrations, and I think I had a good mix of original and cover tunes in the set that kept people interested and happy. I'm looking forward to my next opportunity to play there!

Live Vibrations set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
The Arrangement (Joni Mitchell)
Roxanne (The Police)
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills and Nash)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to Live Vibrations for my show, especially the following people who helped support it!
Diana Renoir, Alexandra Lemondrop, LeeWinegarden Resident, DeyJaVue Resident, DantePeak Resident, Asimina Heron, Kat Claxton, Alex Zelin, not4gods Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Live Vibrations hostess lilmissbo and owner Allie Sloan!

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!