When a studio won’t release your tracks

Alan Hardiman was an enthusiastic audience member at the Songwriters Association of Canada’s AGM earlier this year.  As a producer and creative director, he is passionate about helping musicians and offered the following article for our blog.  We are grateful to Alan for his contribution.

In Alan’s words

Songwriters and musicians who use the services of small, home-based studios—and, for that matter, established commercial studios—would be well advised to establish the terms, conditions and policies of the studio before undertaking any recording.

I’m writing this because a beginning songwriter has come to me for advice—he is having a hard time getting a home studio owner to release his tracks, even though he has paid his bill in full—over $13,000! The songwriter wants to take the basic tracks of three songs that he recorded at this particular home studio to another, larger commercial studio for editing, mixing and mastering, but the owner of the home studio is refusing to release the material.

By way of explanation, the home studio owner wrote to me saying that he is “not going to let him take the files out of this studio in the condition they are. How he is going to come up with a better mix than any one of our engineers is beyond me to imagine. The files simply aren’t ready to be exported or given away. Many guitar and other instrumental parts remain unedited and comped so even if he wanted them they are in no condition to give away.”

(The songwriter has made it clear that editing and comping are among the tasks he wants to complete at the new studio.)

The home studio owner then goes on to say, “We are not willing to give the files out. This is not normal practice. If he really wanted the files he’d have to buy us out but at this time I am not willing to even consider this.”

I’m not sure I understand why the owner thinks that releasing tracks that have been paid for is not “normal practice.” It’s also not clear to me what he means about the songwriter having to “buy us out,” given that he paid his bill in full over six months ago!

The studio owner concludes, “If this project goes out of the studio I have no guarantee if it will be mixed to a certain standard and I’ve brought in some heavy players that [the songwriter] got at cost.”

Why the studio owner considers it his business that the songs will be “mixed to a certain standard” is beyond me. That is not his responsibility. And the part about providing players “at cost” seems to indicate that the studio owner is in the habit of marking up session players’ fees and then taking a piece for himself. Maybe that’s how the cost of three unfinished demos climbed to beyond $13,000!

This might never have become an issue if the songwriter had clearly established the ground rules at the outset. At this point, it looks like a case for small claims court.

Songwriters be warned: Make sure you know at the outset what policies, practices or procedures a studio considers to be normative before you record a single note there. Second, make it your business to pay session players directly. Don’t accept an all-in deal with the studio, where you pay everything to the studio. In fact, it should be your job—or your producer’s job—to hire the session musicians in the first place.

I know of one instance where a guitar player was unable to attend a session because his wife went into labour that morning with their first child. I was there when the studio owner actually called the rental department of a local music store (Long & McQuade in Toronto) to find an on-the-spot replacement. When the replacement guitarist arrived, it became painfully apparent that he couldn’t read the chart. In fact, he couldn’t even tune his guitar, and he was sent away with return cab fare paid by—you guessed it—the songwriter!

At that point, the songwriter should have called it quits, but he was too cowed by the studio owner to voice his displeasure.

My final recommendation is that songwriters should bring a USB drive—preferably 8 GB or 16 GB—to their sessions, so that they can take a backup of their recordings away with them—provided, of course, that their account with the studio is paid up to date. After all, possession of the recorded material is the only security a studio has against non-payment for services rendered.

Alan Hardiman

Scotland: Haggis, Bagpipes and Musical Adventures.

Does leaving home make you more creative?  While some of you may have been inspired by our last blog about Ryan Nolan‘s adventure off the beaten path, those of you who had any reservations may be convinced that leaving home is exactly what you need to do after reading the following guest blog by Signe (rhymes with Xena), the singer behind our recently Featured Video.

Signe has experienced a level of success that many would envy.  Previously signed to a label with the band Minervah, her songs have achieved national TV and commercial radio airplay.  She’s also performed hundreds of shows, including the CMT stage at the Calgary Stampede.  After embracing a year of unemployment while abroad, Signe recently released her newest song, “What Have You Done To Me?” and video .  The song has already been featured in Sound on Sound Magazine.  While we’re certain Signe was already creative before leaving Canada, it becomes apparent in her blog that going abroad forced her to be both courageous and resourceful, attributes we could all benefit from having.

In Signe’s Words…

I initially left Canada in 2008 to teach in Denmark. Somewhere between hacking my way through science classes with my inferior Danish speaking skills and holing myself up in my rented townhouse with Protools, I ran into a yummy Swedish guy. Mutually thirsty for adventure, we eloped in 2009 and ran off to Edinburgh, Scotland, where my new hubby had landed a job. This is the story of what has happened since in the land of kilts, haggis and other inspirations.

Our first months were spent in a dingy apartment in Edinburgh’s New Town. Every day, I would look out the window to see tourists –“the suitcase people”—  wearily bouncing their belongings along our cobbled street. While my husband was at work, I took nonchalant walks past the famous Scott monument and the Prince’s Street Gardens; I’m certain that I’ve appeared (clad in track pants), in the background of countless photos taken by visitors to this gorgeous, gothic city. The bagpipe music blasting from tourist shops lost its novelty quite quickly, and being jobless, I came to feel isolated, despite being surrounded by people.

It turned out that we lived right across the street from a music studio. I could see the sound engineer at work on the board while an artist sang behind him. I wanted so much to reach out, to introduce myself… but I couldn’t muster the courage in this new place.

After two months, we moved to a little house in Edinburgh’s seaside community of Portobello. We’re still mesmerised by our 2km sandy beach where stuff’s always happening: organized busking, sailing, festivals and concerts. This friendly community is full of artists, musicians and the kind of down-to-earth people I love to mingle with. It’s great. But early on, it felt inaccessible.

I faced huge frustration with not being able to get a teaching job – or any job for that matter. But I seized my year of unemployment as an opportunity to further develop my music. I produced many songs, but struggled with getting the mix right. I took private lessons in mix engineering, and after wrestling with the compression knob and watching my instructor’s eyes roll for the twentieth time, I decided it wasn’t wise to do this by myself. I needed outside help so I could stay focused on writing and arranging.

At that point I contacted Mike Senior, a mix engineer I idolise because of the Mix Rescues he’s done for Sound On Sound magazine. Expecting no reply, I emailed him to ask if I could employ him to mix some songs. He did reply, and he was so receptive to my music. I was so happy when he offered to mix my song free of charge for  SOS’s Mix Rescue. This moment set my Scottish music adventure in motion.

With new confidence, I decided to get live instruments put on my track, so I put up an ad and found great session players to work with. A friend pointed me in the direction of Heartbeat Studios – the place where owner Dave Valentine and Ed Logan first recorded Susan Boyle. This studio, situated on sheep-dotted rolling farmland south of Edinburgh, is now my second home. It’s a supportive, inspirational place.  During one of my sessions, I even ran into Grammy award winning songwriter Bob Heatlie there. That was cool.

Knowing I was getting Mike Senior’s mix of “What Have You Done To Me” featured in SOS, I put up an ad seeking videographers interested in making a video for my song. Again, I expected no replies. But I sure got them. The one that stood out was Naomi McDonald. We met in New Town over coffee and chocolate and we realized quickly that we’ve got a lot in common when it comes to being obsessed with our respective art. She was abuzz with ideas, and I gave her free reign. I had no idea what to expect, and only saw glimpses of the storyboard a couple of months ago. Imagine how delighted I was when I saw the final product! We’re now throwing around ideas about staging a unique video release event in the fall.

I’ve gone from feeling isolated to embraced in Edinburgh, Scotland. I think no matter where we are in the world, our vulnerability follows us when it comes to our music. If you can just find one friendly face – or receive one positive email for that matter – it gives us all the courage we need to not only pursue our dreams… but to put up ads and send those emails to which we expect no reply.

Visit Signe’s Songwriter’s Profile to hear her music.

“I Quit My Day Job And…” (A Songwriter’s Adventure)

Have you ever thought about quitting your job and pursuing your songwriting with reckless abandon like an uncharted road trip?  While many of us try to balance day jobs with our creative pursuits, Ryan Nolan took a leap of faith and took to the road. His adventures took him to Europe and across North America.  Along the way, he professes he went from simply “writing songs to becoming a Songwriter.”  Here’s a first person account of his incredible journey and what he learned along the way.

In Ryan’s Words

I was working a secure and predictable job.  Writing songs when I couldn’t keep them in and had a second to put them on paper. What I really wanted was to write something reactionary – and I need an action to find that reaction.   Last year I quit that secure, predictable job and sold my house. I made sure to buy a new lens for my camera, then I went to the airport and walked from desk to desk asking for a cheap flight to Paris like a high school kid looking for a prom date. I wanted it to feel as though it were a natural progression. Crepes and a bottle of wine to end/start my day at 5am, recreating The Beatles’ infamous “Abbey Road” crossing in London, naps on Amsterdam’s canals while someone more qualified navigated the local water traffic, and absinthe from what I imagined to be the same dirty corner in Barcelona that Hemingway enjoyed it. I bought a guitar in Paris and made it my only piece of luggage, playing open mic’s wherever they served beer. This was my adventure. It was a test run – in a life exactly opposite to what I had known.

It wasn’t long before the adventure needed new life. This manifested itself in the form of a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500 convertible and a road trip from Toronto to New Orleans to Los Angeles. Brief, sun drenched days and the loud, unhealthy grumbling of an old muscle car that just doesn’t know any better. It was my nine to five; my routine. The days were like this, one after another for several months, but the repetition was underscored by obtuse and growing cultural differences as I made my way below the bible belt and across the open country.

It was a trip that decidedly lacked structure, but more importantly, was temperamental. The trip itself was subject to my mood and whim. Stay in one place longer if it suited me, or skip a town altogether. Sleep in my car, my tent, or get a hotel room. Make friends with someone and sleep on their couch.

In my most base state of honesty, I wanted complete control. I wanted to remember what it was like to wake up every morning and make my own decisions. I wanted to play my songs in cities I’d never been to, and record them in places where better songwriters chain-smoked through an entire album.

I’ll admit that I did have a small checklist of things to see and do. a) Eat a Chicago deep dish pizza; b) record something in Nashville; c) catch a show at the Bluebird Cafe; d) get drunk while listening to blues on Beale street in Memphis; e) get even more drunk and listen to as much jazz in New Orleans as my ears could handle; f) see a show at Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles; g) and several other entries that are either irrelevant to this post or inappropriate. Everything in between was a bonus.

I’ve been writing songs since the time I realized I wanted to hold a girl’s hand or tell my parent’s that they were unjust tyrants for not letting me go to the late show at the movies. It doesn’t mean I’m a good, clear or talented songwriter, but it is a part of my life regardless. And while I left everything behind in order to find something new, the one thing I couldn’t let go was the desire to take my experiences, thoughts and reactions and write them down. Maybe it’s because I want other people to relate. Maybe it’s the only way for me to hold onto the part of the experience that falls between the pictures and the stories; the postcards and the emails.  Writing a song is how I package up that intangible element that only comes to life when I recount tales to good friends over a cold beer or find myself uninhibited with people I trust.

At the end of the trip, it was clear that making out-of-character decisions, and changing my patterns wouldn’t be the catalyst for a better song. As songwriters, people discover a particular method of translating what they see and feel into a universal medium. For me, the things I focus on are the people in my life. The rest of the world is easy, but relationships – they require time and effort to navigate and manage. It wasn’t about where I went, it was about the people I met when I got there.

Over the course of the trip I accumulated a few good recordings and assembled an EP, had it printed and put it on iTunes. I play shows wherever I can get them and I take any chance I can get to write with other artists. I never discard a song idea, and I make it a point to write everything down I can.

After seeing so many other songwriters and producers from different parts of the continent, I began to understand that while writing songs by yourself in your spare time is cathartic, even the most extreme folk artists need to write a whole, honest and true song, with their eyes wide open, to feel satisfied as a songwriter. And that’s all I’m trying to do.

Visit Ryan’s Songwriter Profile (and hear some of his songs)

Songwriting Success from Failing Harder

“If you want to get better at something, you have to do it everyday,” is Lindsay May‘s mantra.   Her bookshelves overflow with books on songwriting, the  music industry and self-improvement of many kinds.  She is clearly someone who is committed to improving herself and her craft.  This commitment recently brought her to Nashville where she wrote this guest blog, sharing her insights on embracing failure as a key to self-improvement.  As you read about her approach to songwriting and what she’s done, it’s clear her philosophy on failure is bringing her much success.  May it inspire you to approach your own self-improvement with such zeal and courage.

In Linday’s Words:

The single biggest thing for me now on my road to self-improvement as a songwriter is failure.  Fail harder.

I saw a great documentary called Art & Copy that really struck home for me.  If I’m not putting myself out there, trying, getting uncomfortable and failing… then I’m not growing.  And the best part is that the more frequently I fail, the better I seem to do.

To make all that happen, to ‘fail harder’ so to speak, a few things need to be happening for me.  I have to be:

  • Playing/performing regularly
  • Writing regularly
  • Entering contests/Applying to festivals
  • Getting feedback
  • Not taking things so personally as to get bitter or jaded
  • And of course, learning from my mistakes

It’s so easy to stay comfortable, play the rooms we always do, hang out with the people who validate us.  And while I completely need the regularity and support that can bring… it’s only when I DON’T get the things I want that I look at myself and my art.

Actually, there was one particular contest I really wanted to get into this year.  And I didn’t.  I was upset for several days.  I wanted to retreat to one of BC’s Gulf Islands and forget about this whole silly songwriting business.  But when I came out of discomfort, I looked at who did get into the contest vs. what I had submitted.  I learned a lot.   And while I’m not going to change who I am fundamentally to get into certain things, I do make a study of the artist’s who are succeeding.

I shouldn’t complain really, I’ve had a great year.  Performing on a Via Rail train from Vancouver to Toronto, arriving in time for my showcase at Toronto’s fantastic North by Northeast Festival.  Even as I write this, I’m looking at the window at the Socan House in Nashville, watching a baby chipmunk duck for cover from the freak rainstorm.

I’m here in Nashville playing writer’s nights, watching and learning from the beginners to the pro’s.   I’m here getting feedback on my songwriting.  I got up at an open mic last night and I had butterflies, or “Nashvillitis”!   It’s been a long time since that happened, but that’s exactly my point.

And so I head back to my quiet room and comfortable couch, surrounded by my guitar, laptop and rhyming dictionary and I try again.  With every failure, with every time I put myself out there – I stretch my comfort zone and interestingly enough, have a new set of eyes for the same things in my life.

I think failing and getting uncomfortable makes me a better writer and probably a better person.  In the whole process I dive deeper into myself, get to know myself in a fresh way and get better at being me.  And that’s the point of life isn’t it… to get better at being me.  Because at the end of the  day, all any songwriter can offer is their own unique take on life.  So fellow troubadours… get out there and fail harder 🙂

Lindsay May
New album coming out Fall 2011

For more information about Lindsay and to hear a sample of her songs:  Click Here to visit her Songwriters Association of Canada Profile.