Album as the Brand

Something I've struggled a lot with as an independent musician has been having to deal with being pressured into branding myself. I know that you'll hear new media 'gurus' left and right tell you all kinds of shit about how everybody needs to have a personal brand now, but I don't like thinking like that. I feel that a person should be just be themselves, and that the stuff they make should be what's marketed.

Unfortunately that's not what's expected, especially in the music industry.

I mean, I tend to think that in most industries, people are defined by the stuff they make. In technology—which is my go-to example for everything, apparently—somebody like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs are obviously well-known figures, even celebrities, each with their own folklore personas. But still they're more or less defined by the greatness of the things they've helped create. You never see a direct advertisement for either of these people, questionable journalism aside, but you do see ads for their companies and products. This makes sense to me.

In music, the relationship is often reversed from what you'd see in tech. Far more people know Taylor Swift because she just is Taylor Swift. She's smart, beautiful, and (I'm being presumptious and simply latching onto what I've read) she is a rather friendly person.

But I would bet that more people think of Taylor herself than they do the actual work that she's done. They care about what she's doing because she just is Taylor Swift, and not because she's created any particularly extraordinary piece of work. Now that's not to say that she hasn't made anything great—that's totally not my point—it's just that Taylor Swift—from a marketing perspective—seems to be pushed into consumers' faces far more often than any of her albums are. It's almost as if her music isn't even a product that record companies want to push, but she definitely is.

Looking deeper into this, you can speculate on why this might be the case. Maybe it's because the longevity of positioning the artist as a brand is much greater than an album which, unless it's a classic or you're really in love with it, is often forgotten by most listeners once the next one comes out? Or maybe I'm just seeing this wrong all together, and that the parallel between Taylor Swift to Steve Jobs is totally off the mark, and that I should really be comparing Taylor Swift to Apple?

Taylor makes 1989, just as Apple makes iPhone. That's a possibility.

But even so, that is not something that I'm comfortable with, as a musician trying to get my work heard by more people. I want to be somebody who makes honest work, and is seen no differently from my listeners. Because why should I be? I'm not any more special than you, so why should I be turned into a brand that is marketed and dehumanized?

Which is actually interesting, I think, that I see branding an artist as dehumanizing. Because you can argue that the entire fucking point of turning an artist into a brand is to spread the idea that they're relatable.

It's easy to turn a human being into a brand because you're taking something that is so similar to its audience and broadcasting it at full volume. The marketing message is already there in its essence, it just has to be sculpted at to create the perfect picture.

I've considered releasing my music under a different name at several points throughout the last eight years of making music independently. I've never considered actually changing my real name, which grosses me out, but rather creating what would basically be a band for one person.

By doing this, I thought that I'd feel more comfortable branding the creator of this stuff under a persona that's separate from myself as a human being. Looking at it as a business, my band would essentially be my company, and my product would be my album. But time and time again, I've decided against this. I've come up with dozens of names, designed a handful of sites, and made a stupid number of social accounts for band names that never have and never will exist.

Because this just isn't who I am.

It's not honest enough, for me at least. It's making a name to spark mystery and excitement around a brand that I don't feel comfortable creating. My albums are my products, and I'll market those. You might like all of them, only one of them, or even none of them. If you feel that you like me as a person and you think you'll like my future work, then by all means keep in touch. But I'm not a brand. I can't say that you'll like my next album just because you liked Claye. I can't say that anything I do, you should do too, or that you should or shouldn't look up to me in any way.

That's not my place. My place is to make the best stuff that I possibly can, to keep making it, and to hope that it will mean something to other people. What I've discovered is that making a band name only obscures what I want. It removes me from the process of creating a product as undeniably human as an album, which is the recording of nothing more than the sounds you've been hearing in your head. And possibly the worst thing is that it tricks listeners into thinking that they can't go out and do the exact same thing.

It convinces listeners that you need a record label, a multimillion dollar studio to fuck around in, and all this other unnecessary shit, when the truth is that you don't. Claye was made in a tiny room with a table in my parent's house, and later in my apartment. If you have an idea, find a way to make it happen.

Don't let branding disconnect you from the reality of the process.

Rethinking the LP Experience for the Streaming Age

On Monday, I'll be releasing an album called CLAYE. I've been working on CLAYE for two and a half years. It will be available to buy on iTunes, Amazon, and other digital music retailers. It will also be streamable from Spotify, Rdio, Beats. There will not be a physical copy to start.

Over the past six months though, I've personally become far more interested in listening to music on vinyl LPs than anything else. Sure, I still listen to tons of music digitally, but when it comes to buying new music, I will more often than not buy the physical LP.

Why?

You would think that would be the question that I get when people notice my interest in vinyl, but sadly it's usually not. Instead, I get statements like 'If you grew up with vinyl, you wouldn't like it', or my personal favourite: 'That's stupid!'

The reason why I've been enjoying vinyls so much has nothing to do with the fact that it's an antiquated medium, or that vinyl records 'sound better' (hint: they don't), but rather the experience of using them. It's hard to argue with the fact that there is more to playing a vinyl than there is playing an album on Spotify.

There's the physical act of having to take the record out of its sleeve and drop the needle. There's also the eye-candy, like additional artwork, massive 12-inch cover artwork, hidden inserts, and simply more stuff to help you visualize what's going on in the music. There's a lot more to look at with a vinyl LP, and I really appreciate this.

Another thing is that with digital music, I think that we've been trained to be bored by music alone because of how portable it is. It's something we can walk around with at any time of the day, which means that we don't end up paying much attention to what we're listening to anymore. The medium that we use to consume it makes it convenient not to.

As somebody who works for years to create an album, it's obviously going to be refreshing to use a medium that glorifies the experience of listening to music. But I think that the advantages here extend beyond just the people who understand how much work goes into this stuff.

I think that every music-lover can benefit from a more immersive album experience, but I don't expect these people to go out and buy records and turntables instead of streaming this stuff for free on the web. I also don't expect every independent musician to have records pressed, as they're quite expensive. I don't have the money or audience to be able to print CLAYE as a vinyl LP right now, but I'd like to at some point in the future.

I thought a lot about this, and I really wanted to do something. So for CLAYE, I've created something I'm calling the WebLP.

The idea is to bring the essence of the LP experience to the age of streaming music. It has edge-to-edge artwork for every song on the album, song navigation that emphasizes the beauty of listening to an album as one, continuous piece, and sections like 'Special Thanks' and 'Liner Notes' that tend to get completely lost in a more traditional digital music experience. All while making every song easily streamable online for free.

Here's a quick look at what it's like:

The WebLP for CLAYE is an attempt to bring back some of the excitement and beauty of the traditional album experience. It's not perfect though, and it's a concept that I really look forward to expanding upon in the future. Eventually, I want to find a way to build in gapless playback, end-of-song scrolling, interactive elements, and more.

I feel like there is a lot that can be done with something like this, and there's a lot that I wish I could have done. What this is, though, is a good starting point. It's the start of an effort to bring the ceremonious experience of listening to music on vinyl to the web.

WebLP will go live this Monday with the release of CLAYE. I hope you like it!

Thoughts on Facebook's Recent Foray into Psychology

There was a lot of noise last month about a study that Facebook had performed in which it altered the News Feed of hundreds of thousands of its US users in an attempt to see the effect that certain content omissions may or may not have on a person's emotions.

I've seen a lot of people freaking out about this, rightfully so, but I needed some time to think about how I personally felt about it. The conclusion I came to is pretty simple: I don't think that Facebook is evil, but I do think that they sometimes don't take the implications of their actions into account.

What it all comes down to, really, is that Facebook did something kinda-sorta-fucked up, so Adam Kramer, Facebook's data scientist who was the co-author of the study, has of course published an explanation of the weirdness:

"The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product," says Kramer. "We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook."

Bullshit. Well—not bullshit meaning he's lying, but bullshit meaning that's a poor excuse to manipulate the emotions of your customers (are they customers if they don't pay for the service? I'm curious.)

The fact of the matter is, whenever you start experimenting with the emotions of any living being, you should really step back and wonder if it's really the right thing to do. It's probably not.

So no, I don't think that Facebook—or any of these ad/data-driven companies for that matter—are evil, per say, but I certainly do think that a lot of responsibility is in their hands, especially once they start messing around with the nature of what certain people can and can't see. And it's easy to look past that responsibility when you're concerned about your business. It definitely says something to me about the mindset of upper management over there.

Facebook holds a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, and with that power and responsibility needs to come a strong moral center, and I'm not sure if Facebook has ever had that strong moral center.

Whether they're allowed to do this or not, and they probably are (it's in their terms of service), the fact is that they probably shouldn't. And it doesn't make them evil, but it does make them shortsighted.

Lovably Grey (And How it Came to Be)

I don't usually like to ramble on about my personal projects on this site, and I wasn't even planning on posting this here, but it turned out to be something I thought might fit in well on Turtle Pie. So here goes.

When I finished Readers & Reporters, I said that I wanted to take time to expand on ideas that I was having for some 'non-musical' projects. These projects were in the extremely early stages at the time, but after dealing with the fatigue of making an album, I was fairly certain that I would want a break from that world.

I was an idiot, of course, and in February 2012—the month after R&R came out—I started work on an album called Carbon Claye (now CLAYE), and I've been working on it everyday since then.

(I should mention: CLAYE is coming, I promise. Mixing for the album wraps up next week.)

While my main focus for the past two years has been finishing CLAYE, I've continued to develop those 'non-musical' projects that I mentioned. The first was an idea for a design blog called Airplane Mode, which eventually evolved into what is now Turtle Pie. Since its launch in April 2013, I've written over 40 essays for Turtle Pie, and I certainly won't be stopping there. In fact, I don't see an end in sight.

I want to make it clear that when things seem slow in between posts on Turtle Pie, it means that I'm either deeply focused on another project, or that I don't have anything particularly well-developed to write about at the time, and I'd rather have a month of silence than publish a lousy post. Honestly, I've done that before, and I don't want to let it happen ever again. There's no excuse for garbage.

So with CLAYE production wrapping up in the coming months, and Turtle Pie becoming a more stable part of my work, I decided that it was time to act on one of my other 'non-musical' ideas.

It's a new company, it's all about design, and I'm calling it Lovably Grey.

lovably-grey-logo.jpg

Lovably Grey is a design studio focused on brand development. Our mission is to create beautiful designs that are always honest and true to the culture of companies we work with. We're offering two services to kick things off: logo design and website design.

My initial work for Lovably Grey began in November 2012, when I started mocking up an idea for a small design studio that I was calling Pedalboard. I worked on that project for about a week, but I ended up deciding that if I was going to start a company, especially for something as important to me as design, I'd want to put more thought into it. I didn't want to make something that was going to go away after a year or two of being uninteresting. So I put the project on the shelf, and I resumed full-time work on CLAYE recording, as I developed Turtle Pie on the side.

A part of me knew that this project wouldn't be on the shelf for long, because I love design. In fact, design is arguably my favourite thing in the world. When I'm frustrated with music, I turn to design. When I'm frustrated with writing, I turn to design. And that's not to say that design can't be frustrating at times, but it's endlessly intriguing to me, and I never get tired of it.

In late December 2013, I came up with the name 'Lovably Grey', and it excited me. It seemed different from the other names I'd thought of, like it was more friendly or something. Maybe that sounds stupid? Either way, I bought the domain, as any geek with an idea does, and I've spent the last six months, in tandem with a very strict CLAYE recording schedule (60-70 hours a week), developing and building on my ideas for this company.

Now I'm finally able to come out and show it.

So that's Lovably Grey, and how it came to be. You can check out our website, lovablygrey.com, for more information about the company and the work we do.

I hope you like it!

Lifestyle vs. Utility

The Internet is the best. And trust me when I say that any argument I try to make against the Internet isn't actually against it, but instead against the ways that we use it.

I've been thinking a lot about how the Internet fits into my life, or more importantly how it should fit into my life. Most of these thoughts stem from stuff I've been reading about all of the net neutrality arguments that have been going on in the US lately. I've heard a lot of writers argue that the Internet should be treated as a utility, something akin to plumbing and electricity, and I think that's a generally healthy way to look at it.

The Internet has become less of a strict utility, and much more of an overall lifestyle.

Net neutrality aside, those arguments have gotten me thinking a lot about the word utility, and if I can really consider the Internet to be a utility in my own life. I mean, in concept the Internet certainly is a utility, an amazing one at that, but I'd be lying if I said that I always use it as one.

The Internet for me has really become less of a strict utility, and much more of an overall lifestyle. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is pick up my phone to check a million different things around the web. I've been trying not to do this lately, and maybe I'd have more success if my alarm clock were an actual alarm clock, and not my iPhone.

Once I'm ready to make breakfast, I turn on a podcast, and then I sit down and eat in front of my computer to recheck the same things that I checked on my phone less than an hour earlier.

Gosh, seeing this in writing makes it sound obsessive at best and downright depressing at worst, but I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this is how at least half of my readers start their days, too. No offense.

The idea of using the Internet as more of a utility than a constant lifestyle choice is really interesting to me, and in concept it seems like it could be as easy as checking Twitter fewer times during the day. But it's surprisingly difficult once you've grown accustomed to being online for as much of the day as I usually am.

The thing that makes it so difficult is that the Internet is such a huge part of our lives now, and it's taken over so many different activities that used to be separate, unique ways to spend your time. Listening to music, reading the news, writing, and looking at photos are just several examples of things that used to happen away from a screen, but now it feels almost old-fashioned not to do it on one. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and maybe the Internet is actually a utility in these situations, because its purpose is to make doing this stuff faster and easier than doing it in the more traditional ways.

The biggest reason why I'm looking to diversify what I do away from the Internet is that I'm concerned that I might not be using it in a way that is best for me, and that my (over)use of it could be affecting the in-person relationships that I have. Another reason why I'm thinking a lot about this is that, to put it simply, I'm bored with it.

I'm tired of spending too much of my time on Twitter, or reading random articles that I don't really care about, or looking at product photography for way too long. It's not that anything that I'm doing online is actually bad for me, and it's not even affecting my work or how productive I am, it's just that I'm probably using it more than I should be, and now I'm bored with it.

I've found that it takes a pretty conscious effort to change these habits. It takes some self-awareness to wake up differently, deal with boredom differently, and maybe even talk with people a little more when the easier thing to do would be to open up my laptop and look busy.

I don't think of myself as an incredibly social person, especially in person, but some of the most enjoyable conversations that I've had in the past three years have happened on the Internet. There are even a few people that I'd consider friends that I never would have known existed if it weren't for Twitter.

But there are obviously people in my physical life outside of the Internet that I care about, and I've probably spent a great deal of my time with them more disconnected than I should have. And it's not like never using the Internet would make my life with them better, but the balance I have right now isn't right.

People have a glorious lack of self-control, and it's sad that as soon as we're given something amazing, we abuse it, and that's nobody's fault but our own.

Oh, and speaking of being disconnected from the people around you, every time I go anywhere I see literally two-thirds of the people around me with their heads down looking at their massive phones. The funny thing is that I never really noticed this before, because I was one of them. I noticed how weird and rude it is once I began to make a conscious effort to keep my own phone away while I'm out. It's honestly so weird, and it's almost as if people have their hands glued to these 5-inch slabs of glass. Things will be really weird if Google Glass or something like it ever takes off.

The problem with all of this really isn't the technology, it's how we use the technology. I think that people—in general—have a glorious lack of self-control, and it's sad that as soon as we're given something amazing, we abuse it, and that's nobody's fault but our own. There is no person or thing that we have to blame for that.

It turns out that most of the stuff that's bad for us really isn't, it's just that we don't know how to use it in a way that's best for us. And over the next ten years, as more and more of the world goes online, the Internet is going to become a lifestyle for a whole lot of people. But remember that the way you use it is always going to be up to you.

(Ironically, this essay was written with the sole purpose of being read by people on the Internet.)

The Internet was made to Deliver Music

The iTunes Store is not only the most successful online music retail store, it’s the most successful music retail store. Period. And while that’s an undoubtedly insane accomplishment for Apple, music sales have begun to decline as more and more listeners choose on-demand subscription services like Rdio and Spotify over the ‘buy once, own forever’ model of the iTunes Store. I think it’s not even worth questioning if Apple is aware of this movement. They are.

What is worth questioning, however, is just how much Apple cares that customers seem to be moving toward this other model. If you followed Apple during the earlier days of the iTunes Music Store, then you’ve probably heard a lot of talk from a special someone very high up in the company who strongly believed that people ‘want to own their music’.

iTunes is a lot more traditional than you may think.

Now, whether that’s actually true is questionable, and today’s evolving music landscape would probably beg to differ. Could it be that the infrastructure (networking, devices, etc.) when the iTunes Music Store first went live in 2003 wasn’t ready for a system that made it enjoyable, let alone feasible, to stream music on demand? Probably. Or maybe we were all too used to that ‘buy once, own forever’ philosophy that the iTunes Store shared with traditional music stores? I’d say so.

It turns out that one of the really brilliant things about the iTunes Music Store is that it’s obvious, almost laughably obvious. The basic concept behind the iTunes Store is that it’s a music store reimagined for the Internet. It’s a music buying experience in a very similar way to that of CD stores in the nineties, minus the physicality of a brick and mortar shop.

Almost everything that made sense about traditional music stores was brought over to the iTunes Store, and almost everything that didn’t make sense was changed. Basically, it was really well thought out, and that probably made it a lot easier for record labels to trust Apple initially.

While the iTunes Store is fundamentally a lot like traditional music stores, Apple wasn’t afraid to adapt the experience to take advantage of the brilliance of the Internet. iTunes made it incredibly easy to preview songs before purchasing—something that was either impossible or a royal pain in the ass when shopping at an old school music store.

iTunes was the first great way to legally enjoy music shopping on the Internet. But it's not alone anymore.

iTunes also, for better or worse, let customers purchase songs individually, which is something that made the original incarnation of Napster so freakin’ popular1, and I think it’s safe to say that this has completely changed the way that people buy and even make music today.

Internet is Made for Music 3.jpg

Over the course of the next five years, iTunes grew to become the massive phenomenon that it is today, surpassing Walmart in 2008 to become the biggest music retailer in the United States, and it all made sense. After all, iTunes was the first truly great way to legally enjoy music shopping and listening on the Internet.

But iTunes isn’t alone anymore, and the seemingly obvious business model and philosophy behind it is starting to be questioned amongst even the most mainstream of music listeners. That's because, like with iTunes, the concept behind the streaming music service also happens to be really obvious. It’s a really spectacular experience for listeners, and it’s still getting better.

My mom used to always tell me that what she really wanted was to be able to, in her own words, ‘call up’ any song and listen to it on demand. I’ve heard her, along with tons of other people, say that Pandora would be really great if it would just play any song at any time, and I think that concept is pretty obvious. With services like Spotify, it's finally coming to life, and I think that ‘customers’ are loving it.

But where this all falls apart—and I mean really falls apart—is when you start to look at the business model of these services, and most importantly how it impacts artists. I wrote a post about the impact that I’ve personally seen streaming services have on my music, and since writing that post almost a year ago, I’ve removed my record from those services all together.2 (Teaser: I’m coming back.)

Streaming services really fucking suck for independent musicians.

If you haven’t had the chance to read that post, I’ll sum it up for you: these services really fucking suck for independent musicians, and I can only assume that this is also true for artists signed to major labels. The problem is in the business model, and that’s something that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

The way that these services make money, as I understand it, is that the two primary sources of income come from advertisers3 and premium subscribers. Subscribers usually pay about $5-$10 per month for the ability to listen to music offline or on-the-go with a mobile device. There are other perks here and there, but I don’t know them because I don’t use these services as a replacement to owning music.

I assume that this money firstly goes toward paying employees, then it’s used to pay off the crazy costs that must be associated with running servers, data centers, whatever. I have to guess that one of the last places this money goes is into the hands of the artist—in fact, I know this—and that’s pretty obviously not the way that it should be.

So while at first glance it would seem that these services are terrific for listeners, they’re not. Because one day, artists aren’t going to be able to afford to be able to make more music to listen to, and that to me points toward a business model that is fundamentally broken at a very low level. Do not be fooled into thinking that these services make it any easier for artists to make their art, because you’ll only be lying to yourself.

What’s scary is that the entire music industry seems to be moving to this model. Except for iTunes.

The iTunes Store is now one of the last standing continuously successful stores in the music industry. Isn’t it funny how iTunes—once talked about as a forward-thinking way to buy and listen to music—has become the arguably traditional solution to consuming music? It’s kind of nuts to think about, but it’s also really interesting to observe.

Steve Jobs, in an interview with TIME’s Laura Locke, said that the Internet was ‘made to deliver music’, and I think he was right.4

It's really easy to think that just because something is intangible, it's worth less than if you were able to hold in your hand.

It’s almost hard for me to remember what it was like to walk into a physical store just to buy, let alone listen to, an album of music. Probably because I was so young when the iTunes Music Store launched. It really did seem like an obvious step for music shopping and delivery, even to a kid as young as I was at the time.

It's kind of hard to argue against the notion that the Internet is a profound medium to deliver content. And as networking technology gets better, and as the people working on these projects get smarter, it’s only going to get better.

But with all of this improvement, we can’t forget to appreciate the business side of content delivery. A lot of people work incredibly hard everyday of their lives to create this stuff, and I think that we tend to forget that the content we love is worth something, and that something happens to be money in most cases.

It’s really easy to think that just because something is intangible, it is somehow worth less than if you were able to hold it in your hand.5 I think that way of thinking is immature, and it shows a pretty big lack of understanding of what goes into making this stuff. More importantly, it’s a completely unsustainable way of thinking, and in the long term, that’s going to be something that everyone—creators and consumers alike—will have to come to terms with.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the iTunes Store evolves, and whether the rumors are true that Apple is planning to embrace subscription-based music delivery. Even more interesting is going to be how they do it, and whether it will be smarter than what the rest of the industry has been working on. And smarter to me means smarter for all pieces of the puzzle: the listener, the distributor, the label (if they’re still important), and the artist.

For a company like Apple, one that has a good history with being very conscious of how a business model can directly affect the longevity of customer happiness, I have high hopes to say the least.


  1. Besides that it was free music.  ↩

  2. Having said that, I will be releasing my new record, CLAYE, on these services. I’ve decided that I’d prefer to fight with words, rather than keeping the music away from listeners who are unwilling to believe that my music is something that is worthy enough of their money.  ↩

  3. I personally find it to be a really sucky experience to have a gapless album interrupted by an unbelievably annoying audio advertisement from Progressive Car Insurance every thirty minutes or so. Maybe that’s just me?  ↩

  4. He was right that the Internet is a terrific way to deliver music, obviously not that it was literally made to deliver music. I’m not sure why I felt like I had to clarify this, but I did.  ↩

  5. I plan to write a lot more about this.  ↩