Monthly Archives: June 2009

Digital Skills For Musicians

Digital skills for musicians; I’m not thinking of the core tools of recording, sequencing and notating, but the apps and services that let you take your music further, to connect with others, to promote your talents, to project your identity and to continually learn.

How’s this: there are 5 main areas of digital skills for musicians (I know my apps and services suggestions are not comprehensive).
Digital Sound. This includes editing, compressing, hosting, embedding, sharing, transferring and presenting.
Apps and services like Audacity, Garageband, Soundcloud, iTunes, YouSendIt, FTP, idisk.

Digital Images. Video, photography and graphics. This includes creating, editing, compressing, hosting, embedding, sharing, transferring and presenting.
Apps and services like iMovie, iPhoto,  Flickr, Photobucket, Slideshare, YouTube, Animoto, OneTrueMedia, Xtranormal, Vimeo, Quicktime,

Have your say (self publishing
).  Blogging, micro blogging, podcasts, wikis, buying a url.  Apps and services like Twitter, WordPress, Blogger, wikispaces, iTunes and audio hosting services.

Make connections  (social networks and communications). This is about being part of the global music community. Twitter (again),  Myspace, Facebook, Ning, Imeem, LastFM, forums, commenting, Skype, iChat.

Information (finding, organising and using).  RSS, social bookmarking.  Apps and services like delicious, google.

I have a nagging urge to create an online course; Digital Skills for Musicians.  Throughout my working life I’ve had some connection with education and in recent years my passion has been centred round digital technologies and the web.  In my experience, current music courses don’t offer convincing curriculum content for the things that I see as central to learning and working in the creative industries – the social web, self publishing, and all the openness and connections that exist because of Web 2.0.

Much of the discussion around musicians and the web assumes that ‘musician’ means band or songwriter, looking to win fans and sell music.  My own experience shows that ‘musician’ can be interpreted far more broadly to cover a range of work.
In fact, if I survey 100 of my colleagues making a living from music, only a small proportion are artists/bands directly promoting themselves to fans; the rest are composers, performers, producers, engineers and arrangers.  So I’d expect the content of the course to reflect this.


I’m not starting entirely from scratch with this; I’d want to build on the content and community at

I am not an expert in web tools for musicians but therein lies one of the many benefits of the social web – expertise is readily available and shared.  Through my own learning and development with digital tools and services I believe I am well placed to facilitate learning. The course will require each individual learner to personalise their development for their own needs and interests, and demonstrate learning with practical uses of the apps and services.  Getting such a course up and running (funded and validated) is a huge task!

I’ve started a wiki to develop some content (it will necessarily never cease to evolve). For each topic there are technical and creative elements;  how do you use the app or service and how can you exploit it for your own development?  So, what have I missed?

Here’s a slideshare presentation by Jane Hart; it focuses on organisations (business and education) rather than individuals, though the concepts translate to  an individual, managing his own development.

Chord function

In between prepping scores for an epic Richard Jacques game score and a few pop arrangements, I’ve (once again) satisfied my craving to make little music movies about the things that light my fire.  This time it’s chord function.  What a crap name, but the meat of the concept is central to how music works and the sense of direction and place that a series of chords can achieve. How did I do?  (Still learning Final Cut Express with this one!).

So what does a record label do?

If you follow any of the music advice blogs or twitter streams you’ll know that it’s DIY time for musicians.  Record it yourself, release it yourself, promote it yourself; all your own work, no meddling record label.  Build up your fan base and take control.  Anyone would think record labels were a thing of the past, particularly the majors.
A couple of my colleagues are just releasing albums, coincidentally both signed to Island, so I’ve taken a closer look at what the label is doing for them.

Henry Priestman is long established as a writer, producer and (with The Yachts and The Christians) a performer.  His album The Chronicles of Modern Life started very DIY and he was as shocked as anyone (I believe) when Stiff agreed to release it.  A bit of hype and hard work later, and Island takes it on, and by luck or good management he’s all over the media – plenty of Radio 2 plays, TV and gigs.  The ball is well and truly rolling for him and some of that came from his own graft, but I’m pretty sure the label facilitated some opportunities.

Mike Kintish is one half of The Yeah You’s (important apostrophe apparently).  He’s no new boy but a little more factory fresh than Henry!  His band signed to Island last year.  With his first single (15 minutes) he too is all over the media.
Neither artist was ticking all the boxes with what we perhaps expect a label to look for (big fan base, established brand, plenty of gigs), so what was in it for Island and what’s in it for them?
For Island, I presume they primarily see a marketable product (but I can’t believe someone there didn’t love the music too!), something that fits in a niche, though where the income is now…. I hope they have a better handle on that than I do!
Henry and Mike make great music; they don’t need any label help for that, so the value of the deal must be media connections.  One of the key assets of a record label is its people and who they know in the media; people who can open doors at radio stations, newspaper and magazine offices, TV broadcasters and the media makers who license music for advertising and film, people who simply know other people in the music and media business.  OK, DIY can get you in too, but the powerful, personal connections that exist in a label give the artist an edge.
Interestingly, Island (and Henry and Mike) are filling in some gaps in online social sites  – some Facebook, Twitter and Bebo going on now, as well as the original myspace.  Singles are out, albums to follow – good luck guys!

The Yeah You’s on iTunes

Henry Priestman on iTunes.

real or sampled

Is it real? Is it true? It’s part of the human condition to be fascinated by these questions, as we are animals who thrive on honesty and validity. And that search for the genuine article is just as prevalent in music (creating and receiving) as in any other human activity.

Like many musicians, I’m caught in the middle in the production process, using both real and sampled sounds to achieve something with a ‘smell of honesty’ or ‘ring of truth’. As a listener, I can’t always be sure myself whether a music track is real or sampled, what matters to me is whether it communicates with honesty, the sound of flesh and blood. (And that comes partly from the the sound sources, but also from the commitment that goes into the whole music making process.)

Despite the fantastic achievements of sample libraries, we still want our music to have that smell of honesty and we may sense that more on a subconscious level that with rational analysis. But sense it we do, through the almost imperceptible nuances and subtleties of human performance.

The question or real or sampled comes up particularly in media music, which is often aiming to sound orchestral, on a budget. And the pressure to make music in media as ‘real’ as possible comes from 3 sides;

the composer himself wants his music to communicate with soul, to achieve the most convincing expression of his ideas,
the film maker needs integrity in the music to support his own message,
the listener doesn’t want lies or insincerity!

There is great story told by Oliver Sacks in “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” that goes something like this: a group of patients had a condition that meant they did not readily understand spoken word, but did read emotional honesty in a vocal delivery. They were listening to former US president Reagan speaking and they were laughing as he spoke, as they sensed he was acting, not speaking with real honesty. They weren’t judging the words, but the performance.

I believe, wherever we stand in the music process – makers, commissioners, or listeners – we will always want the real deal.


Wordle from