College Music Society National Conference

Friday, I received a nice letter from the College Music Society. They selected my conference proposal! Jennifer Jones Mitchell and I will be presenting at the 2016 CMS National Conference in Santa Fe. We’re excited! Our topic is “Marketing Your Music Online: A Guide to Social Media for The Musician”.

The conference will be late October at at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza, and St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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“Happy Birthday to You” is Now Public Domain

Bet you didn’t know “Happy Birthday”, one of the most recognized songs in the English language, was under copyright with Warner, until last week.

Yep! In fact, it has generated significant revenue for Warner since 1988, especially in movies. The licensing fee can be as much as $1,500 to $5,000, which has inspired a number of productions to create alternative versions of the song.

Check out this video to see some examples:

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, a federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled Warner/Chappell publishing company never had the right to charge for the use of “Happy Birthday to You”.

In 1893, Mildred and Patty Hill published it in a book entitled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. They borrowed the melody from a similar popular song of the era and changed the lyrics to “Good Morning to All”. Patty Hill, a kindergarten principal in Kentucky, encouraged her students to sing it at the beginning of school each morning. It became so popular; her students began to spontaneously sing it at birthday parties, changing the words to “ Happy Birthday to You”.

In 1935, The Clayton Summy Co. published a piano arrangement of “Happy Birthday to You” attributing the composition to Preston Orem and R. R. Forman. The copyright to this particular arrangement was eventually purchased by Warner in 1988. Warner incorrectly charged a fee for any and all versions of “Happy Birthday to You”, but they actually only owned the copyright to a specific piano arrangement. Amazing!

So you can relax. No one’s going to take half of your birthday cake, or a percentage of your birthday presents. : )

A Composer’s Inspiration

Click on the picture to read an article about my composition “Lake Avondale” in Decaturish.com. I’m a featured local composer this week! Pretty cool.
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Boardwalk Empire Opening Theme: Music Sets the Mood

The opening theme for Boardwalk Empire is an excellent example of setting the mood for a television series. The song is “Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, their second album released in 1996, Take It from the Man. According to Wikipedia, this album “is rooted in rhythm and blues and heavily influenced by artists such as The Rolling Stones.”

Click the image below to watch the video in a new window.

This song is anachronistic within the context of the show, but it sets the mood perfectly. From the start, the opening theme song and video draws you in, making you want to watch. It says, “this is hardcore. You’re going to want to stick around and find out what happens next.” It’s also clear that this show is not a sitcom. It’s a serious drama and stuff is about to go down, my friend.

So this theme song does everything a good theme song should do:

  1. It sets the mood.
  2. It let’s you know the type of show you are about to watch (sitcom or drama).
  3. It keeps you in your seat wanting to see more.
  4. It’s also kind of catchy. You can’t help but nod your head and say “yeah man, rock ‘n roll.”
  5. It’s also nice and short, just long enough to do what needs to be done without giving the audience time to change the channel or head for the fridge.

What is most interesting is the juxtaposition of a modern rock song with a television series set in the early twentieth century. Both Nucky’s suit, obviously 1920’s fashion, and the old Boardwalk don’t jive, at first blush, with the music. In addition, the series as a whole takes great care to make everything true to the period from clothing, appliances and cars to music,lingo and mannerisms. If you have watched the entire series as I have, you know it’s almost like looking back into the past, a postcard from the early twentieth century. This juxtaposition is curious and compelling.

So why did the producers choose this song over period music? It’s because period music no longer has the same connotations for a modern audience as it used to have for audiences of the early twentieth century. A modern rock song can reach an audience with more familiar music and push the right emotional buttons which have been put in place by years of exposure to popular music. Period music won’t make an audience think “hardcore, yeah man, it’s about to get real.” Period music does a great job of placing the series within the early twentieth century, a job the producers do so well within the episode itself. It won’t necessarily keep you from changing the channel or thinking “this is a show my grandma would like.”

This juxtaposition is also a classic film trick, namely, combining two polar opposite elements to create a more powerful impact, for example, playing children’s songs during a murder scene. It’s so wrong, it’s right.

In addition, the producers did a great job marrying the video to the music. In most cases, the music is written after the film is shot. In this case, the music came first (1996). For example, the highly distorted guitar is matched by the oversaturated video (nice touch). Also, the violence of the waves and the breaking of the whiskey bottle, at approximately 48 seconds into the video, match the raw sound of the grunge guitar solo which begins at that precise moment reflecting the violent, raw nature of the series as a whole. Also, the solo ends with waves hitting Nucky’s feet at approximately 1 minute 15 seconds with a brief reprise as the camera pans up to Nucky’s face ending at approximately 1 minute 20 seconds. This symbolizes the fact that this series begins and ends with Nucky Thompson. It’s all about his world.

I say bravo to the producers of this opening theme song and video. It serves as an excellent example of how to marry video to music and captivate an audience.

Is It Still Possible to Make a Living as a Private Guitar Instructor?

As a private guitar instructor with over 20 years experience, I have noticed a disconcerting decline in the number of students who sign up for private lessons, and I was curious to learn whether or not other instructors have experienced the same thing. So, I posted the following question to a number of professional groups on LinkedIn including Classical Guitar and Guitar Instructors. Is It Still Possible to Make a Living as a Private Guitar Instructor?

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Out of 45 comments so far, all respondents acknowledged the decline. Most sighted the availability of free instructional videos on YouTube as a major reason for the decline. Walter Peretiatko wrote, “Yes, YouTube has killed a lot of my guitar students…”

In addition, Eric Symons wrote,

“This is a tough subject for me to publicly discuss, as I see a trend that disturbing in the US and other so called “First World” countries. While living in a world that has kids living with inorganic mediums such as video games and computers, and less of them having exposure to music in the schools than any other generation in our history, we must accept a decline in the classical guitar…”

Others pointed to a less vigorous economy. Zane Zirkle wrote, “In a Hope and Change economy, music lessons are a luxury to the average Joe… “ .

Jack Alves wrote, “I too have noticed a slight decline in the over -all teaching biz. From music that’s not all that motivating, to “School of Rock” programs, to students who are willing to forfeit the basics…”

From these responses, it appears there are a variety of factors leading to a decline in the number of students seeking private guitar lessons. The availability of free online content and resources makes it easy for students to learn to play for free in the convenience of their own homes. The sluggish economy and dwindling disposable economy is a factor too. In addition, guitar is no longer the driving force in popular music. Most music is created “in the box” with programs like Ableton eliminating the need to spend years mastering an instrument. Also, there are so many different instant gratification apps, video games, social media sites and digital sources vying for the public’s entertainment time and money. Can an instrument, which requires tremendous personal sacrifice to master, really compete?

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What does this mean for the future of private guitar lessons? It’s clear that the days of making a living solely as a private instructor are gone for now. Guitarists and musicians in general, must develop multiple income streams and embrace technology as an integral part of their skill set. For the 21st century musician, it will no longer be viable to simply play or teach an instrument. Lessons will always be a piece of the puzzle, but today’s musicians must know how to write for commercials, film, video games, record voice over, distribute and promote themselves online and through social media. If you have the right skill set, technology becomes a tremendous tool to sell your music and skills to a wider public than ever before.

Most schools and universities are developing music and technology degrees to meet the needs of today’s musicians. For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools now offer courses in music technology which focus on recording, composition, film score and video game composition. Private schools such as The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media also offer degrees in music and technology, job placement and industry contacts, so the future is not bleak, just different than the 80s or 90s.

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I agree with Derek Stottlemyer, who wrote, “As a web architect I see a lot of options, and online offers the opportunity to earn passive or residual income in addition to paid lessons – but instructors have to break the mold and be willing to try new things.” Indeed!

How to write a film score like Danny Elfman

According to buzzfeed.com, while making Nightmare Before Christmas, “Composer and lyricist Danny Elfman didn’t have a script to write the songs from. He asked Tim Burton to describe a scene and then Elfman would compose the song.” From a slightly biased composer’s perspective, this is an excellent example of how a film should be made.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-29802-1382981015-41Often, filmmakers don’t consider music or sound until the very end of the project. At which point, there is very little budget left, and all of the creative decisions have been made. The music must conform to the visuals; not a collaborative model at all. In my opinion, the music should influence the film and vice versa.

I learned this lesson from personal experience. As a graduate teaching assistant, I created an electronic music composition inspired by Federico García Lorca’s Poems of the Deep Song. It featured electronically manipulated classical guitar samples and a film by a very talented artist. My mistake was to write the music first, then expect the artist to make her film conform to my vision of the music and poetry. There are moments which work perfectly, but overall it would have been better if I had collaborated more closely with the artist from the beginning. In my case, I put the music first and the film second.

On the other hand, I worked on music and sound design for Interactive Science in 3d, an educational video game group at UGA funded by the National Institute of Health. It was a great collaborative experience. The game designers presented me and my colleague with an in-progress game. We composed a short piece for the opening scene and sent it back to them for approval. They liked it so much, they redesigned the beginning of the game to fit seamlessly with our music. The score inspired the design and vice versa. It was very effective and a lot of fun to see the final results. Check out the video below.

In my opinion, Nightmare Before Christmas is so successful because of the collaborative arrangement between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. The music inspired the film’s visual design making it one of the greatest Halloween films of all time.

Can you name other films that follow this collaborative model?