Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Biography of a Song - "Dinosaur Sam"

Spintunes Round #3. Things are heating up. They are hottening. Temperaturafying. Terrifrying. This week, we had to set our metaphorical bras on fire and write a song protesting something. Actually, the challenge referred to it as a 'protest song' but sold it more as a persuasive piece, where we were supposed to win our audience over on something we believed strongly.

The Challenge

I had some ideas in the beginning that I discarded pretty quickly - "everybody should learn to drive a stick shift" would've been fun, but the words protest song just kept niggling at me; I needed to go sociopolitical, or else the song wouldn't stand a chance in the competition.  I could resort to my go-to topic and write a "God doesn't exist" song, but... I already wrote that song once, all the way back in Spintunes 1, Round 2.  I thought I could write a good '99%' song, but the title of the challenge referenced the Occupy movement, and that effectively made it "already taken" in my mind.  But I was getting closer to my target, at least.

So I kept thinking.  I wanted to tackle gay marriage, and I thought about legalized marijuana, but thought better of them both for fear that the topics would be thoroughly covered by other competitors and I didn't want to oversaturate the pool of entries.  In the end, I failed to find one solid idea that inspired me to crank out a worthy song; I was just left with all these disappointments floating on the surface of a general sense of dissatisfaction with our government, and that's when it resolved for me.

The thing I believed strongly is that the people in charge are out of touch with the society over which they preside, and that's fucking everything up.

The Song

I blew most of my week just arriving at that conclusion, but I knew the song was going to come out quickly once the idea fell into place.  I first put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon, and something happened that never happens to me: the first verse just came out in one flowing sentence, and it was done.  It appears in the song exactly as first written, the only exception being that I padded the length of the first line so it better matched the rest of the verse.  While doing so, I took the opportunity to identify the employer as a man to reinforce the gender roles at play in that first verse.

Anyway, that first verse gave me my hook and a rough draft for the whole song was finished Saturday night.  I put it away until the morning to let the ideas marinate in my subconscious, and managed to bang out the final draft by mid morning on Sunday.

The Music

This was a challenge I'd been waiting for.  Not the content of the challenge, mind you, but the fact that it didn't force my hand musically like it did in the previous round.  I regretted not being able to do a full rock n' roll arrangement in Round #1 and I had to wait until now to get that out of my system.

I started out noodling away on the guitar and found something pretty fun and interesting, but it reminded me, again, of my Spintunes 1 Round #2 song, so I eventually abandoned that for use in a future unrelated project.  Once the cadence of my lyrics began to emerge, however, I realized that I had an old riff written years ago that I never finished that would be just perfect here.  I had a nice funky jam in E that didn't have a very complicated progression at all, but contained some really fun flourishes.

The thing I'm most proud of is the main riff, in which I figured out how to play some choice harmonics interspersed with -- and sometimes, simultaneously with -- the fretted chords of the progression.  It's really fun to play that riff.  So fun, in fact, that I decided not to strip it down during the verses against my better judgment.  Somehow, it managed not to be too distracting during vocals, which I attribute solely to dumb luck.

This is the first time since Spintunes 1 that I've played a full drum kit in a song, and it's something I sorely missed.  Unfortunately, I moved since those days, into an apartment complex where I'm a little more sensitive to the truth that drummers make terrible neighbors.  I played very tentatively on this track, and stopped recording well before I had a take I was truly satisfied with, because I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible before I used up the available good will and patience of my cohabitants.

This is also my first foray into recording a properly mic'd drum kit.  Before this christmas my only recourse was to throw a dynamic mic in my bass drum's sound hole and place my vocal condenser on a stand somewhere south of my left butt-cheek.  It was okay, but not really something any serious musician would call adequate.  I now have a full 7-channel setup to play with, but this essentially quadruples the amount of audio engineering I have to perform in order to get a drum track recorded.  There are many many variables at play, and it's going to take a lot of time and experimentation before I'll call myself confident in my ability.  But damn if it isn't fun as hell.

As funk rock demands, I hung up my trusty acoustic bass and brought out a recently-acquired hand-me-down electric.  I stuck to my typical formula here: structured and layered bass part for the verses and meandering solo for the chorus.  The only truly 'written' part was for the verse; everything else was just winging it.  Definitely happy with the results.

The Lyrics

I wrote three verses as self-contained vignettes, each dealing with a specific sociopolitical topic: first was gender-based wage inequality; my earlier ideas on gay marriage and legalization of marijuana made their reappearances here, bolstered by the subtexts of church-state separation and the privatized prison system, respectively.  I strung the first two verses into a narrative, and had I more time, I'd have tried to do so with all three, but the third verse is already longer than the first two without adding any thematic connections, and since it's separated from the first two by the first chorus, I felt that it was alright to let it stand on its own.

Wordplay was front and center for this song.  My rhyme scheme borrowed heavily from hip-hop's playbook, with extensive use of slant rhymes and internal rhyme.  My formula loosely follows an 'A' family of internal rhymes for the first half of the verse which then shifts to a 'B' family of internal rhymes in the second half.  The Chorus is sort of a dense shuffling of the above, with at least four unique slant rhymes in use at once.  Also in the chorus is an instance of my favorite little wordplay trick, where I create "virtual words" that don't actually exist where you hear them.  In this case, the virtual word was an identity rhyme to 'Dinosaur':

You're a Dinosaur, Sam
Your ideology needs to die
No sore winners in my promised land

In Closing

All in all, I think this is one of the better songs I've written for Spintunes, particularly for its 'standalone' factor - it doesn't come off as something that I wrote for a contest, it just sounds like a straight ahead song that I'd have written for the hell of it.  Given more time I'd maybe throw in a bridge or embellish it with a guitar solo, but as is, I'm VERY happy with the results of two days' work.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Biography of a Song - "The 12th Man"

Hi diddly ho, neighbor!

The time has come to dust the ol' blog off and write another song bio for my latest Spintunes adventure.  For those not keeping track, this is the sixth iteration of the contest, and my third time competing as an official entrant.  We're currently in Round #2, and my song is in the running amongst a field of very tough competitors.  And Edric*.

The Challenge

"Song Fight" - both an apt description of the challenge and a friendly allusion to another online songwriting contest that features a fair number of crossover contestants (and at least one judge) with Spintunes, we were instructed to write a fight song for our favorite sports team.  There were leniencies in place in case any of us weren't sports enthusiasts, but I had no need to take advantage of them; as I originally hail from upstate New York, I inherited a bleeding heart fandom for that most tragic of NFL franchises, the Buffalo Bills.

Let me get something out in the open:  We suck.  We know it.  But we once did something amazing that no other team has done before or since.  And we, the rabid fans known as 'Bills Backers', will always be there for our boys.  Always, goddammit.  And no way in hell am I going to remark on team failures or conspicuously-absent Tiffany & Co.-designed trophies in our trophy case in any fight song I pen for them.  With that in mind:

The Song...

 ...was always going to be a victory march, not a redemption story.  It's an optimistic rally of a song that matches the unsinkable spirit and never-give-up attitude of the Bills fans and epitomized by players like Don Beebe, who ran the entire length of the field to strip the ball out of a showboating Dallas Cowboy's hands mere inches before he'd have scored a massive gap-widening touchdown in the Cowboys' and Bills' second Super Bowl battle... and who needed a special protective cap outside his helmet because he suffered too many concussions due to his relentless style of play.  I dedicate this song to Don.

The Music

There's not much to say about this one, due to the lack of instrumentation.  Sonically, it's something of a bastard child of "God Bless America" and "Colonel Bogey March" (the Bridge on the River Kwai rendition, naturally); I knew immediately that I wasn't going to be able to address this challenge adequately by using my standard rock n' roll band instruments -- least of all my acoustic guitar -- so I stripped it down to something appropriate for a crowd of rowdy tailgaters - shouting, singing, and whistling.  Then I added in a dash of snare drum, because fuck you if you don't like a snare drum.

Before I had any lyrics down, I knew I wanted the song to be one long crescendo, building up to a crowd singing in a round.  I never intended to do any vocal or whistling harmonies, but when I got around to tracking it just sorta happened by accident, like usual.

The Lyrics

I went back and forth about how many "inside references" I should make while writing this.  I considered telling the (fictional) story of bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Ralph Wilson Stadium, and also thought about dropping Buffalo-related local references, but they felt a little contrived, like I was trying to prove to the listener that this wasn't just a generic "Go (insert team name here)!" song and that I was a True Fan who knows True Bills Facts.  Ultimately I decided that if I just sang about us, the honesty of it would peek through.

That said, there are a few carefully-selected phrases I chose to include.  The it's fandemonium! prelude was the catch-phrase of long-time Voice of the Bills, radio announcer Van Miller.  I refer to the Bills Backers by name, and also call us "Football's Greatest Fans" in the song, as we were called by head coach Marv Levy during my first time watching a home game live.  This theme carries into the key phrase and title of the song:

A football lineup consists of eleven players on the field.  It's been said that the fans of a team contribute so much energy to the game that it's like having a 12th man in the lineup.  In 1992 the Bills expressed their gratitude by inducting The 12th Man to their Wall of Fame, where the names of other Bills greats' were placed overlooking the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The song's final lyrics are a tip o' the cap to Marv Levy, who wrote his own fight song for the Bills in the mid-nineties.  I am a Levy-era fan, after all.  The line, with victory in sight we'll yell with all our might was graciously borrowed from his song.

In Closing

I didn't realize it until after I was done and had something on paper that I was proud of, but this was one of the most fun challenges that I've faced in a Spintunes thus far.  As a lifelong member of this worldwide extended family, it was an honor for me to write this song to the Bills and their fans everywhere.

* - inside joke**
** - and that's not to say that Edric Haleen isn't a very tough competitor; he's a SUPREMELY tough competitor.  And yes, this is a footnote to another footnote.  I do that.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Biography of a Song - "The Tin Knight"


Ever since my participation in Spintunes #1, I've been writing song bios to accompany my entries. I've actually been doing it for this Spintunes as well, but I have yet to publish a single one of them... in round 1 I just didn't have the time to sit down and write the bio I wanted to in time for the judges to read it. It's still sitting there in my drafts folder, almost-complete.

It got worse when I promised myself that I would publish my bios in order, so when round 2 came, I felt the need to finish my round 1 bio before I could release the 2nd one. And if I didn't have time to get one done, I certainly didn't have time to get two done.

Well, given the circumstances, I've given up on that goal of getting these done in time in order to bang this one out as a last-ditch effort to salvage any good will from the judges. I really didn't expect to be in the running this far into the contest, but from the look of things there's enough of a chance that I could make the cut for round 4, so I'd be doing a disservice to myself and to my competitors if I didn't do everything in my power to take the best shot I can.

Since I feel like my submission suffered from a lack of attention during its creation, I'm especially compelled to write about it here. So here goes.

The Song Bio

As I'm wont to say, this round kicked my ass. Not on account of the challenge itself, but on account of the circumstances in my life outside the contest - I had just completed the move into my new apartment, and the Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour had been brought back from its indefinite hiatus - which meant I was to resume my role as guitarist for the Write Bloody House Party 2 Band. So this past week I had to try to write for Spintunes while splitting my time between my job, unpacking, and practicing for the new show... which came back on the evening our round 3 submissions were due.

But I'm not writing here to ask for sympathy or leniency - I'm just putting my submission into context. These circumstances were the reasons why this song (and my songs for rounds 1 and 2, for that matter) wasn't one of the full-production prog rock tracks I used to deliver. If I expected to get anything submitted to the contest, it was gonna be one-guy-one-guitar or it was gonna be nothing.

The Music

This guitar part for this song was inspired by a piece of wedding music I wrote for my best friend last summer. I needed a jumping-off point because of the time constraints, and this particular piece had a mood that was equal parts 'upbeat' and 'pretty', and I knew that I wanted my story to have a certain heart-wrenching aspect to it. There's nothing I love more than pairing sad stories with upbeat, pretty music.

I came up with a few snippets of strung-together chords using my patented hunt-and-peck technique, identified in my own mind as 'low', 'medium', and 'high', for their relative ranges in the scale. For reference, the 'low' phrase is the one that mirrors my "I'm a tin knight too" lyric.

To give the ear a little something extra to process, I staggered each part such that every time I played 'low' I was accenting my chords on the downbeat (1 and 2 and 3 and 4), but when I played 'medium' and 'high' I accented them between the beats (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). The parts sound more or less the same when heard individually, but there's a neat syncopation that only becomes apparent when I transition into or out of the 'low' section. The verse is a semi-random sequence of the 'low', 'medium' and 'high' sections, interspersed with a few held-out measures of a single chord from the 'low' section. I always start and finish the verse with 'low' as well - it's really the anchor of the song.

For the chorus, I simply took the chord progression of the 'low' section and strummed it out, except instead of resolving back to the first chord at the end, I kept climbing up the scale. Taking us out of the chorus is another appearance of the 'low' section, but with a minor inversion on the last chord - it's the only place where I let the music break character and hint at the dark tone of the story, and it always comes in after the child speaks. I'll describe this in greater detail in the lyrics section.

Anyway, once I had my individual parts constructed, I had the task of building the overall shape of the song. Typically when I write, I compose all my musical parts first and then I write all my lyrics. This tells me how many times a certain part needs to be played before I transition into the next part. It's a step that I can never skip because I rarely write multiple verses or choruses to be the same length as each other. You might say that I write invisible bridges. They extend the song and convey a little more information/emotion, but they sound just like the verse I'm coming out of or the chorus I'm going into. Regardless of my reasoning and excuses, it means that I have to take great care in counting out the number of times "part 1" gets played before "chorus 1", etc.

Here's where it gets interesting. I had a hell of a time coming up with my actual story. I was writing so much, but I was writing around such large holes and they were keeping me from getting any kind of coherent lyric together, that I knew that I wouldn't have time to finish the song if I waited to record the guitar until after the lyrics were finished. I promptly said "fuck it", rolled the dice and recorded a guitar part that consisted of some indeterminate length of each part. I set the length of the song in stone and then subjected myself to an exercise of lyrical pigeonholing.

The Lyrics

This challenge was very cool, and really imaginative. I'm pretty comfortable with myself as a lyricist, and I knew I wasn't going to have too much trouble doing whatever I decided to do, once I actually decided what it was going to be. That, of course, was the hard part. I toyed with the idea of restricting myself to fewer than seven letters; I'm super glad I didn't take that path, for the obvious reason that Edric Haleen did it better than anybody else could have. Ultimately, I decided to go in the opposite direction, writing lyrics that only began with seven letters but sounded like they utilized many more.

By picking the four consonants C, K, T, and W, I was able to produce ten vocalizations:

'K' or hard 'C': kid, cool
'Ch': chosen
'S': cinch
'N': knot
'T': treaty
hard 'Th': these
soft 'Th': thin
'W': winter
'R': wrong
'H': whole

That left me with three spaces for the vowels I knew I'd need to keep things flowing smoothly. A, I, and O gave me what I needed. After these letters were picked, I started a list for each letter and every spare moment I had, I'd add whatever words I could think of under each one. As the list grew, I hoped for a pattern to emerge.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm reading A Game Of Thrones right now, but after a while I noticed a recurring theme in the words that were being appended to the list: knight, king, castle, witch, wizard, armor, chainmaille, etc.

I could read the writing on the wall, as it were... time to write an olde medieval tale.

And I wrote like a maniac. I came up with pages and pages of really cool phrases that I was very proud of. But they just couldn't seem to fit together. I had the idea of 'the tin knight' pretty early on - a Quixotic character that was brave and big-hearted, but looked like a mess. His armor wouldn't be shiny and impressive, and he'd be largely disregarded by the people until a moment of heroism made them take notice. Typical unlikely/underappreciated hero stuff. But no matter how much I came up with, I couldn't wrangle any of these segments into a narrative.

I had eventually realized that I was going to crash and burn without some scaffolding to help piece these things together, so I wrote a short story for my protagonist, using it as an outline for the song. My original intention was to introduce a larger cast of lead characters - the King, the Wizard, the Widow, the Tin Knight, and the Child. I was going to describe each of them and show how all but the child had disregarded the knight, since his youth and naivete insulated him from the cynicism that comes with age. And then a giant monster attacks the city and the knight saves everyone. But he dies in the process. Everyone is happy to be saved but sad that they treated their hero so poorly, etc. etc.

Had I not already locked myself into the confines of a 2 1/2 minute piece of music, I'd have written the full version of the song and if you pressed 'play' at 8pm Monday, you would probably still be listening to it now; we'd be somewhere around verse 243. But I only had those 2 1/2 minutes to work with, so I stripped it down to its most essential parts and started a fresh set of lyrics. I had the idea for the child to idolize the knight, and to imagine that he was the knight himself. The "I'm a tin knight too" hook sprung from this and the chorus is an extension of the child playing make believe, conquering his fears and his nightmares.

The chorus was written first, and the chorus vocals were recorded Saturday night at 4am. I slept from 4-8am Sunday and then had two chunks of song to fill with lyrics. Verse 1 had to contain the entire opening act, and verse 2 had to contain the climax and conclusion. I was going to have to fit a lot of story into a little space, and I knew that I'd over-write myself and run out of space if I started from the beginning.

In order for the story to carry any emotional weight, I needed all the room I could mange to finish each verse strong. Ending each verse properly was going to take a fixed amount of space, but the details leading up to the conclusion (like the length of the knight's battle) didn't have such a need. So, I literally wrote the verses backwards line by line, starting at the conclusion of verse 2 and finishing with my opening phrase.

This also explains the odd cadence of my vocals - the first half of each verse is a run-on sentence because the last half was well-structured and already stuffed into place... and past a certain point I ran out of remaining words to remove.

The end result is a darker story than it lets on at first listen. It's not really a tale about the knight at all, it's a story about how little we understand of the world when we're young, and how that affects us - both for the better and for the worse. In the child's mind, he's going to be every bit as much a hero as the tin knight. And he's uniquely uninfluenced by the knight's shoddy appearance. To that child, the knight is the prototypical Force For Good: noble and unassailable. It's a beautiful thing, that children can see the shine and be blind to the tarnish. It's a characteristic we tend to lose as we age. Of course, there is truth in that tarnish. Death is a horrible, horrible fact of life. We find it easy to make promises when we're unaware of the consequences.

When I was about six years old, the heavy plaster ceiling in our living room developed a large crack, and my dad told me that it was going to fall the next day. I looked up at him and told him not to worry; I'd just stand under the crack and catch the ceiling, and hold it up while he fixed it. I was barely 3 and a half feet tall, but I saw no obstacle in that. I could fix the problem by standing there with my arms up; I was absolutely sure of it. And I was really disappointed when my dad told me I couldn't help. Had I had my own way, not only would I have come up about six feet short of holding that ceiling in place, the falling plaster would have crippled me.

The townspeople can find a small reprieve from their dismay in the child's naive enthusiasm, but they know, even though the child doesn't, that there's truly no one to protect them any longer. The child can promise himself and everyone around him that he'll be the next tin knight, but he's holding up a ceiling he can't reach.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

SpinTunes: An Epilogue

I won.



In what bizarre universe do I find myself, where I'm able to get involved with this great group of people, all of whom are imposing talents in their own right, and stand toe-to-toe with them? What is this ridiculous sense of validation and pride I'm feeling? What the hell, man?!

It's taken me a bit too long to sit down and start writing this; I've had an unexpectedly busy week and I also needed a little time to get used to the idea that SpinTunes has concluded, and that somehow I managed to come out on top...

I've already gone into great detail about the songs I wrote, most recently with a bookend post over at the Artifiction forums, so this is just going to be a bit of a"closing thoughts and heaps of thanksgiving" post.

First and foremost, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sid Brown, my dear friend and collaborator on "My Daughter" and "Lovers, Fighters, Survivors". Without your contribution, my entries would have lacked their most important essences. Thanks, buddy.

I want to say something to all of you who were involved in one way or another. I toyed with the idea of making youtube videos for each of you, but not everybody has an account; I might still do it for those who do, but for now I'm just going to say everything to everyone here.

To my competitors:

I'm honored just to be among you. I know this contest doesn't have the exposure that Song Fu had, and that it's just in its fledgling stages, but in a way that makes this even more meaningful to me that we all had a part in it. This feels like the beginning of something that will continue to grow and inspire musicians and songwriters for a long time. I really hope it becomes something magnificent.

The following notes appear in the order our profiles are listed over at the Spintunes blog...

Edric Haleen: You, sir, are the Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object. Dave Leigh once said that you never got the recognition you deserved in Song Fu because of the young trending age of the voters; people wanted nerdy pop songs and didn't recognize the raw talent you possess. I'm glad to see that this contest was able to acknowledge what a damn powerful songwriter you are. Not to mention your unrelenting positivism and ability to motivate and entertain everyone around you. Thanks for setting the bar so high.

Kevin Savino-Riker: um, hi!

Denise Hudson: Denise, Denise, Denise. You were my secret partner and, to borrow a term from Native American culture, my spirit guide. I was a little nervous about entering the contest, and might have only stuck around to do shadow entries had you not been there to be my training wheels and my sounding board. Thanks so much for helping get it through my thick skull that I could do this stuff too. Also, this paragraph would be naked without a mention of the absolutely delicious music you've penned. I'm proud to say I know a writer and performer as good as you.

Ross Durand: We've exchanged correspondence recently since making it to the final challenge together, but I don't think I ever quite told you that I was scared of having you as a final opponent. Your songwriting, playing, and vocal stylings are all things I envy and strive toward achieving in my own music. Thanks for writing great songs the whole way through, especially at the end. I hope to hear a lot more from you.

Sara Parsons: I think you might be the most established YouTuber out of everyone who took part in this contest. I'd heard of you and listened to your songs long before I even joined up at TMA. Because you were in here, I felt like I was up against a bonafide celebrity of the new independent music scene. I cannot get enough of your music, and it's still a novelty to me when I think about how we're now acquaintances... that I can just hit you up on Twitter and you write me back, knowing who I am. I still want to write that "I got killed by a werewolf" song with you.

Mick Bordet: I only recently discovered that you got a shadow in for round #1, so I'm sorry that I haven't had more time to get to know you and your music, but for what it's worth, I like what I heard and have to compliment you on managing a unique approach to the Superhero topic. I hope you'll be back for the next SpinTunes!

Gödz Pöödles: Russ, Rhod... you two are famous, infamous, notorious, and a handful of other -ouses, all of which are crucial to being the songwriting contest superstars you are. You guys are among the most conditioned and professional acts I've ever heard and you've always encouraged me. It means a lot to be a newcomer here, and be taken seriously by seasoned veterans such as yourselves. It's always a pleasure chatting with and listening to you!

Emperor Gum: Graham, you got a bit of the short end of the stick during this contest, but I've always been impressed by your ability to take a clarinet and turn it into a rock n' roll instrument. Nobody can touch the uniqueness of your songs, and while they're not always crowd-pleasers, I've taken special care to pay very close attention to your music - you're always up to something devious, it seems. That's a trait I enjoy quite a bit.

Bryce Jensen: Dude. Your shadow blew me away. You're another guy that I knew nothing about as this contest was beginning, but I'm looking forward to hearing your future works. You have a way of harnessing your voice that impresses and humbles me. You should submit covers for all the other challenges from this contest. I really wanna hear what you have to come up with.

Ryan Welton: You were a surprise to me; when I heard "Underdog Blues" I thought to myself, "wow, a lot of people here just met their match". Your song didn't get the reception it deserved, and I'm bummed that we didn't hear back from you after round #1. Regardless, the song you did share with us was entertaining, funny, and it sounded fantastic. Please come back for Spintunes #2.

Governing Dynamics: Travis, I'm glad we became friends between all the challenges and among all the tweets flurrying about; you're the songwriter I had the easiest time relating to, and as such it was especially hard for me to hear you absolutely nailing these challenges in ways that I couldn't manage. Please understand I mean that to say that you're the songwriter I strive to be when I'm putting my mind to full arrangements. I think I can learn a lot from you. I hope you won't mind when I start poking around asking for input...

Jenny Katz: Where do I begin? You are the most delightful surprise. You wrote my favorite songs in both the rounds in which you participated. You are still in heavy rotation in my ipod, and I find myself singing your songs all the time. You music is so good, I think I have a crush on you because of it. We were deprived of your work far too soon. Seriously, I love your music. I love your voice. The harmony in "Miss You" brings me to tears. I can't give a higher compliment.

JoAnn Abbot: JoAnn, it's the same compliment you've gotten everywhere, from everyone, but it's amazing that you walked into this with empty hands and produced the songs you did. You have a soft but powerful soul in your voice, and you found a way to make music out of scarcity. Unbelievable. Thanks also for being so fun in your interactions with everybody! You're a treasure to have here.

Bram Tant: Bram, you left a bigger mark on Spintunes than anyone else, and you did it with one absolutely hilarious and inventive song (and a couple butt-cheeks). You're fearless, and I can't wait to see what you apply that fearlessness to next. Don't ever stop.

Boffo Yux Dudes: Tom, I think people often get to distracted by the humor to ever pay attention to the fact that you and Allan are two of the most versatile songwriters I've encountered here. You consistently (all the way back to Song Fu's past that I've listened to) come up with songs that each have their own identity and uniqueness, while maintaining a certain quality that could only come from you. Every song of yours I listen to gives me the strange paradoxical feeling of "who the hell wrote this?/Boffo Yux Dudes totally wrote this..." Thanks also for getting my sense of humor when most others miss it.

"BucketHat" Bobby: Bobby. Mr. Matheson. Dude. You were someone I was thrilled to befriend back when I joined TMA. You have mastered a genre of your own; that's in many ways the greatest achievement a songwriter can strive toward. I have always held you in the highest respect, and am still caught off guard that you told me my opinion and praise meant a lot to you. Dude! It's the other way around! I'm the one who's supposed to be incredibly flattered to be complimented by you!

Heather Miller: You're another one whose songs work their way into my head. I cannot tell you how many times I've walked into a bar since round #2, and my head kicked off with, "...right on target, right on cue..." You've gotten under my skin in a good way. It's also been especially delightful reading your song bios; you're a great writer - prose and music. I think I need to start listening to your radio program; I suspect I'll enjoy it quite a lot :)

Gorbzilla: Another Song Fu veteran whose music I always liked. You've got a great rock n' roll voice and it's supported perfectly by your guitar work. I need to give you a special shout-out for "Superhero Song" - it was one that I was fascinated by, even before I knew anything about the character you chose to pay tribute to. I really appreciate it when a person can convey enough through a song that it piques my interest and inspires me to investigate it further. That song was a great achievement.

The Offhand Band: Mark, even before I started reading your song biographies, I could tell that you put more effort than anyone into the science of songwriting. Every single nuance, every note you compose is given meaning by the notes that surround it... I can't really articulate exactly what I'm trying to say, but I hope you get it from my fumbling around the point I'm trying to make. Your songs are chock-full of thought. Lots of people can 'design' songs, but the design tends to stick out more than the song itself once all is said and done. You're good enough at design that even though that design is doing its job the whole way through, the *song* is what stands out. I was especially impressed with your instrumental outro in "Another Universe", and I'll echo the sentiments of others when I say that "Ballroom Dance" was the best song of Round 4.

Steve Durand: Steve, I feel bad not having something more original to say here, but I'm going to have to reiterate something I think Travis already said about your music: I can't help but feel cool listening to it. You have a sound unlike anyone else and you do things with those horns that put most of us to shame. You've achieved a style that has so much vibe and substance - those undefinable qualities that can't be named themselves, but can only be hinted at. Your songs are just dripping with (good adjective).

Charlie McCarron: You're another composer I was very, very afraid of when this contest began. I knew about 'Grey Matters' before Spintunes came to be, and I was just awestruck by the sheer magnitude of your creative mind. And despite that, your entries in this contest had an unexpected tenderness and delicacy to them; the best way I can describe it is to say, it takes a lot of muscle to have such a gentle touch. Your music is brilliant and haunting. I need to hear more from you.

Caleb Hines: You're possibly the most creative musician and songwriter I've ever become acquainted with. You possess an unparalleled dynamic range in your songwriting, and can deftly weave incompatible influences into a coherent and above all, enjoyable art form. I sincerely believe that I'm addressing a pioneer in the next generation of the Jonathan Coultons and They Might Be Giantses of geek music stardom.

Jon Eric: Yet again, I'm saddened that we didn't hear back from you after round 1; "Superman Sneezed" earned my vote because amongst all the other competition, yours had a surprising emotional impact. Your chorus was deceptive in its simplicity, and it hit me hard. I think you'd have done something really noteworthy in round #3, and I'd love to convince you to give it a shot.

Danny Blackwell and Brian Gray: Sorry for lumping two together here, but I have the exact same thing to say to you both: you guys wrote from a pathologically twisted state of mind in your respective songs, and they were both guilty pleasures because of it! I'd really like to see you join the competition next time around - I think contests like this could benefit from your flavors of off-kilter creativity.

Dr. Lindyke: Dave (and William, who I secretly suspect is a repressed alternate personality trapped in Dave's mind... why else do you hide him from us?), my gratitude goes to you twofold. Not only were you more dedicated to this contest than anyone as far as I can tell despite not being officially entered into the competition, you were also a significant motivating influence to me. You kicked me in the pants when I was hemming and hawwing about joinging Song Fu 7 before it met its demise, and that momentum stayed with me as Spintunes came about. You have always 'gotten' me as a songwriter, and your consistently kind words were more supportive than you know. You and Denise both convinced me to write my own way, as opposed to falling into the trap of aiming for what I think others want. Your prolific songwriting is an inspiration. You write so often and so consistently well... I harbor an affectionate jealousy for the works you produce. Thanks again.

To Travis and the judges:

We wouldn't have Spintunes without your commitment and passion toward music. I'm sure I'm speaking for everybody when I say, thanks for giving us a place to push ourselves.

Travis Langworthy: You're the big boss. The man with the plan. Thanks for standing up and building something for TMA out of the rubble of Song Fu. You took on a task that was going to demand a lot of your energy and patience, and you did it remarkably well.
I owe you for presenting me with such an invigorating and infuriating way to occupy all my personal time these past two months.

Heather Zink: You made a great scapegoat :-p Your reviews best tapped into the perspective of the listening public - the people who come to enjoy what we're putting out there. Thanks for getting me in touch with that.

Julia Sherred: Jules, your reviews and rankings came as the product of so much consideration - you managed to nail the logistics of impartial review and you provided more constructive information than I could ever ask for. Thanks also for your making the listening parties something to look forward to!

Joe "Covenant" Lamb: You're the senior songwriter of this community (not an age joke, I swear), and your talent and experience brought a great value to the contest. I have to thank you especially for representing a viewpoint of songs as sound and feeling, not just poetry and theory.

Sammy KABLAM!: If there's one thing everybody loves about you, it's that you shoot from the hip and rarely miss the mark. Your input always went straight to the issue, and you were never afraid to tell us where we needed to expend a little effort. I can personally attest to this improving my songs as the rounds progressed.

Niveous: You were, and still are, a bit of a mystery to me, but your Nur Ein pedigree was evident in your judging. You had an acute sense of what worked and what didn't in everyone's entries to the extent that I cannot disagree with anything you had to say, positive or negative, in any of your reviews of anyone's songs. You have a keen ear; thanks for letting us borrow it.

In Conclusion:

That was a whole lot of words. But I felt that I owe those and more to you all, so I'll beg your pardon and get this thing over with.

I know this contest isn't "big" in comparison to what else is out there, but it means more to me than I know how to convey. I have never had a better education in songwriting than what I received from running this gauntlet. You guys have all helped me reach the next level in my music, and for that, I'm indebted to you all. I'll be riding this high for a long time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SpinTunes #2 - Scoring Considerations

I know, I know, I'm supposed to be writing a grand epilogue to my SpinTunes #1 experience. It's coming, but I wanted to get this out beforehand, since it's a time-sensitive issue.

I want to speak out in favor of fresh-start scoring for each round of the contest. Given the other aspects of the contest that are likely staying the same, this makes sense and bears further presentation.

(Copied from comments over at the planning post at the SpinTunes blog)

Since the votes are going up for the SpinTunes #2 format in the newer post, I'll make another argument in support of my preference to keep the "start fresh" method for each round.

Edric already made a compelling case against cumulative scoring, considering that competitors can be logically eliminated from the finals an entire round early.

I just wanted to go further into depth on this for those who may have missed it the first time around. I think this contest has a superior format by not relying on a popular vote... I don't want to see the judges' panel get compromised. And it's precisely *because* we don't have a popular vote that Edric's argument holds water.

There is a fixed number of points available to be distributed amongst the competitors. Furthermore, those points are earned under different circumstances each round because the challenge is different every time. Cumulative scoring under a contest like this is effectively double-counting points earned elsewhere under circumstances that no longer apply to the challenge at hand.

I think people are trying to get a handle on the scoring system by comparing it to other contests/activities, but some of the other things it's being compared to aren't quite accurate. Remember, Travis is a sports guy.

Let's imagine a football game between the Bills and the Patriots. The Bills kick the Pats' asses, winning by 28 points. Meanwhile, the Dolphins play the Cowboys and win by 7 points.

Next week, the Bills play the Dolphins. Should the game start Bills 21, Dolphins 0? Of course not. It's a new game. You can't reward the Bills points for being better than the Patriots when they're competing against the Dolphins.

The analogy isn't exactly perfect, but it illustrates why it doesn't make sense to keep counting the points earned in previous rounds of the contest. The challenge is new every time, so the score needs to reset every time.

Since there's as much weight as there is being placed on the diversity of the tasks to be completed in each round, then a competitor's talent at one particular challenge should only help or hinder them within the scope of that challenge. Especially since it's possible that a challenge can favor one competitor's style. We shouldn't compound that across multiple rounds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Biography of a Song - "Lovers, Fighters, Survivors"

Well this is it, kids.

I've made it all the way to the finals of SpinTunes #1. I'm not gonna lie, Marge: I feel like this is my weakest submission thus far. I don't think it's a bad song, but I feel like I owe the contest better than what I ended up with. Then again, according to what I hear from the others who decided to tackle the round #4 challenge, this task beat up on the lot of us.

I spent the vast majority of the songwriting period dwelling on how demanding and obtuse the "three distinct ethnic styles" challenge was. Don't get me wrong; I think the judges came up with a fantastic challenge - if this were the final boss of your typical videogame, it'd be a giant radioactive grizzly bear who shoots tornadoes out his nostrils and can only take damage under his left foot - but, there's seemingly no way to write a song that jumps genres while maintaining internal coherency, that would also stand alone as a decent song outside the scope of this challenge. I suspect nobody in their right mind would write a song like this without being told to.

But anyway, I came up with a solution, and I went back to my old habits from rounds #1 and #2 - I did something risky. Instead of trying to sing three verses in completely different potentially incompatible styles, I decided to treat each ethnic segment as a vignette featuring a spoken narrative. I spend most of this song not singing. On one hand, I'm worried people will consider this a cop-out, but on the other hand, I think I solved the problem of "why the hell would someone repeatedly change the song type so drastically?"

This is a song written entirely in my American acoustic pop music style, but it's a song about flipping through a photo album and looking at old pictures of my parents and grandparents. I take the time to tell a brief story about each of them, and in the background the proper style of music swells in to harken back to their lineages. After I finish telling my little anecdotes, I resume in my style to conclude the story. In effect, I've done everything I could to buy pardon for the fact that the song is so disjointed, and I think my particular solution did so in the least distracting way possible.

The only thing left to worry about is, after it's all said and done, is it still enjoyable and listenable? I think it is. It wouldn't get heavy play in my ipod, but I wouldn't skip past it either.

All that's left now is the excitement to hear how the other contenders attacked this same problem. While I'm sure I exhausted every potential idea and proceeded with the best one I could think of, I expect that the other entrants will have come up against these roadblocks differently, or may have come up against different roadblocks altogether. What may have been my biggest challenge may have been the easiest thing for Caleb or Dave to address, and vice versa. So, I'm eagerly awaiting tomorrow's listening party.

I find myself compelled to write something as a bit of an epilogue to my entire time in this contest, but it probably deserves its own post. I'm excited to say that I'm proud of myself for meeting each challenge with versatility; I had a personal goal that each of my submissions would sound distinct from one another, and I ended up exceeding my own expectations of my ability to do so. I surprised myself a handful of times, and it makes me curious to see what I do next with songwriting, because I honestly can't guess what'll happen. Being in this challenge has made me much better at what I do.

If you were on the fence about signing up this time, do not hesitate to sign up for the next one. It's one of those rare things in the world that is fun and good for you.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Thoughts Upon Reflections Reflecting Upon SpinTunes #1 and SpinTunes #2

Alright, here's my take on the topics at hand:

Possible Major Changes:

- Popular Vote:
I agree with Travis that popular vote is a tricky thing, and needs to be weighed as a minority judge at best (note: each judge in SpinTunes #1 was a minority judge, as no individual had enough sway to affect an outcome against the collective will of the other judges). Something that just occurred to me, though, is that the vote activity in SpinTunes is about an order of magnitude smaller than that of Song Fu; basically, everyone in the contest voted, and maybe a couple friends of people in the contest... but all in all there was a negligible amount of outside voting. What if the 7th judge were a "competitors' vote"? Each competitor gets their same three votes, and let's assume everyone votes for themselves... leaving two additional votes from which a crowd favorite can emerge. Then again, I think it's a special thing to have the competitors' vote come in for the final round. I don't have strong feelings one way or another here...

- Scoring: I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of resetting scoring, as it can lead to outcomes that some could argue are unfair. For example, I think everyone here would agree that Edric performed consistently better than I did across the span of the contest. He came in 1st place twice; I came in 1st place once... but by a stroke of luck, the challenge I won was the round that led to the finals. If the contest and submissions remained identical, except that the round #3 challenge happened first, and the 1st round challenge happened in round #3, then Edric would be in the finals, not me.

On the other hand, Edric made a compelling argument for resetting the scoring; it's the better option just for the fact that nobody is discouraged from continuing as soon as it's mathematically impossible for them to win (this wasn't a problem in Song Fu when there was not a fixed "point pool"; someone could always scare up 400 popular votes and make up a big deficit).

So then, in my mind the way to reconcile my doubts about the fairness of resetting scoring is this: the challenges themselves have to occur in order of increasing difficulty. I don't think it was ever stated explicitly, but I believe that each challenge thus far has been more difficult than the previous one. Since this is the case, I can begrudgingly accept the idea that my winning in round #3 carries more weight than the scores of people who placed higher than me in both previous rounds.

- TRAVIS HAS THE POWER: Challenges are one of the few things that *are* better when designed by committee. I like it the way it is.

Possible Minor Changes:

- Molly Lewis Rule: I feel like a little bit of a moron, but I don't know what this is. Did Molly win uncontested? I thought she beat Paul & Storm? Whatever the Molly Lewis Rule is, I can't comment on it until I have enough info to form an opinion.

- Judges Term Length: I have no preference one way or another. If a judge likes being a judge, I don't see the value of ousting them, other than to keep the competitors on their toes. None of us knew what the respective judges' biases and preferences would be until after the first challenge was done. That one little bit of uncertainty for the next round of competitors seems to be the only reason to swap judges out every time. Is that little difference worth the trouble? I can't say it is...

- Schedule: A lot of you out there couldn't believe that people were still having trouble getting their entries in on time despite having upwards of two weeks to complete a task. I suspect that those of you who said so are retired, are students, are homemakers, or are otherwise not busy during the week. I work full time Monday to Friday; I have a second part time job, and a weekly gig and band practices that fill my weeknights. Whether I had 9 days or twelve days to think about these challenges, in actuality I've had two days to complete them: Saturday and Sunday. I think on the round 2 challenge I had a leading weekend... so you could argue that one time I had four days at a maximum to work on a song. My point is, for me to be able to do these in the future, the 'working period' HAS to be over a weekend, preferably in the latter half of said period. In fact, you could shorten the allotted time to three days, as long as the last two days were on a weekend, but to be fair to everyone who may not have the same kind of regular schedule that I have, the only fair option is for the working window to be at least 8 days, thereby guaranteeing at least two 'weekend' days (whatever days upon which they happen to fall) for those of us who work full time.

- E-Mail Reminders: No need for this, really. It would be cool to have received an email from you that we could just reply to with our submissions (since your email address was a pain in the butt typing it in the first time), but once we've added you to our contact lists, that point becomes... pointless.

- Widget: Lose it. Maybe replace it with a more prominent link to the bandcamp page.

- Shadow CD: Just call shadows shadows. Since you're not guaranteed to receive an album's worth of them, keeping them with the regular submissions makes more sense.

- Judging Guidelines: Maybe. Or maybe a statement just needs to be published for the competitors' benefit. Mark from Offhand Band made a high priority of stating that he wanted his songs to be judged on his writing only; Joe Covenant made a high priority of judging entries based upon how they sounded to him. Clearly there was a disconnect between what each of them thought a "Songwriter's Competition" was. In my mind, one of them viewed this as a Composition contest, and the other viewed it like a Battle of the Bands. In my mind, a Songwriter's Competition requires both of these to be complementary sides of the same coin. It's not just poetry. It's not just music. Both need to add measurable value to the submission, and therefore both need to be judgable criteria.

The only restriction to this is the one that was already in place; production value shouldn't work against a competitor in any but the most extreme scenarios. I'd like to think that if my songs were delivered lo-fi, I'd still have scored similarly. Thing is, if I recorded lo-fi, the judges might likely have missed some of what I put into the song.

Call this unfair if you want, but I have to add this little bit of food for thought: I have no problem with good production helping a competitor. I spend as much time, if not more time, working on mixing and EQ and other postproduction than I do on recording the tracks themselves. I'm still learning how to do it well, but the point is, the sounds that go into my computer are not the same as the sounds that come out. To that end, I consider my mixing and mastering to be just one more instrument I play... one more layer to the work I'm putting into a song. If I can extract value out of it, I believe it's earned value. Keep in mind also, the production quality exemption is there to keep people from playing on an uneven financial field. If I always sound better than someone else because I have a $5,000 recording setup (not actually the case, by the way) that no one else can afford, I shouldn't get more points. But if I spend ten more hours tweaking a song to get it to sound better... ten hours another competitor could've spent, but didn't, then I have no problem earning a few more points for that.

- SUGGESTIONS: Maybe change the way peoples' entries are displayed on their profile pages... it's just a formatting suggestion. People are listed as voted out, but their subsequent entries are not consistently listed as shadows. There's a way to make it more clear how far people made it into the competition, and how much they continued to do after being eliminated. Other than that, I can't think of anything better than all the topics presented above. Cheers!