Riker's Mailbox

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!