Truth be told at the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm a better guitar player than the majority of artist that I produce. Most are more than very capable and some are quite good. Many however ask me to play guitar on their song for them whether I co-wrote it or not because they feel I'm a better guitarist than they are. That being said, more often than not I still have them play the song instead. Why? Why would you not have the better player do the part? Because most of the time it's not about what is "better" but rather what is better for the SONG. Often the artists that I have play on the song offer a different twist, feel, or vibe than I would simply because they may not be as proficient. Whether it be due to lack of technical ability or just out of naivity there might be a certain characteristic that their playing ads. You may ask "but wouldn't a more accomplished player be able to replicate that? Yes more than likely but it would not come as naturally and possibly sound a bit more contrived then the natural musical beauty of innocence. Often in music just as in real life imperfections are what make things unique and enable us to have an attachment to them as humans since we are all imperfect to some degree. Sometimes things that are too perfect lose the essence that makes it beautiful and that is why Better is not Best
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Chris Dunnett is a multi-faceted Guitarist, Composer, Song-writer, Producer, Performer and Guitar Teacher
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I heard a Phil Collins song on the radio the other day and it got me thinking…remember when MTV used to play music videos? Video totally changed the game for the music biz as now everyone’s first exposure to an artist was their image at the same time as their music. Prior because of radio it was always music first then image. Thus began the artist “branding” as we know it today and I blame, er…credit MTV for that. Artists were constantly trying to outdo each other with crazy hair, wild outfits, and other visual effects but there was one artist that never really did any of that yet was a major success thru MTV, Phil Collins. Yes other artists like Billy Joel and Huey Lewis were made famous by MTV but even they were wearing flamboyant blazer and other attire to stand out. Yes there was Elton John but well, he always was a little flamboyant. Some might say Bruce Springsteen but he was already pretty popular before he was on MTV thanks to radio but Phil Collins wasn’t really a house hold name until his music hit MTV. And THAT is exactly what did it, his MUSIC. He really didn’t have much of an “image’, heck, I personally think the guy is a little goofy looking but extremely talented and he wrote great songs. So what’s the point of this blog? That even in the heyday of over the top imaging and visuals sometimes, just sometimes, great music still prevails.
Often as a musician (or in any field where fees are negotiated) there is a saying something to the effect of 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing. However, I recently realized that is not always the case.
First, a brief overview of songwriting income and how it’s split. In the songwriting world much of the income from a song is split between the people who wrote it and publishers. In a nutshell version, half of the song’s income goes to the writer(s) and half to the publisher(s) so if you wrote a song with another person and neither of you had signed away the publishing you would both get half of the writer’s share and half of the publisher’s share, essentially 50/50. Now let’s say you both wrote the song yet your co-writer had signed a publishing deal then his publishing portion is split between him and his publisher. Breakdown = you get 50% (your writer share and your publisher share), he gets 25% (his writer share) and his publisher gets 25% (his publishing share. Get the idea? This is a very general example but should get the idea across. Obviously there are many ways this can be divvied up but this should give you an idea of how that works. The writer should ALWAYS retain his portion of the writer’s share. Since a publisher helps to get a song placed (among other many duties) it can be very beneficial to give up your publishing share to a publisher as it can mean much more revenue and other successes down the road. Hence, 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.
In the Film/TV music world a music library basically acts as the publisher so the same standard applies. If I sign a song that I wrote by myself to a music library they typically become the publisher and therefore get the publisher’s share and I get my writer’s share. Often when a song is placed there is also an upfront payment (sync fee) which is typically split 50/50 also. One thing about music libraries unlike conventional music publishers is that often the deals can be “non-exclusive” which means I can have the same song signed to multiple libraries. Some deals are “exclusive” which means I can only have it signed to that one library. There are goods/bads to both but that is all beyond the scope of this blog for now but just know both types of deals exist in the Film/TV music world.
Now the meat of it all. Recently I was offered a deal from a library ( we won’t mention any names but they CouldB and Entertainment company you might Google …oops, did that slip? ;) ) that was an Exclusive deal (OK, I’ve done those before) they get the entire publisher share (again very standard) BUT also wanted HALF of MY writer’s share? Say what??? That’s 75% of the entire pie! I even had to email them to make sure that wasn’t a typo. Nope, that’s their “deal”. As Dr. Evil would say…”How about NOOOOOOO… you crazy Dutch bastard!”. OK, so I don’t know if he was Dutch (nothing wrong with that) but he definitely was the other. I literally had to wait 24 hours before responding to their offer to avoid telling them they could bleep bleep bleep themselves and just replied with a professional “No thank you”.
I had mentioned this to other industry professionals and they also felt this company was out of their minds and I truly hope no song writers out there ever sign this kind of deal. No writer should EVER give up their writer’s share to someone who was NOT a writer of the song. This is a case where 100% of zero WAS better and here’s why. The exclusive deal meant I could not pursue other avenues with the song...now I can. I have also hung onto my integrity as well as my writer’s share and stuck up for my rights as a creator. Why would I give half of my writer’s share to a party that DID NOT write any of the song? Too often musicians give in to a bad deal out of desperation and fear of saying “No”. It’s OK to say no because sometimes 100% of Zero can be a better deal.
I currently reside in Nashville which is affectionately known as Music City. However lately the music part has begun to shrink. There has been an influx of people moving into condos across from bars and complaining about the music which leaves me scratching my head. Would you move near an airport only to complain about the noise? Another issue here is some home studio owners like Lij Shaw (who has worked with acts such as Tori Amos, Zac Brown Band, and Ani Defranco among many others) has received a cease and desist from the city for operating a home studio which is to some degree the life blood of this city. He was also told to no longer operate his Podcast on YouTube as it falls under a “home business” definition even though it is strictly on the Internet which has me scratching my head even more as that has nothing to do with having clients in your house? All this makes me ponder the future of “Music City”
This past week I received an offer from a music library for an exclusive deal on one of my tracks. An exclusive deal is not uncommon in that world and neither is wanting 100% of the publishing share. Typically the library will take the publishing share which leaves the writer (me) with the writer’s share, essentially a 50/50 split. However, this music library (and now I use that term loosely) ALSO wanted 50% of my writer’s share…wait a tick! Huh? That’s basically they get 75% of the pie. NOT a common practice and I hope no songwriter ever agrees to such a deal. My fear is many desperate and naïve musicians fall prey to such a thing which would only further devalue an already devalued product…music
I used to play the cafe area in several Borders books and music stores all around the Cincinnati region on Friday and Saturday nights. I was only paid $50 but it was only a 2 hour gig and I always sold a bunch of CD's, got people signed up on my mailing list, and gained a following of regulars. People could come out on a weekend night not have to deal with a loud smoky bar and hear good music, enjoy a cappuccino, and peruse a book or two. It was a win - win situation for all. I made a little money, Borders made money, and people had a nice place to hang out. Then someone in their corporate office decided why should they pay musicians? I’m sure we can just get them to play for free. As a result the professional touring artist such as myself were not going to play for free so they basically got anybody who could strum a guitar. As a result the music was sub-par, people quit coming to hang out long story short within the next 2 years all Borders had closed. Yeah, what's that they say about Karma? I'm not saying that that was the definite reason that Borders closed but I can’t help but wonder if that had caused some sort of trickle-down effect?
Last month my blog was about the many hats that musicians have to wear these days but sometimes it’s not best to try to do it all. DIY means Do It Yourself but that doesn’t necessarily mean Do It ALL Yourself. Sometimes it’s a good idea to “pass the hat”. This can be for a number of reasons. The first being the age old battle of Time vs. Money. For example, let’s say your time is worth $25 an hour and you absolutely despise cutting your grass. If you can get someone to do it for say $12.50 an hour you can spend your time making that back times two. Unless you just don’t have the money to spend (which often musicians may not) or just LOVE cutting your grass you may want to consider passing that hat to someone else. No, this is not about yard work I just used that as an example ;).
Another reason you may want to pass the hat is there may be a better qualified person. You just can’t be great at everything and although there are some things you may not need to be “great” at to get it done some things such as maybe your graphic design, your website, or guitar repairs might better off being done by a pro.
Lastly though, a reason people may not consider at first is simply so you can focus on more important things. It would be rather difficult for you to be your own photographer (other than the proverbial “selfie”) and concentrate on your look and lighting while to look “cool” in your photos. I have begun working on a new album which is all solo instrumental acoustic guitar - one guitar, no overdubs. While I have a pretty good home studio and know my gear fairly well I would be splitting my focus up between trying to get a great performance and being an engineer also. Because of this I have opted to record my album at a good friend’s (Dave Harris) studio and let him do what he does best which is engineer while I can focus solely on my playing. This way I’m not trying to wear two hats at the same time ;).
I have been known to wear many hats both literally and figuratively. As a musician, the latter, especially these days is imperative. Traditionally a professional musician pretty much had to just worry about making music and hope they can gain the interest of other parties (record labels, managers, etc.) to do the rest. While that is still a valid option and one that many hope and strive for, it may not happen for many musicians. However, all is not lost. Welcome to the age of DYI. But what if you don’t want to Do It Yourself and still hope on getting a team of others interested so you can just make music? Well, here’s the reality check…for the most part, to get those people interested you need to have already established yourself to a certain degree. How do you that? That’s right…DYI.
Here are just a few of the many roles that musicians these days usually have to become:
* Recording Engineer
* Booking Agent
* PR person
* Social Media wiz
* Web designer
And trust me there are many more. Now, I am ALL about hiring a person to do as many of these as possible especially the ones you may not be very skilled at and I firmly believe it is better to pay a Pro and get it done right than do it yourself and do a poor job. However, some of these you may find that you (or other band members) excel at and may actually enjoy doing. Here’s another plus side to being able to do some of these…one, you have more control over the results, two, you become acquainted enough with a task that you can better convey your ideas to a pro at it as well as possibly keep you from getting taking to the cleaners. We’ve all heard horror stories about bands that lost thousands of dollars by dishonest managers.
How many of those have I had to do? Pretty much all of them and more. Some I excelled and enjoyed more than others. Recently I have become a bit of a videographer and video editor as I am filming a series of online guitar instructional videos and although it has been a bit of learning curve, I have really enjoyed it. It's fun to play Steven Spielberg. Have I hired people to do tasks for me? Absolutely! Having had done some of those myself however definitely gave me an advantage when hiring someone else to do it.
The bad news is there has never been a time where musicians are expected to more. The good news there has never been a time that has been easier to learn to wear all these different hats and give musicians so much control over their creativity and career. So as you go out and independently dress for success I’ll leave you with this metaphor…make sure YOUR hat matches your wardrobe ;)
The Led Legacy
I saw Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience (son of Led Zeppelin drummer the late John “Bonzo” Bonham) recently and while often children of celebrities try to go out of their way to separate them from their celebrity parents and make their own mark (which I totally understand) I was very pleasantly surprised to see him totally embrace his father’s legacy. Not only did he embrace it, it was apparent he genuinely wanted to carry it forward which I thought was very impressive.
I have always been a big Zeppelin fan and they are one band that is seems like the more I listen to them, the more I respect them. Yes, there are a few guitar solos where Jimmy Page is a bit sloppy but when I see live footage of him and how he replicates the multiple guitar parts he over-dubbed in the studio live it more than makes up for those recordings. John Paul Jones is very much a hidden gem in the band as his bass and keyboard lines seem so subtle most don’t realize how brilliant they are til you listen close. Robert Plant to me is (arguably) the very first REAL frontman of Rock and Roll but they are also one of the 1st bands where the drums had a HUGE Impact on the sound. I really hadn’t realized this til a few years ago when I had purchased a sample pack of “Bonham Beats”. Basically just the drum beats to some Zeppelin songs, recorded by another drummer … although spot on! Just by the drum beat alone I could exactly what song each was. A rarity by most accounts. Many songs the drums for the most part are a basic beat but not Bonham’s. Every single beat stood out and the song was easily recognizable while not being over-kill as to take away from the song. The sign of not just a drummer, but a “Musician”.
People have often posed the question to me…The Stones or The Beatles? To which I always reply, Led Zeppelin. Nothing against the other 2 bands as they are awesome and most definitely a part of Rock and Roll history and have very much influenced 10s of thousands as well as, by my assumption, probably outsold Zeppelin. But, while The Stones are more “raw” and in the more “garage band” type sound and The Beatles were a little more “Pop” and polished, Led Zeppelin, to me anyway, always seemed to bridge that gap and up the musicianship, versatility, and experimentation a bit more. Not that the other 2 were not experimental but Zep just seem to have a certain chemistry to them and while Plant and Page were always the main focus, they are one band that would have not sounded the same had they replaced any member. Perhaps that’s why when Bonzo died they decided not to carry on? While many drummers are able to play Led Zeppelin and many bands can cover it, there will only be ONE Led Zeppelin
I went to see a good buddy of mine the other night play, Damon LaScott, who is an excellent guitar player and while listening to his playing I also really marveled at his guitar tone. Then it dawned on me... while I have heard some great guitar players that to me, did not have a great "sound" I don't think I have ever heard a great tone that wasn't being produced by a great guitarist. It is common said, although for the most part people don't REALLY understand this til they experience first hand, that most players guitar "tone" actually comes from how they play. Sure, every little piece of the chain plays into it...the guitar, the amp, pedals (obvious choices), the strings, picks, cables (yes, often debated but trust me....cables make a difference). But the REAL difference is the player. Again, hard to understand until you actually experience it but for example, I could plug Eddie Van Halen's guitar into Eddie Van Halen's amp and even play Eddie Van Halen licks and trust me, I am NOT going to sound like Eddie Van Halen...I am going to sound like Chris Dunnett trying to play Eddie Van Halen. Conversely, if Eddie Van Halen plugged my guitar into my amp he is STILL going to sound like Eddie Van Halen. Tone really come more from your fingers, how you hit the fretboard, and your picking technique. So the summation in my opinion is it doesn't mean that just because you hear a bad guitar tone that the player is not necessarily a good player but I'm pretty sure if you hear a great guitar tone you can rest assured you are listening to a great player
The movies Halloween and Jaws have always been not only 2 of my favorite movies but 2 of the scariest I have seen. Unlike a lot of blood and gore movies where everything is right in your face what makes these so scary is that you rarely see the villain (Michael Myers – aka “The Boogey Man” or the shark). “FEAR” is caused by that of the “unknown”. Think about it. If you knew absolutely 100% without a doubt that you could walk into a burning building and walk out totally unharmed, would you be afraid? Probably not. It is the “unknown” outcome which scares us. As musicians and song-writers it becomes many unknowns… Will I play the song right? Will I get the gig at this audition? Will they pick my song at the publisher pitch? It is these exact unknown outcomes which create fear in us. Fear can be a good thing as it warns us of something we need to prepare for but it can also paralyze us and create more problems if we don’t know how to handle it. I always try to face fear head on and just keep hitting that boogeyman or shark because the only sure way for them to get you is if you don’t fight back.
A valuable lesson for all musicians...be cool and be flexible. I played a wedding cocktail party and was asked to set up outside so I did got my sound check and everything together played 2 songs then they asked if I could move everything inside because the majority of the guests were not coming outside. Granted, they asked me earlier if that needed to happen if it would be a problem and I said no. One of the advantages of being a solo artist ;). The wedding started 20 minutes late and ran another 20 minutes over so I started playing 40 minutes later then contracted and they wanted me to finish what we had arranged, stop for a bit while they made announcements, and play an additional 15 minutes. I gladly obliged. Not only did they end up paying me nearly double what we had agreed on but the event planner was very happy amd appreciative of my willingness to go the extra mile and I will probably get more gigs out of it in the future. So... be cool, be flexible :)