Songs Are Like Children
by Jerry Flattum
If I had only known my journey as a songwriter would lead me into scary and dazzling mystical worlds, take me on numerous magic carpet rides, and then throw me into a bottomless pit of pain, heartache and failure...if Iíd known this...Iíd probably have written a song about it.
The celebration of my journey is not all that positive; it is not without regret. The best way I know how to justify my failures, even more than by achieving personal success, is to help someone else not make the same mistakes. Itís true that I would not have become who I am had I not made the mistakes I made. It is the realization of this unique journey--and with it, unique mistakes--that allow me to write unique songs. The word unique seems a little cold. Itís my personal journey. My personal style. If Iíve learned anything about songwriting, itís that. From Gerswhin to Porter, from Carole King to Bruce Springsteen, thereís no mistaking who these people are--thereís no mistaking their songs.
Thereís no question these people were blessed with talent that far exceeded their experience. They found success at an early age. To be a good songwriter, you donít have to travel the world three times, fight in a couple of wars, or have a father who drank while your mother sold her body. You can be as innocent and inexperienced as a Michael Jackson, or even the Beatles when they first entered on the scene. Of course they had pain in their lives. Itís just that its not the image of an old blues guy sitting at the end of a cotton field, drinkiní whiskey and strumminí a beat up guitar with only five strings. Kids can sing the blues. The message here is that experience, no matter the depth or breadth, is one of the songwriterís most valuable resources. Having vision (insight and intuition), and having the ability to feel and communicate those feelings, may even be more invaluable. The most important resource, is the love you have to give, expressed through song.
I first discovered a love for music in my junior year of high school. One summer day I sat down at the piano and, within minutes, began to play by ear a basic blues progression. It was 1968 and what is now known as classic rock was thriving. By reading album liner notes, I began to learn that rock music was largely based on the music of Afro-American blues artists. I had never known a black person. I started to listening to the music of these blues artists, and these recordings were my first introduction to black history and culture. It wasn't until years later I fully realized that crossing the bridge between white and black music was at the heart and soul of the birth and development of popular music.
In America in 1968, rebellion was exploding to the point of revolution. This rebellion was largely a burst of outcries against social injustices such as racism, inequality between men and women, the struggle to save the environment, and especially, America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The rebellion was largely a movement of the youth culture and music became the voice. Walls were being torn down between youth and the "establishment"--the status quo that resisted the demands for social change. Meanwhile, in the world of music, bridges were being built everywhere, crossing all the lines defining the musical styles of country, blues, jazz and other genres. It was a fusion of different styles unlike anything that had ever happened before in the history of music. It was against this backdrop of social upheaval and revolutionary changes in the world of popular music that I began my journey as a musician and songwriter.
In 1974, with one pocket full of dreams, and the other full of half-baked songs, I left Minneapolis for New York in search of stardom. New York was filled with dreamers like myself and I soon learned that stardom was a multi-billion dollar industry. The more I learned about the business, the more I saw how the business affected the relationship of popular music and popular culture, and specifically, how songs were written according to commercialized standards.
The stardom I was searching for began to look more like an occupational title than something someone was born with. Stardom is mysterious, in part, because of intangibles like the magic of melody and the gift of talent. But, it is the business of music that discovers these talents and markets them on a national/international level. Success for any artist/band or song is largely measured by sale of recorded product, live performance ticket sales, airplay and perception by the media. By trying to sell myself as an artist, as well as my songs individually, I learned firsthand about the road an artist or song travels on from inception to market.
For an individual song, the presentation, performing artist, and context, all play significant roles in a songís commercial and popular development. The song must be protected as intellectual property, dressed up (the arrangement), transported, marketed and maintained. Film, video, commercials, and even industrial use also play a role in this regard as the music business is ever increasingly integrated with the entertainment industry as a whole. Being successful commercially means finding your market. Consequently, a lawyer or business manager is equally as important as the musicians, studio personnel and artist who help bring a song to the public. I've learned to appreciate that beyond the artists and their music, it was the business of music that delivered the blues right to my front door.
As an artist at heart, the business side of music was never an area of strong interest. The interest developed as a matter of practical necessity. It was a way of staying close to music while having to provide an income. I learned that regardless of potential, any original song I created had to be protected prior to sale and exploitation. If luck were to come my way, contracts would be offered. Common sense taught me that any contract requires legal guidance and a thorough understanding of the points in that contract. In New York, rumors were plenty with the stories of artists and bands who signed the wrong kinds of contracts--contracts that cost them considerable amounts of time and money.
Jobs with music and entertainment companies like CBS, Samuel French, and the Harry Fox Agency were the means of providing support during the search for a publishing/recording contract. This experience provided valuable insight into the processes involved in the development, sale and marketing of original music for commercial purposes at the national and international levels. Working for Samuel French, as well as other theatrical experience, provided a foundation for understanding the writing and selling of plays and movies. I worked in a variety of positions, from office clerk to production assistant to prop master and even bit-part acting, with an independent film company involved in the making of a major motion picture. This served as a comprehensive introduction to the world of filmmaking. Submitting an original song as a possible theme song for the movie was my first professional rejection.
At CBS, I learned how a major film and music production company operates, especially in the use of music for TV. Because of a job freeze in the Record Division during that time, the only position open for me was in the TV area. The area I worked in, Music Operations, was largely responsible for providing ďcannedĒ music for various documentaries, news shows, and other programs. I became familiar with how pre-recorded music is ďpickedĒ and edited, and assisted in the selection of music from the CBS pre-recorded music library. One of my responsibilities was to manage and maintain the files of music related information (music contracts, band rosters, financial statements, etc.), for all CBS shows. Before going off the air, the Music Operations Department was responsible for operating and maintaining the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason Orchestras. The rolodex on my desk was a virtual whoís who of top musicians in New York.
My history is disjunctive and varied, to say the least. Iíve often dreamed of a career that followed more of a straight line. Iíve fooled around, so to speak, with a variety of instruments, but keyboards are my main instrument. I love to sing and dance and have spent half my life doing so. Most of my knowledge of songwriting and the music business was obtained through private study and experience.
While working at these music companies during the 70s in New York, I played the piano and performed for over a year in various clubs within Manhattan with a musical comedy troupe called, ďFirst Amendment.Ē I wrote the music for a musical called, ďHomeseekersĒ, which ran for six weeks at the Nat Horne Theatre on 42nd Street in New York. After leaving CBS in 1980, I then performed in dozens of clubs throughout the New York metropolitan area as part of a duo and trio. While performing, my partner and I shopped demos of original material in the hopes of achieving a recording contract. We hired Sid Bernstein as a business manager. Mr. Bernstein was famous for promoting the Beatles at Shea Stadium and Carnegie Hall, as well as achieving many other credits. In 1988, Mr. Bernstein was also used as a reference in obtaining a position as Music Data Base Administrator at National Music Publishers Association and the Harry Fox Agency (NMPA/HFA).
After leaving New York and returning to Minneapolis in 1990, I played with a number of different bands and performed as a soloist. After submitting a demo through an ad in the newspaper, I was chosen to create approximately 80 ďsequencesĒ of varying short durations for a CD-ROM project called ďFractunesĒ, published by Quanta Press, Minneapolis. This led to a vain attempt to enter the CD-ROM market with no success. Iíve also written a musical called, ďTime Travelers: The Celestial AgeĒ, based on the H.G. Wells classic, The Time Machine. Iíve generated some interest from movie companies and literary agents but have yet to achieve production.
I am currently designing a degree in songwriting through the University of Minnesota, and plan to graduate in the Spring of 1997. Any formal music education prior to this consisted of a few extension courses at the Julliard School of Music and some private study with a Julliard instructor. My degree centers around a series of independent projects designed to define songwriting as an area of academic study. In my first project I submitted the lyrics, leadsheets and demo recordings for sixty-seven original songs. Other projects centered around keyboards, MIDI, the art and craft of songwriting, and the business of music. My major project is a book proposal called, Bridge on Fire: The Journey of Songwriting From Inception to Market.
Bridge on Fire traces the cross-fertilization of popular music from a sociological, psychological, anthropological, and personal perspective. In this project, I used the concept of ďCrossoverĒ as a way of viewing the cross fertilization of popular music, the hybridization of styles, and the inter-relatedness of culture, popular music, and the media. Crossover is a term used by the music industry to describe an artist/band or song that crosses over one style or category of music to another. Conceptually, the term crossover represents the means used to trace the linkages (the bridges) between any two polarities, such as cause and effect, or self to society. It traces the exchange of ideas, activities and events as they occur simultaneously and linearly, and reveals the influence popular music has on culture.
Bridge on Fire offers a holistic approach to songwriting. As a song moves on itís journey from inception to market, the songwriter is involved in the many inter-related areas of writing lyrics, playing an instrument, recording, performance and business. All of these elements are equally as important to the art and craft of songwriting as word, melody, harmony, structure and rhythm.
In Minneapolis, I have been steadily employed as a musician since 1990. This has given me tremendous experience in running my own business, even when itís a one-person operation. As an independent contractor, I am solely responsible for every area of business, from filing Schedule C to equipment purchase to maintaining a home office and studio. Alot of musician friends have their own studios, run their own bands, or contract independently as I do. As educational and invaluable experience as this may be, it has kept me in a perpetual state of poverty. As a dreamer, this comes with the territory. This does not happen to everyone. Even at the local level, many bands, musicians and writers have found a modicum of success. They even have houses in suburbia!
I was recently sitting in the Purple Onion Coffee House in Dinkytown, a popular University of Minnesota college crowd hangout, drinking cappuccino and listening to James Brown music pouring through the speakers. As I looked around the room, I couldn't help but notice that everyone was white. I thought about how country music today is predominately white and rap music is predominately black. I looked back to the time when I first heard the blues as a teenager living in white middle-class suburbia. From Stephen Fosterís lyrical references to "darkies" during the turn of the century, to a modern day white crowd sitting in a coffee house listening to R&B tunes, the history of popular music is an on-going struggle primarily between black and white. In terms of bringing people together, pop music is a ďbridge on fireĒ. Most everyone knows what it means to ďburn your bridges. People do things that separate them, rather than bring them together. But rather than view mistakes and failures as burnt bridges, it is more positive to view the relationships we have in the here and now as bridges on fire. The choices we (society) make will determine if we reach the other side of this burning bridge. Songwriting is very much a way to cross those bridges between black and white, young and old, rich and poor.
Itís a Friday night in July, 1996 and Iím on my way to a "gig" at Archies, in Hopkins, Minnesota. I slip in a compilation tape of recent acid jazz and trip hop music into my cassette deck, and start singing along to warm up my voice. As I pull up to unload my equipment, I secretly hope that one of the other guys in the band pulls up at the same time and hears this "new" music blasting from my car. Iím trying to send a message. What I end up with is the shocking realization that Iím rebelling against the very music that taught me how to rebel in the first place: 60s and 70s rock.
The band Iím in is called, Jonah and the Whales, and is one of the top cover bands in the Twin Cities. We play largely 70s material (Pink Floyd, Journey, Elton John, Rolling Stones, etc.) to packed houses virtually every weekend. The band gets top dollar, has a significant following and a reputation for having some of the best talent around.
So why the discontent? For me, itís as simple as black and white. To be more clear, there is no black music. From the club owners to the audiences, it is a singularly white world. The message I was trying to send by blasting hip hop style music from my car was that I wanted to do more black music. Even more so, I was hungry to play with black musicians. Above this even further, was the fact that this was a cover band, not an original band. Like working for the music companies in New York, coverbands were a means of providing income while pursuing my dreams. Still, this coverband experience was a reflection of the struggles between black and white music--the same struggles I faced as an original songwriter.
On the other side of the door that opens to stardom, is a room filled with frustration, heartache and often times, tragedy. Some manage to shake loose the dream of stardom, perhaps those with more common sense. Others hit walls and fall hard. Still, others make it. Many artists and writers have died from alcohol and drug abuse. Stardom is mistakenly viewed as an entry into heaven. It's not suppose to be a responsibility. Fame and glory comes from being well liked, even loved, but many artists fail to recognize this difference between fantasy and reality, especially when intoxicated.
The bridges an artist crosses in the pursuit of stardom can be lit on fire at any step of the way. The risks can be enormous. Traveling dirt roads to a neon-lit highway: from playing in local bars to coliseums and satellite broadcasts; 4-track home studios to Hollywood; a lyric written on the back of a napkin to a number one hit; the experience of stardom and the struggle to get there can be overwhelming. It can be life-in-the-fast-lane born from a meteoric rise from obscurity to fame, or a constant onslaught of rejection and failure.
John Lennon of the Beatles once remarked in a televised interview from the 1960s, "we're more popular than Jesus." Anyone who has ever had to repeat and spell their name out loud while filling out some form or application, may wonder what it would be like to live a life of such glory and fame. The lyrics from the theme song of the TV show Cheers says it best, "Everybody knows your name." Stardom is not an end in itself. Where success is really achieved is by writing a song and performing in such a way that it touches the lives of others in a positive way. It's a process of giving.
I have learned that feelings of failure, largely stemming from never having sold a song, can be an illusion. What Iíve tried to do is not necessarily what I need to do--a most valuable lesson. There is always hope. No matter what anyone says, there is nothing they can say that will completely convince me that I donít stand a chance of achieving success with my songs. I may not have achieved commercial success, but I do believe I have achieved artistic success. I love the songs I wrote. I believe in them as though they were my children. I want to see them grow. I want to see them accepted. Like Bob Seegerís tune, "Against the Wind", Iíve often found myself to be the only one who believes in myself; believes in my songs. This is my strength--the strength of belief and conviction.
Up till now, I have made inferior quality demos. I believe this to be the primary obstacle standing between me and success. Living in the here and now, what I need to do is make a master-quality demo. Iím also going to make high quality piano/vocal demos solely for the purpose of showcasing the song without production.
There are other obstacles. Much of the quest centers around finding a person who believes in my potential and has the power and where-with-all to make things happen. This is really what luck in show biz is all about. This means, "getting discovered". It remains unknown whether the artist must find the connection or the connection finds the artist. Artists put themselves on display, by live performance or recording. Then, someone other than the artist takes the demo to the power person . There seems to always be a middle person acting as liaison between artist and power person. Or, power person meets, sees, or hears the artist directly. It is making this connection that is crucial to ďmaking itĒ in the music business.
Like any human endeavor, there is much negativity to overcome. This can range anywhere from disbelief in yourself, career moves blocked by jealousy, bouts of depression, low self-esteem, various conflicts with others, selfishness, greed, feelings of dread, overcoming past mistakes and going down wrong roads. Financing is always a major issue. There is the cost of producing the right demo, purchasing equipment, and personal financial support. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles for any songwriter is finding someone who believes in you.
Iíve never given up on my dreams. I canít. I have too much to give. This is what drives me. Itís the need to share my songs with the world. My songs are gifts. Whatís disturbing is when others view my journey as a selfish one of dreams of success. Itís really a journey of giving. I canít stop myself from dreaming big, because thatís how much I have to give. There were times I tried--the painful times--like when I was broke, or just received a record company rejection letter, or playing in a dingy bar on the same night Bruce Springsteen was playing at the Met Stadium. My songs are my children, and I love them no matter what. It is this love of songwriting and the desire to give that allows me to withstand any hardships that come my way.
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