Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Texas Microphone Massacre

Nowadays, the current thought is that social media is the must-have instrument of choice for "getting the word out".  It replaces the persistent sore of marketing, is cheaper, and also works as the play-field leveller between the Rolling Stones' and the Jonathon Coultons of the world.  But as the wall betwixt artist and fan falls (even if just virtually), the "rock star mystique" is in danger of being shorn away - familiarity breeds contempt, goes the old saw.

Maybe this is a good thing, maybe not - Someone should ask Kiss.  As for us, we'll just take a look at local boys 
Texas Microphone Massacre:  
All we got on these guys is initials - That's V on the right, T on the left, and G in the middle there. We'll hypothesize that V = Chris Veden, T = Heath Tull, and G = Gilbert Sanchez, but there's no conclusive proof either way:  TMM stays mysterious, even in private emails.  We do know that V does the vocals, T the programming, and G does duty on strings, then gets behind the drumkit at their live performances.  We also know they're card-carrying members of the Austin Electronic Music Grid, which adds credulity, but probably not enough to eliminate our doubts - The moniker and the masks draw an obvious association with another Texas Massacre.

Not pictured, but credited (by full name no less) is Tim Gerron:  Tim handles production (both studio and live), songwriting, and carries the title "Consiglieri".  We think that's a useful guy to have around, your own consiglieri; but that also carries a certain connotation, and we'll leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Though the cool music vid for "Last December" (embedded below) does offer a few provocative clues as to their identity, diving into their bio we find this intriguing comment:
An ever-evolving music experiment now in its 3rd incarnation, Texas Microphone Massacre is the brainchild of Chris Veden and Heath Tull. In the summer of 2010, the group added accomplished stringed instrumentalist Gilbert Sanchez to the fold and began production on its newest album, Fantasy Rolodex, with respected producers/engineers Mark Dufour and Tim Gerron.
Yep, that's the same Mark Dufour who's worked with Ghostland Observatory.  Allegedly TMM has been making and playing music, in some guise or another, over 10+ years; in genres as divergent as hip hop, southern rock, and metal; and in venues from as far north as Chicago to as far south as our own 6th Street.  (The scuttlebutt is they're revamping their live act yet again, to matchstep with the new CD they're currently recording.)
With names and faces concealed (along with any damning history that accompanies), we're forced to draw clues from the music.  Turns out that's an inconclusive source, for the masked trio cooks a mean pot of some very nicely produced musical stew; tossing in everything from 60's era Turtles' classics to more modern spoken word pieces; and all of it simmers with an understated confidence - the kind that only comes with maturity.  

Their latest release, "Fantasy Rolodex", bubbles nicely with bits of hip hop, electro-sonic pop, screechy synths, and guitars; all slathered with V's unique, near-psychosis vocals.
At the time of this writing, the LP's a freebie, so you should chase it down and snatch it up with the conviction of an pickax-wielding psychopath.  (It ain't hard, the link to a ZIP file is right there on TMM's website.)

Enough talk, let's jam:  Take in their nice styling of 
"You Showed Me", a cover from the aforementioned Turtles:

Now check out one from the same period, but a completely different genre; an equally-nice cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity":

First - You notice the "big", well-produced sound of these numbers?  That's the tell-tale mark of post-production geniuses Dufour and Gerron.  But welcome to the 2010s - TMM reports that these were recorded on a used Dell Optiplex they found on Craigslist.  The specs on that box are horrific (1 gig of RAM?), but 200 bucks later and they have the centerpiece for their studio.

Secondly - You notice the modern voicing on these tracks?  Notice the fatter-sounding bass, the electro drums, and supporting synths (sawtoothed, boxy, and outright trip-hoppish), all blended into a well-laid production.

Lastly - You notice the vocal stylings of V on these tracks?  Especially mark the contemporary insinuations he was able to inject, breathing new relevance into these now 40+ year old lyrics; marking him as a master with that microphone.

Compositionally, the rest of the tracks on Fantasy Rolodex fit into this (admittedly loose) mold:  Pop-structured ABA numbers, built on varied synths, hip-trippy drumkits, G's electric guitars, and plump bass lines; all supporting V's dominating vocals.

And we'll call that TMM's sonic makeup - Cool, genre-bastardizing compositions, highlighted by front-man V's vox.  Familiar enough to get your attention, quirky enough to keep it, powerful enough to be memorable, and hook-laden enough to bring you back for more.

Typically at this point we embed a CD's worth of content and call it a day.  Instead, we'll recommend a precision strike to TMM's home base for that download, and leave you with the spot-on, excellent music vid for "Last December", produced by the crack team at Strike Anywhere Productions:

Find out more about Texas Microphone Massacre on Facebook, SoundCloud, Twitter, and Home Base.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Town Cryer - Outsourced vs DIY Promotion

[Doing research for the last post, "Portrait of the Artist as an Indie", we had the good fortune to gather some expert information about promotion.  Instead of letting it rot in the obscurity of our inbox, and because of it's importance to the indie musician, we thought a follow up post was in order.]

In these days of DIY, when the indie musician composes and records and masters and duplicates and does most everything, including booking their own shows; that "if you want something done right, do it yourself" attitude encroaches into every facet of their musical endeavor.  So much so that it's difficult to give away control to an outside force, even when maybe that's the best move.  

A prime control hot spot?  Promotion.  

Though it's a vital step in the music trade, it's typically downplayed or ignored by the indie.  Either "My Music Stands on it's Own (If you build it they will come)" or "It costs too much" or "It's overrated".  Or "I hate that stuff".  

Makes sense - To the musician, every deed of non-music is a deed of questionable worth.  Because music is what they barter, it's the coin of the realm, it's what's for supper.  It's What It's All About.  Everything else is... everything else.  Eating, sleeping, working, bathing?  Overrated. 

Promoting?  Same deal.  Though an integral part of the music trade, promoting is just... not music. 

And to be agreeable, promotion isn't strictly necessary.  If you're not interested in getting your music heard, in any capacity, then you should skip out on promotion.

But if we may - Promotion in every other industry is called Advertising.  Without it, no one knows you've got something worth paying attention to.  So music without promotion is kinda like a farmer raising crops, then not harvesting them.  Not exactly, but kinda like that. 

You could even argue that there is a scientific way to approach promotion, a "Generally Accepted Promotional Principals" list.  Bu this isn't accounting, and following it doesn't necessarily lead to success.  Every group is unique, and so needs unique handling.  Ryan Cano of The Loyalty Firm says "...every project is different but publicity is very much a relationship-driven type of service and I have been fortunate enough to be able to share good music from people around the world." 

Ryan would know.  Self-taught, self-motivated, he's a voting member of the Grammys, a veteran of band management, done record deals and licencing negotiations, handled show booking and production, worked as a sponsorship liason, as a publicist -

"There's always a lot of hats to wear to make a band successful and having a good publicist is a smart investment to add to a band's team."  But being a publicist isn't Ryan's sweet spot:  He calls band management "the true bread-and-butter of what I do well here..."
Talk to enough people, and you'll hear those two words, "management" and "promotion", mentioned in the same sentence, leading you to think these are the same beast.  Ross Bennet of Manateam clarifies it:  "I think they go hand in hand on our level. There are big management companies that manage huge acts out there that work with big promotion companies, and that makes sense to be separate.  But on our local level there is no need for separation."   
I always think of Press and PR as being part of the puzzle, not the final piece of it.... I guess what I mean is that if you hire a publicist, the best way for a band to maximize the value you receive from the PR company is to be doing all the things a band desiring publicity should be doing.
-- Ryan Cano of The Loyalty Firm
So what do you guys do, really?
The load of doing your publicity!  ....create a strategy with the band and we go for writers who we think will review the artists music and also review it favorably.  We push music videos, send press releases, do tour marketing, etc.  I design a custom mailout based upon writers tastes at various places.... We dedicate our time to getting our clients music in the press and that's a full time focus and our full time job.
-- Ryan Cano of The Loyalty Firm  
...placement in local online and print media outlets regarding new music, cd reviews, show previews or anything else writers write about, help with booking if needed, inclusion in one of Manateam's mix-tape's (via bandcamp)...Our greatest goal is to make sure everyone knows who they are and that they are awesome.
-- Ross Benett of Manateam

Like the industry they inhabit, these promotional entities come in all shapes, sizes, and focus.  The Loyalty Firm is a full-on boutique promotion house, with a select clientele and a full range of services.  

Moving down the continuum a notch or two, Manateam is a bit less focused on promotion per se - Their proper name, "Manateam Group", suggests a collective, a strength-in-numbers approach to problem solving.  Ross says "We have close ties to our bands, and work with them all on a personal level. We hang out with them, come to their shows, drink with them, and help them make decisions with the band."
Manateam is a project that helps deserving bands point themselves in the right direction. We help promote where they may not have reach, generate media content where they may be lacking, and help create an an awareness where a buzz is deserved.
-- Ross Bennett
And way on the other end, you can get promotional resources from anonymous websites like,, and 101Promotion:

These kind of entities can only exist in our over-wired world:
This day and age of a viral marketing medium is very real, and what can start off as a local/regionally known entity can become a world-wide household name depending on the various media outlets that review, post or talk about your music and the content the band creates.
-- Ryan Cano
Given these kinds of choices, you could see why the indie may just DIY it.  And in some instances, that's for the best:  
I think most bands who need PR truly are touring bands.  If you are only playing in your hometown - you have plenty of time to handle your own PR and it will make you truly appreciate that job once you do hire it out after doing it youself.
-- Ryan Cano
The current mainstream thought is that there is a list of activities the artist has to perform just to be a position to grow that fan base - 
1)Playing shows 
2)Touring regionally 
3)Producing music videos 
4)Engaging fans via social media, and 
5)Making great music (The One Great Absolute).  

All the work in the world, however, may not be enough to satisfy the gods of virality.  We'll rest our case with just two names, and you'll be forced to agree - Bieber and Black.  

[Special thanks to Ryan Cano and Ross Benett for their contributions to this article:
Ross Benett;
Next week we'll return to our normal, review-based programming.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as an Indie

Being a musician in this era, this slice between what was and what will come, has stirred up that brutal mother of all inventions, Necessity.  And that mother straps the creative to the rack and stretches them into shapes they were not made to conform to.
How's about an example:  Mary Panjoma, lead voice and front face for Panjoma, as well as catalyst in the Austin electronic music community.  Mary is arguably one of the best chameleons at this new game; capable of seismic shifts from creative brain child to managerial mover-shaker in the blink of a snare hit.
That's her with the orange hair (or wig, rather).  That's Patrik Nilsson behind her with the bass, and riTchN on the keyboards on the far left.  Not pictured:  Guest players Melissa Riotgurl (of The Future Process) and John Ousley.

So back in 2005, when Mary and Co. formed Panjoma, they went looking for a place to play, and discovered a hole in Austin's live music genre pool - Electronic. Here in the live music capital of the world, we gotcher rock. We gotcher country. We gotcher rock-country, we gotcher alt-whatever, we gotcher... But we don't gotcher industrial-strength electronic. Nosirreebob.

But as it turns out, though Mary is an artist, she's not just an artist:  She seems to be missing the artist's penchant for obstacle avoidance, and raised her game, as it were.  Knowing the strength-in-numbers motto, she dug around in the dank underground scene for other off-center, out-lying bands; and with this handful of musical and cultural rebels, formed an improbable cooperative - The Austin Electronic Music Grid.  From there, they could team up, launch out, find a venue, find an audience, and find success (in whatever way it is defined).

Notice that this was 2006, back before the social media moguls ruled the world; back when crowdsourcing was a yet-to-be-understood word. At least in this context.

Mary the Artist morphed into Mary the do-it-yer-own-self-er; forced by creative need to move into uncomfortable, inexperienced areas.  Into the littered land of DIY.

This DIY movement, we think, was born by this era of rampant computers, free-roaming software, affordable hardware, and the fiscal disarray that seems to follow in their train like some leering toadie.

Triggered by technology, the dismal financial outlook of the music industry has brought about a radical restructuring that is still being architected at the time of this writing (Spring 2011).  From here, it's all speculation and talking heads; some of it good, some of it fantastic. But it's just that, speculation:  We'll get there when we get there; we may know it, we may not.  One thing we do know - In these days, Artist and Sugar Daddy (a.k.a., Label) are on the outs.  For both parties, the cost-benefit analysis is grim.

Meanwhile, the musician continues to create.  Then, when the creating is done, pays the price for that creativity with time spent doing un-musical things, like promotion.  Video production and post production. Email lists.  Excel spreadsheets, newsletters.  Photoshop. Web sites.

Panjoma's latest release, a collection of their greatest hits, has an official release date of 5/1/11.  Remastered, re-worked, sounding better than ever; we're talking bouncy-hypnotic soundscapes, danceable-yet-deep tracks, industrial instruments grooving to a dance-friendly staccato, Mary's sultry vocals; all interlaced with ever-so-rare experimental niceties popping up, far more than the average allows.  A definite must-listen, you hardened skeptic you.  All recorded in the home studio, natch.  (Did we put "audio engineering" in the un-musical list?  Should've.)

Musically, Mary + Patrik + riTchN pass the compositional and production baton like champs, each knowing their way around music theory and each other; understanding the nuances and subtleties of both.

But on the business side of the fence?  No one is jumping on that horse, so Mary takes the reins.  In earlier days, a label's retinue of staff would tackle this front, then break for lunch. Now?  Now the indie dives into promotional details all by her lonesome self.  Looks at the checkbook balance and does the cost-benefit of hiring out vs. DIY.

Hiring out would mean renting studio space and gear and an engineer's talents and a post-production mastering guru.  DIY means being your own mastering guru and engineer. DIY means renting, buying, borrowing, and cramming gear into a spare room; recording on nights and weekends; damn the neighbors, full speed ahead.

After that's done, you find yourself where Panjoma is now; staring at the next hurdle, the Promotion Monster, and wondering what you can sacrifice to slake his thirst.  Checking that bank balance and seriously considering getting someone like Ryan Cano and The Loyalty Firm for all those required-yet-non-musical tasks.  Like strategizing and socializing and doing all those chores that end up spreading your name and music to a world-wide audience; videos and tour management and reviewers and press releases and mailouts and printables and -

We dedicate our time to getting our client's music in the press and that's a full time focus and our full time job.  We then report all postings we secure and target high profile blogs that use aggregators like Elbows, Hype Machine, MOG Network, Technorati to help spread further around the globe.
This will optimize SEO recognition which matters if someone who wants to do work is searching you by Google. It will be impressive when your band is the first 20 pages in the search.  
Ryan Cano of The Loyalty Firm
In spite of this mountainous to-do list, Mary decides that, today, at this point in time, this expertise might not be worth another mortgage.  She instead invests with what she has, time.  Trips to the post office, emails, documents, duplications, website stuff, release party details (it's looking like June, either the 18th or the 25th, with Arc Attack at Kenny Dorham's Backyard).  Doing what she can to get radio play and maybe, maybe, organizing a tour.  If it doesn't cost too much.

To other artists, parting with the cash money is worth it:  "I HATE doing that [stuff]," says David T. Jones of Watch Out For Rockets; and if the number of "How To Promote Your CD/Band" articles and Facebook posts are any indication, he speaks for most indie artists - This isn't typically within the artist's comfort zone; you'll spend more time promoting a recording than the time spent inventing and making the thing.

Somewhere, sometime between then and now, the balance will return.  The ball the labels carried will be carried, but by other types of entities.  Perhaps something more co-op like, something similar to Anthony Erickson's Eye in the Sky Collective, which looks to leverage a group of artists to gain price breaks in promotional or production services. Or maybe more Austin Electronic Music Grids will form, only less genre-centered and more promotion focus.

Or maybe not.

When asked what she would say to other indie artists, Mary's advice was simply "Be patient, stay together. It takes 5-10 years to get where you're going."

She was talking about bands, but the wisdom applies:  Be patient, buckle up, do those uncomfortable things guys; wherever we're going, we're probably still 5-10 years away.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Watch Out For Rockets

Watch Out For Rockets has been inundating the Austin recording space since 2009's "Let Me Levitate" release, with their high-rock, lo-fi, punkish-pop sound, and have since edged up to the ever-undulating edge of national recognition: Check out the "5 bands to watch" list on Indie Rock Cafe (about half-way down).

Stylistically, they have free range over the genre map; having produced killer tracks in genres from pop to rock to jazz and yep, even a touch 'o country.

That's the bass player, Lucas Urbanski, on the left. Next to him is drummer Richard Galloway, and that's Aaron Rimbey on the far right. The chief songwriter and architect is David T. Jones, the second guy from the right; the fella with the guitar in this pic:
We've already mentioned Jones' involvement with Murdocks, and we've penned an in-depth article about him on Unsigned the Magazine's site (you can check it out here). In short, WOFR has a hardcore blue-collar mentality about their art; cranking out clever, deep, yet accessible releases at a furious pace; as if their time on earth is short. 

Exhibit A: The brilliant "Telepathic War Machine" is released 11/17/10:

Exhibit B: The instant-classic "13 Days of Christmas" is released less than a month later on 12/13/10 (un-mastered, and in incremental installments, granted. But still.):

Notice that these Christmas songs are not merely covers - We're talking fit-to-order compositions on the Christmas theme, done up in Watch Out For Rocket style; clever lyrics, engaging melodies and iconic riffs skewering our culture's Holiday Season conventions. 

Their sound of choice, garage-band-ish lo-fi, makes this possible - They record on a 4-track in Jones' home, embracing the hiss and background ambient noise that most bands eschew. This is why they get slapped with the "punk" moniker, despite the pop-leaning construction of their tracks (which can easily be mistaken for unplugged tape of the Beach Boys).

But it's exactly this scratchy, lo-fi motif that highlights their compositional and performance chops - The human ear will automagically filter out what it deems "noise", thus bringing sharper focus on the melodic organization of what's going through the pipes.
But this isn't just sleight of hand.  Check out "Go Turbo" from the "Shaman Shit" EP to hear some straight-up pop, framed with screeching guitars:

Now the same motif, same EP, but with a different genre:  Check out the folksy, country touch of "Alex Chilton":

We could embed 10 more tracks, but the point is made: The recording process can't hide the lights of one of Austin's most prolific, versatile, and accessible bands. Rumor has it that they start recording their next release in May, in a full-on, crystal-clear, studio setting: We're curious as to why they'd go to a studio, but we're blazing with optimism about what we'll end up with -The aforementioned "Telepathic War Machine" is a tough act to follow, but Jones and Co. have consistently delivered better-than-the-last-one releases since "Let Me Levitate" made it's splash.

Faced with a healthy library of content to pick from, and since we've already embedded their last two releases, we'll end this piece with their latest music vid, of a song from "Beasts with Hearts of Gold", starring the irrepressible Tim Sweeney:

Follow up with Watch Out For Rockets on Facebook, Tumblr, BandCamp, and Home Base.