Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players: A Review of the New Music Seminar

If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.

The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.

The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.

While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.

The A&R Movement: Where music is headed

Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.

Trends in Music

Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.

On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.

A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not

One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.

If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.

In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.

On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.

Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs

Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.

If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.

What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.

So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.

The Take Away

The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.

Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.

Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions

This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.

I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”

Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.

Some of the Songs up for Critique

The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”

The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.

A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists

Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.

One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”

An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”

As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.

The Take Away

All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.

“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”

Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”

They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.

So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.

Online Media Music Discovery

Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.

Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player

As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.

Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention

The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.

On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.

Do Use Social Media to Create Attention

Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.

Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention

Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”

In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.

Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them

Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.

Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.

Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big

Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.

Final Thoughts

The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.

Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.

Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”

He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.

“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”


New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.


Roger Greenawalt on Music & Business Part 1: Running Shabby Road Studios

Roger Greenawalt at Shabby Road Studio. Courtesy of Originalhipster.net Last week, on one of the windiest evenings in January, I stopped by the Shabby Road Studios to talk with record producer Roger McEvoy Greenawalt. I asked him what a high-quality recording requires, and he says, “All you need is a good microphone, a mic pre-amp, and an audio digital converter like an M-Box going into a computer.

“That’s it; then knowing where to put the microphone, and a good musician playing a good part on a good instrument. Finally, a good mixer can make anything sound serviceable.”

As my conversation with Roger continued, I learned that while anybody can produce a record, a musician needs more than talent and ambition to become a professional.

My debut full-length interview for 2013 will be divided into two parts. In this article, part one, I talk with Roger about: the most important lessons he learned as a musician in his early years; the day-to-day in the life of a record producer at Shabby Road Studios; and the advice he has for young musicians looking to make it in music.

Early years with The Dark

During the start of his career in the early 1980’s, as a guitarist for the band The Dark, Roger learned the difference between a musician that was ready to take on the music industry, and one that was not. Roger explains:

“We [The Dark] were on Relatively Records at the same time as the Beastie Boys, when they were putting out their first record, “Cooky Puss.” And Megadeath was also on the label. We were at the right place at the right time. Our music, structurally, was cutting-edge, but not suicidally so.

“I think ultimately though, we had two weaknesses. The first was all my fault – I was the leader of the band and we did not develop an effective business team. Although we had some good PR instincts, we just couldn’t focus on them.

“Art lives in a system defined by commerce. Visionary entrepreneurs like David Geffen, for example, actually curated the culture. The artists that were closest to him defined the core of a dominant style and they acquired the best reputations. Think Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Are they really the best of their era, or did they have the best PR and management?

“Secondly, our singer did not believe whole heartedly that he was the “Joseph Campbell” hero character. He would not inhabit the hero. He thought it was okay at the time to make fun of the rock star. Our singer was a virtuoso but he didn’t really believe he was a star. He made fun of it and didn’t really own it; so that gave people this view: “If he doesn’t believe it, then I don’t believe it either.””

Transitioning into the Recording Business

Roger eventually became The Dark’s ad hoc manager. Then, in 1983, the band parted ways.

Roger then describes the transitional period in his life from the guitarist in The Dark to learning the business of the recording studio.

“The Dark won a Battle of the Bands contest, and we won the time to do a record with Rico Ocasek at the Cars Recording Studio Syncro Sound, on Newberry Street in Boston. Then, I became the habitué at the studio and just insinuated myself there and made myself useful.”

Roger’s experiences at The Cars Recording Studio later took him to different recording experiences in the United States and abroad. Roger has only been living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Shabby Road Recording Studio for the past 13 years. Prior to this, he lived in Los Angeles; Kingston, Jamaica; and London. He briefly touches on what he experienced in each of these musical landscapes.

“During the time that I was in London, in the 90’s” Roger says, “the major label businesses were flushed with money; very different from now. I liked the energy of that city; it was similar to that in Los Angeles at the time. I still like the energy of LA now.

“When I lived in London, I was always learning a lot about new music. London is fantastic for music – their [London recording studios’] recordings are just more exquisite. They have more quickly evolving styles, they’re cutting edge. Since it rains there all the time, people stay indoors more when they record music.”

Working at Shabby Road: “…master the technical stuff and listen widely and voraciously.”

Living and working in different studios will definitely provide a developing music producer with plenty of experience. The more experienced the producer, the better they are at the craft. Roger states:

“To be a producer is to master the technical stuff: audio engineering; the physics of music – to understand that music is a subset of the physics of sound; and also the challenge to become an expert on as many musical instruments as possible; and listen humbly, widely and voraciously.”

During our interview, Roger exhibited to me exactly how the required skills of a music producer would translate into the everyday work of creating a record.

“My job is mixing and recording albums. I’m actually making loud speaker paintings.

“When we look at a classical musician, like Bach Concertos or especially Ravel, we figure out what to do with all the tones, frequencies and the ranges. Then, there is Nelson Riddle and George Martin and Max Martin to contend with. Time is the magic that music flows within. The rhythm of what’s coming out of the speakers, the display of all the different frequencies. What are the words being spoken/ rapped/ sung? You ask yourself ‘what do you do with all of that?’ ‘How do you disperse the energies to tickle the human brain and the nervous system just right?’ ‘Where do you draw the line between structure and surprise?’”

Roger on bass at the Shabby Road Studio. Image courtesy of Originalhipster.net Roger continues, “I really like playing reggae bass. I’ll give you a taste of what reggae bass is – the opposite energy-wise of the ukulele, which is a collection of high frequencies just floating and dancing above in the hi register. The voice is here, in the middle,” he shows me with a flat-hand positioned in front of his mouth, “and the ukulele is here,” he moves his hand above his head, “and the bass is down here,” he re-positions his hand below his chest. “So it’s great that the voice has all this space and the bass generations so much more energy without clouding the vocal.”

Roger plays me a line that is typical reggae bass. The line is written in a minor melody, and is easy to remember and repeat. He then picks up the ukulele and plays a few staccato minor chords. He plays these chords again in an arpeggio, and then changes them up again my turning these chords into major chords. Meanwhile, for every variation, he repeats the same minor bass line.

“There is a lot of color that can go over it [the bass line],” concludes Roger.

Whenever an artist comes to Shabby Road Recording studios, Roger applies a similar technical process to every client. The instrumentation and the goal for each recording session varies widely though.

“For musicians I haven’t worked with before, I ask them to send me a Spotify list of all their favorite stuff. I will listen to these songs with the artist and talk music. Then I will play them my favorite stuff and say “this is what I think is cool.” Then we would make a Venn diagram and see where our likes overlap.

“In the same moment, I will also try to tactically push a formal element so that this way, we are consciously doing something innovative without abandoning my two core values. The first: hook and second: groove. And crucially, the emphasis is on the singer. After that, everything is up for grabs: what instruments; what historical influence; what ensembles; tempos; and mood/feeling.”

Confident and Experienced Musicians are Interested in Learning

Artist Kiddeaux (Left) accompanied by Roger Greenawalt (Right) in the basement of Shabby Road Studio. Photo courtesy of maneatingseas.com  Roger’s job goes beyond providing the recording space and acting as master of the equipment.

“I don’t want to be anyone’s bitch,” he enumerates, “nor do I want to oppress anyone. I find that the more confident and experienced the person is, the easier it is for me to collaborate with them and the easier it is for them to listen and take advice.

“It’s painful to work with the inexperienced and insecure. They’re unable to put excellence outside their ego.

“I ask, “Can you be taught?” Because if they are interested in learning, then I am as well, and I see they want to be on a team that learns together.

“I don’t care about me and what I think, I care about the thing being excellent; and that takes a little bit of maturity.”

Of course, there are plenty of artists that know exactly what they want when they enter a recording studio; that is to put their song on a record. While Roger is open to this idea, he still expects more openness and commitment to the creative and collaborative process from the musicians that enter his orbit.

“If a musician has songs to record, I’ll be up to record their songs. I’m still into all of that, but I would rather start songs from scratch and create songs together.”

For The Young Musician: the benefits and challenges of the industry

Shabby Road Studios caters to musicians looking to get serious about their craft, and sometimes that means the artist must step outside of their normal routine and create new songs with producers. Based on what I learned from Roger, the musicians that are open and willing to accept this are the ones ready to take the first steps in pursuing the music industry. So what are the benefits and the challenges of taking on such a task today? Roger explains:

“There are multiple levels of rewards. The arts are good for people’s soul. Talented artists that work for themselves and are not working for any corrupt institution that oppresses people is a win/win for humanity.

“Aside from the grandiose and narcissistic personality; fame is necessary for economic survival in popular music. Fame is just part of the job. On a spiritual level, it doesn’t have to be who you are. There are a range of celebrities that are more-or-less well-adjusted. There is a range between Amy Winehouse and Tom Hanks.

“The challenges? Now, you have to be an artist, an entrepreneur, run your own small business, find your own scenes and drive people yourself. You have to be very good at that and adapt. The more you adapt, the faster things are going to change for the better for you.”

Recalling my past interviews with artists, each one encountered a specific obstacle. Sometimes it involved growing comfortable with performing in front of a large crowd, discovering a signature sound, or seeking the right ensemble. Each musician found a way to overcome their challenge and continued on their professional path.

What I didn’t realize until I met Roger is that economic success for a musician also depends on their ability and willingness to firstly, grow artistically and secondly, learn from a producer with extensive experience on the business side of music. Like Roger confirms:

“Being good at music is just not enough. We have to be good in business.”

What’s ahead?

Since I am talking to a music producer that has a ton of experience under his belt; my debut interview with Roger Greenawalt will continue in part two, which I plan to have up by the end of the month.

Avi Wisnia: Open, Unreserved and New

 While every artist today enters the music industry ready to pave their own way through this unpredictable and sometimes threatening landscape, they all promote their EPs and records through the same tactic: live performance. This part of being a full-time musician excites Avi Wisnia.

“My schedule is kind of crazy,” he states, “but I love the challenges that come with it; I always play for a new audience. Playing one of my songs live is always a new experience, and I love the spontaneity and openness that comes with doing so.”

Roger Greenawalt on ukulele and band

After reviewing Avi Wisnia’s performance at CMJ 2011 right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen, I was set on interviewing him for a feature article. This past Saturday, I arranged a meeting with Avi backstage at the Brooklyn Bowl following his performance in the Beatles Complete Compilation with the Ukulele band.

During our conversation in the poorly insulated loft right above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, Avi talked about the obstacles he had to overcome before entering a studio. These challenges followed his from his pre-college years all the way to recording his first full-length album, Something New. Today Avi leaps over hurdles in order to do what he loves most: getting others excited about music.

“I want people to feel like they’re taking away something they haven’t heard before”

“I feel music is all about expressing yourself in the moment and creating that communal experience with the audience.

“Whenever people listen to me perform or sing on a record, I want them to feel like they’re taking away something they haven’t heard before – a mixing of different styles – something new.”

Avi Wisnia at the Brooklyn Bowl, January 14th.

Something New is also the title of his first full-length recorded album, one that evolved from his 2007 EP, Avi Wisnia Presents. As I researched Avi’s background online, I noticed he rerecorded many of his songs from his first album for his latest one. Further into our conversation, I discovered that rerecording these songs was essential to Avi. He wanted to present himself as the same musician from his EP on his full-length feature.

“I started performing my own music for people while I was in college, just to see their reaction. They would come up to me and ask for copies of my music to take home with them. This led me to recording an album.

“I brought my band from New York City to New Jersey to make this record in the a Synagogue where my father was a rabbi. My uncle, who was a cantor in that same temple, engineered our recordings.

“Working on this album was a real grassroots effort: I felt like were recording the songs just as they were in that moment. Everything we recorded for Avi Wisnia Presents was only a first or second take.

“Creating Something New gave me the opportunity to rerecord these songs exactly the way I always heard them in my mind. Although I felt more pressured to realize my own songs, we really made the most of the recording space – incorporating different sounds to bring the most out of the songs.”

  The ability to hear a brand new song before writing it to paper is nothing short of amazing and sought-after in the music industry. However, it would be years before Avi learned to trust his own ability.

“I didn’t accept the idea of projecting my influences through my own music, but then I embraced it”

“It took me a surprisingly long time to put songs onto paper. I thought if the song wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, then I didn’t want to write it down. I didn’t get over this until college, and before that; I never really allowed myself to finish songs. I eventually realized that every song I composed wasn’t going to be complete or perfect.

“For a long time, I also didn’t accept the idea of projecting my musical influences through my music. At first, I didn’t want to sound like someone else. Later, I embraced the fact that I couldn’t escape my influences. Now, I channel all the songs I grew up listening to through my voice and live performance.”

Avi proves to me that a musician can’t escape his or her greatest musical influences. These help shape an artist’s proclivity for a specific style. For instance, some tracks featured on Something New include musical elements popularly used in 20th century music, like ‘song quoting,’ which is present in the title track, “Something New,” and the 12-bar blues form in “Rabbit Hole.”

I then ask myself, why call a record from today, which pays so much homage to the styles that were new before our time, “Something New?”

The intimate mix of Bossa Nova, west coast jazz, acoustic folk, and blues 

“This was my first full-length album, and it was an introduction to me as full-time recording artist. It displayed my flexibility and diversity as a musician.

“Also, I want people to hear a new mix of different musical styles,” some of which include acoustic folk, west coast jazz, blues, and Bossa Nova.

I then asked Avi what he liked about these genres, and he responded:

“Looking back to all the records I listened to growing up, my favorite track on every album was the last, the really quiet and intimate one. You find that same intimacy and mellowness in folk, west coast jazz and Bossa Nova. Although they are different styles, they channel that same idea of mellowness and intimacy.”

Songs like “Rabbit Hole” and “Sink” focus lyrically on intimate issues like foolish young love and hitting rock-bottom. Musically, the slow tempo and improvisational style in “Rabbit Hole” helps both the attentive and recreational listener transcend to a silent space, closed off from the busy world. I asked Avi to talk about “Rabbit Hole” and I was surprised by his motivation behind this track. It was not what I initially assumed.

“One night, while I was half-asleep in my college dorm room, I wrote down a line that stuck in my head. I then spent the next 5 hours into the morning hours trying to develop it, and soon, it turned into a song. While it made sense to me as I wrote it, I still had to be sure it made sense in the morning.

“When you experience a moment like this, when an idea for a song just comes to your mind, you have to let it take you places. Just go with it.”

Avi then also explained that not all songs come to him as naturally. The story behind “Sink” is dramatically different.

“Sometimes, you have to put work into a song. Then the inspiration comes later”

“For “Sink” the idea of melody and rhythm were there, but I had trouble with both the lyrics and tying together different segments of the song. 

“When I took the song to the studio, I wasn’t sure how to communicate the track to either the musicians or the producers. Something was missing, and the song wasn’t translating. I also struggled with this song when I performed it for others.

“Sink” was the last song on the album to get attention, and I, along with my musicians and producers, felt it was holding the rest of the album back. I was pretty sure I would throw “Sink” into the trash.

“Then one day, when I was visiting my childhood home in northern Philadelphia, I went down to the basement and found a Fisher Price Xylophone. I started playing and found that the range of sound on this toy-xylophone fit the octave within “Sink.” So I brought to the studio, put a microphone to it, and started playing. Afterward, we invited some friends to sing a simple back-up chorus, and eventually, all these elements happened to sync everything.

“Sometimes, you have to put work into a song. Then the inspiration for the song comes later.”

The uncertainty of the next hit song, masterpiece, or duration of the next full-length recorded album may frighten some, but not Avi.

“The constant change allows me to express myself in different ways”

 “As I got more into the business, I had to remind myself that in the end, it is all about being excited by music.

“Before I became an artist, I was a music teacher for pre-school aged children. When I gave them a music lesson or handed them an instrument, they were always excited to play music. Even if their playing did not sound like a song, they were happy to express themselves.” This gratifying experience encouraged Avi to adopt a more positive attitude towards in his own life as a musician.

“Every time I go on stage, I remind myself to be open and unreserved when performing. I shouldn’t worry about being “good enough.” Music in this way can be very forgiving; and it’s a great way to get rid of the hang-ups in life and enjoy the moment.” And he wants to continue doing this even as a full-time recording artist.

“I love going on the road and meeting new people and also feeling the vibes of different cities. The constant changes in location challenge me to express myself in different ways, and I never want that to stop. I always run in to something new.”

Hear People Listen, Part 2: Tapping into part of my father’s life

I recently interviewed my father, a former Cold War refugee from Romania, and learned about the power of forgetting and remembering stories. Such stories linger in people’s minds but rarely surface in conversation.

His flee to the United States

 This past April, I visited my parents’ native Romania. My parents, sister and I stayed at, what used to be, our grandparents home in the center of the capital city, Bucharest. I brought with me a story kit from StoryCorps to initially record a conversation with my mother and her best friend. My father became excited by the idea and asked if I would interview him and his two life-long friends, Dan and Marian.

I had to limit the conversation between these three friends to 45 minutes. Along with the “ice-breaking” background questions – how did you meet, describe me a favorite childhood memory, etc. – I also saw this as a golden opportunity to tap into a specific part of my father’s life – his flee to the United States.

After 30 minutes of listening to their walk down memory lane, they finally ambled to the year of my father’s daring escape from Romania – 1980. I then asked the following: “When you learned Tomi (my father) was going to make a perilous journey to America during the Romania’s communist occupation, what thoughts came to your minds?” So, the story began.

“My leave in 1980 was a dangerous matter…those who know will do well to forget”

I watched my father lean back into his chair with his arms folded across his chest as he enumerated.

“My leave from Romania in 1980 was a dangerous matter and one that was kept confidential. My wish for all my friends and family was this: those who know will do well to forget.”

And forget they did. As far as all his friends knew, my father was going on a month-long trip to Israel to visit an aunt. Marian elaborates.

“Tomi and I attended a sports club every Sunday to play tennis in pairs. Since we were both enthusiasts we always showed up on time.

“A month had passed since he left for Israel and I knew he was supposed to be back; so I waited for him at the club one Sunday after his return but he never came. I was incredibly amazed but I assumed he hadn’t come home from Israel yet. His prolonged absence eventually worried me.

“Sometime later, I stopped by his parents’ house to see if they had heard from Tomi. They invited me inside to listen to a homemade tape recording of a telephone conversation between them and Tomi. Making that tape was courageous because in those days, government authorities tapped most phones.

“I listened to the conversation. Tomi had gone to Italy to get an exit visa for the United States. On the tape, Tomi told his father about his arduous time abroad. He was exonerated by the application process and didn’t feel confident about continuing his journey. In the conversation, his father encouraged him to push forward. Mr. Trutescu said to Tomi, “You left here for this reason, and you’ve traveled too far to turn back now. Keep going.”” My father eventually finished his journey safely.

“You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back”

“I started my journey on Jun 10, 1980 in Israel,” said my Dad. “In September, I boarded a charter plane from Italy and landed in America.” He then remarked, “You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back.” Dan then told his story.

“It was 1982, two years after Tomi left when I learned he wasn’t returning home.

Romania during communism

“It all happened at my parents’ house on Christmas of that year. Marian and his fiancée, Veronica stopped by, and I saw they brought Tomi’s father along with them.

“I found it unusual how Marian and Mr. Trutescu stopped by without bringing Tomi. At this point, I started thinking he already fled the country; a thought I kept to myself because I was so afraid of possibly exposing Tomi.” Dan didn’t know about the cassette recording Marian had heard and thus, wasn’t sure if my father had already made it to the States or discontinued the trip.

These memories and stories were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone

For a few seconds, I noticed a remarkable silence. My father still had his arms crossed; this time seated all the way back into his chair. Dan adopted a similar posture. Meanwhile, a gloomy expression came over Marian’s face as he turned his head downward toward his seat. It was clear to me that these memories and stories of my father’s escape were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone.

Further into the conversation, my father talked about his return to Romania for the first time in 10 years – right after communism collapsed in 1989. During those 10 years he was in the States, the only contact he made with his friends was through a Christmas card. Marian pulled that Christmas card out of a manila envelope and showed it to me. He kept it in mint condition for over 3o years.

A holiday greeting card can mean many things, but for my father’s friends, it was a sign of hope that their friend, Tomi was alive and well and somewhere safe.

Remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories

Romanians today no longer adhere to secrecy and forgetfulness. However; those who lived in a time where certain speeches, knowledge and verbal speculations opened a door to danger, still remember this protocol: forgetting is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. Today, remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories is essential; especially among friends, family, and generations to come.

I am happy to preserve and share my father’s story. It is a story about freedom, danger, perseverance and friendships that have passed the tests of time.

Hear People Listen, Part 1

Hello again. It is my first entry of 2011 and I feel I have to explain myself a little. The New Year started with a busy communications job in Brooklyn and evening classes at NYU. At the end of March and beginning of April, I found myself in Romania interviewing family members and friends about their histories and pasts.

Now that you know what has happened to me, the Music Historian brings you a special first entry of the year.

Throughout my experience with a non-profit called StoryCorps, I learned that sometimes, the greatest soundtracks of our lives are without music.

Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps

Dave Isay, a former radio producer and recipient of the MacArthur’s “Genius” Fellowship, started this non-profit in 2003, recording and preserving the stories of everyday Americans from all walks of life. Today, StoryCorps has recorded and archived more than 30,000 interviews from over 60,000 Americans. In addition to preserving these stories at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, StoryCorps also broadcasts stories on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday and animations on PBS. Dave also published people’s stories in his original bestsellers – Listening is an Act of Love and Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps.

The big question is – why do people find others’ life stories so intriguing? One reason might reside in the fact we are all individuals or a collective group of individuals who come from different backgrounds and are interested in learning about “ways of living” that are unfamiliar to us.

One StoryCorps recording that struck this chord with me is the story of “Danny and Annie”— a couple who had a late-life romance and happy marriage.

Danny and Annie

Judging from the number of views this animation received – about 1 million – it has struck a chord with other listeners as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many people like it when strangers, close friends or family listen to their stories. I discovered this after I was interviewed by StoryCorps in January. I then decided to share the gift of recording and interviewing by taking StoryCorps’ portable interview kit abroad to family members in my parent’s native Bucharest in Romania.

My mother’s life-long friend in Bucharest fell gravely ill and was spending her time in Bucharest’s oncology center. My Mother planned to go to Romania to visit her friend and then I suggested the idea of going with my Mother to record their conversations and preserving them for her friend’s family. Excited by the idea, my Mom agreed to bring me along.

When we got to Bucharest however; we discovered the branch of the oncology center where my Mother’s friend was placed was completely quarantined and recording devices were not permitted in her room. Luckily, my father and his life-long friends wanted to record their story and two of my Mother’s other close friends also wanted a chance to tell their stories.

On April 7th, I returned to the United States with great stories from my parents’ native country, Romania.  I cannot wait to translate these stories into English and share them with readers.

Until then, I invite you to hear people listen at StoryCorps.