Friday, November 21, 2008

10,000 Hours

Hallelujah, I'm not alone.

I saw Malcomb Gladwell on TV last night and wrote his book title down before I went to bed ("Outliers"). One of the many points this welcomed book makes is that it takes about 10,000 hours of study/practice for someone to become an expert at anything in life. This number is based on research documented by Gladwell, and it applies to everything from legal expertise to becoming a great painter, or, by implication, a great songwriter. Can we produce a late blooming genius like Cezanne? Yes, says Gladwell, if he/she is willing to put in the hours. [
Read Gladwell's blog on this subject]

I've been banging this drum steady for months now, trying not to tire you with the truth as I see it. We may not all have the time, but time is the essential factor in great songwriting. A great song can be written fairly quickly as I've said in many of my blog articles, but only after the preparation, the background, the study, the practice has been undertaken.

How soon can one put in his 10,000 hours? Let's assume you only have 10 hours per week to devote to songwriting. At that rate you'll need about 20 years of practice. Maybe you started when you were 15, so you can expect to reach your best at 35 (and that doesn't mean you won't continue to be at your best until you're 75). Why, then, do the major labels and publishers sign so many 21 year old artists and songwriters? Clearly the word "great" has lost some of it's meaning.

Are there exceptions such as Bob Dylan, who are so gifted at such an early age? Not necessarily. Maybe Bob worked a lot harder than most of us when he was young. Maybe he put in his hours at the feet of Seeger and the rest while we spent those years sitting on car hoods with a six pack.

Gladwell's book should come as encouraging news to most of you. If you've ever been made to feel that your time has passed because you're 29 and still unsigned, relax. You're still improving with age.

I have my own evidence in support of Gladwell's argument. I stared writing songs when I was about 15. I began writing full time when I was 27. Until that point I'd maybe put in only half of the necessary hours. I'd written a couple of good songs, even had a cut or two under my belt. But I knew I wasn't at my peak. When I began writing full time my skills improved very quickly, and by age 32 I'd nearly doubled my practice hours, and I'd written a song that I still rank as one of my best.

No matter how many voices we add to the growing criticism of music marketing trends at the major labels, it's unlikely that we'll change anything soon. For now, we can at least be content that we are in the right, and the data supports us. The industry should be mining 30-40 year olds, not 18-30 year olds. Or, if you want to market unripe talent, at least force these artists to sing songs written by those who have put in the practice hours.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Vital Vision

We can't sell a product people don't need. A song has to either move the audience, make them laugh or cry, or it has to become the soundtrack for their lives-- meaning it must be a song they fall in love to, or heal to, or commiserate with somehow. It must grow into something essential that they can't live without. This requires a motive on the writer's part, and some vision. Vision is the sense that connects perception to significance. It's when you see something, know why it matters, and convey that meaning to others. When the writer shares his vision, the listener begins to perceive what's behind the song.

Great songs don't usually happen by accident. They are deliberate acts of creation motivated by genuine emotion and a fascination with the process. You can't search for buried treasure unless you go to the right beach with a metal detector and begin scouring. Writing without purpose or vision is like sitting in a chair in your den and hoping there's treasure under the couch cushions. You'll just end up with a few nickles and dimes-- a cheap song.

I was thinking about a verse from Townes Van Zandt's "To Live Is To Fly". Here it is :

It's goodbye to all my friends

It's time to leave again

Here's to all the poetry and the picking down the line

I'll miss the system here

The bottom's low and the treble's clear

But it don't pay to think too much on things you leave behind

The thing I like about this verse is the wacky reference to the PA system. I get a sense of purpose from those lines. Clearly Townes was writing with some vision, otherwise why refer to a sound system in a club? Why give it significance? Well, maybe because it represents the highs and lows of the troubadour life in a detail that the rest of us overlooked. The purity and depth in the sound system equates to the ideal moment in a traveling musician's life-- after driving thousands of miles, eating fast food and sleeping in noisy hotel rooms on mattresses that are too soft or too hard, he gets those precious 90 minutes on stage during the best gig of the tour. Townes' motive was to accurately convey how this kind of life feels, and his vision made the connection. The chorus says:

To live is to fly

Low and high

So, shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes

Having been on the road myself for many years, I can tell you this is not only accurate, it's perfect. There have been many days when the detachment of the road has felt like flight. It's an addiction. I'm never more alive than when I'm in flight, and the lows and highs on the road are more extreme than when I'm perched safe at home. Flight is freedom, but freedom sometimes means sacrificing a bit of security. Townes was living this song in the moment of it's creation (or re-living it, which is still valid). The remarkable thing about this simple chorus is that it captures some emotion and a rather profound philosophy in four graceful lines. How can a writer do this unless he is actually experiencing the song? We can't find the key to this type of communication unless we have vision. Vision is vital.

Where are you on life's journey? Can you show us? Can you open a window that allows me to see and feel what you see and feel? Do you have something in mind, something in heart, something in soul? Townes says later in the song:

We all got holes to fill

Them holes are all that's real

Songs fill the holes for many of us, or at least they clean the wounds so we can begin to heal. That's their purpose. But the world is choking on songs without purpose-- clever gimmick titles that strain at anything to say nothing. I hear tons of them and they never move me or touch me or make me smile or cause me to shed a tear. They just play in my ear for a few minutes and then they are forgotten.

Don't invent. Observe. Show us what you see. Much is revealed by the song in the end. As writers, we can't fake it. A great, true, core idea, and a deep emotional experience is the lifeblood of a song. Find the vital vision and follow it. See life and feel the words.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt
photo copyright by wolfgang staudt (creative commons approved use)