Sunday, November 20, 2005

Creative Differences

(Originally Posted Nov 20th, 2005)

Among the many events that have happened to Beatnik Turtle in the last few months, the most significant is that our bass player, Mike, has decided to leave the band. Dealing with this is part of why you'll find a gap in the blog entires for a time.

Mike had been playing with us for over 8 years, and he's a fantastic bassist, a great guy, and funny as well. These kind of splits are always difficult, but we promised to take you backstage, and so we will talk about it here, in the blog.

The primary reasons that Mike is leaving, as told by him, have to do with creative differences. Some of them are with the direction of the band, the music that we play, and other aspects of the group. There were also differences of opinion with other band members. Although it got thorny at the end of this, he had been going in a different creative direction for some time with other bands that he has been playing with. After 8 years, he said that he had a good run, and was ready to do other work.

We all wish him the absolute best in what he's working on next, and we hope that he finds great success. Mike is someone who just loves to play music. He is especially happy to play live music, and his other groups do a lot of that which is just perfect for him. We are going to miss him a LOT.

This is far from the first time that a member has left Beatnik Turtle. The interesting part is not that we've lost people, but that we are a band that has been together for over 8 years in spite of losing people. It would have been nearly impossible to keep a band together for that long with the same members, especially for people that do not do this for a living. On top of this, we're a large group, with a new norm of 9 members.

When the other members of Beatnik Turtle found out about this, our reaction was to be pretty bummed. Then it was to wish him well. After some time passed to let it sink in, we do what most bands do in this kind of circumstance. We looked at each other and asked: "Do we want to continue?" The answer was: "Yes!" So we are in the process of finding another bassist at this point.

In the meantime, we can't play live, but we can do work in the studio. Fortunately, we just finished a process over the last three weeks of upgrading to a computer system rather than the older component-based system that we had been using. We will use session bassists that we know for recording, which is our focus lately, and continue to make our music. Because we were going to have a recording focus in the next year, we can press forward for next year, although it is a hard loss.

This has happened too recently for us to have a perspective on this particular event. We hope to have one of those posts much later, after we find another bassist and see how this changes our band. We can tell you what happened in the past as we've lost people, and some advice that others have given us that has came in handy, which we are keeping in mind as we deal with this change.

A number of years ago, after we had been playing for 5 years, Beatnik Turtle was losing a key member of the band, who was newly married, and had his first child on the way. This took up both his time, and his attentions. He was a member of the rhythm section, and we couldn't play out live or do much without him, and he was not able to offer us much time to rehearse or record music, but did not want to leave the band. He was also one of the original members, and was a person that gave us a distinctive sound. The band was grinding to a halt, and we didn't know how it could continue. We couldn't imagine finding someone to replace him.

We had recently been making some new friends who were in theater, and when they heard of our plight, they were casual about it. "Find someone new," they said, "and it will be better than before."

We were skeptical. Theater was different than music, we told them. Bands play the same songs for years, and part of the sound was based on the people. Theater has a run of a show, and then you move on to something else. You can always get someone else, or even put together an entirely new crew. Bands need to know each other and react to each other, and only get that after playing with each other for a long time, sometimes for years. And we'd been playing with this individual for 5 years.

We eventually lost this band member, and even lost another one who was not a rhythm section member because of the difficulties. While it was a traumatic time, we put out an ad, auditioned, and the first one that answered turned out to be a fantastic musician and a great guy to get along with. He proved our theater friends right. It was better than before because of the energy that came with getting a new member. And we also got reinterpretations of our music, which you don't realize is becoming stale until someone new gets to work with it. Our new band member turned out to be a quick study, and we were able to play out in a matter of months. We will always miss the original band member, and certainly some things don't sound the same. But when a project like a band continues, it does get better, because it continues to grow.

We're now in a different place than we were before when this happened to us. We're more willing to move on, and avoid being paralyzed. Partly because we have weathered this kind of thing before, and partly because we are VERY excited about the projects that are coming up in the near future. We're looking forward to auditioning new bassists, and are looking forward to how we're going to be changing this time.

An indie band sells a song to Television

(Originally Posted Nov 20th, 2005)

We promised that we would talk about the deal that we were able to get with ABC Family, and we've made you wait long enough. Actually, we've been very busy with the release of a major project that is coming out shortly, and some other band developments that we will talk about in other posts, one in the one right before this. Although we were occupied for a time, we will continue to keep you backstage as we do things.

Beatnik Turtle was fortunate enough to get a little deal with ABC Family, who licensed one of our songs from our Cheapass Album for use underneath commercials for a reality TV show. The main question that people have asked us about this is: How? We're wondering that ourselves. But we want to share what we've done in order to make this possible. If you are an indie band, maybe you'll find this useful. We'll bring you backstage for this deal to talk about how it came together.

Some bands do quite a bit to pitch themselves to media companies. Beatnik Turtle is not one of those bands. We certainly were excited about doing this deal, and would love to do more follow-ons of as much of our music as they're interested in using. Getting music onto a commercial in the past was called "selling-out." These days, it's considered a legitimate way to get noticed, and perhaps make some money. Some of the bands from, for example, VW commercials, have gotten a lot of new fans after viewers of the commercials asked about the music. With radio closed out to most of us, it's really just a way to get your music on mass media.

Deals like these rarely come to indies, however. We don't have agents. We're not a member of a label that's connected to media companies. And, most importantly, we're not on the radio or other mass media in the first place, so how would they even hear about us? Some indies use services that pitch their music to the media companies when they ask for a style of music. Although we've had our eye on those, we haven't gotten on to any, instead pursuing other projects. We just never focused on the area because we thought it was so closed.

So how did they find out about an insignificant indie band? The only answer we got out of them was: "It was on someone's iPod." We don't know whether they got it from buying our album, getting it from iTunes, or even file sharing our music. This goes along with two of our favorite pet theories. First of all, the CD is dead, and it's a good thing that someone digitized our album. Second of all, file sharing is nothing but good for indie bands, because it gets our music out farther. Do we care if they got our music by file sharing? Of course not! We hope that our music gets to as many people as possible. We hope that fans of our music will throw us a bone by paying $8-$12 bucks for our albums that cost us thousands to produce, record, master, duplicate, and, for that matter, write. But if they get it for free, we hope they enjoy it, and at least pay us by giving our music to their friends so that more people can hear our music. That's the essence of why we write music in the first place, after all: We hope that people can hear and enjoy it.

In short, we were lucky. But, as they say in sports and business, sometimes you make your own luck. You need to be able to take advantage of a break when it comes your way. We think that we were able to do that in this case. At least, we did get our music on TV for 9 weeks behind a commercial, and made a little bit of money for the band. We think that we created an environment that made it more likely to get this deal; and that's what we'd like to share with other indie bands here to give you ideas. The luck part itself we can't help you with. Sorry!

Our Cheapass Album is probably the most widely distributed of our music. The reason for this is that we piggybacked that album with a successful business who is distributing our music for us, and who has a following. The short story behind the album is that we wrote a song about a boardgame that is produced by a popular little company called Cheapass Games. Their games are tongue-in-cheek, and very widely distributed all over the world because they are, well, cheap. Most of them cost about $8 or less. Because their product is so cheap, they ship tens of thousands of product a year. They posted our song that was inspired by a game of theirs on their website, and we got many thousands of hits. We ended up writing an entire album of music, songs that stand on their own that you would never know that they were inspired by these clever games if you just heard them separately.

The truth is, we love writing music generally, so we just considered it a challenge to do it based on these games as inspiration. Besides, some of them were about topics that other people want to hear anyway. For example, the song on their website that sparked this project asked the musical question: "Were All These Beer Cans Here Last Night?" And it can be fun to write a song about a "Cube Farm," dedicated to the millions of us that work in them. (That one made it onto someone's blog, who posted the song and the lyrics.) What we got out of that project was a built-in audience for our music, and gained fans that would never hear of us otherwise. Cheapass Games has tens of thousands of customers. If we hadn't teamed up, the songs would only have gone to the folks that go to our shows, and the random hits from our website.

The Cheapass Album has a song called "Get Out" which is based on a boardgame of the same name. The idea is that you want to be first to get our of your parent's basement, get a job, get an apartment, and get a life. Writing a song about this was obvious, in retrospect. The first lyrics are: "Livin' life in my parent's basement/Watching TV on the couch/Don't want to ruin a good thing/but my parents want me to get out." ABC Family had just produced a show called "Kicked Out" where they follow a late 20-something as they made their first foray into life, kicked out of their house. It was a perfect fit. It's played in the background of the commercials for 9 weeks on TV. It's very quiet, and in the background, but it's there.

The main point is that we consider ourselves lucky that we followed through teaming up with a successful business that helped us market our album, to get our music out as far as possible. Put another way, getting our music to ABC Family, which is owned by Disney, is nearly impossible, but getting our music to a non-media business was not difficult. And afterwards, this company sold the album, and helped market an indie band, which is unheard of for indies, because they were really marketing themselves. The helped get our music "out there" as far as possible, and thus, we were able to get this deal.

We hope that if you have an indie band that this gives you some ideas. Our attitude about it is simply that we feel grateful, and feel glad that we could take advantage of this when it came by. We want to continue getting ideas to get our music heard, as an indie band is always on the outside. Hopefully, we'll have other successes in the future, and another story to share.

Sunday, October 2, 2005

They grow up so fast...

(Originally posted Oct 2nd, 2005)

We've been so busy over the last few weeks, some of our future projects that we mentioned in the last entry became completed ones. Which is almost too bad, as they've been a lot of fun to work on.

Sci Fry

First of all, we managed to finish all of the music for the Sci-Fry show. The final tally was about 10 songs, which needed a fair amount of post-production work to get them the right lengths for the scene changes and such. Two of the songs can be heard by reading the current news story at our website. The show debuted last night, and went quite well. It's sometimes odd to hear something that you wrote and recorded used as part of another performance. We definitely recommend seeing the show if you are from Chicago. It's really a lot of fun!

TV Pilot

Two weekends ago, we went to the studio and wrote the TV Pilot theme song that we mentioned in the last entry. Three BT band members took part, and it was just a great night all around. We were asked to write a 60's-style theme song, with a feel similar to Hawaii-50, The Mod Squad, and Peter Gunn. Now, when you start with an idea like that, the danger is that you use pieces of those other themes. Luckily, we managed to write something original that captured the feel just right. It centers around a guitar lick, with horn hits all over the song. After that first night, we've added drums, horns, and a bunch of other parts. The early demo got the thumbs up from the producers of the show, so it looks like we hit the mark. Certainly, the song stayed in our heads after the first session, which is always a good sign.

Comedy DVD

And finally, next weekend, one of the first parts of that comedy DVD project that we mentioned is being debuted in a private showing. While we didn't do any music for that one, we helped create the sketch, and film the piece. We also did all of the sound, which had some special voiceover work. We'll be doing music for that in the future, as it gets put together with the other sketches.

Other items

The next few weeks sees the band upgrading our studio to use more computers to prepare for the next album recording projects. We have had good luck so far using mostly an HD24 with a Ramsa DA7 mixing board, but the technology has moved firmly into computers since we've worked with that technology. Believe us, we've gotten good milage out of that equipment! Many years of recordings are on it. We're going to be keeping the HD24 and DA7 for recording, but all mixdown and post effects will be done in a computer going forward. We've certainly have a lot of work ahead of us, but our limited set of solid-state effects processors will now be dwarfed by the capabilities that the filters that we've going to have very soon.

And, with all of that, we've have one more project in the works that will be released in a week or so that we have to keep to ourselves until the release. As you can tell, we've been busy! Coming soon: We'll write a new entry here soon about the ABC deal. We promise! There was just so much that happened in the last few weeks that we had to write an article to catch up.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Projects, Prospects and Plans

(Originally posted Sept 15, 2005)

Since we are taking you backstage, it's only fair to share with you our current plans and projects. We promise to track them as they succeed, or fail. The film American Movie seemed to get a lot of mileage out of doing something like this for a movie project. We'll do the same thing for the band projects.

These are all things that we will be working on within the next two years. And in some cases, we expect that the "payoff" won't even happen for quite some time on these. As an indie band, you can't always do things because it gives you a direct benefit. You have to enjoy what you're doing, at the time, for the sake of doing it and with no expectation of reward except working on the project. That said, we're very excited about working on these projects!

Songwriting projects

Theme Songs, and All Backing music for a Comedy DVD

Beatnik Turtle worked with a sketch comedy group two years ago, and played behind them as a Saturday Night Live-syle backing band at Second City. Besides playing transition music, we were also integrated into a couple of musical sketches, so we were half pit orchestra, and also half rock band that played one of their own songs in the middle of the show, like SNL guest bands. It was a total success and a ton of fun. One of the best things that we got out of it was the connections to theatrical folks. A few members of the band ended up becoming writers and producers of a Comedy DVD that is currently in progress. This has already begun filming production, and Beatnik Turtle will be doing all of the music for this project, including incidental music, theme songs for the DVD, and any other music for the project. This will probably not come out for two years or so, but the songwriting and music is ongoing.

Recorded Music for a Second City Sketch Comedy Production: Sci-Fry

The same Second City folks that we worked with for the sketch show, and the Comedy DVD had a few members that started a sketch comedy project called Sci-Fry, which is touted as "a dark comic roast of the fantasy and science fiction genres." They commissioned Beatnik Turtle to do all of the music for the project. We met with them about three weeks ago, and they brought the script, and told us the music that they wanted for lead-ins to each sketch. Then, the some of the producers/writers walked with us to the studio and we wrote 7 songs for them that night, ending at about 1 AM. The songs came out quite good, including a jazz number, a cartoon theme song, a madrigal-style piece similar to what you'd hear at a Ren Faire (done badly, intentionally), and a 50's style song ("You're My Everything...and more"). We're going to have to re-record some of it for the final version because some need to be longer based on their production, but we knocked out most of their music in a night. The show comes out in October, and the script is hilarious! We actually can't wait to go to it in the audience to see it done. (We're not part of the cast, so we don't see the rehearsals. We just provided recorded works for it to be cued by the sound guy.)

Theme and Incidental Music for a TV Pilot

Another group of the Second City folks, and some from the Comedy DVD project, made a side-project and created a pilot for a fantastic TV show idea. The idea is a very salable one, in particular one that sponsors should love. Because Beatnik Turtle was associated with the Comedy DVD project, and other productions here, they commissioned us to write the pilot and all incidental music. We're going to be working on writing possible themes for this on Friday night, Saturday recording, and Sunday recording with the full band. Out of all of the projects, this one has the chance to go the farthest, because if this show gets picked up by a network, it will do a lot to get our name out there! We'll tell you how the songwriting sessions go, and how the theme songs come out in the next few weeks, as we write and record it.

Theme Song for a TV Talk Show

A friend of a band member has a TV Talk Show on cable access television, similar to the Tonight Show, or David Letterman. It's been getting articles written about it, and the producers are planning to submit it to larger networks for distribution. What it lacks is a theme song, and Beatnik Turtle has been asked to write it. We hope to work on it a little this weekend, in between working on the TV Pilot project, and have some ideas to present to them by the end of the month.

Album Projects

Beatnik Turtle Live Album

In May, Beatnik Turtle recorded a live album of about 20 songs. We've been putting some studio polish on the recording, and are about to move into mixdown within a month. The songs include a whole bunch that are not on any studio album yet, but recording a live album was the best way that we could get this music out there quickly. We tend to write a lot of music! We also didn't have good live recordings of the band, so it was great for us to have it as a memento for the band itself.

We don't know when we're releasing the album yet, as there's a lot of work to do even after we're done with recording and mixdown. We're getting the songwriting projects listed above done first before going forward with this album. We foresee at least two months of work on this before it's ready for release.

Beatnik Turtle Studio Album: BT2

Beatnik Turtle has released three albums so far, and the Live Album listed above will make a fourth album. But our planned second album, which now looks to be our 5th, is still in the wings, calling out to be recorded.

Our debut album release party, in 2001, was a success. One of the features of the release party was the introduction of five new songs that weren't even on the first album! We've played at least four of those songs regularly in shows in the last four years. Those songs, and others that we've written in the intervening time, deserve to be on a studio album. The reason why they're not is…well, let's take you backstage again, and give you some history.

In the early part of 2002, the band went through some band member changes. The drummer for BT at the time got married, and also had a child. His time became quite limited, very quickly, and caused the band to scale back playing live, and even curtailed our ability to record in the studio. What came out of that time was Santa Doesn't Like You, a studio album that made fun of the holidays. It included the title track, Coed Naked Drunk Xmas Shopping, Goin' Through the Motions This Christmas and many others. The album was a success, it made it onto the Dr. Demento show, and also started a Beatnik Turtle tradition of performing an Un-Holiday show. But the album had a drum machine rather than a drummer (except for one song, which was partly performed by other folks).

The album after Santa Doesn't Like You was The Cheapass Album: Songs About or Inspired by Cheapass Games. The short version of this story is that we wrote a song that was published on a popular game company's website, and generated a ton of interest. We wrote an entire album of songs about their tongue-in-cheek games, and got a lot of mileage out of the album, including, eventually, a licensing deal with Disney for an advertising campaign. The point about this album is that we were riding a wave of interest in our band, on the web, and had to record that album before doing our actual second album.

So, finally, we're in a position to record our second album, and we take some solace in the fact that we've recorded some of the songs intended for this album, some of which have been around since 2001, on the Live Album to give them a home. For those that liked our music, the only way that they could get those songs would be to go to a show.

We're looking forward to recording these songs in the studio, and releasing our second album. Even if it is coming out as our fifth!

Other album ideas

We've got ideas for many more albums after these. Among them:

  • An Irish Album, where the band will take traditional irish songs and make them rock out. Hopefully getting Beatnik Turtle into Irish Festivals.

  • A Kids album, where we have almost half written already, and just need a few more songs, and some studio time.

  • Songs to Offend, Volume one, an album of music that…probably shouldn't be released, but we might have to anyway.

...and there's more, but we want to keep some things under wraps.

Holding Back

Ok, we can't tell you everything that we're planning, because there are a few that are going to be somewhat secret until we have it solidified. We promise to talk about them, behind the scenes, either after or slightly before they are released. There are a few band announcements coming out within a month or so, and we'll announce it here, but then quickly take you behind the scenes to see how we did it, and what our thinking was. Then we'll track it over time and tell you how it goes.

Coming Soon

We hope you enjoyed being backstage for the future plans of an independent band. Coming soon, we'll also talk about the Disney advertising licensing deal, including how we got it, and how it was put together. We will have an entry on one independent band's website, and how it was built (There's a LOT more to it than you might think). And finally, there will be some announcements soon about the release of a major Beatnik Turtle project that has been in the works for almost two years. And most importantly, as promised, we will take you backstage to see the how and why.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Welcome Backstage!

(Originally Posted Aug 31st, 2005)

Welcome to the Beatnik Turtle blog, the journal of an unusual independent rock band. The purpose for this blog is to let you behind the scenes of an active rock band, and to share thoughts and ideas regarding a number of topics that are important to indie bands. As for this first post, we'd like to introduce ourselves.

Beatnik Turtle is a 9 to 12 piece rock band based in the Chicago metro area. We have been active since 1998, and have played over 50 shows in that time. The musicians that make up the band are mostly professionals of different sorts, including graphic artists, Information Technology folks, corporate lawyers, and even a Chicago cop. We can't give you an exact count of how many people are in the group because Beatnik Turtle has a philosophy of having a community of musicians that contribute in varying degrees of time and efforts, and drop in and out of our community. We're a very active studio band, so some of the members spend more time recording than playing live, but as a band, we definitely do both. Our last show was just last Saturday, at a dedication ceremony for a building on IIT's campus where we played an outdoor tent show for 75 minutes. Our last studio recording session was just a few weeks before that.

We currently have three released albums, which you can hear and read about here, and we actually have at least three albums on the way in the next year. More on the upcoming albums in a future post.

If you'd like to know more about us, want to hear our music, and especially if you want to amuse yourself for a while, feel free to check out our website. We're going to talk about the website in some posts in the near future, and our theory behind how we put it together, what works and what doesn't, and also share how we did it in case you are in an independent band and want to know.

We sound like an eclectic mix of They Might Be Giants, Cracker, Cake, Bare Naked Ladies, and The Saw Doctors. We play pop rock with horns, and a sense of humor. But a big focus of the band is our horn section, which sets us apart. A lot of people are tempted to call us a Ska band, just because we have a horn section, but we make sure that they are sorry about it afterwards. (Don't get us wrong, we love Ska! We're just not a Ska band.)

Some of our other notable achievements in our history to this date include licensing a song to Disney for an ad campaign, teaming up with a comedy troupe for a series of shows at Second City, and being played on the Dr. Demento Show.

And, finally, Beatnik Turtle is a fully independent band, not signed to any label or agent.

In upcoming entries, we'll be talking about future plans. We'll also be talking about the Guide for Independent bands, which is an over-70 page work that shares what we've learned to other independent bands. We will also have an entry about how we got the Disney advertising deal.

Welcome to the backstage of an independent band!