Looking Back. Moving On.
6 Lessons I’ve learned in album production and touring.
Six months ago our nation celebrated that annual change, in a unique moment known affectionately as, the Holidays. It’s that moment when Thanksgiving changes over to Christmas in nothing but the blink of an eye. For me, the 2015 Holiday season is a moment that I won’t forget. With the click of a button, I released the promotional video announcing the independent album release of my Holiday album Just for You and the accompanying Midwestern Tour. Up until that moment, I was completely engulfed with the prep work of producing the album and booking the tour venues. I was equally exhausted from the work and excited about what the next four weeks would eventually look like.
My hope in this entry is to highlight and synthesize the six key lessons that I’ve learned from this process.
I am an artist.
I’ve always struggled owning the title artist. (I outlined this more thoroughly in an earlier post.) I’ve identified an internal conflict of being a working musician and artist, while I vocationally live out a ministerial calling which exists to serve others. The tension has always lived between if I would work to please myself or a fan base, or work to empower and serve other people.
Another layer of my struggle has been how I have previously defined the term artist. If you would’ve asked me even as early as three to four years ago, my definition of anartist was full of stereotypical caricature type characteristics (eg. they’re lazy, they don’t contribute to society, it’s not a real job). And while it wasn’t all negative, there were many stereotypes I was personally trying to overcome. Somehow I thought by resisting constant melancholy, struggle with punctuality, and the inability to dress one’s self appropriately to the occasion… I would be the right balance of things people wanted from me, at least on a professional level.
Now I can’t say that I’ve utterly overcome all the idiosyncratic caricatures of being anartist, but I definitely have come to embrace my identity as an artist more confidently. A big shift came for me when I began to ask people to get involved with the Just for You album and tour project. I think I expected people to be more hesitant and skeptical to be involved. To my surprise, I was met with enthusiasm and excitement… in the vein that “they got asked” to be apart of it. This revealed a positive perception that people had of me, which I clearly did not have of myself as an artist.
Another big shift came for me when I was on tour. I will never forget the first rehearsal I walked into for my Album Release Concert with my Musical Director, Peter Shu, and the rhythm section whom I’d never met before. Each of the musicians were extremely complimentary of my work, and were seemingly proud to be there. As we began to rehearse, I could visibly see them working hard to learn the music I had written. It was clear that my responsibility was to simply sing. I didn’t have to run the rehearsal. I didn’t have to worry if they were gonna get it. I could tell they weren’t there just for the check. The drummer, Mario Dawson, complimented me the most when he said:
“I learn a lot of music for different gigs. So, I don’t listen to music much anymore. Your album is the first album I just want to sit and listen to… not just learn it.”
Every artist I know has a story to tell, and something clicked in my own heart that I also have a story to tell. But beyond the own realization of my story, came a deeper understanding of my own self-worth. I think it is possible that pursuing a life of servitude vocationally had subconsciously contributed to building my poor self-esteem. My end goal wasn’t my own happiness – it was found creating or enhancing someone else’s.
I am an artist. I still struggle getting places on time (on occasion) but, I’ve discovered a new piece of my calling. One where I can share through artistry and still serve others by giving of myself through music, story, and love.
Strong collaborators make a big difference.
Working on various types of projects, artistic or not, with various people throughout my career has taught me the power of collaboration. And even though I was launching my brand as an independent artist, I knew that I wanted to avoid a stripped-down, typical solo artist kind of sound. I wanted to have a sound I was proud of – no matter if it was just a piano and my vocal, or if it involved a full rhythm section as well as concert instruments. I knew I had to be intentional because choosing to include the right people who would bring a different skill set (from my own) to this project, ultimately would only strengthen everything. So, that’s what I did.
In choosing the collaborators, I knew that I needed people I could trust. I knew I needed strong people. Strong enough not to just do what I wanted, but strong enough to actually listen for the vision in the project and bring what it needed from their own artistic and personal confidence.
Ultimately Just for You is only as strong as it is, in every way because of these amazing people:
Wife. Overall awesome consultant.
George Jackson III
Producer. Keys, Guitar, Bass, Horns,
Dr. Courtney Harris
Horns, Background Vocals.
Lee England Jr.
Photography, Background Vocals.
Webmaster. Album Artwork Graphic Design.
In addition to these people, I am also incredibly grateful to the agencies who I’ve partnered with to get the album manufactured and distributed. The Towle Theater in Hammond, IN was a beautiful background for the album artwork. Easy Song Licensingassisted me in acquiring the mechanical licenses and publishing rights, and Copycats Media was the company I partnered with for the hard copy CD manufacturing. Both of these awesome companies are based out of Minneapolis, MN.
Measure twice. Cut once.
My dad was an engineer. A big part of his work was designing small precision pieces and parts, that would insert into larger kinds of machines to make them work properly; be that anything from medical equipment to airplane engines. His work life revolved around shaving fractions of centimeters off of metal parts, just to get the precise dimension and depth necessary for the accurate fit and function. He was never formally trained in his field, but owned his own business with a staff of 50 workers and would do trigonometry on table napkins regularly. (Now that I stop and think about it, I realize just how brilliant he was.) A big lesson he taught me throughout my childhood was, “measure twice, cut once.” This lesson has always stuck with me, and has been proven right in so many areas (of my entire life really, but) for both the album and the tour.
I knew I had to keep my collaborators in the loop and ask their insight on decisions before I made them all because “measuring twice” has often crippled me with indecision. I remember very vividly being torn about what font to use on the CD cover. I wanted something easy to read; classic but scripted, and not artificial looking. So I poured over font after font, after font, after font. I could tell Nolan was getting pulled back and forth with my constant indecision. In his wisdom, he finally said to me: “Why don’t you narrow down your top choices, show it to several people you trust, and make a call.” So, I did. I kept getting the same response from people: “the scripted font makes this feel more personal, kinda like a gift tag.” The only problem was the font style made the “J” in “just for you” look like an “L” to a few people. So, rather than have people misinterpret what kind of album this was, I kept looking for fonts.
I had a former colleague (who is a graphic designer) always tell me she thought my handwriting should be a font. When I found an online handwriting font creator, I began to experiment. I wrote and rewrote the alphabet with different pens until I found a pattern I liked. And finally, the font “Curtis Wrote This2” was born; as was the font for the album cover artwork.
Expect to flex with the unexpected.
I learned early on in my career, that with any kind of studio work, it’s best to just expect it will take longer than you think it will. This of course proved to be true with this album production. Even though I made mistakes along the way, and had to adjust to unexpected changes, I still had a clear cut vision in my eye and ear of how the album would come together. So even when things went different than I thought, I flexed and kept on going.
Throughout the production of Just for You, I kept a pretty thorough google spreadsheet to help manage multiple elements simultaneously. This spreadsheet took on a software management database for a period of time, keeping multiple people I was interacting with between Illinois, Minnesota, and Belgium all on the same page. But ultimately, it was my own tool to keep my head screwed on straight with conversations I was having, while managing elements of the overall project I was working on at any given time. The benefit of it being a google spreadsheet, is that every time I updated it in real-time, it saved my progress instantly.
Success is the journey, not a destination.
Because I’m already functioning as Worship Pastor, a working Musician, and an Educator, integrating the identity of an Artist would bring my professional identity more full-circle. But, in doing this, I’m now confronted with measuring myself against how popular culture defines success within the music industry. Things like popularity, image, sound, and marketability all play a role in how my success would be determined. Whether I liked it, or not. Whether I truly cared about it, or not.
So, rather than give into the depression that I would never achieve stardom, I decided to allow my understanding of success to be re-envisioned for the journey, rather than a destination. People could accuse me of letting that be a cop-out of some kind, but in all honesty, I’m very content with the journey. I know that being an Artist is just one piece of who I am, and what I’m called to do while on this planet. There are also other pieces. The beauty is, I see them working together seamlessly. So, I’m working at keeping myself in an honest and humble place, rather than getting caught up in trying to stay on top of how the music industry sees my image and sound. Ultimately, I want to work towards extending my brand as much as I’m able to, but I’m not allowing my identity to be defined in where it lands or in whom it affects (or doesn’t).
In April 2016, I gave two 60-minute seminars for Artist Development to capture the creation and execution of the album and tour of Just for You. The first seminar captured the Album Production, and I have spliced it into 6 video clips on my YouTube channel. If you subscribe to YouTube channel now, you’ll be sure not to miss the upcoming videos which capture the second seminar I gave on the Tour.