Monday, December 16, 2013

Occupy Your Music

In February 2010 I released my first album "You and I... Twenty Years Later" in two languages, English and Serbian, as two separate releases. Some of the music you can hear if you browse the gadget to the right of this text. The title mostly refers to the voyage with this art of creating music, which I was hoping will turn into a business. I would like to share my experience in the last three years, in hope that people who are in the business, or are still dreaming of starting it, may find some of it useful. This will include the process, as well as my views of the companies I have been approached by, and the services which I have been using, which at the end will give a more wholesome view of the music industry itself as I've learnt about in the last three years . For those interested, you can check out my website for more info about the music and the project.


In 1994, back in Serbia, things were going well with my bend Dina. Over the years, from 1988 to 1994 we had won a few awards in local festivals. I was 30 years old and it seamed just the right time (although a bit overdue) to finally make it with this one big festival just formed that year in Belgrade. Our song "Put ka sebi" (Path To Self) was accepted with raving reviews, and it was everyone's favorite. Things were looking really good till the news came that for the lack of sponsorship everything but the jazz night had to be stripped off of the schedule. With the war in Bosnia and an opportunity for "a better future" I ended up in Canada, starting all over again.

At the time I was eager and full of optimism, so it didn't matter that I didn't speak English, was missing about 30 years of my own history in the new country, and had to learn pretty much everything from scratch. When you change your life like that, be prepared to erase everything you know because for most of it you won't get credit and you will have to fight twice as hard to get where you want to be. If not multiple times more. To make a long story short, even with all my education, qualifications, and skills it took me 15 years to get to the point where I can afford to start a music project I was dreaming about, and to finally build my own home studio. This includes still ongoing learning about the tools for creating music. Also, one should know that this all was parallel with (re)building a career in architecture as the main career path that can support all of this other stuff.

Thinking about making a career in music in the years after I moved to Canada was out of the question for several reasons. First, as I never spoke English before, I couldn't sing any of the western music, and I never had a repertoire in this language. Second, playing songs in Serbian was not attractive enough. I moved to another country to present my art to the western world, I was content with what I achieved in Serbia, so I never had an urge to even try. However, the biggest reason I never tried anything in the first 6-7 years here was pretty much losing my singing voice completely. I could hardly whisper songs in rare occasions I attempted playing, which was extremely discouraging and demoralizing. I figured this was for the Cultural Shock I, like most people in similar situations, had to go through. Lucky for me I eventually dug myself out of it, for the most part, as many people never get through it.

Slowly I started regaining control over my voice, as I was regaining control over my life in my new country. With those years passing by, I had to ask myself where I want to go with my music. Do I start working on a western music repertoire, do I start rewriting my old songs, or simply keep writing new stuff as my inspiration was gradually coming back. The latter two happened spontaneously, while the first I had to push really hard for. I felt I'm sort of wasting time doing it as I was completely unhappy with my accent. Truth to be told, I had already gone through a long phase of playing other people's songs in Serbia. If I was in my twenties as I was in Serbia when I was entertaining my friends and others, it would had been different. Now, almost in my forties, I felt my priority should be on my own music, the time is trickling down really fast, especially when you have all other main career already going on. So the choice was obvious.

It took another three or four years of bringing my voice to a satisfactory level, the level that was giving me enough confidence to embark on the whole project. It took two years to rewrite the selected songs in English to a point where I could with some confidence say: "Ok, this sort of sounds like written in English!" See, when you are 15 and 20, your criteria is so low, you are eager, you go for it with not much thinking but with your heart only, your dream is as big as the Universe, and nothing can stop you. When you are twice as "young", the mind gets on the way of everything, and things progress that much slower, while your dissatisfaction with everything you produce grows so much stronger.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in this kind of life transition is lack of support circle. Back in Serbia I was more then lucky to have a great support of my closest friends, my bend, and others. They were the driving force and motivation that was working even when I wasn't. They were the ones who asked for us to play so often that you didn't have to even think about it. Everything was sort of automatic. Here, everything was gone. It felt like the cloud under my feet dispersed without a trace. The fall was quite hard. Over the years, as I have rebuilt a small circle of closest friends, this motivational part still appears to be permanently gone. Some ask about what I do, but I'm yet to be asked to play for them. I can think of many reasons for this starting with me still not playing any (or very little) of the western music. As open as this country is, it's very difficult to accept and embrace something so different as Serbian folk, especially if it's sung in Serbian. What surprises me the most is even from my Serbian friends I never got this boost to play for them, although some are into creating music themselves. In many instances, the most support and boost I got was from complete strangers. Nevertheless, I've never lacked self motivation, and believe me you will need it too if you want to keep going, so at the end it all worked out.

The Project

As it usually happens completely unrelated, through a friend of mine who is not a part of the music industry, I met a musician, Kelly Stodola from Vancouver, BC who has been in the local music industry for over 30 years. At the time I learnt about him through his wife, I was far from ready to start anything, but I made a mental note that this is the guy I will talk with when things get settled. The time eventually had come some years after, and I must say, from this whole experience in the last four years, this was the contact that benefited me and I cherish the most.

It is worth mentioning that I did the graphic design of the CD including all images, logos, and preproduction. I was lucky to have a good graphic designer in my architectural office who helped a great deal for everything to work out as professional as possible. The whole graphic design and photography project took at least a year!

As for the music, I truly didn't know anything about the local scene, and the whole concept about the music industry in North America in general started unfolding before me rapidly. In English. You have to understand, this was a whole new world coming at me like an avalanche, and if it wasn't for my previous challenges, I would have probably run away screaming! It was crucial at that time to have someone beside me I can trust completely, and rely on with complete professionalism. Kelly listened very carefully to my demos, gave extremely motivational reviews not lacking in productive criticism, and was offering solutions tailored to what my music is about. I can not express enough gratitude to his approach to the whole project, especially his way of listening. This skill seems, together with all the rest of degradation brought about by DIGITALIZATION of our reality, to be almost forgotten.

Eventually, he found a studio, a sound engineer, and musicians I asked for. I wanted the best in Vancouver that I can afford. Turns out in 2009 you could hire a very good studio musician for about $100 - $150 per song. A studio mixing session  per day for $600 if you need a week or so of work. Unfortunately, as things in the music industry are changing daily, the studio - The Factory Studios in Vancouver, BC - has been closed. Below is the list of musicians I had a privilege to work on my album You and I ... Twenty Years later... (Ti i ja... dvadeset godina kasnije...)

Kelly Stodola - Drums, Co-Producer
Robbie Steininger - Guitars
Dennis Marcenko - Bass
Ian Cameron - Violins
David Hoerl - Harmonica
Milan Milosevic - Bass Clarinet (video from a concert I approached Milan to join my project at)
Sheldon Zaharko - Sound Engineer

The project was unfolding pretty quickly, once everything was in place. My audio files were ready, and the studio was booked for a week. I took that week off from work to be able to focus on the production. It was the most exciting part of the whole process. The sound engineer was extremely friendly and professional, everything went very smoothly. On Sheldon's recommendation I hired a very good mastering studio, and soon enough - the project was in my hands. More precisely, in every drawer, and every shelf I could free throughout my condo! I ordered 1,500 copies of each release (Serbian and English) convinced that it will all be sold in the next year and I will be able to recover most of the $30,000 I spent on everything - from my studio to the final product. Needless to say, that turned out to be completely wrong. And it's still rolling...

Soon after, I posted an add in Georgia Straight in Vancouver looking for musicians hoping to assemble a band while at the same time working on finding gigs. Turned out that was not as easy as I thought. Nobody wanted to join without a list of gigs set months in advance! At the same time, no music service business was willing to consider an artist who does not already have established list of gigs and audience, nor they were willing to do the leg work needed.  It still makes no sense to me, but I will get back to this in more detail in the next post. Eventually, a great percussionist who just moved from the interior USA to Vancouver responded to my add, a gig happened to come my way just at the right time, and we made our first appearance presenting the project. The Rebel Bran And The Funky Orkerstar was formed, and we presented the music in completely new arrangements, with new and old music, together with some Eastern European covers, which defined the sound I'm working on at the moment.

I have to say, the fact that I was so naive about the whole thing gave me a completely clear view on everything in the music industry and defined my path after as it tought me what I do not want to do. It might not have given me financial and publicity return I was looking forward to, but it did something even more important: it made me get back to where it all started and what is most important - creating music.

To be continued...