The craft of stage performance is a critical part of every performing artist’s success. This weekend, I watched three excellent performances: Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, the emerging Seattle female music duo Lemolo, and veteran Disney and boy band performer, Justin Timberlake, on Saturday Night Live. As an artist watching these three performances, it struck me that stage skills are more important, in some ways, than musical talent. An audience is transfixed, transported and transformed by a great performance – the material is almost secondary. I learned some important things watching these performances.
“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” – Leo Tolstoy
Cirque music always fascinates me, because the musicians are creating a real-time, live soundtrack for the stage performers. Music is a critical part of the show. The vocalists are front and center from the beginning, and guitarists and drummer walk around the stage and audience during the show. They all have great costumes. The lyrics are generally not in English, or there are none, but the music is powerful nonetheless (or perhaps because of this). I could relate especially well to the Amaluna show, since the musicians are all female – and not all in their twenties. These women rocked, and they looked good doing it.
What Cirque musicians have mastered is the focus on emotion. Even without decipherable lyrics, the musicians express and amplify the stage show as they guide the unfolding story. It’s pure, emotive expression – the anchoring principle of every good performance. As performers, we must transmit something deeply emotional to the audience. The technical details matter far less than making that connection.
Last year I recorded a cover of an old favorite song of mine called Menta e Rosmarino (I Won’t Be Lonely) by the Italian artist, Zucchero (AKA Sugar Fornaciari). He’s a famous singer, songwriter, and guitarist in Spain and Italy. He’s less well-known here in the United States, despite his many collaborations with American artists like Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Randy Jackson, among others. I also hired a friend of mine, Josh Moore, to shoot a music video for my Zucchero cover. All together, I spent a few thousand dollars on making the video, including paying for time at the studio where we shot it and compensating the other people involved.
I thought it might be useful to share a walk through of my relatively cheap and easy experience securing the mechanical and synch licenses for both the audio and video files. As a writer of original music, and also because I spent my own time and money making these high quality audio and video recordings, I felt it was important to comply with the legal licensing requirements. This was not a video of me singing the song by myself with a guitar in the living room in front of my computer’s video camera. Although I thought it seemed unlikely, I didn’t want YouTube to take down my video channel because of this single cover video. Most important to me, however, I feel it’s only right to legally compensate the original artist for their work.
At the risk of adding to the over-exposure of Seattle’s hometown music hero of the decade, Macklemore, I felt it important to explore this question. Paul Porter of Rap Rehab wrote an interesting blog post challenging the claim by most music publications that Macklemore is an indie DIY success story. (We had a little discussion about it on Twitter, here’s the Storify of My Dialog About Macklemore With Paul Porter.) As I interpret his post, Porter proposes that Macklemore is not DIY or indie because he worked with a distributor, Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), who
- agreed to work with Macklemore because he is a talented white rapper, an unusual characteristic that makes him stand out
- identified big financial potential for Warner Music Group in Macklemore’s wider appeal to a pop audience, which is, by definition, larger than rap or hip hop
- underwrote Macklemore’s airplay on pop (and not hip hop) radio stations through payola
- thus fueled his meteoric rise on the charts, subsequent record sales and media exposure
And all this did not, and would not have happened, without the savvy of a major label’s distribution arm, Warner Music Group/ADA. In Mr. Porter’s eyes, this makes Macklemore less than indie, because “Indie is one that is independent; especially: an unaffiliated record or motion-picture production company.”
I recently attended an “intimate” Saturday night show with 100 other people in a secret location at a dance studio on the north side of Seattle. From the outside, it looked sketchy upon arrival. The entrance was in an alley behind a restaurant. There was no sign to indicate you were in the right place. But here’s the thing: the performances were real and the audience appreciative. They listened with respect. Mostly quietly. Often raptly. They chatted with each other and with the musicians during breaks. And then they applauded vigorously. Repeatedly.
There was no proper stage, just about 50 folding chairs in front of a makeshift stage area in a corner, the rest was standing room only. If you hadn’t arrived an hour early and put your coat on a chair to claim it, you were out of luck to get a seat. White curtains were strung up over the wall mirrors behind the artists, and Christmas lights combined with two intense soft box lights to illuminate the performers. This experience was not for the nervous artist who prefers to be at a remove from the audience. The lineup consisted of a solo musician (Jason Dodson of The Maldives), a duo (Shelby Earl), and a small group (Ghosts I’ve Met - this was actually their CD release party as well), performing amplified acoustic music with hand drums at the loudest. OK, well maybe a small kit. This was, indeed, an intimate experience, despite the fact that the space held more people than I’ve seen in many local commercial music clubs or bars. Half of the 100 people packed in this relatively small space stood through the entire three hour show holding their plastic wine cups, beer bottles and paper plates of veggies and nacho dip.