Someone recently remarked to me, “Even when I see what I know is great art, I don’t know what makes it good. I just don’t know much about art.”
That comment prompted a discussion. It caused me to realize that my non-artsy friend is probably not alone in wondering what determines ‘good’ art, that many people stroll through museums without understanding why certain works are lauded as great. And, sometimes notable art can be intimidating. There can be embarrassment in saying, “I just don’t get it.”
The feeling that one is not knowledgeable about art also prevents the purchase and collection of art from contemporary artists. And that’s a real loss, both for today’s artists and for those who surrender to the ennui of décor. Who knows what future-great artist is working in your area? What great works might a collector scoop up but doesn’t because of a lack of confidence? Art investment can be a gamble but it’s a risk that can also enhance your abode.
Learning the fine skills of art appreciation can take years, indeed a lifetime, to fully develop. University courses offer wonderful in-depth study of the intricacies involved to understand art.
My intention here is not to diminish that study at all, but to simplify it for those with limited time or interest. It is my strong opinion that anyone can develop an ability to appreciate art.
After much consideration, I think that which makes art ‘good’ can be distilled down to five basic questions that I believe remain true for all works.
Do you like it?
Certainly, personal taste determines what comprises a private art collection. There are simply things we like, and things we don’t, things we are drawn to and things that repulse us. The initial question need not be “Why do you like it?” but simply “DO you like it?” Of course, the reason why you like a work can generate extensive examination and debate. And, because this particular qualification is so extremely personal, it should be restricted to private art collections. Without a doubt, the art you privately collect should be work you like. Nevertheless, for the museum visitor, this question can also lead one to cultivate a list of favorite works as well.
Does it draw you in for a closer look?
The urge to get closer to a work of art is a sure sign that it’s speaking to you.
Why does the work draw you closer? Is it because you are intrigued by the artist’s technique (brush strokes, manipulation of the material, etc.) and wish to study its detail? Some works have the ability to immerse the viewer when viewed closely. Good art pulls you in; it does not allow a viewer to pass it by. Equally, the urge to step far back and spend some time viewing the overall work can similarly denote quality.
Does it cause you to think?
Good art is not necessarily pretty art. It does not match your sofa nor blend into your color scheme. It might make the viewer uncomfortable. But, whether disturbing or delightful, good art triggers consideration. Even if the work is not understood, the very fact that it prompts you to wonder about it indicates a depth of meaning. Good art reaches beyond the canvas or the clay or whatever medium it may be.
Is it innovative?
Innovation can be simple or complex. The cave paintings of Lascaux, France remain avantgarde even after 20,000 years. The Impressionists of the nineteenth century continue to engage us, as future art-lovers will be intrigued by the technological elements being utilized today by contemporary artists.
Does it compel you to return?
This final proviso is closely related to the very first offered in this list. Whether you like a work of art or are repulsed by it, if the work lures you back, it has touched you. Think of a work you have seen but didn’t like. You remember it, don’t you? If you disliked it, why do you remember it? Art stirs the viewer. Art connects with you. If unable to revisit a work in person, study it in a book or online.
Art is much more than five simple attributes. Arguably, there are many, many additional components that can be employed to qualify ‘good’ art. I believe, however, that the above facets offer a solid starting point for art appreciation.
Armed now with some indicators of how to evaluate art, let’s consider how to experience art, particularly in museum collections.
Again, I offer my opinion and encourage you to consider this:
Who goes to a restaurant and orders every item on the menu in one sitting? So why then do we feel that we must see everything in a museum in just one visit?
Understandably, a person may visit a particular museum only once in a lifetime, perhaps while traveling abroad, for example. But which is better? To say that you set foot into all the exhibition spaces in The Prado, or to personally know the powerful emotion portrayed in Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May)? To have sprinted upstairs and downstairs in the Chicago Art Institute, or to experience delight as if on the picnic in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte?
To maximize your artistic experience to a museum, rather than racing through every gallery, select one or two exhibition areas (or perhaps only a few individual works) and visit just those, as you would visit a friend. Take your time to get to know them better. Observe what you have not before seen in the work. Think. Remember. Return to revisit those works, or to view different works in the same manner. If unable to return, explore online options. Your artistic experience will definitely be enhanced.
Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky is an award-winning artist whose work includes murals, drawing, illustrations, sculpture, painting and photography but, for the past 39 years, she has carved herself a reputation as a master of the early American art form of scrimshaw.
“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking. But now, God knows, Anything goes.”
“Anything Goes,” by Cole Porter
As previously reported in our article on Jelly Roll Hogan, St. Louis and its surrounding counties were notoriously mobbed-up during the 1920s and throughout that failed social experiment called Prohibition. Stories abound in regard to shady characters and their actions to cash in on the loopholes of the era, along with the rampant graft and corruption. However, some stories also exist about the places the infamous frequented for fun.
The Biltmore Country Club opened its doors in 1929 as a casino for the well-heeled that needed a well-concealed place to spend the money they were bringing in. The club was built in Fenton on the border of Jefferson and St. Louis counties; in fact one of the lingering stories about the club is that, if it was raided by one of those counties, the patrons would be instructed to move to the other side of the building, out of the raiding jurisdiction.
Actually, a good deal of the early history is sketchy and difficult to put together since the whole thing was kind of on the hush-hush. The club was opened by Jimmy Miller, boss of the 4th precinct in the city and justice of the peace. Miller spared no expense in the construction of the club at a cost of $250,000 (over $3.5 million in current value) as he planned it to be a posh getaway for high-end clients, decked out in tuxedos, diamonds and furs.
In 1933, the ownership was taken over by one Harry E. Belford, aka “Hickory Slim,” a bookie and close friend of Al Capone. Not much is found on the Internet about Mr. Slim as, I’ve mentioned before, a low profile was pretty much de rigueur for the bootleg entrepreneurs of the day. Though Prohibition ended in 1933, gambling was still very much against the law and so the new owner purportedly had club employees with machine guns in each of the towers at the front of the building to welcome unwelcome guests. Capone was rumored to be a frequent guest and had ties to St. Louis’ all-Sicilian Green Gang.
When Jimmy Miller died in 1946, the ownership passed to Red O’Donnell, a Chicago businessman who made a flashy exit from life in the form of a heart attack and the crashing of his pink Cadillac into the trees outside the front gate of the club.
In 1951, Ed and Marie Campbell of High Ridge bought the club and announced that its gambling days were over, stating that “the only bones to roll will be chicken bones and T-bones!” The Campbells had moderate success and sold the club to Don Winter in 1972. Winter sought to bring in a younger crowd and made the venue into a live music and prom destination. During the ‘70s, the club, now dubbed a banquet center, hosted a great number of dances featuring St. Louis rock bands like Hot Shot and 96 Proof. Many of our readers might have memories, possibly somewhat hazy, of this era in the club’s history.
The Biltmore burned down in 1979 and it has been said that fire fighters saw oil or gas in the runoff water as they fought the blaze. Whether or not that is true, the fire was believed to be arson but no one was prosecuted. Mr. Winter chose to raze the building and sold the land instead of rebuilding. Today, the only vestige of the Biltmore Club is the name it gave to the office and shopping complex that now stands on the historic piece of land.
The music industry is currently going through drastic changes that require a new mindset for today’s working musician, especially when it comes to things like distributing your music, getting gigs, going on tour or even having your recordings used in TV or movie soundtracks. Technology is screaming past many of us at a dizzying rate and, if seasoned musicians want to stay in the game, maybe even make a little money while they’re at it, then they need to embrace these new technologies and dive into the “new way” of doing things.
Michael Silverman’s musical success involves his ability to shift paradigms and his willingness to think “out-of-the-box.” He and his brother Rob, who is also Michael’s musical partner, stumbled into a “stream” of luck when they started distributing their music via online streaming services about a decade ago. Michael is a pianist and composer who, along with his brother, created the very successful touring band known as Bach to the Future, a fusion of well known classical tunes with jazz, rock and world rhythms. His new age and fusion recordings have found their way into the soundtracks of TV shows like “Two and a Half Men,” “The Good Wife,” HBO’s “The Leftovers” and “American Horror Story: Asylum.” There are also countless commercials.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep the duo busy, Michael purchased the legendary Clayton Studios from Dick Ulett a few years back.
A musician myself, I was fascinated to learn the secrets that Michael knew about digital music distribution and his experiences with marketing his many projects. He had posted a comment on Facebook that caught my eye, about developing a meet-up place for artists of all types, painters, musicians, photographers, dancers, etc., who would convene on a regular basis to network and brainstorm with each other about the arts, marketing and collaboration.
Val:So, whatever became of the idea to unite artists for a coalition?
Michael:I’ve done a few things. As a starting point one night we did a “Jazz Career Night.” It was a free get together. I showed them things that I knew would be the obvious next step for a lot of people. I showed them how to distribute online and some of the other basic things an artist needs. You should have a CD, a video, a promotional picture, you should have a website, and probably a Facebook presence. That’s just a starting point.
If you want to be a touring artist, you need a technical rider. You need to have some other things like a bio that they can use in promotional materials for your upcoming concert. You need a stage plot. Once you have those things in place, when opportunity knocks you could actually go out and play a tour, or travel and play some big theaters. If you don’t have those things,theaters don’t know what to do with you. They don’t want to teach you how to do it.
I chose “Jazz” Career Night because I didn’t know if I could talk to everyone who was doing hip-hop and pop and reggae … I didn’t know … so I said let’s just start with the jazz musicians, but it turns out that it’s pretty much true across the board.
Another message I’m trying to get across to people is everyone thinks that streaming is the death of music, when it’s actually the best thing that ever happened for musicians. It’s an uphill battle to explain that to musicians, because they’re all sure that I’m wrong, but I’m sure that I’m right, because I make a living with streaming music. They just aren’t getting it that, sure you only get a fraction of a cent per play, but an album has a lot of plays on it. A person will often loop an album and you get paid forever for those listens.
Instead of selling an album and getting an initial splash and then those people own the record and listen to it whenever they want for the next 30 years, you keep getting tiny bits of money forever and ever for your recording, so that’s a good thing. It may not seem like you’re getting much, but people will keep listening and over time you’ll get paid forever.
When you started streaming, how long did it take to start seeing real revenue coming in?
Streaming has only become popular in the last three or four years. When the iPod came into being they opened the iTunes store and that was the first time 99 cent downloads were a thing, and Napster was over.
We didn’t really catch on to it for a while. We released some jazz fusion records that didn’t sell, because that’s what we really love. I also like to play solo piano music and that turns out to be more popular than jazz fusion. About 2007 we got into recording solo piano music and new age and relaxing titles, yoga music and so on.
At Christmas time, my Christmas records make a little bit every year, even the ones that I did ten years ago. It just builds up, like a little mountain slowly, cause the old titles are working and you record something new and it just sort of adds a tiny bit, and over time it becomes a living. Then you have more time to record and that’s when it kind of snowballs.
When I switched to streaming, I thought “this is probably over,” because how do you go from 99 cent downloads to a half cent a stream or less? It turned out very quickly that it was slightly more. Now that there are a lot more people streaming, it’s actually a lot more. People are willing to discover music that they aren’t familiar with because they’re not paying anything. Very much like the way you’ll watch movies on Netflix that you wouldn’t have watched before. You wouldn’t have spent money on documentaries for instance. Suddenly documentaries are huge on Netflix.
Can you share some of your experiences and insights from being a festival promoter?
Music festivals are very popular and you can expose a lot of local artists to a lot of people very quickly. People won’t go and see your band on a Thursday night at a club downtown, maybe there’s a $5 cover or it’s hard to park. There are barriers to people coming to hear you.
We have wine and jazz festivals. Even if you aren’t there for the music, you have wine! The wine really brings most of the people, and then you get bands with 8000 listeners rather than 40. All of those local artists are getting a lot more exposure and having a great time, and all of the people that are there think it’s great.
So you have a free festival, lots of people come, and then you just call banks and people who want to sponsor that and want all of those eyeballs. They just want to put their name on the stage and it pays for everything. All of the biggest events in town, they’re always free, and that’s why.
Whatever you want to do in the arts, you have to think clearly about what people want and how people really operate, instead of just being a pure artist that is hoping people will discover you. You should make music or make art that is purely for your own enjoyment … the act of creation … but realistically, everybody that has ever made a living is trying to appeal to an audience. You have to think about how is the audience taking it in, how are they consuming music? You need to pay attention to that.
It’s addictive actually, to talk about this stuff, because a lot of musicians get excited, and when you have something to say that musicians are excited about hearing, you can’t wait to say it again.
Can you gIve us an idea of what your family was like and your introduction to music?
My father was in the Saint Louis Symphony until about ten years ago. A cellist. He did 42 years there, so I grew up around the Symphony. My mother also played cello, but not in the Symphony, and she played and taught piano for many years. They met because they had the same cello teacher as teenagers, and then they met again in college and eventually got married.
She had no interest in performing. She didn’t even particularly like being in the Symphony Hall, that was just sort of boring to her. She really hated to sit in there, but she loved music of course.
My brother and I, and my mother, all taught at Baton Music in the Loop back in the 1980s. I was a teenager and my brother was maybe 22 when we started. My mother was teaching there since we were kids. She did that for a long time, then she got tired of teaching music and started teaching GED up at the jail. She taught my daughter how to play cello.
I don’t play cello. My father scared us away from the cello. He made it seem too serious, too hard, too daunting to become cellists, but the piano is easy to bang on. My brother and I would make up things on the piano for years together. Lately we’ve been doing that in our show, my brother will come off of the drums and we’ll play something together and it gets pretty wild.
Was your mother your first piano teacher?
I guess so, but my brother (Rob) was probably the most important piano teacher. He’s four years older … he’s 50 and I’m 46. He figured out how to improvise with the blues scale, so he taught me how to do that and it was sort of the beginning of the craziness. We started playing duets and things when I was around six or seven.
Our biggest influence as kids was the band Rush. I had the Rush album “2112” and that’s the only album I listened to for many years. I was fascinated with science fiction, especially as a kid, so it was sort of a science fiction/progressive rock thing. It was a great influence for me.
What is it about Rush’s music that really grabs you?
I think that it’s really the drums. Neal Peart as a drummer. We learned everything about everything (from him). We learned odd time signatures! The other thing about him is, he is the only drummer I have ever heard that is a compositional drummer. You’ve probably seen people do air drums to Rush songs? They don’t do it to any other band ever!
We learned everything he did, and how he developed grooves throughout the song, how he developed them and built it up into solos at the end. That’s still how we think about music now. When we play with our group Bach to the Future, we take Bach tunes and turn them into Rush. Rob develops parts like Neal Peart and does it over classical music, and then we’ll do it in 7/8!
At some point I got a (Rush) book and it had the chords, that’s how I learned chords … from Rush tunes.
I was around music a lot. My neighborhood in U. City was highly unusual too, everybody played music and pretty much everyone played drums, but also played trumpet or piano or something like that. U. City was quite a place to grow up, and it was full of Symphony musicians! All of the Symphony kids lived there, so the level of musicianship was pretty high. Jeremy Davenport was in our age range and went to school with us. Peter Martin. Neal Caine who was with Harry Connick Jr.’s band, Chris Thomas who plays with Brian Blade … a whole lot of guys. It’s unbelievable how many people came out of there.
I played drums all the way through school because Rob had drums everywhere and I’d just learn what Rob was teaching me.
How does a drummer turn into a pianist?
Rob and I would bang on the piano, but he was really serious about drums. I think I chose the piano because we couldn’t play drums in the same band. When he was 19 and worked at Burger King he saved up his minimum wage money and bought me a keyboard to play in his band. He would always drag me along, so that was good. He’s really my biggest musical influence.
I went to a little bit of college and then I met my teacher at Forest Park Community College … my jazz teacher. Then I stopped going to school and would just take private lessons with him. I was playing so many gigs and things, I just stopped going.
Whenever I had a real strict teacher, I’d just quit. I don’t take direction well, but I have a good ear and I just kept figuring things out. If I had to I’d get a book out and I’d struggle through reading (the musical notation). I have a good sense of music theory. When I heard it, I could figure it out and I could understand it. I was always examining and breaking it down and being analytical about music.
These days you can learn from YouTube! Good lord! The things I’m learning now! I wanted to learn some gospel chords so I just typed in “Gospel Piano Chord.” When people tell me today that their kid is like I was, and say “We don’t want any strict teachers, he’s figuring it out,” I say just go to YouTube. Youtube will teach you so much more … you can rewind! If you don’t want to listen to that lesson, go to a different lesson. I think that’s where college is headed too.
My kids have so much access … my son has taught himself to draw magnificently … from YouTube. He’s eight years old and he just looks up how to draw whatever cartoon character, and there’s a very careful tutorial and an explanation by a real artist about these techniques, and he’s doing it, and he’s great at it! Now he’s into trampolining. There’s a tutorial for everything now. We had nothing!
Since Rob was older, did he go “pro” first?
Yes, he joined a Greek band when he was 15 and he learned how to play in 7/8 and 9/8 and all the odd little rhythms and timings. He learned a lot from that group. He really learned some very complex things and they really let him show off the whole time. He’s a real ham, so he developed his personality in that group too. We still do a lot of Middle Eastern rhythms, I think because of that.
How much time do you spend with your hands on the piano keys each day?
I hardly ever sit and play for long periods. I keep the piano in the living room at home and I’ll wander by and play for five minutes, probably eight or ten times a day.
When I got into writing jingles, 30 second commercials and things, that’s when I really learned about short term efficiency. There’s a reason that commercials are short. The music has to be succinct at the start, do it’s thing and … done!
How did you get into writing jingles?
One of my piano students, his parents made commercials. They asked me to write music for some hospital commercials. I had also been writing music for Six Flags for their onstage shows when I was in my early twenties, so I did everything. With a keyboard you can do so many things, you can sound like so many things. If someone needs a little piece of big band music, you can fake it. If you want some jazz or some rock or whatever, reggae and Caribbean music, you can do it all on the keyboard. Drum machines and bass lines … you could mock up anything. I had lots of weird opportunities that came up and I would do any kind of music. That helped me a lot to learn all of the styles.
I idolized Jay Oliver. Jay left St. Louis and went to L.A. and became a big shot in jazz, but he also did a lot of production. I remember, way back, the website JayOliver.com. It had a quote that said “Learn everything! Learn every style of music you can, learn about production, about arranging, learn about recording, just learn everything.” Don’t limit yourself. I was in my mid-20s, but that was a really influential website.
I started coming in here (Clayton Studios) to do jingles, like 20 years ago. It was always very exciting to come into this studio … this is St. Louis’ oldest studio. I liked the people who were working here. Dick Ulett, the owner, he decided to sell it and thought I’d be a good fit, so here I am.
What is your tie to WSIE? Does it still exist?
It doesn’t anymore, because they switched formats. They were purely jazz and now they’re … not. Dick Ulett, who owned this studio, was the program director until last summer, but we used to do a radio show together. We’ve revamped a lot of the shows, and we’re still playing them on the classical station about once a month. It’s kind of nice because we still have a show, but we don’t have to do any work. We’ll dig up an old one, re-edit it and put it out.
I’m trying to figure out if I can be involved in having a jazz station. I’d like to have a small one, a small radio station that maybe only covers a few blocks, but I’d like it to be a physical, terrestrial station, and then be an internet station.
I don’t just generally listen to whatever all the time, I dial in what I want to hear because (musicians) have very specific interests in music. For a lot of people, they don’t really know what it is that they want to hear. They’ll think “I’m in the mood for jazz,” and that’s why I think the jazz festivals are popular. They don’t seem to care much who’s in it. Jazz musicians will go “Oh wow! The Wooten’s are coming!,” but most people think if it’s quality jazz they’ll listen to local players just as much as they’ll listen to Wynton Marsalis, or whatever. That’s why Pandora is popular because people don’t really know what they want. They’ll think “I like Bob Dylan, I’ll put on a Bob Dylan station,” and that’s really worked. I don’t listen to it because it drives me crazy. It’s never the right song coming on next.
I have had to learn to think about how non-musicians think.
The other thing is that a lot of us, we’re working on stuff that takes incredible chops. Whether it’s a classical fancy piece, or a big scatting thing that’s really complex, that’s what we think is cool. Most people, they might enjoy it for a minute, but they don’t go home and listen to that. Virtuosity is still cool, especially live, but they’re not listening to it at home. People listen mostly to ballads and music they can chill out to.
How did you make the transition to New Age music?
My mother had a George Winston record when I was a teenager, and she would play that album “December,” it was very popular. I could understand it and once I started to do it, I got hooked on it. As far as our jazz fusion band, really I always think of it as Rob’s personality. Rob is really sort of hammy and a show-off, but that’s not my thing. I enjoy playing frantic music, especially with him, but the other side of my musical personality is really mellow.
The solo piano thing … I’ll play with as much space and as light as I can and that seems to be where I get the biggest audience. George Winston led me to another pianist named Philip Aaberg and others. There’s actually a very big world of chilled piano music that people don’t know.
Musicians will think, “Well Coltrane isn’t getting a lot of listens,” but if he’s on an album called “50 Best Jazz Songs of All Time,” he is, because people are not going to connect deeply with each player the way that you and I do. They just like jazz, and they like chill-out jazz, and they want to mellow out to jazz, but they may not be paying attention to who’s playing on the radio, or on Pandora particularly. We have to think in those terms that they do like the style, they just don’t really know the artist. They may not ever really figure out that they’re listening to Charlie Parker in their whole lives. They’ll think, “Oh, I like that one,” and then they never even figure out who it is or care again. If they hear it again they’ll think, ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I like.”
It’s a very surface thing, but it’s the same way that I like Monet. I think I like art, but I don’t know anything about it. I like wine. I don’t know anything about wine, I’ll say “I like sweet wine! What’s the sweetest one you’ve got? Oh, and it’s pink … I’ll take it!”
If the audience is essentially not paying close attention, are you able to get a following?
Yes. I have developed a real following, which is nice. We’re streaming over 3 million tracks a day, but a lot of it is on compilations. If only a half a percent of those people ever looked me up, that’s tens of thousands of people who have looked me up every day. My brother does a lot of solo drum music, but really the vast majority is solo piano music. We also have Caribbean music and all kinds of things in our catalog. We have a thing called “Christmas Rocks,” which is like a heavy metal guitarist playing Christmas tunes.
When I started streaming in 2007 and it started to work, I thought I have to figure out how to dedicate more time to this. Jingles never paid all of the bills, so I had to keep teaching for 20 years and I had really had enough. I was teaching 7 days a week, 50 students a week, mostly kids.
I figured out how to put out a record every week, and then I was putting out records every two days for a while. You just play, you record it and then you release it and it’s done and you go on to the next thing. I would keep a list of things that I wanted to record, whole albums of stuff. Jewish piano music. American folk songs … patriotic music. Then I started doing compilations, and that’s when it really took off. I have an album called “Thanksgiving,” it’s always in the top 2 or 3 on Thanksgiving Day on the New Age chart. For a day and a half it gets massive sales every year from I guess around 2009 till now. Sometimes it’s #1. It’s really just a compilation of music that would be nice background music for Thanksgiving, but there it is … every year I get a little paycheck from that.
Do you produce anything that you have to pay royalties for, or is it all original?
Not much. At first it was all public domain or original music. I did a lot of classical favorites, which is weird because I didn’t grow up learning classical music, but as a piano teacher I learned all of the classics. I would just learn it with the kids and then I would have a repertoire, but I didn’t study it with any seriousness.
I don’t ever play any of them straight for the most part. I just do my own version of it, and then that’s kind of cool because then people want the sheet music of my version, so I have a sheet music store (online). I sell a few pieces a day, it’s nothing big, but that tells me that I have a fan base. I only have 40 pieces of music up, but I plan to have hundreds soon because people just keep asking for different titles.
I was saying the other day on Facebook that people should do cover songs. We did “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” because we always loved that music and we’ve been playing it every year for some event or another. The thing that really made us finally do it was that we play with this sax player, Eric Marienthal. We thought wouldn’t it be great if we did “Charlie Brown” and got Eric to play sax on it? So, we did the trio stuff here, leaving space for him, and he just filled it in (at his own home studio). It sounded like he was right here with us the whole time. I had to pay royalties on that, and that’s actually cheap. There’s nothing to it, it’s just a little bit of paperwork.
Do you pay royalties for pressings (physical CDs,) or just streaming (online)?
I hardly do any pressings. Once in awhile I’ll make a box of CDs of something, but of those 800 albums we’ve done, I bet we’ve done less than 20 of them as physical CDs. It’s all online.
That’s what I mean, you can release an album and … it’s an album! You don’t even have to think about it again. It’ll make money or it won’t. It’ll find an audience or it won’t, but move on to the next one. That’s how we operate.
Why aren’t you teaching? This info is amazing.
I want to do that, I want to talk about music marketing stuff. I don’t have any marketing background or anything, but I wrote a little e-book called “Music Marketing in the New Music Economy.” It’s 99 cents and 35 pages and it’s just all of the basic ideas that I talk about all of the time.
Now that we have (Clayton Studios) one of our goals is to not just be a recording studio, but have it be a place where artists can get all kinds of information. Also to help them get their music online, since some people just can’t seem to get from here to there. For $200 you can bring your CD in and we’ll put it in all of the (online) music stores for you. If they don’t have cover art, we can help hook you up with somebody who can make cover art. We hope to offer website services too, like basic websites, it doesn’t take much but many musicians don’t know where to begin. They don’t have a big budget and they think it’s too expensive.
A one page website with a little description and a picture and a link to a CD, contact information, maybe a YouTube video link all on one page. It doesn’t take long to put together and can be really useful. It’s the new business card. You don’t even need to have your gig calendar on there, send people to your Facebook page.
You have had your recordings used for HBO’s drama series “The Leftovers,” and your “Carol of the Bells” was prominently featured in the FX series “American Horror Story: Asylum.” How did you make that happen?
Music production supervisors will go look online and find music that they want to use. If you have a lot of music out there, you’re probably gonna end up being in some things. I get a lot of what are called “sync licensing,” which is great. They’ll say “can we use your music?,”’ and I’ll say “yes.”
Tunecore is the online distributor that I use, and they handle it all for you. They have a thing called Tunecore Publishing Administration, and for $50 you’re signed up forever. I did that and it’s paid off, so well. I’ve had so much of my music synced and they negotiate it all and I get quarterly checks from that. It’s really cool.
For “The Leftovers” I think it was a classical thing that I did. It wasn’t even an original piece, but I get a lot of my classical things placed in things. The Bach Air (“Bach on a G String”) was in “The Good Wife,” and my recording of “Fur Elise” has been in a lot of things. With “American Horror Story,” they basically scored a whole episode with my “Carol of the Bells.”
Did you know anything about the end product before you sat down and watched those episodes?
No, and they also don’t even guarantee that they’ll use it. They’ll make the whole deal, but they don’t guarantee anything. (My music) was going to be in the new “Despicable Me” movie and I was all excited about that one … but they couldn’t guarantee it. They kept saying “Yeah, it’s in there, it’s in there,” and then it came out and it wasn’t in there. They didn’t have to pay.
There are surprises too, like I won’t find out until something comes out. My brother got one in a Martin Scorsese movie called “Silence” that came out last December. They used two pieces, two solo drum things that he did. We didn’t know until I just happened to look on IMDb for my brother and I saw that the movie had just literally come out like that week! I hardly ever look at this thing, but I just looked him up to see if there were any credits and there it was, a Martin Scorsese movie. I was pretty psyched! And (Rob) was in a Ken Burns documentary, so he gets a lot of placement too. The funny thing is, his music was used in “The Leftovers,” his drum pieces were in there, and then the next season my music was in it.
Do you ever hear your music playing anywhere while you’re out?
I’ve had some funny experiences like that. Last year I was in Florida on the beach. We’re walking back into the hotel and there was a beach wedding. They were walking down the aisle, on the sand, and my “Canon in D Major” was playing. My kids were thrilled! I hear my stuff in commercials sometimes. There’s one in a Booking.com commercial, so yeah, it does happen.
I was in San Francisco and turned on PBS Kids and they were playing some of my music between shows on a PBS Kids promotion. It was funny, because I knew at the time that they hadn’t paid me. The other thing that I find surreal is that if I look my name up online there are people doing tutorials on how to play my original tunes.
Did you and Rob used to tour a lot?
We really only had one really big year … in 2013 we went all over with Bach to the Future. We did like it, but everybody in the band has young kids, so that got us forming big events in St. Louis. We figured if we have festivals in St. Louis we wouldn’t have to travel.
At the time we thought the only way we could get a big crowd is if you can leave town and go to another city, it’s their only chance to see you, so they’ll show up. And every city thinks that their city doesn’t support music because people won’t come out to see your band over and over, but the math doesn’t work out. If you had 500 people at your concert and you play every week, what do you have to have? Like 25,000 local fans spread out over the year? That’s just not gonna happen. It’s not that your city doesn’t support you, it’s just that they can see you anytime.
We love playing in little small towns where, when you get there, there’s like posters of your band in the windows of the stores. Sometimes it’s on a billboard. It’s really amazing. You don’t have to be U2 to get that kind of reception in these small towns. You’re the big deal of the day in the whole city.
We don’t go to Chicago … we’ve never played in Chicago or New York. We played once in New York as a showcase. You should go to the small towns, they’re so happy to see you.
Are you doing any touring these days?
We just do little one-off things. Mostly things we can drive to because we have weird instruments that are hard to transport. There’s lots of theatres within two or three or four hours from here … all over Missouri and Illinois and Iowa. We’ll drive out somewhere, do a concert, and then also we’re getting ourselves into more jazz festivals. We’ll fly out for those because they’re fun, they’re worth it. I love jazz festivals!
I grew up listening to Bach. My father is really classical. He really likes Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. I thought it was really interesting for our band, because Bach’s music isn’t … when you think of most music it’s chord changes with a melody. Bach’s music is fugal, which means two or more parts (playing simultaneously,) individual parts. When we had our trio and were playing the jazz fusion stuff, the bass parts weren’t always just bass parts. They were counterpoint lines a lot of the time. So we thought it would be cool to work out these two complex lines, but there’s no chord.
We realized we could do a whole album of just Bach’s music, and then we came up with the name Bach to the Future, it was just a laugh, and became immediately sort of popular. Everywhere we went with that we’d hear, ‘Oh, that’s great! We’d love to have that.’ So, it was really an easy thing to book, it was a lot of fun.
I don’t really like to perform solo piano in concert. I get bored being all by myself on-stage, so I like to have this group. It’s with my brother, and the bass player we grew up with since I was four years old. We just grew up on the same street and he just kind of understands us, so that trio has been playing music for all these years.
I think it’s kind of exciting live, but it doesn’t sell well on the internet. Live music is different than recorded music. Musicians have to understand that if they want to do well. Smooth jazz is a perfect example.
If you listen to a smooth jazz radio station it’ll put you to sleep. Go see any of those artists live and they will blow your mind. They know that they have to make a certain kind of record that fits in the smooth jazz, chill out background. They can’t do the exciting stuff on the radio. It just needs to be kind of a groove, kind of simple. That’s what people listen to at home, but on stage if you do that, they’ll be bored. They’re not there to chill out. They’re there to hear some exciting music, so what you get are fantastic musicians doing concert tours, but they know that when they make a record that it will not fly, so they make a completely different thing for the radio. It’s a totally different experience listening to them on record compared to listening to them in concert.
The most popular jazz record of all time is “Kind of Blue,” by Miles Davis. It was so chill, but he didn’t play like that in concert. He went completely to the moon, you know? So, I guess it has been like that for a long time.
Approximately one week after conducting this interview with Michael, my husband and I took a short trip to Arcola, Illinois to do some antiquing. Shop after shop had soft piano music playing in the background. Public domain Christmas Carols, sometimes with a mellow jazz edge to them. Was it Michael? I don’t know for sure, but it definitely proved the point that he is in tune with popular culture in a way that most of us are not.