A couple years ago, I was an active participant in a group on LiveJournal called, “A day in my life.” To participate, you photographed your day from beginning to end, and then submitted it in a post to the group. I really, really wish I’d done that for Monday, Labor Day, because it was a day that really showed two sides of the music business for a musician.
My day started by getting up to go pick my husband up at the bus. They were running a couple hours late (which I didn’t mind, because it gave me an extra hour of sleep!) so this was one time in which I pulled up to the bus and my husband jumped right into the truck. He was already late for a session, and he still needed to shower and grab a bite to eat.
So after a fast burrito and taco at Taco Bell and a super fast shower, he was off to the session. He asked me to go with him this time, though, since we’d not seen each other in four days. I had wanted to go, but I was really worried about being in the way. He reminded me that he was going to be working with friends, and he reiterated that he wanted me to go. So… I did!
We arrived to the studio, and I have to admit… I was in a little bit of awe, even as I tried to play it off as being no big deal. I grabbed a seat in the control room (in a nice big, soft leather lounge chair) and I proceeded to play on Twitter and Facebook much of the afternoon — I was trying to follow the MDA Telethon as best I could.
Okay, so in reality it was me just trying to still pretend like this was no big deal, even if deep down I wanted to run around and take pictures of EVERYTHING. I wanted to squee on Twitter. I wanted to geek out.
But I didn’t. Honest.
It was REALLY interesting, though, to see some of the magic happen. For example, I mentioned that we were late to the session. When we arrived, they were in-process of recording the second of three songs for the day. So, at the end of the day, my husband went in and recorded his parts of the first song.
We listened to what they’d recorded in the morning, and I was thinking that it sounded really good. The engineer even mentioned it felt like a finished song already, but that they’d throw a little piano and some B3 organ in just to see if it worked or not.
So, my husband went in and sat down at the piano (which, by the way, we found out many hits have been recorded on… one of which is Rascal Flatt’s “God Bless the Broken Road”) and the engineer started to play what was already recorded. My husband jumped in and added piano. I was lucky to be in the control room when everyone still there listening raved over what he did. (I beamed, I admit it.)
Suddenly this cool almost acoustic groove exploded into an awesome piano song! It changed the color and mood of the song.
Then he sat down at the B3 organ, and they did the same thing. Suddenly, he added a base to the piano pieces he’d already placed in the song, and it opened up the piece even more. We literally listened to a song as it unfolded like a flower.
It was pure magic.
In the span of that afternoon, I got a real idea of how music we hear on the radio comes to the world. I already had a pretty good idea from tv shows, as well as from what my husband had told me about sessions he has done in the past. But to actually be there and witness it… Simply incredible.
My husband is a “road musician” but he also does session (recording) work. Recording takes a certain talent, technique and knowledge of music. There are some musicians who strictly do sessions. (These are the guys you’ll see nominated for “musician of the year” at award shows.) There are some musicians who strictly play live. However, a majority do straddle the two worlds.
I wouldn’t call either side of the musician’s world “easier.” In doing a session, you’re making it up as you go, but it has to make musical sense within the piece you are playing. You can’t go in and just play whatever and expect it to work. You need to know what the song is asking for: when to play and when NOT to play. You need to know what parts need to meet up or which ones need to echo each other. You need to know how to play the song just as much as (if not more than!) you play your instrument. You are a composer on the fly, and what you compose needs to be clean and solid.
Now, in the studio you can try again until you get it perfect, and with today’s technology you can go in and fix two measures without re-recording the rest of the song. Or you can go in and record multiple versions of your part, then mix and match those versions into the perfect song. There’s a level of security within that fact.
In playing live, there is no room for error. You can’t “redo” a show. You can’t stop mid-song and go, “Can I do that again?” Also, you have to learn what the person who recorded the song came up with… often that is not an easy task. Especially when you consider that a track is recorded in layers. You can have two layers of the same instrument going on at the same time, making it possible to record something that will not be physically possible to play live. However, its the live musicians job to get as close as physically possible. Now, the nice thing for the road musician is that the job is laid on to you. This is what you play, so just play it. Also, you get the instant satisfaction of the audience loving what you are playing. Whereas a studio musician never gets the audience approval outside of seeing a song climb the charts.
(Well, unless you work for someone like Tim McGraw, who uses his road band in the studio, but that’s a fairly isolated case.)
I can officially say I’ve witnessed both sides now, and each one renders its own element of magic.
After the session, my husband and I went out for drinks with two of the other guys from the session. As we all talked about the day, I admitted my excitement for having gotten to be there. I thanked them for not minding my presence.
One of the songs they recorded is one I first heard for the first time almost a year ago, when it was one of the writers singing it to just an acoustic guitar. Then, on Monday I heard it being recorded. It’s an amazing song that I know will be on radio some day. Whether its this guy’s version or some other artists picks it up, that song WILL be a single and a hit.
I told our friend, “The day I hear that song on the radio is the day I pull off the road to cry. I will sob with pride to see that song finally get to where it belongs. Its just frustrating to know it could be another 5 years before that happens!”
There is amazing music being made every day — both on the road and in the studio. I feel frustrated knowing there is amazing stuff already recorded that won’t see the light of day for years, but I also feel a lot of comfort in knowing there is a guarantee of great music continuing into the future. There’s something really awesome about that.