14 Days of Christmas: Revealing and Reviewing
As you may have seen, I spent the 12-25th of December uploading one song per day as a sort of advent calendar. This was a big project considering the low level of involvement with music I had had in the months preceding it.
Now it's time to look under the hood of the challenge (dramatisation below) in a post which was written over the course of 2 weeks.
My main aim was to figure out if I still enjoyed making music. If I really did enjoy making music, this challenge would make for a good month. If not, Christmas would be ruined.
For context, I released my EP 6 months ago and basically nothing has happened musically for me since then. No gigs, no plans for future releases, only 3 USD of streams and sales. I keep applying to Sofar gigs and getting excited when an e-mail comes in only for it to be an e-mail promoting that month’s gigs in my area, none of which involve me. My single got playlisted by a music magazine who lets you fill out their questionnaire for them to turn into an article but I got stuck at the question about my local scene because I’m not part of any local scenes (I don’t know if my area even has one). Before December, my last gig in front of people was an open mic in February and although it went pretty well, that open mic was so crowded that I wasn’t guaranteed a slot even if I turned up quite early so I felt put off from going.
Another thing that took time away from music was my new hobby: robot combat. I’ve been wanting to be a roboteer since I was 3, compared to my music dreams which started when I was 15. The UK robot combat scene is much smaller than its music scene and the natures of both scenes means it’s much easier to get your robot into a tournament than it is to get yourself or your band onto a stage. People from the robot scene will travel long distances to attend events while music consumers are largely unpredictable and have more specific tastes in the music they consume. I’m also on the admin team of a group which organizes robot events, which is how I get to satisfy my interest in devising tournament formats; something else which doesn’t really exist in music.
Back when I started posting music on the internet, I was uploading things quite regularly and I was getting a respectable amount of plays, even if my songs were one-take recordings full of imperfections. I put out a cover of Guantanamera where I say “I’ve lost it” as I lose track of the Spanish lyrics because I can’t speak Spanish. That song got downloaded 100 times and was added to a playlist of actual Cuban music.
All of this led me to this advent calendar project. I was going to upload videos of me performing to the internet, just like the good old days, and this time on a regular schedule. 14 seemed like a good number (25 wasn’t possible because I had the idea on the 29th of November) and 14 days before Christmas happened to be an election day so a perfect opportunity to begin with a political song. I also decided to play an open mic for the first time in 11 months as part of my early December holiday to Glasgow, giving myself 2 more videos and allowing me to see if I still liked performing live.
The open mic went… ok. They put me on first and most of the crowd was one group who was not there for the music and who kept talking through my performance. I tried to get the crowd to join in, which worked back in February but didn’t here. Nevertheless, I had fun and I discovered that I do still want to play live.
From this point, I have linked each song title to the Facebook post containing that song.
Day 1 of 14 (Thursday 12th December) was a song called Tory Scum by my fellow Warwick alumni in Not Right. This was my most viewed song of the run and it was shared by the band the following day. I recorded it the night I came back from Glasgow and I even got some nice outtakes to put at the end. I had a lot of fun making this song and looked forward to the challenge ahead.
Days 2-4 were songs I recorded in Glasgow: my 2 original songs from the open mic (Sweets For My Sweet and Flare) and the cover of Green Day’s Whatsername from the Airbnb. I planned to record more songs up there to give myself more days to rest but this is all I got in the bag. I queued them up on Day 1 and headed away to visit my mum for the weekend.
I was ill over that weekend so I wasn’t able to record any new songs. This forced me to upload unreleased recordings from the past for days 5 and 6. Day 5 was Black Widow, an original song of which I had about 12 one-take recordings with minor imperfections. In 2015 I didn’t feel good enough to upload any of them but as someone who needed a video immediately, I chose my favourite and queued it up. I would have uploaded all 12 if I had nothing else available.
Day 6 has since been withdrawn because it was a cover of an artist who I don't want to credit.
Day 7 was Le temps de la rentrée – a short France Gall cover where I realised I couldn’t play it live in a way that sounded good (the lyrics come fast and they’re in French and there are a lot of fiddly chord changes) but I could record it in ProTools and edit the videos of me singing and playing together. It was the first song I had actually recorded since starting the challenge and I had a lot of fun doing it. I applied a lot of filters to the guitar without it changing, then I unclicked “record-enable” for that track and they all kicked in at once, giving me some really weird distortion. I kept most of it intact for the final version.
For day 8, I wanted to do another short song and I remembered that my thing when I first started was songs under a minute long. I decided to look through my folder of lyrics to see if I had anything that was either incomplete or deliberately short. An A6 piece of paper with the lyrics to The Last Song Ever greeted me and as I worked out some chords for it, I was overcome with emotion which I went into on the video post. I sang it into the camera once and uploaded it.
I was tired after work before day 9 so I reached into my archives again, uploading a cover of Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life which I did with my sister in 2015. She approved its upload after watching it but had no recollection of recording it. Bring Me To Life is a song that I used to play as a mashup with All Star by Smash Mouth, which is always fun. I really like mashups and I should make more.
Day 10 was my first day of my Christmas break from work and I had spent the evening of day 9 out shopping. My girlfriend Jess was at my house so I convinced her to join me in singing one of her favourite songs from her favourite film: Down And Dusky Blonde from God Help The Girl (which happened to be 3 chords in a consistent pattern all the way through). The wig was a stylistic choice to mirror Emily Browning’s wig in the film and the wig removal before the last chorus is something I borrowed from a few drag performances I’d seen. Jess didn’t want me to include the wig pull, calling it “messy” and “needless”, but I was the director so there we go.
Day 11 brought my cousin Max to my house. I’ve collaborated with Max a few times previously and my family members really enjoy watching these collaborations. There aren’t a lot of songs that we both know so we settled on World In Motion by New Order, the England football team’s official song for the 1990 FIFA World Cup. He did the bits where the footballers shout and I got to do the John Barnes rap, which was the first of my 2 rap verses in this challenge. This song was also partly settled on because of its simple chord structure.
Days 12 and 13 were recorded on the same day to give myself more time to focus on Day 14, my proper Christmas cover. Day 12 was Cry by Carly Rae Jepsen, a 3 chord song by my most-listened-to artist of 2019. I attempted Making The Most Of The Night and I’ll Be Your Girl but I couldn’t play either of them well enough within 10 minutes of opening the chord page to justify dedicating more time to them. Day 13 was Call It Off by Tegan and Sara, one of the songs which was played by the venue DJ after my best live set ever (Zephyr Lounge, Leamington Spa, 18th February 2016). This song wasn’t a 3 chord affair but was quite simple and was rather short (2 verses, 2 bridges, 2 choruses). I ended up using my first take because the plucking pattern was really tiring for my hand to play and I was unable to finish any other takes.
I finished off the challenge on Day 14 with my annual collaboration with my sister Regan. We hadn’t decided on the song until Day 12, when we were leaning toward Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys but we eventually switched to Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid (the 2004 version). We recorded initial vocals and instrumentation on Day 12 (2 takes of each) and Regan was able to add harmonies, which really brought the song to life. The song was fully edited by the morning of Christmas Day, when the time came to shoot the video. My original idea was to have each line sung by a different character (one of us in different costumes) but we obviously didn’t have enough time to do this so we shot one run-through of lipsyncing the whole song each and edited that together with clips of our dogs near the microphones, my robot guitar driving around and strumming for the intro and a clip of myself feeding the world with a Quality Street. I was happy with how it all turned out.
Sitting down to write this post after resting for a few days, finding an answer to the main question of whether I still enjoy making music is a little clearer but I’m still not completely certain.
First of all, I’m glad that I was able to get through all 14 days of the challenge without skipping or backdating any days. I don’t always keep the promises I make to myself and being able to put out an album’s worth of songs in 2 weeks was an incredible result for me.
It makes me realise that the blockages I had had with music were mostly dependent on other people. There is no barrier to uploading videos to a Facebook page, whereas applying for gig spaces requires interaction with other people and promotion. I didn’t have to pay any money or get any other people to pay any of their money to be able to do what I just did.
I’m also very happy that I rediscovered The Last Song Ever when I needed a song to rush-record. That’s definitely getting a full ProTools version and might make it to my next release.
A problem with the parameters of the challenge was that the tight deadlines I set myself made it difficult to get really creative with the songs I recorded. “Le temps de la rentrée” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” were the songs where I was able to mess around in Pro Tools and edit a video from multiple shots and consequently they were my favourite songs to produce. A lot of the later songs are not very ambitious and use takes that weren’t perfect. There were no songs I feel like I disliked making, but “Call It Off” is a tricky song to play and sing in one take and the performance I gave wasn’t the best I could present that song.
I plan to revisit some of the songs I rushed through, re-record them and upload the improved versions to YouTube at some point next year. I feel like that will be a fun project but it won’t be all 14 songs and it will take a lot longer than 14 days.
From a metrics point of view, I got 1,023 views from all 14 videos – an average of 73 per video. I’m quite pleased with that. However, that figure is of views of 3 or more seconds. When we look at views of over 1 minute, that number is 68. Not average, total. Excluding The Last Song Ever, which is only 48 seconds long, that means each song got an average of 5 proper listens. And some of those would have been me. That makes it feel a bit less worthwhile. My Facebook fans grew from 70 to 73, which is definitely something. I was including tags on some videos but I don’t think people use Facebook Watch to find new music as much as Facebook likes to think they do.
So now I have to figure out what I want to do next. It also conveniently happens to be the end of a year and, soon after that, the beginning of a new one. This is traditionally the only time of year that people reflect on their lives so it could be a good idea for me to do that too.
Things are definitely very different from when I was at my musical peak in my last year of university. I was well connected with the people in my music scene, I interviewed bands on the university radio station every fortnight, I was playing gigs in a band and as a soloist and I was regularly writing songs to use in my sets in the Battle of The Bands competition and the Bandsoc gigs which I was sometimes on the bill for. Nowadays, I don’t have any of these things in my life. The motivation I used to have just isn’t there any more. I played my last uni gig as both a Greatest Hits show and as a blueprint of how I could play 30 minute sets in the future but I haven’t played a set longer that 15 minutes since then.
Today I searched “how to get gigs in London” and found a useful-looking guide from OpenMicUK but my main thought after reading it is “that sounds like a lot of work”. I don’t know who my demographic is because my sample size of listeners is too small to get any real data. I don’t know what the people in my town like because the only music venue I know near me only puts on cover bands who can play 3 hour sets. I don’t even know what genre to market myself as because I do so many varied things and don’t listen to enough music to know where I fit in. Like I said at the start of this piece, I can probably still enjoy playing, it’s just the logistics of playing in the first place which are discouraging me.
Also, pay-to-play is out of the question. I don’t want to encourage that business model. I would be completely happy with organising my own gigs with my own money but I don’t know how to make them break even, as I’m sure I’ve been into in this article.
I could, of course, stay online and only make music there where there is no barrier to entry. In 2016, someone suggested that I should write more songs like my sad ‘50s style song Sandy and adopt a Justin Bieber strategy of uploading songs online. (I looked up his career and this isn’t what Justin Bieber did, this was Charlie McDonnell – Justin Bieber had a video of himself at a talent show uploaded and Scooter Braun and Usher flew him out to Georgia to train him up and make money from him)
This does look kind of appealing but growing my online audience is something I am even more in the dark about.
After a long session of actual reflection, I realised that most of the things in my life that I do are me following opportunities that were available or just filling needs. I first started making music to impress a girl, then I joined Bandsoc and a band because the opportunity came up, then I got more involved because I was asked to present a radio show and wrote more songs because I needed them for the Battle of the Bands competition. Now that those things aren’t around, I don’t feel the same motivations to do musical things. Of course, I’ll do things when I have a purpose, like when I soundtracked my girlfriend’s film and when Eurovision had public submissions. I do follow potential leads for new gigs but if people don’t reply, I don’t like to bug them – people are busy. I sometimes go to creative networking events but I generally only look for other people’s projects which I can work on because I don’t have my own ones to follow.
After another day of reflection and going back to work, I still don’t really have a conclusion to this post.
Do I still enjoy making music? Yes. Do I still want to make music? Sometimes. Yes if I can be creative and innovative about it, no if I have a tight deadline to work to. Do I want to play live? If there’s demand. How do I create demand? No idea.
But to finish this piece, I want to share an interaction I had on the 27th of December in central London. I was waiting for my girlfriend and looking for Pokémon on Pokémon Go when I ran into a friend who I hadn’t seen in ages. He told me that he was enjoying the videos I was putting out as part of the 14 Days of Christmas and that I had a lovely voice. It was completely unexpected. He had to move on before I could really process what he said but I stood still in the middle of Chapel Market for a few seconds.
And I smiled.
It was a big smile.
It’s great that something small like that can really stand out and it’s equally crazy how just a few seconds can validate the hours of effort that goes into causing those few seconds. I’m fortunate to have that sometimes happen to me.
But is it worth it? Find out in another 14 songs and 3,000 words or something.