If you were to list traits and skills of a DIY musician destined for success, what would be on your list? I might argue that strong lyrical and musical sensibility, audio technology mastery, and marketing prowess should be.
Which brings me to Brian Hazard, of the solo act Color Theory. A little background — Color Theory recently won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Electronic music category (and is about to go up against other category winners for the Song of the Year award). So clearly, Brian’s got serious songwriting skills. If you listen to his winning song, “If It’s My Time To Go”, you’ll immediately notice his musicianship and great vocal ability. He also happens to be an audio mastering engineer, running his own mastering studio at Resonance Mastering. Furthermore, Brian knows how to leverage online media to successfully promote his own music in a web 2.0 world, and shares his experiences at Passive Promotion. So check, check, and check.
Once I learned about Brian, I wanted to get to know him better — so I interviewed him. Check out the Q&A:
GARAGESPIN: So Brian. You (Color Theory) recently won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in April. That’s awesome. Tell us about the song, and the process that lead to the victory.
BRIAN (COLOR THEORY): The song was originally created in collaboration with my friend Caesar Filori of Wideband Network. I sent him three piano sketches to pick from, and he sent me back a rough demo of his choice. The dark and melancholy character of Caesar’s demo inspired my lyrics. I recorded vocals and he wrapped up the mix.
After a few months, it became clear that neither of us had time to do an album together, but I didn’t want the song to go to waste. He gave me the okay to create a new version of it for my latest album, The Thought Chapter. The original version that Caesar produced is featured on a follow-up EP entitled Second Thoughts.
As for the contest, that was kind of a fluke. I’ve submitted to song contests over the years and got a few honorable mentions, but overall felt they weren’t worth the effort. The deadline for the John Lennon Songwriting Contest came just after I finished the song and was feeling overly optimistic about its chances.
GARAGESPIN: Where do you get your song inspiration? What hits you first — lyrics, melody, a song title, a piano chord lick?
BRIAN: I usually start from a title. When one hits me, I’ll rough out some stream-of-consciousness prose to make sense of it. Next I’ll flesh out the song structure and melody. Then I’ll mold the useful bits of my garbled prose into a lyric. The production goodies come at the end – typically the hardest part for me. At that point, I just want it to be done. I can only spend so much time finessing automation envelopes.
GARAGESPIN: That echoes my own experiences. Especially the final phase of a song. I’m usually praying for it to end, but am unable to take the production to a close. At what point to you, personally, ask for colleagues’ opinions? Early on in the process, for preliminary feedback, or later, after the song is already 95% complete…etc.?
BRIAN: I usually run lyrics by a friend or two when they’re done, and the song as a whole after it’s 100% mixed and mastered. I’ll revisit the mix a couple months later and marvel that I couldn’t hear obvious flaws.
GARAGESPIN: You currently run your own mastering studio at Resonance Mastering. How did you get started, and how has it helped your career as an artist?
BRIAN: After putting out two poorly mastered albums, I realized I’d have to unravel the mysteries of mastering for myself. My friend Todd Durrant of A Different Drum took a chance on me and gave me a lot of work early on. It got to the point where I was mastering everything the label put out, which at its height was 6-10 releases per month. That established me as “the synthpop mastering guy.” The positive word-of-mouth brought in work from all genres, including a large Christian distributor releasing plenty of rock and hip hop (I guess we called it rap back then). The business continues to grow solely from client referrals.
As for helping my career as an artist, it keeps me connected with other artists with similar goals. I suppose it saves me money. Prevailing wisdom is that you shouldn’t master your own stuff, but I don’t trust anyone else to do it for me. That said, I always bounce the results off some engineer friends before committing.
GARAGESPIN: What production software do you use? What are your two favorite pieces of hardware, your two favorite effects, and your two favorite production techniques, and why?
BRIAN: I used Cubase for the past dozen years, but right now I’m learning Ableton Live. I won it as a prize in the Lennon contest, so I figured I’d at least give it a shot. I’m inspired by the workflow, and eager to make the jump. I may even go so far as to do a 100% Live album, using only built-in instruments and effects.
Hardware – what’s that? Everything is on the computer. Well okay, I’ve got my RME Fireface 800 interface, my Benchmark DAC-1 converters, and my Rode NT-1A mic. This probably isn’t what you had in mind, but my room treatments are probably the most important pieces of gear I own.
I use my Universal Audio UAD-2 Quad for most of my effects, mostly just compressors and EQs. I really don’t do much beyond that, but I plan to experiment more with the next album.
As for production techniques, I’ve been detailing them in my mix tips articles on Passive Promotion. Lately I’ve focused on spectral mixing, and clearing out the low end to leave space for the kick and bass.
GARAGESPIN: You have a relatively large discography — how do you think you’ve evolved since your first album?
BRIAN: While the production quality has improved, the basic formula hasn’t changed. Nobody else that I know of is doing the classical piano plus electronics thing, so I consider that my signature. I did experiment with one all-acoustic album, involving an insane amount of work that went largely unappreciated. While it was a rewarding experience, I’ll stick do doing everything myself for the foreseeable future.
GARAGESPIN: What do you see as some of your biggest “break-through” moments that helped get your music heard, before the John Lennon contest? I.e. what has most helped you grow your fan base?
BRIAN: Jim Beam, the bourbon company, sponsored my all-acoustic album, but we know how that turned out. Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint any breakthrough moments. It was a slow build from the day I started taking preorders for my first album. For the first few years, compilation CDs helped the most. Later, my Depeche Mode tribute got a lot of attention. I’ve tried lots and lots of ideas, some crazier than others. In most cases, it’s hard to tell which worked and which didn’t.
GARAGESPIN: What is one of the craziest ‘good’ ideas you’ve tried, and one of the craziest ‘less good’ ideas you’ve tried?
BRIAN: The good ideas don’t seem so crazy anymore, and the bad ones are embarrassing. Devoting an entire album to Depeche Mode seemed a little wild at the time, but it worked out well. On the other hand, I burned CD-Rs and passed them out to DM fans in line for tickets, and got zero response. Go figure.
One of the embarrassing ones involves my third album, Perfect Tears. The album is quite intimate, even confessional. I decided to push that angle by promoting it through a series of personal ads, that I actually published in the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register. The exact text was:
20-something musician seeks fans for mutual musical fulfillment. Must be intelligent, cultured, and emotionally available. Inquire at www.colortheory.com.
I expected at least a handful of curious visitors, but as far as I can tell, nothing.
GARAGESPIN: Covers are always said to work wonders for promotion. Is there a strategy to selecting the most promotable cover? Genre/style/era of the original, and the interpretation of it?
BRIAN: It’s probably wise to cover bands your fans like. My Metallica and Sondheim covers didn’t do much for me. The interpretation needs to be different enough to justify the cover in the first place, but not so different as to be unrecognizable. On the other hand, my friend Mark Nicholas attracted lots of attention with his cover of “Maniac” from Flashdance. I suppose it worked because everybody knows that song, and he made it even funnier.
GARAGESPIN: According to a recent post, you’ve experienced some success at TheSixtyOne.com. What social networks have been most helpful in promoting your own music, and what other online tools do you feel you can’t do without?
BRIAN: Twitter updates my Facebook status. I usually tweet (I still feel silly saying that) three times a day. Those two sites bring most of the traffic to my sites. ReverbNation’s widgets and fan e-mail system have become indispensable. Those three sites, plus colortheory.com, are my foundation. Everything else is a series of experiments.
GARAGESPIN: You mentioned Facebook as one of your primary go-to sites. I noticed your personal profile is your core profile. Did you ever try setting up a Facebook Page, or did you just stick with the ReverbNation Facebook app early on?
BRIAN: I’ve got a personal page, the ReverbNation app, a Color Theory group, and a Color Theory page. It’s a hassle.
GARAGESPIN: Can you share any sales stats, specifically offline vs. online? What’s your most popular album and single to date…and why do you think that is?
BRIAN: I post monthly sales and profit/loss figures for each of my albums at colortheory.com, so no secrets here. I’ve never done a single, but my most popular album is Color Theory presents Depeche Mode, most likely due to the last two words of the title. My first album is the second best performer, simply because it’s been selling for so many years.
GARAGESPIN: Have you been approached by any labels? You seeM to be doing just fine on your own — are you even pursuing one?
BRIAN: I have been approached, but I’m not interested. I’m skeptical that a label would do anything for me, and I’m happy with the balance in my life right now. To invest more time into Color Theory, I’d have to give something else up. So it’s not so much that I’m doing fabulously on my own, but I’ve got an audience and the freedom to do what I want.
GARAGESPIN: What other new projects and/or gigs are on the horizon for Color Theory?
BRIAN: I’ve set the release date of my next album for next August, which means I need to get moving on it! I’m starting completely from scratch. I’ll put out an EP or two in the meantime, and hopefully put together a few “in the studio” videos. I’ve got some strong compositional ideas that I’ll expand on once I get a few tracks laid down, mainly an arrangement technique I’m calling “spiraling.”
No gigs for me – I’m strictly a recording artist. Color Theory is what I do when I’m not mastering somebody else’s music, blogging about promotion, or spending time with the family.
GARAGESPIN: Thanks so much for your time, Brian. I’m really looking forward to your next projects, both audio- and video-related.
BRIAN: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.