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John Wood (Learning Music)

Open Culture

Beginning this past March, John Wood has written, recorded, mixed, and mastered an album a month. Distributed under the moniker Learning Music Monthly, the music arrives on the first of the month as CDs in subscribers’ mailboxes and MP3s in their digital lockers, all released under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.

Offering a tiered subscription service (amenities include stickers, bonus albums, a song written for you on your birthday, and much more depending on price), Learning Music Monthly is a great case study in figuring out how independent artists and labels (LMM is released through CC-friendly label vosotros) are approaching distribution in today’s current music climate.

We were able to catch up with John and pick his brain about the project, including his thoughts on writing and producing an album a month, a subscription/donation-based distribution model, and his decision to release all the music, cover art, promotional text, mix-stems, sheet-music, and lyrics under a CC license.

Learning Music Monthly @ Machine Project – 01, cameronparkins | CC BY

Can you give our readers some background on yourself and the Learning Music Monthly project? What has your career as a musician been like? LMM monthly has existed previously – what is different this time around?

LMM really began in November 2006. I had spent the previous two years doing a fair amount of touring with other bands, and assisting on a film score, all of which was really fabulous and fortunate to experience. That month, I turned down a bunch of work and created the first Learning Music album. For me, it was something very much apart from my professional musical experiences. I get paid mostly to create what other people hear or see, which I’m very lucky to do. When I set out to complete that first album, there was a deep spiritual need inside me, which I had been aware of for a long time, to create something more personal. The payoff, instead of a check, was the pleasure of handing to friends this little secret disc, weirdly wrapped up in reclaimed cardboard. LMM is a little different from that now, in that we actually sell subscriptions. I think I’m still in the process of learning what that means creatively. It’s also much different now because of all the support from John G and Vosotros. The first year, my audience was mostly my friends. Now I’m making music for people I’ve never met. And they’re paying for it! Part of me of course wants to only create what I think these people want to hear. Hopefully I will eventually be able to give them something that they never expected, but that’s really good for them. Sometimes I feel like I lack the confidence to do that, but then ultimately there’s no time for doubt.

How do you generate the ideas and energy to complete an album a month? Do you work with collaborators? What is your recording and distribution process like?

The ideas come from everywhere. Each album has it’s own purpose or guidelines. So that gives a lot of focus. I think that is the most important idea each month: the bigger concept of the record. I get a lot of ideas from books and art, going to museums. I’m not entirely sure about the energy. It’s probably a mix of carbohydrates, inherited workaholism, and the excitement of potentially doing something great. I’ve learned that the energy comes in waves; there’s a time each month when I become drained and just want it to be over; it usually lasts a day before I get inspired again.

Three of the last five albums were big collaborations, and even those other two had various musicians coming over to play on different tracks. Mostly I’ve been asking people to be producer for a month. There are several more of those planned. Hopefully, as we grow, I’d like to delegate more responsibilities.

Each month, I’ve been making production schedules, which ultimately aren’t followed at all except for getting the album done in time to ship out by the first. When I’m recording, songs will usually get a little demo, with tracks built around that. I’ll record all the instruments first (except for maybe a couple parts), then vocals. I do a lot of mixing while I record, but also spend time on that after tracking is done. Since I’m usually working in the computer (with Protools), I have a whole system of saving different versions and color-coding files to tell me how close they are to finished. I also have a little white board with all the tracks listed and different colors and notes next to them. Once the tracks are finished, the CD is handed off to John G. We get CDs made in relatively small numbers, which takes a few days. Then it’s off to the post office to send them out to subscribers. Every album also goes onto our website, where subscribers can stream or download them.

You’ve utilized a subscription/donation-based model for the project’s distribution. How do you feel about this decision in hindsight? Much has been made of these trends enacted by big-name musicians – as a smaller artist, have you found that it works?

It’s still hard to say at this point, as it is relatively new for us. I’m sure we have a handful of subscribers who wouldn’t have signed up had it not been for the donation option. The majority of subscribers have paid by donation, and some of those very generously. I feel good about the way we have it set up right now.

You chose to release all of the music coming out of the project under a CC BY-NC-SA license. Why did you choose this license? Have there been any positive benefits as a result? Obstacles that you have had to overcome?

CC seems to fit the project well. I feel like this license can inspire new creative opportunities. Also, it just makes sense with the current state of technology. I’d rather people have the music than not; so if someone burns a CD for their friend, that’s great. We’ve gotten a lot of positive nods from people just for being aligned with CC. There have been no real obstacles so far. But I could see issues coming up as we get into remixes and covers of work by other artists who aren’t using CC licenses.

You are at a halfway point for the year long project – what is up next for LMM? How can our readers get involved?

LMM 2.5, Christine Finley | CC BY-NC-SA

The albums are lining up. The next one is made up of 99 twenty-second songs, using only sounds from my body (voice, claps) and samples of objects found in our kitchen. Then we’re remixing a bunch of songs by friends of ours. I’m also talking with a few great musicians about producing/collaborating on upcoming albums. I’m hoping that at the end of these twelve months we’ll have the energy and ideas to keep going.

The easiest way to get involved is to go to the contribute page on our website. There, anyone can download stems for remixing and sheet music for covering LM songs. Remixes and covers, as well as individual samples, can be uploaded to us (through Soundcloud);

Posted 15 July 2009