Sunstrike Piano started off as a morbid experiment that quickly grew out of control. After checking out the online mastering program LANDR, I just wanted to see how cheaply I could conceivably release an album using equipment I had lying around in my garage office. Next thing I knew, I was putting together a website, setting up social media accounts, working out a content strategy, and experimenting with Facebook ads.
I blew a lot of money. “A lot” is relative. Compared to the first album I released under my own name back in 2011, I still pretty much have spent nothing. I did learn a bit in the process, though. The music marketing course I purchased had a strategy that I’ve come to believe did more harm than good. Admittedly, I didn’t follow it all the way through, but there came a certain point where I just questioned the importance of what it calls a key metric. (Total Likes.) If I had the money I spent, I would have targeted my Facebook ads very differently.
Yet… I still have to acknowledge that in experiments, you have to find out what works, what doesn’t, and – more importantly – why. I have the honor of being taught by some of the world’s finest teachers while pursuing both my music degrees. They’re amazing and I considering them lifelong friends and mentors today. I think they would even agree with me that failure is the best teacher. The bigger and more painful the belly flop, the more you learn. The key is to be focused and strategic… provided that you understand enough about what you are dealing with.
Learning curves. Fun, aren’t they?
After getting started, I let Sunstrike Piano sit for two years while I focused on – well – my work. That was a mistake. If I had spent that time still tending to it and figuring things out while releasing from time to time, I could have learned quite a bit more before I got fired in the middle of a pandemic. (For clarity’s sake: My firing had nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with a manipulative employer who did not value me personally.) Big ol’ belly flop with all sorts of missed opportunities.
Shit happens. And yes, that can be part of the learning curve, too.
The same mindset I had when I started – that of curiosity and experimentation – is the same that I intend to have as I go forward, tweaking my strategy as I learn more. Until I learn what works, how it works, and why it works, I really can’t predict the outcome. I do know that I intend to get better at it.
Is there something you are burning to do? Or to learn? Or to build? Don’t wait for the right time. Start right now. Invest the time. Invest the money. (Be reasonable about it, though. Feed your babies and keep your house.) The perfect time will never come. I spent enough of my life waiting for certain conditions to be met to give myself permission to do whatever only to see lots of wasted years. Even if you only go at a creep, it is well worth every move. Figure it out, even if you have to carve two hours out late at night.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved my work. I believed – and still believe – in the mission. I got a lot done. It satisfied a creative itch. I worked with some amazing people. I’ve seen people find healing, fulfillment, and growth in ways that surprised even them. By that measure, it was time well-spent… and one man took it away just to show he was boss.
Do your work… but don’t forget to work on your own castle. You never know when you’ll have to start living in it.
Shocker of shockers: I follow Jesus. There is no greater example of a man who rejected power, prestige, and privilege to purchase the soul of man at the cost of His own flesh and blood. For God to surrender His Son – into the hands of a humanity that repeatedly and brutally rejected Him – shows the depths He was willing to go through to reconcile with us. I make no claims where it comes to how “good” a Christian I am or what authority I bear… and frankly, I would be suspicious of anyone who does.
Put simply, my shit reeks. Even those people you hold up as upstanding role models “beyond reproach” leave ugly surprises in the toilet. And sometimes they don’t even flush. Follow the Original and True One. Man is fickle. Even among the Twelve who spent the most time with Jesus: one sold Him out, another said “Jesus, who?”, and another said “Jesus? Rise from the dead? Pshaw. Yeah, right!”
The Good Shepherd will never leave you, whether it is during life’s jubilant celebrations or at the lowest times in the darkness.
Right now, I have entered a personal season where much of who and what I surrounded myself with has been stripped away, either by the initial incident or the ugly aftermath. I’m not blaming anyone except for the other party. The human tendency when conflict arises is to choose the path of least resistance rather than actually work to resolve it. All too often, what that means is to get rid of the “disruptive” party “making all the ruckus.” It is far easier for those on the sidelines to assert neutrality to “avoid taking sides.” That effectively isolates the “disruptive” party and casts him out of the group.
I’m a Black man born and raised in the United States of America. This shit is not new to me.
God is still with me. Wednesday afternoon at lunch, a friend told me a story from his own period of exile. A cardinal kept on flying face-first into his window and my friend asked God why. God said “Quit beating yourself up trying to get where you aren’t meant to go.” If I were a pastor, I would totally steal that story.
God is still with me. God still loves me. And there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. And I’m thankful. He will provide. Faithfully.
Which leads me to this.. (Wait… What?)
Sunstrike Piano is coming back. In fact, I spent the last week and a half recording the next album and just submitted the metadata last night. The original title was going to be “Exodus” to reflect my current season of wandering around in the desert, but Wednesday night, I decided to focus on God’s provision instead. The title for the project is now “The Goodness of God.” It has twelve covers straight out of Christian music along with an original piece. I’m not going to spend a lot of time promoting it because I feel a strong need to concentrate my efforts on other areas. You will definitely know when it is available.
One thing to know: Starting with this album, I’ve gone completely acoustic. Previous albums were recorded on a 22-year-old electronic piano that weighs over 120 pounds and has a 3.5 inch floppy disk drive. After the COVID-19 epidemic hit the United States, I started teaching myself to tune my own piano. (Still got practicing to do.) I decided it was just time to rip the band-aid completely off and go in.
So… This album is recorded on my actual Kawai piano with a mic that really wasn’t designed for it and a pianist who is not a recording engineer. There’s no cutting and splicing. There’s often a noticeable hiss. This album is going to be raw, unpolished, and chock full of imperfections. It will also be completely authentic.
That’s me. If I can’t do anything else in this world, I am going to be true to myself. Part of that is no longer waiting for everything to be perfect.
I invite you to stream and share the album when it comes out. Please consider purchasing the album (or previous albums… even a track) if you want to help support me.
God is still with me and I know He’s with you as well.
For anyone who might be new, Sunstrike Piano is on its third release since it first launched back in May. Sunstrike Files #1 talked at length about what led me in this direction. You can also get a peek at the ancient artifact I use to record the music. My first release – Lil’ Kat Brook – was the initial experiment where I purposely chose to release an album (of originals) as cheaply as I possibly could out of nothing more than morbid curiosity. Putting together and releasing that “secret” album under this name quickly spiraled out of control, because next thing I knew I was buying/creating a website and then setting up Instagram and Twitter accounts so I could get access to my Spotify Artist pages.
Now that I had three social media pages and a website, my next thought was that I should probably actually put something on them so people think I’m actually doing something. I picked up my cell phone and started hitting my local parks (and a church) to take pictures and record video. Next thing I knew, I had to dig up Adobe Photoshop and Premiere – that I purchased in 2011 – and figure out how to get my logo on there. It was a pain and wasted many hours and I still don’t know how to do some basic stuff. (If you ever have to learn how to do JUST ONE THING on Adobe Premiere, do yourself a favor and just stay away from online forums. In fact… Staying away from ALL online forums is generally a good idea!)
Then, there was the process of scheduling these posts. The Facebook Page was simple enough to figure out. Using HootSuite for Instagram and Twitter? Now, I’m looking at getting the Instagram Business page set up (pain in the ass) and dealing with maximum photo sizes. And an actual content curation strategy?
Wait… What? FACEBOOK ADS?!
Gary Vaynerchuk has barefoot interns fighting with steel chairs on top of greased tightropes fifty feet high strung over a pit of broken glass and super-heated rusty nails to do this stuff for him. Me? I’ve got me. We didn’t cover this in school! I’m a freaking dinosaur with an “every day” life who will probably be borrowing gas money to get to work before this week is out. I don’t have time or mental space to figure this out!
(On the outside chance Gary Vaynerchuk actually reads this: I’m joking. Sort of. Whatever, Dude. I don’t even watch football and I know the New York Jets don’t have a chance.)
Well… I’d love to say I pushed aside all my concerns and got the job done and have been killing it ever since. NOPE. This may sound insane – particularly as an artist – but everything I am doing is something of an exercise. Sunstrike Piano is my place to experiment and play around and do everything wrong while figuring out how to do it right. There’s a hypothesis I am testing and it will take some time to see if it bears out. For now, I’m going with the flow.
So… Now I have gone over why I went in this direction and what I’ve done, I’ll get into detail about the one thing I have yet to address: the music.
Although Lil’ Kat Brook was a “morbid experiment”, there actually is a theme. As you know, I took pictures and video of outside, concentrating on nature. Geese. Ducks. Flowers. Trees… All the stuff you think of when you see the outdoors. Given the name of my company and my logo, I thought it was a natural fit. It also gave me the excuse to play around with Americana styles, themes, and imagery. Yes, I wrote every single one.
What I can tell you:
“Steps of My Fathers” was inspired by stories I heard of my ancestors settling in the Appalachian Mountains after the Civil War.
“Steps of My Fathers”, “Dance by Moonlight”, and “Where Are You” were all written well before I even thought about Sunstrike Piano.
“Paw Paw Pass” is not a physical location. Paw paws are fruit. I’ve never actually eaten a paw paw, so I hope they taste good.
My second project – This is Home – was more of an impulsive decision. I was heading out of the country the last week of June and really had a strong urge to put something new out there, particularly with the approaching Fourth of July holiday. My home town was holding its bicentennial celebration, so I wrote it a love letter. Does my hometown know or care? Honestly… Probably not. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m doing this to learn.
“Star City Song” has nothing to do with Green Arrow. Star City is my hometown’s nickname.
“This is Home” – the title track – was inspired in the same vein that I was exploring in my first album.
“Phosphorous” is about something that happened. Anyone from home or the surrounding areas knows exactly what it is.
My third release – My Shelter – is a little bit of a departure, inspired when LANDR recently made it easier (and more affordable) to digitally release cover songs. (It was originally a no-no.) I had already recorded and mastered a few from a couple other genres so there were a few directions I could go. Contemporary Christian Music won out.
Disclosure: I’m a worship leader at a new church start-up.
Confession: I had no deep spiritual reason for choosing to release an album of CCM songs. My choice was made solely out of convenience.
Will that change in the future? Totally possible. What does that say about the release?
Music is a vehicle, not the message. Jesus can (and has) used spit and dirt to get the point across. He laid hands on people with festering, oozing sores to deliver the message. If He chooses to use my album, He’s going to do it, regardless of why I released it. It doesn’t matter if I contract the New York Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and The Roots to accompany a resurrected Mahalia Jackson on one of my choral arrangements. Jesus does the work, not me.
He’s going to do what He’s going to do when He’s going to do it and how He’s going to do it. The rest of us are just here to witness, obey, and enjoy the ride.
“My Shelter” (the title track) is the only original on the album and practically wrote itself at the piano. The pictures had already been taken. As many references as there are in scripture to shelters, encampments, tents, refuge… The title was just obvious to me. You go home to sleep. You go inside to get out of the heat. You go inside the shelter to get out of the rain. A shelter is a sanctuary. For your spirit, that sanctuary is Jesus.
Okay… So there may have been more consideration in it than I thought.
In case you have read this far and still haven’t picked up on it: I’m making this up as I go. There are a few more things I’ll be playing around with. Either they’ll work or they won’t. I’m just seeing what’s going to happen.
It is often said that we are our own worst enemies. This is not to say that others never mean us harm. I’ve been targeted by attacks that were meant to be either humiliating or outright devastating. Yes, it happens. Yes, I consider it to be an act of evil. Evil does exist in the world.
That said… I believe in divine retribution or what the nonreligious in the United States call “karma.” (Yes, I know “karma” is a religious concept, but it has been appropriated.) What you do to others will inevitably come back on you. The attacks I mentioned were more a reflection of the perpetrators’ hearts. My success – or rather my potential success – was seen as a threat to their perceived status. These people may have sought to destroy my future, but ultimately they had no power to stop me… unless I chose to give it to them.
In other words: My enemies need my help in order to destroy me. I have the choice whether to assist them with my own destruction.
That makes me my own worst enemy.
The most persistent and lingering damage I have suffered has been because I have let damaging beliefs take root in my mind. Many of them were planted, but I was the one who fed them. I still struggle with them, even after God has repeatedly shown me they were false.
Okay… So “Sunstrike Piano” is more of an inspirational concept. What’s the deal with all this talk about enemies, attacks, and religion?
This is about getting out of your own way and specifically choosing to stop harming yourself. In fact, do the opposite. Love yourself; choose to live.
To be clear, I am not telling you to be selfish.
Say that there’s a man whose table is overflowing with more food than he could possibly eat. If he would rather let that food spoil than share any with the child starving outside his door, does he really love himself?
Truly loving yourself means tending to your needs. All of your needs. Financial. Physical. Mental. Spiritual. There are many times in my life I remember being the “starving child” above… and yet I’m not so quick to admit I have also been the man hoarding food!
How many times have I denied myself the resources to fully embrace life or to fuel a passion? How many times have I talked myself out of something I wanted to do? How many times have I given something up because I feared failure?
How many times have you?
There is a word for these passive acts of (self) harm. Neglect.
Sunstrike Piano was borne out of neglect.
What do I mean?
My preferred way to record an album is to travel to a professional recording studio where I can record on a Yamaha C7 grand piano with microphones that have been chosen and placed by an actual professional recording engineer who knows how to assemble the best parts of multiple takes so I don’t have to play everything perfectly from the beginning. Then, I can send it to a professional mastering engineer to perform the witchcraft that makes each track (provided it is halfway decent) sound amazing on everyone’s speakers. I would also defy “conventional wisdom” and have a run of CDs replicated simply because I have made far more money selling CDs out of my trunk than I have on digital downloads and streaming. That’s my preferred way.
My preferred way costs money. Money that I have no guarantee that I’ll ever make back. Even to record and release my first album (under my own name) back in 2010, I used my car as collateral to take out a loan and had a somewhat decent income stream. I’m still driving the same car and my current “day job” pays half as much as I made back then. While I may want to do it the “right” way, I can’t justify diverting that money away from certain things like car insurance, having a roof over my head, and eating.
Confession time: Yes. It’s true. The man behind Sunstrike Piano likes to eat. Too much. I’ve broken many an office chair… and several toilet seats… and a $750 artist piano bench at an upscale venue where I will probably never be invited back to perform. (And no, I wasn’t paid anywhere close to $750.) And yet, I still like to eat.
In fact, I smashed half a giant bag of potato chips and French onion sour cream dip just before I typed that paragraph above.
Go ahead and judge me; I deserve it.
Seeing as how my “day job” (which I love) doesn’t exactly have me rolling in the dough, I told myself:
I didn’t have the disposable income/ reserves to professionally record and master, therefore…
I could not release music.
There was no point writing it because no one would ever hear it.
I could not afford to invest the time and money to learn how to record myself and even if…
I did not have professional recording equipment.
Everything recorded had to be performed flawlessly to be released.
Releasing an album recorded in less than a professional studio would irreversibly damage my professional image.
Nice and sensible reasons, right? Although it haunted me, I put the thought out of sight and out of mind.
Kind of. Okay… It was in my mind, but I just resigned myself.
A few months later, while wasting time online, I discovered LANDR. LANDR is an online program that analyzes and compares your track to an online library, sets some rules, and tells its system how to master your upload. (My apologies if I did not describe it correctly.) Their “free” subscription lets you master two tracks for free. I decided to try it for shits and giggles.
I hooked up my banged-up 20-year-old Technics SX-PR51 electronic piano (so old it has a floppy drive) to an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra I got off E-Bay (I think) 10 years ago with a $15 quarter-inch-cable from Guitar Center and recorded a couple tracks on my PC – no, I do not own a Mac – using Audacity, which is a free online recording program. I then exported the files as WAVs and then dragged and pasted them into LANDR’s program… and then waited about seven minutes.
Well… I got the shits, but not quite the giggle I was expecting. I admit it; I was expecting something really bad. It was okay. Sure, LANDR is not an actual mastering engineer performing aural witchcraft, but for my electronic hack job, it was much better than I was expecting. Of course, this now posed more problems than it solved.
By “posing more problems”, what I really mean is “sparked my morbid curiosity.”
I looked up the pricing and one of the options included unlimited mastering and distribution of WAV files. It’s a little bit of a commitment each month, but even one year’s total cost would still be less than what I paid to master my first album under my own name. I could theoretically record, master, and release as much music as possible and it would still cost less than it does to keep gas in my car for one week.
Will it be as good a product as my preferred method of recording? No. A Yamaha C7 (or – my favorite – the Steinway) would sound better than my electronic Frankenstein. Professional mics and a competent recording engineer in a professional studio would do a better job than this pianist in his garage. I would perform better knowing that I could just play three times, get past the mistakes, and then chop and splice and punch in as necessary. There is no question in my mind that investing the money and time would yield a better product.
Yet… I just lost my first six reasons (excuses) for not recording right off the top. I could do it. It just isn’t how I would rather do it. Yet… I could still release it.
Ahhhhh… but the last reason. “Releasing an album recorded in less than a professional studio would irreversibly damage my professional image.” That one’s a bit harder to simply brush off. My professional image isn’t exactly sparkling to begin with, but I just could not get past the notion that this would be the death blow. Is this simply ego because I am releasing in a way other than I prefer? Am I correct to believe that going about it in this manner is indeed a reflection on my (perceived lack of) professionalism?
Honestly, I don’t know. And at the same time and even record/release aside, I had a desire to experiment with Facebook ads and marketing that could possibly be seen in the same light. How would it look to play around with these things – even if it is still at my own expense – and then once it is out there, have it irretrievably attached to my name if it came across as an ego-stroking exercise?
Again… I don’t know. And yes, it felt ridiculous I was considering abandoning my morbid experiment just because I was worried what people would think. Would I really be doing myself any favors by waiting until everything was perfect before I did anything?
If you wait until everything is perfect, you will never get started. If you don’t get started, you won’t ever progress.
Every time you pick up a new skill, you are going to suck. A lot. I tell people all of the time that in order to sound “good” you are going to have to get over sounding “bad.” You aren’t going to get the results you seek if you don’t invest the time or money to get them. Sucking is a part of becoming successful. You need time and freedom to experiment and learn. The morbid experiment was not going to yield anything useful unless I could actually put it out there.
So… I removed the last remaining obstacle standing in my way. Me. I decided to go with Sunstrike Piano instead of my actual name.
Okay… Sure. Anyone with halfway decent Google chops can figure out who I am if they want to. Have at it. I’m not going out of my way to hide it… or promote it. Neither serves me. I’ve mentioned Sunstrike Piano exactly once (as a recommendation) on my personal Facebook page. On Sunstrike Piano, I’ve mentioned surface stuff in passing. That may change later, but for now that artificial line works for me.
If something presents itself as an obstacle in your path, either remove it or go around it… even if that obstacle is you! Especially if that obstacle is you.
Remember what I sad earlier? Nothing can harm you without your express permission.
So… Where am I going with this? Honestly, I don’t know. I could just be throwing away money. Given my various commitments, I don’t even think I’m giving this experiment the time and attention it needs to bear fruit. For now, I’m just going to roll with it, see where it leads, and take notes.
A month ago at this time, Sunstrike Piano was little more than a Facebook Page with my logo and a secret album I was preparing to launch. This “morbid experiment” has grown considerably since then – far beyond the investment I intended to put into it. Here’s the “thought” process so far:
1.) There’s this top-secret album I’m releasing at the beginning of June. I need a base from which I can promote it on social media. HEY! Let me make a Facebook page!
2.) Facebook page is MADE! It would be kind of weird to have this and no mailing list. Maybe I should set one up and put signups on the page.
3.) So-and-so says he knows a way to write Facebook ads that will have people Like my page. Yeah, right… The comments seem to have an actual discussion that people have made it work. F*** it. Let me try it and see what happens.
4.) All right. I’ll go walking and make this video with my cell phone. Then, I’ll set it to the title track off my album and use that to make my ad.
5.) HOLY S***!!! People are actually LIKING this?! Hold up… They’re from Nepal? Libya? Nigeria?
6.) Oh well… Even if they never buy a download, I’ll still get paid if they stream. (Yes, we all know streaming pays nothing. Humor me.) Here’s a track for you to try out, My Nepali Sister!
7.) Hmmmm… I should probably have something else on my page besides my logo and this movie. HEY! Let me go back to the park and take pictures!
8.) Album is released. Let me get verified with Spotify for Artists. WHAT?! They want an Instagram and Twitter as proof of ownership?!
9.) F***ing A… Let me go start them. Of course, there is nothing ON them. Let me get HootSuite set up so I can at least schedule posts with them.
10.) Square pictures show up better on Instagram. Wait… what about square videos? I should figure out how to do that.
11.) Does it make sense to have these social media profiles (Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube) point to ANOTHER social media profile (Facebook)?
12.) Do I really want to drop the money on a website? I already exceeded my budget… but… F*** it. Let me go ahead and do it. At least if I actually succeed, I don’t have to worry about cyber-squatting.
13.) I HATE WORKING ON WEB PAGES!!!! WHY AM I DOING THIS?!
The past month, I have learned more about how to use Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, HootSuite, and Google Drive than I thought I would care to learn. If it weren’t for Google, I’d have given up already. That said… I’m glad to say that it looks like I am nearing the first “point.”
It’s still a morbid experiment with no guaranteed Return on Investment, but I feel pretty good about what the next steps are going to be as I follow this path. Even if I never come close to making my money back, I’m learning something.