Jennifer Batten on Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician

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Coming soon to a Sam Ash** near you: Jennifer Batten is on the road. Accompanied by guitarist and co-presenter Jesse Solomon, she will spend most of July and August, and the first weeks of September, offering musicians and non-musicians the opportunity to attend any of 25 free guitar clinics or 14 seminars: “Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician Experience.”

The clinics, she says, are fairly standard: product demos, which she details in our interview, and questions from attendees. The seminars, however, tackle a wide range of subjects, from practical tools to help musicians make the most of their skills, to navigating the Internet, discovering and optimizing revenue streams, creating balance between professional and personal time, and even unexpected topics such as how to fuel your body and mind through healthy food choices.

Fifty-one dates in a motor home – that’s tenacity. Fifty-one dates in a motor home with another person — that could end in a double-homicide.

My first outing was six weeks alone and I kicked my own ass very hard, so one of the many lessons I got from that was: Don’t do that again! It’s just the two of us, and honestly, two people in a motor home for two months is almost one too many. What I have going for me is I’ve known Jesse for 20 or 30 years and we did a West Coast tour already, just playing. He’s a great guitar player and we get along, but it’s possible that I’ll want to stab him after that amount of time, but I have high hopes!

You are holding three-and-a-half-hour sessions for people with seven-second attention spans. How do you keep them, and yourselves, interested and engaged?

I kind of downloaded this whole idea from the ethos this winter, and it was triggered by a few different things. One was I was tapped to do a two- or three-month tour with an Italian pop star who’s on the level of a Michael Jackson, and I was due to get about $75,000 for three months’ work. I was excited about it, and then that, combined with about three other gigs that were 5 to 7 grand each, disappeared one after the other. I went into this dark space, because having that kind of stuff dangled and then taken away just sucks, especially after I’ve been playing for so many years. I’m certainly not alone in going through this. It happens all the time. Two was having several students … even though they’ve been playing for so long, I’m floored at what they don’t know, especially as far as the tools that are available now to help you along, almost like virtual coaching. I thought, People need to know this stuff. In my life, anytime I’ve gotten punched in the face, I always end up a lot more empowered by learning to do things myself. For instance, when I decided to do the film show for the first time, I didn’t know anything about editing film. I was trying to get other people onboard, going to film schools and putting ads on the website. After a year of trying, I ended up with only four films at five minutes each. Now I can do them myself. That’s the kind of stuff I want to pass on, that if you set your mind to it — this sounds kind of pie in the sky — you can do just about anything, or at least empower yourself to get a lot further than you are now.

One takeaway from working with Michael Jackson was the entertainment value. For him, the music was the foundation and he built from that. He added the “wow” factor on top of it. Being aware of the attention spans, and my own attention span being short because I’ve got just as many gadgets as everybody else, I’m pulling out all the stops as far as trying to get information across in an entertaining way. Some of the videos are only 10 or 30 seconds long, to take your attention outside of this zone and put it in another one for just a second. By having the point driven home several different ways, it pounds it into your head more. The most dry thing I can think of is having sentences on a PowerPoint and reading them to the class. My sister has been in the corporate world forever, and when I told her that I was getting into PowerPoint, the first thing she said was, “Whatever you do, do not read what’s on the screen.” And in fact I don’t have anything written on the screen. It’s JPEGs or entertaining videos or something hitting them at all times. I worked for Cirque du Soleil for six months, and their whole thing is constantly overloading you with imagery. You can see the same show three times and get three different shows, if you focus on different things. That’s how I intend to keep the attention spans. Having Jesse as my co-host also means there’s a different person to listen to. So every 15 to 20 minutes there’s something brand new, and within those chunks there will be as much entertainment as I can muster.

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Many of the topics you are going to cover will be educational for musicians and non-musicians, for example, people who enjoy your music but don’t play an instrument.

Absolutely. It’s holistic, so it deals with a lot of stuff. There is going to be a lot of information and personal stories, because even for my own learning, personal stories are much more memorable than “Here’s ten steps to do this.” I’m using a lot of stories from my own life about how I was afraid or overwhelmed about this and that, but because a seed was planted, a few years later there I am doing what I was afraid of.

What gear are you bringing, and will it be the same for the clinics and the seminars? 

In the clinics I’m demoing three new things. One is the Fishman TriplePlay Wireless MIDI System for guitar. When I was with Jeff Beck, at least half of what I did was triggering synthesizer sounds. It was such a pain in the ass, and I never would have put in that much effort if it wasn’t Jeff Beck. The Wireless MIDI takes everything that was a pain in the ass away from the whole process of having access to every sound that any keyboard player would have access to. That’s really powerful, because you don’t have to rely on anybody, not even a drummer, to be able to write a song and get it recorded. To me, that’s pretty exciting. I stopped using the synthesizer triggering because, number one, it’s such a pain in the ass, and number two, it was so much equipment to carry. When I’m on my own, nobody’s going to want to help me schlep all that gear! Now, this last tour I did in Europe, all my sounds were in the smallest Macbook Air — that was my synthesizer — and the Wireless MIDI is just this piece of plastic you stick on your guitar and boom, you’re done. Plus it works better and it’s more reliable.

Number two is the DigiTech Trio, which is flying off the shelves. It’s a band in a box, but instead of having to go to a laptop and program things, it’s in a pedal. I don’t understand the technology, but it’s brilliant! It has your chord progressions and it automatically comes up with a bass line and drums, including drum fills. If you don’t particularly like what comes out, you can flip a couple of knobs and get a whole different approach to it. There’s genres from jazz to country to blues, pop, and alternative. I think it’s one of the best songwriting tools out there because it’s instant. You don’t have to read a manual and you don’t have to rely on other players, and that’s another empowering thing.

Number three, I’ve been with Washburn Guitars for quite a while and they’ve come up with a new model of the Parallaxe. I’ve asked them to put the Line 6 Variax electronics in mine, which gives you at least fifty to seventy sounds that you can access with the push of a button. It has a lot of advantages, because you can turn a dial and get different tunings instantly. Invariably I’ll run into a club that has really crap electricity, and with magnetic pickups it’s not always possible to get rid of the nasty buzz in the system, but if you click in the virtual pickups, it’s instantly quiet. So there’s a lot of advantages to the electronics, which is why I’m insisting on it.

Jesse and I put together ideas to demo all this stuff in the most interesting ways. We’ll use the same gear at the clinics and seminars, but the demos at the seminars will be very short because not everybody is going to be a guitar player.

How have your clinics changed over the years?

For almost all of the clinics I have a presentation. There’s not a lot of interplay except for questions, and the questions tend to repeat. A lot of people want to know how to get out in the world, how to get your band known, how to be famous — the American Idol mentality. I tell my story, but over the years it’s morphed a bit into what I think are the important parts of music, which is getting your personality through your instrument. I take some lines and melodies from my songs and play them as if I’m reading them from a piece of paper for the first time. It’s very straight, no emotion whatsoever, and then I’ll add different elements, like, “If you pick like this, it adds percussion to it,” adding vibrato, using a tremolo bar, adding all the subtle details that make such a powerful difference and that everybody should have in their arsenal. I also talk about sounds. Everybody has access to the most insane number of sounds in history, yet I find that a lot of guitar players don’t make use of them.

I’ve done interactive clinics and that’s really difficult because you get people on all levels. You can see you’re leaving this guy behind and the other guys are bored. So I find it more effective to just present what I present, and over the years I’ve made it more entertaining. I think back to the first clinic I ever gave — I practiced it for months and I had so much information. Two people walked out on me and I was just gutted! People want to be inspired. They want to run home to their own guitars, take what they just learned, and make it work for them.

Are musicians spending too much time on social media and not enough on practicing and creating?

Wow, that’s a huge issue. That’s why I wanted to do a holistic thing, because you’ve got these kids who are downing Red Bulls and have serious ADD for whatever reasons and don’t have the patience to put into an instrument. I’m very aware of that, and it’s one of the reasons I’m trying to take things in bite-size chunks, because it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with all that’s around us. You dial in YouTube, and if you’re looking for tutorials, you can find yourself looking at really sh*tty ones. So what I am, in part, is a filter. You can go straight to the resources that I’ll give at the seminars. It is a problem in the music industry because not as many kids are playing, and I have no idea what to do about that, other than to try to inspire the people that are drawn to it.

One of my all-time favorite drum solos was done by a DJ who doesn’t play anything. It’s all samples, but he’s got such a musical sense that I love listening to his stuff. He has an innate musical ear to make things happen. So I’m not as negative about people that don’t actually learn an instrument as a lot of other, shall we say, jaded f**ks are. I’ve hung out with a lot of people my age who are going, “Oh, the kids today.” I remember somebody being so appalled that you can take a digital file, slow it down, and EQ it so you can hear just your instrument. They were really negative about it, and I’m saying, “How fantastic is that?” It’s a tool that’s gone through the thousandth degree of being able to hear somebody, and that’s why you see an 11-year-old kid just kicking ass — because the tools are skyrocketing the speed at which they’re able to learn and absorb and play. Back in my day, I was moving a needle on a friggin’ record, driving my family up a wall, and destroying my records! Now why is that better?

The focus today is on “building your brand.” How do you “build a brand” if you have no business sense, and what good is a “brand” if you’re not creating?

I am absolutely addressing that. I used to despise that label, and now I’ve gone, “Well, the Internet’s been around long enough that you’re seeing a lot of successful people.” I’ll give you two examples that I’m using in the seminars. David Wallimann is a talented guitar player who had a day job that he hated. He switched to giving guitar lessons, but he got tired of teaching the same thing to different people, so he created a YouTube channel and typically gets 6,000 fans watching his twice-weekly content. He created backing tracks to do his lessons and started selling them on his website. Now he has eight or ten DVDs of his lessons for sale. One of the most valuable podcasts that I’ve been listening to is called Smart Passive Income. Pat Flynn, the guy behind it, was an architect, but in 2008, housing stopped and he was out of a job. He was going back to school to get his masters in architecture, but he had to pass a difficult test to go to the next level. Using flashcards to study wasn’t doing it for him, so he created a blog to organize his thoughts. Before he knew it, he had 6,000 to 7,000 people a day going to his blog because it was helping them. When others found out he was getting all these hits, they said, “You’ve got to write a book.” He thought, Why do that when it’s online for free? But he wrote the book and in the first month he was laid off he made over $19,000 selling it. He has 160 episodes on his podcast, and he interviews people who left a job for one reason or another, or they had a particular passion. They talk about their journey and how they learned to sell what they’ve got. They’re all making a living online. It’s not “Get rich quick.” It takes years, but here are examples of people who have done it.

I’m transferring all that knowledge to music and talking about the different ways you need to be involved in everything — social media, a website, a press kit, playing out if that’s what’s you want to do. You want to express yourself with what you learn. Some people hate giving guitar lessons. They’re burned out. Well, what about the other stuff you know? You don’t have to be an expert to put out a quick-start tutorial. So these are a few of the things I’m talking about — ways to add income to your living that go beyond playing in bars. If you write a song, you have tracks. You can take the lead vocal off, and each section can go to an online audio stock house. There are stock houses for video and animation, and lot of them are combined with audio. I’m listing possibilities to inspire people to think outside of what they’re doing now.

One of your topics is monetization. How do you approach this when we live in a world where many people believe that anyone working in a creative field should work for free, that creating is not work, and that if you love something, getting paid for it should not matter?

I have tons of resources. There’s a book called The Trick To Money Is Having Some, by Stuart Wilde. The gist is that the amount of money you make is directly related to how you feel about yourself. If you believe in yourself, then why would you sell yourself short? I will never forget — this guy wanted to be my manager right after I had done the Super Bowl with Michael Jackson, and he wanted me to do this certain thing for free. For “exposure.” I’m saying, “Motherf****er, I just played for 1.5 billion people and I got paid for it!” A lot of public speakers say, “If you do it for free, you get your name out there and you get known.” Every time the offer comes up to do something for free, you’ve got to weigh it. Is it going to be valuable to you to get you used to the stage? Will there be certain people in the audience who might be shopping and it makes it worth your while? But making a habit of working for free, or playing for cheap, just cheapens the whole industry. I got that training when I was with Michael Jackson. I was making ridiculous amounts of money, and as a result I have no problem saying, “This is what I cost. Take it or leave it.” Also it’s a psychological thing. I have done ten- or twelve-hour flights to Europe so many times, and I know very well what happens from jet lag, especially when I return and I’m absolutely useless for seven days minimum. I have a certain dollar amount in my mind that if you want me to do that, this is what it’s going to cost and I feel OK about it, but if it’s less, I’m going to feel abused. The last time it happened, someone had me fly to Birmingham, England, for a one-off for $1,500. I flew home and I thought, What the hell was I doing? I’m never doing that again. My price doubled after that, and it’s probably doubled again.

Another topic you address is “creative reboot.” Are there times when your enthusiasm wanes and this becomes a job?

Oh yes, it happens to everybody. There’s a lot of ways out of it, and a lot of times it has nothing to do with music. Sometimes going to see a movie can trigger inspiration of some sort. Sometimes I have to get away from music entirely. Not that I don’t play at all, but I might spend a month on a completely different art form. I got into stained glass really heavily for three years, and then I got into steampunk art. Going to concerts — a lot of players never see anybody else. They’re holed up in their rooms. One great player can trigger you into a whole other thing. I never enjoyed country music very much, but on my first RV tour, I was in the South, there was very limited radio, and I heard a song by Brad Paisley called “Ticks” that I had heard once before, but all of a sudden the guitar solo stood out. It was so good that I pulled over and Googled who the guitar player was. I didn’t realize that the singer was the guitar player. That opened up a can of worms of studying his whole vibe, getting all his records, getting into the country thing a bit, and I ended up onstage with him! You never know where you’ll find inspiration, so it’s another concept to keep your tentacles out there on anything that’s creative, because that can fire you up again. I went to see Joe Satriani, and one of the songs had a really interesting kick drum pattern. It was the most inspiring thing for me. The next day I came up with a tune based on that pattern. That was completely unexpected. I went to see the guitar player, but the drums took me to another place.

You’re even tackling food and health. How do you stay healthy on the road?

That’s one of the reasons I am doing the RV, because I have control over those things. Like I said in the promo video, it’s not about nutrition; that can go on for hours and I’m not really interested in it. Mainly what I want to impart is an awareness of the horrible toxic sh*t in processed foods. The solution is to eat real food. You can go into any of the chain markets and go to the perimeter. The only reason to go into the aisles with the bags and boxes is if you want some rice. Otherwise, you are putting your health at risk. If you stick to real food, you’ll be great, and if you have the money for organic, you’ll be even better. I’ve seen basically every food documentary that’s out there, and usually at the end you say, “This is awful! What’s happening to the planet?” But the one takeaway that was so powerful was that we can vote with our wallets and the companies will be forced to give us what we’re buying. I talk about GMOs as well. I’m throwing those things out there without getting political. I just want to create awareness. I’m putting pages and links and PDFs for resources on a flash drive so that people aren’t overwhelmed online. They can follow links to what I’m talking about in the seminars.

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The tendency for some young players is to play every riff they know at full speed and full volume. When did you begin to understand that less is often more?

I think as people grow older, they want more meaning in their music. The more you can dig down deep in your soul and emote, the more satisfaction. When you get onstage, the focus is not to impress, but to connect with people. The shredders impress teenagers, but as far as an older audience, after ten minutes you’ve heard everything that someone can do, so if your show is an hour or 90 minutes, you have a lot more to fill. Part of it is seeing the reaction of audiences over the years, what does and doesn’t hit them. It’s a natural filter. I did “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and it was a two-hand tapping thing, but I’m nowhere near the speed of the average shredder, so I guess for me it was a need to make music with less notes.

When you look at the music industry today, what do you see?

I feel a little disconnected as you ask that, because I’m kind of a hermit and I really don’t have my thumb on the pulse of what teenagers are listening to. That’s the first question where I’m completely stumped! The one thing that came to mind is, with an artist it’s not only the music. It’s the vibe, the personality, and I think people are still drawn to that, so if they hear a song that they really love and play it over and over, they’ll probably go back for more. You can go to anybody’s website and find out a bit about their personality, or go to YouTube and find an interview. I think that people still want to be fans of artists. It is certainly a lot harder for people to rise above the noise and to be noticed, because you have to have enough of a combination of what people are used to hearing and enough originality to make you stand out in some way, so getting that balance between the two is an interesting work. Every time I go out on tour, people give me CDs. There’s such a large percentage of these CDs that sound like Steve Vai, and in the first few bars I know if I want to listen to it or not, because there’s already one Steve. That’s something that’s also being dealt with in the seminar. There’s a lot to be gained by copying other players early on, but it’s not going to get you too far in the long run if you don’t get your own personality out of it. Which doesn’t really answer your question, but it was a good tangent, wasn’t it?!

— Alison Richter

** Most clinics and seminars are being held at Sam Ash stores. Check listings online for exceptions and alternate venues. Schedules for all events and tickets for the seminars ($49 advance, $55 at the door) are available at www.jenniferbatten.com.

 

 

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