Aaron’s Blog

Stories and thoughts on life as a singer-songwriter.

Publishing Deals and Whack-A-Mole

When I signed my first publishing deal in 2012, I got a little sick to my stomach. My 16 year-old artist spirit went into existential crisis mode. Did I just sell my soul? 

But I was incredibly thankful, too. We had a baby on the way and I’d been serving coffee at Starbucks for $9/hour. The publishing advance saved us. 

Along with a paycheck it brought more opportunities and relationships. I also got the respect of being “published” which, believe or not, really raises eyebrows.

And, shhh, here’s a secret…most people don’t know what a publishing deal is. I mean, do you? I certainly didn’t before signing one. But it just sounds good, right? — “published songwriter” — like I could go to my high school reunion and keep my chin up. 

But here’s the thing about publishing deals and deals in general with creative people: Everything is a trade. Have you ever been to an arcade and played that game Whack-A-Mole? You take a mallet and, yes, whack a mole. But then another one pops up out of a different hole. So you hit that one down. You never win, you just keep trying to keep as many down as you can. 

For me, I whacked the “money problem mole” by getting a publishing deal. But the mole that popped up was an extra voice in my head while writing. Would my publisher like this line? Will they think this song is too fast, too slow?

But I have a theory that to actually win the game Whack-A-Mole, you do this: 

Hit every one down at least once and see which one bothers you the least. Leave that one up to stare at you. And as much as you want to pulverize that little booger, take a deep breath, stare back, make nice, and see if the two of you can’t get some work accomplished. 

For me, that was the projected voice of my publisher in my head. It’s a struggle that’s ongoing and I’ve made peace with that now. But honestly, we’ve accomplished a lot together!


P.S. Want to learn more about publishing deals? Start here.

When No One Takes You Seriously

Trying to book my own gigs in the beginning was a lot like going door to door selling vacuum cleaners. Only I was telling the person they could have the vacuum cleaner for free. I just wanted them to take it and like it. 

The problem when you’re starting out is that no one takes you seriously. You have some songs that you’re proud of but now what? The gatekeepers — venue owners, booking agents, DJs, critics — how do you go from a nobody to a somebody? 

It’s easier now with social media (and probably harder in some ways, too) but back when I started, I needed a stage and a microphone to make anyone a believer. Once I’d recorded my first CD, however, I thought venue owners would listen and book me based on the music. But what they really needed to know was whether I could draw a crowd who would buy food and drinks. And I couldn’t. I could only guarantee that my friends Shawn and Gavin would come as long as Shawn could get his shift covered at Starbucks. This is not a great sales pitch, even though Shawn and Gavin are awesome.  

But then one day I called a venue in Duluth, Minnesota. After the lady on the phone had let me down gently, I asked her if she recommended any place across the river in Superior, Wisconsin.

“Ewe, Superior,” she said, “Don’t go over there.” 

“Why not?” I asked. 

“Superior is gross.” 

Whatever. I was desperate. I’d quit college to try and make this music thing work. I felt like I had people counting on me. I didn’t really care whether it was Mars or Earth, I just needed a tour date on my website.

What I learned is that Superior, Wisconsin is not gross, but awesome. There’s a place called Red Mug, a coffee shop, owned (back then) by a lovely hipster type named Anna. She told me, “Sure, you can play here. When do you want to play? 

Wait, what? 

She had no idea how much I needed a win. And I’ll always be grateful. The show was even a moderate success! 


The thing about all this is . . . rejection is tough, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It teaches you to figure out how bad you want something and how much you believe in yourself. This is YOUR dream after all. Everybody else is dreamin’ up their own dream, so get to it! 

And remember that everyone has problems. You can add to it or help solve it. A venue owner needs to book a musician who can bring in customers. You want to play on a stage. If you can’t bring in the customers to solve the venue owner’s problem you’ll just be adding to it or asking for a favor. 

So get creative. Maybe you add somebody to the ticket, and maybe a third person? The three of you combined might have enough friends to lessen the risk the venue owner is taking. 

Even if you don’t get booked, if you show the effort and hustle and that you’re thinking from the booker’s perspective, that goes a long way. People remember that. The next time they’re trying to fill a spot or need an opener for a national act, your name might come to mind. 


What It Was Like Starting Out (Recording My First Songs)

It wasn’t what I expected. 

What I expected was a recording studio you’d see in the movies or in Rolling Stone magazine. Huge rooms with vaulted ceilings and sliding glass doors. A sound engineer smoking cigarettes over a mixing console. 

But my first professional recording experience happened in an efficiency apartment above my producer’s parents’ garage. Gray carpet. Checkered linoleum in the kitchen. No sound proofing. Sometimes we had to stop recording when the neighbor was mowing the lawn.  

Expectations aside, the experience was perfect. I wouldn’t trade it. It was the right environment, and Chris Cunningham, my producer, was the right guy to help bring those first songs to light. 


My Main Takeaway

So much of doing music, whether performing or recording, is anticipation. You’re anticipating the encounter between what you think something is going to be and what it ends up actually being. Sometimes it’s better, but often times it’s worse or just way different than you’d imagined. But each time you have to make a choice to be open minded, give everything the benefit of the doubt, and make the most of the experience. 

One time I played a show to three people in Arizona. Despite being deflated at first, I remember that show as being one of my favorites. 



A Book I Recommend

At least once a year I read a book by my favorite author Jon Hassler. I’m always trying to write songs like Jon Hassler wrote books. Seemingly ordinary, small-town characters living in northern Minnesota. But once you get to know them, they tug at your heart and stick with you.

Though he’s written a lot, my favorite is Staggerford.

I hope you like it.


How My Taco Bell Coworker Helped Me Deal with Stress

Jim was my coworker. He and I worked together at Taco Bell.

I was in high school. He was probably in his early 40s, a single dad of three kids. Serving late night burritos was just one of many jobs he had.

Jim was always whistling. Not particularly well. And no tunes I ever recognized. I think they were made up. I could never tell if he was whistling because he was happy, part bird, or because it helped him get through the day. Because let’s face it, if you’re in your 40s working at Taco Bell, no one would blame you for not being in a good mood, and certainly not for whistle abstention. So I sort of psychoanalyzed that Jim whistled to prevent himself from punching customers.

Later on in life I’d find myself in similar circumstances. No, nothing as difficult as Jim’s. But just doing jobs I didn’t love. Trying to get through a hard day. I’d remember my old coworker, though, and so I’d start whistling or humming to myself. The strange thing is, it really helped.

Whether Jim knew it or not, there’s a bunch of science behind all this. Mood can follow action instead of the other way around. I know some of you already know this, and some of you are saying, Well, duh, but maybe some of you don’t, and you need an extra tool in your belt.

So this is for you. Go ahead, give it a try. Try being mad and whistling at the same time. Try holding onto bitterness while you hum a little made up tune.


P.S. Right before I go onstage I’m as scared and nervous as I ever am. You’d think performing over and over would help, but it doesn’t. You know what does help, though? Yep, humming.