Write your own liner notes; put me out of a[nother] job (The Liner Notes Chronicles — Part 3)

A friend of mine, Kajsa Ohman, is working on her new album. Knowing that I’ve written a lot of liner notes, she was nice enough to ask me to write some for her. I wrote back, explaining that my work has been on historical material — reissues and compilations — and that while her album might prove historic, it was all brand new and not really my bailiwick.

She is a terrific writer of prose in addition to songs (some musicians are; many aren’t), so I suggested she write her own. She protested (slightly) that she’d feel uncomfortable writing how great she is.

Here’s a slightly expanded version of my reply. You may find something to think about, or disagree with. In the meantime, I’m anxious to see what she comes up with.

You don’t have to say you’re great — I never do (figuring that anybody who’s bought the album already likes the artist), though I might (but might not) quote somebody else to that effect.

Up to the CD area, liner notes were at least an opportunity to sell an album — can’t tell you how many albums by people I’d never heard of I bought after reading about them on the back of the record jackets as I browsed the store. Other times, the label would slip some prominent disk jockey a few bucks in exchange for his signing a paragraph telling how much he liked the performer.

As time passed, artists gaining more control didn’t understand — or care — and used the space for photos, illegible lyrics, thanking God, whatever. Mary McCaslin, who works something like the same territory as Kajsa, used to supply tunings for her songs. Maybe she still does. Note: if people need to read your lyrics, it’s time for a remix if not a re-recording, this time without the pebbles in your mouth. And of course some lyrics are better if not understood.

The CD format changed the whole deal. You can’t read the inside of the booklet until you’ve removed the shrink-wrap. And because the art director doesn’t have 144 square inches to play with, the type is usually so small that the text is difficult, if not impossible, to read. (Note: use black type on white. Anything else is begging for trouble). And don’t get me started on music downloads Even if art and notes are available online, they probably won’t be, forever.

To you, I’d suggest starting the notes on the back cover, to people can be intrigued by your story of how the album came to being, and continuing it on the inside. If any credits might work as sales tools (i.e., that [nonexistent, in this case] Bruce Springsteen duet). make sure people can see ’em. Also, song titles; especially if people can get an idea what the song’s about from the title. And even more especially if you do a song people can see listed and say “Gee, Kajsa does this song — that sounds interesting.”

Otherwise, write ’em conversationally, as you do the blog. And be sure to (ahem) use spell check.

As the old saying about writing speeches goes, “like a woman’s skirt — long enough to cover the subject, and short enough to be interesting.” And make sure the type is legible. I’d go eight point, minimum.

If I can help along the way, of course I’d be happy to. But if you do them yourself, it’s you who will be eligible for the liner notes Grammy.


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