Some Observations In The New Year

The Preface:

I haven’t been writing a lot lately.  In addition to playing, recording and working on a number of projects, I’ve been doubling down on my research in habit forming, short term skill acquisition, long term mastery, business development, entrepreneur vs. freelancer and thinking about THE BIG PICTURE.

This blog tends to focus more on the motivational / philosophical aspects of making music and playing guitar rather than how to play a specific lick or where to put one’s fingers on a guitar.

There’s a substantial amount of lesson material here, but write more about the WHY of guitar playing because for intermediate to advanced players, the WHY is much more problematic than the HOW or the WHAT.  Understanding the WHY is also what will keep you playing guitar (or whatever other endeavor you want to insert here) past a certain point instead of moving endlessly from one temporary obsession to another.

Reactive vs Proactive:

At the end of every year, I tend to take a few days and take general stock of where I am, of where I’ve been, of where I’m going.

The big surprise for me this year, is that much of my life has been spent with reactive action driving proactive movement with an underlying need to play guitar as the catalyst behind it.

In other words – stumbling into a long term career instead of planning a long-term career.

I think this is how it is for most musicians outside of the classical world and I think it’s a  mistake for anyone who wants to try to make this a career.

In the classical world, traditionally you were typically either a soloist or an orchestral player so your entire skill set development went into following those paths.  Building repertoire and resume’s and moving up the orchestral ladder to ultimately get a coveted spot in a well regarded orchestra.

In contrast, consider the previous band success model of playing in multiple bands to finally get into “the right” band that built larger and larger followings and finally gets to the point where they reach the end goal of signing to a major label.

But reality has changed both of these models forever.

Orchestras are in increasingly difficult positions and more and more people end up playing in part-time capacities in a number of different orchestras just to try to make ends meet.  The major labels are more selective than ever when it comes to artist signing and with most of them demanding 360 contracts with artists – they want a pound of flesh from artists with their signatures.

While some people will have the right combination of skills, contacts, timing and luck to be able to fall into a career –  for most artists, the path can no longer be an auto pilot. But requires a plan.

Start With The Vision

The most successful things I’ve ever done in my life came through Reverse Engineering.

  • Taking a desired outcome
  • Working backwards from that outcome to determine the steps needed to get there
  • Putting daily work in on those steps and moving forward on those goals.

Whether it’s having a goal to play like your favorite player or having a goal to be a full-time musician or desiring to be retired by age x – if you don’t have a vision of where you want to go then you will simply drift around aimlessly moving from one thing to the next.

That’s fine if you want to explore and see what happens.  It’s not so great if you have things you want to get done.

Be Clear On Your Brand (and Re-brand when necessary)

I’m going through the process of updating social media, consolidating and getting ready to launch my new lesson approach / series and what cracks me up is how positively schizophrenic my CV is. It cracks me up because it makes the job of getting my name out and getting calls for various things almost infinitely harder than it needs to be.

For example I’ve played in Trip-hop, Hip hop, Metal, Rock, Pop, Country, Rockabilly, Jazz, Industrial, Art-Pop, Theatrical, Fusion, world music and a host of other genres.  That makes me a generalist.

The difficulty in being a side person, for example, is that people look for people with specific skills in a specific genre.  The guy who was a side man in a dozen metal bands is more likely going to the the person who gets a call from the band who needs a metal player unless they’re looking for something specific.

I have a very distinctive sound.  If I’m playing something, you’ll know it’s me regardless of the effects or context.  I’m typically the guy who plays with a lot of passion and can play a lot of notes.  In teaching, I’m the guy who can identify blocks that students have and can help them overcome them.  I have a specific voice for communicating things both in presentation and writing style.  But when people are unclear on your brand, they’re unclear on what you have to offer and (here’s the important thing to being in demand forever) how you can help them.

After I spoke at TedX I was leaving the venue and one of the organizers came up to me and said,

“You know, when I saw that you were going to be speaking my first thought was, ‘Oh no!  Why is he speaking?  I don’t want to hear him speak!  I just want to hear him play music.’  But then I saw your talk and it was really great.”

That’s what happens when people don’t understand your brand.  People who saw KoriSoron might see me play electric and say, “I didn’t know you played electric guitar!” and people who see me play electric are surprised to find out that I play acoustic.  Or fretless or saz or bass or any of the other things I pick up.

That’s why I now realize that it’s important to have projects that serve a long term goal, rather than have an expectation that people will be able (or even willing) to follow a narrative of what I’m creating.

There’s a business adage that, “It’s not who you know – it’s who know you”.  An adaptation of that might be, “People can’t call you / see you / support you if they don’t know what you do.”

The new KoriSoron release will be out in February and I have some new things in the works.  There will be some posts related to this year as the journey continues.

A lot of my teaching and a lot of my posts center on mistakes I’ve made and documenting them to help other people avoid the mistakes I made and (hopefully) shortening their own learning curve.  With that in mind, I hope that this helps you in some way.

As always thanks for reading.

SC

PS – I’ve mentioned it before but my new instrumental release with the Rough Hewn Trio is out now and you can purchase it in a pay-what you want model here.

Powerpuff, New(?) Music and TEDx Video Is Live

Hi Everyone,

A few quick updates.

  1.  Apparently, I missed an ultra-brief window that the episode of the (2016) Powerpuff girls I played on (“Electric Buttercup”) was up on the Cartoon Network site – but I have word that the episode will be broadcast TV on November 28th – so I should have a link to that soon.
  2. First “New Music” Item – Back in 2011 – I played on an Onibaba recording session for bassist Daren Burns that got me fired from John French’s recording / band (a topic for a whole other post).  Daren previously released one cd of that session (Disintegration of Secrets/Apparitions of Kings available on Bandcamp here.) but he just released the rest of the session this week.  That CD, Anesthesia is out now and you can purchase (or listen to) that here.  In addition to Daren and myself, you also get Vinny Golia, George McMullen and drummer Craig Bunch adding to the general disarray.
  3. Second “New Music” Item – Back in 2012 – right before I left sunny CA – I was playing in a project called the Rough Hewn Trio.  We recorded some tracks and then entered a bizarre black hole where the project was pronounced dead and resuscitated several times.  After MANY false starts – the mixes for the tracks with myself, drummer Craig Bunch and Chapman Stick / Warr guitarist Chris Lavender are finally signed off on and are in the mastering stages so we hope to have that out by the end of the year.
  4. Third New Music Item (This one actually IS new) – KoriSoron recorded some tracks for our second ep – featuring our most challenging material.  We’re in the process of mixing that now and anticipate having that mixed and mastered by the end of the year.
  5. Non-Music Item  – Festival Cinema Invisible – an organization dedicated to bringing invisible films from the Middle East to the Capital Region of New York – is having its 6th annual 2-day film Festival at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady in April of 2017.  I’m the General and Artistic Director of the Festival and this year’s Festival will be culled from over 1200 submissions (on its way to 1300 by the deadline) sent to us from over 100 countries around the globe.  You can find out more about the festival (and FCI) here.

My TedX Schenectady Talk / Presentation

The video of my Ted X Schenectady talk (with a KoriSoron performance) Past Forward – which dealt with the intersection of art, commerce and scarcity was posted this week.

The video is embedded below (or linked here if you have a browser issue)

For those of you interested in the process  of developing the talk, I talk about that process (and some of the performance challenges like not having a lavalier or hand held mike or having the song form change unexpectedly while you’re soloing) here.  I wish I been able to just just do the performance OR the speech – I would have been in a better frame of mind to roll with the punches of changes that can happen in a performance.  But chalk it up to experience.

The talk is supposed to feel loose and conversational but the reality of delivering something like this in a specific time line means that you have to have it pretty structured (with some improvisation thrown in to keep it from feeling like a PowerPoint presentation).

I’ve included the last of the 15-20 drafts the talk went through below.  It’s not a transcription of the talk I did – but it covers the bulk of the points I made (and also some points I cut in the interest of time).

I hope you dig it!

As always – thanks for reading!

-SC

Scott Collins – TedX Schenectady Talk – 2016

Hi. I’m Scott Collins. I’m a guitarist in KoriSoron a Schenectady-based trio. We create original music based on traditions from across the globe.

The title of this presentation is Past Forward. Past forward, in its most simple definition, involves taking material from the past and revitalizing it by making it contemporary which is what we do in KoriSoron.

I’ll talk more about Past Forward and KoriSoron but to do that I need to put that in the broader context of scarcity.

For much of history the value of music has been based on scarcity.

By way of example let’s consider music in the time of Beethoven.  The only way you could hear music was to be in the presence of someone playing it live.

You might actually be able to perform the music yourself if you a.) owned an instrument, b.) had formal training and c.) were one of the few people that could actually get access to (and afford) sheet music.

Access to music was limited to exposure and modes of transportation. It was also limited in that only a handful of people had the tools to perform that music.

This remains unchanged until sometime after 1877. Since we’re in Schenectady I’ll give Thomas Edison a shout out by name for his invention that recorded sound to a wax cylinder as the first major change in this performance model.

Edison’s invention allowed people to collect live performances and listen to them over and over again. For the first time listening to music shifted from something that came from a live musician to something that came from a device like a radio or a record and a record player.

The equipment used to record music was prohibitively expensive and required substantial skills to use and maintain. Musicians couldn’t do this on their own as it was financially beyond their means. Companies looking to sell records provided an advance to musicians to record their music (and then produced records that they marketed and distributed). This gave tremendous power to the record labels who had a virtual monopoly on the funding, recording and distribution of their recordings.

A perfect storm came together in the form of a technological revolution that completely undermined the scarcity model.

  • The cost of the computers came down to the point where most people could afford them and the internet increased its depth and breadth and became a destination for people to actively go to.
  • Music recording software became powerful enough to replace physical recording components and musicians began to record at home. Additionally, the internet allowed them to distribute music on their own and the amount of available music expanded exponentially each year (and continues to do so).
  • Mp3s and file sharing allowed people to find music online instead of having to go to a retail store.

File sharing services like Napster allowed people to download music for free, but could be cumbersome to use. Companies like Pandora sensed the real desire in the market for people to listen to music on demand and paved the way for current streaming services like Spotify.

The music industry was thrown into chaos because their entire business model was based on the ability to limit people’s access to music and create a demand for CDs, LPs, DVDs etc. and those physical objects were no longer necessary to listen to music.

Three basic approaches emerged to deal with this.

  1. The major labels tried to fight this change and stay with a model that worked on attempting to create scarcity to create demand.  It was a dismal failure that (with several other factors) destroyed the industry and only left 3 major record labels standing.
  2. Some musicians, often those who used to be on major labels and were now independent, saw the changes that were occurring but didn’t understand the needs of the market. So they emulated the record company model and also attempted to create artificial scarcity for their own music. When well-meaning fans got excited about tracks and posted them online – they chastised the fans and attempted to browbeat the audience into caring about the music industry and how much money there were losing in the new business model.

Musicians being musicians began to undercut one another to get to competitive pricing and soon they were giving their music away with the hope of generating income live. Incidentally, many live venues started to succumb to cultural changes brought about by the internet (people who stayed home to stream movies on platforms like Netflix) and were unable to stay open making it even more challenging for musicians to derive an income.

3.  The third approach is a present day approach. Music is ubiquitous so let’s create opportunity by finding the real demands of the market and meeting those needs

People are not buying cds. Based on Apple’s latest iTunes stats, they’re not even buying single tracks online anymore. They’re paying for services that stream whatever they want, whenever they want it.

But people don’t really care about streaming. What they’re really paying for is access to songs. More specifically what they are paying for is a feeling. They want to pump their fist in the air and mouth the words to their favorite songs. The real demand is to be moved emotionally.

Several years ago, I wrote an ebook called An Indie Music Wake Up Call. I ended the book with this quote:

“’Popular’ music in the 21st century will not be marked by musicians who play at being business people, it will be marked by entrepreneurs who happen to play and write well and firmly understand where the bottom line is.”

The bottom line is doing what you do in an honest and sincere way and cultivating tribes of people who identify with what you do and are moved by it. That feeling is a scarce thing. It is something people nurture and support.

I started the presentation talking about music in the time of Beethoven and in many ways musicians are coming back to the business model where music is something that is experienced rather than a genie locked in a digital bottle for sale.

In contrast to the professional musicians in Beethoven’s time were the musicians who performed folk music. This was communal music that was passed down aurally to each subsequent generation. It is no small irony that this music is now often experienced by audiences in a non-communal setting through recordings or in a formal setting such as concert halls.

Music is a language. In KoriSoron we take inspiration from a variety of folk music from around the globe and create original music based on that vocabulary. I can pick up words, phrases and even grammar by listening to others speak, but expressing the poetry of a foreign language authentically requires a context that is outside of my experience. So what is a musician from upstate New York to do?     I write my own poetry. I use the music from other cultures that speaks to me and moves me as a platform for creating new music to move other people.

The true beauty of music is that while it can be created on an intellectual level, it communicates to others emotionally. You don’t need to speak our language to be moved by it, you only need to listen.

Finally I’d like to talk about Past forward – a term I got from Ellie Lee, an animator and film maker I knew in Boston who now works in LA. Past Forward was a phenomenal event that she curated in a loft in Boston’s Chinatown. On Past Forward nights, people would go through an lightly marked door and pay a small cover to see films she brought to screen (often with the film maker in tow), eat homemade baked goods, drink beer and watch bands play. And there was a real community of people who came out to those events.

That DIY ethos of creating a scene was SO influential to me. That idea of sharing things that move you to move other people as well. It is at the heart of what I do as a guitarist. As a human being. It is at the heart of KoriSoron.

If what you want in the world doesn’t exist, you either wait for someone to make it or you make it yourself.  

I seek to speak to people and move them and truly moving people is an uncommon thing. It is scarce. It has value. It is worth doing.

Thank you.

A Music Business Lesson From A Film Festival

Hi Everyone,

It’s been a while since I posted anything there’s been quite a bit going on including:

  • Getting some of the Rough Hewn trio tracks ready for fall
  • Working on the new KoriSoron release
  • Performing the guitar parts for a guitar battle for an episode of a well known animated series (I can’t divulge information yet – but all I can say is that it’s on a network that specializes in cartoons)
  • Pulling together material for a TEDx Schenectady presentation I’m doing on September 10th
  • Putting a front porch on my house
  • Reviewing material for a Film Festival

 

This last point is one I wanted to bring up here as seeing the other side of what’s essentially a competition, is very different from actually submitting something to a competition.

FCI

This will be my third year as a volunteer artistic director for the Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI) a film festival that’s devoted to screening films from the Middle East that are invisible for one reason or another (censorship in one’s home country might be a reason – or perhaps films that sit in the margins for one reason or another and simply won’t be screened in movie theaters or available on demand. We partnered with Proctors Theater in Schenectady to screen the films on the largest screen outside of NYC and as I love films and have some ties to the music and culture of the Middle East it’s generally really rewarding for me to be involved in.

In any event planning like this – a nearly insurmountable amount of work is required behind the scenes to make sure that the Festival runs at a minimum and runs smoothly at an optimum.  One of the things that occurs is the film review process.  To put on 2 days of films this year (Approximately 40-50 feature lengths and shorts) I’ll have to review an exponentially larger number of films.  (Currently we’re at almost 300 submissions and 11 DAYS of view time required to get through them.  The final will probably be closer to 1,000 films).

Some of you are reading this and likely thinking, “Oh that sounds sweet!!”  and when you find a great film it certainly is.  It’s like going out to a live show and getting bowled over by a band you’ve never seen before (which happened to me last week seeing DhakaBraka just devastate a crowd that was largely there to see a free show and didn’t know what to expect from the band.)  but finding those great shows requires wading through a LOT of bad films.  Think about the time you went to see your friend’s band and had to sit through an opening act (or 2…or 3) you didn’t like.  Looking at phone to see the time), “Is this almost over?”  There are definitely a lot of those films, but the biggest drag is that there are a lot of really good films that I’ll never be able to see and that’s the topic of this post.

Unfortunately, we have to reject some really good films outright because they don’t meet the requirements of the festival.  More than 1/2 of the films that we’ve rejected have fallen into this category.  And that made me think of musicians.

How many times in my noob past did I send something out to someone for consideration or review that wasn’t what someone was asking for because I thought the merits of what I was doing would supersede their requirements?

“I know this says they want a pop tune – but when they hear the chorus they’re going to be bowled away.”

“I know this says contact them first – but when they see my cool packaging they’ll open it anyways.”

If you’re submitting something to someone it’s very important to make sure you’re doing it in within the submission guidelines and in the proper manner.  If the guidelines or the proper manner is not known, it’s important to ask if you want it to have any chance of being considered.

That’s what I’m dealing with now.  Films with breathtaking cinematography, great acting, and or amazing ideas that I’ll simply fast forward through because I know that I’ll just have to reject them to try to get to the overwhelming number of films that MIGHT make it into the competition.

This advice is particularly important if you’re:

  • Contacting a new venue for booking
  • Contacting an entertainment lawyer
  • Submitting something to a Festival or competition of some kind
  • Trying to get signed to a label

That’s it for now.  I have a LOT of films to get though and a lot of prep for the TEDx talk.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

Invoking The Power Of Asking

Questions can open doors.

Every gig I ever got was the result of someone asking a question.

 

These are either gigs I got because:

  • someone asked, “Is there a guitarist who can play this stuff?” and they were directed towards me (for example the video game soundtracks I played on, John French, Glenn Branca, The Bentmen and gigs I had to turn down (like the Grandemothers of Invention.))
  • OR gigs I created (asking people to play and creating gig opportunities with people like Don McLeod, Butch Morris or Sahba Motallebi)

This second category is one that bears more investigation.


In retrospect, one HUGE advantage to growing up pre-internet in a small town is that the responsibility of discovery was put squarely on you. There were no venues to play shows – so if you wanted to play shows you had to create your own opportunities. 

As I’ve mentioned in prior stories, we’d organize our own battle of the bands (which got other people to organize their own battle of the bands) and talent shows to have the opportunity to play.  This didn’t mean much at the time but proved invaluable years later when I’d have to hustle to make things happen.

When I tell people that when I was growing up that buying ANY kind of music beyond top-40 (which I could usually find at Ames department store) required a minimum 45 minute drive each way, they typically don’t believe me – but it was true.  There were a handful of specialty music shops and going there to get music became an event.  It also gave each music acquisition it’s own tale and solidified my attachment to it.

It’s easy to loose that ability to ask as a call to action as you continue to play.

You get comfortable.  You find players you like and use them on every project.

Another secret advantage I have, is that I moved – A LOT – as an adult.  This eliminated the ability to play with the same people consistently and forced me out of anything resembling a comfort zone.

I realized the other day that I had approximately 20 different residences in Boston.  Then I moved to LA and had 3 different residences there followed by a move to New York City (1 residence there) and then a move to upstate New York.

When I left Boston to go to CalArts – all the people I played with in Boston were either gone themselves or still there entrenched in their own projects there and not able to work on something via email.  This meant I had to find all new people to play with.

When no one knows who you are – that (typically) means you need to be the one asking to create playing situations for yourself (unless its a Craigslist ad for a cover band or something similar). 

When I got upstate, I was looking for people to play with.  I had advertised for a percussion player but didn’t get any responses.  I went to a Persian Film festival in The Electric City – Schenectady, NY (that I’m now an artistic director for) and saw Farzad Golpayegani playing and saw enough of a thread in what he was doing that I thought we could work together.  I asked him if he wanted to do something and I think initially he wasn’t that interested but then he saw some videos of me playing and got interested.

We played as a duo for a while and I found a business card for a tabla teacher in a local Persian Restaurant and the player turned out to be the same town as me (it turned out that he lived 4 blocks away from me! 2 years of looking and there was a guy in walking distance!).  I lost the card and then found it again and finally contacted Dino Mirabito and asked if he wanted to play with us.  He checked out a show and was playing a gig with us a month later.

Had I not asked those 2 questions – KoriSoron never would have happened.

80 – 90% of the gigs in my life came from opportunities that I created by asking a question.  I think that unless you’re a successful sideman that goes on the road with different acts all the time this will generally be the case (and even in those cases those players hustle A LOT to create opportunities for them to play).

For example, the gig Carmina Escobar and I did with Mia Mikela (Solu) at USC’s Vision and Voices lecture/concert series.  For those of you who are not familiar with her work, one of Mia’s many art endeavors  invokes film editing as ritual and edits short films in real time in front of an audience (See some of her amazing work here!).

Some live audio captured on a ZOOM H4 for posterity’s sake:

How did I get us on that bill? 

I asked her.

I saw she was playing a show and was familiar with her work.  I did some research and saw that she was doing student workshops at USC and that a performance was part of her her overall event there.  I sent her an email and asked if she needed any music to accompany of the student films.  I explained that Carmina and I did live improvised music and that that style of accompaniment might be engaging for the audience and for the films.  I sent her some links and she really liked the music and suggested that we do something together live.


So asking questions can help but there are a few “hidden” rules to asking the questions  that can help create you own opportunities.

  • You have to know that asking a question is an option.  This was my single biggest failure at Berklee.  I didn’t know I could ask for things and I didn’t know I could ask for help when I really needed it.  It turned out that there were resources for me that I could never utilize because I didn’t know they were there (or then how to ask for them – Shades of Kafka’s “Before The Law”!).
  • Asking is location based.  You have to be in a situation where you can ask.  This is a BIG lesson for me that I’m still learning with regards to booking.  Up here – people need to know who you are to book shows.  That means they need to put a name to a face and most of those deals are worked out in person.  I sent a lot of feelers out to people via email and never heard back from anyone.  To get a gig up here people have to know you.  That means going to shows and events.  The catalyst for KoriSoron thing only happened because I went to the Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI) event and saw Farzad playing.  If I just sat at home, that never would have happened.  This is a difficult one for me because I spend a fair amount of evenings teaching or practicing which makes getting to shows difficult – but that’s MY thing to continue working on.
  • Before you ask ANY question – you must ask the question from the stand point of, “What’s in it for them?”  That’s not a Robert Green / Machiavellian angle of deliberate sleight of hand (As in “appear to address their interests but serve yours”) you need to REALLY be looking for how what you’re asking can benefit other people.  (Check out this old post on altrustic action and selfish motivation!)  With Mia, I was fully willing to go to USC and accompany films for free.  I figured that if nothing else, I might find someone who liked what we did and was willing to work together in the future.  That was what was in it for me.  It turned out that there was something in it for her as well. (some past articles of mine (see this or this ) address this topic more specifically from the standpoint of networking).
  • Never ask something that you are reluctant or not willing to do.  See the previous point.  Don’t offer something if you aren’t willing to do it gladly with a smile on your face. If you feel like you’re being put-upon that will show in every interaction you have with other people and spoil whatever good will you are building.
  • You have to have a skill set to provide something valuable to other people and provide that thing without drama or inconvenience to others. 

This is a BIG deal. 

You can get the gig by asking but you will only keep the gig if you can follow through.   

  1. Do NOT oversell what you can do. 
  2. Eliminate any barriers that people may have to work with you. 
  3. The indispensable player who adds more to the show than is needed is the last one to get let go (and usually the first one on retainer).
  • Get to the point in a sincere way.  It’s good to build a little rapport (“I got your name from so and so”, “I’ve been following what you’ve been doing with x”) before your ask but don’t go into some ten minute “this is all the awesome sh*t I do” rant.  Make a polite and concise introduction, ask for what you want, explain how it can help both of you and what you can bring to the table.  Be clear on what you want, what you are asking for and what they can expect from you.
  • You have to let people know that you are looking.  I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day who said (about himself and paraphrased here),  “If you don’t let people know that you are looking to gig and available to gig you can’t complain about not having the gig.”

People will only refer gigs to you if:

  1. they know that you’re available
  2. if they know your playing will fit in what other people will work for
  3. if they know that you are easy to work with.
  • You have to be willing to have people say no to you and not be bitter.  I have seen people ask for things not get a response (or get a no response) and then fly off the handle.  (“F@ck that guy!  He’s dead to me!”)  If he wasn’t before – he certainly is now.   Bridges are easily burned.  Don’t make it easy for other people to do so.
  • You have to be willing to follow up.  People are busy.  If this opportunity doesn’t work out – keep moving forward and present them with other opportunities in the future.  Sometimes you just need to be in a better position for people to realize that they want to work with you on something.

So don’t be afraid to ask other people to create opportunities – just make sure to make it a win-win for both of you before doing so.

Okay!  That’s it for now.   I hope this helps and, as always, thanks for reading!

-SC

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The Accidental Author Part III

First a recap from Part One and Part Two of this post.

A Facebook Memory that came up from 2011:

Facebook Memory

 

prompted a question from a friend of mine.

“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”

This prompted a 500-ish word response that he requested I expand upon which has become this serialized novella.

In Part I, I talked about learning guitar in the cultural tiaga of 1980’s upstate New York.

In Part II, I talked about what it was like to be at Berklee in the early 90’s.

Here in Part III – I talk about the weird road to grad school, music business observations and realizations with regards to live music, accidental authorship and trading writing for playing (for now).

 

Boston Calling

Having gotten out of Berklee and having a piece of paper in my hand with their name, my name and bachelors of music written on it and finally having some money saved up – I took the longest break I ever had from anything  and went to Europe with the singer of the band I was in for part of the summer.  Up until that moment, that was the best time of my life.

When I got back, everything fell apart.

The band I was in imploded.  I had to move out of my apartment and with loans kicking in, I had to find a way to make real money to pay those things off.

I moved out to the burbs and tried to make a go of it.  The relationship died a slow and profoundly painful death.  The band was on hiatus.  The place I was in flooded and I lost about 10 years of writing I was doing.  I got in a pattern where I woke up and dreaded going to work and then dreaded going home.  It sucked.

Then one day, skimming rock bottom again, I came to the realization that if I was miserable, then that was my responsibility.

Taking active and conscious responsibility for my own happiness is one of the most significant events of my life.  Everything began to change almost instantly once I did that.  I moved out.  I quit my day job (I was working a day job and 2 part time jobs at the time) and picked up temp work.  Eventually I got hired in a low level staff position at Berklee and moved back into Boston.

The job I had was universally derided at the school but it did some great things for me.  It got me plugged into a whole network of players.  This launched a series of bands I played in.  Domestic tours.  International tours.  Label showcases.  EP releases. Beaucoup ups and downs.    It was all fun but as the years rolled on, none of it was gaining any traction.  There would be endless rehearsals and gigs and no recordings.  The largest gig I played in Boston was with the Bentmen opening for George Romero who was on hand to screen night of the living dead.  We got to meet and talk a bit and the show was fun but the theater wasn’t even full and the promoter stiffed us on the money.

We blinded we with science

During all of this I noticed a series of shifts.

  • When I lived in Boston I was amassing a HUGE library of bizarre books and videos.  I remember having a conversation with a guy about an emerging technology called DVD that was going to be able to put a movie on something the shape and size of a compact disc.  I unloaded my VHS collection about 6 months before those tapes were obsolete.
  • I read an article in Rolling Stone about some distant point in the future where people won’t have to go to stores to buy compact discs anymore (this was at the earliest stage of mp3s, pre-Apple Store and pre-Amazon).  Where they would be able to download a song to their computer and download the artwork and print it on their own computer.  EVERYONE I talked to about that article said it would never happen.  When the first iPod came out (the one that was the size of a pack of playing cards) I bought one.  Realizing I could fit my entire CD collection on this – I digitized my collection and sold all my cds.  People thought I was nuts.  A few years later the record stores started quietly closing.
  • The shows I was playing kept getting smaller.  I already mentioned the Bentmen show, but there were other tells at work as well.  At the time the conversations I was having with people trying to get them to shows was eventually came back to a central point.

“Well…I could drive out to whatever crappy bar you’re playing.  Pay for parking.  Pay a cover fee.  Sit through 2-3 awful bands at ear splitting volume and buy an overpriced beer OR I could go to blockbuster rent a video for $5 and sit at home and drink a beer on my couch in my underwear.”

Again, this is pre-streaming video.  Pre-Amazon etc.

I came to the realization that the live entertainment scene was an anachronism.

When I first moved to Boston the drinking age had shifted, fairly recently, from 18 to 21.  EVERY musician who had been in the scene for any length of time lamented this.  Back in the day when you’re in a college town where everyone could go to a bar – THERE WAS NO OTHER ENTERTAINMENT.  You could stay at home and watch a few channels of tv or you could go out.  When you went out – there was no streaming audio.  You had the radio – playing whatever a DJ wanted to play, you had a jukebox or you had a live band.  The draw for bars was selling alcohol and having a live band.  So if you had any kind of skill and professionalism, you could get in with a band, find a club to play and make actual money doing it.

But then a series of small (and not so small) shifts happened.  The drinking age changed.  Home game systems like Atari came out which lead to progressively better systems.  Home video rental.  Personal computers.  All of which gave people a reason to stay home.  They no longer had to go out to find entertainment.  And this was only as of the late 1990s early 2000s.  Everything post 2000 only exacerbated this situation exponentially.

The problem is the clubs (and most of the bands) never adapted to a changing market.  They kept doing the same thing.  Eventually, the major labels imploded for the same reason.  In the face of a completely different landscape, they kept using the same dinosaur tactics that they had always used and didn’t adapt in time to survive.

I can point to one exact moment when I knew I was going to have a real problem trying to transition into making a living as a live musician in Boston.

I remember walking to see a band on Landsdowne street in Boston on a Friday night.  I haven’t been to this street in years so I don’t know what it looks like now – but back in the day – it was a street that had a high concentration of clubs to go see live music.  I was going to see a band on that block where maybe 50 other people would be there.  On the way there, I passed a venue that had a celebrity DJ playing and there were hundreds of people in line waiting to get in.  My thought was  – oh wow – I’m screwed.

The reason for this is that from a club’s standpoint – they could either have 3-4 bands play which meant dealing with 20-30 different people’s issues depending on the size of the bands – or they could deal with (and pay) 1 person.

But all of it together and I knew it was time for plan B.

Grad School

So in 2004, when I saw the writing on the wall and said, “Wow the live music scene is going to implode and I’m not going to be able to transition into making a living playing music full time.” I started exploring my options.  If I wasn’t going to be able to play full time – what could I do that I’d enjoy.  That was teaching.

Through all of this, I was teaching guitar on the side.  I didn’t have a formalized studio so I wasn’t aware of how to really run a lesson studio.  But I was teaching pretty consistently and it was something that I enjoyed.  Through a lot of trial and error, I stated figuring out how to connect with students and convey things in ways that reached them.

I realized that if I could get a teaching gig at a college that I would have access to facilities (and things like paid vacation and health insurance) that would allow me to keep working on my music.  It was a win-win.  And it seemed strangely viable.

I knew I’d have to go to grad school to even have a chance of teaching at the college level. So I started researching options.  My wife recommended CalArts – which being on the East coast I knew nothing about but once I found out that Miroslav Tadic was there, I was very interested.  I knew his Krushevo cd and at the time Joe Gore was heading up Guitar Player and doing REALLY cool things with regards to articles and gear reviews.  One of the players they were pushing a lot was Miroslav Tadic.  The other option was the NEC Third Stream track with Ran Blake.  There was a lot of back and forth.  When I was in Vegas I took a trip out to see the school and meet Miroslav.  Within a minute of meeting the guy I knew that this was the person I needed to study with.

You forget things in life.

At this point it was a LONG time since I had been at Berklee.  I had played music with a lot of people since then.  I got a copy of my transcipt and was stunned to see just how bad my undergrad grades were.

Everyone want’s to remember the past but no one wants to confront it.

It was a huge kick to the balls.  But sometimes you just have to dust yourself off and move on.

My undergrad grades were terrible.  There wasn’t much I could do to change that.

I realized a few things.

1.  Having worked in a college admissions office – I discovered that unless you’re an IVY league school – every college on the planet needs students to go there.  They need the revenue.  It might seem like you have to prove to them that you are somehow worthy but really, most of the time you only have to prove that you haven’t already disqualified yourself somehow  to get in.

2. The best option I had to get into grad school with my grades was to make the best recording I could for my audition tape and to completely overtop the requirements of the program.

(Finally, 6,000 words later – something about writing)

I decided to take an area of interest to me (12-tone improvisation) and basically write a master level thesis as my entry material to grad school. I knew that no one else would have that in their application materials and it would make me stand out.

I did the research for that book Thomas Edison style – manually testing every possibility with a pen and paper until I found the combinations that yielded all of the 12-tone patterns. That was about a year’s worth of research that could now be done in a 1/2 hour writing an app from scratch. Anyways, it worked.  I organized the material and went to Lulu (a print on demand publisher) and self published it.  I recorded an audition tape.  Included the book and a copy of the TUBTIME live cd and sent it off.

It worked.  I got into CalArts with a scholarship and a student teaching stipend.

CalArts

First and foremost CalArts was a great place to study.  Miroslav Tadic remains a huge figure in my life and much of what I do can be tied to pre-and post Miro.

I loved a lot about CalArts – but one thing I struggled with was how cliquey it was there. This isn’t unique to CalArts.  It’s very common with a lot of art schools.  There was a lot of passive-agressive dickishness that was further exacerbated by being 10 years older (or more) than everyone around me and understanding the reality of the gigging scene and what job prospects faced them.  I also say what I think, so that didn’t win me a lot of friends either.

I made some lifelong friends there, but in many ways I alienated myself as well. There were definite groups there and I seemed to be outside of all of them.  Again that’s not a CalArts issue – the problems were mine and I recognize that if I had problems at two schools that I must be at least part of the problem.  Ultimately, it taught me how to navigate those waters and not get attached to other people’s perception of who I am or what I do.  That lesson alone was a critical one for me.

…doomed to repeat it

Here’s where I made a critical mistake at CalArts.

Because I was so focused on the outcome of becoming a faculty member somewhere post-CalArts – I put all my efforts on things I couldn’t do to try to expand my range as a generalist.

In retrospect – this was dumb. Rather than just building on the things I did well I went after everything I didn’t do well and just sounded bad for the duration of my time there.

I missed the once in a lifetime opportunity to study with people like Vinny Golia, Randy Gloss, Houman Pourmehdi, Larry Koonse… because I was too fixated on my goal.

So it’s funny because in being determined to not make the same mistakes I made at Berklee I managed to make equally large mistakes at CalArts.

(The good news is that grade wise, it was completely different. I got the highest grades in everything except Tai Chi, where I missed too many classes to get the high pass grade there as well.  I don’t know what my GPA calculated to but it would be something like a 3.92-3.95.)

There’s a lot more I could write about this.  I went to CalArts because I wanted to study with Miroslav, I wanted to work in cross disciplines and I wanted to teach at a collegiate level post CalArts.  2 out of 3 ain’t bad.  To this day, I remain grateful I went there. Miroslav Tadic, Vinny Golia, Jack Sanders, Susie Allen and a number of other faculty and students there completely changed my path in the long run.

Side bar – The Doctorate Exploration

When I was at CalArts, one faculty member really encouraged me to get my doctorate.  “You’re really going to need it to teach anywhere.”    The closest area I could think of was ethno-musicology.  She made an introduction and I went up to UCSB to see Scott Marcus.  Really great guy.  Amazing musician.  He explained to me that if I REALLY had my shit together, that I might be able to get my doctorate in 7 years.  At that point I had a lot of my life on hold anyways – so I made a decision to stop at my Masters.  I had already put a lot of my life on hold and at that point didn’t want to put in on hold any longer.

So where did the writing come in?

Even with a partial scholarship – I still had to take out a substantial amount of money to go to grad school.  In 2008 when I got out of school – the market crashed.  I couldn’t find a teaching gig ANYWHERE.  That part was grim.  I was playing in some groups but they weren’t making money.  I needed to pay back my loans – so I didn’t have the option of just picking up some gigs and a handful of students and seeing what happened. The piper had to be paid, so I went back into higher-ed administration.  I figured that if I could get my finances in order that I could gain some footing and attack the faculty job listings on multiple frontiers.

Without a doctorate degree, I decided to try to go through the back door and publish books. It worked to get me INTO CalArts – it might help POST CalArts.

I started writing only to find that while self publishing was the ONLY option that made sense for authors financially, that academics only recognized peer-reviewed works published through traditional publishing houses (preferably academic presses). The idea, as I understand it,  is that it looks better if I publish one 200-page peer reviewed work in a 10-year period on a university press that sells 100 copies, is read by no one and never makes me so much as a dime than to self publish 6 books within 2 years where I keep all post-expense profits.

Remember the club / musician / music label anachronism?  It’s just as bad with academic publishing.

In the meantime, I learned about the Adjunct ghetto.

There’s been a lot more written about it in the last 5-7 years but basically many universities keep moving to utilizing as many adjuncts as possible to cut down on expenses.  The pay for these positions is typically low – so you’d need to have multiple adjunct jobs to keep afloat.  I know adjuncts who teach at 5 different universities.  I know adjuncts who teach at universities more than full-time faculty who will never teach at that university in a full-time capacity.  It’s a strange thing.

There came a certain point – about 5 years post CalArts – that I regrouped again.  I wasn’t going to kill myself making a square peg fit a round hole.  I was going to do the best work I could do consistently and make the most of the opportunities I created and found.

So the books didn’t do what I initially intended them to do.  They continue to sell – but it’s a small niche market. The entire process taught me a lot. About writing. About pedagogy. About myself – so I have no regrets about doing it. I understand what I did right and what I did wrong and it gave me a better focus to what I’m doing.

I have another book that could have been edited and released 2 years ago and I decided to hold off on it, because at a certain point the inertia of writing was easier than playing – and playing is an important part of what I want to do. The more I was writing, the less time I had to actually play and increasing amounts of time was passing that I wasn’t releasing any music.

I’m still planning new written material. The secret is that if you’re clear on your  long term goals, the writing takes care of itself in the long run. I’ll always be teaching. I’ll always be trying to do something new. The balance was found when I realized how to align short and long term goals.  Writing is a solo endeavor and right now I feel I work best in collaboration so playing is more rewarding at the moment. But who knows? Maybe 10 years from now this feels all out of whack and I go back to writing exclusively. For now, I’m just happy doing what I’m doing.

Lessons?  We’ll here are a few:

If you can’t be happy where you are now – you’re not likely to be happy where ever you are trying to go.  Look at miserable people who become lottery winners who then buy bunches of crap, become momentarily distracted,  run out of money, remain haunted by the fact that they’re still miserable and lose everything.  Money solves a lot of things – but many of the things that make people miserable are internal and not external.

Have long term goals but be flexible enough to adapt.  You might not get the outcome you wanted from things that you do – but take stock of what you did get from it and build on that if possible.

Find the things that bring you joy and serve other people.  Just playing guitar isn’t enough. I play guitar and people go see it because it moves them.  They come back because they experienced something.   That’s how you start to build a career.

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading.

-SC

Asking The Right Questions And Being Clear On What We Do

Asking the Right Questions

I read a lot of different material.  I believe that reading is, at least, as important to what I play as what I listen to – just as I would also say that what films, and television I engage in is equally important.  This goes back to some of the statments echoed in Swami Childvilasanda’s The Yoga of Discipline (yes I had to go to my book shelf and pull down my copy to get the spelling of the name correct, which talks about how important it is to be vigilant about what we expose ourselves to because it all influences (and ultimately becomes) a pat of us in some way.  The book is a collection of essays on discipline (discipline in Seeing, Listening, Eating, Speaking, Silence and Thinking) as a path towards spiritual liberation. It’s a very interesting book and one that had me take several lessons to heart.

With that in mind, I tend to do a lot of reading on a lot of different topics because I find that I’m able to implement ideas or strategies from a business book in a different way than, say learning a melodic minor lick to play over a chord progression.  In this case I was reading a 99U book, Make Your Mark The Creative’s guide to building a business with impact and came across a Tim O’Reily quote that engaged me.  I’m going to hijack that quote, bracket one term that can be replaced with practically anything and add bolded emphasis for what I think are the two critical takeways:

“I was in a brainstorm about the future of the US economy recently , and it was all about the decline of the middle class.  It reminded me of so many  conversations that I have had with [*major labels].  They ask, ‘How are we going to preserve our place in the ecosystem?’ and I say, ‘Nobody cares about that.  That’s the wrong question.’  The right question is, ‘What does the world need?  What do my customers need?  What can I do?’….So you have to clarify: Who is your actual target?  What are you trying to accomplish in the world?  Everything else should flow from that.”

* This was originally [publishers], but could also be [live music venues], [musicians], [artists] etc. etc.

(For what it’s worth, here’s a related quote from the same interview that you may find interesting:

“Aaron Levie of Box tweeted something great about Uber recently.  He said, ‘Uber is a $3.5 Billion lesson in building for how the world should work instead of optimizing for how the world does work.'”)

This is something that so many artists, including myself, frequently get wrong.

We make it about us.

When asked the question, “why” we (as in we musicians and artists) often focus on what we do. We set up a scenario that works on the idea that because we are doing good work that the nature of that good work will attract other people – like bees to a flower.

That’s nonsense and I’m occasionally guilty of that thinking as well. “Nobody cares about that.”  That’s what people don’t realize about getting internet traction.  People don’t care about what you’re doing until you give them a reason to care. That means engaging them and making it something they care about.

If you’re a musician – it’s not all about you.

“The right question is, ‘What does the world need?  What do my customers need?  What can I do?”

I don’t engage people because I play guitar.  I engage people because I have something to say that they want to hear.  What we do as musicians is tell stories.  We move people.

People come to see us because of how we help make them feel before, during and after a show.  That’s what our customers need.  That’s how they become fans and come back to our shows.

What I work on technically is in service to that goal.  I work on those things so that I can express myself in the most honest and direct way possible and not have that engagement with the audience interrupted with mistakes or other issues.

I was reminded of this because I played a show with KoriSoron on Friday and it took me about four songs to get into the groove.  The volume levels were mismatched and I was distracted and it took a while to get into the zone (and even then it was hard to stay in the zone – realizing that I had counted off one tune too fast and was not going to be able to execute the ending figure cleanly at that tempo I had to re adjust the form to make it work).  Part of me was really disappointed with my performance that evening but the audience liked the show and will be bringing even more people with them next time.

Is it about me or my perception of the show?

“I can’t believe I wasn’t playing better!!  The audience will tear apart my performance (assumes Piper Laurie voice from Carrie, “THEY’RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU!”)!

Or is it about communicating something honest with the audience, being genuine in the moment and giving them an experience that they can take with them?  The audience liked the show, warts and all.  That doesn’t mean that I can stop and sit on my laurels and just slide – it means that I should keep working to the best of my ability but rather than getting hung up on one particular aspect that it would behoove me to remember why I’m practicing the things I’m working on (to make an optimum performance for the audience and not stroke my ego and say, “look what I can do!” to no one in particular.)

If you’re not getting the results you want from what you’re doing you may not be answering the right questions.  Once thing you can do is to harness the voice of your inner 2 year old niece or nephew (the one who always asks “why” after everything you say.)  When you state something, ask “why?”  and when you answer it, again ask “why?” and keep challenging your beliefs and assumptions until you get down to the core of what it is you’re doing.

A quick note and a quick plug:

For those of you who are in a rut and/or interested in developing your lead and rhythm playing I’m developing an exciting new group program that will help take you to the next level in the shortest amount of time.  I’m pulling the material together now and looking to launch later this year or the beginning of next year.

Please be aware that about the only thing in the world i hate is hype.  This is no hype or no miracle cure that “works” on osmossis or some other ridiculous claim.  This is a hyper-focused, results driven process that combines effort and efficiency to get players who are willing to put the work, time and dedication in to get where they want to go.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and I haven’t been able to find anyone that’s using even a remotely similar pedagogical system.

I’ll have more information about this in the months ahead, but if you’re interested in the meantime – send me at email at guitarblueprint at gmail [dot] com.

A quick plug (for those of you in the capital region of New York)

KoriSoron frequently collaborates with FCI (Festival Cinema Invisible) on their film series (Korisoron’s Farzad Golpayegani does the poster designs and I help with the press releases and event planning).

FCI is kicking off a cool new bi-monthly series “Pathways to Iran” that explores Persian culture through film and dialog with “Food Stories – Uncommon Recipes, Common Humanity” a film screening and recipe tasting at Proctors GE Theatre on Sunday, September 13th at 4pm.

This cultural event features a rare screening of two films from Iran; “Five Pieces on Iranian Dishes” (a documentary directed by Sepideh Abtahi, 54 mins.), which looks at Iranian society of the past century through food, and “A Perfect Meal” (a short directed by Pooria Jahanshad, 8 mins.) which uses a formal meal setting to examine food and culture.

After the screening there will be a panel discussion on the role of food in Iranian culture with audience Q&A and a recipe demonstration and tasting of various dishes from Iran.

1. Abgoosht: A meat based traditional, middle/working class food that now is turned into an adventurous favorite. There will be a demo of the food on one of the films, and the panel will talk about its cultural connection. There will be a tasting of Goshte Koobideh, a part of this food that tastes good even cold.

2. Borani (vegetarian): a mixture of yogurt and spinach with variety of nuts, was used as food, but today it is mostly served as dip.

3. Salad Shirazi (vegan): A uniquely Iranian salad which is also claimed by Israelis and Arabs. The organizer calls it the “Peace Salad” because of the stories he will share about his travels to Israel and Palestine.

Additionally, there will be handouts with the recipes for guests to take home: Persian style tea is also included in the $10 admission. Tickets are available at the Proctors box office or online at proctors.org/events.

(The next event will be on Sunday November 22 and will feature a performance by KoriSoron (!!), two very cool documentaries on music in Iran and a panel discussion with some special guests! Future events include the topics of Women in Iran and Outsiders in Iran.)

That’s it for now!  As always I hope this helps and thanks for reading!

-SC

KoriSoron (me), Feedback Analysis (and You)

KoriSoron

Last year on this day, I wrote a post called Due Versus Do.  The post talked about the need to put the work in and pay dues in building your craft and building an audience and outlined a plan for building a regional audience (If you’re playing live music – you might find it to be an interesting read).  It’s also a good example of setting up a parameter for feedback analysis.

Feedback Analysis

I first read about this term in a book called Heart, Smarts, Goals And Luck which was a book that talked about self assessing those areas on a HSGL scale to determine where the reader’s strengths were as an entrepreneur.  The quote below is from notes I made from the book – so I believe that it’s paraphrased from Peter Drucker.

Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen.  9-12 months later compare expectations (with outcomes).  Otherwise it’s too easy to rationalize a decision Ex Post Facto.

This is something I happened to be doing in goal setting – but was remiss in going back to see how well those things actually worked!

What This Means for You

Feedback analysis is a great way to look at how your goal setting is actually working.  It’s not enough to just write down goals.  In reviewing them you can also see what’s working, what’s not working and how to best steer your ship from here.  It requires looking at what you did, warts and all, and coming up with an honest assessment.

As an example of this process using the web post from a year ago – how did KoriSoron do with feedback analysis? (again the initial post is linked here in case you’d like to compare Due Versus Do).

1 / 2.  Open Mics (play in front of people) / play traditional non traditional venues.  We didn’t explore this a lot.  Largely because we put our focus on working on new material and playing new venues.  It’s something I’ll probably explore solo to try to open some doors – but the yield of getting people from an open mic to a show was non-existant and the open mics didn’t yield gigs in and of themselves.  It IS a good way to network (in a legitimate way like making friends instead of a slimy way of using people), but it requires showing up every week to do so.  Typically it’s a 3 hour investment in an evening to play for 5-10 minutes but probably worth it if you’re trying to break into a new market / venue.

We played a number of different venues, and that coupled with the monthly gig at Arthur’s has been REALLY useful for us in terms of feedback for what works and what doesn’t work for the show.

For me, it’s interesting to see the yield of what I practice that I think will work versus what works in a live setting.  No matter what methods I use, it always tells me something different and I can only get that information playing live.

3 /5   Developing Marketing material / Social Media / Get Visible and Record material.  We made some strides here.  Farzad pulled together a strong website and we did a lot via Facebook.  We wrote a lot of new material and got Dean Mirabito to play percussion with us (which added a whole other dimension to what we do) and  started digging deep to get into the nuances of the tunes to improve our performances and live shows.  This also involved a lot of experiments with arrangements and live sound options and involved a lot of trial and error.

We also started recording every show (and using a standalone recorder for a live mixer as well) and that’s been great pre-production for going into the studio.  But recording is the next thing that we’re targeting in a big way.

4.  Network.  This is something that needs improvement.  Our tunes are very difficult to play and require a lot of practicing.  It’s only now (a year later) that I’m starting to get a sense of what the tunes are and what our sound is enough to start going back out to shows in a consistent way.  Everything is this business is based on what you can do and who knows what you can do.  Again – I’m not into spammy networking, you have to have legitimate relationships with people – but if you don’t network you’re going to play in your room forever.

6.  Build bigger.  Here’s a GREAT strategy from Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck that encapsulates this –

Think Big – Start Small – (Scale Fast)

I put scale fast in parenthesis because in business you need to scale quickly.  In art, you need to scale at the rate you can scale.  You’re developing a foundation that you need to build on.  To modify the suggestion strategy:

Think Big – Start Small – Output Constantly – Review – Revise – Repeat

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading!

(and hope to see you at a KoriSoron show soon!)

-SC