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).
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.
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.
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.