Monthly Archives: July 2012

Patton Oswalt’s Keynote Address and Why It Matters to Everyone

You, oh avid reader of this blog (ok maybe occasional reader), might have recognized that I have a consistent format here.  I describe an interesting situation or conversation in a very specific context and extrapolate it to other disciplines.  I really enjoy finding the connections among different disciplines.

So I was moved and excited after reading a speech made by Patton Oswalt, a professional comedian and overall inspirational person.  You might know him from as the lead rat from the Pixar film Ratatouille, or from King of Queens.  I myself will always think of this particular NSFW gem:

In any case, he was the keynote speaker at the Just for Laughs Comedy Convention in Montreal.  In his speech he talked about the state of the comedy industry, both from the perspective of the comedians, as well as the “gatekeepers of the comedy industry;” the producers, labels, and institutions that deal with comics and their work.  He did this in the form of two open letters, one to the comedians, and one to the gatekeepers.  They’re a bit long, but they’re definitely worth the read.  Please, take a few minutes to read them, as it’s important to the rest of the stuff I’ll be talking about; I’ll be right here waiting!

You can read the transcript at The Comic’s Comic.

When I got finished reading the transcript, it started to dawn on me how many missing pieces this brought together for me in my thoughts and my music career.  Most of the pieces fell into place on the subject of hard work.  A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called the Refried Beans Epiphany, which opined about how we artists get held back by the powers-that-be citing the mantra “that’s just the way the industry is.”  I wrote it after two different professional musicians told me that the bands that survive in this industry are the ones who spent years focusing exclusively on their art, often to the detriment of their health, wealth, and snealth (ok, just checking if you were paying attention there).

When I apply the contents of this speech to my music career, it both invalidates and confirms portions of what these incredibly talented musicians were saying to me.  The invalidation comes from the old-school mentality of “this is how the industry works.”  No, you don’t have to sleep in your car for the first five years.  That kind of “devotion” was from a time when it was much more important to be physically mobile to promote your work (drive to a new city, play a show, sleep in car, drive to the next city, repeat).  These days, the vast improvements in media that I have access to mean that I have more flexible options in how I get my music to your ears.  That iPhone that gives comics the ability to tweet, record video, and engage with their fans also does the same for me as a musician.  I mean, I did record a whole album at home in 2011.  Ten years ago, that would have been almost unthinkable.

With that added flexibility comes more of a need for dedication, integrity, and hard work, which brings us to how the above speech confirmed some of what I was told.  In a conversation with a professional friend, he told me “in general [to have a sustainable career in the music industry,] it takes a do or die type of focus…unless you have that, not a lot will happen.”  I read it at the time as yet another reiteration of “pay your dues,” “this is the way this machine works,” etc.  I now believe what he was saying is that that same type of hunger that up-and-coming comics need is also needed to be successful in music.  Patton Oswalt cited the innovative podcasts, tweets, and communities that comedians are creating.  Doing a podcast takes a relatively small amount of effort; doing an amazing podcast takes a huge amount of focus and effort.  Similarly for musicians, writing a song is easy.  Writing a great song is really hard.  Writing a great song and promoting it is even harder.  Writing a great song and promoting it while juggling 3 other groups you play in and finding time to rehearse and record… well, welcome to the path to success in today’s music industry.  Because this is something we can actually do now, as opposed to previous times when only record labels had such power at their fingertips.

Just as we comedians can’t legitimately blame someone when their YouTube video falls flat on its face, we as musicians can no longer blame the institution when we don’t get our free 15 minutes.  We have the tools and we have the wide open space of the age of technology and media.  What we do with it is up to our own limits.  I share Patton Oswalt’s excitement for the possible shapes of that future and the wonderful possibilities that it opens up.  I also share his understanding that complacency just doesn’t work any more.  No one is going to hand it to us.  We need to be constantly thinking of new ways to approach our audiences, new ways to combine different, and new communities with which to collaborate and innovate.  It’s all there, ready for us to get to work and do the best that we or anyone else can.  That’s an eye-opening revelation I can certainly get behind.

Tiny aside: Thanks Bryce for the heads up on the etiquette of posting large quotes on a blog.

Larger aside: My CD Release Party is coming up August 25th.  It’s going to be lots of fun.  I think there might be a piñata, and I know there is going to be amazing music.

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Communication 101

Professor Dan

Professor Dan wants to talk about communication today, ya little jerks!

I live in Pennsylvania, where a ridiculously stupid Republican majority has passed a most inane and dangerous law regarding the necessity for a photo ID in the upcoming general election.  The Republicans obviously hate old people and minorities enough to take every opportunity to disenfranchise them and elect their corrupt cronies into office.  Only a complete idiot who opposes the basic tenants of the freedom this country was established upon would support such a moronic law.

And just like that, I give every person who disagrees with the statement above a reason to not listen to what I have to say.  The above statement is condescending, and insulting, and overly-generalized.  I can always fall back on the mock-exasperated sigh of “I guess some people just won’t listen,” but when it comes down to it, it’s my own fault that they won’t.

Today I want to talk about communicating in such a way that communication can actually take place.  I encounter breakdowns in communication on a daily basis both online and in the real world, in public arenas and in private, between two people or among twenty.  There are key components to effective communication that are applicable in most of these situations.  When we approach the method of delivery as mindfully and passionately as we do the content of our statements, our chances of being heard and understood increase dramatically.

As an aside, while I don’t agree with the PA Voter ID law, I’m not looking to discuss it here.  I’d rather talk about the semantics of it than the issue itself at this point.

Anyway, here are some guidelines to follow when communicating ideas that are important to you:

1. Is it worth the time?

I don’t mean this in the sense that is the person going to come around to seeing things your way.  Rather, why do you want to have this conversation?  The reasons “because they got their information wrong,” “because they are misleading other people,” “because I have a lot of information that will prove that I’m right,” all actually are the same argument: I am wrong, you are right.  As soon as you recognize that as your point of the conversation, take a step back and determine what this one person’s seeing things from your perspective means to you.

I have found that with few exceptions, it’s usually better to disengage from the discussion at that point. Starting a discussion with “I’m right,” rarely goes anywhere. If you feel adamantly about how you feel, and the other person feels similarly resolute, then the point of the conversation is just self-aggrandizement and conflict.  As delightful as that is on reality television, in actuality it is unnecessarily stressful posturing.  Learn how to recognize when you’re arguing for rightness (hint: even if you really think you are “right”) and instead, don’t have that unnecessary and pointless argument.

Also, pick the people you want to have these conversations with.  If your goal is to do anything besides yell at each other, you should probably be talking to someone with whom you have some emotional investment. It may feel good to berate that random person who responded on a Facebook post, but it’s far from productive.

2. Empathize!

In order to have a dialogue, there has to be some sense of common ground; otherwise it’s less a conversation and more just a back-and-forth.  The common ground you find comes in the form of empathy.  The fact that you want to have this conversation should imply that this is a person whose beliefs you care about to some extent.  With that said, get to know the person you’re talking with.  Try starting your side of the conversation with a question rather than a rebuttal.  Not a leading question, but a question out of pure curiosity.  With as little judgment as possible, summarize what the other person said to you to see if you got it right.  It’s so important to genuinely attempt to understand what they are saying rather than going through the motions, or coming up with a contradictory argument.  For example, in answer to the statement:

Person A: I don’t see why you should have a problem with the Voter ID law.  This will keep people without the legal right to vote from fraudulently doing so.

My impulse might be to talk about how voter fraud is not an issue and how this might keep legal citizens from casting their vote.  But if it’s really a conversation, a better tack might be:

Person B (who is apparently Dan): I see, you’re concerned with people illegally taking your vote.  It’s an interesting balance: If you make the voting process more restrictive, you can get more security, but you might prevent people from accessing it.  If you had to choose between erring on the side of security versus access, which would you choose?

Notice it’s not a leading question, and in this case Person B is genuinely interested in Person A’s response.

It’s possible that the person you’re talking with is approaching the conversation from a right/wrong standpoint instead of an open discussion.  Culturally, we’re primed and ready for the former.  With patience and empathy, though, you can continue to steer the conversation back from a diatribe to a discussion.  If you can’t, then re-evaluate whether this is an important conversation to have at this time or at all.

3. Don’t give a reason to switch off

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, he refrains from using profanity throughout the book.  The reason he gives: “profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.”  When we are abrasive, we do the same thing to the people we are talking to.

As we get more passionate in a topic, our emotions can take over, and it becomes difficult to remain patient and compassionate.  Try to screen your speech for hidden sarcasm and condescension before talking.  The slightest inflection of negativity can cause your partner to clam up and the conversation to end; no one wants to have be berated.  If you can’t filter for civility, either find a time when you can, or go back to step one and reconsider why you want to have this conversation in the first place.  It probably has to do with your feeling that you are right and the other person is wrong.

So back to the “example” at the top.  If I wanted to make that into more of a conversation than a missive, how might I phrase my beliefs and persuasive arguments?  It’s actually a trick question, because I don’t believe the internet can function as a way for me to have that dialogue.  Whether through design, or through its cultural adaptation, the internet is geared towards one-sided conversations and proving the “rightness” of an argument.  If I really want to encourage dialogue, I need to start by getting to know people who feel differently, asking about their beliefs, and persuading them that a forum that uses respect and curiosity is better than what they currently use.  It takes genuine compassion and empathy to have that sort of conversation, so it’s best held in-person.  In our soundbyte laden society where we’re looking for the one quick argument to end the discussion, I find the idea of communicating face-to-face – actually having a mutually engaged conversation –  absolutely refreshing.

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend

If you read my post last week about The Naming of Things you’ll remember that I held off on divulging the name of my album, instead presenting a list of potential names.  I’m excited to reveal the name of album today.  If you haven’t guessed it from the title of this post, the album is called “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend,” and the CD release is on 8/25 in Philadelphia.  I liked the double entendre of the name, how it evokes both humor and sadness, and the fact that it’s a jarring album title.  It’s also a quote from one of the songs.  Today, though, I want to talk less about the album and more about the design of the cover, because it took me the better part of a week to put it together.  That might not seem like much time, but I’m not the strongest designer, so I was once again traveling through unfamiliar territory.

When I was deciding on album titles, I had pared it down to either “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend,” or “To Entertain and Wow Us.”  I knew at the time that whatever the cover art was going to be would determine which one I should choose, as well as the tone of the album.  I was leaning towards the former title and was discussing it with my girlfriend Katie.  I asked her what a graphical representation of “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend” would look like, and at first we talked about a photo of my looking sullen, or a palm held up turning people away.  We got a little more abstract, and that’s when she came up with the idea of the broken heart necklace, the kind that usually reads “Best Friends,” and that you share with your best friend (when you’re 8 anyway) so each of you has half.  The visual of a heart necklace saying something so unusual really made an impact on me.

Split Heart

The perfect heart!

The next step was finding the heart necklace.  I’m not an amazing Photoshopper/Illustratorer, so I can’t create that kind of image from scratch.  My first inclination was to get an actual pendant made and have it professionally photographed.  I pored through Etsy and found plenty of the necklaces I was looking for. However, the fonts tended to be more blockish and less like script (cursive with flourishes).  I found one vendor who had script, but she told me that the script pendants were pre-etched, meaning she could only use the stock phrases like “Best Friends,” or “I Love You.”  The Etsy necklaces were also mostly copper or silver, and I really wanted a gold one.  I decided to check on Amazon, where I found the perfect necklace design that I wanted.  There were two problems, though.  The heart pendant had no text on it, and the necklace was 24k gold and cost almost $300.

I decided to use the zoom preview tool on Amazon and take a screenshot so I could add the text myself in Photoshop.  Even with the photo zoomed in though, I couldn’t get a version that would be high enough resolution for an album cover.  Here’s where I got sneaky (I probably just did the same thing designers do all the time, but because it was the first time I did it, I get all gushy about it).  I opened the picture in Adobe Illustrator and converted it from a pixel-based image (made up of millions of tiny little dots) to a vector image (made up of mathematical calculations).  This allowed me to make it as large as I wanted without really losing resolution, though some of the colors were affected a bit.  Once it was big enough, I brought it to Photoshop and put it on a nice red background.  Like a so:

Heart and background

Heart and Red

Next I needed to add the text in.  Never one to be satisfied with the default fonts on my computer, I went in search of the perfect script font.  It needed to be fancy enough to look elegant, but not so twisty that it couldn’t be read.  I browsed one of my favorite font sites, Dafont, and looked through their script section, eventually settling upon Tangerine. I used a darker version of the color of the heart to make it look like it was made from the same metal as the heart, and added a beveled effect.  Here’s how it ended up:

Heart with text

Heart with added Tangerine text

In Photoshop it looked great, but as you can see, when it’s exported, the font is too light.  It also looked too light when it was printed.  So I duplicated the text, and made the duplicated text darker.  The effect was to have the interior of the letters stand out more, as if there were more shadows and the etching was deeper, or perhaps it changed the metal in some way.

heart with darker text

Heart with inset darker text

Also on the cover, I needed to have “Neon and Shy” there.  I’ve been using a font called Bebas for the header of my website and my flyers, and it made sense to continue to use it for my band name here. So I added it in at the bottom, the same way it appears on all my materials:

Neon and Shy regular

The standard look

Ah, but this was not just any regular piece of promotional materials.  This was the big cheese, the cat’s pajamas, the bees knees (sorry, too many 20’s jazz gigs lately)!  It’s like when you see Star Trek on TV versus Star Trek on the big screen.  They take the regular logo and spruce it up a bit.  So I did the same with mine, adding some beveling and shadow:

Fancy Neon and Shy

Oooh, bevelly!

Once added in with the heart, the front cover was finished:

CD Cover

The finished cover

I spent an equal amount of time on the back, interior, and CD face, playing with different fonts and tweaking the overall look.  Want to see how those ones turned out?  Well I guess I’ll see you on August 25th at the CD release!

I do want to bring this back to what I was mentioning earlier: doing graphic design work is like so many things, within our grasp, but terrifying to reach for.  Many of us haven’t done free-form art projects since middle school, so jumping in and trying to make something meaningful can be daunting.  Just remember that the same doubts you have are the doubts experienced by so many talented professional artists, and that fun and expression are key to the creative process.  In designing the packaging for your own products, you are in the fortunate position of being your own client.  Work in such a way that you meet your needs and have fun in the process, and you’re sure to create something that others can admire as well.

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