Category Archives: Creativity

My Year Dark

How does one begin to write again after a year in the dark?  I suppose one word, one paragraph, one inkling of an idea at a time.

The short reason for my absence has been that I’m busy.  My music career has picked up, my dating life has been hyperactive, and my philosophical course load has been overwhelming.  However, I miss the time I used to take to explore the what I have learned.  I miss the inane Photoshop madness and the non-sequitur tangents.  I miss taking a germ of an idea and processing it until it makes a tiny bit more sense.

So let’s start out small.  I’ve learned a lot over the past year, and my life has changed dramatically.  Here’s a tiny glimpse of my year dark.

  • Tuba player and polka band manager are indeed viable career paths
Tuba Player and Band Leader

Tuba player and band leader are viable career paths, but only if you have the right sunglasses for the job.

Attention people considering a career in the arts: you may work crazy amounts of hours and push your body and your mind to the limit, but success is conceivable and achievable.  Tax time for 2014 has come and gone, and the results are in: I am financially viable in my career as a professional musician.  Between gigging, booking, teaching, and random financial opportunities, I have not had my house foreclosed upon, I have not moved in with my parents, and I have not been stranded with no insurance and crippling debt.  I am not a billionaire, but I’m certainly a working-class musician.

So in that sense, the grand experiment I set out to explore 2 years ago by leaving my job at Temple is at least a temporary success.  To the former coworker who emailed me the other day to ask if I wanted to apply for a job opening at Temple, no thanks, I’m doing fine.

  • The balance between music as a business and as a passion is a constant challenge

I am just starting to come to terms with the fact that having a successful music business does not mean I am feeling creatively satisfied.  I have to balance the massive amount of time that running a music business takes with my own downtime, as well as my time to create musically.  I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but I’ve been feeling the strain from it and scheming to make more of my music career about actually making music.

  • Dealing with loss takes an indefinite amount of time.

A friend posted a great comment on a thread about the end of my relationship that I think sums things up nicely:

Apply ZERO timelines to your emotional and mental recovery. I could have never fathomed how long it would take me to recover from my failed marriage. I kept pushing myself to believe I was better and OK when I wasn’t yet, which further complicated things for me unnecessarily…

True words that I remember every day.  Literally every day.

  • When confronted with a new challenge, I can surprise myself.

Last June I got a call I’ve been waiting to get for a few years.  The Asphalt Orchestra, a 12 piece chamber marching band out of Brooklyn, was looking for a sousaphonist to do a few touring shows with and my name had come up.  I had wanted to play with them for a few years, ever since I saw their video of one of my favorite Zappa tunes, Zombie Woof.

I started practicing the music at the end of June for two performance dates in September.  Since I was in Philadelphia and the rehearsal was in New York, there was only time for one at the beginning of September.  Meanwhile, I was tasked with memorizing the tuba part for 19 challenging songs and learning the choreography by watching YouTube videos.  I had never done anything like it, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to meet the goal.  But sure enough, by the end of August, it was almost complete, and our shows in Atlanta and Stillwater, Oklahoma went fantastically.

It’s really made me think about how I have the capability to push beyond my perceived limitations.  If two months of concentrated practice can accomplish such a massive goal, what would happen if I applied the same dedication to my own projects?

  • Some ladies really like Valentine’s Day.

Dating in 2015 has been an enlightening, exciting, and surreal experience.  It seems like there are so many more striations of relationship type, commitment level, and lifestyle than when I last approached dating.

However, as much as things have changed, I got a bit of a shock on February 14th.  Apparently Valentine’s Day means a lot to some of people.  Lesson learned.

I’m dipping my toes into the kiddie pool of bringing writing back into my life.  I have a separate writing project I’ve been working on, I’ve been learning more and more about teaching, and I have a guileless naivete about the personal relationships in my life.  If that’s not a reason to keep this blog in your peripheral vision, I don’t know what to tell you.  At least, nothing to tell you besides the fact that Buzzfeed can’t play the Pixies on the sousaphone and their Photoshopping is not nearly surreal enough.  I think you know what the better choice is here.

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Extinguishing Audience Burnout

With the work I’ve been doing playing tons of instruments in different ensembles, I’ve noticed there’s an area I’ve put on the back burner.  That would be Neon and Shy, my solo songwriting project.  This year I’ve only played about 6 or 7 solo shows, which is much fewer than last year when I had about 2 shows per month.  The clearest reason for why this has dropped off quite a bit is a financial one.  While playing singer-songwriter shows, it is very difficult to make any money.  Playing an instrument in a band is much more lucrative.

Being inquisitive, I got to wondering whether that’s just the nature of the business or how I have been handling my business.  I think there’s something to be said for both.  Bars, coffee houses, and other venues for smaller original performers are just accustomed to paying very little, if at all for their live music.  And yet, I’ve found ways in which I was complicit in hurting my bottom line as well.  One big issue I discovered was my contribution to audience burnout.

In my attempts to get as much exposure as possible, I booked myself wherever I could.  Some of these venues were not conducive to listening to music (or having good food, drinking good beer, or frankly, having a good time).  Some of these venues had sub-par sound systems.  Some of these venues charged an extraordinary amount for the audience to see the music.  Some were very far away.  Some had unrealistic models for how the performers could be compensated.

And some of these venues had every one of these problems.

As a performer and as a marketer, I would try to get as many people as possible out to these shows.  The typical way for a beginner in the industry to get people out is to use the friends and family approach.  I would broadcast invitations to as many of the people in my life as I could reach and ask them to come out.  And for the first few months, a lot of them did.  Over time, though, the flow slowed to a trickle.

While my material is rather eclectic, I don’t think the quality or style was what turned my fans away.  I think it was the invitations I would send to shows that I myself wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t been booked there.  Eventually I realized I was becoming embarrassed to ask people to come out to a show that I knew would not meet my standards for a fun night out.

Around this time my tuba gigging life got a lot fuller, so I put the Neon and Shy shows on the back burner and focused on playing more paying gigs.  During that time, I came to terms with the fact that I was playing unfun shows, and decided to take a different approach.

Realistic charge for entry

I had played too many shows where my fans had to pay $12 to see me play for a half hour.  Unless I was wildly in love with the performer, that would be a hard pill to swallow.  And if I were wildly in love I would do it… once.  So I thought about what I’d be willing to pay to see the same amazing performer multiple times, and that cost for me is between $0 and $5.  Once I start making the Top 40 list, we can start to bump it up, but until then it’s too easy for a fan to feel cheated by paying too much.

A word about earnings

I also realized that sometimes I’d bring about 10 people to a show of mine and earn nothing for the effort.  One of my favorite places to play in Philadelphia is the Dawson Street Pub, and the reason is how fair they are about payment (ok, it’s also got the nicest people, the best beer, the most off the hook fries, and the best vibe).  I’ve played shows there where the band I was playing packed the place, and we would earn several hundred dollars as our cut.  I’ve play shows where I was able to bring in about 5 people on a weeknight, and I’d earn several dollars as my cut.  I don’t ask for something unrealistic when there isn’t a built-in crowd, but I should at least get something for my effort.

I’ve found, though, that the audience is afforded a special privilege when they are solely responsible for the performer’s payment.  Yes, I’m talking about playing for tips.

Amanda Palmer has an interesting TED talk on the subject if you haven’t seen it.  The essential idea is that allowing the audience to determine what and how to pay the artist allows for a more intimate connection, and one that’s hard to develop otherwise.  The professional musician in me bristles a bit at the idea, as we are constantly struggling to convince people that we deserve to be paid for the talents we have honed for so long.  I can’t deny, though, that playing for tips has a surprising quality of sincerity.  I’ve seen in at shows at certain venues, when I’ve made far more than the venue would have paid me.  I’ve seen it in the subway station both from the people who smile when they see me play and from the tweets I’ll see afterwards:

twit

A special connection

There are shows we remember for the genius of the talent that is performing.  These shows are rare and precious, and I’m still striving to get my quality up to that level (I think I’ll always be).  There are also shows we remember for the connections the audience has made with the performer.  I think of Michael Franti coming out into the audience after the show to hug his fans or They Might Be Giants with their audience participation in improvised songs about the Planet of the Apes.  These moments are increasingly rare in popular music, and I think they have an important role.  So I’ve been trying to foster these connections and come up with ways to draw in the audience beyond words and music.

I have a few songs in which I hand instruments out to the audience and conduct them through a song while I sing it.  I’ve had the audience provide sound effects for my music as well.  I think one of my most popular shows ever was the one in which I had a 20 minute set and attempted to perform 20 songs in 20 minutes.

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to connect with an audience merely through the art of songwriting.  Often as a songwriter, the appeal of the song comes from the way the listener can relate to it.  There can be a tendency to cast a wider net to ensnare more listeners, but it’s really hard to do that while crafting an interesting and unique piece of art.  So I’ve started casting a much smaller, narrower net with the idea in mind that I’ll catch the ears of fewer listeners, but those I do catch will take in the song as a more personal experience.

Playing at Chemical Heritage Foundation

The first three rows will get scienced on!

I’ve started writing songs that appeal to my fringe geek cultural roots and need for analysis.  I wrote a song called Level One to Level Two about the tropes roleplay games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Kobolds Ate My Baby.  I’ve been writing songs about prime numbers and obscure video games, and grammar.  While I know that there will be people who just don’t understand it, I’m hoping for a few “FINALLY” moments from the people who do.  I just premiered some of them at a special show at a museum in town, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, to great success.  By the way, that was a free show with free cookies and cider.  Everyone came away happy.

Ultimately, I learned the importance of empathizing with my audience and merging my artistic leanings with their needs and interests.  As with everything I do, this is an experiment that continues to evolve.

And if you’re free on December 28th, I’m playing at the incredibly cozy Zen Den Coffee in Doylestown.  The seats are comfortable, the staff is delightful, the snacks are lovely, and the sound is fantastic.  Hey, it’s a free show, but if you feel like giving some tips, I’d sure appreciate it.  Just remember who’s looking out for you.

An Empiricist’s Dream Job

Friday was my last day at my full-time job, meaning today is my first weekday out of that particular yoke.  And wow, have I been busy.  I was up at 6am for a “gig” (more on that in a moment), before assisting a colleague with some online media.  After I got home, I had just enough time to eat, practice some tuba, and send a few emails out before running to a rehearsal with a band called A Fistful of Sugar.  I got home around 6, and am currently in the process of making dinner (vegan jambalaya!).  I hope to get a bit more practice in and perhaps some rest before heading to an open mic tonight.

schedule

Week in the Life

I have been making good use of my handy white erase board.  So far, I’m content with tasks to accomplish across the day and week, but should I need to, I can nail down the times a little more.  I’m hoping this can take some of the panic out of determining what to do on a given day.  I also can start to use it as a baseline for what I can realistically accomplish across the day.

You might notice across the top on almost every morning is SEPTA.  For the uninitiated, this is Philadelphia’s public transportation system.  About a month ago I applied for a permit to perform in the regional rail station, and last week I found that my application was accepted.  My slot is for the first half of the month, from 6am-9am on every weekday.  I chose the early slot because I wanted to be there during the commute, and I thought the afternoon commute might interfere with my evening schedule.

The reactions I’ve gotten from friends upon telling them that I would be busking ranged from extreme enthusiasm (THAT’S THE BEST THING EVER!) to muted reservation (Oh, you’re doing that huh?).  I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow musician who was curious if my classical conservatory background got in the way.  Essentially, he asked if I felt like I was selling out or working beneath my station (my words, not his) by being a street musician.  While I don’t deny that I’m a little apprehensive about what the musicians I regularly play with in a professional atmosphere would think about what I’m doing, I also know that I love performing in many different contexts.  I especially like performing in a context that is unorthodox, which is why I was excited to bring my accordion to the train station today.  There are a ton of guitarists, drummers, and saxophonists, but I had not seen an accordionist in the station in all my time passing through.

Like many things in my life, this is just an experiment to see if it’s something that’s viable.  A part of me worried that my coworkers at my former job would think I was crazy for leaving a steady job to play on the street.  That’s not the reason I left though.  It just happens to be a part of my journey along the way.

So today I set up around 7:15 with my accordion.  I opted to skip the first hour, partially because it’s tough to find a train that gets me there early enough, but mostly because I thought the crowd would be too sparse before 7.  I primed my accordion case with a few dollars, and started playing a few instrumentals before moving onto vocal numbers.  It wasn’t long before my first dollar came in, followed by my first quarter.  The rest went by rather quickly.

Starting around 7:45, the commuters began coming in larger waves.  For about 45 seconds at a time, the crowd streaming pass me would thicken, before dwindling to an occasional passerby.  I started trying to time my more engaging material for when people would come through.  That often meant vamping until the moment the wave broke, and quickly jumping into a song like Everything In It’s Right Place by Radiohead, or Toxic/Rock Lobster.  I got a sense that people responded better to the songs they recognized, so I saved my originals for some of the slower times.

The vast majority of the people passing by ignored me, rushing by while avoiding eye contact.  And I get that, as most of them were commuting to their job and didn’t have time for distractions.  I saw one person pull her phone out to film me while I was playing Everything In It’s Right Place.  Afterwards she thanked me, and I was delighted that someone heard what I was doing.  Another time a man came up after I had butchered Girl by the Beatles and gave me a dollar while I profusely apologized.  When I played Lover, You Should Have Come Over by Jeff Buckley, a woman came around the corner to thank me for playing it.  I’m not 100% sure, but I think she was the one who left a 20 in my case.

That $20 went a long way towards making it a productive morning.  With it I ended up doing pretty well, easily paying for my trip to and from the station.  But as the time elapsed, I started planning ways to make my performing more engaging.

And here’s why I called this post “An Empiricist’s Dream Job.” I have so many variables to tweak to see how I can improve my earnings and connections (and honestly, the connections were as important as the earnings).  Do I play more songs that people recognize, or do I try to introduce people to the unique stylings of my originals?  Would I make more money playing the tuba or toy piano instead of the accordion, or would I just be catering to a different segment of the people passing by?  Is there a more efficient way to ride the wave of commuters that surged from time to time?  Do I smile or grimace?  Do I put up a sign that says who I am or do I let my music speak for itself?  Do I find quirky ways outside of the music to connect with my audience, or is it just fishing with a net?  I have a seemingly infinite number of ways to tweak my shows at the station.  I need to get to work collecting data.

Tomorrow I’m trying out the tuba to see how that goes, though I am a little apprehensive for playing so long so early.  Maybe I can find a way to break it up.  In any case, if you or a friend happen to pass by the Market East station in Philadelphia and see a guy playing any number of instruments while feverishly collecting data, come say hi, as odds are good he wants to play your favorite song.

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