Category Archives: Trying to figure things out

It never ends

As a kid, I dreamed of recording a real album and releasing it. There was no internet, and there were no encyclopedia entries on “how to record and release an album”. Today, you just search it up. Back then, good luck even going to the library and checking out some books.

And then there was the matter of becoming good enough of a musician. Or even saving up enough money. Or worse yet, the challenge of sticking together long enough as a band.

And when I started out, I erroneously thought you had to be “discovered” by a label and sign a contract.

I went through quite a few do it yourself projects, borrowing 8 track tape recorders, buying cheap mixers, and manually producing tapes and burnt CDs with friends.

And then finally, after many ups, downs, and detours, I was able to record and actually release an album on a real CD together with my bandmates. It was the first Hidden Number album.

By then, my original childhood dream seemed so distant. Truly like a dream. There was so much more to do. I was in another band, Trip Audrey, and we were getting ready to record a debut album.  I was aware of some challenges to recording due to my cheap equipment, and I needed to save up to replace that. Hidden Number needed to send out the album and promote it. And it had taken so long to record that album that we felt an urgency to record all the additional songs that didn’t make it on the album. Plus, some band members had quit and we needed to find and train some new people. Meanwhile, I had been hired on full time at my day job, and needed to do well.

By the end of the year, I had all but forgotten my childhood dream. But there was that moment when I looked back, and realized all my original ambitions had been achieved. It was a revelatory moment. Yet also a melancholy one. There was no graduation. There was no prize, or award. No moment to walk down the aisle and receive a diploma. Instead, I already had a new set of goals. I wanted to go on tour. I wanted to take drum lessons and clean up some of my bad drum habits. There were already new songs to record. I wanted to engage with fans more personally. And so much more.

It never ends. And I’m only getting started. I’m basically a nobody, and yet you can see the toll on the celebrities. All the haters that they’re too fat, or they acted poorly on Giglie.

It never ends. By the time you reach the peak of the mountain you are climbing, you can see the next one in the distance. So I hope we can all take a moment to pause, and look back down the mountain to the bottom where we started and appreciate the view. Even if you’ve just taken your first step–that’s your first step! Celebrate!

Otherwise, life will pass you by.

I bought a bottle of sparkling wine for the Hidden Number dudes, and we had a nice dinner at 1am after rehearsal at Charlies on Broadway. We made a toast to the next album. It was a simple moment, spending a single carefree hour together and appreciating each other. A humble moment, I will always remember.

Some thoughts

A friend of mine worked with people who have dementia, and one time Susan and I went over and visited him over lunchtime. Lunch was like summer camp. A bunch of people who live together, come into a big room to share food, while my friend would lead all sorts of entertainment. Everyone was involved. He played his guitar and led people in song. At some point he played some swing, and Susan and I danced to that, much to the enjoyment of all (and quite a few got up and joined in). It was an incredibly happy environment. I know they were all struggling through hardships of dementia, but the silver lining was that many of the folks there were just living in the moment.

Then he invited one gentleman to sit down at the piano. The man needed some assistance with getting started. He sort of clumsily started finding his way around the keyboard… and then the next thing you knew, this guy was playing song after song. But here’s the thing. Our hero, the piano player, had no recollection that he had spent his career playing piano on a cruise ship. Instead, every day, he had to be reminded that he could even play piano at all. Yet, once he got going, it all flowed out.

Related article:

So, I think today’s deep thought is that I think it’s far more important to get songs into our subconscious memory, because then we don’t have to think about them or consciously remember them. The  music will just flow out of us, like exhaling. So yet again… practice! So that you can just exist in the moment.

Trying to make quality art

As Bob Lefsetz points out regularly, rock stars are not rock stars any more. It’s technology entrepreneurs that are the new rock stars. (And so are chefs.) So, what makes entrepreneurs our new heroes?

In the software world, you sort of have two approaches. You can be b2b, or “business to business”, where you sell products and solutions to businesses (the large ones being called “enterprises”). Or you can be b2c–“business to consumer”. You might consider Microsoft to be more of a b2b type of company, where they get most of their profits from enterprise customers. And you might consider Apple as a b2c type of company, where individual consumers drive most of the revenue.

In the b2b model, you are more focused on scenarios that get stuff done. You are not going to be a rock star. Your customers are businesses, not end users. Most people have not heard of you, or care what you do–but you still get rich. Businesses use your software to make money, and it’s just your business-customers that adore you. The end users in the business get a paycheck, and they just need to accomplish tasks so they can get paid.

On the other hand, b2c companies focus on making the end user feel delighted and at peace. It’s about the journey, about feeling part of something important, about feeling special, about being pleasantly surprised, about being entertained, and ultimately it’s about feeling like the product has somehow intangibly improved their lifestyle. The b2c companies get all the fame, as they inspire the end users. When you’re really great, people forget that they are paying for your product–they really believe that it is being bestowed upon them.

You get loyal customers by consistently exceeding their expectations. And so you need to deliver a quality product. In the b2b model, your quality is measured against the ability to accomplish tasks. In the b2c model, your quality is measured against warm fuzzy feelings.

In your art, your goals are different. Hopefully your goals are not related to making money (let’s be realistic here), but are instead focused solely on music quality as a means toward inspiration. But how do you ultimately define quality? Probably in a different way. Perhaps it’s by inspiring an emotional reaction. Perhaps that reaction could be a positive one, in the case of b2c, or it could also deliberately inspire a negative one. If you’re inspiring discussion, then perhaps that is the result of the quality of your art. As they say, there is no such thing as bad press. Banksy comes to mind.

Bad quality can have a backlash, as we see with the latest iPhone that isn’t flying off the shelves due to its disorienting display. People grow accustomed to a lifestyle, and they expect you to deliver. Much like with art, the negative hype can often just come from the critics, the squeaky wheels–like with Miley Cyrus who is doing just fine financially. You have to understand who is your audience, and how the critics affect broad opinion–if at all. Critics may actually not matter, or perhaps certain critics don’t matter (a consumer focused critic isn’t going to hurt your company much with a bad review if your business is a b2b).

How do you measure your progress in reaching good enough musical quality? This is trickier. So here’s a method to consider.

In the software world, the latest thing is to follow a SCRUM process. You can search it up online, but to summarize: you divide up your project into short, manageable sprints. After a couple of sprints, you have a minimal viable product (MVP) that you can pass around and get feedback. But even sprints are viable in their own way, in that you end up with something that works at every step. As you reach the end of each sprint, you look back and figure out what went well, and what could be improved. You adjust your schedule, you improve your processes, and then you go to the next sprint. This way, you are constantly correcting course and staying agile.

I would wager that we could consider sprints to be like writing songs. You keep writing songs over short periods of time until you get one that is good enough, from your own point of view. That means you’ve reached an MVP. You’re not working on the same song–that’s not the point. You’re working on your ability to create great art. Maybe you take another sprint to polish the MVP-type song. Then you share that song with a small group of “early adopters”, as they’re called in the software world. The early adopters are passionate about you. They want to consume everything you make, and they are unafraid to criticize you with wild abandon. And, in fact, you highly respect their feedback–perhaps they are friends, or members of a song writing group. Often this is all done confidentially. You take all the feedback, and use that to improve your quality. They’ll never hear the bad songs, which is fine because no one will ever hear the bad songs. You are not married to your songs. They are just sprints along the way to an MVP.

Then you repeat. You’re building up your experience, your expertise, and your intuition. You’re digesting feedback, and integrating it. And the next MVP, you give it out to a wider audience–maybe publicly this time, but still on a limited basis to, perhaps, just your die-hard fans.

Repeat some more. The number of sprints between MVPs is decreasing. You’re constantly writing songs, but people don’t hear every one. You are only focused on writing over and over until you finally write one that is good enough quality. Lastly, release your MVP-level song(s) to a wide audience. Include all those critics. You’ve learned how to over-deliver consistently and with high quality. You are inspiring people. You are a rock star.


(follow up thought: at what point is a song good enough? Die-hard fans do want to see your tender moments and your screw ups. Hmmm… perhaps it’s time to show them some of your horrible songs after all, to give them a glimpse of your process?)

(follow up thought, part 2: music quality leads to emotional reaction. That’s why I play music, and it may be your reason, too. There is no better feeling in the world than to inspire someone–to be in the right place at the right time, where you have inexorably changed their life. I have no idea if I’ve ever done that, but I hope to some day.)

(follow up thought, part 3: Melt Banana is touring the US right now, but they are down 2 members–likely due to the government shutdown. But tonight, seeing them at Chop Suey, we aaaalmost didn’t notice. They have written so many songs, performed so often, gained so much experience, that they just rolled with it and totally brought the energy. Two people taking up the space of four. I’m sad their drummer and bassist are left at home, but I aaaalmost didn’t notice. Why? Because their music inspires me.)

Trying to know what’s possible

When you’re starting out in your art, you might want to learn from the masters to get some credibility while you find your voice. It’s a smart thing to do, rather than reinventing the wheel. The greats that came before us perfected techniques that lead to highly regarded art. Might as well pick up where they left off, in order to save ourselves some time. Each technique was a reaction to the one before it–either in embrace or rejection. We learn the history, and gain wisdom, perspective, and experience. We learn the map of the land, prior to venturing forth into uncharted territory. They already made the map of the known universe–we just have to learn it and then go explore further.

Marcel Duchamp is a perfect example of this process. He learned from the masters before him, and contemporary to him. By mastering classical and expressionist techniques, he became well respected in his community. Early on, his avant-garde interests were largely kept to himself and his closest friends, from what I understand. But he dabbled enough that he became director of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, which I think was an avant-garde arts festival that pretty much allowed anyone to submit art for a small fee. So there were hundreds of submissions every year.

And then one year, he submitted The Fountain. It was just a urinal. The board of the SIA was so shocked by it that they actually went so far to take the unusual step of rejecting his art. He immediately resigned, and then dove headfirst into the Dada movement never to look back. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but he must have been one of the first artists to successfully use found items in his work.

Was it a huge risk on his part to submit a urinal as art? Or did he have plenty going on at the time that he was confident in thumbing his nose at the so-called open Society? Perhaps as director, he knew he had enough clout that he wouldn’t completely fall out of favor and instead get even more respect for making a strong and shocking statement. Or perhaps, he just had the conviction to do whatever he felt like doing. I hope it was the latter, but nothing wrong with it being the former. But today, we see similar actions by famous artists. In music today, we see Miley Cyrus going from innocent schoolgirl, to overnight punk rock sexual millennial icon–and shocking those in the established music industry. She paid her dues, building up a strong reputation as a safe tween icon, and then she (or her manager more likely) made the decision to shake things up with a  strong statement–just as the pop icons all did before her (Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc.).

But starting out… we learn from the masters before anyone will bother to notice any strong statement we would care to make (“Who’s this joker? Why should I care what he has to say? He’s a nobody.”). But here’s the scary part: which masters do we focus on? We can’t learn everything from all of them. We have to prioritize in some way. Certainly our interests will help guide us, and we can learn from those who inspire us. Yet, here’s the scarier question: From any particular master, what do we attempt to learn? By nature, the masters are super-human. Not only were they in the right place at the right time, but they were ready to take advantage of those opportunities with their superior intellect, creativity, and coordination. It would take me two lifetimes to learn to play like Buddy Rich, and then I’d just be called the Buddy Rich Ripoff. Not only do I have to learn some sweet techniques, but I have to also leave time to find my own voice. How do I do both?

So, you have to figure out what you can actually learn with a reasonable amount of effort, or you have to be willing to take the risk.

A mentor will help you prioritize these things. Did you ever have a moment–I certainly did, when my mentor told me that I could learn the push-pull technique in a year–when you suddenly had clarity that you could actually learn something that in the past seemed unattainable?

Being in the right place at the right time

It seems like you can capture a person’s heart and soul by being in the right place at the right time. There is certain art where I not only remember when I experienced it for the first time, but also the whole context around how it specifically spoke directly to me.

There are little vines of memory that replay in my mind. A song that my mom would sing to me when I was 4.  The Nutcracker, while watching the Christmas Tree miraculously grew on stage. That scene in Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy when they came to life. A painting of the barn in my backyard, and the barn collapsed days later. A Reading Rainbow episode with the little sign language interpreter bubble in the lower right of the screen. Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 9 and being exposed to a film ending that made absolutely no sense to me and being mystified and changed by that. The impressionist oil paintings in my grandparents guest room, depicting cobblestone streets in the rain; people running for shelter and the light reflecting off the stones. Various low budget or poorly written shows, film, and music that I grew up on and will never leave behind. Depictions of the Santa Ynez Valley by Eyvind Earle, a trip through which I would make with my family almost every year. Tron, and later the TV series Automan that introduced a yearning optimism about the future. Dune, directed by David Lynch, which played on HBO on repeat for what seemed like an entire summer, when I was just old enough to grasp the plot by the end of the season, and by which I learned important truths about life. Reading the Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier, which reassured me that the cruel nature of human beings can be overcome and that everyone feels lonely sometimes. Reading Enders Game by Orson Scott Card, which taught me in a strange roundabout way the importance of truly being understood by another and of truly understanding someone else on a deep level. The book Cosmos (I didn’t see the series until much later), which inspired a love of cosmology, astronomy, and science in general. John Zorn’s Naked City, which introduced a completely new concept of music and art, opening my mind to a new dimension in creativity. An unrecorded song, sung at a memorial service and indelibly stamped on my brain. All of this just a random brain dump of what comes to mind this evening as I write this. Likely many others experienced these things, but the timing was wrong and they just scoffed. I don’t relate, but some people feel like Insane Clown Posse speaks to them. To each their own.

If you’re in the right place at the right time, you become part of someone’s identity for life. When were you in the right place at the right time?

Trying to trust

I was brainstorming with BDT’s coach (yes, we call her Coach), and she mentioned the importance of feeling like you can trust everyone in your group. And that totally reminded me of a bunch of stuff I’ve learned about trust over the past years! So this week’s post is about Trust.

Ross Smith, a Director of Test at Microsoft, took a bunch of theories about trust and now regularly puts them to the test. I had the good fortune of working in his organization for a short time, and it was pretty amazing to see the transformation he achieved in a short period of time. Ross is tricky. He uses crowd sourcing and game techniques to improve results. In other words, he turns things into games that encourage people inside and outside his organization to play and compete. The genius of it is that people end up spending extra time on projects that they aren’t even responsible for–because it’s so fun and personally rewarding for them.

Here’s an article about when Ross first created a game framework that encouraged trust behaviors inside his group. Click the link, and then first scroll down to Benefits and Metrics and read that dense paragraph. Here’s an example of some of the results:

“Our retention numbers were 20% to 50% higher than our historical numbers”

“We saw between a 10% to 60% improvement in productivity, as measured by a number of different metrics”

Okay, now go back and read that dense article to learn the specifics. Since we’re talking about software here, it was all done in a systematic way that he could measure. Out of the process, his group came up with a list of 150 trust building behaviors that they would track and turn into a game.

In another interview, Ross lists the sources of his inspiration on Trust. Scroll down to the very bottom of the interview for the list of sources.

So as musicians in a band with a couple members, we probably don’t have to be all systematic and scientific about it. My only reason for linking to those interviews is to build the case that organizational trustworthiness has been measured and it’s a huge pile of awesomeness. You can even take the next logical step: an increase in productivity should help make an increase in income. Of course income doesn’t matter so much if you’re stressed out and burned out–but again the numbers show that happiness increases just as much on average.

So it’s pretty clear that Trust is going to make a significant impact on the success of your band.

And by the way, back when I was working for Ross, he created the environment that produced a tool called the Conversation Analyzer. It analyzes your IM conversations (using a communications program called Lync) for trust building language, and gives you a score. You can track how you progress toward being someone who is trustworthy and encourages trust building.

Now, go back to that list of 150 trust building behaviors and actually take a look at it. It’s something we could spend the rest of our lives working on. So, in addition to everything else we’re working on, let’s just spend the next year focusing on maybe one or two off that list. And then move to the next, and so on. As the data shows, we’ll be happier and more productive.

Trying to get along with others

There is a book that fundamentally changed my point of view.

Dale Carnegie wrote this book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, back in 1936. The link goes to Wikipedia, which basically summarizes what every chapter is about. Looks like a series of blog posts doesn’t it? Just think, he wrote this in the previous century and had it figured out already.

If you are a musician, you must buy this book and read it. From the title you might think that it’s one of those cynical get rich quick schemes that teaches you how to turn people into your servants through mind control. But it’s quite the contrary. It’s about how to understand people so that you can treat them the way they want to be treated and so that you can give them what they want to be given. Quite a noble endeavor, actually. In return, they give you the same. It’s a win-win.

And I don’t recommend this book so that you can win a bunch of fans and maximize profits.

Instead, I recommend this book because it taught me how to successfully navigate rooms full of inflated egos, including my own, with selfish goals without any predetermined organizational structure. I happily include myself in this group, seeking my own overblown dreams of individual success, like any other musician, and this book helped put the social dynamics in perspective so that I would be at peace here and so most interactions would be chill and productive.

I say this as if I’ve succeeded in becoming some kind of monk. Far from the truth. But, I see the path to follow now, and I am seeing tangible results as I stumble along. It’s really amazing.

You must read this book if you are a musician. It has withstood the test of time. It’s a book you will reread once a year for the rest of your life. Do it.

Trying not to swim upstream

I’m talking about anxiety. I’m not an expert, so don’t take anything I say here as advice.

I’ve always been pretty bad at remembering names, and abstract numbers, dates, codes, measurements, etc. This is bad when I’m talking to other musicians, who are usually gear heads and love to talk about how many watts or the size of drum heads or brand names. It gets embarrassing. But on the other hand, I’m very good at logic, concepts, metaphors, techniques, and coordination. So, I’m going to keep playing drums, and I’m not going to try to be a publicist any time soon. If you’re an industry person, you need rote memorization skills–which frankly I lack. I could tell you how things work until I’m blue in the face, but don’t ask me about the names of those things. So, I know my limits, and I continue to work on improving my memory of equipment specs, as well as your name. But for the time being, I tend to avoid situations where I have to be an equipment junky, and that often puts me at a frustrating disadvantage. Oh well, I have other advantages, and I just keep reminding myself to focus on the right things and be happy with that. Trust me, I get really frustrated about forgetting your name, even after asking you 3 times. But things would be a lot worse if my livelihood depended on it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I played trumpet for 8 or 9 years, but the time came when I realized that I felt more comfortable behind a drum set. I was able to learn at a quicker rate than the trumpet, and it felt good to be able to keep up with my fellow musicians. So, I finally made the switch.

Similarly, I’ve experienced some decent anxiety in my software career. There can be a lot of pressure, and a lot of competition. I think the worst anxiety I’ve experienced in the past was in tough meetings or when giving presentations. For me, the more I prepare the less anxiety I feel. But one of the things I did recently was switch to a position where I’d experience less anxiety. It’s been great. I’m going to try to continue down this new path.

I think I put up with it for a while because I thought it was to be expected. But I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t need to be expected. I don’t have put up with it simply because that’s the environment I’m in. In fact, I can just choose not to engage in those situations that are the most troubling. And I can engage in ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Being nervous is normal. But heck, why submit myself to those situations over and over if I don’t have to? Luckily, I rarely get nervous playing drums. Musical performance actually recharges me, and that feeling really puts the rest of my life in perspective.

But here’s something tough to think about. If you suffer from performance anxiety, then consider the physiological ramifications down the road. Perhaps it’s time to take a moment to think about what makes you nervous, how nervous you get, and if there are ways to reduce anxiety. Or even stop doing the things that cause it. Everyone feels a little nervous on stage, but maybe it’s not right to be really nervous night after night. Maybe there are alternative ways to engage in your art.

A robot walks into a bar…

Hey musicians,

How’s that day job? Well, it looks like the job market is going to continually get scarcer out there. Most musicians have a day job, and so this is not good news. It seems music isn’t the only thing going digital–so is everything else:  Robots are taking all the jobs.

This is a thought provoking article about how most jobs are becoming obsolete, due to automation.  They predict that income disparity will continue to spread, as blue collar jobs are replaced by machines and software, and white collar jobs will get whittled away. And the article describes how we will eventually move into a post-job economy, where there are almost no jobs where you are working for someone. But in the current economic system, the only way to patch up the problem is by continually expanding welfare–or change the economic system.

But, the only jobs that aren’t going away right now are tech jobs. So consider going into tech. You can be a system administrator, or you can be an A/V expert, or perhaps go into development or data warehousing or web development. Or you can go into marketing, or sales. Tech doesn’t mean you have to know how to code. And as a vendor, as opposed to a “permanent” employee, you still have a certain amount of freedom to pursue music. But beware: you still have to stay current in all the latest technologies. But you can do it. Go to IT Tech or something. I know you already geek out over instrument specs, and you may even geek out about the music business. And you will practice the same riff over and over, and you may even be able to read music. So you have it in you to geek out, learn new things, and understand abstract logical and mathematical theory–if you want to.

Then you can keep playing music, because it may not pay much but it does involve real breathing living feeling people.

And help me with a punchline to the joke in the title. :)

Trying to find a mentor

Just as important as having a muse, you gotta have a mentor. I cannot stress this enough. This is more than having a role model, where you emulate them from afar. This about finding someone who will take an active role in your life, pointing you in the right direction for self improvement.

We’re all wandering around. It’s not dark, so we think we can navigate. But really, we can’t guess very well. We need a scout who’s been there. We have to learn by making so many mistakes, you really owe it to yourself to find a mentor who can help you avoid pitfalls. We’re lazy and take the easy route, so you owe it to yourself to have a sensei who will show you the value of thinking long term. We overestimate the size of hurdles, and so you owe it to yourself to have a coach who will show you that it’s easier than you thought.

You have permission to ask for help. You have no excuse for not knowing what to do, because you can find a mentor. There was a time that I didn’t know this, and so I wasted a lot of time and made pointless mistakes.

A few tips:

  1. Usually the mentor doesn’t need to know that’s how you view them. They probably don’t need that kind of pressure anyway.
  2. You don’t need any formal agreement because you are actually helping them, too.
  3. You can help a mentor by giving information, because you are likely more on the front lines.

There are a ton of articles on getting mentors, but the Forbes one is fine.

I can brag because I was a self-taught drummer for a long time, but now it’s kind of embarrassing for me. I wasted a lot of time without a percussion expert as a mentor, and so now I’m trying to catch up. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Identify who wants to help you, and then ask them for it. Sometimes they are just waiting to be asked for help. Or do you already have mentors, and have they helped you?