Philip Seymour Hoffman – Beyond The Cautionary Tale

As I write this, it’s been announced that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead at age 46 in his Manhattan apartment with a syringe in his arm.

I expect that there will be the usual reactions to celebrity passings.  The sadness of a death that could have preventable…the lament of being cut down so young in his prime and of future work that might have been done.

There will inevitably be the epitaph of a life lived as a cautionary tale.  A commentary on drugs and the danger of addiction.

But, what is often missing from these visceral and superficial observations is broader inquiry.  For example,

What makes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing noteworthy?

People die every second of every minute of every day.  Why is his death announced with any more gravity than the passing of your Aunt Millie?  Do we have some kind of cultural hierarchy or caste system that acknowledges celebrities lives as having a different value than our own?

I don’t think so.

I think people will make a big deal out of this because they feel a connection to his work.

He moved people.  He helped them feel something, and people associate that loss with that memory.  They may have never met the man, but they have a strong opinion about his work.

There’s a lesson there.

I don’t know if art makes one immortal, but it builds connections to people.  It creates conversations and exposes people to other ways of seeing the world.

It makes the world a better place.

As an artist, I recommend that you get past the obvious lesson of the ravages of addiction and the trappings of the celebrity lifestyle, and use this opportunity to be introspective about what you are doing.

What am I putting out into the world?

How am I connecting with people?

How do I make the world a better place?

I don’t know if Philip Seymour Hoffman ever asked himself these questions.  I know that he was a true artist, and that as an artist he had to face dark nights of the soul and if he didn’t ask these questions, he asked questions that were very similar.

Yes, he died tragically and young.  But the very nature of life is terminal.

You have a finite amount of time to get something done.

To make a connection to the world.

To impose your meaning on what can be a meaningless world.

To help make this place better than what you found it.

Going beyond the cautionary tale, life is always short – make the most of it while you are here and follow the actionable example of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life.

be a life long student.

work hard.

do the best work you can

to the very best of your ability

work constantly and

make each new project better than the last one.

Let’s not use this moment as a simple lecture about drugs, let’s use it as an unfortunate inspiration.

As always,

Thanks for reading.

-Scott

There’s Value In Ritual

It starts with Santa

I must have been a good boy this year, because Santa was unbelievably generous to me this Christmas.  In addition to gear, books and films, this

rok2

Photo taken from the ROK website.

made it’s way to my door (courtesy of Mrs. Collins).

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“You say tomato I say espresso.”

The Rok Espresso maker is a hand pumped espresso maker that requires no electricity.  In theory, you simply add ground espresso to the portafilter and pour boiling hot water in the top chamber.  Lifting the handles up pushes water into the chamber and pulling them down creates about 9 bars of pressure to make an espresso shot.

I say “in theory” because it turns out that there are a lot of factors that go into espresso quality.  Traditional espresso machines have boing water going through them which keep the portafilter hot and makes for a more uniform shot – so I started soaking the portafilter in boiled water in the cup to pre-heat both of them.  The roast and grind of the coffee play a role so I experimented with pre-ground and full bean blends.  This lead me to a hand cranked ceramic burr grinder:

Ceramic Burr Grinder

Which works aesthetically with the powerless espresso maker and provides a uniform grind.  Experts will tell you that there are a near endless number of factors that will go into the flavor even down to the tamper (a stainless steel 49mm tamper for me – but the plastic tamper works fine).

Getting a shot of espresso now requires:

  • heating boiling water
  • hand cranking the burr grinder for about 115 rotations to get the proper amount of coffee
  • putting the portafilter in a cup and pouring the boiling hot coffee in
  • waiting about 10-15 seconds for the filter to heat up
  • pouring out the water
  • scooping the coffee into the portafilter
  • tamping it down
  • attaching the filter
  • pouring the water into the espresso maker
  • lifting the handles all the way up
  • pulling the handles down about an 1/8″ to infuse the espresso
  • lifting the handles back up and pulling them down to extract the espresso

then dumping out the portafilter.

in other words – it’s a few more steps than loading coffee into my Aeropress coffee maker which also makes a really good cup of coffee.

You may be asking yourself

What the Hell does this have to do with guitar?

and the answer is – quite a bit.

There’s value in ritual

When you slow down and invest time into something, you have the opportunity to enter a different headspace.  It’s not guaranteed, but think about the number of times that you realized something while you were brushing your teeth before bed or taking a shower before you start your day.

Hand grinding the beans only takes a minute or two, but it gives me pause and becomes a kind of meditative action.  When I get through all of the steps and taste the espresso, it’s nuanced in deeper way than the Aeropress coffee.  It’s a completely different experience than popping a netpresso pod into a machine and hitting start.

If you’re having problems reaching the goals that you want, you may want to consider taking the approach of adopting a daily ritual.  If you’re talking about guitar playing, consider adding one daily ritual to whatever you’re currently doing.  Maybe it’s transcribing, sight reading, chordal studies, scales or improvisation.  It really doesn’t matter that much what it is, and more that you’re doing it daily, with purpose and with proper technique.

Wait where are you sending me now?

Every year, I put a post up on GuitArchitecture.org about New Year’s resolutions, goal setting and breaking out of the mistakes of the past and if getting things done in the New Year interest you, you may want to read that here.

In the meantime, consider this…

In my experience, the biggest long term changes that come in life come from daily attention.  Don’t worry about huge overarching goals.  Work on one thing, and commit to doing it every day.

I have to “test’ more espresso while working on my 8-string playing (one of my daily rituals now that it’s back) and prep for UFC 168 tonight.

There’s a lot of good things happening that will be manifesting themselves more fully in the new year in the meantime,  I hope that 2014 is your best year yet.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

“You Make Your Own Luck” or On Opportunity

My wife was watching Master Chef Junior Finale on Hulu recently.  While what caught my attention initially was the complexity of the dishes they were serving.  The contestants (aged 12-13) served up the following meals for the finale:

Contestant 1: Ahi tuna cooked two ways (poke and seared), fried spot prawns with wontons and a coconut curry and poached pear in lemon ginger miso sauce.

Contestant 2: Basil lemon shrimp with an heirloom tomato crostini, pan-seared veal chop with potato gnocchi and butter sauce and a deconstructed cannoli.)

what really stuck with me was what wasn’t said in the episode.

When presented with the prospect of winning a trophy and a $100,000 prize, not one contestant or parent said, “I need to win this.  $100,000 is a life changing amount of money.”

There’s a reason for that.

No matter how many times you watch something, you can’t learn a technique until you actually apply it.  Even if you sit with a timer and do everything in a step by step process, you need to do it multiple times to make it work.

So how does a 12-year old make beef sliders with black garlic aioli, beef wellington, prosciutto-wrapped chicken roulade with goat cheese, soufflés or any of the dishes above?

They do it by doing it over and over again and if your child is cooking every recipe in your lavish coffee table book of recipes, then they’ll also need to have access to fresh produce and very expensive ingredients.  In other words, if you can afford to spend an extra couple of hundred dollars a week to support Jane or Jimmy’s cooking interest, then an extra 100K might not mean all that much to you.  Coming from where I did, I had an initial knee jerk reaction to that.

Another Upstate NY story?

A little back story here, I grew up in a middle class home.  My dad taught in a public school and my mom worked at Beech-Nut.  We were never in danger of starving, but we didn’t take lavish vacations either.  When my dad had summers off he did things like install pools for other people or took on other jobs to make ends meet.

One thing that growing up in a place like Fort Plain taught you was that there were haves, have-mores and have-lesses and that while you might not have what the have-mores had, that you learned to make due with what you had access to, you were thankful for what you had and you reached a hand out to the have-nots.

It also teaches you a certain level of self sufficiency.  It wasn’t that long ago that buying music meant driving somewhere because there wasn’t an internet to buy it on.  When I tell people that buying a cd (or a cassette – some of you may have to google that term), required driving an hour each way to Albany or Schenectady – they don’t believe me – but it’s true.

I realize now that while it was inconvenient, there was something that came from that process.  There was an excitement about having to go somewhere and finding something, and while it lead to some BITTER disappointments, it also lead to some amazing finds.  Those recordings had other associations linked with it that went beyond just the music (for a related post on you may want to check out this post on my other site).

Now back to our previously scheduled program

Looking at those Master Chef kids, it can be easy to get bitter about success because it’s easy to look at other people utilizing the advantages that they’ve been given and capitalizing on them.

The deeper lesson is that for those people who don’t fall into the “have more” category, you have to make your own opportunity.

I worked at an Ames department store in high school.  I knew I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life so I applied for music school.   It took a lot of sweat, blood and tears to get in (and get through it).

It would have been easier to have just stayed at the Ames store and keep working and earning a small but consistent paycheck, but instead having no opportunity at the time, I made my own.

The first observation I’d make about opportunity is that most people have to make their own opportunities, but the second part is that the work and effort you put into your opportunities will yield other opportunities.

I got the God of War gig because I went to music school, knew one of the composers and had the skill set (and the instruments) that he needed for the score.  There were a lot of missteps along the way to that.  There was no easy linear path or a plan to get there, there was just the work and the drive to get better at what I did.  This (unknowingly) became the preparation I’d need for that and many other experiences.

Since anything involving a list, typically drives more traffic here’s a brief synopsis of this post (with related material from other posts I’ve put up).

  • When you start off in anything, you make your own opportunities.
  • Many times, these opportunities will not meet your expectations, but that shouldn’t stop you. (Funny fact, MANY of the artists I know with impressive resumes spend years filtering out the points that look good on paper (like an exclusive gallery opening), but bombed as events (i.e. no one came, or it was poorly reviewed) with the events that were deemed “successful”.)  Yoki Matsuoka may be a MacArthur winner now, but when I met her we were both working at a small robotics firm in Cambridge, Mass, and I didn’t see that job listed in any of the press materials that she’s listed in).
  • In other words, stumbling and failure is a given on the road to other opportunities.  Don’t freak out about it.  Just do the best work that you can every single time and take stock of what worked and what didn’t.
  • Review, Revise and Repeat.  The key is to keep improving on what you do until you become the go-to person in whatever you do.
  • Always be on the look out and look for the deeper lesson.  If you see someone doing something successfully, bring it back to you.  Ask, “How could I use that to (insert whatever short or long term goal you’re trying to achieve here.)?”
  • Always be ready.  You never know when the next opportunity is going to present itself to you, so you should always be at the top of your game so that when the opportunity arises you can take advantage of it.

There’s a great story behind the Emmylou Harris/Spyboy recording and tour.  She wanted to use drummer Brian Blade for the session but Brian wasn’t available, so Brian recommended his brother Brady.  They gave Brady the call and he hadn’t played in a while, so he was out of practice.  He ended up pulling it out and did some amazing playing on the cd and tour.  This is excerpted from his Wikipedia entry,

Early 1995 saw Emmylou Harris persuade Brady to return to his kit as part of her touring band Spyboy, along with Daniel Lanois and Darryl Johnson. The following year they were joined by Buddy Millerand toured throughout the mid-nineties, culminating in a live album Spyboy, released in 1998.Touring the world with Emmylou Harris led Brady to encounter and be seen by some of the key figures in the American music scene which resulted in Brady becoming one of the most in-demand session drummers around. Brady took part in extensive tours and sessions with the Steve Earle during his El Corazón period; Jewel throughout her 1998 Spirit world tour; and the Indigo Girls on their 1999 album Come on Now Social, 2002’s Become You, 2004’s All That We Let In, and 2011’s Beauty Queen Sister.”

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Brady Blade is the exception to the rule.  Most other people would have gotten the call and if they weren’t ready, the call would just go to the next person on the list.  Don’t be the person who misses the call because they dropped the ball.

  • Finally, you’re never 100% ready so jump in and make the most of what you got.  The final thing about opportunities is that when they are presented, they often seem to be something that’s over your head.  Within reason, don’t be afraid to step up.  If you don’t read music and don’t play classical guitar style, and you get a call to play Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” with a full orchestra tomorrow because the guitarist dropped out, that might not work out for you but if you get a call to play classical style for an art opening it might be worth your time to pull some material together.

Everyone starts from humble beginnings, and some of us return often and have to build up from square 1 or 2.  Trust me, it gets easier the more you do it.  The main thing is to keep plugging away in the meantime and doing the best you can do in the meantime.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

The Greener Grass Or Some MisAdventures In Self-Publishing

Welcome to the Book Bizness

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As an author, I had two bizarre Amazon related experiences last week.

First, I saw this:

Guitar Book Used Price

Click to see at full size

Which was odd, because 1.  The cover art still isn’t updated on Amazon and 2.  The new book is $31.50 on Amazon – so I have no idea why it’s someone would list it at that price. (It’s not going to sell at that price but even if it did I, unfortunately, wouldn’t see any money from that sale.)

Second, I got a list of book sales from Lulu.

Lulu is a POD (Print-on Demand Service) that prints physical books and distributes physical and digital versions of the books.  The main reason to use Lulu is that they have a distribution deal with Amazon – which is the largest book distributor on the planet.

One line on the spreadsheet caught my eye in particular:

Format Channel Quantity Earnings Author Name
Paperback Amazon 1 $0.3 Scott Collins

Yep.  My “profit” on one of my books turned out to be $.30.

How does this happen?

Well…in short –  it happens when you make a deal and parameters change that you couldn’t anticipate or

Sometimes you can make the best laid plans and not have things turn out the way you expected them to be. 

Guit-A-Grip is going to be undergoing a major transformation, refocus and relaunch as we go into 2014.  This article will hopefully be a part of that process but in the meantime – how I got to the point of only getting a $.30 return on a book from Amazon is a longer examination in motivation and execution and whether examined from a business perspective, an entrepreneurial lesson or a how-to/how not to instructional – I hope that you’ll find it very much grounded in The Why.

The most bizarre path to writing a book I can imagine.

Okay.  Here’s how this starts.

It’s 2005.  I’m in Boston.  I’m playing in several bands.  I’m not making any money.  In fact, I’m outlaying money for rehearsal spaces and rehearsing and recording for several projects that are not going to see the light of day.  My previous assessment around 2000-2001 of the live scene imploding is proving to be accurate.  The traditional model of revenue from clubs, bars etc. is dead – and I realize that it’s going to be another few years before everyone understands what the odor is, and that I need to be ahead of the curve.

So, I come up with a plan.  The only lucrative area of my musical endeavors at that time was coming from teaching.  It was something that I was fairly good at and something that I enjoyed doing.  I quickly came to the conclusion that if I was teaching in an academic environment

  • I could make a reasonable living
  • I would have access to things that would help me make music
  • I would theoretically have a supportive environment to create that music in

So I had to go to grad school. This plan, however, had a huge problem.  From an academic standpoint, my undergraduate education had been a dismal failure.  I’ve detailed this in substantive depth in podcast #2 and podcast #7 so I’m not going to go into it here.  But needless to say, I grew a lot as a player after my undergrad experience and the concept of going to grad school (and not making the same mistakes I made in my undergrad) was appealing to me.

So I did three things.

1.  I researched grad school programs that I was interested in.  I found two – The Third Stream studies at New England Conservatory and The Multi-Focus Guitar program at California Institute of The Arts.  CalArts was appealing to me because I was familiar with the Krushevo cd and really dug Miroslav Tadic’s playing.  Also, I had read a number of quotes from him in Guitar Player and I sensed a kindred spirit in some ways.  After meeting him at the CalArts campus, I knew that that was where I needed to go.

2.  I pulled together a 2-song demo with the strongest playing I could pull off.  I also sent a copy of the Tubtime CD (which in all honesty probably sealed the deal more than the 2-song recording because when I met Miroslav again it seemed like he really dug Tubtime).

3.  I pulled out an ace in the hole.  I had been working on researching 12-tone patterns to add some additional dimension to my playing and I had done about two years of research mapping out every possible 12-tone pattern based on symmetrical divisions of the octave.

Previously, I had written a 300 page book (The title:

The Guitar Pattern Technique Reference Book

A systematic positional mapping out of the guitar fretboard for technical and compositional resources

Volume I: One Note Per String Patterns

rolled right off the tongue)

that was literally a series of photocopies that I took a sharpie marker to marking out all possible positional fingering patterns with 1 note-per-string on the low E string.

It  took about a year and a half to do (in the middle of the worst living situation I was ever involved in) and had 1 breakdown and 2 major revisions.  I had it bound at KinKos with a vellum cover and sent it out with a cover letter to some publishers (and Brian Buckethead Carroll if I recall) to see if there was any interest and (not surprisingly) there were no bites.

As a commercial release – it was a huge failure and the loss of 18 months or so.

As a book – it was my first success.

I don’t view it as a success because it was well written (it wasn’t) or because it was well executed (it wasn’t in particular) it was a success because it was a book that I conceptualized and executed.  I had to learn how to lay out pages, how to write (in the sense of explaining my ideas), how to edit and how to budget.

This was 1994.  I think each book cost me $25 or $30 to print.  I remember spending close to $300 getting them out into the world.  I still have 2 copies.   I’m leafing through one of them right now and it makes me wince and smile at the same time.

Basically, I spent $300 to put myself on an internship for how to produce a book.  And I learned a good lesson on how not to release a book.

It was a damn cheap education and it became the foundation for the aforementioned ace in the hole.  While I knew that my undergrad education wasn’t going to win me any points with an admissions committee, I also knew I could take the research I did and pull it into a book.  I knew I could avoid some of the mistakes I made with my previous book and make it a much tighter thesis.

I realized that if I could throw down, essentially a graduate level thesis paper (a typical graduation requirement of a grad level program) as part of my ADMISSIONS APPLICATION – it would be difficult to ignore my application and no one would have any question of my ability to handle the intellectual rigor of graduate school.

So I went to work.

Mind you, I was working a day gig, playing in two bands, teaching and trying to move from Boston to California at the same time.  It was nuts.  But I got it done and a key factor in that was Lulu and the POD model.

Print On Demand

It turns out that technologically, a lot had happened between 1994 and 2004.  Doing what I wanted to do in 1994 would have required going to something called a vanity press.  A vanity press is (soon to be was) a place where authors would pay a publishing company to press a run of books (usually 500 or a thousand) and then would have to sell the books to try to make back money.

For the musicians out there reading this, it was essentially pay-to-play for book releases.  Authors would end up giving most of the copies away in the hopes of getting reviewed or selling them to friends or family.  A slim majority would break even and an even slimmer margin made any money on it.

The print on demand model changed that model.  Once printing became something that could be automated and scaled on a small level, authors could have people order books  and have them printed and shipped as the orders came in.  There was no need to maintain an inventory.  The cost of becoming an independent author with a self published book went from thousands of dollars to nearly nothing.

So I went with Lulu for the book.  I used other books as a model for layout and the initial 12-tone release looked a thousand times better than my first effort.  Lulu sent a copy, and I put the copy in with the application materials.  Eyebrows were raised and I got a scholarship and went to CalArts.

A funny thing happened in the meantime.  It turns out that there was a Quartz error in the PDF conversion for the document and that meant the physical book I held in my hand (for reasons no one has ever been able to explain to me), interchanged every sharp and every flat.

In other words. 200 + pages of the book were wrong.

So I re-did the book. (This was the first time but I’ll talk about the 2nd time later and put it up on Lulu for sale.  I was making about $10 a book.  Mind you that initial book, Symmetrical  12-Tone Patterns For Improvisation, was the answer to a question that no one was asking.  I think it sold 10 copies or so.

As a revenue source, a complete utter failure.

As a device to get into grad school – it was a wild success.

Also, it brought my game up to another level.  I got deeper into book design and my writing was stronger than my previous book.

School Daze

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

  1. It turns out that while I didn’t make the same mistakes I made in undergrad (I had really good grades for a change in grad school), I did make all new mistakes.  My biggest mistake was that I was so focused on getting the skill set I thought I needed for teaching, that I focused on all the things I couldn’t do rather than improve the things I could do.  So instead of putting a good foot forward and then making that an awesome foot, I put a bad foot forward and had a mediocre foot to show for it when I was done.  I might be unnecessarily harsh on myself here.  I had some great experiences while I was there – but I was so focused on my post college plans that I didn’t get the things I needed out of that experience until I was out the door.  What kind of a moron has access to a Vinny Golia and doesn’t study with him because he’s working on his fingerpicking?  Right here (Thank GOD that I had the opportunity to play with Vinny on multiple occasions afterwards and get my ass handed to me in the best lessons imaginable later).
  2. Another funny thing happened – this time in 2006 when I got out of school.  The market crashed and it seemed like every teaching job in the world went underground for a while.
  3. Still holding onto the teaching idea, it became REALLY obvious that no one was going to take me seriously unless I had a PhD (or to a much lesser degree a DMA).  I just got done with a 2-year grad school stint, I wasn’t ready for a 10 years of a doctoral program to get an ethnomusicology doctorate.
  4. However, while at CalArts, I started teaching a lot of lessons and it turned out that I DID have a unique way of presenting things and looking at the guitar.  I started writing my guitar opus and created the 2,000 page monstrosity that got re-edited and written into 5 books and counting.

The trouble with tribbles

So, with one book under my arm – I started releasing other books.

Here’s what I did right:

(note: some of this was by design but a lot of it was by dumb luck)

  • I cultivated an audience.

I was developing a lot of content on the guitarchitecture.org website and writing for Guitar-Muse.com and other blogs.  I had some good web traffic and people who were digging my approach.  On the minus side, this was incredibly time consuming and didn’t generate any income.  When I say incredibly time consuming, a sample blog lesson entry might have taken 20-30 hours, for a free blog post.

  • I strengthened my writing.

Again, I wasn’t making money from the posts I was doing, but my writing was getting much more focused and I got really good at generating ideas quickly and editing graphics quickly.  Both really useful skills later.

  • I had a unique promotional angle

So, one idea I came up with, that turned out to be a really good one was that I did pre-release sales of the book.  Basically the pitch was, I’m releasing this book.  If you buy it now, you’re getting a rough version at a much cheaper rate than the final book, but I’ll send you a free update (or updates as the case would be).

A couple of interesting things happened from this approach.

1.  People felt like they were getting a good deal.

2.  People felt like they were helping support me.

3.  I got to edit the book over a longer period of time that wouldn’t have ben afforded by a one time deadline – thus making the final product that much stronger. (this philosophy was employed later.  I had stopped printing the 12-tone book because I felt that my writing and relationship had completely evolved since the first edition – so I re-wrote it and released it as a new book in 2013.  I’d still argue that it might be the best thing I’ve written thus far).

4.  I was getting a mailing list that I could contact with every subsequent release.

Point #4 turned out to be invaluable as the other books were released. The percentage of people that I contacted on the mailing list that bought multiple books was about 95%.

  • Give people value.

That was something I was really adamant about in making the books.  I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were ripped off.  When I saw print editions that were 30-40 pages and sold for $30 and it got under my skin a bit.  So I decided to release 300 page books for that price and still do better financially than I would do in a traditional publishing deal.  (Here’s a telling story – I had a guy complain that $10 for a PDF was too high.  I recommended that he buy the $5 light edition I had on fiverr at the time and see if that was a good deal.  He liked it.  He then bought one book at the $10 rate and subsequently bought ALL of the books I had as pdfs 2 days later.  He never complained about the price after that because the content was there.)

In a related note, once I had final versions of the books, I offered bundle deals for the books.  Which turned out to be smart because people were hesitant to spend $15 a pdf but were psyched to spend $20 for 2, $30 for 3 or $40 for 4.  Regarding this issue of providing value with pricing here’s

A brief diversion with a music business book publishing lesson

The first thought I had when I did my books was to get them published.  I had a friend who was published on Mel Bay and he told me something that was confirmed by Mel Bay – namely, that if I sold my books on Mel Bay that my return would be about $1 per book.

Many musicians reading this post will likely look at those margins and think about CD (remember those?) profit margins many artists on major labels tried to FIGHT for.  And this is highlighted by this quote, “Well that might seem low – but they are ethical and they do pay.  I have several other books with other publishers that I’ve never seen a dime from.”

So this isn’t the Steven King model where someone throw a ridiculous amount of money out at you, it’s – you put a lot of work into a book and then get to call yourself a “published author”.

I figured I’d call myself a published author and make a better profit margin.

Full disclosure here:

On a $30 book.  My profit margin is probably $6-$8.  To get $10 or $20 a book, I’d have to sell it for closer to the $50 range, and while I might have been able to sell a few at that price point, I really wanted to make sure that the reader had value.

That’s the plus side of self publishing.  You get to make those calls.

On the minus side, it’s all on you.  That sounds like a plus, but it’s a double edged sword.  The writing is on you.  The editing is on you.  The layout is on you.  And you can ask for help, but you’re going to burn out friendships quickly.  Believe me on that one.

True independent self-publishing is not for everyone.  Now I’m not talking about going to bookbaby with 2-5k and having them release a book for you, I’m talking about taking it all on yourself and having to do everything on your own.  It gets easier and harder simultaneously and it’s not for the thin skinned.

Okay I talked about some things I did right – here’s a host of things I did wrong.

  • I took all opinions as equal.

I had some people complain about the 2-12 hours it sometimes took to process their paypal order.  By some I mean 3.  Typically I did it in the same hour, but in one case the order came in at 1 am and I was sick and passed on on cold medication and didn’t get to it until the following day.  In my memory there were 10-12 increasingly angry e-mails in my box when I woke up, but in reality it was probably 5.  Even with the note I put on the site about a 1 day turn around, some people wanted instantaneous turn around and that was when I went fully to Lulu.

  • I put all the orders on Lulu and Amazon.

Again, this had positives and negatives.  My reason for doing it was to give customers instant access to digital content, and I still think that was a good move.

The problem is, I don’t get a list from Lulu of WHO orders anything from them or from any of the distributors just when it was ordered and what the revenue was.  So the entire previous model I used of being able to contact a mailing list went out the window.

  • I spread out my message platforms.

I thought that being on Guitar-Muse and all of these other sites would drive traffic to my site.  Turns out that I was driving traffic to other sites.  Furthermore, by focusing content on Guitarchitecture, Guitagrip and Guitar-Muse, I was dividing my readership between multiple places, also bringing down my rankings for GuitArchitecture in Google.

  • I relied on forums for traffic

I was spending a lot of time at one point contributing content to various lists.  I never hawked my products but if I had a free lesson up on a site – I’d post it on a lesson page of a forum as an FYI. “Hey if anyone’s looking for help with sweep picking there’s a new post here type of thing.  That got me kicked off of the Guitar Player Forum (they still don’t understand what a forum is and that’s why there’s was still merde last time I went) and ultimately got my wrist slapped on several others.  I was also submitting to Guitar-Squid for a while and the weekly e-mail they sent was generating a lot of traffic.

The problem with that model is that people would go to the page, read one item and then immediately go back to whatever they were doing.  It wasn’t building any kind of loyal readership, it was just intaking people and sending them out just as quickly.

  • I assumed that content was what mattered academically.

My thinking in getting books done was that if I didn’t have a doctorate degree that being an author with a number of substantial reference books under my belt would provide some clout.  It turns out that many academic circles are firmly entrenched in peer review.  While there are a number of positives that occur (and the necessity for peer review particularly in science publications) the process can hold up publication for years – if not decades in some circumstances and many of those books are published by the academic equivalent of vanity presses.  Small runs of a 1,000 books or so written by academics for academics being sold at inflated prices to make back their investment.

That IS changing and the stigma around self publishing is changing, but there are still a lot of places that look down their nose at people who work outside the traditional system.  So, whether that is a mistaken perception in the long run remains to be seen.

  • I didn’t understand the downside to being sold on Amazon.

I say this as someone who is a faithful Amazon purchaser, there is a dark side of publishing on working with Amazon.

First, here’s what happens with a book on Lulu.

Let’s say I decide to sell a paperback book.  Lulu says, “Here’s what we charge to make a book, how much money do you want to make?” then the calculate a price based on that.

Here’s a Price Breakdown when you go offsite

An accounting miracle happens when you want to sell on platforms OTHER than LULU.  When you get to the review process, you see two profit margins.  It looks like this:

Revenue Model
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So that $6.75 you were making per book – just went to $2.30 a book if it’s sold elsewhere because some money has go to whoever is selling it.  My initial thought was, “geesh – that percentage seems really high – but it’s still $1.30 more than I’m making on Mel Bay and the important thing is that people are reading the book.  If they like it, perhaps they’ll get more or tell other people.”

Then the squeeze comes in.

You see, Amazon decided that they wanted to be able to sell the books at the lowest possible price.  So they set a 10% discount on the books from Lulu on their site.  They can impose that on Lulu because they’re so huge.  That’s why my $35 book sells for $31.50 on Amazon.

Guess who eats part of that 10% discount?

You got it.

And that’s how $6.75 goes to $2.30 -> $.30 in one fell swoop.

So why sell on Amazon then?

Because they’re the largest seller on the planet.  They can sell my books in Canada, The UK, Italy, France, Japan or anywhere else in the world that they have a portal.

When Hootie and the Blowfish signed with a major label, they had a dilemma,  which was that as an independent act – they were making something like $5 a CD profit selling them at shows and would only make $1 a cd on a major label.  They took a shot and realized that if they were selling MILLIONS of cds that they’s ultimately make a lot more money even at only $1 a cd.

So, that $.30 was extreme.  In general my books on Amazon make between $1-$2.  So it’s not great money, but it’s something and it’s convenient for people who don’t want to buy pdfs.

Why not sell Kindle versions?

Largely, because the books are heavily graphics driven and would have to be completely reformatted for Kindle.  I don’t know that I’d ever make the money back on them.   Also, I’m happy I have those books out, but I don’t want to keep working on the same material endlessly.  It’s time to move on.

If you make more money from PDFS- why sell physical books then?

I like books.

My mom taught me to read and a read my first book at 2.   I like physical books, and there’s an entire generation of people who like physical books.

Having said that, I like ebooks and REALLY like the kindle app on my phone, but, especially when playing guitar, there’s something about having something tactile…about having a physical object on a music stand or a desk that allows people to interact with the material in a different way.  (Some people will doubt this but did you know that it’s been proven that it takes longer to read an e-book than a physical version of the same material?    Researchers have no idea as of this writing why that occurs, only that it does.)

It’s about depth of experience.  It’s why I don’t tweet, even though from a business standpoint, it’s idiotic for me not to tweet.  I don’t use Twitter because it’s part of the ADD mindset that that our technology encourages and that our society cultivates.

It’s why I write 4,000 word articles instead of just posting a video.  It’s not about the 10,000 that will read a sentence and click to the next thing.  It’s about the 100 people who read through the material and really get something from it.

I write books because I think the material is important and I think it will help people either because the material itself (or the process behind that material) helped me.

I release the material in forms I think people will respond to.

I do it in a way to make money –  to keep going  – to help people and thus – help myself.

So you have a reason why (a higher why? a higher calling?) and you adapt.  You learn from your mistakes, try to anticipate things that won’t work out the way you like they will (like getting a $.30 royalty) and try not to make them the next time.

(In a related note – this website is adapting…but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another day. But I’ll talk about that more as we get closer).

In the meantime, as always I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading.

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Don’t Let Time Become An Excuse For Not Starting Something

Hi everybody!

I just wanted to add a post to go with the new series I’m running on my podcast. (if you like this post you might want to check it out if you haven’t already!)

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Time and Fear

It can be scary to start a new project, take on a new initiative or choose a new direction. One fear-based response I hear from people consistently for why they don’t want to take on something new is some variation of this:

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“Well…what if I put all of this time and energy into it and it doesn’t go anywhere?”

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The Tough Love Part Of The Post

Here is the reality check for this line of thinking:

Your time has no fixed economic value before you start something.

Let me clarify this.  If you’re currently making six figures a year in your day job, you are sorely mistaken (or outright delusional) if you’re taking on something new at the ground level and assuming that your time in your new venture will initially have the same value as what you’re currently making.

If you open a hot dog stand and sell five hot dogs in your first hour, SOME portion of that wage (and given the cost of supplies will be a negative figure in this case) will be your new (hopefully temporary) hourly wage.

While it doesn’t mean that’s what you’re worth –  it does mean that’s what you’re making at this moment.  Five years from now your artisan dogs might support a dozen stands selling hundreds an hour and bringing in real money – but at this moment – in the simplest equation – your business is valued at the dollar value generated when expenses are subtracted from assets and revenue.

Later on, once your project has inertia, your time will have a definitive value and there will be numerous things fighting for your time.  But initially, it’s like going to court in that just as you don’t get compensated for your time to appear in court – you don’t get back the time or energy in a project that went bust.  It’s gone.  Eat the loss and let it go.

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Sometimes you take a step back to move forward.

When I realized that my fretting hand technique was holding back my playing I had to re-learn about 1/2 of what I “knew” how to play.

It was a drag, and initially it felt like a huge waste of time taking a step that far back and I resisted it for a year because I didn’t want to wast my time taking a step back when there was already a lot I could do on guitar.

But what I could already do wasn’t getting me any further ahead in the long run.  The process of revamping my technique made me re-evaluate my relationship to the instrument and to music as a whole.  I began to hear my playing differently and began to hear other people’s playing differently.  Ultimately it got me the fluidity and clarity that I admired in so many other players playing that I was always wondering why it was missing from mine.

I sometimes wonder if people get frustrated when they talk about whatever they saw on the internet or TV (i.e. “if your time is so valuable how exactly are you spending it now?”) and then go on to ask the initial question:

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“Well…what if I put all of this time and energy into it and it doesn’t go anywhere?”

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Here’s the answer:

The good news is that if the project is a bust (and if you haven’t invested EVERYTHING into it) you can quit and take what you’ve learned from this venture to move on to the next one.

I copped this from Seth Godin who once said that quitting is undervalued and that the problem with quitting is that most people quit something when it’s too late.  The time to quit is in the early stages BEFORE you take the second mortgage, empty the bank account and realize that if this doesn’t work out that you and your family need to move back in with your folks.

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And now the caveat!

If this website has a one word core idea, it’s balance“.

Before I played guitar, I started off as a drummer in junior high school.  If I didn’t quit drums in my first year and later switched to guitar I never would have stayed in music because by the time I had enough time in on drums in high school I wouldn’t have had the energy or interest to transition to learning guitar.

If I quit my pursuit to revamp my technique too early, I never would have made the progress in my playing that I did.

The balance is the hardest thing because the onus of understanding and maintaining that balance falls on you, the individual.

Balance will play a huge role in the posts and podcasts ahead!

Starting any new project will take inertia to keep it going.  Once you get the project going you’ll have plenty of opportunities to evaluate your use of time and address it’s value in a real way, but don’t let that short circuit your plans for starting something.

More content coming soon.  As always, thanks for reading!

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It’s Not All Gold

As a professional – one important lesson to start internalizing is the need to balance being passionate about what you do and maintaining an emotional distance from it at the same time.

Hostile Terrain

Most of you have never heard of my first self published book, an unabashed DIY effort called Hostile Terrain.  It featured poetry, some plays, essays and other works.  Truth be told, about 30% still holds up as writing that I’d be willing to show to other people.

Hostile Terrain came out of a process of years of journaling.  I wrote everything down as an outlet.   I was depressed and desperate and it took a long time to realize that journaling just fed right into that.

I didn’t realize at the time that writing wasn’t getting bad things out of my system, but instead, it was just making me sicker.  I was breathing in the same stagnant air and thinking that I found something invigorating and relavatory because I was equating output with discovery.

In the next stage of this process, I was living with a person in a completely isolated situation and had hit emotional rock bottom because I had to confront things that intellect alone couldn’t solve and that I simply didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with.

In the middle of this terrible living situation, a freak accident happened where the room I was living in flooded.  I lost 10 years of writing and journals.

I was devastated.  It was thousands of hours of work down the drain (or so I thought).

So being emotionally crushed, I went back to what I knew.  I went back to writing and eventually I wrote some more and then put out Hostile Terrain. I sent it out to friends and to a few publishing houses I was into, and while I got a few “attaboys” I got no interest from anyone for anything resembling publishing.

Bedtime Stories For Mutant Children

In the meantime, I decided to move away from poetry and into short stories.  I was really influenced by Tomas Bernhardt’s The Voice Imitator and decided to write a series of short stories that focused on dark stories for adults told in a children’s storybook style.  This was about 1996 or so. The Tim Burton book, The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy, came out mid project and even though I was jealous he beat me to the punch – my stories were much darker and I thought I might be able to get some publishing interest for a character I developed while on a grim tour of Germany (Kommandant Kumar) and for the overall book concept, Bedtime Stories For Mutant Children.

I had all the stories online so I could get feedback from my friends.  I didn’t have a computer at the time so I was working on my friend’s work computer.  I did this off and on for about a year.

Then something happened.

Within a 24-hour period the web server went out of business AND the hard drive that I had all of the files on seized.

I lost 30 short stories. Gone. Casper.

I hit my frustration limit and I stopped writing.  I abandoned the screenplay I wrote. I stopped all of the other writing I was doing and I worked on other things.

Eventually, I started seeing things differently, and I came to a realization.

It’s Not All Gold

  • There is no scarcity of ideas.

  • Not every idea has value

  • Important ideas will return

  • Sometimes it’s the process and not the product

There is no scarcity of ideas.

This was the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome in my own thinking and it’s one I still wrestle with.

There’s a fine line between being attached to an idea and being chained to it.

The difference is whether the idea you’re working with serves your larger goals, or if it’s only serving its own completion.

You don’t have to hold onto every idea like it’s a precious nugget.  There are more of them out there.

Not every idea has value equal to the amount of work needed to put it into action.

Again, it’s easy to get emotionally attached to the work put into an idea and equate work with value but that’s not always a direct relationship.  If you ever watch an episode of Shark Tank, you’ll likely see businesses where people have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into a product that has generated no revenue after several years in place.  This is what I’m talking about.

Cultivating the mindset to distance yourself emotionally from what you’re doing is a difficult process to develop and maintain but it’s an extremely valuable one.

Important ideas will return

I like documenting things because sometime I find things worth exploring but, in retrospect, every really good idea I couldn’t remember came back to me or presented itself in a different form.

Sometimes it’s the process and not the product

For me, this is the most important lesson in this piece.

Earlier, in regards to losing all of my writing, I said that:

“It was thousands of hours of work down the drain (or so I thought).”

That work wasn’t down the drain at all.  The work I put into that sharpened my writing and really honed my ability to focus.

That emphasis made huge differences in my practicing and ultimately affected other areas of my life in a much more positive way than the actual writing ever did.

When I work on projects now, I assess the value of the outcome and the value of the experience and if either one makes sense for me to do, then I’ll take it on.

Don’t get hung up on old ideas at the expense of new ones.  Implement, assess and then continue or abandon as need be.

I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading!

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Keeping Your Ego Out Of The Song’s Way

Hey everyone.

A quick update before the post.  Just as an FYI – the podcast isn’t dead but with a number of recent time crunches and an unstable recording environment for a while recording opportunities have been non-existant.  There will definitely be more (less apologetic)  posts in the future.

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Meantime back at the ranch –  I just got home from some shows in the UK and Germany and doing any type of touring always makes me a little introspective and makes me think back to this post that was originally posted on guitArchitecture.  It’s interesting playing shows with someone like Glenn Branca because you’re surrendering to the composer’s vision and doing your best to execute it.  It’s a mind set “classical” players live in constantly but it can be a strange one for an improvising artist.

Letting the song sing

One of my more esoteric laptop guitar gigs with Mark Trayle and Ulrich Krieger is up on SoundCloud.

My rig is essentially the same as before:

Guitar (8 string Omen) –> Duet Break out box–>Duet–>Laptop (w. usb Line 6 shortboard)–>AU LAB (w. SooperLooper and PODFarm)–>18 Watt atomic amp.  My favorite tech comment came from Mark, “Wow I just realized that your entire rig is on the lectern.  That’s pretty cool…”

Gigs like this are a little strange for me as multi-layered looping, manipulating and mixing typically involves a lot more editing than actual playing, but a big part of a situation like this involves keeping your ego out of the music’s way and making sure that you serve the song.

The Obligatory Experiential Example

Once I saw a gig at the House of Blues with Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg and Apartment Q258.  I was really excited to see the show and the first set was a  cool improv.  I was blown away at the hairpin turns that Hellborg and Q258 were taking, but at the 40 minute point or so – it looked like it was going to wrap up, and I guess Shawn hadn’t played enough – because he pulled out a 15-20 minute guitar solo.  While I love Shawn’s playing, I was looking at my watch by the six minute point.  It was so over the top that I left before the set was done.  It was just too much, had nothing to do with the spirit of the piece and just had too much to do with him showing us how well he could play.

About a year later I saw one of the strangest lineups I could remember:  Buckethead (with bass, drums and DJ) and Lane/Hellborg/Q258 opening for The Jazz Mandolin Project.  Initially, my thought was, “oh no not this again” but this time Lane was playing tunes.  The group played 3-4 tunes with open sections.  Everyone was playing in service to the song and there aren’t three people on the planet that could have played that set that night better than they did.  Jazz mandolin project got crushed but to be fair, I felt bad for any band that had to go on after Buckethead and Lane that night.

Which kind of musician are you?

Essentially there are two types of musicians that I’ve met in my travels:

  • there are people who play instruments to play music
  • and then there are those who play music to play their instruments.

As a related example, please allow me to explain…

Why Some Academic Jazz bugs me…

When I went to Berklee, there was an overarching theme that ran through many of the jazz recitals I saw:

  • Get through the head as quickly as possible
  • breathe a sigh of relief that that’s done because now the “real” music can happen (solos)

If you hate the head so much, why even play it?  Why not eliminate the song form entirely?

It’s because people are taught that the real music comes from their melodic/harmonic voice rather than emphasizing that it’s their voice in service to a context, be that a song form, a dialog with other players, or a specific audience/performance situation.

It’s a big part of why I never played jazz.  When studying it, I quickly realized that I just didn’t dig a lot of the real book tunes.  What I dug were specific players and those players always play the song and not the instrument – be it Ornette, or Monk or Bill Frisell.   It’s the combination of the players and the material that got to me.  I’m much more open about jazz now but that concept of the tune as a necessary evil is abhorrent to me.

For the players out there, on gigs like the one I posted, there are plenty of moments where I have to resist the urge to overplay and what follows are several techniques I use in that service, but for non players I use some of these approaches  in conversation as well.

1.  Pause and take a breath.  After that breath, do I still need to play/say what I want to play/say?  If the urgency is still there – then I play it.  90% of the time it probably isn’t.

2.  Play only when I exhale.  Sometimes I’ll talk or sing while I’m playing as well.  Sometimes that has nothing to do with the notes coming out of my guitar – but it’s about an interactive conversation.  And I want to make sure that everyone else speaks as well.

3.  Overplay and then regret it later.

Here’s another way to think about it.  You can work out consistently and build up huge muscles but you only need the muscles of a baby to pet a cat and if you handle a cat with the same force that you lift weights, you’ll probably kill it.

Just because you can play a million notes doesn’t mean that a million notes are going to work in every situation, but if you have the ability to play a million notes in your pocket you can pull it out when you need to.

In other words, your strength may not help you in petting a cat – but it may be the thing that keeps you alive when a book case falls on you.  Context may not everything but it’s a whole lot of something to consider.

Playing with good people is 1/2 the battle

Fortunately, Mark and Ulrich are such incredible musicians that it set the tone for the performance.  I knew that whatever they did would be great and that all I had to do was help mark the path and stay out-of-the-way when necessary.  I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to play with people like Vinny Golia who are at such a stunning level that it’s going to bring me up a little just by sheer gravitational talent pull (and more likely to get my performance up by kicking my ass into gear to get with the program.)

The laptop/looping things I do are really different from many of the other contexts I play in but I enjoy them immensely and hopefully other people will as well.  Here’s hoping we see some official collins/krieger/trayle recordings in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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ps – If you like this post, you may like the kindle ebooks I have for sale on Amazon.