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I’ve devoted a notable amount of personal time to picking fights with insurance companies. Mostly because along with hospitals they treat the unemployed like animal poop stuck on the back of your heel.

One of my arguments years back was over a $2 fee Anthem decided to start charging for mailing me my premium statements.

Consider that for a moment. They wanted me to pay $2 a month so they could tell me how much money I owe them for the following month. This was on top of paying about $3600 a year for the privilege of paying the first $5000 of any yearly medical expenses. As the comedians say, you can’t make this stuff up.

On top of arbitrary, unjustified* rate increases made once or twice a year and other bull such as charging me an extra $60 a month because I spent maybe $40 A YEAR on a generic seasonal allergy inhaler they demanded I give them my bank account number so they could debit my account monthly for premium fees. In many cases that might be an easy, convenient thing to do…but they had to threaten the $2 fee if I simply wanted to continue receiving paper bills.

My neurosis said nope, that won’t do at all!

But as usual when dealing with an arrogant “non-profit” able to pay their CEOs millions while driving people into bankruptcy, BC said I wasn’t allowed to keep things the status quo. Give up my account number or start paying $24 a year to cover their (rough guestimating) $3-5.00 a year it might actually cost to mail me my bills normally.

I was a self-employed musician at the time and hate wasting money on things I don’t have to. So I refused to give up my account number for a few more months before leaving them for Blue Shield.

So it was a satisfying surprise to see paperwork for  a class action lawsuit show up in my mailbox last week. As quoted from this link:

“The Anthem Blue Cross settlement resolves a 2011 class action lawsuit (Andrea Kreuzhage et al. v. Blue Cross of California et al.) that challenged certain fees the insurer charged, including a $2 fee charged to those who opted to pay through paper bills rather than other forms of billing, such as automatic withdrawal. Plaintiffs claimed it was illegal for Anthem to charge and collect these $2 paper bill fees.

Anthem denies any wrongdoing but has agreed to establish a class action lawsuit settlement fund that will provide $4.2 million in refunds and another $20 million in savings to eligible policyholders.”

Gotta love that “Anthem denies any wrongdoing” line of bull. I don’t know how these people sleep at night believing such a fee is justified, but it’s satisfying to know a higher force with leverage could at least hold their face to the pile of poop and scold, “NO!”

But the victory rings hollow as I read David Lazarus’ article about another victim of the hospital system and it’s mysterious medical billing. There’s some serious Matrix-level deception coming undone here…

*Well, they always justified it by saying medical care costs simply went up without explaining what that meant…we’re too dumb to understand or something.

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I’m a virtually unknown musician, writer, sometimes even a filmmaker. If I had anything worthwhile to offer in how to network effectively wouldn’t my resume be far more accomplished? He’s won an Oscar, his talents are sought by Fortune 500 companies…when Keith offers advice in how to further your career you LISTEN!

Or I could approach it from a marketing angle, differentiate the credibility of my advice by saying it’s valuable not because of my accomplishments, but because I’m NOT on the A-list. There’s no comfort zone that allows me to wax poetic like Richard Branson, writing inspirational essays long on (inspiring) platitudes yet short on practical advice. Because I’ve been networking steadily for the past five years and seen the ups and downs of its’ benefits I can offer something practical about life in the Bay Area trenches—game and app development, in particular, along with some Bay Area filmmaker schmoozing.  As a creative artist trying to get someone to hire me I need to push myself a little bit harder. Computer programmers are always in demand at the events I go to because they’re in the minority, whereas creative types are usually given consideration—if any—somewhere near the end of the development process…or simply brushed aside in favor of canned sounds stolen from torrents.

Nope, I won’t claim any mastery of the networking arts because I feel like I’m still learning. On the other hand, I’ve gone from being virtually terrified of entering a crowd of a dozen people to comfortably walking into crowds of hundreds, striking up conversations and collecting business cards. I’ve wasted countless hours and also seen those labors pay off. I’m gonna share some experiences!

And I might sound a bit grouchy…

No business cards: Really??? You go to a mixer with hundreds of people and expect your charming personality will be enough that people will search you out on LinkedIn the next day? Fat chance, noob. Running out of cards early is forgivable; otherwise you’re wasting the time of people trying to build connections and need those cards to remember who you are, what you do and how to get in touch with you later—which might be to refer you to someone.

Idiot social skills: My God, I cringe at some of the stupid things I’ve said in social situations. But hey, I do my best to learn from mistakes and I find it forehead slapping when people say stuff like…

–Sorry, I don’t need your music services. My brother is a musician.

(This within the first minute of simply introducing myself.)

–I probably won’t remember you. I’ve met so many people today…

–“Steve.” The one word response when I introduced myself to a guy an event. The awkward pause was so…awkward…the guy refused to look at me or even offer a handshake. I could only continue walking.

I don’t kid myself about the nature demand for my work. Not many people at these events are actively seeking composers at the moment I meet them. Likewise, I’ve never had any use for the many monetization (companies who specialize in ads or money making ideas for your game) or localization (translating a game into different languages, culturally and literally) experts I’ve met at these functions. But you can be darn sure I’m taking their cards, looking up their websites and connecting online. If I meet someone looking to release his or her English game in Spain I’ve got a name I will happily recommend. Shouldn’t be too big a stretch for me to get the same courtesy. Right???

Or at least fake that courtesy. Because like a bad restaurant review I’ll go out of my way to tell more people you’re a jerk. Except for Steve because…I got nothing there!

Assholes who act like they’re too important to waste time on me because I’m just a sound guy: I guess there’s a level of subjectivity here. Maybe you ARE Steve Jobs and simply too busy to answer every email sent to you. Or perhaps it got lost in junk mail, you meant to write back but seriously—so many freakin’ things are happening you just don’t have time for me right now!!!

But should you blow off a contact completely? Here’s one scenario I’ve witness quite a few times. I meet someone running a startup, talk for a few minutes, get a business card. A week later I get around to checking out their webpage, maybe a preview of their app. It looks really cool, so I drop them a line repeating how it was cool meeting them and—by golly—their app looks really sweet! I tell them I’ve subscribed to their mailing list so I can keep updated on their company’s efforts…

And…no response. No thanks. Nothing.

Fine, I’m a big baby when I don’t get a thank you note. There’s something wrong with me! But you know what? There’s something wrong with YOU too if you got the message and chose to ignore it. It’s rude.

And I might talk smack about you later.

And I definitely won’t go out of my way to tell friends and new contacts about your game or app. Will it make a difference? Probably not…but don’t you want EVERYONE you can get in your corner when you’re starting out? I do.

Look at it another way. I had a gig at Ubisoft last year. I updated my LinkedIn page to reflect that was my current place of employment. Within a day I get a message of congrats from a guy I met at another GDC party almost a year earlier. We talked in a crowded room for ten minutes, connected online, forgot about each other. Suddenly he’s taking the time to wish me well. Now he’s got a stronger, more positive image in my mind. If I ever find an opportunity to recommend him for a job I won’t hesitate (assuming he’s qualified for it)…simply because he took a moment to be cool.

There you go, by little vent in cyberspace. Maybe I’ll inspire a few people to stop being Mouth Breathers.

Warning: Another very basic guitar lesson post–nothing fancy here! So if you’re all ready comfortable with playing in 3/4 time sorry I wasted your seconds clicking on this post. 🙂

But as I’ve introduced students to the concept of odd time signatures I’ve noticed their comprehension is blocked by a very straightforward roadblock…what’s the difference between odd time and common (4/4) time when the building blocks (quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) are the same? For example, if you’re simply playing a quarter note groove is it in 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 1,000,000/4 or what? The roadblock is something along the lines that odd time signatures should have, well, ODD rhythms!

And they can, but they don’t have to.

Check out the top example the PDF I put together. A repeating measure in 3/4 followed by the exact same quarter notes in 4/4. Close your eyes and you can’t tell which time is being played. It’s all about how you’re counting in your head. Are you counting “1-2-3, 1-2-3…” or “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…”? That’s it.

Now you’re disappointed. Odd time grooves sound so cool when Rush/Tool/Dream Theater use them. How come mine sound dumb? Because you’re just learning them, duh! Learn every easy rhythm your ears can find and suddenly those complex riffs aren’t so complex.

The second row on my PDF is basically the same riff twice except the second measure in 4/4 has an extra note the 3/4 measure doesn’t. Simple, eh? But now you’re starting to hear the difference.

The first measure of the third row was one of the first I learned where the concept of 3/4 first clicked for me, perhaps because it’s two dotted quarter notes that completely fill a 3/4 space. There’s a smoothness (in my opinion) that has a distinct 3/4 feel without feeling odd to play. The second measure of that row is the same thing with the added note on the fourth beat, a helpful way to compare the feels of similar riffs.

Tip of the iceberg with this stuff. There are so many resources to learn just about anything on this I wouldn’t know where to start. Oh, wait…this link has some cool tips on it.

Not to mention the odd time lessons and other cool chordal tips found my rhythm guitar poster.

Noticed a few pals on Facebook had changed their profiles to green squares. Why? I think it’s well explained in this Hollywood Reporter article. Basically, the company that did the visual effects for Life of Pi has filed for bankruptcy. Despite winning the Oscar for their work in Pi, the company has fallen apart and won’t get the well-deserved chance to parlay that success into future projects. The film’s director, Ang Lee, was quoted on the subject along the lines of wishing visual effects could be made cheaper, which set off much of the anger online from various VFX artists. Why can’t movie stars–basically glamorous puppets–be cheaper? What about directors…grossly overpaid and still having the balls to take possessory credit for a film they couldn’t possibly make by themselves? And little attention is given to studio executive salaries (which in many cases make actors look impoverished) because, well, the public doesn’t see them enough in front of the camera to care. It’s easy to see why the artists are pissed off, their amazing efforts being cheapened by Hollywood greed.

But I think this goes waaaaaay beyond what happened with these VFX folks. Artists in general have always been among the first to be screwed in all the entertainment industries–except for those actors with the best agents, I suppose. We musician folk have been struggling with crappy pay, royalties that pay higher for vocals than they do for instrumentals and producers looking for the cheapest possible music and sound for their projects…FREE if possible.

Screenwriters? Yeah, they’re paid fantastic money–if the script is actually bought. If the script is actually put into production. But that money still pales in comparison to what the glamorous puppets, the director and various executives get. Why?

Because there’s always another asshole willing to do it cheaper, if not for free.

I remember being at a GDC lecture a few years back and sure enough, another voice in the crowd tried to plead his case that doing work for free was a great way to build experience, connections and credibility. Sure, if you’re doing an indie project where everyone is involved from the ground floor and sharing the success equally. But that’s the exception more than the rule. The majority of projects involve someone paying to get their goods produced. As long as someone is willing to do it for half of minimum wage or less, those producers will always have the upper hand and arts as an industry, whether it’s music, vfx or whatever, will continue to evolve backwards into a sort of hobbyist profession.

I have no idea how to solve the problem. I’m back in school studying Business Marketing in hopes of getting a little more business sense into my game. But I don’t think that’s going to allow me to charge more for my creative services when I’m finished. Right now it seems more like backup skills in the job market as I wrestle with the growing truth that even if I score the ultimate, high paying audio or writing gig it doesn’t mean anything for the long term. There’s always going to be someone else in the wings hoping to cut me out of the loop, offering the same thing for cheaper.

Solve that problem and we might get closer to that respect instead of further away from it.

Bracing for the latest kick to the chops by Blue Shield, as my rates are set to increase by another $30 bucks a month starting in March. That will bring my monthly premium to around $260 a month, which I know to many is a drop in the bucket compared to many who see their rates jump hundreds a month. Not to mention this is still cheaper than I would be paying had I stayed with the criminals at Anthem Blue Cross, which I’m guessing would have been in the neighborhood of $400+ a month…with a $5000 deductible–a curious figure when you read the fine print and discover that there’s A LOT of flexibility as to what charges go towards the deductible. Found that out when I got my kidney stone from hell a few years back…$2500 deductible and I still owed over $4000 because when it comes to ER visits they only pay a percentage of this and that. The deductible…that only applies to other medical visits hazily defined.

So I’m watching The Daily Show this morning and the guest is this guy named Steven Brill. He just wrote this killer piece for Time Magazine where he gets into an area of this debate rarely covered; WHY are medical bills so expensive??? He was angry that the health care debate a few years back was mainly focused on how to pay for it without tackling that former question. And why is it so confusing trying to understand why you’re being charged.

I remember reading the five or so bills I got for my kidney stone…one was for $63, another for $400, another for $3200. I look at the back pages and find confusing medical code, look back at the front again and see the bigger number I was “supposed” to be charged, along with some sort of bull discount followed by another adjustment required by Blue Shield. It’s a wildly complex display of smoke & mirrors that I’m just expected to pay without question

Just this one quote (I’m sort of paraphrasing) on The Daily Show got me fired up: “The ambulance industry takes in more money than Hollywood.” A quick ambulance visit of four miles can easily reach $1000. Bizarre that this isn’t questioned–or perhaps regulated.

I’ve read a good chunk of the Time article and it’s a quality read.

Dude…SERIOUS man crush on Victor Wooten! No…that didn’t come out right. SERIOUS love for his playing (though I’ve never met the man… 😉 ) He’s got this killer instructional video where he gets all serious about groove & stuff. There’s this one freakishly brilliant chapter where he talks about getting in tune with the groove that you’re locked in no matter when the beat starts, stops or slows down. Here’s the video.

Badass! Say it out loud–I did.

Lots of ya have drum loops via your drum machine, ProTools, Logic, Garageband. So you don’t need what I’m offering here. But I know lots of ya (including my students) who don’t use any of that stuff–it’s all about the practicing. So I made this simple mp3 to help practice Victor’s concept. The first minute is a four measure drum loop at 95 BPM. The second minute is the same loop except I removed every fourth measure. Next minute I removed the last two measures. Next minute, the last three measures. Then the final minute is simply the first beat of the first measure.

It’s up to you to find the grooves. You’ll notice some rhythms are pretty easy to keep your place in, while some really force you to concentrate. Then you get to Victor’s idea of improvising the embellishments to the groove and you’ve got your work cut out for you! But my opinion is to always work on the simplest stuff first, let natural boredom guide you to the more fancy riffs.

Extreme time mp3.

This is for the advanced beginner or intermediate players out there. So all you cats comfortable with diatonic harmony can spare me the rants about how easy this is. Besides, you sould be practicing right now!

I often get the student questions about how to play in a particular key or how to make your chord progressions more interesting. They know a bunch of bar chords, maybe even dabbled in the ones with the fancy names like 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. But bouncing around the shapes randomly doesn’t satisfy, so how do you lasso the chords into something decent? Tricky question to the less experienced, compounded by the experience level of the player and how much music theory they have under their belt. But to get the ball rolling I’m going to start with a straightforward outline that will get you making the music first. Then you can tackle other questions later with your teacher…or give ME a call if you’re in Marin County and could use a few more lessons. 😉

Let’s focus on the key of C Major. You’re pretty much restricting yourself to the following chords (for starters):

I = C major

ii = D minor

iii = E minor

IV = F major

V = G major

vi = A minor

vii = B diminished

That’s it. If you restrict yourself to playing just those chords anywhere on the neck you’ll be playing in the key of C and it will sound pretty smooth as you switch them around. Get to work, you’re done here.

Or perhaps you’ve come back wondering why things are better than you started, but not quite what you were hoping. Going from B diminished to F major doesn’t cut it for your ears or whatever. Over the years (or more likely the centuries) certain progressions in a key have become so popular to certain styles of music that they’re practically rules of engagement. Arguably the most popular progressions in a key are…

I-IV-V (C-F-G in the key of C). The vast majority of blues uses these changes, not to mention a significant chunk of most of styles of music.

ii-V-I (Dm-G-C in key of C). A HUGE part of jazz, though quite useful in other styles too.

What’s that…you haven’t dealt with Roman Numerals since the second grade??? Then welcome them back, as you’re going to find them useful in music theory. Ya see, it’s a pain in the butt to talk about chord changes with your band in terms of all the chord names. “We’re going C major, D major and G major in the verses, then we’re going to switch to B major, E major and F# major in the bridge.” The brain doesn’t like that, so we’ll typically say, “I-IV-V in C for the verses, then I-IV-V in B for the bridge.” Assuming you’re comfortable doing this in all keys, such a direction is pretty easy to absorb.

What’s that…you’re sick of playing just major and minor chords? Well hey, I never said you were restricted to them! I, IV and V are always major-TYPE chords, so you can start putting those major 7 and major 9 chords to use as substitutes. ii, iii and vi are reserved for minor-TYPE chords, which means minor 7ths and such will also give you the variety you seek.

The V chord is also cool because it’s often (ALWAYS to many players) reserved for dominant 7th chords and other chords in the dominant family. So you’ve got one more option to play with.

Oh, but there are some many other options, so many things to try, rules to break! All in due time. I gotta get some practice time in myself… 😉