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I posted this everywhere else, but forgot to share it on the blog!

Green post today. I know, it’s not music or movies, but I did this infographic project in Marin while interning for World Centric, a company in Petaluma, so I’m thinking that’s close enough.

Still doing the music, freelancing in game sound design, but I’ve also been pursuing the marketing and web classes because hey, I want to support the creative habit better! Got enough starving musicians working as baristas and salesmen.

Anyway, my former boss at World Centric gave me the chance to lead an infographic project. Reading all this stuff about the Pacific Garbage Patch and the evils of plastic got me depressed. Yeah, I’m not giving up all the benefits plastic has given me, but you start doing a little reading and the depth of the problem grabs you by the boo-boo. But rather than shrug and say “Oh well…” I thought about giving up plastic drinking straws. Yeah, yeah…the planet still has problems even if we eliminate straws, he who simply likes to argue for the sake of arguing.

But cutting back on single-use plastic straws is something anyone can do without the burden of, say, giving up their game consoles. Then I started playing with math based on our straw consumption and realized some CRAZY stuff, which is detailed in the infograph below.

Quick shout-out to Oni Cortez, the awesome designer who brought visuals to my words.

Original link to the infographic.

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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.

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You know what makes me nuts?* Coming up with awesome chord progressions and jam ideas for my students then forgetting all that info when I finally get some time for myself to compose. I’m spouting all sorts of wisdom about how you can combine this chord and that chord, apply a certain mode over it and whammo–something outside the box that sounds like it isn’t a mistake. The back of my mind is screaming REMEMBER THIS CONCEPT WHEN YOU’RE AT THE SCRATCH PAD! Then I’m in my Logic or Pro Tools arrangement window, staring at blank tracks. Bloody frustrating when it happens.

I finished a lesson with a student this morning and didn’t want to let the energy dissipate. We were talking about modes, the mixolydian in particular. We’d spent so many lessons going over I-IV-V in major that it was a breath of fresh air to show him how you could do I-IV-v in mixolydian and the accompanying modal scale would work beautifully over it. A cool way to put this stuff to use besides saying “Hey, we’re jamming a G7 chord–I’ll play G mixolydian!”

Probably getting over many of your heads with the theory…and this post probably won’t step into beginner waters, but I’ll take a few steps back. Hopefully you know what a harmonized chord scale is (it’s covered in my guitar poster if you’re in the market for some educational art). It’s the foundation of the majority of popular music. That is, most I-IV-V blues tunes, ii-V-I jazz turnarounds, stuff like that. A lot of theory books get into how–as one example–G Ionian is the same thing as A Dorian, which is the same as B Phrygian and so on. Totally legit, but my ears often have trouble hearing anything except the parent G Ionian/Major scale when I do it like that. So then my brain starts thinking what if I do, say, a Lydian progression…then I try to remember which Roman Numeral chord is major or minor based on the shift from the parent major scale…

And my brain shuts off, forcing my fingers to go ADD and play stock shred riffs I learned years back. Bad Keith.

The link below is simply a list of modes and their accompanying chord harmonies. Not much in the mood for getting into all the theory behind it (and this guy does a better job) because right now we just want to play first, ask questions later. So assuming you know how to harmonize a typical major or minor scale this chart will get you trying out chord progressions using the modes much faster.

In case it’s not obvious…your ears are the ultimate judge, not the theory. It’s OK if some of this stuff sounds bad to you, but if ALL of it does then I guess you’re only destined to be in a blues or country band.

Oooo…that was a cheap shot! 🙂

Keith’s Lesson: Modal Chord Scales

*Everything, really. After a past rant to my parents I said, “I’m going to make a great old man.” My Mom replied, “You’re all ready an old man!”

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My lovely fuzzball, Soozie, developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome last year. No more dry food, a lovely permanent stain on my luxurious month-old couch with the fancy microfibers. Where she used to get wet food on weekends as a special treat she now gets the gourmet stuff full time.

Needless to say her Diva tendencies have elevated to a whole new level. We’re talking 5:30-6:00am feedings…even more evil when I was working at Ubisoft under a contract that had me up at 6:45am so I could hit Marin County’s southbound 101 traffic to catch Golden Gate Ferry to the SF Ferry Building, walk half an hour to the vicinity of the Giants ballpark. You know how hard it is to get back to sleep once the cat has walked across your chest several times? And that’s her Plan B…Plan A is actually sitting on my wife’s chest and purring point blank into her face. Not because it gets my wife to feed her…because it gets ME to feed her!

I used to have a secret weapon in the form of her cat carrier. I knew I’d discovered a special kind of leverage when the metal squeak of the door latch would send Soozie bolting in another direction. I learned to keep the carrier underneath my nightstand, where all I had to do was squeak the hinges the moment she jumped on the bed, hiding in the shadows. SECRET WEAPON UNLEASHED!

P-CHOOOO…the cartoon sound of Da Sooze in desperate flight, giving me another hour of sleep. Kinda like a snooze alarm.

But the day that I feared came…The Fuzz would merely look at me from the safety of my wife’s torso as I reached over to squeeze the latch. No Dad, she was saying…I don’t think the Vet is open at 5:30 in the morning. But the kitchen is!

I’d like to think I’m feeding my cat the best canned food out there. And I ain’t talking Fancy Feast–though she knows what those words mean. Most of her cans actually contain identifiable food inside them. You see cheap crap like Friskies Tuna, Chicken & Greens flavor and inside is just a blend of mush. Good God, could you imagine if people were fed like that?* The Soozebot usually gets fed Tiki Cat and Weruva. The latter brand usually has human like food substance inside. There’s one flavor called Grandma’s Chicken Soup** that actually has shredded chicken, carrots and peas in it. I mean, what’s to stop me from eating it myself? They could put a label on it, pack it in Lunchables and what I don’t know wouldn’t hurt me.

Do you think Soozie would yell, “EWW–Gross!” if she realized Grandma’s Chicken Soup was actually human food?

The conspiracy…Grandma’s Chicken Soup is always a bit cheap as far as how full the can is. I’m talking the little 2.2oz cans. I get the Tiki Cat Chicken/Salmon one and that sucker’s packed with enough meat for two or three meals. Grandma’s leaves the cat wanting more. But who am I kidding…I could pop the lids off all 100 cans (Internet bulk buying!) and she’d still be stalking us in the pre-dawn hours.

*OK, debatable.

**My Grandma didn’t make me chicken soup, though she did offer to let me try her tripe soup once when I was 15. Smelled like Minestrone and I was hungry, so I went for it. You never forget your first experience with the gag reflex…

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You want to see Google crash your computer in flame wars? Type the above question into the search bar! Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I recall more than one snippy post by a player who lashed out because they felt someone’s comment about their guitar was actually a direct insult at his own. Good times.

I didn’t realize the depth of the Taylor vs. Martin debate until I spent a year working music store retail. Guys would come in dead set on one or the other either because one company’s marketing had a better hold on them or they played someone’s guitar that wasn’t set up properly or simply turned out to be a bad apple in the orchard. Because you know…if one apple is bad it must mean the entire orchard is contaminated!

I should probably disclose my affiliation up front…Ovation! Well, my $400 Celebrity Deluxe with the plastic back has been my only acoustic for 16 years. Ignorance is bliss! But then I’m working the store, having to demo all these guitars for first timers, exaggerate my limited knowledge to the high-end customers. Holy cow…is THIS what I’ve been missing in a solid body acoustic? Spruce, rosewood, cedar, mahogany??? I wouldn’t have appreciated it when I bought that Ovation…must have taken me 16 years to relieve my ignorance. I dialed myself into an amazing Taylor over this past summer.

Martin sucks.

Heh, heh…no, they don’t. That was just a lame grab for more blog comments. Once I got serious about wanting a solid body acoustic I spent all my lunch breaks and spare moments on the floor with every Martin and Taylor in the store, even if it was 15 seconds to listen to an E chord. Seriously, they’re all fantastic in some kind of way, but which way is *my* fantastic? Sound is somewhere near the tip of the iceberg…FEEL is the other major one. I had $3000-4000 Martin D-this and Taylor 800-that and even though they sounded great they were hard to play under my fingers. IMO, there needs to be an immediate feeling of effortlessness when you demo…assuming you’ve been practicing regularly.

The common assertion is that Martins sound more mellow and Taylors sound brighter. Maybe, but I found Martins that had some quality brightness. The other issue I noticed customers forgetting is the comparison of solid versus composite bodied guitars. For most manufacturers you’re not getting an acoustic with all real wood until you hit about $1500 bucks, give or take a few. Hit the $300 zone (again, a few exceptions here and there) and you’re getting an acoustic with a real wood top and composite everything else. That leads to the next test, fairly judging a guitar in your price range. I was pleasantly surprised many times at the sound quality of, say, a $600 Martin or Taylor. If you’re feeling like you need to spend at least $1500 to get quality, don’t! There are some amazing acoustics under $600…but not all of them! Use your ears. I used to compare the $100 acoustic Fender or Ibanez (GREAT deals for the entry level) to these higher end models. Such an exaggerated comparison is sort of like clearing the palette when you’re wine tasting.* It really helped me show customers what they were getting for their increased investment.

In terms of the companies, I found Taylor a lot more fun to work with. Granted, I was only in the store for a year, but we hosted Taylor Road Shows and Find Your Fit events where we could demo one-offs and unique guitars as well as get educated on the differences between the different lines (310 vs. 316…I never quite got a handle on all of it). Serious drool time. But I suppose that’s all second to the guitar you’re going home with. I could probably take this blog many more pages if I got into the other guitars with religious followers: Guild, Gibson, Takamine, etc. Some have also suggested skipping all these brand names entirely and going with an independent luthier, a compelling case if you’ve ever checked out the ones here in the North Bay or been to the Healdsburg Guitar Show.

It’s all marketing in the end. Get the one that sounds great and feels effortless in your hands.

*Can’t believe I just made a wine reference, living so close to Napa!

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Lots of emotional cliches in guitar playing, self esteem issues. Maybe it only happens to those who aspire to get better professionally, which might be a cliche in itself because what is professional? Getting paid, maybe–though there are plenty of people getting paid for what some would consider poor playing.

Speaking as a guitar player why do we compare ourselves to other guitarists? You put the best jazz guitarist in the same room with the best rock guitarist along with the best classical player (a debate in itself as to who’s the best) and none of them will come out the winner, as there are too many skills for one human to master–on top of evolving the art form. But still, I go through these phases where despite my steady efforts to improve musically I hear other players and say, “Damn, I’ll NEVER touch that!”

Then I get the occasional slap of realization that my head is in the wrong place.

Case in point. I’m working one of my jobs, a music store called Bananas At Large. My boss is this smoking country rock player. In my spare moments I’m demoing pedals, amps and guitars, often bummed that my fingers aren’t up to the task. Everything sounds to me–at best–like a derivative Satriani/Vai/Johnson/Clapton riff. Boss comes over to try out my guitar and everything sounds like freakin’ music instead of my noisy exercises. Cool, country shredding.

So I’m telling him I want to get a book on orchestration to help with my game/film scoring projects and how it’s tough to study that material when I also want to pick up some new guitar books. He busts out this offhand comment about how he wants to pick up some of these rock riffs I’ve been playing in the store. I’m shocked. Why would Boss want to study my dumb, cliched riffs?

Because they weren’t dumb or cliched to him??? Hmmm…

I reply that I need to learn his insane country riffs and he tells me something to the affect that he hasn’t come up with anything new in two years; he simply plays the same things over and over at his gigs. I seriously doubt it, but at that moment I got it…we’re both stuck in these plateaus, trying to figure out how we could take our playing to the next level–while dealing with the usual work and family obligations.

It’s that important. Creative types get it, ya know?

This incident reminded me of another one years back. I was in a rock band that rehearsed in the basement of this duplex. I’d hang out before or after practice in the upper apartment, where the drummer lived. One perfectly weathered summer afternoon I was chilling with the band in the living room, goofing off on a cool Rev. Gary Davis-inspired song that I’d picked up in a book. The drummer’s new roommate came in, this cat named Josh Zee. This dude was a badass player in our books. He was in a band called Protein that had been signed, put out a few albums, attracted crowds to their gigs. He might have even started up The Mother Truckers at that point. Anyway, he just comes into the kitchen to do something, spots me playing this riff.

“How are you doing that?” He asks.

I’m kinda distracted, talking to bandmates, watching TV. But I play it for him. He watches my fingers intently, then leaves the room and comes back with his guitar. “Let me see that again.”

I play it. He fiddles with it for a few minutes.

“Like this?” he asks. He nails down the riff that took me at least a week to get within five minutes. Sweet! This local hero I respected as a player was asking ME to show him a riff.

Again, I’m surprised. This guy has accomplished stuff! Toured! Been signed to labels. He has fans who follow his projects and here he is, asking this bald guy he barely knows, who’s band wasn’t going anywhere* to teach him something in a spare five minutes. It was cool and a bit humbling…

Because his attitude was in such a great place. He loved guitar so much that he didn’t care where new information came from. And that’s what I’ve always aspired to ever since–even though I still forget it occasionally. Every time I learn something new in music, a riff, some theory, it’s like the depleted batteries are suddenly recharged. It’s different from writing a cool piece of music you’re happy with…more like guns reloaded, ready to jump back into musical battle!

No…that analogy is too violent for music…but you get the point.

*Despite that, it was one of the best bands in my life!

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I see this question on composer forums regularly, whether it’s films or games. I feel like blogging about it. I’ve been doing music, sound editing and sound design on indie games and films for awhile now. Honestly haven’t scored any major A-list gigs, but I have scored a regular stream of paying gigs, so hey, maybe this will offer some humble, real world experience. And chances are I’m going to read this post down the road and slap myself on the forehead for posting such bad advice…but hey, there’s a learning opportunity in that as well!

First question…should you work for free? No.

But what about when you’re starting out–NO.

What about building connec–NO!

Do a google search on the subject and you’ll find plenty of arguments to the contrary. Prove yourself to someone who will hire you later, build your demo reel, etc. And I used to do free music for choreographers when I was performing in that scene, so I’ll lay out my hypocrisy up front. But here’s what it comes down to; If you think your audio work is good enough to get hired then you should be able to create some sort of demo reel yourself. Score game trailers, create a five minute wave file of your greatest hits, etc. If someone’s going to hire me I’d better have a comprehensive demo of what I’m capable of in the first place.

What about all the composers WAY more successful than me who suggest sucking it up and composing a minute of music for a director/developer to prove you’re a good fit for the project? That it’s a reality of the business? I don’t have a firm stance on this. Some days I think it’s bunk because those bankrolling a project (and I mean REALLY bankroll it) are going to vet you properly, not just rely on something you’ve composed on the fly for them. But other days I’m in the right mood that I can throw together a quick idea to prove my interest. I’m busy enough that I can usually say, “Sorry, I’m too busy with another project right now, but I’d be happy to discuss with you what sorts of themes or ideas I’d explore in collaboration with your vision–and check out my demos to get an idea of what I do.” I’ve also heard of composers building that demo into their fee for service, which I suppose helps if they like it and end up using it in the finished project. But if they don’t…yeah, it’s one more for the demo reel, but I’m working on my demo reel every day…it’s just a matter of whether or not I’m working on a gig or creating for myself.

I buy into the common belief that working for free cheapens our profession as a whole*, which has taken quite a beating due to file sharing and lack of any substantial union (why can’t we form our own DGA or SAG???) that has us regularly being underpaid, overworked and under general threat of replacement if we express even the slightest conflict with a request we suggest unfair. We bust our butts developing our craft, spend good money developing our studios. I would at least get a trade of services…that director better shoot my music video or something equal to my labor. Another exception I might ponder is if EVERYONE involved in the project is working for free for a cut of the success. Shared risk, shared reward.

What to charge when all this is finished? I’ve been told the current industry standard is $200-1200 per minute of music and $25 per sound effect (game projects), with that climbing even higher if you’ve got some reputation attached. I’ve negotiated deals in those parameters (the cheaper ones, that is), but it gets more complicated in the indie zone where I currently reside. Some of these guys have very tight budgets. I scared a filmmaker last year over this, which wasn’t too big a loss, as he was hoping for 45 minutes of orchestral music for his feature. As all you musician’s know, orchestrating your scores is a heck of a lot more than throwing down a chord progression over a drum beat! Even at the low end I would still be competitive with a barista’s salary, so losing that gig wasn’t such a big loss. Let the guy take advantage of some noob and deal with the risk of him walking on the project halfway through or improvising random sounds over the film and calling it a final draft–I’ve seen it.

But what about the developer who simply needs a quick loop of music for their iPhone game’s main menu? And they simply want a dance beat? I pull it together in a couple hours for fifty bucks. They know I’m not going to go diva on them and I get paid. Maybe I should have charged more–YES, I should have charged more. But with all my ramblings about rejecting free gigs I still want to build the resume like you. I can’t just reject everything until I find someone willing to pay me Danny Elfman’s salary…working my way up the ladder…which in this business feels more like Chutes and Ladders, but hey, I’m swimming.

What about working for a percentage of the profits? Only if the project is compelling and the person hiring you offers up a quality business plan. That’s my current opinion, anyway. I’ve met more than one developer promising a cut of their mobile game, which sounds like a knockoff of, say, Pac Man. Then again, Pac Man could be due for a resurgence, but I’d rather get paid up front and deal with the consequences of missing out on the game being a hit.

Anyway, I’m just spilling out thoughts based on my experience. All sorts of variables shaping these opinions. All sorts of variables shaping all of our opinions, really. 😉

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