What An Art Degree Taught Me (Besides Art)

I was asked last week by my friend Alex Milak and the great guys at DecisionDesk to write a short blog post on what it means to graduate with a degree in the arts, and how that's helped me in the art world and beyond. I'd highly recommend checking out the resulting blog post because there's lots of quality advice on there if you're thinking of pursuing an arts degree or interested in what it would be like to have a life in the arts. While the blog published a shortened version of what I submitted (thank goodness, because I can be way too long-winded), I figured I should go ahead and share the full version here.

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When you're in high school, the next big step that consumes your mind and your wildest dreams (or nightmares) is college. When you're in college, life is awesome because, hey, college. However, at some point, maybe in your junior or senior (or super senior) year, you start realizing that you're one step away from the real world. You're going to need to graduate with something to show for what you've done the last four (or five) years. With a medical or law degree, you can show that you're ready for the next round of school. With a business degree, you can get internships to show that your skills can apply in the real world. With an arts degree…wait, just what can an arts degree get you in the real world? 

I hate to break it to you, but when you graduate into the real world with an arts degree you're basically back at square one. You're back in the same talent pool you would be in if you decided to go pro straight out of high school. They don't tell you this when you apply or go through an arts program. When you apply to an arts program that involves an audition, chances are that 90% of the decision on whether or not you are accepted relies on the strength of that audition, grades and extracurriculars be damned. When you apply for a performance job in the real world, that reliance on performance in an audition is going to be more like 99% in most cases*. No one's going to care that you aced three semesters of music history and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Juilliard if you don't fit the part they're looking for. 

No matter what your art, just know that it's a ruthless, over-saturated, highly competitive pool of some of the world's top talent you'll be graduating into. However, at some point during my four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate studies, I stumbled upon some incredibly important nuggets of knowledge that have helped me begin to navigate this crazy, unforgiving place we call the “real world." Having the opportunity to learn and apply these skills in a learning environment made going to school more than worth it, believe me. 

Let me back up a bit. You know how I said that 90% of your acceptance decision relies on your audition? That's only part true (it's actually 89.78%). That situation only applies if you don't know any of the faculty judging your application, and more importantly, if they don't already know you. As I'm sure you are well aware, a visit to the colleges you're applying to is incredibly important. It gives you a chance to meet the faculty and get a feel for how the school is going to “fit.” If it turns out that you're a nice person with potential and you can show that to the faculty, your chances of admission are going to AT LEAST double, if not triple. 

When you get out into the real world, this principle applies even more. If you go into a blind audition, you really have to dazzle to get the job. If you know the folks sitting at the judges table well enough, there's a chance you won't even have to audition to get the job. Here's some more statistics for you that I learned upon arriving in LA after graduation: it's 50% what you know and 50% who you know. In some fields (like composing) I've been quoted that it's more like 10% what you know and 90% who you know

Long story short: people skills, especially in the arts, are of the utmost importance. You can sit around in a practice room all day and play the most amazing etudes anyone has ever heard. But if you don't get out there and perform with people, if you don't have the experience of meeting and working with people and don't know what it means to be professional, then you're in for a rude awakening. This may be the single most important set of skills you learn while in college and it applies not just in the arts, but literally everywhere. It helps define who you are to the rest of the world. And there is no better place to develop these skills than while at school. 

One of the biggest benefits of going to an arts college is that you already have a built-in network of alumni right after graduating. Chances are, they'll be more than willing to help you get a start professionally, or at least willing to share good, pertinent advice. This alone may be the single best reason to get an arts degree. Without it, you would indeed be back at square one. With it, you'll already have a foot in the door with alumni. 

One final note about learning to work with people: please be nice. Sometimes being nice means the difference between getting a job and not getting it. Someone who plays like John Coltrane but is an asshole will (and should) be passed up for someone who plays half as well but is twice as nice. No one wants to work with assholes. Learn your social cues, brush up on your etiquette and be respectful of others. Trust me, it goes a long way. 

So, knowing people helps you get jobs. But what about once you know so many people you have more jobs than you know what to do with? 

It's rare to find an artist that has only one “iron in the fire”, as they say. If you graduate and stumble upon a job in the arts that pays well, has reasonable hours AND is artistically fulfilling then lucky you. It's rare to find a single job that fits all those requirements (but not unheard of). The majority of graduating artists, at least at first, are going to be juggling any number of jobs and wearing any number of hats. Time is definitely of the essence. 

If arts programs teach you anything, it's time management. You need to make time to practice. You need to make time to go to class. You need to coordinate schedules for rehearsals. You need to make time to study and do your homework. And you need to fit it all around Saturdays, which are entirely reserved for drinking beer and watching football. 

You may think I'm kidding about that last part, but I'm not. In college I learned what happens when you don't make time to take care of yourself, or when you demand too much of yourself, and it was one of the most important lessons I learned. There's a real possibility of overworking, burning out, getting sick and sacrificing your relationships. You'll have to learn this no matter what career path you choose, but it's tricky with an arts degree because it's harder to make the distinction between your art and your work. Practicing and performing our art is a pleasure and is fulfilling–it's why we do what we do. But what do you when you've maxed out? We all reach that point where we have to stop, but then what do we do? We drink beer and watch football. Or we go on a hike. Or we go skiing. Or we work out. Or whatever. If you don't, you can burn out and your productivity will drop dramatically. This serves neither you, nor your art, nor your professors or employers. The real world isn't as forgiving as college, so take the time to push your limits and get to know your boundaries. Learn how to make the best use of your time so you can get more done while still having time for you. Ask your professors how they do it–chances are, they're pros at that kind of thing. 

As I'm sure you've heard, pursuing a degree in the arts is certainly not for everyone. To be honest, it's a tough world waiting out there–for everybody, not just artists. Things aren't like what they were ten or fifteen years ago. Jobs are harder to come by and when opportunities arise they aren't as good as they used to be. Arts institutions are strapped for cash and folding right and left. 

But if you've made the decision to pursue a degree in the arts, you already know the reasons why you're doing it, regardless of how bleak things may be. You simply have to. It's the most rewarding job in the world, and there's nothing better than learning how to be better at what we love doing most. You'll notice I haven't mentioned much about actual ART skills and how they've helped me. That's because it's a given–if you've decided to get an arts degree you already have the drive to be as great of an artist as you can be. I've simply wanted to highlight the skills that may fall through the cracks, stuff that you won't get in the practice room or in classes, but that will help make your dream of living your art a reality. 

Art. People skills. Time management. Knowing your limits. There you have it. Good luck. 

*These statistics and the ones that follow are completely made up and vary from situation to situation, but are definitely ballpark. I'm an artist after all, not a statistician.

Monetizing Information - The New Content Economy

As one of those so-called "content creator"-type persons in the world today I've often struggled to come to terms with how content is treated in the digital age. I've studied and practiced for years to create content that can (and I oftentimes believe should) just be given away. There's this internal conflict constantly going on between the part of me that's worked hard for years to create this valuable content and the part of me that says, "¡Viva la revolución! Make it all free!" 

So I was really excited to see this video of a presentation on 'Monetizing Information' given recently by my friend Eric Neuman in New York. I've been friends with Neuman since college and besides being a brilliant programmer and entrepreneur (he's co-founder and CTO of DecisionDesk) he's an extremely insightful visual artist and theorist. He's one of those rare individuals that can analyze a problem from almost every angle, break it down into its raw parts and come up with radical, yet practical solutions--something he not only does every day in his work with DecisionDesk but also in the realms of artificial intelligence and, in this case, the future of the economy and its impacts on society. 

Anyone who's ever graduated from college with a major in the arts, academia, economics, engineering--or really anyone who's ever thought about what the economy will look like in 10 years and how they can fit into it--has something to gain by checking out these ideas. Instead of taking a side in that struggle between trying to sell content and giving it away, he explains how to think outside of those terms to find new (and very old!) ways to both make money on information and give it away for free simultaneously. 

For convenience, a slightly abridged transcript of the main presentation is included below with some italics included to highlight main points. The video also includes an animated Q&A session after the presentation that raises some interesting points, especially about 3D printing. 

Without further ado, enter Eric Neuman:

Monetizing Information

Most of the content that we're talking about is digital content which, at its root, is actually information.

So, you can't legislate away file sharing. It's too big. There's too many people doing it and there's no way to enforce it. And you can't lock out file sharing either through things like DRM because that really alters the ability of people to use the content they've purchased in the way that they want to. DRM prevents you from moving your mp3s from your phone to your car or doing anything you actually want to do with it after you've paid for it. 

These two things [legislation and DRM] don't really fit. They're based on the old model of monetizing information and they don't really fit.

So why don't they fit? They don't fit because our economy that we are used to is based on supply and demand, which in turn is based on scarcity. Scarcity is the idea that there is only so much of any given thing--there's only so much supply for any given demand. That drives prices up or down, respectively. This doesn't apply to information. If I make a copy of an mp3 I have no way of reducing the functionally of that mp3. It's still just as good. Whereas if I steal your car, it's not as good--you don't have that car anymore. So what we're talking about here is a fundamentally different kind of economy that we need.

The time between when you release something to the internet and when it can be shared with everyone is so short, that you can really only sell a piece of information once. One time to one user. Anytime after that, they can release it to everybody. And if they can't do it, it's a pretty good assumption that somebody will.

So how did we get ourselves into this situation? To tell you the truth, it's kind of a modern thing. Some people say this situation has only existed this way for maybe a hundred years, some say maybe more. But really what we're talking about is that at some point in time, we took the ethereal concept of information and we as a society figured out how to make it physical. We figured out how to take stories and spoken word and put them into books. How to take images and put them into photos. How to take sound and put them into recordings. But before that, for essentially all of time, these physical manifestations of information didn't exist. So information is once again--now that we have the internet--removed from its physical shackles. It is once again free to be ethereal. 

So I told you a lot about what information is not. It's not scarce. It's not physical. So what is it? Before we can really talk about that we need a sort of metaphor in order to discuss it. Because of the ethereal nature of information it can be difficult to talk about it without one. I like to think about information as a gas. it's not a perfect metaphor, but it's pretty good. 

So let's think about the internet as one big giant room with everyone in the world standing in it. Then let's say this (*claps hands together to signify some of the gas in the room*) represents some piece of content, some piece of information. It could be an mp3, a video game, whatever it is. So if I want to share this with somebody and I give it to someone, it's out there. Everyone can get it. Everyone has access to that information--that "gas". There's no way for me to get it back. There's no way for me to tell you, "Don't share this with anyone else in the room." It'd be ridiculous to try to stop the gas from flowing throughout the room.

So how can we possibly make money on something so ethereal? Well, if we look to history we can actually find some answers. Like I said, you can only sell a piece of information once. But that isn't to say you can't sell it to a lot of people all at once. And that is an experience: a concert, a show, a baseball game, anything you can go to. Statistics over the last few years have shown people are more than willing to pay for experience, much more than they are willing to pay for albums or movies or anything like that. Because sharing and acquiring these kinds of information is so easy and the ability to consume this information at home is so easy, the experience is being elevated into this new alternate thing. People want to be there when that information is released. They want to be able to say, "I was there." And in some cases (*points to audience member with a camera*), they actually want to be the person doing the recording and streaming. They want to be able to say, "Not only was I there, but you can experience this second-hand through me." They are re-bottling this information, this "gas," and redistributing it out through the internet. 

So another way is one of my favorites. This is actually how I make my money. If you want to make money on information, you can do so not just by selling the experience of it, but you can do so by being paid to create information for somebody else. Selling information is very difficult, as I said, but there are tons of people that are paid to create information. You don't buy a graphic design--you pay a graphic designer to create a design for you. You don't buy a piece of code--you pay a software engineer to build the code that you need. And this is the direction where we're headed. If you want to make money on information, don't sell it--sell the service of creating it. That's where the money is. 

When I talk about this stuff, almost invariably what people bring up to me is that this is all well and good, but what about art? What about real art? Graphic design may be beautiful, but it's not someone's true artistic expression. How can we possibly hope to have artists in a world where you can't sell art? And for that I again have to look back to history. In history there is a thing called "patronage", which is an idea that monarchs or other rich type people would bestow upon the poor starving artists oodles and oodles of money to create some piece of content, some piece of art, to be given to the world. Nobody was buying Mozart's pieces, they were being commissioned through patronage by monarchs and then given to the public for free. If we look at the modern world, we have some analogues of that. We don't have monarchs that are investing in rock musicians or anything like that, but we have the next best thing: corporations. One of my favorite examples of this is a band called Pomplamoose. Pomplamoose got famous on YouTube by giving away their content. They made really cool music and really cool music videos and just gave it away--anyone who wants to see it can see it for free on YouTube. They then got famous, garnered themselves an audience, and were approached by Nissan to make a car commercial. Now Nissan is like a monarch in this situation and they bestowed upon Pomplamoose oodles and oodles of money to create a piece of content that was then given, for free, to the world. Monarchs wanted to have content created to show off how great they were, and that's what corporations want, too. There's also Kickstarter, but that's kind of a different story for a different talk.

We've learned about how to sell the service of creating, but what about the people who are buying--the people who need that software, the people that need that graphic design? Well software is also essentially information--it can be shared, leaked and spread around the internet just like an mp3. And it's very important in some situations that it is not. If the "secret sauce," the code that makes Facebook 'Facebook' got leaked, any one of their competitors would be able to replicate what they do. Maybe a better example would be Google--if Google's search algorithm got leaked anyone would be able to rip it off. So it's very important that they keep it safe and bottled up. And they do. It's contained. Google has their algorithm but they never share it. It's connected to the internet, but it's not ON the internet. You can't go and download it. They would never sell a copy of their algorithm to one person and say, "Shh, don't share this with anyone else." That would be ludicrous! So by keeping your information contained, you can still have that information do work for you--provide a service--and make money on that service. And it doesn't have to be software. The information that you keep bottled up could be a particular workflow or some kind of interpersonal work or really any process or information that you use to provide a service.

Here's where it gets really interesting. A 3D printer is a device that prints out things. And this is why this subject I just talked about is so crucial to everyone, whether you're a content creator or not. Everyone is going to be effected by this. 3D printers are right around the corner--they're being used by hackers, makers, and small companies as we speak. 3D printers are going to make it so that everything that you buy--shoes, cars, refrigerators, every physical thing that you buy--is going to have all the same rules that I just laid out applied to it. So all the disruption we've seen in the last ten years in digital media is barreling down the pipe right now for the rest of our physical manufacturing industries. You won't be able to say, "Hey I'm NIke, I make these sneakers and I'm the only one that can do it," because if you sell one sneaker, someone can scan it and print out a copy. So Nike is going to have to change what they do--it's just fact. There isn't any real way to stop it and no reason it should be stopped. What we and big corporations need to do is what people and companies have always needed to do as economics and technology have changed the world: either change, or die. 

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Be sure to check out the video for the Q&A session that follows the main presentation!

 

This video was originally posted on Eric Neuman's blog, simple actually

 

More on Eric Neuman:

Art: www.theneuman.com 

Twitter: @eric_neuman

Email: eric.neuman@decisiondesk.com

 

Journey

In my quest to learn more about the video game composing world and how I could break into it, I attended the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco about a month ago. I was able to meet lots of people in the industry and learned lots about what makes composing for games a specialized field. 

During this conference one game in particular stood out to me: Journey, an art-game creation from Santa Monica-based thatgamecompany released on the Playstation Network last year. Within hours of learning of the game's existence I saw it win just about every award and accolade given out at the conference, especially when it came to the game's soundtrack (which I also learned was the first game soundtrack to be nominated for the Best Original Soundtrack Grammy--kudos to composer Austin Wintory!). 

A month later I finally got around to checking out the game and played through it last night. The game itself is about the length of a movie, but the completely wordless interactive experience itself affected me like only very few movies (or art of any type) ever has. Parts of the game had me comparing it to meditation, others reminded me of listening to a symphony, and the visuals brought back bits of memories and experiences I had long forgotten about. The fact that you're experiencing this journey with others (the game pairs you with strangers and you can help each other out in the game, all wordlessly) makes it even that much more profound. 

I read that the emotional arc of the game was structured around Joseph Campbell's notion of the 'Hero's Journey' by stripping the essence of this mythological framework to its minimal essentials and building the game around that. It's the same framework upon which George Lucas built the original Star Wars trilogy. Except this time, instead of Luke Skywalker, it's just you. And instead of saving the galaxy and becoming a Jedi, you're simply heading towards a mountain in the distance. 

This stripped-down representation of such a universally relatable story arc makes it profound on many levels (or absurd, depending on your view of things). I found myself strangely compelled by the philosophical undertones inherent when you use the journey as a metaphor for life. Why do you climb this mountain? What's at the top? I climb because it's there. I live because I was born. It doesn't matter what's at the top--what matters is how you get there. 

Today's world is obsessed with endings and getting there as fast as possible. People want results and they want them immediately. People want to get where they're going as quickly as possible. There's way more focus on the ends at the expense of the means. I'm just as bad as everyone else in this respect--it's hard not to be in today's society. This game, however, brought back the realization that it's not always about the ends and that the means can be its own reward. Next time I'm stuck in traffic instead of becoming frustrated I can use it as an excuse to really take a look outside at my surroundings--mountains, trees, cars, whatever. Or put on a CD and really enjoy the music. It makes me want to take a walk just to take a walk, not to go anywhere or think about anything in particular, but just to enjoy the act of walking. 

I think this kind of realization, this "stopping to smell the flowers" stuff is vital in today's world. When you enjoy the things you do your productivity goes up, your mood is better and you'll find that life is like an Apple product: it just works (until it doesn't, but then you'll be taken care of by geniuses at the bar). If you spend too much time focusing on results and destinations its easier to become frustrated, lose focus and sour your disposition. While I didn't necessarily look up primary sources to justify these claims, I know there are several studies out there backing up this kind of stuff. Or, instead of looking it up, just simply try it out. Maybe start by taking a couple hours and playing the game if you're able to. Let yourself get sucked into it. And then let that happen no matter what you're doing, whether it's writing an email, working on the next big project, or driving. You'll find it's not always about the destination, but about the journey itself. 

Music, Tech and the Future

Music, as a manmade phenomena, goes back at least thousands and thousands of years to when we've found artifacts of the first flutes and drums. Music has always been a community affair–something done in groups to help bring people together. Funny that now I've been working on music alone in my apartment the last few weeks. (NOTE: I'm a composer and musician myself, and it seems more and more the life of a composer looks more and more like the life of a hermit. But I also have this connection to the group aspect of music. I'm a drummer, and nothing gets me going more than playing drums with others. It's a blast.)

The last hundred years or so has changed almost everything about human society. Music could be recorded and enjoyed at any convenient time in any convenient location–not just the concert hall, the bar or the living room around the family piano. To hear great music you didn't have to be a great musician or have one in the family. This accessibility raised the overall level of “quality” and “musicianship” all over the civilized globe–students had access to better resources and tools and themselves became better musicians than those that came before. This cycle continues to this day where kids using a sequencer can make professional-quality sounds that would've taken weeks to create in a high-end studio twenty years ago. I mean, yeah, the sounds won't necessarily be as “warm” or “mature” sounding, but kids today (me included) are easily making lots of sounds that producers struggled to make (or didn't even dream of making) in the 80s and 90s.

As a product of this wave of technological accessibility, I am of course in favor of all these developments. It's a good thing that great music can be accessed so easily and so cheaply using services like Spotify, rdio, Pandora, iTunes (and BitTorrent). It's a great thing that people with no musical training or background can pick up iPads and start jamming together using scale-locked touchpad interfaces. It encourages people to learn and experiment with music, advancing sounds forward and making music a more easily enjoyable part of life. It's how I discovered the fun and joy that comes from listening to and creating music as I was growing up.

On the flip side, now that I'm joining this force of professional music-makers, I have my well-being to worry about. I want to make music for a living, but how can I make a living doing something I believe should be intrinsically free and open? Should I do gigs for free and sell advertising space to put in the lulls between songs? Should I preface each new track I make with announcements like, “this track was made using Spectrasonics software?”

This fairly new notion of “popular music” is going away. It was just a century-long fad, starting and ending with the rise and fall of radio and television. Everyone watched and listened to the same 3 or 4 channels and everyone knew who Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Madonna and N'Sync were and could sing their new hit songs (I loathed N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys growing up, but I can still bust out a rousing rendition of “I Want It That Way” on command.) In the last ten years, even die-hard music fans can't keep up with all the new cutting edge artists and genres offering their music for free online. Obscurity has become cool, popularity uncool (unless you're Justin Timberlake, of course. That man can do no wrong.) With so many new artists and genres arising, it's hard to attach yourself to any one band and still be up-to-date–and it's only going to get harder. Fair weather fans are the norm. Die-hard fans that know the word to every song--not just the hits--at a concert are becoming scarce for any band that became popular after 2003.

Where I think this is leading, then, is back to how music was before the rise of mass media--that is, little media. Local culture. Community entertainment. Local music scenes have always been a thriving thing, and they're not going away anytime soon. People want to see live music because it's awesome and pretty soon–once all the big stars from the 70s, 80s and 90s have died or retired and can't do big reunion tours–people will get fed up with paying $100 to Clear Channel or LiveNation or Ticketmaster to see a show by a band they only sort of know. There will of course continue to be divas and culture icons, but they won't be famous only for making music (as has always been the case). The music business as we know it–record companies and the like–is falling fast and hard, already shrinking into a shadow of what it was in the 90s. There's no way of saving this model of entertainment. It thrives on radio plays, music video countdowns and talk show appearances, all of which are becoming less and less relevant in today's world.

I believe that well-made, great-sounding music has a price and those that make it should be compensated for their efforts somehow. Maybe they should be funded by the government as cultural ambassadors like they do in Cuba, or by wealthy patrons and royalty as has been the model in the days of Mozart. Either way, it will be a rare thing indeed for anyone in music to make as much as The Rolling Stones has. There was never much money in music before the industrial revolution (Mozart didn't exactly leave much to his kids, did he?) and perhaps modern standards will go back to that. Kind of a bleak picture for me, trying to be a composer and all, but I'm a realist, too.

Music is a fun, necessary and essential part of human life and culture. As a people we're better for the open access to listening and making music as has never been available before. Yeah, it's true there's more shit out there than ever before as well, but it's the easiest thing in the world to turn it off and listen to something better. What does this mean for the music industry as we know it? Well, it certainly won't be “as we know it” for long. What does this mean for you and me? It means it's easier than ever to rediscover the joy in music, whether its listening to it alone, creating beats online with a friend, or getting together and jamming on iPads. It means music isn't so serious anymore. It's more fun. It's more personal and at the same time more community-driven. You don't have to be a prodigy to jam with friends. You don't have to study music theory for years to create a song that expresses what you feel and share it with the world (or at least those that spend all day scouring bandcamp.com and SoundCloud for new music). Music is its own reward, as it always has been. Enjoy it.