Monthly Archives: March 2016

Gig Culture, Working and Not Working

My blog is unapologetically a couple of days late this week as I decided to take some time out over Easter to recharge my batteries, eat Darth Vader Easter eggs and play through the Portal series with my lovely wife. But, as ever, this rest cycle still had a couple of processes running in the background, and got me thinking about the nature of work, especially of freelancing vs. salaried employment, and the notion of it seemingly being a badge of honour to say how busy, tired and stressed you are in your job these days. And then, as in previous weeks, interesting articles caught my eye as if by magic.AIME

The first was this Facebook meme seen on AIME (an indigenous non-profit mentoring scheme in Australia)

Source

They have a point – we live in a culture where people are continually expected to do more for less. I don’t necessarily think that’s an entirely bad thing, I’m all for economical solutions to problems, and I pride myself on running music workshops using upcycled and discarded tech that’s been repurposed. But who benefits from a worker going above and beyond? Well, simply put, if you’re on a salary it’s your boss, and if you work for yourself, it’s you and your clients. But I promised I’d stay away from politics on this blog, and I’m on thin ice here so I’ll move on…

The second article I read was about the emergence of the ‘Gig Culture of Work’ – that is, rather than working a single job, you work on a range of jobs and projects simultaneously. The article in the Guardian is here.

I found this interesting for several reasons – firstly, because it’s what I’ve always done and now suddenly it’s seen as the future of employment – I always freak out a bit when I’m accidentally in fashion. But the main reason I found it interesting is because it’s what I’ve been teaching people to do in order to have a career in the music industry for some 15 years or more, and this advice comes directly from my sideways lunge into the arts. Cue sepia-toned flashback montage…

Tangentially, my degree is actually in model-making – doing things like special effects, architectural models and so on. Within a few weeks at college I’d realised I wasn’t very good at this career but I stuck at it nonetheless due to stubbornness and living with a bunch of excellent, supportive and hard-partying fellow students. At the time, back before computers started chipping away at the industry, modelmaking was a career where 80-90% of people worked self-employed and freelance, and to the credit of the college I was studying at, this was reflected in the lectures and lessons we were taught. So alongside how to use a lathe and a milling machine, we were taught business studies, finances, marketing, graphic design and promotion – and it is these skills that allowed me to sustain myself in the music industry later on in life.

This is why the Arts are so important in schools today – it doesn’t just teach people about their chosen subject, it gives them an adaptability which I think is becoming essential to surviving in the changing world we’re living in now. Be honest – did the career path you chose when you were 14 work out the way you intended it to? The agility you gain as a musician, actor, dancer or other creative practitioner in the arts comes from knowing that you are only as good as your last performance or commission, and only as strong as your portfolio. I think that’s an extremely healthy mindset to be in when it comes to work.

So, the biggest change I made recently was to quit the day-job to free up some time for new projects – but the thing is, I’ve not left yet, as I’ll be seeing out the academic year. And yet, all of a sudden, I’ve started to receive some excellent offers of work. I wondered why this might be, and then I realised – it was because I stopped telling people I was busy and started telling people I was available for work. So I’ve decided to stop myself from using the word busy as my default answer when people ask how I am. Busy is a barrier, it shuts down conversations and possibilities and options for exciting projects. Fortune favours the prepared, and a good band is always ready for a gig.

measuringThe other issue I face as a teacher and mentor is, in a nutshell, parents. They often (quite aggressively at times) want to know why their son or daughter should study music. Seemingly ‘because they love it’ is an inadequate answer, which is a whole other blog post… With a bit more questioning, it often becomes apparent that what the parents really want to know is ‘how much can my child expect to earn making music?’. I mean, everyone knows that the music industry is in decline, right? Well, yes and no – there are less new pop stars around these days and the old ones keep coming back, but that’s more to do with the sales of physical music falling (unless of course you’re talking about the unexpected and confounding vinyl resurgence).

But there’s more music and sound around than ever – all those new TV shows and channels need music and dialogue and sound effects, as do all the adverts in between, and the film industry isn’t doing so badly either. But the best example I think is the computer & video games industry which has gone from a bedroom business to a multi-billion dollar industry, and created a huge range of jobs, including many in music and sound, that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago, but which are still based on the skills of the industries that went before them. Much like modelmaking, the industry has changed radically but many of the core skills transfer directly onto the new ways of working.

At this point I could quote the UK Music report of 2015 stating that music contributed £4.1 billion to the economy, but instead I like to drop in this video below, based on research by Fisch, Macleod and Brenman; the point where it goes quiet is when it mentions that “The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004”. The music industry, for better or worse, is changing radically, and whether you think that’s a good thing or not depends entirely on your viewpoint. But music itself isn’t going away, and I don’t think it ever will.

Deaf dancers and vibrating faces

The interesting thing about doing a blog is that as I go about my working week, I’m now actively looking for ideas and projects to discuss. As a result, I’ve started to notice themes throughout the work I do that previously might have gone unnoticed, with these little ideas latching onto trains of thought and causing other cogs to start turning.

The first thing that caught my attention earlier in this week was this video:


It’s about a project sponsored by Smirnoff (and that’s a whole other blog post in itself…) working with a troupe of deaf dancers. It reminded me of a story I was told at art college about a profoundly deaf student who used to love going to illegal raves because it was the only place where the music was loud enough for him to feel the music, and therefore be able to dance. I was also told that he managed to rig a bouncy castle to a sound system for his 21st birthday party because he wanted everyone to experience music as he did, and as I suspect the dancers in the video do. In a world where music venues are facing a tough time at the hands of property developers and those in favour of noise abatement, it occurred to me that something important is lost when music is silenced.

For a while I’ve been concerned about using digital music in workshop environments; when you play a drum, you hit it and it not only makes a sound but it vibrates, giving you physical feedback that what you’ve heard is connected to what you did. This is true with most instruments, but as we move on to the piano or harpsichord, for example, there’s a level of abstraction – you press a key, the key causes a hammer to hit or pluck a string and then there is a sound. Electronic music further separates the action from the outcome, and I think this can result in a disconnect between the performer and the instrument. In a workshop environment for instance, it’s important that the person uses the SoundBeam is aware that they are creating the sound, and that is more difficult as the sound gets more layered and complex.

This has come up in conversation several times over the last couple of weeks – it was the subject of an excellent presentation at Music Education Expo by Animate Orchestra who combine music technology with conventional orchestral instruments who discussed how important musicality is with the use of technology, and how putting students in charge of their own volume levels is an important skill when working in an ensemble.

In a talk I did this week for Wilson Arts Group I discussed some of the work I’d done for temp0rary, specifically the Interactive Rave project we’d built for BoomTown festival in 2014. Because this featured lots of ways for the visitors to interact with the setup, I had made sure that feedback was provided through the lights above each of the sensors, which helped but wasn’t ideal. If people don’t feel like they are contributing to the sound – or can’t tell what effect their interaction is having within the group, they can disengage. Be honest, how many of this did this in school assemblies?

Then, in the sessions I worked on this week, I started to look for clues as to how to confront this issue of musical agency. In one of my sessions with adults with disabilities, I noticed a behaviour that was similar in several of those taking place – they would interact with a drum not by playing it, but by placing it against their hand, or their cheek or lips. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but the results are surprising – you can immediately feel the sound as well as hear it, and certain frequencies create a literal buzz from the skin of the drum. Singing into the skin of the drum created a dramatic effect, exciting two senses at once. This was a big hit in the sessions I tried it in, and definitely something I’ll be exploring in future.

This got me thinking a bit more – over the next few months as I reduce the amount of academic teaching I do, I’m hoping to leave some time for my own music projects and a bit of inventing – I’ve already had a tinker with some interface design for temp0rary performances and my ideal situation would be to have the resources to build instruments that are specific to each person’s own abilities within workshops, or create several adaptable instruments. I’m thinking that adding a bit of haptic feedback into the mix might be the key to creating digital devices that more closely replicate the feedback – and thrill – of hitting a drum really hard. It’ll be the next best thing to having a bouncy castle at every workshop.

Moving forward loudly

Another week, another fantastic lunge in the right direction… I’m trying to be as generous as possible with my time at the moment, saying yes to lots of projects and then trying to hammer everything into a calendar which is now starting to look like a particularly tense game of Battleships.

On Tuesday I met with some of the residents of Podsmead in Gloucester about getting a new music project off the ground. I’m new to the area, but it’s clear that it is similar to Cheltenham in that it has some affluent areas alongside some places of social hardship and economic disadvantage. The young people I met were full of energy, enthusiasm and great ideas, but it was apparent that they had all had a really challenging time at school, and that what they thought they were capable of had been defined more by what they couldn’t do than what they could achieve.

Working with the staff of the Podsmead Big Local project, we came up with a plan for a more urban version of an open mic night. What was great for me was that equipment and expertise which I was able to volunteer with little effort was a real catalyst for their plans – things such as providing a PA, mics, beats and backing tracks which are pretty straightforward for me give the young people in the group lots of inspiration and focus for their ideas. It was clear they want to dream big, but have had lots of setbacks in the past, so it will be really exciting if we manage to run this event successfully and use it as a focus for some more ambitious long term plans. I’m already thinking of ways we can make this bigger and better, and we have barely settled on a date for the first event!

Thursday I was asked to deliver a performance and presentation about my career in the music industry at Forest High School in Cinderford. For this one I rolled out the big guns – working with Tim, our apprentice for The Music Works, we set up a nice big PA, and I performed one of my temp0rary tracks with layered vocals, which to my delight, had the assembly hall up and dancing. I then talked about my history in the music industry embellished with some of the anecdotes more suitable for schoolchildren, before finishing with a demonstration of some of my music workshop equipment. The star of the show was definitely the Ototo board and the introduction of the Dubstep Bananas! The talk seemed to go down extremely well (I even got asked for an encore!) and hopefully will lead to setting up an after-schools club in the near future so that I can start teaching the more interested students how to make music and noise with computers.

In between the usual teaching sessions I’ve also been experimenting with some other new kit for workshops. My latest eBay victory was a pair of AudioCubes which I’ve just started to learn how to use. Initial research is extremely promising; I’ve long held the belief that visual feedback can be extremely helpful so the fact that these little boxes can be programmed to light up in response to proximity and gestures as well as output MIDI data could well see them being extremely useful in workshop situations. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long to find out, as this coming week I’m starting a new one-to-one session with a young person with cerebral palsy, and I think the AudioCubes will be the perfect way for him to interact with music making software. And then after that session I’m off for another show and tell session at the Wilson Gallery to demonstrate my equipment to the Wilson Art Group, and maybe see if we can set up another project or two whilst I’m there…

Opening night performance anxiety

I’ve said in the past to students that doing something once is easy, it’s doing it more than once and getting better each time that requires dedication. The same is true of blogging, and since the first post I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want – and don’t want – this blog to become. I’ve decided that rather than use it as a diary, I’ll just highlight the stand-out parts of my week, and try to keep it weekly in the hope I’ll fall into a groove where this feels like a normal part of my working week.

A lot of this has been brought on not just by my move into self employment but also by a convergence of two excellent training & continual personal development (CPD) sessions I’ve been undertaking. The most recent has been Inclusive Practitioner training with the excellent and knowledgeable Phil Mullen, organised by Bristol Plays Music. As well as being directly related to the music workshops I run, last month’s session was focusing on the value of reflecting on the work that we do as music leaders – stopping and thinking what worked, why things went well, why things didn’t go as planned and how we repeat successes and avoid pitfalls in the future. This blog is part of that process, but it got me thinking about the always-on world we live in where often the speed of response is more important than the response itself, how we may be losing the skills of thinking before we act in modern life, and how that might be contributing to some of the changes in society. Time to take the space to breathe and think more.

The other training I have completed recently is a pilot of an Action Learning group, organised by Create Gloucestershire. Action Learning is “an approach to solving real problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results. The learning that results helps improve the problem-solving process as well as the solutions the team develops.” (shamelessly cribbed from Wikipedia, because, for once it’s accurate). Our group of 8 assorted people who work in the arts sector got together in June and have met about once every 6 weeks for a day of Action Learning, and we had our last official session on Thursday.

I have to say that it has been a transformative experience in many ways. Although it was extremely difficult for us all to find 6 days we could commit to in the 9 months the sessions have been running, actually putting time aside to discuss each others’ problems has in itself been an extremely valuable thing to do. Not only have the sessions given me the chance to discuss what was going on in my work in a confidential and supportive manner, but they’ve allowed me to both help and support others, and given me a new set of skills to use personally and to share to help resolve problems. If this sounds a bit like therapy, in a way it is, but it’s extremely goal oriented, and has been incredibly helpful in giving me the clarity and positivity I needed to move forward with my career. If this sounds interesting, Create Gloucestershire are looking to get another Action Learning set off the ground and are offering a free taster session on March 24th – I wholeheartedly recommend it.

http://www.creategloucestershire.co.uk/news/2016/2/24/new-action-learning-set-and-taster-session-deadline-extended

Musically, this week featured a very exciting discovery for me – I found out where the secret Gamelan orchestra meet in Cheltenham, and confirmed that I will be running a project between April and July to work with them! In fact, not only did I get a chance to talk to the orchestra leader, Jonathan Roberts, but I was given a crash course in how to play Gamelan too, and it was an incredible experience.



IMG_0042IMG_0044 IMG_0045

In the next few Monday evenings, I will bgamelan-poster-A4_1e working with Jonathan and a group of young people to create an augmented Gamelan, combining the traditional musical instruments with some of my modern digital performance equipment that I have used in music workshops and installations in the past in order to create something that has never been heard before. And just to up the ante somewhat, we will be performing the work as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival in July – no pressure then…! I’m so excited to see where this project goes as this project is going to be a massive learning curve for me and a brilliant opportunity to combine old and new music forms. The project is organised by The Wilson Gallery, and we are looking for young people to get involved, so if you’re interested and between 15-25, drop them a line on learning@cheltenhamtrust.org.uk

 

To wrap up my weekend, I did a music (and noise) making session at Allsorts in Cam. I’ve been involved with their sessions for more than three years now, and they are always great fun, wonderfully creative and often chaotic – just how I like it! This week we ended up doing lots of experiments with microphone feedback and accidentally created a fantastic effect with pitch-shifted and distorted guitar, composed some fantastically atmospheric music and made some great recordings of our jam sessions.

The only downside to these sessions is that they are only an hour long, and many of the young people who attend clearly have an appetite to get involved with music making on a deeper level. Luckily I’ve got just the thing lined up – between 8th and 12th August, I’m running a summer school project called Mix & Mash as part of the Of Course We Can programme, which will be a whole week of music making for people with disabilities aged from 11-25, non-disabled children aged 11-17, some talented music makers, and me! We will be running the sessions out of the Friendship Cafe based in Chequer’s Bridge Community Centre in Gloucester – if you know anyone who might be interested, we are recruiting now – there is more information at www.plugplay.org

Until next week,

Lee, 6/3/16

First of the Month

Hello! Welcome! This is the blog of Lee Chaos. You might know me from various things in the past – being in bands, running a record label, teaching, DJing and promoting, sound engineering, running music workshops, tour management, radio broadcasting, political ranting and activism, or just as that guy with the funny haircut.

Recently I’ve taken the scary and exhilerating decision to terminate my permanent part-time teaching contract and plunge headlong into the world of freelance self employment. There were lots of reasons for doing this, but financial stability wan’t one of them, quite the opposite. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” – I think he might be on to something, and I think it’s time to wean myself of the latter. Reducing the carbs will have to wait…

Basically, my calendar had become full, but I didn’t feel like I was in control of how it was being filled. At the end of each day I was feeling tired but like I had more to give. I wanted the space to try new projects – exciting, risky things that might prove rewarding in ways other than financially, things that might fail but provide a new learning opportunity, projects that widened the scope of the people I worked and collaborated with.

I’m going to be using this blog to document the process – it’s mostly for my own benefit as I use it to reflect on the work that I do, keep a note of the sessions I’ve done and what worked, and plan & organise for the future.

I’m also making a concerted effort to keep this blog as positive and politically neutral as possible – anyone who knows me will also know that this isn’t how I am in real life, but just for once I’m going to be doing my utmost to keep those conversations away from this blog – that’s not to say I don’t care or that these discussions are unimportant, but I really want to focus on the positive changes I can make right now, personally and to the wider community.

Although I’m not leaving my current job until July, February was a pivotal month for me and has been  the very beginning of the process. By just opening myself up to the possibility that there may be other exciting projects just on the other side of the valley and taking a leap of faith, I have already met lots of new people who share my passion for inclusive music and arts activities. I have been taught to play the  Gamelan orchestra and the spoons (more in common than you might imagine..!), helped to establish a new Sound Technician Apprenticeship and arranged to teach some new whole class and individual music sessions. There’s so much going on that the trickiest thing is working out where I need to be and which cases of equipment I need to have with me.

So now begins the process of looking for work, bidding for projects, meeting like-minded people and working harder than ever before to make all this pay off. Come along for the ride, who knows what happens next?!

Lee, 1/3/16