J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: August 2010

On Video Games, Motivation, and The Psychedelic Realization

Is the cake a lie?

Jane McGonigal has some provocative ideas about the potential benefits of video games.  Her TED talk is a good introduction to her thinking, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Young people in countries with strong “gaming cultures” (think U.S. or South Korea) put some serious hours into gaming (especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) — hours roughly equivalent to total secondary school education.
  • The massive amount of time invested in virtual game worlds causes a permanent shift in psychological makeup, generally for the positive.
  • The qualities developed in these uber-gamers include a sense of “urgent optimism,” the ability to “weave a strong social fabric,” the enjoyment of “blissful productivity,” and the experience of “epic meaning” (she explains all of these terms in the TED talk linked above).  All in all video games create “super-empowered hopeful individuals” (at least in the context of their games worlds).
  • These positive qualities can be harnessed and used to solve real-world problems, via the use of “world-saving” games that promote social awareness and include real life actions (one example is a “peak oil” game designed by McGonigal that encourages players to make changes in their real lives that will reduce their real life oil consumption).

I found McGonigal’s talk to be thought-provoking and refreshing.  I think she may be on to something, but overall I find her views to be Panglossian.  McGonigal sees the millions of hours we collectively spend in game worlds as an escape from real-world problems and suffering.   She seems to overlook the possibility that video games themselves might be a causing real problems.

Gamers, hard at work solving the world's problems.

Well-designed video games can be so addictive that susceptible types (myself included) can be pulled in to a degree that will appear, to any dispassionate outside observer, to be excessive, destructive, and possibly demented.  More so than other forms of entertainment (novels, movies, magazines, etc.), it is easy to lose entire work-weeks to video gaming.

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Overcoming Our Cognitive Bias Towards Excessive Caution Using the 3rd Person View

Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.

In my last post, Strategies for Multi-Class Characters, I touched on the idea of how seeing ourselves as characters in a game can be a fun and useful exercise.  One reason I’m so enamored with mental exercises in which I see myself in the 3rd person (as a character in a game or a novel) is that it helps impart a certain lightness and clarity to decision making.  When we’re in first-person view, sitting behind our own eyes so to speak, we feel the potential consequences of our actions quite heavily.  It’s hard to take big, disruptive actions, even if we know those actions will vastly improve our lives.

On the other hand, if we momentarily look at our own life as a story, or fantasy game, or even a dream instance, we can suddenly see our possible future paths with much more clarity; it becomes easier to take positive action in our real lives.  You wouldn’t think twice about sending your adventurer off to fight dragons or explore underwater caves or walk through a time travel portal, but in real life it’s sometimes hard to do something as straightforward as learning a new skill or going on a trip or starting a creative project.

Think about how easily we come up with action plans for acquaintances we know only superficially.  Within a few days of meeting someone it might be obvious to us what they need to do in order to drastically improve their lives.  So-and-so needs to drop that loser boyfriend and go back to school.  That guy over there?  He should quit drinking, move to Jamaica, and marry that woman he fell in love with last summer.  It’s all so clear.  But in our own lives, or even in the lives of those people we love and feel very close to (and are thus invested in) the decisions feel murkier, the right paths and best options less obvious.

Hmm ... could be a good opportunity but it might cost me half a banana.

Evolutionary psychologists are discovering that human beings have a strong cognitive bias towards loss aversion.  That is, we fear losing stuff (money, status, love) more than we hunger for gain.  In fact, we will do almost anything to avoid even the slightest loss, while we can be incredibly lazy about taking small steps towards enormous gains.  I, for example, will spend twenty minutes on the phone with my bank trying to get a fee reversed, when logically I’d be better off doing work for a client, or working on a track, or even writing a blog post.  The financial and/or emotional rewards of the alternative activities far outweigh the cost of the bank fee, but since the bank fee feels like a loss — the bank is taking my money — I’m willing to spend a lot of time and energy fighting it.

This same bias plays out on larger scales as well.  We’re willing to tolerate sub-par situations because we want to hold on to the meager benefits those situations provide.  Our life focus becomes shallow and we lose track of the big picture — what do we want the narrative arc of our life to look like?  What kind of story do we want to live?  What kind of impact do we want to have on those around us and the world we live in?

Unfortunately we can’t just flip a switch and start making rational decisions, weighing potential losses and potential benefits of various actions evenly.  Millions of years of evolution guarantees that we’re stuck with our bias.  Our only option is to trick ourselves.

Flip the switch -- all bets are off.

The 3rd person view is a good trick to get around the loss aversion bias.  Play yourself as a character in a game.  Write your own narrative and live your own novel.

Psychologically, the fear of even minor losses holds us back, but when we take the “I” out of the equation and start seeing ourselves as a “he” or “she,” those minor potential losses cease to matter so much, and the potential rewards become more clear.


I’ve worried at times that this approach might be narcissistic.  Does it lead to too much focus on self, at the expense paying attention to (and considering the needs of) family, friends, and community?

Maybe — but only if the narrative we write for ourselves doesn’t include fully engaging with our family, friends, and community.  Our narratives should have a heroic element — and narratives that are simply about fulfilling our own needs and desires aren’t really heroic.  To be heroic you need to engage with other people, and with the world, and make positive changes.  Non-heroic wish-fulfillment narratives (acquire this thing, have this experience, etc.) probably aren’t sufficiently energizing for most people.

What about recklessness?  Is it possible that if we take the 3rd person view towards our own lives, we’ll be impelled to take drastic, unwise, reckless actions?  I don’t think so.  In my own experiments with this mental exercise, the actions I’ve ended up taking have been 1) low risk, 2) more-or-less reversible, and 3) carefully considered.  The idea is to see your own life more clearly, and with less weight, so that you can actually make more rational decisions about what paths to take.  It’s probably more reckless to only see your life from the inside, from the first-person view.  Inertia and non-action can be reckless too.

Personal Results

Taking the 3rd person view has led to a number of concrete actions in my own life.  It led to taking a 6-week workation in Costa Rica with my family.  It led to me taking a prolonged break from club DJing (never say never) and instead focusing more on writing (including this blog).  Just as many life areas have remained unchanged — I’m happy with the way lots of things are going for my “character.”

When I’m able to take a 3rd person perspective on my own life, it gives me a wonderfully freeing feeling that my life is not that important.  I’m just one character among billions.  Why not doing something fun, or flippant, or daring, or new, or brave?  If it doesn’t hurt other people, why not do exactly what I want to do? Why not try the thing I’m considering, and see what happens?  Why not set an ambitious goal and charge at it full speed?

Strategies for Multi-Class Characters

You'll need multiple skill-sets to deal with this bunch.

Since I don’t have a 9-5 job, I’m faced every morning with a vast, intimidating landscape of possibilities for what to do with my day.  It’s the way I’ve arranged my life — completely on purpose — but I’m not immune to fits of aimlessness, time-wasting, false starts, procrastinating by reading interesting blog posts or news articles, and so on.  Best case scenario is getting up and completing the most important task of the day before breakfast.  A just-as-likely scenario is puttering the entire morning away and not actually “getting down to work” until around 2pm.

Over the years I’ve tried a number of strategies to most effectively manage my time.  I’ve tried rigid schedules; dedicating various blocks of the day to various activities.  Those never stick.  I invariably just do what I want to do when I want to do it.  The efficient time management question is one I haven’t fully answered — a problem I haven’t solved.  Once in awhile I’ll hit a good groove that might last for weeks or months, but that will be followed by a less focused (or even aimless) patch during which I make little or no progress towards my long-term goals.  What’s the optimum strategy?  What’s the best time-management algorithm for artists and freelancers who don’t have fixed schedules?

Are You a Multi-Classed Character?

Beware Megemus, the evil druid.

I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, and never really gave it up.  Once in awhile I still paint miniatures, and I ran a short campaign a few years ago that was a blast (it was called Fickle Godlings and featured an evil druid named Megemus who wanted to destroy villages and farmlands in order to return them to their wild, forested state).  I also love computer RPG’s (role-playing games) — some modern games of this genre manage to be both visually stunning and emotionally engaging (Elderscrolls Oblivion and Fable 2 are my personal favorites).  Role-playing games in general keep getting more and more popular.  Critics of D&D and RPG’s in general (both tabletop and MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft) accuse gamers of being everything from escapist to occultist, but the role-playing meme keeps growing.

The “character development” model that originated with D&D (choose a class or specialty area, improve your skills and “level up”) has now permeated into mainstream culture.  You see the model in hundreds of games, and many famous movie characters seem more like role-playing game characters than anything else (Neo in The Matrix, for example, downloading the kung-fu skillset).  Applying the RPG character development model to you own life, as a mental exercise, is fun and potentially useful.  Seeing yourself as a character in a game-world can give you some helpful objectivity.  What’s the overarching narrative of your character’s life?  What skills is your character developing?  What are your character’s desires, goals, and strategies?

Continuing this analogy, we can say that single-class characters — those people that choose a single skill area and dedicate themselves to it wholeheartedly and without distraction — in most cases advance most quickly.  On the other hand, multi-class characters — those people with a myriad of interests who refuse to specialize in single area — advance more slowly, but ultimately end up with a more versatile skill set.  Which are you?  Fighter?  Magic-user?  Or Fighter/Magic-User?

I’m definitely in the latter camp.  I’ve tried at various times in my life to focus on just one thing, but it never sticks.  So I’ve accepted myself as a multi-class character.

Navigating the dark forest of time-management decisions.

Pitfalls & Benefits

As I declared in the first section, I’m still struggling with the question “What’s the best use of my time each day?”  Do I have too many goals in too many areas?  Am I a double-threat or a dilettante?  Pitfalls of pursuing too many areas at once include:

  • never putting in enough focused time in any one area to achieve mastery, not racking up the Gladwellian “10,000 hours” required to “level up”
  • gaining only superficial knowledge and skills — dilettantism
  • bouncing around from one activity to the next without clear goals
  • feeling like you are following “inspiration” when you are in fact following moment to moment whims

On the other hand, if you can apply the right kind of discipline, there are possible benefits to to pursuing multiple skill-sets and/or careers simultaneously:

  • by going with whatever activity is currently capturing your interest, you can spend more time in a state of flow
  • you open up the possibility of rewards (income streams, kudos, career advancement) in multiple areas
  • you create a sort of robust ecology in your life (ideas cross-fertilize, the whole system is resistant to crashes)
  • you can fight with a sword and also project fireballs from your palms

So what is the “right kind of discipline?”  While I don’t have a complete answer, I’ll share the strategies I’ve come up with so far.

Strategy #1 — Set Concrete Goals for Each Class

Perhaps your passions include violin, kung-fu, and vintage comic book collecting, and you also enjoy your day job as a nurse at a hospital.  It’s worth considering what  you ultimately hope to gain from each activity area.  Maybe you decide that comic book collecting is just a hobby — you enjoy it but you’re not interested in turning it into a career buying and selling rare comic books.  Playing violin, on the other hand, is something you want to take to the next level.  So what does that level look like?  Do you want a seat in a reputable orchestra?  Do you want to perform regularly as part of a string quartet?  What are your goals for you-as-violinist?

And what about your day job as a nurse?  Is it just something you do to earn money, or are you interested in advancing in terms of skills, position/title, and pay?  Maybe you decide you’re tired of the crazy hours at the hospital and you’d rather become a nurse practitioner and work in a private practice.  With that goal in mind you enroll in a master’s in nursing program.

What about the kung-fu?  You really enjoy it and don’t want to give it up.  Also, your school doesn’t use a belt system so you can’t choose “become a black belt in kung fu” as your goal.  Instead, you choose to specialize in the Five Ancestors style, with a special emphasis on the deadly Dim Mak pressure point strikes originally introduced by Hian Loo, the “Lady in the Green Dress.”

With your goals clearly in mind, you’re well on your way towards being a Nurse Practitioner/Concert Violinist/Five Ancestors Style Master.  Congratulations!

Strategy #2 — Work Towards Long-Term, Most Important Goals First

He practices battle-axe techniques from 8am-10am each morning.

It’s possible to get work done late at night.  Possible, but unlikely — especially if you’ve had a long day and a glass of wine with dinner.  The morning hours are likely to be more productive — for most people that’s when your head is most clear — when your mental energy is more focused.  That’s a great time to get something important done.  Kung-fu or violin practice maybe.  For me — writing happens in the morning, or not at all.

When you don’t have one all-consuming passion, but rather several that burn brightly, you’ll need to prioritize carefully.  If possible, consider what the top task or goal for the day is the night before.  Then get up and complete that task immediately — before breakfast — maybe even before coffee.  The sense of accomplishment will stick with you throughout the day and you may experience a cascade of productivity as a result.

Long-term goals often get pushed aside to meet short-term goals or immediate obligations.  The consequences of not meeting our short-term goals and obligations are often quite clear (like getting fired if you don’t go to work, and not being able to pay your rent).  Consequences for not working towards our long-term goals can be just as devastating, but they can sneak up on us.  As in, Oops, my life went by and I didn’t really do what I wanted to do.

Strategy #3 — Say No Thank You to Time-Consuming Distractions

As a multi-class character, you’re probably a person who likes to say “yes.”  You enjoy taking things on, trying out new things, and collaborating.

To some extent, you’ll need to fight this impulse.  If you try to do everything that interests you, you’ll flail about and never have enough time to dig in and go deep into any one area.  Cal Newport describes Steve Martin’s approach to success as “diligence” — a specific application of discipline via which you resist the urge to start additional projects and work on other things (besides your main goal).  Newport, paraphrasing (or maybe quoting?) Martin, uses the phrase “ruthlessly whittle down your ambitions to a needle-thin point.” While we’ve already established that that’s not going to happen (we’ve accepted we’re poly-ambitious types), we can still apply Martin’s advice.  We can still say “no thank you” to time-consuming projects that don’t directly further our goals.  As often as not, the originator of these project ideas will be us — our own minds will find things to do to distract us from our essential work.  Sometimes these ideas represent real inspiration — they can energize us and open new doors, but more often they’re just “fun” distractions that will grow into time-sucking monsters if we let them in the door.

For example …

A few years ago I got the bright idea to start an investment group.  I invited some of my smartest friends, pitched them on my idea, and the Bling Trade Collective was soon born.  We got together about once a month to discuss investment strategies, drink wine, and eat cheese.  It was fun, and would have been a good idea if I had taken a more informal approach.  But no — I wanted to do it right.  We actually pooled our money, came up with a detailed partnership agreement, and started an investment club business.  As the instigator I ended up doing the tax forms most years (both federal and state).

This project took way more time than I expected it too.  It didn’t end in disaster — we actually made a little money despite the 2008 crash (“dozens of dollars” as we like to say) and we’re all still friends.  The meetings themselves were fun.  We never agreed on an investment strategy, but that didn’t matter.  What I regret is actually making the group a business; this approach required large amounts of paperwork and more formal procedures for determining who was in the group, how we would decide and execute investment transactions, etc.  I still need to file our final set of tax forms next year.  The whole project is a perfect example of a giant distraction I invented myself that didn’t further any of my main life goals.

Starting the Dungeons & Dragons campaign was a similar experience — it was fun to return to my childhood passion and create a fantasy world from scratch (including an entire pantheon of gods and detailed descriptions of various ecologies and economies in the game world).  But after a few months I realized, with horror, that running the campaign could easily take up 100% of my timeOne of our players moved to Costa Rica and we decided to put the campaign on the shelf.  Maybe D&D is something I’ll take up again if I ever retire (since I don’t play golf).

Back to you — our hypothetical kung-fu/violinist/nurse … perhaps your kung-fu master has asked you to teach the kung-fu youth class.  You’ll be paid and your own membership fees will be waived.  Plus, you love working with kids.  But after careful consideration you decide to politely decline.  Teaching the youth class doesn’t help you get any closer to any of your goals — it would just distract you.  You’d rather use the time developing your strike techniques and working on your “monkey style” footwork.

You'll need effective strategies to deal with David vs. Goliath situations like this one.

Strategy #4 — Take “Creative Sabbaticals”

If you can arrange it, organize large blocks of time (at least two weeks) to dedicate to working on a single goal or project.  Let people know you’re not available for other work during this “chunk” and then dig in.  Use more self-discipline during this period of time than you normally would; force yourself to focus for longer periods of time and resist all distractions.  You may find that you can accomplish an enormous amount in just a few short weeks.

I’ve used this strategy to get large blocks of writing or music composition completed.  My other work (managing the label, database work for clients) tends to pile up during these sabbaticals.  So I might work less on creative works in the weeks that follow, while I catch up.  Still, it’s worth it to be able to focus 100% — to completely immerse my mind in creative work and problem solving — during that time.

You, as a violinist, have long wanted to master the notoriously difficult solo in Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1.  You’ve quit your job at the hospital and now have some free time because your start your master’s in nursing program.  You decide to dedicate two weeks to learning this piece, practicing at least four hours each day.

Strategy #5 — Find Ways to Waste Less Time

There are a number of strategies for “stealing back your time” that have been detailed by various writers.  Here are links to a few:

Delegating, outsourcing, doing less, simplifying, having less stuff, being better organized, disconnecting from the internet — these subjects are receiving a lot of attention these days.  All these techniques come down to asking yourself a couple simple questions:

  • Does this thing I’m doing actually need to be done?
  • If so, do I need to be the one doing it?

This kind of questioning and behavioral analysis is fundamentally different than stealing time from yourself — from areas like sleep, or fun times, or time with your family and friends.  Your body, subconscious mind, family, and friends will forgive you for ignoring them for brief periods once in awhile, but if you regularly steal from these areas to make up for time you waste on the internet, farting around, faux-working, preparing and eating 5-6 meals a day, etc., then you need to re-evaluate.

That’s it!  I hope all you multi-class characters out there found this post to be helpful.

Business Advice for (Young) Artists

Jondi & Spesh — Phreek Out EP (our first vinyl release on Loöq)

I recently finished compiling royalty statements for all the artists on Loöq Records, an activity I do twice a year.  Even with the custom database I designed specifically for the task, it’s difficult and takes a long time.  We receive reports from our various distributors — detailed spreadsheets with a row for every iTunes download, streaming music click, mobile ringtone, youtube view, etc.  I import these records into the database, crank the digital wheels, and churn out beautiful, detailed royalty statements for every artist and remixer who has ever had a release on our label (over a hundred different statements, and growing each reporting period).

I love this process — partly because I’m a database nerd, and partly because there are always a few artists in the bunch who receive unexpected, sizable payouts.  It’s fun to share that kind of news.

You may have heard that the music industry, and music labels especially, are dying a slow death.  This may be true for the big labels, but many of the independents (like us) are doing pretty well.  It’s true that people are buying less music, and that people tend to buy individual tracks instead of entire albums.  And piracy does have a negative impact, though it’s not as great as the RIAA would have you believe.  But the main reason for lower sales per release is that there are way more releases out there.  The digital floodgates are open — it costs almost nothing to put out a “record” these days.  So sales revenues for each release are, on average, lower.  But there are also unexpected new sources of income, like shared ad revenue.  For example, every time you watch a video on youtube.com that uses a Loöq Records track, that Loöq artist gets paid (after I compile and send out the royalty statements, that is).  Tracks also generate revenue (for both us and the artist) when we license them out for use on television shows, movies, video games, and commercial websites (if you’re interested in licensing a Loöq track, please get in touch).

CD cover of Jondi & Spesh “We Are Connected”

But for a young artist starting out, are things all that different than they were ten or fifteen years ago?  Now you can submit a track to a label, or two dozen labels, with a simple email (linked to an mp3).  When I was twenty years old I was sending cassette tapes in padded envelopes to music labels individually!  So some things are easier.  On the other hand, I would usually get a cash advance when I would sign a track, in addition to royalties.  These days, at least in the electronic music world, cash advances are rarer (though royalty rates are higher — Loöq offers 50% of gross sales and licensing, and that’s not uncommon).

So the business landscape has changed.  Artists have more power, as they have the option to go directly to consumers (skipping labels altogether).  Labels still have their place — they can expose artists to wider audiences, provide distribution outlets, and promote the artists’ work.  For the music consumer, labels act as a valuable filter (artists, myself included, can’t always tell when their work sucks and needs to be shelved).  On the other hand, some things remain the same.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

There are some things that artists (not just musicians, but also writers, visual artists, choreographers, all creative types) can do to increase their chances of success.  By “success” I mean fame and fortune — too often an artist achieves the first but misses out on the latter.  I’ll leave “artistic satisfaction” and other fuzzy elements out of the equation for now — those are too hard to quantify.

Tila Tequila — is that the kind of “artistic” career you want?

Blogging, tweeting, having a presentable website and a large online social network — these things can all have a positive impact.  But other areas are more important.  You don’t want to end up like Tila Tequila, do you? (Over a million MySpace friends but no artistic respect.)

I put “young” in parentheses because these ideas make sense at any age.  Young people might be more inclined to seek advice, but these days people are starting new careers at all ages (myself included).

Am I qualified to give advice?  To date, I’ve done a few things right, and I’ve had some great luck.  I’ve had releases on my favorite labels and I’ve had my tracks played by the DJ’s I respect most.  Over the years I’ve received tens of thousands of dollars in sales, performance, and licensing royalties.  Perhaps my musical success to date has been limited by my unwillingness to tour,  my reluctance to give up my freelance programming work (I enjoy it, and the income it provides), and my tendency to take on too many projects in various creative spheres (I’ve released music under at least eight different aliases, and now I’ve taken up writing).  So I’m not going to be the guy to tell you to quit your day job, sling your guitar or synth over your shoulder, and hop on a train (that might be good advice — I just haven’t tried it myself).

So for what it’s worth, here’s my advice for artists (young and not-so-young):

1. Prioritize quality (and if it sucks, don’t release it).

At least half of what people call talent is simply a fascination with a particular art form — an interest so deep that you are willing to engage with the practice long enough to get good at it.  Eventually you may accidentally create something half decent.  Your peers may be impressed — they may tell you something like “You’re a good artist.”  Don’t believe it for an instant — just keep working.  With some luck, you’ll create something half decent again.

Onstage, you *should* believe your own hype.

One of the biggest pitfalls for an artist is to believe that they’re talented.  Even if you are talented, you’re perfectly capable of creating stinkers.  If you believe your own hype, you might end up spending more time defending your reputation than getting down to work.  Avoid this trap; instead keep quality consistently high by giving each composition the time and energy it deserves, by getting feedback from trusted advisers, and by constantly improving your skills and knowledge (and gear, when you can afford it).  If a particular piece of work doesn’t meet the incredibly high standard you should be keeping for yourself, then shelve it.  You can always steal the good bits later for a future composition.

You should always aim high — with every creative attempt you should try to achieve transcendent brilliance.  You’ll probably fall short most of the time, but if you don’t aim high you have zero chance of creating something great.

2. Keep the pipeline full (and be patient).

In any artistic career, it can take a long time to see any kind of tangible success from a creative work.  And most of what you do will probably result in a whole lot of nothing.  Keep working anyway, and keep releasing (or submitting) work at regular intervals.  If you focus on quality and keep up your efforts, something is bound to connect with somebody at some point.  Remember that success is always uneven (see my “positive black swans” post for more on this idea).

The unpredictable nature of this process is frustrating, but it’s rewarding when something finally does take off.  It can happen five or ten years after you finish the work, in completely unexpected ways.

The biggest Jondi & Spesh track to date, “We Are Connected,” was released as a vinyl 12″ on our collective DIY label Trip ‘n Spin Recordings.  Sales were not so great — nobody really “got” the track except for a few DJ’s in San Francisco.  After languishing in record shops for a couple years, the record was “discovered” by John Digweed (a widely respected, world-famous DJ).  Once he playing the track, other people noticed.  Re-releases, compilation deals, and licensing deals followed.  But it took a long time, we didn’t see any real money from the track until many years after writing it.  Same with Momu’s track The Dive which was championed by Nick Warren and Paul Oakenfold (the link goes to the music video of the track, directed by Kia Simon).

Momu — The Dive

If you’re going through a dry stretch in terms of tangible rewards (money, fame, respect from your peers), it can be hard to keep working.  You need to develop an indomitable spirit, a conviction so great that it cannot be moved by fortune’s fickle whims.  Think Tina Turner style resilience.  How you get there is up to you — it’s a spiritual question — but you need to have a rock solid core.  Hope, love, persistence, courage, realistic optimism, creative problem-solving, a sense of limitless possibility — all those are part of the equation.

3. Join a crew (as long as that crew respects/values/needs you).

If you can find a group of like-minded people who share at least part of your artistic vision, by all means join forces.  You’ll probably waste a lot of time in unorganized “business” meetings, but if the chemistry is right then the potential for fruitful collaboration and needed morale-boosting will be worth it.  Dealing with artistic rejection is part of the game, and it can help to have a creative partner or group to help pump you up again (and talk about how everyone who doesn’t understand your work is a tone-deaf cretin).

On the other hand, if your crew doesn’t respect you and your contributions, if they don’t really need you, you’re better off on your own (or starting a new crew/business/collective with more enlightened people).

4. Maintain as much ownership as possible (and don’t be afraid to negotiate).

Getting your first contractual offer is terrifying.  I remember reading mine — I broke out in a cold sweat.  I was elated to get an offer from a real music label, but worried that I might be getting ripped off.  I didn’t understand most of the language in the contract, and I didn’t have any other contracts to compare it to, so I felt pretty lost.

In the music industry, there are many types of royalties payable to artists: sales royalties, master use fees, sync rights fees, performance royalties, and mechanical royalties.  It took me years to get even a cursory understanding of what each of these terms means.  This article provides a good introduction.  And you should own and read a copy of this book.

Whatever your creative area, you should always try retain a sizable ownership percentage in your own work.  If you want a label to release your work, you’ll probably need to give up a percentage of ownership for at least a period of time — in that case you want the rights period to be as short as possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask for better terms.  It helps if you’re willing to walk away from the deal — that gives you an extremely strong negotiating position.  But even if you aren’t — even if you’re so hungry to get the damn thing released on any terms — it’s still a good idea to ask for better terms.  Ask for a larger advance, a shorter rights period, a smaller territory, a larger marketing budget, and/or a higher royalty percentage.  The label might say no, or they might meet you halfway.  But they’re not going to walk away or get mad if you politely ask for better terms (and if they do, they’re not worth working with).  Remember, they like and value your work — otherwise they wouldn’t have made you an offer.

As a label owner, I might be shooting myself in the foot by sharing this information.  But we don’t low-ball artists — our first offer is usually as high as we’re willing to go (generally 50/50).

On a side note, you should also have written contracts with artistic collaborators.  These can be simple, plain-language contracts that you write yourself, but they should describe in detail what the ownership shares are (on both the profit and loss side).  Err on the side of including too much detail in your partnership contracts — it will help you avoid disputes down the road.  And don’t assume that if you just have a conversation with your collaborator that it’s handled.  You will both forget the terms within months (or rather, you’ll both remember, but differently).  Write it down.

Careful what you sign.

5. Limit your exposure to criminals, sociopaths, and bumblers.

This sounds obvious and easy, but in fact it’s quite difficult.  Criminals and sociopaths are some of the most charming people around.  They’ll sweet-talk you, acquire your assets, and then deliver nothing.  For an audio example listen to the hidden track on the end of the first Jondi & Spesh album, Tube Drivers (released in 1998).  Skip to 14:40 to hear the voice of the guy who still owes us $80.

These days, it’s easier than ever to do a little background research on a music label, gallery, or publisher.  Find other artist who have worked with them, and contact those artists directly.  Let’s say you’re researching a music label.  Ask the label’s other artists what it was like to work with that label — did they fulfill their promises?  Did they respond to calls and emails?  Did they do a good job on the release, promoting it sufficiently?  Did they ever send a royalty statement?

In some ways newbie bumblers are even more dangerous than outright criminals.  Filled with idealistic, inspired ambition, they start a label (or gallery, or whatever), even though they have no f*cking idea what they’re doing.  They might pull through and become the real deal (we did, after years of bumbling), or they might crash and burn.  As an artist, you might benefit from getting in early on these new, idealistic ventures.  On the other hand, you might see your works die in limbo if you throw your lot in with these types.  Play it smart — if you believe in a new venture then dip a toe in (do a single release or a show or whatever to see how it goes) — but at the same time try to get your work released on more established, reputable labels.

6. Do whatever it takes to get inspired, and then act on it.

The work itself should be fun.  Even if you are putting in long hours and struggling to overcome obstacles, you should feel engaged and alive while you work.  If you don’t, if it feels like drudgery and toil, you probably need to recharge your creative batteries, or change something up in terms of your focus or work process.  Try working in a different genre, or listening to new artists.  Learn what activities tend to create inspiration within you and then do them.

Don’t wait to drink that inspiration.

When you do feel the rush of inspiration, act as quickly as possible.  If you wait too long, the spark will fade.  Inspiration is like raw milk — at room temperature you have less than a day before it starts to sour.  Now I’m mixing metaphors.  Drink that spark of milk — get to work immediately.

7. Be good to absolutely everyone.

You don’t have to be nice to everyone, but you should at least be respectful and courteous.  Why?  I remember once when I was in high school, an old Deadhead got mad at me because I wouldn’t give him any spare change.  He started yelling about karma, about how what goes around comes around.  I had no idea what he was going on about — but he was drunk and he smelled bad.

I don’t believe in invisible forces that reward or punish us for our good or bad deeds, but I do believe that we are social primates who keep close tabs on each other, and talk about each other a lot.  If you consistently treat someone well, they’ll remember it for a long time, and perhaps tell other people that you’re a good guy.  If you slight someone even once, they’ll remember it forever and tell everybody you’re an asshole.

It’s easy to accidentally slight someone, forgetting to return an email or a phone call, or not saying goodbye when you leave a party — that can be all it takes.  In fact, it’s impossible to avoid — the human ego is generally pretty fragile.  Just going through life is like being a bull in a china shop — you’re constantly knocking over egos and stepping on feelings.  Though is sounds cheesy, you can counter this natural tendency by projecting love, by infusing everything you do, say, and write with compassion.

A personal code of ethics is also important — you should of course treat people fairly.  But people can’t necessarily feel your ethics.  They can feel your love.  I’m not talking about being mushy or flowery or affectionate — I’m talking about being engaged, giving someone your attention and respect, and keeping your heart open to their experience — simple empathy.

Can you be a total dick and still get to the top?  Of course you can!  But most of the people I’ve met who have achieved a high level of artistic success are warm, caring, and down-to-earth (at least in person — their stage persona might be different).

That’s it — that’s all I’ve got.  As always I write about this stuff so that I can take my own advice.  Please feel free to share your own thoughts on artistic success and business advice for artists below.

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