Category Archives: Art and Science Life Riffs

Landed in New Studio!

View from New Studio Windows
View from New Studio Windows

I once heard a woman say that no woman would have a second child if our minds were able to remember the pain and process of childbirth. Well, I think moving is kind of like that. I am in the last throes of a move, and really looking forward to getting back on track with the creation and publishing of my upcoming interactive multimedia iBook, Light 2.0 (see mediabench.com), plus related music performances and art shows. And, of course, back to my RiffingOnBooks blog.

When most people talk about the pain of moving, they are not referring to what a new media artist goes through! Not only did I move my living space, but my multimedia studio space as well – with all its computer gear, music gear, art gear, writing space and files, and the accompanying supplies and work. I am happy to report that the move is almost complete.

Of course, I set up my computer system first. Still have to hook up all the music gear. And this morning I had space to practice my guitar for the first time. Feeling rusty. But I love my new place and look forward to many hours of creation to be spent here.

Outside one of the rooms’ windows is a giant oak tree, which makes me happy because I love looking out to nature, but also because it reminds me of my roots in Northern California – where oak trees are abundant. My cat, Salomé is also in cat heaven with unlimited squirrels to keep an eye on all day!

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Teaching Coding in U.S Public Schools

 

For the last many months, I have been working on ways in which we can get coding / programming into our public schools. I gotta confess: the outlook is dire. I had no idea when I started my research just how dire.

We see all these catchy headlines about the need to get more girls interested in computer science and coding. Well, that is really just the tip of the iceberg! It turns out only 10% of US high schools even offer computer science (to boys or girls), and, in case you are not aware, coding is just a small chunk of computer science.

As a matter of fact, as I made my way through research and interviews I discovered that our first problem is not how little coding girls are getting, or even how little all our kids are getting. The problem is that most people in our society don’t even know what coding is! Worse, most people lump all technology into one bucket. To them, technology is just technology, and they want nothing to do with it for the most part.

Coding (also referred to as programming) is the set of instructions that someone has to write in order to make just about everything in the modern world work. Coding is not done in English. We have dozens and dozens of programming languages that are used to write the instructions for creating different things. Languages used to code / program web sites, mobile apps, your automobile’s various systems, your baby monitor, your home security system, the software you use on your computer, those electric signs on the freeway . . . .

Remember all the discussions we’ve had (for decades) about how girls are discouraged from math, messaged with the fact that girls are no good at math from the time they are born? Well, turns out we are doing the same thing with technology. And we are doing it for girls and boys. We give lip service to the fact that we are falling behind in the tech world, that we are not training enough tech workers, that not enough students are enrolling in tech. But, the fact is we have a societal aversion to tech, a wink and a nod attitude that tech is in the realm of a few geeky guys and the rest of us don’t need to bother with it, a lack of understanding about how many different kinds of tech there are, and a frightening lack of technology education of any kind in our K-12 school system.

Looking only at the coding / programming niche of technology: There is no curriculum requirement to teach coding to kids in our US K-12 schools. None.

And if that doesn’t startle you, how about this? In China kids all start learning to code / program at the age of 5. And by age 11, they are required to know at least 2 coding / programming languages.

I will be tackling this subject here in bite size pieces over the next months.

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The Sad Fate of Professional Musicians in U.S. : Outsourced to London, Part III – On Treaties

I will be starting this post and updating it later. I have held off on writing more because there is someone I need to interview, and we have not been able to get in time sync to do so. Apparently there is a trade treaty the U.S. has that makes it illegal for London to undercut our musicians with less expensive pay and subsidized benefits. I will get back to this as soon as I have more information.

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The Sad Fate of Professional Musicians in U.S. : Outsourced to London, Part II – The Pay Model Connection

 

Photo Scoring Session West Side Story
Scoring Session West Side Story

In the last post, (Part 1) I talked about the loss of studio musician jobs in the U.S. to London as a result of the removal of music education from our schools, the lack of paying venues for musicians and the lack of practice time for musicians because they are so busy supporting themselves with non-music jobs. All of these factors result in a lack of qualified U.S. musicians according to entertainment company executives. Today I want to look at another reason we are losing music jobs to London players and orchestras, and that has to do with our countries’ respective employee pay models.

As the music panelists of the Hollywood Future of Entertainment forum stepped off the stage, I turned to the two music industry reps at my table and told them that I was still confused. During our table introductions, the woman executive from the musician royalty paying agency had told me that this digital age is, in fact, a great time for musicians in that they have so many more royalty income revenue streams. She had explained how a studio musician who played on a soundtrack  in the past was only paid when a film or TV show was in its first run, and a bit more during re-plays or re-runs. Today with all the various distribution outlets (DVD, Netflix, online streaming, hotel distribution, etc.) musicians are earning money from many more sources.

“Something doesn’t add up,” I said to her and the Union Rep at my table now, post panel. “You earlier explained to me how studio musicians are making more money today than ever, due to the increase in income royalty revenue streams from movies, TV and recorded music. But the panel just told us that producers are all going to London to record music, and there is a huge loss of work for musicians in the U.S.”

The Union Rep told me she did not know what was going on. “How is the Musicians Union fairing?” I asked. “Is this outsourcing of work to London something you all talk about?” She did not know.

I pondered aloud, “London is supposed to be like the second or third most expensive city to live in today. If London musicians are being paid so much less than their U.S. counterparts – making it cheaper for U.S. producers to travel all the way to Europe to score/record, how can those London musicians afford to live? And if they are paid so much less, how can they afford the time to educate themselves thoroughly and constantly practice to keep up their skills?”

(Remember in my first post on this, the panelists explained that U.S. musicians are paid so little that they can’t afford practice time because they have to work “day jobs.”)

The Union Rep shrugged. The Royalty Exec had to ask:  “How long have you worked for the Union?”

“Nine years,” she said.

I guess she’s been listening to streaming music all day rather than her constituency.

Finally the Royalty Exec filled in for me. But this is where she told me she had to be off the record. Sad.

It all comes down to the difference in work and pay models and governmental support.

In the U.S., we have taken music out of the schools, so anyone who learns music does it on her/his own without the lessons and practice time and music exposure that schools could give them. There are no longer sufficient paying venues for musicians, and most that do exist pay very little. All but a relative few U.S. musicians have to work other jobs and play music “on the side.” For those few who do manage to get studio work, the pay is good, thanks to unions and, now, numerous new digital revenue streams. But the operative term here is “those few musicians.”

Musicians in London have it vastly different. They live in a society that has not removed music from the schools, that respects musicians.

“But, how do they manage if they are paid less than studio musicians in the U.S.?” I continued to press.

“Because for one, they have plenty of work – since they are taking it from U.S.” she explained.

“How ironic, but still not enough to tip all this in their favor if they are working for much lower wages,” I thought. Aloud I responded, “How can the simple fact of lower hourly rates for musicians really make it more affordable for an entire film or TV show post-production staff to pack up and travel across the ocean to hire an orchestra and score all their music? I would think that  travel and lodging would pretty much offset the musicians’  hourly wage savings.”

Her next statement finally shed the light.

“Not only do they work for lower wages, they don’t take royalties. This makes them even more attractive to producers from a financial standpoint.”

“No way!” I was stunned. “How can British musicians afford to live with low wages and no royalties?”

“Because their government, in addition to supporting music education, also subsidizes the health care and pensions of musicians. They have financial security.”

Couple that with plenty of work, and the musicians in London are set.

But, this is just wrong. Because of government subsidies people in England can afford to be musicians. No such luck for citizens of the U.S.

I sat back in my seat deflated. Outsourcing of U.S. jobs took on a whole new meaning. It is not just about lower wages. We are not just competing with workers in developing, low-cost-of-living  nations, who can afford to work for a fraction of what U.S. workers need to earn. We are not just competing with foreign companies who are exploiting their workers for lower wages. We are competing with foreign governments! And what chance do we stand against a foreign government who underwrites their workers when the U.S. government meanwhile rails against even a living wage much less worker subsidies or universal healthcare!

Well, as luck would have it, I happened to tell this story to a staff member at the Verdugo Workforce Investment Board a few weeks later. And from him I learned that this form of government sponsored competition is illegal – well, caveat, it used to be illegal, and may still be illegal. That is what I will write about it Post III.  Stay tuned. . . .

 

 

 

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The Sad Fate of Professional Musicians in U.S. : Outsourced to London, Part I – The Music Education Connection

image of the Hollywood sign
The Hollywood Sign

I’m currently consulting as a technology expert for an education grant that one city is writing in order to create a model program that will use music to teach math and sciences in their K-12 schools. Of course, the fact that I am also a musician and composer will benefit my participation on this grant. The input I provide and the research I do, as well as the grant’s process, seem like they will be interesting material to include in this blog of mine on sciences and the arts. Usually I am talking about books that deal with these subjects, but I think slices of life around topics are important as well, and perhaps this post will encourage others to write more books on this topic.

In December I attended a conference on “The Future of Entertainment,” hosted by Variety Magazine and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Although most of the conference was dedicated to the future of movies (now that California has passed an incentive bill, AB839,  to help keep film production in the state), there was one panel on the status and future of our music industry.

Coincidentally, at the table where I was seated were a Musician’s Union rep and an executive from the organization that pays out the royalties due to musicians for playing on movie soundtracks, commercials, music recordings, etc. After the music panel, my head was filled with unanswered questions. I turned to the two music professionals reps at my table.

The Royalty Woman shared quite a few insights, but remarked that her comments were “off the record,” so I won’t make note of her name here, and, to tell the truth, I have forgotten the name of her organization anyway. I won’t be naming the Musicians Union rep, either, because she and the union will undoubtedly be embarrassed by the comments I will make about her responses to my questions.

Let’s start with the number one question and concern regarding U.S. musicians in the movie and TV industry expressed by the morning’s panel: Why are so many film and TV producers going to London to record their music soundtracks rather than recording here in the States?

The answers will not surprise our local musicians, but I hope it will wake up anyone else reading this post.

The producers go to London to score their tracks not just because it is less expensive to hire musicians there (I will address this topic in next post) but also because they are finding more qualified musicians in London. According to them, the caliber of musicians in U.S. has been steadily falling over the last decades.

And why is that? Well, that is something I have been writing about in this blog for some time. Our society has removed the Arts (including music, of course) from its schools, and denigrates the Arts as being “frills” rather than necessary elements of education and life. One of many negative results of this, of course, has been a falling number of musicians in our country. Turns out that not only are the numbers of musicians falling, but the caliber of those who do study music has also fallen precipitously. If musicians do not have years of classes/lessons and plenty of time to practice, they will never be great musicians.

For those of you who are not musicians out there, let me add a bit of clarification emphasis to that point.

In the world of music, studio musicians are regarded as the elite musician class. All professions have their elite class, their best and brightest: in the Navy it is the Seals, at Disney it is Disney Imagineering staff, in tech currently it is Google programmers and idea generators. In music, the musicians able to work in studios are not only polished players with a keen understanding of music theory, tempo, ensemble-playing, etc., but they are the ones who can read music. Many musicians who are really really good, never learned to read music notation, but this is a studio requirement. Not only will a composer put a chart in need of reading in front of a studio musician, but that musician must be able to read it, properly and with expression, at a first glance.

No one learns to be a studio musician without years of study and practice. And practice is not something a musician does during the course of study and then stops. Good musicians must practice every day to enhance and maintain their skill.

So what happened in the U.S. when we began to take music out of the schools and denigrate its usefulness, especially as compared to math and science? Well, we stopped developing that pool of studio musician caliber players for one thing. And that is the first reason that our movie and TV producers are now going to London to record their music soundtracks. Europe still values musicians and the education of musicians, so they do have an elite class of studio players available. And because their musicians are getting this work from the U.S. they are making enough money to afford practice time in order to keep up their “chops.”

According to panelist Ricky Minor, Music Director of American Idol: “Arts in schools are gone. There are no public places for musicians to play and master their craft. There are no jobs for musicians. Musicians are now waiters. With all of this, we have witnessed a plummeting of the skill level of musicians in U.S., while European musicians are supported.”

And panelist Paul Broucek, President, Music, Warner Brothers Pictures, agreed: “Yes, what London offers now is a skilled talent pool.”

Musicians in the U.S. not only are lacking in access to music education, but are hard pressed to find the time to keep up what skills they do acquire due to the lack of practice time. They are too busy working other jobs to support themselves . . . (more about this in the next post).

 

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