hands at work

Music and Art

Finding A Way

It's never been easy to make a living as a musician. But now as we're still suffering under a pandemic it's even worse. I've had major slowdowns in my day job (related to school music programs) and there is nothing but uncertainty about what the fall will bring for music class in schools. Last year I played over 60 gigs. This year I've had 8 so far. I totally support staying home and shutting things down to keep people safe, but I am trying to find new ways to keep afloat and trying to be as prepared as I can if it's another year before things even look a little normal.

I don't feel ok about just asking for money (but I guess I won't stop you if you have some extra?). If you do want to help but would like something in return, here are some ideas:

I want to get back to teaching private music lessons in all manner of music topics. All online, and because it's tough for a lot of people, I'm asking that you pay what you can. I want you, kids and adults, to get music in your life and if money is tight for you that's ok. Let's help each other.
Click over to my lesson page for more information.

My partner Lynette and I have an Etsy page now. We are selling a variety of our arts and crafts, and we're adding new things as we can.
Follow this link to see if there's something you like. Custom work is available, just send me a message.

I did some streaming on
Twitch earlier this year, and I'd like to get back to it. If you want to follow me over there that would be great, and if you feel like donating there is a paypal link on my page. Let me know if there are any particular topics you'd like me to cover in a stream.

For a number of years I have been offering my music on Bandcamp for a "name your price" amount, including free. If you'd like to throw me a few bucks that way, here are my main bandcamp pages:
Sean Gill solo music
Strange Land - prog rock and metal

I am also a photographer and offer various graphics related services. Visit my
aerial photo page or my arts page for more info. Drop me a message if I can offer you any of these services.

Musical Canary in the Coal Mine

It's been almost 20 years since Napster tipped over the boat. Although it operated only for about 2 years in its original form, the repercussions of what they started are still being felt and we've not yet come through all the changes that Napster wrought. Musicians can't make money. We didn't make any before Napster either. It's just a different kind of not making money. But some have managed to adjust, and more notably many bands and fans came of age in this era, so the idea of free music, "donated" support, and superfans is what they've always known. Computer technology also changed every other aspect of music. Anyone can make music, you no longer need an expensive studio. You don't need a label or a distributor. You just need a computer, some decent gear and software, and an internet connection.

I think music serves as something of a canary in a coal mine. What has happened to the music industry could happen to nearly every endeavor we are now engaged in. This isn't new, but after viewing some recent YouTube videos this idea formed itself in my mind more clearly. Video games have supplanted music as a dominant form of entertainment. Think now of all the video games you can play for free. If you're a semi-serious gamer you might also know about the modding community. These are people who made add ons for many games. Some of these modders might get a little money via donation, but are mostly just doing it for free and for fun. Skyrim is a popular game and one of the most modded I've seen. On the mod sharing site Nexusmods there are over 40 thousand files available. Sure, not all of it is great, but can you imagine the cost to the game manufacturer if they themselves had made even a fraction of those mods? Can you imagine being asked to pay for each one that you wanted to use?

It's not just games. Open source software is common, with some programs like OpenOffice easily standing toe to toe with giants like Microsoft Word. Though not exactly open source, I use Reaper as my recording software. I find it every bit as capable as other programs that would have cost hundreds more. There was a recent announcement that one of the most widely used game engines would be released for free, for all to use.

Back to the YouTube videos, I've seen a number of fan made videos of well known material, and I've seen people's original works. With the available technology, now filmmakers can do what musicians began doing two decades ago. They can make Hollywood quality films by themselves, at home, with their friends, for not much money. Youtube is huge, visual entertainment is massive, and I don't see this slowing down. Homemade videos might never upend the industry the way it happened in music, but with companies like Netflix and Amazon making their own (very successful) shows, less and less you'll need to go through some sort of gatekeeper to make your movie and get it out to the public.

I don't think this is limited just to entertainment. Businesses want to make as much money as they can, and cutting costs is one way to do that. Once self-driving cars become common, how long will it be until cab companies and trucking companies become automated? Already in Japan you can go to restaurants where the food is prepared by robots. Someone also just opened a hotel staffed by robots. When 3D printing becomes even more commonplace than it already is, that will further eliminate the need for workers.

Many people always have and always will make music and art and film for the love of it, not the money. But I really can't see anyone working at Walmart or McDonald's just because they enjoy the task at hand. Manufacturing in the US went through this in the 70s, and never really recovered. That was partly due to automation, and partly due to cheap overseas labor. The economy of the future is not a matter of training people for new industries, enacting policies that promote job growth, or even increasing the minimum wage. The economy of the future is us figuring out what to do with all the people who don't have jobs not because of any reason we have today, but because those jobs don't need to be done by people anymore. This issue becomes magnified when you consider the use of robots and other manufacturing in other countries. It's one problem to figure out what 100 million Americans will do when humans don't have to do those jobs anymore. Add to that a billion Chinese workers.

Where does this leave us? I don't really think any of this is bad, but our civilization isn't taking steps to be ready for these changes. If all of our creative work is done for free, are we all flipping burgers and stocking grocery shelves to pay the bills? If all the mundane work is done by machines, what will everybody do? Can we begin to move to a world where our needs are taken care of without a worry of money, leaving us to pursue our true callings?

For Neil

As I begin writing this post, I have just learned of the passing of Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. It's actually been a long time since one of my heroes died, and none of my heroes stand as large in my life as Neil, Geddy, and Alex. I feel like I need to spend some time processing and sharing how much Rush has impacted my life.
Rush is a band that influenced me before I even had any concept of playing an instrument or being in a band. When I was young most of my music consumption was through my parents. They didn't have any Rush records, but the band was a staple on the classic rock radio that they listened to. Limelight, Red Barchetta, Tom Sawyer, The Trees were all staples in rotation. But it was 2112 that got into my brain and stayed there, fermenting and shaping my musical future. For those too young to remember, once upon a time (and maybe still, I haven't heard classic rock radio in ages), the Overture and Temples of Syrinx were played as a radio edit for 2112. The swirling synths and bombastic hits grabbed me much the same way John Williams score for Star Wars did, and the lyrics drew me into imagined worlds far from my own, just like the Star Wars films or my constant book reading did.
Later, in the early days of my guitar playing, I started to choose my own music, form an identity away from my parents. A few of my friends were introducing me to new music, including the 80s shredders and bands like Queensryche and Living Colour. One particular friend loaned me a copy of Presto. I think I was in 8th grade, so Presto would have been brand new. I already knew something about Rush from the radio, but this more in depth absorption was the wide-open gateway I needed. Looking back I think it's also interesting that my first deep dive into Rush was more "middle period (but post-synth)" rather than with albums like A Farwell to Kings or Moving Pictures.
To make a long story short, I began to absorb all of Rush's work and as I grew as a musician their influence showed through. A story I'm sure is very common. When I was 16 I even had the audacity (as only a brash teenager could) to write and record a sequel to 2112, imagining a story of the "Elder race" in parallel to the world depicted in the original song. I mean, there had to be a back story to "Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation, We have assumed control," right?
Their influence on me has so many facets. I'm inspired by each of them as instrumentalists. I'm inspired by the writing. Both the music and lyrics. The music is just cool. Neil's lyrics taught me rock music didn't have to be all "ooh baby" superficial tripe. Tell stories, make them both closely personal and universal. Play with words as much as you play with notes. I'm inspired by their process for creating. It took time, but I learned to appreciate that a band evolves over time. I like all eras of Rush, and I learned not to be mad at my favorite bands when they changed. Continual growth is necessary, lest you become a staple on the state fair nostalgia circuit. I'm inspired by their humor and genuine friendship. If you've never seen it, find the Dinner with Rush extended extra from Beyond the Lighted Stage. 40 years of a close and loving friendship. No posturing, no fake manliness, no rock star swagger. Music aside, watching Geddy, Alex, and Neil is a lesson in how to be a good human. A lesson on what really matters. I wanted my band to be like Rush, not just because of the music, but because of the people.
Neil was also an excellent writer. I've read his books, and Ghost Rider had a profound impact on me. Keep going in the face of incomprehensible loss. Keep moving. Even if you can only say you got out of bed today, you are victorious. I'd also pop in on Neil's blog from time to time and catch up with his travel stories. I like travel writings, and his were excellent. I would rank him up with William Least Heat-Moon. More than just "I went here and saw this". Also a snapshot of inner monologue and a view of the people that make up this world.
As I reread this for mistakes, I've noticed I refer to the band members by their first names. I've never met any of them in person, yet I feel this is how all of us fans can relate to them. They are not heroes carved in marble up on pedestals. They are us. Neil's death has hit me surprisingly hard. I know everything and everyone will eventually pass into memory, but this was sudden, thanks to Neil's famous guarding of his privacy. But as I continue to process this, I also feel like I've lost a father figure. I hadn't fully realized the he, and the band, meant that much to me beyond the music. I take some comfort in being grateful Rush was there for us for so long, and I know I am far from alone.
I leave you with the song "The Garden," the last track on the last Rush album. It isn't big and blasting, it is quiet and introspective. A little melancholic but always with hope at the end. I don't know if this was the last song they wrote and recorded, but it is an appropriate fade to black on this story.
The Garden
In this one of many possible worlds, all for the best, or some bizarre test?
It is what it is - and whatever
Time is still the infinite jest
The arrow files when you dream, the hours tick away - the cells tick away
The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes
The hours tick away - they tick away
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
In the rise and the set of the sun
'Til the stars go spinning - spinning 'round the night
It is what it is - and forever
Each moment a memory in flight
The arrow flies while you breathe, the hours tick away - the cells tick away
The Watchmaker has time up his sleeve
The hours tick away - they tick away
The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It's the only return that you expect
The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
Rush - Clockwork Angels Tour - The Garden

Neil Peart
(from Reverb.com)



I’m celebrating a number of anniversaries this year. I haven’t figured out a way to celebrate yet. I’d give you a discount on my music but it’s all free anyway. I’ve been thinking about putting together a reel with clips spanning my musical career. That might be cool. And long.  As the year nears it's end, I'm spending some time thinking back to the signposts along the way that stand out.
Thirty years ago I started playing guitar. Twenty years ago I joined a band looking for a guitarist, and it became Strange Land. Been divorced for 10 years. Been with my current partner going on 9. Moved more times than I care to remember, and I know I'm not done yet.
I’ve done a lot. Played guitar for a country session. Played mandolin in a pit band. Wrote two hand tapping music on banjo. I can’t play bluegrass for shit but if it’s got strings I’ll figure out a way to use it. I’ve made Prog metal, I’ve made ambient music. Been on film soundtracks and played dingy blues bars. Big band jazz, orchestras, trios, solo. At one time I taught 45 students each week, shaping young musical minds (scary thought, eh?).
I’ve always been a jack of all trades. It’s hardwired into me to be like that. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s given me a change to do such a variety of things, and ruminating on it now, some of it is downright weird. One of the most interesting gigs I ever had was performing electric guitar with an orchestra. In college we were celebrating the career of composer and professor John Downey. His The Edge of Space / Fantasy for Bassoon and Orchestra piece has a brief clean electric guitar interlude. It was actually a little scary at first since I had very little experience with real orchestra conducting. I didn't really understand it, as most high school conductors have to be a bit more obvious in their direction. I also had the opportunity to play in masterclasses with Arturo Sandoval and Gerald Cannon.
Strange Land's first gig was a weird one. It was St Patrick's Day, 2000. We played on a tv show at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. It was styled as a late night show, but broadcast live in the evening. Our keyboard player almost didn't show (there's always "that guy," right?). That night the guests included comedian Andy Dick and couple of strippers from the local night club. The studio audience consisted of college students who had been drinking since dawn. The strippers put on a little 'show' for the host while we played some cliché music, and after that the show was never broadcast live again. We also got to play a couple of our original tunes but I don't think anybody cared.
In the first ten years of Strange Land we were a live performing band. We released 3 albums and played a lot of shows. Some of those were significant, opening for Fish, King's X, Tiles, and Three (you prog heads will know what I'm talking about). Also played a lot of shows in smoky bars for 5 people who didn't give a shit we were there. Since the transition to studio band we've released 4 more albums and I'm in the early writing stages for more.
About the same time Strange Land got going, I started playing solo shows. Although I went to college to study jazz and classical guitar, I started playing steel string acoustic fingerstyle guitar at the end of my college time. I was introduced to players like Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, and Billy McLaughlin in college and started dabbling in the style on my own. It was a study option at my school but I didn't take that formal route. Ever since college I've run a parallel career of playing in bands and playing solo. I've mostly done coffeehouse-type gigs and short tours.
I taught my first lessons while in high school, but I made an official part time job of it from about 1999-2002, then full time until 2006. At one point during my full time stretch I had 45 students a week. It became sort of a second shift job and I was glad to end my full time run, but I do think about going back to a handful of students. I have had a few online students over the years.
In early 2010 I decided I had to leave Wisconsin. I'd thought about going a few times in the past but never made it happen. But the circumstances in my life at that time just worked out right to make the move. My best friend Tim had moved there in the early 2000s, and it was good to go somewhere I knew someone. Shortly after my move I met singer-songwriter Trinity Demask. I started playing sideman gigs with her and we became good friends. I was in Denver for 5 years, and we played many shows and I helped record and mix one of her albums. I also spent time in Denver playing metal with a band called Delusionist, and worked with a collective called the Stone Soup Soldiers. What originally started as a world/rock music jam/write/record thing eventually, under the guidance of group leader Mike Paul Hughes, morphed into a group that wrote some music for TV and indie films. I also met my better half, Lynette, in Denver, in late 2010. We were a good match, being at places in our lives where one thing we both wanted was to live in a "no bullshit zone". I won't say its all sunshine and unicorns, but I know we have an easier relationship than a lot of other people I know.
Once again the 'move bug' bit, and in 2015 Lynette and I started working toward a move to the Pacific Northwest. The story of this transition is actually very long, complicated, and frustrating so I won't recount it here. We did finally end up in Springfield, Oregon earl in 2016. I do really like it here, I think the PNW is a good fit for me. It's been a place to start new and to find out how one understands oneself upon moving into middle age. I've hit some serious bumps and sought professional help. I feel like I'm in a good place in my head, and if anything, let me tell you that asking for help, especially for mental health, is ok. It's a good thing. It's good to feel whatever you feel and there's no shame is seeking help understanding what it means. And I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised at how much people around here support live music.
My life has been full of constant change. Not that I'm unusual, but sometimes I just want to stop. I've moved nearly 20 times in my life, 10 of those moves coming after college. Part of the adjustments I'm trying to make in my mind now is just adapting to the idea of staying out. I'm in a house now that I could be in for 15 years, maybe longer. I have no concept of how one does that.
At least at the moment I'm starting to feel like I'm settling into a new phase.  I also now can count myself as a professional drone pilot and photographer. I've become something of an event videographer, totally by accident. I hosted a futurism and science podcast for two years and 90 episodes. Interviewed a lot of cool people and covered cool subjects.

I still make a lot of my own music, under my name, Strange Land, and some other avenues. Somewhat unplanned, 90% of my gigs the last 3 years have been jazz gigs. I'm on pace for almost 70 shows this year, and I'm sure this has been my busiest year by far. Although I studied jazz in college I never really pushed to be a serious jazz musician after school. I did it more as an avenue to learn more about music, and then did my own thing. Returning to it has been good for my playing skills and musical growth, and good for my social life (as little as it is). All this has never led to the financial success that America demands of you to be considered worthy, but I'm learning to better enjoy what I have. It's mine, I did it my way, and I think this is the only way it could be.



The Process

I’m just about finished with a new Strange Land album and I’ve been reflecting on the process. It’s always the same, every album. Maybe most artists are stuck with this, it’s just how being creative works. Not that everyone goes through the same things, but that there’s a pattern each time. For me it’s like going through the same bad relationship over and over, never realizing it’s me, or seeing the patterns for what they are.

At the beginning everything is fresh. The ideas are tantalizing, the possibilities wide open. Ideas flow and take shape. Songs begin to become entities of their own, and the big picture of the album comes into focus. Themes appear if they weren’t already established to guide the creative process.

Then the yeoman’s work of tracking begins. Where the writing is like philosophical or scientific thought experiments, the tracking is a craft akin to blacksmithing or throwing pottery. Hard work, sometimes blunt, sometime technical, but still creative and satisfying. During this phase I often challenge myself to play my best and even improve, having written things I can’t immediately play.

Then comes the editing, mixing, and mastering. It can be grunt work, it can be creative. It’s also where you gather the trees you’ve already planted and see if the forest makes sense. All phases of recording can be like a mad scientist tinkering away in his lab, and that’s probably why I like writing and recording more than performing. It suits my introversion.

That doesn’t sound so bad when you put it that way, but now here’s some inner psychology of my process. Beginning at the end, when I finish and release an album I get some sort of postpartum depression. I hesitate to use that term, it’s not as serious as the real thing, but it’s an apt description. I go into a funk (
not the groovy Bootsy Collins kind) after sending my musical child out into the world, sometimes for a few months. I think it’s part mental exhaustion and a need to recharge. Part fear (what if no one like it? What if I never write again?). Part self doubt like so many artists have, wondering if there’s any point to all of this.

Gradually this fades and work can begin anew. And it does have to fade, I’ve never been able to force myself out of this phase. I hardly ever have to wait for inspiration though. I usually have 4-5 projects I’d like to tackle at any given time. But which one? After the depression fades I have to go through what I call the angry beehive phase. As I think of the general shape of the next project and start to consider some of the details my head gets like an angry, buzzing beehive. The ideas become so numerous and swirl around so much that I can sleep. I have to try to pry some of this crap loose and set it down on paper or digital bits so my head doesn’t burst. But at this phase things are also so nebulous and vague that I can’t pull them out. It’s like someone mixed all my paint into a grey-brown blob, and I have to somehow separate the blue from the yellow from the burnt umber before I can get back to painting.

It really has been maddening at times, and I’ve thought it’s partly because I have a tendency to procrastinate. I try to tell myself “do something, anything, just keep working consistently,” but that’s just not how it works. My creativity has always come in large uncontrolled lumpy bursts. When I was a kid I’d dump all my legos on the floor all at once and spend hours combing though the pieces to build things. My desk is usually a mess but if I put things away I forget about them. I’m just not wired any other way, though I think life would be less stressful if I were.

Once the creative dam bursts and I start tracking things go pretty smoothly for a while. There are many small details to focus on. At this point I really can just pick something, anything to work on. Out of a dozen songs, literally any work moves things forward. And I should say that I don’t have all the writing done before I track, usually just the skeletons of the songs. So while tracking I’m also writing. Guitar parts inspire drum parts and vice versa, layers build, I sprinkle keyboards here, write a bass part over there.

But something happens about 75% of the way through. The details get smaller and smaller and I feel like I’m not making any progress. I get frustrated, depressed, unmotivated to work on the album. And the kicker is at this point I feel like I’m less than halfway done, that there is still this huge mountain to climb. Over and over I’ve been through this, and when I finally push through I realize I’m almost done. This is extremely frustrating, that I’ve done this album after album and I can’t break this habit of feeling defeated so close to a finish line I just can’t see, even though it’s a lot closer than I realize. More and more I have been able to accept this as part of the process, but it also seems so avoidable. I’m not sure I could change the post-album depression or the angry beehive, but this? It should be as simple as telling myself that just when I feel like I’ll never finish is exactly when I’m almost finished. It’s darkest before the dawn? Whatever.

At the final phase, mixing and mastering, things are rolling along. The big picture is fully formed, I have artwork and packaging going. It’s a big part of my self identity to finish projects. I don’t have children and I don’t have much of a legacy to leave other than my artistic work. So the more I can get done the better. At the end I’m usually a combination of exited to have the finished product and worn out, like a parent who just can’t wait for their adult child to finally more out of the house. Sure, I’m sad to see you go, but you’re an adult now, so buh-bye. I need to turn your room into a man cave.

At the very least I can say that as I’ve gotten older I’ve become better at accepting all of this because it is my process, and my creative process is at the core of who I am.

Advice for Young Musicians


Someone on LinkedIn recently put out a call for help with a project and I volunteered. The project was a question asking for advice to young musicians. This is what I wrote:

Don't be afraid to take chances when you're young. When you're 20 and have the energy and support at home is the time to load up your car and tour on the cheap playing everywhere you can, or travel the world, or go to college far from home (but take care of your health). By the time you're 40 life has a way of making huge changes more difficult, less likely, but maybe not impossible. I certainly can't stay up until 5am like I used to.

Be excellent in your craft. Practice with intent. Practice the hard stuff. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you'll treat every problem like a nail. If you're a rock guitarist, study some jazz. If you're a singer, learn an instrument. If your'e a trumpet player, learn some drums. Never stop learning.

Get a good job so you can can afford to pursue your own music. Yes, not the dreamy answer many want to hear, but honest. Only a small fraction of musicians get rich and famous with their original music, and it's always been that way. Having lived through the rise of the internet and the disruption of Napster, it's harder than ever to 'make a living' at music. It is, however, easier than ever, to make music. Do it because you love it, because your muse demands it. Be you and make no compromise, but be prepared for rejection, not everyone will like what you are doing. If unleashing your own creativity is important enough to you, you will weather the rejection and will know that you are the only person who can make your music.

Sometimes I think it's part of the human condition that we cannot take the advice about life we should when we are young. All that stuff your parents and grandparents told you, yeah, it's mostly true. But you won't listen when you're 20. It would be good if you did, but there's just something about us that insists we live through it before we understand it.
© 2019 Sean Gill Contact Me