Spotify’s “Cinematic Chill-Out” playlist will give you chills

Over the course of the past year, I’ve gotten addicted to Spotify. I enjoy the fact that it’s cross-platform, and thus integrates into products like my Amazon Echo. But I also love the playlists and Discover Weekly feature, which surface musical choices that I never would’ve thought of.

Today, “Cinematic Chill-Out” popped up on my “Browse” tab and it’s a great playlist full of film scores that are easy on the ears. I already loved a lot of these selections, but there are a bunch that I’d never considered before. You can take a listen to it below.

The stupefying odds

A spectacular data visualization by The Pudding shows how difficult it is for a band to break out and make it big:

The vast majority of bands never do make it. Acts break up, give up or decide they have other things they want to do with their lives.

For every Chance the Rapper there are thousands of rappers that never play a show with more than a couple hundred people. For every Lake Street Dive, there are hundreds of promising bands that break up because they lost on their members.

To see the NYC concert trajectory of different bands, below you can search for any of the 3,000 bands that played a show in 2013, and at least one more show from 2014 to 2016. Perhaps some of them are on their way to making it, and it just hasn’t happened yet.

How a $100,000 Music Video Shoot Went Horribly Wrong

The making of the latest Young Thug music video, “Wyclef Jean,” didn’t go quite as planned. Co-director Ryan Staake was given some pretty specific instructions by Young Thug, but when the artist didn’t show up for the shoot, Staake had to improvise. The result is a hilarious behind-the-scenes look into video-making that includes a mish-mash of different ideas that have no business being edited together.

I can’t say with confidence if any of the shenanigans described in the video are real. But either way, it’s a pretty novel way to roll out a new music video. Watch the final(!) video below:

 

On ‘La La Land’ and Its Treatment of Jazz

I really enjoyed La La Land when I first saw it, but as time has gone on, its shine started to wear off for me. The first thing that bothered me was how it handled its overarching message about succeeding in Hollywood (more thoughts here in our podcast review). The second was how the film handled jazz.

In La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, wants to open his own jazz club. He believes jazz in its pure form still has the potential in our society to thrive, unperverted by tapas, salsa, or modern day market demands (nevermind the sales figures).

About halfway through the film, John Legend’s character, Keith, is introduced trying to recruit Seb for his band. Keith has evolved his jazz style to be more palatable to the masses, but in a way that Seb finds objectionable.

When the two play a concert for the first time, the camera cuts multiple times to Emma Stone’s Mia watching Sebastian, her eyes full of disappointment and bemusement. “How could Seb do this?” she seems to be wondering. How could he pervert his “art” like this?

Which is a bit odd if you think about it. It feels like the audience is set up to look down on Keith’s music, and to admire Seb’s tenaciousness. But what actually is wrong with Keith’s stuff anyway? Isn’t changing with the times what all great musicians have done? And why is Ryan Gosling’s character trying to defend the musical form of jazz against John Legend’s character?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this dynamic. Over at MTV News, Ira Madison III has penned a scathing reaction to the film’s “white savior” narrative on jazz:

The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.

Seve Chambers over at Vulture has more on what La La Land gets wrong about jazz to begin with:

Today’s artists have realized that letting go of these conservative notions is best way to “save jazz.” La La Land presents these arguments in the form of Keith, the fusion artist played by John Legend in the film. Though his words sound reasonable — he asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist — Chazelle stacks the deck against him: Keith turns out to use a laughably ’80s sound that’s meant to seem completely disconnected from his jazz roots. For extra measure, he also uses a cheesy stage show complete with dancers — a luxury no modern jazz artist could afford, or would even consider. It’s almost as if, well, the movie wants us to hate new jazz.

This is a vision of fusion jazz that sounds nothing like the contemporary jazz scene. Take Esperanza Spalding, a gifted musician who has brought renewed attention to the genre. One night she might go onstage with a band that mixes rock, R&B. and other influences; on another she might play with veterans Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington in an all-woman trio. The same holds true for Robert Glasper, whose experimental troupe might do a jazz cover of a Nirvana song or pay homage to the late hip-hop producer J Dilla, but who also spends time in a more traditional group, the Robert Glasper Trio. Both Spalding and Glasper are highly regarded within jazz circles, drawing sizable crowds and winning Grammys in the process. Other acts like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Otis Brown III refuse to be fixed on the idea of purity; they’d rather push jazz to evolve. Despite what La La Land might have you think, the genre has already reckoned with and resolved the debate over the sanctity of jazz.

When it comes to La La Land’s vision of jazz, look closer at the real thing before you take it as gospel.

A looping cello cover of “All My Little Words” by The Magnetic Fields

Here is a cover of the song “All My Little Words” by The Magnetic Fields that I put together with skilled local singer Annie Jantzer. We’re in the process of exploring our next collaboration but so far I’m really enjoying the unique sound we have, and love how cello and a female vocalist can transform any number of well known songs.

Check out the video if you have a chance!

My First Cello EP is out!

Photo by elldubphoto.com

After several months of work, my new cello EP is out! It features looping cello covers of pop/movie music, and is available for purchase on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and Xbox.

I embarked on this journey for the same reason I decided to make a movie last year: because I wanted to understand the work that went into it these pop cultural artifacts. How are they created? How are they distributed? And can an average person do it? And of course, in both instances, my starting attitude was, “How hard could it be?”

Pretty damn hard, it turns out (both times).

Putting the EP together required several steps that I might not have anticipated. First, I had to raise some money or front my own capital. In this case I did both. I spent a bunch of money on recording and mixing, then launched a successful Kickstarter in order to get compensated for my initial outlay. This process typically cost around $3-4K, but it really depends on who you choose to help you and how much they decide to charge.

After doing the recording and the mixing, I realized there was a whole other step that I’d previously been completely unaware of: mastering. This is obvious to any musician who has recorded before, but for me it was net new knowledge and showed just how inexperienced I truly was.

Mastering has meant a lot of things over the years, but to oversimplify it, these days it involves making the recording louder and more aesthetically appealing across a variety of devices and listening environments. If you are lucky, this process will only cost several hundred dollars for a few songs.

After this, I had to figure out how to distribute the music. There are many awesome self-serve sites such as Bandcamp and Gumroad that allow you to do this relatively easily, and they only take a small cut. But in addition to using these, I also wanted my work to appear on major distribution platforms such iTunes and Amazon.

To make that happen, I had to use a digital distribution company. There are several of them out there that have gained traction over the years — most prominently, CDBaby, Tunecore, and Distrokid. I spent a lot of time poring over the differences between these sites — their strengths, weaknesses, and pricing. Ultimately I elected to go with CD Baby (here’s my album on their site) for the following reasons:

1) Longevity – Once you sign up with one of these sites, your music’s continued presence in online stores depends on the service’s existence. So for instance, if you signed up for Distrokid to get your music onto iTunes, and Distrokid goes out of business next year, your music is gone (as are all the associated links). CD Baby has been in existence for nearly 20 years. They are proven, and likely not going out of business anytime soon. Also: Once you upload an album, you never need to pay another fee again (although you do need to give up 9% of all sales – a pretty substantial number that Distrokid does not charge).
2) Customer service – Sure, it’s not the most advanced or quick customer service in the world, but CD Baby actually has a customer service line where you can call and speak to a real person. For someone like myself who was just starting out in this field, it was helpful to have.
3) Tunecore and Distrokid are sketchy – Tunecore has had issues with musicians putting their music up on YouTube  and I just found Distrokid’s interface to be lacking polish and some really basic features (as an example, you can’t cancel your Distrokid yearly subscription unless you email them). I very well may end up using Distrokid down the line because it is so simple and cheap, but I didn’t want to try it for my maiden voyage.

Ultimately, I’m happy with the EP’s presence out in the world and grateful for the support of all the people who helped make it possible. I hope you enjoy it.

I’m making a cello EP

Since I just can’t seem to get enough of owing people Kickstarter rewards, I’ve decided to launch a new project: a professionally recorded cello EP. Much like my previous large-scale Kickstarter project, I have never attempted a project of this scale before in this particular medium. The good news is that this time, the recordings are almost done. They just cost a sizable chunk of change and it would be amazing if people could contribute to the Kickstarter and “pre-purchase” the EP to help me make up the cost.

You can donate to the project here. Thank you so much to all who have already contributed!
While my Kickstarter goal of $1000 was fulfilled in less than 5 hours, I was originally quite unsure of what the response would be like. Several of my previous Kickstarters have also been successful,  but they’ve all had something to do with stuff people know me by, whether it be film or podcasting. This was my first project where people might not have had any frame of reference for what I was producing. I was grateful that so many took a chance on this one, and I am hopeful I will be able to make something beautiful that will make us all proud.

A few thoughts came to mind on how I could’ve done this run this Kickstarter a little bit better:

Under a certain goal amount, it feels weird to launch a Kickstarter – One of the benefits and downsides of Kickstarter is that if you don’t fulfill your goal, you get none of the money (Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo famously gives you money along the way). Thus, I toyed with putting a goal of something like $300 or $500, to give myself a better chance of reaching the goal. But on a personal level, I felt as though under a certain amount (call it $500?), it doesn’t really make sense to do a Kickstarter. Why not just borrow some money from a friend or something? In addition, Kickstarter projects take a crapton of work. If you’re going to do one, you might as well set your goal higher to make it worth the time that it will take.

Very few people will take your lowest tier – Again, as with previous Kickstarters, my dream was that I would get hundreds of people contributing small amounts of money (i.e. $3 for just the EP) and once again that did not play out. When it comes to Kickstarter, people like to be upsold! They like bonus content, they like the personal connection with creators, and they like knowing that they are getting a set of rewards that are hard or impossible to obtain otherwise.

The emotional and practical barriers to entry for people supporting Kickstarters is pretty high. They need to support your work, they need to be willing to contribute to it, and they need to know that you have a live Kickstarter. Once those barriers have already been surmounted, they are likely going to be willing to contribute a larger amount than the bare minimum. On that note…

You should absolutely have a reward tier between $15-25 – A lot of people gave $5, but I’m fairly certain they would’ve been willing to contribute up to $15-25. That’s a lot of money that I simply left on the table, and while I did eventually add a few $15-25 options, I really should have built this in from the beginning. As in, I literally should have spent as much time as necessary time thinking of how I could produce a ton of $15-level rewards and not launched the Kickstarter until I had come up with something. It’s that important.

The average Kickstarter donation is $25.

O Holy Night – Cello Version


I put together this cello rendition of “O Holy Night” in the hopes of bringing everyone some Christmas cheer. This video is dedicated to my mother, Marilyn, who gave me the gift of music. Can’t wait to see the whole Chen family in Seattle in a few days!

This is my first cello video using pre-recorded loops. I liked how it turned out although the arrangement is very simple – hopefully I’ll be able to play with some more complex rhythms in the future. Find the rest of my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday season this year. To those who’ve read this blog and supported my endeavors, you have my gratitude.

Mr. Brightside – Looping Cello Cover


I recently put together this brief cello cover of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and was pleased to see that it was mentioned at both LaughingSquid and Devour this morning.

Each one of these videos takes a lengthy amount of time to practice for, shoot, and then edit, so it’s always gratifying to see that people are watching these videos and enjoying them. If you’ve ever looked/liked/shared, thanks so much! You’re giving me the motivation to keep going.

You can find all my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.

U2’s With or Without You – a Looping Cello cover version

I spent about 10 years of my childhood playing cello. But when I got to college, other responsibilities took over and I let the cello fall by the wayside. Now, about a decade later, I have picked up the cello again, but with a twist: I’m playing it using a looping pedal and an electric pickup.

Today, I’ve launched a new Youtube channel and plan to release one of these videos per month. My first video is below:


If you like these kinds of videos, feel free to Subscribe to my Youtube page or Like me on Facebook.

The fine line between (soundtrack) homage and rip-off

[This post may contain SPOILERS for Captain Phillips, but only if you don’t know what Phillips’ fate was in real life. It also contains spoilers for Inception]

Captain Phillips was one of my favorite films of the year. I’m a huge fan of Greengrass’ hyper-real style, which ratcheted up the tension throughout, and Tom Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career. The score by Henry Jackman was also pretty solid, but one thing about it did catch my ear: the very last track.

I knew it sounded familiar, but as the track went on, its similarity to Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from his Inception score became impossible to ignore. Here’s the latter track:

The chord progression is obviously the same, but so is the instrumentation and the way both tracks play with dynamics (i.e. hear how the volume swells at the same point in the chord progression in both tracks). Furthermore, both tracks play at similar points within each film: right at the end as the credits begin, when some relative level of safety has been established for many of the main players.

Sure, certain chord progressions have been borrowed time and time again in different scores, songs, symphonies, concertos, etc. But their implementation is often so different that new iterations are either transformative or unrecognizable.

This, on the other hand, feels like almost a direct lift. If I had to guess, I’d surmise that “Time” was used as a temp score for Phillips, and it worked so well that Jackman had to create something incredibly similar, but different enough that his film couldn’t be sued. What do you guys think?

Update: Readers have pointed out that Zimmer received a “The director would like to thank…” shout out in the end credits of Captain Phillips.

An Interview with Dave Porter


I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview composer Dave Porter this evening. Dave Porter has crafted all the original music for Breaking Bad, including the now-iconic theme, and his work has been essential to making Breaking Bad the legendary show that it’s become. You can head over to /Film to download the interview, or listen to it below.

This is one of my favorite pieces of content that I’ve had pleasure to produce. Ever.

Upcoming Rodrigo y Gabriela

I’m a huge fan of Rodrigo y Gabriela (I even got tickets to see them during their recent trip to the Chateau St. Michelle winery in Woodinville, WA), so I was psyched to see that they just made a substantial appearance on Morning Becomes Eclectic. They’re apparently working on their new studio album, and the mini-concert above gives you a taste of what is to come.

Can’t wait to buy the hell out of this thing.