Longevity, education and the financial ripple effect of iconic music

July 26, 2020 – Even with everything happening in the world, the one constant in my life has been a continued desire among guitar students of all ages, genders and orientations to learn the timeless and oft-overplayed classic, Stairway to Heaven.

Out of curiosity, I ran a quick calculation on the net value of Stairway to Heaven to my career: assuming two ‘Stairways’ taught 50 weeks out of a year over 20 years at my median rate the result is well over $125,000. This is modest as I have occasionally taught quite a bit more Stairway! So, it turns out there as an immense value to timelessness, and therefore an implied collective incentive to push each other to create inspiring, multi-generational, orally-transmissable work.

Music economies work in fascinating, non-linear ways, and the ripple effects of something ‘valuable’ are often not observed by the standard sales matrix that tells us whether or not something is of any monetary worth.

Here’s some lifetime valuation of other music I teach on the regular, all choices initiated by students and not myself.

Seven Nation Army – $48.75K

Back in Black – $32.5K

Over the Hills and Far Away – $32.5

Under the Bridge – $15.5K

Interestingly, I don’t teach the White Stripes that much and haven’t for years, but there was a time, more or less a half decade, where I was teaching that song once a day at least four days a week. So, if Seven Nation Army were to have the longevity that Stairway to Heaven has had, it would easily be the frontrunner as far as most ‘valuable’ piece of music to my career. However, and this is arguably up for debate as Elephant is a potentially timeless record for many reasons beyond the level of instrumental prowess, Seven Nation Army lacks that ‘craft’ element that makes a piece of guitar playing really stick in the popular consciousness. People usually learn it at the beginning of their studies, digest it, and move on to more compelling things. Stairway, like most of these other songs, stays with a lot of players for life.

So…What do we do now?

Teaching in the sun, Los Angeles to Brazil via Zoom

March 26, 2020 – After returning from a week-long shutdown of CalArts, with only one week to work before we close again for spring break, most of my students have asked me the same question: what the heck do I write about when reality is moving too fast to process?

This is something I have asked my own teachers, in turn, on my own behalf. It’s a real puzzler, especially for those of us that began work when life was bizarre but way less terrifying in early March, and are trying to figure out what it means to try finish that work now.

In an attempt to battle a fairly debilitating case of ‘what’s the point?’, I have been writing not in service of the moment but in honor of the past. In figuring out how to be creative in the face of an overwhelming and darkening present, I am mostly compelled to work in documentation of the place that I am from and the origins of my family as we traveled from Mexico to the US. 

The arroyos of Corrales, New Mexico

Right now I am painting little pictures of Corrales, New Mexico as I remember it from my childhood, for solo guitar. I spent a lot (a LOT) of time alone in the country in my first 15 years of life, and lately I have been taking a lot of comfort from allowing my mind to somewhat playfully return to that time and place, what it felt like, and how content I ultimately was to be alone. It’s been helpful and the music that’s come out of this return to a simpler state of consciousness has been a pleasure to write and pretty meditative for me to play. For those who are curious, the pieces will be available for reading-type players to look through soon.

The culture of forced closure

Los Angeles Times coverage of the final performance of Sweet Land

March 18, 2020 – Sweet Land was forced to close due to the spread of the coronavirus and, due to its site-specific nature, can’t be relocated or reopened once this public health crisis passes. 

Sunday night we did one final run of the show for documentation, and it will be available to stream online beginning March 29. Please consider pre-ordering the stream, which gives you access to both the Feast and Train sides of the opera, as a show of support for those of us working in the arts! The survival of the company and its members, at this point, depends on community participation. Please note that we as performers have been paid for our full contract with the company and are included in the royalty agreement for this streaming version of the show, after the company recoups its considerable losses for closing early. For those of you that understand how royalties work, I’m sure you can see this means this production needs to reach far and wide in order to meet its goals. 

Final view of the Train stage from the outside

I have closed a lot of shows but always to go on to the next thing. I have never closed something knowing I would be going on to nothing. While I’m sad to see Sweet Land, which is meaningful to me on a number of levels, close before its time, I am satisfied in some ways by the fact that I can help to make a piece of art about the land I come from actually available to the people who reside there. New Mexicans with a vested interest in the complex development of our culture over the centuries will see our local aesthetic in terms of the presentation of the art (and even my approach to making feedback, as post-rock is sort of our regional way of making loud sounds) but also in the very nature of the story this company has chosen to tell. 

As we move into more and more uncertainty as a nation, I think it is SO VITAL to see that we have been telling certain stories in the fine arts world to a certain demographic not out of financial or cultural mandate but as a choice. The success and reach of this opera in the press has confirmed for me something that I have felt in my heart for some time—we do not have to make only white, male-driven stories for a white, affluent audience in order to survive. 

Please take the time to support this work and all who have been a part of it if it is within your means. I look forward to having discussions with my friends in the motherland after you’ve had a chance to see what we made.

Sweet Land, a picture of home

LA Times coverage of the opening of Sweet Land

March 1, 2020 – Sweet Land opened tonight in Chinatown and is the first piece of developmental theater I’ve originated a book for since moving to LA. What an undertaking! The logistics behind doing cavalier DIY work of this scope are a sight to behold. But also, what a moving moment for me as a New Mexican, because of what this work has managed to achieve. 

Half my family is from Mexico City and I was raised in part by an Apache woman who was adopted into the other half before I was born. I am from a tiny town in the desert whose origins are complex and bloody and rich in the history of many different cultures at once. This is the first time I’ve participated in a new work that has a direct relevance to my position in the American experience. It’s incredible to be a part of a production composed in part by someone who grew up literally down the road from my family, particularly an opera, and to see this story being lent credibility through the lens of the NY and LA Times.

View of the orchestra pit at Sweet Land – in the dirt, after dark, saturated with feedback and blue light

I have been toiling away in the theater world for years now in the service of realizing other people’s art that has no connection whatsoever to who I am or where I come from. After 22 years in this end of the industry and elsewhere I can’t tell y’all how weird it is to realize you’ve been making art whose core function is to keep from including you. It’s a thing you can really only get a sense of when the paradigm shifts and you get to be a part of something that feels familiar in a context where everything is made to feel foreign by design.

This is something I’ve been working on transcending from a gender perspective for the last half decade, and that journey has taken me across the country (twice) and away from just about every support structure I tend to think of as home. But starting to do this as a multicultural, multiracial person…I have to completely remake a space within myself so that some things can realign and come out in a more authentic fashion. Right now I am really doubling down on undoing the complex erasure within my own family heritage by writing new music, but it is SO important to be able to put this energy into supporting other people’s journeys in this direction. It’s time for us to be able to include ourselves in our own work and still be heard, at the highest level, across the land.