Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Why I Admire My Friend

This last weekend, I spent a couple of days at a conference of local musicians. In that conference I had the wonderful opportunity to see, once again, a good friend that I hadn’t seen face to face in about 10 years. It was wonderful to catch up.

He spoke to us in his workshop about some of the experiences he’s had as he’s established his business. There are two stories in particular that I’d like to share with you, because they illustrate a couple of reasons why I admire him so much as an artist and an entrepreneur. They are great lessons for us all.

First, however, some background.

Chance Thomas had made a bit of a name for himself in the Salt Lake area music scene as a composer, arranger, and producer. Jingles and songwriter demos were much of the staples of his business. Being an independent entrepreneur, he was constantly scouring the horizon for the next project, the next contract, to keep food on the table and his business growing.

Then he got a steady job offer at a California computer game company. A staff position, with benefits and a salary, composing music to accompany the flow of the games. With a few years of experience at this and a lot of contacts, he went independent again. In the process, he picked up a project that anyone in his position would envy. A company was able to secure the rights to do a series of games based on the book version of Lord of the Rings. He was contracted to score it!

Game sound these days has come a long way from the days of “beep, beep, boink” of the Mario Brothers. As a part of this project, Chance composed several hours worth of music, and recorded them by conducting a full live symphony orchestra. It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

Anyway, two things I learned from him this weekend. One practical, the other, personal.

The practical one came to me years ago. I realized that at every sharp point in his career, I saw his name in the news. Over and over again. When he did the LOTR soundtrack, he was written up in gaming magazines and tech trades all over the place. I always thought he was lucky to have the press following his every move.

Not so. In the workshop, he said, make the press your friend, and they will follow your every move. His point? Whenever you hit a landmark in your business, send out a flurry of press releases. Soon, in your own sphere, they begin to recognize your name, and before long, you’re “getting ink”.

Now, I had realized this intellectually a long time ago. But it really opened my eyes to the power of it, especially to see its impact over a long-term career. He is now an “industry name”. Which came first, the prestigious projects or the ongoing media coverage? Who knows? Who cares?!

It works!

He also talked to us about a personal challenge that he’d had to face. As sometimes happens when you’re self-employed, there can come dry spells. And he hit a big one. For almost ten months he couldn’t get a project. Couldn’t get a contract. Couldn’t get arrested. He said that he and his wife began to sell of things just to keep their home and stay alive.

At the peak of this frightening time, he got a job offer. A sweet, sweet offer, in his words, that would bring in a big regular salary, benefits, retirement packages, security. After walking through the desert, they were offering him a permanent oasis.

The problem? A long time ago, as he was entering the video game and media music industry, he’d made a commitment to himself that he wouldn’t be a part of what he saw was a big problem: The emotional damage violent and sexual games and movies do to youth. When he met with the company in the final interview, after they had already offered him the job, he asked about their upcoming projects.

“Well, this game is one we’re working on, it’s pretty violent, rated ‘M’ for ‘Mature Audiences’… The next one, that’ll also be rated ‘M’. Then we also have a couple of contracts to do sound and music for some R-rated movies…”

With a heavy heart and great strength of character (and with no other prospects on the horizon), he turned down the job.

Now some people would be amazed that a person would step away from so much money and stability. But the one thing we’ll have at the end of our day here on earth is our integrity. And no amount of money is worth selling that.

Since then, the projects have returned, and my friend is busy again. Waves come and go. I admire my friend for being able to hold his head above the water. And I thank him for teaching me a couple of things as I swim by.

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