Technology

My Strange Path from Disgruntled Freelancer to Double Bass Guru


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By Jason Heath

I never intended to build anything online.  All I ever wanted to do was play bass and enjoy life.

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Part 1 – Becoming a Blogger

It happened by accident, really, though I think that’s how these things so frequently happen.  I was looking for a way to deliver important information to my ever-growing bass studio as seamlessly as possible.  Since I was always forgetting what we had covered the past week, I ended up taking notes on my students’ lessons, summarizing what we worked on along with any links to materials that they should order, camps to check out, and materials to order.  I actually keep these summaries up on the blog for historical purposes, and I still think that it’s a helpful way to organize lesson content for students.

After poking around for a simple solution, I stumbled upon Google’s service Blogger.  Though I’d never had an interest in blogging (and was really only dimly aware of what blogging was), this service seemed like the simplest way to easily update content.  I started my one-post blog and kept it that way for quite a while, eventually adding a links page and a couple other resource pages.

Around this time, I decided, for a multitude of reasons, so get out of the freelancing game and go back to school for a music education degree.  Though freelancing was working out well for me, I started to think about the future and think about what I’d be likely to be doing in five, ten, or twenty years.  At that point, I was driving 50,000+ miles a year playing in five different orchestras and teaching 40-50 private students, holding down two part-time university jobs and teaching at a handful of area high schools.  I didn’t see much beyond this “rat race” given my current career trajectory, so I decided to go back to school and learn some new skills.

Deciding to dump this lifestyle (though, truth be told, I never really dumped it–it just morphed as I went on my new journey) liberated me, in a way.  What was I doing with my life?  Did I need to put in those four, five, and six hour practice days each day?  I started to find myself with more free time and more creative juices as I eased up on all the driving and freelance grinding.  My mind started to shoot off in different directions, and ideas for projects started to come to me.

For one thing, I’d always liked writing.  I had some success getting my writing published at Northwestern University during my undergraduate years, and I really enjoyed the act of crafting a piece of prose.  It was both similar and different from practicing, tapping into a creative part of my brain that, as I used more and more, I quite enjoyed exercising.  Like working a muscle, writing sharpens with frequency for me, and I began to derive satisfaction from the craft of creating a tight piece of prose.

So I started doing some actual writing on my blog.  I kept it short at first: a link to something cool, a bass photo discovered on Flickr, or a blurb about an upcoming live event were typical posts.  As I began to write, I also started poking around online and seeing if anyone else was doing this kind of writing in the classical music sphere.  There were a few other bass people on Blogger that I found, and even more in the broader world of classical music.

I linked to them.  They linked back.  Conversations and cross-blogging (a sort of early re-tweeting that bloggers did constantly back in the day) occurred.  Anyone active in these spheres in the mid-2000’s will remember this type of community conversation, similar in some regards to the contemporary climate of Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram.

At some point in the first few months of the blog, I began to realize that quite a few people had discovered my blog. I started to look forward to checking in with the community after I got home from gigging and teaching. I began to set aside time specifically to work on this. Ideas for topics started to flow, and before long I was putting out three posts a day, mostly focused on bass but also venturing into other topics like education, classical music news, and the like.  I set up a stat counter and watched the numbers grow over time.

At a certain point, I decided to actually start writing on the site and not just linking and posting photos.  Like most freelancers, I had built up my fair share of eccentric gig experiences. I began to crank these out at the pace of one a week.  I also had a lot of thoughts percolating in my brain during those unless hours of driving to gigs.  I found that I enjoyed the writing and actually looked forward to it, jotting down new ideas of topics to cover.

Blog traffic increased, and I decided to save my craziest experience of all, the tale of my exploding Saturn wagon, for a while, building up a bigger audience before dropping that particular morsel.  When I did put that story out, I saw traffic increase substantially!  During the years that the blog was really cookin’ (2006-2008), I put out three daily posts each weekday, with at least one fairly substantial piece of prose each week.  I was enjoying writing, linking, and posting, but I felt like there was more that I could do.

Part 2 – Starting The Podcast

I’ll share a secret—I’ve never really cared that much about the blog.  Well….. that’s not exactly true, but if I were to point to something that I’m proud of doing over the past 10 years, the blog would not certainly not be it.  The podcast, on the other hand, is something about which I am fiercely proud, and I think that it is something that has had a marked impact on the global bass community and that will be accessed and used for years to come.  At this point, I’ve interviewed a huge number of influential performers and teachers and created a body of work that has lasting value.  If the blog is a tabloid, the podcast is a research library.

I also had the feeling my writing was taking on a dark tone, with a lot of negativity about professional music in general.  Those who know me in person (or who listen to the podcast) know that I’m a really upbeat and positive person, and while I felt that I was digging into important realities of professional music with my Road Warrior series and other such writing, I knew that I’d rather build something of more lasting value than these dark ruminations about career prospects for musicians.

Prior to launching on New Year’s Day of 2007, I had purchased recording gear, researched podcast hosting and distribution, and began laying the groundwork for a weekly show.  This planning started to happen in the summer of 2006, which was pretty early on for podcasting, but I had become obsessed with it as a form of distribution and consumption.

I didn’t get my first guest until the fourth episode of the podcast, and I can hear how out on a limb I am in these initial episodes when I listen back.  I was also realizing what a massive amount of work a podcast was to create.  Each early episode (I was keeping it to 20 minutes in the first few episodes) took several hours to record, edit, compile, upload, and promote, and I now end up spending easily 10 hours per episode and sometimes much more than that.

Fortunately, the feedback and goodwill toward this new offering of mine was tremendous, and the guests kept flowing in.  My good friend John Grillo jumped in early on to help co-host these episodes, bringing his powerful network of contacts into the Contrabass Conversations universe.  We put out orchestral excerpt analyses, music episodes, and much more than just interviews, and it was staggering to look back on 2007 alone and see what we had created.

This back catalog of Contrabass Conversations is much different than that of most other podcasts.  For one thing, these really are timeless in nature, featuring in-depth discussions with major performers and teachers on the bass talking about technique, auditions, career advice, and the like.

Part 3 – How I Built a Community

There’s a big difference between getting online traffic and actually building a genuine community. I like to think that I’ve done the latter, and here are the three key ways in which I did it:

  1. Depth of Content – I’ve posted many a cat video in my day, but a real online community is probably not built on that (except an online community of cat video lovers, I suppose, but you know what I mean).  If I look it my stats for the 3600+ posts on doublebassblog.org, I find that the vast majority of hits land on the chunky bass articles and resources.  My most popular articles are accessed dozens of times a day at the very least, even though most of those are approaching 10 years in age.
  2. Engagement of Community Members – In the heyday of the blog, I had guest writers, cross-posts, and debates in the comments on a daily basis.  As my focus shifted to the podcast, I featured guest interviewers and other contributions from bassists worldwide.
  3. Consistency – I was super consistent… until I took five years off!  But if you didn’t catch this earlier, doing this kind of stuff at a high level of quality is incredibly time-intensive.  As my terrestrial job increased in hours, I finally threw up my hands and stopped putting out anything new on either the blog or podcast.  Now, having restarted after five years of inactivity, I find the community back and bigger than ever.

It has been particularly fascinating getting the podcast re-launched.  We had about a half-million downloads (that’s a big number for podcasting) from the launch in 2007 until the relaunch in November of 2015.  In the six weeks that we’ve re-launched, we’ve had 100,000 podcast downloads and counting.  That’s a lot of listens!  The momentum behind this thing is remarkable, and I can’t wait to see where we end up in another six weeks, let alone six months!

Part 4 – Blogging is Evolving

Things have changed a lot these last few years in terms of online content, and blogging has hugely changed.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that blogging is irrelevant, but the idea of people landing on a specific web page and consuming all new content has largely been replaced by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks.

Think about it—how often do you read a New York Times story?  Where did you land upon it? Facebook?  Twitter?  The front page of nytimes.com?  It’s probably not option #3 if you’re like most people.

Podcasting, on the other hand, has exploded in the years that I’ve taken off, largely due to the massive rise in smartphones.  Gone are the days of downloading podcasts on the desktop and then syncing to an iPod.  These days, streaming directly from a phone is the norm.  This is a huge game changer for podcasting, and this increased access makes podcasting as easily accessible as any other form of media.

 

Part 5 – Mobile Rules the Roost

These days, we are more mobile than ever, and the world of apps rules most elements of our day.  That’s why I’m so excited to have the Contrabass Conversations app out now!  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what precisely would be of value in an app, and I am really happy with the combination of podcast episodes (they’re all in there along with app-exclusive bonus content), bass-centric blog posts, bass technique video resources, and other helpful resources.  It’s an exciting new world out there for musicians, and the preponderance of mobile devices is a huge game changer in terms of how we access and interact with resources.

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