George Ko: Composer, Improviser, Piano Player (#289)
Our Guest Today: George Ko
George Ko, pianist/composer, is known for his alluring sound, expressivity, and eloquence at the keyboard. He has appeared on stages around the world, from 2000 seat auditoriums to Carnegie Hall. His music has been heard at film festivals, television broadcasts of ABC and CBC, and at music festivals in Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, and China. His recordings have appeared on films at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and on Netflix. His current discography encapsulates his musical style inspired by classical, jazz, R&B, and pop genres. It is in the pursuit of this style, George has created his very own improvisational technique, blending the virtuosity of classical and flexibility of jazz.
As a composer, George developed his artistry at Harvard University, where he received his bachelor’s and honors in music. There, George debuted his first composition, which was premiered by the Grammy award-winning Parker Quartet. Recently, George is an active film composer and had his piano and thematic compositions debuted in the recently released Salt-N-Pepa Biopic on Lifetime in 2021. He was also the keynote artist performer for TEDx’s 2020 global sustainability conference, “COUNTDOWN”, co-hosted by Happily.
George is also a successful entrepreneur, having founded several companies and non-profits, in which he received the CES Innovation Award in Robotics in 2019 and the Harvard Gov 2.0 Award for innovation in politics. George was also the co-founder of Giant Robot Media, an Asian-American digital magazine that discovered groundbreaking creatives throughout the world.
George has given inaugural concerts for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Bowers Museum, and the Fogg Museum. He was invited to play at the request of President Joe Biden, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Senator Barbara Boxer. In recognition of his artistic talent, George was awarded the David McCord Prize from Harvard University. He is also a 5-time laureate of the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition.
George currently resides in Los Angeles, California. He is a Young Steinway Artist. You can find his music on all streaming platforms. George is on the Sonder House label. George is also a member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists and ASCAP.
Watch Our Interview
George Ko: Life of a Young Musician in 2021 #contentcreator #musician – powered by Happy Scribe
You, too. I am so excited today because you have a phenomenal setup at the moment. I don’t know who s available to join us live. If you’re here, please say hi. We won’t be able to get to see everybody from LinkedIn either because the count is not always there, but do say hi. So George and I met, I would say almost five years ago. And is that right, George?
Maybe like five and a half. About five years ago. Yeah, definitely.
Yeah, 2016. I know. Time really flies. I remember. So, basically, a little bit about your background. I went to Harvard. I live in Boston, for those of you who are unclear about that. So you were introduced to me through Alexander Bona International. Thank you, Baron Cosmo. And I was able to go to Harvard and then go to your what do you call that? Like a practice hall or like a recital room or something?
Yeah, it was like a little salon room. Yeah.
I remember you picked up the keys and then you took me into this room where you practice. It was such a meditative experience, something that I never took for granted. And remember going to see you perform, you were, at the time, a classical musician. And then since then, real quick, the 10,000 foot view is that at one point, you’re a working musician. At one point you moved back to California, where you grew up. And we met up again three years ago during my documentary shoot. Yeah, right. Venice beach. It was so cool. And you were working on robotics, so you were an entrepreneur at the time. And fast forward a few years later. Now you found your way back to music, and you even talk about how music is now the only way for you to share your story, where you find your peace, your happiness. So I’m just so glad you’re here.
No, thank you for having me. And it’s just so amazing as a friend and a fan to watch your podcast grow. Like, that’s just kind of cool. And you really were one of the early ones in the podcast world because it didn’t really pick. I mean, podcasts were popular, but it’s not like the way it is today. Podcasts. I listen to so many podcasts because being in La, you drive a lot. And actually what I used to do was I would play movies on my iPhone. I wouldn’t watch them, so don’t worry, I’m not breaking the laws, but I would listen to the movies like a podcast. But then when podcasts became, like, a thing and there was a show format and they’re incredibly entertaining. And so that was just cool to see your podcast take off. That was super awesome. So, yeah, it’s amazing what’s happened throughout time.
I know, it really is amazing. I mean, to follow your journey to see prior to those conversations, I think about all the pivots that you’ve made today. Still as a very young musician and it’s just phenomenal to watch and it’s so fascinating. So I’m so thrilled that most of the people who follow me are creative entrepreneurs, content creators, and I don’t see you as anything other than that. Right. You create content. You’re now on spotify. You started your own journey on YouTube as well. And I’m just glad we reunited and really talk about our own journey in different ways, how you found your path. And I’m sure that’s still evolving and changing, but, I mean, you’re sitting in front of a beautiful piano right now and for people who are joining us, say, hi, we haven’t figured out exactly how we’re going to handle this, but we’re just going to go with a flow and yeah. George, could you kind of explain maybe like, how you transition your music when we talk about classical music, what did you use to play versus what you play now and how you make that kind of bridge the differences and all that.
Yeah, for sure. So, yeah, so I was like a super classically trained concert pianist and I think, like, it was really hard to be at that level and I was not a prodigy, so I had to work. And I was a really bad student when I was young. Like, I played an hour a week for a really long time. And it wasn’t really until college I decided to really become a serious musician and I dropped out of Harvard for a year and I studied piano conducting. And I just remember the early days, I would just play, like, scales, like this slow, like really boring stuff for the hand. And it was just like so I don’t think I practiced 10,000 hours, but I got, like I think I have, like, a good 6000 under my belt. When I started touring just classical, you know, I would play things like, you.
Like Beethoven or Chopin or something. I did that for a bit. But I love collaboration and I think at heart was always a composer. I always wanted to say what I wanted to say and I found that to be at odds with the classical music industry, even though you’re taught growing up to be an artist, you have to be yourself and bring something unique to the table. Especially in American piano pedagogy, you’re supposed to be as faithful to the score. But no one was alive when these composers were alive. So it’s like very educated guesses, but then your individuality gets robbed and unless you’re like, super famous, where people don’t care what you do because they go to see a concert to see you until you reach that level of fame, it’s like the amount of criticism you would get for taking risks was crazy and in fact, from a mental health standpoint, incredibly negative. And I just became really bummed out by the industry and I wasn’t having fun anymore. And so that’s kind of why I stopped. I stopped touring. I went into, like, design and tech, and how I fell back into music was partly from a breakup.
So, you know, those drive musical inspiration a lot, but also, I always love music, but I’ve always wanted to improvise and compose, and it’s a really hard skill to develop. And I was always jealous of jazz guys. They can just go like they can just do that without thinking or like, that you’ll humm a tune, like, if you’re like, oh, you know, the Barney Sing song there’s. And I was just like, oh, man, I wish I could do that. And during the pandemic, kind of two things happened. One was the emotionally distraught, and then the whole world wasn’t locked down. And so I feel like I was so emotionally and spiritually robbed from my brain of, like, that part of your brain that was creativity. The energy you draw from to be creative was completely depleted and decimated. I was like, Well, I have nothing to do. I didn’t have a day job. I was living with my parents. And I was like, well, at this point, what can I do that I really want to do? And I was like, I really want to be able to improvise. And I realized the only way to do that, to do it well and quickly, is to have an innate understanding of the instrument, where whatever I think of in my head, I can play.
The second thing was I have to be able to compose in my head and hear everything before I play. And so I would just to practice, I would, like, sing a tune in my head and then try to see if I can play instantly on the piano. There was a lot of trial and error there, or when I’m dreaming, I would dream about playing the piano. And I started to notice that when I played piano in my dreams, I don’t have perfect pitch, but it matched the keys. In real life. Like, if I’m in my dream, I’m playing. Like, it’s actually the same that it’s like a Pixar movie. And so I was like, okay, I think there’s a subconscious understanding. And then I would also, like mental practice. I would take a score and just look at it, and I would practice pieces in my head, like, imagining where the fingers would go and the pedaling. And I think that with a combination of I love playing guitar. And I took this online guitar class from Brian Sinister, who’s one of the guitar players and composers for Events Sevenfold, the metal band. And he talked about how to improvise on the guitar, and I kind of took all of that.
And then one day I came to the piano, and then I just started playing, just like, something clicked in my head. And this is, like, April of last year. And then I was like, oh, crap. I can improvise now and then all of a sudden I can hear music in my head and just play it. And when I write music now, I can just sit there and just like listen to it in my head and be like, okay, I’ll write that. And this has never happened to me my whole life. It literally just happened. Like, I can’t explain. Just one day woke up and I was like, I could play anything. There’s a really difficult exercise in theory of doing a descending fifth sequence. It sounds like that’s a very difficult theory, exercise in harmony in Western classical harmony. But I don’t know, after that thing clicked, I could just go like sometimes to practice I just go like, I can just do it from Will. And I was just like, oh, wow, this is insane. So yeah, that’s how I transition. That was kind of like the transition process of going from just playing to doing my own stuff.
Okay, now you set the bar really high. I would like future live stream guests to basically welcome themselves or me to the show this way. And it is very soothing. And I start listening to your new album, peach something. What was it again? Peach.
Oh, under the peach treat. Oh, I have the vinyl.
Oh, check it out guys. What a treat. Whoa.
That’s the vinyl. And then I collab with this amazing artist, maggie Chung, Taiwanese American artist, to do the cover.
And then the vinyl itself, like it’s kind of cool. Like it has like part of the album cover on it.
Wow, so cool. I mean, do people buy these things? Buy the vinyl? Where is this like collectors edition or something?
Yeah, I actually sold out. I should have made more. I only made like eight. I made 20 of them and then I kept one and Maggie kept one.
I didn’t think I was going to sell a lot cause excuse me. This is such a departure from my past music career. Like it was basically rebuilding my fan base because my old fan base was like, you know, we want to hear like all the old classics and then my new audience, I’m trying to convince them, you know, like stuff like this, that’s a pretty drastic shift. So it’s like rebuilding a whole new fan base. And so I didn’t think we were going to sell out. We sold out. I keep saying we. Well, technically it’s me and I sold out in a day. We sold out all 18 copies. And then on the final I realized I should have made 100. But the process of an entrepreneur, you follow the Lean Startup model or the IDEO humancentered design process. You ideate, you prototype, you put it out in the world, you learn from it, you keep learning. So I was like, okay, now next time I know I’ll make 100 vinyl.
There’s so much to break down here. Right. I’m so glad people are going to be watching this now or later, because there’s to me, I mean, the cross disciplines of music and content creation, blogging, podcasting, YouTube, frankly, it’s all the same. I don’t know why we separate the disciplines so much. But first of all, Georgia, there’s so much to break down. What you just said about pivoting from one subject, one topic to another, that’s scary because you’ve already built an audience. You’ve been a working musician for a long time. Classical music is drastically different, even within classical music, and there are different disciplines, different styles. And now you’ve sort of left your old audience as a conservianist into this new genre. Let me start with one question at a time. I mean, what did you see as the trends? How did you know that? How did you know the metrics that people were leaving and new people were coming? And where did these new people come from?
That’s a great question. In terms of my music, it is honestly what I like playing and how I think. And so some people I’ve been playing a lot on Clubhouse or I’ve been playing a lot, like, I’ve just been doing a lot of stuff online. And someone asked me like, oh, do you play this way because it’s more trendy? And I said, I never thought about it that way. I was like, no, I play it this way because I like playing it. I like playing the piano this way. I’m really proud to say, as an artist, nothing I did in the transition process was to pander to an audience. It was just me as an artist, I guess from an entrepreneurship stand was the most entrepreneur thing to do. I did not listen to the market. I did not try to find product market fit. If I was trying to find product market fit, I would be like wearing anti antisocial club. I would just have a ton of beats and I would not use an acoustic piano. But I wasn’t thinking about an audience. So that’s the first thing. The second thing more to your question is I noticed when I put it out there that I was not really playing classical anymore.
I lost a lot of I lost followers on Instagram. That was the first thing. Lost followers on Facebook. I lost contacts in the industry. So, like, gigs I used to get that were really easy started to disappear. It was interesting because I look at my spotify and Instagram data and my demographic is strictly 25 to 35. Like very like a huge percentage of my audience, which is the audience classical music venues desperately need. And they were turning me down because I was not like, they would ask me, are you going to play? Are you going to play a show panskirtso or are you going to play like the Third Blood? And I was like, no, I’m gonna play, I’m gonna play a song I wrote and I’m going to do like I love playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Okay, well, if there’s an opening, we’ll let you know. And so those are kind of the immediate consequences. But I did notice with my new fans and yeah, I’m not famous. I know it’s like compared to a really well known conservatives, it’s not a lot, but to me, I’m just super grateful for these fans.
I’ve never had a fan experience where people have been helping me on their behalf. They’re just like, I’ve had fans send me gifts. Like just out of the blue. I’m like, wow, this is amazing. Or people I’ve never met before promote my album or someone introduced me to a performance opportunity. I’ve never had this kind of love from the fans. And if I knew this could exist when I was starting out my career as a concert pianist, I would have totally gone this direction, without a doubt. And then I have one. I guess every entrepreneur or creative has their regrets on not taking initiative. I didn’t take initiative on digital in 2015. I was super lazy about it. And now that I look back, had I taken advantage of that, the pivot would have been a lot easier because right now I’m still building the audience from scratch. And because I put so much of my career on building other businesses and building their social media presence and building those business goals, I now have to do that with myself, which is kind of weird. But also I know how expensive it is to grow an audience.
So it’s just like, oh, man, if I capitalized the early wave of 2015, it’d be easier now. But that’s way in the past.
But that’s a really interesting point for people who are watching this. It’s so easy for me to want to talk about this right now because yesterday I recorded like a solo episode in between Sewed to answer a question about what was hard for me as a content creator at the beginning, and one of which are some of the things that you reflected upon. I started the podcast in 2014. At that time I was looking back to think, I wish I started doing this when I was 20. I mean, when I was in school, why did I wait until I’m like 31 years old or something? This is ridiculous. But I’m really glad that at one point we started doing this. And if you’re watching this thinking, I don’t want to be judged. I don’t feel like I have enough to offer to the world to build an audience. Frankly, it’s never too early to do this. What are your thoughts on learnings in terms of some of the things people don’t know? Right. You mentioned it’s expensive to build an audience. What do you mean by that?
So, like, there’s different ways to build it. Organic would be the dream scenario, which is what I’m doing right now. Everything I’ve done for music wise has been organic. So there’s been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and yeah, I don’t have a Blue check mark, but I’m really proud of the following. We have we have a good group of fans who are really intellectual, who are funny and charismatic and thoughtful and really good listeners. So that’s the best fan and artist can ask for is, like, people who really care about what you’re doing and what other people are doing.
I’m going to clarify a few things, which is you’ve started these live concerts on Instagram. That’s one way that I’ve seen you being fairly active and consistent with building an audience. Is that accurate or were there other channels you’re exploring, too?
Yeah, so, like, on the organic side, the most expensive thing about organic is time. So, like, yeah, I spent a lot of time doing Instagram Live. In fact, my first album, Sonic sync them, is I recorded that in one Instagram Live session in one take, and the whole album is improvised. I remember putting it on. I think only three people tuned in who I didn’t know. And I just told those three people, I’m going to record a whole album in one take, and you three people are going to keep me accountable to finish it. Because as a classical musician, when we do recordings, if it’s not 100% perfect, we freak out. So I had to break that kind of horrible world of judgment. But anyway, aside from Instagram Live, a big driver has been Clubhouse. Clubhouse has been so amazing for my career, and it’s starting to die down a little bit because the popularity is not as strong it was a few months ago, but I’m indebted to that app. Oh, God. If we’re using marketing terms, no, this is great. The lead generation, the user funneling from Clubhouse to Instagram was incredibly successful, but I never thought of it as a funnel until the results were too obvious to ignore.
That was one before the pandemic. I think I had, like, 600 Instagram followers, and now I have about 1900.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound like a lot compared to, I don’t know, Long. Long probably has a couple million, but, like but that was all organic with no budget. Right. And I believe I earned every follower. Like, every follower is a human being that I think I’ve seen somehow through Instagram or Clubhouse. And I would open up a clubhouse room. I would play piano for, like, 5 hours straight, and I would be the host. And I would take requests like people request, like, oh, I want studio jibbly or How’s Moving or like, Star Wars or Harry Potter. And I would, like, improvise people’s stories or moods and like, wait a minute.
For anybody who’s watching right now, if you guys have any song requests, please leave us a comment.
Yeah. And then people would ask, like, oh, do something an F minor. So I’d be like.
So I would like, improvise something F minor. I would do that for four or 5 hours. And then after the session, I would get 40 more Instagram followers. So that’s like ten an hour, which is, like, very, very bad. Like, if you want to use, like, Instagram terms, it’s like, it’s a very bad CTR or KPI. I know it was bad, but I didn’t pay a dime. And so that’s why I worked really hard to get those 1900 people, and I wasn’t thinking about the number. But when I started seeing my Instagram grow, I wasn’t paying attention to Clubhouse. My clubhouse was growing on its own, and I was not paying attention to it. And then Instagram was growing. And then one of my friends, DM me, is like, dude, you just passed 1000. And I was like, really? And I wasn’t paying attention. And then after a thousand, I was like, oh, shoot. This is like a real audience generation platform. I need to take advantage of it. So Clubhouse has been really great to me. And just like, I did a couple of brand collab concerts on the Internet, like, live stream. That has helped a little bit.
I partnered with my old business partner at Giant Robot. He was actually more like my sensei. I really look up to him. And he gave me his Instagram to play music for the Giant Robot community every Sunday. And we’ve been doing that every week since the pandemic.
He’s still doing it.
Yeah. And so he has a pretty sizable audience. And I’ve had, like, so many crazy people have tuned in to that live session. Like Tamlin TOMETA, the actor, kim Jongi the artist, johan from Lincoln Park. I’ve seen them tune in. It’s surreal. I’m playing music for all these people. It’s a really good feeling. So, yeah, I think those were all the kind of different ways I didn’t do a paid ad for my music. Never did a paid media campaign. And I could have. There is a way to brute force it through paid media, like whether it’s Google Ads or Facebook ads or Instagram ads, targeted ads, right? You create all these different A B tests to test audience, demographic, behavior, interests, gender, like, location. And then you do two weeks of those tests. You do $100 per bucket, and then you take the highest performing one. Then you change your budget to like 500 a day. There’s a very methodical way to do it, but I figured now, if everything’s truly organic and people follow me because they actually like the stuff, then if there is money behind it, it will just be the greatest gasoline, right?
Then it will just take off. And so I feel like I don’t really have a goal in terms of social media following, but a good goal for this year would be, like, if I can get to 5000 by the end of the year and on Spotify, if I can get to 3000 followers, that would be very more than satisfied. And that’s like for organic, that’s a pretty difficult goal. But hey.
I don’t know how sophisticated everyone is when it comes to advertising promotion right now. So I’d love to see if you’re watching this. Did that make sense? Where can we elaborate a bit more on the definitions? But here’s the thing. I think some of the takeaways, as George has learned in the past year, maybe year and a half, is that it’s easy for us to want a blueprint, to say that we want to go on certain platforms. Okay, that worked for Faye, that worked really well for George. But realize we’re telling these stories retrospectively. I know that for me, for instance, YouTube has worked out really well. I wish I got on YouTube when I started this podcast in 2014. I did not. I didn’t start until late 2019. I’m like, damn, I just missed that boat. I missed the opportunity to start early. But for George, I mean, clubhouse was great. For my colleague Michael Bryan, clubhouse was great. So I think, right, we have to we all that to ourselves to experiment. But secondly, I want to say is one thing I learned from Cess Code, and I learned a lot of things from him, but one thing I realized, you got to be careful when and how often you look at your stats because sometimes they’re not helpful.
Because for me to look at YouTube, often I can think of, oh, I should really just produce more zoom and virtual meeting videos. They always get picked up right away. I can see the trend, but the moment I talk about entrepreneurship, how to make money, or even YouTube growth, YouTube’s like, no, no, that’s not for you. You should do something else. Like the algorithms can manipulate you as a content creator to do what they want. But I think ultimately what we summarize here is that you have to know what you want and to be true to yourself. It’s much easier said than done, for sure. Actually, George, I would like to get a little practical here that going on clubhouse with as a musician is probably not the most trivial thing. So could you talk about your set up for Clubhouse? Because essentially it’s the same for live stream. You’re coming in really clear right now. Like, how are you able to do that? Where do you place your microphone? What is the microphone you’re using at the moment?
Yeah, so for this zoom, I have two Neumann U 87 AIS pointed at the piano that I got in the 8th grade because Guitar Center put the wrong price on them. And I actually saved up all my money to buy a guitar and I went to Guitar Center and annoying me, 87 AI is almost $5,000 a piece. So that’s $10,000 mic size. It’s very expensive, but they put $2,000 for both.
Oh, my goodness.
They put the wrong price. In California state law, whatever price you advertise, you must sell. And so I just bought it and I walked home with no guitar, and I just bought these really nice mics and I had no audio interface, but I was like, I got it. And I’ve been using these mics ever since. But anyway, so, yeah, I have that. And then I used to have it go through an Irig to my iPad and it was, like, super sophisticated. But there’s like this thing in design where it’s the difference between a designer and an artist. An artist is striving for some kind of ideal thing, and a designer is striving for what works for a person. And so it’s so much work to set up for Clubhouse with the Irig, I did a fidelity test because this is a handmade steinway. This piano was the piano they used in Lala Land. So this the piano Ryan Gosling played, and it’s on loan from Steinway. So at Steinway and Sons, thank you for letting me borrow this.
Wait a minute. This is the actual piano or just another model of what?
No, it’s the this is if you listen to the recording, it sounds exactly the same. It’s kind of creepy. So they recorded on this piano and they also used it in the movie. It’s a beautiful piano in person. It’s the best model o, like a grand size of almost 6ft. It’s the best o I’ve ever played in my life. But even through the Irig and my sense of mics, you can’t really tell. And so I would get feedback. People would think like, oh, what electric keyboard are you using? Cause it’s amazing. And I’m like, oh, no, this is a handmade steinway built by 180 crafts people, but they just equated it to a casio. And I was like, okay. And that kind of feedback maybe let me do a test where I just use my iPhone mic. And I had the same audience retention. So at that point, I was just like, screw setting everything up and spending 20 minutes just figuring out all this mic stuff and doing leveling. I just use my iPhone now because the storytelling is more important than the fidelity. If you have something to say and it’s potent, then who cares about the fidelity?
And it makes me think about those horrible, horrible recordings that people got in the, like, bebop players where they would drill a hole in the roof because they couldn’t get into the gig and they would drop the world’s crappiest microphone to get a bootleg recording of the light performance. And the recordings were awful, but man, those records are legendary. Like of Charlie Parker just going off and crazy. Or Miles Davis when he was playing Fast Stuff. I thought it reminded me of that experience where people don’t really care about fidelity. If you. Have a really strong voice and it’s meant to be heard. So I think that was like, the moment for me. I realized, yeah, I don’t need a fancy setup. So for Clubhouse, I literally just use my iPhone. I don’t hook it up to anything.
So that’s a conclusion that a lot of people don’t listen to, whether I don’t know whether you’re meditation teacher or you’re a singer, even you’re a musician. And for me, as a broadcaster, look, you don’t need to fancy up the setup. And in retrospect, I mean, the lights, I didn’t have an Algado light. I did not have a 4K camera. And you start storytelling, especially at the beginning, you’re practicing. So with that said, I want to pull in one of the audience questions from Malcolm O’Brien. In regards to your music creation. Do you have an AHA moment that you pull inspiration from or do you say, I’m going to make some music now and some deep thoughts on what you or what I want to create? What are your thoughts?
That’s a good question. I mean, inspiration comes from everywhere. I think. I used to be a really big pre planner. I used to think ahead all the time. When I was in the business world, I honestly my goal was to become like Mark Zuckerberg. That was like, my goal stupid as a kid. But now I don’t know what it is. With this kind of music making, I’m now in the state of I’m open to anything in the present. Like, I have no thinking about the future. So I think that allows me to be inspired by many things at any given time. And songs come into my head randomly. Like, I was talking to someone on Clubhouse and all of a sudden I was just like while they were talking, I was meeting my mic and just going like, I doodle. Like, you know how you doodle on a pen and paper? I doodle on the piano sometimes, so even when I’m talking, I can still play. But this is all subconscious playing. I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing. But then while I was doing that, I stumbled into and I was like, oh, crap, that’s a song, right?
From talking to someone or like, I had a dream and in the dream I was on the piano because you never know when you enter and leave a dream. But like, when I enter the dream, I was already at the piano and I was going I was like, oh, that’s a song. Or sometimes there’s artists that you love and then you copy them and then you form your own style. Like, I love the way hero miu how to play blackbird and she does it her way. And then I came up with my version. Like, instead of going, I would start.
And like, I created my own version. So I think there’s just endless ways to pull inspiration from I will say, though, the one that’s more confined, like a designer, is film composing. Like, when I write for film, like, I’m working on a documentary right now, it’s funny. Like, I compose most of the score, and it wasn’t right for the movie. The director was like, yeah, it doesn’t work and you have to go back and redo it. But you get a bunch of feedback. And that kind of film composing reminds me of doing agency design work. You have a wireframe. The client gives you feedback. You do iteration of it, and then client gives you feedback again, you redo it until you deliver the final version. And film composing, film scoring is very much like design iteration. So that one, you draw inspiration from the film, but the tunes that you come up with the movie. Like, this one movie I did for the salt and peppa biopic, I knew how to be like hip hopy. And hip hop likes to do a lot of like, hip hop likes that chord progression a lot. And so I was just like watching the movie.
I was like, what do I write as the main theme? And then I just thought of, like, mean, that was the idea. And I was like, oh, that works. And it was like, it’s uplifting enough with dramatic enough world and elements, and then you can change it. You can make it sadder. You can go like, you can make an uplifting.
Like, you can go.
You can modify it really easily because it’s so simple. And that came from the movie subject, watching the movie, having inspiration from the genre and then also from the practical stand, where as a film composer, like, what is that theme or motive that I can easily mold to be the thread for the entire movie? Because, like, you’ll notice movies you watch that have good music, there’s a thread. And then movies you watch where you forget about the music. Like The Avengers, like, all of Marvel is like, aside from the Avengers theme song and actually the music composed for the comic book Flip in the beginning of the movie, it’s not very memorable music, right? It’s not like Star Wars. Yeah.
I mean, you’ve done a lot. Again, I think I want to call out that maybe George Co is not your household name. Maybe you haven’t heard of George prior to this, and probably not. But I think what you’re also hearing about is, number one, his parents probably very happy about paying all the tuition and fees for his early, I don’t know, piano lessons. But number two is that you’ve really built a career in ways that you wanted. So could you talk to us speak to us a little bit about the career side of things? How are you able to now getting gigs to compose for movies? I also want to just maybe do a little bit brainstorm. There’s so many podcasts out there live stream. Are you thinking about composing music for these New Age creators as well? How do you get these gigs?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Firstly, my parents are not thrilled I did piano necessity. I hated piano. I hated even in college, early parts of college, I liked it kind of, but I wasn’t like, I’m going to be a piano player. My parents paid for it for utility, like, help you get into college. My mom’s dream was to be a concert pianist. So it was kind of like an Asian projection, kind of mental health, bad for you thingy. So I think my mom is proud of me. When an Asian parent says they’re proud of you, it’s like, Are you dying tomorrow?
Is that why you’re telling me? I’ve only heard my mom my mom said that to me once my whole life. I’ve never heard it from my dad. I know my dad’s not thrilled I’m a musician, but whatever, it’s fine. But I think in terms of the career, like, how am I getting these opportunities? To be honest, I used to approach career like a type A, Ivy League, business minded person. Like, I’d be super aggressive and I would get the sale because that was the way I was taught from my father, because he’s an entrepreneur and he was an immigrant, and he was heavily discriminated against. And I was discriminated against in corporate. Not like him, but because that was the 70s. But, you know, I faced a lot of racism, ageism and corporate and the tech world. So I was very aggressive. But I realized going through therapy and continuing to go to therapy that I’m a Type B personality. My natural inclination is not to be aggressive and to be confrontational and unpleasant and disagreeable. And so, I don’t know, I used to be, like, really GungHo and aggressive and ask people for things upfront.
And if you read the 48 Laws of Power or Machiavelli’s, print the prints, you think that’s the way to do it. But honestly, with music now I’m just in a state of I’m friends with everyone I work with, and all these amazing opportunities have been given to me. So I didn’t even ask for the film composing stuff. A friend who I took headshots for when I was shooting photography professionally called me one day and was just like, hey, I remember you played the piano. I was like, yeah, I used to. And they’re like, I got a movie I’m working on. Can I talk to you about it? So we just got coffee and hung out. And that friend is Dan Ackermura. He’s known as his producer named Dan the Automator, and he produced The Gorillas. And so he’s like a big hiphop producer, and I’m just like, this random piano player. And we worked on this movie together during the pandemic, and we had a great time during the pandemic. We quarantined for, like, 20 days each and I went to his house in the Bay Area, and we recorded this electric piano, synth, orchestral album for fun.
Like, we never released it, but it was like, just fun, you know? And I think once I entered the state of, like, I’m just going to have fun with my friends, right? And I think if I’m a good person and I’m kind and I surround myself with people who have similar values, but I still work really hard, and I know I’m good at what I do, I think the good things will come. And this way of building the career has been way more enjoyable than when I was going for $20 million evaluations for a startup. Right? People are like, oh, which tree did you climb to get the gig? And I said, literally none of them. It was falling into my hand. I’m just super grateful.
I’m so glad you touched upon that. I feel like there’s something that to be said. We just passed the month of June again, asian American Pacific Islander celebration, but I’m so thrilled, number one, that we’re able to acknowledge and address and openly talk about mental health. Yesterday I was recording an episode for the other podcast I’m managing right now called Unable, Disabled and the host and I started an interview to talk about the progress behind the scenes, and I was very open about mental health. And especially for us growing up, I guess I’m sort of like first generation. I think, in a way, it’s so weird they combine. Like, your parents are first generation. You can be considered first or second generation. But I’m certainly first gen, and there is enormous amount of pressure that comes with it. So I’m really glad and I’m even happier for the fact that you’ve chosen a path where you can actually be you and not worry about the analytics. The likes. The comments. The shares. But doing something you love and attract people who come to you for you and for your by the way. The content creator is not just the music you produce.
But the way you work with them. The process. It’s so interesting. So I know that we’re running a little bit out of time. What are some of the things that you really want to share but I haven’t asked or haven’t really gotten to?
I would say, though, if you’re going to pursue an artistic endeavor, do it wisely. I’m not making that much money right now. I’m going to be totally honest. This piano online from Steinway, all the equipment I have has been with me for the last decade of collecting and saving, and I’m living off of my savings right now. I saved aggressively in my mid twenty s, and so I can write out till next year. And so, like, I didn’t take the plunge just willynilly without planning. I worked a day job. I was a director at Caltech. I guess I want to brag a little bit. I was the first Asian American male director in Caltech history.
What kind of director? I mean music?
No, it was a very corporate, higher edge job. Director of strategic partnerships at the Alumni association. Got you. I was the fastest quitting Caltech employee of all time, too. I quit in four months. But I took day jobs, I did consulting gigs, I saved a lot, and that’s why I can do what I want to do now. The other thing too is you have to have tools. Like if you’re going to pursue music full time, you have to be good. The reason why I can do film composing is, yeah, I could sit down in one day and write a whole movie, but that’s because of I mean, like, I remember at Harvard, the first week of class, you know, our teacher played a recording of a Bach prelude in Fuse. Anyways, he played this recording with this Bach freelancyuke and he’s like, notate it. That was the first that was an Intro to Theory class. And it was so intense. And I did not do well academically at Harvard, but I remember studying so hard and we had to write Mozart sonatas, we had to write Chopin knock turns and atudes as like undergrads without a master’s degree.
But that training is so invaluable because now I work incredibly fast. And then the years of classical playing when I play more modern stuff.
Can play a major scale at the concert level without thinking because I did so much practice. Or like I can play like a show pin eight. Not totally accurately, but I can still play without really practicing. But that’s not because I’m a prodigy. It’s because I’ve been working on this stuff for a really long time. So I think that’s the number one advice I have for young people who want to pursue the arts is if you want to do a full time, you have to be good at it. You don’t have to be the best at it because that’s impossible. But you have to be really good at it. You have to be proficient. You have to have the money saved up. If you don’t have the money saved up, there is nothing wrong with taking a day job inside hustling you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. Like, maybe you can’t really go on dates all the time or you’re going to be playing a significant other. Like, hey, I know we were playing. I need to practice. There’s going to be those tough conversations if that’s a goal you want to pursue.
So be prepared for that. Don’t have lofty expectations, right? Really live in the present. Really focus on what you’re working on at the moment. Be kind to everyone because you never know. Like, I just got a gig in October from a family friend I’ve known since I was six years old, and she’s never offered this gig to me. And so you never know. And I’m so incredibly grateful to her. You never know where these opportunities are going to come from. So always be kind to people. My checklist would just be like, practice. Be good at what you do. Be kind to people. Live in the present. Lower your expectations so you don’t get disappointed. Take care of your mental health. Because if you’re mentally unstable, even a little bit, it will come through your art, it will come through your work and your relationships with people. Get paid. Don’t be a freelancer in the sense of getting things done for free. Get paid even if it’s $5. Like design work. I charge when I do brand consulting, if I’m doing a whole brand identity with brand values and everything, and you come out with a brand guideline, my rate is 50K.
That’s my personal rate, and I don’t change it. And people are like, well, that’s too expensive. And I say, okay, go to an agency. They’re going to charge you half a million. We’re going to do the same work. But that’s why I’m worth 50K just for one person, because I will do what the agency does, but it’s just me, and I do it five times faster. But the reason why I can charge that as an individual is because I have all this experience. And so don’t devalue work. Get paid and be an entrepreneur. Learn everything. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t give you permission to not be a booking manager. Or learn about how to do public speaking, or learn about how to build your own website, how to build your own social following, learning about photography. You should be open. I will never forget what Yoyo Ma said to me. Yoyo, we were doing a master class and Yoyo said, someone asked Yoyo, do you think anything’s boring? And he said, if you genuinely believe in the creative process and the joy it brings humanity, there is no way you can find anything boring.
The boringness comes from the lack of good delivery. But the subject, no subject in the world is boring. And it’s like that idea of tapping into that present moment fluidity of exploration. Always be in that state as much as you can. And also, it’s okay to sometimes not do anything. I used to be so busy, and I had to always be super productive. In college, I had my days planned from 05:00 A.m to 01:00 a.m every day. And I even planned my sleeping time, how much lunch I could have and all that bullshit. And I realized, what an idiot. And even now I don’t have that schedule anymore, and I’m way more productive in the long run. So anyways, that’s my little ramble on that.
No, I love the finals. I guess, like a rapid fire summaries of things that you learned. Another, I would say a call to action for people thinking about pivoting their careers. I think what George just mentioned is if you have a specific skill, you come from a corporation. Like, for me, that was project management. I was known for that. I knew I could demand a lot more for that. So I would use my skill A to get paid like George did with design work. And then I will basically use that budget to feel into my creative endeavors. That was really, really important. So that is something to know. And then I think the final thing was also you need a buffer. You need space in your life in general. That also applies to moms caregivers out there. You need space to think independently, to think comfortably when our lives are just too packed. And some of that is it is a little superficial too. You look at your schedule like, do I really need to be this busy? Do I have to say yes to everything? I totally agree with you. I feel like I’m operating on a different level as a result of creating space and buffer in my schedule and not thrive or brag about how busy I am all the time.
Yeah, people who brag about how busy they are, like, now I look at them like, that is not something to brag about, man, that just sounds miserable. I will say one piece of ice if you’re Asian American, because I say this because we are. Yeah. I don’t know if we’re allowed to swear on this show. So I think I did it a couple of times. I apologize.
Yeah, no worries.
I would just say, move the fuck out, don’t live at home. And I’m not saying that if you were not super, if you came from a non immigrant family scenario, maybe you could live at home. The reason why I say that is because for 6000 years of East Asian history, speaking up and having your own voice never existed. Okay? This idea of taking care of your mental health and well being has never existed in pious culture, feudalist culture. This is the biggest. It’s not just a culture shock. It’s a complete like, generational ideological, spiritual shock to your parents. So if you’re stuck at home and you went to an Ivy League or you went to a great school like you went to Purdue or UCLA or whatever, and you go home, you quit your day job as an engineer and now you’re going to be a chef, in their heads, you’re just a piece of shit. They’re going to remind you every day you live at home, and then you’re going to get angry. You’re going to hate your parents. You’re going to think that the worst humans in the world. You’ll end up like every great Asian creative that we look up to, or every minority creative who came from an increment Grant family in America.
At least almost all of them have terrible relationships with their parents. It’s because of that. And so my business advice is find a way to move the fuck out. Because the moment you leave the home and there is that physical barrier and Asian parents are like, well, I haven’t seen you in two weeks. You don’t love me anymore. No, that’s not true. I just don’t want to see you because you’re crazy. But then when you create the distance, they’ll do miracles. What you’re talking about? You have your space. They will respect you a lot more. Because Asian people love money. And if you’re not spending your parents money, that just demands respect. So I would say even, like, specifically for people in immigrant families in the United States, if you’re going to be an artist, you have to save up even more money to live on your own.
And I will say, if I didn’t leave my parents place, I would not be doing the music I do now, because they would be like, oh, you’re not playing classical. Even when I was playing classical, this is how tough it is to be in a household like that. Even when I was playing classical and I was like, selling out concerts around the world, they would still criticize my playing. And like, do they have any basis of telling me how to play? Rahmanenanov no, but they think they do because they put the food on the table. But the moment you take that power away, what are they going to say? And the only thing that’s left is unspoken respect. So that’s another thing I would add to the list is if you’re an immigrant kid of an immigrant or you’re Asian yeah, move the fuck out.
No, I love I mean, that’s a transparency. I mean, people don’t hear about that. And I’m really glad you brought it up. And it’s very different now. I lived away from my parents since I was 1716 years old. I mean, literally eight 0 mile away. But now I bought a house, and it happened to be a big house where I invite my mom in. She tells me how proud she is of me every single day. I take care of her. She gets to do her artwork. Thank you. But frankly, this relationship that I’m witnessing with my mom sorry, I don’t know. I can’t tell you there’s a second relationship like that. And you have to choose the right people, the same thing. Like, you can’t choose your family, you choose your friends. But if your family doesn’t understand what you’re doing, podcasting being one of them, it doesn’t matter if you’re Asian or not. Asian people tend to ask you during family get togethers, like, how much are you getting paid? How much money are you getting paid?
What’s that fun thing you were doing again? I’ll forget played I piano one time for the now president Joe Biden. And I was sharing with the Asian auntie’s. Like, I got to play for the vice president. I played what I played for Joe. Uncle Joe. I played the third Blot. You like show pens. I played the third ballad and I’m like, what an honor, right? And the first thing those auntie’s asses did, you get paid.
I was like, that’s what you got from that? I just played for the second most powerful human being in the entire free world and like one of the most beloved politicians and the guy who’s been fighting for civil rights and all these things since he was 30. Like one of the youngest congressperson in American history. And you asked me if I got paid. And it’s a whole value system. I’ll never forget when I even got into Harvard, I thought, that’s the Asian dream, right?
And then I have my parents, I have my dad tell me going to Harvard doesn’t mean anything if you can’t make money. And I was just like, whoa. You know that Chinese word fool? Like that word fool has fucked up, like all of Chinese thinking because like, fool is not really like truly like fruitfulness. Like the way we have translated fool. Fool has the word money in it. You know, it’s about money. It’s not about values and ethics and all these lofty things that we’ve put in like anime or Avatar The Last Airbender. It’s more like it’s actually like.
Money. Not every single family is not every single family is like that. I’ve known poor families who don’t even think about money all that much and trying to support one another. But it’s true. I think whenever it comes to money, same thing with analytics, likes and followings. There’s a single number you can look at and measure people and put people in boxes. But you know, I think another key takeaway like George said, is you got to find your own friends. Got to find like minded people who are really jive with you that you can do work with, collaboration, speaking with. Right? That’s why we’re here. And I would encourage anybody, it doesn’t matter how small your platform is, trying to not just promote the word is promote, but celebrate other people’s work and put them if you’re a YouTuber or podcaster, you naturally can invite other people to join you in and to give people an opportunity to talk about their stories, their backgrounds. So I’m so grateful, George. I know you and I can talk about this forever and I appreciate the transparency and hopefully you’ll come back and join me again.
Oh, yeah, it would be an honor. Hopefully we could do one in person. Yeah, that would be fun. And it’d be cool to do one with piano in person. Thank you, Faye, for always thank you for the opportunity. But more importantly, it’s just great to catch up and wish you the best. Wish you and your audience the best. And if you are not already subscribed to any of Phase channels, please give her a follow on LinkedIn, YouTube and all her socials. Don’t forget to visit her website or just Google, Faze, World Media. This show is not I don’t know if there is a sponsor, but if there is a sponsor that would like to sponsor Faye, please give Fey a call and contact her business email.
Thank you for the outro. I never do anything. Thank you, George. Okay, I’m going to take off. Offline. Take us offline and see you guys. Check out mycalanderfacerol.com events. You’re going to find out all the independent artists, content creators, creative entrepreneurs joining me in the upcoming months, month and ending stream now by.
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