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April 9th, 2003 Dave Clifford | Special Section Stories
 

Flipping Records Beats Flipping Burgers

Keith Schreiner on how to live off music--without hit records.

     
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IMAGE: martin thiel
Every musician dreams of becoming rich and famous. But few ever even make enough money to pay off guitar strings and drumsticks, much less eke out a modest living by playing music.

Portland songwriter/DJ/producer Keith Schreiner is one of the few to make a decent living creating songs without major-label support or scaling the charts with hit songs.

First surfacing as the electronic enigma Auditory Sculpture after moving to the Rose City from NYC four years ago, Schreiner built his name as a tireless DJ. Soon thereafter, he formed the electronica duo Dahlia with vocalist Jennifer Folker, at the same time doing production work for Sheryl Crow, Sucka Punch and the Down Band, as well as composing soundtracks, jingles and any other project thrown his way. While Schreiner's still not rich and famous, he does own a house, and music is his only job.

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The key to success is "a willingness to live well below your means for many years," Schreiner jokes. But all starving-artist asides aside, the constantly busy musician considers his modus operandi "pretty much treating music as a business instead of an art."

"When you're 15 years old, you'd call it selling out," Schreiner says. "But when you have a mortgage, it's called making a living. There was no gig too small or job too cheesy when I first started."

Auditory Sculpture's frequent DJ nights led to many Pearl District and First Thursday gigs, events flush with easy money for providing sonic wallpaper like a caterer provides hors d'oeuvres. From there, Schreiner sought out advertising companies for jingles, and anyone with enough money willing to hire a DJ for private parties. Like any other blue-collar tradesman, Schreiner worked as a voraciously willing service provider.

"It's all about tenacity," he explains. "Constantly going out, doing tons of free stuff for people before things start paying. I always have about four things going at a time. Of course it's fun to work on your own ideas instead of a bunch of crap--unless that crap pays amazingly well, then it's cool. I'm not above admitting that."

Schreiner says doing some work strictly for cash instead of artistic fulfillment gives him the ability to funnel funds from soundtrack scores or quickie commercial productions into his own creative endeavors. His mammoth work ethic has also landed him jobs producing other artists--and in that position, he often provides his studio charges with songs he's written, earning a share of the publishing spoils.

Although big-time efforts like the digital music programming work he did for Sheryl Crow are few and far between, Schreiner knows how to place his pitches and remain patient with his work. "You've got to have an ability to never be 100 percent secure," he explains. "You're always hanging. Some months there's tons of money, work's coming in the door hand over fist. Then it stops for two months."

As with any small business, proper marketing is crucial. Proficiency in all platforms of digital media is a big plus for scoring freelance work. But flexibility and diversity have also aided Schreiner.

"I was doing music therapy for deaf kids and developmentally disabled adults in New York before I moved here," he says. "I gave piano lessons, didgeridoo lessons--like I said, treating it like a business. I can teach, I can lecture, I can collaborate, I can perform, I can produce--whatever.

"Film is what I love the most. I have a degree in animal behavior, but I left the academic world to score films. That's what I want to be doing when I'm 45 or 50 years old. I don't want to be touring. I don't want to be the Rolling Stones."

Sure, the Stones are filthy-rich icons, but they're locked into the same sound and image for life. For Schreiner, success as a musician--and artist--means being able to make a living while creating music for the sake of its many purposes.

Schreiner has probably never had to wear an ugly work uniform or put his creativity on the back burner for a lousy customer-service job, and he still views his success with a modest pragmatism. "A couple huge gigs here and there, where you have to bite your tongue and do some music that you think sucks but the client loves it--as long as you don't take it too seriously, I think it's OK."

The other option: Do you want fries with that?

 
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