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Make Yourself a Star with an RPG sourcebook for Magic, Music & Urban Fantasy,!
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Weekly Update #32: You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)

Almost done with the most daunting portion of POWERCHORDS: the section on recording. For while I have experience with touring, concerts, promotion, crew gigs, musical performance and even being a star, I've spent very little time in recording studios. Vast amounts of research and discussion have yielded around 5000 words of material. Some of that will probably wind up getting cut, so here's the first portion of that section of Chapter 5, the Chapter That Never Seems To Die.


You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)

Welcome to the Humilatron! Whether you’ve been on the road for years or you’ve simply scored some studio time or a sweet home recording gig, it’s time to strap on those headphones, step up to the mic, and hear how your music sounds when it’s recorded and not in your head.

That’s a humbling experience. Every flat note, missed cue, crappy lyric or fumbled chord change comes back at you with unforgiving clarity. The song that seemed so marvelous in the heat of the moment now sounds like soup. Sure, you can sweeten it in the mix – most folks do whether they admit it or not. Folkpunker SJ Tucker calls this the Humilatron, where all your sins get remembered for you.

And yet, there’s a rush (at least occasionally) at hearing your music played back at you. It feels, at least in the beginning, like you’ve made it big. When the chemistry’s right and the performance is solid and perhaps a happy accident or three has taken your song to the next level, you can hear magic coming to you in the playback. Quincy Jones describes this goose-bumpy moment of synergy as “a pocket where God wants it… when emotionally it hits you.” (Hence the common musician term “playing in the pocket.”) Sometimes it comes naturally, other times from careful arrangement, and usually from a combination of the two plus a hell of a lot of luck thrown in. Recording is a paradox of egos; it’s no wonder that so many musicians both love and loathe the studio.

For certain artists, the studio is the ultimate palette for their art. Removed from the grind of touring and the chaos of live gigs, they settle into recording the way a classical painter settles into canvas and paint. Certain artists – Kate Bush, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan – reached their greatest heights when they’d quit touring and stuck to the studio. In many ways, the studio is one huge instrument with near-limitless potential.

It can also be a swamp. Self-indulgence rears its ugly and expensive head when artists twiddle knobs to excess. The song that blasted forth like coked-up Athena from an artist’s head can be smoothed to paste by too much studio time. Drugs, isolation, yes-men and inter-band conflicts may rip a band to shreds – see Metallica: Some Kind of Monster for proof of that – and the financial toll alone could leave an artist hopelessly in debt. A fast in-and-out approach may work wonders with great material; several of the best albums in popular music history – Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, the Doors’ debut and Neil Young’s Mirrorball, among others – were recorded in roughly a week or less. On the other hand, many classics – including Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon, and (believe it or not) Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – are elaborately produced studio confections. Studio work is neither good nor bad in itself. Ultimately, it’s what you do with it that determines the quality of your results.

These days, you don’t necessarily need a studio to record an album. The array of available desktop mixing programs (ProTools, Logic, Audacity, etc.) allows an artist to tweak a rough mix into near-professional form. What no program can give you, however, is the experience and insight a skilled professional can bring to a session. “If architecture is frozen music,” said famous architect Frank Gehry, “then music must be frozen architecture.” A good studio experience involves not only the technological gear but the musical architects who know how to use it best.

Sound and Vision

The details of music recording can get insanely technical, and really don’t figure into a roleplaying adventure tale. Essentially, though, the recording process involves capturing the vibrations (sonic, energetic, and perhaps metaphysical) of sonic architecture and preserving them with electronic media. Early recording used phonographic (literally “voice picture carvings”) technology to inscribe physical reflections of sounds into grooves on portable “albums”; originally made of metal foil, these albums were soon pressed onto wax rolls (hence the term “hot wax” for a hit recording), and then discs of wax, shellac, acetate, and eventually vinyl. Recoding tape turned those sonic “reflections” into electronic signatures on magnetic tape. All of these media are referred to as analog recording: media that represent data in measurable physical form.

Innovations of computer technology in the 1970s and ‘80s created the digital recording method; here, the data gets preserved in numerical code. Audio waveforms get captured at regular intervals (typically between 40,000 to 50,000 times per second, and sometimes higher) and then translated into binary sequences. Although this method is far easier to employ, more compact, far simpler to manipulate, effortless to transfer, and literally infinite in physical capacity (literally years’ worth of music can fit into your pocket), digital recording lacks the “warmth” of analog recording because there’s no physical “shape” to the sonic reflection – it’s just numbers. Digital recording holds a crisper tone because of its precision, while analog recording holds an endearing imperfection because of its physical, and inevitably corruptible, nature. 

Which is “better”? Artists, techs and audiophiles will probably be arguing that subject until the end of time… or at least until something else, like mental implantation, comes along to replace both.

In the early days, recording was simple: Get everyone in a room, turn on the machine, and hope for the best. The muffled, low-fidelity quality of pre-WWII recordings comes from that limited technology. By the 1950s, improved equipment allowed an engineer to record the vocals and one or two instruments separately and then manipulate the results; by the mid-'60s, studio technology evolved to the point where sounds could be recorded on multiple tracks, mixed together, reversed, shifted, rearranged or even synthesized in the studio. Since then, a combination of art and science has turned recording into a complex stew of techniques and gear, all aimed at turning recorded vibrations into emotional response.

And yeah – that is a form of magic.

Recording technology has transformed the role of music in the human drama. Until the late 1850s – and this is important – the very idea of preserving music past the moment of performance was inconceivable. Even now, in a world filled with recorded music, recording seems magical. Seriously… a little device made of plastic and metal can take sound waves and turn them into electrical impulses which are then translated into physical grooves, magnetic blips or strings of numbers? Other devices can tweak those recordings, distort them into something new, or even generate “sounds” that have no physical source or component at all? With them, you can hear people across gulfs of space, time and life itself? Dude, that’s magic. And so, to consider recording engineers and producers to be sorcerers or sonic priests, their equipment and studios to be occult implements, and the recording session as a ritual, would not be at all inappropriate.

Thomas Edison and Aleister Crowley recognized the magic(k)al element of recording. The former used phonographic gear to capture ghostly voices and “etheric force,” while the latter employed it to create sonic talismans of his magickal rites. The tie between recorded music and magic is as old as the technology itself. And so, when you enter a recording situation – whether you’re in a full-scale studio with a crew, or simply recording music at home and tweaking it on your laptop – treat that process with respect. Regardless of the technology involved, you are, in a very real sense, crafting magic...


Words of Wisdom

For folks who want to understand the recording process – from technical trivia to human dramas – I highly recommend the following sources:

The 33 1/3 book series: These short pocket-sized books are music-lover crack. Each volume focuses on a single classic album, exploring the inspirations, influences, techniques, people, processes and legacies of those albums. Continuum International has released nearly 100 of these little gems, and I devour them like candy.

The Quincy Jones Legacy Series: Perhaps the greatest music producer in history, Quincy Jones has collaborated on a series of books and DVDs dealing with his life, work and process. Though a tad over-chummy, these volumes are essential to anyone who seriously loves music.

The VH-1 Classic Albums series: Like the 33 1/3 books, these videos focus on a single album and feature interviews and commentary on the story behind that album. Though not as involved as the books, the VH-1 documentaries focus on the human stories, with all the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking perspective those people can bring.


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Weekly Update #30: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

And the ever-growing Chapter 5 continues on its merry way. Today's update finds us partying down in the grand rock star tradition... a tradition that, as the book reveals, has a tendency to turn artists into "Beautiful Ruin."

Having finalized some stuff regarding other projects that will help me finance this one to its fullest extent, I've decided to make the initial book as big as it needs to be. We're still on track to create four book (or more!), but the initial book will be more like 100,000 words or so than the originally planned 60,000-70,000 length. Yes, that means that at this point,
POWERCHORDS will be produced at a loss, but I'd rather spend some extra time and money to create something great than simply slam 60,000 words between two covers and call it good. Almost two years after this project has been financed, I'm annoyed and embarrassed by how late it's running... and yet, I'm pleased with how it's coming out. Having seen other, similar projects rushed through or left woefully inadequate when compared to their potential, I feel that dropping an extra few hundred dollars to get y'all a book worth waiting for is better than the several, but less-satisfying, alternatives.

Thanks, everyone! Enjoy this week's update.

Let's party!


Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

By ancient tradition, musicians love to party. Whether it’s a chemical romance of drugs and drinking, a flesh-banquet of Groupie Stew, an adrenaline rush of physical violence, or a Mötley Crüe smorgasbord of all of them combined, popular music and debauchery go together like cocks and condoms. Although boys have a much rowdier rep than girls on the road, in reality they’re not much different. The Go Gos, the Runaways, the Lunachicks and Girlschool could and did hold their own with the likes of Mötörhead and the Sex Pistols when it came to throwing down… or for that matter, throwing up.

Combine the hormonal frenzy of young animals in heat, the erotic haze of intense music, the glamour of rocking the crowd, and the staggering cycle of boredom, fury and sheer disconnection, and it’s no wonder musicians go bugfuck on the road. Beyond the expectations of high low living, there are practical reasons for such self-indulgence. Intense pressure demands intense release… and the more intense the band and the tour and the scene, the more explosive the release involved.

Like many artists, musicians tend to be restless and insecure at heart. Large numbers of them are manic, depressive, obsessive, traumatized, alienated, autistic, conflicted, pissed off, and generally self-destructive. Given not just the means but the encouragement to go wild, they usually do. Shake that nitro up with the adolescent illusion of immortality and the insane world of the musical otherworld, and you’ve got a glorious explosion. “We were young, fucked up, and worshipped for it,” Nikki Sixx explains in Mötley Crüe: The Dirt. “Words like consequences, responsibility, morality, and self-control didn’t apply to us. Or so we thought.”

Sex and drugs don’t just provide fun, glamour and release. In the roaring disconnection and heroic exertion of hard road life, they dull physical and emotional pain. Duff McKagan and Ace Frehley used drugs and drinking to calm the anxieties of travel and insomnia. Henry Rollins alternated painkillers with caffeine in order to keep up Black Flag’s hellacious intensity, while Cherri Curry battled stage fright and sexual trauma with whatever she could grab. Lunatics like g.g. allin heighten their insanity to inhuman levels, and troubled geniuses like David Bowie conjure carnal and chemical hells to house their inner demons. Drugs can provide spiritual sacraments (ganja, wine), social lubricants (ecstasy, Purple Drank), temporary energy (speed, cocaine), or doors (acid, peyote) to mystic consciousness. Sex can do all those things as well, especially if you’re a literal or energetic vampire. Oh, and yeah – sometimes sex and drugs are just plain fun.

Too bad about the price tag. We’ll just worry about that later…

It’s So Easy

Sex, drugs and booze in amazing quantities used to be hallmarks of the music biz – essential lures, bribes and tools for creativity. Even before the rise of rock-n-roll, bluesmen, jazz singers and honky-tonk outlaws had infamous appetites for destruction. Things went wild, though, during the Age of Aquarius. From the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘90s, studios and offices overflowed with hookers and groupies and choice intoxicants. In his memoir Iron Man, Tony Iommi relates how the band’s record label would send cartons of cocaine to the studios where Black Sabbath was recording: “It came in a sealed box the size of a speaker, filled with files all covered in wax. You’d peel the wax off and it was pure, fantastic stuff, and loads of it… we’d put a big pile on the table, carve it up and then we’d all have a bit, well, quite a lot.” The funk band Parliament indulged I such frantic quantities that their studios and dressing rooms reputedly smelled like pot and sex for weeks or even months after they’d left. Drug anthems like “Sweet Leaf” and “A Passage to Bangkok” were as common as groupie tracks like “Sugar Magnolia” and “We’re an American Band.” Ballsy artists like the Butthole Surfers would simply do drugs and have sex right on stage. “It’s better,” went that band’s motto, “to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done.”

By the late-‘90s, though, the combination of the “war on drugs,” the grisly fallout from the crack wars, the heroin carnage of the grunge scene, and Behind the Music’s familiar cycle of rise, crash and burn had forced debauchery back into the shadows again. Cops were ready to bust heads, most especially on hip-hop artists, and body counts reached depressing levels thanks to ODs, STDs, HIV and SMGs. Ravaged addicts and broken stars became common sights on tabloid TV shows… and soon on the internet as well. Once you realized that Mick Mars looked like a walking corpse, the allure of hard partying wore off a bit.

But only a bit.

Things aren’t quite as blatant these days as they used to be; as one Anonymous Artist says, “It’s more dope and blowjobs now.” Wild indulgence remains common among small bands on the road, but it’s less “official” than it once was in the professional sphere. That’s not to say that musicians and their fans don’t still party – they do, and with a vengeance. Chance are, though, you’ll have to score your own dope now. The labels no longer put hookers and blow on the expense account… though the strip clubs and porn that do show up on balance sheets seem respectable and almost boring by comparison.

In the mystic underworld of Powerchords, musicians can still party like fallen gods. Magical arts and concoctions skew reality and enhance stamina to devastating heights and depths. Lifethieves pig out on carnal feasts of lust and terror. Demons and ghosts and fae entities still indulge their legendary passions to the thunderous beat of nightclubs and back alley squats. Beneath the polished exterior of professional mortal music, raucous excess is still the rule. Every indulgence up to and possibly including live sacrifice may be found in the most dismal pits of the Powerchords underground...

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Weekly Update #29 - Sellsoul

And we're back. sorry about last week. We had a death in the family, and family comes first.

Now, though,
Powerchords is chugging along again... this week more or less literally to hell.

The sell-soul musician is a staple of musical lore. In this portion of chapter 4, we deal with the in-game consequences of such bargains.

Enjoy... and be careful which deals you mak with mysterious strangers!


You pulled a Robert Johnson and now your soul – or something like it – is forfeit. Having made this very expensive deal, you owe a magical debt to a powerful patron who seriously plans to collect. Maybe you believe in such things, possibly not. In the mysterious realm of Powerchords, though, this is a binding agreement… and the party bound is you.

This trait involves a supernatural entity who gave you a mystical gift with very thick strings. On the plus side, you receive a potent payoff: wealth, sex appeal, staggering musical ability, or a similar request. The downside is the price: the higher the degree, the more literally damning your bargain. 

In dramatic terms, your tale includes a fearsome deal. Maybe you made it before the saga begins; in that case, the bargain’s part of your character’s backstory, and may remain hidden from the other players as well as their characters. (For extra effect, play out the deal as a prelude to the saga; that way, it’ll be more significant than just another line on your character sheet.) A classic story, though, would feature the deal as part of the saga: A mysterious entity approaches your character or band with an offer they should refuse but probably won’t. In this case, the character receives the Wyrd – and all its best and worst aspects – as experience in the course of the game.

Once the bargain’s struck, it becomes a story element with game system elements. Story-wise, the character receives generous gifts (see below), and great opportunities present themselves to him: gorgeous groupies follow him around; high-powered agents want to meet him; audiences go wild and labels seek his attention. So far so good… but it all seems wrong. The character feels empty, tense and scared; his new “friends” act spiteful and voracious; nightmares of hell, fits of paranoia, ugly new habits and strange new fans all plague his life. Eerie shadows gather in the corners; voices whisper in his ears, and no distraction or precaution can silence them. Uncanny smells (brimstone, perfume, burning flesh) creep across his perceptions. The musician can try to drink, drug and fuck those phenomena away, but eventually they wear him down. In time, the devil claims his due. Unless the character manages to break the deal, he’ll disappear, at some point of the saga, into servitude or an otherworldly prison… probably for good.

Rules-wise, the Sellsoul receives a huge boost to one or two traits dealing with beauty, money, popularity or musical skill. Depending on the rule system you prefer, this could involve a handful of character points; a new skill- or talent-based trait; a “free” Legacy equal to the Wyrd; or a “free” boost to a single trait that character has already. That bonus, though, is temporary – break the deal, and it’s gone forever. Beyond that, you also receive an obsession about the deal, your patron, and the bargain’s eventual price.

Who is this patron, anyway? That depends on the Guide and on the nature of your game. While the classic trope involves musicians selling their souls to Satan himself, it seems unlikely that the Incarnation Of All Things Evil would waste his time with some fourth-rate wannabe. Perhaps the “devil” in question is a minor infernal entity, a malignant faerie, a vampire, a wizard, an Old God, or even a theoretically “good” spirit, like an angel or other White Hat avatar. It could be a magical prankster with just enough power to supply a minor boost to an ambitious mortal, or possibly a well-meaning entity who’s trying to help out needy mortals and wants some goodies out of the bargain as well. The Sellsoul isn’t necessarily damned to the Christian Hell… but he doesn’t have to know that fact, either. The true nature of the patron, and the eventual fate of the musician, should remain the Guide’s secret knowledge. In short, you have no idea what bargain you really made with whom. Only your Guide knows for certain, and she’s not telling!

(Guide’s Note: The theology behind your saga is up to you. If you want Satan himself signing contracts to Hell, that’s your call. If the whole deal is an elaborate prank by aliens from Dimension Z, that’s still your call. Remember, too, that making a deal with God can be just as harrowing as a pact with Satan; either way, a mortal winds up owing everything to Someone Much Bigger Than Himself… and that there’s some scary shit!)

Whatever the terms of the bargain might be, its consequences should be assured. Somebody gets something from your character eventually. You can try to break the bargain – that’s a classic story, too. Doing so, however, should be a monumental plot point, filled with high drama and higher stakes. At the least, a broken bargain means that you lose the trait boost but not the obsession. If nothing else, the knowledge that you cheated the devil ought to make you very nervous indeed…

* Minor: You get a minor favor (a few hundred bucks, an introduction to a powerful agent, a small boost to one trait, etc.) for what seems like a reasonable price (13 wild nights of sex, seven songs dedicated to the patron, seven sacrificed black cats, etc.).

* Notorious: A larger favor (thousands of dollars, a great contract, a major trait-boost, etc.) costs you dearly (seven years of servitude, a career dedicated to your patron, an adult human sacrifice, etc.).

* Dreadful: Incredible blessings (millions of dollars, your own record label, enough talent to make Paul McCartney ponder a career change, etc.) with an incredible cost (lifetime servitude, a seven-year career followed by death, horrific amounts of human sacrifice, etc.).

* Legendary: Wow, you’re screwed! You may be among the best, richest or most beautiful musicians in the world, but when your contract expires, you go down for good.

Possible Conditions: To break your contract, you could undergo an intense, sincere spiritual conversion; beat your “devil” in a challenge weighed heavily against you; or enlist some powerful rival of your patron, who might break the deal for you… probably for some new deal of her own!

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Weekly Update Delayed Due to Family Emergency

I'll be posting this week's update later on, as there are important things to tend to over here. 

Be well. Live well. Be good to the people in your life, and let them know it when you love them.

Take care, folks. I'll be back shortly. 


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Weekly Update #28 - 7 Lists of 7 Items

Hello again!

This week's update features something I really want to include in the final book, but may wind up trimming for space consideration reasons: the set lists - sidebars filled with seven bullet-point suggestions each. These set lists cover various topics throughout the Living the Life chapter, and help sum up complicated ideas in short bursts of inspiration.

Currently, I have roughly a dozen set lists scattered throughout Chapter 5. Whether or not the following ones will make it into the final book depends on how things look when the entire text is finished.

For now, enjoy!

See ya later.


7 Ways to Score Gear

• Buy retail
• Borrow a friend’s
• Pawn shop shopping
• Craig’s List or other classified ads
• Swipe it (but don’t get caught…)
• Salvage, repair, craft or invent your own
• Play so well that manufacturers give you stuff for free

7 Ways to Score Gigs

• Play open-mic nights
• Set up your own gig(s)
• Make and circulate demo discs or tapes
• Ask around at clubs (but make a good impression)
• Sit in with established musicians (just don’t piss ‘em off)
• Set up a website with videos, pictures, sound files, and a press kit
• Play parties, living rooms, parking lots, or wherever else you can set up, play, and maybe run away from fast

7 Forms of Audience Hatred

• Booing, spitting & heckling
• Talking over you or walking out on you
• Thrown bottles, cans, food, or worse
• Beating you up
• Stealing your gear
• Wrecking your van
• Trashing you after the show, either to your face, behind your back, to other people, online, or a combination of them all

7 Ways to Make Fans

• Nurture potential fans among people whose interests, style & concerns match your own
• Greet folks who come to see you
• Hang out, be friendly, and treat fans graciously
• Have cool merch available, with a mailing list in plain sight
• Establish a simple yet intriguing website
• Post videos on YouTube (just make sure they’re GOOD)
• Don’t suck… and for God’s sake, BE COOL!

7 Ways to Avoid Being Fucked Over

• Never sell your identity and/ or publishing rights – EVER
• Avoid getting tangled up in temptations
• Keep your head on straight, and avoid spending money unless it’s already your money
• Trust only those who earned your trust before you got big… and be careful about even them
• Hire a professional management team you can trust… and be careful about them, too
• Learn as much about the business as you can, and never assume you know it all
• Keep clear-eyed friends in your inner circle, encourage them to speak freely, and pay attention to what they tell you

7 Common Band Roles

• Lead vocalist – typically the “face” of the band
• Lead instrumentalist – the band’s musical showpiece
• Rhythm section – provides the beat and musical foundation
• Core – drives the melody (typically with guitars, strings, horns or keyboards)
• Counterpoint – provides texture and additional leads through vocals or instruments (keyboards, turntables, horns, etc.)
• Instrumentalist – plays whatever might be needed
• Backing – fills out the sound and show

Hip-hop and vocal groups usually have a primary vocalist (MC), with one to three counterpoint MCs to bounce lyrics, harmonize melodies, add raps and rock the crowd, plus a backing crew to boost the sound and show by adding instruments, turntable mixes, dance moves, backing vocals or a combination of them all.

Though primarily lyric-driven, hi-hop has become increasingly instrumental within the last two decades. Certain artists, like Mira Ben-Ari, play instruments while backing a variety of artists, with deejays and producers like Danger Mouse, the Dust Brothers, and Dan “the Automator” Nakamura moving through the scene like ronin samurai.

7 Popular Sources for a Band Name

• Name of real (Jethro Tull) or invented (the Ramones) people who might (Van Halen) or might not (Hootie and the Blowfish) belong to the band, and who may (Stevie Wonder) or may not (Shakira) have changed their birth names

• Obscure reference to movies (the Wu Tang Clan), literary works (Steely Dan), religious texts (the Grateful Dead), or music from either someone else’s band (Lady Gaga) or your own (the Butthole Surfers)

• Allusion to some spiritual (Nirvana), occult (Coven), religious (Sweet Honey in the Rock), mystic (Dead Can Dance) or adversarial (Deicide) creed, belief or practice

• References to sex (the Genitorturers), drugs (Rush), disease (Anthrax), violence (the Killers), crime (Public Enemy), war (Joy Division), politics (Thievery Corporation), paradoxical mixtures of innocence and horror (Daisy Chainsaw), or maybe even sports (Yellowcard)

• Plays on words based possibly upon pop culture (Bratmobile), homonyms (the Beatles), evocative terms (the Lunachicks), ethnicity (Skindred), insults (L7), creatures (Loop Guru), or the artist’s name (Eminem), nickname (Ice-T) or family history (Moby)

• Acronyms for evocative phrases (NWA, KMFDM, VNV Nation)

• Invented words (Hoobastank), sounds (Gwar), phrases (ZZ Top), organizations (the Human League), or even symbols (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince)

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