Bios are Stupid

In this business of mashing my hands around on the piano in front of people, one of my least favorite aspects of the job description is bio-writing.

I totally get that a bio is a Very Necessary Thing to have. I know this because my first instinct when I get a program or run across a musician’s website is to greedily flip to the “About the Artist” page or click on “Bio,” because heaven knows you can’t enjoy an artist’s work without first knowing as much personal information about them as you can. I also know this because there is a whole section on bio-writing in the music career bible du jour, and I have also realized when talking to audiences that for some reason people are genuinely interested in Me as a Person and not just Me as a Thing That Mashes Piano Keys.

So of course I have a bio, always ready-to-go and ready-to-be-edited-for-space.

The thing is that I have always hated the fact that I need to have a bio. If I had my way, the “About the Artist” section on all my programs would either be a single sentence clarifying that I play the piano, or be a compilation of my silliest tweets. I do not like quoting nice things people have said about my playing, and I do not like listing all the allegedly impressive things I have done. In this regard, I identify wholeheartedly with Ron Swanson.

The thing I hate even more than having to have a bio in the first place is the fact that the standard practice for bios—in the classical music world, at least—dictates that they have to be Very Serious, with a dash of pretension and hyperbolic braggadocio. It makes sense if you are a superstar, or at the very least a widely-acclaimed youngster cutting a meteoric rise on the international circuit. But in the past couple of years I have seen too many random teenagers flaunting bios claiming they’d been named as being one of the greatest pianists of their generation (by their mothers, probably). This madness has to end, people.

After several years of playing the serious bio game (at some point I featured a number of selectively quoted phrases, like “fiery technique” and “turned heads” and other things my sister made fun of me for), I decided enough was enough. If I have to have a bio, I might as well have fun with it.

web bio

I have no idea, honestly, how long I’m going to keep a tongue-in-cheek bio in which the word “pianist” doesn’t appear anywhere. Maybe I’ll even replace the picture with something sillier. At some point a concert promoter or more adult person may kindly suggest that I put a more professional biography on my website, or maybe I’ll just get embarrassed and go back to using one of the boring alternate bios I have floating around.

But for now, I am a professional finger wiggler because my website says so.

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The Autograph Scam

Update June 2017 (really?): I’m just going to ruin the punchline for you here: this post ends with the conclusion that random unspecific autograph requests are not a scam. I keep getting angry messages from autograph collectors telling me off for calling them scammers. (Also a lot of you seem to be angry at me for “calling myself an expert” when I never said any such thing and in fact admitted in this post that I’m pretty clueless about this stuff.)

Please work on your reading comprehension, guys, you’re making me sad for humanity.

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As a not-yet-famous person, I get mistaken for being a celebrity about 99% more than I am actually recognized for being myself. A salesguy once mistook me for a famous YouTuber and once on a flight a girl my age kept glancing over at me until she finally approached me and shyly asked, “Excuse me…are you someone famous?”

These people are always mistaken, though it is, admittedly, flattering that people at least think I look like someone who would be famous. These encounters always end in me being totally awkward and saying that no, unless they keep track of extremely obscure classical pianists, there’s no way they know me for anything.

So I was kind of bemused when, several months ago, I received an email out of the blue from someone claiming that they were a huge fan and wanted my autograph:

Autograph scam

Now, I’m a child of the internet. I grew up at a time when the internet was more of the Wild West and less like the insanely networked, Google-able TMI cesspool it is today—my point being that I am automatically suspicious of everything I see online.

So my inner Scam Alarm went off when I got that email. I barely have any web presence—a website and a few YouTube videos, but that’s it—nothing for anyone to be a “big fan” of for “years.” And this Hubert Zbikowski never said anything specific about me in his email. I’ve gotten tweets and comments from people saying things like “I love the way you play Prokofiev’s Gavotte!” and you’d think someone who was such a big fan would say something to that extent.

So I responded to Mr. Hubert Zbikowski’s email, telling him it was so nice to hear from a fan, and could he tell me his favorite piece that I’ve performed?

No reply.

Several months later, I got this email, from one Terry Lindsey:

autograph scam

Again with the ultra-flattering, wide-eyed, yet totally unspecific fan request. I also thought it was odd that there were so many spaces before my name, as if someone was copy-pasting my name into a pre-written message.

So I wondered, what is the deal here? My first thought was that maybe these people were phishing for my signature (and maybe my return address) for the sake of identity theft—yet that seemed highly unlikely and, well, not very smart. A person’s autograph is not likely to be the same signature that they use on official documents, and giving your victim your address (or any address that can be linked to other people) just leaves a trail for people to track you down.

So I did some Googling. First, I Googled our friend Terry Robert Lindsey’s email address, pam13tj@gmail.com…

Autograph scam

 

…and found that he has left the exact same message on the guestbooks of countless other obscure (no offense) classical musicians…

Autograph scam Autograph scam

 

…and that some people actually did follow through and send him something:

autograph scam

 

I figured if one person was spamming people this much, there must be more, and there must be other people having this problem. So I Googled “autograph scam”…

…and found that a lot of barely-famous people have gotten similar messages.

In fact, reading the resulting posts and their comments, I noticed a curious phenomenon. These scammers (for lack of a better term) seem to operate in cliques-by-subject that target different types of people. There’s one set of scammers that focuses on obscure writers, one that spams models, one that goes after indie bands, and of course a group (one that our friend Terry is part of) that follows obscure classical musicians.

But why are they doing this?

In most of the posts and comments I read, people couldn’t really come up with a motive for all the autograph request spamming. The most likely reason I found, though, comes from Arnold Zwicky’s blog:

At first, some of [the commenters on one of the blog posts] considered the possibility that this was part of an identity theft scheme, but the consensus was (I think correctly) that the collectors were assembling banks of autographs from people who might some day become famous enough that their autographs could be sold or traded. [The blog author] and I (and others who reported similar experiences) are maybe C- or D- list celebrities, so we’re easily flattered.

Here’s autograph hounding in one of its more traditional forms, as described by pornstar Jack Wrangler in his (auto)biography The Jack Wrangler Story, p. 130:

A few quick notes about autograph seekers, now that I’ve become a jaded recipient of that kind of flattery: They’re always the same people. They always hit the current hit shows, and they seem to have no discernible means of support. They always hand you a three-by-five card to sign–just your name, no message. Because, you see, they trade them, and I guess in some instances sell them. These people are not necessarily fans. Often they don’t have any idea who the hell you are. You know you’ve been spotted; you smile warmly; they rush up to you breathlessly. Your hand is poised and ready. Then they hit you with “Are you anybody?” Pop goes the balloon. Their singular aim in life is to build the biggest autograph collection in the world, so they keep coming back with their damned three-by-five cards, which they use for leverage: “I’ll give you ten Jack Wranglers for one John Travolta.” 

For you TLDR people: it seems these autograph scammers/spammers are simply collecting as many autographs as they can from people who are not (yet) extremely famous, in the hopes that some of their marks will become famous later.

It’s like the worst insurance scheme ever.

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The new addition to my stationery collection

I have a slight stationery addiction. A few days ago I cleaned out a nightstand to use as a dedicated storage unit for my collection of notebooks, letter pads, cards, pens, stickers, etc. because it’s gotten to the point that they are in piles and boxes all over the place. I pledged not to buy any more stationery for a while.

…But then today I found myself in an Asian stationery shop and I was able to resist until I found a set of gold-embossed piano-themed letter paper. It was the only piano-themed set left in the whole store, and I had to get it.

(Sorry for the super funky coloring, this photo was super yellow and I color-corrected it really quickly.)

The thing is, after I bought it, I took a closer look and realized that the piano is backward.
See how the lid opens up on the left, and the crook (the curvy part) is also on the left? All grand pianos open up to the right, unless, I suppose, they are specially constructed otherwise. I can’t believe that the stationery makers got the piano wrong; maybe they hired a dyslexic piano-illustrator.
I’m now ever-so-slightly embarrassed to use this elegant stationery for anyone who’s an actual pianist. I guess I’ll only use it when I want to test amateur wannabe pianists. “You didn’t notice that the piano is backward? I hereby eject you from the Real Pianists’ Club! Good day!”
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