Rock Solid Licks: Lessons From Another Stage

by guest blogger David Wyatt.

DavidWyatt_SolidGold40

The year was 1994. I was 21, heartbroken, and was lucky enough to meet a couple of other super-talented—also heartbroken musicians by the name of David Craig and Jasper Benson. We started like most of the musicians we knew: with a Tascam 4-track in someone’s living room and a handful of mediocre songs with a couple of promising gems. In those early days, there was no hint of what was to come.

 

After several months, we named ourselves “Solid Gold 40” and got a full band together. To me, this was nothing short of extraordinary because I really had no musical background other than listening to it. Never played in bands. Never took music lessons. And I had only really been seeing live music actively for 3-4 years maybe. But we just so happened to meet up in Austin, Texas where there were plenty of clubs and gigs and people had an appetite to play and listen. So for a few years, we just wrote songs and managed to get on some bills and earn our stripes.

 

At one point, when we were playing in coffee shops (no kidding, we had a puppet show open for us like on This Is Spinal Tap) we realized that our bassist didn’t own a bass or know the songs… so we were just as well off calling someone up from the audience. So we cleaned out the rhythm section and started looking for a new line-up. One day when auditioning bassists, one guy stopped and packed up after an hour of playing and said, “I’m just not ready to lead a band.” At the time, we thought that was hilarious and pretty ridiculous, but looking back I can recognize that we didn’t exactly have our act together.

 

Just about every band has one person that does most of the other stuff: booking, making posters, getting merch, ordering CDs, etc. As we started figuring out the things you were supposed to do to get people to know about your band, I became that guy. It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as I got something out of it and seemed to be motivated to see that it happened. But at the time, I didn’t consider myself the “leader” of the band. I was the guitarist (not even the good one) and I wrote songs. I certainly wasn’t in charge. I remember one time on tour when I brought up the idea that if we ever got signed, would I get a bigger cut or something, and a couple of bandmates were incredulous. To me, it made sense, but I guess they didn’t see it that way. In hindsight, I realize that they neither asked me to do all that stuff nor did they probably realize what  it involved. That was my issue. Still, it was about that time that I started to resent my role a little.

 

Being ‘that band member’ is not all posters and buttons. You spend your non practice time prepping song charts and figuring out how you book or promote a tour. Often you put a lot of money into it and a whole lot of steep-learning-curve time. If you are successful at it, then that is rewarding, but often others don’t seem to notice.

 

While we had some great songs, but out a record and a half, toured twice, and put on some epic shows… ultimately, Solid Gold 40 was a legend in our own minds. I say that with all the love and warmth in the world. Our accomplishments were local and personal, but they were big and mattered nonetheless. I still believe we had potential for other places, but it just wasn’t meant to be. We disbanded in 2001.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

 

In the decade and a half since, I’ve played in a few other bands and have found myself at odds with assuming the bandleader role. I don’t know if it is in an effort to get others to do their part or a reluctance to find myself resentful or even vulnerable in that “I went for it” sort of way. That said, even though I’m not a full-time band leader like my one-time bandmate Josh Robins (another band, another story, another time), I learned a lot from that experience—about myself and the way things work. I apply these lessons in my life, in my company, and even in fatherhood. Here are a few of the high points:

 

+ Just ask: A lot of things like booking or media coverage or partnering with bands or odd venues seem out of reach, but what you learn when you are trying to put a show or tour together is “all they can say is no”. When we released our cassette (insert old guy joke here) we had the idea to do a rooftop show like the Beatles and U2. We picked the top of the Barnes & Noble on the drag across from the UT campus and then we just asked if we could do it. They agreed and—while we got shut down by the cops after 6-7 songs—it was a great experience and led to our CD release on a party boat, which may have just been the best show we ever played. Years later, I still use that spirit of ‘why not’ to get things done.

 

+ Fake it until you make it: I’ve never been a great musician. I’m a fair songwriter and a mediocre singer and guitarist. In fact, the driving force behind playing guitar was just to write songs. But then I found myself in a band and called on to do a solo, etc. I’m still a pretty average player, but I learned to do it with gusto and to have confidence. Turns out that can go a long way.

 

+ Give the crowd what they’re screaming for: Early on we had sea shanties and disco songs and noise bits. Those were all a part of the process of finding our best sound, but we discovered that the interest from the audiences and the clubs didn’t come until we got focused. That’s not to say one should sell out to succeed, but I believe there’s a wisdom in doing what’s clearly working for you. In my flower delivery job around the same time, I called it “go where the green lights take you” meaning the marketplace will tell you what it wants—even in art. See also: Louis Blacks’ “Advice for artists, inspired during the whirlwind of SXSW 2005” from The Austin Chronicle.

 

+ When you stand on tables, sometimes you bust your ass: I am a proponent of showmanship vs. shoe-gazing. Over the years, this has evolved from colorful costumes to running around the club antics. On one West coast tour, we ended up at our Oakland destination and they didn’t even seem to remember we were booked. WE had an audience of maybe 8 people, but weren’t going to let that stop us from melting their faces off. So, on the first song, I strapped on my double neck guitar and stepped onto a chair and empty table up front—whereupon it slid away and put me flat on my back like Charlie Brown with the football yanked away. I had the wind knocked out of me but I played my intro any way. It didn’t make it any less great. In fact, it made it moreso.

 

+ Hard work is it’s own reward: As I look back on those Solid Gold 40 days and the bands I’ve played in since, I realize that regardless of my aspirations or the complicated relationships or what come of it all, every bit of it was worth it. Being in Austin and toiling away at venues that don’t give a shit, it is easy to forget sometimes what a privilege it is to make music with talented people for audiences that want to hear your original ideas. Now, I’ve done a lot of crazy things in the name of rock and roll. I’ve played with bad asses I had no business sharing the stage with and a lot of it was pretty spectacular. I am reminded of a great scene from Man on the Moon, the 1999 movie about Dadaist comedian Andy Kaufman. I have no idea if this was based on something he said but when someone said that the fans weren’t going to get it, he replied “it’s not for them.” In the end, what you have is the experience and if you made it matter.

 

 

David Wyatt is a songwriter, performing musician, business owner, husband, father, and coffee enthusiast. He’s played in bands including Solid Gold 40, Stinky del Negro, Summer Breeze, Magnifico, and The Ron Titter Band. He dedicates this post to his wife Rachel, to Josh, and to his SG40 friends David Craig, Rebekah Whitehurst, Phillip White, and the late great Jasper Benson.

 

Thoughts on the Pro and Artist Mindsets

I had a long and good conversation with a drummer friend and sometimes band mate of mine that got me thinking about the difference between the artist mindset and professional musician mindset.

That’s not say that a pro can’t be an artist or vice versa. It’s also not to say that there’s a hard line between the two mindsets. You can certain have attributes of both. Heck, most of my accidental successes would never have gone anywhere if I hadn’t learned from the pro mindset!

The pro mindset says that we should minimize time (and risk) and maximize dollars earned. It doesn’t necessarily factor in things like personal fulfillment, taste or even quality. Lots of the language like that makes pros laugh. Things like “faith” and “artistic success” don’t pay their bills.

My first real memory of my artistic mindset directly clashing with someone’s pro mindset goes back to 2002. There’s a drummer in Austin who probably would’ve been a great drummer for The Invincible Czars but couldn’t get past the idea that we were willing to play for practically nothing. He was cool and good at his audition but if there was no money, there was no him, period. Not worth the risk.

A young ambitious band just starting out would never have played a first gig if we’d demanded a bunch of money. So we went with someone else.

Plus. I felt like he’d always have us by the balls. We were looking for someone to join the band. To share the risk. Someone who believed in what we were doing. More artsy language.

Three drummers and a year later, I’d changed my tune. I realized that if we wanted to play gigs and no drummer would join, all we had to do was pay someone  $50. Cool!  We’re booking gigs again! So I did that for a while.

That’s the great thing about the pro mindset – if your vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to anyone else, you can always pay them to make it worth their while!

But it’s also a curse.

It’s why you see some of the most skilled drummers in the world playing four-on-the-floor drum beats all night in pop and country bands – groups that play music people instantly love (cover bands are the best example) make more money… and in the case of drummers that music is usually very easy!

As soon as someone else offers that person more money, you either have to pay the higher price or find someone else. Suddenly you’re spending more time managing contract labor than making music.

Additionally, just because someone has a pro mindset doesn’t mean they have pro chops. There are plenty of mediocre bass players and drummers out there that are used to being paid $100 to play music they don’t even need to practice to play masterfully. If you want someone to play actual arrangements, the price goes up.  There’re plenty of much easier gigs out there that pay better than learning a whole set of arrangements. They’re happy to just play Mustang Sally night after night.

To pros, the best gigs earn them the most money per hour spent. Individual prep time, group rehearsals, travel time and actual performance time all  cut the value of the gig in their minds.

It’s hard to argue with that in our capitalist society.  If the pay for this gig will be the same whether we give a C- performance or an A+ performance, why give an A+ effort?

But artist are dreamers. We have to have faith that what we’re doing is good, worthy and worthwhile. We have to have faith that we can get there – wherever there is. We make the kind of stuff that gives the pros their jobs and we love what we do so much, we will give an A effort for C pay (or even F pay).

BUT — Pro mindset people can help us learn when shouldn’t!

That year of paying a drummer $50 a show made me permanently much, much picker about what shows to take and how I use group time.

My biggest successes were riskier and more difficult and the practical pro mindset said, “not worth it”.  The potential for C or F pay was high with both The Invincible Czars’ Nutcracker and silent film soundtracks. Building up an audience outside of Austin was very risky. Doing those things took time and sacrifice from me those who wanted to believe. Thank you to those of you who did and do.

Meanwhile, many of the pro-mindset players that were with me along the way are barely even in the music game anymore. I guess they finally figured out something that now renowned producer John Congleton told me nearly 20 years ago (and probably doesn’t remember) — if you’re in the music business to make money, you’re pretty stupid.

I want to end by saying that both mindsets are useful and if matched properly can keep your act on course both creatively and on the business side.  I’ve had more good than bad experiences with pros. Sometimes I had to learn things the hard way with pros who took advantage or just wanted to belittle me. Thank you to the benevolent pros who’ve been willing to do what they do for fair compensation and who did what any real pro does — help pass the torch by educating and giving opportunities instead of just taking my money and delivering a half-assed performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make It, Take It – A Vicious Circle with No Real Winners.

Today’s post isn’t about music. It’s inspired by my thoughts on this article… responding to the ideas that (1) if you hate your job, simply get a better one and (2) that simply working harder will solve your problem.

Stay with me here:

As a kid, I was baffled by the concept of “make it, take it” basketball. In all other versions of the game (and most games), the field is reset after a score and the ball given to the team that didn’t score the goal so as to give them an opportunity to control the ball and keep the game going – or at least interesting.

“Make it, take it” can be interesting between two closely matched opponents but it’s no surprise when a team of adults beats the pants off a team of children in a “make it, take it” match.  Would the children ever even get to touch the ball?

The only people who ever want to play “make it, take it” are the people who KNOW they have a leg up and want to humiliate their opponents by scoring as many points as possible as quickly as possible.  They don’t care about the game.  They only care about power and making themselves feel good.

It’s interesting that you don’t see “make it, take it” in pro sports organizations – where it might actually be interesting! I guess you don’t see the NBA playing “make it, take it” because the games would be pretty boring.

Why?

Because “make it take it” isn’t fun for anyone but the winning players.

I’ve had a lot of experience on the wrong side of “make it, take it” basketball and most of the time the game ends in a forfeit.  Would you buy a ticket or tune into a game that was guaranteed to be a blow out only to end in a humiliating forfeit in the second quarter?  Probably not and the NBA definitely wants to sell ad time and tickets so they have rules to force the obsessed winners (like Michael  Jordan) to play fair so the money keeps flowing into their collective pockets.

We live in a “make it, take it” society but we don’t have a many money-making powers like the NBA to force the obsessed winners of the world to play fair.  The rich get richer.

And they might argue that we live in a “make it, take it” reality. That’s how evolution* works, after all.  Survival of the fittest!

I agree.  But if we’re using the evolution metaphor, where does hard work come into play?  After all, the winners of evolution are BORN with their advantage, they don’t work for it. (Sounds like Paris Hilton!)

The white polar bears near the end of this segment from Cosmos did nothing to gain an advantage over the brown polar bears… other than be born with a mutation they had no control over! (Sounds like Paris Hilton!)

So while the idea of getting a better job makes sense to those for whom it comes easy, actually doing so is difficult for most people – even those with college degrees.  You don’t just go from flipping burgers to managing a department store (or even something as vague as online leads manager to team manager) with a quick scroll through craigslist.

Plus,  If you’ve gotta spend money to make money, what do you do if you haven’t got any to spend?  I guess you and those like you just go extinct.  But where does that end?  What happens when your advantage isn’t advantage anymore?

We all have to live on this court and when there’s no one left to beat, even the winners lose. (Once Michael Jordan got bored with being the best basketball player ever, he had the fortune of being one of if no the worst baseball player ever.)

There’s always someone at the bottom and “make it take it” is a vicious circle that eventually wipes everyone out.

We can choose something else, though.

Wouldn’t it be better to respect your opponents and see everyone’s standards raised?  To keep the game you love to win going instead of this desperate rush to the top only to be toppled by the next generation of younger, more advantaged players just as eager to ruin the game as you were?

If not, know that the rest of us look forward to laughing at you when (not if) they beat the pants off you.

 

*ironically, many don’t even believe in the theory of evolution.

Czars Stars

We have this joke reward system that started on the last Invincible Czars Nosferatu tour. When someone (in or not in the band) does something remarkable or really helpful, they get a Czar Star.

At some point, actual, physical Czar Stars started showing up… and I’m not even the one doling them out!

But if I was, here’re some of the things that I think deserve Czars Stars. If you do these things for your band, you probably go un or under recognized by your band mates but not by me. (Some of these are really specific to the Czars and our upcoming tour. If you did these, thank you!)

1) Playing a near perfect show nearly every night.

2) Maintaining the web presence – web site, social media.

3) Making Facebook event pages for every show. (oh, did you check to see if someone else made one already? Damn. That was a waste of time.)

4) Booking the shows. (this could be a full time job on its own)

5) Contacting press, radio, other media ON TIME (this could be a full time job on its own)

6) Having artwork/photos made and properly formatted for various uses. (CDs, posters, web graphics, t-shirts, etc.) THIS IS HUGE and nearly everything else on this list depends upon it. Artwork and images go everywhere – web site, videos, merchandise, press lists, social media.

7) Video shooting and editing (if you’re not someone who already knows about this and you take it on, you get 5 additional stars)

8) Making a pre-show playlist

9) Finding lodging

10) Selling merchandise

11) Determining day to day scheduling (departure time, arrival time, dinner time, load in time, show time, strike time, sleep time, etc.)

12) Loading

13) Driving

14) Managing the Merchandise (inventory, storage, pricing, signage and display, payment options like credit card readers, online sales, finding the best places to have it made, etc. This is another huge time consuming job!)

15) Contributing money to keep the bus moving.

16) Writing marketing language and descriptive language and knowing the difference between the two

17) Writing the music

18) Running Sound

19) Playing instruments (including electronics) you don’t normally

20) Providing transportation and maintaining it

21) Providing the practice space

22) Communicating with fans – in person or online

23) Making recordings and formatting them for various uses (CD, web, vinyl, whatever)

24) Dealing with any kind of legal issues (copyrights, insurance, etc.)

25) Accounting and Taxes

26) Cooking and cleaning

27) Getting your band out of any sticky situation

28) Remaining positive in the face of not so positive circumstances

I think it’s worth noting that simply stating a good idea isn’t on this list. Good ideas deserve recognition, no doubt, but they don’t really deserve a Czar Star until they become reality.

ex: let’s tour Europe, get our own sound/light person, make some merchandise everyone wants, break into college campus gigs, shoot a high quality video that’s fun to watch, play with an orchesrta, write a hit song, etc.

Those all sound good but realizing them takes way, WAY more time, effort and luck than just dreaming them up.

There are tons of idea-people out there who can make long, long lists of to do items but when it comes to actually executing those ideas, very few people actually make it happen.

You may never get a Czar Star because all that behind the scenes stuff doesn’t seem to matter to people who’ve never felt the pain of doing (or not doing) those things. It’s behind the scenes and if you’re doing it right, hardly anyone notices. You’re like the Navy SEAL of your band. You’re beyond Czar Stars.

Aging Hipsters

Hulk

Today I’m 10X as old as I was in this photo.

It’s been a while since I wrote.  The usual holiday melee came on the heels of a surprisingly successful silent film tour in October.  Getting time to collect my thoughts has been difficult.

 

But today, I’m 40.  Gotta put something up today.

 

I’ve spent the last year feeling like I’m already 40 and many years dreading it.  But as it approached, I’ve felt better and better about it.  Big thanks to Reed Burnam whose thoughts on 40 helped make that the case.  It took three years for those thoughts to settle in my brain, but I’m there.

 

It seems like losing relevance and fear of not measuring up are the big things that scare us about 40 – or any milestone age.   I’ve been thinking a lot about the first one.
For me, a fear of loss of relevance has long seemed ridiculous.  Who/what is relevant?  And to what?

 

It seems most peoples’ answers to both lies with the coveted teen-to-young-adult demographic and the zeitgeist surrounding them.

 
Throughout my life, I’ve heard adults (usually parents) say things like, “I don’t know what’s cool anymore.”   I have a specific memory of my Aunt Diane saying this and thinking – this is going to happen to me someday.

 

I finally had a brush with that about 5 years ago when I found myself managing high school aged interns at my day job.  During that period, I went from being the same age as their older siblings and cousins to being the same age as their parents.  We often listened to music and I realized I was way out of touch with what young people were listening to at the time.  Not a single one of them listened to rock music.  They liked more dance-pop and hip-hop/rap.  Drake and Rihanna were big with them. When I played Guns n Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” only one of them recognized it (thanks Guitar Hero!).  They thought what I listened to was mostly very, very weird and lots of times very old.  It is pretty weird actually… I mean, I listen to pretty off-the-wall stuff even among most people my age. I also I got on a Louis Armstrong kick on Pandora which seemed ancient to the interns.

 

My music taste wasn’t relevant to them. They had no context for it.

 

I thought – wow… I’m officially uncool.   Then I thought, “but I never have been.”   Not even when I was a late teen and young adult.  I still find Radiohead boring.  Nu-metal put me off metal for a long time.

 

But even writing myself off (or on?) as an outsider isn’t totally accurate.  Afterall, I “discovered” Faith No More and Nirvana the same way the interns discovered Drake and Rihanna — mass media.   In my case, MTV and the multiple rock radio stations in DFW that all played the same 14 songs over and over all day.

 

And just like me with Drake and Rihanna, people my parents’ age weren’t paying attention.  Nirvana went on to have an almost Beatles level of popularity and 15 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, my dad bought a copy of Nervermind when VH-1 included it on their list of the greatest albums of all time.  He listened to it and likes it… but In 1991, it was just another tape of kids’ music that seemed irrelevant to him.  He paid it no attention.

To my interns, I was just another “old” person at their job paying no attention to their interests.    Most of them came to appreciate my youthful spirit.  One of them was shocked when he learned I was 37 — and younger that Cee-Lo Green.  He guessed 25.  Bless him.

And there’s where the relativity of relevance is apparent.  25 seems almost a whole life away to a 15 year old.  37 is even harder to grasp for them.

Relevance is relative to the beholder’s context.  My aunt may not have known what was cool to her kids but this is a woman with hundreds of friends and connections.  Among her peers, she’s pretty cool.

 

Big media’s roll in our experiences and tastes does’t make them any more or less relevant to you or those around you.

Cool young adults may have become the pop culture taste makers but theirs is not the only experience.  The 5-7 year period of young adulthood is less than 10% of life expectancy.  The idea that 90% of our lives are somehow not relevant is absurd especially considering the achievements by people older (or younger!) than 18-23.

What’s “cool” changes as we age and gain more experience.  The first live show I ever saw as an Austin resident was a Thrill Jockey band from Chicago who I won’t name at Stubb’s.  I loved the guitarist!  I pulled the CD out for the first time in a very long a few years ago and… it was so boring to me.  There’s not a single melody on the album.  Just lots of cool rhythmic stuff and some solos.  Now it sounds to me like a musical cheese pizza – a good foundation served without any toppings.  Some people like cheese pizza. I sure did.

In spite of our evolving tastes, our desire to be forever young makes us jealous of young adults and lately the curmudgeonly use of  “hipster” as a derogatory term has come into everyday language.  To me, this seems like a modern day version of “young whipper snapper” and only confirms one’s status as a cranky old fart.

Most people I hear complaining about hipsters WERE hipsters… or ARE hipsters that’ve just aged out of young adulthood and feel left behind.  I think the best solution to that is simply to participate!

And that’s all that young people are really doing.  They’re presented with something and they participate.   It’s only those of us who’ve aged that think we have anything to lose by trying something new.  Silly.

Throughout my 20s,  I met lots of  people older than me that I referred to as aging hipsters before the term came to be a negative epithet.  They defy the stereotype of straight laced, white bread and seemingly boring adults I knew as a teenager.  They retain their youthful sense of adventure and willingness to try/learn new things without falling into the common traps of drug addiction or bad relationships.  They have few responsibilities but are not irresponsible.  Their path is far, far more appealing than that of the cranky old fart full of regrets. Many have been my best friends, band mates and colleagues. I’m happy today to have aged into their ranks!

 

 

My Own Fear of Success

It occurred to me that doing a series on development is kind of redundant.  I mean… this whole blog is about development.

This week I wrote about my own fear of success.  Skip it if you don’t like my entries that are more journal-like.
Fear of success seems absurd.  We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right?  Fear of failure seems logical.  We don’t want to fail.

I experienced fear of success on the most recent Invincible Czars tour and it didn’t seem absurd.  Here’s what happened.

I/we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.  I was reticent even after acquiescing.  In my mind, Nosferatu is so very done in the world of silent film accompaniment.  Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, an community orchestra or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment.  There are tons of new scores for this movie out there.  Not only that, the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is available now.

But, once I decided to do it, I delved in.

Of course, we decided to do it for Halloween and I spent six months of daily work writing, refining and recording the music, finding venues and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the materials to do so (flyers, post cards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo) and the merchandise.  I didn’t have to do this all alone but I knew I was the lynch pin with all this stuff coming together.

There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process.  We made a surprisingly good recording that was done BEFORE the shows for once.  We also had killer (ha!) artwork and a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots.  That was a big success.  I’d dreamt of one day doing this and it actually happened!

On the non-music side, I spent many, many hours and days working on our van (Van Halen) this summer.  It continued falling apart all the way through the end of the tour.  It’s amazing that it we made it anywhere but all those hours paid off.  I was able to keep it moving, albeit slowly at times, throughout the tour.

In fact, our engine started misfiring again (after six weeks of smooth sailing) only 3 hours into  the tour and we stumbled into Huntsville, TX.  At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what was to come… ugh.”
Based on the past, we’d made  the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour – not much.   We made a few posters for the first time hoping we’d sell half of them.

We were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house that night and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, sold most of our posters and about half our CDs.  We still had 17 more shows to go!  gadzooks!  We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour.
(Thank you to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt and let us mail them to you later!)

That day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come but not in the way I’d expected.  People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places.  The media actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played.    We beat our record for single-day merchandise sales on this tour!

But I couldn’t get positive about it.  Everyone was revelling in our success after a sold out Tuesday night in Pensacola, when I launched into this negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded my bandmates.  The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about our success.

Now that’s absurd.

But my fear wasn’t going away.  I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs.  Those fears included:

  • This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along.  Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have an off night.
  • Now the bar’s set higher.  Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm.  When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame.
  • This is a lucky one-time success.  It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again.
  • What if this is as good as it gets and I’ve peaked?  Is it all down hill from here?
  • I like doing the silent movies but it’s not all that we do.  We may be building an audience but it’s just for one aspect of what we do.  This movie is the draw, not us. The artwork is better than the music.  We’ll never see these faces again.
  • I’m not even challenging myself out here.  My parts are so easy, I don’t even need to warm up to play them.  Am I growing as a player or just plateauing with this?
  • The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving.  No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.

(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve been worried about.)

After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success.  What a weird place to be.  Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me.  I’ve dealth with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again.  Hell,  I already had plan B and plan C ready go.  So ready to go in fact it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.

This success seemed to me like beating a level of space invaders where the reward is a chance to keep playing the game but now the space invaders are moving faster… and you’re not!   There’s an instant where you’re still in disbelief that you cleared that last level as a whole new and more difficult set of space invaders bears down on you.  (This reminds me of my own entry about Proving It.)

Six months of work resulted in 18 amazing shows in 17 days.  Coming off that is… not brutal but it’s the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.  So now I guess get to play space invaders some more.  Good thing I like the game.

 

Development Part 4 – Build A Network

How often do you hear or say something like, “That band only gets to play on weekends because the singer is the owner’s girlfriend.”

Well… yeah.  Get used to that.

Other than your skills and talents, your network may be the most important tool for growth that you can develop.  It can affect everything from show attendance to booking opportunities to better recordings to guidance.

We’ve all heard that It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.   Simply being good isn’t enough.  You have to already be good to even be considered.  That’s a private victory.  Plus, “good” is relative and simply being good doesn’t mean you can create a career.  You have to make enough other people care about how good you are.

Steve Vai is unbelievable and yet you never hear about him unless you dig into that world of guitar wizardry and the music nerds who pay attention to him.  Casual listeners don’t have a context for that stuff until someone creates it.

In the late 80s, only the “bad kids” and skaters listened to Metallica.  Parents and teachers in the bible belt town where I went to school called the music satanic.  But by 1991, I was hearing “Enter Sandman” out of the cars of all the jocks, ropers and cheerleaders in at my high school.   Many factors came together to create a context for what Metallica did.   They were already huge in the world of metal. They already had a lot of fans worldwide, a major label deal and business team.  In 1991, there was a major turn in what radio and MTV were playing as tastes moved from dance-pop  (Janet Jackson) and glam-metal (Poison) to bands like Faith No More and Nirvana.  Metallica also released their most mainstream album ever right at that moment and kind of met casual listeners in the middle of all that.

That kind of context can only be created by a massive network of fans, talent buyers, booking agents, managers, promoters, etc. etc.  By 1991, Metallica’s network was enormous.

Each of us, no matter how introverted, has a network on which we rely — even if it’s just our family and friends.   The more that you cultivate it, the more you can turn to it when in need — something that many of us seem reluctant to do because we want to do “it” ourselves.  We can’t all be good at everything.  In fact, none of us can.  Even the highest ranked A-Listers have a network and people who help them.

Here’s a list of roles/people in your network:

  • Fans – if someone likes your music, you automatically have something in common with them because you like it, too.   Amanda Palmer is the queen of developing a network of fans.  Take interest in stuff they care about – even/especially if it’s not your band!
  • Family – Check out the video below about David Lee Roth’s multi-millionaire father. How could that connection NOT have helped David Lee and Van Halen’s careers?  Don’t ignore these connections or take them for granted.  Include your family members but don’t exploit them.

 

  • Friends – every musician has to have early adopters.  These are usually your friends!  Even if they don’t love your music, they’ll support you just because you’re you.  This is also helpful in non-music contexts.  The only way to have friends is to be a friend.  Go to their happenings.  Care!
  • Media – you’re bound to meet someone in the media who likes you – even if it’s just some guy who runs a badly edited monthly fanzine.  Keep them updated.  Be friendly.  Don’t just spam them with “band plays show” emails.  You never know what they’ll pick up for a story.  I’m often surprised by what interests journalists and reporters and what doesn’t.
  • Talent Buyers/Booking Agents/Venues – re-read the first sentence of this entry.  Everyone hates contacting strangers and trying to sell them on your band.  These are the first gatekeepers you will encounter in the music business.  The longer you know them and the more they like you, the easier your communications with them will be.
  • Other Like-Minded Businesses and Organizations – are you into animal rights, comic books, sewing, tattoos, politics, sports, vintage clothing, etc?  There’s probably some organization or business for that and a whole network of like-minded folks who might like what you do.  Don’t brow beat them – genuinely be a part of what they do and let opportunities arise.  Maybe they need a band for an event – or maybe you’ll make friends with someone who loves what you do and spreads the word for you.   In a town like Austin, we’re often connected by more than one interest.  Your new dungeon master could be high up at C3.
  • Other musicians – this is huge and part of the reason Austin’s such a cool place.  We’re all sharing information and ideas all the time.  Success for your friends’ bands tends to trickle down.  How could Mike Patton joining Faith No More NOT have helped Mr. Bungle?

So how to you build the network?  Simply be a helpful part of it.

 

Development Part 3 – Training Your Audience

Hey everyone, sorry I’ve not been posting lately.  My world got super busy leading up to and during a tour.  I’m back now but also realizing that I need to stop being so long winded here if I’m going to keep up my weekly posts.

Years ago, The Invincible Czars played a show with Suburban Terror Project and a few other metal bands at Trophy’s. It was the most people I ever saw in that venue. We were definitely the sore thumb on the bill. When I looked into the audience.  I saw a roomful of deer in headlights – not sure what to think.  But at least they didn’t leave.

Later, Josh Wardrip (from Suburban Terror) and I were talking about the show and he introduced me to a term I hear and use all the time now: ready-made audience. That conversation was extremely helpful for me. I immediately understood what he meant when he said, “there’s just no ready-made audience for what you guys do.”

The audience at Trophy’s that night had developed a taste for heavy metal. They hadn’t developed a taste for what we did — but at least they were open enough to try it.

That seems to be the route that you have to take if you’re doing something that doesn’t have a ready-made audience. It’s not a very fun one at first. It means spending lots of time in front of deer in headlights and hoping some of them snap out of it having liked what they heard. That percentage of early adopters in an audience is often low.

Years later, I heard Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds talk about this as the process of   training your audience. Just as your music and band must develop, the audience for what you do must as well.

The first time I heard Mr. Bungle and Naked City, I didn’t have any context. It took me being exposed to the music lots of times again to understand and acquire a taste for what they did. (The hilarity of that sentence is that I often make fun of people who say you have to acquire a taste for beer. Why would I want to acquire a taste for something awful?   That’s exactly how people feel about music they’re not ready for.)

Unless you’re doing something that everyone can immediately appreciate, it takes time to for people to develop a taste for what you do. This is why cover and tribute bands come out of the gate with an audience. Everyone already likes what they do before they even do it!

Last year, I saw two very different bands with very different ways of building their fanbase each fill the Mohawk in Austin.

One was Red Fang. It’s not terribly surprising to me that they’ve built a relatively big fanbase over the last 10 years – anyone who’s ever heard Metallica or Black Sabbath can grasp Red Fang’s music and they’re very good at what they do. No additional audience training is required.  (I did feel compelled to train one kid to quit trying to pull me in to the mosh pit by throwing a can at him.) Red Fang has tapped into a ready-made audience and do a really good job of entertaining them.  Good for them!

Later that month, I saw Goblin at the same venue. This was a very different audience of people who’ve somehow acquired a taste for Goblin’s intricate, proggy music over the last 40 years.  For most of that time, the band didn’t even exist having broken up the early 80s.  Any group that might’ve been considered a ready-made audience for Goblin would have been (and still is) minuscule compared with today’s broad world of heavy metal.  It took much longer, but they finally developed that audience!

So how can you train your audience?

Good question.  All I can think to do is find what you do really well without stopping and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Because  ultimately you don’t have control over who likes your band. I mean, you can target a large potential audience but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll like you. That’s the double edged sword of the ready-made audience – not all of them will like you and it’s hard to stand out.  Red Fang has WAY more competition than a band like Goblin that creates its own context rather than tapping into one.

But don’t fool yourself.  Creating your own audience is very time consuming.  After 10 years as a band, Goblin called it quits for nearly 20 years.  Their horror movie soundtracks kept the music alive and won new fans in the film world. People who liked them kept sharing their music. 40 years later, they played the same size audience as Red Fang did in 10.

If you can find or create a context for what you do best and take advantage of opportunities that develop around that, your audience will find you and vice versa.

On a personal-ish – note, I really had a lot of time to think on this topic while on the road.  I don’t think this entry quite nails all my thoughts and I’m still learning but I did get to experience some benefits of my own audience development efforts:  The Invincible Czars were touring with our 7th silent film soundtrack.  It was the longest tour we’ve done since 2004, nearly every show was full or sold out and I achieved the goal of booking an all silent film tour – meaning no rock shows. When I first started booking these shows outside Austin, most theaters/venues would (and still do) say, “Who would come to a silent movie?  Not interested.”

This got me thinking of the power of having your own contexts that supersede the actual art.  Hollywood might be the best example.  I love the irony of a bunch of rednecks watching movies created by the very liberal California entertainment business they rail against or the hardcore Star Wars fans who criticize and complain as they buy every last piece of a Phantom Menace memorabilia.

Now that’s a well-trained audience!

 

Bill – One Year Later

This week I’m taking a break from my series on development to reflect on where I am 1 year after the death of my friend and longtime band mate Bill Petersen.

I still miss him of course but I also feel  lingering guilt.  Not because I had anything to do with his death but because I could’ve been a better friend.

This may seem tangential but stay with me:

All the victim blaming stuff in the media lately has made me realize how ingrained it is in me and everyone.  When something bad happens to me, I almost immediately ask myself, “how could I have prevented this?” In fact, just writing the words “when something bad happens to me,” makes me cringe a little.  My inner editor wants to change that line to, “when I make a mistake” or some other language that makes me responsible for everything I experience.

But the truth is that there billions of other people in this world and many more forces in the universe at play all the time.  To think that we are 100% responsible for our paths is arrogant, in my opinion. And writing that today is relieving in some ways.

Bill had a lot of stuff going on that lead him to an early death.  Sure, some of those factors were his own doing – in 10 years of knowing him, I never knew him to do much of anything physically strenuous even close to what you might call “exercise”.  In the time we lived together near St. Ed’s University in Austin, I witnessed a lot of beer drinking and TV watching.  Bill knew he had some medical issues that eventually led to his heart condition but he chose to just live his life the way he wanted.  It was really easy, after he died, to say that he hastened his own heart failure and it was really easy when it was happening to essentially blame him for not taking better care of himself (which I still think he should’ve done!)

But Bill didn’t choose to have the heart condition.  He was born with it.  I guess he could’ve chosen to work a day job that didn’t provide him any health insurance but even if he’d had medical insurance at the time of his first heart attack (pre-Obamacare), the cost of his treatment would have still put him in debt for life.  Plus he probably would’ve had to have  some job that would’ve prevented him from playing music or doing what he loved.

There were lots of ways he could’ve probably lengthened his life.  But what was the price?  Was it worth it? Just barely, to him. Bill LOVED salty food and beer.   After his first heart attack, he lived 5 more years that were spent fighting the temptations of all that he felt was worth living for!

I mean… he couldn’t eat pizza.  That’s just unthinkable to me.

Last night Hen3ry Q Vines said to me, “Joggers and non-smokers die every day.”  HA!  So, even the people who do all the “right” things eventually die.  What choices could they have made to lengthen their lives and at what cost?  I suppose they should’ve had the foresight to be born in a future where their consciousness could live on forever by some technological means I can’t even imagine.  It’s their own fault.  It was a bad choice to be born now.

That sounds silly but I think that’s the message many people get from our society – if you’d just made better choices, all of this could’ve been avoided. I guess that’s true when it comes to things like dropping out of school or spending all your money on weed instead of paying the rent. But it doesn’t apply to things we don’t actually choose — like someone else’s actions or biological realities. She would’ve made so much more money had she only been born male…

Each of has only our own experiences and resources at hand to guide us.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into lives that are rich with those things.

Most aren’t.  Does that mean that the less privileged are unworthy of help?

Apparently so.  Americans are so obsessed with “the best” in our modern day Social Darwinist climate.  If it’s not the absolute best, it may as well be dead last and not bothering to foster.  Anything short of #1 is not worth helping.

That seems so backwards to me.  We only seem to want to help those who are already winning.  So the only way to deserve or earn help is to not need it?  Sounds like the entertainment business… or just about any business in the US.

(What’s mind boggling is that those “winners” are often only winning BECAUSE of the help they get but don’t acknowledge – like corporations that lobby for lower taxes and regulations as they bank on public funds/infrastructure, claim public resources for their own and then create their own self-serving regulations that keep anyone else from having a piece of the pie ever. Even more mind boggling is how we seem to buy into it hoping to be struck by the lightning bold of luck so we can become just like them!)

There’s truth to the idea that we all make our own choices and must live with them but it’s not as if we all have an entire spectrum of options ranging from the best to the worst.  If we did, who would ever choose anything but the best?!

Because of that, “the best” is relative and in our only-the-best-will-do world, “the best” eventually just becomes lowest common denominator – odorless, colorless and easy for everyone to digest.  If variety is the spice of life, then most Americans choose to eat mayonnaise sandwiches.  They’re “the best”.

Bill never ate mayonnaise sandwiches.  Not until the end, anyway, when the cost of all that spice caught up with him and he had to start making choices his body could afford.

He lived how he wanted.  He paid the price but I think he was glad to.

I wish I’d been more understanding.  At one point, his health and attitude became so bad that I finally made him take a 6 month hiatus.  He did NOT like that.  I felt bad even at the time, but he felt awful, acted like he couldn’t stand rehearsing or gigging and wasn’t playing well.  He didn’t talk to me much in those 6 months and you know… he never really came back full time.  I felt somewhat justified (but not happily so) when, at the end of the 6 months, he had a cardiac “event” that made him realized he really did need to focus on his health.  That was about 16 months before his death.  I’m really glad that there was time for him to be annoyed with me and then for us to grow closer again before he passed.

I guess what makes me feel so damn bad is that I was just another person telling him he needed to give up something he loved so he could go on living – and even worse so that I could go on doing the thing he loved without having to drag him along (his own words).   One more person giving him mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as if eating enough of them would ever make the salty sirloin dinners that made life worth living an option again… all the while indulging in those delights right in front of him.  Sometimes literally.

I wish I had found a better way to be more inclusive and kept him more active in our band.  I wish I’d played to his strengths rather than writing off his surliness as unwillingness to grow or change for the better when if fact it was because maintaining his existing abilities had become so hard for him.   I wish that when he was gruff with me, I could’ve seen the bigger picture – that his anger and impatience weren’t because of me, just directed at me because I was the guy in charge.

I mostly wish his last meal in OCT 9, 2014 would’ve included a salty ribeye and a whole twelve pack of India Pale Ale.

 

Development Part 2 – Private Victories (Sounding Out the Words)

I didn’t come up with the concept of private victories. It comes from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (An excellent and extremely helpful and empowering book that somehow gets lumped in with manipulative pseudo self-help books and get-rich-quick schemers.)

I won’t go too much into author Steven Covey’s writings on private victories other than the concept that you must have private victories before you can have public victories.

It’s hard to refute this logic. I’ve used the marathon metaphor before and it works here – you have to build up to running 26.2 miles. Getting there requires lots of frequent, small private victories of running a little further and and little further every day. By the time you run in the event, you will have essentially already run a marathon privately!

(The amazing thing about marathons is that if you run one, you’re pretty much a winner in everyone’s book. It’s like a private and public victory at once. When my mom ran one in her late 40s, it was a massive private victory just to finish the event and everyone around her recognized it. Friends and family and neighbors congratulated her. None of them knew or cared who actually placed or won the event but they knew she was in it. In their minds, she may as well have finished 1st!)

I think a lot of times, though, musicians and bands want that public victory (a sold out show, a good review, money, etc.) so badly that we try to skip past the private victory stage and wind up presenting something that’s not really what we had in mind or is some half-assed version of it.  This is like trying to turn a private failure into a public victory?  “We couldn’t play a single song competently but we were signed to Geffen on the spot!”  That doesn’t happen… often.

Before I moved to Austin, I was really into practicing and preparing before a first show with a band. Over the years I fell into the same trap as most Austin musicians: Performing in front of people was really just as private a victory as a good rehearsal because no one was going to be at the show anyway so why not at least get the name out there and start building it up? The problem with this Austin way of doing it is that, really, every show is an opportunity for a public victory… or a public embarrassment!  Most people who see you live will only see you a few times in their lives. In a lot of cases they will only see you once. In spite of decades of fandom, I have only seen Van Halen – one of my favorite bands – one time and, while they played well, they sounded like crap.  I didn’t go see them last month in Austin because they’re known for terribly live sound and I didn’t need to pay $100 to experience that again.

What If you suck or are half-assing it when someone sees your show?   “I saw a mediocre band stumble through their first show!” Not exactly the kind of word of mouth commentary that spreads like wildfire through a community of gate keepers.

Comments from random people occasionally remind me of my own rush to public victory. “Oh, I’ve seen you guys before. You have the accordion and trumpet player.” Wow. That means they have seen the band in 11-12 years. And no wonder. They band they remember was pretty mediocre… except for the apparently memorable instrumentation.

(Of course, at some point, you just have to say, “This is good enough,” and go do your show or run your marathon. Austin is a great place to incubate your ideas/band, I just think we sometimes need a little more time under the heat lamp.)

I think private victory is ultimately more important than public because it HAS to come first. Public victory may never come, but private victories MUST. They may never make your wallet fatter, but they will make your life richer. I’d personally rather spend time on my death bed recounting the greatest moments I lived rather than counting the dollars I accumulated (especially the ones I never even used).

Here’s a list of private victories that many (most?) of us take for granted:

learning to walk
learning to read/write
learning to speak
learning to count

Those are some pretty basic skills but think about how much you use them!

I recently met a fellow who, at the age of 51, cannot read. Now, I have known that illiteracy exists, but really seeing how it affects people is staggering. Without reading skills, this guy doesn’t know what’s in his food, what street/warning signs say, what his mail says or even that he’s picking up the right supplies for his job. He can’t use the internet. He drives but not legally. Without that private victory of learning to read, this poor fellow is relegated to the most menial of tasks from temporary manual labor employers because there are some really basic things he just can’t do – like filling out paperwork.

It’s hard for me as someone who learned to read as a kid to understand why this guy has gone so long without learning to read. I mean, it’s a shame that his parents or teachers didn’t teach him but he’s 51 and knows that not having the skill has held him back.  He could learn and could’ve learned at any point. Yet he chooses to go out there and find work that he can do with his current skill set and seems happy enough. And that’s totally cool. I don’t hear him complain.

But it makes me think about the bands and musicians I’ve seen or heard that are just barely stage-worthy wondering why they make such slow headway. So often I’ve heard some sentiment akin to “we’ve paid our dues, we deserve a weekend gig/opening slot for a big show/more fans/etc.” And paying dues is a GREAT metaphor for this kind of thing because paying your dues only guarantees membership — not success. I mean, I pay my dues at the YMCA, but if I want my abs to be as mouthwatering as my glutes, I’m going to need to do more than just walk on the treadmill a couple times a week. I’m going to have to do some exercises I don’t like or even know – get out of my comfort zone and take the time to develop my six pack before I start playing shows shirtless again.

Going through the process of achieving private victory prevents unnecessary public failure because you get the chance to “sound out all your words” (to keep the reading metaphor going) without criticism or scrutiny from anyone. It gives you luxury of (mostly) private trial and error. This is why school was invented!

When I was much younger, I was really into skateboarding but I was really terrible. I’d often get angry and throw my board on the ground. I felt so embarrassed to be so awful – especially in front of the kids a little older than me. Looking back on those days, the older and better skaters never made fun of me — because they had all been through the same process I was going through. They’d needed individual time to develop.

Plenty of people with a LOT of public success realize the value of private victory, too. For many of them, public victory can even lose its luster… “I’m the top selling artist of all time. Neat! Now what?” For many the answer is golf.   For some, it’s a whole other career – Brian May. For others is philanthropic work.  There are plenty of examples of people who achieved huge public success and then practically disappeared. I feel certain that Mark Hamil has had a very fulfilling life since Return of the Jedi in 1983. (Of course, that’s about to change since a contractual obligation will force (ha!) him back into the role of Luke Skywalker.)

Regardless of what’s next for already-successful people, they will need time to develop whatever it is – even if it’s just more of the same thing like a new movie or album – and that development is never or barely seen by the public.

You never stop having private victories and the most publicly successful among us know it.