GRATITUDE JOURNAL – DAY ??? – The Culture of Sharing Useful Information

I feel extremely grateful to the countless number of people throughout history who figured out how to do something well or right, documented it and then shared it with others.

 

I suppose I could just say that I’m grateful for the scientific method – but its not the method I’m talking about here today, its  the people willing to use it and the fact that they share their findings in hopes that the next person to confront the dilemma or issue can skip a few steps, gain new perspective or just learn something new.

 

I think of it more like a culture of sharing useful information and it’s the people who exercise it outside their tribe (family, co-workers, investors, etc.) to whom I’m particularly grateful.

 

Sure, some of these people have made a lot of money helping others help themselves but most don’t.  The incredible volume of actually useful do-it-yourself instructional videos on YouTube that will never make any money for the creators is pretty astounding.

 

Why do these people do it? Maybe they thought their video would go viral or that it could lead to some other lucrative activity.  That doesn’t bother me. I believe that this is one of the seldom recognized great things about humans that’s easy to overlook in the 24 hour news cycle era.  I believe we’ve somehow incorporated the idea of helping the next person into our lives over the course of who-knows-how-long.

 

That’s not to say that all information out there is good.  It’s not. I’ve been into self-help books since I was about 24 years old.  A few great ones stand out including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Feeling Good Handbook.  But for every one of those, there’s at least one Four Agreements or The Secret – books that enjoy popularity and have some good parts but mostly rely on subjective, spiritual mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-science as a basis for their teachings and/or, in my opinion, are less about truly growing and more about justifying irresponsibility (and making money for the author.)

 

But by and large, there’s a lot of good, useful information out there and in fact the concept of school and education is an outcropping of our evolved sense of helping the next person.

 

So the next time someone impatiently or angrily tells me when I’m doing something wrong or that there’s an easier or better way, I hope to take a step back and just thank the person for caring enough to set me on a better course.

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.

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 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.

No Day Job – How’s That Going?

I missed an entry last week because I’ve been so damn busy various things I set in motion after quitting my day job. Thinking on that and having been asked about it a lot, I thought I’d write a short entry to give an update on what I’ve done in the 5 1/2 months since I said goodbye to working for the man:

March – easily the busiest and most lucrative month since I quit working the day job. I wound up having one gig that paid me as much as I normally made in a single month plus a couple others. I got really sick again at the end of the month just like last year and played a wedding that was just me and a singer at the height of a very bad fever. It was unpleasant.

April – Invincible Czars toured east of Austin with the silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two Star Symphony drummer Kirk Suddreath joined us. It was fun. I didn’t earn any money but I didn’t lose any either. I started actually working with bands on pre-production and song arrangements for their recordings. That’s been slowly picking up steam. I also helped Opposite Day with a bunch of booking and management stuff. I started playing bass with Muppletone. I also continued filling with Sam Arnold and the Secret Keepers.

May – I thought this month would be dead but things got really complicated with Opposite Day booking. I started doing a bunch of gigs with Jean Caffeine. I also started making weekly “How to Play…” guitar videos and posting them on youtube as an excuse to get better at video editing and using Adobe Premiere. I’ve kept those up and even had some requests! Tony Brownlow and I started getting together to get The Genius Mistake going in the near future. We’ve been playing new and old songs.

June – vacation month. I hadn’t seen my family in Utah in a long time. I had multiple bookings cancel or fall through. It was about the most frustrating month of booking I’ve had in years only now it was doubly annoying because I was booking OD and the Czars. We wound up abandoning the idea of the Czars touring Germany this year as a restul. Near the end of the month I started working super hard on the Czars’ Nosferatu soundtrack fall – both musically and promotionally. I’ve learned that if I just write a little bit of music, sync it with the video and put a bunch of “Don’t Miss…” type text on it, I can do all the promotion for any given project having only created about 1% of the actual content.

July – Our Van started really having trouble just when we needed it for Czars’ road gigs and the labor to fix it was expensive so I started delving into self repair. I’ve learned A LOT about fixing cars in the last two months. The van is still not roadworthy. Invincible Czars shot a video in our house for Peter Stopschinski’s “Dark Theme from Metropolis”. Phil, Leila and I got really into arranging Bartok’s six “Romanian Dances” for the silent film. I saw Faith No More in Houston. They were excellent. I recorded some disappointingly eye opening vocal tracks for the Genius Mistake album that’s been sitting with no voices for one year. ugh.

August – With the van not working and being dependent upon Capital Metro to get me places, I hit a wall with all this juggling and wound up having to choose which balls to drop and pissing others off. I had to bail on a Secret Keepers gig and then had to get really choosy with my time. The Czars had the opportunity to use Ohm Recording Facility for a super cheap rate for a single day. We went in there and recorded a bunch of material for the Nosferatu soundtrack and all our silent movie (no drums) versions of Bartok’s “Romanian Dances”.  Long time readers of the this blog will also be interested to know that the reason I missed last week’s entry is because I was actually asked to write an entry for the web site Soundfly.com.  I was more surprised than anyone about this development!

To sum up, mostly I’m still in the “figuring it out” stage of this grand experiment. Yes, I’ve reached the point of purposely skipping meals to save money.

Confidence and Over-Confidence (or The Band “People” Magazine Mentioned By Name)

10 years ago, when I was much newer to the money losing business of music, I used to waste time perusing the sites of “booking agents” that were representing bands that I’d seen play at clubs like Room 710 and Beerland.  I was usually surprised at the way these “agents” (usually just a friend, lover or dealer of one of the band members) played up their bands — and even moreso by their selection.  Most of the bands lasted about a year at best or had a better name than they did music/talent. I was baffled that these bands that were lucky paid $50 for a gig had representation. (I still see this. There’s just no accounting for taste – even my own.. which apparently is out of touch with everyone else and has been forever.)

These days, I realize how hokey those “agencies” were. Still, as rinky-dink as they were, the bands on them had one thing I didn’t – someone that wasn’t in their band that liked them enough to take on the pain in the butt responsibility of booking the band and pumping up their image to the gate keepers.  Having someone like that in your corner is very validating for a young band and communicates something to talent buyers.  Even if they did a crappy job, at least these people were talking up their bands.

I certainly didn’t have that.  The only person talking up my band was me. So I set forth on the long road of building my own reputation.  I wasn’t any good at making myself look good. In fact, I was better at doing the opposite than anyone I knew.

Eventually, I gained a little confidence indirectly by simply failing so many times.  I developed what I now know as the “fake it til you make it” mentality.  I started saying yes to opportunities that had seemed unrealistic and outlandish or even undesirable because that’s all that was coming my way.  “Can your band be in San Marcos  on a Wednesday at 4:00 PM and play 2 sets outdoors in the freezing cold on an open stage in a parking lot to sick children?  Oh yeah and you’ll need your own PA.”  That’s character building (I just hope Tommy, Adam, Phil and Leila see it that way now) but it also opened some doors.  Lots of times we didn’t really have 2 sets worth of material or PA suitable to playing outdoors.  We did it anyway.  We faked it knowing that even if we blew it, we didn’t really want to play that gig again anyway so… what the hell?

But there’s some level of fakery that bugs me and I don’t think I’m alone.

I finally unsubscribed from a Dallas booking agent’s email list after receiving an invitation to the video shoot of a wedding/cover band with a link that read, “See the band that People Magazine” is raving about (I can’t remember that exact wording but it was something like that.)

I clicked the link which took me to a tedious article on People’s web site about a high society wedding for a pair of rich people I’d never heard of.  Buried among the paragraphs was a single sentence that simply said that that this band provided live music for the wedding.  It also mentioned the catering company.

I guess you’ve got to take what you can get… but this was free advertising at best and hardly a rave review.

Everyone in the entertainment business is always trying to play themselves or their clients up to be bigger than they are.  Why?  Because there’s some truth and value to the idea of “fake it til you make it.”  Plus, image is almost everything.  If you’re perceived as a pro who’s done this a million times it can often mean more opportunities and more money.

There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go. We often learn stuff best by simply doing it and confidence can be the key. As I started venturing into bigger soft-ticketed events, I slowly learned that simply stating something with confidence was often the difference between a confirmed gig and a “maybe next year” email.  I’ve wound up sub-contracting sound engineers and even staging, lighting and power when my knowledge about these things was cursory at best.   My clients (that sounds so weird) didn’t even have the cursory knowledge though.  As long as I seemed confident and positive, they were happy (even if I was actually pulling my hair out and cursing myself as soon as I hung up.)

You might hit boundaries.  That’s ok.  I just hit one a year ago.   I was trying to turn around a silent movie booking situation that had gone awry (original talent buyer booked it then quit the company as we were on the verge of confirming) and learned the hard way that Warner Bros. does not deal with third parties – only directly with movie theaters.  The theater felt embarrassed when WB asked them why I was trying to book a movie at their theater instead of them doing it. My final phone conversation with the theater made me feel like a 19 year old grocery sacker being fired because the boss was in a bad mood.

So you don’t want to be over-confident.  Afterall, there are some things that you can’t fake til you make.  If you tell a club booker that you normally draw 100 people when you really only draw about 25, it won’t take long for you to find yourself back on Tuesday nights – unless you pretty quickly find about 75 more people willing to come see you.

Well… maybe you CAN fake this if you have enough money.  A former artist manager I know used to refer to a concept he called “papering” the audience which is simply when a promoter can’t get people to buy tickets and offers discounts or even free tickets/drinks just to get people they know to show up. Even if they lose money, they made it look like the band sold a lot of tickets.  Remember Fletcher Clark’s “joke” about the best way to make a small fortune as a musician is to start with a large one? If you can’t get people to come see you even for free, why not pay them to be there? I think we’d all be surprised at how much this kind of thing goes on even at high levels  (Glenn Danzig’s comments about Ozzfest being a “corporate buy-on” are not the first I’ve heard of bigger bands paying to play even at high levels.)

But most of us can’t afford to do that.

Last year, I got an email from a talent buyer in Ft. Worth that I’ve worked with asking me I’d ever seen a particular band that was asking him for a high guarantee.  I hadn’t.  They had an impressive web presence and touring history.   They’d traveled as a supporting act in big venues for pretty high level acts with commercial radio airplay and name recognition among people who shop in malls.

But they’d barely ever played in North Texas.  I noticed they’d played Austin a few times but  only one weeknight at the Lucky Lounge (nothing against Lucky Lounge – it just wasn’t the even close to the size of the other shows they’d played) and a handful of unofficial dayshows during SxSW.   I asked the booker if there was any reason he thought they might do well at his club (which is the same size as the Lucky Lounge) and how he heard about them.  Apparently they just sent an email to DFW promoters with a pitch and dollar figure.   I guess that was enough to get his interest because he was considering it.  He kept asking around about them.

A few weeks later, I was dealing with him on another gig and asked about that band.  He said he told them to stick it.

But maybe I don’t know how to balance or manage confidence. Years ago, we played an official SxSW showcase with a buzzing San Marcos shoe gazer band who had a manager that was a total dick to the SxSW sound engineer. I thought he was way over the top. As negative as my experience with him and his band was, in the end, he was right – that SxSW showcase sucked. The stage manager was passed out drunk on the couch in back when we loaded in at 8 PM and the sound was pretty damn bad and this is not unheard of during SxSW. At least these guys had someone willing to stand up for them and say, “you can’t treat us like this.” I simply grinned and powered through.

(Side note – that band borrowed our bass amp when theirs blew and ours was never the same after they used it. They didn’t even thank us and then they played an encore AT A SXSW SHOWCASE that we had to follow. I wish I’d had their manager to yell at them.)

The Whole Flight Matters (Not Just Take-Offs and Landings)

Recently, I went through the most frightening turbulence on a plane I’ve ever experienced. At one point the plane must’ve dropped several hundred feet for what seemed like a long time but was probably just a few seconds.  It left me shaken and, in the moment, very aware of how helpless I was as we fell through the air in a winged steel tube.  I wasn’t the only one scared.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a collective gasp/moan/swear from an entire plane full of passengers.  At that moment, I thought to myself, “I’m never flying again… if I even get out off of this plane!”  After the whole thing happened, the captain came over the intercom to apologize for not seeing the signs of turbulence and avoiding the hot air we’d passed through.  That eased my mind, at least, that the plane still had wings and we’d probably get to San Francisco.
Pilots practice taking off and landing a lot because those are the places that have the highest chance for an accident — so they want to get them right every time.  I can see how it’d be easy to (almost literally) go on auto-pilot once the plane’s at cruising altitude and for some little mistake to have a big repercussion like the one we experienced.

Bands are the same way.  You always hear that as long as the band members start and end together, most people won’t notice other mistakes.  That’s pretty true — you’ve always got the end of the flight to redeem yourselves with a good landing!  However, unlike planes, if you keep taking off badly and flying rough, no one will be in the room to see the landing.

Of course, bad landings are no good either.  Last year, I saw a very tight Austin metal band with killer musicianship.  Everything about them was precise.  They were (are) very impressive…. but at the end of every song their drummer would immediately start messing around on his kit.  This is really common and annoying as hell in rehearsal situations but I’d never seen such behavior at a show before.  It had the effect of making the show seem too casual.  It also made it unclear where the songs began and actually ended.  It made for a less effective presentation of their otherwise really well worked out songs.
A couple months ago, I saw the same band and they’d cut the drum interludes.  Their show was as professional and fun to watch as any Austin band I’ve seen at any level.  They were really good.  (Worth noting – they did all this having lost their incredible lead guitarist.)
All of that is good reason to practice your take offs and landings.  But fixing that problem was pretty easy.  Someone probably simply told the drummer to stop practicing his booduhluhkahs on stage and he stopped.  Done.

So, yes, taking off and landing is important.
But just because you get off the ground and touch back down doesn’t mean you won’t hit turbulence!  Taking off and landing helps get your passengers there, but if the rest of the flight sucks, you won’t see them on your plane again.  (That was my last flight with that airline, though I must say that this incident it was only the rotten cherry on top of the already gross ice cream cone that was my experience with them over the course of 4 years.)

What about that turbulence that comes up mid-set like consistent “bonk” notes going into a chorus?  Or, if your music is pretty complicated, a quick change that you only nail collectively half the time or less?   Or the lyrics/syllables that the singer can’t remember or agree on how to enunciate with the backup vocalists?
Pilots use flight simulators to prepare for possible turbulence and work out problems before they’re in the air putting everyone’s lives at risk.  What about treating rehearsals as show simulators instead of just hasty run-throughs to make sure the take offs and landings are ok?  Other performing artists call this a dress rehearsal and they actually run the show as if the audience is there and deal with any problems that arise in real time.

But that’s too much pressure for most bands that just run the songs  the night before the show (not making it through some without crashing and starting over in the middle) and then wing it on stage the next night.  “Take offs and landings ok? That’s all that matters. Let’s go in there and just start rockin’!”

Imagine if your pilot thought that!

For that reason, I don’t like that Austin-tacious laid-back way of rehearsing.  Even nailing your songs in rehearsal isn’t like being on stage.  Rehearsal turbulence isn’t real.  Your nerves and energy level aren’t what they are on stage.   How often do you come off stage thinking, “that was a solid performance.  I deserve a treat!!”?  If you’re like most musicians, it’s more likely that you focus on what went wrong.  So why not fix it before the real flight?  Before you fly your flight crew and passengers into turbulence you know is out there?
I suggest that once your take offs and landings are solid, stop focusing on running whoel songs and shift to fixing the 10 seconds in the middle that always fall apart.  Zero in on your trouble spots, turn down and slow down enough that you can pinpoint the problem, use a metronome click through your PA so everyone can hear it if you feel like your rushing/dragging and then play it CORRECTLY as a group over and over until you play right more often than you play it wrong.  Increase the tempo and keep playing it till you play it right every time.  This could take many rehearsals.
I write all this at the risk of being told what the guys in Steers told me over a decade ago —- that I care too much and no one’s going to put in that kind of time.   My response – the pilot can never care too much about the experience of the passengers if he/she expects to keep them in the seats.

Plus, if you stop willingly sucking in front of people, they won’t think you suck.  What a concept!