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.

 

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.

ATX Music Census (AFTER)

The results of the census were pretty validating of my thoughts in last week’s post. No big surprise. There’re a lot of gloom and doom reactions out there but I think this census is a good thing, in spite of its seemingly grim picture.

Here’re my two favorite quotes from its summary and my thoughts on them:

It is entirely possible that musicians in Austin are no worse off relative to their counterparts in other comparable U.S. cities, but there are simply no parallel data with which to compare the findings in the Austin Music Census.

I made a list of reasons to stay in Austin but the biggest one is that the laws of supply and demand apply to every city in the world and the grass probably isn’t greener.  Leaving Austin sounds like starting over at square one in a new, different but probably equally challenging setting with the disadvantage of having no support network.

I’m writing this blog from Utah where, yesterday, I missed Built to Spill at the Ogden Amphitheater because they performed at the unthinkable hour of 5:00 PM. The cost for the ticket? $5.

Of course, this event was part of a month-long concert series at the venue and probably subsidized in some way to keep the ticket cost low. Still, the promoters of the show know that a cheap ticket means more bodies likely to show up. The demand for low ticket costs is a nationwide (worldwide?) phenomenon at all levels.

I often think about the big entertainment hubs of NYC, LA, etc. They’ve long been beyond Austin in the areas of of high cost of living, oversaturation, competition and glut of supply vs. demand. And yet, (as a day-job related friend once put it), every year bus loads of homecoming queens and captains of football teams arrive in LA with big dreams in spite of the odds against them becoming movie stars.

(Side note – the census takes into consideration all the jobs that aren’t “musician” in our scene. LA doesn’t tick because of raw acting and directing talent. It does because of the people who do all the other stuff. Make up, lights, camera, set builders, location scouts, etc. etc. etc. Austin, on the other hand, mostly just has the performers waiting for someone to turn them into stars.)

There’s a nostalgia in Austin for an age of the “working musician” that probably never really existed here. I’ve heard older musicians tell tale of the days they could pay their rent in gig money from a couple of shows a month… but How many actually could do that?  How many from that era had kids and realized they needed more income and dropped out of the scene and never said another word about it?

We don’t know but I’m guessing it wasn’t much different than it is today – more dropped out of the game than stayed in it and the ones who stayed in and made their livings didn’t do it just playing around town.

Of all of the responses to the census I’ve seen, I like Jeff Smith’s* the most. In it, it he mentions that Austin has too many stages and not enough headliners. I agree and I don’t think this is unique to Austin, either. Making a headlining act is very difficult. It takes time to build up a fan base – even locally. Sometimes, though, I don’t think Austin bands are really trying that hard. When our “show” consists of wearing street clothes and turning the stage lights off and playing the same songs everyone’s heard, we’re not exactly on the cutting edge of show business nor are we very compelling to casual audiences who don’t understand why our stage show isn’t as cool as Tool’s.

I think Jeff’s right that being in the entertainment business takes more work that most people (not just musicians) bargain for. I think it’s especially true of Austin. We’re as much the Slacker Capital of the World of as we are the Live Music Capital. Maybe moreso. It’s still a relatively easy going town where “everyone’s down to party”… to put it nicely (thanks, Ron V).  My experience is that as soon as something gets difficult, most people bail.

I’m not alone. A few years ago, a friend’s metal band was invited to play a relatively major festival in Europe. All they had to do was get there. She got pumped up and started trying to raise money but her band mates thought it just sounded like an awful lot of work. They never made it. All they had to do was buy 4 plane tickets, go to Europe and play the songs they’d been playing for years and they still didn’t do it.

Why? Because they were right – It was going to be an awful lot of work. Many Austin bands fumble the ball at the 10 yard-line of the best opportunity they ever have because they know that it’s simply an opportunity for more work.

And that’s what we’re all trying to avoid by living in the Velvet Rut, right? We just want everything to be free and easy so our hair can get good in the back and we can rub elbows with successful people rather than learn something more useful from them than their preferred brand of rolling papers. (sounds like SxSW!)

Most bigger musicians play more outside of their hometowns than they do at home and that’s not unique to Austin.  How often does Built to Spill play Boise?  Once a year?  Twice?  Demand for more is low, so they don’t over-supply their market.

Most Austin bands are just in it for the sheer enjoyment of performing and creative expression.  That’s totally fine – but I think there’s a disconnect when they start to think they deserve to be paid/recognized for simply satisfying themselves.  Their response to lack of demand is to simply increased supply.

If you’re not making a product (recordings, live shows, etc.) that people want or can use, it doesn’t matter how high the quality or how easily available.   It will not sell. Additionally, it doesn’t matter how good your version of a useful product is if there are already a lot of high quality providers in a market (definitely the case in Austin.)

It’s easy to blame audiences and club owners that your band didn’t grow – but it’s not their fault that you made something that only you liked and refused to do anything else when faced with the fact.

You don’t have to live in Austin to learn these lessons.  Musicians everywhere struggle and always have.

But at least our city cares:

It is a bold step for a City to move beyond the nationally competitive rhetoric of which city is best and to actually take an unflinching measurement of what is happening at the individual, citizen level: a musician, a studio engineer, a retail record store clerk, a show promoter. While this may seem like an exposing of vulnerabilities, in truth, it is a move of confidence and maturity. Only a city with a reasonable certainty that it will be able to address the issues with focused, realistic solutions and long term planning would invest in asking these difficult questions.

This is another of my reasons for staying. According to the census, it is the only one of its kind ever. That means they’re not really considering this in LA, NYC, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Nashville, Seattle or any other music or non-music city in the US or world. That’s big. Even if nothing comes of this but awareness… well, heck, that might be the best thing that could come of it.

 

*Jeff Smith

June 3 at 9:43am ·

I see a lot of posts about the Austin Music Census today so I’m going to throw in my two cents. There seems to be a big “reality divide” – everyone who wants to make a living playing music in Austin will never do it (or anything approaching it) — plain and simple. It was never that way in the good old days and even less so now.

Most folks do not have the work ethic or wherewithal to have their egos relentlessly beaten down. You really want to make a living at it? Get used to playing restaurant gigs in the Hill Country where folks treat you like musical wallpaper and babysitters for their screaming children while they drink margaritas with their friends. Look at folks like Ray Benson. Dude has Grammys, a label and a management company and probably still works 14 hours a day producing, recording or writing when he is not on the road. He’s got chops, a name, has been at it for over 40 years and still works his ass off.

Austin’s scene is a mirror of the modern music business as a whole: ruled by lawyers, accountants, tech and advertising people. Except in this case the people in the above professions want to live in “The Live Music Capitol of The World” rather than work in the business. Their contributions are an increased lack of affordability, congestion and the culture killing gentrification that comes with their imported money. If you asked all these people “do you love live local music?” probably 96% would answer “absolutely yes” – the part they don’t tell you is that they don’t understand the difference between ACL Festival and a Tuesday night at the Continental or White Horse, and even for those that do get the difference the dictates of a real job or young family do not allow them to go to a weeknight gig more than once or twice a year. And what’s more, they absolutely can’t have that shit blaring anywhere near the vicinity of their recently built condo that’s across the street from nightclubs that have been in operation for 20 years.

The City of Austin is already wasting a bunch of money on consultants, but I have one really simple suggestion. Austin has too many stages and not enough headlining acts. I have believed for some time now that it would really behoove many of the smaller venues to band together and voluntarily close in rotation one week night each per week (Monday – Wednesday), encouraging their employees and regular patrons to visit another club on their off night, incentivizing with some sort of service industry/music industry night discounts or free shows. It is essentially the free week concept exercised on a weekly basis – with the motivation being stronger bills, increased weeknight attendance and club hopping. Scene building and cross-pollination in what should already be a well-developed scene.

Some folks will live the dream. Most will only have it. For the majority of folks – if you aren’t playing primarily because you love it, you best re-examine your motivations.

 

ATX Music Census (BEFORE)

Last fall, I started a blog entry after attending a roundtable of musicians, music non-profits and businesses assembled by the guy who wound up winning Austin mayoral election a few weeks later. I wasn’t happy with my behavior at the roundtable and put the entry aside and haven’t reviewed it since.

However, the imminent release of the results of the ATX Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey next week brought this night back to mind. I thought I’d clean up and post this hasty, rambling entry before the release of the results on Monday so we can see how my thoughts align:

 

Last night, I was part of a roundtable of music business people assembled to advise an Austin mayoral candidate on issues that affect the music community. I was happy to have been invited but once I got there, my attitude soured. My experiences from my days with Austin Music Foundation came rushing back and I thought, “This is going to be another fruitless meeting of the minds where a few people actually talk, the majority sit quietly and nothing really happens.”

Fortunately it wasn’t that bad.

Unfortunately for me, when the group was asked to paint a picture of Austin 15 years from now, I made the mistake of speaking and probably offended most everyone there by indirectly questioning whether anyone there actually goes to live music shows by local bands. I quickly felt like I needed to explain myself but my time had passed. I blew the only 3 minutes I was going to get and had to sit there feeling like a dick for an hour. I even tried to butt in over Michael Feferman at one point to redeem myself but, of course, that was stupid. I left the meeting feeling embarrassed.

I’m not very good in real time with these kinds of things. I get excited and haven’t mastered the art of presenting my point verbally in an organized, non-sarcastic manner. So I thought I’d use this entry to answer the question in writing here.

 

But first, I want to address my skepticism.  I should’ve come to the table with a positive attitude.  I didn’t because —– >

I perceive that these meetings are often focused on music businesses that seem more worthy of assistance than actual musicians – like clubs or other businesses that employ several people. Part of that is because musicians often aren’t recognized (even by ourselves) as businesses. Venues, for example, have to go through all kinds of hoops just to open (renting a location, hiring/managing staff, dealing with TABC, etc.) and essentially serve as a work place for the thousands of free-lance musicians, bartenders, sound engineers, etc. Musicians can just go start playing for tips on the street as soon as is convenient.

I get that.

However, I still think that these businesses only exist because musicians are here*. If Austin’s musicians all leave town, many venues and other businesses would close… or become dance clubs.  For this reason, I think addressing the issues the creative class faces are important if we don’t want to become the next San Francisco.

I also perceive that good recommendations have been ignored in favor of (often legitimately) more pressing issues. “Musicians who don’t want to get day jobs” aren’t as big a concern as managing resources, traffic issues, budgeting, emergency services, etc. But remember the Austin Music Task Force? That group had a lot of really good suggestions that were simply tabled when the City had a regime change. They never came back to the foreground again but the issues didn’t go away.

Other than legitimate music business people, these meetings are always attended by a few rich and financially well-connected people who are mostly disconnected from the actual music scene but pay a lot of lip service to it.  They may even make money off of it.

That’s why I asked the four other musicians present if they ever saw the other attendees at shows… because I don’t and I feel like a big part of the problem Austin music faces is the fact that we’re often just entertaining each other. Most of the audiences I see at all-local band shows are other musicians. That’s partly because of the kind of nerdy music I like but I see plenty of musicians at non-metal/punk/indie/avant garde shows.

The players in Austin’s future have rallied around the revenue generated by music for decades but musicians only get the trickle at the very bottom of that flow. Big events like ACL and SxSW draw lots of people who pay for parking, food, lodging, souvenirs, alcohol*, etc. Your parents spending two nights at a hotel in town for your CD release show is a drop in the bucket.

(I think Austin is becoming less about music and more about just partying. Maybe it always has been.  Maybe that’s not bad…  partiers love music.)

My point of all of this is that musicians concerns have been out there for a while and so far, we’ve mostly just been shooting in the dark to try to fix them. As a guy who worked on the inside of an Austin music non-profit, I can confidently say that no one really knows what the solution is and sometimes it seems like finding one isn’t enough of priority to really make changes.

 

OK so that’s why I’m skeptical.  Here’s my slightly more coherent reply to where I’d like to see Austin in 15 years:

 

City-Wide Awareness and Sense of Investing in Culture

In fifteen years, I’d like to see a city of people willing to say NO to making as much money as possible and YES to things we value that aren’t measured well with dollars in order to preserve those things that make Austin special – particularly the creative class that live in a realm of low wages/high expenses.***

I know – I’m living in a fantasy land but allow me to fantasize here.  If there are so many of us that are part of that creative class, why not do something to preserve it/?

There are plenty of not-very-profitable things that we value in Austin. The creative class, children/schools, parks, developing business ventures, new ideas, diverse neighborhoods, etc.   Heck, even people in boring towns care about some of those!  Losing them will surely put Austin on the same downward slope as San Francisco, whose loss of vibrancy seems to be coming to a head after many years of decline.

Austin has a very large community that cares about how special the city is – more than any city I’ve visited with the exception of New Orleans. However, plenty of people move here from other cities DAILY and plenty of them seem to just be here because we have jobs and water… for now. Not because Austin’s “weird”. They work their jobs by day, watch cable tv at night and spend their weekends at the mall with their kids. They may as well live in Pensacola or Dallas.  Most of them probably don’t care if “weird” comes to an end and if we don’t somehow indoctrinate them into it, the level of indifference will rise as they continue to pour into our town.

I know —- getting people to care about something that isn’t their kids or their livelihood is an uphill battle. But just like getting people to wear seat belts or to quit drinking and driving, it’s worth the effort!  Both of those became laws only after enough people pushed for awareness.

This is a tough sell to the couple who can sell the house they bought for $75K in 1998 for $225K now… or the businesses who can raise its prices because rich people are moving here will pay more… or the organizations and government that want incentivize businesses with tax breaks.

But if we behave as if money is all that matters, we will eventually make it so and we’ll be the new San Francisco.  “Not rich?  Try Waco!”

The good news is that I think we already have a good foundation for preserving the things we love about Austin. Whatever your feelings are about the phrases “Live Music Capital of the World” and “Keep Austin Weird”, they are excellent marketing slogans for exactly what I’m talking about. I mean, you can buy t-shirts with those things emblazoned on them at the mall. Even if they’ve been co-opted by souvenir shops, at least the sentiment of Austin’s uniqueness remains present in word.

Bottom line, I think that what seems most threatening to our music community is ignorance and indifference. If we make people aware, they will care. Doing so will be a never-ending effort.

 

*or is it because partiers are here?

**of all the industries that can make money generated by music events, alcohol seems like the biggest winner to me.

***and if you don’t think that what the creative class does is important, I hope you find a lovely condo in Dallas or San Jose someday!

Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

(or Shooting Free Throws Whilst Stand on a Ladder)

I was going back and forth with a fan from Chicago this week on the topic of original music verses playing covers and tribute bands. It got my wheels turning.

Before you read this, know that I don’t hate tribute or cover bands and I think that comparing them to original bands is not apples to apples:

I don’t remember much about my first gig in LA except being surprised to find almost nothing but tribute bands in the show listings of their weekly paper.  Someone (I think Bill Petersen) predicted the scourge of tribute bands would find it’s way across the country and it sure has.

Though I mostly feel neutral about them now, the idea of tribute bands becoming the primary contribution of a music scene to its region still bugs me. “Los Angeles – the Copy Cat Music Capital of the World” doesn’t seem fitting for a town that creates tons of good original music – even if it’s just as obscure as anything from any other city.

Maybe that’s what happens when a scene gets so big and saturated though — when a community has so many options that the fleeting and unrefined tastes of the majority practically dictate that anyone who wants to play the game must deal in lowest common denominators. The idea of asking the audience to make an investment as simple as listening to a whole original song or watching a whole original short film becomes too big a request. They don’t have time for that when they could be seeing one of two Led Zeppelin tribute bands tonight!

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about giving your audience what they want – and don’t tribute bands do that better than any original act possibly can?

I mean, The Egg Men are about as close as anyone under the age of 50 will ever get to seeing the Beatles live. That’s valuable to a scene – and possibly even outside it! Plus, it helps keeps the Beatles’ alive beyond recorded media. Cool.

But that’s not giving your audience what they want. That’s giving The Beatles’ audience what they want.

And this is why it’s so easy to hate tribute (and cover) bands when you’re a snobby, self-proclaimed artist like me (hey, at least I’m not alone!): They get to skip past the years-long investment and trial and error of creating music and a b®and and building an audience. Instead, they tap into an already-existing catalog of beloved classics that audiences already love thanks to the work of the most popular bands in the world ever and their team of managers, arrangers, handlers, publicists, etc. etc etc.

That sounds pretty smart from a business standpoint – but it’s kind of like shooting free throws on ladder three inches from the basket. Either you’re cheating or you’re not really playing the same game.

If you don’t care about playing the same game, that’s great because you are now mentally set to play high paying gigs right off the bat while furthering the catalog of your favorite band.

That’s why I now feel pretty neutral about tribute bands. They’re not playing the same game. I already know I can shoot ten out of ten free throws on the ladder as long as I don’t mess up majorly. I don’t really care about playing that game.

That’s oversimplified. Good tribute bands take work, talent and dedication just like original bands – but (I say this with total respect to The Egg Men and any really good tribute band) tribute bands aren’t artists.

OK OK OK – yes, there are some very cool tribute bands out there like that put their own spin on the music they tribute – Jazzus Lizard, Dung Beatles, Dread Zeppelin.  In that way, they’re more like a band covering the material in their own style rather than striving for an exact replica of what’s already been done.

But there’s probably a Beatles, a Led Zeppelin and a Pink Floyd (why are they all British?) tribute band in every major US and European city. Why should anyone outside of Austin care about the Egg Men when the Day Trippers and the Paperback Writers and the Number 9s are all playing the same songs we all know and love?

I posit that the number of people who choose to listen to a recording of The Egg Men over a recording of the Beatles is very low and probably even lower than the number of people who listen to recordings of obscure small time bands.

Original bands have the opportunity to make a direct and much deeper connection with their fans. Even if it’s small, it’s real, lasting and valuable to both parties.   Original bands can change lives and that can go beyond the boundaries of their home town or region.

Tribute bands only validate changes to lives already made by the band they tribute.  They don’t make as direct a connection so much as they act as a medium for one.  They’re valuable and even memorable but… ultimately they’re cruising through universe of music in a Douglas Adams-esque “B” Ark and the music business knows it:  Ever see a review of tribute band’s album?  How many tribute bands play at ACL, SxSW, FPSF or other music festivals?  Not many… if any.

Side Note: Anyone want to start a NoMeansNo tribute band?

Pure Luck – We Hate Malachi Constant Because…

(We wish we were as lucky as he!)

Over the holiday break, my wife and I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan on a long road trip.  It got me thinking about luck and how we envy and analyze the lucky.  As she often does, my lovely lady said something that made me  think for a long while:  We revere the lucky but they don’t deserve to be revered because of their luck.   Luck, in its purest form, has nothing to do with skills, quality, ability, kindness, intelligence or other attributes.

Applying the message of Sirens of Titan to the art/entertainment world brought me back to  bit from my own post on Resonating –  Why them and not me?  That trip is a sad spiral that leads us to critique others’ work in a rather childish way that begins focused on them but (if we’re willing to follow the thought chain to the end) ends up focused on us:

“I don’t like what they do because…” they can’t sing well….  they don’t really know how to play their instruments….  they sound too 90s…  they haven’t paid their dues  …my ideas are just as good or better…. I want to feel like what I do is valuable to others but it’s not.”

wah.

In truth, the lucky are often no more deserving that anyone else – they’re just… well.. lucky!

Still, I ruminated on that and wrote about 10 different drafts of this post.  Then I discussed it with my friend and fellow musician Erin Rodgers of Houston’s Glass the Sky.  Erin recalled this quote from her teacher (who actually got it from the Roman philosopher Seneca):  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  Thinking on that quote and the message of Sirens of Titan has led me to an interesting place in my own philosophy on luck.  I think there are two kinds.  While I think we have to be ready to harness the power of luck’s lightning bolt when it strikes, I do think there is some luck that you just can’t prepare for.

THE KIND YOU MAKE

The classic musician fairy tale is a good example – record label talent scout happens to walk into a club and catch a band that he or she really loves and strikes a deal with them then and there.  It’s luck that the talent scout happened to go into that club at that moment – but it’s not luck that the band sounded good and could actually play their songs well.  That was preparedness.

It’s this kind of luck that is analyzed in SxSW panels, by non-profit organizations, music business colleges and individual musicians all asking, “Why them and not me/her/him?”

SxSW – Maybe if we all get together and party in one place, we can figured it out! Wait… there’s a music business conference happening at the same time?!?

All that analysis has led me to identify the following things that all buzz bands have in common.  This is fairly obvious stuff:

  1. Somehow, they all find the money to finance their efforts
  2. They do something that resonates with enough people to achieve critical mass (something very difficult to do in Austin)
  3. Someone with the power/organization to do something with the band’s career notices and takes action

I hear (and have thought), “They’re so lucky,” about bands like Ghostland Observatory, Bright Light Social Hour, The Sword and every other band that’s ever swept the Austin Chronicle Music Awards.   It’s hard to make people CARE about what you do and can be hard to predict what they might like.  However, there a ton of clues out there to point us in the right direction.  The bands I listed all play a form of music that essentially already had an audience – synth pop (remember this from the 80s?), heavy metal (a la Maiden or Ozzy) and bluesy indie rock (My Morning Jacket with a ZZ Top twang).  That’s not luck.  Building on what already works is just good business sense!

I want to believe that’s all it takes – Good decision making and preparedness.  However, when it comes to art, your heart really has to be in it or it’ll seem phony to your audience.

Here’s what I mean about having your heart in it.  I have a lot of respect for Ghostland Observatory and I’m glad that they’re doing what they do on their terms.  However, I don’t think I’d like to do what they do.  They’re fine enough, but it’s not a form of music I particularly enjoy.  They worked like hell in the last few years and were willing to make sacrifices because they DO love what they do.   I wouldn’t have made those sacrifices for that project.

(SIDE NOTE – Speaking of critical mass and the winners of contests like Austin Chronicle Music Awards?  It’s easy for non-winners like me to write these things off as just popularity contests – but popularity is the fuel of the entertainment world, not quality!  The quality of your work is a matter of opinion but the number of people that like you is a real – if hard to approximate – number.  When a lot of people CARE, the gatekeepers notice regardless of your quality or their opinion of you.  “They sold out Emo’s?!  Wow!  Let’s book them for our festival!”  Buzz bands are “chosen” because they are marketable and have proven that people already like what they do.)

So there’s the answer to “why them and not me?”   Right?

Well… not in every case.  Think about that sentence from before: “Luck, in its purest form, has nothing to do with skills, quality, ability, kindness, intelligence or other attributes.”  Ghostland has made a ton of luck for themselves by being prepared and good, but there are a ton of bands that you’ll never hear that are just as amazing and prepared… yet luck’s lightning bolt never strikes.  That talent scout from the fairy tale above could’ve walked into any bar that night.  What if he’d chosen a different one?  Now that’s just plain ol’…

PURE LUCK

There’s another kind of luck where preparedness plays less of a role, if any – the kind Vonnegut addresses in Sirens of Titan.  It’s blind, dumb luck – the kind that truly puts one ahead of the game by no choice of one’s own.

Real life examples include the Kardashians and Paris Hilton.  Tell me, what skills and abilities does our society revere about these women?  Being born into some of the richest families in the most powerful country in the history of our planet?  How exactly did preparedness play a role in their fortune?

Why, America?

We can prepare for potential opportunities we can identify, but most of us in this world have limited resources.  We can make our own luck to a degree, but not on the level I’m talking about here.

Have you heard this joke?

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the music business?
A: Start with a large fortune.

It’s not really a joke, it’s more of a truth.

The stereotypical broke-ass touring bands living show to show have been run off the road by high gas and food costs.  Most of the bands that can still afford to tour these days are often already well off.  Some of them can afford to finance one money-losing tour/album/project after another because they have a trust fund or a rich and enthusiastic parent or someone who’s done it before to guide their efforts.  (Granted, if they’re no good, it won’t make them any more popular… but at that point it doesn’t matter.  They can afford to do what they want to do regardless of resonating.  Permanent vacation!)

Years ago, The Invincible Czars did several dates with a band from LA that rented their van and trailer, had a merch display the size of a stage and a bunch of expensive gear, wardrobe, roadies, an actual stage set, make up, lights, etc.  At the end of each night, though, they were walking away with about the same pay we did.  At the time I thought, “These guys are going to go broke!”

I didn’t’ realize that they had money up front and advice from people in the industry that allowed them to calculate and take a risk most bands can’t afford.   They put together a great live show and went out and performed it for everyone.  What I thought was losing money they saw as investing money.  Eventually, they attracted higher level representation and now they open for bigger major label acts like Mudvayne on national tours.  That in turn put them in front of enough people that they can now actually draw enough people to play larger nationally known clubs on their own.

This wasn’t their first time around the block, either!  They’d done this same thing before under a different band name but with less success.  However they did it, they were able to afford to go out there and take a big expensive risk and fail at least once.  Without their resources, that first go ‘round might have been their only shot – they’d probably be just another really good band stuck in their home region like so many others.

(Now, there was definitely some of the luck-you-make-yourself involved in the example above. The band I was talking about was lucky but also – really good and had an easy target audience: goth rockers.  They inhabit shopping malls and black-lit dance clubs in every major city in the US.  It’s not hard to reach that audience plus that audience already liked what the band did before they even heard the band.  Who is the target audience for a band like Opposite Day or Octopus Project?  They’re a little harder to nail down because the music isn’t associated with a specific fashion or lifestyle.)

What about natural ability?  Singers are a great example.   Sweetmeat’s excellent singer Gina Holton has virtually no training.  She just sounds like that.  I can sit and sing and sing and sing… and I’m never going to sound like that.  I can’t be trained to suddenly have a different physical make up.  Think about basketball players.  You might be able to practice and train and shoot 10 for 10 at the free throw line — but nothing and no one can train you to be taller than Shaq.

(Gina Holton debuting a new song w/ Sweetmeat.  What pipes!)

SO WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION HERE?

Whether the chosen are better or more deserving is a matter of opinion and analyzing their luck quickly becomes a depressing game of diminishing returns.   I spent 3 years working at a place that did just that I think I got into some bad habits that have made me feel bitter and even hopeless at times.  While we can learn from those who were prepared, there are some things we simply can’t learn (like how to be a millionaire’s child or how to make your preferred genre come into favor).  The only reason to hate them is because we wish we were them.  Just as the people in Sirens of Titan did Malachi Constant.

But that’s a pretty lame reason to hate or criticize someone.  The lucky are just doing their thing.  Just like the rest of us.

I often feel unlucky because I like things that are too colorful, weird, silly or adventurous for mainstream audiences.  I sometimes wish that I could make it through a whole song by Fleet Foxes without falling asleep or that I found Radiohead more entertaining than my grocery list.   Most music that resonates with LOTS of people bores me.


(Brian Kenney Fresno – possibly the most entertaining live act I’ve ever seen.)

But those wishes are foolhardy.  In truth, luck’s lightning bolt has already struck me – and most people that will read this post.  Each of us in the Austin music scene, and every other scene in this country, is lucky enough to have been born in the USA to whatever degree of fortune allows us to pursue creative arts instead of hauling precious metals at gunpoint, searching for landmines or spending every waking hour making textiles so we can feed our starving families.  Even within our nation – we may be broke but most of us ARE the privileged people born into fortune with a safety net in place, not the ones working multiple day jobs just to keep the lights on.

I’m terribly lucky to have been born to parents that let me make my own choices and to live in a town that values variety and weirdness.  I also feel lucky, in spite of the lack of commercial potential, to like and make music that’s not run-of-the-mill.

I’m pretty damn lucky to do what I do whether anyone else cares or not.  What did I or anyone else do to deserve such fortune?  I think Vonnegut answers that question in Sirens of Titan:  Nothing.