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.

10,000 Kicks

I re-re-re-re-read this quote from Bruce Lee recently:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

and it is the reason for this week’s more journal-like entry:

April 2015 marked 10 years since The Invincible Czars played a lovely weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth. I went back and listened to an excellent room recording (made by Adam Kahan) of NoMeansNo’s Ft. Worth show April 25, 2005. Then I listened to a few recordings of The Invincible Czars from that weekend. It was exciting to hear what we were playing back then but also kind of depressing.  10 years later, those recordings sound like a band that hadn’t been together very long and was trying to play beyond its capabilities – rough around the edges to say the least.

In our defense (against my own comments I guess!) we truly hadn’t been a band very long! Though the Czars name had been around for 3 years, the line-up in April 2005 wasn’t even a year old. We were trying to figure out what we did well with a mish-mash of material from the band’s earlier, wackier days and our then new, heavier sound.

Still, listening to these old recordings, I realized my biggest regret about The Invincible Czars’ only era of sustained line-up stability (2005-2008) was that I failed to identify our strengths and capitalize on them (more on this another time). I wasn’t leading well (or even consciously) enough to focus the group or myself enough to find our “one kick”. I was always juggling. We practiced A LOT but thanks to me, we were practicing 10,000 kicks.

(If you’d asked me at the time what our kick was, I would’ve probably said something like, “lots of variety,” which is essentially bundling 10,000 kicks into one.  No.)

This got me thinking – what could I have done better and how can I implement it now?

I wish the me of 2005 would’ve chosen the band’s best kick, practiced/developed the hell out of it and then shared it when it was really good instead of rushing to create something that was “good enough” for shows on Red River and then trying to figure out the rest out on stage in front of people.

That’s what I try to do now but I didn’t have this perspective then. The me of 2005 had already been through 2 bass players, 3 keyboardists and 5 drummers in three years. Our “kick” seemed to change every few months.

(I’ve often thought that I should’ve dispensed with all the “what’s best for the group” thinking and simply determined my individual best kick and then found people to complement it. It may have been self-centered but at least it would’ve given us a kick to practice!   I  guess that’s what I eventually did but the me of 2005 was reluctant.  My favorite bands were bands – not solo acts with a backing band. I wanted to find what we were good at doing.)

Even without constant line up changes, determining your kick can be difficult. You have to go through some trial and error and it’s tough to know when you’re on the right track until you’re really on it. Sometimes this requires letting go of your preconceived notions, and conflicting desires and simply working with what you’ve got.  (I really envy the people who seem to naturally know what they are, recognize their strengths and – most importantly – go with it and love it.  Especially when they do this at an early age.)

In 2009, then drummer Louis Landry advised that we make a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of ourselves. Doing this the first time was really uncomfortable. Most of the band thought it was BS and didn’t want to participate.   At that time, I’d only just grabbed the reins and started trying to really be a band leader.  It was really disheartening and discouraging to have my band mates sit in a room in front of dry erase board and slowly realize we had been spending more time compensating for weaknesses and threats than capitalizing on strengths and opportunities.  Why were we playing songs with vocals when none of us were good singers? Why were we still worried about our draw at clubs when our best shows were in restaurants, theaters and outdoor events?  I didn’t have answers other than, “because that’s the only thing I know to do.”

But at least we learned some valuable info.  (big thanks to Louie for remaining positive and on my side through the process.)

Even once you determine your kick, you still have to actually put it into practice and the tedium of doing so can be a major threat.  It’s fun when you’re making leaps and bounds with little effort in the early stages but when the same effort only yields a baby step’s progress in the middle and final stages, most people bail. They put their kick on the back burner and start working on a new one so they can have that sense of satisfaction of making “big progress” again.  But that big progress only happens in the early phases.  If you don’t  stay on course when the fun fades, you’ll wind up on the path to 10,000 kicks.

That’s not to say you have to be a one kick pony.  Just find your kick and incorporate it into everything you do.  Maybe your kick is improvisation. Now you can improvise over all kinds of styles.  Maybe your kick is writing catchy hooks, playing at high volumes, instrumental wizardry, ambience…  maybe your kick is a female singer who’s been your horn player for a long time but you’ve been spending too much time concentrating on outdated material to write new stuff for the best part about your band that you never knew was right under your nose!

Just pick one, stick with it and I think you’ll see that what seems like a limitation will become your greatest strength!

I want to end by adding that though I’ve been really critical of myself and my band over the years (and in this post), I would’ve had to have gone through all this one way or another.  I had a lot of personal problems that are more to blame for any of these perceived failures than anything else.  I’m glad I made some good friends on my journey — Thank you Tommy, Adam, Rick, Bill (wherever you are) playing some “lots of variety” on stages all over the place with me in 2005!

 

Playing Out of Town

Playing Out of Town After my last post, Xander from Proud Peasant suggested I expand upon the notion that you have to leave town to actually earn any money or get anywhere.

This idea seems to fly in the face of what of most experts advise: focus on your hometown and when you can sell out a show there, expand your region. I didn’t heed that advice because:

(1) By the time I heard it, I’d already played out of town and earned more money doing so than playing in Austin.

(2) Selling out a show seemed unlikely. How many sold out shows have any of us ever been to? How many of those were local bands? If it was easy to do, it’d happen all the time.

(3) It’s very possible to live in a place where your style of music is simply not popular. Ex: Jazz in Austin. There are plenty of bands that play huge events in other towns/nations that just play the same old clubs in Austin for years. They’re big Japan.

(4) As far as I could tell, there were plenty of bands that weren’t selling out in Austin or their hometowns but seemed to do ok on the road.*

(5) Austin is a unique market – just because you do well here, doesn’t mean you’ll do well anywhere else.

So I always questioned the need to sell out a show before moving on to other markets.

But here’s the catch 22 – if no one’s heard of you in a place, there’s no point in playing there. BUT —- for most bands, no one will hear of you in a place unless you go play there.

Furthermore, if you play a town that has no bands like you, there’re no similar bands there for you to network/co-promote with and you’ll play to no one. If you go somewhere that has bands that are like you, there’s no reason the people there should come see you. They can see the local version of you any time (but at least you stand a chance of winning over some of their fans if you play together). This is why shows in music towns like Austin or Seattle are so tough.

When I look at Austin bands that seem to create careers for themselves, most DO sell out shows here and then move on. The Sword. Ghostland. Octopus Project. Bob Schneider. Spoon. Okkervil River. But why limit this example to Austin? Neko Case, Reverend Horton Heat, Mark Kozelek, Brave Combo, Built to Spill, Metallica, Secret Chiefs 3, Nirvana, Van Halen, Dirty Projectors, Flaming Lips, Daft Punk, etc. etc. etc.

They are all at different levels and from different places. It took longer for some than others but they all found something they did that people liked before they really took off.

(I’m not a big fan of Daft Punk, but I have to say that I admire their tenacity. I heard them for the first time in the 90s and would see them in alternative music magazines like Magnet. 14 years later, they had the worldwide number one hit of the summer.)

My own experience speaks to this in a small way. After years of booking shows all over the US with a modicum of success, I noticed everything suddenly got easier around 2011-ish. Booking. Rehearsals. Shows. Really everything. It only took playing most venues once for them to ask, “When can you come back?” Booking requests went from “may we?” to “when may we?” It was actually really easy to see why this had happened:

(1) We kept going to the same places and playing to people who I/we thought might really like us (instead of trying to force heavy metal dudes to appreciate our “ruined” version of Iron Maiden songs)

(2) The band was finally playing to its strengths and focusing on entertaining the audiences at least as much as ourselves. I finally had an act that people other than the band members could easily appreciate.

(3) The band line-up was the best it had ever been in every way. **

The point is – the band was finally getting pretty good at what we did and finding people who agreed. The better the band got, the more we resonated with others, the more opportunities and money came our way.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Make a cool, good thing. Then share.

And yet I and so many put the cart before the horse. That’s because it’s so easy to mistake the prototype for the final product. I like it so I bet others will, too. We’re wrong more often than not. I spent much of the early 00s playing road shows with a band/material that had no evidence of resonating with anyone else. It was a long and frustrating game with a very small chance of winning fans. I was too focused on satisfying myself. I think most bands do this. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that the only way you’ll grow outside your region is if what satisfies you just happens to resonate with others.

Here’s the advice I’d give the me of 10 years ago — if your hometown audience is mostly other small time musicians, there’s no point in leaving town. Most of them are just there because they’re opening for you or vice versa. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t good. It simply means that your efforts to expand will be very, very difficult if non-musicians don’t appreciate what you do. You don’t need to drive to San Jose to play to indifferent people at a bar or furniture when you can do it right here in Austin.

As much as I didn’t want it to be true, Graham Reynolds was right when he said that I put the The Invincible Czars “on the map” when we debuted our Nutcracker Suite: It was the first thing ever did that attracted people outside our group of friends/bands in any significant way.

Another thing about playing out of town – unless some publicist picks you up, you’ll have to go through almost the same reputation and fan building process you did in your hometown in every town you play. This is made much easier what you’re really good at what you do.

 

*I may have been really wrong about this. Over time, I started to realize that most bands were losing money on the road – even the ones with booking agents and reputable record labels. I’ve never had illusions that the music I make will have mass appeal. The number of other bands’ sold out shows I’ve attended over the years is small because I tend to like bands that are the same way. Even when I was college age, my favorite bands were rarely on college radio or on the college charts. And yet they’d come to Austin and have great shows. I saw Oakland’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fill rooms several times including one amazing Monday night show at the old Emo’s inside stage.

 

** Leila, Phil and Hen3ry made the Invincible Czars really easy to book. They’re fun to watch, fun to hear, reliable and dedicated. This is not meant to offend past members of the band, it’s just that we were all on the same page at this time and it paid off.

Prove Yourself. Now Do it Again. Again. Again…

Recently, I had a group conversation that meandered its way onto the topic of having to continually prove one ’s self  – even to people who already know you to be capable.  Some of the people felt like they shouldn’t have to prove themselves to their fellow musicians… or anyone.  Some of us felt like proving ourselves again and again was necessary –possibly even the whole point of being a performing musician.

I was definitely in the latter group and the whole thing got me thinking some stuff that I thought would be worth sharing here.

There’s real validity in viewing a career as a series of hurdles to jump – regardless of profession.   Artists, dancers, software developers, construction workers, soldiers, athletes and even office workers are all constantly having to prove themselves over and over.  If the answer to “Can you do this?” is yes, then the next question is either “Can you do this again?” or, “Can you do that other thing?”

Primus proving it.

In the case of musicians, we’re constantly performing in front of our band mates, our audience, our peers and critics in various formats.  We’re constantly proving ourselves to them.

Here’s the line of thought the other side SEEMS TO ME to have:  “I can do this thing.  I have done it before.  Why do I need to do it again in front of these people?  I know I can do it and they’ve seen/heard evidence of it.  Isn’t that enough?”

No.  As a performer, you need to be able to do it – not almost do it – more than once.  Otherwise, you’re just lucky.

If you show up to a dress rehearsal and you can’t play your part well , the others don’t think, “She sounds good on the recording, she’ll get it for the show.”  They think, “Oh yeah, we had to overdub this on the recording because she couldn’t get it.  She probably won’t get it for the show, either.”   You can probably make up for this if or you nail your part at the show!

If you have a truly bad show, audiences usually know.  They notice missed hits, bad notes, etc.  You may get some leeway with a brand new audience that has never heard the material… but how long will that last?  Two or three performances in that market?   Eventually they start to think, “This band doesn’t live up to the recording. “  It’s a little tougher to make up for this because it might be several weeks or months or even years before you play to those same people again to prove that you just had a bad night that one time.

I saw Dillinger Escape Plan open for Mr. Bungle in 1995 in Dallas.  Dillinger was actually booed off stage!  I saw them a few times after that in different venues, their fingers were fast but all I ever heard was a rumble of white noise.  I never went to see them again and I never choose listen to their recordings, even though they’re good.

(NOTE:  It’s important not to confuse an audience that doesn’t like WHAT you do with and audience that doesn’t like HOW you do it.  If you’re a boy band opening for a metal band, that audience is going to kill you whether you play well or not.   If you are a half-assed metal band, they may not kill you but they probably won’t pay attention.  It’s hard to learn anything from this situation.  “Why do they not like us?”  Dunno.)

If you release a mediocre CD and send it to critics for review, you’ll be lucky to get bad reviews.  You’ll probably just get no review from most of them.  This is harder and more expensive to make up for because now you need a whole new product to send these same people to prove that you CAN do it right – if they’ll even listen.

And there’s where the coin flips – it’s also possible to prove yourself UNable.  If you can’t get your part in rehearsal, if you play badly in front of the audience, if the critics and gatekeepers think you’re mediocre, it’s entirely possible that those people won’t give you another chance.  “He never plays it right and he’s not going to.”  “They’re just sloppy.”  “She doesn’t write compelling songs or make good records.”

Recovering from proving yourself UNable is tough, tough, tough.  Sometimes you can’t.

There’s a really not-worth-watching video of The Invincible Czars’ only performance on KVRX’s Local Live in 2003 out there.  We didn’t know we’d be video-taped and so we look terrible.  We had just lost a drummer and so we don’t sound very together even with the excellent Aaron Lack standing in on drums.  When I called to ask KVRX if we could do Local Live again a couple years later, they informed me that they only have bands once ever.

Aaron Lack drumming with The Invincible Czars at the Carousel Lounge in 2003.

Neat.  Now one of our most mediocre nights is preserved forever in KVRX’s archives.  When I see that thing, I think, “No wonder no one ever came to see us in the early days.”

I wish that I had understood the perspective of audiences, critics, my fellow musicians and band mates.  I see now that the potential I saw in various projects I’ve done didn’t mean anything to anyone unless it was executed well.  Potential isn’t worth much to someone trying to hire a band for an event, to an audience that wants to be entertained or a critic who hopes to be wowed.  You either do it or not and those kinds of things will only happen after you prove yourself able to harness and use your potential effectively and consistently.  Not before. In their eyes, if you can’t prove it, you can’t do it.  Can you get on this stage and make this audience that has never heard you actually care?  Prove it.

Proving it once doesn’t end the cycle.  Now you have do it again for this other audience.  Now, again for this audition.  Again in this other city.  Now in the studio.  Now live on the radio. TV.  In the dark.  In the cold.  Again!

It won’t ever stop.  Even as aging rockers, jazz singers, classical musicians, etc. near the ends of their careers, they’re still proving themselves over and over again.  As I write this, Aerosmith is preparing to prove it once again in Austin during Formula 1’s Austin Fan Fest.

Final thought:  proving yourself  won’t bring success – only worthiness of it and a sense of satisfaction.