Development Part 1 – Invest the Time

Today I’m beginning a series of shortish entries on development.  Something (perhaps decades of bigger-than-life celebrities) has dulled Americans’ sense of reality and left us believing that over-night success is not only real but also the best and possibly only path to achievement.

Any skill worth having requires effort and time to develop.  There are a lucky few who just come out of the womb with serious ability, but even these people must develop.

Bjork in 1976:

Bjork in 2015:

 

 

I feel like there are two seriously flawed beliefs  that result from denying the need for development.  They are not mutually exclusive:

1) if you can’t do something perfectly and effortlessly RIGHT NOW, you’ll never be able to do it ever so why bother?

2) you don’t need to develop your craft because you’re already really good and the world just isn’t aware of your radiance.

These beliefs both take the “playing to your strengths” philosophy to the extreme point of “completely ignoring your weaknesses”.

#1 struggles to develop new skills because they refuse to give any attention to anything they’re not already good at doing.  They are relegated to the tools in their toolbox – they don’t develop new skills.  They want to be good/finished/rewarded right now or not bother.  They often have incredible strengths but lack the discipline to do to the unfun but necessary things to keep things moving.

#2 wagers that he/she is the next one to be annointed by the gate-keepers and when it doesn’t happen, they age into a weird sense of bitter entitlement for having not really done anything good or at all.  They expect the rest of the world make-up for the fallout created by their imperfect beauty.  (I feel like Courtney Love is the poster child for this in some ways)

 

Now, I’m definiltely a fan of playing to your strengths.  Why make your first stringers sit on the bench while the B-Team is out there missing easy shots and losing the game?  But sometimes you have to play to your weaknesses even if you don’t want to develop them.

No one’s good at everything.

Maybe for you it’s managing money or time.  Maybe it’s interpersonal interactions.  Maybe it’s stage fright.  Some weaknesses must be overcome at least passably or the problems they create will develop faster than your strengths!

Anyway… Developement is simply the process of growth and it’s usually slow.  It can be accelerated by things like guidance, money and smart choices, but mostly, it’s an investment of time. If you want to be good at something, spend time doing it and let your long, long string of tiny successes and experiences culminate into something bigger.

And I mean long.  The other day, I was practicing and I played something I realized that the me of 10 years ago had struggled with.  I remember playing it for hours over and over one night at my old house in south Austin.  That night and the 10 years of nights just like it that followed paid off.  Just not quickly.

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!

Gods of Convenience – 10 Years Later

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The Line-up from the Gods of Convenience days: Rick, Adam, me, Bill and Tommy outside Room 710 (now Valhalla) in Austin.

Recently, I was the guest on the Power Nap podcast. It’s a long conversation to have to sit through but I was amped up by the topics raised by the hosts Mike and Dieter.

At one point, Mike brought up The Invincible Czars’ first album Gods of Convenience. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Gods… wow!

A couple of posts back, I was feeling critical of the me of 2005 and since it’s the anniversary of the album, I thought I’d use this post to reflect further on Gods… and that time.

First, there’s a bunch of stuff that might be interesting to know about where we were as a band when we recorded the album.  It was interesting for me to review it.

In February 2005, the line-up was young. Rick and I had been at it for 3 years but Bill (keyboard) and Tommy (drums) had been in the band only 9 and 5 months respectively. It’s odd to me that such a fresh line up had already debuted our Nutcracker Suite holiday show just a couple months earlier and (for better or worse) “put ourselves on the map” (as Graham Reynolds said) with a surprise success that was simultaneously exciting and damning: we liked that we sold out a show, but didn’t want to be known as a hokey Christmas band. We inadvertently and effectively put a foot into the uncool world of “novelty” acts.  We didn’t mind so much but there was a collective sense that we wanted to do something that wasn’t perceived as cheesy by our peers and serious music fans. This idea seems silly looking back because it focused on trying to win over people who’d already dismissed us rather than focusing on those who did like us.  I mean…  in spite of what I wrote above, the holiday show we do is fun.  I love playing Tchaikovsky’s music and we don’t have to do it year round.  As much as we wanted to be cool, being true to ourselves meant we weren’t.

(Side note – it was only two months later than we played that weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth.  I remember feeling very validated when John Wright thought enough of us to tell his brother Rob to actually listen to us on night #2 – something he doesn’t do often with opening acts.  He told me thoroughly enjoyed us and reminded him of Nino Rota.  Cool kids’ opinions mattered less and less to me after that night.)

So I guess I thought that recording an album of aggressive, proggy instrumentals and a few tunes with angry, snotty lyrics THAT WE’D ALREADY RECORDED AND RELEASED was a good idea. This had the subtle yet later noticeable effect of both alienating people who had loved our holiday show and not even registering in the minds of most others. Brilliant!! (I assure you, there was no strategy to any of what I/we did back then.)

We recorded Gods ourselves, of course. That’s what bands that aren’t already rich or connected do and we were proud to be among that fold. Affordable digital home recording was still relatively new and we had to not only learn how to capture sound but how to deal with this new digital medium that no one else we knew (or could afford) was really any good at it either. We didn’t do that well — when Chico Jones mixed it, he at first asked us not to put his name on it!

Still, the experience educated us beyond what we would’ve learned through any other process we knew of and we/I used it to make future efforts less painful and time consuming.

We tracked the initial takes as a group in a single weekend at the office building where I worked by day. It was not the best sounding space but it was the biggest space we could find. We filled in the vocals and extra horn & guitar parts later at Rick’s house and my house. This was much more difficult than it is today. We only had one desktop computer capable of doing what we needed so if we moved, the whole set up had to move. This was pre-flat screen monitors and pre-cloud storage (dropbox, etc).   Most affordable laptops didn’t have the capability to do what we needed.

The summer before, I’d blown out my voice on the road. It actually hurt to sing for well over a year and has only recently been as powerful as it once was (it didn’t help that I gave up singing for a while in 2010). It was frustrating to have to perform the tunes for the recording knowing I was at about 60%. Worse, it physically hurt to even give that much.

Still, the CD was exciting to work on. We liked hearing ourselves and unlimited undo/redo enabled us (and I mean that in the worst way) to add and take away stuff as much as we wanted. I think my puritanical standards when it came to capturing performance harmful, in retrospect. I wanted us to be able to play a couple group takes and make minimal fixes of each tune but I didn’t seem to understand that doing so would require some arrangement changes.   So everyone was trying really hard to master material that was sometimes simply not playable.

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Rick and I showed up at Ohm to mix the album dressed exactly the same one day… unplanned.  Pic by Chico Jones.

Plus, all the songs were on sheet music and the better readers among us were getting really literal to the point that right notes took precedence and sounding good was less of a consideration.  In that way, Gods is more of a document of how we might’ve sounded rather than how we did.

Unlimited tracks also enabled me to make the arrangements too dense and layer things with tasteless abandon.   I’d gotten pretty good at making complex, layered arrangements that didn’t sound bad but they didn’t sound good either. They weren’t very effective.   I knew what was under all those layers but no one else did.  It must’ve seemed like a total jumble to listeners. It didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Of the 1000 pressed, I still have about 30-50 copies.

So what’s any good about it?

Well, if it fails to present my ability to orchestrate effectively, it at least presents my strong desire to do so – or at least to do something different than most of my peers (I felt like La Mancha also did a good job of this kind of thing). I put a ton of work into the material and even if it doesn’t work, it shows.  For me, it’s cool to hear what potential was there with no guidance beyond simply listening to classical music and trying to emulate it with our instrumentation with me and my limited skills (a few music classes at ACC and private guitar lessons) in the drivers’ seat.

Bill’s keyboards really stand out to me. I hear the songs differently than I did in those days – instead of focusing on the horn and guitar, which were the original two instruments in the band, I really zoom in on those awesome analog keyboard sounds that Bill shaped for us. No wonder audiences kept telling us we sounded like Yes.

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Bill aka Willie Poland.

I’ve always liked Tommy and Adam’s performances on the album.   We’d recorded the songs before with other drummers but they finally rocked with Tommy. He understood what I was going for with these tunes.   I remember feeling giddy after the first time he came and played. It was just the two of us and he made “Doctor’s Excuse” really kickin’!

Possibly the best thing about it —- Gods doesn’t sound much like anything else from that time. I’ve often thought we’d be perceived as a Brown Whornet or Mr. Bungle rip-off but we’re not really as avant garde as them and lacked animated front man.  Whether anyone else liked it or not, we’d successfully created an unlikely mix of aggressive indie math pseudo-metal with fun, goofy, world-influenced stuff a la Oingo Boingo and Brave Combo combined with the DIY attitude of NoMeansNo and Fugazi.

We were pretty good at what I now know to be marketing.   One really, really weird thing at this time was the number of other bands who thought we’d quit our day jobs. People far more experience were surprised to learn that we weren’t making any more money than they were… or at least very little more. (Maybe that’s why none of the cool kids came to our shows – we seemingly came out of nowhere with this Christmas thing that didn’t seem like much of a gamble from the outside and got a bunch of attention for it. I’d probably have hated us, too.) I guess we’d just done a good job of promoting ourselves – we had a better web site than most other bands in Austin at the time thanks to Rick.

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Our second show with Tommy on drums at the Caucus Club in Austin— now known as The Mohawk — on their brand new (at the time) outdoor stage October 2004. We were super stoked when the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram ran this a HUGE version of this pic (taken by Gina Holton) in advance of one of our shows there.

As all over the map as the album is, that variety has never gone away. We’ve at least been consistent with our inconsistency and it all started there.  We only got better at things like improvising (which most of us sucked at in 2005), playing latin and country styles and mixing loud guitars with horns and violins.

Though the recording is super dense, many of the tunes on Gods lasted a long time in our live show. We got a lot of mileage out of my arrangement of “A Glezele Vayn”, “Iron Fist of Stalin” and “Mursketine” which were always standouts. “Glezele” was the default encore number until 2013! You know how you sometimes get sick of a song? I never got tired of playing “Doctor’s Excuse”, “Gods of Convenience” or “Mursketine”.

Unlike a lot of Austin bands, we actually had a bit of a message with the notion of the song “Gods of Convenience”. The Austin Chronicle called us “activists” in their generous 2.5 star review. The rest of the lyrics were about indie-rock snobs and other people who’d pissed one of us off. Not exactly tackling the issues. Nonetheless, our lyrics weren’t just about partying, love/sex, satan or nothing at all. They may not evoke much emotion, but at least they were pretty well thought out.

Tommy, Adam and I were really tight together. This recording reminds of all the stop-on-a-dime weird, unnecessarily difficult changes we were capable of together as the extended rhythm section. Even if it only appealed to other dudes with beards who like metal, we were pretty damn good at it.

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Adam, Tommy and me at the old Emo’s in 2005 opening for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. We’d shaven half of our hair. Tommy had only half a beard and I only had one mutton chop. Adam had half a goatee!

I think that sentence might just sum up the way I feel about the album in general. Gods came out right around the time that new music was newly so plentiful and readily available that no one wanted to invest their money or time in anything that wasn’t sure to please. Developing an act slowly in public still happens, but it seems that most of the more successful (whatever that means now) groups these days come out of the gate already totally put-together with social media, business and video editing skills as strong as their musicianship – sometimes stronger!  Maybe we (especially me) were naive and idealistic dreamers living at the end of an era but I’m glad that we were able to have a time of such an innocent and simple passion for what we did. I miss that. We were just doing what we thought was cool and working what we had (we still do this).  We were always, always genuine. I’m proud of that and that’s what Gods reminds me of now.

Thank you Adam, Rick, Tommy and Bill for rocking for real.

 

 

Vans

If you really want to get on the Warped Tour, start by firing your whole band (including yourself) and replacing them with some pretty boys with dyed black hair and lip piercings. Then print a bunch of shirts with your band logo on front and the offensive word of your choice in Impact font on the back.  Now you’re ready to …

Oh wait, different kind of van… let me shift gears(remember to edit that out later.)

I spent a good deal of my time in the last two weeks working on our van (Van Halen). I had to perform the dreaded spark plug replacement job – a task that is relatively simple routine maintenance on most vehicles but is a huge pain in the butt (and fingers and elbows) on this make/model. In fact, mechanic shops have asked as much as $1000 to perform this on our van. Parts for the job are about $50. So I set about doing it myself.

Aaryn Russell (Muppletone, Flying Balalaika Bros.) and I changed a couple of them a 9 years ago. Then my dad helped me change the rest out in Salt Lake City. He said I used up all my car help from him for the rest of my life on that job. It really sucks and this time two of the plugs were stuck.

Thankfully, it seems to be working now but on day 10 after several other issues in addition to the spark plugs had popped up, I was really considering either buying a new vehicle or renting a van from then on.

Well, not really. Renting doesn’t seem like a good idea to me unless you’re just doing a few shows out of town a year. Otherwise, owning your own band van or vehicle is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Opposite Day is about to do a 4 date run to Carbondale, IL and back (where they get to play with Cheer-Accident and Yowie!) so I’m going to use that trip as a possible illustration for renting versus owning.

If OD rents a van for 4 days from Capps Truck and Van Rental, it’s going to cost them $500 plus $0.25 for every mile over 600 that they drive.  OD is also doing Lawrence and Norman and I estimate the total trip in miles to be about 1900 miles so the total rental cost would be approx. $825.  That’s over $200 per date they’re playing.

However, looking at OD’s past shows, they haven’t played outside of Texas very much in the last 10 years.  So let’s use a more typical example to them.   If they picked up a single date in Houston and needed the van for just 24 hours,  it’d cost them $167 plus $32.50 in extra miles.  That’s about $200 just to use the vehicle for a single show.   Same as the above.  I think we can safely say it costs $200 to rent a van for a single date.

That’s not terrible.  If they only did this a few times a year, it’d be cheaper than bothering to buy, maintain and insure a vehicle.

So let’s break down what I payed to own by van per year.  I bought it ten years ago for $8000.  Let’s tack on:

  • $1000 interest (high estimate)
  • insurance for ten years – $3500
  • tires – 4 x $500 = $2000
  • oil changes – $120 x 10 = $1200
  • other repairs – $10000 (this is a very high estimate.  there were several years where my repair costs were nearly $0)
  • registration/inspection – $800

total = $28,500 – so let’s just say $30,000 or $3000 per year that I’ve owned it.

If the Invincible Czars only played 15 road dates per year (ha!), that breaks down to $200 per show.  Wow.  The same as Capps but with no maintenance and always in a van in good working order!

So maybe it’s worth it if your band doesn’t play out of town much.

But if you do more stuff and look at the long term, it’s worth it to own.  The Invincible Czars did about 30 road dates in the last calendar year.  30 x $200 = $5000 in rental costs.    That’s $2000 more than the average cost per year of owning my van.  We played out of town 30 times a year every year since I’ve owned it.  That means I saved approx. $20,000 by owning the van (I’m sure rental rates were cheaper in 2005 than now).

It’s worth asking, “What if my band doesn’t last that long?”  The good news is that you can use your van for any band.  Van Halen has been used by The Invincible Czars, Foot Patrol, Boss Battle (many times), La Mancha, The Genius Mistake, Poon, Sweetmeat and more that I would probably remember if reminded.

Plus, I had it available to me at all times and used it as my personal vehicle during that time.  It’s come in useful any time I’ve needed to move anything big. Several higher paying wall paper gigs paid me more because I was able to transport the PA system.

Downside – you will help everyone you know every time they move.

So, if you do buy a van here’s what I recommend:

  • research the best make/model and year for your budget and band size.  I bought one of the highest rated vans of all time in 2005 – the 1999 Ford Econoline.  One regret – wish I’d gotten one size bigger.
  • buy the newest used model you can afford.  DO NOT BUY NEW.
  • have a mechanic check out the vehicle before you buy it.  I recommend Lemon Busters in Austin.  They will go to the vehicle, drive it and send you a report and you don’t even have to be present.
  • Buy a repair manual specific to your vehicle and keep it in the vehicle
  • Learn to do as much routine maintenance yourself as you can (except oil changes – they’re so cheap, it’s worth it to have someone else do it and dispose of all the old oil properly).
  • Find a friend or relative who likes/knows about working on cars and get their help when something goes wrong.  Pay them back in other favors or chicken stew.
  • Find a good, affordable mechanic in your hometown.  (I have been very happy with Luu Automotive on Kramer in Austin)
  • Keep a tool kit in your vehicle filled with at least the bare minimum you’d need to work on most problems.  Very often you’ll find that the same size screw appears over and over in your vehicle.   I’ve found that I can go a long way with a ratchet, a 5/16″ socket and flat head screwdriver.
  • Live with little or cosmetic things that aren’t worth the bother or expense of fixing – dents, electric locks, etc.
  • Read and heed the owner’s manual and maintenance schedule.  Lots of oil change places have gotten a bad rap for selling unnecessary fuel flushes and stuff like that but some of that stuff really IS necessary – like changing fuel and air filters, spark plugs, etc.  Know the difference.  (I still get bamboozled by this!)

But don’t just listen to me.  I don’t like working on cars and remain mostly ignorant about a lot of things under the hood.   I’d love to hear more tips from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

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.

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?

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.