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.)

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!

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.