THE NEW INVINCIBLE CZARS – Dylan Younger, Aaryn Russell, Phil Davidson, me.
I’m writing this entry from the road on the best tour I’ve ever had. I’m grateful beyond words for this but it’s not going to stop me from using some to express it.
There are several factors contributing the greatness of this tour.
A big one is the fact that we’re mostly playing venues/towns we’ve played before and setting it up and doing it has been easier than any ever before from a logistic standpoint – even the dates in Canada (and getting in/out of Canada.) This has eased my mind and attitude on the road a bit. I’m not scared of our imperfections pissing off promoters. They already know and like us and know that we’re pros.
Another factor is the audiences. I don’t know that we’ve played for more enthusiastic, responsive audiences than on this tour. Thank you if you’ve been among them. I’ve met a lot of really cool folks out here.
We beat our old single-night merchandise sales record – old record in Buffalo, new record also in Buffalo. That’s pretty awesome!
Mostly, though, it’s the line-up. I’ve taken to calling it The New Invincible Czars: Aaryn Russell, Dylan Younger, Phil Davidson and me.
I’ve never had as much fun on the road. Set up and tear down has never been so easy. Everyone knows how to set up their gear, the PA and how to troubleshoot. We’ve never powered through challenges (broken window, a few long drives, lack of organization and some unfinished planning on gigs and lodging by me, truncated load-out times, etc.) as well as this tour. We sound good and instead of little mistakes coming into the music, they’re more like intentional improvements.
For the first time, everyone wants to be on the tour. Everyone’s getting along. Everyone sounds good. I look forward to every single night. Ideas are accepted, considered, built upon. It’s the most functional team I’ve ever worked with musically.
Phil and I have been playing in this band together for 12 years. This tour almost didn’t happen but Phil had faith in what we do and in me. He’s always been flexible. He’s always taken my crazy ideas into consideration and sometimes followed me down rabbit holes when I’ve wanted to take an ill-advised risk. I guess there’ve been enough of those that turned out ok to keep him coming to practice. Thank you, Phil, for standing by me all this time.
Aaryn is a real road warrior and one of the most pleasant, fun people to tour with. One of the best moments on the whole tour was listening to …And Justice For All in its entirety with Aaryn riding shotgun as I drove. It’s been a long time since there was someone in the band who has many of the same favorite albums as me. Aaryn is supportive and appreciative at all turns. He’s connected, talented, flexible and has added more than just his musical skills to this tour. Thank you for joining the ranks, Aaryn.
It’s particularly hard to express my gratitude to Dylan. He drove down from Minnesota to do this tour without really knowing much about me or the band. He took a BIG leap of faith and I hope the rewards have been worth it for him. I feel incredibly lucky that I stumbled upon him in one my darkest hours. He’s taken on the very difficult co-star role (next to Phil) and done it masterfully and surprisingly quickly. When most people would’ve said, “good luck with all that,” to a desperate stranger, he was friendly, supportive, willing to do tough work and enthusiastic. Thank you for taking this risk, Dylan.
All three of these guys have brought their A-game to this tour. They’ve brought every bit of fun, musicality and enthusiasm that they can. That is the best any bandleader can ask for. Thank you, guys, for joining my on this journey and for all the great moments, shows and lessons for me to learn. If this isn’t nice, what is?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
(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?
The media hasn’t exactly clamored to cover the incredible body of art (ha!) I’ve created in my life. However, I have had enough opportunities to talk to the people in print media and radio/television to understand the old saying that there’s no such thing as bad press.
I’ve also done enough to understand the genius of Robert McNamara’s philosophy of dealing with the press: “Don’t answer the question they asked. Answer the question you wish they had asked.”
The media don’t have the full story when they come to you – if they did, why would they be coming to you? (answer: only if they’re trying to “sting” you or catch you in a lie.) Often, you know more about a topic than they do so don’t be afraid to steer the boat a little. Expecting them to know the right questions to ask in certain situations is unrealistic. The best interviewers familiarize themselves with their subjects beforehand, but many come to the table with a cursory knowledge of the subject – especially when they have a deadline looming. That’s not bad. In fact, sometimes you want to be interviewed by someone who is totally neutral.
Often media people don’t know or grasp your story, especially in today’s sound byte culture. Add to that the fact that journalists get so much stuff that their roles sometimes morph into that of “gatekeepers” simply choosing which press release to print (sometimes word for word) and which to ignore. I’ve found it’s good to determine your message beforehand and make sure it’s said as clearly, succinctly and often as possible (and that it be the last word if possible).
I made the mistake of not following my own guidelines twice in the last month:
One of them was for this interview. I spoke with the reporter for well over an hour about the last 15+ years of bands rescoring silent films in Austin. I gave way too much information with no clear point – just lengthy, rambling answers to her questions. She was left to draw her own conclusions and, like most interviews I’ve done, some of the quotes in it are close to what I said/meant but don’t actually get my idea across.
Example: “Bands were playing their sets in front of an old movie… I knew it could be a cool experience.”
What I actually said was something more like, “Some bands were just treating these shows as a chance to play their rock sets with the movie as a backdrop. I knew the silent movie with live music could be a cooler experience than that.”
Instead, it almost sounds (to me) like I’m saying that I thought it was cool when bands were playing their rock sets in front of an old movie. Total opposite.
In the end, what I thought was going to be a piece on silent film in Texas with other interviewees turned out to just be a profile of my band. If I’d known that, my talking points would’ve been different — that is to say, I would’ve had some instead of talking off the cuff (almost always a bad idea with the press, imo.)
In March, I got a call from KEYE TV asking a bunch of questions about Austin New Year event which was rained out. I could tell it was one of those investigative “chasing the money trail” kind of reports but I didn’t think I had anything to hide so I talked to them. This will make me sound like an opportunist but when they asked at the end of the conversation if they could come interview me with a camera I thought, “There’s no such thing as bad press. Say yes and have your bands’ name on TV!” It sounds totally cheesy but, that’s what I thought. So I said yes but also said I refused to say anything bad about the City because I didn’t think they’d done anything wrong – and still don’t.
I want to add that the reporter and camera guy were totally cool and would certainly be welcome back at my house. Here’s the piece they ran that night*. It had A LOT more of me in it than I expected.
What I said that they didn’t include:
There’s nothing weird or abnormal about how this went down. Outdoor events are ALWAYS at the risk of weather cancelations. That’s the risk event planners take. It’s not the contractors’ fault that the event cancelled.
Good event planners understand that most of the time consuming, difficult work for any gig of this nature is done before the day of the event whether the event happens or not. By the time you get there, all that’s left to do is lug in your gear and execute “the show” that you’ve been practicing for weeks.
I’m glad that the City of Austin put that weather clause in the contract because some entities do not. I learned the hard way twice (two different entities in San Antonio!) and it won’t happen again. (worth mentioning that one of those entities actually asked me to return the 50% deposit they paid me to hold the date when the event was canceled with only a few hours notice and then expected us to do the same event totally free the next year because we’d kept the 50% deposit.)
For this story, I had my talking points but, again, I answered too many questions at length giving them way too much material and forcing/allowing them to draw their own conclusions rather than steering the boat.
Ultimately, the media are the ones in control of the final edit. The less you give them to work with, the less opportunities for your message to be distorted.
(Here’s a great interview with me where my quotes were all nearly exactly what I said because I typed the answers to these questions.)
None of this matters, though, because — there’s no such thing as bad press. ATtworst, that KEYE interview might’ve made it seem like I was wrapped up in a scandal but it still put my band’s name and footage of us on city-wide television. All I heard from anyone about this was, “Hey man, I saw you and the band on the news! Awesome!”
Thank you Melanie and Kathy for interviewing me!
*What I’d like to say in response to the piece:
I never really heard much else from the City about this and I don’t blame them. Yes, losing $1800 of tax payer money on a band looks bad but — at what point is it no longer worth the City’s time to chase this matter? They named their replacement date knowing not all of us could make it – March and April are always insanity in Austin. I can only imagine that by the time this piece ran, the City had moved on to bigger and more pressing matters. The replacement event happened. The contracted event planners all moved on to other jobs and aren’t technically in the City’s employ at this point. We’d be glad to do a separate date for the City but can’t force them to plan an event just for us. Businesses lose money like this all the time. It’s part of the risk associated with doing business. It’s no different with government – except that their mistakes seem to go public quicker. (Furthermore, I bet the City has put way more money into other bigger, even riskier efforts that didn’t pan out.)
If anyone felt like I was a jerk for taking the money, consider that I and my whole band held the date, were in town and on the ready all day waiting for a call to say yea or nay. Some of us even cut our holiday vacations short and travelled through serious weather to be back in town for ana event that was likely to get canceled. If the weather had been perfect, we would’ve made $1800. If the weather had been unbearably cold, we would’ve made $1800 and probably been pretty unhappy playing a painful gig and movie our equipment for about 3 hours, but we would’ve done it (and have done it).
The City’s make up event went off just fine. Austin may not have gotten quite the event it hoped for but it was an equivalent one with way better weather!
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.”
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:
Somehow, they all find the money to finance their efforts
They do something that resonates with enough people to achieve critical mass (something very difficult to do in Austin)
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’…
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?
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 audiencealready 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.
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.