Thoughts on the Pro and Artist Mindsets

I had a long and good conversation with a drummer friend and sometimes band mate of mine that got me thinking about the difference between the artist mindset and professional musician mindset.

That’s not say that a pro can’t be an artist or vice versa. It’s also not to say that there’s a hard line between the two mindsets. You can certain have attributes of both. Heck, most of my accidental successes would never have gone anywhere if I hadn’t learned from the pro mindset!

The pro mindset says that we should minimize time (and risk) and maximize dollars earned. It doesn’t necessarily factor in things like personal fulfillment, taste or even quality. Lots of the language like that makes pros laugh. Things like “faith” and “artistic success” don’t pay their bills.

My first real memory of my artistic mindset directly clashing with someone’s pro mindset goes back to 2002. There’s a drummer in Austin who probably would’ve been a great drummer for The Invincible Czars but couldn’t get past the idea that we were willing to play for practically nothing. He was cool and good at his audition but if there was no money, there was no him, period. Not worth the risk.

A young ambitious band just starting out would never have played a first gig if we’d demanded a bunch of money. So we went with someone else.

Plus. I felt like he’d always have us by the balls. We were looking for someone to join the band. To share the risk. Someone who believed in what we were doing. More artsy language.

Three drummers and a year later, I’d changed my tune. I realized that if we wanted to play gigs and no drummer would join, all we had to do was pay someone  $50. Cool!  We’re booking gigs again! So I did that for a while.

That’s the great thing about the pro mindset – if your vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to anyone else, you can always pay them to make it worth their while!

But it’s also a curse.

It’s why you see some of the most skilled drummers in the world playing four-on-the-floor drum beats all night in pop and country bands – groups that play music people instantly love (cover bands are the best example) make more money… and in the case of drummers that music is usually very easy!

As soon as someone else offers that person more money, you either have to pay the higher price or find someone else. Suddenly you’re spending more time managing contract labor than making music.

Additionally, just because someone has a pro mindset doesn’t mean they have pro chops. There are plenty of mediocre bass players and drummers out there that are used to being paid $100 to play music they don’t even need to practice to play masterfully. If you want someone to play actual arrangements, the price goes up.  There’re plenty of much easier gigs out there that pay better than learning a whole set of arrangements. They’re happy to just play Mustang Sally night after night.

To pros, the best gigs earn them the most money per hour spent. Individual prep time, group rehearsals, travel time and actual performance time all  cut the value of the gig in their minds.

It’s hard to argue with that in our capitalist society.  If the pay for this gig will be the same whether we give a C- performance or an A+ performance, why give an A+ effort?

But artist are dreamers. We have to have faith that what we’re doing is good, worthy and worthwhile. We have to have faith that we can get there – wherever there is. We make the kind of stuff that gives the pros their jobs and we love what we do so much, we will give an A effort for C pay (or even F pay).

BUT — Pro mindset people can help us learn when shouldn’t!

That year of paying a drummer $50 a show made me permanently much, much picker about what shows to take and how I use group time.

My biggest successes were riskier and more difficult and the practical pro mindset said, “not worth it”.  The potential for C or F pay was high with both The Invincible Czars’ Nutcracker and silent film soundtracks. Building up an audience outside of Austin was very risky. Doing those things took time and sacrifice from me those who wanted to believe. Thank you to those of you who did and do.

Meanwhile, many of the pro-mindset players that were with me along the way are barely even in the music game anymore. I guess they finally figured out something that now renowned producer John Congleton told me nearly 20 years ago (and probably doesn’t remember) — if you’re in the music business to make money, you’re pretty stupid.

I want to end by saying that both mindsets are useful and if matched properly can keep your act on course both creatively and on the business side.  I’ve had more good than bad experiences with pros. Sometimes I had to learn things the hard way with pros who took advantage or just wanted to belittle me. Thank you to the benevolent pros who’ve been willing to do what they do for fair compensation and who did what any real pro does — help pass the torch by educating and giving opportunities instead of just taking my money and delivering a half-assed performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make It, Take It – A Vicious Circle with No Real Winners.

Today’s post isn’t about music. It’s inspired by my thoughts on this article… responding to the ideas that (1) if you hate your job, simply get a better one and (2) that simply working harder will solve your problem.

Stay with me here:

As a kid, I was baffled by the concept of “make it, take it” basketball. In all other versions of the game (and most games), the field is reset after a score and the ball given to the team that didn’t score the goal so as to give them an opportunity to control the ball and keep the game going – or at least interesting.

“Make it, take it” can be interesting between two closely matched opponents but it’s no surprise when a team of adults beats the pants off a team of children in a “make it, take it” match.  Would the children ever even get to touch the ball?

The only people who ever want to play “make it, take it” are the people who KNOW they have a leg up and want to humiliate their opponents by scoring as many points as possible as quickly as possible.  They don’t care about the game.  They only care about power and making themselves feel good.

It’s interesting that you don’t see “make it, take it” in pro sports organizations – where it might actually be interesting! I guess you don’t see the NBA playing “make it, take it” because the games would be pretty boring.

Why?

Because “make it take it” isn’t fun for anyone but the winning players.

I’ve had a lot of experience on the wrong side of “make it, take it” basketball and most of the time the game ends in a forfeit.  Would you buy a ticket or tune into a game that was guaranteed to be a blow out only to end in a humiliating forfeit in the second quarter?  Probably not and the NBA definitely wants to sell ad time and tickets so they have rules to force the obsessed winners (like Michael  Jordan) to play fair so the money keeps flowing into their collective pockets.

We live in a “make it, take it” society but we don’t have a many money-making powers like the NBA to force the obsessed winners of the world to play fair.  The rich get richer.

And they might argue that we live in a “make it, take it” reality. That’s how evolution* works, after all.  Survival of the fittest!

I agree.  But if we’re using the evolution metaphor, where does hard work come into play?  After all, the winners of evolution are BORN with their advantage, they don’t work for it. (Sounds like Paris Hilton!)

The white polar bears near the end of this segment from Cosmos did nothing to gain an advantage over the brown polar bears… other than be born with a mutation they had no control over! (Sounds like Paris Hilton!)

So while the idea of getting a better job makes sense to those for whom it comes easy, actually doing so is difficult for most people – even those with college degrees.  You don’t just go from flipping burgers to managing a department store (or even something as vague as online leads manager to team manager) with a quick scroll through craigslist.

Plus,  If you’ve gotta spend money to make money, what do you do if you haven’t got any to spend?  I guess you and those like you just go extinct.  But where does that end?  What happens when your advantage isn’t advantage anymore?

We all have to live on this court and when there’s no one left to beat, even the winners lose. (Once Michael Jordan got bored with being the best basketball player ever, he had the fortune of being one of if no the worst baseball player ever.)

There’s always someone at the bottom and “make it take it” is a vicious circle that eventually wipes everyone out.

We can choose something else, though.

Wouldn’t it be better to respect your opponents and see everyone’s standards raised?  To keep the game you love to win going instead of this desperate rush to the top only to be toppled by the next generation of younger, more advantaged players just as eager to ruin the game as you were?

If not, know that the rest of us look forward to laughing at you when (not if) they beat the pants off you.

 

*ironically, many don’t even believe in the theory of evolution.

Czars Stars

We have this joke reward system that started on the last Invincible Czars Nosferatu tour. When someone (in or not in the band) does something remarkable or really helpful, they get a Czar Star.

At some point, actual, physical Czar Stars started showing up… and I’m not even the one doling them out!

But if I was, here’re some of the things that I think deserve Czars Stars. If you do these things for your band, you probably go un or under recognized by your band mates but not by me. (Some of these are really specific to the Czars and our upcoming tour. If you did these, thank you!)

1) Playing a near perfect show nearly every night.

2) Maintaining the web presence – web site, social media.

3) Making Facebook event pages for every show. (oh, did you check to see if someone else made one already? Damn. That was a waste of time.)

4) Booking the shows. (this could be a full time job on its own)

5) Contacting press, radio, other media ON TIME (this could be a full time job on its own)

6) Having artwork/photos made and properly formatted for various uses. (CDs, posters, web graphics, t-shirts, etc.) THIS IS HUGE and nearly everything else on this list depends upon it. Artwork and images go everywhere – web site, videos, merchandise, press lists, social media.

7) Video shooting and editing (if you’re not someone who already knows about this and you take it on, you get 5 additional stars)

8) Making a pre-show playlist

9) Finding lodging

10) Selling merchandise

11) Determining day to day scheduling (departure time, arrival time, dinner time, load in time, show time, strike time, sleep time, etc.)

12) Loading

13) Driving

14) Managing the Merchandise (inventory, storage, pricing, signage and display, payment options like credit card readers, online sales, finding the best places to have it made, etc. This is another huge time consuming job!)

15) Contributing money to keep the bus moving.

16) Writing marketing language and descriptive language and knowing the difference between the two

17) Writing the music

18) Running Sound

19) Playing instruments (including electronics) you don’t normally

20) Providing transportation and maintaining it

21) Providing the practice space

22) Communicating with fans – in person or online

23) Making recordings and formatting them for various uses (CD, web, vinyl, whatever)

24) Dealing with any kind of legal issues (copyrights, insurance, etc.)

25) Accounting and Taxes

26) Cooking and cleaning

27) Getting your band out of any sticky situation

28) Remaining positive in the face of not so positive circumstances

I think it’s worth noting that simply stating a good idea isn’t on this list. Good ideas deserve recognition, no doubt, but they don’t really deserve a Czar Star until they become reality.

ex: let’s tour Europe, get our own sound/light person, make some merchandise everyone wants, break into college campus gigs, shoot a high quality video that’s fun to watch, play with an orchesrta, write a hit song, etc.

Those all sound good but realizing them takes way, WAY more time, effort and luck than just dreaming them up.

There are tons of idea-people out there who can make long, long lists of to do items but when it comes to actually executing those ideas, very few people actually make it happen.

You may never get a Czar Star because all that behind the scenes stuff doesn’t seem to matter to people who’ve never felt the pain of doing (or not doing) those things. It’s behind the scenes and if you’re doing it right, hardly anyone notices. You’re like the Navy SEAL of your band. You’re beyond Czar Stars.

Aging Hipsters

Hulk

Today I’m 10X as old as I was in this photo.

It’s been a while since I wrote.  The usual holiday melee came on the heels of a surprisingly successful silent film tour in October.  Getting time to collect my thoughts has been difficult.

 

But today, I’m 40.  Gotta put something up today.

 

I’ve spent the last year feeling like I’m already 40 and many years dreading it.  But as it approached, I’ve felt better and better about it.  Big thanks to Reed Burnam whose thoughts on 40 helped make that the case.  It took three years for those thoughts to settle in my brain, but I’m there.

 

It seems like losing relevance and fear of not measuring up are the big things that scare us about 40 – or any milestone age.   I’ve been thinking a lot about the first one.
For me, a fear of loss of relevance has long seemed ridiculous.  Who/what is relevant?  And to what?

 

It seems most peoples’ answers to both lies with the coveted teen-to-young-adult demographic and the zeitgeist surrounding them.
Throughout my life, I’ve heard adults (usually parents) say things like, “I don’t know what’s cool anymore.”   I have a specific memory of my Aunt Diane saying this and thinking – this is going to happen to me someday.

 

I finally had a brush with that about 5 years ago when I found myself managing high school aged interns at my day job.  During that period, I went from being the same age as their older siblings and cousins to being the same age as their parents.  We often listened to music and I realized I was way out of touch with what young people were listening to at the time.  Not a single one of them listened to rock music.  They liked more dance-pop and hip-hop/rap.  Drake and Rihanna were big with them. When I played Guns n Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” only one of them recognized it (thanks Guitar Hero!).  They thought what I listened to was mostly very, very weird and lots of times very old.  It is pretty weird actually… I mean, I listen to pretty off-the-wall stuff even among most people my age. I also I got on a Louis Armstrong kick on Pandora which seemed ancient to the interns.

 

My music taste wasn’t relevant to them. They had no context for it.

 

I thought – wow… I’m officially uncool.   Then I thought, “but I never have been.”   Not even when I was a late teen and young adult.  I still find Radiohead boring.  Nu-metal put me off metal for a long time.

 

But even writing myself off (or on?) as an outsider isn’t totally accurate.  Afterall, I “discovered” Faith No More and Nirvana the same way the interns discovered Drake and Rihanna — mass media.   In my case, MTV and the multiple rock radio stations in DFW that all played the same 14 songs over and over all day.

 

And just like me with Drake and Rihanna, people my parents’ age weren’t paying attention.  Nirvana went on to have an almost Beatles level of popularity and 15 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, my dad bought a copy of Nervermind when VH-1 included it on their list of the greatest albums of all time.  He listened to it and likes it… but In 1991, it was just another tape of kids’ music that seemed irrelevant to him.  He paid it no attention.

To my interns, I was just another “old” person at their job paying no attention to their interests.    Most of them came to appreciate my youthful spirit.  One of them was shocked when he learned I was 37 — and younger that Cee-Lo Green.  He guessed 25.  Bless him.

And there’s where the relativity of relevance is apparent.  25 seems almost a whole life away to a 15 year old.  37 is even harder to grasp for them.

Relevance is relative to the beholder’s context.  My aunt may not have known what was cool to her kids but this is a woman with hundreds of friends and connections.  Among her peers, she’s pretty cool.

 

Big media’s roll in our experiences and tastes does’t make them any more or less relevant to you or those around you.

Cool young adults may have become the pop culture taste makers but theirs is not the only experience.  The 5-7 year period of young adulthood is less than 10% of life expectancy.  The idea that 90% of our lives are somehow not relevant is absurd especially considering the achievements by people older (or younger!) than 18-23.

What’s “cool” changes as we age and gain more experience.  The first live show I ever saw as an Austin resident was a Thrill Jockey band from Chicago who I won’t name at Stubb’s.  I loved the guitarist!  I pulled the CD out for the first time in a very long a few years ago and… it was so boring to me.  There’s not a single melody on the album.  Just lots of cool rhythmic stuff and some solos.  Now it sounds to me like a musical cheese pizza – a good foundation served without any toppings.  Some people like cheese pizza. I sure did.

In spite of our evolving tastes, our desire to be forever young makes us jealous of young adults and lately the curmudgeonly use of  “hipster” as a derogatory term has come into everyday language.  To me, this seems like a modern day version of “young whipper snapper” and only confirms one’s status as a cranky old fart.

Most people I hear complaining about hipsters WERE hipsters… or ARE hipsters that’ve just aged out of young adulthood and feel left behind.  I think the best solution to that is simply to participate!

And that’s all that young people are really doing.  They’re presented with something and they participate.   It’s only those of us who’ve aged that think we have anything to lose by trying something new.  Silly.

Throughout my 20s,  I met lots of  people older than me that I referred to as aging hipsters before the term came to be a negative epithet.  They defy the stereotype of straight laced, white bread and seemingly boring adults I knew as a teenager.  They retain their youthful sense of adventure and willingness to try/learn new things without falling into the common traps of drug addiction or bad relationships.  They have few responsibilities but are not irresponsible.  Their path is far, far more appealing than that of the cranky old fart full of regrets. Many have been my best friends, band mates and colleagues. I’m happy today to have aged into their ranks!

 

 

My Own Fear of Success

It occurred to me that doing a series on development is kind of redundant.  I mean… this whole blog is about development.

This week I wrote about my own fear of success.  Skip it if you don’t like my entries that are more journal-like.
Fear of success seems absurd.  We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right?  Fear of failure seems logical.  We don’t want to fail.

I experienced fear of success on the most recent Invincible Czars tour and it didn’t seem absurd.  Here’s what happened.

I/we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.  I was reticent even after acquiescing.  In my mind, Nosferatu is so very done in the world of silent film accompaniment.  Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, an community orchestra or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment.  There are tons of new scores for this movie out there.  Not only that, the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is available now.

But, once I decided to do it, I delved in.

Of course, we decided to do it for Halloween and I spent six months of daily work writing, refining and recording the music, finding venues and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the materials to do so (flyers, post cards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo) and the merchandise.  I didn’t have to do this all alone but I knew I was the lynch pin with all this stuff coming together.

There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process.  We made a surprisingly good recording that was done BEFORE the shows for once.  We also had killer (ha!) artwork and a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots.  That was a big success.  I’d dreamt of one day doing this and it actually happened!

On the non-music side, I spent many, many hours and days working on our van (Van Halen) this summer.  It continued falling apart all the way through the end of the tour.  It’s amazing that it we made it anywhere but all those hours paid off.  I was able to keep it moving, albeit slowly at times, throughout the tour.

In fact, our engine started misfiring again (after six weeks of smooth sailing) only 3 hours into  the tour and we stumbled into Huntsville, TX.  At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what was to come… ugh.”
Based on the past, we’d made  the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour – not much.   We made a few posters for the first time hoping we’d sell half of them.

We were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house that night and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, sold most of our posters and about half our CDs.  We still had 17 more shows to go!  gadzooks!  We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour.
(Thank you to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt and let us mail them to you later!)

That day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come but not in the way I’d expected.  People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places.  The media actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played.    We beat our record for single-day merchandise sales on this tour!

But I couldn’t get positive about it.  Everyone was revelling in our success after a sold out Tuesday night in Pensacola, when I launched into this negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded my bandmates.  The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about our success.

Now that’s absurd.

But my fear wasn’t going away.  I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs.  Those fears included:

  • This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along.  Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have an off night.
  • Now the bar’s set higher.  Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm.  When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame.
  • This is a lucky one-time success.  It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again.
  • What if this is as good as it gets and I’ve peaked?  Is it all down hill from here?
  • I like doing the silent movies but it’s not all that we do.  We may be building an audience but it’s just for one aspect of what we do.  This movie is the draw, not us. The artwork is better than the music.  We’ll never see these faces again.
  • I’m not even challenging myself out here.  My parts are so easy, I don’t even need to warm up to play them.  Am I growing as a player or just plateauing with this?
  • The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving.  No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.

(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve been worried about.)

After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success.  What a weird place to be.  Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me.  I’ve dealth with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again.  Hell,  I already had plan B and plan C ready go.  So ready to go in fact it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.

This success seemed to me like beating a level of space invaders where the reward is a chance to keep playing the game but now the space invaders are moving faster… and you’re not!   There’s an instant where you’re still in disbelief that you cleared that last level as a whole new and more difficult set of space invaders bears down on you.  (This reminds me of my own entry about Proving It.)

Six months of work resulted in 18 amazing shows in 17 days.  Coming off that is… not brutal but it’s the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.  So now I guess get to play space invaders some more.  Good thing I like the game.

 

Development Part 4 – Build A Network

How often do you hear or say something like, “That band only gets to play on weekends because the singer is the owner’s girlfriend.”

Well… yeah.  Get used to that.

Other than your skills and talents, your network may be the most important tool for growth that you can develop.  It can affect everything from show attendance to booking opportunities to better recordings to guidance.

We’ve all heard that It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.   Simply being good isn’t enough.  You have to already be good to even be considered.  That’s a private victory.  Plus, “good” is relative and simply being good doesn’t mean you can create a career.  You have to make enough other people care about how good you are.

Steve Vai is unbelievable and yet you never hear about him unless you dig into that world of guitar wizardry and the music nerds who pay attention to him.  Casual listeners don’t have a context for that stuff until someone creates it.

In the late 80s, only the “bad kids” and skaters listened to Metallica.  Parents and teachers in the bible belt town where I went to school called the music satanic.  But by 1991, I was hearing “Enter Sandman” out of the cars of all the jocks, ropers and cheerleaders in at my high school.   Many factors came together to create a context for what Metallica did.   They were already huge in the world of metal. They already had a lot of fans worldwide, a major label deal and business team.  In 1991, there was a major turn in what radio and MTV were playing as tastes moved from dance-pop  (Janet Jackson) and glam-metal (Poison) to bands like Faith No More and Nirvana.  Metallica also released their most mainstream album ever right at that moment and kind of met casual listeners in the middle of all that.

That kind of context can only be created by a massive network of fans, talent buyers, booking agents, managers, promoters, etc. etc.  By 1991, Metallica’s network was enormous.

Each of us, no matter how introverted, has a network on which we rely — even if it’s just our family and friends.   The more that you cultivate it, the more you can turn to it when in need — something that many of us seem reluctant to do because we want to do “it” ourselves.  We can’t all be good at everything.  In fact, none of us can.  Even the highest ranked A-Listers have a network and people who help them.

Here’s a list of roles/people in your network:

  • Fans – if someone likes your music, you automatically have something in common with them because you like it, too.   Amanda Palmer is the queen of developing a network of fans.  Take interest in stuff they care about – even/especially if it’s not your band!
  • Family – Check out the video below about David Lee Roth’s multi-millionaire father. How could that connection NOT have helped David Lee and Van Halen’s careers?  Don’t ignore these connections or take them for granted.  Include your family members but don’t exploit them.

 

  • Friends – every musician has to have early adopters.  These are usually your friends!  Even if they don’t love your music, they’ll support you just because you’re you.  This is also helpful in non-music contexts.  The only way to have friends is to be a friend.  Go to their happenings.  Care!
  • Media – you’re bound to meet someone in the media who likes you – even if it’s just some guy who runs a badly edited monthly fanzine.  Keep them updated.  Be friendly.  Don’t just spam them with “band plays show” emails.  You never know what they’ll pick up for a story.  I’m often surprised by what interests journalists and reporters and what doesn’t.
  • Talent Buyers/Booking Agents/Venues – re-read the first sentence of this entry.  Everyone hates contacting strangers and trying to sell them on your band.  These are the first gatekeepers you will encounter in the music business.  The longer you know them and the more they like you, the easier your communications with them will be.
  • Other Like-Minded Businesses and Organizations – are you into animal rights, comic books, sewing, tattoos, politics, sports, vintage clothing, etc?  There’s probably some organization or business for that and a whole network of like-minded folks who might like what you do.  Don’t brow beat them – genuinely be a part of what they do and let opportunities arise.  Maybe they need a band for an event – or maybe you’ll make friends with someone who loves what you do and spreads the word for you.   In a town like Austin, we’re often connected by more than one interest.  Your new dungeon master could be high up at C3.
  • Other musicians – this is huge and part of the reason Austin’s such a cool place.  We’re all sharing information and ideas all the time.  Success for your friends’ bands tends to trickle down.  How could Mike Patton joining Faith No More NOT have helped Mr. Bungle?

So how to you build the network?  Simply be a helpful part of it.

 

No Day Job – How’s That Going?

I missed an entry last week because I’ve been so damn busy various things I set in motion after quitting my day job. Thinking on that and having been asked about it a lot, I thought I’d write a short entry to give an update on what I’ve done in the 5 1/2 months since I said goodbye to working for the man:

March – easily the busiest and most lucrative month since I quit working the day job. I wound up having one gig that paid me as much as I normally made in a single month plus a couple others. I got really sick again at the end of the month just like last year and played a wedding that was just me and a singer at the height of a very bad fever. It was unpleasant.

April – Invincible Czars toured east of Austin with the silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two Star Symphony drummer Kirk Suddreath joined us. It was fun. I didn’t earn any money but I didn’t lose any either. I started actually working with bands on pre-production and song arrangements for their recordings. That’s been slowly picking up steam. I also helped Opposite Day with a bunch of booking and management stuff. I started playing bass with Muppletone. I also continued filling with Sam Arnold and the Secret Keepers.

May – I thought this month would be dead but things got really complicated with Opposite Day booking. I started doing a bunch of gigs with Jean Caffeine. I also started making weekly “How to Play…” guitar videos and posting them on youtube as an excuse to get better at video editing and using Adobe Premiere. I’ve kept those up and even had some requests! Tony Brownlow and I started getting together to get The Genius Mistake going in the near future. We’ve been playing new and old songs.

June – vacation month. I hadn’t seen my family in Utah in a long time. I had multiple bookings cancel or fall through. It was about the most frustrating month of booking I’ve had in years only now it was doubly annoying because I was booking OD and the Czars. We wound up abandoning the idea of the Czars touring Germany this year as a restul. Near the end of the month I started working super hard on the Czars’ Nosferatu soundtrack fall – both musically and promotionally. I’ve learned that if I just write a little bit of music, sync it with the video and put a bunch of “Don’t Miss…” type text on it, I can do all the promotion for any given project having only created about 1% of the actual content.

July – Our Van started really having trouble just when we needed it for Czars’ road gigs and the labor to fix it was expensive so I started delving into self repair. I’ve learned A LOT about fixing cars in the last two months. The van is still not roadworthy. Invincible Czars shot a video in our house for Peter Stopschinski’s “Dark Theme from Metropolis”. Phil, Leila and I got really into arranging Bartok’s six “Romanian Dances” for the silent film. I saw Faith No More in Houston. They were excellent. I recorded some disappointingly eye opening vocal tracks for the Genius Mistake album that’s been sitting with no voices for one year. ugh.

August – With the van not working and being dependent upon Capital Metro to get me places, I hit a wall with all this juggling and wound up having to choose which balls to drop and pissing others off. I had to bail on a Secret Keepers gig and then had to get really choosy with my time. The Czars had the opportunity to use Ohm Recording Facility for a super cheap rate for a single day. We went in there and recorded a bunch of material for the Nosferatu soundtrack and all our silent movie (no drums) versions of Bartok’s “Romanian Dances”.  Long time readers of the this blog will also be interested to know that the reason I missed last week’s entry is because I was actually asked to write an entry for the web site Soundfly.com.  I was more surprised than anyone about this development!

To sum up, mostly I’m still in the “figuring it out” stage of this grand experiment. Yes, I’ve reached the point of purposely skipping meals to save money.

Gods of Convenience – 10 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s any good about it?

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

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

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Bill aka Willie Poland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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