If You Choose Not To Decide…

(or How I Gained More Respect for George W. Bush)

That subtitle is sure to surprise anyone who knows me.   I’m not a big fan of GWB, but leading a band gave me the opportunity to identify with him.  Although, when 20% of my people are mad at me, it’s one person.  When 20% of his were mad, it was a lot more!

Speaking of presidents, I actually am a fan of Theodore Roosevelt who said:

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Boy I learned the price of doing nothing!

At first, I was reluctant to be the band leader – hence the name of this blog.  I learned, though, that if I didn’t grab the reins, decisions would be made by default and relegate us to the fate of most Austin bands – a very short, insignificant, frustrating existence.  One person in our original line-up will forever refer to me as a commie dictator.  That sounded so bad to me at the time.  I just thought I was ambitious and focused.  I didn’t want all the work I’d put into creating the band and the music to be all for naught just because one or two other people were too lazy, overscheduled or unfocused to move forward.   The truth was that she was just as power hungry as she accused me of being.  Eventually our relationship deteriorated and I felt backed into a corner in every conversation with this this person.  When we finally kicked her out, it was Rick who had to do it… and he did it with great patience and tact.  One of the many times I learned something of great value from him.

Grabbing the reins of leadership forced me into the dreaded spotlight of terrible responsibility.  Egad!   My every move seemed to be scrutinized even by my own band mates.  I often felt like a nagging parent and they started to seem like a handful of unappreciative children.

I wasn’t ready for that and it only made me more reluctant to make choices.  There’s logic in the idea that if you’re not the one making the decision, you can’t be held accountable when everything goes wrong, but that’s a pretty weak way to live and reminds me of another quote from Roosevelt:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. “

I wish I’d read that quote years earlier.  Wishy-washiness plagued me in my twenties…  It even led to the end of my marriage.

These days, I agree with Sam Arnold of Opposite Day – most people in an organization simply want to be led well.   You can’t be wishy-washy and lead people well.  Sometimes that means I get to be the bad guy and I still hate being the bad guy.  I hate being the one to say, “You’re not up to snuff,” to others, (though I seem to have no problem saying it about myself).

Sometimes, though, you’re just going to make someone mad and there’s no way around it.

Here’s a juicy story about how being indecisive when you’re in a leadership role can go horribly wrong. The names have been removed to protect the innocent.  Hopefully they have forgiven me or will.   I realized today when this story came up that I was still upset about it myself – so maybe it’s more therapeutic.  If nothing else, it may serve as a cautionary tale perhaps set to the Rush song “Freewill”.  “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

In 2007 and 2008, there was a band in Austin that had several ties to me and the other members of The Invincible Czars.  Some of my best friends were in the group.  It was assumed by most that we’d eventually share a bill with this band.

In spite of the serious social connections, I wasn’t a fan.  I had seen the band several times over the course of a year and they didn’t sound good once.

Several times, the idea was suggested that we add them to one of our shows.  I should’ve just been tactful and decisive and said something like, “I don’t think they’re ready for this bill.” Thinking on Roosevelt’s quote up top, even if I’d said the WRONG thing like, “No way, those guys suck!” I would’ve been doing everyone involved a favor.  (You’ll see why.)

Instead, I’d say something wishy washy like, “that’s an interesting idea.”  Brother!   Then the word would spread to this band and they would assume that it was happening.  Meanwhile, I would forget because I wasn’t really committed to having them and the idea never moved out of the suggestion phase in my mind.  I’d wind up making them really mad by booking someone else.

This is terrible but I pulled the rug out from under them a few times like that.  It was ignorant, I admit, but they saw it as selfish and mean.

I realized this was not good and that I needed to make it up to this band, so I started half-heartedly trying to add them to bills with us.  When I suggested this band to venues or other acts, I’d get a reply like, “maybe… but I was thinking maybe you guys and (whoever).”    I never insisted on adding this band because I myself didn’t even really want to play with them.   I was simply trying to save face, as the singer later told me.   I still wasn’t actively choosing not to play with them… but I wasn’t actively choosing to do so either.  I was essentially trying weasel out of the whole thing.  This went on for months.

Finally, I had some influence on a show and told the band’s singer that I’d make sure they’d get on the bill.  When it came time to finalize the show’s line-up, no one else in charge of the show felt this band was going to add value to the bill.  Once again, I couldn’t rightly go to bat for this band because I agreed and the others in charge of the show knew it – they even knew I was just trying to salvage my own reputation with this band by suggesting them for the show.   Of course, I looked like a jerk once again when I had to bump this band from a bill they essentially weren’t ever on.

Of course, this angered the other band.  Rightly so.  I should’ve been less wishy-washy about the whole thing from the start and I’ve apologized to (most of) them since.

But that’s not the end of the story.  In a Czars rehearsal, a band mate said I needed to admit that I didn’t really care about the other band.  I blew up and I admitted I didn’t like this band because they sounded bad and that I wasn’t really committed to finding a show for them to play with us and never had been.

That didn’t up my popularity score much when that got out.

Even worse, feeling defensive about the situation, I later went on a long rant about this whole thing in private.   I felt like they had come to the table expecting me to do something for them with nothing to offer in return.  I said  things like, “they just want to ride on our coattails,” and, “If they want to play a show with us, why don’t they book it and add us instead of expecting me do it?  We don’t need to play a show with them, they seem to need to play one with us,” or, “They need to do something for themselves before expecting me to solve their booking problems.  I’m not in their band.  Why is it now my responsibility to get them a good show?  It’s not my fault they sound bad and only the crappy clubs will book them in early slots!”

Later, I got a message from one of my best friends who is in the band saying that he wouldn’t be at my show that night because of the “nice message” I’d left on his voice mail.  I looked in my phone log and sure enough, I’d somehow pocket dialed him right at the worst possible moment of my rant and recorded it on his voice mail.  Of course, this message was shared with everyone in the band, most of the people in my band and many others.  By the time I got to our show that night opening for a road act, it seemed like half the audience was mad at me.  (I was also 3 months into getting divorced at this time.  There are some great photos of me playing a very, very angry show that night.)

Gah!  If I’d just been honest and decisive up front, this all would’ve been avoided.  It was my own fault and I knew it and that just made me more angry.  The whole incident made me more aware of my responsibility to make decisions not just as the leader of The Invincible Czars but as someone who is seen as a leader in Austin’s art rock community.  It took a long conversation with Sam Arnold for me to realize that.

Things seem ok between me and the membership of that band now.  I hope that the incident was at least useful for them.  At the time, one member of that band said he agreed with what I’d said in my unfortunate message.  Whether the incident contributed to this or not I don’t know but, the band made some changes and started improving.  Eventually, I did go to bat for them on a bill when others questioned the suggestion.  It took a lot of convincing, but the band was added and they played a good set.  My co-promoters were pleasantly surprised.  These days, this band plays occasionally and the last time I saw them they left stage before I was ready for them to stop!

This incident made me more aware of the real price of doing nothing.  I wound up making a lot of people I care about really mad and hurting feelings I didn’t mean or want to.  (I truly do hope that my friends in this band know that I think they are all fine musicians.  I also hope to be able to laugh more about this in the future instead of getting heated up and defensive about it… now that it’s been 4 years!)

Your Music is not a Commodity

So Be Different!

I like the definition of a commodity on Wikipedia:  “…any marketable item produced to satisfy wants or needs.   It is used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand.”

Music is a commodity – it’s just not a very profitable one.  By that definition above, even recorded music is a commodity.  There is demand for recorded music, otherwise we wouldn’t have an entire generation of Emily Whites that have thousands of songs on their iPods – legally acquired, shared or not.

But everyone’s in band these days.  Supply is MUCH greater than demand.  The only ones making money doing it are fulfilling some kind of desire.  Original music doesn’t do so very often.  It is overabundant and unfamiliar.  Why should anyone care about yours, mine or anyone else’s?

In Austin, I hear/read a million opinions on how we need to get the music business back on track so that we (or more accurately, the person talking) can make a living from music.  Musicians aren’t earning terrible wages because the City shortened the free parking curfew downtown or enacted a smoking ban (how many businesses really shut down because of this?).

We earn terrible wages because our music isn’t a big enough commodity – it doesn’t satisfy a want or desire that isn’t already being fulfilled.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  It’s just reality.

As a person who has always favored counter culture over most mainstream fare, I am amazed (AMAZED) at how many people think they’re going to be the next Li’l Wayne or Taylor Swift or even Justin Beiber.  Until I worked for AMF, I’d never spent any time with musicians who seriously wanted to sound like Toby Keith and or Beyonce and were actually making a go of it.  That kind of music seems very… manufactured.   Very assembly line.  I’m not saying the artists involved aren’t talented… but the content of their work is about as exotic and daring as a burger and fries.  It’s truly the kind of lowest common denominator appeal that Jello Biafra decries in the Dead Kennedy’s song MTV Get off the Air.

My tastes aside, I re-learned something from meeting these people:  The value of being different and accepting the law of supply and demand.

Austin audiences love Americana/Roots/Blues.  So you’d think acts in that genre would thrive here, right?  Well… Yes and no.  We have some big acts in that genre like Jimmy Vaughan and Carolyn Wonderland but we also have a glut hardly-known talent in this area.  Demand is high but the supply is even higher because creative people outside our town keep moving here due to the myth that Austin is a year-round outdoor concert.  When they get here they see we’re all waiting tables until an older act either moves up a rank or calls it quits.  More about this later.

Other hand – look at Atash.  Austin doesn’t have a huge world music scene.  Anytime a promoter or event planner is doing something with a world music leaning or just wants to inject something different into the event, Atash is usually the first band mentioned in the planning session.  I would not be surprised if they’ve earned more money and played more big gigs in our region than many acts that can headline the Continental Club.

I experienced a little of this myself when The Invincible Czars started playing the Nutcracker Suite.   This is one of those surprise successes I mentioned in my first post.  That holiday season of 2004, we went from being a band that played to furniture at Room 710 on Thursday nights to a band that could suddenly make nearly $1000 in a single show (we’ve since surpassed that).  Graham Reynolds said, “I think you’re putting yourselves on the map with this,” and he was right.  Holiday event promoters suddenly knew who we were thanks to our live performance on KUT FM.  We even started getting better club gigs in 2005.  Each year it’s grown and we’ve played music that is true to our vision all over the state.  We just tried doing something different and got lucky that what we tried had mass appeal.

Many of my best friends and peers have still never seen one of our holiday shows.  Most of them thought it was really cheesy and probably still do.  That bothered me but these days  I know that we’re doing something economically good for ourselves when I look out an audience and I see 100 people dancing instead of a group of musicians standing motionless with arms folded judging every note waiting to play their set when we finish.

I wouldn’t say that our original material became a commodity, but our live shows did!  Suddenly, many of our weirdest original tunes didn’t seem so scary to audiences.  Promoters who knew of our holiday shows started having us perform at events at other times of the year.   Doing the Nutcracker opened some doors.

So what’s the point of this long winded post?

There’re a million other talented musicians out there making appealing music.  You must be interesting (like Atash) or useful (like a wedding combo) in order to stand out.  Ideally both.   Simply being good isn’t enough.  I think often about high Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about Olympic runners when thinking along these lines.

Figure out how to fill a need and use the principle of supply and demand to your favor rather than to distort your perception of your talent.  If you live in a place with a lot of musicians already doing what you do, I think your best option is to try doing something different.  It’s not that you’re not talented; it’s that someone else is already filling the need – often many someone elses are.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with doing what you’re already doing as long as you enjoy it.  That’s really the ultimate thing init?  Smelling the roses.

Who Cares?

Well… me.  But maybe someone other than me might.  So why not?

In 2002, I started the Austin, Texas band The Invincible Czars.  I’m glad I didn’t give up the many times I felt like it.  The whole first year seemed like a waste of time.  The entire first line-up took 8 months to put together once trumpeter Rick Redman and I had started working on it.  Then it took about 4 months to completely fall apart (except for Rick).  I am now the only original member left and have seen 2 whole line-ups of the band come and go.  I have been there for both horn players, three bass players, one accordionist, two keyboard players, one violinist, about 8 drummers and who knows how many stand-ins.

Most sane people (non-musicians) would probably say that the whole 10 year stretch has been a waste of time.  However, I think most of what they enjoy doing (watching sports, watching American Idol, shopping) is pretty drab stuff.  I’m happy to have spent my time endeavoring to do something more meaningful than working a day job and waiting to be entertained.  I can’t remember the last time I thought, “I’m bored.”

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.  I’ve learned ride through the dismal lows because they were worth the soaring highs.  I’ve made mistakes (I’m sure I’ll make again) and I’ve had successes both caluculated and (more often) stumbled-upon.   I’ve made a lot of people mad including my current and former band mates, venue owners, journalists, audience members and other bands. On the other hand, I’ve made a lot of people very happy and I usually include myself in that category.

Possibly the most important lesson I’ve had to re-learn over and over is to smell the roses and enjoy the journey.  I was reminded of this in the past month upon completion of Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Y: The Last Man.

From 2008 – 2011, I worked by day for a local musicians’ non-profit called Austin Music Foundation.  AMF still exists, but none of the staff that was there during my tenure is anymore.  During my time there, I took a lot of phone calls from people who wanted to move to Austin to fulfill their creative ambitions.     I talked to a lot of musicians and industry professionals at all levels and from them I learned that there are ton of people that have the same questions but are afraid to ask them – or afraid of what they might imply about themselves!  I also learned that most people in the music business that aren’t musicians are truly nuts.  Bless the good ones.  Even they don’t know what they’re doing most of the time.  I also learned a lot about event planning and execution and gained an appreciation for the other side of showbusiness behind the curtain.

18 months after leaving AMF, I still hear a lot of the same questions.  How do I license a song?  Should I move to Austin?  How do I copyright my music?   Do you know any bass players that like singer songwriters?

I don’t have the answers to most of those questions.  Maybe others can shed some light in the comments section here if anyone other than me ever reads this.

If nothing else, I hope this blog will provide some insight on what it’s like to lead a musically adventurous band in Austin’s vibrant yet crushingly over-saturated music scene.  And maybe I’ll get better at writing in the process.