What I Want vs. What They Want

What I Want is important.  It makes us do what we do!  However, ignoring What They (the audience) Want, is immature and unsustainable.

In our minds, it seems like a constant battle between What I Want and What They Want.  That’s why artists making original material hold cover bands in lower regards.  To them, cover bands are musicians that have given up the fight for great art and settled for us just entertaining people in the easiest possible way.

Truly great art is original and often provocative.  It challenges the audience.  Straight ahead cover bands don’t challenge audiences much – usually.   Maybe an all GG Allin tribute would.

It’s interesting, though, that after a while, What I Want and What They Want start to find things in common.   Even GG had a symbiotic (if warped) relationship with his audience.  He had a desire get violent and truly disgusting on stage while a band backed him up with some of the least memorable and poorly performed music I’ve heard.  His audience had a desire for abuse.   It worked.  If he hadn’t found that intersection, what would’ve separated him from any other gross dude cutting himself on stage?

(I’ll refrain from putting his pic here)

For the rest of us unwilling to abuse or be abuse to that extreme, it seems inevitable that What THEY Want will have some influence on What I Want at some point.  I mean, we’re all up there seeking attention.  Why else would we BE on stage or doing our art in public if that wasn’t true?

Heck, even GG complied with this idea.  His audience wanted him to get more and more extreme.  He sure as hell did and it wound up killing him.  Tough act to repeat again, though.

Many great works of art were created for someone else.  It makes sense – why does it always have to be all about you (the artist)?  Because you don’t want to sell out?

Bah!

I think you’re only coming close to the idea of selling out when you create work that’s totally unfulfilling in order to please others – when your work is soulless and devoid of your personality.   Michelangelo didn’t love the Sistine Chapel.  It was a pain in the butt!  Still – he maybe better known for it than anything else.  I wouldn’t call that even close to selling out.  Slash has said that “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is his least favorite Guns ‘n’ Roses song.   It’s also the one that made him rich and worshipped by guitarists worldwide.   Even if Slash were to say the he hates the song altogether, it’s not soulless.  The guitar on this tune is dripping with Slashness!   His tone!  His tasteful licks!

Regardless of Slash’s feelings about the opening lick of that one song, What He Wants generally seems to share lots of common ground with What They Want – otherwise, he’d just be another really good guitar player no one ever heard of.

Looking locally at this, I’m reminded of my friend Chico Jones who runs Ohm Recording Facility.  When Chico and I met, we were listening to a lot of post punk stuff like Jesus Lizard, Shellac, etc.   He recorded bands in town that sounded like that but no big acts knew who he was.  He was even forced to record a bunch of horns and accordions and lots of voices all at once by me.  I got a lot of complaints from him in those days.

In order to make a little money doing what he loved, Chico recorded radio commercials and jingles.  It was hardly the artistic path I believe he wanted to travel but it was paying work and he got to use his talents.   Over time, he had to record and work on music he didn’t like.  Lots of it.

Eventually, bigger acts started hiring him and using his studio.   The jingles and ads vanished from his schedule and last year, Chico quit his day job.  He gets to choose which projects he wants do.  All of it was a result of slowly bringing What They Want closer to What He Wants by finding common ground between the two – increasing the symbiosis.

As artists, we want to express ourselves the way we want and to be understood and appreciated for it.

That’s a tall order and doesn’t happen very often.   When I think about this in terms of communication, it’s a pretty bold demand to make of people.  In fact, it sounds almost childish.   “I want to talk to you in whatever language I choose about a topic that resonates with me and I want you all to understand it and care about it, too, and even pay me for it.”

What if Chico had demanded that the radio spot clients add abrasive guitar to their ads because “That’s What I Want”?

Not symbiotic.

If you don’t want to talk to an audience in their language or about something they care about, why are you on stage?  To filter only the telepaths among them?

No – You want attention?  You’ll get it for about 1 minute just by getting on stage but expect to play to furniture for the remainder of the time unless you come up with something for the audience to care about – and it can’t be something only you want.

This is a hard lesson to learn and possibly the biggest “I told you so” that I hear from my dad.  Focusing on What I Want usually doesn’t gain much attention from anyone but me because it’s What I Want.  Speaking artistically, most of my early creations targeted an audience of one – me!    In fact, I’d say that prior to the Nutcracker CD, that was always the case.  I just thought that I’d do what I do and people who liked it would find me.

We are in an era where audiences are no longer seekers.  Remember searching for a rare album or by an obscure band?  Those days are long gone.

There’s an illusion that other artists are immune to the problem that What I Want doesn’t intersect with What They Want.  It seems these artists just happen to want to make music that people like.   It’s rare but does happen.    If the artist is in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that, they can explode!

When we’re younger, we’re not immune to the misperception (mentioned in my entry “These are not the Gigs…”) that the very few who do reach that point are the standard to which we should hold ourselves.  Our unspoken philosophy seems to be –  I should be able to make the music I want to make how I want to make it and people should love it just like other artists who seem to focus on What I Want instead of What They Want.

Look at those careers, though!  They really took off when those artists found common ground with What They Want.

Ween – is it surprising that Ween’s popularity exploded when they started doing less weird stuff like The Pod and started releasing music that sounded more…. normal?  There’s a pretty big difference between “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree” and “Ocean Man”.

Radiohead – In spite of being the biggest band in the world now, Radiohead is remembered not so fondly by many people over 35 as the last band to try to cash-in on the grunge sensation of the 90s with their single “Creep”.   In 1994, grunge was fizzling.  Somehow, they overcame that and started connecting with people in the late 90s.   No one talks about “Creep” except those of us who don’t care for Radiohead.

Butthole Surfers – an amazing example for people in Austin since almost every rock band from here since the 80s has been influenced by them. Their early material is considered unlistenable by most people.   Remember when the papers wouldn’t even print their name?  Now, they’re remembered by most people for “Pepper” a song with fun lyrics, synthesized drums and electronics that bears very little resemblance to anything the band did between 1982 – 1992.

Did these bands sell out?  Not really.  They just learned that they had more time to focus on their work if that work filled a need or desire for people other than themselves.

Going back to the maturity thing – The vast majority of us come out of the womb uncoordinated, inexperienced and unable to effectively communicate verbally – and yet we expect the coordinated and experienced people around us to understand what we want all the time.  Oddly, this does work – but only on our parents.  (Sound like your music career?)  It’s a pretty limited audience and they are only willing to deal with us if they believe that we will eventually communicate in their preferred method – at least some of the time.   If we are to be able to navigate in society, we must learn to communicate better than we do as infants.  Same with bands – if we don’t learn to speak a language the audience can understand, we’ll just wander aimlessly like illiterates in the library of showbusiness.

Audiences want to be entertained, educated, amazed – maybe they even want to be scared, abused or disgusted.   As John Pointer says – people don’t pay big bucks to see Cirque du Soleil screw up.

Audiences can’t experience any of that without some kind of clear communication.   This is why most people hate free jazz.  It is a language devoid of everything most audiences like about music – steady beats, melody, harmony, repetition, 12 set notes always in tune.  It takes serious refinement to appreciate music that just sounds like noise.  But you know – the players who do it best already know how to communicate with the average listener.  They’re just choosing to challenge the audience and see who accepts.

Free jazz is theoretically awesome… just not entertaining for most of us.

That said, the audience does want to be challenged to some degree.  Otherwise, they’d just put on a CD or listen to a cover band.  They don’t want to be threatened (even GG’s audience fled from police).  Andy Kaufman rode that line between the two really well. He fell off sometimes but that was the draw. Will it work? Maybe!  His audience wanted to see!

Sometimes we challenge the audience too much by expecting more than they can or will give.  You got them to come see your show – why deafen them? (Yes, they can wear earplugs but… it’s kind of like a filmmaker expecting the audience to wear sunglasses.) Why bore them with 12 songs they can’t connect with?   Why demand they go someplace too far, too gross or too dangerous or (worse?) too lame?

If you come to the table expecting only to receive from them, they won’t stay seated long.

I guess the big debate artists must settle is – how much of What I Want am I willing to compromise in order to give them enough of What They Want to keep them in the seats?

Some people believe that art should never be compromised.  I think the compromise is necessary when you’re expecting an audience. Really, it’s necessary in any releationship.

I mean, we compromised as infants when our temper tantrums and spastic gestures weren’t working for us anymore –  we learned to speak, to wait our turn, etc.

I also think compromise can often be a catalyst for great art.  Conflict is memorable!  Like the Sistine Chapel.  Even “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.

Bottom line – I have found that there’s more room to focus on the art when What I Want and What They Want are in symbiosis instead of in conflict.

Hopefully this will shed some light on the last 3 years of The Invincible Czars for those who ask me why we haven’t recorded an original album in so long. I usually get defensive and say something like, “Well we’ve written something like 4 hours of original material for silent films in that time.”   The truth is that I spent more years focusing almost solely on What I Want instead of What They Want. Around 2010, I decided to try to bring more to the table than I was taking for a while. The pendulum has swung the other way. Hopefully it’ll center itself soon.

Interestingly, probably 90% of people who express disappointment at the lack of new Czars material are my peers – fellow musicians (and band mates) in Austin!  I have found that my peers are not a reliable audience. On any given weekend night I’m playing, they probably are, too. This is a whole other post to be written.

The Ride

Lately, I’ve been likening the experience of being in a band to taking a bus ride – aka The Ride.  In my brain of too many metaphors, the band is the bus, the destination is goal and the passengers, of course are the band members.   I am extremely interested in others’ experiences on that road.

THE DESTINATION and THE ROUTE

The destination is extremely important.  If I’m on a bus that’s not going to a destination that I want to reach, what’s the point?  It might be fun or educational but why ride the bus to from Austin to New Orleans when my ultimate destination is Seattle?

Most bands are pretty aimless at first and usually remain that way forever.   I’m as guilty as anyone of hitting the road without a map – sometimes literally.  Even now that I do have a better map, my MO still involves plenty of driving down little paths to see where they lead.

This reminds me of my friend Claire who describes most bands’ progress as being random acts of improvement.   That is so perfect.  Too often bands are just trying stuff to see what happens with no goal in mind at all.  Sometimes something works and a band goes with it only to realize later that it’s not what they wanted to do.   “We made $2000 playing covers that one night and now we never play originals anymore!  What happened?!

In spite of that, I still find value in exploring roads less travelled.  The trick seems to be knowing when to stick to the main roads and when to forage through the rough terrain to find something special.   After all, I couldn’t very well call The Invincible Czars an adventurous band if our course only took us down the same roads that every band before us has traveled.

Really early on, I remember Rick expressed that he’d like us to play at Emo’s one day.   That happened pretty quickly, actually and we found ourselves in a “now what?” situation.

“Now what?” seems to come up a lot for bands.  The response is usually something like, “let’s do what we’ve already done again only bigger/better.”   Totally valid!  I just wish that I’d had the courage and taken the time to plot The Route when “now what?” first presented itself.  My poor leadership, fear of expressing my own goals and failure to understand my own vision kept us in “now what?” mode for years.   I sometimes think I’m still operating from that position.

Getting a consensus on The Destination can be a pain because everyone seems to THINK they know where the bus is going.  I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to clarify this.

As tough as that can be, determining the best route to get there can be just as bad or worse.  I don’t think bands fight that much over the destination – they fight a lot about the route.   Everyone wants to get there (usually), but not everyone wants to take the hard road or the high road – or the easy road for that matter.  (I’m one of those – the easy road isn’t as rewarding.)

All this said – You can over plan, I think.  While working at AMF, I met a lot of people with a lot of business sense and their entrepreneurial minds influenced my practices a lot.  They were smart to begin with the end in mind (RIP Mr. Covey) but in some cases, they were zoomed so far out that they were disconnected from their immediate surroundings.   They were so busy planning their future career in the music business that they neglected to actually go out and participate in it!  They had their destination and route mapped out so perfectly – better than I ever had or have – but they’d never even taken their bus down the street just for a test drive.  In some cases they didn’t have a bus at all:  No songs, no people and little to no experience.

 

THE BUS

The band is The Bus.   If you don’t have the bus, you can’t make the trip.  In my opinion, it’s better to have a good bus even if all you ever do is drive down the block and back.  Your destination may be noble or ambitious, but if your bus can’t make the trip, it really doesn’t matter.

The Bus includes all the tools used to get the Passengers to the destination.  The material, the artwork, the image, the web site, the equipment, the wardrobe – it’s often literally a bus or van.

 

THE PASSENGERS

While The Bus may seem only a means to moving The Passengers, they are really a part of The Bus – the most important part, in my opinion.  A band might have great songs and gear, but if they don’t have the talent or skills to put into them, they’re really just a bunch of hardware.

However, I give Passengers a separate section here because the truth is (ready to be angry?) — They’re all replaceable.  Even the driver.   Look at Napalm Death.  There’s not a single original member in the band and there hasn’t been in twenty years.

That said, if you replace too many essential parts it’s really not the same bus anymore – the more unique the group, the truer this is.   Each person has their own talents and skills that they bring on the journey.   If someone gets off, you lose their unique tool box of talents.   Imagine Van Halen without Eddie!  We already endured it without David Lee Roth.  What would Don Caballero be like without Damon Che?  Brave Combo without Karl? How about Muppletone without Aaryn?   Who would go to that?!?!  (Barring the inevitable tribute bands keeping the flame alive for the benefit of future generations, of course.)

In some cases all Passengers are essential – Rush.

The Bus must be able and The Passengers willing to keep moving toward the destination.   If The Bus is constantly breaking down or pulling over to let Passengers on and off, the Bus won’t ever get there.  This can be maddening for everyone.   “Should I get off at the next stop and hope a better bus on the same route comes along?  What if this is the only bus?  Guess I’d better just stay on this bus and hope for the best. “

What’s really frustrating is pulling into a destination and realizing that it’s not all that great or that The Bus was so slow and ineffective that the whole point of The Ride was missed.  Wally World’s closed.

Even worse – this is the point at which everyone who’s really just been along for the ride and doesn’t care about the destination realizes it.  They become focused on how to get back home – or back on the road to nowhere – as soon as possible.  (For some, never reaching the destination IS the destination.)   At this point I’m usually asking myself, “Why did they even get on in the first place?”

The right thing to ask is, “Why did I let them on in the first place?”

As the band leader, it’s my job to make sure that the right people are on board and the wrong ones either don’t get on or get off a soon as possible.   This is my greatest downfall as a Bus Driver!  I’ve often let the wrong people on.  Sometimes the right people got off.  Sometimes they didn’t even get on.  If you have a bus full of the wrong people, the right people are less likely to get on board.

Determining the right and wrong people is very difficult because it can change at any time.   This especially includes the ones that lose interest in The Ride but won’t get off the bus.  At what point do they go from being extra baggage to dead weight slowing The Bus down?  This is tough, tough, tough because they are often there from the beginning.  They are often friends.  Sometimes they stay for the camaraderie or because they don’t want to let the others down but in most cases, they’d be doing everyone a favor to just get off the Bus.  It doesn’t mean they can’t get back on later.

Passengers fit into 4 categories in my brain:

  1. BUS DRIVERS – a small group or individual (my case) who want to drive.  They’re mostly nutcases but they’re important because all the other passengers have (or had) faith that the driver will get them there.  If they lose faith, The Desintation becomes unimportant the driver’s importance and influence dwindles.
  2. FARE PAYING PASSENGERS – a bigger group of people who want to go there but don’t want to or can’t drive.  They will pay the fare in risk or responsibility and help keep the bus going.  They often do things the driver(s) can’t.  They’re excited and enthusiastic most of the time.
  3. EXTRA BAGGAGE / DEAD WEIGHT – a small group that doesn’t pay the fare.  They may or may not want to get there.   More below.
  4. HIRED GUNS / GUESTS – provide a service and are paid to ride.   They can/will do the job but they don’t have a real stake in determining the Destination or Route.

 

EXTRA BAGGAGE

This is a weird gray area.  Extra baggage is not helpful, not hurtful – like an extra bag of underwear.  They’re just along for The Ride as long the drivers and the fare payers will keep it going.  They’ll do what’s needed when they get there but they won’t pitch in much if anything for gas.   They will keep riding for free until they don’t want to ride anymore.  Once they’ve been allowed to ride for free but aren’t causing trouble, it’s hard to confront them.  Plus, it’s not hurting them to stay, so they do.  It’s often easier to lay low and stay on the bus than to get off and be tasked with the difficult choice of “now what?” all by themselves.

 

–RANT

Some Passengers are amazing at convincing the others that they’re not extra baggage when they really are.  Every guitarist or singer that moves to Austin with big dreams needs a drummer.   Bands don’t rock without drums.   Drummers have some power in this regard.  Why should the drummer be forced to make posters or book shows or mail CDs if they don’t want to?  There are plenty of gigs out there that’ll pay better and demand less.  They not only know it, they show it by making their band mates bow to their schedule and priorities.   These people are just hired guns masquerading as band members.   Drummers with this attitude are usually the bad asses you see playing amazing stuff in their 20s with ambitious bands only to be found playing simple two-steps in their 30s-40s with well-funded country singers.  That’s cool – just not my idea of artistic success.   .

–END RANT

 

I think my reaction has historically been pretty typical to extra baggage – what’s it hurt if you can bear the weight?  Some people reach this state and it’s no big deal.  It’s easy to just pay them less or not at all.

But less participation = less appreciation and eventually they either turn around or cross the line into dead weight territory.   Sometimes it’s back and forth.

The line between extra baggage and dead weight is super, super tricky because everyone ebbs and flows.  Someone might just be having a bad week or a rough month.   Usually, I assume the best and give people the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes it’s ok and sometimes I feel like the frog who couldn’t tell the water was getting hotter and now is boiling of sitting unchecked.

I do think that one of my biggest flaws has been carrying extra baggage too long.   Worse, I’ve sometimes let them turn into dead weight and not been able to tell.

 

DEAD WEIGHT

Once someone no longer cares about the destination, they’re just dead weight.   They become like a broken down car being pulled behind The Bus, slowing it down.  Before I go further, I must add that I although annoying, I haven’t had to deal with this much – I just wish I’d dealt better with it.

This can be really hard to recognize – for them and for others.  Once someone’s inaction or incongruent action prevents the Bus from getting moving, that’s a red flag.

It’s unpleasant for everyone when there’s dead weight on The Bus and you’d think that most people would remove themselves quickly but they don’t always.   Time invested in The Ride, The Bus, the fellow Passengers all hold some value and no one wants to lose friends or come all that way just to bail at the outskirts of the Destination.   However,  once they no longer care about the destination, it doesn’t matter – it’s just experience to look back upon later and laugh… hopefully.

Dead weights are waiting for someone to kick them off The Bus.  Maybe they don’t want to seem like the bad guy.  It’s easier to wait for someone else to pull the trigger.  The victim is the easier role to play.  I have NOT dealt well with people in this state because I feel the same way.  No one wants to lose friends.  Unfortunately, I’ve sometimes lost friends, hurt the overall band morale AND caused everyone (including me) to lose faith in my ability to keep The Bus going in the right direction all because I wouldn’t jettison the dead weight.

All this said about Extra Baggage and Dead Weight might seem very judgmental – but I’ve played both of those roles, myself – even the dead weight.  I won’t do it again.

 

ENJOYING THE RIDE

The Ride is really why everyone is there.  Everyone will constantly be evaluating the quality of it, their participation in it and their status may change at any moment.  That’s okay – as the Bus Driver, I see it as my job to do everything I can to make The Ride the best it can be – but I’m not perfect or rich and sometimes we hit rough terrain or break down.  Regardless of why or where, sometimes my fellow passengers have had get out and push (sometimes literally).   I definitely know who’s extra baggage and dead weight when that happens.

These days, I’m working on just enjoying The Ride as much as I can because every time I reach a destination the same thing happens:  “Now What?”

 

Perspective – Even the Greats Are Dead (&) Broke

A comment on my last entry made me think about the perception of having a career as a musician.  My own response actually surprised me because it was so optimistic and goes against so much of my own self criticism!  In the process of thinking on this, I gained perspective about…perspective!

The notion that I’d given up on making a career out of music actually made me laugh.   Why, I’ve had nothing but slow, steady, upward movement in my career as a broke musician!

That sounds sarcastic, but some of the biggest names EVER led entire careers as broke musicians, including Wagner and Mozart.   Here’s an interesting article about why most composers die poor.  (I love the part that describes Wagner as a couch surfer!)

It would seem that being broke is often the price of the glory (there it is again) of creating!   In fact, some of the most beloved works from centuries past were utter flops during the lifetimes of the creators.   Bizet’s Carmen and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker are among those works that were seen as failures when the composers were alive.  (Side note:  The Nutcracker is still a phenomenon only in the US and only has been since about the 1940s.)

Yet from our perspective now, these composers occupy huge territory in our collective minds.  Their eras of music are practically defined by them and their works, and yet they were often destitute.   Everyone knows Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach.  Many of their works are instantly recognizable to even the least refined among us.

So – How many aristocrats or members of royalty can you name from these eras?  Very few?  How many of their works/stories matter or to the average Joe on the street – or even most scholars?  or you?

So these dead, broke composers, by creating something endearing and enduring, solidified their legacies for centuries to come…and probably didn’t know it.

Some of the most enduring music in human history was made by a bunch of guys most good neighbors and pillars of the community would consider ne’er-do-wells.  Would anyone now, though, call them that?  No… now they’re considered visionary.  Time gives us perspective.

Modern day pop stars live large, rake in the dollars and sometimes brag about their exploits and importance, but rarely exhibit staying power.  They appeal to the immature tastes of the masses of average consumers who are very fickle.  If you think I’m being harsh, consider the litany of pop stars that are heralded as “the next big thing” one moment only to be relegated to the discount bin or “Where Are They Now?” reels a couple years later – all by the very same gatekeepers and media!  They are the Happy Meals of music appealing the simplest of interests – Does it make me wanna move?  Does it make me wanna copulate?   Does it speak to my lifestyle choices?

Now, that’s not without value, and appealing to large masses of people is a good indicator of excellence in business.  However, this audience’s interests are as fleeting as a child’s and are not necessarily a good mark of excellence or innovation in art.  As John Pointer has told me – people don’t know what they like, they like what they know.  Often, the mainstream listeners don’t even know enough about classical music (or music) to appreciate Beethoven.  How many times have you heard this: “I like all kinds of music except country and classical.”

Young people are definitely in the mainstream listening audience and that’s not new.  When I was 14, MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” was number one for what seemed like forever.  Around that time, MTV would run its Top 100 Videos of All Time program every few months and “U Can’t Touch This” was even number one on THAT list – over Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller – even thought it was so new!   MC Hammer was the biggest thing pop music had ever seen!  And now….?

What happened?  How come we don’t see MC Hammer in best-of lists or in the pantheon of pop music all-stars?

“U Can’t Touch This” banked on the tastes of the most casual of mainstream music fans who live in a world of instant gratification and throw-away interests.  I don’t know when it happened – maybe when the powers that be decided to market grunge to us – but MC Hammer and his very popular pants were considered QUITE passé by the time I was 15  – even by the same people who had loved him so much just a couple years earlier.  (Please, Hammer… don’t hurt ‘em.)  When they stopped paying attention, so did the rest of the industry.

Fortunately for Hammer, he did pretty well for a minute and even had the good humor do a commercial a few years ago that summed up that part of his career in 30 seconds.

Here’s the point – all the money in the world isn’t going to elevate “U Can’t Touch This” to the status of “Fur Elise” (though classical music snobs might’ve preferred that I use a Tchaikovsky piece there).  Hammer had the money, the fame, etc. but his work didn’t have staying power.  It was fun for a minute but that minute passed.

Nonetheless, non-musicians and musicians alike see the success of the stars and it becomes the standard by which all careers are judged.  This is a distorted view.

Here’s where I come back around to the idea that comparing yourself to others becomes useless after a while:  If you go all the way down that path comparing  yourself to star after star, you eventually have to compare yourself to The Beatles.  GAH!  Only a few people can reach that status and no one will ever have the same experience they did.  That doesn’t mean the rest of us are bunch of posers and that our work isn’t good.  Think of all the other music out there that didn’t reach the popularity of the Beatles.  I bet you like some of it better.

So fame, especially immediate fame, isn’t necessarily an indicator of excellent or lasting art either.  Heck, it seems like most stars are influenced by lesser-known acts that came before them.  How many 80s metal bands cite Thin Lizzy as an influence?  These guys weren’t an earth-shattering pop sensation in the early 70s but they made really good, lasting music.  Who doesn’t know “The Boys Are Back in Town?”  It was the Dallas Cowboys theme song, for crying out loud.  What about all the hardly known but amazing blues singers that were every bit as talented as the famous white kids (from Janis Joplin to Robert Plant) they influenced?

Getting back to the broke dudes of classical music – it must be added that their legacies benefit from hundreds of years passing.   Enough time has passed that their works overshadow them as people.  Everyone knows Ride of the Valkyrie.  However, most non-Jewish people don’t know Wagner was a Aryan.  Does it matter now?  Depends on your perspective.  Does it make the music of Tannhauser any less awesome?  No.

Perspective on current celebrities is different.  Imagine Justin Bieber joining the KKK.   His career as a pop sensation would be over.  I don’t think his work has the staying power of Gotterdammerung… but maybe I’m wrong.

It’s all perspective.  People in the 1800s probably had no idea that Beethoven would be regarded as he is now.   How could they know?  His music was considered excellent then… but now it’s iconic!   What changed?  Only our collective perception over the course of 200 years.

This is the same reason a band like The Jesus Lizard got 2 and 3 star album reviews in the 90s from the very same periodicals that gave their re-masters of the same albums 4-stars reviews in 2009.  Did the fidelity of the recording make the work that much better?  Probably not.  We just have perspective and whole lot of 40 year olds that know the words to every song on GoatRolling Stone hated Led Zeppelin.  Now?

For all we know, “U Can’t Touch This” could be the US national anthem in 200 years.

I’d vote for “Monroe Doctrine” and number of other truly great songs over that, though.  Hopefully the 200 year perspective will favor my opinions but it really doesn’t matter — I’m still going to enjoy “Monroe Doctrine” every stinkin’ time I hear it and Opposite Day should be proud to call the last 11 years a successful artistic career – even if the critics of our time are too focused on banal musicians with great publicists to notice.  Hopefully the next round of gatekeepers will have a fresh perspective.

 

These Are Not the Gigs You’re Looking For. Move Along.

(When and Why I Say “No” to a Gig)

I was talking with a friend in another band who said the guy in charge of their booking believes there’s essentially no such thing as a gig that’s not worthwhile.

I disagree, but I’m not him and I’m not in his band.

In a town like Austin, it’s not hard to find a paying gig.  As you can imagine, it can be challenging to find one that is worth the bother.  If asked, I imagine most bands will tell you that it’s common to be paid $50-75 for the whole band in Austin.  Technically, that’s a paying gig.  But is it worth it?

Maybe.   Lots of factors can make a gig worthwhile.

Money is a big one, though.  There’s heated debate among Austin’s pro players about how much musicians should be paid.  News flash!  There aren’t enough gigs that pay well enough for most musicians to make a living in Austin.  News flash!  This is not news and to the vast majority of non-musician citizens, it’s hardly even worth addressing.

As long as we have more musicians than demand for them, that won’t change.  Neither The City nor any of the many organizations dedicated to Austin musicians can balance the scales of supply and demand.  Austin’s a great town that none of us want to leave.  Austin is now ranked #2 under San Francisco on the list of top ten cities for the creative class, but the price we pay to be part of that is high.  Competition is inevitable anytime supply is greater than demand.   Competition drives down prices.   No amount of karma or morality or evoking the spirit of kindness to your fellow man is going to change that.  Will you play this gig for free or next to nothing?  No?  Well, someone else will and the talent buyer will find them easily and quickly because there’s a line of willing, hungry musicians standing behind you who just moved to Austin and are so excited to be part of the scene that it’s worth it for them.

So there’s the maybe.  Maybe it’s worth it if it’s a new, cool experience.   Nothing wrong with that.  I used to take more gigs just for the love of doing it… or for what I call the glory.  I think a lot of bands just play for the glory because it’s about all there is – at least in their minds.  It’s why so many amazing Austin bands play every 7-10 days in town.  They just love being on stage and doing what they do!   These days I see it as cannibalizing your own shows.  They see it as living the dream.  I like their perspective better but no longer share it.

Two of the most glorious, worthwhile gigs I’ve ever played were at Emo’s back to back months – April 2005 with NoMeansNo to about 300 people and May 2005 with Melt Banana to more like 800+.  Both times, we were paid in the $100-$150 realm.   That was only $20-30 a guy at the time BUT ->  NoMeansNo enjoyed well over a decade as my favorite band and they are still my heroes.  I would’ve played for free and Emo’s knew it.  Plus, we’d never played the big stage at the old Emo’s and it was exciting!  Melt Banana is a band I respect and like but never listen to.  However, playing in front of their large audience was pretty good for a 3 year old band that was mostly playing to furniture at Room 710 on Thursdays.

So it was worth it to me even if it meant the money wasn’t great.  I even got to eat at El Arroyo with John Wright:

Tom Holliston got mad when there was no veg option and stormed off.

As we kept doing shows all over Austin, the lure of that glory faded.   Now that I’ve had that kind of experience (many times over), I hardly ever seek shows where we open for bigger road acts and I now highly scrutinize those opportunities.  That’s because years of seeking/doing them taught me that people who like my favorite bands, sadly, don’t really like mine.   People who came to see NoMeansNo and Melt Banana were okay with us.  Other than the band themselves, Stinking Lizaveta’s Austin crowd doesn’t like us.  We played with metal bands whose audiences appreciated our technicality but not our humor.  We were never hip with college kids.  We’re too wild for AAA radio and not enough for Red River.

Outside of Texas was no better.  Estradasphere’s audiences from Texas to California were cool but many saw us as a not-as-precise version of Estradasphere.   None of them came to see us on our own when we went back – except in Berkeley.  (When I booked a follow up tour without Estradasphere on board, I found very little appreciation.  The guy at Solar Culture in Tucson angrily informed me that they “don’t book that kind of music.”  He had no response when I reminded him we’d just played there 6 months prior with Estradasphere.)

In short, it became painfully obvious that I was knocking on the wrong doors.

In 2008, something really awful and amazing happened, though:  It suddenly became prohibitively expensive for most bands to go on the road.  This was game changing.  I was surprised to see that even Imogen Heap found this to be true!   NomeansNo hasn’t been back to Texas in 7 years because they can only afford to hit the markets where they can sell out shows without having to drive so far between towns.  These days, only a lucky few who are either already well established, previously wealthy or who are quickly embraced by a very supportive audience can afford to tour.   (Imogen’s case reminds that you also just have to LOVE doing it.  I think she could probably afford it.)

So all my models for doing what I wanted to do were rendered obsolete.  There would be no more days of touring to find fans the way the post-punk bands of 80s did.  In May 2008, I got really frustrated and went to the mountains in Utah to do some thinking.  (I think our drummer Louis Landry knew I was either going to make a big change or end the band.  By the time I got back, he’d joined Charlie Robison’s band as keyboard player.)

It was painful to accept that my perception of the Czars was totally askew from reality – or at least others’ perceptions.  We were never well accepted on the Red River scene and I realized that we weren’t going to follow in the footsteps of The Jesus Lizard or Sonic Youth no matter how badly I wanted to or tried.  We aren’t musically like them and their breakthroughs were made in different a time:  not everyone was in a band and musicians could easily travel and play and play and play and play to tiny audiences that would grow.  This is much harder to do in an era where everyone is connected all the time and scarcity in most media is becoming a thing of the past.

I also accepted that The Invincible Czars have always been heading down a path more like the one Brave Combo travels.  They’re fun, danceable, highly musical with a lot of influences, super ambitious, unique and funny!  They’ve been a band as long as I’ve been alive and when they come to Austin, they can just about fill Threadgill’s.  That’s pretty good – but it’s not huge.   What is huge is that they play every polka friendly festival/event in Texas and MANY outside the state each year.

Once I accepted that our path was closer to Brave Combo’s than The Butthole Surfers, I stopped fighting losing battles from a sinking ship.  I started seeking gigs that paid us highly to simply entertain people who were already going to be in attendance – like Brave Combo.  The more we got paid for single gigs that sounded good and were fun, the less I or any of us wanted to play in clubs that sounded and smelled terrible and paid us in drink tickets or the promise of more gigs.  (I’ll admit that I clung to the notion of playing clubs longer than anyone else.   It took the whole band overruling me for me to fully change.  Now the pendulum has swung way to other side and  I often think, “When did becoming a promoter for someone else’s venue/business become my goal?”)

(Say what you will about holiday music, but the shows from the videos above were all immensely more fulfilling and fun than 90% of club shows we’ve ever played.  They all paid between 1000-2000% more, too.)

This has not made us popular with our peers.   Everyone wants to feel accepted by their peers but our shows aren’t oriented to their preferred format for experiencing live music and many of them no longer come to see us.  It’s still painful when they don’t but I understand why.  I still go and see/hear them in clubs as much as I can (every weekend!), but these days, I no longer wish The Invincible Czars were on the bill with them and I think it probably bugs them that I turn them down constantly when asked to be.  Many have stopped asking.

But let’s get back to the point!

These days I ask myself , “What makes this gig worth breaking down/moving all our equipment from our space, loading into a venue, parking 2 miles away, walking back, setting it up, performing and then doing the whole process in reverse?”  I mean, if I just want to enjoy playing with the band where it sounds good, we can do that in our practice space without all the bother.  Many will say that I’m getting old.  Balderdash!  I’m still energetic and passionate and I bet I attend more live music shows than most of my peers.  I’m just less willing to waste my time doing all the stuff for low pay, little glory and almost no point in crappy venues.

So here’s a list of factors I think about when determining if something is a waste of time or not:

  • What’s it pay?  Exposure or drink tickets?  PASS!  $300?  Why not?
  • How long do we get/have to play? 
  • What material is appropriate for this show?
  • Does it fall in the middle of a big project?  Very few gigs are worth interrupting our work in the studio or on a bigger project like a silent movie. Re-tooling for single show and then going back to the thing we were working on makes both efforts suffer.  Unless there’s a compelling other reason, I say no.  (ex: I’d interrupt anything to play with Brian Kenney Fresno.)

  • Will this put us in front of people who like us or will might like us? 
  • Will this put us in front of people who’ve never heard us before?  or just the same group of 50-100 people that might or might not show up?
  • What’s our reason for playing?  Good times?  New CD?  New material?  Special event?  (All are valid at different times.)
  • What’s the venue like?  Crappy?  People who REALLY like our band don’t like clubs with gross bathrooms and deaf sound engineers trying to share their affliction with others.   There’s a whole list of places in Austin that get an automatic No.
  • Who’s promoting it?  No one?  The club?  Me? Someone else?  Sometimes I WANT to be the promoter because I’ll do a better job.  Not usually, though.
  • How far ahead are we booking?  Less than a month?  Meh.
  • How many other bands are on the bill?  1?  Ok.  2?  Probably not.  3?  NO.
  • Have we played with the other bands before?  If yes how often or recently?
  • How close to the date is our prior show?  Our next show?
  • How close to the date are the other bands’ prior shows?  Next shows?  Some of my favorite bands and best friends will book a show with us and then accept another show right around the same time.  After a few times of that, I stopped considering them for most shows.  Recently one of them was added to a show we played and as the date drew near, sure enough, they played a gig two nights before and the same 10 die hard people were their only draw at our show.
  • Is it directly competing with another show or event that’s going to trump it – or at least draw away from it?  This could include sporting events, graduations, parties, other bands, huge events happening earlier in the day, etc?  SxSW and ACL count.
  • It’s on someone’s birthday or anniversary who will NOT appreciate us playing on it?
  • Does someone in our band have a better paying or higher priority gig?  If yes, can we go on without them? 
  • Is it on a holiday or date that is highly competitive? (Halloween might be #1 in Austin.)
  • Is it on an outdoor weather kind of holiday?  Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day all tend to be rife with opportunities that are usually not worth it.  Some of the worst shows I’ve ever played were on Memorial and Labor Day.  Unless you’re playing outdoors in the day at some kind of event on those holidays you’re probably going to be disappointed – especially if the holiday is in the middle of the week.  (I stayed up way too late this Fourth of July watching Brown Whornet play to about 40 people at the Triple Crown in San Marcos – but they only play once every couple years.)

I’m sure you can think of more factores and I’d LOVE to hear more thoughts on this.

One thing I want to add – In spite of the above, I do still take risks. They’re just bigger and scarier – often meaning more expensive.   I simply try to stop taking the same ones over and over whose results I already know to be less than desirable.  Sometimes the changing of a single factor can make all the difference.  More on that in another post.

Bottom line, if the costs outweigh the benefits, I say no – or should. Sometimes I still get roped into gigs or deals that go bad midway through.  I weather those little storms and endeavor not repeat the error.