Prove Yourself. Now Do it Again. Again. Again…

Recently, I had a group conversation that meandered its way onto the topic of having to continually prove one ’s self  – even to people who already know you to be capable.  Some of the people felt like they shouldn’t have to prove themselves to their fellow musicians… or anyone.  Some of us felt like proving ourselves again and again was necessary –possibly even the whole point of being a performing musician.

I was definitely in the latter group and the whole thing got me thinking some stuff that I thought would be worth sharing here.

There’s real validity in viewing a career as a series of hurdles to jump – regardless of profession.   Artists, dancers, software developers, construction workers, soldiers, athletes and even office workers are all constantly having to prove themselves over and over.  If the answer to “Can you do this?” is yes, then the next question is either “Can you do this again?” or, “Can you do that other thing?”

Primus proving it.

In the case of musicians, we’re constantly performing in front of our band mates, our audience, our peers and critics in various formats.  We’re constantly proving ourselves to them.

Here’s the line of thought the other side SEEMS TO ME to have:  “I can do this thing.  I have done it before.  Why do I need to do it again in front of these people?  I know I can do it and they’ve seen/heard evidence of it.  Isn’t that enough?”

No.  As a performer, you need to be able to do it – not almost do it – more than once.  Otherwise, you’re just lucky.

If you show up to a dress rehearsal and you can’t play your part well , the others don’t think, “She sounds good on the recording, she’ll get it for the show.”  They think, “Oh yeah, we had to overdub this on the recording because she couldn’t get it.  She probably won’t get it for the show, either.”   You can probably make up for this if or you nail your part at the show!

If you have a truly bad show, audiences usually know.  They notice missed hits, bad notes, etc.  You may get some leeway with a brand new audience that has never heard the material… but how long will that last?  Two or three performances in that market?   Eventually they start to think, “This band doesn’t live up to the recording. “  It’s a little tougher to make up for this because it might be several weeks or months or even years before you play to those same people again to prove that you just had a bad night that one time.

I saw Dillinger Escape Plan open for Mr. Bungle in 1995 in Dallas.  Dillinger was actually booed off stage!  I saw them a few times after that in different venues, their fingers were fast but all I ever heard was a rumble of white noise.  I never went to see them again and I never choose listen to their recordings, even though they’re good.

(NOTE:  It’s important not to confuse an audience that doesn’t like WHAT you do with and audience that doesn’t like HOW you do it.  If you’re a boy band opening for a metal band, that audience is going to kill you whether you play well or not.   If you are a half-assed metal band, they may not kill you but they probably won’t pay attention.  It’s hard to learn anything from this situation.  “Why do they not like us?”  Dunno.)

If you release a mediocre CD and send it to critics for review, you’ll be lucky to get bad reviews.  You’ll probably just get no review from most of them.  This is harder and more expensive to make up for because now you need a whole new product to send these same people to prove that you CAN do it right – if they’ll even listen.

And there’s where the coin flips – it’s also possible to prove yourself UNable.  If you can’t get your part in rehearsal, if you play badly in front of the audience, if the critics and gatekeepers think you’re mediocre, it’s entirely possible that those people won’t give you another chance.  “He never plays it right and he’s not going to.”  “They’re just sloppy.”  “She doesn’t write compelling songs or make good records.”

Recovering from proving yourself UNable is tough, tough, tough.  Sometimes you can’t.

There’s a really not-worth-watching video of The Invincible Czars’ only performance on KVRX’s Local Live in 2003 out there.  We didn’t know we’d be video-taped and so we look terrible.  We had just lost a drummer and so we don’t sound very together even with the excellent Aaron Lack standing in on drums.  When I called to ask KVRX if we could do Local Live again a couple years later, they informed me that they only have bands once ever.

Aaron Lack drumming with The Invincible Czars at the Carousel Lounge in 2003.

Neat.  Now one of our most mediocre nights is preserved forever in KVRX’s archives.  When I see that thing, I think, “No wonder no one ever came to see us in the early days.”

I wish that I had understood the perspective of audiences, critics, my fellow musicians and band mates.  I see now that the potential I saw in various projects I’ve done didn’t mean anything to anyone unless it was executed well.  Potential isn’t worth much to someone trying to hire a band for an event, to an audience that wants to be entertained or a critic who hopes to be wowed.  You either do it or not and those kinds of things will only happen after you prove yourself able to harness and use your potential effectively and consistently.  Not before. In their eyes, if you can’t prove it, you can’t do it.  Can you get on this stage and make this audience that has never heard you actually care?  Prove it.

Proving it once doesn’t end the cycle.  Now you have do it again for this other audience.  Now, again for this audition.  Again in this other city.  Now in the studio.  Now live on the radio. TV.  In the dark.  In the cold.  Again!

It won’t ever stop.  Even as aging rockers, jazz singers, classical musicians, etc. near the ends of their careers, they’re still proving themselves over and over again.  As I write this, Aerosmith is preparing to prove it once again in Austin during Formula 1’s Austin Fan Fest.

Final thought:  proving yourself  won’t bring success – only worthiness of it and a sense of satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts from Fun Fun Fun Fest – More on Resonating

It really was.

I had about the best experience I’ve had to date at any FUN FUN FUN FEST this weekend. Partly because NoMeansNo played and partly because the stages were spaced far enough that there was virtually no sound bleed between them.  While there, I had some thoughts that seemed worth mentioning here – particularly regarding my last post about resonating.

FFFF is a big gathering of people interested in alternative music.  FFFF covers a bigger spectrum of sub-genres than The Warped Tour or ACL.  I would never have heard NoMeansNo, Refused, Braid or most of the other acts on Saturday’s lineup at any other fest in the state or even nation – not to mention the comedians!

As a result of this diversity, there are a LOT of different fashions represented and most of the people are very passionate about their lifestyle and music choices: metalheads, indie-rock hipsters, stoners, old school punk rockers, rockabilly cowboys, math rock nerds, belt-around-the-thighs rap dudes, etc.

FFFF got me thinking about fashion as one major way of initially connecting with people as an artist.  It communicates something about our individual philosophy and helps us find others like us with whom to connect.  That connection is huge and can trump quality, age, originality – even talent and ability!

Here’s just one example –

We watched ex-Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris’ new band OFF! at FFFF.  There were plenty of people there that were glad to see him and kicked up a bunch of dust by slam-dancing.  The novelty of it being Keith Morris’s new band wore off in about one song for me, though.  I definitely wasn’t alone in my opinion that OFF! is just another a punk band that sounds like pretty much every other punk band.  Nothing about them made me think, “Wow, this is interesting,” or, ”I haven’t heard anything like this today/this year/in a long time.”  I was indifferent.  They were pretty generic to me but not to Morris’ multitude of fans!   There was a time when his brand of punk rock was new, fresh and spoke to a generation.  It still resonates with them and younger punk rockers.  As generic OFF! seemed to me, Morris still resonates within that social context of hardcore punkers and probably always will.  He made the connection.  He’d probably have to endorse Sarah Palin to sever it.

 

Keith Morris.

Meanwhile I was at the Yellow Stage not understanding why the entire festival wasn’t watching NoMeansNo.  HAHA!  They, too, have made their connection but to me, there’s a lot about NoMeansNo that distinguishes them from other bands.  As absurd as it seems to my brain, someone else might have found NMN just as generic as I found OFF!  (Insanity!)

NoMeansNo

 

This whole line of thought is very important for any artist or creator (not just performer) to recognize. The technical aspects of your music and band matter less to most people than how much your image, philosophy and fashion resonate with them.  I feel this way about Charlie Hunter.  He’s truly mind-blowing but his work doesn’t make the neck hairs stand up.

The Lack of emotional or social connection is why so many technically good bands remain obscure while the others have big followings.  By simply being part of that social group and communicating it, you’re taking the first step to gaining fans.  Artists with bigger followings seem to understand that and are able to use it to their advantage.  For example, I’ve noticed that simply being a woman is a social connection.  If you’re a female musician, there’s a great chance that just about any female audient will at least give you a listen.  If you’re a metal band and you wear all black, just about any guy who likes metal in the audience will take you seriously long enough to hear a song or two.

To non-musicians, being a good musician is just a given.  It’s a generic talent/skill necessary to do the job.  It facilitates communication but communicates very little emotionally or socially.  How you use the skill is more important to them.  You could be a killer guitarist, but if you’re not playing rockabilly, that social group won’t even notice your skills!  Meanwhile, some half-assed Rev. Horton Heat knock off will have womens’ underwear flying.

(To other bands like my own that get pretty technical – Technicality doesn’t really count as a social connection – it’s style-less.  Other musicians and refined listeners will appreciate it, but it may still not resonate with them (like me with Charlie Hunter).  Even if it does, these people will hardly come see you.  Afterall, all your musician fans are busy with their own shows on the same nights as you and most refined listeners are old enough to have kids or some other lifestyle that doesn’t allow for going to rock shows anymore.)

I don’t think you have to change your music, necessarily, to place it in a social context.  However, you might have to CREATE the social context for it.  Now that’s a difficult task.  Where to start?  Often, friends and family may be the only context in which your music matters.  (For me, even that didn’t work.)  There’s nothing wrong with building from there or building from nothing if you really care about what you’re doing.  But If the idea of playing to furniture for months or even years is unappealing to you, consider that you’re not focusing on your work, you’re focusing on you.  If you really love what you’re doing, it won’t matter if it resonates with anyone else or not.  Oddly, it usually starts to resonate with others shortly after you stop caring if it does or not.

In fact, building from nothing is often rewarding.  Danny Barnes makes a great point in his blog about this:

“if there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music. or if only very few people do. in that case the reward has to be the music. hey that’s a great deal. also you have lots of freedom to do different stuff. there’s no one to alienate. let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. i’m serious.”