Stepping Over the Leaping Point (or Riding the Slow Train)

Brave Combo – It’s probably safe to say that you’ve passed the leaping point when you’ve been on the Simpsons… or is it?

Many hope to take the leap from working a day job to making a living from playing music but few are realistic about what the leap really is/means/costs.   In truth, most people step over the leaping point after a long journey spent towing everything in their world up a mountain just to reach it.

It’s unrealistic to expect to get to that leaping point by simply doing what you do and waiting for someone with big bucks to care.  More often, opportunity is made than lucked into – it’s just that the lucky deals get more attention.  Remember Good ≠ Newsworthy?

The rest of us must take the long road and won’t make the news. The “overnight sensations” that leap from rags to riches make better headlines in Rolling Stone than the Billboard centerfold collages of hardly known songwriters and industry people partying at some ASCAP function in LA.  In truth, those people may not have been as lucky as the superstars (a matter of opinion) but they were patient, played their cards well and created opportunities for themselves.  There are many more of them than there are Adeles or Lena Dunhams.

Lena Dunham – I’m glad to see a young lady writer get so much attention… but her show annoys the living hell out of me. It’s either because I can’t relate to the woes of young, over privileged white girls living in NYC OR because I have seem to have terrible taste in music, film and otherwise so I might just not know what’s good.

(Side note about those headlines and my bad taste: The oversaturated, homogenously bland and self-important indie rock media does at least still provide an alternative to the sensational headlines of mainstream music coverage.  Though they cover a lot of music I find boring as all get out, at least they focus on actual MUSIC rather than glorifying the bad behavior of barely literate stars like Li’l Wayne.  I just wish they’d cover more Stinking Lizaveta and  and less Cat Power.)

There are shortcuts – some bands buzz, quickly creating a critical mass of interest with listeners and industry folks. This can speed their journey to the leaping point.  Many of these bands spend very little time playing to furniture.  They may get closer to leaping point quicker, but most never pass over it.  More about buzz bands another time.

Everyone wants to buzz, but buzzing doesn’t guarantee success… nor does playing to furniture mean you’ll never see it.  Here’re some examples of Texas bands that took a long time to hit their stride:

  • Okkervil River.  I saw them play to me and one other guy on a Monday night at Emo’s in Austin January 2000.  Now they have a nice national following and play big shows all over the place.
  • White Ghost Shivers.  When the buzz bands have all called it quits and gone back to playing video games and working at gas stations, the Shivers will be still be packing dance halls.
  • Quiet Company – swept the Austin Music Awards in 2011… after being a band for 11 years!!!
  • Brave Combo – Grammy in 1999.  On the Simpsons in 2004.  Wrote three songs for Futurama in 2012.  Played every US Oktoberfest of note.  Most people I meet (even musicians) have never heard of them.
  • James Hand – it took 40 years for us notice the guy right under our noses.

Compare these careers to those of bands that buzzed quickly and then petered out – the bands that got that coveted Austin Chronicle story only to break up when the bass player went to grad school.

Whether you leap way ahead or take the long road with no shortcuts, we all must finance our own journeys.  Everyone has to eat and there’s a price to keeping the bus moving.

Let’s say everyone in your band needs a minimum of $20K/year to justify being in the band (or even quit their day job).  My own band would need to earn $120K.   Since performing generates the vast majority income for even major label artists these days, let’s put that in terms of how many shows you’d have to play in a year.  $120,000 is:

  • 120 shows/year paying $1000 (that’s every single Friday and Saturday plus 16 extra shows)
  • 240 shows per year paying  $500  (5 shows per week)
  • 480 shows per year paying   $250 (1.3 shows per day)
  • 960 shows per year paying  $175 (2.6 shows per day)
  • 1920 shows per year paying  $87.50 (5.2 shows per day)

Wow.  Maybe you can see why $100 gigs in Austin don’t appeal to me much anymore.  That figure above doesn’t even include costs for promotion, travel or financing any recordings/activities.

Earning more per show is critical.  So is saving time.  Here’s why playing a single $1000 gig is worth MORE than ten $100 gigs:

  • 10 $100 shows = 10 hrs promoting, 10 hrs load-in, 10 hrs load-out, 10 hrs performance = 40 hours
  • 1 $1000 show = 1 hr promoting, 1 hr load-in, 1 hr load-out,1 hr performance  = 4 hours

Ok, that’s a little simplified – promoting should be more like 10 hours per show and I didn’t even include travel – often the biggest use of time on the road.  Still, 36 hours is a big savings of time!

So, how do you increase your earnings per show?  Put simply – find what you do that’s useful to others and focus on that.  If nothing you do is useful to anyone but you and you’re unwilling to change that, that’s ok!  LOTS of great music and art isn’t useful to others – at first.  Just realize that your journey will be much longer. Most original artists are in this boat.  More about usefulness of art later.

Something that helped me in this realm was working the other side of big events.  While at AMF, I was often coordinating and even stage managing (badly) at live music events where MUCH bigger acts performed.  I was SHOCKED when I found out what Iron and Wine would/could charge for a single show ($30K).  Then I was virtually knocked unconscious at what some of the smaller acts like Black Joe Lewis and Del Castillo were charging.  I realized I was way under-valuing what the Invincible Czars do and asking for far too little.

Another thing I noticed – many 2nd tier solo acts don’t pay their bands very well.  An ex-Czar got a regular job playing with a fairly well known act once and still had to work a day job… and quit the Czars!

Years earlier, I sat on a self-booking panel next to Thomas from Ghostland Observatory.  When asked about financing a tour, his response was to simply book a $1000 paying gig and then fill in the blanks.  The people in attendance would have been amazed to book a $100 gig in town much less on the road.  Their jaws dropped.

Thomas Turner – observing ghosts requires a cape.

Thomas was right, though, he just didn’t mention that until you can book a gig like that, you just have to finance your own activities.  Even he had to do that for Ghostland at some point.  Remember when they opened for Muppletone?

Side Note: This is where having a trust fund baby in your band is really helpful.  Seriously — Many touring bands can operate at a loss and take bigger risks because the money comes from someplace else.  (You know what they say – the best way to make a small fortune in the music business is to start a with a large fortune.)

Licensing and merchandising are certainly valuable income sources but they’re not usually a musician’s area of expertise.  Are you as good at designing t-shirts and stuffed animals as playing music?   Do you have a strong desire to make/pitch highly generic material to people in Hollywood who need 10 seconds of background music?  People in our own scene have had success in these areas so I know there are opportunities there.  We should all follow Octopus Project’s lead on merchSarah Sharp has licensed a fair amount of music.

Octopus Project – When will the S’mores Papier Mache Playset be available, you guys?

Most bands don’t earn much from those sources so supplemental income is the key for those of us on the slow track.  Day jobs, weddings, jingles/commercials (if you can get the work), teaching lessons (Suzanna Choffel STILL teaches lessons!) are a must.

So we take the slow train… but let’s enjoy the ride!  If you see me on board, sit down and chat.  I’ll be here a long, long while.  (See video below.)

{By the way – Guess what’s waiting on the other side of the leaping point?   The biggest “Now What?” imaginable… short of death.}

2013 – Paralyzed by “Now What?”


Napoleon Not So Dynamite.

Dorkiness – the main obstacle to my success.

I’ve been trying to be a real musician since I was 14 years old.  On the cusp of my 37th birthday and at the beginning of this new year, I’m faced, once again,  with the fact that I’m still making slow progress and the same old “Now What?” that I always encounter is back for a visit asking, “What’s holding you back?  What’s paralyzing you?”

The truth is that I’ll never ever get where I want to be because there’s always another “Now What?” waiting for me after each milestone I cross.  I’ve learned that the real joy isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.  So I try to keep moving.  Along the way, though, there are obstacles that impede my momentum.   Sometimes these obstacles don’t just slow me down, they bring certain aspects of my activities to a dead stop.

I used to think this paralysis was out of my control.  Each year since 2000, I’ve shed more and more things that I thought were holding me back.  In most cases, I realized quickly that I could’ve shed them at any time and lightened my load years earlier.  I had the power all along to respond differently (or at all) to them.  I just didn’t know it.  The truth is that I am the main cause of my own paralysis.  Even when external obstacles present themselves, I still have the power of response.

Looking at 2013, I’m still working the same low pay, low responsibility part-time day job I that I had when I was 25 (I did have a 3 year break in there).  I still prefer to make original music instead of “useful” music that might be more lucrative (ex: weddings) and none of my original music has brought acclaim of any kind – I never buzzed and likely never will.  Sometimes I’m still too dumb to ask for help when I need it or too scared to grab the reins when I know I’m the best person to do the job.  Sometimes I’m too focused on fixing my weaknesses to capitalize on my strengths.   I’m still so scattered and tardy that I shoot myself in the foot every few steps.

Sometimes, we’re all too dumb or scared to make a change – to choose a different response.  We prefer the devils we know.  In light of the new year and the spirit of overcoming paralysis, here’s a list of stuff that has paralyzed me directly or indirectly over the years and quick responses to each.   I’d love to hear about the source of your paralysis.


  1. Lack of money or poor management of it – develop your do-it-yourself skills and the discipline to recognize and say NO to frivolous expenditures.  Find a family member or friend who can help you manage your finances or teach you to keep books.
  2. Lack of knowledge or ability/skills – take a lesson.  This doesn’t just apply to music.  Read a how-to book or enroll in an educational course.   You tube has TONS of how-to videos.
  3. Unwilling/Lukewarm band mates – figure out how to motivate them or move on without them.  Don’t be afraid to make a change.  (lack of action has made this my own personal #1 source of paralysis over the last 13 years.)
  4. Can’t find the right people – get robots.  Seriously, use technology to do your thing.  If not, figure out how to you do what you do all by yourself.
  5. People don’t like what you’re doing – Love what you’re doing even more.  This is easier said than done.
  6. Competition/Over-saturation – find the thing you do better than anyone in town and do it even more and better than before.
  7. Lack of representation – There are very few good agents in Austin.  Accept that probably NONE are equipped to book your band unless you’re a country/Americana act.  In that case, accept that none have room on their roster unless you’re already making thousands per month in gig fees.  Do it yourself and look outside of town.
  8. Lack of connections – make a list of 10 people you wish you knew better and offer to take them to lunch.  Ask questions.  Let them talk.  Listen.
  9. Fear of failure/success – finish that song or project that’s sat half-finished for the last year and  welcome criticism.  You have nothing to lose except the time you already put into the thing – and you’ll only lose that if you DON’T finish it.  So finish it already.
  10. Age
  11. Other commitments (job, family, other interests) – prioritize.  There’re plenty of things in life more important than music like breathing, eating, etc.  Put them in the order that aligns best with your values and accept both sides of the stick.  Is your child’s day to day more important that practicing?  So be it.  Would you rather be able to say you wrote 30 songs or watched 30 episodes of Breaking Bad this winter?
  12. Burned too many bridges – very few can’t be mended and new ones can be built.  Drive the first nail today.
  13. Location – Is a new location worth losing your support network, your flexible day job, your way around and the tons of little tiny things you take for granted in the town you’ve known so long?  If yes, then leap only where the grass is MUCH greener.
  14. Depression – the 75 year old you is watching and asking, “Why are you wasting your time on this?”
  15. Drugs/alcohol – even if you’re not an addict, how much money are you spending on this that could be going to just about anything else of more value?  What’s more important to you – getting high or more $ in your music budget?
  16. Business side of things is preventing you from playing music – learn to delegate.  Hire an intern.  Barring those, choose which balls can stand to be dropped and drop them.  Replace them with a new practice regiment.
  17. Waiting for the right moment – it won’t ever come.  Stop waiting and do what you’re waiting to do now.
  18. History of failure – you’re overdue for a lucky break.  Switch tables and keep rolling the dice.
  19. Not hip, out of touch with current trends – don’t get grumpy because you feel outdated.  Find the value and excitement in participating and adding your flavor to new ideas.
  20. Lack of people skills – find the most social, likable person you know.  Go with them to parties, shows, dinners, events, etc.  Learn from their interactions.
  21. Lack of equipment – buy the stuff you need to do what you do.  It’ll pay for itself quickly OR you can probably sell it and get some of your money back.  Think of it as a rental.  This said, you don’t need another bass just because it’s red.  Remember that more stuff = more maintenance.
  22. Lack of Inspiration Learn to inspire yourself.  Get arbitrary.  Write, play or learn something just for the hell of it.  Write 10 quick melodies/ideas.  Set up a get-together with a fellow musician with whom you’ve never played.  Choose 10 new songs to learn at random.  Don’t be afraid to suck or write crap.
  23. Focused on Weaknesses – zoom out from the weaknesses, look at your strengths, zoom back in on those.  Choose battles you can win when you can.  Do your best to survive those that you don’t choose.
  24. Always Late – I’m still working on this one.  Suggestions appreciated.
  25. Disorganization – see responses to #23 and #24.