You Don’t Get to Pick Your Audience

What do you say when people that look like this LOVE your music?  Try saying, “thanks!”

 

No one gets to choose their audience.  They choose you.

I was reminded of this on the recent Invincible Czars tour on which we were playing 1812 Overture and our latest silent film project The Wind in clubs, theaters, art spaces and even a library and a park.  It was quite a variety of venues, material and especially audients which ranged from the ages of 3 to about 80.

One particular venue was unlike most venues we’ve played in recent years.  It allowed smoking and had a slightly redneck-y kind of vibe going.   The bill was crowded (too many bands, too little time) and we were informed that we had only 25 minutes instead of 45.  The sound check was rushed and, of course, we had instruments like horns and violins that the soundman wasn’t accustomed to mixing (I will add, he was very friendly, helpful and attentive, though!)  The venue had obviously paid close attention to the mathematics of sound and acoustics because the soundman’s booth was located directly at stage right — optimal placement for when you want your club to sound both muffled and deafening.

We probably looked like a bunch of fancy pants Austin snobs when we took the stage in our faux-olde timey wardrobe compared to the blue collared folks there that night but… We played a song and the room’s curiosity turned to loud cheers.  We played another.  They erupted again.  After our 25 minutes of hoping we sounded ok since we couldn’t hear ourselves, it seemed like everyone in the room wanted to talk to us.   The enthusiasm of the people there made up for the crappy sound and smokey air.

The Invincible Czars

The next day, we laughed at some of the comments we’d gotten – people had especially wanted to talk to the 3 girls in our band (we were 50% women on this tour!)  Apparently women in bands are rare there and it’s even rarer when the women actually play well.

 

Days later, I got an offer from the same club to come back.  In the request, they asked me how much money we’d need to make it worth our while.  I replied gratefully with a dollar figure and we agreed to touch base again in the fall.

When I mentioned this to the rest of the band, one of our guest players was surprised that I’d even consider booking The Invincible Czars at that place again – implying that it was not the right venue or audience for us.

That didn’t surprise me – being a guy myself, I hadn’t felt as threatened as I think the female members of our band might’ve.  It did get me thinking about why I hadn’t written off the place even though the people there had a different lifestyle than we.

When I think back about the many, many shows I’ve played with the Czars in the last 11 years, I don’t really remember the ones where we sounded amazing in posh but empty venues as well as I recall the ones in cramped spaces where the line between audience and band started to blur.

I don’t think very fondly of the promoters/club staff at reputable venues who felt like they were doing me such a favor by allowing us the privilege of playing their stages that they could treat us like they didn’t care we were there.   I often arrived to an empty room, our name misspelled at the door, no supporting act and found the posters I mailed the month before in an unopened envelope in the club’s office as they paid me $30 for the whole band at the end of the night – our percentage of the door after costs for the soundman, bar staff, electricity bill, janitorial services, finance charges and whatever else they tacked on.

I don’t remember much about the audiences of fickle cool kids in places like San Francisco and LA that rolled their eyes or left when we did our thing – they just wanted us off the stage so their friends’ band could start already!

I do think fondly of the people who either didn’t know what the hell they were doing but loved our band enough to figure it out and/or those who stuck their necks out and gave serious time and energy to honor their end of the deal (speaking of – Little Dog Cinema in Hattiesburg, MS gets the gold star for this).

I remember the ones who paid us more than they should’ve because they were so impressed.

I remember the weirdos and geeks and nerds that were socially awkward when talking with us but loved what we did and were genuine.  I remember the audiences I had nothing in common with except that we both liked The Invincible Czars.

I also thought about an article in which Billy Corgan interviewed Eddie Van Halen in the mid-90s.  Billy Corgan mentioned a comment by Kim Gordon about how seeing jocks in Sonic Youth’s audience made her sneer and contrast that with the anyone-can-join-in-the-fun attitude of Van Halen.   Billy Corgan’s reply was something like, “maybe that jock needs Kim Gordon!”  (I wish I could find this article online.  Billy Corgan interviewed EVH for Guitar Player at one point, but that’s not the interview.)

Eddie Van Halen rocking – I guarantee some of the people in that audience rednecks, racists, socialists, nerds, geeks, goths, punk rockers, plumbers, millionaires and people who liked Elvis Costello as much as they did David Lee Roth.

We can choose our target, but once we shoot that arrow, its landing point is at the mercy of the winds of fate.

Some bands are REALLY good at hitting that target – and Sonic Youth is one of them from what I understand.  Networking is invaluable and seldom practiced by most musicians.

But ultimately, no amount of knowing “the right people” can prevent “the wrong people” (if there’s such a thing) from liking your band – just as it doesn’t mean that everyone likes your band if the “the right people” do.

If that jock likes Sonic Youth, there’s almost nothing that Kim Gordon or anyone can do about it.   Granted, when this article was published, Sonic Youth was probably at the height of their mainstream popularity.  I’m certain that plenty of jocks wound up at Sonic Youth shows around this time just because Sonic Youth was on MTV and all the kids were going — but does it matter?  I mean, they paid to get in.  The bigger Sonic Youth’s audience got, the more diverse it must surely have become.  Surely there’s some weight lifter out there that has “Panama” and “100%” on his workout shuffle.  (Heck, I’d lift weights to that soundtrack!)

 

People talk a lot about “finding” your audience.  What do you do if your audience isn’t “the right people” or the cool kids or even the people you consider your own peers/contemporaries?

Your options are (1) give up (2) try something else that better conforms to what “the right people” like/want (3) continue doing your thing and BUILD your audience by finding the people who love what you do regardless of lifestyle choices and trends.

Phish has never had a hit, but they have people that follow them around the country and draw thousands of people at every show.  Brave Combo has one of the widest variety of audients I’ve ever seen.  They exist on the edge of obscurity and yet they have been animated on the Simpsons, written music for Futurama and won two Grammys.  They also play every polka-type festival in the state/country.  The Melvins seem to have unified all the niches of underground rock music.  When I saw them in August, their audience was a mishmash of metal-heads, old school punkers, art geeks, cyclists and trendy young scenesters of all shades – many of whom who were younger than the band itself.  This is the same band that Tool and Soundgarden audiences booed in the 90s.

So it IS possible to find an audience – you just have to be willing to accept that only a percentage of them will share your views and standards and that the percentage might shrink as their numbers grow.

So yes, I’d take my band back to that venue.  Being paid to play to people that like us in a mediocre venue sounds way more appealing than another trip to LA where we get to pay-to-play to furniture in the same clubs that Motley Crue once packed.

Letting Go.

Once the Space Shuttle reaches a certain height, the rocket blasters and the fuel tank aren’t necessary anymore. In fact, they’d be a pain in the ass to have haul around the rest of the mission and to try to retain on re-entry. What vestigial rocket blasters are you still holding on to?

Letting go might be the most frustrating thing I’ve experienced as a band leader.  I have difficulty knowing when it’s helpful and when it’s not.  What to let go of and when.

I learned a good lesson about letting go in a songwriting session where Pat Pattison said that The Muse gives us too much material – line after line of flowing, lyrical beauty.  Often our songs sag midway through from too much of a good thing and in order bring it to life, something we love about it must die.

Letting go of stuff  is unpleasant but even less pleasant is hanging on to something way too long and realizing years later (or worse, realizing all along the way) that this was just holding me back.  Here’s a list of stuff I feel like I’ve had to let go but that ultimately turned out for the best:

  • Singing – My attempts at improving the weakest of my weaknesses with only the guidance of the naturally gifted people around me gave me a distorted perspective and unrealistic expectations that led to me obsessing over the problem and becoming angry.  I couldn’t fix the problem in that state.  When I dropped singing, my attitude about life got better and I eventually was able to re-approach it without the negativity.

Stephen Malkmus – singing badly didn’t stop him from becoming an indie-rock icon. In fact, it’s probably be part of the reason he IS one and Stone Temple Pilots still deserve absolutely nothing.

 

  • Playing clubs a lot – I spent most of my adult life trying to get booked in clubs – either opening for bigger bands I liked or putting on my own bill.   When the rest of The Invincible Czars convinced me to stop that, I had a hard time letting go.  Once I did, I got more calculating and actually evolved from thinking, “How can I fill someone’s crappy bar?” to, “What’s the best situation for my band and our music?”   Now we perform less frequently, but we often earn more money, sound better and play better venues and feel better about the whole process!

 

  • Keeping the Line-Up Together / Friends in the Band – tough for me.  I tend to choose to play with people I like even if they’re not the best fit.    That’s burned me over and over since my very first band when I was 15.  Just because you like someone doesn’t mean they will fit in your band and it certainly doesn’t mean that they want what you want from it.  On the other hand, much of this is out of my control -in Austin, everyone’s in three bands!  Accepting turnover as normal and inevitable (even necessary in some cases) empowered me to move forward in spite of it.  All that turnover actually has one benefit – my band doesn’t sound the same as it did even 2 years ago…. Let alone 5 or 10!

 

  • Other bands – Speaking of other bands, I, too, am usually doing more than one at a time.  There’s nothing wrong with having multiple projects if you can schedule them around each other – but when they start cannibalizing each other, you have to make a choice or neither will survive.

 

  • Jazz –  it’s taken me 10 years to realize that I like aspects/eras of this genre but that I like the challenge more than I like the overall genre.  Charlie Hunter blows my mind… but after 15 minutes of having it blown, I’m no longer entertained – kind of like staring at the grand canyon from a plane.  I’ve been happier to appreciate jazz from afar and stop hurting my brain trying to master what Zappa called “the music of unemployment” just because it’s even more of a meritocracy than classical music.  (at least classical musicians understand the importance of putting on a show – most jazz players are about as fun to watch as a library.)

 

  • Others sharing my level of faith – no one will ever be as committed to your vision as you.  That’s the way it should be, really.  It took a long time for me to stop hoping/searching/wishing for others who would be as gung-ho as I was.  Foolishness.  Even more foolish, I couldn’t even communicate my vision beyond, “Let’s go out there and start… rockin’ and see what happens!”  Not exactly an inspiring plan.  Once I let go of the idea that I needed others to believe as much as me, I took a major leap as a band leader and, oddly, started finding others who WERE more dedicated.

 

  • Doing everything – this evens out the last item.  Though you will always be the most faithful of the believers, you can’t do/be everything.  Even in your own band.  It’s great to have knowledge and experience as a stage manager, booking agent, graphic designer, t-shirt printer/designer, rehearsal organizer/leader, mechanic, amp tech, drum tech, web designer, social media updater, newsletter writer, archivist, lyric writer, composer/arranger, software maven, bill collector, accountant, book keeper, tour manager, psychologist and lighting tech but… sheesh, that’s a long list!  Once I let go of the ones I really wasn’t good at doing, my stress level went way down and I got better the stuff I didn’t let go.  This goes back to my post about juggling.

 

  • A “Good” Job – Like MANY creative people in Austin, I work a day job that takes up as little of my time and will power as necessary so that I can dedicate as much time/energy to making music as possible.  I make about enough to live and spend very little on non-living expenses.  At one point, I had a taste of what it’s like to work what most people would call a “more demanding/rewarding” job when was the resident musician/program coordinator for Austin Music Foundation.   My time there was valuable and it was cool to use the skills I had developed on my own at a job where I was actually being paid!  But… it was also stressful, very frustrating, schedule busting and exhausting at times.  Sometimes I had no energy left to actually practice what I preached at AMF.  I was often working when my band would normally rehearse.  Sometimes my weekends weren’t open.   It was just a small taste of what people with “real” jobs live with.  As mundane as my day job is, I’m happy to be the low man on the totem pole every time I see salaried employees putting in a bunch of extra hours.

 

  • Other’s opinions of me – like most kids, I wanted to be popular and cool as a kid… but I had glasses and braces… and I liked Star Wars WAY more than the NFL (which was/is not one bit).  I let my unpopularity and goofiness get me down.  My dad asked me one night why I cared about what my peers thought about me.  Did I WANT to do/like what those kids did?  (no.)  Did I want them to do what I did?  (no – those unimaginative bores.)  Then why did I care what they thought?  This concept continues to be re-learned and re-applied to things in my life and career – even my own stupid blog.

 

The bottom line with all of these is that dropping one expectation or commitment frees up your time and brain space to focus on what really matters.

Sacrifice is not only unburdening, it’s also symbolic (for real?!).  When the people in your band see that you’re willing to let go of something you care about in favor of something you care about EVEN MORE, your integrity level bumps up a notch in their minds.  More importantly, it bumps up about 20 notches in your own.