ATX Music Census (BEFORE)

Last fall, I started a blog entry after attending a roundtable of musicians, music non-profits and businesses assembled by the guy who wound up winning Austin mayoral election a few weeks later. I wasn’t happy with my behavior at the roundtable and put the entry aside and haven’t reviewed it since.

However, the imminent release of the results of the ATX Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey next week brought this night back to mind. I thought I’d clean up and post this hasty, rambling entry before the release of the results on Monday so we can see how my thoughts align:

 

Last night, I was part of a roundtable of music business people assembled to advise an Austin mayoral candidate on issues that affect the music community. I was happy to have been invited but once I got there, my attitude soured. My experiences from my days with Austin Music Foundation came rushing back and I thought, “This is going to be another fruitless meeting of the minds where a few people actually talk, the majority sit quietly and nothing really happens.”

Fortunately it wasn’t that bad.

Unfortunately for me, when the group was asked to paint a picture of Austin 15 years from now, I made the mistake of speaking and probably offended most everyone there by indirectly questioning whether anyone there actually goes to live music shows by local bands. I quickly felt like I needed to explain myself but my time had passed. I blew the only 3 minutes I was going to get and had to sit there feeling like a dick for an hour. I even tried to butt in over Michael Feferman at one point to redeem myself but, of course, that was stupid. I left the meeting feeling embarrassed.

I’m not very good in real time with these kinds of things. I get excited and haven’t mastered the art of presenting my point verbally in an organized, non-sarcastic manner. So I thought I’d use this entry to answer the question in writing here.

 

But first, I want to address my skepticism.  I should’ve come to the table with a positive attitude.  I didn’t because —– >

I perceive that these meetings are often focused on music businesses that seem more worthy of assistance than actual musicians – like clubs or other businesses that employ several people. Part of that is because musicians often aren’t recognized (even by ourselves) as businesses. Venues, for example, have to go through all kinds of hoops just to open (renting a location, hiring/managing staff, dealing with TABC, etc.) and essentially serve as a work place for the thousands of free-lance musicians, bartenders, sound engineers, etc. Musicians can just go start playing for tips on the street as soon as is convenient.

I get that.

However, I still think that these businesses only exist because musicians are here*. If Austin’s musicians all leave town, many venues and other businesses would close… or become dance clubs.  For this reason, I think addressing the issues the creative class faces are important if we don’t want to become the next San Francisco.

I also perceive that good recommendations have been ignored in favor of (often legitimately) more pressing issues. “Musicians who don’t want to get day jobs” aren’t as big a concern as managing resources, traffic issues, budgeting, emergency services, etc. But remember the Austin Music Task Force? That group had a lot of really good suggestions that were simply tabled when the City had a regime change. They never came back to the foreground again but the issues didn’t go away.

Other than legitimate music business people, these meetings are always attended by a few rich and financially well-connected people who are mostly disconnected from the actual music scene but pay a lot of lip service to it.  They may even make money off of it.

That’s why I asked the four other musicians present if they ever saw the other attendees at shows… because I don’t and I feel like a big part of the problem Austin music faces is the fact that we’re often just entertaining each other. Most of the audiences I see at all-local band shows are other musicians. That’s partly because of the kind of nerdy music I like but I see plenty of musicians at non-metal/punk/indie/avant garde shows.

The players in Austin’s future have rallied around the revenue generated by music for decades but musicians only get the trickle at the very bottom of that flow. Big events like ACL and SxSW draw lots of people who pay for parking, food, lodging, souvenirs, alcohol*, etc. Your parents spending two nights at a hotel in town for your CD release show is a drop in the bucket.

(I think Austin is becoming less about music and more about just partying. Maybe it always has been.  Maybe that’s not bad…  partiers love music.)

My point of all of this is that musicians concerns have been out there for a while and so far, we’ve mostly just been shooting in the dark to try to fix them. As a guy who worked on the inside of an Austin music non-profit, I can confidently say that no one really knows what the solution is and sometimes it seems like finding one isn’t enough of priority to really make changes.

 

OK so that’s why I’m skeptical.  Here’s my slightly more coherent reply to where I’d like to see Austin in 15 years:

 

City-Wide Awareness and Sense of Investing in Culture

In fifteen years, I’d like to see a city of people willing to say NO to making as much money as possible and YES to things we value that aren’t measured well with dollars in order to preserve those things that make Austin special – particularly the creative class that live in a realm of low wages/high expenses.***

I know – I’m living in a fantasy land but allow me to fantasize here.  If there are so many of us that are part of that creative class, why not do something to preserve it/?

There are plenty of not-very-profitable things that we value in Austin. The creative class, children/schools, parks, developing business ventures, new ideas, diverse neighborhoods, etc.   Heck, even people in boring towns care about some of those!  Losing them will surely put Austin on the same downward slope as San Francisco, whose loss of vibrancy seems to be coming to a head after many years of decline.

Austin has a very large community that cares about how special the city is – more than any city I’ve visited with the exception of New Orleans. However, plenty of people move here from other cities DAILY and plenty of them seem to just be here because we have jobs and water… for now. Not because Austin’s “weird”. They work their jobs by day, watch cable tv at night and spend their weekends at the mall with their kids. They may as well live in Pensacola or Dallas.  Most of them probably don’t care if “weird” comes to an end and if we don’t somehow indoctrinate them into it, the level of indifference will rise as they continue to pour into our town.

I know —- getting people to care about something that isn’t their kids or their livelihood is an uphill battle. But just like getting people to wear seat belts or to quit drinking and driving, it’s worth the effort!  Both of those became laws only after enough people pushed for awareness.

This is a tough sell to the couple who can sell the house they bought for $75K in 1998 for $225K now… or the businesses who can raise its prices because rich people are moving here will pay more… or the organizations and government that want incentivize businesses with tax breaks.

But if we behave as if money is all that matters, we will eventually make it so and we’ll be the new San Francisco.  “Not rich?  Try Waco!”

The good news is that I think we already have a good foundation for preserving the things we love about Austin. Whatever your feelings are about the phrases “Live Music Capital of the World” and “Keep Austin Weird”, they are excellent marketing slogans for exactly what I’m talking about. I mean, you can buy t-shirts with those things emblazoned on them at the mall. Even if they’ve been co-opted by souvenir shops, at least the sentiment of Austin’s uniqueness remains present in word.

Bottom line, I think that what seems most threatening to our music community is ignorance and indifference. If we make people aware, they will care. Doing so will be a never-ending effort.

 

*or is it because partiers are here?

**of all the industries that can make money generated by music events, alcohol seems like the biggest winner to me.

***and if you don’t think that what the creative class does is important, I hope you find a lovely condo in Dallas or San Jose someday!

Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

(or Shooting Free Throws Whilst Stand on a Ladder)

I was going back and forth with a fan from Chicago this week on the topic of original music verses playing covers and tribute bands. It got my wheels turning.

Before you read this, know that I don’t hate tribute or cover bands and I think that comparing them to original bands is not apples to apples:

I don’t remember much about my first gig in LA except being surprised to find almost nothing but tribute bands in the show listings of their weekly paper.  Someone (I think Bill Petersen) predicted the scourge of tribute bands would find it’s way across the country and it sure has.

Though I mostly feel neutral about them now, the idea of tribute bands becoming the primary contribution of a music scene to its region still bugs me. “Los Angeles – the Copy Cat Music Capital of the World” doesn’t seem fitting for a town that creates tons of good original music – even if it’s just as obscure as anything from any other city.

Maybe that’s what happens when a scene gets so big and saturated though — when a community has so many options that the fleeting and unrefined tastes of the majority practically dictate that anyone who wants to play the game must deal in lowest common denominators. The idea of asking the audience to make an investment as simple as listening to a whole original song or watching a whole original short film becomes too big a request. They don’t have time for that when they could be seeing one of two Led Zeppelin tribute bands tonight!

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about giving your audience what they want – and don’t tribute bands do that better than any original act possibly can?

I mean, The Egg Men are about as close as anyone under the age of 50 will ever get to seeing the Beatles live. That’s valuable to a scene – and possibly even outside it! Plus, it helps keeps the Beatles’ alive beyond recorded media. Cool.

But that’s not giving your audience what they want. That’s giving The Beatles’ audience what they want.

And this is why it’s so easy to hate tribute (and cover) bands when you’re a snobby, self-proclaimed artist like me (hey, at least I’m not alone!): They get to skip past the years-long investment and trial and error of creating music and a b®and and building an audience. Instead, they tap into an already-existing catalog of beloved classics that audiences already love thanks to the work of the most popular bands in the world ever and their team of managers, arrangers, handlers, publicists, etc. etc etc.

That sounds pretty smart from a business standpoint – but it’s kind of like shooting free throws on ladder three inches from the basket. Either you’re cheating or you’re not really playing the same game.

If you don’t care about playing the same game, that’s great because you are now mentally set to play high paying gigs right off the bat while furthering the catalog of your favorite band.

That’s why I now feel pretty neutral about tribute bands. They’re not playing the same game. I already know I can shoot ten out of ten free throws on the ladder as long as I don’t mess up majorly. I don’t really care about playing that game.

That’s oversimplified. Good tribute bands take work, talent and dedication just like original bands – but (I say this with total respect to The Egg Men and any really good tribute band) tribute bands aren’t artists.

OK OK OK – yes, there are some very cool tribute bands out there like that put their own spin on the music they tribute – Jazzus Lizard, Dung Beatles, Dread Zeppelin.  In that way, they’re more like a band covering the material in their own style rather than striving for an exact replica of what’s already been done.

But there’s probably a Beatles, a Led Zeppelin and a Pink Floyd (why are they all British?) tribute band in every major US and European city. Why should anyone outside of Austin care about the Egg Men when the Day Trippers and the Paperback Writers and the Number 9s are all playing the same songs we all know and love?

I posit that the number of people who choose to listen to a recording of The Egg Men over a recording of the Beatles is very low and probably even lower than the number of people who listen to recordings of obscure small time bands.

Original bands have the opportunity to make a direct and much deeper connection with their fans. Even if it’s small, it’s real, lasting and valuable to both parties.   Original bands can change lives and that can go beyond the boundaries of their home town or region.

Tribute bands only validate changes to lives already made by the band they tribute.  They don’t make as direct a connection so much as they act as a medium for one.  They’re valuable and even memorable but… ultimately they’re cruising through universe of music in a Douglas Adams-esque “B” Ark and the music business knows it:  Ever see a review of tribute band’s album?  How many tribute bands play at ACL, SxSW, FPSF or other music festivals?  Not many… if any.

Side Note: Anyone want to start a NoMeansNo tribute band?

No Such Thing as Bad Press

Outdoor silent film in San Antonio.

The media hasn’t exactly clamored to cover the incredible body of art (ha!) I’ve created in my life. However, I have had enough opportunities to talk to the people in print media and radio/television to understand the old saying that there’s no such thing as bad press.

I’ve also done enough to understand the genius of Robert McNamara’s philosophy of dealing with the press: “Don’t answer the question they asked. Answer the question you wish they had asked.”

The media don’t have the full story when they come to you – if they did, why would they be coming to you? (answer: only if they’re trying to “sting” you or catch you in a lie.) Often, you know more about a topic than they do so don’t be afraid to steer the boat a little. Expecting them to know the right questions to ask in certain situations is unrealistic.   The best interviewers familiarize themselves with their subjects beforehand, but many come to the table with a cursory knowledge of the subject – especially when they have a deadline looming. That’s not bad. In fact, sometimes you want to be interviewed by someone who is totally neutral.

Often media people don’t know or grasp your story, especially in today’s sound byte culture. Add to that the fact that journalists get so much stuff that their roles sometimes morph into that of “gatekeepers” simply choosing which press release to print (sometimes word for word) and which to ignore. I’ve found it’s good to determine your message beforehand and make sure it’s said as clearly, succinctly and often as possible (and that it be the last word if possible).

I made the mistake of not following my own guidelines twice in the last month:

One of them was for this interview. I spoke with the reporter for well over an hour about the last 15+ years of bands rescoring silent films in Austin. I gave way too much information with no clear point – just lengthy, rambling answers to her questions. She was left to draw her own conclusions and, like most interviews I’ve done, some of the quotes in it are close to what I said/meant but don’t actually get my idea across.

Example: “Bands were playing their sets in front of an old movie… I knew it could be a cool experience.”

What I actually said was something more like, “Some bands were just treating these shows as a chance to play their rock sets with the movie as a backdrop. I knew the silent movie with live music could be a cooler experience than that.”

Instead, it almost sounds (to me) like I’m saying that I thought it was cool when bands were playing their rock sets in front of an old movie. Total opposite.

In the end, what I thought was going to be a piece on silent film in Texas with other interviewees turned out to just be a profile of my band. If I’d known that, my talking points would’ve been different — that is to say, I would’ve had some instead of talking off the cuff (almost always a bad idea with the press, imo.)

In March, I got a call from KEYE TV asking a bunch of questions about Austin New Year event which was rained out. I could tell it was one of those investigative “chasing the money trail” kind of reports but I didn’t think I had anything to hide so I talked to them. This will make me sound like an opportunist but when they asked at the end of the conversation if they could come interview me with a camera I thought, “There’s no such thing as bad press. Say yes and have your bands’ name on TV!” It sounds totally cheesy but, that’s what I thought.   So I said yes but also said I refused to say anything bad about the City because I didn’t think they’d done anything wrong – and still don’t.

I want to add that the reporter and camera guy were totally cool and would certainly be welcome back at my house. Here’s the piece they ran that night*. It had A LOT more of me in it than I expected.

What I said that they didn’t include:

  • There’s nothing weird or abnormal about how this went down. Outdoor events are ALWAYS at the risk of weather cancelations. That’s the risk event planners take. It’s not the contractors’ fault that the event cancelled.
  • Good event planners understand that most of the time consuming, difficult work for any gig of this nature is done before the day of the event whether the event happens or not. By the time you get there, all that’s left to do is lug in your gear and execute “the show” that you’ve been practicing for weeks.
  • I’m glad that the City of Austin put that weather clause in the contract because some entities do not. I learned the hard way twice (two different entities in San Antonio!) and it won’t happen again. (worth mentioning that one of those entities actually asked me to return the 50% deposit they paid me to hold the date when the event was canceled with only a few hours notice and then expected us to do the same event totally free the next year because we’d kept the 50% deposit.)

For this story, I had my talking points but, again, I answered too many questions at length giving them way too much material and forcing/allowing them to draw their own conclusions rather than steering the boat.

Ultimately, the media are the ones in control of the final edit. The less you give them to work with, the less opportunities for your message to be distorted.

(Here’s a great interview with me where my quotes were all nearly exactly what I said because I typed the answers to these questions.)

None of this matters, though, because — there’s no such thing as bad press. ATtworst, that KEYE interview might’ve made it seem like I was wrapped up in a scandal but it still put my band’s name and footage of us on city-wide television.  All I heard from anyone about this was, “Hey man, I saw you and the band on the news! Awesome!”

Thank you Melanie and Kathy for interviewing me!

 

*What I’d like to say in response to the piece:

 

  • I never really heard much else from the City about this and I don’t blame them. Yes, losing $1800 of tax payer money on a band looks bad but — at what point is it no longer worth the City’s time to chase this matter? They named their replacement date knowing not all of us could make it – March and April are always insanity in Austin. I can only imagine that by the time this piece ran, the City had moved on to bigger and more pressing matters. The replacement event happened. The contracted event planners all moved on to other jobs and aren’t technically in the City’s employ at this point. We’d be glad to do a separate date for the City but can’t force them to plan an event just for us.  Businesses lose money like this all the time. It’s part of the risk associated with doing business. It’s no different with government – except that their mistakes seem to go public quicker. (Furthermore, I bet the City has put way more money into other bigger, even riskier efforts that didn’t pan out.)
  • If anyone felt like I was a jerk for taking the money, consider that I and my whole band held the date, were in town and on the ready all day waiting for a call to say yea or nay. Some of us even cut our holiday vacations short and travelled through serious weather to be back in town for ana event that was likely to get canceled. If the weather had been perfect, we would’ve made $1800. If the weather had been unbearably cold, we would’ve made $1800 and probably been pretty unhappy playing a painful gig and movie our equipment for about 3 hours, but we would’ve done it (and have done it).
  • The City’s make up event went off just fine. Austin may not have gotten quite the event it hoped for but it was an equivalent one with way better weather!

 

 

SHOULD

Be Compelling

I feel like a lot of original bands have backwards ideas of what audiences should and shouldn’t do. Either in our words or actions, we sometimes communicate things like –

Audiences should love our music and what we do enough to come to our shows, buy our merchandise, keep track of our activity and support what we do. They shouldn’t expect to hear us play tunes they like that we’re sick of or spend hours talking to them when we need to break down our gear.

Why should they, though?

Because we think we’re good? Because we put forth effort? Because we need/want their support to justify what we do?

Those answers aren’t very useful. Are we on stage to entertain/make art or are we up there simply seeking approval and validation? Lots of us are so involved in our thing that we can’t see when we’re the only ones who care.  Or that we’re essentially seeking unconditional love from strangers — asking people to get married on a first (often blind) date.

The word “should” implies some kind of moral imperative:  You should conserve resources so that there’s enough for everyone.  Or a danger: You should wear your seat belt or you could die in an accident.

There’re lots of things people should (or shouldn’t) do but don’t feel compelled to do (or not do). In spite of the overwhelming proof that quitting smoking, getting more sleep and eating more vegetables are all pretty good practices, most people slough them off until the consequences hurt enough to compel them to change.

This is why some people can be found tail-gaiting at 80 MPH a few miles up the road from a fatal accident.

I’ve never tried this but I’m betting that if you told your audience that they should come see you because they might die otherwise or because they’re morally obligated, you won’t see many more faces at your next show. (Then again, this could be terribly funny!)

Coming from you, “should” isn’t compelling. It sounds naggy, judgmental – even whiny. Should only works when people already feel so compelled by you or your work that they think they should. “We should go because it’ll be fun, there’ll be chicks/dudes there, they put on a great show and I don’t want to miss it.”

(It’s worth mentioning that relatively few music fans think, “I should go support these guys so they can keep making music I like.” It takes a relatively high level fan to think from the bands’ perspective.  The number of people that think being a musician = big bucks and fame is surprising and most of them will experience your shows very few times.)

Coming back to “Why should they,” a more useful question is, “Why don’t they?”

Hard to answer specifically but if you’re not playing to the audiences you want (or think you deserve), it’s got something to do with not reaching them – not being compelling enough to them.

Of course, you can do things to make yourself more compelling. You just have to know what your target audience wants and give it to them.

Ew.  That language sounds all marketing-y and not art-y.

But think about it.  Why do you like the music/musicians you like?

Musicians’ reasons are often musical, but most listeners latch on to non-musical stuff like the artist’s fashion, lifestyle or beauty before the music.

(And of course, let us not forget good old fashioned repeated exposure. How often does a song get stuck in your head so much that you finally decide you like it? That’s the power of heavy rotation!)

“Why don’t they?” makes it clear that artists (not audiences) are actually the subjects of more useful and specific should statements:

This band SHOULD do something interesting if they want me to pay attention. They should do more songs like that one everyone likes! They should have a light on their merchandise table if they wanted people to notice it. They should accept credit cards. They should make t-shirts in my size. They should be on facebook, youtube or whatever platform I like.

Boy… sounds like a lot of guess work for artists.  No wonder we think audiences should cut us some slack! We’re artists, not marketing experts… but this is the (new?) playing field and the “winners” are people who know how to make what they do attractive those who (might) like it.

I am not an expert on compelling others, but I think audiences want to experience something they can’t easily, often or ever hear/see anywhere else from anyone else.

They stand in front of you hoping to see and hear something exciting and compelling if not entertaining. Audiences vary in their taste but there seem to be a few generic things that work regardless of your style: (Even the absence of these things can be compelling!)

  • Wardrobe – Look like a band, feel like a band.  It totally works.  Most bands in street clothes are boring to watch – though it’s totally effective for jam and grunge bands.  (cargo shorts do NOT work in any context, people!)  Most of your audience thinks about what to wear to your show. You might do well to do the same. (total absence of wardrobe of any kind would probably be really compelling. I keep telling Phil we’d sell more tickets if he’d just play naked.)
  • Interaction – most audiences like the opportunity to at least clap after a song in approval. (there’s the validation we wanted!) If you’re a band with memorable, fun or powerful lyrics, maybe they’d like to sing along. Maybe all your interaction is before/after the show. Zero interaction can be totally effective in metal and at the symphony where audiences are dead serious.
  • Lighting – It’s amazing how a switching light colors can change our perceptions of our environment. Instant reset. Total absence of light is a tough sell – unless you’re the house band inside the House of Terror. (Personal note – contact House of Terror…)
  • Movement – Costs only sweat. Coordinated group moves can’t help but be visually engaging.

These things draw the eyes and, hopefully, the ears will follow.  They invite people to enjoy and welcome approval without requiring it.  (I’d love to hear more of these kinds of things if you think of them.)

I know. You want to be loved for your music, not your stage show. It’s kind of deflating to learn that how you look is often more important to an audience (especially one that’s never heard you) than how you sound. You don’t have to sacrifice dignity to win fans. But if you want people to come SEE your SHOW (implying visual perception), give them something worth watching. Show them why they should love your band – or at least give you a listen.

Bottom line – If there’s something you think your audience should be doing, there’s a good chance there’s something they think you should be doing to compel them and you have to make the first move. It rarely works the other way around.

(and as always – if you simply don’t care what the audience thinks, there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you do for you.  Totally valid.)