10,000 Kicks

I re-re-re-re-read this quote from Bruce Lee recently:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

and it is the reason for this week’s more journal-like entry:

April 2015 marked 10 years since The Invincible Czars played a lovely weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth. I went back and listened to an excellent room recording (made by Adam Kahan) of NoMeansNo’s Ft. Worth show April 25, 2005. Then I listened to a few recordings of The Invincible Czars from that weekend. It was exciting to hear what we were playing back then but also kind of depressing.  10 years later, those recordings sound like a band that hadn’t been together very long and was trying to play beyond its capabilities – rough around the edges to say the least.

In our defense (against my own comments I guess!) we truly hadn’t been a band very long! Though the Czars name had been around for 3 years, the line-up in April 2005 wasn’t even a year old. We were trying to figure out what we did well with a mish-mash of material from the band’s earlier, wackier days and our then new, heavier sound.

Still, listening to these old recordings, I realized my biggest regret about The Invincible Czars’ only era of sustained line-up stability (2005-2008) was that I failed to identify our strengths and capitalize on them (more on this another time). I wasn’t leading well (or even consciously) enough to focus the group or myself enough to find our “one kick”. I was always juggling. We practiced A LOT but thanks to me, we were practicing 10,000 kicks.

(If you’d asked me at the time what our kick was, I would’ve probably said something like, “lots of variety,” which is essentially bundling 10,000 kicks into one.  No.)

This got me thinking – what could I have done better and how can I implement it now?

I wish the me of 2005 would’ve chosen the band’s best kick, practiced/developed the hell out of it and then shared it when it was really good instead of rushing to create something that was “good enough” for shows on Red River and then trying to figure out the rest out on stage in front of people.

That’s what I try to do now but I didn’t have this perspective then. The me of 2005 had already been through 2 bass players, 3 keyboardists and 5 drummers in three years. Our “kick” seemed to change every few months.

(I’ve often thought that I should’ve dispensed with all the “what’s best for the group” thinking and simply determined my individual best kick and then found people to complement it. It may have been self-centered but at least it would’ve given us a kick to practice!   I  guess that’s what I eventually did but the me of 2005 was reluctant.  My favorite bands were bands – not solo acts with a backing band. I wanted to find what we were good at doing.)

Even without constant line up changes, determining your kick can be difficult. You have to go through some trial and error and it’s tough to know when you’re on the right track until you’re really on it. Sometimes this requires letting go of your preconceived notions, and conflicting desires and simply working with what you’ve got.  (I really envy the people who seem to naturally know what they are, recognize their strengths and – most importantly – go with it and love it.  Especially when they do this at an early age.)

In 2009, then drummer Louis Landry advised that we make a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of ourselves. Doing this the first time was really uncomfortable. Most of the band thought it was BS and didn’t want to participate.   At that time, I’d only just grabbed the reins and started trying to really be a band leader.  It was really disheartening and discouraging to have my band mates sit in a room in front of dry erase board and slowly realize we had been spending more time compensating for weaknesses and threats than capitalizing on strengths and opportunities.  Why were we playing songs with vocals when none of us were good singers? Why were we still worried about our draw at clubs when our best shows were in restaurants, theaters and outdoor events?  I didn’t have answers other than, “because that’s the only thing I know to do.”

But at least we learned some valuable info.  (big thanks to Louie for remaining positive and on my side through the process.)

Even once you determine your kick, you still have to actually put it into practice and the tedium of doing so can be a major threat.  It’s fun when you’re making leaps and bounds with little effort in the early stages but when the same effort only yields a baby step’s progress in the middle and final stages, most people bail. They put their kick on the back burner and start working on a new one so they can have that sense of satisfaction of making “big progress” again.  But that big progress only happens in the early phases.  If you don’t  stay on course when the fun fades, you’ll wind up on the path to 10,000 kicks.

That’s not to say you have to be a one kick pony.  Just find your kick and incorporate it into everything you do.  Maybe your kick is improvisation. Now you can improvise over all kinds of styles.  Maybe your kick is writing catchy hooks, playing at high volumes, instrumental wizardry, ambience…  maybe your kick is a female singer who’s been your horn player for a long time but you’ve been spending too much time concentrating on outdated material to write new stuff for the best part about your band that you never knew was right under your nose!

Just pick one, stick with it and I think you’ll see that what seems like a limitation will become your greatest strength!

I want to end by adding that though I’ve been really critical of myself and my band over the years (and in this post), I would’ve had to have gone through all this one way or another.  I had a lot of personal problems that are more to blame for any of these perceived failures than anything else.  I’m glad I made some good friends on my journey — Thank you Tommy, Adam, Rick, Bill (wherever you are) playing some “lots of variety” on stages all over the place with me in 2005!

 

Playing Out of Town

Playing Out of Town After my last post, Xander from Proud Peasant suggested I expand upon the notion that you have to leave town to actually earn any money or get anywhere.

This idea seems to fly in the face of what of most experts advise: focus on your hometown and when you can sell out a show there, expand your region. I didn’t heed that advice because:

(1) By the time I heard it, I’d already played out of town and earned more money doing so than playing in Austin.

(2) Selling out a show seemed unlikely. How many sold out shows have any of us ever been to? How many of those were local bands? If it was easy to do, it’d happen all the time.

(3) It’s very possible to live in a place where your style of music is simply not popular. Ex: Jazz in Austin. There are plenty of bands that play huge events in other towns/nations that just play the same old clubs in Austin for years. They’re big Japan.

(4) As far as I could tell, there were plenty of bands that weren’t selling out in Austin or their hometowns but seemed to do ok on the road.*

(5) Austin is a unique market – just because you do well here, doesn’t mean you’ll do well anywhere else.

So I always questioned the need to sell out a show before moving on to other markets.

But here’s the catch 22 – if no one’s heard of you in a place, there’s no point in playing there. BUT —- for most bands, no one will hear of you in a place unless you go play there.

Furthermore, if you play a town that has no bands like you, there’re no similar bands there for you to network/co-promote with and you’ll play to no one. If you go somewhere that has bands that are like you, there’s no reason the people there should come see you. They can see the local version of you any time (but at least you stand a chance of winning over some of their fans if you play together). This is why shows in music towns like Austin or Seattle are so tough.

When I look at Austin bands that seem to create careers for themselves, most DO sell out shows here and then move on. The Sword. Ghostland. Octopus Project. Bob Schneider. Spoon. Okkervil River. But why limit this example to Austin? Neko Case, Reverend Horton Heat, Mark Kozelek, Brave Combo, Built to Spill, Metallica, Secret Chiefs 3, Nirvana, Van Halen, Dirty Projectors, Flaming Lips, Daft Punk, etc. etc. etc.

They are all at different levels and from different places. It took longer for some than others but they all found something they did that people liked before they really took off.

(I’m not a big fan of Daft Punk, but I have to say that I admire their tenacity. I heard them for the first time in the 90s and would see them in alternative music magazines like Magnet. 14 years later, they had the worldwide number one hit of the summer.)

My own experience speaks to this in a small way. After years of booking shows all over the US with a modicum of success, I noticed everything suddenly got easier around 2011-ish. Booking. Rehearsals. Shows. Really everything. It only took playing most venues once for them to ask, “When can you come back?” Booking requests went from “may we?” to “when may we?” It was actually really easy to see why this had happened:

(1) We kept going to the same places and playing to people who I/we thought might really like us (instead of trying to force heavy metal dudes to appreciate our “ruined” version of Iron Maiden songs)

(2) The band was finally playing to its strengths and focusing on entertaining the audiences at least as much as ourselves. I finally had an act that people other than the band members could easily appreciate.

(3) The band line-up was the best it had ever been in every way. **

The point is – the band was finally getting pretty good at what we did and finding people who agreed. The better the band got, the more we resonated with others, the more opportunities and money came our way.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Make a cool, good thing. Then share.

And yet I and so many put the cart before the horse. That’s because it’s so easy to mistake the prototype for the final product. I like it so I bet others will, too. We’re wrong more often than not. I spent much of the early 00s playing road shows with a band/material that had no evidence of resonating with anyone else. It was a long and frustrating game with a very small chance of winning fans. I was too focused on satisfying myself. I think most bands do this. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that the only way you’ll grow outside your region is if what satisfies you just happens to resonate with others.

Here’s the advice I’d give the me of 10 years ago — if your hometown audience is mostly other small time musicians, there’s no point in leaving town. Most of them are just there because they’re opening for you or vice versa. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t good. It simply means that your efforts to expand will be very, very difficult if non-musicians don’t appreciate what you do. You don’t need to drive to San Jose to play to indifferent people at a bar or furniture when you can do it right here in Austin.

As much as I didn’t want it to be true, Graham Reynolds was right when he said that I put the The Invincible Czars “on the map” when we debuted our Nutcracker Suite: It was the first thing ever did that attracted people outside our group of friends/bands in any significant way.

Another thing about playing out of town – unless some publicist picks you up, you’ll have to go through almost the same reputation and fan building process you did in your hometown in every town you play. This is made much easier what you’re really good at what you do.

 

*I may have been really wrong about this. Over time, I started to realize that most bands were losing money on the road – even the ones with booking agents and reputable record labels. I’ve never had illusions that the music I make will have mass appeal. The number of other bands’ sold out shows I’ve attended over the years is small because I tend to like bands that are the same way. Even when I was college age, my favorite bands were rarely on college radio or on the college charts. And yet they’d come to Austin and have great shows. I saw Oakland’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fill rooms several times including one amazing Monday night show at the old Emo’s inside stage.

 

** Leila, Phil and Hen3ry made the Invincible Czars really easy to book. They’re fun to watch, fun to hear, reliable and dedicated. This is not meant to offend past members of the band, it’s just that we were all on the same page at this time and it paid off.

ATX Music Census (AFTER)

The results of the census were pretty validating of my thoughts in last week’s post. No big surprise. There’re a lot of gloom and doom reactions out there but I think this census is a good thing, in spite of its seemingly grim picture.

Here’re my two favorite quotes from its summary and my thoughts on them:

It is entirely possible that musicians in Austin are no worse off relative to their counterparts in other comparable U.S. cities, but there are simply no parallel data with which to compare the findings in the Austin Music Census.

I made a list of reasons to stay in Austin but the biggest one is that the laws of supply and demand apply to every city in the world and the grass probably isn’t greener.  Leaving Austin sounds like starting over at square one in a new, different but probably equally challenging setting with the disadvantage of having no support network.

I’m writing this blog from Utah where, yesterday, I missed Built to Spill at the Ogden Amphitheater because they performed at the unthinkable hour of 5:00 PM. The cost for the ticket? $5.

Of course, this event was part of a month-long concert series at the venue and probably subsidized in some way to keep the ticket cost low. Still, the promoters of the show know that a cheap ticket means more bodies likely to show up. The demand for low ticket costs is a nationwide (worldwide?) phenomenon at all levels.

I often think about the big entertainment hubs of NYC, LA, etc. They’ve long been beyond Austin in the areas of of high cost of living, oversaturation, competition and glut of supply vs. demand. And yet, (as a day-job related friend once put it), every year bus loads of homecoming queens and captains of football teams arrive in LA with big dreams in spite of the odds against them becoming movie stars.

(Side note – the census takes into consideration all the jobs that aren’t “musician” in our scene. LA doesn’t tick because of raw acting and directing talent. It does because of the people who do all the other stuff. Make up, lights, camera, set builders, location scouts, etc. etc. etc. Austin, on the other hand, mostly just has the performers waiting for someone to turn them into stars.)

There’s a nostalgia in Austin for an age of the “working musician” that probably never really existed here. I’ve heard older musicians tell tale of the days they could pay their rent in gig money from a couple of shows a month… but How many actually could do that?  How many from that era had kids and realized they needed more income and dropped out of the scene and never said another word about it?

We don’t know but I’m guessing it wasn’t much different than it is today – more dropped out of the game than stayed in it and the ones who stayed in and made their livings didn’t do it just playing around town.

Of all of the responses to the census I’ve seen, I like Jeff Smith’s* the most. In it, it he mentions that Austin has too many stages and not enough headliners. I agree and I don’t think this is unique to Austin, either. Making a headlining act is very difficult. It takes time to build up a fan base – even locally. Sometimes, though, I don’t think Austin bands are really trying that hard. When our “show” consists of wearing street clothes and turning the stage lights off and playing the same songs everyone’s heard, we’re not exactly on the cutting edge of show business nor are we very compelling to casual audiences who don’t understand why our stage show isn’t as cool as Tool’s.

I think Jeff’s right that being in the entertainment business takes more work that most people (not just musicians) bargain for. I think it’s especially true of Austin. We’re as much the Slacker Capital of the World of as we are the Live Music Capital. Maybe moreso. It’s still a relatively easy going town where “everyone’s down to party”… to put it nicely (thanks, Ron V).  My experience is that as soon as something gets difficult, most people bail.

I’m not alone. A few years ago, a friend’s metal band was invited to play a relatively major festival in Europe. All they had to do was get there. She got pumped up and started trying to raise money but her band mates thought it just sounded like an awful lot of work. They never made it. All they had to do was buy 4 plane tickets, go to Europe and play the songs they’d been playing for years and they still didn’t do it.

Why? Because they were right – It was going to be an awful lot of work. Many Austin bands fumble the ball at the 10 yard-line of the best opportunity they ever have because they know that it’s simply an opportunity for more work.

And that’s what we’re all trying to avoid by living in the Velvet Rut, right? We just want everything to be free and easy so our hair can get good in the back and we can rub elbows with successful people rather than learn something more useful from them than their preferred brand of rolling papers. (sounds like SxSW!)

Most bigger musicians play more outside of their hometowns than they do at home and that’s not unique to Austin.  How often does Built to Spill play Boise?  Once a year?  Twice?  Demand for more is low, so they don’t over-supply their market.

Most Austin bands are just in it for the sheer enjoyment of performing and creative expression.  That’s totally fine – but I think there’s a disconnect when they start to think they deserve to be paid/recognized for simply satisfying themselves.  Their response to lack of demand is to simply increased supply.

If you’re not making a product (recordings, live shows, etc.) that people want or can use, it doesn’t matter how high the quality or how easily available.   It will not sell. Additionally, it doesn’t matter how good your version of a useful product is if there are already a lot of high quality providers in a market (definitely the case in Austin.)

It’s easy to blame audiences and club owners that your band didn’t grow – but it’s not their fault that you made something that only you liked and refused to do anything else when faced with the fact.

You don’t have to live in Austin to learn these lessons.  Musicians everywhere struggle and always have.

But at least our city cares:

It is a bold step for a City to move beyond the nationally competitive rhetoric of which city is best and to actually take an unflinching measurement of what is happening at the individual, citizen level: a musician, a studio engineer, a retail record store clerk, a show promoter. While this may seem like an exposing of vulnerabilities, in truth, it is a move of confidence and maturity. Only a city with a reasonable certainty that it will be able to address the issues with focused, realistic solutions and long term planning would invest in asking these difficult questions.

This is another of my reasons for staying. According to the census, it is the only one of its kind ever. That means they’re not really considering this in LA, NYC, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Nashville, Seattle or any other music or non-music city in the US or world. That’s big. Even if nothing comes of this but awareness… well, heck, that might be the best thing that could come of it.

 

*Jeff Smith

June 3 at 9:43am ·

I see a lot of posts about the Austin Music Census today so I’m going to throw in my two cents. There seems to be a big “reality divide” – everyone who wants to make a living playing music in Austin will never do it (or anything approaching it) — plain and simple. It was never that way in the good old days and even less so now.

Most folks do not have the work ethic or wherewithal to have their egos relentlessly beaten down. You really want to make a living at it? Get used to playing restaurant gigs in the Hill Country where folks treat you like musical wallpaper and babysitters for their screaming children while they drink margaritas with their friends. Look at folks like Ray Benson. Dude has Grammys, a label and a management company and probably still works 14 hours a day producing, recording or writing when he is not on the road. He’s got chops, a name, has been at it for over 40 years and still works his ass off.

Austin’s scene is a mirror of the modern music business as a whole: ruled by lawyers, accountants, tech and advertising people. Except in this case the people in the above professions want to live in “The Live Music Capitol of The World” rather than work in the business. Their contributions are an increased lack of affordability, congestion and the culture killing gentrification that comes with their imported money. If you asked all these people “do you love live local music?” probably 96% would answer “absolutely yes” – the part they don’t tell you is that they don’t understand the difference between ACL Festival and a Tuesday night at the Continental or White Horse, and even for those that do get the difference the dictates of a real job or young family do not allow them to go to a weeknight gig more than once or twice a year. And what’s more, they absolutely can’t have that shit blaring anywhere near the vicinity of their recently built condo that’s across the street from nightclubs that have been in operation for 20 years.

The City of Austin is already wasting a bunch of money on consultants, but I have one really simple suggestion. Austin has too many stages and not enough headlining acts. I have believed for some time now that it would really behoove many of the smaller venues to band together and voluntarily close in rotation one week night each per week (Monday – Wednesday), encouraging their employees and regular patrons to visit another club on their off night, incentivizing with some sort of service industry/music industry night discounts or free shows. It is essentially the free week concept exercised on a weekly basis – with the motivation being stronger bills, increased weeknight attendance and club hopping. Scene building and cross-pollination in what should already be a well-developed scene.

Some folks will live the dream. Most will only have it. For the majority of folks – if you aren’t playing primarily because you love it, you best re-examine your motivations.