My Own Fear of Success

It occurred to me that doing a series on development is kind of redundant.  I mean… this whole blog is about development.

This week I wrote about my own fear of success.  Skip it if you don’t like my entries that are more journal-like.
Fear of success seems absurd.  We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right?  Fear of failure seems logical.  We don’t want to fail.

I experienced fear of success on the most recent Invincible Czars tour and it didn’t seem absurd.  Here’s what happened.

I/we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.  I was reticent even after acquiescing.  In my mind, Nosferatu is so very done in the world of silent film accompaniment.  Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, an community orchestra or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment.  There are tons of new scores for this movie out there.  Not only that, the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is available now.

But, once I decided to do it, I delved in.

Of course, we decided to do it for Halloween and I spent six months of daily work writing, refining and recording the music, finding venues and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the materials to do so (flyers, post cards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo) and the merchandise.  I didn’t have to do this all alone but I knew I was the lynch pin with all this stuff coming together.

There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process.  We made a surprisingly good recording that was done BEFORE the shows for once.  We also had killer (ha!) artwork and a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots.  That was a big success.  I’d dreamt of one day doing this and it actually happened!

On the non-music side, I spent many, many hours and days working on our van (Van Halen) this summer.  It continued falling apart all the way through the end of the tour.  It’s amazing that it we made it anywhere but all those hours paid off.  I was able to keep it moving, albeit slowly at times, throughout the tour.

In fact, our engine started misfiring again (after six weeks of smooth sailing) only 3 hours into  the tour and we stumbled into Huntsville, TX.  At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what was to come… ugh.”
Based on the past, we’d made  the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour – not much.   We made a few posters for the first time hoping we’d sell half of them.

We were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house that night and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, sold most of our posters and about half our CDs.  We still had 17 more shows to go!  gadzooks!  We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour.
(Thank you to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt and let us mail them to you later!)

That day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come but not in the way I’d expected.  People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places.  The media actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played.    We beat our record for single-day merchandise sales on this tour!

But I couldn’t get positive about it.  Everyone was revelling in our success after a sold out Tuesday night in Pensacola, when I launched into this negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded my bandmates.  The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about our success.

Now that’s absurd.

But my fear wasn’t going away.  I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs.  Those fears included:

  • This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along.  Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have an off night.
  • Now the bar’s set higher.  Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm.  When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame.
  • This is a lucky one-time success.  It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again.
  • What if this is as good as it gets and I’ve peaked?  Is it all down hill from here?
  • I like doing the silent movies but it’s not all that we do.  We may be building an audience but it’s just for one aspect of what we do.  This movie is the draw, not us. The artwork is better than the music.  We’ll never see these faces again.
  • I’m not even challenging myself out here.  My parts are so easy, I don’t even need to warm up to play them.  Am I growing as a player or just plateauing with this?
  • The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving.  No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.

(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve been worried about.)

After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success.  What a weird place to be.  Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me.  I’ve dealth with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again.  Hell,  I already had plan B and plan C ready go.  So ready to go in fact it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.

This success seemed to me like beating a level of space invaders where the reward is a chance to keep playing the game but now the space invaders are moving faster… and you’re not!   There’s an instant where you’re still in disbelief that you cleared that last level as a whole new and more difficult set of space invaders bears down on you.  (This reminds me of my own entry about Proving It.)

Six months of work resulted in 18 amazing shows in 17 days.  Coming off that is… not brutal but it’s the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.  So now I guess get to play space invaders some more.  Good thing I like the game.

 

Development Part 4 – Build A Network

How often do you hear or say something like, “That band only gets to play on weekends because the singer is the owner’s girlfriend.”

Well… yeah.  Get used to that.

Other than your skills and talents, your network may be the most important tool for growth that you can develop.  It can affect everything from show attendance to booking opportunities to better recordings to guidance.

We’ve all heard that It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.   Simply being good isn’t enough.  You have to already be good to even be considered.  That’s a private victory.  Plus, “good” is relative and simply being good doesn’t mean you can create a career.  You have to make enough other people care about how good you are.

Steve Vai is unbelievable and yet you never hear about him unless you dig into that world of guitar wizardry and the music nerds who pay attention to him.  Casual listeners don’t have a context for that stuff until someone creates it.

In the late 80s, only the “bad kids” and skaters listened to Metallica.  Parents and teachers in the bible belt town where I went to school called the music satanic.  But by 1991, I was hearing “Enter Sandman” out of the cars of all the jocks, ropers and cheerleaders in at my high school.   Many factors came together to create a context for what Metallica did.   They were already huge in the world of metal. They already had a lot of fans worldwide, a major label deal and business team.  In 1991, there was a major turn in what radio and MTV were playing as tastes moved from dance-pop  (Janet Jackson) and glam-metal (Poison) to bands like Faith No More and Nirvana.  Metallica also released their most mainstream album ever right at that moment and kind of met casual listeners in the middle of all that.

That kind of context can only be created by a massive network of fans, talent buyers, booking agents, managers, promoters, etc. etc.  By 1991, Metallica’s network was enormous.

Each of us, no matter how introverted, has a network on which we rely — even if it’s just our family and friends.   The more that you cultivate it, the more you can turn to it when in need — something that many of us seem reluctant to do because we want to do “it” ourselves.  We can’t all be good at everything.  In fact, none of us can.  Even the highest ranked A-Listers have a network and people who help them.

Here’s a list of roles/people in your network:

  • Fans – if someone likes your music, you automatically have something in common with them because you like it, too.   Amanda Palmer is the queen of developing a network of fans.  Take interest in stuff they care about – even/especially if it’s not your band!
  • Family – Check out the video below about David Lee Roth’s multi-millionaire father. How could that connection NOT have helped David Lee and Van Halen’s careers?  Don’t ignore these connections or take them for granted.  Include your family members but don’t exploit them.

 

  • Friends – every musician has to have early adopters.  These are usually your friends!  Even if they don’t love your music, they’ll support you just because you’re you.  This is also helpful in non-music contexts.  The only way to have friends is to be a friend.  Go to their happenings.  Care!
  • Media – you’re bound to meet someone in the media who likes you – even if it’s just some guy who runs a badly edited monthly fanzine.  Keep them updated.  Be friendly.  Don’t just spam them with “band plays show” emails.  You never know what they’ll pick up for a story.  I’m often surprised by what interests journalists and reporters and what doesn’t.
  • Talent Buyers/Booking Agents/Venues – re-read the first sentence of this entry.  Everyone hates contacting strangers and trying to sell them on your band.  These are the first gatekeepers you will encounter in the music business.  The longer you know them and the more they like you, the easier your communications with them will be.
  • Other Like-Minded Businesses and Organizations – are you into animal rights, comic books, sewing, tattoos, politics, sports, vintage clothing, etc?  There’s probably some organization or business for that and a whole network of like-minded folks who might like what you do.  Don’t brow beat them – genuinely be a part of what they do and let opportunities arise.  Maybe they need a band for an event – or maybe you’ll make friends with someone who loves what you do and spreads the word for you.   In a town like Austin, we’re often connected by more than one interest.  Your new dungeon master could be high up at C3.
  • Other musicians – this is huge and part of the reason Austin’s such a cool place.  We’re all sharing information and ideas all the time.  Success for your friends’ bands tends to trickle down.  How could Mike Patton joining Faith No More NOT have helped Mr. Bungle?

So how to you build the network?  Simply be a helpful part of it.

 

Development Part 3 – Training Your Audience

Hey everyone, sorry I’ve not been posting lately.  My world got super busy leading up to and during a tour.  I’m back now but also realizing that I need to stop being so long winded here if I’m going to keep up my weekly posts.

Years ago, The Invincible Czars played a show with Suburban Terror Project and a few other metal bands at Trophy’s. It was the most people I ever saw in that venue. We were definitely the sore thumb on the bill. When I looked into the audience.  I saw a roomful of deer in headlights – not sure what to think.  But at least they didn’t leave.

Later, Josh Wardrip (from Suburban Terror) and I were talking about the show and he introduced me to a term I hear and use all the time now: ready-made audience. That conversation was extremely helpful for me. I immediately understood what he meant when he said, “there’s just no ready-made audience for what you guys do.”

The audience at Trophy’s that night had developed a taste for heavy metal. They hadn’t developed a taste for what we did — but at least they were open enough to try it.

That seems to be the route that you have to take if you’re doing something that doesn’t have a ready-made audience. It’s not a very fun one at first. It means spending lots of time in front of deer in headlights and hoping some of them snap out of it having liked what they heard. That percentage of early adopters in an audience is often low.

Years later, I heard Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds talk about this as the process of   training your audience. Just as your music and band must develop, the audience for what you do must as well.

The first time I heard Mr. Bungle and Naked City, I didn’t have any context. It took me being exposed to the music lots of times again to understand and acquire a taste for what they did. (The hilarity of that sentence is that I often make fun of people who say you have to acquire a taste for beer. Why would I want to acquire a taste for something awful?   That’s exactly how people feel about music they’re not ready for.)

Unless you’re doing something that everyone can immediately appreciate, it takes time to for people to develop a taste for what you do. This is why cover and tribute bands come out of the gate with an audience. Everyone already likes what they do before they even do it!

Last year, I saw two very different bands with very different ways of building their fanbase each fill the Mohawk in Austin.

One was Red Fang. It’s not terribly surprising to me that they’ve built a relatively big fanbase over the last 10 years – anyone who’s ever heard Metallica or Black Sabbath can grasp Red Fang’s music and they’re very good at what they do. No additional audience training is required.  (I did feel compelled to train one kid to quit trying to pull me in to the mosh pit by throwing a can at him.) Red Fang has tapped into a ready-made audience and do a really good job of entertaining them.  Good for them!

Later that month, I saw Goblin at the same venue. This was a very different audience of people who’ve somehow acquired a taste for Goblin’s intricate, proggy music over the last 40 years.  For most of that time, the band didn’t even exist having broken up the early 80s.  Any group that might’ve been considered a ready-made audience for Goblin would have been (and still is) minuscule compared with today’s broad world of heavy metal.  It took much longer, but they finally developed that audience!

So how can you train your audience?

Good question.  All I can think to do is find what you do really well without stopping and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Because  ultimately you don’t have control over who likes your band. I mean, you can target a large potential audience but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll like you. That’s the double edged sword of the ready-made audience – not all of them will like you and it’s hard to stand out.  Red Fang has WAY more competition than a band like Goblin that creates its own context rather than tapping into one.

But don’t fool yourself.  Creating your own audience is very time consuming.  After 10 years as a band, Goblin called it quits for nearly 20 years.  Their horror movie soundtracks kept the music alive and won new fans in the film world. People who liked them kept sharing their music. 40 years later, they played the same size audience as Red Fang did in 10.

If you can find or create a context for what you do best and take advantage of opportunities that develop around that, your audience will find you and vice versa.

On a personal-ish – note, I really had a lot of time to think on this topic while on the road.  I don’t think this entry quite nails all my thoughts and I’m still learning but I did get to experience some benefits of my own audience development efforts:  The Invincible Czars were touring with our 7th silent film soundtrack.  It was the longest tour we’ve done since 2004, nearly every show was full or sold out and I achieved the goal of booking an all silent film tour – meaning no rock shows. When I first started booking these shows outside Austin, most theaters/venues would (and still do) say, “Who would come to a silent movie?  Not interested.”

This got me thinking of the power of having your own contexts that supersede the actual art.  Hollywood might be the best example.  I love the irony of a bunch of rednecks watching movies created by the very liberal California entertainment business they rail against or the hardcore Star Wars fans who criticize and complain as they buy every last piece of a Phantom Menace memorabilia.

Now that’s a well-trained audience!