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The Book of Gigs

I’ll get the whole thing started, but I’m really looking for your stories. Send us your most memorable outing, we’ll publish the best and brightest, the most harrowing and embarrassing- and we’re not interested in the “perfect gig” (ha), rather the more unusual encounters…..for example:

It must have been about 1976, a cold night on the Iowa plains just before Christmas. This was my sensitive-singer/songwriter period, with a stunning afro, a wispy beard, an old vest and an older guitar (I wish I still had that one, a ’29 Gibson Nick Lucas). I was on my way to my fiancé’s home in Spencer, with a stop at a so-called “club” in Mason City (coincidentally the hometown of  Meredith Wilson’s, composer of the great  “Music Man”).

I’d never been to the place before, it was booked by my agent at the time, and I should have smelled a rat before I walked in the door. I don’t know what my agent told them about me to convince them to hire me, but none of it was true. I think I was the first live entertainment they’d had, and as inexperienced as they were, there was no lack of preparation. The owners had built a one-man stage in the corner, about 10 feet from the pool table.  As befitting the season, the stage was ringed with Christmas lights, with a nice sign; unfortunately the sign announced me as “Kris Kringle” (arrgh….) like I was supposed to in a red fat suit.

Everybody seemed friendly, though, so I set up my PA and tuned up the ol’ sixer.  My repertoire at the time consisted of some original songs, a few instrumentals, and a fair amount of swing and old jazz tunes, and I headed straight for my best stuff, my sure-fire crowd-pleasers, not exactly pandering, but starting to suspect that it might be a tough night.

What crowd there was had moved to the front of the bar, as far away from me as they could get.  One brave couple continued with their pool game, he with a lovely cowboy outfit including a nice belt with a hand-tooled “Leonard” in big letters, she with a medium-height beehive.  After about two numbers the brave cowpoke came to the stage and asked me if I played any country. I knew that what I called “country” wasn’t the kind that was on their juke box, and wouldn’t be recognized as such, but I launched into “Miss the Mississisppi and Me”.  It didn’t seem to be working.

Luckily this is a short story. The owner came up to me, said that I didn’t need to play any more, gave me the promised $75 and shuffled away, no argument, no discussion.

It was only a few degrees colder outside as I loaded up the gear. I could hear the jukebox  blasting away- the patrons forgot about me pretty quickly, probably had a pretty good time.  Hey, they didn’t throw anything at me!!!!


Better to give it away

Taking the Dead’s way-ahead-of-the-curve business philosophy one step further, I’m now recommending that the best way to get gigs –and fans — is to give as many away as you possibly can, as quickly as you can.

Except for a few breathing the rare air of celebrity (a fleeting thing, anyway), nobody is making money selling CDs in the real on-the-road world. Let’s do the math for a typical band, as if there were such a thing.

Let’s say you’ve got a four-piece band that makes $1000 on a good weekend gig, and you’ve got a new platter. Let’s expect a modest crowd of 100, and let’s sell 10% a CD for $10 (you may get more, but it’s a zero-sum game, the more you charge, the fewer you sell). So you gross $100 on your CDs, get 10 into the world.

You won’t get rich from the sales; it’s nice frosting on the gig-cake, but not much more. So WHAT IF your game plan instead was to give away 500 as step one in your promo plan, with the goal to get gigs. You’re thinking, send to 500 clubs? No, they are barraged with submissions, often, the only way to rise from the mire is from an outside push. This means the booker hears about your CD from a “3rd party”.

“I just got so-an-so’s new platter, wow, you should get ’em on the calendar.” Comments from trusted friends mean more than you can imagine. Now for the ciphering: Maybe you get a gig indirectly from 1% of your promos, that’s 5 jobs, gross $5000 (plus you sell 50 CDs on the gigs)- and you should do better than that.

So forget the business cards and fancy promo packs- just put your best foot forward, start giving away as many CDs as you can.

Make sure every friend you have gets one — you just can’t beat the gift of music, especially if you are trying to make a living at it..

You don’t have time to read this

not your grandfather's clock

not your grandfather's clock

There is so much pretty good, so much more pretty bad-  you don’t have time to wade through amateur hour to find real value. In about every aspect of modern life you are being asked to deal with more and more information, more and more versions of oreos and goldfish.  It all takes time, more and more time.  Faster, more powerful computers- are they saving YOU any time? I used to only wait on one computer, now it seems like whatever I do, I’m punching or clicking and waiting, waiting

I’ve been saying it for awhile, a third arm and hand would be a tremendous advantage,  just to keep you from falling on your face.

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.  So don’t waste your time on triviality.

Sivers and Godin, on “Spreading Music”

Seth Godin recently responded to some good (not great, maybe, but pretty good) questions about our topic, the future of music on Derek Sivers’ blog (CDBaby Daddy- note that, does that mean he’s an organization or just more organized than the rest of us org-less schmucks?)- I found this bit particularly interesting:

Get over the idea that your success is equated with selling the right to listen, or selling control over when people listen. Relinquish the opportunity to make money by controlling who can listen and when. That’s gone. It’s over. It would be like a bakery selling the right to sniff the fresh bread or a wine maker selling the right to look at the cool label. It’s now a public good, something you see as you walk by.

What you can sell, what you better be able to sell, is intimacy. It’s interactions in public. Souvenirs. Limited things of value. Experiences. Memories. People will pay for those things, IF: your art is actually great and if you make it possible for them to buy them.

“Like a bakery selling the right to sniff the fresh bread” he says,  but of course smelling is not the same as consuming. You buy the bread, you eat it, it’s gone, period.  Paintings, he notes, are often free to “experience”, and while it may not be as “filling” as owning the art, you can stand next to the owner of a painting and get the same enjoyment. Music is different, as he points out, not like bread, not like a painting.

Salvador Dali once said the difference between one of his original paintings and a good reproduction was the price. Stand back a few feet, you can’t tell the difference.  So what’s the difference between you standing up and spilling your guts out in front of an audience to an audience listening to a “reproduction” of you, say on CD? We all know the CD will probably sound better, but still, there is no comparison, nada, zilch. They are like apples and tennis balls, completely different items.

So what does it mean? You gotta eat, assuming you don’t have a patron, so how do you price your art and make a living? What’s the business model?  Seth says you can sell ‘intimacy’, which is a pretty good (but maybe not great) word to describe what we do in front of a crowd. (Some musicians get by creating ‘amazement’ in their listeners, with technical prowess, we’re not talking about that)

It’s not a lonely art; it may start that way, but eventually it has to go out into the world, with the people, with your friends, for your friends.  Let’s pick, as we say.
Painting: visual art
Bread-making: culinary art (craft??)
Music: performing art

Links, Links, Links

A chapter from Folk Music 2.0: Better odds through science.

One thing you’ve got to admit, the internet is what we call reality-based even if the reality is virtual.  And it’s based on science, isn’t it? Acts logically, mathematically, to make it all work. You want better odds on being heard, an increased chance of success, so put SCIENCE ahead of ART for a few minutes and consider this:

Go to Google and start typing. But just one letter, say A. Whoah. What do you see? I get Amazon, AOL and American Airlines suggested to me. Mind you, you may get different result, especially if you are logged in to, say, a Google account; they know everything about your browsing habits and will attempt to choose what their computer’s think you are looking for. But no matter, Google is still using science to make those suggestions.

OK, so what? Well, let’s examine how they come up with these suggestions.  If you want to do any testing (you know, the scientific method), log out of any account that might affect your searches, again, especially google. You also might want to delete your browsing history. This takes any ‘user bias’ out of the equation (notice how we can smartly bandy these math terms about)- try the A test again.  I still get the same big three, and I bet I know why. There are 671 million reasons for Google to pick Amazon first, as that’s how many LINKS they found for that term. What’s more, I can see from Google Keyword Analytics that 83 million people a month search for that term. They are just laying odds that Amazon is likely to be what you are after when you start typing with an A. Number two, AOL, as you might expect, has lower numbers than Amazon, take my word for it or check for yourself.

Get to the point! Read more

Pretension, Play-acting, Posturing

Pretense is firstly “an allegation of doubtful value” (MW).  I’m a huge fan of Orhan Pamuk- there’s a guy who is very interested in pretense, and the eternal quest to find out who he really is, not who one thinks is or would like to be. He says we go to the movies and own a lot of useless stuff to gain a few moments (or hours, or a lifetime) of respite from our “selves”, diversions to avoid thinking about who we really are. It’s a primary theme in his books- it may be THE main challenge for any artist.

Pamuk is from Istanbul, and his stories are laced with pashas and sultans,  high rankers in the Ottoman Empire.  They are forever disguising themselves and escaping the palace and trappings, eager for some honest interaction and  a break from being the living projection of their subjects.  They wear a costume and play a role as a commoner, to find out who they really are, and then return to the palace to resume their full-time gig, acting the royal role. Read more


We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility. – Glenn Branca, NY Times

We are living through an amazing time in the arts, the beginning of an epoch. Artists of all types, (even those of us with limited resources), have access to tools that hadn’t been dreamed in the “golden era”, fabulous instruments musical and technical. Everything has changed- the playing field, the game, the players.  This presents us with a challenge, but luckily we threw the rulebook out with the old game.

We must seize this moment. WE THE PEOPLE, the artists, the musicians, the dancers, WE can write the new rules, and take back our art from the puppetmasters. We can go around their weakened forces, directly to our fans.

We are talking  revolution, here, and what the new post.alt music business 2.0 will look like.  If anything is certain, it’s that you will be in control of your art and your business if you intend to survive- and you will be using any and every tool available, to make your music and to get it into the ears of your listeners, wherever they are.

I won’t go too deeply into music production tools (although there may be a bit about the Death of Autotune (2009), sticking mainly to the marketing and distribution of your “product”, the micro-business of you or your band.

Yamaha CX5M, c1984

Yamaha CX5M, c1984

Musicians were early adopters of computer tech. It all started, for me with a Yamaha CX5M in 1984, hooked to a DX7.  The evolution to an Atari ST in ’85 and an internet connection was logical and orderly, and I had email (Compuserve, 1987!) for about a year before I had anybody to email to.  But I knew then, it was something that could be leveraged, a huge network I didn’t pay for, a pipe of ever-growing size from my computer to yours! Practically free, I could send a song for a song, and it changed my life.   The wires  and the satellites are  there, we can use them willy-nilly. How do we do that? How can we make the most of it?

Answering this and looking ahead, this is all about surviving in the real world by utilizing the virtual world.

Guaranteed Pundit-grade or Better Opinion and Consultation, Right Here! Read more

Going Around the Blockage

This no-brainer of a strategy comes straight out of the Republican playbook, and you’ve got to give them some credit- just use it towards better ends, please. I did music for a documentary on Jesse Helms a few years back, and spent quite a few hours listening to Jesse’s henchmen describe how they put Senator No into office and kept him there for years. The smart guy was Richard Viguerie, a long-time politico/marketing genius, credited with “inventing” direct mail marketing. He holds up his left hand, back to camera, and then describes going “around the blockage of Dan Rather, CBS news, the NY Times, the liberal media”, his right hand moving around the left, like a shark going for the kill- “straight to the voters”  with his direct mail appeals.

That’s what the modern musician can do, if he/she/they can leverage the internet, really use the tools that are available- and there are plenty- to get and keep fans. Who are you trying to reach? Where are they hanging out? At a nearby club? At the country club? In front of their computer??

Answer one question at a time, add your own, and stay tuned!

Pioneered political use of computerized direct mail. That technology was the Internet of its day: it enabled conservatives to get around liberals’ dominance of the mass media; it allowed thousands of conservative candidates, organizations and causes to get their messages to grassroots Americans. – RV