What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

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Busy-ness is Part of the Business

This has been a busy week and promises to continue to be so at least through tomorrow. Monday was taken up to a great extent by my annual physical, which between the commute there, the appointment, waiting for the blood draw at another office and then the commute home consumed about four hours. Tuesday was my light day. Wednesday consisted of a morning rehearsal and one in the evening. Thursday involved a trip to the dentist to reaffix the crown that came off Wednesday night, then a trip to Waukegan, IL for a television date with one of the Blu Wavs, then rehearsal in the evening with another band. Today has been devoted to class preparation for next week, and another rehearsal tonight. Tomorrow isn’t too bad with a guitar student in the morning and a gig opening for The Tubes in Bolingbroke, IL. Sunday I’ll finish up my plan for the semester and send off the syllabi for printing. All the while I’ve been keeping up with my writing commitment and doing the other things I do around the house to help keep things running. It’s good to be busy, but it really amazes me how much time is spent on the background stuff (preparation), versus the foreground (performance). I also find it ironic that the background area is where most of the actual nitty gritty work gets done, but the only money really comes in with the foreground work, which usually takes the least amount of time out of the bargain. As a writer and a musician both, I find myself with the conundrum of trying to turn it all into making a living, and both fields have similar issues.

Most writers that make money in the book market earn it in the form of royalties and the initial payment takes the form of an advance on expected royalties earned from projected book sales. The writer doesn’t see any more income from that particular publication until the advance has been recouped through actual sales. The IRS views the royalties as unearned income and withhold at a higher rate, which is a bit on the cruel side, despite the fact that most authors aren’t actually being paid while they write. The same holds true for musicians who make recordings through traditional record labels, except in that case usually the advance is also expected to cover the actual recording expenses. In both cases, writers and recording artists, the percentage per sales unit that they earn in the royalties themselves is quite low so making real money on the deal relies heavily upon the volume of sales. This is one of the reasons why self-publication and musicians creating their own independent labels has been growing in the digital age. This route creates a stronger possibility that the individuals who are creating the material can actually make a reasonable living without having to sell absolutely massive amounts of product in order to do so.

Of course the individual in these cases has to finance the whole production. This isn’t quite as problematic with writers as it is for musicians, but in both cases it involves a pretty steep learning curve, finding solid marketing and distribution resources, solid planning with a reasonable business plan, and some capital to finance the project. Both writers and musicians at this point can rely upon a strictly digital product, which can cut down some of the expenses on the front end. The advent of the e-readers has radically changed the expense of publishing a book, for instance, so if the independent writer wants to go the digital self-publication route there are several distributors that are more than willing to assist them in the process, most notably amazon.com and iBooks. They take a larger cut, but they are handling distribution and some limited advertising. Musicians can go the same route with iTunes, amazon.com and other download providers, as well as selling downloads through their own websites. However, most musicians need to invest in actual small run productions of cds as well, particularly for selling at shows along with other merchandise that promotes either their bands or themselves. Once again, the funding comes out of the individuals’ pockets.

At this point musicians are having to look into some pretty interesting ways to end up making ends meet and to bring projects together. Touring is expensive, downloading has led to piracy, and people are quite frankly becoming unwilling to part with money to pay for their daily soundtracks. The ease of access that the digital domain has created has also created a negative impact on sales of digital files. Sites like YouTube have an incredible amount of popular music material just a free click away, subsidized by commercials that aren’t lining the performers’ pockets. If there is any money made by the artists themselves, it’s even smaller than anything they would recoup from digital download sales, and while exposure is great, it won’t house or feed you. This type of situation has led to many musicians turning to crowd funding in order to make things happen and some have had incredible success simply asking their fans for the cash to front things.

So yes, I’m busy and I’ve got quite a bit on my plate at any one given time. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around all of this in a world that has changed so incredibly over the past 54 years of my lifetime. Changes in medium have brought so many incredible shifts in both the businesses of writing and music making, let alone the shifts in the technology that are still occurring at an ever increasing rate, yet still I’m loading up the equipment and heading out to gigs, paid and on spec, in the hopes that they’ll lead to something else. Still I’m hammering away on keys of some sort, affixing words to virtual pages where it used to be actual paper rolling into a typewriter or flowing from a pen. I’m still rehearsing, I’m still playing, and I’m still chasing that carrot no matter how many times it eludes me. Next week classes start up for spring semester, and a more traditional type or paycheck for at least part of my income. I’ll be ready.

Band Biz: The Value of Well Conducted Meetings

Bands are made up of people, and in most cases they tend to be democratic units where everyone has a say in how things are run. Sometimes this is not the case, mostly situations where a leader has hired musicians to fulfill his or her project’s needs. In these cases money is usually involved even to rehearse. However, most bands function outside of the full on pro level and so adopt a majority rules approach. You might have a semi official leader, someone who runs rehearsals, and a division of labor among the group members, but all of this is usually decided by the group as a whole. In order for things to run smoothly, and various jobs to be agreed upon, it is usually necessary to hold periodic meetings, often short ones before or after rehearsals. Sometimes longer meetings are held either in lieu of or in addition to scheduled rehearsals, but these are primarily on an as needed basis. In order for the group to get the most out of its short, or long, scheduled meetings each member must know in advance that the meeting is going to take place, there should be an actual written agenda for the meeting, someone needs to document the proceedings and any decisions made, and everyone must be comfortable with a majority rules decision making process.

Meetings must have a purpose and if they’re going to be conducted successfully should have a plan laid out in the form of an agenda. The agenda should include the topics that need to be discussed and can follow a template decided on by the group. Some things discussed will of course need more time than others, such as new material proposals. One of the benefits of an agenda is that it can be sent to the band members before the meeting so they can think about the topics before hand and come up with ideas. Proposing new material is one of the areas that each member should do some prep work on before the meeting so they are coming to the meeting with a potential list of suggestions in place. This can also include emailing or texting suggestions to whomever is going to run the meeting so he or she can make up a master list for discussion and decision making at the meeting. This kind of pre-meeting planning and preparation can save quite a bit of time for everyone and help to keep things focused.

When the meeting takes place, someone needs to document what has been discussed, what decisions have been made, and then what needs to be carried over to the next meeting either due to running out of time or needing additional time to think about, prep responses to, or do the work required. Without documentation all too often the time ends up being wasted. People will forget what they decided, who said yes to what, what needed to be done before the next meeting/rehearsal, which songs were supposed to be next on the list to work on, and all of the other various aspects that were covered. Whoever takes notes for the meeting should within a reasonable amount of time transcribe what was covered, what decisions were made, and what needs to be addressed on the next agenda, then send it to the other members/make it available. This ensures that people remain on track and that everyone knows what his or her responsibilities are in relation to those decisions.

Bands run best when everyone is satisfied with how things are being decided, and feel like they really have a say in where things are headed and what is being done. It is very important that everyone feels like they have a voice that is heard and taken into consideration. That being said, when a band is run as a democracy everyone needs to be able to handle that when decisions are made, the majority rules. There should be boundaries, of course, and if someone totally despises a piece of music, or finds something intolerable then that MUST be taken into account. While it is a democracy it still needs to be reasonable, otherwise people will leave. If you’ve got a good team player who is being consistently shorted, then you’ll probably end up having conflict, so bear in mind that everyone needs to get his or her way sometimes. Keeping things on equal footing helps immensely.

Bands that are successful are so for many reasons, but one thing they have in common, particularly the ones that are together for extended runs, is that their people work well together for a common goal. This takes effort, even if everyone gets along well. Organization can make a huge difference in being able to maintain that solid relationship as the band moves along, grows and meets with new challenges. A key to creating that organization is open communication and one of the only ways that is going to happen is through dedicated meetings. These meetings must be planned with advance notice, have agendas, and need to have written documentation of what was decided and discussed in order to ensure that everyone is still on the same page the following week, rehearsal or performance. This can and will make a huge difference in both the productivity of the band, and the relationships between the band members.

Meeting the Next Year by Charging Out of the Gate

Today the sun is shining for the first time in about a week. We’ve had a long stretch of gray culminating in a bit of a light snowstorm that dumped about six inches of snow in 24 hours. Now the sun is hitting the garage roof and has started building icicles on the eaves. It’s definitely a plus to see blue skies for a change. I’m starting a new year after celebrating my birthday yesterday with Indian food and cheesecake, and the planning is starting yet again. I made progress this past year, but I want to hit the ground running for this coming year. My big challenge is going to be breaking into the world of booking shows ,which will require me to really step out of my comfort zone. I’m not very comfortable selling myself, which is essentially what booking entails. It requires that I talk about myself, maintain a positive outward persona, and not take anything personally, all of which I find to be challenging due to various reasons. I lean towards being an introvert, don’t go to bars unless I’m playing there, go through periods of depression, and as far as not taking anything personally see a and b.

Over the years I have developed the ability to appear extroverted in certain situations. If I have to go to a party I will find someone to talk to, and often engage quite a few folks there, but I find the whole process exhausting. I can also only handle about two hours of interaction before I’m ready to find a quiet dark corner and regroup for about four hours before venturing out again. It really takes a lot out of me. When I teach college English courses I’m very careful about how my schedule gets set up. I avoid teaching back to back courses like the plague because I have to be “on” for the entire class, keeping the students engaged, using humor to rope them in and deliver the intended lesson for the day. After an hour and twenty minutes I’m wrung out and really need a break. So I try to ensure that I have at least another class length’s time before I have to go in and do it again. This is pretty typical for introverted folks. I imagine that doing the booking is going to be tiring in a similar manner, as well as requiring me to go to places I normally wouldn’t in my free time.

Being the type of person that I am I like coffee shops quite a bit, as well as some types of restaurants. I don’t drink alcohol with any frequency and when I do choose to have a drink it’s at home where I don’t have to concern myself with driving anywhere. The only reason I go to a bar is if the band I’m playing in has a gig there, or occasionally someone else’s band has a gig that I’m interested in. This doesn’t happen all that often however, because if I’m not out playing I’m probably home sleeping. I dislike loud crowded places, which is what you get at a bar most of the time on the nights music is offered. This is also part of my lot as an introvert. I don’t have a problem with going to a classical concert, where everything is orderly. In this situation people aren’t running into each other, trying to have conversations over the music, or crowding together like they do at bars, so I can maintain my inner sense of personal space.

A major part of booking involves dealing with rejection. I know this and for the most part I can deal with it well. It’s a business and as such I can’t take rejection as a personal thing. I’m not living in the venue owner’s space so I can’t possible know why he or she will say yes or no. My concern here, though is handling it when I’m depressed because I’m going to have to deal with that. I might be fine now, but I know that down the road I’m going to be facing that scenario. When I’m depressed it’s very difficult to handle rejection; it seems like an affirmation of all that my inner demon is telling me about myself. Sounds like fun, huh?

The answers to all of these concerns lies within myself in many ways. For instance, the concerns about the bars can be met with focusing on other venues for my solo work, like the coffee shops and restaurants. I don’t have to play in bars. Granted, there is more work for bands in bars, it’s kind of a traditional venue for them, but I can point my solo performances in a different direction and still meet my goals. The introvert related issues really boil down to setting limits for each day in terms of how much time I devote to dealing with interpersonal communications. If I do my research ahead of time like finding out who is the person who handles booking and when they are on site before making a trip there, can cut down on the amount of time I have to be “on” to make my pitch. The rejection aspect is simple reality. Everyone faces it, deals with it, and moves on from it. The easiest way to deal with it is to realize it’s a non-issue because it’s going to happen probably more often than not. I can get over it. I did with submitting poems for publication. I’ll just stuff a sock in that nasty old demon’s mouth and get on with it. What do you say? Shall we book some gigs?

Promo Packets: A Booking and Self-Promotional Must

Self-promotion is one of the things that are required of a performing artist. Building a promo packet that accurately reflects your performance strengths and what you have to offer is vital to taking the next step into the booking world that all of us must enter at some point. This can be a bit tricky because you want to build yourself up into a salable commodity, but you don’t want to over-blow your own horn. Whatever you put into your promo packet you have to be able to deliver, so while you might be tempted to stretch reality a bit, you really have to be careful how far you push it. Often promo packs will include a headshot, biographical information, perhaps a song list, any endorsements from prior performances or venues. You might also list venues where you’ve performed, bands you’ve worked with and whatever else will paint you in a good light and get your foot in the door. Most of the time one the more important items in the packet is the demo CD where you are giving your target an example of what you can do. Usually these have maybe four or five tunes on them, sometimes more. Another option is video of past performances. Your packet should look professional and give the person who is booking the venue confidence that you will be able to deliver once hired.

When it comes to putting a professional packet together, the best way to go about it is to farm out as much as one can to professionals in the field. If you want good photos for the promo pack, you need to find a quality photographer to shoot them, and it should be someone who is familiar with the product you are selling. Take time to coordinate with the photographer about potential location shoots, and to also consider what you are going to wear for the photos. You want a look that is appropriate to what you’re trying to sell, and sometimes this might necessitate costume changes. You might want a rock and roll image for booking rock clubs, plus a more formal image for booking corporate events. If you’re presenting both looks in your packet, the person booking the show will have greater confidence in your professionalism.

Likewise, when it comes to the demo recordings you should go to a reputable studio to produce them. The recordings need to give a good idea of what your performance is going to deliver, and while they don’t have to be the same quality as a national headliner’s studio produced albums, they should give a pretty accurate perspective of your abilities. Studio time does cost money, just like booking the photographer, so you need to plan what you’re going to record, and also ensure that you are well rehearsed before showing up for the recording session. The more time you take to get a good take of a tune, the more money you’re spending to produce the entire demo. Usually what will happen after you have cut the demo tracks is a quick mastering session, that might simply be mixing the recordings down, adding some light reverb and then burning your master CD. If you plan well and go to a decent studio it is possible that you might be able to complete the process in one session. I did a fingerstyle demo in two hours of studio time. I laid down about 12 short tunes and had a basic mastered CD in my hands at the end of those two hours because I was prepared, knew what I wanted, and maintained focus. It helped that it was an excellent studio as well.

If you are a decent writer, then go ahead and create your own bio. Even if you aren’t, you’re going to have to present the pertinent details of your musical career to someone else to write it, so you should at least outline the important points you want to make before taking to someone who can write it up for you. Remember, the packet is you in the hands of the venue. Everything about it represents you so you want to be certain that the bio is well written, just like the photos and the recordings. If you don’t know how to write well, no big deal, just find someone else who can so that you end up with a bio that reads like it has a professional purpose. Along with the bio it’s also a good idea to have a statement of purpose, or an artist’s statement. What is your perspective on performing and how do you go about communicating this with your audience? Once again, you should consider what you put in, reflect upon it, and if it’s not going to be helpful it should be cut.

Usually business cards are included with the promo packet. These are pretty easy to get your hands on these days, particularly with companies like Vistaprint that can be accessed through the internet. Vistaprint has a wide variety of business card templates that are really easy to use to design a respectable card at a reasonable price. I’ve used them for several years and have been quite happy with the end product, as well as their prices, and their speed of delivery. They always seem to get the cards to me faster than I expect and they’re always exactly what I’ve ordered. Once again, if you are not confident in your abilities in this area, you can always hit up a friend you have confidence in to help you design the cards and put in your order. It’s pretty easy.

This being said, another alternative that has been gaining popularity is the electronic promo kit. Essentially you can build a web site that does all of this as well as hosts your own email address. You can either hook up with one of the d.i.y. online companies to build one or you can hire someone to make a full blown professional site that even allows you to sell merch on it, a good way to supplement your gigging income. This does cost money, and it’s a real case of getting what you pay for. You’ll still need to do business cards, but in this case your card is the gateway to your promotional material. When you use a traditional promo pack, each one you hand out is a business expense that you’re not going to be able to use again. Clubs don’t return your packets so once it’s dropped off, it’s done. This is one of the benefits of the online type. Plus with the online one your fans can access it as well.

Promo kits are still very much a reality of being an active performing artist, and in most cases they are the gateway to solid booking practices. They are your professional representation in your absence so they need to accurately represent you in the best manner possible. So whether you choose to use a traditional promotional packet with recordings, photos, bios, and business cards packaged in a nice folder, or opt for the electronic one along with business cards, the packet itself is a necessary tool to self-promotion and booking. Whichever you choose, think carefully about what you include and what image you present. It’ll pay off in the long run.

Dreams and Realities: Moving through A Life Long Musical Career

Last night as I was sleeping on the pull out sofa bed at my in-laws’ I dreamed I was playing guitar with Elton John and when he left the stage it became an open mic night.  Did I mention it was a dream, heh, heh?  We didn’t have a plan on what to play; after all what do you play after doing a set with Elton John?  So we went into a basic blues shuffle and I started to take a solo but the neck on the Strat I was playing felt like there was something wrong.  At that point I awoke to find my left hand wrapped around the metal tube that made the frame of the bed, trying to form a bar chord.  No wonder the “Strat” neck felt wrong!  Occasionally, like last night, I get lucky in my dreamscapes and get to play with some great folks.  Another night I dreamed that I was sitting on the floor playing with Emmy Lou Harris and Ricky Skaggs.  These are the type of dreams that I don’t want to wake up from, but when I do I count myself lucky to have had the dream for a couple of reasons.  First, they’re really cool dreams, and second because they remind me of the level that I really want to perform on; they are literally my dream playing positions and inevitably show the variety of my musical interests in the process.

Last night’s dream was unique in that I was playing in two very different situations, one of which was high function pro level and the other was very much local get together and see what happens.  It was an odd juxtaposition because they were drastically different on so many levels, but it was a dream that within itself was portraying a dream versus reality situation.  What I want, vs. what I get.  For most of us our realities don’t match our dreams so we find a way to accept our lots and move on with them.  Others actually get to live their dreams, but who knows, maybe they dream about having a week where they can simply hang at home and not have to hop on a jet to the next venue.  All I know is I’d like to have that opportunity on a regular basis at some point before I shuffle off this mortal coil to paraphrase the bard.

When our dreams and our realities are out of phase and we have the opportunity to reflect on this disconnect we can either take the opportunity to try to figure out what is standing in the way and come up with a plan to get us closer to those dreams, or we can settle into acceptance of our lot in life and try to be content with it.  A third possibility, of course, is to find the disparity between the two to be too great to overcome and too depressing to deal with, so we quit.  This third option is clearly the most self-defeating because in allowing this perspective to cloud our minds we find ourselves losing something that has been a very important part of our lives.  Yet another option is to do everything in our power to perform at the level we desire to, whether we are on the national stage or in a local corner pub.  In many ways this is what separates the true pros from the amateurs.  I once heard an interview with Huey Lewis where he stated that all he ever wanted to do was sing and play his harmonica, whether he “made it” or not.  Obviously he made it to the international star level, but what drove him there was his love for what he did as much as anything else.  He was committed to his art and craft, and was going to pursue it regardless of where that pursuit led him.

I truly believe that if we took a survey of most of the folks my generation considers as our idols (I was born in 1962), most of them were in it for the long haul whether fame came or went.  In fact for a large percentage of them fame was fleeting.  They were big names for awhile but were mostly forgotten yet most of them continued regardless, some hoping for the next big hit, while others kept going simply because that’s what they did and how they identified themselves.  Some did go on and pursue alternative careers, but they were probably the minority.  There is much that goes into becoming a famous musician, not the least of which is a hefty dose of luck.  Sometimes musical skill wasn’t even part of the equation but the artist had something to offer that appealed to a group of listeners at the right place and time to elevate them to idol status.  Regardless, most of them continued and many grew throughout their careers.  If we look at The Who’s music from when they started and compare it to their peak performance levels there is no argument that they continued to push their boundaries throughout their careers as a group and as individuals.

Not all of us are going to become household names, in fact a very small percentage of musicians or performers of any kind do.  If fame is what drives us to be musicians then we’re dealing with a very shallow motivator that will eventually in all likelihood break down and leave us lost along the roadway.  Music itself, a love of performance, and the desire to make the best music we can make are motivators that can take us the long distance of our lifetimes regardless of what fame we might garner along the way.  Love of the medium and the journey itself is where we should find our rewards, regardless of whether we’re actually making a living at it or not, and surrounds ourselves with the best like minded people we can work with does a lot to make that a reality for ourselves and move us toward our ultimate goals one way or another.

 

Wrapping up my Summer and Looking Ahead

So here it is, just a day short of mid-September and I find that it has been several weeks since I have posted. I have fallen behind in my blogging responsibilities and for this I apologize. During August I did another month long writing challenge, this time focusing on fiction with a minimum of 750 words per day. I succeeded in completing the challenge, hurrah for me, and now am facing the task of going through what I wrote to determine what has legs and what doesn’t. It’s all part of my growing process and also part of being a polymath by nature.

Musically things are moving along as well. I am working with a trio with another guitarist and a harmonica player with whom I’ve done two gigs in the past three weeks. We’re working out the kinks and having fun in the process, which is good. I’ve also done a couple of pickup gigs playing at block parties, once again on guitar. These were fun paying gigs that we were fortunate enough to have good weather for. One of them required me to switch between bass and guitar, using a bass that I finished building this summer. An interesting outgrowth of that gig is that I’ve decided to unretire myself from playing bass. I’ve actually missed it quite a bit, so I traded an acoustic guitar for a mint Carvin SB5000 and got back into a band with it.

This has me currently working on three musical projects, the trio mentioned above, my solo act, and a rock band on bass, while looking for other musical work as well. I’m also trying to launch my writing career plus trying to increase my income potential as well, so I’m trying to book more guitar students. Additionally, on the medical/health side of things, I’m supposed to increase my physical activities, use my light box, and lose weight through the aforementioned exercise and eating better. I’ve got one hell of a lot of irons in the fire, all over the place and needless to say, I’m quite stressed.

My psychiatrist would say that I’m trying to change too many things at the same time, and she’s probably correct. Incremental change generally fosters higher success rates as opposed to my penchant for the shotgun effect (put a lot out there and hope that something hits the target). But I really need to step up my game and make something happen as soon as possible. Stagnant pools breed disease; I need my water to run clean and clear so I’m stirring things up, keeping things moving, and through doing so ensuring that things are interesting as well.

So, here it is, the middle of the ninth month of the year and I’m finally getting back to putting up a much overdue blog post. Usually I try to do more than simply giving an update on my activities, but that’s what I’ve got this time. I’m sticking my nose into the booking and marketing games next, so I’ll probably have something to say about those in the near future. Cheers to late summer and early fall!