Friends! Enemies! Vaguely talented vermin! Are you marching to an event this week to play for five people? Are you ordering your album in a run of 20 copies? Do you look at your Bandcamp stats, see 2 “partial” plays half way down your playlist and wonder who and why? Are you aware that the words fan, friend, and co-worker are not synonyms? Are you finding these questions generally offensive? Fret not, for I am about to delve into a thorough analysis of why you’re broke and nobody cares about your music. Don’t worry, I’m not a hypocrite, I’ll be using a lot of my own failure as a reference point.
I remember in 1998, there was this band called The Council. Some of you who remember them probably just groaned because, well, they weren’t exactly Emperor, but get over it. We’re thinking local. After they released their debut album Waiting for the Pain, these guys ordered a huge run of CD-Rs with 3 of the album’s songs on it, and were outside serious metal shows, terrible nu-metal shows, and any rock radio promotion with fistfuls of these things with flyers to their next gig stuffed in them. They shook your hand, talked to you, and the whole process was very human. If you have done this, this article is not about you. If you’ve left your flyers at The Beat and wondered why that didn’t generate a fan base, well, it is about you. Being a teenager and the appropriate age demographic for bonehead metal at the time, I purchased their debut album from Tower Records and saw them play packed shows at Big Shots in Roseville, full of people that they didn’t know personally.
This brings me to the biggest problem with most local music: your friends. When getting a first gig at a new venue full of promise and rock and roll dreams, it’s a good tactic to encourage all of your friends to come out so it looks like you have a draw already. The idea is that you use this as a crutch while you wait for your music to reach that important demographic: total strangers. I hate to break it to you, but most of your friends don’t even like your music. They come to your show, nod along, pretend to care, then get in their car and either groan about how they’re waiting for you to do something real, or they put on a record that you personally can’t stand and blast it the whole way back to their apartment. The issue here is that, for some reason, these are the people most of us consistently play for. What are we doing wrong? How come every show in some networked scene is 20 attendees, most of which are other musicians from that scene? Is it because we’re all so self-loathing about our creative output that we don’t think people will care? Or is it just that our music is so awful that people simply don’t care? Well, it can be a mix of both.
The first part is especially true: you’re not promoting yourself. Oh, but I hand out flyers and I was on some podcast that noone listens to! Flyers only work if somebody actually knows your name. You, yes- you, when you get a flyer and it’s five bands that don’t ring any bells in your head, you crumple it up in your pocket and then it turns into a blank piece of paper in the wash. Just assume you’re selling yourself to yourself. What would make you care? Would you be as quick to throw away a demo? Well, you might be, depending on if it was any good. This part brings up the second factor. I have a box separate from my cd shelves dedicated to unsolicited crap that isn’t valuable enough to trade. The good demos wind up on the shelf, 98% of what gets pawned off on me winds up in this little cardboard pit of despair. But what sets them apart from paper flyers? Most got played, at least the first song. I shouldn’t have to reiterate the ancient A&R rule of “put your best song first” for demo cds, but you might think that the long ambient intro that was perfectly kosher within the context of your LP can start off something that is likely to become a coaster. No, please, don’t do that. Don’t offer to trade either. That other musician may have paid to have his /her/their CDs manufactured and thought your set sucked, and will think your homemade album did too.
So, how do we promote ourselves? The beginning of this article gave a clear example, but let’s break it down a bit.
Unlicensed venues do not get bands signed. The Hub got the axe recently and I personally say: good riddance. For those who weren’t hip enough to know, it was a waiting room at an auto detailer infiltrated by a legit local art collective and a bunch of holier-than-thou hipster DJs from UC Davis, who somehow think the mediocrity they praise will be accepted by the world just because 30 people listen to their radio show. It smelled like arm pit, had standing room for maybe 20 people, and you couldn’t put the address on your flyers because the place was illegal. Who came to your show? The other bands, a couple smart asses in sunglasses from KDVS, and maybe 5 of your friends. When you played here, you accomplished nothing. You essentially had band practice at a different, perhaps smaller studio, and 7 of the 15 people there slithered outside to smoke because they didn’t care about your set. Maybe the band that opened for you really dug what you did, but they were getting wasted in their van ahead of time. You’ll actually stand a better chance of success playing basement house parties, provided the people in charge of that house include at least one smoking hot hoe-bag with a bunch of desperate hipsters waiting to sniff her panties who faithfully come to every event she spams off on Facebook.
When Graham and I played the Hub last, we decided material was gay, but skirts were totally hetero.
Give the suburbs more of a chance. There’s a forcefield around Midtown Sacramento. It is bound by the freeways at 30th and X Streets respectively, and the other lines are drawn around 9th and K. In reality, these people blew their insurance payment on weed and tofu, think public transit is somehow complicated, own bicycles that don’t really get past 9mph, and think that sitting at a coffeeshop flipping their scarf back and forth while pretending their socialist agenda actually matters is more important than traveling the whole 5 miles to your gig at On the Y. Despite Midtown’s unwarranted superiority complex (ironically offset by its inferiority complex against San Francisco), your friends in Carmichael, Arden, Citrus Heights, and Rancho Cordova just worked a hard week, aren’t really walking distance of anything, and wouldn’t mind spending this weekend doing something other than watching Arrested Development reruns on Netflix. You know why all your shows in the suburbs are dead? You do all your promoting in Midtown. Go figure, bands that are actually from the suburbs have a bigger fanbase than you. I knew one talented musician who wrote music on the poppier end, and everytime he played Roseville he brought at least 30 heads, most of which he didn’t know, and they bought merch like crazy because they didn’t waste their allowance and/or paycheck on books they don’t actually read and thrift store bullshit. However, when playing the suburbs, adjust your setlist accordingly:
Try to look like you care. This is my biggest problem. I have what I guess you could call Woody Allen’s disease; I’m a pessimist from the start and I’m in such doubt that my project will work that I often give up before it’s completed. As much as I despise the pseudo-critical blog-posing-as-a-magazine publication Pitchfork, they wrote about our hometown heroes Hella’s album Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard with “Sometimes the best way to succeed in music is by pretending you’re already the biggest band in the world.” There’s an awful truth to that. This truth is exemplified in many local bands that you make fun of who have more fans than you. You know, the bands with the overdone logo graphics on their website, pictures of themselves on their flyers, more merchandise than you have 9 minute songs, and who can book a show at The Fire Escape and actually be invited to come back.
Thinking you’re the next Bob Dylan doesn’t give you a license to suck. You know when you wind up at Luna’s and the opening act knows 4 chords and sings out of key the whole time? Sacramento’s indie culture is sometimes a parody of indie culture. This lingering need to rebel against 80s buttrock, which was already successfully accomplished by the grunge movement 20 years ago, results in a lot of douchebags thinking it’s okay that their guitar is a mystery to them. Music theory, solos and good old fashioned songs about screwing are out, bad fashion sense, out of tune guitars and pawn shop specials are in. You may attribute the lack of technical prowess of Bob Dylan and Neil Young as the justification for your coffeeshop scribblings that nobody cares about, but really, either one of those guys had forgotten more about music than you’ll ever know by the time they were 25. Tune up and practice or face the consequences of your demo being used as a post-breakup mockery by all your future ex-girlfriends.
Quit playing shows with your friends’ bands. Play with bands you hate instead. First of all, you’ve just eliminated a huge chunk of that made-up “fanbase” you lied to the promoter about. You probably share a group of friends you drag to shows. Also, they’re probably as much, if not more niche than you, which means the sighs of anyone wanting to have a good time are going to go up tenfold. Bands you hate, however, you probably hate because in all of your uber-artiste pretense you just can’t tolerate their unashamed sucking up to the audience and predictable melodies that sound like Maroon 5 raping Nickelback. In reality, among the much larger group of listeners they’ll bring, a few more open minded but perhaps unexposed patrons may find your avantgarde mess wonderful. I played at a Christian youth center with a bunch of emo and pop-rock bands, and one audience member was so delightfully confused by the sprawling mess of a “show” we put on, that he hugged me. By playing events outside your circle, you go beyond the same 20 nobodies and maybe find listeners who will tell their friends about you, because “Dude! I’ve never heard anything like this!”
There’s also a few local “festivals” that wind up booking more than 2 dozen acts to create the illusion of an audience, but really, all the out of towners that were invited are now just down gas and lodging money to attend your giant circle jerk.
You can leave at anytime. I remember there was this old bit on the Drew Carrey Show, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase something I probably haven’t seen in 10 years, “He also invented the cubicle. He originally called them cages, but then decided that locking them wasn’t necessary, because they’re imprisoned in their minds.” This is how I’ve come to feel about the bottom half of Sacramento’s music scene. It’s why I’ve retired from ambient/experimental performances and you wont see me on stage until my new rock band is ready. For the droning rubbish, it’s easier to just release it online for free since it cost nothing to make and observe the few Germans that actually care. I have no intention of playing in dusty closets for 5 of you because I finally figured out that those gigs don’t matter. That “We need any gig!” logic isn’t entirely accurate. What? When you tell Old Ironsides that last show you played at that unlicensed venue drew 30 people, do you think they’re going to stop to validate that? Okay, so by only playing at venues that are legal, have standing room and listings in SN&R, you might dramatically decrease how often you play in Sac, but think of it this way, it gives you more time to do all that promoting you haven’t been doing. It also frees you up to play more gigs in Reno, San Francisco, Chico, that occasional long drive to LA or Portland. Quit wasting your time unless you’ve ultimately decided your music is garbage and you need to punish small audiences with it.
If this article made you laugh, it maybe didn’t apply to you and you should keep doing whatever you’re doing. If you were offended, you’re probably having a hard time accepting that playing for nobody in a closet with no address on M street doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, but that’s your fault.