Wednesday, November 07, 2007

So You Wanna Be a Rock Star

So, Kid, you wanna be a rock star?

You moved to Nashville with a Martin and a dream? You're ready for the big-time? You're ready for the small-time? You're ready for anything, anytime? I'm here to help.

You're going to hear a lot of stuff. You're going to meet a lot of people. You're going to hear a lot of stuff from those people. You're going to deal with things. You'll see progress, and then you'll be disappointed. You'll have good days and bad. But mostly you'll hear a lot of stuff. For some reason, the music industry has a lot of myths based off someone's perception about the way things work. Unlike most things, these perceptions do not actually form reality. They don't in any way pertain to you. It's almost like they were made up by someone who is in no way familiar with Nashville, music, or the music business in Nashville. Here, Kid, are some of the most prevalent music business myths you'll hear, and what you'll actually experience on the other side.

Myth #1: You'll Hear "No" a Lot - Get Used To It
I don't know what boy wonder developed this fairy-tale, but they didn't live in Nashville and probably didn't live anywhere. This myth is supposed to help you, the nascent artist, develop a thick skin and deal with criticism (constructive or otherwise) and disappointment. The way these folks tell it, every music business encounter ends with Ronnie Powersuit MusicBiz blowing cigar smoke in your face, screaming, "You'll never make it in this town, Kid," cackling maniacally, and slamming a 20-ft steel door in your face. This is meant to harden you. But really...

Reality #1: You'll Hear Nothing a Lot
...rejection doesn't work that way. At least not here, and at least not now. Instead of hearing "yes," or "no," or "maybe," or "let's follow up next week," you'll probably just hear nothing. For every email or voicemail or Myspace message you leave with a booker, writer, fellow artist, show promoter, etc., you should expect to hear back 10% of the time. This isn't a "no." It's just negligence. This happens for 3 reasons:
1) On the small chance someone actually wants to give you a "no," they'd rather ignore you and hope you go away. It's more polite to them.
2) It keeps them open. If they hear from you again--or hear good things about you elsewhere--they can always say that your email/voicemail/message got lost in the shuffle and, yes, of course they'd love to work with you. This way they're not "The Guy Who Told You No Three Months Ago But Suddenly Believes In You Now."
3) They're lazy. Like, really lazy. Like, incredibly lazy. This accounts for 60-70% of the non-responses you'll get. Venue owners and booking agents and anyone active at all in the music scene gets a lot of traffic. Most of the time, they just don't want to sift through all their stuff. They answer the handful of things that they 1) recognize quickest and 2) they deem as most important, and assume everything else won't matter until it REALLY matters. Of course, part of their job is doing the things they don't want to do at the times they don't want to do them. According to David Halberstam, "being a professional is doing your job on the days you don't want to do it." But the music industry attracts a lot of professionals who simply don't cover all their bases, keep up their correspondences, or come through with any dependability. Don't take this personally--there are just a lot of lazy and flaky people out there.

What To Do: Don't Be Ignored
This is your job, right? This is your livelihood? This is the difference between whether you're eating lunch tomorrow or spitting sunflower seeds for dinner? Then don't let someone ignore you. Follow up absolutely every unanswered email. Not immediately, but not "eventually," either. Give everything 4-6 days. If you're untalented or unmotivated, then those are legitimate obstacles to your success--not the whims of some hipster doofus with an important gig. Don't let some bohemian bozo blow you off. Get an answer, then move on to the next step either way.

Myth #2: The Music Industry Is Incredibly Competitive
Every time I tell someone I'm a musician living in Nashville, they ask me "Do you know Johnnie Songwriter?" I say politely, "Nope, sure don't--but there are a lot of musicians in Nashville." Then they invariably say, "Oh, I'm sure! I bet it's really competitive." And I nod my head along and smile. Because there are so many people in town who characterize themselves as musicians, that gives people outside Nashville the impression that the city is full of nothing but musicians, all in the same boat, all doing the same thing, all fighting for the same spot on the same bill at the same venue. If this were true, it would be competitive. But...

Reality #2: The Music Industry Is Extremely Challenging, But Not Competitive
...the reality is that 90% of the Johnnie Songwriters in town haven't played a show since they've gotten here. There are countless venues in town, all catering to every genre of music, all ready to give you or your band a chance. My first week as an artist I booked two gigs armed with a bad demo and absolutely NO connections. Just like in any other field (but maybe a little more than usual), the artistic community has its fair share of slackers, procrastinators, bohemians, unfocused, and unmotivated individuals. In a city with a few thousand "artists" at any time, there are maybe 15-20 non-country artists I hear about regularly. Some are good, some are just working hard. The rest are either not good, not working hard, or both.

What To Do: Hustle (and Flow)
Out. Work. Everyone. When you're first starting, you'll see people who are better than you. That's natural--don't get discouraged. They're other artists, they've been where you are, and if you buy them a beer and ask them about themselves (and their career), they'd be happy to talk. It's not a competitive scene among the folks who are active. Some guys are just further along than you and it's your job to learn from them. Some guys might even have more talent than you, and that's alright too. What you can't do is let anyone out-work you. A few major examples:
1) Actually promote your shows (Myspace, Facebook, Email lists, print and hang posters around town, contact the Scene and the Rage, make sure you're at least in the listings, blog, etc.). I cannot tell you how many bills I've shared with artists who did absolutely nothing to promote the show. Not an email, not a flyer, not even a listing on their Myspace page. They literally showed up and plugged in and played to a bartender. This happens CONSTANTLY, and it never fails to amaze me. Unless you have a trust fund and this is a goof for you, don't be that guy.
2) Go to shows. Go to a lot of shows. Go to every venue every day of the week. Go to the free shows, like New Faces at the Basement and the early shows at 3rd and Lindley and 8 Off 8 at Mercy Lounge and Wednesdays at Christopher Pizza. Talk to the door guy. Talk to the bartender. Talk to the artists. After one month, you'll be surprised how many people you see that you know. This is where networking occurs, and active artists do it. Everyone is there for the same reason, anyway: to see and talk with like-minded people in the business, enjoy their company, and talk about what's coming up.
3) Write as much as possible. One of my favorite artists in Nashville, and a good friend, told me he hasn't written a new song in nine months. Well, that's obviously a problem. Write on the days you don't want to write. Practice on the days you don't feel like practicing. Everyone has their own creative blocks, their own self-censorship issues, their own writerly problems; that's fine. Embrace them, and push through them. Write nonsense if you have to. Just invest regularly in working as an artist. The only way to get better at something is to do it regularly and with focus--the last thing I'd ever want you, The Kid, to turn into is the "artist" who absolutely never creates art. These are the folks Hemingway said "sleep all day and amuse themselves at night." They end up nowhere. Don't be them. Write. And, for God's sake, rewrite.

Myth #3: If You Ain't Country, Nashville Ain't With You
Nashville has done a lot over the past fifty years to sell itself as the global capital of country music. It probably is--I don't know. You'll hear a lot of people assume that, because Nashville is the mecca for country music, it's a complete black hole for everything else. This has never been true, and is even less so right now. I've had industry vets and music writers (from NYC and LA and Portland and Athens, etc.) tell me that I should move elsewhere because non-country artists in Nashville don't get a fair shake. You'll hear it too, Kid. But rather than listening to them...

Reality #3: Anything Goes These Days, and Even the Labels Are Catching Up
...go anywhere else and look around. In the last two years alone, 12-15 non-country artists in Nashville have enjoyed legitimate success, and the number's only growing based off their precedent. Christian-ish singer/songwriters like Dave Barnes, Matt Wertz, Gabe Dixon, etc. are all selling out venues across the country and getting TV/film exposure with their songs (without major label help, no less). Matt Kearney and Jeremy Lister are two singer/songwriters with major label deals and, in Kearney's case, a breakout debut album. Autovaughn, Bang Bang Bang, Luna Halo, the Pink Spiders, and other local rock bands have broken through recently. I saw Paramore on MTV just last week. Katie Herzig, Tyler James, and others are all getting plenty of attention. Will Hoge is between major label deals. Under new promotional umbrellas like Movement Nashville (operated by Leigh Nash from Sixpence None the Richer), Black Flag Militia, Artist Revolution, and others, there's an increasingly unified and ubiquitous non-country presence in the Nashville scene--and all these artists are either signed or shopping. If the industry is always the last to know (and it usually is), then everyone is now at the party. The door's open. Walk right in.

What To Do: Be in the Community, and Be Good To It
Nashville's listening to non-country artists--the crowds are there, the venues are there, and the press is there. The industry is about half-there. But the ARTISTS themselves are all there, all the time. Be in the community. Shake hands, make contacts. Be kind. Stay for everyone's set on the bill. Handle money wisely. The most important contacts I've made in three years--by far--are the other artists in town. Everything I've gotten to this point has been based off positive word of mouth from other musicians in the community, most of them established and connected in ways that I'm not. I know some artists who don't invest in the community and want only to meet industry big-wigs. That might work for them, I don't know. But from my perspective, the most invaluable help I've gotten this far in Nashville is from other artists who liked what I was doing and wanted to help.

Myth #4: Nashville Crowds Suck
One of the most popular complaints among artists in town is that Nashville crowds suck. They're either non-existent or present, but indifferent. They're hard to draw. They don't care about music. They're not loud, they don't cheer, they don't stay out late, wahwahwah. "I'd be filling the Ryman if everyone in this city wasn't so completely averse to enjoying live music!"

Reality #4: It Might Be You
There's a source for this complaint, and it's not entirely unfounded. The fact is that Nashville crowds are hard to draw, but not because they're indifferent: it's because there are too many venues and too many artists and too many shows every night of the week for any one local, nascent artist to draw 500 people. There's always another show, and your crowd might split your set with that one. The part of this myth that's completely untrue, however, is that the crowds themselves suck. I've seen and played shows in a ton of other cities and Nashville's one of my favorite places to play because the crowd actually wants to listen to you. Now, they might not listen to you. But they initially WANT to listen to you. At even my earliest and most uneven shows, I always had the crowd's ear at the outset. If I lost them, then I lost them. But that's not their fault. If you hear someone complaining that Nashville crowds suck and they're not getting the support they deserve, it's entirely possible that they're not writing good songs, or not performing well, or basically just not bringing it in a way that's going to draw a crowd.

What To Do: Bring It
This deserves its own blog (in fact, said blog is forthcoming), but the short version is this: a ton of artists aren't drawing crowds because they're not giving the audience anything to enjoy. From the crowd's perspective, it's an investment to leave your house on a weeknight, pay money at the door, sit through supporting acts you don't care about, spend more money at the bar while waiting, all to catch a 45-minute set from an artist you might not even know or interact with. Then you might buy merch and stick around. It's a lot to ask anyone to invest their time, energy, and money on a given night just to come out and hear 8 songs by someone. And yet they still do it--all the time, in fact. So make it worth their while. Give them a reason to leave their place. Make their $5 at the door worth $50. Act like it matters, for crying out loud.

One Last Thing:
You'll hear a lot of stuff, Kid. I just told you a lot of stuff. If nothing else, don't take every bit of advice everyone gives you. Be selective. Have a filter. Fifty different people will tell you fifty different things, and nearly all of it will be contradictory. Know who you are and what you want from your career, and listen to the things that sound helpful to your own ends. That includes everything I just said.

Besides...what the hell do I know?

Now get out there and be somebody,


Holly Capote said...

You know a lot, Chris. You're a serious musician. I love serious people. Great post. Thanks.

Michael said...

Awesome write up. I always have a chuckle when I think of the other musicians I've known that have tried to make it. They didn't/wouldn't work as hard as you. This is also why I stick to bands that play covers of Terence Trent D'Arby in seedy Tallahassee bars. It's just easier.

Chris Milam said...

Thanks Holly--I'm serious like a heart attack.

MikeyDubs: what you're forgetting is that all my hard work and dedication is designed to GET ME to the coverband shows at Hasseebars. One day, Michael...

Holly Capote said...

Chris, if I ever visit Ross, I'll have to visit you too. Like you, I work, work, work, which means I visit less than I'd like.

JaysterC said...

Damn straight. A lot of musicians I've known claim a deep and abiding love for the music, but sit around on their duff all day. Faith w/o works...
Good post, can't wait for the holidays.

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