Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Defense Of Rock!

This is an excerpt of a reaction I had to an article expressing a Libertarian viewpoint in defense of abolishing copyright and intellectual property laws. That's the gist of it, but if you really want to read the article, its here: (Its a bit dry).

Anyway, here's what I said:

His solutions, however, are ridiculous. He seems to be suggesting some sort of artist/creator based league by which to organize boycotts as a way to curb the practice of stealing ideas. In today's age, this is simply irrelevant. Boycotts simply don't work now. There's buy-no-gas day boycotts, which do nothing to control costs. There are over 2,000,000 vegetarians, and still Burger king is the only place with a veggie burger. There's Buy Nothing day, which also is ineffective. So this guy thinks that "producers of intellectual products — authors, artists, inventors, software designers, etc. — were to set up an analogous court system for protecting copyrights and patent rights — ...Individuals and organizations accused of piracy would have a chance to plead their case at a voluntary court, but if found guilty they would be required to cease and desist, and to compensate the victims of their piracy, on pain of boycott."

Come on. Let's imagine a real word scenario with this solution:

This court of loosely affiliated authors, tv script-writers, rock musicians, and freelance painters will now come to order. Judge Bono presiding.

Judge Bono: You, Time Warner Corporation, are found guilty of stealing the music from John Roccia's self-produced and non-copyrightable harmonica solo album, giving it to Aerosmith (whom you keep on retainer with your billions of dollars) to, shadily but not illegally, record and perform at great profit to yourself. For this act of piracy, we, this court of washed up artists who have enough time in our schedules to be doing this instead of creating things, do so enact a non-legally-binding and completely voluntary boycott of Aerosmith's music and performances. Fans of the harmonica album are urged, but not required, to purchase the original John Roccia recordings, of which there are only 500 because he is poor, from his website, at no penalty for non compliance.

Yea. Seems like a good system.

Anyway, I'm all for the abolition of intellectual property, so long as it went along with the abolition of ALL property. Bear with me a moment, I'm talking theoretically here. After all, what's the difference between your latest short story, and the deed to your house? They're both just words on paper, conveying an idea of something. If we lived in a communist utopia where there was no need for money, it wouldn't fuckin matter who owned what song or book, because there's no wealth or livelihood at stake, only street-cred. Anyway, copyright laws are barely even relevant, because anyone who works in any capacity to make something (invention, art, or otherwise) at a big corporation usually surrenders those rights to the company anyway. You think Bruce Springstein owns ANY of his songs? Nope. These days, copyrights just protect the little guy who isn't making any money from situations like I hilariously described above. Since we live in a society based on valuing property, to say that stuff is property but ideas aren't greatly advantages one group of people. And in any society you need both builders and thinkers, and you need to value their contributions equally by the standards of the society.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Short Fiction

I'm at the worst bar. They don't have Papst. What fucking state is this anyway? That's fine, I stole some gin from my roommate and drank it in the car. He wouldn't mind though, so I guess I borrowed it. Some good news this week, but mostly bad. By which I mean devastating. The musician I'm here to see, the sound guy, and myself were all in a band 1,000 years ago, and we were definitely going to make it. Or so I believed when I was 17 and playing venues 1,000 times better than this. Still, despite the lies I've been told and the truths I've learned, despite all the instincts I've learned to honor and those I've learned to ignore, despite the fact that there's only four other people in the audience, the only thing that I can be sure of is that I wish it was me up there instead of him.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Toiling in Obscurity

The annals of music history are awash with stories of big rip-offs; bands and artists getting royally screwed by record companies, promoters, managers, etc. However, as most of you in bands are already well aware, you don't need to be famous, or anywhere near so in order to get bent over. By comparison, there's almost a quasi-romantic appeal to hearing artists telling the stories of how they were adored by hundreds of thousands of fans but ended up broke because they signed a bad deal. At least that's failure on an epic scale. Compare that with having to fight with a drunken promoter for $20 in gas money after dragging ten of your friends 50 miles to spend over $300 in an otherwise empty bar, and see which story gets you laid first.

I guess my point is that there are sharks in every sized pool, but its the small timers who really piss me off.  At least in the big leagues, they have teams of people relentlessly honing their craft of ripping off the creatives, experts in milking the dreams of others for every last dollar. Shameful, I know, but what's worse, those soulless corporates, or the pathetic bar-level nobodies who want to be like them? I would argue that its the latter. For those of you who are not musicians but might take an interest, I offer a retrospective on the stinking pile of garbage that even the weekenders must fight through in order to achieve that one simple goal: to play a good show. But first, to keep things in perspective, and to demonstrate some of the unavoidable realities of toiling under the radar of whatever passes for "the music business" these days, here are some things that I don't mind:

Sometimes you gotta play for free.

There are plenty of artists out there that will go to their graves defending the sentiment that doing it for free devalues your craft. That absence of payment reflects an absence for respect for what it is that you are creating. That you are providing something that should be paid for just as much as any other product or service. First of all, on this philosophical level, I couldn't disagree more. How many concerts have you missed because of a $75 ticket price? Before Internet piracy, how much music did you miss out on because Sam Goody was charging $21.99 for a CD? How many people have missed my band's shows because they couldn't afford to come out? Did anyone really think that Metallica was devaluing their music by playing for free in Philly? No! They devalued their music by making bad albums. I honestly wish that I could go to every show for free, and that everyone could come to my shows for free.

However, this is the USA and that shit doesn't fly. The reality is that you can only lose money on something for so long before you need to get some back. I want to get paid for shows. Now, that said, as an unsigned band, you do have to exist in the real world. Maybe you get to play a sweet party with a bunch of people at it, but they're not going to pay you. Well, do you want to sit at home, or do you want new people to hear your music, hear where they can find your website, and hear where your next non-free show is? Sure, it costs you gas money and your time, but you want to spend your time playing music anyway, right? I definitely don't think you should play every, or even most of your shows for free, but sometimes its the right thing to do as long as you have the rest of your shit together. The trick is to know when its OK and when it isn't.

Preselling tickets

OK, preselling tickets to a show is annoying as hell, but I'm not against the concept of the practice. Again, you have to live in the real world. Bars/venues have to pay their bills or they cease to exist. There is no reason for them to book bands that don't take the time to bring anyone but themselves but yet somehow expect to rock a packed house. I see preselling tickets as a somewhat necessary defense against the types of bands too lazy to even get mom and dad to come out to a show. Unsigned artists should be fairly eager to make money for a venue, because after all, when a venue goes down, that's one less place to book a show. So basically, I am pro preselling as long as the band is getting a fair cut.

So, while toiling in obscurity, some things need to be borne silently. The following things, however, should not be done or tolerated, should make you angry, and range from "these people need to be punched in the face" to straight-up criminal activity.

Bullshit promoters (, Afton Live, Etc.)

Now, working with these types of promoters will get you a show. It will be a bad show, most likely a  weeknight with an 11pm slot and a 30 minute set time (especially if its your first time with them), but it will be a show. There will most likely be ticket presales involved, of which you will be lucky to get a 10%-15% cut unless you can somehow talk them into more. These so-called promoters actually do little to promote shows outside of updating their own website and spamming the inboxes of the same bands that work with them to get said shows. However, you can expect lots of needlessly complicated payment structure guidelines and long winded emails to make the whole process sound much more important than it actually is.

The thing is, these promotion companies are actually just vestigial middlemen that work out deals to fill venues with bands on slow nights. Their quantity over quality approach assure that they are going to try to fit at least five possibly completely dissimilar bands on every bill for each night they are slated to book for the venue. Beware if they tell you you are headlining a show. For signed bands, headlining is a good thing; a mark of success and a symbol of popularity. For everyone else, it means going onstage at 1:15 am, having already spent more than you are making on drinks to kill the boredom of watching terrible bands play for five hours when you have work the next day. These promoters, (who, by the way, are far more likely to return your emails and phone calls than legitimate ones, even to the point of harassing you about shows) are not usually, in my experience, affiliated in any permanent way with these venues. Many venues have their own booking guy or teams working on more profitable shows, so in most cases the person who you spoke with to get on the bill will be nowhere within miles come set time, leaving all of the actual work of running the show to the sound guy, who is high.

These companies prey on bands desperate to get shows, don't know how to promote themselves (or have no fans cause they suck), and are happy to get any money at all for playing even if the day is an overall loss. Their convoluted pay scale charts basically equate to the pocket change left over after they pay themselves for their ridiculously unnecessary service of being the go-between for your band and the bar/venue. After all, someone had to print all those fancy, unnecessary tickets for you to presell and update those weekly spam emails your band will receive for the rest of your life.

However, working for bullshit promoters isn't always a total loss. If you suffer through several "why am I doing this to myself" shows and can actually draw more than 10-15 people, you may end up at a real venue that these guys have access to once in a while. It will probably be under the same overbilled, underpaid, ticket-selling conditions as the other shows, but it sure feels better to say "I played the Trocadero last Thursday!" than to say "I played the Barf Shack on 93rd and Crackton last Thursday!" If you see a date on a venue calendar that says something like "Mantis Productions Presents" followed by 15 bands, you can be sure that nobody in the music business touched that show with a 10 foot promoter-pole.

So, if you have to work with these guys (who unfortunately qualify as the best of the bunch for the rest of this treatise), there are some things you can do:

1) Don't let them make you headline! Say whatever you have to get any other slot, preferably 2nd or 3rd if possible. Even your girlfriends who love you more than anything in the universe will have fallen asleep long before your singer says, "Thanks to for having us and all the other bands. Good night!" at 2 am when you are done playing. You will also not want to kill yourself quite as much.

2) Find out who has your money!  As I said before, the promoter who booked the show was in bed long before you started playing, so anything you may have made off the door is somewhere in the building. Maybe the sound guy has it, maybe the door guy has it, or maybe the bartender has it. Its a monetary Where's Waldo, and you're the reader. Trust me, there's nothing they'd like more than for you to leave without getting paid because you were too drunk and depressed after playing for nobody to ask for your money. They're not going to come over and find you, so you have to find them.

3) Milk that shit! Make the most you can out of that crappy-ass show. Sell your merch, give out fliers to your next show, pimp the hell out of your website. Network with the only other good band on the bill (cause there's only one, maybe). Get something out of it. It may just preserve your sanity.

Now, the rest of this list makes playing for bullshit promoters seem like selling out the Tokyo Superdome. For example:

Battle of the Bands (Emergenza, etc)

The myth is well ingrained in American culture thanks to television and movies: the underdog band works hard and wins the big battle, gets signed and becomes famous! Works every time, right? Baloney. I challenge you to name one nationally famous band that got their start as a battle of the bands. (American Idol doesn't count). Since winning even televised and radio sponsored battles of the bands does nothing for your career, its even more futile to enter these at the local level. A lot of times these battles are put on by bullshit promoters like those mentioned above, or scam companies who exist only to fleece bands in much the same way, like Emergenza. These guys take the "blowing smoke up your ass to make you feel big time" approach to a whole new level, even going so far as to make you attend meetings beforehand to go over information that could have been covered in a two paragraph email.

These guys operate in much the same way as the promoters above. They are busy filling the "rounds" of the battle at different venues with as many desperate bands as they can find. You will also be selling tickets and getting an absurdly small cut, but because this "battle" is a HUGE deal, the tickets will be more expensive, making them much harder to sell. Whereas you might have to pay an $8-$10 cover to see your friends play a normal show at a local bar, seeing the same band play at the exact same venue for "Emergenza Presents: Battle of the Bands!" could cost $15+! Fuck!

Sure, the prizes sound great. Its usually something like free studio time to record a four song EP. (Yea, that's gonna turn out great. I'm sure the studio is top quality, and your band is their highest priority.) What's more, you're not going to win. The selection of winners at these things ranges from an audience clapping contest to whoever the sound guy picks as the best because they were on stage when his mescaline kicked in. The reality is that the company couldn't give a shit who wins the contest. The only thing that winning round one means for you is that you have another batch of nigh-unsellable tickets to move before round two, which is 16 days away. And if you win that one, you get to do it all again for round three, and so on. This is a really good way to burn out your local fans and to get all your friends to hate you after they spent $45 on tickets to dive bars to watch you fail because the fat-guy friend of the hardcore band was the loudest during the clapping contest.

My advice about battles of the bands is to not enter them. Seriously. Unless you can guarantee that you can pack the house in the same city once every two weeks for five rounds, the likelihood that you will walk with one of these great prizes is very small. If you can guarantee that, you don't need to be playing a battle of the bands anyway because you're making money already! In either case, you're way better off just trying to strategically book good shows that you have time to promote and that give you a fair payment. Hell, you're better off finding a hall and booking a show yourself. At least that way you can bring bands you like, split the door fairly, and charge all your fans a reasonable entry. Everyone wins!

One thing that is worse than a battle of the bands, however, is an

Online Battle Of The Bands (Vans Warped Tour, etc)

These things are the biggest slap in the face to musicians and the most shamelessly corporate rape of the spirit of rock and roll that has ever existed.  If you're not familiar with them, they are websites where you enter your band, upload a song or two, and then people simply click to vote for you to win a spot on a Warped Tour side stage or something like that. I suppose the hook is that, besides the chance to WIN!... just entering this web contest increases your visibility and fan base.

Its total bullshit. The reality is that the Vans company and others have found a great way for people to be forced to look at their web based advertisements every day for months preceding the Warped Tour. Voting is reset every day, so fans are encouraged to vote for their friends frequently by going to their contest page, checking out how comfortable and "with-it" the new Vans products are, and eventually clicking the button that says "Vote For Me!".

For one, the fact that the band is making yet another web entry does nothing to help their visibility. After all, its 2011. Every unsigned band in the world already has a website, a Myspace, a Facebook, a Reverbnation page, a Twitter account, and Jesus knows what other kinds of web pages. Does anyone really believe that people are heading to the battle of the bands page, listening to mp3s from thousands of applicants and then making a well informed vote for their favorite? Of course not, that's ridiculous! The only people voting for your band are the people you personally told to vote for you via one of the websites you already have. Your odds of getting more votes than that one band who still isn't signed but somehow gets 1,000 unique hits every day to their site but still inexplicably joined a worthless online battle is even worse than winning a battle where you actually get to play. All you are doing is directing traffic to advertisements for free, and at no benefit to yourself. Your band is being used and getting literally nothing in return. Unless you win.

So let's take a look at what you win; a spot on a Warped Tour side stage. I've worked the Warped Tour before and I've seen the stage these "winners" get to play. I mean, I guess technically its part of the tour, if you consider a 12 foot mobile stage in the far, far corner of the parking lot where even the hippies selling hemp wallets would be furious to be placed as part of the concert. You'd probably get more exposure playing in your own backyard. Meanwhile, everyone you know has an inexplicable urge to buy a pair of Vans. Good deal.

Con Artists

As if the bands of the world didn't have enough to contend with already, then you have the con artists; people who are just plain criminals that steal your money. These guys will promise to book you shows that conveniently fit your schedule exactly, often asking for an up front service fee that seems very reasonable. After they get their money, like any good con artist, they disappear. An easy way to avoid these guys is to remember the old truism: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If your band that has never played a show outside of your home state is now miraculously booked for an east coast tour, beware. Be very ware.

In a way, maybe these guys are the most admirable. At least they have the balls to admit what they are: useless sycophants who rip off bands. The other guys will throw you a bone here and there, and you'll get to play, but you're slowly and painfully being ripped off just the same. Its kind of like how when the mafia demands money from you for an imaginary service its called extortion, but when your car insurance company does it, its called the law. In the end, whether you play a bullshit promoter show, enter a battle of the bands, or just give your money directly to a con artist, it gets your career to the same place.

In conclusion, I'm no dummy. I know that most bands suck and don't deserve fame and fortune. But they also don't deserve to be ripped off, strung along, and abused. If a band isn't good and can't draw anyone, they shouldn't get shows. Eventually, they would figure it out and quit.  However, thanks to all the really cool people who quit being drug dealers when they realized they could make more money throwing phony Battle of the Bands for idealistic young musicians, we have a never-ending cycle of empty bars and terrible bands with full show schedules. Why would any casual fan go out to support local music when they are practically guaranteed to have to sit though a poorly planned, nonsensical bill with waaay too many bands on it until 2 AM? This is why cover bands make so much money!

So, thanks a lot you bottom-feeders. Having experienced firsthand everything I've just written about, but having also gotten to work with a lot of reasonable promoters and straight shooters, I can honestly say that you are bullshit. Your amoral attitude and clear resentment of musicians is topped only by how pathetic your attempts are to legitimize your scams. But, as long as there are people left to dream, there will be people there to bilk them.