Played a gig last Sunday (Easter Sunday) at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. Here’s a photo of my audience, taken from the stage. A couple dozen people, I suppose. I drew three of my own fans (thanks Carol, Hillary, and Steve for coming out to the show!). Why do so many rock musicians (and, uniquely, rock musicians who are Christian) feel such a powerful and romantic need to perform at “legitimate” rock clubs like the 400 Bar? I think it’s something we all pick up from other musicians and from the entertainment media: if you don’t play rock clubs, you’re not a real and respectable rock artist.
Here’s how I felt about my performance (solo acoustic) last Sunday: I was very good. I’m not trying to be an arrogant jerk, here. I’m just being honest, and speaking as somebody who’s been doing this for over a decade, and who has seen dozens (hundreds?) of performers singing and strumming guitar on stage (and I’ve had my own share of crappy performances, so I know when I’m good). I was confident, solid, very energetic and passionate, with a strong set list, my voice was unusually on-pitch, and my guitar playing was quite rocking. I felt great about the show. But here’s what ALWAYS happens when I play a rock club:
+ there was no connection with the audience
+ there was no positive vibe from the audience back at me (other than automatic, polite, mild applause)
+ nobody talked to me after the show
+ nobody bought a CD
+ I drew so few people, that I made no money
Now, some of you may be saying “What do you expect on Easter Sunday?” Well, I’ve played the 400 Bar three times in the past year on more “normal” gig nights, and each time was pretty much the same experience (made even more depressing, since the other times I was playing with my band).
I’ve played a ton of cool rock clubs in my career, from coast to coast. As I think back now, have any of them been artistically satisfying, community building, financially viable evenings? I don’t think so. So many club gigs: the mid-90s at the Colourbox (R.I.P.) in Seattle (the venue that gave us Alice In Chains, etc.) at the height of grunge-mania: crappy show. At Rudyard Kipling in Louisville, KY: less than 10 in the crowd, and joined by a drunk guy on stage who knocked over the piano bench. Schuba’s in Chicago opening for Mike Roe (of legendary Christian rock band the 77s): miserable. Taking requests for Bad Company at Charlie’s Spirits in Modesto, CA: you can imagine. The Fine Line in Minneapolis: getting the skunk-eye from the booker for bringing in so few people. Last Summer in Austin, TX at Red Eyed Fly with Zack Hexum and Brandon Rogers: small crowd of friends, but I had lost my voice. The only sorta positive club gig I can recall was a year ago at Victorian’s Midnight Café in Columbus, OH with Zack Hexum and Tom Freund (and the brilliant Lowell Michelson on drums!)...But even then, there were no CD sales and no income.
So why do I bother playing club shows? The answer is: the rock and roll fantasy. The romance of it all. To sit backstage at the W.O.W. Hall in Eugene, OR on the same ratty couch where Kurt Cobain sat. And because for SOME bands, it works: people come to the shows, the music is amazing, CDs are purchased, and some kind of community is achieved. But that’s never how it works for me, and after the gig I always wind up wondering why I even bothered.
So, here’s the FLIP SIDE, and the epiphany I had at the 400 Bar last weekend on Easter Sunday: Everything I have in my career as a full-time musician I owe to the C-H-U-R-C-H. And this wasn’t a realization of pity and resignation. It was a joyful reality check, and an epiphany in the true sense of the word. I’m so thankful for what I’ve been able to do as a singer/songwriter: I’ve got a measurable national (international?) community of listeners, I sell enough CDs to pay for whatever other recording projects I want to do, I make enough money to have never needed a day job, I write and record whatever style and/or topic of song that I want, I get decent reviews in regional and national media, and I’ve been on a non-stop verrrry-gradual upward spiral of progress for my entire career. I’ve got to count my blessings!
Here are some of the plusses of playing concerts at churches, and there are countless examples I could list from congregations nationwide:
+ dozens, hundreds (sometimes more!) of people in the audience
+ attentive, respectful listeners who pay attention to every word
+ community is achieved, sometimes in beautiful, moving, and powerful ways
+ the performer and the audience “catch the wave” in a mutual give-and-take of encouragement, fun, and joy
+ old folks, babies, kids, youth, young adults, parents, and everybody sharing music and song together
+ the people actually buy CDs, take ‘em home, learn the songs, and make the music part of their lives
+ the performer makes personal connections with audience members, resulting in relationships that can last for years
+ the performer gets PAID to be there
+ the performer’s housing, meals, and travel are usually provided
+ concerts are usually earlier in the evening, no-smoking, and with no drunk hecklers in the audience
I really appreciate these things. THIS is why I play music! It has no “indie-rock credibility” or Hollywood glamour, or punk ethos, but man, after a concert like this, there’s such a feeling of connection and community and, dare I say it, love. Wow. Church people like to call this a manifestation of the “great cloud of witnesses.”
Thankfully for me, this has been my excellent experience (due, in some part I suspect, to my travels in open and flexible Lutheran and other Mainline Protestant circles). HOWEVER, lately I’ve been reading blogs of some other church-playin’ musicians, and apparently when your church audience is the CCM-bombarded, Left Behind-readin’, cultural-isolationist crowd, they can really put the pressure on...and make the non-church rock-club scene seem pretty appealing to the musician. Click to read these interesting blog entries by Christian artists Andrew Osenga and Shaun Groves...I don’t know these guys personally, or know what their music sounds like, but the blogs are a good read! And these are the topics that come up whenever Christian musicians hang out together...I've heard it among the underground indie Lutheran bands, and I've talked about it with some movers and shakers in the Nashville Christian Machine. There's a lot of pain and searching out there, artistically and vocationally.
So, what if you were a Christian musician, and you wanted to become a Mainstream Rock Star and not have to deal with the churchy scene? After observing the rare cases who’ve done just that, I’d like to present:
JONATHAN RUNDMAN’S RECIPE FOR MAINSTREAM ROCKSTARDOM FOR CHRISTIAN MUSICIANS
1. get really talented
2. get really good songs
3. get really trendy
4. get really sexy
5. get a Christian record deal, ride it for a few years, and build a nice core audience
6. abandon the Christian record deal, get a mainstream record deal, take some of your audience with you, and skillfully downplay your churchy past
This system has worked for numerous folks, from as far back as Amy Grant, up to now with bands like Mute Math and Switchfoot (who I got to open for when they were still a young Christian band, carrying their own gear, and setting up their own merch table!).
What if you’re a Christian musician who doesn’t want to (or for some reason cannot) jump through the hoop and get that Christian record deal first? Well, you could just hit the road playing rock clubs. This system has not been successful for most people. Here are a couple of rather chilling blog posts from two faith-based musicians who’ve been slogging it out in the rock clubs for 25 years...they’re both highly respected, critically acclaimed, passionate, gifted, with small-but-rabid fan bases, experience on major record labels, and some Christian industry crossover. And these days, they’re both stressed and struggling financially, vocationally, and spiritually:
BILL MALLONEE of VIGILANTES OF LOVE: Bill has managed (thankfully) to find some hope in the struggle, but still, whew, it’s a tough story...read it here.
DOUG (DUG) PINNICK of KING’S X: Doug backed up some legends of Christian rock back in the early days, and the first albums of his band King’s X were very powerful faith-based records on big mainstream labels. But over the years, I think he saw so much hatred and nastiness from the Christian Rock audience (especially due to the fact that Doug came out of the closet in the ‘90s) that he abandoned his faith and these days seems to exist in a haze of pot smoke (which has certainly affected his accuracy in spelling, as seen below). I cut-and-pasted-and-edited the following text from the King’s X Myspace blog (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to link his exact post), and again, it’s a pretty sobering read....all this makes me think, THANK GOD for the my church community, who allows me live out my vocation!
Before you read what Doug has to say, some of you might be wondering if Jonathan Rundman will ever play a club gig again. And the answer is, of course. I’m not gonna bust my hump to book something, but if a gig falls in my lap, or I get a chance to open for a cool band, I shall say “Yes.” It is kind of fun, in that rockstar-fantasy sort of way (occasionally), and it’s a great way to gain perspective on the not-so-glamorous realities of showbiz. (Oh, and this rant has nothing to do with my time playing in Michael Morris' band for the past few months...being a guest back-up musician is a entirely different issue! That kind of gig is nothing but freedom and fun!)
Okay, Doug Pinnick writes:
you guys are wonderful so please dont take anything I say as negative or bitching....theres no anger here....just love ...
here goes...we never fit in, no matter what we do we cant get the masses on board, and weve done everytnig there is, I now you all have suggestions of what we could do do get more successful, but we have done everything there is to do! or at least inquired about it all...we just cant get the folks on board...woodstock 94 we played for 300 thousand people, and the next week on soundscan we sold about 200 CD's .then the week later nothing to comment on....the rest of the bands on the bill, Jackel, Sheryl Crow, Live, Candlebox, stc.. sold millions!!! we got the best slot of the day, and USA today, Howard Stern, MTV,said we were the best band that day..! we sold nothing...and it changed my life....I cut my hair and almost gave up! plus I was going thru mid life crisis..I started getting panic attacks and got blinded by my self hate...
management?.. we have had people check us out and they say were doing a better job by ourselves than they could,,,after they see what we have to go thru to get a gig...and keep the boat afloat...others say were precieved as an old band and they feel they cant help us....
record companies? we tried to give Atlantic a done CD with nothing to do but throw it out there... they passed, saying they are only interested in new young bands....ALL other companies rejected us accept Metal Blade and Inside out...thank the gods for that....
booking agent?.. they say they cant get many promotes to bring us, they all think they will loose money...
Deep Purple? were trying to get on that tour, and anyother oportunity we can...but we have to pay to play, its all political....thats the way all bands are treated now, they all pay, Ozz Fest... the record companies pay to get all the bands on the tour....we dont have the $$, we opend for many bands in the past to no avail..a few new converts, but not enough...
Paul Scheafer plays Born to be loved all the time... but to get to play live on the Letterman show? practicly impossible....I wish you all could understand how impossible the situation is these days for many bands..it sucks! the rejection to KX is overwhelming in the music marketplace...you can imagine how it makes us feel.....
Christian music scene,?? yeah we could have been maybe the biggest band in christian music, but were not hippocrites, and when the christians find out that we drink, smoke weed and I am gay!, they would turn on us anyway, so why go there...that just hurts...besides that, they rejected us anyway after they learned who we were........theyre human, they hide it....were not like that, were to honest. thats why I am down on christian music...in the name of truth they live lies....thats never been me..or kingsX..its one of our biggest faults...The christian music scene was a dead end for us no matter what had happend in our career....I am agnostic now anyway, we just couldnt justify being a christian band...it just wasnt the truth...I was raised christian and have seen the christian music scene first hand...I cant be a part of it and I couldnt back then either...and were still called a christian band to this day, it wasnt kosure back then either, I remember so many people saying tat they couldnt get thier friend to listen to KX cause we were christian, even thoug Stryper were successful...now its accepted being a christian band....but were not one of those bands.....whats done is done and its the past.......
downhill career?...this band started out down hill, now were in a hole...we couldnt get the $ for a producer for years, so we did it ourselves, at least we tried....then we payed for Michael Wagner out of our own pockets....and finished the CD paying for it ourselves....we are realy trying to do the right things but all we get are walls....theres only so much we can do without money, record company support and attendance....we have maybe sold a million CD's combined from day one...!. thats not many in the real world.....and Atlantic put millions into promoting us..more than most we have had the oportunity for exposure and we got it........
I know some of you think theres things we should be doing, but trust me, we have tried or checked out all the possibiity, its just not as easy as you may think... we need all ages shows, and its almost impossible to get them...thats just fact...it sucks playing at such late times when people have to go to work or drive hours to attend....we always ask for early shows and all ages, it just dosent happen..
.bands that are successful without airplay or much promotion?,,,its a mystery, were doing what they did and here we are..
were going home from this tour broke...I get no $ when I am off tour, I have to fend for myself....thats life i guess. same as everyone else, I wish it wasnt so...
25 years of doing this with KX....even in the early days before the record deal, we couldnt get good attendance doing covers, when the other bands we competed with packed the clubs....its always been this way, we just dont appeal to the masses.....maybe if we had about 10 million to promote us??? but theres no guarantee...
were precieved as an old band in the marketplace that is well respected but not a money maker.....
bands try to take us out with them but thier management always reject us,
we may not tour for a while because if all of this...we cant...
we have made mistakes for sure in our career, but we have realy tried to do the right things.. were not the same people as we were when we started this band, and we always try to do ur best and make the best music we can...sometimes it didnt seem like it was the best effort at the time, but if you were there you would understand...
we are so thankful for the support from the faithful...we wouldnt be here if it wasnt for all of you people...the band is realy down these days, frustrated, and out of money and ideas that will work....were not young upcoming wide eyed kids anymore, and this music biz is obsessed with youth, the whole US is this way, just look around....its not over untill the fat lady sings they say... well, shes at the mike.....
I have had a wonderful adventure being in this band and being me...I have been blessed more than most..I take nothing for granted..we could go on and on about what we should do and what we haven't....but at the end of the day we have done the best that we could with what is before us.....were not done, were not breaking up....were still hoping to be the biggest band in the world....and I have many more songs in my head and on demos to throw out there for you guys..good or bad, you can decide.....I will make music as long as I can breath...
I have questioned my whole life and this bands place in the world....its still a mystery to me....this band I have invested 25 years of my life to.....and I think about my place in this more than anyone could possibly know or understand....and still dont know why no one realy gives a f*** on a major scale...and people wonder why I have low self esteem....I am one of the biggest loosers that there is...and I dont know why....no one in KX knows why it hasnt happend for us....but I will keep doing what I do because I know nothig else and I love making music....thanks for letting me ramble...thanks for hearing me out and like I said before, without you guys I probably wouldnt be alive....thanks for saving my life....I love you all.....keep the faith, its not taken for granted