Steve Martin, Bill Mallonee, and lessons in showbiz

Tonight on Charlie Rose, my favorite TV show, I just watched an hour long interview with comedian Steve Martin about his new autobiography Born Standing Up. (Santa, if you're reading, please add this book to your list of stocking stuffers for me.) 'Twas an inspiring and fascinating discussion about creativity, art, and "being in front of people." My job, too, is being in front of people, and I'm always interested in the philosophy behind the work of show business. Martin closed the interview with the words of advice he offers all young performers who want to be successful: "Be so good that they can't ignore you."

24 hours ago I was wrapping up a concert here in the Twin Cities where I was the opening act for acclaimed folk/rock artist Bill Mallonee (who you've most likely heard of as the frontman for the band Vigilantes of Love). I booked the gig and made it happen, Bill and Muriah (his spouse/keyboardist) were gracious and expertly harmonious, and the evening was filled with nice moments and good socializing. BUT, ultimately I felt discouraged and disappointed, for multiple reasons. The whole experience was yet another refresher course on the seeming futility of being a performing rock musician.

I booked the gig a couple weeks ago, ran around town putting up posters, sent out three separate emails to local fans, typed up a press release and got it out to all local papers and radio, made inviting phone calls, talked to a ton of exited and interested people in person, and set up the show at a nice venue with easy parking, at an early time, and the weather was perfect. BUT, we got zero press or media coverage, and only about 30 (paying) people attended the show. I needed 60 people just to break even on expenses, so it was pretty lame in that regard. Although, I didn't book this show to make money...in fact, I suspected that I wouldn't break even, and of course I was prepared to foot the entire bill if necessary, BUT I think the low attendance is just a good illustration of the state of affairs for the touring musician.

So if not for financial reasons, why did I put on this show, you may ask? Well, I did it as a musical service to the community. I like Bill and his work, I knew he hadn't been here for many years, I know he's got hoards of fans in the area, and I wanted to see it happen. I scheduled myself as the opening band in the hopes I'd sell a couple CDs to make up for the time I put into booking, and any extra cash would go to Bill. My own band members played for free, just 'cause they're nice guys and they supported my idea for a show. Honestly, I wanted Bill and Muriah to have a great night, and I wanted music fans in this town to experience the good songs they play.

Bill is the real deal, and he hadn't played in Minnesota for five years(!!!) so where were all his rabid fans? I know they're all over the Twin Cities 'cause I meet them everywhere...but they stayed home last night. And where were MY people? It's so lame that I've got something like 300 names on my Twin Cities email list, but whenever I play a show in town I draw about five people. (This is why I rarely play in MN...I'd rather go on tour in PA or CA and play for sizable audiences!) And don't give me that line about "Well, Jonathan, it's the holiday season and people are busy, so what do you expect..." That's crap, because almost every show I play in Minneapolis is horribly attended, regardless of date, time, or circumstance.

Am I whining and complaining? Maybe so, but I've talked to a few nationally-touring rock artists in these past couple months, as well as other showbiz professionals, and they all say the same thing: nobody is buying CDs anymore, nobody is coming to shows, venues are shutting down, and there's no energy for live music out in the culture. Bill's giving entire full-length records away online in the hopes that the free-downloaders might return in the future and actually buy something. Other big acts I know are burning CD-Rs of new material 'cause it's not worth it anymore to actually duplicate new albums in quantities over 1000.

So if bigger artists than me are now forced to burn short-run CD-Rs of their new albums, or else just give the music away free online in the hopes of receiving some sort of charity donation, where does that leave me? I've almost got an entire new record tracked and mixed, but when it's done I don't know what to do with it! Do I even bother manufacturing 1000 "real" albums, when I may never ever sell them all? Or if it takes me three years just to break even on the recording budget (like Public Library, which should have been my hugest album of all time)? Should I resort to the Mallonee/Radiohead model of putting it online as a free download, and hope that a few folks would donate to my cause via PayPal? Man. Thankfully I've got an entire church audience of Baby Boomers who like my Heartland Liturgy music, and who don't download music online, so at least the old-school church folks still buy actual CDs for $15. Does that mean that the only way I can progress is to only write hymns and liturgical songs for my parents' generation, and abandon any more pop/rock albums? Country artists sell more hard-copies than rock artists do....maybe I should make a Kenny Chesney-style album. Yeeesh.

My fear is that Steve Martin's wise advice to "be so good they can't ignore you" might not apply to the artists in the future. Could it be that no matter how good you are, you won't be able to get anybody to come to a show or to buy your music?

So I have a message for all you folks who say things like "There's no good live music in this town..." or "I haven't been to a good show in ages..." Well newsflash, Einstein, you've got to get off the freakin' couch, TiVo "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Biggest Loser," and you've got to get in your CAR and go see A CONCERT. Otherwise, I don't want to hear any more whining about how our culture is toileting. To quote Steve Martin, "Well, excuuuuuuse me!"

Comments

nate said…
preach on brother!
mellowman said…
Nice rant!

I can only speak for myself, but I have bought all your CDs (most recently the "Greatest Hits", which is aptly titled, BTW) and have been to 2-3 of your shows. I love seeing live music, and the reason I don't see more is because like you, I am a stay at home dad and the reasons to stay in usually revolve around my two boys. We don't have family (read: free babysitting) in the area, and therefore don't get out as much as we would like.

I, for one, would hate to see you stop making your pop/rock stuff. I discovered you through Paste Magazine about 4 years ago, and then found out you were in the Twin Cities like me! I make a point of telling all my music-loving friends about you, but I suppose that doesn't always translate to CD sales for you.

It sounds like you are understandably frustrated, and I can only hope you can find a way to keep putting out quality music. Rock on, please!

Ryan, Saint Paul
Anonymous said…
wow. lot's of complaining. just because folks don't come to a small, last minute show (at a church of all places!) doesn't mean that people have stopped going to shows or that society is changing.

stop whining and play - whoever comes, comes. be grateful that you can do this for a living and don't have to get a real job like most other musicians.
Okay, about the whining and complaining: What's the difference between commenting on the unfortunate facts of reality, and ungrateful wussy complaining? I feel like it's reasonable to discuss the factual challenges of life and vocation without being called a whiner. Now, of course I could be called a whiner if that's all I ever did in this blog or in my life, but all you have to do is read past posts to see how honestly appreciative and thankful I am regarding my music career.

About the "changing of society:" yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. And I'm not basing the theory on this one gig...I'm basing it on nearly every club gig I've played in Minneapolis since I moved here, as well as other "indie" shows, like the one with Bill at my church. (By the way, in addition to playing shows, I actually GO to shows, and I can't tell you how many times I've seen an AWESOME nationally touring band in a club with 15 other people.) Plus, the fact that it was at my church means that MORE people came to the gig, not less. If we'd done the same thing at the 400 Bar we would've had 15 people in the audience instead of 30. And yes, society is changing: my father-in-law just told me yesterday that he read in Time magazine that ticket sales for touring bands were down 10% in 2007. So, it's a problem for everyone, from Avril Lavigne to Bill Mallonee to King's X to me (except Hannah Montana, I guess).

I'll take back this post if you can give me specific examples of multiple indie bands who are constantly blown away by huge sell-out shows, venue owners and bookers who are amazed at huge active music scenes in their cities, and venues that are opening up all over to accommodate touring acts. After traveling around the country and talking to numerous national and regional artists and bookers, I've discovered that society itself has lost interest in live music. It's hard to compete with American Idol, YouTube, NetFlix, and a huge comfy chair with a bag of Doritos.

And, regarding "doing this for a living": if I had to play club gigs and house concerts I COULD NOT do this for a living. I only make my living due to bookings at churches, conventions, colleges, and other places where there's a built-in crowd. If the crowd is there already, I'm doing great. But if I've got to bring people out of their houses and draw them to a show, then I'm finished.
Anonymous said…
"I've discovered that society itself has lost interest in live music."

wow. time to quit, i guess.

So a possible solution: stop going to shows. period. OR... don't go to live shows at small venues and expect large crowds. don't play local, small venues and expect large crowds. it is what it is. it seems like you have been around long enough to have watched the "coffeehouse craze" come and go. i remember watching coffehouses/internet cafes/etc. pop up every ten minutes, 3 to a block. this is were we went to see our favorite musicians. not at the target center, but at the local "central perk". this is the natural ebb and flow of the world. the folks that populated those coffehouses to grab a mocha and listen to some good music are growing up and having kids. i believe that is it not an "unfortunate fact of reality" but an predictable, inevitable trend. it is absolutely your right to lament it, but you gotta accept it.

Stick to playing your conventions and you'll be fine.
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