Blues For The Common Band – By Guest Blogger Kiko Jones

The Second Essential Scary Truth

One of my biggest gripes is the sad state of affairs that is music artists trying to make a name for themselves performing live in NYC. One that despite folks wanting to see live music now more than ever has gotten even worse, if you can believe that. (From what I gather, not as bad as the plight of the aspiring stand-up comedian, but still.)

Inquiring as to my availability, a while back I got an e-mail from a local promoter who struck me as not only someone who I might like to work with, but also a stand up guy genuinely invested in doing the right thing. Suffice to say, I would regularly forward his emails to friends in bands actively playing out and looking for gigs, and I was looking forward to working with this promoter in the very near future. But this particular email of his reminded me once again why, as performers, we’re so disappointed in the NYC live music scene. (When fellow musicians tell us it’s actually WORSE in L.A., we’ll just sigh dejectedly and count our rather limited blessings in that regard.)
The whole point of playing live—aside from developing stage “chops”—is to get exposure for your act and connect with an audience. But we live in a city where clubs don’t cultivate a following of their own—there are very little or no places out there that prompt people to say “Hey, let’s pop into ‘Bar X’; there’s always great live music there. It may or may not be our cup of tea, but it won’t suck”—so, consequently, folks come out ONLY to see bands they know and leave as soon as those guys are done.

Why? Well, after sitting thru a couple of bills loaded with crappy bands, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the vast majority of clubs/promoters book their venues based on draw and not on quality. Which explains why people split after their buddies are done with their sets. They don’t want to risk sitting thru some crappy-ass bands, and rightfully so: they’re spending their hard-earned cash on this particular experience with so many other sure-thing entertainment options available to them out there.

See, what no one ever tells you is that competition in New York City is based on numbers and not talent. In other words, it’s not that you’re vying to be heard amongst so many talented others—of which there are plenty, of course—but your true crusade is to be noticed among the hordes of no-talent schmucks clogging up the damn place. That’s why that Sinatra tune is spot-on: if you’ve got the talent and can do some Shawshank-type wading thru the landfill level amount of crap here, you can indeed make it anywhere.

Artists obviously need to reach a wider audience if they aspire to any kind of success. Their fanbase cannot be limited to friends coming out to give their support. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an awesome thing to have friends and family come out to see you play—God bless ’em—but they have lives and can’t be coming out to all your shows. Especially if there’s a good chance some of them come out to support you as a friend but do not necessarily feel the same kinship towards your music. That’s why the idea is to reach more and more people whose only connection to you is your music and their desire to see it performed live. The question then becomes, where are these people and how do we get to them? Not in the bar or nightclub you’re playing, unfortunately. And in this city—with the aforementioned situation and myriad of entertainment options available to folks—it’s an uphill battle. Facebook and other cyber avenues help, but their assistance is more apparent once you’ve got the ball already rolling, not so much initially.

But that’s how it is here, and so we deal with it.

Here’s the big question, though: how does one get any exposure and expand one’s fan base under these circumstances? Well, here’s a novel idea: DIY, baby. If a new/upcoming band can draw 50 people on their own—and are not guaranteed extra exposure—why have a club make that money when they can find some loft space to set up their gear and play, charge $10 a pop, buy a couple of kegs, get a buddy to DJ between sets and make a party of it? It might be a much better option all around. (Btw, the same applies to signing with a label: when a buddy who’s a player in the music biz mentioned that indies are looking to sign acts that can sell 3000+ albums on their own, my response was thus: “If you can sell 3000 copies on our own why would you WANT or NEED a label?” That’s $30,000 gross which, if you worked frugally, could net you $15K-$20K before taxes. Not gonna see that much with a label, so…)

For the record, this particular promoter was looking last minute for a band with substantial draw to play a venue with promised exposure to A&R guys and a decent technical set-up. Very cool. We commended him for providing that kind of opportunity. But he is a lone wolf in that sense, since most clubs make high-draw demands on a daily basis, and yet have nothing to offer in return but a time slot. Years ago I asked a nightclub booker who very aggressively asked me to guarantee him a 35-50 person draw, if he was willing to give me a $200 guarantee in exchange for his demands. Never before or since have I heard such a violent stutter from an otherwise very articulate individual. (And let’s not even get into the infamous pay-to-play policies of certain venues and/or their catering only to acts whose management and/or label can foot the bill for an entire door cover charge—$400, give or take—so they can perform in front of an audience.)

And it gets worse: the monopoly that was once exclusive to the big venues has now spread into the clubs, so now you have companies owning various small clubs as well, which are now upping their demands in order to book you while cornering the market on available places to perform. The rise of Brooklyn as a music scene has also brought with it established acts of a certain level of notoriety playing secondary gigs in the borough of Kings, thereby indirectly facilitating unfair competition between them and the local newbies. I mean, what small club promoter is gonna risk booking a night of local artists when they can instead have a mid-level indie act on their day off? Good grief! And this is all happening at a time when music consumption is at an all-time high. (Of course, revenues are in direct inverse proportion.) God help us if folks decide they’d rather chill a bit with that music-loving thingie. Ugh.

Oh, and yeah, in the midst of all this I’ve decided to actively return to live performing. My mother once said being a musician was like heeding a higher calling you couldn’t disregard. I think it’s more like heroin addiction: You know you should quit, you can’t shake it off, and it will eventually kill you if you don’t.  How apropos.

(Check out Kiko’s blog by clicking here.)


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