Debunking Popular Myths — A Musician Perspective
By David Himes |
— In case you think you know it all ...
Debunking popular myths has gotten me a lot of haters, mainly because it goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. Waking people up from what they have been programmed to think to keep them spending their money is a cold, hard truth that no one wants to hear. But for those who are still living in a delusional slumber, it’s an important and necessary step to look reality in the face.
More often than not, there are far more hard realities of setting yourself up for failure, low band morale, and breakup than any real benefits of conventional wisdom—the truth that no one likes.
It’s Not Who You Know, it’s What You Know
Yes, you read that right. I can just about see many of you falling off your seat at the thought of shooting down the ancient conventional wisdom of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” So I’ll explain my reason for debunking that popular myth.
First, you can contact almost anyone in the music scene if you know how to approach them. “Who” you know is more likely to do you way more harm than good when you know nothing. I don’t care if your brother-in-law is a major-label A&R person, “who” you know isn’t going to do you any good if you have little or nothing to offer. That big-name industry pro isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t have talent and/or a following.
Don’t worry about “who” you know in the early part of your game. Once you develop a strong following and stir up a good local buzz, the “who you knows” will come out of the woodwork. And when they do, use extreme caution. You will be entering a world where everyone is a “manager,” everyone is a “promoter,” everyone is an “agent,” or whatever. There are a lot of amateurs and schmucks out there who will destroy your dream before you know it. And “what” you know will go a long way to protect you from the potential disasters caused by “who” you know.
Too Cool to Listen to Radio
If you don’t listen to the radio, you should, at least while driving or at your day job (if allowed). Why, I hear “Brotha Integrity” ask? First of all, note what I did say and what I did not say. I did not say you have to like what is being played on the radio. By listening to the radio, even just a little, you’ll at least have an idea of what is currently being played and what you’re up against.
And while you’re at it, pay close attention to the commercials you hear. Also make a note of what most of the jocks say. Although they might have a hip and cool image, most of what they say is dictated by the advertisers and mainstream pop culture, all designed to program you to part with your money. Try to read between the lines.
It never ceases to amaze me, the bands (and any other business) that don’t at least take a look at what they’re up against. “We’re not (insert big-name here),” I hear you shout back in a defensive anger. Of course you’re not. But (insert big-name here) is what you’re up against. And everyone I’ve ever heard make that ignorant statement has always failed. Closely related is:
Nobody Tells Us What to Do (or Play)
Yeah, right. You tell ’em, “Brotha Integrity!” You’d be surprised at how much the opposite is true with many of the big-name artists who make that very statement, and make you think you can say the same thing. If you’ve ever heard any artists both before and after working with a producer (a real producer), or personally known artists both before and after getting their record deal, you’d know what I mean and why I’m shooting that “rebellious” statement down.
Here is just one example: Back when the “nu-metal” thing was at its peak, I knew a band made up of cool, down-to-earth guys, and the band was decent. Although nice guys, they were not the most image-oriented in the world. To try to keep a long story short, they got signed by a major label.
The next time I saw them (after recording their album), the singer had sleeves of tattoos, freaky hair, and acted angry and full of rage on stage. Suddenly, poof! He turned into a raging and hating beast! Another member suddenly had long dreads (fake), and yet another had the mandatory shaved head and goatee. I remember how hard it was to keep from laughing, because I knew the label told them to do all that. Imagine that. But “nobody tells them what to do!” Funny yet sad in a way, because just a few months prior, they were ordinary run-of-the-mill guys.
The label wanted to see another showcase of the band before bringing them to market. They got a lukewarm response at best from the crowd, as if the kids could see right through the industry’s latest manufactured creation. But apparently, the label still decided to green-light them and shortly after the second album, the band got dropped.
You’d also be surprised at how a band’s material changes when working with a (real) producer. Much of it gets rearranged, melodies and words get changed, etc. Different artists get changed at different levels, but you should be getting the idea by now.
So whenever I hear a local and aspiring artist say something like “nobody tells us what to do (or play),” I almost have to laugh, knowing chances are good that the very same people who make such a statement would change their tune real quick if a recording contract was dangled in front them.
The Illusion of the Built-in Crowd
It’s Saturday night and you’re at a larger or more prestigious venue. The local bands clamor to play this hot spot. The club is packed and the excitement is in the air. One by one, each local band on the bill plays their set to an energetic audience. Oh, that big stage! Oh, that light show! Oh, that PA system! Oh, that crowd!
At this point, you’re thinking something like “if only my band had a chance to play here. I just know we could blow the roof off this place.” Be careful what you wish for. A few months later, you get that very chance to play the same venue. However it happened, you received a much-coveted shot.
Tonight is the big night. As you make your entrance onto the stage, you look out and see, uh, nobody. Being the professional venue it is, there is no “waiting for more people to show up.” It’s time for you to go on. NOW. So you proceed to play your set for only a handful of people. You can hear a napkin drop between songs. The bartenders are yawning.
After you play your set, you’re wondering what the hell happened. Where is that crowd I saw a few months ago? What went wrong? No, that was no mirage you saw a few months back. There really was a big crowd. Congratulations! You bought into the illusion of the built-in crowd.
What you did see a few months back isn’t important. It’s what you did not see. What you did not see was how the bands from a few months back busted their asses to promote their show. What you did not see was the intense planning, legwork, and other tireless efforts the bands made back then.
And what effort did you make when you had your chance? None. You thought were going to play for a built-in crowd. You probably thought all you had to do was put out invites, bulletins, tweets, twiddles, or whatever on the social networks. But your night was stone dead, and you only brought out your significant others, if even that. “At least we got to play on that stage with those lights and PA,” you probably say in a last-ditch defensive effort. News flash: All the staging, PA, and lights in the world won’t do you any good when you’re playing for the wall. And it should come as no surprise you won’t be playing at that venue again, maybe even nowhere, as word gets around.
Get it in Writing
Yes, there are some situations where a written agreement is necessary to protect all parties involved. But if, for example, you’re an entry-level band and think a club will guarantee you in writing any sort of money, the club will more than likely laugh in your face. As for mid to upper-level local bands, you are welcome at the venues. The more people you are known to bring out, the more the venue will do to work with you and take care of you. So in many cases, “getting it in writing” isn’t particularly necessary on a local level.
That’s the Way it’s Done These Days
Whenever I hear this line, it makes me want to puke more often than not, because it’s the way lame-ass excuses are done these days. If someone were to tell me “That’s the way it’s done these days,” and back it up with some kind of results—a reasonable turnout, some viral action online, airplay, anything—I could see. But I have yet to hear that statement from anyone who is showing any degree of success.
If you believe in that line, here’s a little thought about “the way it’s done these days:” Do you know what record labels and other industry powers-that-be are looking for these days? Strong social media numbers. If your social media numbers are weak, your chances of getting what you want decrease significantly. That’s the way it’s done these days.
David Himes is the author of the book Realities for Local Bands: Talent is not Enough. You can find it at Amazon. For a FREE sneak preview, click here. The book is also available in PDF format. Also, David published a local music scene paper for over 16 years and has held over 400 live shows, giving him a unique insight on the scene. Your feedback and comments are welcome.