In Search Of:
Atlantis, Oz and other cities that don’t suck.
By Dave DeMarco
(Originally published January 2005 by The Music and Film Network.)
Message boards can be a great tool for networking and the dissemination of ideas to help others. Unfortunately, from time to time a malcontent will wander in and use the boards as a vehicle for spewing forth some of his or her personal negative bias. Such comments are usually far too generalized, sometimes hurtful and never constructive. The most pointless of these surely must the “This Town Sucks” thread. It matters not whether you live in Manhattan or Bent Fork, Tennessee; inevitably someone on your local message board has posted some diatribe about how horrible your local music scene is.
It never ceases to amaze me how people continually seek and find some external condition to use as a scapegoat for their lack of success. What the poster of this thread is attempting to dupe us all into believing is that if his or her town were more like Some-where-else-ville, he or she would be a big success. For a moment, let's play devil's advocate and assume that this notion is true for whatever environs you happen to inhabit.
What this means then is that hypothetically, there are various conditions about your city's scene, which are preventing your career from escalating to its rightfully deserved status in the hallowed halls of Popular Music History. Were these conditions to be eradicated, you would be able to pursue and develop your career as you see fit, unencumbered by the shackles of a "scene that sucks".
OK, I'll bite. Let's now compile a list of potential scene components which could prohibit a successful music career. We're going to focus on the items which seem to be common in most cities. That said, there might be specific things about your scene which aren't addressed here.
I. The biggest and best venues in town only want cover bands/original acts that can draw a huge crowd.
OK - let's imagine that effective immediately, this prohibition has been removed. You can now book your band which consistently draws in the neighborhood of fifteen people per gig at the MegaClub. And since you're a firm believer in helping out your fellow bands, you arrange to have a friend's band open for you. They haven't been around quite as long as your band has so they only draw about eight people. Still, you've flyered and are expecting a better turnout. After all, you are playing the MegaClub.
Reality check: Both bands' combined 23 fans plus the six random stragglers who wandered in did not consume nearly enough alcohol to turn a profit at MegaClub (capacity: 400). Your band will not be invited back. If MegaClub and other comparable venues continue booking acts which are incapable of generating the type of revenue the clubs require to sustain profitable operations, the clubs will vanish. Whoops - there goes your scene.
Like it or not, escalating to the upper echelons of your town's band hierarchy is a matter of musical Darwinism: those who draw will prosper while those who don't will be left to forage for the smaller venues until such a time that the band's draw warrants escalation to the bigger clubs. This evolutionary process ensures that there will still be clubs in existence by the time today's newbie bands have built a larger fan base and are ready for the bigger rooms.
II. The clubs are drying up. There are only half as many good rooms to play as there were 10 years ago.
Sadly, this is a direct by-product of what can happen when clubs do take a chance on a fledgling band with no draw. For some rooms it only takes a few dead nights to throw the business into a tailspin. For other rooms it comes down to simple economics. They can hire a premiere local band for upwards of $1000 and the draw will typically be good since the band is established. Or, they can hire a DJ or bring in karaoke for half the cost and draw just as well. Fear not, this trend is not unique to where you live, it is endemic in all cities big and small.
So what’s the answer? Instead of dwelling on all the clubs which are no longer with us, concentrate on getting into the ones that are still here. And when you do get in, offer something that’s better than your competition. Oh, and don’t forget to bring some thirsty friends and fans.
III. The big booking agents won't take me on. They only want cover bands.
Unfortunately for us artists, everyone else involved in this business is going to have their eyes on the dollar signs. That includes most agents who, just like the club owners, only want to invest their time with acts that will generate income.
Does that mean you won't get booked? Fortunately, the answer is no. It just means you'll have to explore other methods of securing engagements until you can command a dollar figure that warrants agency representation. These methods can include a) actually approaching venues on your own and working out deals to play on off nights or to open for their more established acts, and/or b) opening for friends' bands. It is this latter option which seems to get people riled up.
IV. Everyone around here is out for themselves. All the big bands have huge egos. No one is willing to help us.
It's one thing to think about how great it would be if you became friendly with one of the area's bigger bands and they were to help your band along by introducing you to some of the industry people they interface with, or letting you open for them; but it's another thing entirely to expect that these favors will be granted just because you introduced yourself to the drummer at one of their gigs. As friendly as the drummer may have been to you, his day-to-day reality is tied up with issues concerning his band and his life. Barraging him with emails wondering if he's listened to your CD, asking when you can get together and when he's going to introduce you to his manager are great ways to alienate your new friend.
Instead, try the Good Samaritan policy: ask him what you can do to help his band. Do they need someone to flyer or sell merch at gigs? Does someone in his band need a tech or roadie? If these tasks seem beneath you, remember this: your new friend travels in different circles than you and he has the ability to assist you in your career. Why should he help you over the countless other sycophants who are out for something? When you do something for his band that makes a difference, you become part of the band's extended family, and not just another hanger-on.
So when you send the drummer your follow-up email to tell him you enjoyed the hang, try the selfless approach and let him know that you're available to offer another set of hands should he ever need them. You'll then go into his mental Rolodex as "the cool guy" rather than "another faceless suck-up".
When things don't seem to be going our way, it's tempting to fall into the "grass is greener" mentality. Left unchallenged, this state of mind is fertile ground for blame laying and escapism to take root. Worse, all the time spent fueling these negative thoughts could be better spent employing the aforementioned strategies or creating some of your own.
All of this is not to imply that your current environs are the best place for you to achieve your dreams. Bent Fork, TN may be a lovely little town but it's not worth sticking around if you have to drive four hours to get to the nearest city to play. And certainly, many of yesterday’s and today's stars found their success after moving to either of the Big-Three cities.
Ultimately, the decision to get out of Dodge or to stick it out on your home turf and make the best of it is yours. I'll address making that decision in a future article. For now, assuming you're going to stay put for a while, let's face facts: unless you live in an extremely small town, chances are that someone is there doing what you'd like to be doing and having some success at it. If this is true, then your issues have nothing to do with your town, they have to do with you. To start making a positive change in your career, try these suggestions:
- Make peace with your town. Acknowledging that you can be successful wherever you choose to live is not only a healthy way to think, it frees you of stifling negativity.
- Rid yourself of anyone in your life who is more successful at complaining than in their careers.
- Spend more time being creative and productive and less time posting and/or replying to those insipid "This town sucks" posts.
The purpose of this article is not to attempt to make you believe that your town’s music scene is without flaw. Rather it is to illustrate that complaining about the flaws in an open forum does nothing to remedy your scene and in fact, can make things worse by painting a bleak picture. If you still believe that there is something uniquely prohibitive about your town’s scene then I encourage you to find message boards in whatever city you think has it better than yours does. When you inevitably come across the “This Town Sucks” post, be sure to read it and all the replies. You’ll feel like you’re re-reading your town’s boards all over again. Oh, and if you ever want to hear what I feel is great about Baltimore or New York, feel free to drop me a line!