The road to nowhere

People have always come up to me and said, “Man, I’d give anything to be able to do what you’re doing.”

Yeah, well, me too. Those of us who feel deep down in our bones that we were put on this planet to write and play music have given up an awful lot to follow the muse’s call.

You beg for gigs, often play for nothing, and feel as though you’re constantly knocking on the door of some mysterious machine that has a secret password only certain people know.

Let’s say you are talented and experienced, and you’ve spent a long time finding musicians with the right chemistry, talent and vision to play in your new group. You write and practice alone for hours, then spend countless more hours with all the other players getting everything tight. You invest in even more equipment (going into debt in the process), and begin recording your CD.

You start calling on clubs and music rooms for gigs. At first, you feel upbeat and hopeful — the booker acts like he actually digs what you’re doing, and seems willing to give you a chance. But you soon discover that those vague promises mean nothing. You have to call over and over and over, till you start to feel like a jerk and a pest. Maybe it’s time to put on those knee pads and try crawling and begging.

Yes, I said “beg.” And for what? For the fabulous privilege of playing for nothing in a virtually empty room before the main act goes on — if you should be so fortunate?

It’s a vicious cycle. They don’t want to hire you if you don’t have a following, but you can’t develop a following if no one ever hears you …

So you try to get some press for the hard-won gigs you’ve spent months acquiring. Yeah, that’ll help. You’ve gotta get your name out there. Well, good luck. Be prepared for the local papers to promise you a few lines in their entertainment section, but don’t expect to find them there when the paper comes out. They will lose your photos and CDs, forget to print your pictures, and be very sorry about it. But maybe the local radio station will help you out? Maybe — if you show ’em the money. For those of you out there who haven’t heard, you can get played on the radio — if you can pay for it. But even then, they may somehow “misplace” your CD and info and forget to give away those free tickets for your show. Well, there go a couple of weeks of work and money spent trying to bring in some people to play for.

Meanwhile, you begin to realize that there are weird things going on in your hometown music venues. One manager, for some reason, just can’t seem to tell you yes or no until a week or so before a gig. Then there are the ones who give you a date. You write it on your calendar and begin to work on publicity, etc., only to find out you’ve been moved to the next month. When next month comes, the date is bumped yet again. This can continue for four or five months, until you either finally play or just decide to quit wasting your time there.

If you finally do get around to playing, you agree to play for free — on the condition that the booker will hang around and hear you, so he can consider using you again. You get lucky. The club’s owner happens to hear you, thinks you’re great and wants you back. But this displeases the booker (the one who somehow has avoided hearing you the other times you’ve played), and to soothe ruffled feathers, the owner unfortunately decides to leave your future bookings in the hands of this now-resentful party. Meanwhile, you are hearing the same kinds of stories from a lot of other musicians you know. Hmmm … so it isn’t just you.

It’s even harder to get an agent to represent you. Most of them can’t be bothered. One local guy told us he tried to book some bands into listening rooms and music halls for a while. He was spending a fortune on long-distance calls — then discovered that the agent’s cut wouldn’t even pay for his phone bills (you can imagine, then, what the band must be making).

And lately I’m finding that a lot of places are getting bands to play for a cut of the door (with no guarantee) — or for no money at all. A lot of young groups will play just for the chance to get in the door, believing that will lead to a paid booking in the future. Someone told me recently of a music hall that is booking groups on that very system — with no intention of ever hiring those bands, in the future.

But still the bands line up, ever hopeful that they’re making some headway.

At some point, through a very reliable grapevine, you realize what’s going on with the manager/booker. The agency who supplies all his major bands has him in a stranglehold, only letting him have the big acts if he schedules an opening act affiliated with the same agency. Then you find that the record labels are doing the same thing. They handle the talent, so they can call the shots. At this point, I have to admit a degree of sympathy for the bookers. One in Charleston, S.C., actually confessed to me that a lot of the bands he uses as opening acts “suck” — but he has to accommodate the labels, so he can continue to get the names he wants.

At least he’s honest. Much worse is the guy who books you to open for the next weekend, but when Saturday arrives and the time draws near, you get this feeling you ought to call and make sure what time he wants you to set up. Well, what do you know? The main act decided yesterday that they are bringing in someone to play before them — and the booker somehow forgot to tell you. No problem, right? Well, gas is not cheap, these days, and some of our guys already drove two-and-a-half hours for nothing. Plus, we’ve got to call all our friends so they won’t show up expecting to hear us play.

We have headlined clubs, played festivals outside this area, and had listeners make comments like, “You’re the best band I’ve heard here in a year-and-a-half.” And some bookers have told us they love what we’re doing, but are afraid we’ll make a featured act look bad! (There’s nothing worse than that, apparently.) Still, we’re not known enough yet to count on pulling in our own following.

And so the saga continues. All in all, it seems to be a microcosm of what’s going on in the world in general. The rules are changing, folks. And maybe it’s past time for complaining and time to move on to a larger, more music-oriented city. A friend of mine moved from Knoxville to Nashville awhile back and said, “In Knoxville, we were either too this or not enough that; but if we were to become successful, the headlines would read, ‘HOMETOWN BAND MAKES GOOD’ — like they believed in you all along.”

And I guess that’s true anywhere you go. I keep telling myself it’s the journey that counts, but so far, this trip hasn’t been so great.

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