Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Something Occurs, Perhaps a Little Late

In my previous project, my band mates and I spent a considerable amount of effort (an expense, in the end, of time, stress, and money) trying to get our music reviewed, to get some decent press to help us reach more people, and to play better shows. We thought we needed to do PR, we thought that that's what hard-working bands do to get somewhere.

Now, before I go any further, I want to say that my goal with music has never been to Make It, Man, the point for me is to have the music reach people who might appreciate it, and to have really great performances with, hopefully, a good crowd! That's what makes me extremely happy, what "completes" a piece for me as an artist. And it always seemed to me, and my mates, that if you really wanted to get good gigs etc., you needed to get reviewed.

Back when I had a subscription to Razorcake, I'd comb through all the reviews and I'd see bands I knew and enjoyed like The Measure SA (or whomever) being reviewed numerous times in one issue. I'd see my friends' bands getting some press here and there and getting a boost. I allowed this to reinforce my views, when really these characters were getting ahead because people who knew and liked them were taking the time to spread the word.

Anyway, we'd compile lists of publications, blogs, review sites, etc. And we'd send them our record with a nice letter about us, a one sheet, all that. Almost never did we hear back from anyone. We'd scour the Internets for blogs that we thought weren't "too cool" to review us, we looked far and wide for anybody who might actually look at what you sent them. When I think now of the deluge of garbage these folks must get, I'm astounded that I thought this was a good plan.

You can behold the fruits of that labor for yourself. Not very fruitful. Only three of those reviews were by people with whom we were unacquainted, and of them only two were really published. Razorcake, according to an email inquiry, didn't have room in their print edition for Alvarado's good review and it ended up in their site archive to rot like so many other unused bits, waiting for a hard drive to die.

All the good press we did get, all the good shows we got, everything that didn't suck that happened to us was on account of people who'd seen or heard us, possibly knew us, and already knew they liked us.

That's it. That's the whole story. There's nothing else to do but make your art and show it to the people who care. No one else does, and we shouldn't waste our time bothering them. It's no different from that guy standing outside the subway platform handing out CD-Rs to people who are never going to give the thing a listen. In fact, it's probably dumber.

Despite this, every now and then I get to thinking, out of the old habit, that I ought to sit down and start mailing out the new record. But then I look at these things, that took me some two days to screen print, and I think to myself, "what am I talking about?"

Screen Printing the Record

So I've resolved not to mail the Ben Franklin record to anybody who doesn't actually want it. I'm not emailing or writing publications I don't know, I'm not begging people I don't know for reviews. If the music is good enough, it will get around because we play out and people like us when they see us.

PR always has been and always will be complete bullshit, and it's just not even our place to engage in it as artists. I'm never doing it again. It was extremely stupid of me to engage in the activity in the first place.


Jersey Beat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jersey Beat said...

I feel your pain. I know there are a lot of bands who sent their labor of love to Jersey Beat and never saw a review. We get to a lot of stuff but it's only a fraction of what comes in the mail. So it's tough. But then you look at bands like Vivian Girls or Cymbals Eat Guitars whose careers get an enormous push by good reviews in the right places. Partly they got lucky; but mostly, they made the effort. You can't win if you don't play the game. That's all the wisdom I got.

Billy Gray said...

Hm, I hope this didn't come across as complaining that I didn't get reviews I thought I ought to have gotten, which is not the case!

I just think I shouldn't bother people who don't have an interest, it's unproductive for me, and a nuisance to them. My time is more appropriately spent with other artists, or communicating with the people who care about my art. Of course, playing the game and building a community are not mutually exclusive, but I the former is very expensive and the latter much better for everyone.

Anyway, I think I am playing the game, to a degree, just hopefully a smarter one, and hopefully more productive for myself and those around me. Think about what good could have been accomplished by those countless wasted hours and dollars!

Bryan said...

But part of the problem is, and always has been, there are two separate 'games' going on here. The publications want to be read and the musicians want to be heard. And championing completely unknown music is rarely in the best interest of any sort of publication, web or otherwise, from a practical standpoint. Even the ones there who do and have pushed for certain up and comers here and there are, as Jersey Beat says, inundated with bands that they have no context for, regardless of disc and press sheet.

So you're absolutely right to focus on getting your stuff in the hands of people who want to listen to it; they've always been the first line of the PR machine anyway. And the more people who hear you, the more likely it is you'll be heard, as obvious as that seems. And then it is in the interest of those publications to give you a listen, because people want to read about what they listen to, even if just to have their own opinions confirmed.

Pete said...

This is probably a blog post in its own right, but you're right to be frustrated, Billy. I put myself through the same gauntlet and while my band enjoyed some success in Canada (and US college radio) before imploding, I was there just long enough to confirm a lot of sinking suspicions I had.

PR is an industry just like any other. There are insiders and gatekeepers. Freelance PR will tell you lies: they can get you interviews, reviews, A&R attention, radio play.

Festivals invite bands that they intend to promote; meanwhile they employ full time staff whose job it is to convince naive bands to pay $100 to apply to play the festival. They say that it's a sure thing, we love your stuff. It's literally legalized fraud.

Radio: Don't believe what you hear; the spirit of radio is dead. The people who like *good* music (subjective, for sure) are not listening to the radio, and college radio is an anemic ghost of what it was in 1991. Corporate radio is part of a machine that we don't control no matter how many shows in lofts we play.

Touring: For masochists. People who grow up in small towns want to move to the big towns to break, people in big towns want to drive to small towns to break. Meanwhile, the only place you have a home base is at home, and you already play there too damn often.

CDs: No longer a revenue source! Assume that you will give these away to people you meet at shows; it's your new cheapest promotional tool.

LPs: The future! Irony. Bands make a killing off selling LPs at shows now, and the profit margins are real. Make sure that your LPs have MP3 download coupons. I regularly buy LPs of good bands that I don't actually play, because I want to support them. Yay consumerism! (There is some reasoning behind this... LPs are generally not covered under signed bands' contracts, hence they put gas in the van)

I'm sure that all of this sounds pretty gross and people will say I'm just bitter, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm just telling you what we tried and what happened to us. I spent two years and about $30k promoting our first album, and we did it by the books... PR agent, heavy postering, shows in all of the country, radio promotion, and a decent web presence. We ended up doing reasonably well at US college but it sold zero records because the US gov't wouldn't let us enter the country to tour because we had no fans there.

So let me tell you what did work: the VP of AR for -redacted- Canada wanted to fuck our bass player, who happened to be a lesbian. She was a sport and played the gig as long as possible. We all just wanted to succeed so badly, she was literally willing to fein straight.

Anyhow, during this crazy week or so, we got schmoozed. Hardcore. I didn't sleep more than one night, we were at weird clubs I never knew existed. The guy came to my birthday... with an entourage of rockstars. People that you hear on the radio. It was C-R-A-Z-Y. We were like, what the fuck is going on?

I'll bet you can get what happened next: we got handed a ridiculous show. We opened for Interpol at their first gig in Canada. Our next in-town shows were packed to the gills with "important" people. I was *fellated*.

Pete said...

Powerful realization #1: The lie bands tell themselves is that if they work hard they'll get noticed and maybe AR will come out to your show. Reality check... it's their job to know about your stupid band before you play your first show. If fact, they probably ARE at your first show, quietly (they have henchmen, I do not lie) and if they don't come back, it's not because they don't know you, it's because they have more promising prospects in the wings.

Powerful realization #2: The only reason any of this happened to us is because some aging coke-adled douchebag wanted to ejaculate into our bass player. He said the word, and over night we were the talk of the town. Nothing we'd done before had amounted to anything.

The exciting conclusion for us was that we played a largely sold out tour, a few festivals, and our last show was live on national Canadian television. We broke up shortly after because our sociopath egomaniac primadonna lead singer beat up our merch girl at 3am when she accidentally woke him up using the bathroom.

Bottom line: the only reason to do any of this is because it makes you happy. If you're making music for you, then you've already won.

Billy Gray said...

Wow, really great interesting comments from everybody, JBeat, Bryan, Pete, this is awesome! Will take some time to reflect before I respond with anything ill-considered.

Billy Gray said...

I should say, first off, that these comment typing boxes are retarded small.
(Secondly I'd like to say that I've given up on writing properly, but tried to keep the rambling down.)

I'm not sure touring is only for the masochistic. Granted, it's brutal on the digestive system, but I'm one of those people who loves to play so much that I can suck it up, at least on the shorts stints I've been on.

I look at Screaming Females, who seem to be getting a break or at least a sprint, their tour opening for Jack White's new band and write-ups in Rolling Stone, and it appears to me to be the fruit of their labor. They toured pretty constantly for the last three years and they're quite an act. They worked that network of houses and diy-shows in the U.S. through people they knew, and I think they are one of those success stories that ought to give DIY artists hope. Their drummer Jarrett is close to my heart in terms of keeping things very DIY, and I think he's actually been way truer to that ethos than I have. I don't know all that's transpired for them, but I'm certain none of them are giving head to get ahead. How's that for a marketing slogan?

I guess Vivian Girls are another kind of success story, maybe of just getting noticed. Im not convinced that Cassie even knew how to tune her guitar the last time I saw them live, but that was last summer, and I have yet to spin their new record. I have it here, but I'm checking out these used Hot Water Music records first ("Radio Free Gainesville"!!!) Anyway, I doubt that Vivian Girls had done much PR at all to get the attention they've gotten. Maybe I'm wrong! Somebody should ask them.

In the end, I think a lot of this comes down to not acting like we're sovereign states, spoiled brats, and prima donnas. Why should anybody give a damn what we have to say if we're not a part of their lives, if we aren't interested in them as well? A measure of respect for the home base. They really do come out for you, I think, when you stay true to the Path, like at our release show last week -- I couldn't ask for more! But maybe it's because I don't ask a whole lot. I'm always cautious about sending out missives, to keep the signal to noise ratio low, and when it is show time, people come out. A little reputation for a good performance goes a long way, too.

It's true what Pete says about small town and big town bands looking for their break. It's time to stop looking, to be good at what we do, and support the art we ourselves like by being there. I think that's the path. For me, anyway. There are many ways to the Tao, but this is the only one that seems to be worth my time.

A Suggested Recipe:
- make the best art you can make right now
- see, hear, and experience new art, esp in your medium
- promote the art you appreciate, in the community around you

Imagine somebody who wants to make friends without taking an interest in anybody he meets. You have to give a shit, and I mean really, actually give a shit, not so that other people will care about your schtick.

Time for me to knock this off, update our website, and start plotting some more performances. Which is time much better spent than mailing stuff to people who don't want it.