11.15.2014

Objectivity

I am a fairly talented musician. I am not great, principally because I do not practice nearly enough, and I agree with the adage that talent is 90% practice and 10% innate ability.

I have innate ability for stringed instruments like bass and guitar. So when I do practice those, I have a tendency to improve at a fairly rapid rate. The innate ability "catalyzes" the ability to learn and grow.

I lack innate talent for piano. If I practiced piano regularly, I am sure I could become quite good. But my lack of innate talent makes practice a constant struggle and causes frustration which causes more "resistance" to practice. I really have to make a strong willful effort to sit at the piano and practice, and even then it is anxiety producing. I like piano and I desire to be good at it...but I have to objectively admit a dearth of talent in the piano arena. And it is like a gladiatorial arena...a struggle.

I could be blindly optimistic about learning piano, but I'd rather be realistic...recognize the obstacles and challenges and work around them as best I can.

The same goes for my live music projects, like GUPPY EFFECT. I want to be as realistic as possible.

Last night we played a gig in Beaver Dam WI and it was kind of disappointing. An arctic blast of polar weather descended into Wisconsin the past few days and I don't know if the low temps kept people at home, but the attendance at the show was pitifully low. We gave it our all as we always do, for the handful of people who did come - mainly friends and their small entourages.

I put a lot of mental investment into this show though and because it was at a bowling alley, we themed it on the Big Lebowski and dressed up as movie characters. I was the Dude.

I worked with the promoter of the event to generate mass and social media interest. He put together a nice flyer and an event page on Facebook, which I shared with friends and the band's followers.

The investment of effort far exceeded the pitiful return.

My band mates admitted they did very little promotion, probably because the gig was a ways outside of Madison and they assumed no one would come (self-fulfilling prophecy). Most of the six or seven people who came to see the band (a handful of locals were there to bowl and drink...but they largely ignored us...more on this in a minute) were there because of my efforts, so mathematically, had my band mates promoted as much as I did, we perhaps could have had more like 15 or 20 people there.

But I can't fault them for not promoting. In retrospect, it was a lot of effort for little gain, as I said...like squeezing blood from a stone. In 20/20 hindsight, I am glad they did not invest blood, sweat, and tears in promoting so they didn't have to feel the disappointment of failure like I did.

Don't get me wrong...I am not depressed about it. It was an experiment that needed to be done, and a learning experience. I have had way worse gig experiences in the past, as well as much better ones. But the realist in me has to come to grips with some hard truths and maybe know when to not invest energy in a gig or to learn to do so more effectively or to turn down gigs that are not appropriate. I also need to evaluate GUPPY EFFECT's musical product. If it does not "sell" then perhaps we need to change our perspective...our paradigm, if you will.

Maybe our brand of band is not a money maker and we shouldn't try to play full night gigs for a monetary guarantee. Maybe we need to play different music. Maybe we need more band members to fill out the sound and expand the repertoire of music we can perform. Maybe we should focus on original music and play shows that feature other bands on the bill (for low or no pay as is commensurate with this model).

There were some local Beaver Damians at the bowling alley we played at. Our music clearly did not impress them or draw them in, notwithstanding our Lebowski getups and tight musicianship. Also, the sound guy was struggling to make us sound good. The volume was too loud (yes, mom...I know!) and the sound provision was rife with technical difficulties. My guitarist's stage monitor was feeding back all night, something no respecting sound guy should let happen without quickly fixing it. Every time Stefan would approach his mike to sing, his monitor would screech feedback at him, distracting him and throwing off his mojo. I got so frustrated with this that I eventually kicked his monitor out of the wsy so that it was not pointing at his mike and this quelled the feedback a little bit. Overall the stage sound was atrocious. The bass subwoofer the sound guy was using kept fluctuating in volume and was cranked so loud that any sustained bass notes I played got resonant feedback. However, according to the audience, we sounded fine out in the room where people were listening. But not good enough to draw the admiration of the townies...the very demographic we were there to perform for.

Now, locals in rural Wisconsin can be very provincial. I am aware of this fact and I know that you have to go the extra mile to please them. We failed. That's just reality. The metric is appealing to their tastes and getting them to pay attention. The townies at the bar barely looked at us. I know this is partly, maybe even mostly, because we play a more esoteric repertoire of cover songs and unfamiliar (though excellent) original tunes as well. The hoi poloi have grown accustomed to a generic and formulaic brand of live cover music. They want popular, mainstream, easily recognizable cover songs they have heard over and over again from every other band. They want a band to be like a good jukebox containing songs they know and like and can play repeatedly. You would think they would appreciate a bit of variety but the reality is that when they are with their friends, they want what their friends want. They are conditioned this way and I have not yet discovered how to shatter this wall of conformity. Sometimes at a show there will be a local who is an outlier and they will come up to you at set break or after the show and say something like, "Wow I love that you guys played [this song or that]...I have never heard a band do that here...it was refreshing...can I buy a t-shirt?" That always warms the cockles, but it is rare and it didn't happen last night. The poor provision of pro sound certainly did not help matters and probably further ostracized us from the "hearts and minds" of the townies we had so hoped to entertain. I guess we were a bit like Donald Rumsfeld trying to bring FREEDOM presumptuously to Iraqis who had no interest or desire in having it.

So back to reality. What should I do about this. There are three basic avenues.

1. We continue to do our performance art the way we want to do it and find the gigs where it appeals to the audiences, especially venues with a large weekend draw of regular patrons who attend specifically for the live music. The Crystal Corner in Madison WI comes to mind.

2. We re-brand and redesign the product to be total sellout generic popular cover songs only, maybe even bringing in additional musicians to fill out the sound (Note: this brand would no longer be the GUPPY EFFECT brand).

3. We re-brand and redesign the product to be all original music with very few covers and target the appropriate venues for this kind of music (Madison and some college towns). This brand could still be within the scope of the GUPPY EFFECT brand..."thrice the rocking power of other name bands."

I favor #3 and would find #1 (staying the course) tolerable. #2 I would probably have no interest in because I can already satisfy this need by playing with generic cover band BABY ROCKET.

#3 is more work, which goes back to the idea of "resistance" and that excellence is 90% practice. My band mates already struggle to carve out music practice and performance time. I am not sure I can push that envelope much further. On the other hand, there would be fewer gigs per year under model #3, so perhaps that would free up time for rehearsal and the challenges of songwriting. Based on past experience though, my guess is that time surplus will be channeled to non-musical things in the busy lives of my band mates. Already it is pulling teeth to get them to do any song learning or practice on their own time outside of weekly rehearsals with the full band, although they are diligent about making practice. I can't change this reality and so must embrace it and work with what I have. That will mean doing most songwriting and practice of repertoire during weekly rehearsal only. In a way that's good. I won't invest too much time outside of rehearsal either...freeing me up to pursue and complete other goals.

To the extent that last night's weak gig made me consider and explore these band ideas more deeply, I suppose that is the silver lining.

See? In the end...I am still a blind optimist.

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