NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com
Everybody loves a survivor. No one wants to watch a movie about the dude who gave up. Unless, of course, you enjoy eating two bags of salt and vinegar potato chips and crying for a whole afternoon. If that’s the case, you’ll have to visit a different blog to get help with that.
Anyway, I used to like to watch Bear Grylls on “Man vs. Wild.” If you never saw the show, they used to drop this dude in some extreme situation (desert island, Antarctica, etc.) and he’d figure out how to survive. Bear’s mantra was this: The key to survival is adapting to your surroundings, having a plan, and keeping your spirits up.
So, as that applies to music, is this week’s story.
Now, I could write for two days on that subject. Too many musicians go through their careers without any sort of plan whatsoever. The winds of gig opportunities blow them around to and fro until they get caught in the branches of, say, some shitty local cover band. Here they will hang until they give up. Which takes a while.
Or they join a band, write a bunch of tunes, and play them live a few times and give up out of frustration because no one wants to hear their stuff.
I’d like to suggest something different. Adapt to your surroundings and have a plan. Decide what you want. Build a friggin’ windmill and make the elements bend to your will. That’s the only way you are going to be happy in the long run.
A very successful radio promoter once gave me a great piece of advice: “If you sell records, you get to keep making them.” That sounds kind of Forest Gumpian, but’s true of just about anything. If people consume what you make, you get to keep making more… and hopefully you make a decent living in the process.
One of the main reasons I wanted to start writing a blog was because I thought that my glorious path to the middle of the music biz was somewhat interesting and underrepresented. There are many of us out there who all made something out of nothing. When I started out in the music business, I didn’t know one friend who had ever had a record deal. Our band didn’t have a rich uncle to bankroll our rock and roll dreams. We weren’t from a city that was anxiously looking for the next big thing. And no one had a family member that worked for Columbia Records. We were about as anonymous as you can get. However, we did have one thing: We had a plan.
From day one, we set out to figure out a way to be an original band and have our own voice. In an area where that just didn’t happen. Even when we had 4 original songs to our name and had to go play a 3 hour show, we were an original band who played covers to fill the night, not a cover band who had 4 original songs… If only in our own minds.
As we wrote more tunes, more went into the set. And we’d do anything to get people to listen to them. We’d do one of our songs then break into some cover in the middle of it. If someone didn’t want to hear our unknown tune, at least they would wait around for the middle when the other song kicked in. They knew it was coming. We did a medley where we would play like 15 seconds of every stupid song we ever got requests for. Get ’em all out of the way at once. At the time I hadn’t heard anyone do that. It was corny as hell, but it was a big seller. Then we went back to playing our own shit.
Conversely, if we got an opening slot for a national act, we did an all original show. Because we were an original artist, not a cover band that landed a good gig. Eventually we got rid of all the extra stuff and did our own stuff all night. To the same crowd who before had no interest in such things. If we played someone else’s tune, we rearranged it to sound like us.
But we didn’t do it by complaining that our audience “just didn’t get it” or that our town sucked. We met them on their own ground and won them over. We built a windmill. We adapted to our surroundings. It took a while, but it worked.
To this day I still believe that the fact that we went into any club that would have us and won them over on their terms has more to do with why we are still playing than any arena we ever played in.
But rock and roll survival is an ongoing process. Adaptation doesn’t stop with your local music scene. Not if you want to keep going for a long time. It’s an ongoing process that never really ends. Once you get a record deal, there are new masters to serve. If you are a band whose music gets radio play, you have to think about that. “I don’t hear a single” is one of the most dreaded phrases in music business folklore. If you are touring, you are playing on a national or perhaps international scale. And people are different everywhere. What works in a roadhouse in McAllen, Texas is not what is going to work in a hipster club in NYC. And you will have to play both of them.
Also you must consider that you are now looked at in a different light. For example, if I went to a Soundgarden show and Chris Cornell raised his glass every 3 songs and yelled “social!” well, I’d be bummed to say the least. But I would fully expect that from a band playing at the casino down the road.
Which still bums me out but to each his own. Anyway.
Basically I am talking about adapting and growing as an artist as your surroundings change. Many fall along the way who are just not wired for the next level. Rock and Roll Darwinism if you will.
There is an old story (perhaps Hindu?) where a group of people are all blindfolded and asked to touch a different part of an elephant. They are asked to describe what it was they touched. Of course, all their answers are wildly different. That elephant is a metaphor for “truth”. The way you see it depends on your perspective at the moment. But no matter where you touch, it’s all elephant!
I believe that the best artists have that same quality to them. They have layers that get revealed over time. There is always something new to keep their audience riding along through all the various stages of their lives. And that is the ultimate survival skill. The ultimate way that an artist can adapt and thrive for many years.
Use Neil Young as an example. There is folky, acoustic Neil Young, country Neil Young, noisy and rockin’ Neil Young And Crazy Horse, C,S,N and Y Neil Young, electronic “Trans” Neil Young, Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Buffalo Springfield Neil Young, and political Neil Young. There are more. But all of these variations fit with that “Neil” plan when you look at the big picture. He just revealed it to us in pieces… one part of the elephant at a time.
I am sure he didn’t have it all planned out from the start, but there was a lot there from the beginning. Which is what makes his catalog and career so impressive and rare. He didn’t always give us what we expected, but it was always honest and always interesting. And we rode along every step of the way. Not always agreeing with where he went, but always wanting to see where he was going next. He’s still at it today.
So there you have it, my short synopsis of rock and roll survival from novice to icon and some points in between. I left a lot out of course. That discussion could be a book in of itself.
It takes a lot of courage to be an artist, musician, songwriter, etc. You gotta put yourself out there. You gotta keep chipping away at that big ball of truth in your belly and laying it out there piece by piece for all to see. And over the years, you’ll have to translate that truth into many languages. The language of the bar owner, the language of the drunk, the language of the radio listener, the language of the critic, and the language of the guy listening at home who just wants to feel a little better today. You’ll get it wrong most of the time. But you keep adapting and refining. Putting that picture together a little bit at a time until it becomes clear.
But remember, don’t waste your time lamenting bad situations from the past or dreaming of a future that may never be. The only thing that matters is the guy is staring you in the face today. If you get up every day and try and make him understand, you will never want for a room of people to play to.
Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees.