Category: Performance

Chops Alone dont mean Jack

Over the years I’ve met some incredibly talented bass players. Some of the chops I’ve seen are approaching the greats of bass players, ie Flea, Wooten, Pastorius etc… Some odd statements that come from a few folks with the golden hands include things like “I can barely make enough money off of music to eat”, “I can’t find any gigs at all”, “I was only with Band ABCD for 2 months”. I used to go “?????”, this makes no sense. How on earth can this incredibly talented bassist be running into all these roadblocks, opportunities are everywhere.

This hit home years ago when I was in LA. I was working with a number of other bass players, and this one guy could run circles around me. That was of course until we received some major chart revisions. It turns out, he had to hear the music first, if he couldn’t hear it, he couldn’t play it. I was floored. The fellow had amazing chops and an amazing gift to hear music once and be able to play, but no ability to work off a chart, much less so read sheet music. I ended up sight reading the changes for him, and then he was good to go, and proceeded to play circles around me. Otoh, I was swamped, and he often had trouble getting work.

In another case, I was blown away in rehearsal, albeit this fellow was a guitarist. He had amazing talent, and we thought wowzers, its uber cool that we could find someone of this calibre. That was, until gig time. It turned out the fellow had amazing skill, but also a huge drug problem, such that he was either in jail, or so out of it, he no-showed or crash and burned the vast majority of time. While incredibly gifted, he never took his role as a musician seriously… what a sad deal.

I sort of like what Ed Friedland had to say about his bass playing epiphany…

“One: Having chops doesn’t mean s**t to people outside the jazz scene. Two: If I was going to make a living at this – I’d better start taking the electric bass seriously. Three: Refer to Epiphany #1. Oh, and Four: NEVER work for a booking agent from Brooklyn that has two first names.”

Another bassist, Paige Garwood makes the following statements:

1. You are not the show. You are a sideman. You are not there to stun the audience with your Jaco-esque 16th note patterns or your Wooten-like tapping or triple thumb popping/slapping techniques. You are there to serve up a groove so solid that my great aunt Edna would dance to it…

2. You own beats one and three… the drummer owns two and four.

3. Lock up with the kick drum.

4. Simplicity is NOT a sin… rather it is a necessity. Especially if your band doesn’t spend a lot of time together. Simpler is best. Can I say it any stronger… in case you haven’t picked it up yet… SIMPLE!!!!!!!! There…. Now I feel better.

This is not to say technical skill is not important. More than a few times I’ve been given a piece which is 95% root whacking, with a few measures of insane 16th note patterns all over the fingerboard. Such patterns were obviously written by a composer who had never touched a bass in their life… chops do play a role, but they are only part of the game.

If I were to prioritize things, I’d go with the following list.

1. Groove is key. In a lot of ways, its like the song, “It dont mean a thing, if it aint got that swing”. For bassists, such a saying equates to; if you dont have the groove down, all the technical ability in the world means nothing.

2. Music theory matters… I dont care whether its formal, whether its tab, or whether its by ear, but you need to know what to play and when to play it, and if need be, when to use short cuts in order to keep #1 the priority.

3. Music awareness matters. One should know a multitude of styles and approaches… and have a pretty good feel as to what type of bass line works best for any given tune in order to accomplish #1.

4. In order to accomplish 1-3, technical skills can help, but they better not get in the way of any of the above.

5. Being the good guy does pay off… being on time, going the extra mile, doing everything in your power to assure the gigs success will go much further than technical superiority. By the same token, technical superiority only in the narrowest cases will make up for being a jerk.

The answer to the groove thing is practice, practice, practice… and not just by yourself, or with a drum machine or metronome, but with but with as many different groups, orchestrations, and styles as possible. The metronome/drum machine is a crutch, a very good, and in most cases necessary crutch… but going live is where the rubber hits the road. The metronome wont move, but the inexperienced drummer likely will. The drum machine wont move, but the emotional lead player may be taking the tempo all over the place. Getting a grove going in such a situation will teach you way more than even the most expressive computerized drummer.

It dont mean a Thing if it aint got that Swing

Yep, here it is, Duke Ellingtons 1943 version of It dont mean a Thing if it aint got that Swing. Swing, if done well is amazing, if not, it really comes across poorly. An interesting exercise is to take a good listen to Frank Sinatra singing Summer Wind. He really nails it. Then after a few pass listening, try to sing it, and capture the swing… yep, even for a bass player.

Next, run over to singsnap, and give a listen to a wide variety of folks trying to sing Summer Wind karaoke. Some absolutely nail it, and others, rather than getting the triplets right, either head towards eight notes, or doted eighth sixteenths.

Things will always go Wrong

Its pretty much a guarantee when one is touring that sooner or later things will not go well. It could be a timing issue such as a blown tire enroute, a missed plane connection, or even a venue scheduling issue where in one only gets 25% of the time normally needed for load in and sound check. It might be that a series of thunderstorms comes through, and leaves the venue, as well as any backup venue without power. It could be a medical issue such as having a speaker bin land on ones foot, slicing ones hand open on a par can, pain meds from a pulled tooth causing a majorly fuzzy brain, or perhaps last nights corn dog was on the roller grill for 20 hours instead of two. It could be a mental issue too… a close relative or touring member passes away or is serioulsy injured. A engagement breaks up, or someones marriage falls on hard times, or even the reverse… someone on tour gets engaged, and now their head is only half in the game.

Most any of the above factors, situational, medical, or emotional will interfere with even the most dedicated musicians ability to perform at some point. Thus, knowing such can/will happen, a contingency plan is in order… Obviously, one can’t formulate a plan for every possible situation, but most certainly having a few paths laid out ahead of time can make a crazy time a whole lot less stressful at a minimum, and in a lot of cases will avoid the really bad situation of having to cancel a show entirely.

Granted, some of these issues should seemingly fall into the domain of the road manager… and a top notch road manager is worth multiples of their weight in gold. On the other hand, few bands can afford a good road manager, much less a top notch one, and some end up recruiting a band members relatives, or groupies who have never done such before, and others skip the role entirely and sort of wing the whole deal. Ultimately though, no matter how good the road manager is, there can be situations where multiple things go wrong at once, and the workload is far more than even the best road manager can handle, or even delegate. This is where the whole group needs to come together as a team, rather than sitting back and saying, “not my problem, I’m just here to make music”.

Over the next few posts I’m going to present a few game plans and such which have saved me, and the groups I’ve been with over the years a whole multitude of headaches, and even saved a few shows from cancellation. For many, such may seem like a whole lot of overkill… and if nothing goes wrong, they would be correct. On the other hand, nearly all of these can be done well before going on tour, and at little to no cost. In other words, this is a case where the bass player can put in a nominal time investment upfront, and when everything is going wrong, and folks are going crazy, the bass player can uphold the long standing stereotype that bass players never get rattled. 🙂

There is no Reason You Cannot Do This…. T shirts

Martin Atkins stated “There is no Reason You Cannot Do This” in reference to on demand posters and tshirts. He was not referring to on-demand like in cafe press, but more so, actually screen printing while on tour. As a fellow who consulted on massive screen printing operations such as used for tshirts sold in dept stores, I can think of tons of reasons why not to even think of screen printing on tour. By the same token… why not rethink the norms, and with some planning, give it a shot. It has the potential to really boost promotion, and also maximize revenue through merch sales.

Reasons why not to do so

  • its messy and can be a bear to clean up
  • screens are easily damaged
  • multicolor printing requires precise registration and equipment
  • transporting ink across state lines can be a challenge
  • do you want hazmat in your bus or van
  • flash dryers require 240V
  • conveyor ovens are huge, many require 480V 3 phase
  • quality may suffer without process control
  • finished good racks are huge
  • raw materials + finished goods take up valuable space
  • labor is always a concern

And while the above are very legit reasons why not to do so… I have to remember that a band doesnt need to produce a multiple color glow in the dark tshirt with puff or high density rubber ink at high volume, nor do they need to do design change overs in 10 minutes. Low volume tshirts are a different animal than high volume shirts with specialty inks, and most of the other issues can be worked around.

Whats super cool, is lots of folks are already doing this, and there is a wealth on info online, albeit nothing beats experience. Some great forums to get rolling are http://www.gigposters.com/forums/ and http://www.t-shirtforums.com/

I also found this cool link on building a four color press… its no high speed robotic job, but for making a few hundred prints, it sure looks like it could do a great job.

Beyond the labor and overhead savings, on demand also provides for a high degree of customization, and specialty merch, far beyond tshirts.

Bandize, ERP for Musicians

In the corporate world, enterprise resource planning (ERP) is a big deal, and when it works, its amazing how it can save time, and wring out costs. In the music world, I’ve often looked for a parallel for the touring group. Something simple enough that a group getting started could use a module or 2, and as they progress, go for a full blown implementation, without having to start all over again.

Far too many young groups, wing it… probably because the tour manager is just as inexperienced as the band is. And yes, every tour manager has been at that point, even grey beard codgers. It takes some time to get your stride. Granted, in my day a massive day timer and a ledger pretty much had all the pieces, but it also meant making gobs of copies at Kinkos, and if there should be a change… yikes. Todays tools make life easier, whether it be Excel, Outlook, & Visio, Quick Books, or likely some other combination, provided one can tweak things to talk to one another as needed. Bearing in mind, there isnt a nice canned social management app prime for integration that works worth a hoot, much less one set up for bands…

That was, until I saw Bandize, to say nothing about the additional modules and ERP capability. Talk about a tool I wish I had twenty some years ago, and it has multi functionality, for those of us who run multiple groups and live on the road. I dont anymore; too old, but man, that would have been such a time and aggravation saver. Some of the functions include: Show/Tour Planning, Accounting, Contacts, Merch, ToDo, Social Sync, Asset Management, Calender, and Messaging/Collaboration.. and it all runs online with a browser interface.

Granted, I have not played with this, and until one does, and ideally with live data, its pretty much impossible to tell how good or bad something is. Otoh being that the guys who put this together have all these modules up and running, it appears they did some pretty serious market research and testing along the way. Hehe, any bands need an old grey beard for a bargain to put this through the paces for them? LOL

That being said, like all things, there are pros and cons. The days of old with paper and such were a pain, and if the ledger got torched, or an assistant flew out with the contacts book a day early, one was in a major jamb. With this being a new deal, just coming out of beta, there obviously is a bit of concern. Ie, will it scale, what happens if it usage sky rockets, what about service outages, or other bugs, what if they dont make it through next year… etc.

And of course, another biggie is multi… and I must admit the pricing is a bit scarey. Ie, I believe you get what you pay for, and the very low price is more than a bit concerning. For a new band, and an inexperienced manager, a low price is a good idea… For a guy charging $$$$ per day like I did years ago, it makes me go hmmm. Sure, this is not SAP, but it provides value to a tour manager not unlike the value SAP provides to a F1000 corp. On the other hand, generic business tools like basecamp are only a tad more than bandize so maybe not. Sometimes age and experience creates less than helpful expectations, esp concerning new product pricing.

And lastly, while its an amazing integrated tool, off line backup of data in a non-proprietary format, as well as 3 ring paper binders are a must, especially for the newbie. Old codgers know this… lightning will occur at the way wrong time, a major isp where your concert is will die, your laptop will be stolen, your binders get introduced to a couple beers etc. Backups and multiple ways of dealing with key data are a must, just as they always were.

No matter what, for the young band starting out, this software appears like it will save untold amounts of aggravation and headaches. For the inexperienced tour manager, I think it will be a major life saver, and at $15/month, even if one just uses a couple modules, well worth giving it a shot even for local shows.

Gaffers Tape & Duct Tape

When starting out, every one uses duct tape, its cheap and readily available. I remember years ago, going through miles of the stuff… However, its not without peril. Duct tape, over time, or after after 1000+ folks have trampled on it, or PAR cans have boiled it,  of any such combo makes for a nasty mess of adhesive residue.

Its nothing that some terry cloth and Bug and Tar Remover cant deal with, short of PAR can heating… but it is an extra hassle. Its also a good thing to sched periodic cleaning of cables and stage gear if you do use duct tape… or eventually, the folks will be having birds when their hands get covered with goo during set up and tear down.

Also, some versions of duct tape can be pretty reflective which may or may not be annoying. Lastly, some brands tear sideways, backwords, and upside down… pretty much anything but straight.

Gaffer tape, otoh is super cool… its a lot easier to tear straight, has better strength & temperature specs, is almost always mat (not reflective), and doesnt leave a residue mess (well, dont leave it on forever LOL) However, its substantially more costly. Permacell 665 is the standard, albeit corporate changes have tweeked the name and such over the years, but it is the “right stuff”.

Some less common uses include…

Transit case marking, rather than stencils, ie if you move, or are a sideman, you dont want stenciled labels, you want something that can be changed somewhat at ease. Granted, if you are in a big enough league to afford case wraps, thats even better, but for most, gaffers tape works wonders.

Shoe traction can be improved, especially if wardroad consultants come up with a cool image they went to present. Far too often said image is not practical for choreography, as the shoes are for show, not for movement and as a result may be like walking on ice. Gaffer tape, or duct tape can work amazingly well in this regard.

First aid… but not right over the injury, but as a durable cover over traditional first aid bandages and the like. (sure… most just grab a towel and duct tape, but its safer to use sterile first aid approaches, and then duct tape).

Fire, A Very Present Danger

Fire signoffs in some venues can be a pain, especially if one is not prepared ahead of time. The thing is, the danger is very real. Case in point, the Nightclub fire in RI back in 2003.

http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/02/21/deadly.nightclub.fire/

Ninety-six people died Thursday in a fast-moving fire at a Rhode Island nightclub, Gov. Don Carcieri said Friday afternoon, adding that only a handful of the bodies have been identified.

Over the years, I’ve seen a ton of potential fires, but fortunately never has anything get beyond something which a small extinguisher couldnt deal with. It can be pretty obvious things, like a drape that got too close to lighting gear, and didnt have enough fireproofing, or odd deals, where a speaker cable gets shredded when a drunk gets into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The thing is, with signoffs, most of the time, unless the stage gear is brand new, and you have recent traceability, its going to mean a personal sign off… and then, if something happens, well you know who gets to go to jail. Whats worse, is one can think one did all the right things, and still find themselves in a jam. The only real way to know, at least with some confidence is to run your own tests…

Fortunately, FDNY has published a study guide for Certificate of Fitness for flameproofing materials used for artistic enhancement in public buildings, and they include a field flame test.

Field Flame Test

Three sample strips, at least 1 1/2 inches wide by 4 inches long, must be tested individually in a safe and draft free location. The material must be suspended with the long axis vertical (ideally the sample strip should be suspended using a steel tongs). Then the flame from a common wooden match must be applied to the center of the bottom edge of the sample strip for 12 seconds. The effect of the flame on the sample strip must be carefully observed and recorded. In order to pass the field flame test, the material must meet the following criteria:

  • The flame must not spread rapidly over the entire sample
  • The sample must not continue to burn for more than 2 seconds after the match has been removed.
  • Flaming materials must not break or drip from the sample and continue to burn when they reach the floor.

Granted, for many, at least those starting out, fire sign offs are going to seem way out there… the thing is, the club fire in Warwick, RI was a small venue, it likely did not have signoffs, other than permits for pyro etc. Fire is no respector of size, nor venue, and if by chance, something shorts out, a beer goes flying into the wrong thing, someone falls, etc… you dont want your stage backdrops or other material bursting into flame, and potentially killing people.

This is especially the case for new bands, where perhaps they made their own props, from who knows what material, and whether it was fire proof or not…. Or maybe, they had one of the guys run stuff through the laundry at home, and thus rendered any fireproofing worthless. Its no time to find out you have a problem, when there is a 4ft flame behind the drummer. Test, and if it fails, reapply fireproofing and get it right. This is no place for games.

Christian Music and the Recession, a Good Thing?

From my old contacts, I’ve been hearing the Christian Music business has been on the decline for years, and with the economic situation, its gotten quite a bit worse. Certainly for those whose livelyhoods depend on the industry, thats a bad deal at a very bad time. From a kingdom point of view, I’m not so sure this is an entirely bad thing.

Far too many lost site of the passion for sharing the Gospel that drove them to the sector, and instead it was replaced with the concerns of where shall I eat, where shall I sleep, and other revenue related aspects. Far too many idealistic folks freaked out when they found out the Christian music business is brutal, in many ways, much more so than the secular one.

The thing is, Christian music, like all music requires resources. It may be diesel for the bus, cash for tolls, equipment breakdowns/repair, staff, food, medicine, promotion, recording, etc etc etc. To walk in with ones eyes blinded to the business aspect… Ie, I’m doing God’s work, I dont need to be concerned with that, in almost all cases will result in a crash and burn. Remember the parable of the talents, and also the admonition to be as gentle as doves and wise as serpents. By the same token, its pretty easy to end up consumed with the monetary aspect… even going so far as to require payment to hear the Gospel. Some quotes from folks in the industry.

“The money is just drying up,” says John W. Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association. “And it’s not being replaced.”

Industry veteran John J. Thompson is more blunt: “In the last four years, the sky has fallen. The industry is not what it was, and will never be what it was.”

New recording artist Stephanie Smith says she has to work an extra job because “it pays the rent. Music doesn’t. I have a college degree and I have a record deal, and I work at Starbucks. That’s my bread and butter. It’s just not how I envisioned it.”

Many Christian bookstores have closed their doors. Many at radio stations and record companies have lost their jobs. Trade show attendance is way down at gatherings like the recent GMA Week in Nashville, where Styll estimated that registration was down 25 percent, but others thought it was much worse than that; some observers said it seemed like a “ghost town” compared the typical bustle of a GMA Week.

And why is this occurring…. well, the same issues that have affected all music, as noted in Changes in the Business of Music are occurring in the Christian sector. The thing is… per memory, and also recent observation, while Christian groups are unlikely to blow revenue on drugs and alcohol, they also leave a great deal to be desired on the part of managing their resources, even with those who focus near exclusively on the revenue side. The combination of a downturned economy, and a lack of attention to detail is likely to be deadly to many.

By the same token, this is the time of all times to be out in the world.

Recording artist Matthew West says many musicians are choosing not to tour during the recession, when that’s just what many listeners might need the most.

“It’s the opposite of what needs to be happening,” he says. “We need to be out there.” West did a 30-city fall tour to smaller crowds than usual, “but we feel like God had us there for a reason. You’re on the road and thinking, How are we going to pay for this? But people are losing their jobs, they’re in the audience, and they need encouragement.”

When all is said and done… I’m guessing this may be a time of amazing prosperity in the Christian Music sector. Those dedicated, and skilled to make it happen will. Its not unlike my old friend (who passed away in the 90’s) who started touring during the depression era. He had lost his job in engineering, and turned to music to make a living, just when the musicians were leaving in droves. He did quite well… but its not business as usual, and his passion was as much as, if not more than his drive to survive monetarily. I see similar attitudes in some of the artists interviewed.

Motivation is now the key, says Thompson. “If you’re waiting for the payday, it sounds like it. If you’re really in it for something else, the payday takes care of itself. Either it comes, or it doesn’t—but you’ve had such a good time doing it anyway, you don’t care.”

The economy has forced us to be more creative about the way we go about things, and that’s a really good thing. If we needed a reset, and I guess that would go for the church too, then praise God for it.”

“From a kingdom perspective, I am more keenly aware of being a good steward than I’ve ever been in 20-something years of doing this. The fact that we are able to make music and put it out to people is a precious gift. That we have money to do that is something that we need to be grateful for.

All quotes taken from Christianity Today’s article on Music in Recession.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/commentaries/2009/musicinrecession.html

Keep an eye on tourtips as I periodically look at ways to enhance revenue, and look at alternate ways of making a go of things.

Dont tick off the Union Guy

For those who have been there done that, they personally know the horror stories of paying a union guy $250 for electrical connections, or a few hundred for loadin/loadout. For others, such seems an overblown fantasy story. Well, for some venues, it is very real… and what you dont want to do, is tick off the union guy.

Often times, there are the sale of the earth types, they can see through BS 100 miles away. While they may be powerless to do much about it, by title, or regs… getting one on your side, can make impossible situations incredibly easy, as they know the workarounds. As such, dont go crabbing to them about what you are paying, dont hinder their work, dont crab about how long it takes etc.

Here are a few examples, where being cool paid off…

I was on a massive setup, and the electrical inspector was being a royal pain and then some. Apparently someone had cut a few too many corners recently, and some bad stuff happened, so he was going to make sure every i was dotted, and t crossed even if it didnt make any sense. Having befriended the union crew a couple hours earlier, an old guy pulled me aside, and threw out a few pointers as to exactly what was needed, and how to get the inspector to sign off and be happy about things. What could have been a disastrous delay, turned into a few creative tweeks, and we had our signoff. The $250 connect charge was well worth it.

In another case… some food for the union crew paid huge dividends. Other outfits had the traditional toss and throw… our gear was handled quickly, but with a whole lot more care. I imagine the other guy ripping on the union for overcharging was not received too well.

Another time out, the union guy noticed one of our panels had gotten more than its fair share of road rage. Had he not caught that, and likely the electrical inspector would not have noticed, being focused primarilily on minutia, we could have run into some major headaches down the road. A set of helpful eyes, especially not involved with the same gear day after day can catch things ones own crew might miss.

Ultimately, in many union venues, there really is no choice. Its a cost of doing business… thus one can either be a jerk and potentially reap some negative consequences, or be a decent fellow, or even go above and beyond a bit and good things can happen. Its no guarantee of course, but why start out the day with a negative vibe. Even if things go as normal, its a whole lot nicer for everyone, to be cool, rather than to come across as a jerk from hour zero.

Watch the Weight

After reading Martin Atkin’s book, entitled Tour Smart, a lot of things came to mind, and as such, I’ll be periodically posting tourtips. These are things I picked up the hard way, both as a touring musician, but also a engineer involved with industrial tradeshows. The number of parallels between the two of them are amazingly close, albeit tradeshow wise, we had a ton more funding than I ever did as a musician. Otoh, the headaches are very much the same.

Tourtip #1 Be careful of weight distribution, total weight, and physical size

Its a real temptation to try and make things simple, by using oversize storage and transit containers, ie custom made Anvil cases. Ie, rather than having to deal with tons of crates, if one has just a few… its easier to manage and faster… hopefully.

Well, we had the proverbial coffin box, which held microphone stands and booms, and another case for base plates. Having the base plate box detoured to a undisclosed location one night, we had the brilliant idea to repack them as one… all in the coffin box. Well, that made what was normally a 200lb box, into a 400 pounder, or at least it felt that way. Sure, it had wheels, but it still required lifting over different surfaces, and we didnt have a hydraulic lift gate. As long as we could manuever a ramp, no problem, but it doesnt always work out that well. So… one night, we were short on load out crew, and we had this 400 pound crate… and managed to loose it while loading. Pretty amazing damage what a case like that can do in such a short period.

Another issue is weight distribution… sure, you have the load out check sheet, but when its raining & dark, the telescopic loading bay lights are out, and the loading curtains are leaking, speed is key. The last thing you need is weight distributed up high in the truck, add in high winds… and it can be interesting. I still remember fighting it for hours, and my buddy behind told me later, I thought sure, you were going to roll… If it means getting things in order for load out back on the stage, take the time to do it. The checklist is not just to make sure everything is in the truck, but that weight distribution is also considered (or in some cases, that it all fits). The same applies to a trailer… and I should have learned that back in high school, when our trailer went over a cliff. Sure, the welds were bad, but had it been loaded properly, its unlikely it would have separated like it did.

Physical size can also come back to bite… Its no fun playing a small venue, only to find out you have to unload the cases outside, as they wont fit through the door. Or worse, getting charged huge oversize fees when you get to the airport. Granted, if one stays with Anvil, or most other pro cases, most of the sales guys will call you out on this… but if you DIY to save money, this is something one must definitely consider.