Friday, November 13, 2009
The top ten things I learned from the Rocktober tour
Okay, I promise this will be the last post spent processing October's tour. I realize this stuff must get tiring to folks on the outside.
(Though if I were to justify all the navel-gazing, I'd say that when you're a professional musician with an original concept that you're trying to get out into the world in an economically viable way, you have to constantly analyze, evaluate, and adapt. There is no template for a 21st century not-really-jazz (but not-really-anything-else) big band. There are lots of places around the web to get good advice, lots of good books you can read, and lots of good people who are helping build a new music economy, one note at a time. But there is still, inevitably, a lot of trial and error. And that's fine; I, for one, never expected anything else. But I'm also trying to understand every step (and mis-step) as fully as I can. It's partly why I started this blog in the first place, don't'cha know.)
Anyway: what did I learn this time out? Well, how about I try to distill it all into a single handy-dandy list?
(I realize some of this may be obvious, but it's helpful for me to repeat it, even if only for myself.)
1. The old music business is currently a little like the Terminator at the end of the original movie.
We're at the point where the polyurethane skin and flesh have been burned off, and the silver robotic skeleton has been exposed. But the damned thing still shows no signs of dying, and the hydraulic press is not yet a foregone conclusion.
Which just means that, though this is an exciting time, full of musicians who are creatively taking charge of their careers, in some cases the smartest approach is to go about your business the old-fashioned way. For me, that means recognizing that the IJG is not really as DIY of a proposition as I first thought, and that, at long last, I am going to have to assemble a team to help me run it.
2. Sometimes trying to save money can be costly in other ways.
Logistically speaking, probably the biggest challenge with Rocktober was the fact that I tried to do it as inexpensively as possible (naturally enough, since it was our most ambitious outing). That ultimately ended up making life much harder than it had to be.
For instance, it's mercifully cheap to have bandmembers stay with friends at various homes scattered throughout a given city, but that also means that the next morning, when we're trying to get to whatever the next event is, everyone is not conveniently in the same place (i.e., a single hotel), and the ability to depart for that evening's gig is completely dependent on people's ability to get to a designated pick-up spot at a given time. With a quartet, that is possibly a manageable task. With a 16-piece group, that is practically an invitation to disaster, unless you have one person whose job it is to be a professional asshole, ensuring that everyone is where they need to be at the right time.
3. Hire a professional asshole.
Otherwise known as a "tour manager," this is the person who would, for instance, proactively motivate any individuals who seem poised to make everyone else late. Alternately, he or she would be a veritable information kiosk for any and all questions about the itinerary, would anticipate occasional unforeseen logistical problems, and so on. (Oh, yeah! He or she would also allow a bandleader to focus on other things -- like, well, you know, the music.)
4. Leave a 3 hour buffer for everything.
Is the call time 6 PM? Aim to get the whole band there by 3.
(Not least because of the absurd phenomenon known as traffic. I escaped traffic as a concept three years ago when I left LA for Portland. But Rocktober quickly reintroduced me to this strange, absurd, and ultimately evil phenomenon. Trust me: you don’t know how hellish traffic actually is until you are able to live somewhere where traffic is relatively scarce. Getting to know traffic again, sitting in the back seat of a small red car and waiting waiting waiting until whatever the fuck was slowing us all down could be moved, I was reminded of a thought that often crossed my mind during the few minutes of my life when I could actually tolerate a “real job”: human beings are not meant to live like this.)
5. Hold regular band meetings, even when there doesn't seem to be a reason for them.
Before this tour, the only "band meetings" the IJG ever had were during the few minutes at the end of a rehearsal.
On this tour, I learned that, when you have 16 people on the road for an extended period of time, it is crucial to provide a regular opportunity for them to express whatever concerns, issues, complaints, or observations they might have. Ideally this sort of thing should function like the steam valve on a pressure cooker.
6. Don't count on your GPS.
GPS is a crutch. Even the best ones seem unreliable for a long-term itinerary in which you're trying to figure out a route on the fly. (Being right nine times out of ten counts as "unreliable" in my book.)
If you're undertaking a tour with a lot of driving, research your route ahead of time: start with mapquest or google maps, and print all the results out (I actually used to do that, but for this tour it was one more task I didn't have time to get to). Bring along a GPS, sure, but also arm yourself with an old-fashioned hardcopy map. Hell: contact your destination ahead of time to confirm that you are taking the best path from point A to point B.
When you're on a long tour, everything depends on your ability to get to a given location in a comfortable, timely manner. Nobody plays well when they have to crawl out of the back seat of a crowded van a few minutes before a gig. Triangulate the shit out of your directions.
7. 12-seater vans are awesome, convenient, and easier to drive than you might think.
If I had known this ahead of time (I only discovered it by accident toward the end of the tour, because of a mishap with a credit card), I would have rented one of these babies for the entire tour, instead of the two smaller vans we ended up using for most of it.
8. Unless absolutely necessary, tour in the spring and summer only.
Touring during the onset of a novel flu season is a big, big mistake.
9. It is much better to play a single 60-minute set on a double or triple bill than it is to play two or more sets when you're the only band on the bill.
Truthfully, this is something I've been aware of for a long time. It's actually my preferred performance scenario, at least at this stage of the band. But when you're not a professional booking agent, and you're putting together something like Rocktober, there's only so much you can do before you hit a wall (e.g., bands you like who are unavailable to gig with you, venues who demand that you go it alone, etc.).
Which makes me think that this item should actually be "find yourself a professional booking agent" -- someone who knows how to get over the aforementioned wall. (See also number one, above.)
10. Admit when you're wrong, take responsibility for any shit that happens, and learn from your mistakes.
I have spoken before about the role that I believe the ego plays in all the arts. We artist-types are driven by a deep desire for self-expression, and every time we get up to perform we're exposing what feels like an extension of ourselves -- our psyche, or soul, or moral fiber, or whatever you want to call it. (Which may be why the arts can be home to such vitriolic, passionate arguments over craft, process, meaning, etc. It also may be why some of the most beautiful collaborative relationships have gone so sour.)
In any case, a good bandleader, I think, has to know how to set all that ego-baggage aside, and fully own up to (and apologize for) any of his or her mistakes. But more than that, I believe that a good bandleader has to learn how to productively take responsibility for anything that goes wrong with the band -- not always in a literal sense, but (like the captain of a ship, or the president of a country) figuratively, symbolically, and as a way of defusing any tension. As I used to say during our gigs, while gesturing toward the ensemble: "This is my fault." I think people appreciate when you are able to recognize that you put them in a given situation, even when you did not necessarily cause a specific aspect of that situation to go south.
Hope that list helps you. It certainly helped me.
And now: onward and upward. (Or, as John Lennon used to say: "To the toppermost of the poppermost!")
[photo credit (top only): Mike Licht]