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Living An Improvisational Life

Apologies in advance for the recapping of parts of my life, but they're kind of germane to the point I want to make to any young musician, artist or self-employed, creative kind of person. The short story is this: my parents wanted all three of us kids to be either a Harvard lawyer, like my father, or a famous surgeon, like my mother's father and grandfather. All three of us rebelled, of course, making up our lives as we went along. One went into film, one into motorcycles (my sister, actually), and I, art for arts' sake. Mistakes, we made a few. But successes? They came, it was just a process, as they say.

One avenue I chose in my college years was to be a sculptor. I had a modest degree of success, local shows, local museum exhibits, etc. I won a few awards, was lauded for my work by critics who had no sway, but at least were very nice people. I decided to hit the big time, and take my portfolio into the gallery scene in New York City. Success? Let's just say the only gallery interested went ahead and scheduled a show for a September opening. I went in that August to get any details, only to find they had closed down months before. Oh, well... so much for that career.

In fact, I didn't really give up, I simply morphed into custom furniture, then to architectural woodworking, and then into historic house restoration. My creative impulses were completely fulfilled, and my bank account was modestly better. Not rich or even "really well off," mind you, but fine. In time, I started the concert series that lasted 30 years, but that's a different story... the construction work paid for the concert series, so there's that. But, the big laugh came just a few weeks ago, on a trip into our local Yale Art Museum. I have to admit, my early pieces are as good as theirs.

This shovel hangs in the art museum, by Marcel Duchamp.

Mine, called Mix Kitty's House.

Theirs: two plastic bottles filled with red stuff on a piece of wood.

Mine... I have no idea what the title was.

Theirs: Made out of carpet and plastic teeth.

Mine: The Amazing Broccoli Man

You get the drift. My stuff may not be any good, but is it that much worse than theirs? How did I fail? Did I really fail, or was it the luck of the universe? I'm going to go with luck, and here's why. When I look back at all the musicians I've worked with through the years with the concert series, I'm stunned that some haven't received the commercial success that I think they deserve. Bands who were playing the tribute circuit, or just tedious alt-pop stuff were taking off. You couldn't even tell who you were listening to: they all sounded exactly the same, and had zero personality. WTF??!! Anyway, by not being a successful artist and having to hang with celebrities and zillionaires at uber-cool parties on both coasts, I had some spare time, so I figured I'd start a concert series instead.

The hallmark of our the Fire In The Kitchen series was that everyone who came was a superb technical musician. Cream of the crop, and some of the most admired musicians on the planet. More than a few were Grammy-winners. And yet, many times our attendance was in the low 100's. There were more people in a local bar that same night listening to some weak local cover band, spending more on drinks than they would have if they came to our show. Go figure. We had some bands who would play an outdoor fundraiser concert for us in front of 200 people and yet the night before in a club in Boston they got all of 4 people. We also pioneered pre-concert workshops which were FREE, and a fiddle club, also free. The prime directive was to not make any money.

I think that the main lesson for young bands is that nothing makes sense. You can only control the quality of your music, and even with the help of a great agent, a great publicist, and management, you might not go anywhere. It's not your fault, it's not their fault, it just doesn't happen. Don't fall into the trap of blaming anyone or anything. The current blame craze is to whine about Spotify. Be realistic...were you going to get any airplay on a regular commercial radio station? Do they even exist anymore? Bummed about the lack of record stores and cd sales? Don't be; it's a top-of-the-charts world, and we're all in the bargain bin. During the early iTunes phase, where you could buy a tune for 99 cents, I thought that was a cool idea. Was it any different from buying a 45 for a buck? We had a great Cajun/Zydeco band in, The Revelers, and I asked how many tunes they'd sold that month. One member laughed and said, "Two." I had to tell them that that was me, and I had bought them to send to a local radio station to get them to play a couple before the show.

Here's where the improvisational part of life comes in. The concert series was started own a whim. There was no mission or thought other than to have some fun and see what happens. College economics and marketing courses, taken at the time, well, just because, actually proved useful. Contrary to modern thinking, the way I sold tickets was both primitive and kind of lame, but as years went on, it proved to be amazingly informative.

I didn't pre-sell. I took reservations, and people had to email in. Folks would pay at the door. It was slightly cumbersome, but I wanted it that way in case we had to cancel a concert due to weather or illness. I could email the whole group attending, and not have to go to the hassle of refunding money. It was also a public-relations hit, as by not taking money up front, if they fell ill and couldn't make it, they weren't out the ticket price. Early on, this worked well, and everyone respected the process. In the later years, people took advantage and simply didn't show, so if I were to continue, I would pre-sell. However, the main point was that for each show, I had names, and developed a very large email list. Here's what I found out.

I had roughly 75 people who were die-hard attendees. They would come to everything unless they were traveling, ill or whatever. The rest of the audience was genre-specific. They would come to Molly Tuttle, but not John Jorgenson. Both amazing guitarists, but one was bluegrass, the other Gypsy Jazz. Or, they would come to an Irish band, but not someone like the Ducks or The Mammals. The other thing I found was that a pool of regular names came to the shows through the years. I was also able to see how many unique visitors came to a show outside of the network, those who came to see a specific artist that had never been to the series before.

Many times, those unique audience members numbered in the single digits. A very few bands brought in over 15-20 due to their own reputation. Surprised? I was, but when I thought about it, the series is niche music. As good as Hawktail is, or Väsen or Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, or Crooked Still, it's all niche music. Of the 18,000 or so people who live in my town, I bet the only ones who will recognize their names are the ones who came to the concerts.

In short; when it comes to folk-based music, people identify with the venue. We grew our audience by heading outdoors, and using music to raise funds and awareness of open space preservation needs. Attendance soared, and the bands sold batches of cd's, making more new fans than they ever did in traditional folk club settings. For a long time, we were among the highest payouts to the artists of any of the small folk series in the country, until you hit the mid-to-large performing arts center level. (This as told to us by many artists, especially the lesser-known ones, and we became an anchor gig for a tour for many.) Our cd sales for the artists were in the 35-45% range, as opposed to about 10% for most venues. We also ended up raising close to a half million bucks for the various land trusts we either held concerts for directly, or consulted for. More importantly, we raised their visibility in the community, helping drive volunteerism.

I'd like to say all our success came about through cleverly-laid plans, but in fact, I was making s*$t up as I went along. Every idea, like ice cream after the show, was a spur-of-the-moment thing that just sounded like it would be fun. But, in a weird way, it changed lives, as people stayed after the music was over, bought cd's, talked to strangers, made new friends, some found new jobs, some got married and had kids of their own. There were workshops, bluegrass camps for kids, all that. It was magic. And it was all completely made up on a whim, just because it sounded like a fun idea at the time.

As a musician, how does this pertain to you? If there was a magic bullet, I'd gladly sell it to you. It doesn't exist. There's a good chance you'll toil for years and still not "make it." Don't feel bad, the same goes for aspiring painters, actors, dancers, athletes. That's life. We host musicians at our house after shows on occasion, and it's amazing to see how many really great ones have a day job. It might not be full time, but they either teach music, teach school, are craftsmen of some sort, or work with website development. Some are even booking agents themselves.

If I have one piece of advice to younger musicians starting out, it's this. Learn to read the room. It's the age of ADHD in audiences, and admittedly, I'm in that group. If all your stuff sounds the same, I'm not booking you. That means by song topic, song rhythm, pacing, key changes, all of it. Same goes for long meandering solos or too-cool-for-school intellectual compositions. The audience will check out. Read people's faces during a show, and if it's not catching on, change the setlist on the fly. During our shows in the church, I could walk under the seating area by going into the basement. If I could hear people's feet stomping, I knew they were having fun. If there was no sound...uh oh.

One of my very favorite bands of all time, Damn Tall Buildings, spent years busking on the streets of Boston. You quickly find out what makes people stop and listen. Crooked Still played in a Somerville laundromat. Get up close and see people's faces. If they're not smiling, you're not selling. Can you mix in some "serious original compositions"? Absolutely. But mix it up. If you need to crank away on some fiddle tunes to get people's attention, go for it. Get people dancing!

Whatever the case may be, if it's not working out exactly the way you wanted, that's life. Smile, you'll be fine, but you need to improvise. Keep playing music, but get creative in where you play. How you play. What you play. Don't compromise your virtuosity or your vision of what music can be, but realize that if you want to make a living, no matter how good you are, you need to be entertaining to the audience you're playing for. I expect musicians to play for one of the outdoor-in-the-woods shows to have far different setlist and vibe than they would if we were indoors on a cold winter night in a small, intimate setting.

That's about it. You can only control what you can control. Keep smiling, and keep's too long a life to let yourself get stuck in a rut early on.


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