Category Archives: Performing

Extinguishing Audience Burnout

With the work I’ve been doing playing tons of instruments in different ensembles, I’ve noticed there’s an area I’ve put on the back burner.  That would be Neon and Shy, my solo songwriting project.  This year I’ve only played about 6 or 7 solo shows, which is much fewer than last year when I had about 2 shows per month.  The clearest reason for why this has dropped off quite a bit is a financial one.  While playing singer-songwriter shows, it is very difficult to make any money.  Playing an instrument in a band is much more lucrative.

Being inquisitive, I got to wondering whether that’s just the nature of the business or how I have been handling my business.  I think there’s something to be said for both.  Bars, coffee houses, and other venues for smaller original performers are just accustomed to paying very little, if at all for their live music.  And yet, I’ve found ways in which I was complicit in hurting my bottom line as well.  One big issue I discovered was my contribution to audience burnout.

In my attempts to get as much exposure as possible, I booked myself wherever I could.  Some of these venues were not conducive to listening to music (or having good food, drinking good beer, or frankly, having a good time).  Some of these venues had sub-par sound systems.  Some of these venues charged an extraordinary amount for the audience to see the music.  Some were very far away.  Some had unrealistic models for how the performers could be compensated.

And some of these venues had every one of these problems.

As a performer and as a marketer, I would try to get as many people as possible out to these shows.  The typical way for a beginner in the industry to get people out is to use the friends and family approach.  I would broadcast invitations to as many of the people in my life as I could reach and ask them to come out.  And for the first few months, a lot of them did.  Over time, though, the flow slowed to a trickle.

While my material is rather eclectic, I don’t think the quality or style was what turned my fans away.  I think it was the invitations I would send to shows that I myself wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t been booked there.  Eventually I realized I was becoming embarrassed to ask people to come out to a show that I knew would not meet my standards for a fun night out.

Around this time my tuba gigging life got a lot fuller, so I put the Neon and Shy shows on the back burner and focused on playing more paying gigs.  During that time, I came to terms with the fact that I was playing unfun shows, and decided to take a different approach.

Realistic charge for entry

I had played too many shows where my fans had to pay $12 to see me play for a half hour.  Unless I was wildly in love with the performer, that would be a hard pill to swallow.  And if I were wildly in love I would do it… once.  So I thought about what I’d be willing to pay to see the same amazing performer multiple times, and that cost for me is between $0 and $5.  Once I start making the Top 40 list, we can start to bump it up, but until then it’s too easy for a fan to feel cheated by paying too much.

A word about earnings

I also realized that sometimes I’d bring about 10 people to a show of mine and earn nothing for the effort.  One of my favorite places to play in Philadelphia is the Dawson Street Pub, and the reason is how fair they are about payment (ok, it’s also got the nicest people, the best beer, the most off the hook fries, and the best vibe).  I’ve played shows there where the band I was playing packed the place, and we would earn several hundred dollars as our cut.  I’ve play shows where I was able to bring in about 5 people on a weeknight, and I’d earn several dollars as my cut.  I don’t ask for something unrealistic when there isn’t a built-in crowd, but I should at least get something for my effort.

I’ve found, though, that the audience is afforded a special privilege when they are solely responsible for the performer’s payment.  Yes, I’m talking about playing for tips.

Amanda Palmer has an interesting TED talk on the subject if you haven’t seen it.  The essential idea is that allowing the audience to determine what and how to pay the artist allows for a more intimate connection, and one that’s hard to develop otherwise.  The professional musician in me bristles a bit at the idea, as we are constantly struggling to convince people that we deserve to be paid for the talents we have honed for so long.  I can’t deny, though, that playing for tips has a surprising quality of sincerity.  I’ve seen in at shows at certain venues, when I’ve made far more than the venue would have paid me.  I’ve seen it in the subway station both from the people who smile when they see me play and from the tweets I’ll see afterwards:

twit

A special connection

There are shows we remember for the genius of the talent that is performing.  These shows are rare and precious, and I’m still striving to get my quality up to that level (I think I’ll always be).  There are also shows we remember for the connections the audience has made with the performer.  I think of Michael Franti coming out into the audience after the show to hug his fans or They Might Be Giants with their audience participation in improvised songs about the Planet of the Apes.  These moments are increasingly rare in popular music, and I think they have an important role.  So I’ve been trying to foster these connections and come up with ways to draw in the audience beyond words and music.

I have a few songs in which I hand instruments out to the audience and conduct them through a song while I sing it.  I’ve had the audience provide sound effects for my music as well.  I think one of my most popular shows ever was the one in which I had a 20 minute set and attempted to perform 20 songs in 20 minutes.

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to connect with an audience merely through the art of songwriting.  Often as a songwriter, the appeal of the song comes from the way the listener can relate to it.  There can be a tendency to cast a wider net to ensnare more listeners, but it’s really hard to do that while crafting an interesting and unique piece of art.  So I’ve started casting a much smaller, narrower net with the idea in mind that I’ll catch the ears of fewer listeners, but those I do catch will take in the song as a more personal experience.

Playing at Chemical Heritage Foundation

The first three rows will get scienced on!

I’ve started writing songs that appeal to my fringe geek cultural roots and need for analysis.  I wrote a song called Level One to Level Two about the tropes roleplay games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Kobolds Ate My Baby.  I’ve been writing songs about prime numbers and obscure video games, and grammar.  While I know that there will be people who just don’t understand it, I’m hoping for a few “FINALLY” moments from the people who do.  I just premiered some of them at a special show at a museum in town, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, to great success.  By the way, that was a free show with free cookies and cider.  Everyone came away happy.

Ultimately, I learned the importance of empathizing with my audience and merging my artistic leanings with their needs and interests.  As with everything I do, this is an experiment that continues to evolve.

And if you’re free on December 28th, I’m playing at the incredibly cozy Zen Den Coffee in Doylestown.  The seats are comfortable, the staff is delightful, the snacks are lovely, and the sound is fantastic.  Hey, it’s a free show, but if you feel like giving some tips, I’d sure appreciate it.  Just remember who’s looking out for you.

Total Perspective Vortex

The Total Perspective Vortex is a concept from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.  It is a device that shows a hapless soul the infinitely vast universe and exactly how infinitesimally insignificant they are in it.  In the novel, it’s used as a form of capital punishment, as no one (well, almost no one) has any semblance of sanity once they are exposed to it.

The total perspective vortex I want to talk about though is basically the opposite, despite the fact that I still find myself reeling from its effects.  Allow me to elucidate.

Last week I had a sudden flashback to Fall 2011, when I went to the Tritone to see a band called the West Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time.  For the past year or so I had been hearing amazing things about this Balkan brass band, and I finally made the time to check them out (damn 9-5 job!).  I arrived early to scope the place out, and the band was slowly trickling in.  I only knew one member of the band from a gig I had played with him about a year earlier, so when he came in I said hi and reintroduced myself.  Just about everyone else was a stranger.

I only stayed for one set, but it was an incredible experience.  Their sousaphone player was a powerhouse, and the music itself was challenging, infectious, and fun.  I lamented that I could only stay for one set, and also that they already had a killer sousaphonist, so my services wouldn’t be needed.

Flash forward to last week.  On Wednesday, I got a call from Larry, one of the baritone horn players in the band, asking if I’d like to play with them on Friday.  Of course, Jimmy, the sousaphone player would be on the gig, so I’d be playing as one of the three baritone horns.  When the night arrived, several members of the horn section joked that since baritone was the third instrument I had learned the music on (after sousaphone and accordion), maybe I’d like to learn their parts and sub for them.

Clearly, what a difference 2 years make.  I had first started subbing on sousaphone in rehearsals and a few shows.  Then I filled in on accordion when a few players couldn’t make it.  Finally last week, I broke out the baritone and started learning those parts.  Along the way, I got to be a part of this amazing group of musicians.  In fact, my band Polkadelphia is made up of several members of this group.  And hey, they’re all really nice people too (except for this one guy named Duffy…).

Unfortunately, that’s not the total perspective vortex I’m referring to.

Last Tuesday I had just finished a rehearsal with the group, playing baritone for the first time.  As I was driving home, all I could think about was how I was not playing the parts well enough, and how much I needed to practice and improve.

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Let’s back it up and look at the whole thing again.

2 years ago, I knew nobody and was playing zero shows with them.

2 years later, I know everybody, and am playing consistently with the group.

And all I can think about is how I’m not playing well enough?

I think we found our total perspective vortex.

I know this is a bad habit of mine.  For years I was consistently dissatisfied with my tuba playing, ripping myself apart after each show.  It really didn’t matter what anyone else said or the kinds of praise I was receiving, I was not living up to my own standards.  Even though I was getting consistent work, it didn’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, I found this as a theme in other areas of my life.  When I first started working as a software trainer, I was sure I wasn’t good.  I dreaded standing up in front of the class every day, sure somebody would call my bluff and reveal that I was a fraud.  About 6 months in I won an award for my teaching, and it wasn’t until that point I started to lighten up on myself.  Started to anyway.

Around the time I started treating my depression, about 9 years ago, I began to be able to find joy and beauty in the music I was playing.  I can’t begin to express the feeling of hearing myself and finally liking what I heard, after so long.  Since that time I’ve had relapses and recoveries.  It could just be that I’m in need of another recovery at this point.

But how do I do that? I mean, it’s clear that I recognize my perspective is skewed.  How do I snap out of the negativity?

Well, acknowledging it and putting it out into the world can help.  Thank you blog!  Sometimes just hanging your fears out to dry in the sun can take away the that mildewy lack of perspective.  Or as Nintendo has taught me:

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Beyond that, gathering perspective can be a useful tool.  Someone recently told me that as I am climbing this ascent to new and fantastic parts of my life, not to just focus on the peak ahead.  Sometimes it’s important to also look back at the paths I’ve already crossed and feel the gratitude and awe at having been able to make it this far.  I think my flashback to 2 years ago was my mind’s way of enforcing that idea.

Because while I get anxious and tend to pile on myself, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I have been able to accomplish in my life so far.  I’m thankful for the people I love, the abilities I have fostered, and the challenges I continue to encounter.

Hey, you know, maybe they should come up with a holiday where we talk about how thankful we are.

Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!

*

I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

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