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Bully for you… Chilly for me…

November 4, 2008

I’m in a situation at present that makes me smile… or more correctly; makes me smirk:  I have been asked by a handful of aspiring singer-songwriters (separately; not as a group) for advice about how to “get famous”.  I am not making this up.  While it is flattering to be asked such a question, one must understand that it is somewhat akin to being asked by a young child:  “I wanna be tall like YOU!  How’d you get so TALL??”

The answer to each of these inquiries, more now than ever, is very similar.  I could answer each by saying, “Well just keep doing what you’re doing, and there’s a pretty good chance that when you’re my age, you’ll be about where I am.”

My point is that even if you’re below-average adult height, you still look huge to the kid.

I am **certainly** not “famous”.  Well, not any more or less “famous” than any of my peers in the nebulous soup of indie singer/songwriters out there.  We are the late-gen-x/early-gen-y-group of musicians that never “made it” because our timing sucked.  That’s not to say we’re bad at what we do…  we simply got to the point in our artistic development where we were “ready” just as the record industry we’d been preparing ourselves for began to collapse.  Those of us on the older side of the group did one of two things: 1.) give up in despair, forevermore grumbling about how “it wasn’t fair”, or 2.) detour into artist management, venue management, publishing, work for an instrument manufacturer, or go into web design.  Those of us on the younger side had seen the changes coming, and were ready to adapt… we were on Myspace on Day One, and some of us were even on Friendster before there WAS a Myspace (…wow… remember those days?…).

I was in the middle…  not only did I major in “Music Industry” during that stint I did in college, learning all about the traditional record industry models, but I had actually gotten a “ticket to the show” younger than most from the stint I did with Vertical Horizon, and had listened carefully to all the old-school experts I encountered… most of whom would lose their jobs en-masse just a few years later.  Basically, by the time the new-media revolution was kicking into high-gear, I had just started feeling ready to take on the OLD-media establishment.

There were hundreds of very talented musicians in nearly the exact same situation, many of whom are my friends and acquaintances.  Most of us had watched, learned, and adapted to the introduction of the internet only a few steps behind our younger peers and were keeping step with them in most ways, but the realization dawned slowly-but-surely:  We weren’t going to get the record deals we’d once dreamed about… not because we had ‘missed the deadline’, but because NOBODY was going to get them anymore.

Once this realization set in, those of us who weren’t too discouraged to continue had to decide how we were going to cultivate a grass-roots following, because there was no denying it — anyone who didn’t wasn’t going anywhere.  The conventional wisdom still seemed to dictate that an artist should try to become “big” in one major location, and then expand their touring out from there in a gradual manner.  Most of my indie musician peers did this. Most of them also got discouraged and burnt out doing this, and “retired” in some fashion after a couple years with a mailing list of a few hundred fans who were bummed to hear the news.

I eschewed this strategy completely, and most of my peers thought I was making a big mistake.  I have to admit, what I did was comparatively radical:  I put my personal belongings into storage and lived on the road with no physical address for nearly three and a half years.  From March 2002 until June 2005 I did not remain in one municipality for longer than 2 weeks, and in many cases I would hop from host-to-host during my longer stays in one area.  I criss-crossed the United States from East-to-West or West-to-East (sometimes diagonally) eighteen times during that period, with smaller trips in there as well.

That whole experience is a story for another time (MANY “other times”, actually…), but the point is this:  while it was happening, it didn’t look like I was making decent strides towards building a lasting grass-roots fan base in comparison to my peers who had decided to stay put.  I was adding an average of about 30 people to my email list every week (sometimes that number was a hundred… sometimes it was three), and in a number of cases, these names were added in towns I haven’t returned to in years.

Fast forward to the present:  I am now, more or less, settled in a fixed location, from which I hop to other locations for touring stints.  I like to think that in each of those places I was playing years ago, I planted some seeds (for the pervs that are taking that analogy in a sexual manner, stop it right now…), and though I haven’t been back in many-a-day, there are quite a few places where those seeds have flourished, and others where people have picked up those seeds and carried them to new cities.  College fans graduated and took jobs in new towns… they made new friends… they turned their new friends on to my music…  suddenly I had new seeds planted in places I’ve never been to before.  The popularity of social networking websites has fed this fire in a massive way, and now there are pockets of fans in places around the country (and in other countries) who may never have seen me play in-person, but who have bought the songs off iTunes and who have ordered the DVD to get the next-best-thing.  This is the same principle that allowed me to gain a big enough following in the United Kingdom to book that tour I just returned from.

But plenty of artists are on the social networking sites, and even artists who don’t have DVDs can put videos up on YouTube.  Why would this work any better for me?

Reason One:  Personal connections — it’s much easier to inspire someone to help spread the word about your new song download or YouTube video if that someone has had the experience of seeing what you do on a stage, as opposed to that someone just “hearing about you”.  By playing in as many different places as I did, I established personal connections with a much broader base of people.

Reason Two:  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  If a known performer comes to town for the first time in ten years, you can bet that the show will sell out.  But if that same performer plays every Tuesday night at the same club for months on end, you will probably see a sharp drop-off in attendance after a few weeks.  By staying on the move constantly, I was able to always leave on a high note, and I would come back every three or four months… just long enough for the thought of another show to be an exciting prospect — an EVENT.  By doing this over and over again for a number of years, I developed a kind of loyalty amongst people in a number of cities, and these are the folks who helped me “plant the seeds”.

Another factor, I’ve realized, is that my act is somewhat memorable. It really floors me just how often people remember me… the emails I still get to this day from folks who just saw me perform once, maybe only for one song at an open-mic, maybe at an outdoor gig where they just happened to be passing by…  one day they enter enough info into Google to find me (not too many solo bassist/singers out there…), and we pick up right where we left off.  I have had the good fortune to see a return on even the smallest investments of time and energy from my life on the road, and that return has been in the form of LONG-TERM LISTENERS.  From my many conversations with my peers who have generally stayed in one place, I cannot say that the same holds true for most of them on the same level.  That’s certainly not an attempt to elevate my status above anyone else’s; it just seems to be the cold, hard truth.

So I guess I’m saying that the crux of any success I’ve experienced comes from my years on the road.  However, this whole combination of factors makes for very odd self-analysis….  Accounting for the “overlap” of fans on Myspace, Facebook, and my email list, I can boast a fan-count of just over 3,000 people.  By the “industry model” for seeing if an act is ready for a record-deal, that would ideally break down to be about 300 people in each of ten different cities.

The reality is that it’s more like 30 people in each of a hundred different cities around the planet, and while that gives me a cool amount of notoriety in a microcosmically global way, that alone is not enough to book a tour anymore….  I stopped living on the road just as gas prices were escalating to their lofty heights of the past three years.  I’ve crunched a few numbers, and it’s clear: I could NOT live on the road the way I used to in Today’s economy.  Small guarantees from coffeehouses and clubs, money from CD sales, and a handful of college gigs every semester used to be enough to get by on.  But the coffeehouses have mostly gone out of business, the clubs are much more frugal, CDs have depreciated in perceived value to the consumer, and competition in the college market has increased tenfold over the past decade.  So while the price of gas coming back down is encouraging, the rest of the equation is still out of balance.

The fact is that I’m always looking for new methods for getting the music (and myself) out there, and that it’s a life of constant hustling, but above all, one must realize that if you want to make music for a living, it necessitates that you make music that other people will want in their lives…  music that they want to hear enough that they want to support YOU; the one who makes it.  

If you can’t deal with the idea of depending on some level of mass-agreement that you are worth paying money for, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make music…  but it does mean you shouldn’t attempt to make ORIGINAL music for a LIVING.  A surprising number of both aspiring and professional music-makers do not get this concept.  I am not saying those taboo words (“Sell Out”); I am saying that every time I embrace the concept I just described, I experience some degree of success.  The most recent example of this would be the project I’m currently engaged in where I am producing my next album with the assistance of my fans….  it’s been controversial, but it’s working (and I have to emphasize, it’s working WELL!)

So… what the hell do I tell someone who wants to use my career as a role-model?  On the one hand, I’m proud of the amount of forward-motion I’ve been able to keep going to keep myself in business…  I think, looking back on things, that for all the bad timing I had in trying to “make it”, I was doing the exact right thing at the exact right time when I lived on the road. 

On the other hand, I wouldn’t suggest that course of action to anyone who doesn’t feel that it’s something they HAVE to do.  If it’s something you could “take or leave”, then do yourself a favor and leave it before you do yourself any damage.

But if you take it…   if you’ll take bad living, odd hours, bad hygiene, malnutrition, car trouble, sensitivity to the middle-class means and standards of those you meet, far too much coffee, sugar, and alcohol in your diet (because it’s usually FREE), doomed relationships, and the need to perpetually book yourself 3 months ahead so that you can continue to survive… if you decide that’s for you…

…well, then I sincerely wish you all the best, kid.  You’ve been warned.  Go get ‘em.

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3 comments

  1. Great post Seth. Good to see an honest viewpoint on the current music scene situation, as simultaneously depressing and promising as it is :-)
    Take care,
    Alun


  2. man, that somehow was in a very special way very inspiring… ;)


  3. […] musicians, like Seth Horan, started putting together a whole group of producers, who tell him what they like and what they […]



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