There seems to have been a lot of free advice to Houston bands going around lately, and who but the Aging Scenester would be in a better position to pile yet more profundities upon the grave of this badly battered, yet seemingly undead horse?
The most recent heaping helping, provided by a roundtable of local music writers, was geared towards telling bands that they need to market themselves more effectively, particularly to the music press itself; so that they are not overlooked. This led to some folks saying things like, "Why don't you people in the music press get off your lazy asses, do your own jobs and quit trying to tell me how to run my band". It led some other folks to wonder if the only thing separating H-town from the rich, productive, and unique music scene that it so deeply deserves was nothing more than a shortage of shamelessly self-promoting douchebags.
While the Aging Scenester certainly feels that he is personally above all forms of shameless self-promotion, he also recognizes that some amount of interaction with the press has advantages, even for bands not trying to "make it". For one, a band should take advantage of opportunities to have their work reviewed by someone outside their immediate echo chamber. Houston has, by most accounts, a pretty diverse local music press where your band should be able to find someone to cover them. Yes, yes, you say, but no one reads them and they're irrelevant anyway! That's substantially not true because I can tell you, as one who has certainly held his share of disdain for the music press over the years, it never once has stopped me from reading a review of my own work. That's right, hipsters -- sniff at the HP all you like, but you know you'd chew your own arm off to get to La Tapatia or Brasil for your copy if you knew a thorough review of your album or show was gonna be in there. And you desperately want someone who isn't your buddy or your girlfriend or your girlfriend's sister or some guy at work to evaluate your music. You may not agree with what they have to say, but reviews give you an insight into what you are doing that you will not get anywhere else. Our local music press is in a tight spot, because on the one hand they don't want to crush the life out of a music scene that they already view as being somewhat fragile, but they also can't just nakedly shill for bands or act as their free PR agents. The Aging Scenester certainly feels that it would be nice if the Houston music press would do more reviews of local bands, and that they would get out to see more shows. He does not expect cheerleading, but he does feel that bands that don't get constructive criticism from neutral third parties will either a) miss opportunities to improve themselves or b) keep playing and sucking for all to behold.
But what, exactly, does it mean for a band to "improve themselves"? I've given this a little thought, and I sure as fuck didn't come to the conclusion that it means "having more flyers printed than any other band" or "getting all your cousins and co workers and ex girlfriends to vote for you in the Houston Press Music Awards" or "overwhelming social networking sites with band spam". No, my friends -- there is no escaping it. The solution, however brutal it may sound, to the alleged crappiness of the Houston music scene, is very simple: to have fewer crappy bands and more good ones.
That means that as a musician, if you want people to notice you, you want to build a fan base, you want people to buy your merch -- here it comes, such a novel concept -- play good music and play it well.
"Well", you say, "what the fuck does that mean, you stupid old fart? Play good music? I mean whether music is good or not, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man!"
Point taken, so here's some specifics --
1) Learn to play your instruments
Now the Aging Scenester happens to be a guitar player. And certainly not a fantastic guitar player, far from it. But he has been playing since before many of you were conceived and he does know a thing or two, among them:
a) The guitar is far from being a dead instrument but most alterna-bands play them like they are, which is partly because they are put off by all the indulgent wankiness and guitar hero bullshit from the late 60s on up, but also because they really don't know how to play the goddamn things and it's a convenient cop-out.
b) If you strap on a guitar and get in front of people, they're going to expect something. They are going to expect you to bring it. Actually this is true of any instrument. Show off. Have some fun. Throw in a little flash. This is why people came to see you, instead of staying home and watching Top Chef reruns in their pajamas.
2) Get better singers
Here's something that may or may not have crossed your minds: people generally relate to the vocal parts of songs more than anything else. This is natural because music itself is really just a kind of bizzare linguistics. This needs to be embraced -- but not by people who can't keep pitch. Now you may have picked Joe Bloe to be your singer because he is charismatic, good looking, a great front-man, energetic and all that -- but in reality, Mr. Bloe got the job because no one else wanted to do it. Yep, that's right. And Mr. Bloe, for all of his positive traits, sadly cannot carry a tune in a basket and may have, as many egotists do, an exaggerated estimation of his own vocal ability. This leads him to explore nooks and crannies of his golden pipes which should have stayed forever hidden within the walls of his shower or the doors of his car.
Singing is -- straight up -- the HARDEST fucking job in rock & roll. Do not take your choice of singer lightly. Do not suffer through a vocalist who has diarrhea of the mouth, or pen -- we call these people poets, and they have their own deal which is poetry slams at coffee shops. It's not that no one cares about what your lyrics have to say, except...well, generally they don't. How they sound is what matters. Especially in Houston clubs which are not exactly known for the stunning quality of their PA systems, your audience is not going to be likely to pick up on the nuances of your lyrical brilliance above the roar of guitars and drums.
This one is not easy. A really good singer is a rare commodity. A passable singer can be made with a lot of effort, trial, error and humility. If you cannot find a decent one, then keep trying: but keep your musical efforts to your practice space until you are ready. Or be an instrumental band. Above all, do not resort to the standard cop-outs of burying mumbling vocals under the mix (wow, that's soooooo edgy) or just screaming tunelessly (wow, that's soooooo edgy). No. Enough.
3) Write some good songs
What a novel concept -- if you write good songs, people will listen to them, maybe even more than once, and when they come to your shows, they will remember them from last time!!! Yaaaaay! Now I recognize this is about as intangible as intangible gets. But I have to believe that part of the reason that so many bands around here have such unmemorable music is because they listen to unmemorable music. The Aging Scenester knows what he's talking about, because he's old enough to recall listening to the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Beatles and Joe Walsh on a fucking AM radio when he was a wee lad. I know that all of you are way too cool to listen to old fart stuff like that. And I sure as hell listened to my share of horrible, tuneless shit or straight up noise, when I was an aspiring young hipster back in the day. But the big mistake I think so many people make is listening to music for genre instead of for songs. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that people listen to the 'sound' of a band rather than the actual notes they are playing. I still listen to a lot of genre music, but to this day I listen to Led Zeppelin and the Stones because they wrote some great fucking songs, and I never get tired of hearing them. I understand the pitfalls that so many of you want to avoid -- you don't want to go retro, you want to be original, you want to be quirky, you view pop music as a wasteland, you hate the crass commercialism, you have contempt for conventional songwriting tropes, etc., etc., etc. But there's a lot to be learned from listening to good, catchy mainstream music and yes, stuff that was written and recorded before you were even born. Don't be afraid of writing a simple song with cool lyrics and decent vocal hooks. Think about harmonizing more on vocals. Don't over-write your songs; the best ones write themselves.
This is not to say that your band should not do that 25 minute long Ode to Space you've been dreaming about, with lots of experimental jamming. Or that you shouldn't write songs that are more complex or more lyrically personal, or that you shouldn't explore what happens when you jam a pineapple juice can under your guitar strings, or that you shouldn't have songs that are blunt expressions of rage or some other emotion -- this is, after all, an artistic pursuit. Just show a little more appreciation for the art of songwriting itself, and be your own harshest critic when you listen to what you're playing.
4) Perform for your audience
I recall the oft-maligned John Lomax saying, a while back, something to the effect that a lot of bands in Houston just sort of stand around listlessly staring at their amps during performances. The music might be cool, but the bands looked as bored as the audience inevitably was. This was harsh, but good medicine from Mr. Lomax. Now he sure as hell wasn't talking about Filthy McNasty, for example, or the Poor Dumb Bastards. But he was talking about a lot of bands, my own included, and he was right. Here's the deal: you're a performer. Go out there and perform. Engage the audience. Make them glad they're there and that they paid their five bucks to get in. And while this really makes me sound like a tool, I would add -- dress the part, if you feel so inclined. Yeah, yeah I know, you're all genius musicians and you are so above the rock star thing, and you just want to be comfortable -- but first off, you are missing out on half the fun of being in a band if you don't act a little flamboyant, and second, basically you just look like roadies or slobs up there and it's depressing.
Having a worthwhile stage presence and some live energy is a big part of making sure that whatever people did come to see you had a good time, and will want to come back again. And it's more fun for you too. The reality of it is that many musicians feel uncomfortable in front of people, they don't want to look at the audience, and they have a hard time with this. So they adopt the disconnected navel gaze by default. In the end, it doesn't say cool or artsy, it just comes across as laziness or indifference to your own music.
5) Check your ego(s)
I say this with some qualification. Because a healthy amount of self-esteem is really important for someone who wants to perform in front of people. Presumably, if you didn't think you were any good, you wouldn't waste your time and the audience's time by playing. However....
I think a lot of bands split up before they really have a chance to get good. To know each other's idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses, and learn how to play as a group. A lot of times, this is just life -- someone gets a job, moves, goes to college, or starts a family and just decides to throw in the towel. But truthfully I suspect that a lot of bands break up because of personality conflicts, egos, one guy running the whole thing and the other guys (or girls) getting tired of it, etc.
There is a lot to be said for getting along well with the other people in your band. One way to do that is to respect everyone's opinion, to share credit, and to give everyone room to explore their own instrument and their own artistic contribution to the music. Now you may be a person who thinks that your art is the absolute most important thing in your life, and that you cannot let other people get in the way of your vision. The history of rock & roll is full of people like this, and if that's you, then there's not a lot I can say other than that you may be successful artistically, and even commercially, but that I wouldn't want to be in your shoes. For my own part, a big reason I'm in a band to begin with is because of the camaraderie and the joy of creating something with a group of other people.
So if you've got a huge ego and you decide that's what is going to power you to stardom, you better have the chops to back it up. Otherwise, come on down to earth and jam with all us little people.
I bring up each of the items above with two particular caveats: first, these are all things that I personally had to learn as a musician over many years. They are not all easy to do, and they take patience and persistence. I did all these things wrong at one point or another, and probably am still doing some of them wrong, but I know how important they are from personal experience. The second point to make, which is more positive, is that they are all things you, as a band, can control. You cannot control clubs, asshole promoters, record labels, the music industry, the Internet, MTV, the radio stations, or the music press but you CAN do something about the quality of your own music. Much of the advice I've seen bandied about recently seems to be focused on trying to bend a nebulous music "business" to your will by constantly hustling yourself. I can't say that doing that will hurt, and I guess that if your goal is to be a working musician, you are probably going to have to do some of that stuff. But for most of us, music is a secondary career or a vocation; we all have bills to pay and lives to lead. We do what we're doing because we love to do it and our definition of success isn't necessarily financial. You may never get to quit your day job but you can still have a fulfilling life as a musician if you play good music, and play it well.