Jul 15 2015

The Contract

Years back, The Pursuit of Happiness had just finished an album for our new record company, Mercury Records. The president and a few other soldiers decided to come up from New York to hear us play. We looked (and maybe they did too) at it almost like a showcase. But here’s the problem. We were opening for the Tragically Hip at the old Ontario Place in the round thingy. So there was 10,000 people at this, “showcase”. So what did we do? We opened with Hard To Laugh, played the whole new album, then ended with I’m An Adult Now. Must of been bewildering for the audience almost all of whom were very familiar with our band. Must have been bewildering for the Hip who probably thought we were going to entertain and ‘warm up’ the audience before their show.

This was totally unnecessary. I’m sure we could have gotten away with playing half the album, playing three or four more of our ‘hits’ and everyone there would have had a much better time. Or we could have scheduled a free show at a small club and let everyone coming know that they were only going to hear new material. There may have been some big fans that would have been excited to hear the new album and didn’t care that they weren’t going to hear Two Girls In One. Instead, in the words of Spinal Tap, we subjected a festival size audience with the equivalent of Jazz Odyssey.

When I released my solo album, Summer’s Over, I went out and played shows, just me and a guitar and, occasionally, a beat box. I thought, I’m not going to play any TPOH so everyone knows this is a solo show. What a stupid idea. People left, pissed off at me that I didn’t at least throw them a bone of She’s So Young or an acoustic version of Adult. I made zero fans this way and disappointed many people who paid good money to see me. I remember hearing one woman grumbling as she left, “he didn’t play any of his songs.” Of course I had, just not the ones she wanted to hear.

These examples show me how out of touch I was with being a fan. If any band pulled that on me, I’d been very mad at them.

When you have success as an artist, it’s like you have formed a partnership with your fans. It’s like a contract. You create beautiful music and they buy it. They pay money for tickets and you perform a concert for them. You say, I’m performing for an audience of 2000 tomorrow night. I’m performing FOR AN AUDIENCE of 2000 tomorrow night. That’s an important part of the statement.

Here’s some things artists do to break that contract.
1. They don’t play their ‘hits’. I’ve always wondered why a song is no longer any good once it becomes popular. You wrote the song, you liked it enough to record it. Then people liked it and helped make you famous, maybe even rich (ish). Then you resent the song that helped you quit your day job, allowed you to travel the country, the continent, the world. I can understand getting bored of playing the same songs over and over, every night. And some bands, like Elton John or U2 have so many hits over such a long period of time that it is impossible to play all of their hits. But the tunes that allow that concert to even happen need to be played so the people who spent money on tickets, parking, transit, beers, maybe even a babysitter can go home thinking you aren’t a dick.

2. They play their hit or hits but walk through them, letting the audience see what torture it is to play a song they themselves wrote and recorded and everyone loves. Again, what is the point of this? What do you want your audience to feel? Sorry for you? Ashamed that they like the great song you wrote? Some may. Many will think, ” the show was good but their version of HIT SONG was super lame. It was like, they didn’t even care about the audience. If I did my job that poorly I’d be fired.”

People often say this. “I make my music for myself. I don’t care if anyone else likes it.”

Cool attitude, dude. Here’s the problem with that.

If you want to make music in your basement, record it and listen to it while you take selfies, knock yourself out. You truly are making music for yourself and you really don’t have to care who likes it. I would greatly admire someone who did this. However, once you book a show or release music for the public to buy or even make it available on the web for perusal, you have brought other people into the mix. You are in essence saying, “listen to this and I hope you like it.” Better yet, “I hope you buy it, buy more tickets to future shows of mine.” You might even be saying, “buy my T-shirts, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook page and generally, stalk me on the internet.” You are not saying, “show up and boo, give me the finger, walk out saying “you suck”.” Post on my Facebook page that my music is a steaming pile of crap. Unless you are a sociopath.

Important to say here, just because you are interested in people enjoying your work, that doesn’t mean you have to pander to them. I never wrote a song for the expressed purpose of having a hit or getting a mass audience to like it. I always just wrote the best song that I could with the hope that other people would like the same things I like. I think writing a song with the idea that it will be a hit is a losing game. Writing a hit is almost impossible. So you’re better off writing something you think is great and hoping that others will notice it. At least that way, you’ve written a great song that you can be proud to perform. What I am talking about has more to do with your attitude towards people that you are hoping or even expecting to enjoy your art.

Which brings me to the point here. One of my pet peeves is exactly that, people who take their audience for granted. And also, people who take the fact that they get to make music for a living, even if it’s not their entire living, for granted. There are millions of people who would love to be able to sing and play for money, have people cheer for them and be able to stand on a stage and share their creative vision with others. So you are a lucky duck. And believe me, luck has a TON to do with you being able to do this. There is so much right-place-at-the-right-time, culture-swinging-your-way-or-against-you, fates that make some people stars and other, just as talented, people nobodies.

Sometimes you’ll hear an artist say, “I hate doing interviews.” You know what is worse than doing interviews? Not doing interviews. When no one wants to talk to you because no one cares about your music. So be grateful that there are people who want to hear what you have to say about your music. Every job is at points boring and exhilarating. Being an artist has many more moments of exhilaration than paving roads or cleaning office buildings.

To be clear once more, this doesn’t mean you have to be a kiss ass. No one even likes a kiss ass. You don’t need to be something that you are not, no great music happens that way. And it doesn’t mean, don’t play your new songs. Your new songs might be your future hits. And your fans most likely want to hear something new as well.

What this means is, be a decent human being, take your fans into consideration, have some gratitude for the good fortune that has befallen you and not thousands of other musicians who wish they were you. You may feel that breaking the contract means you are a REAL artist who follows his own road and caring about what your audience wants or thinks means you are a sell out. But it doesn’t mean either of those things. Breaking the contract and taking your luck for granted makes you a jerk. Disappointing your fans means you probably disappoint the other people in your life, your family, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your friends, (I’m sure I also did). And unless you are one of the extremely lucky few who have multiple decade careers, eventually this will all come to an end. And that’s no time to come to the realization of how great it is to have people love your music.


Jul 3 2015

Dead Heroes

Joni Mitchell’s health has been in the news off and on over the past couple of months. It’s a bit hard to get a straight story but it appears that all is not well with, arguably, the greatest female singer/songwriter of all time.

The past few years have seen a lot of my childhood musical heroes go to Rock and Roll Heaven. Many of my guitar influences, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Ronnie Montrose and some of my songwriting heroes most notably Lou Reed. If I live long enough, eventually Todd Rundgren, Marshall Crenshaw, Iggy Pop, the various Sex Pistols, Pete Townsend, Eric Carmen, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and the remaining Beatles will also leave this earth.

I was invited to an intimate performance by Joni at Much Music several years ago. Afterwards, I got her to sign my copy of Court and Spark. She did and when I looked into her eyes, they had that sparkle that I’ve seen in some other heroes of mine’s eyes that says, “I’m smarter and more talented than you.”

When Joni released Court and Spark she was without peer in terms of sheer intellectual power and adventurousness as a songwriter while still being incredibly musical and dare I say it, commercial. After purchasing the album, used, at The Wee Book Inn, I spent the next four or five months listening to it. Many point to Blue as a high point for Joni but although there is some fine songwriting there, especially River and Carey, I don’t think it shows Joni fully formed. In most ways, it sounded like any other female singer/songwriter albeit a very good one. Her next album, For The Roses, really identified her musically. Which is to say, it is the record that showed her as being unique, no one else could have made that record. In terms of musical structure and lyrical complexity it’s quite breathtaking. Joni was exploring open tunings on the guitar and coming up with some lovely chords. Those chords would find their way onto her piano keys and would help define her music for several years afterwards. What differentiated Court and Spark from For The Roses was it’s accessibility. I think there were three singles off of that record, Help Me, Raised On Robbery and Free Man In Paris. And they weren’t just singles, radio played the crap out of them. Structurally and melodically, the album was pretty easy to follow and sing along with. But the depth of the songs is incredible. The lyrics are cinematic and, as one tends to believe with Joni, jarringly personal. Some might quibble with what they perceive to be cliches, like “ and you could complete me, I’d complete you,” in the title track but honestly, I don’t think I’d ever heard that said before. Maybe she coined that cliche? The accessibility of the record was aided by the fact that it was her most produced effort to that point. LA session musicians fleshed out most of the songs, which made them more radio friendly. The next album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was more experimental. She may have flinched at being so popular with the masses and felt like she needed to show people that she was no sellout. Hejira was when she hooked up with Jaco Pastorius and started to shift into jazz, (though that was always in her music). At a point her releases became infrequent and eventually, she kind of went off the grid.

I’m stopping there because I don’t want this to turn into a discography review. I mention the other recordings only to set up Court and Spark and I’m only talking about Court and Spark because it was such a seminal album in my musical development. Music has been my life, my career and my meager living, so a record and an artist who helped get you there is important.

There is something strangely different about a hero who’s lived a life, maybe is long past their prime, dying compared to a rocker who dies young. I’m trying to figure out what or why that is. When Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain died, it was tragic, a loss of potential, like all young people’s deaths. When Lou Reed died, it was more like losing an uncle, someone who gave you wisdom as you were growing up, wisdom that stayed with you for the rest of your life.

The young dead heroes become myths. Movies are made, old recordings are found and released, conspiracies about their deaths are raised. They become the subject of a long but static conversation. In death, they lose their privacy, every detail of their life is uncovered by zealous fans who can’t let them rest in peace.

But the old dead heroes lived a life. Many of their fans forget about them or just ignore them most of the time. Their artistic output usually slows. Their place in the culture is often diminished. They may no longer have a major label deal and they are rarely in Rolling Stone magazine anymore. When they do re-enter the spotlight we decide whether we are interested or if we’d rather just throw on Transformer and revisit its greatness and/or nostalgia value. Some of these lives are a bit dark at the end. You hear of musicians who should be enjoying their retirement, out on the road to try to make ends meet. They should have been spared the indignity of waning audiences and shrinking guarantees.

Joni Mitchell isn’t going to make any more albums. Even if she did, I’m not sure I’d care. Which maybe sucks of me. Because she was there when I needed her. If she hadn’t made Court and Spark, I wouldn’t have written many of the songs I did or they would have been very different. I also would have had to listen to music that wasn’t as good as hers. We all need to be grateful to our influences and maybe pay more attention to them even after we are done being taught by them. Just like we need to call our uncles and aunts and even our parents more often to make sure they are okay as a thank you to them for all they did for us.

Easy to say, I guess. As much as we all hate to admit it, we are music consumers. Often, we like something, then we don’t like it or we don’t like it as much as this new thing we like. Or we like this one thing by an artist but nothing else by them. Sometimes we like something and later, we are ashamed we liked it. Like Peter, we deny our former gods. But mostly, they just outlive their usefulness to us. It’s a rare artist that can hit a home run every time at the plate or keep the high standards and vitality of their early work into their twilight years. So my plan is to take a good long listen to Joni’s last full length record, Shine, which I sadly admit, I haven’t heard a single note of.