If you’re still reading, pull up a drum stool. We here at the Scene have compiled a little guide to advise you along the road to local rock stardom. You know, that elusive beast that will get you some local blog backlash, a few free shots from John Bruton and maybe—just maybe—a spot on 102.9 The Buzz’s local show during that one two-hour span on Sunday night.
Trust us—we’ve seen it all. OK, we’ve seen a lot. Or at least, we’ve seen some stuff. We’ve been on both sides of the stage in Nashville rock, and over the years we’ve learned a few tricks of the trade. Some of us have played to hundreds of people, some of us to four. We’ve hauled equipment, plastered flyers, stuffed jewel cases, sat through yawn-inducing soundchecks and worked merch booths against our will. And all of us have stood in the back of clubs night after night watching bands make one cringe-inducing mistake after the next.
We’ve also checked out your MySpace pages, read all 4,000 of your bulletins, analyzed your flyers, listened to your shitty demos and deciphered your lyrics (when we could understand them). We’ve also marveled at the sheer volume of talent plugging in here night after night. And we shake our heads at the overwhelming lack of interest from the city, the country and the world. At night, we dream of an alternate universe where every one of you worth your salt is finally acknowledged for it.
We can’t tell you how to make good music, but we can tell you what to do once you’ve discovered the magic formula and are ready to debut it. Much like running for office, it’s advisable to have a clear message, to know the right people, make a good impression, shake a few hands, form some key alliances and know just whose oversized ass to kiss. We can help.
OH, THE PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET
While it’s a no-brainer to introduce yourself to as many people as possible, you should save yourself some time by focusing on the people
who can actually get you somewhere. Malcolm Gladwell calls them connectors and mavens in his book The Tipping Point, and these are the folks who cast a wide social net with the potential to exert a great deal of influence in their respective communities.
They’re bloggers, socialites, “it” girls, band-hoppers, club promoters, writers, DJs and local photographers. And they’re also band dudes and chicks whose entire lives revolve around showing up, shooting the shit and talking rock. Forget fans, for now—forge some key alliances, and people will start talking.
In terms of promoters, there are the clear-cut must-knows—Mike Grimes at The Basement, John Bruton at Mercy Lounge, Bruce Fitzpatrick at The End, Rick Whetsel at Great Big Shows—but this town boasts another subset of rock enthusiasts who book all over town, often compiling large local bills. Independent movers and shakers such as Ashley Givens (make nice and you could end up on one of her killer national draws), Movement Nashville’s Ethan Opelt and Stalking the Muse’s Pablo Juarez are smart choices for your make-friends-by-buying-drinks budget.
A word on the press: contrary to abounding conspiracy theories, there is no overarching sinister agenda with us. We like to write about bands that are up to something, ’cause it makes for good copy. If all you do is show up and play a couple of times a month, it’ll be hard to generate a word count on your band worthy of a press clipping. All it takes is a good look at your local rags and the reappearing bylines you see in them. Most writers follow a beat, and reaching out to the scribe who seems to dig jam bands or death metal is an easy, obvious step. The good news is that, in Nashville, it’s a very small pool: the Scene, All the Rage, The City Paper and The Tennessean all have blank pages screaming for an autopsy on your band. So talk to us. Drop us an email. Tell us what you’re doing and why we should care.
For that, you’re gonna need a bio—you know, a one-page document (note: one page, not a novella) extolling the virtues of your thrilling new band. Please find someone who actually knows their way around the English language to compose it. Label your accompanying CD with your band name, note any upcoming shows you’ll be playing in town, send us reliable contact information and do all this at least two weeks in advance of a performance. And by all means, slap a clear-cut genre on that sucker—it’s cute that you think your music defies all description, but you can’t be completely original yet sound like a combination of the top five greatest bands of all time.
And while you’re at it, meet your new best friends: local bloggers. These tastemakers have a ready audience and a burning desire to expose the next big thing. Nashville music blogs such as outtheother.com and yewknee.com are hot on the local-rock trail, and they’ll help you generate a fan base by hosting your MP3s and talking you up to anyone who’ll listen. Speaking of ears: nobody’s a better bet to spread the word of your next project than the studio engineer who recorded it and the staffers at your local record stores. The kids at Lake Fever Studios, Battletapes and, in Murfreesboro, Paradox Productions are all quick to talk up their latest projects. And if you get in good with the folks at Grand Palace and Grimey’s, you’ve just accessed an extensive network of insider credibility.
About Grand Palace: make nice with the bearded dudes (who also do creative, affordable screen-printing). Murfreesboro is a fertile incubator for a new band; house parties and low-pressure shows abound. You get them (and their opulent facial hair) in your corner, and you’ll not only gain invaluable word of mouth but a wealth of knowledge about the fickle fates of the Bucket City.
So what’s the most efficient way to meet and greet all these future fans? It’s simple: be around. Go see other local bands and talk to people at your own shows. Let them tell you how hard you rocked or warm your palm with a napkin bearing a hastily scrawled email address. It might seem really cool to hang out backstage, drinking the case of High Life you brought in from the van and talking to the girl in the precious dress about your songwriting process, but at this stage of the game, it just ain’t worth it.
—Tracy Moore & Lee Stabert
NAVIGATING VENUES: AIM LOW
Few factors dictate the composition of an audience more than the location of the show, and where your band chooses to pop its proverbial cherry can leave a lasting impression. That said, at no point in your Nashville band’s career will you be immune to backlash: if your first show is at the Exit/In, you are guaranteed derision from folks who don’t know who you are. Everybody knows that playing one of the city’s upper-echelon venues before anyone has ever heard of you means that your band is obviously a record-industry shill full of douchebags. No, you gotta earn those top slots—so where your band stakes its provincial flag will remain pivotal to your reputation long after your introduction to the scene.
What Nashville wants from you is a false sense of modesty. When choosing a venue, aim low. Bruce Fitzpatrick at The End might have an opening slot during the week that he’ll throw your way. If you’re lucky, maybe Mike Grimes will let you play New Faces Night at The Basement. Those are fine establishments where up-and-coming bands can cut their teeth, but neither venue possesses the grit or seediness associated with a rough-and-tumble rock band paying its dues. The End gets close, but the potential for a regular patron bringing a dog into the bar is largely absent. For that you’ll need to talk to Mr. Mike Raber and book a show in Nashville’s premier divehole, the Springwater Supper Club.
This will be critical in later interviews with Spin and Rolling Stone: you’ll need stories about the band paying its dues. At Springwater, your band can potentially acquire any number of health-related ailments as a result of excessive smoke inhalation, hearing loss or potential diseases from whatever microscopic organisms inhabit the bathroom. That’s an environment of danger upon which a band can build a reputation. At the same time, some people might romanticize that element of danger while they themselves aren’t keen on the idea of engaging in it. You’ll need to reach out to those listeners as well. So while you should play at Springwater, at the same time you should not be playing there. Maintaining that false modesty, slowly creep your way up the strata of Nashville venues—but never act as if playing Springwater is beneath you.
Play a couple of shows at The End, a few at The Basement, maybe score a slot on 8 off 8th at the Mercy Lounge or at The 5 Spot or 3 Crow Bar on the East Side. Work those contacts until you can book your own record release at the Exit/In. If the record does well, maybe you can score a headlining gig at the Cannery Ballroom or, if the album is particularly successful, maybe a bill at City Hall. Without a doubt, by the time you record your second album you’ll be packing the seats at the Ryman Auditorium, and we’ll all reminisce about the days when you played at Springwater—you know, back before you sold out.
There’s one other viable approach that’s a bit more off the beaten path—eschew venues entirely. Only play house shows or basements—or even better, art spaces and boutiques. Here your band can get away with anything, because there will be at least some small contingent of people determined to demonstrate that they “get it.” No sound will be too alienating. Get creative; play at a bowling alley or the zoo. Prove to everyone that all you want to do is play music without any barriers, except the self-imposed one about not playing in proper venues. This approach will never make you enough money to move out of your parents’ basement, but you’ll gain the ultra-hip credibility that only extreme obscurity can buy.
MYSPACE: HELPING LAZY BANDS LOOK BUSY
We could tell you all about how MySpace has changed the face of music promotion, but you already know that. (And if you don’t have a MySpace profile by now, you’ve got bigger problems than this guide can address.) Of course, you’ll use MySpace to book the majority of your shows, forge regional contacts and make the sort of friends you can cherish forever—you know, the kind you’ll never talk to in real life. (There isn’t a band out there that hasn’t celebrated getting four pages of friend requests in a day, only to approve them and quickly become inundated with ads for free ringtones and iPods.)
By now you’ve battled slow servers, hackers and fake profiles at every turn, but beware the roving MySpace Big Brother. Ben Smythe, drummer for Stone Jack Jones, has had to weather multiple deletions of his profile for his side project, Country Music. Apparently MySpace mistakes his profile name for a genre—or maybe somebody’s padding Tom’s pockets. Either way, Smythe is sticking to his guns and has recently rebuilt his profile for the third time.
But let’s stick to what you’re really using MySpace for—bulletins. You could almost consider bulletins a replacement for flyers—at least, given the lack of local rock flyers we see around town, we’ll just assume you have. They’re seen by people who are familiar with you and are, relatively speaking, genuinely interested in when your next show is. More than anything, they allow you to look like your band is really busy getting the word out.
“Flyers are an expense, take real time to create and hang, are often ripped down or covered, and may not be seen by anyone who would actually care,” says Hotpipes singer Jonathan Rogers. “I believe both are important, but it is so much easier and effective to post a bulletin.”
True, just don’t go thinking posting a bulletin every five minutes is the same as hustling for the dream. Don’t be surprised if nobody comes banging down your door just because you pimped out your profile. Also, whether you’re a part-time user or a junkie, there’s still some etiquette. Using bots to randomly add people isn’t just lame but also smacks of corporate sleaze. Nobody likes a huge JPEG flyer of your next show crowding up their page. Stick to bulletins that are informative or entertaining, and just add people who might really dig your stuff. Hell, send them a message first.
Just remember there’s a million bands like yours on the Internet, and most of them are simply annoying the shit out of people. Separate yourself from the pack. Show some respect. And above all, write good music.
FLYERS: THE MOST IMPORTANT HALF-ASSED THING YOUR BAND SHOULD DO
Remember what we just said about bulletins? Now that the Internet is every band’s virtual telephone pole, Nashville’s actual phone poles, colleges, coffee shops and record stores have again become a great untapped resource. It’s a cheap, low-tech way to reach a captive audience that hasn’t a clue about your MySpace page.
Flyering is a lost art, so now’s the time to take it to the streets again and win hearts and minds in the new old-fashioned way. Sure, you’ll need some basic design skills—but half the work of flyering is getting out of your house and hanging them up. Nothing sucks more than hitting the MTSU campus on Sunday night when you’re getting pounded by a hailstorm that even Sky5 wouldn’t brave, but by simply getting off your ass (and MySpace) and spreading a little artful litter, you’re already putting yourself ahead of 95 percent of Nashville bands. A few rules:
1. Make the important info really big. That means the band’s name, the venue and the date of the show. Seems obvious, but it’s unbelievable how many flyers don’t shout the name of the band and its relevant show-related details. We’re not sure what kind of non-strategy is at work when bands obscure their pertinent info, since the whole point of cruising the dirty Maxima around town after you’re out $25 on staples, tape and photocopies is to spread the word. So go all out. A good rule of thumb: if you can read your band’s flyer from your car driving by at 35 mph without having to get off your cell, you’re doing something right. Also, the fonts Courier, Comic Sans or Verdana on a flyer will tip off pretty much everyone that your band is lame and/or boring.
2. Choose a striking image. That’s right—put a picture on your flyer. Make it something simple that doesn’t detract from the band name. And make sure it’s compelling—if it’s a band shot, you shouldn’t be holding up a brick wall or loitering around train tracks. You’re a hot band with a sense of humor, right? An image of, say, a guy a punching out a kangaroo is always gonna be a crowd-pleaser. But please, no more flyers with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Try old psychology textbooks, comic books or secondhand art books. Also, please don’t use pictures from the web unless you know what you’re doing. Low-resolution images on printed materials tell your potential new fans, “Not only is it sad that nobody in our band or immediate circle of friends are computer-savvy in the Information Age, but we don’t even care that these graphics look like shit.”
3. Put them up everywhere you can get away with. Those flyers won’t do you any good in your messenger bag from Target. Make at least 500 copies of your propaganda and hit the town: obvious locations are major intersections such as 17th and Wedgewood, the Rock Block, Hillsboro Village, any college campuses and the obvious, most often-overlooked place: the venue where you’ll be performing. Hey, look at Movement Nashville. Their troops posted so many flyers up and down Music City—many with nothing more than the band name listed three times—that all their acts got record deals. Don’t you want a sweet record deal, Nashville? Cover the city with your iconic prints—leave no electricity box, student center or music store untouched.
4. Have a little etiquette. The fastest way to get other local bands to hate you is to cover up their flyers for shows that haven’t happened yet. What, you don’t do that? Good—because there are still people who do. And if you’re still one of them, I hope your showcase blows.
LIVE AID: DON’TS AND DON’TS OF PLAYING A ROCK SHOW
As with everything in rock, there are no hard and fast rules about playing live shows. But: don’t make us stand around for 40 minutes while you tune your guitars and set up your superfluous array of splash cymbals. And buy a tuner with a bypass, so we don’t have to listen to you hit the same string 17 times.
For those about to small talk, we despise you. When you finally grace us with your presence, don’t yammer on about it. “Hi there, we’re so-and-so, and shucky-darn it’s so great to be here. Thanks to the band, the other band and the other band, and all the people in the bands. So, like, what’s up with gas prices?...” Did you come to rock, or did you come to change the bottle in the water cooler?
By all means, do tell us all about what inspired this next song, who you were sleeping with (or, more angst-inducing, who you were not sleeping with) when you wrote it—when you’re on VH1 Storytellers. For now, shut up about it unless your story is funny or interesting on its own merit. Note: it probably isn’t.
Rock stances: make up your mind. If you’re a Strummer, go for it. If you’re just a strummer, so be it. But don’t get caught in between and just put on rock airs every now and then when you think people are paying attention or when you get to your favorite part of the song. It looks stupid and contrived. If you’re going for stupid and contrived, then more power to you. Just go all out, please.
Don’t keep asking for more vocal in the monitor. More bass. Less vocal. A little more kick. Some sweet day you will have the custom-molded ear piece and the wireless system and people will be paying so much money to see you that you will have no choice but to demand a perfect monitor mix at all times. Until then, deal with it. Most nights it ain’t gonna sound like the Ryman onstage.
Don’t keep grumbling about how there aren’t very many people at your show. Remember, only about half a dozen people saw the Sex Pistols the first time they played Manchester—and those crazy kids were way ahead of their time. As Tony Wilson said, the fewer people, the more important the show. Or something like that. Nashville probably just isn’t ready for you yet.
Don’t do “the countdown.” If you say, “We’ve got six songs left,” and then play one song, we, as your audience, will understand that you now have five songs left. It’s a sorry excuse for banter. And it makes you come across like a kindergarten teacher who brings their work home with them every night.
Finally, if we really, desperately want—no, need—you to play an encore, or are drunk enough to think so, you’ll know. You won’t have to ask. Ever. Start packing your gear. Now.
Oh yeah, and write good music.
CHECK OUT MY PACKAGE: A WORD ON MERCH
We’re assuming you already know how to make with the sweet jams, so let’s focus on how to package them. Any merchandise bearing the band’s name must amount to nothing less than badass. Killer packaging makes an album more attractive—e.g., Feable Weiner’s Trapper Keeper sleeve for Dear Hot Chick or the Velcro Stars’ screen-printed cardboard envelope that contains Hiroshima’s Revenge. While there are many other items onto which one might scrawl a band name—buttons, stickers, T-shirts, undies, wristbands—the trick is doing all of that creatively.
Starting off, the band’s aesthetic will be dictated largely by budget. Since you’re a Nashville band, we’ll assume you’re broke. Use that to your advantage. Cardboard CD sleeves cost 25 cents apiece at We Make Tapes and Discs off Music Row; a can of spray paint costs less than $5 at most hardware stores. You can use the spray paint on both the sleeves and the CD-R’s, which usually cost about $20 for 50. That’s a total cost of about a dollar per disc, which means you can sell all 50 for $5 apiece and make $462.50 profit. Just like Wal-Mart, you’re passing the savings onto the consumer through cheap labor, cheap materials and not providing decent health insurance. Good luck trying to sell the average person a $15 CD, but drop the price down to cost and you might even sell a CD to someone who missed your set. You can leave the price negotiations to your new merch person—the friend who called earlier in the day to find out if he or she could get on the guest list.
Besides, do you seriously expect the audience not to drink just so they can buy your CD? Few people will spend $15 on a band they’re hearing for the first time. Especially if they’re not drunk—and definitely not if 15 bucks only buys them some shitty recordings you did in your bedroom.
Next, decide on a font or logo for the band’s name. Times New Roman probably won’t get the job done. If you play in an indie rock band, you might consider avoiding capital letters. For a metal band, the more illegible the logo you create, the better. If graphic design isn’t part of your skill set, designing the logo might be something you’d want to outsource—again, what would Wal-Mart do? But once you get that logo, splash it onto everything.
Or splash it onto nothing. Some local bands have had success with merch that doesn’t carry the band’s name at all. Local buzz band How I Became the Bomb sells T-shirts without the band’s name on them, sort of the anti-KISS approach. According to lead singer Jon Burr, a lot of effort was put into the design of each shirt to create a striking impression that would hopefully result in word of mouth. “This is going to sound pretentious, but we wanted to create a recognizable aesthetic that didn’t necessarily require the band name,” says Burr. If nothing else, knowing that a dude who wrote a song called “Fat Girls Talkin’ ’Bout Cardio” still put that much thought into his band’s T-shirts only proves how essential merchandise is.
IT’S SHOWTIME—SO WHO ELSE IS PLAYING?
So you’ve built your new group from the ground up—you’ve trimmed the wankery out of your new songs, your bassist is regularly updating your website, the new EP is out, your MySpace page is getting some real comment traffic and your EPK looks like a thousand bucks. Now what? Oh yeah—you’ve got a show in two weeks! So how are you going to get people to check it out? Sure, you’re gonna wrangle up some flyers and post some bulletins, but the real question everyone will be asking you is, “Who else is playing?”
The easiest way to get fresh faces to actually see your smokin’ combo is to set up shows with bands that, yep, have fans. You know, the bands you read about on the Internet at work, see in the paper every week or hear about at all the shows you see. It sounds completely obvious, but time and time again, it’s totally overlooked. Nashville can be, and usually is, a hamlet of icy-cold indifference. Banking on your band being the sole reason for people hitting the town is a risky proposition. If your night behind the monitors doesn’t have some extra party juice—i.e., two or three other bands who are known—odds are severely against you packing out your show.
A few recent examples of true local bill-building mastery: back in May last year, Ghostfinger, How I Became the Bomb and The Clutters, who all have respectable draws on their own, teamed up to completely sell out the Exit/In. By themselves, or even with lesser-known acts, a show of such YouTube-able proportions wouldn’t have been possible. Or how about The Features, Autovaughn and Bang Bang Bang selling out the Cannery back in January? Again, bands on their own who have serious draws left their egos in their gig bags to make what could have been just another show a bona fide “event.”
So why not make your next show an event too? Team up with other bands who have a similar appeal—they don’t have to sound just like your particular brand of garage-synth, but they shouldn’t be so disparate that your fans will be moved to pack out the patio during the other acts’ sets. If you don’t have any real “draw” yet, quit daydreaming about playing second stage at Coachella and start persistently asking around to open for current breadwinning acts. Sometimes they actually say yes!
Sure, not every Nashville performance is going to be a clutch-cargo gig—but the more bands you get on your bill that are active and doing something more than just playing video games and waiting around for a record deal, the more likely you’ll have a crowd turn up. And when you do set up that heavenly bill, don’t rock and dash after you play. Hang out and watch the other bands. Yeah, we all have to get up early tomorrow, but hanging out until the end is a crucial component of making this town not suck, and it’s the other half of the fun. So team up every now and then, make it an event, get in front of some new faces and feel the dark power of rock ’n’ roll grow inside your heart.
YOU’VE GOT THE LOOK: ON IMAGE
Rock is about mythmaking and theatrics. It’s a dark club, an electric buzz and, hopefully, a transcendent clatter that shuttles us away from the muck and the mundane. If we didn’t believe in your power to transport us out of our shitty lives with your sweet, sweet riffs, we wouldn’t put you up so high on that stage so we could gaze longingly from beneath you. So could you try looking cool when you do it?
No matter what advice we give here on sorting out your image, eyes will roll and a gritty rocker somewhere will mutter “sell-out” right before he collapses into his PBR. But consider the warning of one of the sweetest rock bands of all time—Rush—who once sang, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
We’d never advocate perfecting coiffures over chords. But just like your first hot radio single, your image should define who you are as a band. It makes a statement about which side of the tracks you loiter on, how you spend your nights and your door money, and it becomes inextricably linked to your sound. Hey, you wanna keep it real? Guess what, gritty rocker: so did The Ramones. And they looked cool as shit, not to mention iconic, in just T-shirts, denim and black leather jackets. What it’s really about is consistency—you never saw Joey Ramone off the clock in pleated khakis and a polo. Whatever image you ascribe to, you have to be willing to commit totally. That’s all we ask.
Oh, and please—write good music.
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