HORSES DON’T GIVE RECORD DEALS! (FORT COLLINS TO LOS ANGELES)
From 2003 to 2007 I lived in the gorgeous and peaceful Colorado town of Fort Collins, Colorado, aka the front range. Brutal winters but every other season was perfect. Hiking and biking trails, good food, and a perfect little tree-lined downtown that reminded me of our school days in Lawrence, Kansas (rock chalk, baby).
I had a gray little box house on the edge of town, 1738 Valley View. I was on the north side, right off Highway 287, near the charming Poudre River. Built a studio in the basement, nice little room for my library. Plenty of parking for the van, trailer, and band as we set out to tour every spring and fall. Everything a songwriter and road dog could ask for.
And yet I was always utterly and completely restless.
This was an intense time of change. Breakups, tension with family, beloved pets passing away, and most of all, me not having the skills to just calm down and stop trying to control everything.
Outside my back window was a field full of horses. Seeing the sun come up and the horses running each a.m. was incredibly peaceful and grounding. But watching them find the limits of the fences, I realized I felt trapped out in the middle of Colorado. I knew that the people making the decisions I needed for my career, and thus the band that put their trust in me, were not out here in this magical land of mountains and 20-minute afternoon rainstorms. All the health food and open land I could find wasn’t gonna get us where we needed to go.
I would sit out on my deck, watching the horses, drinking five cups of coffee, and filling legal pads with half-finished songs (nothing is worse than not finishing the track). As Steve Jobs once said, Real artists ship. It’s not art if no one hears it and no one enjoys it. And while I recorded literally hundreds of fun experimental and instrumental tracks on Valley View, my lyric- and melody-based songs started out like a barn fire and then got lost in the ashes. I can remember being way off into open tunings at this time — this was where the band’s 2006 album Tiny Heart Attacks was recorded. I stand by all of those songs (that’s the record that gave us “Jesus Coming (and he knows the mess you made),” but the job I did actually engineering and mixing that record was not good at all.
One morning I called my sister, who was living in LA at the time. We started talking about each other’s careers. She was busy adopting dogs out and managing an SPCALA store (she eventually adopted out 315 abandoned dogs and cats!). I told her that I had everything I could want and yet was not content whatsoever (a struggle that I now have come to understand will never have to do with how much success or fame or BS you think will fill up the hole in your heart).
I was losing money on the road, gigs weren’t easy to come by. We had some strongholds that we still play today (Wichita, Lincoln, OKC, Tulsa), but we weren’t expanding at all, and I was frustrated. I had no idea it was my fault for not embracing change and giving more of myself online — embracing Myspace (yes, Myspace) and Facebook and talking with fans. Ignoring the industry messes and going right to the only people who mattered — the people coming to shows and keeping us alive. I was always happy to hang out in the parking lot after a show ’til three a.m. but somehow answering every note online seemed foreign to my bullshit concept of being an artist. I wanted my space and felt my job was to completely give myself over on the road but at home find some privacy. As David Justice says in Moneyball with a mouth full of cereal, “Well, good luck with that…”
This attitude was for signed artists rolling around in Prevost busses. Not for unknown, one-named bleeding hearts hiding out in the mountains and whining about people no longer wanting to pay for music. Nothing will kill you faster than victimhood.
CD sales were over (which was a fine form of income to buy gas for many of us touring bands, not to mention to pay for making recordings). The toothpaste was outta the tube and talking about “the good ol’ days” wasn’t gonna change a damn thing. I remember the first time I saw someone put an entire CD collection on an iPod. I thought to myself, We better make new kinds of merch. And we did. But what I should have been thinking was, Recorded music may never be as sacred as it was to a generation before, and if you want to make music and get paid for it, you are gonna have to find new ways to do it (which we eventually have — licensing and publishing). The old model is dying, and this is an opportunity for something new. So think up something new, don’t chase what came before.
All easy to say, all very hard to do. Like anything that eventually paves the way for something new.
I was slow to adapt to new media. I had built a pillar to stand behind about what it meant to be a recording artist. As Seth Godin put it beautifully in Linchpin, real artists don’t care about the medium; they are artists. Shakespeare might have blogged. I even hated the actual words Twitter and blog. They sounded clunky and didn’t harken me back to my sacred lyric books of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Cash, and Willie. I said to myself, Tom Waits isn’t gonna Twitter or blog or care about any of this!! (Hey, dumbo, Tom Waits is Tom Waits. He’s built his own world and earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants to and he doesn’t have to).
This was long before Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking but was basically all the courage she embraced at that time. I was fighting reality every step of the way. Truly silly since I had plenty to say and was not afraid of talking to others. I was lost in resistance and some kind of toxic mixture of self-doubt and self-pity.
We couldn’t change that most clubs were shying away from live bands or that your time for music would be carved into by a billion of the world’s homemade cat videos at your fingertips. We had it good for a long time, and most of us musicians didn’t know it. We forgot that getting paid to be an artist was really something that only existed with the rise of capitalism and people with the ability to have free time and enjoy and pay for art.
Somewhere in my mind (most likely from childhood and hours in front of the TV), a rite of passage was getting to the West Coast. I had talked about moving to LA for years. The place where you could reinvent yourself. Become something new and wash away all the old mistakes. Perpetual spring. I knew I could sell some music to film and TV (a dream since watching Flash Gordon as child), and I knew that money could help keep the band afloat while I tried to come up with $1,500 weekly expenses while being paid $50 to $100 a night for an entire band and crew.
I had threatened to move to LA when I lived in Lawrence, Kansas. Threatened to do it when I moved back to my old hometown of Wichita. All talk. As a great shrink friend of mine says, “I hear what you say — I believe what you do.” Billy Driver gave us this pearl too (Billy has a perfect knack for listening all day, then distilling all the wisdom of the room into a one-liner): “You can’t get around the truth.” Well, the truth was, some part of me was scared or I would have already made the move.
To catch the ball, you gotta want to catch the ball. If I had really wanted to move to LA, I would have been standing in that halcyon light, scared and out of my element, but alive and staking claim to a new chapter in my life.
Like all fear-based, stuck-in-the-mud thinking, I had a really strong set of excuses. And I had some comfort. Like a blanket that slowly suffocates you in its peaceful warmth, everything in Colorado felt right, except not growing. I liked working ’til we dropped on tour and then retreating into the foothills of the mountains, writing and hiding out. I liked rent that was a third of the big city.
But I knew it was time. And sometimes you need someone close to you to give you that little push, that one little painful bolt of truth that wakes you back up and sets you on your way. Sets your heels on fire and shakes you from your doubts and fears. I was not making many connections in the field I was passionate about. We didn’t find a lot of other bands with our sound to tour with, and though I was recording round the clock, none of the music I had was making much money. We were fighting our way out of a management deal, we were losing momentum, and the old music model was morphing into something unsustainable by working a road circuit and making a record a year.
I whined about all this to my sister, and she said, “Well, I don’t hear what your hang up is. It’s clear you are ready for change. It’s clear you need to be closer to ‘the industry,’” etc., etc. And I started babbling about how peaceful Fort Collins was and how gorgeous it was outside my window. How I loved looking at these horses every morning. My sister, never one to mince words, yelled into the phone, “HORSES DON’T GIVE RECORD DEALS!”
No truer words spoken. It was another year before I moved out. And, of course, the record deal is never really the prize. The record deal represents finding a way to share more music with more people and grow.
I went through a rough breakup with a longtime girlfriend, she took her dog, and then my two dogs both had to be put down in that same summer. It was during this time I ended up meeting my wife, Rakki. We have been together 10 years and married two. I still don’t have that record deal. But the nine years I spent in LA (I’m now settled happily in Music City, USA) allowed me to record over 2,000 songs, build sustainable income through licensing and publishing, and stay on the road more than ever with the band’s charity Funding the Future.
In truth, things would still get worse before they got better. We finally picked up stakes as the economy started to stare into the abyss of the worst recession in decades. I remember paying almost five dollars a gallon for gas as we got into California. The economy would soon go into the tank, and many of the clubs around the US closed or became something entirely unrecognizable. Our booking agent Deb T. was tireless in trying to keep us working, but her returns were not enough to give hours a day to cold calls. She eventually joined me in the licensing cold calls in order to have some revenue to show for keeping me and the band working on the road.
The band kept touring two seasons a year without fail. We eventually found our footing again and booked a tour of a stop in every state in the lower 48, as well as several military bases.
I can’t imagine how different my life would have been had I stayed safely in the Fort. My sister was making a great point with her hysterical one-liner. Focus on the thing you want and make the sacrifices. There are a million reasons to back down, to play it safe, to talk yourself out of it. If it’s screaming inside you — if it’s in your gut — it’s probably the right move. Of course, now it’s easy to see I stayed just the right amount of time, as I met my wife during my time there, but I admire my sister for helping me break through some silly fear of holding blindly to routine, pattern, and comfort. You don’t get stronger swimming in the shallow end of the pool. You don’t gain any reserves of strength or courage when you can always touch your feet to the bottom. I finally swam out into the deep. I took some risks, and they have started to pay off slowly but surely. I am very grateful and very lucky. I worked damn hard for it, and it’s taken a long time to come to fruition, but many musicians work tirelessly and can never sustain a career in music. The percentage of musicians that can say they make a living by music alone is horribly small. I have that now and employ 10 others at some level, and as long as I can continue to be honest with myself, and with you as a faithful listener, we can stay in this thing and make more music and make some trouble together too. :-)
Sometimes when I face something I don’t want to do, I laugh and say to myself, “Horses don’t give record deals!” Do or die. One life to live. Shut up and get on with it.
Love you all. And to my sister Jennifer, Horses don’t give record deals — but sisters give good advice.
Postscript: Two Fort Collins residents are still best friends of the band, and we stay with them every time we pass through. Give it up for Mike and Phyllis Smith. They have done more for us than I can possibly tell you. Gave us beds and food one hundred times, helped build our bus Lil Red 1, washed our clothes, and came to countless concerts, no matter how early or hard they had to work the next morning. They are salt of the earth, and we love them more than I can tell you.
(This post originally appeared on our blog.)