You’re Not As Good As You Think You Are
We live and create in a global landscape. Every element of our lives can be photographed, filmed, ‘snapped and ‘scoped. Instantly available for potentially 7 billion people to consume. If you have the smallest amount of “fame”, your every move is tweeted and analyzed.
As artists, this is most visibly reflected in how we self-develop (I think I just made up a new word). Your first show, as shitty as it may be, will find its way on to someone’s Vine, Twitter or Instagram. Fortunately, scale still plays a big part in how far those early performances permeate, but it’s hard to get past the permanency of our beginnings.
My band ATOMIC TOM learned quickly the importance of preparing our live set by playing “shit-shows”. After wrapping recording on our first full length album in 2009, we were haughty enough to think we were immediately ready to play an industry showcase. In New York City. At the Mercury Lounge. In front of everybody. And by everybody, I mean the who’s who of the industry. Our lawyer did her job inviting the cream of the crop. It was intimidating. And disastrous. I bombed the first line of the first song. Came in too early. The band recovered. We all recovered. But it set the vibe of our show. Granted, we weren’t terrible. But we weren’t mind-blowing either. We were merely plowing through the set. It was a glorified rehearsal. And a huge mistake. The most hilarious (and accurate) comment was from a major label VP calling us a modern-day “motley crew”. Not the stellar 80s glam rock band, mind you. A sloppy bunch of ill-prepared misfits blowing through un-rehearsed songs. Ugh.
After we collected our proverbial asses of the ground, we regrouped and plotted a new course. Of course we had rehearsed the songs, but we hadn’t played them on a stage in front of an audience. And that was our biggest mistake. Rehearsal in the studio ain’t the same as playing the show in front of a live audience. The dynamic is different. The vibe is different. You’ve got to work the live kinks out. Clear the cobwebs. Learn where you’ll make your mistakes. Practice through every transition. There’s so much more to a live show.
So we booked a small basement venue for a month straight and played a shit show a week. We told a few friends to get a couple of bodies in the room and we went through the motions. We did setup and tear down, sound check and the show. We engaged each other and the audience. And bizarrely (or not), our audience grew each week — even though we weren’t really promoting the shows. By the final night we had a full room. It was validating. But even more importantly, it was smart. It was what we should have done in the beginning. We were a well-oiled machine by the end of the month and ready to play an impressive show.
Still, we decided we weren’t going to play anymore label showcases. We learned from our mistake. Instead, we were playing shows. For our fans. We played the local festival and a local residency and started selling out our favorite local venue. After a few months we were playing near the top of our game. We were having fun. We were on fire. The show was electric. And slowly, a few industry peeps starting hearing about it. We got the right people in the room right before the holiday break. Christmas came a month early when the label we were courting promised to sign us in the new year. They kept their word.
There’s nothing worse than being knocked down a few levels when you think you belong there. It’s far better to be invited up, than to be kicked off. It’s a smart strategy to sell out the smaller local venue for a month straight and get a call from the booking agent for the venue a cap size up than it is to ask for a night at The Roxy only to bring your 30 friends and never get called again.
“Damaged goods” is a term in the industry for a band or artist that got their music into the ears and eyes of the industry execs, only to bomb in some way before they could really take off. It happens to a lot of artists — often because we blow it before we’re ready. Don’t jump the gun. The industry will be there when you’re ready. But they won’t listen if they heard you before and you weren’t.