Ignoring Everybody

Over the holiday season Derek Sivers sent out an e-mail soliciting volunteers for his latest project. Various musicians would read one of his two favorite authors, Hugh MacLeod and Seth Godin, and write about how their ideas applied to being an independent musician in this day and age. He would send a copy of their latest book and you had 3 weeks to read it and write a Blog. Out of 400 volunteers 17 were chosen. To be one of the 17 who made the cut is a great honor; Derek has done more to change the face of the music industry for the better than any other single living human being. I chose High Macleod's IGNORE EVERYBODY (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity). The book arrived and I began reading immediately. After two or three drafts of varying length and complexity here it is. These notes are meant to be musician-specific footnotes accompanying the book, from the perspective of a Blues/Roots guitarist, and are best read that way. I hope that older musicians will come to understand the potential of the Internet and younger musicians the importance of sacrifice and hard work. The tools have changed but the basics are still the same. --J.J.V. / January 10th, 2010 1.) Ignore everybody. Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. The real bandleader is the one with the songs and/or the one who gets the gigs. If you're one of them, keep on truckin'. Anybody that doesn't like it can leave the fold. If you're not one of them then don't try to act more important than you really are, it'll backfire eventually. If you're not that person but want to be make yourself assistant to the one who is, the education is invaluable. 2.) The idea doesn't have to be big, it just has to be yours. Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and many other Blues greats played the simplest, most basic music there is. Legions of guitarists have tried to emulate them to no avail. It was their idiosyncrasies, the way they put themselves into it. All we can really emulate is their approach and when we do it opens the door for our own voice. The most important weapon in a soloist's arsenal is phrasing. It's a large part of your identity. We're all playing the same 12 notes anyhow. 3.) Put the hours in. Whether it's instrumental ability or career success there's no shortcuts. Woodshed and steal from everybody all the time. Rehearse the band two at a time in every possible pairing (varies according to instrumentation) then rehearse the full band again. This is also true for groups that do a lot of improvisation. Improvisation comes from listening and responding to each other. Without that it's just wanking. The band will curse your name until you hit the stage and blow the audience away, then they'll sing your praises. Read biographies on Louis Jordan, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ronnie Van Zant and Prince. All of them rehearsed their bands like a Marine drill sergeant, some with hefty fines for mistakes, and all of them changed the course of music history. It works. 4.) Good ideas have lonely childhoods. If it's fresh and innovative that means people aren't familiar with it yet and the blind masses like what is familiar. Expect mass approval to come last. When adding a new song to the set list sandwich it in between two familiar crowd favorites. Give people time to become familiar with something before deciding whether or not it works. 5.) If you're business plan depends on suddenly being "discovered" by some big shot it'll probably fail. "Overnight success" was invented to sell magazines, i.e. sensationalism. It's built on "...and they lived happily ever after." The first rule of showbiz is "You're only as good as your last performance." Your last performance is the last one any particular person saw. You could have 100's of "last performances" besides last night's gig. If each one was a show-stopper your reputation alone will open doors for you. Being "discovered" is not making your own destiny. Put your fate in your own hands. Nothing is guaranteed is life, especially not when dealing with a fickle public. Take nothing for granted, your reputation is the only real "job security" you have. 6.) You are responsible for your own experience. Whatever you want to happen make it happen. A couple musicians you'd like to hear together? Invite them both to play on your demo. A club that would be great to play but doesn't have entertainment? Have a dress rehearsal there. Most of all, get over the false idea that you will have one major event in your life. Life is a series of ongoing events. Stay in the driver's seat and keep steering. No matter how long you live you'll never see/hear/do it all. There's always a new horizon. Don't wait for the phone to ring, hustle something up. 7.) Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a set of crayons in kindergarten. See what comes out. Try it, no matter how daft an idea it is. Run three distortion pedals together all set differently. Put the Digital Delay in front of the tremolo and reverb. Call that dream lineup for a recording session. Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't and you don't know 'til you've done it. Work around your limitations. You may never be a Country picker like Jimmy Bryant or a Jazz guitarist like Kenny Burrell but adding what you can pick up from them to your vocabulary will season the gumbo that is you. The same is true for people who like working in music but aren't cut out to be musicians. They're good at a lot of things musicians aren't cut out for. They're always the best promoters to work with. 8.) Keep your day job. A person has to make a living no matter what they aspire to. Having steady income is a must in this world. Whatever you can do to turn a buck, do it. Add as many music-based sources as you can. When they make up at least half the list you're a working musician. 9.) Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity. The old world just blew up one Thursday and nothing has been the same since. Mega-corporations have the bucks to somewhat cushion themselves but they're not immune to it. The mainstream has degenerated to a new low. They have one business model, the Blockbuster. Put all your eggs in one basket. The only way it works is to appeal to the lowest-common denominator and a good chunk of people aren't interested in that. Major labels blame slow sales on downloads and file sharing but we were taping each other's records 20+ years ago when sales were booming. Independent artists are using the Internet to cultivate their own audiences and doing well for themselves. Welcome to the new world. No matter how big or small a player you are a large part of your success depends on being able to navigate in this new world. 10.) Everybody has their own personal Mount Everest they were put on this Earth to climb. Don't compare yourself to anyone else, it's a waste of time. Your set of challenges are the ones you need. Your triumph over them is your story. The ones on your instrument define your voice. Shying away from them is denying yourself. There's a small one every night on the bandstand. Play to that audience, find what connects with them. Never mind what your heroes did, that was a different time. They responded to their audience. Now it's your turn. 11.) The more talented somebody is the less they need the props. I knew a guitarist who went through a dozen Gibson guitars and half-a-dozen Fender and Marshall amps and couldn't find his sound. The real problem was he didn't have an identity on his instrument. I've heard great guitarists play the coolest stuff on the most gawd-awful excuse for a guitar. In many interviews with Stevie Ray Vaughan he plays an example on his #1 Strat unplugged and his signature tone is right there. Guitarists spend thousands of dollars on "vintage gear" and the old Blues guys played whatever worked. In the guitarist's Holy Grail quest for tone it should always be remembered that tone is in the fingers. Beware of musicians whoa are hung up on "big gear", they're usually trying to compensate for something. 12.) Don't try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether. Around Blues/Roots musicians you're just another Blues musician. Around other types of musicians you're THE Blues/Roots cat, an authority on the subject. Around non-musicians you're the expert on anything musical, they ask you first. Go off in your own direction and you'll be the top in your field. 13.) If you accept the pain it can't hurt you. Being a musician means living a life very different from most. It's not for everybody. You'll miss out on a lot of things that everyday people do. How important are those things to you? If you can't live by those terms you'll likely miss out on a lot of things musicians get to do. How important are those things to you? Whichever way you go you're gonna miss out on something. Make your decision and get on with it. 14.) Never compare your inside with someone else's outside. Each individual has their own path to walk down. It sometimes seems like another person got a better deal but appearances can be deceiving. Find your voice, hone your craft, find your niche. That's what you're here to do. 15.) Dying young is overrated.. It's also passe. You need a new gimmick. Nobody cares how traumatized you were. The inebriated greats weren't great because they were inebriated. They were born great and dedicated their lives to honing their craft. They were inebriated for other reasons; it's fun, grueling schedules necessitated some "pick me up" and/or "wind me down", or they found the world to be just a little too much and needed something to take the edge off. Party your ass off, it's fun. "Clean living" is for boring, uptight squares. Then get back to honing your craft. 16.) The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you're willing to do from what you're not. When you're getting paid for it it's a job, so don't cry about your "art". If you have to sleep in your own bed don't plan on going on the road. If you expect things to be done your way expect to bear the burden of being the boss, where everything falls on your shoulders one way or another. Whatever you consider out of the question isolates the areas for you to cultivate. 17.) The world is changing. It's amazing how many older musicians resist the Internet. They don't want to know. They say they're "not into the computer thing" or don't want to spend the time bothering with it. They're out of touch with the times. This technology is here to stay. It will evolve, it will be expanded upon, but it's staying. It's also amazing how ineffectively some musicians use it; MySpace profiles set to private, "check out my band and tell me what you think" cliches... I think you need a new line! The funniest one was a gig listing with "call me for directions". Information for all gigs (date, time, location, price, maps, directions, links) should be available 24/7. The easiest way is to include the venue's web address, they should be doing the same. Live video speaks for itself. Free downloads of low-fi live recordings along with albums for sale at CDBaby. A mailing list used once a month for regulars and once a week for reminders. You can use a lot of the same text, people just need reminders anyhow. This is the easiest, most effective way of keeping your name out there and letting the world know who you are and what you do. Take advantage of it. 18.) Merit can be bought. Passion can't. Some musicians have to play or their life has nor meaning or purpose. You can't touch them, they're coming from a whole different place. All the greats fit that description. If you do you'll know it. Be yourself and do what you do, you'll find your niche. 19.) Avoid the watercooler gang. The biggest disadvantage to having a day job is the people at your dead-end job who are obsessed with it. Restaurants are the worst. Don't go out with them after work. If they want to see you outside of work they can catch a gig. Never meet those people on their turf, always make them meet you on yours. They live in a different world.And when dealing with local musicians avoid any and all cliques. Cultivate your own circle of musicians, club owners, promoters, DJs, etc... Share the wealth with people you trust who are on the same page with you. 20.) Sing in your own voice. Chester Burnette tried to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers and became Howlin' Wolf. Hillbillies in the 50's started playing R&B songs and Rockabilly was part of the birth of Rock 'n' Roll. Country musicians in the 30's didn't sound like the popular big bands of the day when they played Jazz on their fiddles and steel guitars, they sounded like Western Swing. Link Wray described himself as "a slow learner" and wrote the soundtrack to juvenile delinquency in one D-E chord change. Johnny Ramone could play nothing more than fast downstrokes and no other aspiring Punk Rocker has ever been able to play then as fast and hard, often cheating with up-and-down strokes. Django Reinhardt lost two fingers in a fire and went on to influence every Jazz (and quite a few Blues) guitarist since. Somewhere between the things you aspire to and the limitations you have to work with is you. You only recognize it hindsight so don't bother, just keep on honing your craft. What seems rote to you is often your signature to the audience. 21.) The choice of media is irrelevant. A gig is a gig. Play the gig and leave it at that. Play that room to that crowd that night. I got a call once to do a solo gig at an art gallery in a trendy, upscale neighborhood for an Amnesty International exhibition on violence against women in the 3rd World. Not exactly the kind of venue you normally hear Lightnin' Hopkins kind of stuff but I went in and did the best I could to entertain the people that were there because that's my job. When it was over and time to collect my money there was a cherry on top. Use your skills to entertain the people in the room. Let everybody else analyze it. 22.) Selling out is harder than it looks. The Hair Metal guys were Rock Gods who got all the chicks. I didn't think too much of them and they didn't think too much of me until suddenly it was hip for a Rock guitarist to have some Blues credentials. Then they were all my friend. A few years later they were a bad joke, an embarrassment as the next trend came along then became a cliche. Throughout that 10 years I was still doing my usual Lightnin' Hopkins, Chuck Berry and Freddie King stuff. Another decade or so passes and I'm still doing the same thing, just a little bit better 'cause I've got a few miles under my belt now now. I don't know what will come next so I stick with what I'm good at and work that niche. Instead of trying to stay ahead of the curve, go for the core. I don't know how to do anything else anyhow but now I have all these cool tools to make videos, put out albums, book gigs all over the world and aim directly for people who are hard core into this kind of music. I can live with that. 23.) Nobody cares. Do it yourself. Jill Jones is an excellent singer who has worked with an impressive list of people but most journalists can't seem to get past Prince gossip. There was no background info on any of her albums, how they came about and so on. An interesting body of work not limited to any specific genre. Nobody was asking the questions I was wondering so I set up an interview and asked her myself. Told her and her manager they could use whatever they wanted of mine. Typed up the long version, sent it off and hoped I didn't embarrass myself. Hope this doesn't suck, I'm not a journalist. They used the entire thing for her Biography online. Guess it was OK. Now the whole world knows Miles Davis loved her debut and how corporate politics killed one of the best albums of that scene. Now we know where TWO came from and WASTED and what's cooking today. It's a feather in both our caps. I was irritated that no one was asking certain questions so I asked them myself. That's usually where you're best ideas come from, not what you think would be cool but what you think should be done that no one is doing. Jump on those no matter how crazy they seem, that's where the gold is eventually discovered. P.S. -The article came out in spring of '09. That summer Jill Jones had her first solo Billboard hit with LIVING FOR THE WEEKEND. Pretty cool for somebody who sang on quite a few hit songs. Congratulations, Jill. 24.) Worrying about "commercial" vs. "artistic" is a complete waste of time. It's also navel-gazing bullshit. Young Jazz players are shocked to learn Coltrane started playing R&B and walking the bar. They shouldn't. All the greats who defined the vocabulary of their instrument started out "in the trenches". That's where you learn how to work an audience. Real art connects with people on a primal level. If you can't do it on a simple entertainment level you can't do it on a deeper level. If your work has any artistic value it will show through on its own. And if it doesn't, you can't wring blood from a stone anyhow. 25.) Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. There's a misnomer that everything has to be a huge emotional outburst. No it doesn't. The cats that played like that did so naturally, they didn't force it. Work on your phrasing and vibrato. The same misnomer hovers around songwriting. Musical catharsis is a cliche, work on melody. 26.) Find your own schtick. Recreating what somebody else did 50 years ago doesn't keep a tradition alive. The people that did groundbreaking work did something fresh and new that excited people. It's good to study them and add some of their ideas to your vocabulary but leave it at that. This is a new era and we have our own frontiers to explore, our own challenges to face, just as they did theirs. Continue to hone your craft and your signature will develop. 27.) Write from the heart. If you don't say what you mean then you don't mean what you say. Not everybody is going to like it and agree with it. Get over the backlash from the idiots. If you mean it, stand your ground. Play "from the heart". There's always somebody who can do something better than you, but not many who can do it the same way as you. When you have your signature you're not in competition with anyone but yourself. It's your musical point of view. 28.) The best way to get approval is not to need it. Winning over an audience with bar band hits is easy but then you're just another bar band. If that's not a regular part of your act, avoid it at all costs. When the crowd is indifferent don't let it throw you off, just play for yourself. Tear into it and burn. They'll notice. 29.) Power is never given. Power is taken. Walk in like you own the place. It's showbiz so give 'em a show walking in the door. Exude cool confidence and back it up with a 120% performance. Make every other group scared to follow you, or at least have to work a lot harder after you. It's called "the trenches" 'cause it's war. 30.) Whatever choice you make, the Devil gets his due eventually. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Every path has some pot holes and bumps. Whatever course you decide will have its trials. The adventure evokes your character. Throw yourself into it and don't look back. 31.) The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it. Some people have something inside of them that needs to come out or they literally go crazy. Life will lose all meaning and purpose if they don't. To whatever degree a person has this trait all they can do is accept it and live with it. It never goes away, it's part of who you are. Be thankful for it, if you didn't have it you wouldn't be cut out for this. 32.) Remain frugal. What does the gig pay? What's your overhead? If the math doesn't add up the gig isn't there. Can you afford a hotel or do you have to drive back? Is everybody making decent bread? Good players are always in demand so be sure you have something to offer them. If you're a solo artist or bandleader you should be taking a leader's fee. That covers your time, promo materials and phone bill. If anybody in the band doesn't like it offer to let them shoulder some of the work. If they still complain get rid of them. Being a working musician is running a small business and you're the sole proprietor. 33.) Allow your work to age with you. There's nothing like youth, full of piss and vinegar with no fear whatsoever. There's also nothing like having some experience under your belt and the confidence that comes with it. As you move through the different phases of life your playing should reflect that. Some songs and some riffs & licks will stay with you down through the years but you shouldn't be playing the same as you did 20 years ago, you should be constantly reaching for the next horizon. 34.) Being poor sucks. It seems to be trendy to talk about "suffering for your art". Hone your craft, you'll go through all the suffering crap you need anyhow. Focus your skills on making a living. Learn how to negotiate a better deal for yourself. 35.) Beware of turning hobbies into jobs. For some people the business of music takes all the fun out of it. For others it just goes with the territory. Knowing which one applies to you is one of the most important decisions you'll ever make. 36.) Savor obscurity while it lasts. This only applies if your break into the mainstream. For the rest of us it has a counterpart, staying fresh by constantly reaching for new horizons. Learn those other styles you like, study harmony and arranging, learn another instrument. I was fortunate to grow up around local musicians who were constantly pushing themselves while at the same time having mainstream artists on the radio who were constantly reinventing themselves. Even today my "guitar guru" Don Leady and my guitarist dad are constantly pushing themselves to new heights when everybody else their age has retired. The mythical Fountain of Youth, like Heaven and Hell, is not a place but a state of mind. 37.) Start blogging. This is the 21st Century, the Internet is a part of life. If you don't have a good web presence you're shooting yourself in the foot. It's the one thing you more or less have complete control over, can keep going no matter what other ups and downs you have and reaches a large number of people who are interested in what you're doing. The following are essential to a musician having a strong web presence; *A good website. Uf you're not into web design go with Hostbaby, they have all the stuff you need; schedule, bio, streaming or download MP3s, photos, guestbook and mailing list. Send a mailer out once a month and every time something important is coming up. *MySpace Music page. The Music Player should reflect your overall body of work including some live recordings and the Calendar should be up to date. The background layout should be a good photo of you or your logo that doesn't interfere with reading the text. You should have some video and plenty of photos. Post bulletins with the same frequency as your mailing list. *A ReverbNation account linked to the "My Band" tab on your Facebook page and a Facebook Fan page that you actually use. It's amazing how many people set up a fan page that just sits there. *YouTube account with at least half-a-dozen live videos that are also on your MySpace and Facebook. Nothing sells your act like some good live video. I've gotten numerous gigs from bookers whom I met on a networking site and checked out my videos while we were messaging. *Twitter used to be completely useless, follow a bunch of people so they'll follow you but nobody is actually reading each other's posts, but now that you can link it with your MySpace, Facebook and YouTube one post on any can send an update to all. A very easy way of keeping your name in front of people's eyes and minds. 38.) Meaning scales, people don't. No matter what you do for a living you're going to spend the majority of your life at work. Do something meaningful, something that gives your life purpose beyond a paycheck. Life is in the details so start there. We're all going to die one day. Your time on this Earth is the most precious commodity you have. Spend it well, there's no refunds. 39.) When your dreams become reality they are no longer your dreams. Hone your craft, hustle up the gigs and take care of the day-to-day details. Along the way Life happens and your adventure evokes your character. You become the hero of your own journey (see Joseph Campbell for details). One day you wake up and realize this isn't a dream any more, you're doing it! It's rewarding to realize just how far you've come. You've paid your dues and earned your stripes. It's also a bit scary; what do you do next? Forget about it and tend to the day-to-day details of reaching he next horizon. Back to the woodshed. In Zen it's called "beginner's mind". 40.) None of this is rocket science. Up the mountain and back down again. Coming full circle. By the time you've had you've finished with something like this it becomes apparent that it was just plain old common sense all along.