It took several years and hundreds of gigs for me to figure out that above anything else (aside from maybe staying true to music you enjoy), is you must play to the audience at all times. It doesn’t matter if there are 10 or 10,000 people. Making everyone have a memorable time is what counts. And It’s a hell of a lot easier to play to large amounts of people, believe me. You don’t have to connect with them as much individually, whether it’s a quiet acoustic show or a more rocking event.
Not that I’d be the best to ask about playing to large crowds. I’ve been on the small-medium club circuit for the better part of my career. So it’s very middle of the road. But I can tell you, the random dud gig where you’re playing to no one, vs. the occasional victory gig where there are hundreds of people who suddenly give a damn - There’s a common way to handle both situations, and what we do doesn’t change that much. Having a great working relationship with the venue, venue's employees and our audience is huge.
It goes without saying that you must make the women in the audience want to dance, that’s number one. That may sound amateurish to say, but you’d be surprised. Trying to play to hipster dudes is a losing cause. If you have some new material to play, you’re better off warming a crowd up with something they’d like to hear and then laying it on them rather than forcing them to listen and understand you from the get go. Better off playing some Red Hot Chili Peppers or Tom Petty before going into the new originals or Kinks b-sides. But there is a great middle ground to be found. Sometimes we’ll adjust our set lists on the fly to accommodate the crowd, and I for one honestly don’t mind doing that at all.
On the flip side of things, once in a while there are hecklers. Occasionally you will run into someone who’s having a bad night. Maybe a bad life. And they’ve decided giving the band a hard time is a great idea. Maybe it’s a random request that they know is bothering you, or maybe they’re drunk and taking things MUCH further. Screaming “Don’t ruin my show, asshole” over the mic works sometimes. Seriously. But there are better ways to handle it.
Our friends Mick Marshall and Chuck Sirko are two of the musicians we grew up watching who’ve helped us along the way (their bandmate Rick Gercak recorded our new album). They have a way of dealing with any situation that comes up at a show in a way that is commendable. Maybe they’re not even aware of it, but I’ve noticed it. You can pretend to deal with a heckler/drunk person for a second. Give them that second of eye contact or quick, polite one line response. If it’s a request it’s easy to say you’ll do a similar tune soon or “Yeah, great song” and just move on. Half the time that’s all you’ll have to do. The other half you just have to be quicker than them. Ignore them, say a one liner, even have them removed if you must. But always keep your cool. This all can be filed under keeping a good working relationship with a venue as well.
In 900 or so gigs I can only think of a handful of times that I really had a problem with a heckler. It can become fun if anything. It never once ruined the night. And those other times that we’ve played a great venue and gotten a great response - All of those nights struggling to make a small crowd happy suddenly become worth it. In MMOC we still deal with all of these situations, and aside from maybe the top 3% of musicians, everyone else does as well. It’s tiring but fun at the same time to try and figure out the performing side of it. Making people happy and playing material you're passionate about are what's important!
Songwriting ideas from a blunt asshole
The first and main step you must take to being an even remotely successful songwriter is this:
You have to be a big enough bastard to not care. I’m not saying not to care what others think. I ask for opinions every week.
But imagine playing songs you’ve written to one of your smaller, more local audiences. Not even a medium-sized room with 75-100 people. I’m talking about your little bar on the corner where you’re lucky to have 30-50 people interested. You can see all of their faces. You know more than half of the people. You’ve fallen on your face with more than three women there, and two of them know each other and think it’s hilarious. Are you afraid to say what you really think in your songs, or are you going to seem dumb or even offend someone?
Most would probably crack, honestly. In my earlier years I definitely would too. I can barely even remember playing my originals out back then. We did, sure, but we held them for opportune times and didn’t take risks with them.
I’m not saying to shove 15 new original songs down your audience’s throats at every 3-hour bar gig. But when given the opportunity, original music can be your bread and butter. It’s why I get up in the morning on lots of days, and its what my band knows its focusing on at larger gigs and festivals. It’s great to be a cover band, especially if you have a niche. But my niche is songwriting.
Tips for writing songs… I’ll make a list to avoid rambling more:
- Don’t force it. If an idea isn’t coming naturally, you’re already screwed. I’ve written the main hook of a song in my head while brushing my teeth. At the same time I’ve sat at a guitar or piano for hours trying to force a song, and come up with nothing worth remembering.
- If the song is solid enough to remember the next day, that’s a good sign. Even Lennon and McCartney would use this tactic sometimes. Instead of writing the song down, they’d see if it was strong enough to still be fresh in their heads the next day.
- Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself. Chances are you haven't had several top ten hits that are recognizable to people. If you wrote one that everyone liked a few years ago, why not do a similar one?
- Topics for lyrics can come from almost anywhere. Take a look at Bob Dylan and Tom Petty’s best work for some great examples. Newspapers, things going on with friends, old stories, personal experiences etc. And concept albums are cool, but it's probably a better idea to start off with some individual thoughts.
- At the same time, experiment with new ideas. Listen to some new songwriters, try some different keys or time signatures, or invite one of your musician buds to throw in some input and even pull apart some of your older unused ideas and try giving them a new life.
- Speaking of keys: Keys with flats generally sound mellower than keys with sharps. And some keys tend to sound better on one instrument than another. For example, I've found the key of G is very universal. However, I love B and E (major and minor) on guitar, and love writing in F and C on the piano, where C is the simplest key to play in.
- Sometimes I'll use an old unused bridge or chorus that I've had for several years and put it in a new song. Sometimes it revives the old tune and other times it creates a new one. Dave Verbocy and I used to joke that this was similar to turning the old unreleased song into an organ donor, and sometimes it worked great.
- There's no be all end all in music theory, but the circle of fifths is a pretty awesome thing to have tattooed in your brain. You'll never run out of things to play.
- There’s no reason to get frustrated. Billy Joel went through writer’s block. Cat Stevens went decades without writing a rock song. It can be almost like riding a bike. I wrote my first song at age three and wrote my most recent one this past Saturday. It’s almost like a disease at this point more than anything, but it’s a disease I’d implore any musician to try and catch.
- Keep listening to new music, whether it's from the 1960's, 1790's or this month!
I’ve been asked many times about my expertise in dealing with venues booking music. Not because I’m any good at it, but having dealt with it 900 or so times over the past decade, I have a few pointers that anyone could learn from/object to.
First of all, sober me always has a tendency to sell myself and our band short. In the past I've accepted less than we deserved just to get “exposure.” Yes that’s the nasty word. But I’ve met several people who were willing to completely throw the money aside and do whatever is necessary to move a band forward. Traveling, sleeping in crappy places, writing over and over, spending hours and hours on the phone, searching websites… it can be a headache and an endless cycle. On the flip side of it, some people completely base their gigs on what they’re being paid. Maybe they need a certain amount of money, or maybe they only prefer to play in a certain area because they're simply at that point for one reason or another.
Some venues seem out to get you. Others really appreciate music. Getting to know the owner/employees of a given venue helps a lot in seeing whether it’s a beneficial working relationship all around. We get along great with our friends working at establishments in our area, and when we’re dealing with new places out of the region, contacting them ahead of time with our press kit and other promotional materials is one of the first steps, and then gauging the night and crowd reaction helps us realize whether the travel/pay is worth the effort. A lot of times it is. Sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok, as long as you realize it.
Knowing your own limits as well as what you need to be focusing on to move forward is key. I’d be lying if I said I’ve figure it out, but there are several avenues you can be using to make money in your music. And honestly, if you’re spending time on another day job aside from music, you’re already wasting time unless it's just for fun. That’s nothing against anyone doing that, they may be much more talented that me. But believe me, you need to be focusing on music ALL THE TIME. Mozart had students. That's something any egotistical musician needs to realize.
Using an invoice or contract for larger events and festivals once you get to that point is an absolute must. I realize this over and over again. Going hand in hand with that, having a good relationship and networking with other bands and musicians is as important as anything, since you never know who will need support or be willing to help you out in the future. On the other end, getting into all the tax stuff is a mess. A musician need to be making a certain amount to write anything off, and for working my ass off I can admit that I rarely make that much myself. It can be really hard to make a living if you don’t multi-task with it. For example, I’ve gone back to school to teach music, while others have landed session work, writing for different productions, etc.
It has been a journey. I’ve joked I could already write a book, and we haven’t been even mildly successful to be honest. Maybe that’s being hard on MMOC, we still have a hell of a lot to accomplish. And I think this is an attitude anyone can take, in anything they do. Look at some of the business plans for some of the greatest groups ever: The Grateful Dead come to mind. The next time you have a few minutes, take a look into some of their marketing ideas.
And I apologize for sounding pretentious, but dealing with as many older and younger musicians as as I have, I could go on for days about the different mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned. And we’re all still making them… I'm up for chatting about any of these ideas any time!