Two Lights – A Response

Just now, I read a post on Gawker titled; “No One Tell These Rich Kids They’re Wasting $100,000 trying to be indie rock stars” .  While that says pretty much all there is to say in response, I’m going to delve a little deeper into it.  The piece links to a Time article written by these douchebags, in a band called Two Lights,  about how difficult it is to be in a band.  Let me summarize.

Abner and Harper Willis have parents who have paid over $100,000 for them to be musicians.  Lessons, gear, rent, publicity, studio time, all of it.  And poor Abner and Harper, have had to turn down day jobs where they could make minimum wage, in order to struggle to be rock stars.  (please never use that term)   They have played such prestigious venues as The Mercury Lounge and Highline Ballroom, they’ve gotten “some press” and all of that. Also, let me grab a tissue, because all the money they make at shows goes to pay for their drummer.  And cabs!  The dreaded cabs they must take to carry their gear!  WHERE IS FEMA ON THIS SHIT?

Now that there is literally smoke coming out of my ears, let me discuss this a bit.

Dearest Abner and Harper,

My name is Steven Weiss, I’m 28 and live in New York.  No one aside from my employers contribute to my finances.  I have a full time job, student loans, and play in a band too!  I also rent a space in Brooklyn!  I also have played venues such as these!  I’ve even played some bigger ones!  Also some smaller ones!  We’re pretty much twinsies!  Since there are 2 of you, were triplitsies!  I have a very simple response.  Fuck you both.  You’re making a mockery of anyone who tries to make an honest go of being a musician without the luxuries you have both been afforded.

Where do you get the giant inflated monster balls to write something like this?  Of course it’s hard to be a musician.  No one is going to pay you to play your own music.  That’s not why you do it.  You want to get paid, write commercial music or jingles (nothing wrong with either of those, its a legit skill and job)  but no one will pay your salary to be in an indie band.

Here’s the thing.  In that little video you posted, you can clearly see that no one is in the audience at the Highline Ballroom, and that line you show outside the Mercury Lounge is for the dance club next door.  That line is always there, and its never for the Mercury Lounge.  Hiring a publicist to do email blasts does not get you fans.  It doesn’t get music blogs to like you.  In fact, it might have the exact opposite effect.  You think people can’t identify a faceless email blast?

We live in a time where anyone playing music is extremely lucky.  Its more in our own hands than any time in history.  We don’t need record labels.  We barely need recording studios.  A&R men are irrelevant.  We don’t need traditional distribution.  But because of this, there is a higher standard than ever before.  Anything can be put out there, but anything that is shitty can just as well be forgotten.  Wonder why you’re not famous?

The fact that you whined about having to turn down low paying day jobs literally makes me want to fight you.  I am not a violent person, but you have awoken such a primal rage in my soul, that I fear I may never be able to turn it off.  I work 40 hours a week.  I rent a monthly practice space which I have a few days a week after work, then take a train to rehearse with a band on weekends.  When I have a show far from my house and I cannot borrow some type of car, I take the train.  I take cabs, but that is a luxury.  Have you ever taken a subway with a 20″ bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal bag?  Your shoulders are not so forgiving the next day.

Economically, being a musician in a city is nearly impossible.  It costs tons of money to have a practice space, maintain your gear, get to shows, pay rent, all of that.  But you fucking buy used gear.  You share a shit rehearsal space off the JMZ or G with 3 other bands.  You use shitty house gear. You beg your friends to come to shows.  You live in a place with roommates.  You record your album in that rehearsal space on whatever gear you have.  Stop fucking complaining. You want to go to a studio?  Get a job at a studio.  That’s what I did.

Having your family pay for your struggle, takes the struggle out of the equation. It negates it.  It takes away your right to complain.  And as a New York Jew, I’ve EARNED my right to complain, and I take full advantage of that.  You sirs, have not.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy @ The Highline Ballroom

First off, lets start with a plug.   This year on New Years Eve, forget about cursing the 5 boroughs from a rooftop and hugging the toilet the remainder of the evening.  Relax with a beverage and a recipe Matt Shampine posts on iblogwhatieat.com, and listen to NPR.  I was fortunate enough to be on the NY crew for their Toast Of The Nation broadcast and I’m very excited.  I’m looking forward to a relaxing night of music and recording related fun, rather than spending an obscene amount of money in a bar I don’t want to hang out in, and feeling hungover the next day.  Am I getting old?  Possiblimente….but I digress.  They’ll be broadcasting The Bad Plus, one of my favorite bands, live from The Village Vanguard in NY, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy live from LA later on in the evening.  My first ever professional post college job was for the Toast Of The Nation broadcast in 2004.  I had recently returned from LA, and assisted in the days leading up to the broadcast from Lincoln Center, but opted instead on new years eve to see Wilco and The Flaming Lips at Madison Square Garden, quite the mistake.  But we will perhaps do a new years specific post next week or early January, recounting musical events past and present.

The Only Guy Who Can Pull Of The Zoot Suit.
The Only Guy Who Can Pull Of The Zoot Suit.

My point is, I got to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Highline Ballroom as an advance public radio scout.  I’d like to think I was undercover, scoping it out, causing trouble. In truth, I was sadly not causing trouble.  No swing dancers were tripped, no douchebags snapping had drinks spilled on them from above.  I merely hung out and enjoyed what I could.  Its an odd phenomenon, that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  Back in the day, anyone aware of popular music remembers the brief swing craze.  Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Voodoo Daddy, all that.  We’d like to think it stemmed from the also brief popularity of Ska, and took on a strange little revival.   If you think about it though, that’s really the only time since the Ellington and Basie era in which big band music was a part of main stream popular culture.  The difference being, this really seemed like a gimmick…i guess because it was?  Really dudes, no one wears a zoot suit and says “daddy-o” and means it.  You probably have a job, where they do not let you wear your zoot suit, and if you start a riot, you will be arrested.

Big Bad Voodoo
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy @ The Highline

But lets talk about this show for a minute, then maybe we’ll get all theoretical up in here.  The band was highly proficient, if not too rehearsed.  Yes, the horn section was adequate but they were certainly no Dap Kings.  They played WAY too much Christmas music, the singer even alluded to the fact that he was well over it.  Their stage banter seemed very scripted, as did the singers dancing, I don’t know, I just wasn’t buying it.  They did play the hits, which were very entertaining to hear.  Its kind of funny, as soon as they went into that “bottle makes 3 song”  you could really tell why they gained such popularity at their height.  Its a catchy tune, you can always remember the lyrics, the music is happy, everyone has a good time.  But the rest of the set really did feel like filler.

Earlier in the week I had dinner with the iblog empire, and a few hundred people, and we briefly discussed the rise and fall of popular music featuring horn players in the late 90’s.  Well, mostly Web Master Eric and I did, while Matt Shampine was too busy blogging what he was eating and got sauce all over his iphone.  Anyway, it brought up some dilemmas.  We all know the story of the One Hit Wonder, but what happens when you have a mild hit in a somewhat gimmicky style, and you’re stuck in that gimmick for the rest of your foreseeable career?  Basically, what happens after the popularity dies down, and you’re left holding a baritone sax?

4202375838_b53ee3c39dHaving a band with horns is no easy task.  Lets start out all business.  Its an economic nightmare.  You have a standard rock band, guitar, bass, drums, vocals.  4 People, 1 extra to hang out and help, traveling to a show.  You can get away with traveling in a van or large SUV.  You don’t get paid for the show, but hopefully you can cover gas money, if life is awesome, you can but 5 beverages.  Add 3 horn players to the mix.  You have another car to take to the show, god forbid they have girlfriends (which lets be honest, is unlikely) So now not only does no one get a beverage at the show, you are in the hole as far as transportation expenses go.  At the height of our youth inspired shenanigans, we were part of a 9 person ska band.  One night while playing Maxwells in Hoboken, the soundman said to me “so, after what you guys get paid is divided, you cant even buy 1 drink, right?”  Yes Maxwells dude, this is true.  But whatever, you’re 20, who cares.  Once you start getting into real life territory…that gets a little more sketchy.  Lets say a band like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or Reel Big Fish, or any of those guys, maintains a career, these days strictly off of touring.  When it is your actual livelihood, transportation expenses are serious business.  That’s extra hotel rooms, food, space in the van or bus or whatever, any number of things.  Obviously I have no numbers to back this up since my accounting knowledge begins and ends with that fact that Oscar Kevin and Angela run The Office accounting department.  At that point…hiring a keyboard player or something starts to make a lot more sense.

Lets talk about egos, shall we?  A band is like having 4 girlfriends, with none of the positive aspects.  A band with horns is like having 9 girlfriends.  And while we all think Polygamy is totally awesome in theory, we’re also all aware that its just not practical, man.  Same concept applies.  How to keep a band together is a mystery to everyone.  I believe along the way, nearly every one of these popular bands which once included horn players, has either fired said horns, or hired studio musicians to tour when necessary.  Its impossible to quantify the contribution a specific instrument makes to a song, many a tambourine has completed a record, but if you have players only putting in a few notes here and there on a rock song…you could imagine some situations where problems could arise.

I don’t want to insult anyone’s livelihood, I have great respect for any touring band, especially one who has survived for many years.  I just wonder what their career related discussions are like. Is it like “ok dudes, lets do another swing era big band album!”  In truth, they’ve probably been a band longer than the actual swing era lasted.  Its like those Beatles cover bands who have been around far longer than the actual Beatles were.  Reel Big Fish did in fact write a song called “Don’t Start A Band”  and I really think its the most depressing song I have ever seen (i dont even want to listen, I’ve just seen the lyrics)  Here’s a little lyrical snippet:

And if you that the joy of playing
Will keep you going through the years
Wait till you poor and frustrated
And the fun just disappears
Nobody cares what you have to say
And noes gonna listen anyways

Rock and roll will bring you down
And it will kick you while your on the ground

Don’t start a band
Don’t even try you will regret it yea
Don’t start a band
You’ll be so disappointed that it was nothing like you planned
Don’t start a band
Oh yea yea yea

Damn dudes, really?  Anyway.   Having a large band seems tough not only for career oriented reasons, but simply for the creative process.  Its nore difficult to get things done quickly with more people involved.  Lets keep the process streamlined.  If you can’t go solo, go duo, and so forth. And if you feel like hanging up the zoot suit, for the love of all that is holy, please do so.