Sunday, July 29, 2007

Small-Town Street Dance

For the last 22 years Northwood, ND has held their "Old-Fashioned Saturday," which used to be a kind of throwback-uniform day (if you are a baseball fan) for the townspeople, and just a big hoo-ha in general. Yesterday was that day. So I went out there with my wifey and her family to celebrate.

In the morning there is a parade around town (my son LOVED the firetrucks) and throughout the afternoon there are food vendors, puppet shows, kids activities, and musical acts in the park, which I regret missing, but my boy desperately needed a nap by the time those got going.

However, the party really gets started in the evening as the street dance gets rolling. A small town street dance is usually where locals get together, old friends (and classmates) reunite, get really drunk, and dance the night away. Last night was no exception.

The band was Kid Hollywood, a cover band that I would file under "party band," out of Fargo. I thought they were good - very polished. They had great musical ability and knew how to get the crowd going, which is what they're paid to do. The guitarist played really tasty solos, many "right off the album;" the drummer was obviously playing along with a click track as his laptop played horn and string sequences, which was impressive but something inside me was screaming "cheater!" The singing was probably the best part as they had very good four and sometimes five-part harmonies, which is a hallmark of a good band. In fact, it is often said that good backing vocals set a decent band apart from a great band and these guys were really + in that department. Alas, as a street dance is not a place to be a judge of musical artistry, there is not much to say about that. The band played well, people got drunk, danced, got up on stage and sang (badly), and were happy.

People love music. This street dance was a testament to that. Small town or not, music is a powerful thing.

Been to any good street dances lately?

The endless argument: Originals vs Covers

So here we go - a really hot topic in any live music circle is cover bands vs. original bands. For those not in the know a cover is when a band performs a song originally done by another artist - as in "we covered Zeppelin's 'When the Levee Breaks,'" which is ironic because Zeppelin was covering that, too - it is now, in essence, a double-cover.

But I digress. The debate usually centers around, on one side, the perspective that cover bands are not true musicians because they're not original and they steal all the shows from the true artists that deserve them; and the other side's perspective - that original bands don't play music that people like, and therefore can't expect to build a venue any business; no business for the venue means no venue, and no venue means no getting hired - often a smart venue just eliminates the middle-man and doesn't hire a band that won't put butts in the seats.

Anyway, here's my perspective:

I've seen it from both sides- I've been in both original and cover bands, and a special third category - cover bands that play obscure enough music that people can't tell you're a cover band and think you're orginal (though, if asked, a band like this would NEVER take credit if they're ethical). Since I've seen it from both sides and argued this countless times, I have come to the conclusion that neither is mutually exclusive, and neither are any less of musicians than the other. They might have certain characteristics that are tailored to a specific audience, though, and that is where I'm going to make my point.

Rule #1 in live performance - Give The People What They Want. If you don't you will have no audience. No audience = no live performance, instead you are just playing for yourself (and maybe the bartender).

This goes for both cover and original bands, though. You have look at who is the audience for each: a cover band chiefly provides for audiences who want familiarity, an original band provides for those who want something new. The problem comes down to this: it is my observation that the vast majority of audiences want familiarity in most situations where money is flowing. Money is the key, folks.

I'll repeat that: Money is the key. In a world (or at least a country) where property rights, liability, and ordinances are everyday words, money is the key.

The ultimate situation would be if an original band could plop their stuff anywhere and put on a show. Then they might catch a few people that are interested and build a following. Good times for all.

The problem is that plopping stuff most anywhere in America is a big no-no. And often unfeasible, I mean where is there a spot of private land that has 110VAC with two 40 amp breakers just sitting there for a band to use?

Aha, public parks! But those aren't really public, are they? No, the park board is often beholden to the city council, who are beholden to who? Yep, the voting, taxpaying public. And it doesn't take but a few complaints to get a noise ordinance enacted, nor does it take but one broken leg to get the city (and therefore the taxpayers) creamed in a lawsuit.

The point is that any place a band wants to play is subject to costs. The most direct costs associated with producing a show are: the venue space itself (which includes rental), electricity, P.A. (the big sound system, often with someone to run it), liability insurance, mechanical fees (the fees associated with music publishing unions), and sometimes security. Band costs often include their instruments, the gas to get to a gig, car insurance, car payments, and replacement costs of wear and tear on all these things, also time off work to both play and/or rehearse, and sometimes costs associated with protecting your intellectual property.

As I said, it'd be nice if a venue would just provide these things for a band. Well, sometimes they do - the trick is that the venue has to be one of two things:

1) Very magnanamous - which is a very rare opportunity - perhaps once a year. The event has to generate business for them down the road (or tax write-offs) otherwise they CAN NOT continue doing it, lest they run out of money. That is, of course, unless they are extremely wealthy businesses and can afford to do it "for the love." No business I know of around here can afford do that, especially often. That's a dreamer's world. Something can be said for a non-profit arts organization, though, but that requires a steady audience and their donations - not all bands are invited to that particular party as money comes from people with certain tastes and in a small market, the consensus is usually the safe route (read non-offensive), otherwise bye-bye donations, bye-bye non-profit group.

2) So the other is that a venue can provide these things if the event directly makes them money. So, how does a venue make that money?

Let's take an example: Coffee shops are a great place for an original band to play, usually they contain the audience that is willing to hear new things, to explore their musical tastes - a perfect venue, right? Unfortunately not really, because the coffee shop has to make money to keep employees paid, rent paid, lights on, etc - so they must sell something to cover these costs. What do you think that might be? Yup, coffee... and gelato, cappuccino, etc. Do you think that the coffee place, during your show, makes enough money (money beyond what the coffee itself costs and all those costs above) to stay profitable? My guess is not quite, at least not in GF. Or put a different way: does your band increase income beyond an average night without you? Will it sustain that increase of traffic if you play, say, weekly? Monthly? Maybe, if you're good and you give the people what they want.

But after all those costs are (barely) covered by the coffee shop, will you get paid? Probably not much.

And that brings up my next point - is getting paid to play music "selling out?" Some people (mainly those in the original music business) have said that a band is a sell out for getting paid - that music is an art and they should do it only for the love.

Sorry, I don't buy it, at least not on a majority-of-the-time basis. The reason is this: My "art" costs me a hell of a lot of time and money. It is beyond a hobby for me - it is a side profession. It is a passion, yes, and money or no money - that will never diminish, but I expect to be paid for my services. I feel that, aside from benefit shows/charity/and the once-in-a-while golden opportunity, you should always be paid for playing. Why? Because if you don't pay to play, the financial cycle breaks down - and, like it or not, we are all dependent on that cycle.

For instance, you buy some gear for $500 off of eBay, you practice with your band for 30 hours in a month, driving 5 miles each way to your buddy's house (which costs .44 cents per mile in gas/insurance/licensing/wear and tear - so $4.40 each time) maybe 10 times - so $44 , you spend $200 promoting your band with fliers, you drive to the gig 20 miles away ($18 for a round trip), then you play the gig and don't get paid (heck, some people pay the venue!) for it? You're out $762 by my count! Some of those are rare costs (like equipment), but still, you're spending a lot of money to do your art. That may be okay for some artists that make a lot of money in another job, or that have low fixed costs (I'm talking to the kids, here). But to others trying to maintain all their stuff it can be a tragedy and many have to stop playing, stop their passion, because it simply costs them too much. And we haven't even really considered the time aspect, but that's really abstract, so I won't get into it here.

But do consider this: let's say you're still doing it for the love of the art, you're playing for free, and maybe you're good and you bring in business/money for the venue. Is it fair the business owner should profit from your services and you not? Sounds like I should open a venue if that's the case. Maybe I'll not pay my bartenders because they should bartend for the love, and perhaps I should get an artist to comission a sculpture and not pay, because it's for the love. Sheesh, reality check needed.

And finally, consider the biggest aspect of all: There are original musicians out there that are doing their craft as a full-time vocation. If you play for free, which is, again, attractive to business owners, you have now undercut the dude or dudette that relies on getting paid to make it through life. If nothing else, you drive rates down, which hurts us all.

BIG POINT: If a musician gets paid well enough, the economic cycle continues - they grow their craft, buy more gear, eat food, pay rent, buy gas, etc. The economy continues, and for a good cause, right? Yeah! The music!

So are you "selling out" by getting paid for your efforts? Not a chance.

Now, a quick blurb on cover bands, as this is getting to be a novel: Cover bands generally do not take gigs away from original bands, as original bands so often claim. If an original band has a big enough following, then they can play just about anywhere (and people end up covering them! HA!). But there is a big restriction: an original band can't chase away the "regular" clientele. This is why you'll probably never see a metal band at Sanders. But if my cover band plays there are we "stealing" a metal band's gig? Not one iota. This is an example of a clash of audience interest and the metal band never had, nor will have, that gig. So, let it go. My jazz group, which plays quite a few originals, will probably never play on a indierock ticket. Do I begrudge them for that? Not at all, it's not my audience.

I enjoy my other, cover, band very much - I love re-creating that music, love performing, love getting the audience into it. But I have to play at places my audience will be - mainly places that are drinking establishments. At drinking establishments you have people that are getting out to socialize, to look good, to get some action (as it were), and covers lend well to the comfort level. You can sing along, it reminds you of a certain time in your life (especially as we get older, have jobs and kids, and can't take the time to follow new trends). And drinking establishments tend to make quite a bit of money - especially if you're good and can maintain an audience.

So, let's review: Original bands = good - but keep building an audience for the venue, grow your craft, and expect to be paid for your time.

Cover bands = good - but keep it real, be creative, make it your own; people want to hear stuff they know, for a lot of reasons, and this can't be considered a bad thing altogether.

Contrary to what so many people say, this is not a black-and-white issue. In fact, the two can live side by side and are often beneficial to each other; it's just that music, while an art, is also a business - it's all economics, no matter how much you don't want it to be.

Okay, I've said my peace - what's yours?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Thoughts: Seven Dollar Shift at the Crosstown Lounge

I'm going to make it a point to give a mini-review of shows I attend. These won't be professional reviews in any way, just the thoughts of a compatriot slogging along in the trenches of the band scene. They might be of a venue or a band, or in this case, both.

Last night I went with my sister-in-law to the Crosstown Lounge to check out the place for our gig next week, and to catch a band I haven't really listened to enough. My first impression was that the Crosstown, a fresh face to the scene, was open, bright, and had a fun atmosphere. The layout is a little maze-like, but there's some character in that.

There were rows of pooltables - a throwback to its former glory as a Lucky's Green Room, and a bank of dart machines. The pooltables (at least a dozen) were nearly empty when we arrived and only 45 minutes later you had to queue to get on a table (no pun intended). This however, really added to an active, festive atmosphere that some of the other music clubs in town lack. I've learned that people don't always like to just sit, drink, and watch the band, so this is a plus for that portion of the market.

Since we weren't there to play pool, we opted to just sit, drink, and watch the band. Our server was attentive and cheerful. The only downside to the venue that I noticed (right as I walked in) was that it was fairly smoky. Most venues I've played in recent years have been smokeless, or relatively so, so this is going to be an unpleasant change for me, but I'll deal with it - it's worth it. The crowd was mixed age and included a lot of younger softball players, obviously right from the fields.

I had recently talked to Brad (the owner) about the sound system, as I was trying to work out the logistics of what we'll need to bring next week; he told me they have their own PA and it's new to him, so there might be some bugs to work out.

Seven Dollar Shift (7DS from here on out) was dealing with some of those bugs, but it didn't have too much of an impact on their overall sound. For what it's worth, I think they could have used a condenser mic over the drums (the snare and hi-hat were lost in the mix and the cymbals lacked definition), and there were a few balance issues - but that goes with the territory when you run your own mix from the stage, as opposed to having a sound dude on station out in front of the stage. Overall, the sound was not bad, and I think the drums being back in the mix lent well to their laid-back feel. The overall volume was perfect, and the sheer size of the place meant you could carry on a normal conversation in the billiards area, or be nicely saturated with the band up near the stage.

The stage is small - now for a trio like 7DS, it didn't look like an issue, but SFI will be a little cramped with our fourth person and my keyboards. There is ample room for dancing, but since I had to leave early (hey, I gotta work!), I saw no dancers. Rule of thumb in most GF gigs is that dancing won't occur until about halfway through the gig - might have something to do with the inverse correlation between people's levels of inebriation and inhibition.

As for 7DS, they were really fun to listen to. They began the set with a few middle-tempo covers, laid-back in aggressiveness, and built to a powerful ending to the set. There were blues, country and bluesified reggae numbers, along with some jam-band-esque charts. All in all, we really dug 7DS. The guitar player/vocalist had good solo chops, but didn't dabble too long as to bore the audience, the bass player was tight rhythmically, lots of very articulated lines and very in-time with the drummer - I felt his backing vocals were too far back in the mix. He did, however, bust out the trumpet for a nicely-rendered version of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." I got a real kick out of that, and it's a nice change-up in sound, too. Pat, the drummer, laid it down without being overly flashy as to distract the audience. This made for a very enjoyable, listenable vibe. Overall what struck me is that 7DS is a true band, as opposed to three guys on stage each doing their own thing and not gelling.

Alas, I wish I could have stayed longer, but I'll definitely be back, both as a listener of 7DS and as a patron of the Crosstown (not to mention a performer). It's nice to see a fun place like this have live bands on Thursday nights.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shameless plug

Once in a while I'll make a shameless plug for gigs that I'm playing in the upcoming few weeks. It's my blog, so nyah (or something like that). I'll also do a gig review from time to time, maybe there will be some insight into performance for anyone who is interested, but mostly it's cathartic for me to write about things.

Anyway, for the plug(s):
Still Fighting It is playing at the Crosstown Lounge on Thursday, August 2nd. It will be our first gig at the Crosstown. If you're not familiar with our band, we're a rock band out of GF and we play acoustic and piano rock covers with lots of different eras thrown in - from classic to modern. Jarrod Schell is our singer and he's the Main Event, so to speak. If you haven't heard this guy sing, make it a mission to do so. Gig time 10:00-1:00

The John Behling Trio is playing the ND Museum of Art on Tuesday, August 7th. This is our first public performance and it should be a good time. John is an excellent jazz guitarist out of Chicago and it's been really exciting working with someone of his caliber. Showtime: 8:00-10:00

For future reference, I'll put my bands on the main blog page somewhere so I don't have to keep describing who/what we are in each post.

Hope to see you there!

Signing on...

Hello? Anybody there? Does this thing work?

My goal on this blog is to discuss music - local, national, wherever, and the things that drive music creation and production. Some people have mentioned to me that there's nothing to do here in the Forks. I disagree; I happen to have inside information that the music scene in Grand Forks and our surroundings is thriving. It doesn't take but a few visits to the local clubs, bars, and festivals to see what's happening here. Let's talk a little about what you've seen in the local music scene lately - good or bad; but let's try to remain constructive.

I'll start by saying that the rock show on July 7th in the Town Square really opened my eyes to the talent of the local metal musicians. These young guys (and gal!) are very dedicated to their craft and to each other. I haven't yet met a group of bands that is so mutually supportive as these bands are.

You have to understand that this mutual support is necessary for their survival, as metal music is not a "high-income" genre in GF. Put further, the majority of people that inhabit our local drinking establishments are generally unwilling to listen to metal for long periods of time (especially in an enclosed space). I haven't figured out why this is, other than the loudness factor, so maybe someone can shed some light here. Anyway, this unwillingness means people don't stay long, or don't show up at all, which means low bar receipts, and bar receipts means the owners generally don't want you to come back to chase away their crowds, hence you don't make a lot of money.

So these bands have to pool their resources to be able to have a venue to play. They are, in fact, paying to play, which is pretty much against my personal ethos, but more power to them to do what they must to perform. They do all the promotion - designing flyers and printing them at Kinko's, securing the logistics for the venue (sound, lighting, security, vendors, noise permits, and the venue itself), updating the show status and logistics on their forum (, all the while preparing their bands for the show.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of metal - I must say that looking at my iTunes, which is some 5,000 songs strong, perhaps 20 can be considered metal - and they're fairly mainstream. So when I agreed to run the audio for this event, I was skeptical that I would enjoy the music.

Boy, was I wrong! The bands that played that muggy Saturday afternoon blew me away. You could tell they really devoted their time to learning the craft of metal. The songs were often well-written and performed very tightly - meaning the band played well together in terms of pitch and timing. There are people I went to school with that got degrees in music that didn't have as much drive as these kids (yeah, I'm getting old) do. Suffice it to say metal is still not my favorite, but I learned some well-earned respect for it that day.

But what sits in my mind the most is that there is so much effort to provide entertainment in a town where there is "nothing to do."

I'll pose these questions to get the ball rolling: what, recently, has surprised you coming out of the local music scene? Did you like it, did you not like it? Did it change your opinion of a band, a genre, or local entertainment in any way?