"The Shady Bear Sessions" Studio Recordings Are Here!

"...the combination of traditional blues with a contemporary sound that makes THP unique"

Friday, June 7, 2013

Quid Pro Quo And A Catch-22

In this age of indie-everything, band managers who are not also in the band are pretty rare.  And especially for smaller bands--like your humble THP--this means band members must multi-task.  You're not just thinking about writing the next section of that tricky riff you've had stuck in your head, or working to clean up your arpeggios (or paradiddles, or what have you), you're also concerned with logistics: Who's scheduling practice?  How's everyone getting to practice?  Who's keeping the social media stuff and web site up-to-date?  Who's bringing the beer?

Almost as important as that last one (almost), is...how are we getting gigs?  And as a "manager" newly devoted to the question, I'm discovering some very interesting things about securing shows in NYC.

Of course, every prospective gig comes with some amount of negotiation, no matter how anodyne.  The date has to be set, the start time agreed upon, as well as the number of sets the venue is expecting.  Ideally, the back and forth also includes talk of payment and/or drink and food deals for the band.  (We like "and.")  Nothing surprising there.

Now, it used to be that these negotiations were based on the venue's judgement of the quality of the band's music.  The better the band, the better the deal.  Of course, the venue didn't concern itself with this question for lofty aesthetic ends, but for the entirely utilitarian reason that a good band keeps patrons at a bar longer, and patrons parked at a bar are patrons who are buying drinks, and selling drinks is why a bar exists.  The commercial transaction here is transparent and mutually beneficial: the bar is making money and the (good) band is probably making new fans.

And the invisible hand of the market place celebrates by tearing off a killer blues riff.

What's curious to me, though, is that this dynamic seems to have been inverted at some point, here in NYC anyway.  Rather than a bar using a good band to keep their built-in regulars buying rounds, the venues now prefer to lean on the bands themselves to supply the crowd (how much crowd a band can supply being called its "draw").

This business model makes total and complete sense when applied to acts at the top of the pyramid--it's entirely reasonable to bank on B.B. King packing the house, any house, and the venue selling copious amounts of booze and food and merch to the people he brings in.

But the trend of using draw as the sole metric of the "quality" of bands at lower tiers of the pyramid (i.e., the other 99% of us) is troubling.  After all, B.B. King wouldn't be B.B. King if the bars he played back in the day didn't pull in folks who'd never heard him before...who then pulled in their friends, who pulled in their friends, and on and on to everyone's profit, fans included.  (Or worse, if they didn't let that young musician play at all because he only knew twenty people at the time who would pay to see him!)

Yet, many smaller bars in NYC eschew this model and offer the following deal instead:

--A band must bring in X number of people (say, fifty) if they are to be given a slot.
--There is no flat fee payment for the band.
--There is no drink or food deal for the band.
--The performance space is separated from the bar or storefront area, limiting or outright eliminating chance walk-ins.
--Access to the performance space is dependent on fans' paying a cover.  (Venues usually promise some percentage of the cover charge to the band after X number of people have paid, as a kind of olive branch.)
--Venues offer little to no promotional efforts for the show.  (Often, their best effort is a status update with the show details on their Facebook page.)

Essentially, this arrangement shifts the burden of, well, everything onto the band.  The band brings people who already know and like them, these people give their money to the venue while the band plays for free (or in the red, after the cost of getting musical gear to the space), and the benefit to the band is...they get to play a show outside their garage?

Setting any snark aside, the upside for the band is an open question.  They're not playing to new faces--since they're bringing their pre-established fan base--so they're not growing that base, and they're not getting paid.  They're not even getting drinks. Instead, the band's fans are giving their hard-earned cash to a third party in the form of the venue for reasons that are, even under cursory scrutiny, pretty mysterious.

Of course, finding new people and winning them over is the eternal koan of marketing professionals everywhere.  It's hard to build a consumer base, whether you're a new band...or a neighborhood bar.  So when you have a bar that seems uninterested in, or incapable of, promoting its own evening's entertainment or building its own consumer base, it seems fairly uncontroversial to call that venue lazy or incompetent or both.  When said bar instead poaches off the crowd a band brings in--in fact, brings in a band just so they can poach off that crowd--while offering nothing in return, we may posit an even more colorful adjective for their behavior, and I think the biologists in the audience would back me up on this one.  That would be: parasitic.

And the shame is that I have to think that the bands these venues manage to victimize are newer, younger, just starting to poke their heads out, i.e., the ones without enough experience to know they're being used.  These are also the bands who can be most quickly confused and then disillusioned when they (rightfully) assess how much they're investing in these shows and how little they're getting in return.  Believe me, I remember.

Not every venue suffers this kind of business model dementia, thankfully.  THP has played good shows to great crowds (for money! and beer!) at some awesome places in the city.  (Bohemian Beer Garden, Neir's Tavern, we're looking at you, kids.)  And we've played very satisfying gigs for free at places that had no cover and that allowed crossover from the bar and walk-ins from the street.  (Cheers, Freddy's Backroom.  R.I.P., Kenny's Castaways.)

And there are venues that THP is looking forward to playing, ones that charge covers but that have a built-in crowd to justify the practice.  These venues consider not just a band's draw but the quality of their music, because their reputation rests on the idea that you can go there anytime, without knowing who's playing, and hear something worth your time and money.  (The leaders here are the holdouts down on Bleecker St., like Bitter End, Terra Blues, and Red Lion.)

Anecdotally, I'm reminded of when the band that eventually spawned THP played the legendary Stanhope House in New Jersey.  I was chatting with the owner before our set on the secondary stage, and he was telling me about the time Stevie Ray Vaughan came through, in the days before he was "Stevie Ray Vaughan."  (Stevie was so poor at this point, according to the owner, that the Stanhope chef took pity on him and made him a free, home-cooked meal.  Stevie was so grateful that he rolled up his sleeves and did dishes afterward.)  The story goes that the first night SRV played, there were maybe a dozen people in the audience.  On the second night, the place was nearly full.  By the third night, there were cars lined up around the block.

Now, we didn't have quite that effect on people with our set, but I noticed as we were playing that folks who wandered by us tended to linger, and, in lingering, they ordered a drink.  By the end of our fifty minutes, where we'd once had seven or eight onlookers we now had closer to thirty...and they were all holding glasses from the bar.

That's a pretty solid business model.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Few Thoughts On "Alternative Blues"

While poking around the interwebs a while ago, I came across the term "alternative blues," and it got me thinking about the creative direction of blues in the modern American musical landscape.  Not that this high-mindedness was my first reaction.  My first reaction was more like "huh, that sounds like what THP has been up to lately with the originals."  But when I started to parse out why that moniker seemed right, the train of thought led me to a few other places, some of which have been on my mind for a while now in one form or another but had seemed previously unrelated.

For those, like me, who hadn't heard the term, alternative (alt) blues generally refers to an otherwise not easily described subgenre of standard, or classic, big-B Blues.  All the same elements are in play: 12-bar structure (often enough) if not a straight up 1-4-5 chord progression; typical blues instruments (guitar, vocals, bass, drums, keys, etc.); minor and major pentatonics; that kind of thing.  But the arrangement of all these known elements is often...tweaked, so that the resulting sound is stranger than what a person accustomed to classic blues (like Delta, say) might expect to hear.

If you read someone like Amiri Baraka, whose wonderful book, Blues People, gives a poignant overview of the historical arc of blues in America, you might be tempted to believe that field hollers grew into blues grew into jazz, and that anything that isn't moving further along that trajectory is somehow developmentally arrested or creatively barren.

But even as we witness the slow motion collapse of the record industry--and watch it devour the diversity and originality of mainstream American music in its death throes--new envelope pushers keep emerging, invariably rooted in blues.

Most recently, I'd point to the dependable, if not very flashy, Gary Clark, Jr., and his debut album Blak and Blu; Ben Harper's re-emergence with Charlie Musselwhite, whose latest songs have exposed even more of the blues bone that underlies the meat of his writing style; and the inventively raw chord progressions of Vintage Trouble.  There are, of course, more.

Not that this kind of thing hasn't been happening for decades.  Is there any better name than alternative blues for the ground Hendrix was exploring in songs like "Stone Free" or "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"?  Or for that matter, what Muddy Waters was doing with the album After the Rain?

Still, inasmuch as a term like "alt blues" serves as a quick way to communicate the general contours of an otherwise hard to describe musical subgenre ("grindcore," anyone?), it can only be useful if it's viewed as just that, a shorthand to describe a rough collection of trends rather than an unbending categorical designation.

Which had me thinking further: do these artists stand out as being of-the-moment and their art as still having life not because of their unbending dedication to their roots but rather because they take an unconventional approach to the larger style?  Indeed, their kind of reinvention stands in stark contrast to many blues musicians I've come across who are so orthodox in their view of what constitutes "blues" that their playing is boring, soulless--because there's none of them in their playing, only pre-approved riffs handed down by the guitar gods of yore.  It's a cultish attitude, as if these limited number of sounds were edicts from on high meant to mark the boundary of what can be considered "blues," and it's the enemy of playing music that grows and changes with the world around it.  (And here the old adage pops to mind, about how the wind can't break a tree that bends.)

This isn't at all to pooh-pooh the contributions of said guitar gods (or bass gods, or drum gods, or whatever deity you bow to when you throw on your favorite tunes)--how could I?--but rather to point out that these players set their stars in the musical firmament by expanding the blues vocabulary, not by piously toeing the accepted lines.

Admittedly, "alternative blues" is a pretty inelegant term.  "Alternative" to what?  English blues?  Rhythm-and-blues?  I suspect it was originally meant as an alternative to classic blues, but that seems misguided--a child is not an "alternative" to its parent.  What the term does seem to get at, in its own clumsy way, is the energy and resilience that manages to keep blues alive and kicking in these strange artistic times.