Vol 4, Issue 5: To Perform, Perchance to Entertain

A few months ago, my good friend local bluesman Nathan Ouellette and I were having a debate on the way home from a joint gig. While neither of us could pinpoint a solitary definitive cause, essentially at the end of the discussion, we came to the conclusion that in a lot of ways, the “live music scene” is dead. As mentioned last time around, more and more once popular havens for mohawkers and moshers are closing down each day. While I believe this is partly a generational phenomenon (god knows I did everything I could to sneak into punk shows when I was underage, but that trend seems to have lost its appeal among the millenials), I also think it is due to the fact that the "working musician" has lost any sense of “professional” status in contemporary society.

Because of so called “advances” in audio technology, anyone and I mean ANYONE can cut a decent sounding record if given the right producer and enough Autotune, even if said individual(s) lacks in talent altogether. Add to this the “wired” state of the world, social networking sites, and video games like GuitarHero, and essentially you end up with a situation wherein everyone thinks they’re a bloody rockstar. 

To make matters worse, I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve become lazy, oversaturated, or too self-obsessed (perhaps a combination of all three?), but generally speaking, audiences and venues alike have developed a preference and higher regard for artists playing covers as opposed to those courageous enough to share with the world pieces of themselves.

*Come on, the fact that a glorified karaoke contest that weighs in more on marketability and looks as opposed to its contestants’ actual compositional ability is responsible for pumping out how many of our recent top selling artists speaks for itself.*

Given the above described current situation, how is one to stand out? More importantly, how is one to develop a following? And no, Twitter and Myspace stats don’t count – I’m talking about real people coming out to real gigs. Well in one simple phrase, you need to perfect the difference between “playing” versus “entertaining”. Perhaps an example would prove illustrative:

Last year, I was lucky enough to score floor tickets to witness one of my favourite childhood bands live in the flesh: No Doubt. While I was totally stoked to see them perform, I was kinda bummed that Paramore was selected to open the show. Now there’s no question that Ms. Williams can most certainly hold a tune, but their music quite simply just doesn’t do it for me. Despite this, that night Paramore earned my seal of approval for managing to match No Doubt in terms of energy, showmanship, and stage presence; something that is no easy feat. On top of this, I was impressed to see that they are a band of genuine musical talent. By that I mean, lipsynching proved unnecessary as they rocked much harder in person than on anything I’ve ever heard recorded by them. Taking into consideration their continued success (and the amount of people who come out to their live gigs regularly), I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

If I (or anyone else for that matter) is paying good money to see your act live, then it is YOUR duty to deliver the goods and give em a show worth coming out for again and again. Hitting every note with precision is impressive, but NOT merely enough. If I wanted to listen to the most polished audio example of a given act, I could simply pop in their overproduced album.

Live shows, though it seems some have forgotten in recent years, are supposed to be about an experience – one that allows you to feel intimately connected to the artists you’re witnessing. While a lot of bands rely on special effects and frills in order to turn their “performances” into “experiences”, unless you’re going for a gimmicky kind of deal akin to KISS, most of the time this sort of thing indicates that you’re trying to overcompensate for a genuine LACK of ability. So what do I suggest instead?

As a rock musician, the most important asset you can possess is ATTITUDE. Honest to god, it’s no lie when I tell ya that at times I feel as though half of my job as a performer is to also act as a stand-up comedian. Audiences come out to see bands live who make them feel as though they are, in part, responsible for how the show goes. In other words, it is all about feeding off of each other’s energy. If there are moments where you can directly include them (ie: clap or scream-alongs), capitalize on them and when you’re rehearsing, plan this shit out, in advance!

While being able to successfully pull off your sound live is important (ie: don’t hire a singer who’s tonedeaf or gets trashed before every gig so that you end up playing sloppily. Contrary to popular belief, booze and drugs do NOT make you play better!), it is MORE important, in my view, to be a true entertainer, even if that means you flub up in a minor way here or there. That, my friends, is being a musician. That, my friends, is being a PROFESSIONAL.

What one needs to acknowledge is that irrespective of the above-described less than ideal circumstances musicians are facing right now, the live show medium has always been and likely always will remain the most effective method through which to recruit fans and sell merch…that is, if it’s done effectively. I know I’d rather be told that I rock harder live than on any album I’ve released, how about you? In other words, if you need Autotune to sound “tuneful”, maybe you should consider an alternative vocation.


Vol 4, Issue 4: Going Grassroots

Last summer, I found hope in the oddest of places. Anyone who knows me is well aware I’m pretty set in my ways musically-speaking and that “the dark arts” have never really struck my fancy. But, there I was at a metal show in the basement of a burnt-out near-condemned hotel, finding myself inspired by the efforts put forth by a trio of headbangers.

Armed with a mere $50 to cover the cost of room rental, a homemade P.A., and close family and friends acting as both the door and soundmen, Presumed Dead successfully managed to not only put together one hell of an event, but also housed one of the most energetic crowds I’ve witnessed to date. Oh, and did I mention this was the band’s DEBUT performance?

This story is important for you to take note of because it highlights the essentiality of taking on a “grassroots” approach when it comes to maintaining a competitive edge in today’s oversaturated industry. Basically, the situation is as follows: with the recent closures of the once popular Embassy, Wick and Salt within our own local scene, not to mention Toronto’s 360 and Big Bop (among many others), simply stated, we are increasingly finding ourselves in a predicament in which we have TOO many bands, and too FEW venues.

The true kicker however is not merely the fact that these venues went under. Rather, it’s the reality that all of the aforementioned establishments once served as homes to up and comers providing them with a chance to showcase their abilities and establish followings. In a nutshell, if it weren’t already difficult to get booked in the first place when you’re just starting out, it’s just become that much harder!

From a booker’s perspective seeing as the goal of running an establishment is to make moula (again this is the music BUSINESS), the result of this is that for the few clubs that still do exist, stipulations in order to get a booking have been upped. Typically this means one of two things (neither of which are encouraging) for bands:

1) you can’t get into the venue as a new band WITHOUT paying a hefty rental fee which may prove to NOT be worth your while at all if there’s NO guarantee you will be able to at least break even through ticket sales

2) if you have NOT previously established a draw within the given touring territory of the venue in question, you will NOT be considered at all; a situation very much akin to the job search dilemma in which you can’t get a job without experience, but you surely cannot obtain any experience without first being given a shot.

While some bands are willing to go to great lengths AND empty out their pockets just to be able to put on their resumes that they rocked certain joints, considering that most musicians are on tight budgets, this isn’t the best attack strategy, in my view.

One rule of business that I learned early on from both of my entrepreneurial parents is that, “(s)he who speaks first loses.” In other words, if you put yourself out there as a band who is so desperate to play anywhere that you’re willing to be mistreated and give into unrealistic expectations just to get a gig, you are nine times out of ten gonna get screwed. Don’t kid yourself. Word gets around. If you even do this once, don’t be surprised if other venues try to pull the same routine with you.

To tie this all back to the opening story I shared, the point is that whether you find yourself playing in your friends’ backyards or renting out small unlikely spaces in order to get up and running, it really doesn’t matter. If people like your act, you’d be surprised at the places they’ll show up to in order to see you live. While these sorts of gig opportunities may not seem as “glamorous” as let’s say rocking out at Call the Office, a music venue which has housed legends, in my experience, you need to be READY and WORTHY as a band to earn such a privilege, and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Oftentimes bands (because of their egos, an issue we addressed last time) over-exaggerate their popularity in order to get booked into exclusive renowned venues, such as CTO. But when these bands don’t deliver the goods (again venues want to make money by bringing acts in), guess what? They end up getting blacklisted from ever playing at an establishment like that again (or at least for a very long time). I think it goes without saying that that is not the sort of list you ever want to find yourself a part of. Lesson of the week then: be creative, but also realistic.


Vol 4, Issue 3: “E” is for the Ego that’s Gotta Go

While upon initial consideration Tyra Banks sounds ridiculous claiming that “having the right kind of personality” is a large determinant of success in the modelling world, NOT only is she right on the money with this statement, but further, the same can be said in regard to musicians and keeping their egos in check. Case in point: the once highly sought after singer of the insanely popular tune, “Black Velvet”, pissed off one too many people, lost her record deal, and now spends her days as a permanent resident at a psychiatric institute drowning in her woes (NO joke!).

When you’re rich and famous, you’re more than welcome to add bizarre demands to your rider (like Ozzy’s 1000 brown M&Ms), and likely you’ll even get away with trashing one or two hotel rooms, but because this industry is so much about “who you know” over and above what you’ve got to offer, a bad attitude and an unwillingness to “pay your dues” from the get-go won’t get you very far.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT implying that you should bend over and allow yourself to get kicked in the ass repeatedly by shady promoters who clearly are not adding any enhancement to your resume. Instead, what I’m trying to make loud and clear is that you need to at all times be respectful of your fans, the media, industry professionals, and your fellow musicians (this final category is particularly important as you never know whose act may “break”, and by keeping positive alliances with all of the bands you play with, you may just find yourself being offered the opening slot opportunity of a lifetime in the future). Further, you can’t be scared (or too up on your high-horse) to get your hands a little dirty.

One of the things that I come across far too often that drives me awol are classified ads posted by bands looking for gig opportunities as though promoters/bookers have time to scour through pages on Kijiji. Lesson #1 my friends: don’t EVER expect work to find you.

I’ve played everywhere from major festivals to bowling alleys to shopping malls and even once at a chiropractic seminar. As an aspiring rocker, you not only have to be constantly on the look-out for touring and media opportunities (online, posted on bulletin boards in music shops, through word of mouth, in magazines etc.), but further you need to take the initiative to make said opportunities become your reality. Once you’ve established a decent reputation for yourself, yes, gigs will start coming your way, but even still, a serious professional musician never stops working for themselves.

The second thing that I encounter all the time (and this to me is even further indicative of an ego issue) are musician classifieds listed right above one another where ad “A” is seeking the available musician from ad “B”, and had either taken the time to read each other’s ads, they could have connected and solved both of their problems. Again, my point is do NOT expect things to come YOUR way, without putting in a little legwork yourself. Can you imagine what would result if musicians only ever posted ads and never read any? Well, nothing – no gigs would ever occur, and certainly no bands would ever form – think about it.

The most important lesson that I want you to grasp right here and right now is this: the biggest lie the music industry has ever perpetuated onto us artists is the “myth of the overnight success”. Nobody and I mean nobody (even those who do cocaine deals in backrooms or sleep their way to the top) ever makes it without first “earning their stripes.” Please, for the sake of yourself and others, don’t resort to trying to expedite the process by partaking in either of the two aforementioned heinous acts.


Vol 4, Issue 2: Put Up Your Dukes, Let’s Get Down to It!

Like any aspiring artist, my work has been subjected both to critical review and praise. While I’ve had listeners assert that my lyrics and music espouse “universal truths” inspired by an honest “broken-hearted aesthetic”, I’ve equally been labelled “cliché” and “unoriginal”. Suffice it to say, I came to the conclusion rather quickly that it’s impossible for me (or anyone else who dares to pursue their passions in life) to please everybody.

Let it be known, I’m TOTALLY fine with this - what I’m NOT fine with, however, is the corruption involved in this process, nor the increasingly apparent decline in some sort of “standard.”
Allow me to explain:

One of the more memorable moments review-wise I’ve endured in my career, was undoubtedly when I had a “journalist” (and I use that term loosely) employed by a highly regarded Canadian music magazine rip unrelentingly on my former band’s album, only to months later commend us for our “catchy” radio-worthy tracks and “edgy attitude” after being privy to one of our live performances…perhaps she had a short-term memory problem. She got paid either way though, and isn’t that what really matters? Note the sarcasm.

Beyond this, interestingly, I’ve also been educated in regard to my own biography from reading critiques of my work: apparently my “Ode to Tofu” is a sensational hit overseas, my primary musical instrument is the drums, and Alicia Keys is a huge influence of mine.

Out of these experiences I’ve learned two valuable lessons I’d like to impart onto my fellow artistic types:

1) Take ALL reviews with a grain of salt (moreover, with any insult that is hurled in one’s general direction, one should always “consider the source”).

2) DON’T submit material for review consideration. Opt for interviews instead, so at least you’ll have the opportunity to explain your work in your own words.

The aforementioned second piece of advice seemed to be working out for me just fine until I encountered the worse of them: a woman named Lisa Shea, her bevy of voluntary writers, and a website entitled, BellaOnline.

Now in my experience, those “employed” in unpaid positions typically exert less effort and said positions have high turnover rates as a consequence. Considering my experience with the well-paid “journalist” from the highly regarded Canadian publication, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

While I’d rather not even honour Ms. Shea to the extent of providing full lipservice in regard to what unraveled between her/her website and my management, I will state the following:

First off, one wonders why an interview was even conducted (mind you at my management’s long distance expense) if I was going to be so terribly misquoted and misrepresented. Two, I highly recommend to her and her writers a formal review of the term “retraction”; a perusal of the ethics established by the profession of journalism couldn’t hurt either. Three, Ms. Shea could truly benefit from absorbing the full meaning of the expression, “actions speak louder than words”: while it’s all well and good to have the “About” section on your website sing to the highest hillsides of one’s commitment to objectivity and professionalism, when one refuses to remove an article that has PROVEN to contain inaccuracies (both about its subject matter and the greater subject at hand, that being music), continues to maintain SUPPORT for a writer who willingly allowed his significant other to blaspheme the subject of his piece in the public domain, and then finally, when pried, merely REPLACED the piece with another written by herself that one can fairly safely presumed was influenced by the emotion of the whole situation (the disclaimer is most telling) and CONTINUES to contain inaccuracies, it’s hard to take such claims seriously. Finally, working least in her favour, Ms. Shea made short work of relieving her writer of his position, indicating to me that clearly there must be some admission of fault on her end…and yet the review remains. But let’s get to the real topic of today’s discussion:

In this industry, as much as I hate to admit it, you will frequently encounter sketchy situations about which you’re forced to bite your tongue – not because you’re in the wrong in any regard, but because unfortunately, artists, generally speaking, have a lot LESS capital to use to hire attorneys to defend themselves should they be accused of making “slanderous” or “libelous” remarks. Though, as noted by the Canadian Bar Association, one is ONLY liable of being charged for “defamation of character/reputation” (of which slander and libel are subcategories) should their statements prove to be FALSE and deliberately MALICIOUS, when it comes to the music biz (much like any other corporately-structured industry anymore), “money talks.” Further, this entire biz is based on “appearances” and who you know. With this said, you need to know how to “pick your battles” if you wish to be able to pursue your aspirations.

In this case, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve worked too damn hard to allow any “random joe” who thinks they can run a website to insult not only me and my work, but further to misrepresent me to such an extent that it could prevent music listeners from potentially giving me a chance.

In conclusion, while the internet has demonstrated itself to be an effective tool for indies in regard to having the potential opportunity to promote one’s material to a worldwide audience (for a nominal cost, too), beyond the whole illegal downloading fiasco, it clearly has many fallacies; scam artist promoters barely scratch the surface. Suffice it to say, I can now state with absolutely certainty that I fully understand exactly what my girlfriend/fellow artist Ash Keenan meant when she said that her reason for refusing to write any further music reviews was because she felt she had become “part of the problem.”

For those interested, here’s what Ms. Shea missed by failing to conduct the interview as per the initial agreement between her writer and my management:

1) Ms. Shea’s biggest criticism of my work revolves around its lyrical content. In her view, it is cliché and underdeveloped for someone of my experience. I’d like to point out two facts one may wish to mull over when considering the validity of her argument: a) according to her biography, her background is in website/database design. Although she seems to dabble in writing, there was NO mention of her being accredited in English, Literature or Linguistics. I, other hand, minored in all three at an Ivy League university. My favourite writer is Shakespeare, and if I felt so inclined I could whip out some iambic pentameter with the best of them, but I choose NOT to with my lyrics DELIBERATELY.

Why you ask? Well, quite simply, I’m influenced by a similar notion upheld by the 60/70s pop artists when it comes to songwriting; that being to "make my art accessible to all". I intentionally keep things simplistic so that people will understand exactly what I mean. Seeing as my three main objectives as an artist are to provoke thought, be relatable, and inspire others, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to write in a style that could only be appreciated by a select elite class.

Given what I’ve just said (ie: that my usage of simplistic phrasing and imagery is intentional), it’s interesting to note that Ms. Shea still managed to completely misinterpret the meaning behind several of my lyrics.

2) As per Ms. Shea’s interpretation of the following phrase from my single “Mad World” (ie: the world seems like it’s ended…when fathers subjected kids to their abuse), I’d like to clarify here that FIRST OFF this is a direct MISQUOTATION the lyric is actually "Our RELIGION has crushed down upon us when fathers subjected kids to their abuse”.

Contrary to her conclusion that this sentence is a commentary on familial relations, it is rather a discussion of the consequences that arise from certain religions, such as Catholicism, continuing to try and uphold outdated archaic practices in contemporary society (ie: disallowance of women being able to enter the priesthood, the inability of priests to marry…don’t even get me started on abortion or gay rights etc.).

To read the lyric literally without prying into said aforementioned deeper meaning, it simply can be taken as a reference to the countless cases of fathers (aka priests) subjecting children to sexual abuse and the church’s continuous attempts to cover up said scandals.

3) A similar misunderstanding revolves around the following line in the same song ("The world seems like it's ended when whores earn more than an honest day's work") While one could interpret this as a direct reference to the prostitution industry, it’s actually meant to be taken again as SOCIAL commentary on the fact that it is far more difficult to get ahead financially in contemporary society by pursuing one’s career from an honest, moral and virtuous stance – something particularly evident in the music industry.

4) I actually got my start in music when I was four. I’m a classically trained vocalist and I began writing songs when I was seven NOT in 2001 as Ms. Shea has suggested. Though HER was my first professional rock project, I’ve been involved in music in some capacity throughout my entire life.

5) In terms of the whole “homage/rip-off” debate, not only is it listed prominently on my myspace that EVERY single one of my homages on my album is DELIBERATE, but further, one with a truly well-trained musical ear and knowledge of a wide variety of genres would have been able to easily pick up on the fact that there are between one and five homages on EACH track on the album, NOT just on my song, “Don’t”.

Secondly, to compare what I did (ie: attempt to give CREDIT/RECOGNITION to all of my major artistic influences with my debut solo album by RE-CREATING in my own version ASPECTS of their melodies/lyrics) VERSUS trying to blatantly rip off the work of other artists in an attempt to pass it off as my own is simply NOT a valid argument.

My album liner notes contain the names of ALL the artists whose work I drew upon; moreover, I’ve welcomed every single one of those artists to listen to my tracks and have received POSITIVE feedback from THEM DIRECTLY regarding this idea.

6) As for the production quality of my recording, again I’d like to call upon Ms. Shea’s credentials, which to my knowledge, do NOT consist of any background in audio recording technology. Had an interview been completed as promised, I would have been able to explain the intention of making my album come across as organic as possible.

ALL of the tracks were played live (vocals/guitar simultaneously) and the occasional vocal crack, or flubbed note was again INTENTIONALLY left in the mix as in my view, no artist should ever aspire to achieve perfection, but rather something genuinely imperfect that reflects them in their raw inspired emotional state.

7) Finally, the aspect I find most disturbing about this review is the fact that it seems as though Ms. Shea has fairly established views of what specific genres should and should not sound like and should and should not do. If I can’t be creative and challenge myself along with convention through an artform, where the hell can I? I rest my case.


Vol 4, Issue 1: Who’s Really at Fault for Declining Sales, Heightened Piracy & Lower Standards of Music as an Artform?

Back in 2008, I wrote a kick-off column on this very SAME subject with the same title. At its finale, I largely concluded that the major record labels (and their songwriting teams) who are merely interested in perpetuating the same talentless predictable garble that is more “commodity” than “music” by any standards, are the ones at whom we should be pointing the finger. While I believe that this argument still maintains partial validity today, as much as any Leo hates to face the music (pardon the pun), looking back with glasses less rose-coloured, I believe that my brutal fall-out with my former major label undoubtedly must have been seeping into my subconscious as I was writing that piece (chalk it up to a “down with the man” moment).

Agreed, mainstream music quality and originality has gone by the wayside since the 90s. Agreed, it is ridiculous to expect artists to be able to pump out consistently solid material every six months. Agreed, the market is over-saturated with talentless wannabes who solely rely on their sex appeal and/or controversial images whose producers (and their array of digital manipulation effects) are the true talents for making them sound even half-listenable. Agreed, every band that is played on modern rock radio sounds exactly the same. However, as much as the major labels are at fault for creating this predicament, music consumers AND even some musicians themselves are really doing a shitty job if they ever want even a smidgen of hope of turning things around.

I mean it’s one thing to steal from Lady Gaga who is represented by big money (though mind you, her deal is likely not as sweet as it appears to be, ie: if her album sales don’t reach a certain target, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d have to pay back all of the money her record label loaned her in good faith plus interest), it’s a whole nother to steal from a self-funded independent artist whose career will (no word of a lie) fizzle out if they aren’t even able to break even on their record sales (albums do cost money to record and manufacture not to mention all of the time and emotion an artist invests…but right, that’s not worth anything).

But that’s just it – somehow and somewhere along the lines music consumers convinced themselves that they are justified in taking all the music they want for free and that a “true” artist creates music for the love of it, and therefore should have no expectations to receive any form of compensation (even if it’s just to cover their baseline and never profit).

WORSE, fellow artists and even some musicians themselves have fallen into this mentality, accepting it as A-okay, making them feel justified in calling persons such as me “sell-outs” because I feel that if someone desires my music, their desire signifies that they attribute value to it, and therefore I should be compensated accordingly
…it’s NOT like I’m expecting to reel in billions here, no I just want a measly $10 an album for 10 tracks – seems fair to me.

What does it say about the buying public to you if you can have your supposed “biggest fan” approach you, praise you to high heavens, and then admit they “obtained” (read as “stole”) your entire catalog via Limewire (*Note: Limewire, THANK GOD, has been officially court ordered to shut down its operations. Click the link for more information) ? Yeah, it’s happened to me, and I’m sure many other indies.

So here’s the deal: if YOU are serious about being a professional musician, GET serious about approaching this industry from a business perspective. If you give away your compositions and/or your live show for FREE (except in the case of doing non-for-profit work and/or providing promotional materials to industry representatives), DON'T expect people to value what you’re doing. If you steal from fellow artists, don’t be upset if they do the same to you (that’d be being a hypocrite, my friends).

And finally and MOST importantly, if you hope to have sustainability as an artist, know your worth. Unless you were lucky enough to be born into a family whose credit line never ends, not getting paid for all of your efforts gets old real fucking fast.