Creating Your Own Venue
by Tim Stopulos and Seville Lilly
When I first moved to Chicago, I didn’t know anybody. I take that
back, I think I had one friend. But I didn’t know any musicians, and I
certainly didn’t know any venues or talent buyers. All I had was a
guitar, a banged-up digital piano and some songs I had written and
recorded on a CD. I knew I had arrived in a great city with tons of
opportunities to play music, but I didn’t know where to start.
It’s easy to get caught up in the seemingly endless tide of music
business advice these days. You get such an earful about how to
“market” yourself, force “gatekeepers” to “take you seriously,” and
“prove your value.” Does that sound like fun to you? Does it sound
like why you started to play music in the first place? Me neither.
Let’s take a little reality check on the current state of live music, shall we?
Here we are, in almost-2010, and live venues’ material costs are way
up. Meanwhile attendance is way down. People have lots of
entertainment options now, especially at home. They can enjoy
venue-quality entertainment… home theater, surround sound, immersive
video games… in their own living rooms, and they can afford these
entertainment environments even if they’re a student living in a tiny
efficiency. They can also carry around and play DJ with their entire
personalized music library, on demand, any time.
Your band is part of this endless-entertainment-era too… for better
or worse. Anybody can check out your band and mine and thousands of
others online at will, judge our music in ten-second scans of your
streaming tracks (do you really think they’re waiting patiently til
the chorus of each song to decide if we suck or not?), click on dozens
of links per page that will take them away from us forever, never to
hear our music again, and generally suck every ounce of mystery and
intrigue out of seeing either of us play live.
In such a climate, there’s practically no such thing as a “local” band
anymore. Fewer and fewer people are willing to pay money to see you
just because a friend said they should.
But you and I aren’t competing with local bands anyway. We’re
competing with our favorite bands of all time. We’re competing with
the best of the best, the greatest music ever made over the past
hundred years, all now instantly available on demand, for next to no
cost, in cyberspace.
Daunting, to say the least. The answer to this challenge, the way to
get attention, fans, listeners, is the same as it’s always been:
become you, and become great at it.
But how can you become either when you can’t get that big show opening
for an “established name?” Those gigs just don’t exist for local or
unknown bands anymore. Not because the new talent buyers are mean or
stuck-up all of a sudden. It’s because they can’t afford it. Costs are
too high and fan interest is too low to take a chance on you and I
anymore. Because if they gamble and lose, it’s not just a slow night,
it’s one step closer to shutting down for good.
The great thing about this modern music environment is that only those
who really, REALLY believe in music… THEIR music… are going to
make it. There’s nowhere for lesser bands to hide. Before long, they
won’t even be able to camp out at the typical small-stage venue once a
month anymore and play to 20-30 of their buddies, because those rooms
are dropping off like flies. In the glare of the Information Age, such
bands can’t sustain interest. Only new, strong voices will prevail.
Such voices, which have always carried music and always will, aren’t
born, they’re made. They used to be forged in the crucible of the
classic live-music- venue dedicated solely to shows, but not anymore.
Such rooms are going the way of the development deal or the whisper
campaign. Those venues can now only book proven talent that’s already
nationally distributed and marketed, that fans know at least some of
the words to already.
So what’s a new band trying to find its own voice to do? It’s pretty
simple… create your own show.
It sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? This isn’t anything like the music
business you and i grew up hearing all the lore about. The bowl of
green-only M & M’s, the roadies, the plush cotton towels for your
fevered artist’s brow. The team of marketers eager to get you signed.
“Getting signed,” at long last, means nothing anymore. And the ripple
effect has made it all the way to bands like you and I, who aren’t
national or even regional.
The new rules look to me kind of like this: create your own venue. own
your own PA, and learn about EQ and compression and such til you know
how to make your music sound good on it. Record your own music on your
computer and teach yourself how to engineer it til it sounds good. Be
your own street team, agent, and publicist. The goal at this level
isn’t headcount or online traffic or door money or downloads. Why
do so many bands worry about such things so early? Yours and my money,
time, and expertise can’t possibly compete with the marketing media
behemoth that now intrudes every corner of our lives. There is only
one thing we will ever be able to contribute to this stew, the only
thing that will ever eventually distinguish us… our unique,
patiently cultivated artistic voice.
Therefore, my main goal when I moved to Chicago was to find a place I
could play regularly to hone my craft, to start the journey of finding
my voice and making it unique from my heroes’. I wasn’t going to be
able to do that at any of the famous venues bringing in big acts.
Even if I could get booked there, such a privilege would be saddled
with the burden of way too much to worry about: Will we draw enough?
How will the doorman know which fans are ours? Did I poster enough in
the right neighborhoods? What percentage of the “Yes” responses to the
Facebook invite will actually show up? Those things have too little to
do with growing as an artist to take seriously at that point. In
short, those rooms were just too big for where I was as artist.
So I started looking at smaller places. Way smaller: coffeehouses and
small bars that didn’t even host live music. After looking around for
while, I stumbled upon a Wrigleyville bar about the size of a walk-in
pantry, called Lucky’s. I spoke to the manager and after telling him
my story and giving him a CD, I proposed this: “Let me play here one
night, I’ll do everything for free, I’ll put on a great show, and if
you like it, bring me back here on a regular basis.” After listening
to the CD, he agreed. So for the next few weeks, armed with that CD,
(downloadable for free at timstoptrio.com, thanks very much), I
started making as many connections as I could and invited them to the
show. When the night came, the place was busy and I felt very good
about my performance. The manager liked it and brought me back every
week from then on, which allowed me to sharpen my skills and get on my
feet in the city. Most importantly, I was able to explore my voice
every week and get experience live. No amount of rehearsal in your
basement or garage is going to prepare you for the big performances
you want to play eventually if you haven’t played live enough.
Remember the first time you played live? Remember how much more you
learned in that first five minutes, that the hours of time in
rehearsal hadn’t taught you a lick of?
Here are a few basic steps to creating your own venue:
1) Start small, and learn to own the room. The audience will tell you
when you’re ready to scale up… they’ll demand it. Instead of just
clapping politely, they’ll start singing along and cheering as certain
songs begin and badger you about when you’re going to record. Until
that happens, stay where you are.
2) Be flexible. It seems to me a lot of bands sound and feel awkward
at certain moments during their live show if everything isn’t perfect.
Get to a point where you’re confident enough with your music that it
doesn’t matter what venue you’re in or what’s going on around you.
You’ll never be able to control every detail of every show.
3) Forget about money. Seriously. Forget about what it takes to “make
it.” Make what? Another I-VI-II-V chord progression in a world with
enough of them to last til 3035? There is only one reason left to make
music: because you have something new to say. Let’s face it, the
money’s disappearing fast. If you’re making music to get rich, become
a landlord or invest in stocks instead. But if you’re making music
because you can’t imagine doing anything else, get ready to scrape by
for a while. To put yourself completely at ease with your own musical
voice, you need to perform a LOT, and you’re just not going to make
money at it for a long while. But any great musician is OK with that,
because the alternative… a steady income, a respectable living…
isn’t worth playing less music for. If your chief musical goal has
become to make money, or even a steady job, you’re in the wrong line
4) Deliver a true, real and unique experience. Anybody can write a
song. I’ve written a lot, but how many can I say are experiences? I
think of my favorite songs, the ones I compulsively listen to over and
over, that make me shake my head in awe or smile, the ones that are
somehow more than songs. I realize now it takes a lot of good songs to
end up with one great one, and with the musical history of Western
civilization on demand at our fingertips, nothing less than great is
going to engage an audience anymore. But see, to get there, you have
to create your own environment for growth… these no-pressure shows
where you aren’t worried about making money, or how much time you have
before the next band has to set up, etc. You know, Mozart wrote a ton
of mediocre crap we barely listen to now, but we hardly think the less
of him for it.
5) Fans come first. By playing the first few shows at Lucky’s for
free, I earned the bar manager’s trust. By advertising the show well,
I proved that I was a worthy business associate. And by putting on a
great show, I earned his confidence. I have a good relationship with
that manager to this day. But the most important opinion is the fan,
so put your relationship with them first.
So. Create your own perfect live music venue. There’s plenty of
partners out there… baristas, bar owners and fans alike… willing
to make it happen, solely out of admiration for your enthusiasm and
energy. Make it about the music first. If your find your voice and
patiently teach yourself how to perform honestly and confidently in
that voice, all the other business details will fall into place. We’ve
all seen those online bands with the really cool layout with the neat
fonts, and the slick-looking press photos, and the punchy-yet-warm
streaming audio, whose songs are completely generic and forgettable.
Don’t be one of those bands for whom “business” comes before “music,”
just because some website insists you have to be mercenary about your
own music to “make it.” We’re all stocked up on those bands, thanks.
Fans aren’t interested in how many online plays you have or what poll
you got voted into. We just want to know what you have to say, in that
voice only you can say it in.