HOW TO ENHANCE YOUR LOCAL MUSIC SCENE
How often do you play music to an audience? How often do you play for free?
Do you frequent open mics? Does your band play local bars and venues regularly?
If you do play a lot in your music community, I’m sure you have noticed that there’s not a whole lot of money in it.
Raise your hand if a significant portion of your pay--if it comes at all--arrives in the form of drink tickets and food. A real “sing for your supper” situation.
There’s a popular concept in the music business that you don’t pay an act to play music, you pay them for the time it took them to rehearse that music, the loading and unloading of gear, the drive, promoting their shows for your venue...they play for free.
It’s everything else that costs money and is time-consuming.
There’s hardly anything worse than hearing “I owe you one” from a bar owner at the end of the night as payment for a gig, especially if the touring act makes their guarantee. With quality acts willing to play for free, that brings down the value of live music performance for everyone else...and as bands get more and more entitled and upset, the venues lean more and more toward DJs-only, or (worse yet), a jukebox.
As a band or act, you are their advertising, and its just a numbers game on whether or not you sell tickets, pack the house, and keep the drinks flowing.
These are the subjects of much debate and discussion among local artists everywhere.
“We deserve more pay!” “The venue didn’t promote!” “You can’t make a living in this town making music!”
All of the above may be true, but complaining about it all day isn’t going to change anything.
You have to do something. That’s what I did. The years since have changed my life in ways too enormous to contain in this article.
The reason you are reading this is because you want some tips and tricks to evolve and enhance your own local music scene...from someone who has done it before.
The first thing you need to understand is that a music community is an ecosystem.
On the micro, it may appear vicious and combative...who is going to get the Friday night gig at the hot spot in town? Battles of the Bands. Come to my show, not their show.
I’ve heard of bands cutting speaking wires of other acts, or edging an act out of their time-slot by playing much longer than scheduled...all kinds of passive and aggressive competition, right?
...and yet, when you pull back to the macro, like an ecosystem, there’s an overall balance to the thing.
When you are focused on your act, and your music alone, you are just one of the masses.
Another dude with a guitar, or girl singing, or drumming, or whatever.
If you want to grow your ecosystem, not just your own self-interest, you need to flip the script from “Come see my show!” to “Come check out this cool thing we’re all doing!" This is HUGE. I cannot stress this enough. If your ecosystem grows, you grow. If you focus on your own growth alone, you might not...and you run other risks as well.
Ultimately, you want to keep a 50/50 balance in your life of promoting your scene and your own music...but that may result in a 6 month, community-driven event that takes up so much time you barely get to play followed by a 6 month solo tour afterwards. Overall, if you are an artist as well, keeping that 50/50 ratio is a good place to navigate from.
So, what do I mean by a “community-driven” music event?
Let me give you a few examples, starting with the things I have done. The first successful group-project I put together was Electric Canyon Convergence. This was a local musician super-group that began as an experimental studio project one weekend and evolved into an act that performed together for about three years, recorded three albums, and won the critic’s choice for “Best New Band in Chico” in 2014.
The concept at the beginning was simple.
Every songwriter would pay for one hour of studio time and, during that hour, they had access to all the musicians and other singers present, and could direct the recording process. Artists brought their easiest, catchiest tunes and sent samples of their songs to everyone in the group in the weeks leading up to recording.
We hoped to get one or two really good tracks out of it….instead we made an entire album, and became “ECC” a project that got all the participants so busy, we eventually were too busy in our own careers to keep it up. Which was kind of the point.
So. Idea #1? Start a super-group. If you have 20 local favorites in your project, and gig once a month, you’re golden. Packed house. EVERY. TIME.
Next, treat your scene (as a whole), a bit like a business. Build hype. Take pride in it. Make a commercial. Or, in our case, make a documentary. We started it as a no-budget commercial. We encouraged many acts to play about 10 seconds for us on camera and then to stop and say, “My name is such-and-such, and I Play in Chico”...we wanted to make a commercial that was kind of like a political ad.
Like, “I endorse this music scene”...or…”Not only am I the president, I’m also a client!” What we found was that a lot more people wanted to be involved. We decided to add interviews and turn it into a full-fledged documentary. We filmed entirely on my good friend Fox E. Jeff's GoPro, under the name of his company, Get Foxy Productions.
That project, “I Play in Chico”, took about 5 months to complete, involved over 100 local music heads, and it “premiered” at a small theatre in Chico, to packed houses. It was a red-carpet-type night, on the local level.
Perhaps the biggest impact the doc had on the community was the forming of the fb group “WE Play in Chico”, which is now the largest musician-based fb group in the region.
So, idea #2? Make a movie. Promote your scene, as a whole, with video.
The next thing is to put on some totally kick ass shows. If you know anything about me, you know that I have a personal attachment and enthusiasm for music events that break world records. Organizing two of the longest (including the longest) concerts in history, coupled with my experience as a record-breaking, marathon ukulele player, has led to some of the best and most powerful experiences of my life.
You should do it too. Whether it be a longest concert, jam, busk, or solo performance, these records are not getting any easier...so if you want to get in while the getting is good, now is the time! (Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info!)
As for other concert ideas...don’t flinch at the word “gimmick.”
Embrace it. Own it. Learn from it. Gimmicks work. Some of the most popular local events I’ve seen have been “vs. Nights”. Where (for instance) the draw might be “Elvis VS. Michael Jackson: Battle of the Kings”...and they book 30+ local acts that night, each one getting to pick one song to cover, without telling anyone else what it is. (except you the promoter, no need for repeat songs!)
At the end of the night, the most covered artist “wins”. This works for anything Biggie VS Tupac, Freddie Mercury VS Mick Jagger, on and on and on.
You could even make a monthly event out of something like that. It works.
I once met some promoters in Eugene, OR. Seven in total, having a meeting about a collaborative project. Strictly speaking, they were competitors, but they decided to work together on a larger concept. Since there were 7 of them, they decided to do a series of 7 festivals, each one devoted to a different chakra (that’s Eugene!). One festival at a time.
Each promoter chose a chakra-festival that would be theirs to lead, while the rest provided support. They approached each festival individually. Planning it and putting it on in its entirety before considering the next chakra. They were, of course, working their way up through them.
When I met them, they were sitting down to plan their 3rd project. Their first had been over two years ago...and everyone in the community knew about the events and attended them. They were only getting bigger. I look forward to seeing what the last one will look like!
So...think big, and WORK TOGETHER.
As a final example of a successful event concept, there is a group in Chico that puts on huge productions that cover an entire album, song for song. Abbey Road, etc. These events require a lot of preparation, but also sell out every performance. An extremely viable strategy, if you have the work ethic to make it happen.
Other concepts I’ve considered and not yet tried include a metal festival at a competitive paintball field, a show that includes a pie-eating contest, and, for college towns, a yearly event that welcomes new bands to your local music scene every fall.
Once you put your mind toward doing group projects, for the benefit of your music scene as an ecosystem, it will start to thrive. I absolutely guarantee it.
If you give 100%, you are certain to get at least 10% of that back...and the more experience you have, the better your return rate will become.
I sincerely hope this has provided some insights, inspiration, and motivation for you and your own music community.
...and stay tuned for the new Longest Concert in History, coming out 2018, lasting 1,000 hours, and streaming live to the world!
Director, World Records of Music