New Recipes

Gears are turning, and it’s likely I’ll have regular gigs again.

In the midst of the pandemic, I’m asking myself what entertainment even means.  Ask the crowd to throw their worries away, and live care-free while they sway along to our groovy tunes?  As a nation, we’re more fractured than ever before.  Over the years, my band has made efforts to steer away from material or themes that are political.  Now, it seems the mere act of standing close to me without a mask…is political?  Or merely ignorant?  How much does somebody have a right to be ignorant in the midst of a health-crisis?  By accepting a gig in a public space, am I dishonoring the efforts of those who valiantly quarantine?

Here’s my loose plan, that still has a modicum of honor in it.  We’re all craving human connection.  While we’re discouraged from congregating, anybody who walks into a bar isn’t looking for alcohol.  They want people.  They want to feel alive.

So make people feel alive.  I’m going to reprint a section of Consider This, Chuck Palahniuk’s semi-autographical manual for writing.

Think of a story as a stream of information.  At best it’s an ever-changing series of rhythms.  Now think of yourself, the writer, as a DJ mixing tracks.

            The more music you have to sample from (the more records you have to spin) the more likely you’ll keep your audience dancing.  You’ll have more tricks to control the mood.  To calm it down to a lull.  Then to raise it to a crescendo.  But to always keep changing, varying, evolving the stream of information so it seems fresh and immediate and keeps the reader hooked.

            If you were my student I’d want you to be aware of the many different “textures” of information at your disposal.  These are best defined by the examples that follow.

            When telling a story, consider mixing any or all of the following:

…description, instruction, exclamation (onomatopoeia)…

…Three parts description.  Two parts instruction.  One part onomatopoeia.  Mix to taste.


Okay, then.  New recipes for entertainment.  The above recipe is reversed for musicians.  The onomatopoeia is our singing, our music.  That’s dominant, that’s three parts.  Two parts instruction?  I get this, it’s telling the crowd what to do .  Giving them enough structure so they understand when to clap, when to sing along, when it’s okay to laugh, and -crucially- when to applaud when you’re done.

The “description” I’m very guilty of overdoing.  This is elaborating to your audience about context, exposition, or any other education.  Done wrong, it’s condescending.  Done right, it’s a good quick story, with it’s own pace and recipe.  So instead of three parts description, this should be minimized.  It’s still important, because it develops that human connection I was waxing about.  It humanizes the performer.

That’s extra important if you’re performing for droves of strangers.  They are lost, confused, scared.  They want humans.

Here we come.

Breaking Up The Band

Breaking Up The Band

I’m breaking up the band.

For thirty days, five library books sat piled on my bedroom dresser.  They were chosen by me, checked out weeks before the pandemic gripped the world and my life.  I’ve never been angered by books before, angered at their existence, angered at their residency in my house.  They sat there mocking me, silly reminders of my pre-pandemic life.  The man who checked out these books was from a different time, a different world.  For the first 30 days of the pandemic, I was obsessed with science fiction.  Anything I read or watched had to be about outlandish, bizarre places.  I was particularly drawn to any stories of a person experiencing parallel realities, or altered timelines.  For much of April, I felt like I didn’t belong in this world.  I had been both misplaced and displaced.  All of my basic understandings of the world had been dashed, and these damn books just sat there, taking up space.  Piled together, they were about the size of a large box of kleenex.  Like me, they had been thrown out of an established continuum, and were now locked in this new reality with me.

Libraries were closed, I was ordered not to return them. Burn them?  Tempting.

I didn’t.  Eventually I read them.  I’m putting on record that the order I’m experiencing these books is worth noting.  I’m marking this feeling now, because I’m breaking up the band.  I’m returning some of the books to the library, and checking out new ones.

Completed before the Pandemic:

            Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, by Ryan Holiday

            This was the only book by Ryan Holiday readily available from a nearby library.  Earlier in the year I’d stumbled across one of his blog posts about stoicism, and I was eager to read one of his books.  I’d been struggling at my job with how quickly we seemed to turn over material in our band.  Why did some pieces seem to outlast others?  Was there a piece of that formula that could be explained to me?  I was also trying to find motivation to write my own book, create my own music, and start my own band in Kansas City.  In retrospect, the early parts of the book about creativity have aged well in the pandemic.  The last part about marketing has not.  Holiday’s first book was a tell-all about insider-secrets of the American advertising industry, and the pandemic has turned industries upside down, or eliminated them entirely.  Some of the advice in this book was relevant in February 2020, and was rendered stunningly stupid.

Begun before the pandemic, paused, and now completed:

            The Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek

            This book probably angered me the most, because I was so excited to read it and channel the ideas to my band, but instead then I had to swallow the ideas myself.  I can encapsulate thusly: There are finite games and infinite games.  In finite games, there is a clear winner and loser.  By contrast, infinite games have no winners or losers.  Players can come into the game and leave the game at anytime.    In infinite games, you can’t control the rules. You can only control how you play.

            For years at my job, I’ve imparted a variation of this philosophy to the people who work for me.  Don’t get too attached to how we operate here.  Don’t get too stuck in believing that this defines a career in music.  Be prepared to port skills here to other bands, venues, and formats.

            Guess what?  The pandemic hit, and we were all laid-off, and live music in this country has been redefined forever.  The modern music industry was already a strange mutation leftover from post WWII prosperity and technological growth.  Now it’s unrecognizable, and anybody who had a “get-rich-quick” mindset to the performing arts is jockeying for viral fame on Tik-Tok.  I have no choice but to redefine my place in the worl as professional creative, and how important that is in the new landscape.  I hated this book for how prescient it was.  I hated taking such a strong dose of my own medicine.

Completed during the Pandemic:

            The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Stephen Pressfield

            I credit this book with pulling me out of a funk.  I’d read one of Pressfield’s other books, Turning Pro, two years ago.  Pressfield’s chapters are brief, deft, and styled in a way to not intimidate the reader, even as the subject matter forces me to confront my resistance to creating art.

This was the first book I chose to read during the pandemic.  It didn’t demand much concentration.  It demanded reflection.

For a few weeks in April, I’d jog after my kids as they rode their scooters to a nearby creek.  With playgrounds closed, they found joy in playing by creeks.  They throw rocks, observe plants, create small forts from sticks, marvel at animal tracks.  I’d sit on a rock and read this book that I’d carried as I ran.  It was about resistance.  Resistance is ever present for artists.  The book asked me if I’d succumb to it, or figure out how to keep it at bay.  This book helped me form an inner permission structure to take in new art and ideas.  I was less angry when I read it.  I began to release my resentment of the world, and contemplate how I could get back to creating something.

Completed during the Pandemic (but previously read three years go):

            The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, this latest translation by Michael Nylan (notably first published translation by a woman)

            I noticed myself with strange habits when I read this book.  I felt drawn to thinking of my band.  They were my troops.  I loved being their leader, even when it was difficult.  I took so much pride in my job; I took it so seriously.  This is not my wisdom, but if I man walks into the woods and others follow him, we say he’s a great leader, but if a man walks into the woods and nobody follows him, we say he’s going for a walk.

            So instead I just tried to go for a walk while I read this book, systemically putting down my desires to lead a band into battle with an unruly, skeptical audience.  I realized that my children were my new troops.  My family was my band now.  The lessons about command resonated with my challenges of being a parent.  I thought about it, and wrote about it.


            A mystery book. 🙂

            What this all does is ask me to re-evaluate my priorities.  I’d begun to tell myself that my musical legacy would be left by the people I mentored.  In the wake of the upheaval in the country over unbearable racism, I think about my children.  I think about how critical it is that Brooke and I raise them with the right set of values.  We think about our children’s sense of humanity and how to shape it.  That seems so much more urgent then lessons about being a professional musician.  As I re-attune my priorities, my definition of success changes, including my desire for success.  The events of the world bring my focus to my immediate community, and how I can affect change.  I spend more days thinking about I can actually control, and that’s fairly limited to the walls of my home.  I can control my interactions with my family.  I want to reposition my confidence, away from my worth as a professional musician, and closer to my family.  Will this mean less discretionary income and less professional opportunities?  Maybe.  Will I be out doing less things?  Will I see less people?  Will I gain deeper bonds with my family by sacrificing a dated set of values?

            I’m breaking up the band.

            I already returned The Art of War and The Infinite Game to Missouri.  I’ll return The War of Art, Perennial Seller this week, back to Kansas.  I’ll finish Why Good Sex Matters soon.

Thank you, books.  You were here for a reason.  It’s time for you to move on, and take your ideas to somebody else.  I’ve taken my notes.  You don’t want to be here anymore.  I don’t want to look at you.  The space on my dresser will be occupied by a different pile.  The moment has passed.

Unique, But Not Special

I’m up really damn early today.

            There are humans out there, getting up even earlier.  Pounding it harder.

            The pandemic draws me to stillness.  The morning hours, so peaceful, before my kids wake up, transforming the home into a crowded bounce house.  This place, this mind, asks not for more noise.  I’m seeking ease and calm.  Time to be alone with my thoughts.  This journal.

            There are musicians getting up before me, and practicing.  Athletes who are rising and stretching, exercising.  Some of them even do it with kids, even in a pandemic.  Some of them are sick, some are near death.

            I’m unique, but not special.

            I know all these people are out there, some in my neighborhood, many scattered across the globe.  Artistic, creative, passionate people.  They are unencumbered by all the things I complain about.  Sure, they’ve got their own demons, their own battles, their own injustices to rail against.  But they complain less than me.  Some don’t whine at all.

            For months, I’ve been a heartbeat away from renouncing the cloth and burning all the musical instruments in my house.  I’ve crafted goodbye speeches and drawn up wills, all in my head, all in my angst.

            For now, I don’t practice songs.  I practice something simpler.

            At the piano, I practice scales.  Technique, the mere art of having my fingers touching the keys.  Up and down, at a brisk pace around the circle of 5ths, back to home, back to middle C.  No songs, but it’s still undeniably musical.  Undeniably purposeful.  Gains. No wanderings.  The musical equivalent of push-ups, crunches, and jogging.  Training for the moment.  Conditioning for the moment.  Look at all these people, pushing themselves forward.  Look at the humans!  I can say it with joy:  I’m unique, but not special.  I’m not alone!

            How many of them train without knowing what it’s for?

            Martial artists train for a fight that might never come.  They can prepare their bodies and minds, but they know that the fight will have a host of variables beyond their control.  That’s okay.  The ones I admire bring a quiet sense of confidence, because they have a plan and have been trained to respond correctly.

            I train now for a different world, a world not seen for generations.

            We’ve been here before.  We humans made it through.  Look at the humans.

            I’m unique, but not special.

            I’m still here.

            I’m here.

Subscription models for us, in a new era

Self publication.  Traditional publication.

Unsure how this pans out in a pandemic.

I find the Substack model most intriguing.  A straightforward e-publishing method that allows you to groom a subscriber base. Writers have control over how and when a paywall goes into effect.  No need to pay a fee for the service, the service makes money when you make money.

For the various writers and journalists being laid off around the world, it seems like a good deal, but some are complaining about the loss of the newspaper, the magazine, or even the curated website.

It’s not lost, it’s just reduced.  There is less variance of voices now, and the freelance journalists who thought they had a home?  Squeezed out.

So they’re given a choice: claim your own audience, or keep seeking assistance with publication.  Is this adapting?  It depends if you consider yourself a professional journalist. A professional critic, maybe?  I’ve watched some of my favorite writers bounce around between papers and news-sites.  If they had an independent feed or blog, would this be my way of supporting them?  This concept is within arm’s reach of Patreon and Kickstarter, established routes for artists to fund their projects.

It also seems to squeeze content creators OUT of the professional sphere.  What is the business model here?  I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s dichotomy of Entrepreneur vs. Freelancer.  Direct subscriber models seem to drift towards freelancers, since the person doing the creating cannot step away.  Yet, it doesn’t seem project based.

If I’m in the mindset of the person doing the subscribing, it’s either “I need to read this content” OR “I want to support this writer”.  I believe this is also a dichotomy, much like the Stones vs. The Beatles.  Nobody can hold both of these things equal, one is slightly dominant than the other.  If you polled your meager audience and made them choose between the two options, the ensuing data would reveal how your freelancing business is actually operating.

But does that matter, if the $ is flowing in?  Maybe the ensuing data would just illustrate the tilt of capitalism.  The critical question: How much of my income from writing should I put back into the freelance writing ecosystem?  As in, pay other writers for content that I need/want.

It’s a stone’s throw away from the concept that we should give 2% of our income to charity.  It’s a concept that charitable foundations have embraced.  Big-thinker charity types are trying to raise it to 3%.  That percentage mark would drastically increase charitable giving worldwide, but these ideas were before the pandemic and the new probability of economic recession.

What we end up with is a bunch of artists trying to argue for their own existence as professionals.  Hey, you need us.  You need to be entertained, or challenged intellectually.  But who is going to pay for the good stuff?  Who even decides what the good stuff is anymore?

Let’s say I allocate 2% of all my income towards supporting artists via subscription services.  If I want to pay money to see one of them in concert, or buy a book, do I re-allocate money from a different artist subscription in order to offset the additional cost?  This micro-budgeting seems stupid, but it’s not far my wife and I budgeting how often we go out to eat, and what restaurants we support, usually lining up with our tastes.

We pay a premium because of both the product (the food and drink) and the experience (the service and atmosphere).  We’ve suffered through enough zoom meetings to know that we cannot control the service and atmosphere of the internet, but we can try to control the product.

I’m getting to the heart of my woes as a musician lately.  I’ve been an entertainer specializing as a cover artist that worked primarily in bars and restaurants.  Any product I served up was hardly  unique.  I viewed myself as part of the service and atmosphere, and my employers agreed.  Upon scrutiny, this is actually an unholy alliance that devalues what I create.  My covers weren’t really that special, since there are already thousands of piano bar entertainers in the country, and our product doesn’t actually have much variance.  We end up overly relying on the atmosphere setting a standard of what our audience expects, and spreading ourselves over localities and regions.  I relished exceeding an audience’s expectation, but the business reward was just more of the same.  Freelance work led to more freelance work.

You could argue that’s how it’s supposed to work.  I’ve long held a Darwinian view of the music industry, especially of side-men.  If you are mediocre PLUS untrustworthy, unreliable, and unpredictable, then you won’t be contacted for more work.  This is the plight of the freelancer, and we rise and fall accordingly.  This was a value I’ve held tightly for decades, but it’s challenged by this paradigm shift.  Without live music, what is the value for my product as a free-lancer?

Time get busy making something.

Pre Jam Panic

I’m compiling a mental list of all the things I want to take to a blues jam at Knuckleheads, but might not. It will be my first encounter with other musicians in over two months. I have no friends there; all strangers. I’m not required to play; I could show up and sip beers and watch.

That part of me that wants to jump in and mess up as I go; it likes to play around with my ego. Those two parts of me, the jumper and the ego, have gotten me this far. It’s so important to be noticed, but I want to prevent myself from making a bad first impression.

From checking out the profiles of the hosts, there’s probably already a musician eco-system happening here. There was probably a scene before the pandemic. I won’t know if the musicians here are desperate for things to return to normal, and reboot their scene, or if they are scattered, lost, and confused. There really might be competing agendas here today.

I’m scattered, lost, and confused.

I’ll bring my bass. Bass players and keyboard players are usually in high demand, but that also means that they camp longer at jams. That’s awkward. The turn-around for guitarists and singer is always really fast, if the host is doing a good job of managing the flow of musicians. That’s mostly the challenge of an open mic host, dealing with guitarists and singers. The rhythm section players usually end of managing themselves, or in some cases stay static the whole time if they’ve been hired to play. So then this tension arises that if a different rhythm player (bass, piano, drums) asks to play, the current player onstage needs to police what’s happening at that instrument. Sometimes somebody is so bad, or just a pariah, that the open mic host will openly call for somebody else to come play.

So it’s hard to know if you’re asked to step away, was I bad? Or is someone legit trying to police the spirit of the jam and get more players up? Maybe the bassist just had to pee. Or they wanted a break to go talk to a friend in attendance. Or their tired and they want to go home.

This is why I become an intense observer at jams and open mics. Open mics are a different story, where there is no band and everybody in the audience is isolated in their anxiety and unable to actually listen to whatever is happening onstage. That’s probably why the most fun I’ve had at open mics are when I have no plans to play anything, or with anybody. I’m off the clock.

But if I’m trying to understand a scene, I’m watching the interactions between the players. Are they laughing and smiling at each other? Are they nervous? Are they just spaced out? Are they trying to communicate about the silliness of the lead singer? They do looks for that, and that’s an indication that they have discussions about the silliness of the singer offstage. Or maybe they just look impatient.

It could also be that they are locked in professionals. If they have blank faces, they are probably concentrating, doing their job, in the moment but passive at the same time. That’s zen, baby. I’ve spent so much time onstage, I need to be either paid extra or be really feeling it to plaster a smile on my face. It can be the marker of a professional entertainer, but it’s tough to sustain as a professional musician. Playing an iconic riff, watching the crowd react, jumping into the meat of the song. That’s like clockwork. Like a boulder rolling down a hill. A cascading waterfall.

Maybe I’ll get some of that today.

Gear Options:

Bass. P-80 piano (simple key sounds, piano + ep) or MOX8 (much more robust key sounds, including organs, clavicle, etc). Personal drum sticks. Cable for bass. Stark tuner for bass. Cable for keyboard.

I’ll need to dig a functional case for the MOX8 out of storage. It’s really heavy and unwieldy, so I’m tempted not to take it. I think my play is to scan the stage and see what the keyboard situation is before I bring on in. It’s possible there is none, which frees me up in a big way. If keyboard player is hesitant to let others touch the instrument because of coronavirus, I’ll probably stick to bass, or offer to bring in a keyboard from the van. Probably best to have my first beer just watching, and then decide what to go get.

Plugging through tonight on the site

If you’re reading this, you might stumbled upon the soft-launch of this website

I made great strides tonight on my reduxxxx website. While the my kids and cousins ate pizza and watched movies, I put together a list of 300 songs that comprise my repertoire. They were dutifully inputted into a spreadsheet, and then uploaded to a graphics program called Flourish.Studio.

The goal is here to have a cute, interactive version of my repertoire that is accessible live online. I find my repertoire projects branching off in different directions now.

  1. A public version of my rep that I share with audiences, categorized by mood

  2. A public version of my rep that I share with audiences, categorized by traditional genre.

  3. A private version of my rep that is completely comprehensive, with songs weighted and categorized for how useful they are, and my ability to play them confidently without aid.

This last piece is to keep me rep on deep-freeze while on quarantine. When I’m called up for my first request show, I’ll need a day to practice and review what’s fresh and what’s grown stale in my mind. No doubt I’ll need to create a series of lyrics and chord charts to serve as crutches for my first gigs back.

I’ve got the full list at 326 songs. Even with beautiful graphics, that amount of information (300 song titles) seems overwhelming to the user. I cut it down to 300 and experimented with formats, and I’ll definitely need to optimize the final graphics for mobile, since I’ll be encouraging folks to access the graphic during my shows. It still seems like cutting the public rep down to 250 is the way to go, with disclaimers included that this is a sampling of my full repertoire. Maybe it’s best to keep that mysterious.

Brooke encouraged me to add a spot for email sign-ups, and a space for upcoming shows, including our unofficial Drive Way concert the weekend of Father’s Day. I’d like to see the navigation bar of the site a bit more obvious, so the user has a sense of where to go and what to do, unless I stick with the whole shebang being one big scroll-down. Navigating to different pages might not be necessary when I’m offering services.

I’m unsure for the process for publishing blog posts. Route them through A Couple Duets FB page, or post to my personal news feed and twitter? Trying to wean myself from social media, so I don’t want to ride or die on this.

Another couple days of focused work on the site, and I’ll have something ready to launch.