Jim Mathis

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Playing at Homer's

It was nine years ago this week that I opened Homer’s Coffee House. Homer’s was a culmination of a 30 year old dream to open a smoke-free and alcohol-free music venue. The place was designed from the ground up to be a music venue for singer-songwriters and small bands. I wanted to book Christian and family friendly artists. Specialty coffee and food became part of the mix to pay the bills.

At the beginning I thought that if I had 4 or 5 bands that would each play a couple of times a month, we would be in good shape. But I was soon overwhelmed with the number of groups that wanted to play. I quickly had to develop some “filters” to determine who I should talk to and who to ignore.

An obvious one was whether or not they were familiar with Homer’s. If someone brought me a CD and a nice picture while they were there to listen to another band, I usually booked them because I knew they “got” what we were trying to do. If they had never been there, it was easy to turn them down.

I also found that it was easy to ignore emails. If somebody called on the phone, I asked them to send a CD and a photo. This eliminated a bunch. When CDs arrived, which as almost daily, if they had a no jewel case or had a handwritten label, or if they just generally weren’t attractive, I tossed them in the trash. If they looked good, I would listen to about 10 seconds of the first cut. If it sounded good, I skipped to a couple of other cuts. If they all had the same sound, the same tempo, or the same key, I would pop out the CD pop it in the trash. If I could listen to the whole CD without being bored I would call the group and find them a date. This happened maybe 5% of the time.

I would also ask bands for their web address. I would then check the site over several weeks, if it was not updated regularly, I figured they weren’t serious. MySpace and Facebook aren’t web sites for this purpose. If all you have is a MySpace page, I would probably not have booked you.

I soon learned to ask about the band’s mailing list. I doubt if I would have booked a band that didn’t have a couple hundred people they could invite.

It has now been two and a half years since I have been involved with Homer’s but people are still asking me to help them get on the schedule to play. I have decided that when I see another musician at Homer’s, either when I am playing or when I am there to hear another band, that I would introduce them to the manager and put in a good word for them. I have never had to do that.Apparently bands want to play at Homer's but not enough to come hear who is playing.

Sky Blue has played at Homer’s more than any other band, over 65 times. It would seem reasonable that if a band wanted to play at Homer’s, they would come hear Sky Blue to see what is expected. If they would, they would probably be surprised with the variety of music, the humor, and the way Sky Blue interacts with the audience.

So there you have it. I don’t know about the current criteria at Homer’s, but if you have tried to get booked and were unable to do so, you might now have a clue as to why you are having trouble.

I presume others music presenters think roughly the same way.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Put on a Good Show" Part 2

I thought I would do a follow up to my last post. Apparently not everybody is familair with the tune "Cherokee Fiddle" about a guy who plays the fiddle in a train station for tips. Apparently the song was written by Michael Martin Murphy, but Johnny Lee had a big hit with it, and it was in the movie "Urban Cowboy."

I have seen Murph several times and he does put on a great show. By that I mean that he connects with the audience, plays with a lot of energy, and never does the same thing twice. In fact he seems to delight in surprising his band with his antics. He is a real genius.

The story of the song is about a Cherokee fiddle player who is able to gather a crowd of miners in the train station and keep them enetertained enough to make a living by passing the hat. Apparently it is true story.

For a number of years I booked bands at a local venue. It was fairly easy to find great musicians who played wonderfully, but those who could connect with the audience and keep people coming back was much harder to find.

That was my point of the previous post. Any comments?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If you want to make a living, you’ve got to put on a good show.

The memorable line from Johnny Lee’s song “Cherokee Fiddle” about a busker is: “If you want to make a living, you’ve got to put on a good show.”

This is the most profound and true statement I have ever heard about the music business. In fact, it is quite possible all you need to know.

I recently heard a musician commenting about how many wonderful musicians and bands there are in Kansas City. He added that the problem is that there are not enough places to play. Since I have been on all three sides; as a fan, performer, and presenter, I know that if the existing venues were making any money, there would be a lot more venues. The issue is that not enough people are willing to come out and listen to one song after another.

The number of people who are willing to sit and listen to music for hours is actually very small. There are, however, a lot more people who will gladly pay to see a good show. And there lies the difference.

Playing music is relatively easy, putting on a good show is much more elusive. There is a pretty direct relationship between how good of show you can put on and how much money you make. The relationship between how good of musician you are and how much money you make is not near so clear.

Most bands spend hours working on playing well, but almost no time working on entertaining the audience. In my band, Sky Blue, we put a very high priority on “putting on a show” but we still find the time to actually work on the show elusive.

Performance coach, Tom Jackson, has built a good career of preaching this truth. His point is that people don’t come to hear songs, they come to experience “moments.” In other words, “If you want to make a living, you’ve got to put on a good show.” I wish all business was this easy to define.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stage Monitors

A friend of mine confided in me recently that their worship leader at church had no idea, if or when, the congregation was singing. We soon figured out that because of his in-ear monitors, he couldn’t hear anything but himself. That got me thinking about stage monitors in general, and my experience with such things.

About forty-five years ago, I was playing about 200 dates a year with my rock band. Like just about every other band of that era, we had gotten so loud that we couldn’t hear each other, especially the vocals. Everybody was just playing louder than everybody else. I understand that the principle reason the Beatles quit touring was that they couldn’t hear themselves and it was becoming extremely frustrating.

We had bills to pay and didn’t have that luxury, so we began to try to find a solution. We tried various placements for the amps and PA and eventually came upon a solution that worked great. We took a “line out” from the mixer and fed it to guitar amps on the stage. I played hundreds of gigs with a Fender Princeton amp sitting on top of one of my bass cabinets with the house mix coming through the Princeton. Essentially that meant that we were hearing on stage, pretty much what it sounded like out front, which was the goal. The goal of a good monitor set up is for the musicians on stage to hear what the audience is hearing.

Over the years, stage monitors have gotten increasingly more sophisticated to the point where you can pretty much hear whatever you want. This has led to the “more me” syndrome where the vocalist wants to hear mainly the vocals, the guitar player is only interested in the guitar and so forth. Overall mix is left to the sound engineer who may or may not have any idea what the music is supposed to sound like. The only people who really know are the musicians, and they are now isolated in their own little world.

Playing in a band is a team sport. It should not be individual musicians all doing their own thing. Being able to hear, see, and know each other is essential to playing well as an ensemble. What I sound like is not near as important as what the band sounds like.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Art & Sports

It may appear that art and sports don’t have much in common, but in fact, there are so many areas where they overlap that a good definition of the difference is needed. My suggestion is if there is scoring, either by judges or by the participants, and if there are clear winners and losers, then it is a sport. Art is not competition.

When I was in high school, we had a lot of music competitions. There wasn’t much difference between the music department and the athletic department. We all practiced, scored points at events and came home either as winners or losers. Like athletics, there were events for teams (football & bands) and individuals (track & soloist.) Music was really just a sport at that point. At my school, the music department brought home more trophies than the athletic department.

There are many other areas where the activities are fuzzy. Figuring skating is a good example. Figure skating is most legitimately an art form, but it is now a recognized international sport, with judges scoring on predetermined criteria and clear winners and losers. The same is true for ballroom dancing. It is both an art form and a sport.

By my definition, tournament fishing is a sport, recreational fishing is something else. The only way hunting would be considered a sport is if the deer had guns and could shoot back.

At the professional level, both athletes and artist are in the entertainment business. Whether you are a quarterback, a pitcher, race car driver, actor, dancer, or musician, your job is to sell tickets. Your value is based on how many people want to come see you do whatever it is you do.

Sometimes art is sold as a competition solely to sell tickets. I am referring to popularity contests such as the Grammys, Oscars, Tonys, and the hundreds of similar events that are mainly political, where the winners are chosen by obscure methods with little or no preset criteria. Such contests should be taken with a large grain of salt. They have much more in common with political elections than actual indicators of talent.

Sky Blue will be in the Kansas City Blues Band Challenge in a few weeks. This is a judged event with clear criteria. These types of events are like the high school music contests and seem to have a lot in common with livestock shows. Livestock shows judge the entrants on how close they come to a predetermined standard. It is a good way to check to see how you compare to the rest of the breed. The “Best of Show” at the Westminster Kennel Club may not be the best pet you could have, but you know it is going be one good looking dog. It is the same kind of deal.

It will be interesting to see how we do. Win or lose, these kind of things need to be kept in perspective. We are artists first. The contest is to see how close we come to the standard idea of what a blues band should be. Do we even want to be a “standard” blues band? Who knows? We are artists.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

David Byrne on Music and Venues

Here is an interesting talk by David Byrne about how music is, or should be, adapted to the architecture of different venues.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bob the Painter

Bob loved to go to art museums, so he decided he would become a painter. He studied the art of the old masters and began to learn to copy them brush stroke for brush stroke. He learned about color and texture and became a very good painter.

Bob’s favorite artist was Van Gogh so he decided that he would copy all of Van Gogh’s paintings. He became very good at copying Van Gogh and eventually could make exact copies of Van Gogh’s painting without even looking at the original.

Bob entered his paintings in an art fair, but the judges just laughed and said, “These are just copies of Van Gogh. These have already been done.” Bob was sad, but he went to the art fair anyway. There he found all kinds of exciting new paintings, things like he had never seen in the museums. Wonderful new exciting things were around every corner. So Bob sat down to think and listen to a band that was playing as part of the art fair.

The band played all of his favorite songs that he had heard on the radio many times. Then the headline band got up to play. They looked and sounded just like his favorite band from 1964. They played all the great songs from 1964 to 1968. They sounded just like the original band.

Bob soon learned that this band was paid hundreds of dollars to sound like the old band, but the artists had to pay hundreds of dollars to show the new and exciting art.

Bob was very confused. He decided to become an accountant where cents makes sense, and he did not have to decide if he should copy the old masters or make new art.

Bob died that day, and he was buried fifty-four years later.

The End.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Weighty Issues

When I was a young person, my folks would often go to friend's homes to play music and jam. When big name artist were in the area, we would go to their concerts. Before long, it became obvious, even to me, that there wasn't much difference in the ability of the people who played in their living rooms or local clubs and the people on stage at the big shows.

I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out what seperates the guys and gals at the local clubs from those that pack the big arenas. The obvious thing is showmanship. Putting on a good show is a hard concept to grasp and takes a long time to learn.

But recently I've notived another huge factor. (Pun intended.) The big difference between the guys and gals that knock around the local clubs and coffeehouses and those that play at the Sprint Center is not talent, but about 75 pounds.

When music promoters talk about someone being a "complete package," what they mean is that they can play and sing as well as the next person, they have a good personalty, and they are not overweight.

My friend, Sunny, and I were talking about this this morning, and the only exceptions we could think of were people who got fat after they were famous - B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Aretha Frankin.

Just something to think about before you have that extra cheeseburger on the way to the gig.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Midnight Special

It is funny how little turns can make a big impact on direction. In 1984 my wife and I decided to buy a new television and sign up for cable after years of fighting rabbit ears. The installer asked if he should hook the cable up to our FM receiver as well. He said the local stations might be clearer plus there were a few out of town stations that came in on the satellite. (This was a little known service and when Time-Warner dropped it later they said that they had never had FM radio available. It was not listed in the program guide. Weird?)

We quickly found WFMT out of Chicago. WFMT is a classical station but they have a weekly three hour aberration they call “The Midnight Special” named after the old Leadbelly song. The Midnight Special is described as three hours of folk, farce, show tunes, satire, madness, and escape. The Midnight Special host, Rich Warren, plays songs by little known or local artists that are self-produced or on small labels. Some are from live recordings at concerts or local clubs. I loved it.

I began taping the show on Saturday night so I could listen to it during the day while working. After a while I began making what I called a Midnight Special Highlight Tape of some of my favorite songs. Over the next ten or fifteen years I accumulated about thirty hours of highlight tapes. We hardly ever shared this wonderful music with friends because it seemed that few of the people we knew shared our eclectic taste in music.

I began to realize that it wasn’t fair to the artist to listen to their music for free, so I began to seek out my favorites and buy their CDs. This was no small task before the internet. My wife and even had a “Midnight Special Weekend” where we drove to Chicago and patronized all the show’s sponsors and went to some of the clubs mentioned on the air. A record store in the loop, I believe it was Tower Records, even had a bin just for Midnight Special artists.

Because of the Midnight Special, I heard about “The Old Town School of Folk Music,” as well as places like ”The Earl of Old Town,” and “Somebody Else’s Troubles.” I think I probably first heard about the Kerrville, Texas Music Festival on the Midnight Special. I have since had the privilege of going to the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Kerrville Festival and others as well. It was through this exposure that my musical taste grew wide and deep.

When it was time to open my own music venue, “Homer’s Coffee House,” because of my trips to Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue, I had a pretty good idea of how to showcase local singer/songwriters and bands to a discriminating audience. When I decided to start writing songs myself, the Chicago “superstars” like Steve Goodman and John Prine were my guides.

WFMT and its long time host, Rich Warren, are now on XM satellite radio and can be heard over the internet. But I often wonder how my life would have been different had that cable installer not suggested that I hook the TV cable to my FM receiver.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What is “Country” music?

When we formed Sky Blue five years, one of the goals was to use a steel guitar in a non-country band. We called ourselves “Blues” and did everything with a blues flavor. Before long we were sliding to a more rock sound so we started calling ourselves “blues/rock.”

A while back we did a survey of our fans and one guy said he didn’t plan to come hear us because he didn’t like country music. This was kind of a “Huh?” moment. I'll admit, our picture looks kind of country.

Recently I was listening to our latest CD in the car when I switched over to a country station, and sure enough, it didn’t sound much different from modern country. If we opened for Sugarland, nobody would think anything about it.

So the question is, “What is Country Music anyway?” Our songs have good or clever lyrics which you can understand, and we use a steel guitar or dobro, and not much distortion on the lead guitar. Does that make us country?

What do you think?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Most People Don't Like Music

Most people don’t like music, at least not in the same way as we musicians do. As near as I can tell from casual research, if we would measure people’s love of music, the result would be a classic bell curve.

There are a few people on each end and a large number in the middle. Musicians typically will be on the right toe, the top 10 percentile at the most. These people, on the right side, like a wide variety of music, go to concerts, and buy music from various sources, often at concerts.

The amazing thing for me is that there is an equal number on the left side. These folks never listen to music, don’t have a favorite performer, and can probably not name one song. I am guessing that for every person that buys ten CDs per year there is someone who has never bought even one.

The vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle. This center peak is the group that radio airplay is aimed at and the group that the large record companies cater to. This group might go to a concert if the performer was someone they had heard on the radio a lot, but they would be more interested in the event as a spectacle than to actually listen to music.

As performing artists, it is most reasonable to aim at the people on the right side who will come to our shows and buy our music, even if they have never heard us, or even our type of music, on the radio. Hopefully they will like us well enough to tell their friends and seek out the coffeehouses, clubs, and church concerts where we play.

Most of us have friends who are on the other end of the curve, who have no idea what we do, don’t know why we do it, and have never heard us play, and probably never will.

Don’t let it get you down. I’m sure they do things that we don’t care much about either.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Playing Loud

One of the challenges of playing in coffeehouses or clubs is getting people’s attention. The truth is most people go out to socialize and see their friends. Music is part of the scene, but they don’t really care about the music. Cover bands generally have it easier, but people want to hear songs they are familiar with. Places like Homer’s Coffee House where people generally go to listen to original music are rare.

As musicians, our job is try to be creative enough to get people to stop talking and listen to the music. Not an easy assignment.

An easy solution, that I have sometimes been guilty of in my younger days, is just turning up the volume so that listening to the music is the only choice. This is a pretty juvenile approach, but it sometimes works. If it didn’t work we wouldn’t see so many bands doing it. A better choice is connecting with the audience and building rapport. This requires professionalism and experience, but is well worth the time and effort.

My dad told me, “If a restaurant has poor food, they give you a lot of it. If a musician can’t play very well, they play loud.” I think he may have been on to something.

The next time you feel like turning it up to 11, try a little creativity instead.