If you’ve been following along on this blog even a little bit, or if you know me offline, you probably know I’ve been the lead singer and primary songwriter of a band called Shelter Dogs since 2013. I kept that name going through three entirely different lineups – name recognition is good for a band, and I like having a back catalog consolidated in one place. But this year, we’ve been forced to change our name for legal reasons. Now this band is called Safe Houses.
I can’t say a band name change was on my agenda when I started planning for our 2022 spring and summer. We were eager to jump back into gigging and releasing new material, after the unpredictability of the previous couple years. The previous lineup of the band had recorded an EP in 2021, the release of which we paused until we had a new gigging lineup together. In March, I was squaring away the details of its release. We had a few options to explore, but one way or another, it was going to be a higher-profile release than our 2019 EP. We also had a music video shoot on the horizon for later in the spring, to accompany a stand-alone single separate from the EP itself. The new lineup hit the stage with a handful of new songs intended for our next EP. We were booking shows at venues we’d never played before. In a few words, we were doing everything a band was supposed to be doing after dropping a couple EPs and gigging regularly.
Then we got a cease and desist letter from attorneys representing a guy who holds a registered trademark on the name “Shelter Dogs” for the purposes of performing and releasing music.
After you’ve spent about 30 to 45 seconds involved in making and distributing music, you start to recognize something important: The music “business” (whatever that means) is not a pure meritocracy. There is no consistent correlation between quality and popularity of music. While no one is guaranteed to get any breaks, it would appear that a music act has a greater chance of getting their breaks if they have a personal connection to someone who can give them a broader platform – a record label owner, or a talent buyer or booking agent at a primo club. If you’re out grinding in the clubs, you may notice that there are really good bands that have a very difficult (and slow) time building up an audience made up of almost entirely of people they met through gigging, and that there are bands that can draw large crowds made up of people who are already in their large social circles, even if the band has just started playing out.
It can be frustrating to think about how some bands seem to be doing great thanks in large part to something other than the music itself.
And for a lot of musicians (and music fans), that frustration can gradually turn to fatalism. In time, you may find yourself griping, “It’s all about who you know, anyway, so unless you’re well-connected, you’re doomed from the start.”
Out here in 2022, we’re about 15 years into the ostensible Cassette Revolution* – well past the point where it could reasonably be considered a “revolution.” Tapes are just part of what we’re doing now, as a culture, or whatever. There are countless independent labels out there that specialize in tapes. Major labels are issuing runs of cassettes for albums by million-selling acts. There are lively online forums dedicated to cassette culture.
And yet, if you mention on social media or in a normie setting that you’re putting out a tape release, someone is bound to say: “Tapes? Seriously?!”
Yeah, seriously. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not irony. As far as I’m concerned, cassette is the most sensible physical medium for a gigging local/regional band to mess with. For a lot of active bands, it’s the only physical medium worth messing with. Tapes are the best thing to happen to a touring band’s merch table in recent memory.
It’s a slow Thursday night at your neighborhood rock club, and you’ve just stepped offstage after an admittedly killer set by your Promising Local Band. You’re trying to suss whether that’s just your ego talking or if you’ve actually managed to hit the Good Enough to Get Signed by a Label level. That’s the goal, in any case – get signed to a record label, turn pro, go out on the road for six months, come back home to write and record the next album, and that’s what your life will be like for the next x years. You amble over to the end of the bar, where this slightly older guy is sitting, and he tells you exactly what you want to hear:
“You all sounded amazing. You’re as good as any signed band out there. Won’t be long until you’ll never have to play a half-empty club again. All you have to do is get signed, and that’ll change everything for you.”
Spoken like someone who’s never been “signed.”
Don’t get me wrong – being on a record label can often present opportunities to a musician that would have been more challenging to access without label support.
You’re around here reading about “music” and “the arts” and “the creative process” and stuff like that, huh? Well, LET ME GUESS — you’ve got like a dollar, you’re looking for some food to cook on the cheap, and you’d also rather not stand around doing hands-on cooking shit for an interminable length of time because you have other shit to do. Good news; you’re IN THE RIGHT PLACE, because I was very accustomed for years and years to doing EVERYTHING on the cheap, and I have some ideas. Including — THIS MEATLESS CHILI that I’ve had in my life ever since I was in college, mere weeks after I moved off campus into a crappy apartment with two of my bandmates.
This is gonna solve some of your problems, provided you like beans and tomatoes. If you don’t like those things, you’re not in the right place after all; sorry.
Everyone hates “origin stories” in recipe blogs, including me, BUT: Credit where credit is due.
So, I have a few pet “theories” that I keep running in the background of my mind and pull out during those times when I need to let out a gigantic sigh and mutter, “All right, let’s be reasonable here,” or “All right, let’s put this in perspective.” The goal is always to keep things in context, avoid scapegoating anyone, refrain from getting overly emotional when you need to make good decisions, and avoid taking what you have for granted.
Also, I want to say “theories” is in quotes because most of these aren’t actually theories at all. They’re more like axioms or principles or something. But if millions of people want to use “theory” interchangeably (or even dominantly, which is sometimes how it sounds) with or related to those other terms, that’s fine by me. Let’s err on the side of comprehensibility.
One of those theories I think about a lot is something I call Ringo Theory. Here’s how Ringo Theory goes:
In every organization, one person will be always perceived as the “weak link,” even if they are not a weak link, but only appear weaker relative to others in the organization.
Today, we’re going to get into this bit of not-so great advice:
Paying for PR doesn’t work, and it’s a waste of money.
You hear some wildly contradictory POVs about music PR, depending on who you ask. Some people will tell you hiring a PR rep unlocks all kinds of doors and fast-tracks your music career (that’s the topic of a different post in this series). Some people will tell you the whole prospect of paying a professional publicist is an elaborate scam, that it doesn’t do anything for your act’s profile, and that it’s a total waste of money. Some people fall somewhere in the middle, but they often get talked over at parties by people who have more extreme takes.
In my experience, most of the people who have insisted to me that hiring a publicist doesn’t work are musicians who have hired a publicist who ultimately didn’t perform to expectations. And these have been musicians I’ve known — I know where they play, I know what their music sounds like, we’ve been in the same social circles. So with those publicist-haters I know personally, I can kind of see into at least a little bit of their own blind spots.
In particular, you know who really gets bent out of shape about underperforming PR campaigns? People who are accustomed to solving problems by paying someone to fix the problem.
Today, we’re going to get into this not-so-great piece of advice:
If you hire a PR rep, you’ll fast-track your band’s rise through the ranks.
When I was about 21, I asked an acquaintance of mine who was already in his 30s, “What do I need to do to get famous around here, anyway?” I was being only partially tongue-in-cheek, and he replied with about the same degree of tongue, “Do something exceptional and make sure millions of people find out about it.”
He wasn’t wrong. That’s pretty much the way it works, except for the caveat that you don’t need to do anything exceptional to get famous. People just need to find out about it.
It would seem as though there’s this serious chicken-and-egg situation at play when it comes to getting attention as a musician. You get attention when you get “discovered” and some record label or management company lines up a big promotional push behind you. But you need attention to get “discovered.” So what’s the actual make-or-break step in that process?
For reasons I can no longer remember, but that probably had something to do with needing another vector through which I could scream my frustrations and disappointments in being forced to exist as a human being in the physical world, I started submitting captions to The New Yorker in 2016. Not every week — only when the caption seemed glaringly obvious to me. I started posting my entries to my Instagram not long after.
I’ve never submitted any of these with the intention of winning. Very few of the captions I’ve come up with are in the right style or voice for The New Yorker. I alluded to this a while back, when I turned one of my favorite submissions as a stand-alone blog post. (That post was about how I’d unlocked a new “universal New Yorker caption,” “Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy.”) I mean, let’s be real, actual New Yorker captions usually aren’t that funny. It’s more like: The average New Yorker caption makes you think, “Yes, I recognize this as humor. This is, structurally, a punchline, and I understand the social/cultural context that makes it a ‘punchline’ and not just a non sequitur.”
I spent my late teens and half of my 20s as a serial monomaniac. I wanted to be a professional musician. I wanted to publish books of fiction and poetry. Basically, I wanted to be an “artist,” and I really didn’t want to be the starving kind. I wanted to spend as much of my adult life as possible not chained to a dull nine-to-fiver. So whatever I wanted to do with myself, I felt like I had to really crush it, and to do a lot of it. That’s kinda how this stuff usually works — you don’t get your breaks by producing just the one song or story or poem. You usually need a bit of an archive to demonstrate you didn’t just produce a fluke.
I was always all-in on something or other. I spent a lot of nights cranking away at my fiction and poetry website, then spun that off into a zine. I started a band where I wrote all the songs I would ever write for said band before we had our first practice. I was rabid about writing and demoing what was supposed to be my “debut solo album,” which had to be brimming with inarguable brilliance. I’d skip classes to write songs, then catch up on my courses in a series of 20-hour study days. I quit a job so I’d have time to write two drafts of my undergrad thesis. Everything had to happen immediately. I felt like the clock was always running down on something — my teens, my college years, those periods of time when I could afford to get by working one job instead of two.