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.
As easy as it would be to start this post with “Facebook is in the news…,” it wouldn’t be a terribly helpful intro. Facebook is always in the news. And almost everything Facebook is in the news for is bad. No matter how any of us feel, in late 2021, about Facebook as a platform or a tool or anything like that, I think most of us can agree that Facebook as a company is a bad company that does bad things.
That in itself is nothing new. We’ve had the bot-follower blow-up, the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting thing, the Russian misinformation/election interference thing, more and more sponsored posts flooding news feeds, the theory that Facebook is able to access audio from a smartphone mic, the widespread suspicion that popular “quiz” posts are password-mining schemes. Facebook allows hate speech to stand on the platform, while removing innocuous posts. Mark Zuckerberg is probably pretty conservative politically, with former G.W. Bush White House higher-up Joel Kaplan allegedly one of his closest policy advisors and gross mega-villain Peter Thiel prominently on the company’s board. Facebook gives extreme right-wing content a wide berth on its platform, and both lagged and hedged on deplatforming Donald Trump. This is a bad company.
In the second installment of the Bad Advice Musicians Hear series, we’re going to get into one of the more daunting pieces of “advice” young musicians will hear as they’re coming up and trying to gain a foothold in their local scene. Like a lot of questionable advice, it’s often tossed off glibly by the speaker, while following it would be a deeply complex process. But that’s why we’re here — we’re focusing on bad advice, and on why it’s bad. Jsyk this one is pretty knotty, and deserves consideration from multiple angles. But here’s the not-so-great advice in this round:
If you look around and you don’t see a place for yourself and your music, you need to start your own scene.
Sounds like it makes sense! That’s the DIY ethos. You can’t assume someone is going to come around and give you the thing you want or need, if it isn’t already there for you. You can sit around and gripe, or you can take action, ideally with some people of like mind.
The overarching problem with this proposition is that it’s extremely complicated, and saying “start your own scene” is head-spinningly simplistic. There are a lot of steps involved and conditions that need to be in place in order to get a new local scene off the ground. You don’t just find a room where you can perform, hang out a shingle, and expect people in the neighborhood to have any idea of (or, to be real, any curiosity about) what you’re doing in there and what it has to do with them.
As a society, we’ve accepted there is such a thing as a universal New Yorker cartoon caption — a gag line that can work with any New Yorker cartoon. It’s an elusive thing. I’d be willing to wager the dream of discovering a new universal New Yorker caption is kicking around somewhere in the brain-pan of anyone who frequently submits to the magazine’s weekly Caption Contest.
Last week, the DIY performance space I started back in 2013 opened its doors to the public for the first time since before the Covid pandemic. I haven’t been directly involved in managing the space in quite some time — I handed over operations to a friend in early 2019 — but I’ve been more or less kept in the loop since then, and from my perspective, reopening after a year and a half was one more improbable hat trick in a long series of hat tricks that have sustained the space in a city that can’t not change noticeably over the course of any given year.
The fact that a show space like this has survived for eight years now is, frankly, insane. In NYC, as in many cities, there’s always demand for DIY spaces. There’s always more talent than there are venues for it. Someone is always aiming to circumvent other ostensible cultural gatekeepers and put on performances or exhibits on their own terms. There’s always an audience that cherishes spaces that are not driven by profit and feel less rigid than your typical small club. But the lifespan of a DIY space is usually not long — I’d consider three years an exceptional run.
I’ve been playing in rock bands since I was a teenager, and while the realities of being a gigging musician have taken loads of wild turns over that time, one truism has held throughout: When you’re a young musician, you hear a lot of advice on how to be successful in the music business from people who are not successful in the music business.
Sometimes it’s well-intentioned. Sometimes that advice springs from the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Sometimes that advice had produced real results, but in a radically different landscape than later generations of musicians have lived in. And sometimes there’s a darker subtext — a hint of bitterness, sometimes directed outwardly, sometimes inwardly. Sometimes a person’s takeaway from years of trying to hit it big is that anyone who did hit it big had an unfair advantage. Sometimes the takeaway is more self-flagellating: That the speaker’s apparent lack of success was ultimately their own fault for simply not pushing hard enough, for not sacrificing and suffering a little more or a little longer. No matter what part of a person’s psychology misguided music career advice comes from, a musician trying to pay their dues finds that it comes often, and it often comes loudly.