The Sweet Smell Of Success (intro)
By Sara Century
There have been some interesting trends in underground music over the last decade or so, and just in time for people to stop commenting upon, writing about, paying for, or listening to underground music, too. I am against the grain. I see secret values where others do not. I will walk you through this a bit.
I am a musician, writer, and artist. I tour as much as possible. It is my job. Performing is what I have chosen to do. Somewhere in my byline, I’m sure you would find the acronym of DIY, aka Do It Yourself, which is meant to imply that I have struggled with the task of handling all aspects of my creative life entirely on my own, including putting out my own music, and booking my own tours.
To begin with, if you need a history of the way musicians are treated in general, I can send you many different directions. Most of your questions will have been previously answered by those whose street cred obliterates my own, but, the general idea of it is this; if you want to know what it’s like to be an experimental musician, you would have to understand that you are likely coming from an art background, and are going for a different mode of expression than a typical, straightforward, scale-playing musician. Now, although you have very likely spent quite some time meticulously planning your set, likely an equal amount of time as your “average, straightforward, scale-playing musician”, you must also realize that every person that sees you play assumes that you are trying to sound like Top 40 and just failing miserably. Now assume you “fail miserably” in front of audiences of between five and 60 or so people, across the country, something like 200 days a year. Don’t even get me started on the way that women playing music, making art, or… well, leaving their houses… are treated. That is a long series of essays in and of its own self. We’ll just stick to the basics, this time around.
We must immediately address the issue of pay. The triumph and the tragedy of DIY shows are as follows: a DIY venue is an all-ages space. The alienated teenager can go hang out with a wider age group of people that will more or less treat them well at a DIY show. The door price is low, and runs on a suggested donation, for the most part, meaning that you pay what you can or as you wish. When I play a DIY show, I know I’m not cashing in on someone that genuinely can’t afford to attend a show, and I believe in this. I have been a homeless teen that didn’t want to cause any problems and just wanted to enjoy art in my past. It makes perfect sense to me to open the doors up, because, when you look at the bottom line, everyone deserves art in their lives, and that’s just what’s real.
However, the negative aspects of this system are legion. First of all, it means, as a musician, you are depending entirely upon an honor system to put gas in your car. You are depending on an honor system from a lazy society that has been taught that art is free. Art is never free. My blood is not free. The air in my lungs is not free. I pay for them, every day. My time is not free. My love is not free. There is a terrible cost to all things, perhaps these things in specific. Because this is true, I should think that any person worth half a shit would be able to get their lives together enough to come up with a few dollars to see a band that traveled hours to play the show. The going cover charge of a DIY show is about $5, which, unlike absolutely everything else on the face of the planet, has not increased since about 1980… and, if you think that’s offensive, you should understand also that about 60% of the audience will refuse to pay it.
These shows are unsupervised, and the participants can span the gamut from being beautifully community-oriented to the lowest dredges of society, based on a common interest in independent music or the elements that are associated with underground music (namely drugs and sex). The motivations of the people there are completely up in the air. When you are e-mailing a series of people through loose connections you have cultivated, you have no idea what kind of person you are getting in touch with, and what their idea might happen to be of a DIY show. Their idea might be an excuse to do drugs, it might be a life-changing experience, or it might be a job that they do for a sense of importance among their friend group. You never know.
Another common misconception of a touring artist is that we all have a lot of sex. Well, things may be different for men and straight people, but all I have to say is that I am 1) not into one-night stands, 2) definitely not into having sex when I haven’t showered in a week, and 3) seriously do not meet other lesbians in the middle of Ohio during my travels. I do not have sex on tours, although I was once booked to play a dude’s bedroom (which of course I didn’t realise until I was physically standing in the room with him, otherwise no way would I have travelled to Indiana for that). Lucky me. Even if you were going to have sex on tour, you usually have three-six tour mates doing everything in their power to prevent it. Not on purpose, necessarily, I just tend to tour with women, who are prone to running up and announcing inconvenient facts at inconvenient times. It’s just how it works out. A straight woman doesn’t look at you talking to a girl as a romantic gesture. She might instead think, “Now would be the best possible time to make a joke about Sara’s last relationship”, or possibly say something about how gross the van is, how many crushes you’ve had on just this one tour, or even let us all know that she’s on her period and “it’s time to go”. Alternately, travelling with males usually entails that unless a girl has the word ‘dyke’ tattooed on her forehead, the dude will hover around whatever girl you’re talking to, because she’s TOTALLY into him. Right? No way is she into the person she’s actually talking to, so I guess you’d better NEVER LEAVE THEM ALONE TOGETHER EVER, NOT EVEN FOR A SECOND. Basically, I’m saying this; the groupie thing? It’s not actually “a thing” for anyone that isn’t famous.
The long and short of it is this: on tour, as in most of life, the artist is in control of their own body, and that is all. You do not control the audience. The audience controls you, regardless of your wishes on the matter, because they are controlling their own perception of you. The band itself probably plays more or less the same every night, but their own ideas of which shows are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will likely be in conflict with the opinions of many audience members. It is completely out of your control, and the faster you understand that, the better off you’ll be.
DIY touring is this: nightmarishly long drives over a huge country, last minute-cancellations, sleeping on dirty floors in dirty houses, sleep deprivation, the same incredibly long series of deeply offensive comments and silly questions drawn out over months, drunk people everywhere, unbelievably shitty sound systems, people that show up with a 30-pack of beer and then say, “Oh, sorry, I don’t have any money!” to the door person, sitting through ungodly awful bands, people who forget to ever book a local or invite anyone, shitty American food, being absolutely terrified by your own lack of money every second of every day, trying not to punch someone in the face when they ask if they can trade you their CD instead of giving you cash for yours, sitting alone in coffee shops for countless hours, playing in basements with dead bats in the corner, mold everywhere, air that more or less defies inhalation, trying not to be angry when the person that sets up the show spends less than five minutes running the door for donations, never showering, listening to people rambling about their own projects, or, even worse, listening to people ramble about your project, being treated as though you owe someone a serious favor for the incredible honor of coming to their shitty town to play for nobody in their living room, not being able to afford a glass of orange juice, equipment that cost hundreds of dollars breaking and not being able to replace it, being too hot for months at a time, getting sick from malnutrition, and losing your god damned mind.
DIY touring is also this: sometimes you truly open a door to new thought for someone, and that’s the most beautiful thing I could ever do with my life, and so I guess I’m stuck with it.