Music and Fear

As I’m gathering my thoughts for today’s blog, I cannot help but think of an episode of The Jackie Thomas Show from the early 90s, where Jackie [Tom Arnold] decides that he is going to pursue his life-long dream of being a rodeo clown.

He goes through rodeo clown school, and even ends up in the ring during a bull fight.

This is when he has the horrible realization that he is afraid of bulls.

Over the decades, I have set foot on some intimidating stages. I have also been in some intense recording situations with people who have more knowledge and experience than me. This is how one learns, but you have to get over the fear first and jump in.

I have never been afraid of these types of situations, for a variety of reasons, which I will get into later. But I have met some people who suffer a great deal of fear when it comes to being a musician. This fear would manifest itself in a few different ways. Sometimes it can be almost impossible to detect, or it can be confused for something else.

This fear can paralyze them, which has a rippling effect on the band.

THE PRE-SHOW PANIC
This is probably the worst type of panic for a band, because you’ve made a commitment to a venue and a promoter. People are in the audience and paid to get in. The club owners have expectations. Your band’s reputation is on the line.

And then, someone in the band freaks out. “I can’t go on the stage! I just can’t!”

This happened more than a few times. On one occasion, it was the drummer who panicked. My work-around for this was to present ourselves as being “unplugged.” It did not fit what we had prepared, it did not fit the evening, and it was a semi-disaster.

On another occasion, I had to flat-out tell the promoter that we could not go on because we had a band member just not show up. I covered for him, and for us, by saying that he was “on his way to the hospital” after a car accident on the way. After that, I dismantled the band.

There was also a time when a band member tried to hide it by getting wasted before the show. He had tried to drink enough that his fear would go away. Unfortunately, he also drank enough to fall face-first onto the stage half-way through the second song in our set.

All of these people were really good on their instruments and had other things going for them. This makes it all the more tragic. New bands typically start out on small stages, so I’m not certain how to avoid this potential disaster.

My stories above may provide some work-arounds. Sometimes you have to take the hit. Depending on the situation, taking this hit can mean losing your big chance.

AVOIDING REHEARSAL
Other instances of fear had less of an impact, although they did hinder progress.

On about half a dozen occasions, I had met musicians who had gone through a lot to get where they were. They’d gotten their instruments, maybe took lessons, and became good at what they did. They eve relocated to Los Angeles in order to take their shot.

In a few of these instances, I was the person renting the lock-out facility, where the band would rehearse. Everyone would leave their gear in there, for convenience.

Then, things would get strange. They would suddenly have excuses for why they could not rehearse. The most bizarre one was a guy who said to my face, “Every second that we do not rehearse is a second that all the other bands get an edge over us.” I told him that was good to hear, and that we should go rehearse now.

“Nah. The game’s on. We’ll do it later.”

THIS IS WHERE IT GETS CONFUSING
Was he lazy? That was my first thought. He was talking a big game, but then wasn’t backing up his own words. The conflict in what he said and did was obvious.

I made plans with him to meet at the lockout the next day in the afternoon. He agreed, and I left him to his game while I went to the room and rehearsed on my own.

THEN THINGS GET WEIRD
The next day, I show up an hour early to warm up and get ready. I’m so into my own playing that I suddenly realize that our meeting time had passed, and he had not shown up.

I go to a payphone and call the house. No answer. I work for a few more hours, then call again. Someone answered, and they told me that he had decided to “go back home.” He did not explain why.

I asked what should be done with his guitar, amp, and pedals. They did not know, as he did not mention it. I kept his gear in the lockout for six months, waiting for him to get back to me, before I came to the conclusion that he had abandoned his gear. I sold it.

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HOW I KNEW IT WAS FEAR
He did not seem like a lazy person, as he had put a lot of time into his instrument, as well as lots of effort to relocate to Los Angeles.

HOW TO SPOT THIS FEAR
Over time, I took on a few different techniques for band member auditions that help weed out some potential issues.

Musician History: Has this person performed on a stage before? They can potentially lie about this, but it is worth asking [bonus for photos]. Also, do they have any recordings under their belt? Finally, do they have any references? References can be tricky, because nobody will give you a reference who will say bad things about you. Information can be helpful.

Two-Phase Audition: Break your auditions into two sections. For the first phase, it’s a night spent at a bar having drinks. What do they drink? How much? This helps you to learn more about them on a personal level, before they set foot in the audition room.

During the second phase, which is where they play music with the band, have a dozen or so friends show up. Make sure they understand that this is not a fun social gathering. No drinking or partying. You want them to give the audition a serious listen and be writing down notes. Let the person auditioning know that there will be notes and critiques.

This will put some real-life stage pressure on them. How they handle this, and if they can handle it, can determine whether or not a future fear-driven issue will arise.

HOW TO COPE WITH THIS FEAR
Maybe you are the person who wants to be a musician, but also has issues with fear. Adequately addressing this fear before things get serious is a good idea. It keeps you from wasting your own time, as well as the band’s time. It also makes sure that fear does not get in the way of what you would like to achieve.

Being Well-Rehearsed: This can help, although it did not help my old guitar player who ran away so fast that he abandoned his own gear. I think his case was rather extreme. This definitely helps me.

Run The Show: Having the songs down is one thing. Rehearsing the show will give you more confidence. This means EVERYTHING, including when songs will be back-to-back, when there will be breaks between songs, and even when the singer will address the crowd. Yes, he should even rehearse what he is going to say.

Running the show is a something that I took away from my experiences in marching band. When the show is second-nature, you don’t even have to think about it. That is a relief!

Get Professional Help: Do not believe that you will grow out of it, or that it will magically go away once you get to the big-time. If big enough, this issue will actually get in your way, which would be tragic. Truly crippling fear never helped anyone.

Do Away With Negative Thoughts: Thinking about all of the possible things that could go wrong will only spin you down into that dark spiral faster. Accepting the fact that both good AND bad things will happen, and that these things do not matter, can go a long way toward dealing with this.

Let Go of Perfection: Not only are you going to make mistakes, but most likely nobody will notice or remember.

Do Not Take It Too Seriously, and Be Entertaining: Being a musician on a stage should be more than just playing the music. Performance and presentation are everything. Be goofy sometimes. Practice having fun.

Invent a Persona or Character: This helps to remove the ego, which can be fragile and can drive that fear. What if people don’t like me? What if this or that? These are the thoughts that push you down into that hole.

The truth is that, no matter how good you are, there will be people who do not like you, or who do not like what you do. It’s a fact of life. When you have a persona in the mix, you can separate it from yourself.

So if some people do not like it, then they’re having an issue with your persona, and not you as a human being. Of course, the truth is that they do not really know you as a human being. This fact means nothing to a person who is entrenched in fear. Logic is not soothing.

IN THE END
Being a prepared musician, running the show, building a persona, ending negative thoughts, and having fun with it all will go a long way. You’re a musician on a stage, not a heart surgeon in a hospital struggling to save someone’s life.

When you have fun with it, the audience will join along.

OH, AND ABOUT THAT PESKY RECORD BUTTON
Recording can be scary. Just remember that you will get a chance for second takes, third takes, and beyond. Even if you give a solid performance, a second take might be required as a “safety.”

YOU get to decide when it’s ready to ship.

Sometimes mistakes get to stay because they bring a human element to the fold, or maybe because the listener may never notice.

There is a mistake in this recording. There are also a good number of mistakes on this iconic album. Try to find it. Trust yourself. Don’t worry about it.

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Avoiding the Analysis Experts Who Discuss “This Is America”

Over the past few days, there has been lots of hype about the new song/video called “This Is America,” by artist Childish Gambino [Donald Glover]. Within this hype, there are dozens of stories, where the song is being analyzed.

Find the hidden meaning.

Expert analysis.

Learn what this song is about.

5 Things You Missed In The Video [the worst click-bait].

You get the idea. It’s a bunch of “news” outlets that want to tell the audience what the song and video means, and what it’s about.

If people want to read these articles and videos about it, then they can do it. Just beware of the comment sections, which are full of horrible things.

However, I will not be reading any more of these articles or watching these videos. In this afternoon’s entry, I’m going to discuss why I will not be participating in these offerings.

If you have not yet seen the video, then you can watch it below. For those who are unaware of the contents, it does contain graphic violence. Although the violence is not gratuitous, I think it only fair to warn readers who may not be in the demographic of this artist.

LIFE BEFORE MUSIC VIDEOS
Before music videos, I would hear a song and then attach that song to my own thoughts, opinions, and experiences. As a result, the song would make a lasting impression on me.

INTRODUCTION OF MUSIC VIDEOS
After music videos were introduced, I’d hear the songs and instantly think about the videos. Songs would sometimes still get attached to personal details in my mind, but not so often.

TODAY’S NECESSITY OF MUSIC VIDEOS
For me, this song actually NEEDS the music video. I have watched it several times, but I don’t really see myself putting it on my phone and playing it. In this instance, the visual representation has become more important than the song itself.

This is not a criticism of Mr. Glover’s work. He’s a respectable multi-media artist who has created something incredibly thought-provoking. More about that later.

WHY I AM AVOIDING READING AND WATCHING ANALYSIS OF THIS VIDEO
The items mentioned above provide some of the reasons. All of this comes to a head for me in a discussion that can be found on the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Exorcist.

Included in the extras, there is a discussion between William Peter Blatty [the author of The Exorcist] and film director William Friedkin. In this discussion, they’re having a bit of an argument about an edit to the film that Mr. Friedkin made.

Specifically, Mr. Blatty was lamenting the fact that Mr. Friedkin cut a scene at the ending, where two priests are having a discussion about Regan [played by Linda Blair], the girl who was possessed. The basic purpose of this discussion is to tell the audience that “the girl will be alright.”

In the inner-circles of media, this is known as “pipe laying.” It’s spelling things out, which is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

As Mr. Blatty shows concern about how he does not want people to believe that evil won, Mr. Friedkin interjects his own reasoning for why he cut that scene.

“I am not in the business of telling the audience what to think.”

Mr. Friedkin goes on to note that people will get out of the movie what they bring into it. If they believe that evil is superior and that evil will win, then they will be satisfied with the outcome. HOWEVER, if a person believes in their heart that good will always triumph over evil, then this is what they will get out of the movie.

Since the audience was not told what to think about the movie, everyone who went to see it walked away with exactly what they wanted from the movie.

My dad took me to the day-after-Christmas screening on December 26, 1973. As we were leaving the theater, I heard a woman say, “I don’t know why they did not turn off the cameras and get that poor girl some help. Monsters!”

I have no doubt that everyone got what they wanted.

THINKING FOR ONE’S OWN SELF
I could have just written “think for yourself” and left it at that. The irony in doing such a thing is that it would be a case of me telling you what to do.

Instead, I decided to share some history, anecdotes, and observations, so that you’d have some information available. With this information, you can then make an informed decision.

ADDED THOUGHTS ON “THIS IS AMERICA”
As I mentioned earlier, I think that the song really needs the video in order to have impact and make sense. The lyrics are relatively simple, as are the “trap” elements of the song.

Within the context of music, the reason why rap has no specific melody is the same reason why country music has three primary melodies. The lyrics are more important than the backing tracks. Trying to listen to lyrics while listening to a melody can result in words being misunderstood.

Blinded by the light…

Both rap and country are forms of  folk music.

Taking this philosophy one step further in order to make it more modern, I would suggest that the primary reason why the lyrics are relatively simple in this song is because the video is more important than the song. This is a rather logical step in our modern multi-media age, so this is an observation, and not a criticism.

I should note that this does not mean one should disregard the lyrics, as the few words that are used do make statements. The lyrics are just not the end-all to what is being delivered.

The secondary reason for the simple lyrics is so that they sit better with an audience that has a lower attention span for reading, listening, and general media consumption. Much like a political bumper sticker, it gets to the point of the matter, except that it says infinitely more by saying relatively little.

It works to speak to you in your own language and context.

SIMPLE COMPLEXITY
Although these elements are simple, there is nothing simple about the video contents and the messages. The video carries at least half a dozen different critiques about America’s past culture, as well as our current culture.

If I go any deeper than this, then I will be guilty of giving you my own analysis of the video. Then I would be committing the same offense that I noted in the writings and videos of others who do a break-down or analysis of it all.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THEIR ANALYSES
While I will not be reading these articles or watching these videos, I did read a few. One of them was a basic copy-and-paste of comments on Reddit about the video. This is mindless, takes no effort, and gives the reader relatively little to think about.

Another one took a simpleton’s approach to it, leaving behind ideas that focus on unimportant elements. This destroys the various levels in the video that serve to make a variety of different points.

It keeps the video viewer from diving deeper into what the video is all about, or what it can be all about. They show you the surface and then, by omission, suggest that there is nothing to see below the surface.

When someone breaks it down and tells you what the video and song mean, they are not only telling you how or what to think and/or feel about it, but they’re also blinding you to other points that you’ll end up overlooking because you’re too busy agreeing with their point. That is to say, these points can make sense, but they poison the well.

It’s like that song that used to remind me of my girlfriend in high school, until the music video came out and ruined that.

THE BIGGEST TRAGEDY
As I mentioned, this video touches upon a wide variety of concerns. In our age of social media, this could be the perfect catalyst for inspiring or instigating discussion about these things that do need discussion.

The tragedy of it all is that our society is generally not yet mature enough to have this discussion on the internet.

There was a comment on the video, where a woman is asking how something was done. It’s something that appears to be a special effect. Her question was about the technical film making aspect of it.

People were so emotionally charged by the video and what it said to them, that they were giving her answers to other things that she did not ask. It resulted in a series of online fights, where there was NOTHING presented that would typically instigate a fight.

When we have discussions in-person, there is a social pressure to be on our good behavior and to listen. Plus, we see a person in front of us, so there is no mistaking any of it. There are people out there who think that what happens online is just words on a screen, and that there are no real people behind it.

With online discussions, we miss out on body language, voice inflection, eye contact, and the ability to express quick, real-time clarification to correct misunderstandings. When this information ends up missing, our brains fill in the gaps with what we think, what we feel, or even what we may fantasize about.

What does not help matters is that people tend to become more aggressive online, as a result of the absence of these physical, psychological, and social pressures.

THE GOOD NEWS
There are some people out there who are having successful discussions as a result of the inspiration provided by this video. The problems that prevent these discussions will sadly not be solved in my lifetime, but knowing that others are rising above it gives me some hope.

IN THE END
This video may speak to you in one way, it may speak to you in a few others ways, or it may not speak to you at all. Not everyone can watch this, just as The Exorcist is not for everyone. Hard issues and cutting observations do not usually inspire gentle feelings.

That’s where the success of this video comes into play. It inspires you to feel something. Whatever that feeling may be, it was inspired, and it is there. This could lead to other thoughts.

For me, I understand some of the ways in which it spoke to others. It also spoke to me in other ways, and maybe someday I’ll share those. Should I do that, it will be after the atmosphere surrounding the video cools down a bit.

Chances are greater that I would discuss it in-person than online, since there are still people out there who can read words and then still completely miss the point that one is attempting to make.

The world can be a frightening place. Hard issues and biting observations command that equally hard and biting art be delivered to inspire inspection and reflection. Whether you look into that mirror now, or do it later, or not at all, I have no judgment or ill will toward you. Wanting people to have understanding is reasonable, but getting angry at them because a method does not speak to them is not.

For now, I am going to click the Publish button, and then go do something truly horrifying. I’m going to sit alone in the darkness, in complete silence, alone with my own thoughts.

If you thought that The Exorcist was scary…

Putting the “Business” in the “Music Business”

It is said that if you do not make mistakes, then you are not trying hard enough.

I’ve made many mistakes over the years. The up-side of it is that I got to learn from them. The down-side is that valuable time got lost, as well as money.

Today, I’ll take you through some of my bigger mistakes, and share what I’ve learned. Hopefully, my errors can help you save valuable time, or even money, and help you to get where you want to be faster.

While some of these scenarios will sound negative, because they are bad situations, the positive side of this is giving a heads-up to those young musicians who are setting out to make something of themselves in the music business.

There can be no positive without negative, hot without cold, inside without outside, or light without darkness. Attempting to separate them would be a fool’s game, but that’s another blog for another time.

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Gig at Paladino’s, drumming for Casanova Jones [2008]
WHEN ARE YOU IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS?
Some might think that you’re not in the music business until you get signed by a major label. That’s really old thinking, but it’s also errant. The minute you achieve a level of proficiency on your instrument and set out to join or form a band with the goal of earning money, you are in the music business.

Yes, before you’ve booked one show and earned one dollar, you are in the music business.

AUDITIONING FOR THE BAND
Auditions are like job interviews. Sure, the band/boss wants to find out that you’re qualified. But at the same time, you want to know that you’re getting the pay, benefits, and other compensation package details in return.

With bands, it’s only pay.

Once the band knows what you can do, it is time to have a business discussion, so that you know what to expect in return for your efforts.

Is there rehearsal pay? Are room, board, and travel covered? Is there a stipend? Have this discussion, and be ready to say no if what they offer is not acceptable.

TALK ABOUT MONEY AND EXPECTATIONS UP-FRONT
Do not try to do this after you’ve participated in a bunch of rehearsals and have played a few gigs. By this point, it’s too late, because you’ve de-valued your services as a musician and band member by working for free.

Always discuss the business aspects BEFORE playing one note in a rehearsal or gig. Understand what they expect from you, and have them understand what you expect from them.

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Performing as a hired gun at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood [2009]
BAND MEMBER vs. HIRED GUN
The above applies to both band members and “hired guns.” A hired gun is not a band member, and they are usually paid a flat rate. So if the band sees a crazy amount of success, the band member still gets that flat rate. Renegotiation is recommended.

While a band member may be asked to share in expenses, the hired gun should not. So if you are a hired gun, and you are being asked to split the cost of a rehearsal space, recording studio time, or other expenses, then you are being ripped off.

Being a hired gun can pay off, if you work it right. When Pink Floyd was having issues and were dissolving before they were touring for “The Wall,” the camps were split between David Gilmour and Roger Waters.

Keyboardist Rick Wright showed little in the way of allegiance toward either side, and instead insisted that he get paid by whomever wanted him. He also demanded to be paid for The Wall tour. In doing this, he absolved himself of participation, should the tour make millions. However, he also absolved himself of incurring any of the expenses.

The tour ended up being very expensive, to the point that Rick Wright was the ONLY person to make money on the tour. He earned $700,000.

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Hired gun for comedian Fred Willard at Wilshire Ebell Theater [2009]
SET BOUNDARIES FOR PROFESSIONALISM
Being in a band is not like being in an office. There can be partying and good times. There can also be addiction and destruction. If you note behavior in rehearsals or touring that is unprofessional, make note of it and give consideration to moving on.

One band I was in had a 7:00pm rehearsal time. I got there at 6:00pm to get warmed up. Nobody showed up until almost 8:00pm. When everyone was there by 8:30pm, they decided that a beer run was in order before starting rehearsal, which ended up around 9:30pm.

This scenario is both unprofessional and unacceptable. It shows no respect toward anyone’s time. Even worse, it shows a disrespect toward the music. They’re not taking their own business seriously.

You’ll find that lots of people who want to be musicians engage in this behavior. If you want to be a musician because you don’t like working, then you will end up bagging groceries.

Treat it like a business.

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Drumming with Noodle Muffin at The Westwood Brewing Company [2002]
BEWARE OF LIES AND STICK TO THE PLAN
One band I was in briefly answered an ad that I had placed, saying they needed a drummer to fill in for a last-minute gig, or else they’d have to pay a $500 cancellation fee. I decided to step in and fill the spot for them. My offer was $300 for two rehearsals before the half-hour show.

My mistakes in this situation started when I allowed emotions to over-ride business. I liked their music, they seemed like good people, and they had a standing monthly gig listed on their Facebook page.

With all of this information, I re-negotiated with them, stating that I would not charge them for the rehearsals OR the gig, if I could be a band member and share in the money of these monthly gigs.

It would be a few months before they would finally admit that the standing monthly gigs were fake, and that they’d put it on their Facebook page in order to “look busy, and generate demand.”

Obviously, they lied to me by not telling me that these gigs were fake when I re-negotiated.

If I were smart, I would have first stuck to the original negotiation for that fill-in gig. Then, I would have not been friendly with them so quickly. Finally, I would have told them that I was interested in negotiating a rate for their standing monthly gigs.

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 On keyboard with Robin Baxter Band at Club 88 in Santa Monica [1987]
A WORD ABOUT FRIENDS, BEING FRIENDLY, AND BOUNDARIES
I have typically fallen into the trap, where a band or musician is friendly with me, I become friendly with them, and then I drop all boundaries and defenses.

This is a major flaw of mine that has caused me problems for my entire life. Only recently have I received the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Before the diagnosis, I really had no idea that I was even doing this.

Now that I know, I can be more conscious and aware of it, and implement boundaries with the rule that I must stick to them, no matter how nice someone else might be.

I got this information about myself too late in life While it speaks volumes to my failures with setting and maintaining boundaries, it is also a testament to just how many people will take advantage of you if you get friendly with them and drop boundaries.

Always keep boundaries up for your own protection. People who are honest and who care about you will respect those boundaries. If someone is offended or upset by it, then it is time to move on, no matter how much you like the band or the music.

WHEN A BAND SETS BOUNDARIES
Now that you’ve joined a band as a member, or have formed a band of your own, you’ve got a new set of boundaries to keep in mind when doing business.

For those who are hired guns, your boundaries remain the same. What I’m talking about her would not apply to you, since you are being paid to be there.

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Performing on fretless bass with Noodle Muffin at Universal Bar & Grill [2009]
WORKING FOR “EXPOSURE”
There are people out there who will try to get you to play their big party or event, with the promise of “exposure.” They’ll tell you how hundreds of people will see and hear you, and that it could potentially get you more business.

These are situations that you should always reject, without hesitation or question.

Best case scenario, you play a party in exchange for “exposure,” and a half dozen people think you’re great and want to hire you. They will probably talk to the person who got you to play for “exposure,” and ask them how much they paid you.

This will set the bar low for you in the future, and will make earning money nearly impossible.

Setting your price and then sticking to it adds value to what you do. Never de-value your own band.

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Drumming in WHIPLADS at The Riverbottom in Burbank [2003]
PAY-TO-PLAY
I have only experienced this in Los Angeles, but it could be happening in other cities. In a pay-to-play situation, the band pays the club up-front, and then they have to sell the tickets to first make their money back, and then profit.

At its worst, I once drummed for a band who paid a club on the Sunset Strip $700 so that they could play a 25-minute set.

If you are going to consider a venture such as this one, then you must be certain that you can get enough people to buy tickets to cover what you pay.

Generally speaking, I would recommend that bands avoid these situations.

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Performing with SECRET at The Gig West LA [2000]
DO NOT GIVE AWAY TICKETS FOR FREE
With one pay-to-play situation, the band was not doing a good job of selling the tickets. They decided to eat the money they spent and give away the tickets. The idea behind this was that they could get bodies in the door, impress club management, and more drinks would be purchased.

It did not work out this way. The club management saw how few people were there, panicked, yelled at the band leader, and had people on the sidewalk telling passers-by that a “free show” was in progress. It was embarrassing.

When you give away tickets, the person who receives the ticket has NO attachment to the ticket, the band, the show, or anything. There is no consequence for them if they throw it in the trash, or even decide last-minute that they’re not going.

But when a person pays ten bucks for a ticket, they’re more likely to show up.

Giving away tickets de-values your band.

I’m certain that you’re seeing a recurring theme here.

SAY “NO” TO PROMOTERS WHO ASK FOR FILL-INS
I had built up a relationship with a promoter in LA, with one of my bands. This promoter seemed like a really nice person who appreciated the professional efforts of others.

One night, the promoter called me in a panic, noting that a band that was scheduled to open for a headliner cancelled last-minute.

My flawed thinking behind this was that if I do this favor for them, then they will return the favor by booking us better gigs.

2008 Karma Live
Performing with Karma McCartney at The Good Hurt in Venice [2008]
As you can guess, it did not work out that way. Instead, the promoter viewed us as a reliable fill-in band. Ironically, the promoter would not book us for gigs because they wanted to keep us in their back-pocket as the reliable last-minute fill-in.

What you may not have guessed was that our relationship actually got rather ugly at the end. The promoter asked us to fill a last-minute spot on the weekend before Christmas, which was on a Monday.

The promoter told us the usual, that we did not have to have a head count. In other words, we did not have to promote, guarantee a crowd, or bring anyone.

Any musician who has ever played in Los Angeles knows that LA clubs become a ghost town from a week before Christmas, until the New Year. We took the gig merely out of fun in this case.

The promoter came to the venue, saw nobody there, and chewed us out for not getting people in the club. This was unreasonable, not only because the promoter told us that we did not need to bring people or promote, but also because NO BAND can get a crowd during this particular time of year. Everyone is out of town, doing other things.

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Drumming with The Average Joes at Hinano’s in Venice [2009]
Taking a fill-in gig is an act of… take a wild guess… de-valuing the band. As you set boundaries for your band with promoters, be ready to counter them. They will use emotional manipulation to try to get you to do what they want.

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Double gig with WHIPLADS and Falling Moon at The Gig Hollywood [2005]
They may even threaten you with the typical talk of, “you’ll never work in this town again.” In our case, bending to the will of the promoter ensured, at the very least, that we would never again work for that promoter.

It’s very counter-intuitive, which is why it is so important to lean on your boundaries. Things are not always as they appear.

Should a promoter as you to fill in for a last-minute slot, the best thing to do is to first apologize, and the tell them that you are already booked for another gig. Feel free to say that this gig is paying you, so you cannot cancel. This also shows them that you stick to your commitments.

While this is not honest, it is essential to protect your band by doing this. It is your business, and the alternative is to allow your business to be compromised. Being 100% honest at all times will destroy all of your hard work.

 

Approach this in a way where you are protecting your business, while not actively harming anyone else. You are not harming a promoter by not taking their spot and declaring that you are busy.

The cancellation by the other band is THEIR problem, and not yours.

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Playing fretless bass with Black Hole Bindhi at Good Hurt in Venice [2009]
OWE NO FAVORS AND ACCEPT NO PERSONAL GIFTS
This tip is very important, because you could end up in a bad situation. Best case, you could lose some gear or money. Worst case, you could lose your life.

FAVOR: LEAVING GEAR ELSEWHERE
I’ve made the mistake of wanting to leave drums where I might be rehearsing with a band, such as in the band leader’s garage, a lock-out, or jam room in their house.

There was one situation, where the bass player had a meth problem and I did not know it. When I got to the lock-out, all of the gear had been taken by him. He sold all of it, thousands of dollars worth of gear, at a pawn shop for $100 to get meth.

In another situation, I kept a great deal of gear in a garage owned by a “friend.” He one day changed the locks, threatened me, and refused to return it. That was a $5,000 mistake.

Suing him and getting it back would have made a point, but it also would have cost much more than replacing the gear with new upgrades. Knowing his violent behavior, not knowing the condition of the gear while it was in his charge, and wanting to steer clear of it all, I decided to not pursue it.

Hard lesson learned.

PERSONAL GIFTS ARE NOT WORTH IT
This is a lesson that I learned from someone else. It’s a scenario that is less likely to occur in California.

In my friend’s situation, he played a show where some serious gangsters were in attendance. One of the gangsters approached him, said he really liked his music, and put a $100 bill in his hand.

Had he put it in the tip jar anonymously, that would be acceptable. But this was personal.

He handed the bill back to the guy and told him it was not necessary. The guy proceeded to apply pressure to him. “Ah, c’mon! It’s just a hundred bucks. You’re worth it, right?”

This high-pressure sell would have probably worked on me, especially since I now understand how my Asperger’s contributes to my being easily manipulated.

In the past, I would say no to someone, and they’d start with the hard press. Eventually, I would say yes just to get them to stop pressing me about it. But this would later open the door to additional manipulation, as well as abuse.

He had to work hard to get the guy to take the money back. Eventually, the guy took it back. The gangster told him, “Smart man. You know how to deal with guys like us.”

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF HE HAD ACCEPTED THE PERSONAL GIFT?
Accepting gifts makes a person beholden to the person who gives them the gift. This is why gifts are illegal for politicians. It’s also why accepting gifts from vendors and business associates at work will cost someone their job.

Had he accepted the $100 personal gift from this gangster, he would have been beholden to the gangster. Their next conversation probably would have involved the gangster asking him for a small favor that could involve delivering a package.

If you end up on this road, you may very well end up in prison, if you are lucky. Worst case, you can end up dead by being involved with them.

Never, ever, ever accept a gift. Tips are fine, but no gifts. Keep your integrity and your life.

A BRIEF SUMMARY
By now, you’re probably noticing a few patterns and themes here. With regard to business, here is a summary of my points:

  1. Be professional.
  2. Discuss business before playing one note at a rehearsal or gig.
  3. Have clarity regarding your position [band member or hired gun], and be sure that their expectations and yours match up.
  4. Set boundaries and stick to them.
  5. Be aware of lies, drug and alcohol abuse, and other indicators that the situation is not professional.
  6. Express your band’s value by not working for free or giving away free tickets.
  7. Do not do favors for anyone outside of the band.
  8. Avoid adopting the problems of others, such as promoters.
  9. Avoid pay-to-play.
  10. Remain professional and keep up boundaries, even if band members are friendly.
  11. Do your best to owe no one any favors.
  12. Do not accept gifts.

If I had to sum it up to one line, it would be this:

Be professional, talk business, put yourself and/or your band first, and keep an eye on your money.

IN THE END
Making music for fun is one thing. I have situations where I do this, and I truly enjoy it. However, when you’re approaching it from a business standpoint, be aware that there are lots of people who may not be so professional.

Bands typically come and go. Situations do not always work out. Be prepared to leave a project if you have concerns. You can bet that they would ditch you in a heartbeat, if it suited them.

Be safe out there, and best of luck.

Music, Backpacks, and Finding the Positive

“Everyone has rocks in their backpack.”

This is something my guitar mentor told me recently, after I had confided in him that I was experiencing some issue relevant to what we were doing. I may talk about those issue someday. More about these “rocks” later in this blog.

I wanted to write this as as follow-up to my previous blog entry, Anecdote: Sharks, Sour Grapes, and Fruit Baskets. Although the story is honest, and it reflects what could be expected of the old music industry model, I felt that it was too negative.

It was probably one of the most negative experiences that I’ve had on the inside. To put a more positive light on it, I did not let it destroy me, and I kept on. I’m still here!

There will always be negativity in the world, and in daily life when dealing with others. Various situations will arise, where you might get those feelings, or a sense of anxiety.

THE OLD MUSIC BUSINESS MODEL STINKS!
You can’t sell records. You won’t make big bucks with it. It’s not what it used to be.

These sentiments are very true, and that is one way of thinking about it. If you try to get somewhere with music in the same way that I tried in the mid-1980s, then you’re not only going to have a bad time, but you will probably get almost no traction at all.

It may still be possible, as a few dinosaur labels are kicking. There are other things to do.

YOU CAN STILL MAKE SOMETHING OF IT
If you write and record a song or album with the idea of moving units or having hits, then you might be taking the wrong approach. Second-guessing the audience or hip trends is always a fool’s errand.

By being true to yourself and doing what you want to do, you can create something and then push it out there as a representation of who you are.

YouTube, SoundCloud, Patreon, and other digital avenues are out there. Most do not cost very much, if anything, and you can reach more people. Get creative with it. Chances are that you will not sell one million albums, but you can make things happen with other avenues.

With Patreon, for example, you can have tiers and offer exclusive access to fans and social networking followers to participate in those tiers by donating a specific monthly amount. I don’t want to get into it too much, as I’d rather encourage you to check it out for yourself.

There has never been a better time in the history of music for independent musicians and songwriters than right now. It’s incredible.

MAKING THINGS BETTER
As you use today’s modern tools, think about how you can make them better, or how you can better utilize them to your advantage. Expensive hardware has been replaced with cheap or free plug-ins. Pricey interfaces are no long the only option, and other options are within almost anyone’s budget.

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Today, you can make your own album-ready music. I’ve been doing this with Noodle Muffin for the past 15 years, as we’ve self-recorded and self-produced everything we have ever released. The band was doing self-production long before I joined, as well. You can check out our albums on iTunes. It’s a fun band with some great songs, which is why I’m there.

ABOUT THOSE ROCKS IN MY BACKPACK
It is true that we all have rocks in our backpack. When he told me this, I initially took it as a simple way of being kind while rightfully suggesting that we’ve all got problems. However, I decided to dig a little deeper into what this statement means to me.

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It’s not a separate thing you have to do. It’s a part of what you do.

I was in the middle of writing this, when the batteries in my keyboard died, and I had to change them.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that the need to change the batteries was a part of my writing of this blog.

I don’t view this as part of the rocks, so much as the dust that gets kicked up when I start running and the rocks start bouncing in my backpack. At least, that’s my perception of it.

If that’s just the dust, then how big are these rocks?

WHAT IS THE BACKPACK?
The backpack represents a person’s ego. The ego is a container that I call “me.” You call it “I.” It lives in a biological locker known as your brain.

The rocks represent life experiences. It could be a parent saying that you’re “stupid,” or school kids calling you “ugly,” or a teacher who says that you’ll never get anywhere. It can be what you like, or your expectations, or behaviors. These are all rocks that are put in your backpack for you.

You put your own rocks in there, too, with negative self-talk, or memory of moments where you tried something and failed. When you quit instead of persisting, that’s another rock. Adopting preferences, becoming a fan of something, being influenced by marketing, going with the crowd, your hopes and fears, and more, are all considered to be rocks.

Not only do we hang onto these, but we cling tightly to them and carry them around. This is “me.” The contents of the backpack is who I am.

At one point, not only was my backpack full, but a stone quarry was dropped on my head a few years ago, when I was publicly scammed. Without getting into the re-telling or re-living of this horrible event, I will talk about how I dealt with it.

HOW WAS YOUR DAY?
Ah, you wouldn’t believe it. I was writing a blog, when my keyboard batteries died. So I went to my battery stash and did not have any of the proper size. This meant that I had to get pants, drive to the store, get the batteries, and stand in line. By the time I got back, I felt so uninspired. It just ruined my entire day, you know? [insert bad attitude and negative feelings here.]

Can you imagine letting batteries ruin your day? Batteries!

The attitude about it would be the first problem, and the re-hash of it would be the second problem.

This is why accepting it as being part of the process is so important, when compared to adopting it as a problem. This is also why I won’t write about the details of what happened. That information is for the investigating authorities. It’s not for my daily life.

THE REALLY BIG ROCKS
Getting scammed was one of the biggest rocks in my backpack. It’s easier to blow off dead batteries, than it is to cope with a life-changing event such as this. With the really big rocks, you have to chip away at them. This can take years.

This one took me four years, and I had to find ways to cope with the weight of it all, while trying to live a regular everyday life. This rock was so tremendously big that it obscured my vision.

After years of chopping away, it has been turned to sand. This has been pouring out through a hole in my backpack, like sand through an hour glass. Time healing wounds.

TAKING THE ROCKS OUT
Therapy is valuable. When discussing these rocks with a professional, their responses can sometimes result in the removal of some of the rocks. Trying to cover it up or going into denial might provide temporary relief, but this does not deal with them.

The rocks are still there. You’re just pretending they are not there.

Rocks are intimidating and overwhelming. Big rocks can be crippling.

DUMPING OUT THE ROCKS
Treatments involving therapy with psilocybin have been mentioned in the news recently, as a way of treating Veterans who suffer PTSD. The purpose of this treatment it to reset and normalize activity in the Amygdala.

The PTSD, or “triggering,” arises when statements or events result in an “Amygdala hijack.” This is an immediate and over-the-top reaction to something that is typically not meant to be all that bad. It’s making a boulder out of a piece of gravel.

For a while, I had a fear of going outdoors, and was lacking in confidence. These rocks have weight and power.

artworkUSING MUSIC TO COPE
I had addressed some of the major rocks in my life by spending 2017 writing and recording a series of songs related to people and events of my life that were of concern to me.

Some of the people mentioned in the songs had a hand in making the giant boulder in my backpack more difficult.

The result was “The Year of My Birth [2017],” which is a collection of those songs.

Putting these people and events into songs was a way of taking them out of my backpack, looking at them, and tossing them aside. I don’t have to think about them anymore.

People who do not write music often do something similar, when they write these things down on a piece of paper and then burn it.

GETTING A NEW BACKPACK
This may be done with a great level of psilocybin or other psychedelics, and the resulting effect is known as an “ego death.” I am not recommending this approach, and have not done this. I still have the same backpack. It’s just significantly lighter now.

What I have done involves the employment of meditation, as well as forgiveness. The forgiveness is not about excusing what they did, or letting them know that it did not hurt you.

MORE ABOUT FORGIVENESS
The forgiveness surrounding my biggest rock involved letting go of what happened by accepting that it is now part of the past. It is not who I am, and is not my future.

It means not holding bad feelings or grudges against the many people in this incident. These grudges will make a person sick. That’s a guarantee. Concepts, such as hating them or wanting to get revenge, get thrown out the window.

This is not to suggest that I would be friends with them. The similarities between loving someone and hating someone is that it’s an act of caring about them. By not caring about them, it is as if they no longer exist in my world. These negative people are now completely inconsequential in my mind.

I do not have the space, time, or energy for hating anyone.

THERE IS NO BACKPACK
Now we’re getting into the realm of intense spiritualists who become Elements of Heatless Light.

Do not think that you can never achieve it, for this is not about achievement, a goal, or a destination. When you dance, there is no spot on the dance floor where you try to end up. When you write a song, it’s not about the ending.

It’s about what you’re doing right now. After that, it’s not about what you did just then, and is about what you’re doing right now.

The only problem is that if you think you’ve attained it, then this act means that you have not. It is not a destination.

Turn left.

HOW ALL OF THIS APPLIES TO MUSIC
It is said that art comes from pain, and it really can. But when a person is angry, depressed, or otherwise injured, the last thing they want to do is create music. Anything that can get in the way of a person’s ability to get out of bed or to pick up an instrument is not conducive to the creative process.

Whether you’re a new student who is just learning, or a seasoned player who is working on new things, being able to play your instrument with a clear mind is essential to progress and creativity. At the very least, it is more difficult to focus and do what one wants to do with a heavy backpack.

A PROMISE TO MYSELF
I will be leaving the previous blog up, as a reminder of what I would prefer to avoid. While I will not avoid the negative aspects or challenges associated with music, I will take the time and care to address these things in a positive light, in a way that is productive and educational.

The promise I make to myself is a promise that I make to you, the reader. This blog will not turn into a dumping ground of negativity.

TODAY
Today, there is practice to be done, lessons to be written, floors to be swept, dishes to be washed, and garbage to be taken out. I will not think of these items as things that I have to do, like chores. Instead, I will approach these items as things that are a part of my life.

 

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The endless river… forever and ever…

Today, I get the opportunity to live. I can sweep the floors, wash the dishes, take the garbage out, do my lesson work, and practice my own music lessons. I might even get to write a song, and maybe record it, too.

 

I will have no expectations regarding any of it. What gets done will get done. What does not will not.

Should the winds blow, I will set my sails. Should the air be still, I will row my oars. Should my arms grow tired, I will rest in my boat and enjoy the scenery. And should I catch a fish, I will consider it a bonus.

I have no destination.

What I do have is right now. My attitude toward and about “right now” is for me, and I will give myself what I deserve.

I will not waste “right now” with negativity, hatred, or fear. And I will not fear Death, for Life is an illusion caused by Death.

Anecdote: Sharks, Sour Grapes, and Fruit Baskets

Today, if we want to meet other musicians, we can use the internet to learn a lot about what they do before we encounter them. When I started out, it was a different story.

GRAPE HUNTING
I’d had my industry-focused bands, and had taken a few shots at success in the music business as a musician before stepping outside of the drumming world, into the realm of songwriting. I had placed an ad in The Recycler, a Los Angeles periodical paper that is something like today’s CraigsList, in search of a female singer.

At the time, female singers were starting to gain in popularity. They’ve always been popular, but I could feel the eyes of the business gazing more intently at these future artists.

I GOT A BITE
My ad did get answered a few weeks later, when I got a call from a singer who said that she was looking for a songwriter. I’d not heard her sing anything, and knew nothing about her. My imagination filled in the gaps, and my mind was teeming with visions of the possibilities.

We scheduled a meeting, so I drove to her apartment. This would be where I would learn more about her, without us having a direct discussion.

MORE ABOUT HER
She came from a wealthy family from Florida. Her father gave her an allowance of $10,000 per week, with the caveat that she not have a boyfriend. Cell phones were not prevalent in the late 80s, which was lucky for her, because her father liked to keep tight tabs on her.

I learned all this by sitting in her apartment and waiting for her to end a call with her father. I got to hear one side of a conversation for over an hour.

Eventually, she asks me if I want to just go with her to meet her producer. He lives about six miles away, in the Hollywood Hills. I do not even give a thought to the idea that I’ve not yet heard her sing, and that things were moving quickly. I agreed to go, so we got in her car and went to see him.

THE SHARK TANK
We go through the Hollywood Hills, near the top, and park near this huge mansion. My nerves are going nuts, because I’m going in here completely blind. I tell myself that, so what if I’ve not heard her sing yet. She’s got a producer, so she must be good.

He answers the door, and she introduces me to him. His name will not be mentioned here, due to the nature of this story.

He warmly welcomes me to his home, and we make our way to his office, which takes more than a few minutes on foot.

TALKING BUSINESS / PROSPECTUS
We sat in his office, and he showed me a Prospectus for her album. The numbers that I saw in this document must have been for tax purposes. The first song in the Prospectus, which was supposedly going to be her “hit song,” had a production cost of $975,000 listed.

Of course, I asked why it cost so much to produce just one song. He said that he always includes the cost of the studio / production facility [his mansion], as well as those who are “writing” the music via “work made-for hire.”

THE PIT
He takes us out of his office for another long walk. Eventually, we’re on a catwalk of sorts, looking down on a pit. The pit is surrounded by book shelves, has hardwood floors, and has a sunken-down area in the center.

The pit has its own pit.

In the sunken down area is a big mixing board, with a young kid working on each side of the board.

He gleefully tells me what is going on in the pit.

“See that kid on the left? He makes drum beats all day long. It’s all he does. I pay him $7 per hour. And that kid on the right? He is on a synth, making bass lines, chord progressions, melodies, and other items, at my request. I also pay him $7 per hour. They make what I want, when I want it.

As I listened to him tell me these things, I start to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

THE SHARK ATTACKS: I GOT BIT
After he tells me about his production process, from Prospectus to work made-for-hire, the tone in his voice changes. The look on his face changes. He turns to me, grabs me by the shoulders, and the whole situation turns threatening.

“Look, I don’t know how you know my client. I don’t know how you ended up here. But I’m going to tell you something, and you’d best listen. I don’t give a flying fuck if your name is Ludwig van Fucking Beethoven. Hollywood DOES NOT NEED YOU. NOW GET THE FUCK OFF MY PROPERTY!”

He grabs the girl by her arm, and pushes on a bookshelf, which appears to be a secret opening to a hidden room. The shelf closes, and I hear a door slam a few seconds later. This is followed by some muffled yelling. It might be safe to assume that he made it clear to never bring a musician or writer before his eyes again.

I would never encounter either of them again.

THE WALK OF SHAME
It took me almost 15 minutes to find my way out of his mansion. The first door to the outside world that I found was the back door. It had a few Doberman guard dogs on the other side, who also did not like me.

I did find the front door, and was able to get off of his property without being killed by a pack of dogs.

It was raining. The Hollywood Hills is comprised of winding roads with NO sidewalks. I would end up walking in the rain for at least 90 minutes before I got to a place where buses ran. I caught a bus to my car.

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Dance, monkey! Dance! And make it entertaining.

LESSONS LEARNED
I was grateful for this experience, and not just because they ended up not being serial killers.

It gave me a window into the true nature of the big-money music business.

It showed me how they exploit people who have talent.

It also showed me how they do this for financial gain, by defrauding the IRS, as well as generating one-sided contracts.

It showed me how musicians are the ditch diggers of the music business. But this story did a lot more for me.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
As someone who never “made it” in the music business, I’ve often been told by others that I’m “just bitter” because I did not become a big-name musician. While I can understand this type of bitterness, what I learned informed me in a way where bitterness would not enter the picture for me.

SOUR GRAPES?
Everyone knows the fable of The Fox and the Grapes. It’s a story about a fox who wants to eat some grapes. He looks high up the vine at these grapes. He tries jumping up to get a taste of these grapes. However, no matter how hard he tries, he just cannot reach the grapes. Eventually, the fox gives up, and instead of admitting defeat, declares that they’re undesirable.

“Ah, who cares! They’re probably sour anyway!”

This parable is where we get the phrase “sour grapes.” Those who suggest that I might be bitter are effectively telling me that I’m declaring the grapes that are the music business to be sour.

Their suggestion could not be further from the truth, in part because of this experience that I had.

Unlike the fox, I was able to pull down the grapes. I was in a music producer’s mansion. He showed me his Prospectus. He pulled back the curtain and showed me the old man pulling the levers. He exposed it all to my face.

In my subsequent years and decades after this experience, I got to personally witness things that confirmed for me the idea that this experience that I had was NOT just a one-off.

The old business model for music is mostly dead, and is being replaced by a variety of other business models. While some may dispute or debate the details of this, it is an observable fact.

IN THE END
I actually got to taste the grapes. As a result, I am not bitter, angry, or disappointed that I did not get a full plate of grapes.

However, it was not a quick lesson. It would take me a long time to come to this conclusion, and I beat myself up over it up until the 90s were nearly over. As I have written in a previous blog, I felt horribly about the idea that I was going to be 30 years old, and had not gotten myself a seat at the music business table. Even then, what I experienced was disappointment, and not bitterness.

It would take both time and experience for me to come to the conclusion that I was better off without these grapes in my diet. Fortunately, the times have changed, and the old music business model is as irrelevant as ever. It’s being replaced by modern avenues, thanks to the internet and some culture changes.

Today, very few people have grapes. The older artists who are super-huge have some grapes that they like. Others get the grapes that are less desirable.

As for the rest of us, there is a banquet of fruit at our feet that is easily within reach. We might not get the grapes, but we get so much more, and it is satisfying in its own way. I’m certainly happy with it.

The Challenges and Evolution of Fame

For musicians who pursue the spotlight, as well as actors and other public figures, fame is one of those things that can be considered a tool, a nuisance, or anything in between. Some say that it is the price that one pays for their fame.

I’m going to get into my experiences with fame, including situations with some famous friends, as well as my own bout with a certain type of unexpected fame.

Fame has changed over the years, so I would like to explore this idea. At least, I think it has changed. Is it possible that I was the one who changed, and that fame has always been static?

Let’s find out.

FAME IN THE OLD DAYS
One element of fame that has never changed is that it seems to be something that comes with recognition. You see that person on the screen, or hear them through the speakers, and you get this sensation that you know them; a feeling of familiarity. This almost fits the dictionary definition.

Fame was one of those things that was seemingly earned by few people in society. These people actually did something to get this fame, whether it was being an actor in a movie, a singer or musician, or a politician.

FAME AND INFAMY
The concept of fame is not to be confused by someone who does something horrible. While some would suggest that Charles Manson is famous, and certainly he may be to his twisted fans, I would prefer to suggest that he is infamous.

Absolutely NOTHING has changed about infamy, how it is achieved, or what it does, so I will not discuss this aspect of the topic any further. However, some elements of infamy will be making an appearance later in this blog.

 

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Drumming for Fred Willard, on the stage of the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, for the Peter Boyle Multiple Myeloma Foundation fundraiser [late 2009].
MY TAKE ON FAME
For me, fame was not something that I necessarily wanted. When I set out to pursue my future as a professional musician, some of my family suggested that a pursuit of this nature is delusional.

 

However, I knew that fame was not for me, because I had a realistic view of myself at the time. I was not attractive or handsome, and I was not what I call “front man material.” I also knew that I was lacking in popularity in school, and in life in general. For these reasons, I viewed myself as a support player. In other words, I’ll play drums for that incredible singer. I’ll attach myself to someone with star power.

That was my plan, and it is by far more realistic than the thought that I would be a famous rock star. In fact, the idea that I would someday be a rock star never crossed my mind.

FAME AS A TOOL
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones knew of the power that fame would give him, and so he made it a goal. Through the 1960s, into the 1970s, the power players in music were changing in shape. It started out as business people who had NO idea what they were doing.

However, it would soon be taken over by people who claim to “know the culture” or “have their finger on the pulse” of the culture. When this happened, the end result was record executives who would tell you what you can and cannot do with your own music. This is why many generations, from the 1980s on, have lots and lots of music that all sounds alike.

So when Keith Richards set out to become famous, it came with the idea that fame would give him a great level of power and control over his own creations. I can imagine him wielding this power now.

What? We can’t track this song? Do you know who I am? That’s right, Keith fucking Richards in the mother fucking Rolling Stones. Now get me some coffee.

I think that Keith Richards actually had/has a health outlook on fame. The above scenario is one that I made up, based on interviews that I’ve watched. Richards would NOT use his fame to push people around, but instead would use it to push back whenever anyone threatened his ability to create music in the way that he wants.

Not only do I like this approach, but I wish that I had given it consideration. However, by the time I got to Los Angeles, music, bands, and other aspects of the music business were well under way with regard to being manufactured and more tightly controlled. That’s another topic for another time.

 

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Backstage with Fred Willard, discussing the finer details of our act [late 2016].
FAME AS A FRIEND
One thing I have done over the decades is make friends with other musicians. Some of these musician were rather famous. A few still are famous.

I was inspired to do this because there were a few motivational speakers out there who were promoting the idea that the way to find success in an industry is to make connections with others who have found this success. Get to know them. Learn their habits

 

I can tell you first-hand that it does not work this way. This is because how they got there was the only path for getting there in that way, for them, at the time. Trying to emulate famous friends in an industry also leads to survivorship bias.

Different bands, and different band members, all have their own path. Each of them got varying levels of fame, longevity, and success. Most of it was highly dependent upon luck. If any of them had to find a new gig tomorrow, it would be an uphill climb, even for them.

While this approach did not land me any gigs, it did give me insight into just how difficult getting a gig can be. It also showed how fame ultimately did not matter within the context of the business.

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From stage left: On the Wilshire Ebell Theater stage again with Fred Williard [late 2016].
WHEN FAME DOES NOT MATTER
One of my friends, who had found a serious level of fame, was the late Nick Menza, of Megadeth. We met when I discovered that I was working with his mother, and she introduced us. From the release of Symphony of Destruction, up until his passing in 2016, we were friends.

Fame sometimes got in the way, or made things weird.

We were jamming at his house one day, and took a break to eat. I took the trash around the side of his house, only to find half a dozen girls going through the trash, looking for personal items of his. That experience showed me just how dark fame can get.

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With Nick, after a Megadeth show promoting Cryptic Writings.

Tabloids found out who I was, so they would constantly call me and ask me questions. However, I wasn’t just saying no to the questions. I was also saying no to the money they were offering, in exchange for my talking. The offers ranged from $5,000 to $20,000. My son was born in 1995, and I cannot think of a time where I needed money more than then. I couldn’t sell out our friendship.

 

Even if their promise was correct, in that I would be anonymous, it was about certain things, where he’d know it was me. Beyond that, I would know, and would not be able to live with myself.

The last time the press contacted me was less than one year after he was let go from Megadeth. When he was let go, his fame was still in tact, to a degree. Pearl came out and brought him a huge drum set. Later, they took us out for sushi and saki, in what would be the most epic of nights.

After that, it seemed that his star faded. I think he was fine with that, as he was spending time focusing on his family. He certainly didn’t need it anymore. I was glad that my phone stopped ringing, but I had initially felt badly that Nick’s fame was fading away. I thought that it would be an effective tool to land him in a new drumming spot with a new band. This was not the case.

Fame, it seems, is a most unreliable tool. It does not get you much, outside of sometimes crazy fans.

Eventually, I came to realize that fame did not matter to him, at all. He dealt with it gracefully when he had it, and then enjoyed life when he did not have it.

 

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“Straight Outta Lynwood.” Great album and tour.

WHEN FAME GETS WEIRD
Another good friend is Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz. About 15 years ago, he found me on a drum forum. I was being taken for a ride by a shady drum company, and he cared enough to give me a call and set me straight. Truth be told, I have a history of being gullible, and I have been working on that over the past few years.

 

While not as famous as Al, he has a great level of fame with both Weird Al fans and drummers. His is what I call “earned fame,” because of his ability to approach the drums like just about any drummer who has been out there.

He doesn’t have a standard drumming gig where you just show up and play the drums to your own songs. He’s also got to be able to impersonate and emulate the sound of the original drummer for the song they will parody. The work involved in getting the right sounds is nothing short of astonishing. This, along with his playing abilities and friendly demeanor, has earned him a great deal of respect in the drumming community.

So, what was it that got weird?

Bermuda got me backstage passes for Al’s “Straight Outta Lynwood” show. I never ask for backstage passes, so it was neat to receive them. I was grateful.

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With Weird Al and my son, Straight Outta Lynwood tour. Yes, I can un-delete Emo Philips’ MySpace profile.

When I got backstage with my son after the show, I met Al. We talked for a few minutes. Then, he asks me a question.

 

“So, you’re Bermuda’s friend. Are you the friend who happens to work at MySpace?”

Why yes, I was.

Suddenly, the tables were turning. Al had a favor, and it was as if he was asking me for my autograph. Word has gotten out that I worked at MySpace, and people suddenly wanted to talk to me. It was as close to my own fame as I will ever get.

He asked me if I could un-delete the MySpace profile for his friend Emo Philips. It took some work, but I was able to get it done. I had always looked up to Weird Al, and I still do, so it was nice to be a hero for one of my own.

While Weird Al did want to meet me, most musicians in general really do not want to meet you/us, the fans.

 

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With my boss and your first “friend,” Tom Anderson at MySpace

WHEN FAME GETS SCARY
The MySpace fame that I enjoyed was fun sometimes. It was also scary at times.

 

It came about because first made the mistake of telling a few friends I worked there. They would offer up this information to friends who had problems with the site. As a result, I got lots of free and direct bug reports.

Since the cat was out of the bag, I made my second mistake with it, which was to be publicly proud of working there.

Completely strangers, who were also social engineers, would send me messages to chat. They’d ask me questions, such as how long it takes me to get to work and where I live. These questions were designed to give them information so that they could find out where the MySpace headquarters was located.

Social engineer seemed to happen rather frequently. Eventually, I had to shut them down by blocking them.

This was dangerous, for I sincerely believe that they wanted to find out where the office was located so that they could cause some harm to Tom. I was not the only one who saw this as a strong motive. As a result, I had to treat my job the same way that I treated famous friends. I had to be careful and employ special rules to make sure nothing bad happened.

If I had it to do all over again, I would not have told anyone where I worked. This is why I don’t have a LinkedIn account.

MYSPACE FAME SAVES THE DAY
Because MySpace was a hot property, I had a better time of it when going to my son’s school for “Work Day.” This was where parents come in and tell the class what they do. My son went to school in Santa Monica, so a lot of his classmates’ parents were famous for something or another. Movie stars, rock stars, athletes. You name it.

The parent who went in front of the class before me was Kenny Norton, Junior. He’s got a few Super Bowl rings. No big deal.

When it was my turn to get in front of the class, I had the privilege of being able to say that I worked at MySpace with Tom. Every kid in the classroom lit up, and they had a TON of questions about Tom, about the website, and about what I did.

It felt good to be able to compete with the other parents.

The Donnas - Knitting Factory - Sandy West Memorial 061209
MySpace fame got me backstage with The Donnas, at the Sandy West Memorial Tribute show, The Knitting Factory Hollywood, 12/09/2006.

MYSPACE FAME DIES OUT
All of this started for me in mid-2006. However, by mid-2008, MySpace was going through “feature fatigue,” as too many features were being added by too many new employees. Existing features were broken and ignored. I could write a whole book on how and why MySpace failed, and who I think was responsible.

The economy also hit a major bump, which prompted MySpace to downsize 5% of their staff. I’m proud to say that I was one of the 5%, because there were some good people in that group, some of which had gotten “Employee of the Month” awards just a few days earlier.

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Justine Bateman

When that happened, I announced it on MySpace. Initially, I got one phone call on my drive home from Justine Bateman. I talked to other friends later in the week about it. She called to ask if I was okay. I was far from okay, but getting that call helped me a bit.

 

By the time we hung up, not only did I know that my MySpace fame was instantly dead, but I also knew that the website itself would be dead within six months. It was suffering from necrosis when I walked out the door, so it didn’t take much to see this.

WHEN FAME GETS DANGEROUS
With MySpace, we were flat-out lucky that nothing bad happened. Anyone could have been tricked, and all it would take is one for a disaster. Luckily, it was avoided.

My guitar mentor is a guitarist who is famous for his work in the past. I won’t put forth any more detail than that, to protect his identity. He left the music business over 30 years ago, and released his last big-label album over 40 years ago.

To me, he’s my mentor, and I have a great deal of respect for his knowledge and what he teaches. He’s someone who is helping me out. He’s a regular guy, and a life-long student of the guitar.

But to others, he’s that world-famous rock star.

Every so often, he gets fans just showing up to his house. I can’t think of anything more concerning than an overly-excited stranger knocking on my door.

He had one guy show up, and he was camping in the front yard. He tells the guy to leave, and he won’t, so the police are called. As the police are taking this guy away, he’s screaming, “I flew all the way from Japan to meet you. Why won’t you hang out with me?”

I feel badly for the fan ONLY because he’s clearly misguided. Beyond that, to me it sounds like a situation where things can get dangerous real quickly. Asking him to leave, and then having him arrested when he refused, was the right thing to do.

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With Longineu W. Parsons III [aka “LP”] of Yellowcard, preparing to judge the Guitar Center Drum-Off 2009.
WHY DOES FAME GET DANGEROUS AND WEIRD?
When you first meet another person, you typically have your guard up. You don’t know the person, and are not certain about whether it is safe for them to know certain things about you, or to do certain things with you. You’d not invite a complete stranger into your home, and let them do whatever they wanted.

With fame, there is a perception of familiarity. As a result, the fan will behave in a way that they might if they had been long-time friends with the person who is famous. Boundaries are dropped or removed completely.

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Judges on the panel: Guitar Center Drum-Off 2009.

Think of how you behave around a large group of people you don’t know. Consider, for example, your first day on a new job. You’re reserved, cautious, and paying attention to who might be good to know or avoid.

 

Then, consider how you behave when you have friends over for barbecue and beers. Drinking, inappropriate jokes, pats on the back and more personal contact. Private space shrinks considerably.

Now, set up a scenario where ONE person is the new guy at work [the famous person], and the OTHER person is drunk at a barbecue [fan]. What you have here is two different people in a situation, where they’re operating individually under two completely different types of context.

While the famous person is working to keep some personal space while analyzing the situation, the fan has dropped all boundaries, invades their personal space, and acts like they’ve known each other forever.

HOW FAME HAS EVOLVED
As noted above, fame is typically something that can happen when someone is highly visible. This highly-visible person is typically a musician, actor, model, politician, or someone else who has gotten themselves to a place where they have this visibility.

In the past, people like Keith Richards saw fame as a tool that can be used to protect their creative ventures. Fame can also be used to promote a cause. Whatever the case may be, in the past, fame was something that was secondary to what the person does. For example, Eddie Van Halen is famous because of how he plays guitar, the songs he writes, and his contributions to music.

Thanks to the internet and Web 2.0 efforts, fame is no longer something that happens because of what someone does. Today, people can be famous for being famous.

The biggest example of this, of course, is the Kardashians. What happened with Kim Kardashian is that she took two key points of infamy and turned it into fame.

Of course, the Kardashian name was originally made famous by lawyer and family patriarch Robert Kardashian, who was on the “Dream Team” of lawyers representing OJ Simpson. He was friends with Simpson, and a relationship could not possibly get more controversial than that.

As if this infamy were not enough, Kim Kardashian also had a “leaked” porn video of herself. I think her sister had one as well.

In the past, these two points of infamy would be enough to bury someone, to the point that it would harm their future. Not too long ago, it would have been a life destroyer. However, these two points of infamy, combined with sex, scandal, and the modern-day internet, resulted in a high level of fame.

Now, Kim and the others are famous for being famous, via being infamous. From my perspective, and based on my experience, it appears to not only be the most lucrative form of fame ever seen, but it also seems to be the most hollow form of fame.

ADVICE ON HOW TO HANDLE MEETING SOMEONE
Now it’s time for some unsolicited advice on what to do if you recognize someone famous and want to speak with them.

Don’t just run up! See if they appear busy, or unhappy. It might be a bad time to approach them. Interacting with someone while they’re in a bad place is a good way to have a really bad experience. This might be part of why the advice to “never meet your heroes” is so good.

In the 1990s, I saw Richard Pryor at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. He was being pushed through the mall on a hospital bed on wheels. I didn’t know what had happened, so I just rightfully assumed that this was not a good time to be approaching him to have a conversation.

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And a good day to you, sir! We’re big fans.

Assuming they’re in a good mood, you can walk up. Stay calm. Address them by name and let them know that you appreciate their work. DO NOT push for a photo, as they might not look their best and would not want a photo out there. Savor the experience. I would guess that for every situation that resulted in a photo, there are at least 20 other encounters where no photos were taken.

Since I’m a musician, a conversation about music can result when I meet a famous musician. I keep things even-keel and work to be aware of social cues. Knowing when the conversation needs to end is important.

MY LONGEST CONVERSATION
There was one incident where I ended up having a really long conversation. I went to Guitar Center in Hollywood to meet Ginger Fish, the drummer for Marilyn Manson at the time [early 2000s]. He was promoting Premier Drums, and I was playing that brand at the time, so it made sense.

ginger-fish.jpgI was also having a major struggle with drumming and music in general, as I had been diagnosed with Tendinitis. I couldn’t even grip drum sticks, let alone play. I was going through therapy via Workers’ Compensation, since this situation was the result of having a workstation that was not ergonomic.

When I told him that I was having this issue, and that I was genuinely concerned, he spent almost 90 minutes telling me about some of his challenges, as well as tips on stretches and warm-ups.

I’ve obviously had longer conversations with other people who happen to be famous, but they’re also my friends. Ginger Fish [Kenny Wilson], on the other hand, did not know me at all. He owed me nothing, and yet he gave everything.

Overall, it was an inspirational and very helpful discussion, and I am forever grateful that he took the time to help me out with my challenges.

OMG, YOU’RE WHO YOU ARE!
Obviously, fame is a complicated thing. It can be a tool, it can be an uplifting thing, it can be a curse, or someone can be famous simply for being famous.

Whatever the case may be, it can result in encounters that are psychologically and/or socially challenging. To add to the advice above, I’m going to close with a story about my first major celebrity musician encounter. See if you can figure out what I did right and what I did wrong.

It was 1981, and I was studying drums in Indianapolis. As luck would have it, Ozzy was having a show on the same day as my lesson. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I would have to rush from the lesson to the venue for the show, so I was considering skipping just one lesson. After all, it was for a good cause, which was to see a show and get an understanding of what happens on the stage. I let my drum teacher know about the conflict.

My drum teacher, Richard Paul, did not see it this way. “Oh, so you want to skip your lesson? You can either be on the stage, or in the audience. It’s up to you. Hell, just mail me checks and don’t bother showing up if you’re going to have this attitude.”

Ah, King Richard. I told him that I understood his message, and that I would be at my next lesson. In a way, he was right. Still, I think that going to shows and seeing the end result is always useful and informational, as well as inspirational.

No matter. My new plan is to have my lesson, go change in the bathroom, and then run to the show. After my lesson, I go into the bathroom and change clothes in the toilet stall.

When I come out, I see a little figure at the sink. This person is very small and short, with long blond hair. For a moment, I thought that maybe I had accidentally gone to the women’s restroom.

randy rhoads.jpgI step toward the sink to wash my hands, look over, and it’s Randy Rhoads. As I look over, he looks over. We make eye contact.

I’m a big fan, and now I’m in this unexpected situation. I speak up.

“You’re Randy fucking Rhoads! I didn’t expect to see you here.”

How those words made it past the foot in my mouth, I will never know. I asked what he’s doing, and he tells me that he’s TAKING a guitar lesson.

I mishear what he says. “Wow, you’re TEACHING guitar lessons? I’d love to take a guitar lesson from you. I didn’t know you teach.”

hold my beerHe kindly corrected me and repeated that he was TAKING a guitar lesson. When I heard this, I answered, proceeding to say the most stupid thing that I’ve ever said to anyone.

“But you don’t need to take guitar lessons. You’re Randy Rhoads!”

I really cannot say why I said this. Maybe I was in shock. Maybe I subconsciously had the idea that you learn and practice, reach a point where you’ve “made it,” and then you stop learning. Ah, to be 16 and even more naive than I am now.

He could have laughed at me, gotten angry and left, or had just about any possible reaction to this 16-year-old idiot fan. Instead, he was very kind about it, and told me something that would change my life forever.

“No, I was taking a guitar lesson. I always take a lesson when on the road. It’s a great warm-up before a show, and you can always learn something from someone else.”

Although I’m 53 now, I still heed this advice, and am always looking for things to learn from others, be it in music or otherwise.

I said that was “cool,” and then asked him one last question, “Man, you’re a respected guitarist around the world, and you’ve got a great gig with Ozzy. It seems that you’ve achieved a dream; at least it would be MY dream to be in the band. Do you have any dreams left that you’d like to achieve.?”

He said that his dream was to play a show at Madison Square Garden. Sadly, he died in a plane crash just weeks before a scheduled performance there. While he did not live to see this dream become a reality, he knew that it was going to be a reality.

Looking back at meeting Randy Rhoads, I think about how cool and humble he was, even though he was white-fire-hot famous at the time. And when I think back to his advice, which still to this day has an impact on my life, I realize that this did not come from a place of fame. It came from the heart, because Randy was a decent person who cared about other people, and who enjoyed meeting others.

It was Randy’s kindness and caring that changed my life, not his fame. Not only did it change my life, but it changed my perception about fame, as well as my perception of those who have achieved fame. People are people, and fame does not define this.

I learned that a lifetime of learning is key to success, that kindness prevails, and that fame ultimately does not matter. It’s perceived familiarity. It can still be fun to meet people who make the music or movies that you like.

Just remember that they’re people, too. They have their good days and bad days. And while you might get the feeling that you know them, you really do not know them, and they do not know you. Proceed with care.

 

How to Make Your Own Backing Tracks

If you’ve ever seen a band like STEEL PANTHER***, then you may have had some questions about what you’re hearing vs. what you’re seeing.

Where is the synth player?

There are more backing vocals than people singing.

What I’m hearing and seeing does not seem to match up.

These questions are very fair questions, and these questions can be asked of MANY, many bands out there. The answer, in this case, is that Steel Panther uses backing tracks during their live performances.

But HOW?

WHY?

These are questions that I can easily answer. Let’s dive into the “how and why” of backing tracks for live performances, as well as my background in this area.

Before we do that, I have a ***disclaimer: My last dealings with Darren Leader were roughly ten years ago, around the time when Metal Skool was getting started. So it is possible that Steel Panther has since done away with all backing tracks. While I cannot say for sure that they use backing tracks today, I can honestly say that they did in the past, and it appeared to work very well for their purposes.

MY BACKGROUND
I did this long before Steel Panther did. In 1987, I co-wrote a musical titled “In The Chips.” With this live performance, in the initial iteration, I played live guitar while all of the other instruments were reproduced via MIDI performance.

My use of the MIDI instruments was no different in using a recording. However, the way in which Steel Panther does this is infinitely more convenient and reliable than lugging around a bunch of MIDI gear, setting it all up, and doing a sound check.

I had also performed with backing tracks during Noodle Muffin’s final performance in early 2009. More about this later.

Beyond this, I was also the drum tech for a band called Video Star, back when Darren Leader was drumming for them. Darren created all of the backing tracks for Video Star, and he also created all of the backing tracks for Steel Panther, as the owner of the band. They were previously known as Metal Skool, and changed their name after signing a contract with National Lampoon, which ended up failing due to National Lampoon never being able to find a budget for the band.

As drum tech, I had to set up all of the drummer’s systems, which included how he controlled the backing tracks.

WHY CREATE AND USE BACKING TRACKS?
There are several reasons why backing tracks are used, and they can sometimes make sense in a modern world.

Perfection: This is one reason, which is evidenced in the performance of the bass player, Travis Haley. Travis was the lead singer for Video Star when I met him. For years now, he’s been focusing on being the bass player for Steel Panther.

While Travis is a solid bass player in his own right, he was not actually playing bass in their live shows during the early stages of the Metal Skool era. Instead, he was focusing on acting and bringing comedy to the stage, in the form of such antics as his “hair solo.”

To be clear, I think that he might be actually playing bass today, but he was not playing bass during the early stages of the Metal Skool era. I have seen more recent videos where they have “guest bass players” get on and actually play, and where Travis appears to actually be playing. If this is true, then it’s a step up, and I withdraw my critique of this for Steel Panther. However, I think it still stands for the early Metal Skool days.

Consistency: The songs are performed in a consistent manner, and all instruments that are recorded are played back with consistency. While this limits the band’s ability to jam, or to extend a song, it brings a consistency which can be rehearsed.

Save Money: If you need percussion for only a few songs, or a keyboard for a few songs or parts here and there, then it is by far cheaper to record these parts and play along with them, then it would be to hire more musicians, go through rehearsals with them, and then have to pay them.

Speed: With Steel Panther, only the drummer and guitarist need to learn the music, and the singer needs to learn to sing the songs. The drummer has a leg up, since he produces all of the backing tracks. I’m sure the guitarist, Russ, helps him. Even if he does not, he’s an incredible player. What this means, with regard to speed, is that they can add a new song to their set, or even modify an existing song, as fast as it takes to make or modify the backing track and run through it a few times.

HOW TO MAKE BACKING TRACKS
Obviously, you’re going to need to either play all of the instruments you want to record, or you will have to get someone to do it, or hire a player. Engineering, recording, and production skills are a must. With this how-to section, I am going to assume that you either have these abilities now, or that you can work it out.

I’m going to give you THREE ways to do this: The Steel Panther way, the Noodle Muffin way, or the DrumWild way. From there, you can decide which one is best for you.

BACKING TRACKS: THE STEEL PANTHER WAY
Steel Panther tracks are first recorded and then laid out in a very specific way, using stereo panning to the advantage of the band.

The Left Channel: This has all of the music on it. The left channel is the channel that gets sent to the board. This is the ONLY channel that gets broadcast.

The Right Channel: This can have some of the music on it, but it also contains other elements. One of those elements is a CLICK that is in time with the recorded music. It can also have other information, such as the producer stating the name of the song before it starts, and a count-off so that the drummer can click everyone else in. It can also contain notes, such as “here comes ending… 5-6-7-8.”

Who Hears These Channels?: To be clear, the board broadcasts the Left channel to the house speakers. Everyone can hear this. The drummer is the only one who hears the Right channel. The rest of the band links up with him, and not the click. The drummer plays with the click.

Challenges: The biggest challenge with this can come with musicians who tend to run away from the tempo. Sticking with the drummer is always important, but in this case it is imperative. Otherwise, the band could quickly become a laughing stock.

How is it Done?: First, the music is mixed and mastered so that ALL of the song is on the left channel, and the right channel contains a low-level bus of the final mix, along with a click and possibly some guidance.

Once that is mixed, it is put on an iPod in a playlist.

From the iPod, have a cable with a 1/8″ jack, which splits the Left and Right signal. Label these appropriately, for ease of setup. Run a cable from the Left split to the board. As for the Right, run a cable from that into a headphone amplifier.

goldline headphone amp.jpgDarren uses a Gold Line headphone amplifier. This clips on your belt, and is very convenient to use. It does run on two 9v batteries, and requires a screw driver to take it apart to replace the batteries. Outside of this potentially big inconvenience, it’s a great headphone amplifier.

I had one of these, and used it for a handful of years with no problems at all. I got mine online for approximately $130.

From the headphone amp, you run earbuds. You can use some in-ear buds, which can cost around $100. I like to use LiveWires IEMs, which start at around $300. They fit more snugly, and have more protection from the loud broadcast in the house.

Once all of this is set up, the iPod can be put on a stand on the side of the drum set. I used a percussion tray that attached to the hi-hat stand. However you do it, the iPod must be in a place where the drummer can easily read it, press play, stop, and scroll through songs.

If you use an iPod, then be sure to set it so that it does not automatically go into the next song. I have not messed with this in years, so you’re on your own if you choose this method.

BACKING TRACKS: THE NOODLE MUFFIN WAY
I took a similar approach to this with Noodle Muffin, for our final live show in early 2009. When I joined Noodle Muffin in 2002, just about everyone in the band had to play two instruments. It took a lot to re-create the rich production and instrumentation of a Noodle Muffin record.

The bassist and violin player both left when the band started getting into politically-charged writing and recording. So when we wanted to do a final show, we had a decision to make. We can hire new musicians to join the band, or we can perform with backing tracks.

We chose the latter.

What is different: From hardware to click track, everything about the Noodle Muffin approach was different.

Master multi-track recordings: Since the band is self-produced, we had the actual tracks that were recorded to make the albums. This meant that we had control over re-mixing. It also meant that we did NOT have to record any backing tracks.

Removing instruments and voices: The band’s producer removed what would be played live. This mean taking out the bass [which I was playing], as well as guitars, lead vocals, some backing vocals, and piano for one song. Anything that we would be doing live got removed from the recordings.

A Click-In: With Steel Panther, there is a click for the entire song, and the drummer has to be locked down to it. This approach, in this configuration, is essential to the success of the performance. Had we decided that I should play drums in this performance, then we would have taken a similar approach. However, since we were using the recorded drum tracks from the album in the live performance, we instead used a 1-2-3-4 click-in.

Also, we were all listening to the backing track and playing along with it, so nobody was using IEMs.

There was one song that started out with a snare beat [starting on the “&” of the 2], so we did not use a click-in for that. Here’s how that song ended up being worked out.

Major Noize explains it to Phatt Pigeon at the beginning of the video, for clarity.

Final Mixes: Once the tracks were mixed down into 16-bit WAV stereo performances [again, with no need to separate left and right] with uniform volume levels, I was given these song files. Each song file got its own entry into our play-back unit.

br600.jpgPlay-Back Unit: For this performance, we used a BOSS BR-600 8-track [virtual 64-track] portable digital recorder.

I put the songs on tracks 5/6 or 7/8, since they were in stereo.

The unit’s playback, previous song, and next song were all controlled by me, using foot pedals. I would only need to touch the unit to make fine adjustments to volume levels.

In the end, we got some very good results out of this approach. Here is a sample.

I’m on stage right, playing the Fender fretless bass. I have the BR-600 on a music stand, next to a bottle of water. It was very easy to reach. The few times that I had to make adjustments did not have a negative impact on the end sound.

Challenges: The biggest challenge in this small venue was that there was no sound man who could make sure the mix was good. I had to rely on someone in the audience to let me know when the mix between the pre-recorded tracks and the live amps was properly balanced.

Everyone kept with the tracks just fine. We did have to rehearse it a few times. Overall, the show was a success.

BACKING TRACKS: THE DRUMWILD WAY
The way I’m going to describe here would have been the best way to do the Noodle Muffin approach. However, the technology did not yet exist, so we made do with what we had.

The way that I approach this method today is more compact, convenient, and civilized.

BOSS RC-3 Loop Station.jpgI produce a lot of my own backing tracks, but also download backing tracks created by others. Some of these are “jam tracks” for guitar soloing rehearsal. I create my stereo tracks, and then copy them over to my BOSS RC-3 LOOP STATION.

You have input and output options, including an AUX in at the front of the unit, near the power supply and USB.

The unit has 100 banks. On the computer, each bank appears like a folder. Each song file goes into its own folder.

This pedal does have its limitations. It accepts 16-bit / 44.1kHz WAV files, up to 1.7GB in size. What this means is NO 24-bit tracks can be used. You could also run out of space for a specific song, which is less likely.

It can also be a pain to made adjustments to the volume at time, if you’re running everything out of a guitar amplifier. It seems that you could run the pedal files out to the board using a separate signal, but I have yet to try this.

Keep in mind that this is a basic guitar pedal, and that I am stretching it to its limits. There are more expensive pedals out there that may accept 24-bit files and have more bells and whistles. The RC-3 is great if you want to keep the cost under $200.

BOSS FS-5U.jpgI can control the tracks and other functions completely with my feet. I can move to previous/next tracks, stop the player, and do other things with a set of BOSS FS-5U pedals. The setup for this can be a bit complicated, so I won’t be writing about that too much here.

This guy goes into the FS-5U setup:

All I have to do is scroll to a song that I want to play, using the FS-5U, and then click on the RC-3 pedal to play it.

I can also play along with drum patterns while looping a rhythm, or I can just play a rhythm and then play a lead over it.

SHOULD YOU TRY THIS?
I have very mixed feelings about the idea of using pre-recorded tracks during a live performance. On the one hand, I do love having live players who can interact. A band being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, is the ultimate in freedom.

Once you bring backing tracks into it, you are at the mercy of the length, tempo, and contents of those tracks. A band can easily transpose a song, should the singer’s voice need a break. With backing tracks, this would take an incredible amount of effort.

But on the other hand, I enjoy having the freedom to be able to play along with a full sound, without needing to coordinate others, have band rehearsal, deal with personal schedules, personality conflicts, paying for a lock-out, and other issues.

I think that this approach is most definitely something worth considering, whether you want to beef up the sound of your band, or you want to perform solo. There are benefits and pitfalls, most of which I’ve noted. Maybe it’s something that would work out for you.

For a guitarist, a looper pedal is an essential component to your pedal board. It’s good for rehearsals, as well as live performances.

IN THE END
The use of backing tracks for a live performance is a choice that many bands make. Some use it so they can sound more like the album, or for a variety of other reasons. Others do not use it, and they have their own reasons. For a band, it is either a band decision or a business decision.

For a solo performer, it can be nice to have another track in the air with you, to fill in some of the emotions or orchestration that may exist in your head or on a recording.

All of the methods mentioned in this blog have their strengths and weaknesses. If you’re a drummer locking in during a live performance, then the Steel Panther approach would be best. Review these methods, and then consider your own situation and what you want to achieve with it.

MY RECOMMENDATION
Combine the best of all worlds. Find a looping product that can utilize the sound files you want, while providing storage for those files. A looper is more flexible because it has uses outside of playing along with pre-recorded files.

With a looper, you can record something on-the-fly and then play along with it. This is something that Steel Panther will probably never do, since they rely so heavily on the play-back and accompanying click, which is set in stone.

I’ve seen acts like 2 CELLOS use a looper during their live performances in songs such as “Thunderstruck,” where they have a temporary need for three cello players. Notice how they’re playing the opening guitar riff of the song. Then, by around the 35 second mark, you continue to hear the riff, while most obviously noticing that NEITHER of them is playing it. That’s the power of a looper, when used as intended.

There are looper performance competitions, which highlight the flexible nature of this music tool. Whatever you decide to use, you can most definitely use this blog as a starting point to figure out what you want to achieve, and where you should probably start. If you have any questions, you can contact me via my website.

Whether you use it for backing a live performance, to enhance a live performance, to go solo, or for rehearsal, there are a variety of ways to approach backing tracks.

Whatever you do, NEVER use a looper or a pre-recording to compensate for actual performance of actual people on the stage. This is where big problems can arise. Just ask the surviving members of Milli Vanilli how that goes down.

Backing tracks and loopers open new doors of freedom for musicians and performers who want to take the road less traveled.

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My current pedal board