Friday, May 24, 2013

Play It Forward

Flyer for tonight's gig.  Designed by Mark Jason.
As I sit in my mother and father-in-laws house in Ann Arbor typing this, Mark Jason is getting started playing a gig I was slated to play at Handlebar in The Grove.  In an uncharacteristic lack of foresight, I booked a happy hour show for the Friday before Memorial Day, the precise weekend my wife and I had been planning on visiting her family. 

When push came to shove, Mark, who had been scheduled to play the middle set between my sets, boldly took on the whole three hours (which I suspect may have been more than he bargained for when he accepted the gig).  Luckily, however, Mark found someone to open for him, who is probably just getting off the stage as I type these words.

This turn of events has a magnitude that I think is more profound than it seems at first, one that speaks to the connectedness of all of us.  Mark comes to my last open mic, thoroughly impresses EVERYONE and is offered a gig as a result.  That gig’s main act, having another engagement to attend to, must bow out, and Mark is thrusted into a position where he can give someone else an opportunity.  That short chain begins with me, and someone I don’t even know benefits from it.  This seems to be the great serendipity of life.
Mark Jason performing at the last OMP.

My start in St. Louis came about in a similar way.  I had been meandering around town from open mic to open mic for about 3 months, and in that time I had met a fellow open mic officianado, Billy Croghan.  At Luna Lounge one night, where Billy was running his own open mic at the time, I was picking his brain about booking gigs, a feat that was still outside my purview.  It was then that Billy offered what would become my first gig since college, first acoustic solo gig ever and the first of my over 100 gigs in St. Louis.  Billy gave me 30 minutes to play his break at Tin Can, Morgan Ford.

That gig, on September 17th 2011, made all the difference.  It was in a very real way the catalyst for everything I’ve done since.  My residencies, ArtWalk, my various bands, Open Mic @ Plush—the LBJ experience in STL might have happened very differently, or not at all, had I not befriended Billy Croghan and been given a shot to entertain with him.

So, I see this kind of collaboration as essential to building lasting alliances and strong careers for musicians in our local scene, especially those just starting out.  It’s important for us to help and develop one another, and one way we can do that is by playing gigs together—those of us with experience giving opportunities to those without.

A lot of folks wouldn’t want to offer a co-bill to a brand new artist.  Presumably, they have no fans, no network.  Presumably, they will be shaky, unprofessional, make rooky mistakes.  I can only imagine how my set at Billy’s gig must have seemed to an onlooker.  I brought a total fan base of 1, my wife (then fiancée), Lindsey.  I was sweaty and nervous and had an underdeveloped stage persona.  I forgot the lyrics to one song and made different ones up on the spot.  I was limited in my ability to respond to the crowd.
Billy and I at the first SLSA showcase, Nov. 2011.

But all of that was okay.  Billy could do all of those things, I was there to support and to get my sea legs.  It’s important that we provide those opportunities for one another because few venues would hire a performer like the sorry spectacle I proved to be at that gig.  Folks like that would be confined to playing short sets at open mics and long sets in front of the bedroom mirror, making slow progress.  But, the surest way to become a truly skilled and magnetic performer is to play full sets in front of real audiences.  The time it takes to close the gap between “okay” and “WOW” diminishes 100 fold when real crowd experience comes into play.

Not to mention there can be benefits for the experienced performer who lends a helping hand to a new comer.  If my first stage (punning stage as a step in a process and as a platform for performance…clever!) was getting gigs by the kindness of strangers (I have a really cool song called Stranger, just fyi), then my next stage was booking my own gigs that were populated almost entirely by friends, family, and fans of the people who I gave an opportunity to play with me. 

You see, not all new performers are like I was when Billy gave me a shot.  I was new in town; the only people I knew were my coworkers at Barnes and Noble and other musicians.  I couldn’t offer Billy a big cadre of supporters.  But, when Bob McMahon played a middle set at my residency at Historic Crossroads, I saw yet another application of that timeless promotional maxim, “People you know know people you don’t.”  Bob, who by his own admission hadn’t played out in quite some time, filled the house at Historic Crossroads.  He brought with him a group of people that would have otherwise not been exposed to my music, giving me an opportunity to win their fandom.

Bob McMahon in a particularly red hoodie performing at our first gig together at Historic Crossroads, January 2012.
So, offering a gig to a new-comer or a back-comer isn’t an altruistic undertaking.  It’s cooperative.  It’s mutually beneficial.  Chances are, this person has been playing his or her music with a small yet adamant group of supporters backing them the whole way.  So offering this new artist an opportunity is in itself an opportunity to reach a group of people who might become your fans as well.  To some, this will no doubt seem cynical, but this will be the crowd who mistakes it for selfishness.  It is my personal philosophy that the best possible arrangement is not for me to benefit and you to suffer (selfishness) or for you to benefit and me to suffer (altruism) but for you and I both to benefit (cooperation).  After all, it’s not a zero-sum game.  A person can remain your fan and become mine.  Let’s share!

There are several considerations when putting together a bill, be it for a simple happy hour show, a showcase, or a bash like my friends and I are throwing next Saturday.  People expect you to play with bands that are going for a similar sound or idea.  Usually you’ll want to play with someone who’s been grinding for a while and have something of a following.  You want to play with people you enjoy working with and being around.  I would ask that you add to your criteria people who have potential, people who need a shot, people who need exposure.  These same folks might give you some unexpected exposure.  But if not, you’ve made a new connection that could enrich your life in ways yet unforeseen.  When you pay it forward, you never know when the good will might find its way back to you.

It’s your scene.

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