The beginning of the year is traditionally a time when people examine their lives and figure out what they need to change or improve. In honor of the start of 2009, here are things the musicians, clubs and supporters can improve upon in the new year.
Don't pay to play. In St. Louis, the practice known as "pay-to-play" is becoming a widespread problem. Here's the scenario: For the "privilege" of playing a specific show or at a specific venue, promoters instruct bands to buy tickets from them. Then musicians need to resell these tickets to friends and family in order to recoup their initial monetary investment and ensure an audience.
The pitfalls of this arrangement are easy to see; if you don't sell all of the tickets you bought, you've lost money out of your own pocket. But bands used to getting shows this way need to realize something important: This isn't the way things are supposed to work. In reality, promoters are supposed to be paid last for a show — after bands, sound guys and other assorted expenses are taken care of. You're supposed to be paid for playing shows, from profits taken from ticket sales. Have enough pride in the hard work you put into being a band to demand fair compensation for your art.
Promote yourself. The blessing and the curse of the Lou is that people frown upon braggadocio. While that makes our town blessedly unpretentious, it also means that people often shy away from self-promotion.
In music, however, being modest won't get you attention. If you have a show, blanket the hell out of MySpace and Facebook. (Within reason, however — multiple updates a day are annoying and can alienate people.) Make posters and leave them at record stores around town. Look at local blogs and websites in town and e-mail people who might dig your tunes.
If you have a new CD coming out, don't be afraid to tell people. Peruse the playlists of KDHX DJs and target a few who might be inclined to play your style of music on the air. Send them an introductory e-mail, or drop albums off at the station for consideration.
Most important, you don't need permission to mail music to me at the RFT. I'll make it easy. Here's the address: 6358 Delmar Boulevard, Ste. 200. St. Louis, MO 63130. Then drop me an e-mail (email@example.com) letting me know you mailed it, who you are and when you're playing next. We can't write or blog about you if we don't know that you (or your show) exists.
Write new music constantly. Let's be honest: The local music scene is in a bit of a creative slump right now. Some of the scene's best bands have broken up, and of those who remain, most are playing the same set of songs. Over. And over. And over again.
Even the most well-written songs sound stale after they're aired for the zillionth time. And so it's important to fight complacency by writing new music and trying out new things live. Not only should this help improve your chops, but it'll also ensure that your shows don't sound stagnant and uninspired. Constant creativity is easier said than done, of course, but if a stream of new ideas isn't feasible, see below...
Don't play out so much. People — even your biggest fans — start to take you for granted if you're playing every weekend (or even multiple times a week). Suddenly, a gig by your band isn't a must-attend, but something that's skippable because, "Oh, I can see them again soon."
The solution is to make yourself scarce, ensuring that your shows are an event. Play once or twice a month — tops. You'll avoid wearing out your welcome and people won't be tired of hearing your tunes. National acts don't generally hit markets more than a few times a year. Why shouldn't local bands have a similar mindset?
Fix your websites. We're well into the 21st century now, but the web presence of countless venues in town still seems stuck in the pre-Y2K dark ages. (Heck, several local clubs don't even have sites.) Of those that do maintain websites, information is rarely correct. Band names are misspelled. Lineups are wrong. Showtimes are vague or absent. Prices are nowhere to be found. The schedules on the MySpace page and real website don't match up.
If people are unsure of what's going on — or have to search too hard to find your shows — they're not as inclined to come out. The solutions are simple: Update your site once a week. (If a show cancels, make a note of that, too.) Strive for accuracy. Take cues from the Scottrade Center, the Fox Theatre and the Pageant, whose websites always have all of their information outlined in a clear, orderly fashion.
Promote your shows. Having a solid, accurate website helps with this (see above). But beyond that, people should always know what's going on at a club on any given night. Create an e-mail list and send out a missive weekly, highlighting new shows and important upcoming events. Get a street team who can handle online promotion and flyering. Make sure local press outlets and radio folks know your schedules as far in advance as possible, to ensure adequate time to prep promotion. If a show happens, and no one's there to hear it — did it actually happen?
Go nonsmoking. It'll be a cold day in Hell before St. Louis itself passes a citywide smoking ban. But more and more local bars and venues are shooing smokers outside — and it's not a coincidence that hanging out at these venues is a pleasant experience. Neither your clothes nor your hair reek of smoke the next day, and you don't feel like you've inhaled an ashtray at the end of the night.
Now, I've been known to have a smoke or two while drinking, so this isn't an argument based on prudishness. It's a plea based on being able to enjoy going out without damaging your health or feeling sick from stale smoke. Poor ventilation at many older clubs means that the smoke stench and nicotine residue is just overwhelming.
Plus, the whole argument that banning indoor smoking will hurt business is a poor excuse; just ask the venues in countless other cities (big and small) that haven't seen precipitous attendance decreases after going smoke-free. In fact, I've talked to many people — including regular smokers — who are more inclined to go to a show if it's billed as nonsmoking.
Don't settle for mediocrity. A friend of mine has an un-PC saying that I'll soften to this: Local bands shouldn't get a medal just for showing up. By that, he means that just playing a show or making a CD doesn't automatically make you special or newsworthy.
What this also implies is that fans of local bands are allowed to have expectations. Don't just blindly love your favorite band and give it a free pass because they're local. Bands get better by being challenged to improve and grow as musicians. And who better to encourage folks to challenge the status quo than those who know them best: their fans?
Be adventurous. As music editor, I'm as guilty of being stuck in a rut as the next person (especially because I'm just one person and always have multiple things to do every night). But some of the best local shows I saw in 2009 were ones I might not normally have attended, had I stuck to my comfort zone.
It's certainly easy to continue seeing the same groups over and over again, especially if your friends are also hanging out there. But curiosity reaps rewards — especially if it means you might discover something truly awe-inspiring.
View the glass as half full. As mentioned before, 2008 was a transition year of sorts for the local music scene. And in a town as small as St. Louis is, it takes awhile for a community to recover when it's plagued by change. I know I'm not alone when I say I've found it hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm lately for local goings-on.
But when I step back and gain some perspective, I realize that 2009 has promise. Newish bands — including the Midtown Thieves, the Sham, the Dive Poets, Leadville and Mayday Orchestra, just to name a few — are playing out more. Some of the most exciting underground hip-hop heads (Rockwell Knuckles and Black Spade, in particular) are prepping new tunes. Other energetic indie-leaning acts (So Many Dynamos, Say Panther, Target Market) are set to release new music.
Things aren't perfect right now in the local music community, but everything is cyclical. Nobody knows what'll happen tomorrow — and that's the beauty and fun of it.