A bit of a different blog from me today, although it does kind of pertain to LORD and what I do in my various jobs.
I was reading something on social media recently and it made me think about how the attitude to the task can really make a difference. One thing I notice a lot is how people tend to blame their finances, situation or lack of tool/contact/luck on them not being able to achieve a goal. They get angry about it and post big rants about how stuff is unfair. That made me think about the things I’ve done over the years and I thought I’d share Five Important Things I’ve picked up along the way.
1. THE UNIVERSE DOESN’T OWE YOU ANYTHING
All of us who work in a creative field have been there. You see some job or tour get announced and you’re perfect for it! You put in your bid and… some other artist gets the spot. “What the hell? THOSE guys? But our stuff is much better! Why should they get all the breaks? THIS IS BULLSHIT!”
Yeah, it sucks. I know we’ve missed out on a few shows we’d have loved to be a part of, or certain deals or whatever. It’s natural to be disappointed and a bit angry. But at the end of the day, the universe doesn’t owe you anything.
If you worked hard and missed out, it’s crap, but really there’s no guarantees in this world. Why are you doing this stuff at all? Because you needed to do that one thing? Or because it’s something you needed to do for yourself? Sure, it might set you back in the short term, but the long game is where it’s at, and the journey is sometimes more important than the goal (and in this business, you never quite know where the goal even is sometimes).
If you go into this business hoping for the best and expecting nothing to be handed to you, you’ll end up far more sane on the other side.
2. YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE FACTS; MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
“But why didn’t we get that job?” “Why is that other band doing so well?” “If we just had that record deal, we’d be set.”
I don’t think there’s an artist out there that hasn’t said a variation of those sentences. There’s many reasons you may not be doing as well as you should be. The most important is, are you any good? Be brutally honest. Are all of the pieces in place? Good product, marketing plan, good contacts, etc. You’re only as good as the weakest part in your chain at the end of the day.
But let’s say you’re a band who has a well produced album full of killer tunes, you have a good social media presence, you have a great PR team working for you and it’s all going pretty well. And yet some other band keeps snagging all of the good tours, or gets the media interest you wish you could have. What is going on?
It’s easy to get caught up in second-guessing what you do, or self-doubt. Every artist has felt that from time to time. It’s also easy to feel like the universe is against you (see above, re: The Universe Doesn’t Owe You Anything). But you’d be surprised what networking and luck has to do with your experience, and both of those things are often linked. I’ll give an example:
We’ve been very lucky over the years. No doubt everyone is sick of the story of “That Time We Supported Megadeth” back in the day, but it’s pertinent to this example. For the three people who haven’t heard it by now, we (as Dungeon) toured Australia and Europe with Megadeth in 2005. Pretty great experience and the guys were fantastic to work with, and we still try to catch up with a lot of the crew whenever we can now. How did we get that support?
But let me explain about how we came by that luck.
At the time, discussion forums were a big thing. This is before MySpace took off properly and well before Facebook became ubiquitous. We all made ourselves available to wherever people were talking about us, and we’d go over our site stats to find out if anyone had linked to our site and traced it back. I found myself on the Megadeth forums, chatting directly to our fans and making new fans in the process, and got quite a good buzz happening. When Megadeth were planning their Aus tour, the webmaster was instructed to find a suitable support band and the one name he was seeing splashed all over the forum was Dungeon. He got in touch, we said yes, and the rest is history.
Now, we were very lucky. There were a lot of factors at work but the sheer fact that I was in the right place at the right time put me in a position to experience that luck. And this has happened again and again over the years.
But additionally to luck, there’s networking.
From that first bit of luck, we started having talks with Megadeth and that opened the door for the whole European tour. Luck put us in a place where this could happen. We made sure we talked to the right people, which opened up more doors.
And there were a few other bands that were NOT happy that we got the support either. They felt they were a better fit and it was unfair that we got it instead. Sound familiar? We’ve been on both sides of this scenario. For all you know, the band that got the support instead of you had better connections, knew someone that could make it happen or were just plain lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and knew when to take the ball and run with it. Music is important. Appropriate band for the job is important. But this all means nothing if you’re not actually there in the first place, talking to the right people.
Be available and make your own luck happen, then build on it.
3. BELIEVING YOUR OWN HYPE IS NOT USEFUL
They say you’re only as good as your last show, and that’s true. A great example of learning not to believe your own hype is the Megadeth tour I mentioned in the last section.
So we just had an amazing run of shows across Europe. Megadeth were great, the crew treated us as if we were their band (something we’ll always be grateful for – that generosity is something I’ll never take for granted) and the crowds were insane. In the scheme of things, the tour was actually quite short but by the end of the run, we were starting to feel invincible. The response we were getting, the crew working for us, playing huge venues, getting catering (catering! Can you believe it? More than a case of cheap beer and three warm bottles of water. Amazing!)… we were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
The tour finished and we headed off to a town called Wessling in Germany to play a show with a band that had helped us out with gear along the way. We arrived to find it was in a school hall and we had about fifteen people watching us. It rammed home that this Megadeth tour wasn’t our tour, we weren’t the headliner, it wasn’t our crew, it was never our name on the top of the billboards and no matter how well we went over, that wasn’t our crowd.
Back to Earth.
Since that time we’ve played some pretty amazing shows. Most recently the Hammersonic festival in Indonesia (which was a nice reunion with Megadeth and crew) and ProgPower USA, where we were also treated like royalty by everyone. As I said, we never take that for granted now – we absolutely appreciate anyone who goes out of their way to make us feel that welcome.
There’s still crappy shows with bad turn-outs or some disaster which prevents it from being a lot of fun, of course, but instead of getting angry and feeling like you “deserve better than this,” looking at it as a learning experience and working out why things are like this rather than getting upset this is happening to you is the key. Is your profile as high as you think it is? Is your gear professional enough for a big show? Are you working with the right promoters? Is it just simply a crappy night and you should get over it? That happens.
Being pissed off or disappointed is natural, but learning why is far more useful.
4. NOSTALGIA IS POWERFUL
Think back to your favourite albums. As a general rule it’s the album you either first heard from an artist or one that was with you during some pivotal time in your life. Even though the artist may have gone on to do much bigger and better things, or even recorded something very similar to that album, nothing will ever feel the same to you. And that’s valid.
Now imagine you’re on the other side of that fence.
You’re the artist. You went into your first couple of albums with no money and they didn’t match up to your expectations. Over the years your music and recording craft has developed to the point where you’re finally starting to do justice to the original vision of what you were trying to do with those first couple of misfired albums. But instead of people carrying along with you on the journey, you hear nothing but how “those first albums were the best” or “no band lineup was as good as that one on those albums.” Are those people insane? Why bother doing anything new? Are people even listening now?
I both get it and get frustrated by it all at once. Obviously this is something we’ve experienced in LORD (and I’ll get to that in a bit) but I can think of a great example: Pseudo Echo.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the band, of every era of what they do. There was a clear progression in sound as they went along, right up until they hit the “Race” album which, rather than their signature synth-heavy pop, was a fantastic slab of hard rock / AOR. It featured one of the iconic lineups of the band (around the time they were really making waves around the world with songs like their “Funkytown” cover) and it was a really great album… for an AOR album. But it was a terrible Pseudo Echo album. It felt really out of place next to the rest of the catalogue and a lot of long-time fans were left scratching their heads.
Their most recent album was a real return to their signature sound, with their main man Brian as all that’s left from the original line up, and a new band with him (even a different line up depending on the tour rather than a set band as such). This album was more Pseudo Echo sounding than “Race” was in almost every way. But if you asked a die-hard fan who followed the band in the hey day, I’d almost guarantee they’d call for a reunion of that “classic” lineup and have them play only songs from that period, despite things being more authentic with the current arrangement.
Being around for nearly 29 years, and 16 of those as a band with a different name has put us in a very similar place. You only need to have a look at the What’s In a Name blog to see how things progressed and the attitudes towards the band that people have. To some people, nothing will top “A Rise to Power” and to others, it’s the original raw version of “Resurrection” that we were so let down by back in the day. Other people have jumped on at “Digital Lies” or “Set in Stone” and to them, that’s the benchmark our future albums are judged by. Who is right? Who is the real fan?
They all are.
Sometimes as an artist you need to remove yourself from how close you are to a project and look at it as a fan. I can listen to the original “So Far, So Good, So What” album and enjoy that much more than the vastly superior remaster Megadeth re-released. As a producer, I can hear how much better the remaster is, and can completely understand why they wanted to redo it. But as a fan, that original, sloppy, reverb washed, thin sounding album is my album.
Sometimes you need to look at your own stuff as a fan to accept that what you do won’t necessarily please everyone, even if you go out of your way to recreate the original style. You can never exactly capture the magic of that fan listening to an album for the first time, and if you try you just end up chasing your tail and writing something which isn’t authentic.
Doing The Dungeon Era and A Personal Journey: Revisited made us realise it was something we had to do for ourselves. The original albums are still out there and to some fans they’ll never be topped, and that’s absolutely fair enough. But as an artist, you can’t be scared of meeting your own expectations either.
Be proud you created something that meant so much to someone, and don’t feel guilty/resentful about your past or future. What you’re doing now could be someone else’s magic and nostalgic album in the future, so focus on making that the best it can be.
5. HOW BADLY DO YOU WANT IT; DON’T BLAME THE TOOLS
This is a section which may come across as boasting but it’s not intended to be that way. I’ll be illustrating a point based on my own experience trying to start a band in a remote desert town pre-internet, and how it compares to how things are these days for most people. I touched on this a bit in the Pop Bands and Lifelong Dreams blog but I’ll go over the story briefly here and expand on it.
When I first wanted to start a band, I was lucky to a degree because I was left a comparatively small sum of money that allowed me to get a synth, a little amp, and… well, that’s about it. My parents were supportive enough to help me buy other various bits and pieces as I went along but it was all barebones at best. This was in the mid-80s when recording was terribly expensive, with no real way to do it if you were some kid in his parents’ bedroom. If you wanted to learn how to play these instruments, you needed to find a teacher or work it out yourself. If you wanted to work out what gear you needed to buy, you had to try and find people to give you useful advice. And all of that stuff aside, finding other people who were able and willing to be in a band with you was a nightmare task in an isolated desert town.
I learned how to create songs using a program I wrote on a Commodore Vic-20 computer, using the computer keyboard to put in notes and getting little more than beeps coming out. Once I upgraded to a proper synth, I already had a good handle on how to play it from what I learned from my computer program. I’d taken two or three guitar lessons as a kid and was told I had absolutely no aptitude for playing and might as well not bother. It even surprised me that I managed to pick up how to play guitar from noodling on instruments left at my place from jams with friends. Same with bass and drums.
I got the mixing bug from listening to 12″ extended mixes and learning how to deconstruct what they were doing, teaching myself what they were playing, and experimenting layering sounds by connecting two tape recorders together with a $50 microphone mixer and playing each new element over the top live, then swapping the tapes around and going again for a new layer.
By the time I actually got my first cheap 4-track recorder, I’d already had an idea of how to record from my terrible makeshift method.
I built my first guitars and learned enough about electronics to wire them up, build stage boxes to plug in our cheap mics (before we could afford to buy a mixer), and wrote obsessively. I had 300 songs written by the time I was 17.
Sounds impressive, right?
Let me be the first to say that most of those 300 songs were utter crap. My guitars looked fancy but were really poorly built with cheap materials. The electronics I made got us over the line but would often break down and was noisy and very limited. I had big flaws in my playing for years, and the mixes I did on my makeshift gear sounded like garbage.
So? Absolutely none of that mattered at all.
This was something I needed to do for myself. The fact that I didn’t have access to professional gear, knowledge or a mentor to guide me meant nothing because I was determined to figure stuff out enough to get my ideas down. If it ended up having to be me and a dictaphone somewhere, humming ideas onto a tape, so be it. It wasn’t about the gear, it was about the need to create something bad enough I’d stop at nothing.
These days it’s easier than ever to do what I did when I started. There’s free apps you can download onto any budget smartphone that will let you get basic ideas down. On a sub-$500 computer with a $150 audio interface, you can literally do world class recordings, and with programs like Cakewalk, which is free, you have a complete recording studio ready to go. Want a new synth? Don’t spend $3000 on some hardware, grab a free VSTi – there’s plenty of amazing quality free synths, samples, and loops out there. Want to learn how to mix? How to play an instrument? How to do anything? YouTube. Want to know what gear to buy? Music forums. Where to get it? eBay. I cringe at the amount of money I wasted by not having these kind of resources available to me, pre-internet.
Putting a band together was another thing. When you live in a big city, you take for granted that you can put an ad out in a music mag or a online music classified (Craigslist, etc.) and start to get attention. If it’a recording project it’s even easier – you can do all of that completely over the internet if you wanted to and never meet face to face. But in an isolated town, your options are ludicrously limited. It got to the point where I was actually teaching people to play so they could become future additions to my band. Rehearsing meant finding a space to make noise without being told to shut up, since there was no rehearsal rooms available anywhere. Playing shows meant buying or hiring a PA each time since there were no venues with any supplied gear. Any gigs out of town meant at least seven or eight hours travelling time and a great deal of money.
But we did it, and we suffered for the experience, and we spent a crazy amount of money over the years, and made some horrendous mistakes in the process, but we kept going because we needed to.
That’s the crux of the story there. It may be easier than ever to record or perform these days compared to how it was when I started doing this, but it’s still not easy. It takes commitment and sacrifice if you want to be good enough to live up to your own aspirations. If you’re finding yourself balking at travelling an hour to play a show, or putting aside time each day to practice or learn your recording craft, or dropping money to buy the gear you need to do this stuff well, then you need to think about what you really want to do.
And really, making an excuse that “the gear is too expensive, I can’t do this unless I have X” is a bogus argument as well. I use a pretty amazing signature model ESP guitar that is not what you’d call cheap. It plays great, and it sounds fantastic. But conversely. I’ve done session guitar on several internationally released albums with a $100 Aria Pro guitar I found in a pawn shop, and it also sounded fine in context. When you’re starting out, using the excuse that you can’t get a job done because you don’t have top gear is bunk. If you want to do something, you’ll absolutely find a way.
The number one, most important thing is YOU and your drive to make it happen.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Look, it’s easy to take all of this as some kind of preaching from someone sitting back in their executive chair, glass of aged bourbon in hand and saying “Oh yes, back in my day….” with definitive statements about how the world works. It would be wonderful if both the world did work in this kind of predictable way, and that I was as wise as this document infers that I should be. (The comfy chair and nice drink would be lovely too, thanks!)
But the universe is messy, and life can happen to us in unpredictable ways.
What you were reading here are general things I’ve discovered over the last 29 years of doing this stuff. It’s not meant to invalidate people with legitimate reasons things aren’t working out. If you live in a remote village in Botswana, it’s probably not going to be so easy to go on a huge world tour at the drop of a hat. If you’ve had a personal tragedy in your life, just saying “how badly do you want it” doesn’t quite cut it. None of these things make it impossible, though, but the hill that you have to climb to make it happen can make or break a dream in some situations.
What I’m getting at is for the general, average person who wants to be a “rock star” (or whatever the equivalent of this is in 2018), this stuff just doesn’t happen by accident. And it doesn’t require all of the pieces to be in place, or have some outside benefactor drop millions of dollars in front of you to make realistic. If you really want to do something, you can have all of the excuses in the world but ultimately the blame (and the ultimate success) starts and ends with you. Learn the skills, make your own luck, accept the good with the bad, and just do it because you want do, because you need to. If you never try, it will never happen.
Now get out there and be the best you than you can be. 🙂