To Gig, or Not To Gig…

Are all gigs “good” gigs?


So, obviously, no… some gigs are in places that are hard to get to, difficult to load in, cramped to set up and/or lacking in walk-by traffic. Some places the staff isn’t nice or it’s just not a great experience for the performer for one reason or another.

Many times it’s the fact that it doesn’t pay. Other times, it might pay, but no one is listening, or worse, people are talking loudly over your playing and singing. These are the most common “problems” for a performing artist who is doing their own original material. So…

Is it better to be heard or paid?

Instead of saying this is an intractible debate, I will come down firmly on the side of being heard. Playing 2 or 3 songs at an open mic where there is an attentive audience seems far more personally rewarding than playing 2 hours and getting paid for it, but having no one listen or care at all.

That said, it sucks to play for no money, and tips are NOT typically enough to make it worth it (there are some venues that do more than others to help solicit tips for musicians, through on-table tip containers and reminders for example).

Since I feel that “people hearing the songs” is an important measure of success to me, I guess it makes sense that I feel getting heard matters most.

How does gigging meet your goals?

So, when you talk to a musician who earns their living on the road gigging, they will tell you they are playing well over 200 shows a year. They make a living that way, but they CAN’T reduce that schedule without doing something else to take it’s place: teaching music, etc.

I figure I am not likely to ever make enough money to make a living at this, even if I could get booked for 230 nights in the next year, as my costs are more than just supporting me: wife and two kids, mortgage and credit card debt. Not likely to make enough money as a touring musician at my age.

So, why am I bothering to perform at all? I guess it’s just about trying to communicate with people around me and make some kind of connection to a larger community. I am always hoping people will listen to the lyrics of the song and “get it”. When people do, and they like it, that is very important to me emotionally

Is gigging a worthy goal on it’s own?

Well, in the sense that playing music is good for you and fun, one could suppose that any gig, at least any gig that doesn’t have serious problems or red flags, is better than no gig. Getting practice on stage, even in front of a disinterested room, is still experience and helps make you a better musician.

If the hassle factor of the gig is causing more stress than is relieved by playing music (or getting paid), then it’s probably not worth doing again. If there is no pay and no audience, you may legitimately wonder what is up with the venue. They may just not be “happening” as a business, or it may be they are just developing their local scene, and you can help. Use some common sense: not much will fix a lousy location or no positive proximity to other businesses, institutions and amenities.

Reach that one ear

Many gigs will seem questionable or tiresome, but if you love playing music then you can focus on doing that and maybe, just maybe, if you do a good job and are well-prepared, you will reach one person with one song, even just catching their ear for a few seconds. It probably won’t change the world, or even their life, but then again, when it comes to how songs work, the truth is you never know.

Pay to play sucks

There are some legitimate times when sharing the cost of production makes sense, but for the most part, there are now a lot of “Pay-to-Play” scenarios out there that seem strictly predatory: pay for gauranteed review placement or getting included on a playlist is standard. Paying to play at anything other than an industry showcase is probably a rip-off.

I want gigs

I am open to all kinds of gigs, so send me what you got! Looking for New England, New York, Mid-Atlantic, and possibly Eastern Canada. Ideal: a listening room. Good: a bar or restaurant that pays. OK: a place that pays tips only. Also: I do originals and many songs have political content.

Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments! THANKS!

A Common Blues, man

You know what’s not easy to do? Record an album with no money!

I want to finish recording an album but I really don’t have any money. Being a contractor I only get paid while at work and having a heart attack precluded that last week.

On the bright side, I am more than halfway done.

All songs are written.

7 of them have been recorded in some fashion:

2 in my home studio, 5 at Robot Dog Studios, due to the generosity of DJ/Blogger Tim Lewis and the studio.

Three to go, well, four…

So I am considering re-recording one song, as the arrangement has already changed slightly.

Otherwise I have three songs ready, but dread putting a home recording up against the Robot Dog stuff (the two I have are done with just enough reverb and overdubs to slide by, I think. May have to ask for an impartial opinion).

I have selected which song to use as the title track: “Common Man Blues”, a song loosely inspired by Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. I even have cover art ready.

Digital distribution is already paid for, sending my stuff to YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and more. See those links to hear what I already have online.

Ok, but how to get there?

So I am considering how to fund recording the rest of the album, and possibly funding a run of CDs.

Should I even bother with CDs?

Should I try a Kickstarter campaign? Or some other way of crowd funding?

In truth, any suggestions are welcome folks.

Comment on this post to let me know your ideas.

Authenticity and popularity

When studying the origins of anthropology in college I learned that the origins were not necessarily lofty and academic.

Early ethnographic writings arose out of what were called at the time “travel writings”: personal accounts by Victorian-era travelers of their encounters with different cultures around the world.

One important element of this was the notion that authenticity was derived from the ability to say that you were there: authorship and authority are one. Early travel writings were fairly straightforward, chronological accounts, but later ethnographic writings tended to push the subjective portion of the narrative to prologues and afterwords, or even entirely separate books detailing the personal experience of encountering and living in another culture. This is because ethnographic writings were supposed to be science and therefore objective, and subjectivity needed to be pushed to the margins.

In that context, more modern ethnographic writing takes into account the power dynamics involved in the negotiation between cultures that is part of ethnographic and anthropological study, and makes space for it.

Street credibility

In songwriting there is a similar principle at work that says that in order to have authenticity or credibility one needs to have been there, seen it, done it… lived a real authentic life.

However there is an alternate force in action: accessibility of the product or artifact. This is true in ethnographic writings as well: there are “hits”, books that even become popular outside of the field of anthropology.

Yet these books also receive criticism from within the field of anthropology for being unscientific and/or targeting a popular audience, not unlike music artists who are viewed as being overly commercial, or worse, selling out after having street credibility.

So it seems that there is a general tension in the whole business of writing between Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal.


On the one hand, one wants to be true to oneself, and true to the song and true to the truth itself.

On the other hand, what good is a truth if nobody hears it? Could this be the real meaning of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound”?

Like everyone else I want to change the world with my songs, but I have to gain their ears first.

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal

So can one balance being true to the message of the song and the idea that you’re trying to convey yet putting it in a fashion that can be easily digested by the masses?

Should one even try to do that? I think the answer for me is: sometimes.

This first week of my blog I posted a link to a somewhat irreverent yet truthful and I feel empathetic Christmas song, written in response to a prompt to write a holiday song. I resisted the standard approach to Christmas music, which is to say a commercial approach, yet in my opinion the song could be enjoyed by a lot of people.

Our first musical quotation for this Monday was a lengthy one from Woody Guthrie regarding his feelings on commercial music. He felt that it was the content rather than the genre or style that determined if a song was worthy or not, in his view.

My taste in music are not particularly unusual or extremely eclectic, although it is very broad. I have a great love for pop music and I think it’s important for anyone composing music to understand a variety of genres.

So in that context if the truth of the song is best expressed with an easy to digest pop melody or simple three chord structure, so be it: I’ll follow that where it leads.

I think I have to draw the line at writing a song that has no real meaning in the lyrics and just a catchy hook with nonsense words or something like that.

I also agree with Woody that too many pop songs express unhealthy ideas, and I don’t want to participate in that either.

However if you are a pop songwriter or someone who needs to write commercial songs all the time I do believe it can be done with Artistic Integrity. If you have something real to say….just make sure your lyrics ring true. 

A big part of that is making space for subjectivity: trying to tell a story “objectively” will leave your audience cold, but showing what it really looked and smelled and felt like is what people respond to, in my opinion. People can feel the truth… that’s authenticity.


“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

Woody Guthrie