Monday, May 4, 2009

The Keys to Failure

Back in March, whilst touring to Austin, TX and back to attend the annual Ho Yourself Convention, I stopped in Murfreesboro, TN to play a show with Vanilla Ice and give a talk to the Recording Industry Fraternity of Middle Tennessee State University.
When we arrived there at 10:30pm on a Sunday night, we were pleasantly surprised by the very warm reception we received from the small and packed room of wonderfully attentive students. Though I'd only been asked to speak for an hour, the speech came to just under three hours, due to the countless anecdotes and tangents and my complete lack of brevity. And only after this lengthy speech did I discovered that my audience was comprised mainly of music industry students, and not the struggling young musicians I'd composed it for. Regardless, our Q&A discussions afterwords were delightful and incredibly insightful for me (having never actually gone to college). Below is the skeleton of my speech, minus all the actual demonstrative stories and strangely effeminate hand gestures. It should be noted that as I am still making colossal mistakes on a daily basis, this list grows and evolves.

THE KEYS TO FAILURE by Gavin Castleton


A. Never buy a new vehicle; never get yourself on a payment plan longer than one year for a vehicle.

While you don’t want a vehicle that will cost you a lot in monthly repairs, van payments often lead to financial ruin.  And worse, when your band breaks up, it is never convenient for the person whose name is on the payment plan.  Having a van/bus is a worthy investment for several reasons, and deserves lots of research and financial prudence. Like merch inventory (especially new un-tested t-shirt designs), avoiding long-term investment in favor of liquid funds is advised. Until your band is drawing big numbers, purchasing a six to eight year-old vehicle with low mileage is luxury enough.  After a year or two, when it starts to break down, ditch it and get another one.  Don’t buy something so expensive that you can’t leave it on the side of the road after a few months of touring and feel like you got your money’s worth. 

B. When you are just starting, the most important thing is to own your home market. 

Don't expect to get out of town until you have a sizable fan base in your hometown, which you will then use as a bargaining chip with out-of-town acts.  When your hometown draw is in excess of 50 people, every hometown slot on your show is worth money.  Do not give it away.  Do not let a club or promoter give it away. Use it to leverage your way onto national shows in your hometown.  Use it to trade with outside bands - every slot on you local show is worth a show in someone else's hometown.

C. It's not a bad idea to abandon a market that will not grow with you. 

If you've played a town three times and you don't see growth, put more emphasis on the towns where you do.  It is a fallacy to think that every town will embrace what you're doing.  Certain cities are more primed for your art than others. Success in a few decent markets will lead to opportunities in the ones you struggle with.  They will eventually catch on, and you won't have worn yourselves down trying to make them understand you.

D. If you are working with a promoter, then their role is to promote.

You are giving them 10-20% of your door because they are now responsible for a good attendance, leaving you to focus on the music.  Get a guarantee and a contract (even if the contract says you will get nothing but free soda water).  This assures that they will work for their cut.  If they won't do a guarantee or a contract, then skip the promoter’s fee and work directly with the club, because most likely you will be the only one promoting the show.

E. Don’t tour until you have a CD to sell.

The objective in touring is to secure listeners every night so that when you return, they return.  Aside from having a really good live show, the album sale/giveaway is the only way to do this. Your footprint will be twice as heavy if you have some product to leave behind.

F. Keep your merch simple.

Remember that the goal is to lock in new listeners, while retaining your current audience.  When new listeners approach the merch table, chances are they want to buy what they just heard.  It’s always wise to have some impulse items (buttons, stickers, lighters, handbills) and additional designs/albums available, but keep the focus of your setup and road inventory on the items you want them to hear/wear.  Make it a painless transaction.  Keeping $100 change on you makes things smoother and let’s the listener know that you are used to doing business (i.e. your music is in demand).  Use the live show to push the new stuff, and use the internet to sell everything else to the listeners you already have. It’s a good idea to keep t-shirt designs in small runs – finding the right ratio of sizes and designs to keep in stock is a long and costly process, and every shirt sitting in a box is money you can’t put towards something else, so keep notes on what sells and experiment with the quantities until things are coming and going quickly.  Promoting the fact that you only do short print runs is a bonus – humans love rarity.  

G. Find the right proportions of humility and pride and stick to them.

Remember that it has always been greed that spoils art and the lives of artists - be it their own greed or their sponsor’s greed. Your CD is not worth $20.  Your t-shirt is not worth $25. As the value of recordings and apparel are rapidly declining, now more than ever it should be understood that T-shirts and CDs are promotional tools, not just pieces of art themselves. So when determining a fair price one should factor in the residual benefits of the listeners walking around in a band t-shirt and playing a CD for her friends, not just the net income derived from the product sale.  Twenty people wearing your $10 shirt are worth a lot more than fourteen people wearing your $15 shirt. It’s not a bad idea to sell things at discounts if you’re in a new town and people are unsure of whether or not to invest in you.

Conversely, it is very important to assert your worth with clubs, promoters,  and even listeners.  If they can see you don’t think you’re worth much, they certainly won’t respect you enough to pay much. Promoters who walk over you once will rarely “make it up to you” later.  Once you’ve set your price it’s a lot easier to negotiate downwards as opposed to upwards.

H. When a club demands a percentage of your merch, do not play at that club. 

Do you get a percentage of their liquor sales for the night? Did they contribute to the manufacturing cost of the merch? The idea that a venue deserves a portion of your merchandise income when you are providing them the majority of their patrons is offensive and ludicrous.  No.


A. Thanks mainly in part to the Internet labels are becoming obsolete.  We no longer need them to reach our audience.

The funny thing about this is that instead of adapting quickly and/or finding new crucial middleman roles to play, most labels have responded by asking for more from the artist (in the form of “360 deals,” in which the label receives a portion of the show payout and/or the merch sales of an artist). This is the equivalent of raising your CDs prices because they are not selling well.  Only someone as desperate as a touring musician would even consider this option (the fact that most musicians are not unionized does not help).  Moreover, as independent artists have learned to do everything themselves over the last ten years, labels have come to expect them to commit even more of their time to the marketing process (usually without compensation), playing the role of promoter, press agent, graphic designer, web developer, online marketing, booking agent, videographer, etc.  This new “indie” driven market is no more heinously exploitative than the old major label domination (in which an artist was at least guaranteed fame in exchange for her soul), it’s just branded itself as “DIY” and substituted unpaid labor and income taxation for the obscene royalty rates of yesteryear.

B. You probably know more about your target market than your label does.

Unless they are artist-run, chances are they are terrified and unsure of the industry (as well they should be). You don't want them to ever consider the fact that they are and always will be a barnacle on the hub of art – this will only send them into a state of paralysis.  Coax them into doing things your way by leading them to conclusions you want them to draw. Constantly ask their advice/opinion, even when it’s of no interest to you.  Don't rule out their marketing knowledge; they are often better versed in the corporate avenues of promotion than you are, but know that you probably spend much more time interacting with your listeners and playing on the internet than they do. Trust your instincts on how to reach your listenership, and educate them.

C. Don't interact with a label until you know what you want.

Remember that a record deal is in essence a loan with a really bad interest rate.  You no longer need a whole lot of money to record a good record. So when considering a label, you should focus on those other incentives: in-house PR (remember if they outsource PR, there’s no reason you couldn’t), industry connections (arguably more important than every other asset, presuming that your manager is not well connected or doesn't exist), booking agency, tour support, reputation, and licensing (the only formidable source of money for an independent artist). If they can’t provide the things you will need to help make the both of you more money, then why would you want to be involved with them?

D. Know your job descriptions.

Understand the various roles of your team: lawyer, manager, road manager, A&R, booking agent, publicist, etc. That way you can accurately determine whether or not they’re doing their jobs.  Do not ask them to do each other's jobs. Avoid letting them take on two or more jobs for you.


Always pay those working for you. That way you can fire them. Do not let them subscribe to the same “lottery” mentality that you do. Part of being an artist is being an idealist, but when it comes to your money, you want it in the hands of a realist. Do not let your employees “invest” in you – it only leads to grief.  When they start feeling like payday is never coming, they will slack.  Chances are they will not be up front enough to call off the relationship, and it will be very awkward for you to fire them if you haven’t been paying them for the hard work they’ve done in the past. If you can’t pay them their percentage or their flat fee (even if only in trade), then don’t work with them until you can.

F. Understand that no matter how artist-friendly they may appear, ultimately the label sees you as an investment.  

Understand this fact and accept it, or do not work with a label.  Try to be objective. Would you invest a huge chunk of money in yourself? Don't waste their money.

G. No matter how small you are, remember this: The industry wouldn't exist without you.  You would still exist without the industry.

This oft forgotten truth is the sole reason artists are unable to own the industry that so easily exploits them.


A. The harder you try to make people like your music, the less they will.

Most often listeners invest in artists who they consider to be stronger or braver than they. If they perceive that you need their approval then the romance is lost. Today’s music listeners are fed up with being promoted to. They are very aware of being used for viral marketing. The best way to get them to promote you is to just be good at what you do and remain humble.  Be sure to let your listeners know that you appreciate their help in spreading the word and that it makes a difference in your everyday life.

B. People enjoy your music more if they can see that you enjoy it.

Listeners’ first impression of your band is mainly intuition. Your stage presence is infectious. If you’re angry, they’re angry. If you’re antagonizing, they are. If you want them to feel good about the show they saw, make sure you do.

C. Volunteer street teams usually take more energy than they’re worth.

The days when it was glamorous to be on a volunteer street team are pretty much over, especially in the case of noticeably successful artists. Unless you can organize them hands-on and closely monitor their progress/results, it is far more effective to just remind fans to tell their friends about you.  The biggest hindrance to viral promotion is a lack of awareness on the part of the listener: are they receiving your updates? Do they know how helpful it is for them to just mention you to their friends? Connectors are far more valuable than any other kind of fan. Find them and keep them informed.


A. Economics

The smarter you are about money, the longer your band will last. But if you continue to struggle financially, there will be varying thresholds of financial misery that each band member can take.  If you outlast another band member, try not to judge them for it; asserting your need for financial stability a natural part of aging. The more band members that share your comfort needs, the longer you can survive, so it is good to be up front and communicative about them from the beginning.

B. Morale

In a touring band, morale is the most important thing.  If you can protect it and keep it high, it can ward off most of the pressures you will endure. Here are some ways to protect it:

1. Always pay yourselves a little. It is important for band members to feel like the band is a two way street - not just a hole they pour themselves into. Even if it’s $5 each to help cover the dinner costs, it will work wonders for morale in the long run.

2. When a show is horrible, and there is no pay, it is important not to devalue yourself or your work. Pay yourself in some way. If all you can get out of the venue is food or beer, eat as much as your face can hold, and grab all the beer they'll provide. If it's an empty college gig (where you’re opening for a magician or something) or a really rude club with the world’s worst sound guy: steal something.  An SM57, the most handy microphone to have, is $70, and really annoying to purchase repeatedly.  It fits in your pocket.  A better option is to figure out what knowledge you gleaned from the show and really hold on to it.  Even if it's "never play Danbury, CT again."

Apply this same mentality to every band you play with. If you can't network with them, if you can't be friends with them, if you can't have their cut of the money even though they sucked and drew nobody, find something to learn from them.  Sometimes you’ll discover that they know a lot about vehicles, sometimes they can refer you to the right band to team up with in their town, sometimes they have an impressive merch setup.  Almost every band is doing something right, even if their music is abhorrent. The goal is to avoid leaving a show feeling like it's a total loss.

3. It is ok to cancel shows if you can be sure that they will be a total waste of time. The cost to you in morale may be worth upsetting some people that arranged a horrible show. Just remember that sometimes the shows that look the worst end up being the best: the middle school gym, the house party, the pizza place in Annapolis, MD.

C. Time/Life Path Alteration/Child Birth
All dreams have an expiration date.  In regards to the pursuit of a music career, determining that date for any given band member is often times a very long process of weighing pros and cons.  Since the highs and lows in this industry are so pronounced, it’s very hard to get a clear tally.  Five months of mediocre shows and dysfunctional rehearsals can be canceled out instantaneously by one lucky support slot for a national act, or hearing one’s song on the local station. This is a long and painful decision to make, and it should be respected.

Pregnancy, financial stress, peer and parent pressure, and downright desperation are all common catalysts for abandoning one’s teenage dream. It’s not impossible that a person will quit the band to pursue an entirely different and more fulfilling dream, it’s just highly unlikely. If that is actually the case, they should be commended for their honesty.

D. Ego
1. Be clear from the onset about songwriter's credits and band members’ rights.  Either the band is a democracy or it’s not. Even if it is a democracy, there are several kinds of band democracies.  Experiment and discuss which one is best for everyone’s happiness. Don’t be afraid of adapting and evolving as a government.

2. An abusive relationship is often the hardest to leave.  Remember that there is always someone who could play your parts better (and the parts of whoever is making your band hard to be in), so try to look at each member’s departure as an opportunity to improve the music and get new blood into the creative process.  Most bands wait way too long to adjust their lineup, and the music and friendships suffer as a result.  When you do sever things, do it quickly, and remember that diplomacy and friendship retention are of utmost importance.

E. Romance (i.e. The Yoko Ono syndrome)
People who are attracted to musicians often underestimate the time dedication, emotional investment, poverty, and poor hygiene that accompany a career in music. Unfortunately, most musicians have such fragile egos that they cannot contend with the idea of dating their equal.  And so it is fairly standard for musicians to be attracted to someone who will fawn over them, dote on them, and remain available at ungodly hours, re-enforcing their self-centeredness and providing the stability that many musicians are unable to provide for themselves.  This is a volatile combination, and usually results in an ultimatum (either from the band or the significant other).  The solution? Make sure the both of you are truly happy not because of the relationship, but in addition to it. Find someone who can match your ambitiousness.

F. Band Upgrade

The rags-to-riches story is tried and true in this industry. It is not uncommon for a band member to leave one band to join another more fiscally successful band.  If they’re truly lucky, the transition will also be elevating in the creative sense.  When this is not the case, the remaining members should try substituting pity for their natural feelings of jealousy, as it is most likely a hollow feeling the new star will be left with when the lights die down.

G. Spinning Tires - "Total Lack of Interest"
Though there is truly a market for every kind of art humans can make, sometimes the market for your art is too widely dispersed and/or unreachable. Music is most often used for communication because it transcends language barriers and circumvents emotional walls. If your music is doing neither of those things, maybe you’re not a musician.

H. Schooling
Most youths in the US are programmed to enroll in college after high school. Many bands fall apart while trying to navigate through those years of extended education.  While juggling the two lifestyles can most assuredly work (teachers are often times delighted to see a student with the ambition to pursue a career at a young age, and will facilitate the effort with makeup tests and advance assignments if arrangements are requested), band members should never lose site of the pivotal question that will make or break the band: is this a hobby or a career? Whichever the answer, it should always be unanimous among members.  And if a member is treating school as the hobby (and the band as a career), they should ask themselves if they (or most likely, their parents) are getting their money’s worth.

I. Drug & Alcohol Abuse
Not much to say about this one.  Pretty trite at this point, but still happens regularly.


A. Protect your creative process and the evolution of it at all costs.

1. Be aware of your creative needs and make sure they are being met.  If you are a healthy open-minded artist, chances are that you won't be able to find total fulfillment in one project.  If someone in the band is unhappy about your desire to do additional things, then chances are they themselves are not being fulfilled and/or are feeling inadequate.  Discuss this insecurity and squash it.  Remember that bands are like marriages, but with three to ten people.  So if you want to have an "open" relationship, the trick is to encourage them to have lots of extramarital sex as well. Ultimately your band will benefit as you bring the things you’ve learned from outside back to the band, and are able to abandon some interests that defocus your band's music in favor of exploring them elsewhere.

2. Don't play music with someone that doesn't love playing music as much as you do.  

3. Listen to everyone when they’re making their music, listen to no one when they’re telling you how to make yours. Do not take criticism from anyone who is not putting themselves out there (creatively) for criticism, creatively. Even if they make a good point, do not accept criticism from cowards.

4. Always try to play with people who are better than you. 

5. Remember that good song writing is the foundation for everything.  When your focus drifts from that, you’re making every other step harder for yourself.

Suggested Reading:

The Tipping Point
Catch a Wave
The Long Hard Road Out of Hell
Get In the Van

Suggested Viewing:

Some Kind of Monster
Anvil - The Story of This is Thirteen
Decline of Western Civilization II
Fearless Freaks
Stop Making Sense
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco
Before the Music Dies
Strong Enough To Break
American Hardcore
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell


Better Days said...

People are still talking about that night! It was awesome, Gavin, and we wish you well on your traveling and future musical endeavors.

Cory said...

As an MTSU drop-out, I'd say a pretty high percentage of recording industry students there are also starving artists, and should benefit greatly from your speech. Granted I was a theory major, but I've been in bands with recording industry majors who were just as doomed to fail as the rest of us.

Anne Cuizon said...

Because of this, I know more. Thanks.

Man-Made Mammon said...

Nothing in here explains why "Home" was printed with a mysterious 15th track of silence.

Something's fishy.

flowersbyfarha said...

Applicable to many, many other pursuits in life, too.

Well said!

super mike said...

thanks for posting that, it's very helpful!

ironheadATX said...

I was at the austin show, it was awesome.. and I think you are spot on on with the article. There will be some from inside the industry who disagree, but i think they are covering up how frightened they are of the shifting trends in music, and clinging to the old. Kudos

md imaging said...

Thank you for this, it was educational and a very good read.

Anonymous said...

A lot of this just calmed a lot of my fears.

jon said...

super insightful....thanks!

dan kershaw said...

good stuff. but re 360''s not the 360, it's who you do it with. if, as you say in the next item, they know your market better than you - if they bring competency and elbow grease in the areas they're commissioning, then fair game. replace "label" with "business partner" and the roles become clearer.