Advice To a Young Musician

Families can be a good source of advice, but input from other adult role models becomes important as a kid gets older, especially if the kid is the black sheep of his family, and could benefit from the wisdom of another black sheep. I wrote the following letter to help put a young man on the right path. Or at least some kind of path.

Dear Razor,

Your parents and I are close friends, and, although your family moved to Westchester County, New York and we haven’t seen one another for 12 years, we’ve stayed in touch. You were 6 the last time we met. Back then you went by “Sam” instead of “Razor”.

I spoke with your mom last night. She tells me you’re in a band, and have every intention of making a career out of it. She said you are planning a “40-city North American Tour”. I asked which 40 cities, and she said, “Their plan is to figure it out as they go. Sam — I mean Razor for god’s sake — asked us for seed money, calling it an investment in his future. I reminded him that’s what paying for private high school was, and look how that’s turned out.”

Of course your parents are telling you No — we parents may have done insane things when we were young but for reasons we don’t understand we must say No to our own kids when they plot a direction that seems unlikely to work, or is just plain crazy. We will say No even if, like you, our children have been over 18 for nearly a month.

However, we don’t have to say No if it’s not our kid. Maybe that’s hypocrisy or a double-standard, or maybe encouraging other people’s kids to do the rebellious thing is a way of helping the universe stay in balance. I truly believe you have to follow your bliss, so I’m not advising you to quit your dream. God knows I’m no poster-child for sensible choices. My life has been shaped by impulsive reaching based on stubborn passion, rather than practical decision-making based on careful analysis. The facts aren’t important; only this: I have no regrets. But if I could go back and do it all over again I can see the advantage of taking leaps of faith over rivulets and streams rather than, say, The Mississippi River at its widest point.

I imagine you’re wondering why you should listen to anything I have to say. Consider my qualifications:

First, I play guitar, so I know how important music can be to a person. There have been times in my life when I had lost about everything — no one to love, no job, no horse — but still kept my guitar, just like a cowboy in the middle of nowhere, strumming to the lonesome prairie, except that it was a car I had lost instead of a horse, and the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center instead of a prairie. The metaphorical cowboy and I had lost our means of transportation the same way: by gambling, My point is that I would gamble away my car but never my guitar, no sir, because any musician, amateur or professional, knows his instrument is the only thing keeping him sane. Prescription medications, by themselves, do not work on musicians.

Second, although I don’t play professionally I know many who do — mostly rock musicians — and I’ve heard enough of their “first time on tour” stories to get a clear picture of what that life entails. What always surprises me is how much their stories have in common. And because none of these friends has played in the same band with any of the others there has to be a measure of truth in the separate tales they tell.

Razor, I can, and will, help you. Not with money, what with the holidays only ten months away, but with the benefit of my friends’ experiences, my own wisdom and with a plan. I will tell you what will happen so that you will see the full width of the Mississippi River and the depths of its muddy bottom. I will shine a light on the inner workings of the artist’s mind so that you may understand yourself better, and then I will lead you to an alternate route, so that you will have room for recovery if everything goes into the toilet on your first tour, which, my friend Rockhead says:

“It surely will wind up in the toilet; you bet your ass it will. And when it does you won’t be able to flush it, neither.”

By city number 13 half your equipment will have been stolen and you’ll find yourselves in the awkward position of going on stage with:

  • One guitar minus its FX pedal board;
  • A drum kit consisting of a kick without a pedal, one tom and a crash-ride;
  • A bass with no amp; and
  • A microphone cable without its microphone.

This means: Your drummer will have no choice but to literally kick the kick drum. You’ll have to patch both the bass and the guitar through the same amp and choose between a fuzzed-out, distorted bass, or a crystal-clean guitar tone. And your singer will have to belt it out so loud that his or her vocal cords will be thrashed into sounding as hoarse as a case of laryngitis.

Maybe your band is musically agile enough to navigate those eventualities. An unlikely scenario is that your equipment losses will lead to The Sound You’ve Always Been Searching For. Sometimes less really is more. But, usually, less is less. My friend Ax tells me that the first theft will test the relationships within the band, not by a struggle for creative control, but by a search for blame. Who screwed up by leaving the key in the Monster Lock that secured the van’s back doors? is a debate question that might arise. Ax adds:

“Whatever the debate topic or outcome, no one will be talking to each other for anywhere from 12 hours to 12 days, which is one of those situations that is very bad for musical ensembles.”

But lucky breaks do happen, so it’s possible to get to city number 20 before any essential equipment goes missing. That would leave you a bit of breathing room before the next inevitable event: the mid-tour arrest of at least one band member. The charges will likely be ridiculous and exaggerated even if there is some truth behind them, but, according to my buddy Nazz:

“Local cops hate musicians even more than drug dealers because they see drug dealers as adding something to the local economy, while musicians just start fights and pee in alleyways. What saved us is that our keyboard player had a second cousin who was a lawyer.”

So you might want to ask if you have one of those in the family.

My pal Bleach says most jurisdictions will not let you post bail with a credit card so you’ll need to have cash-on-hand to spring whoever gets thrown in jail. Hopefully your bail-out fund wasn’t also in the van when it was broken into. Remember to KEEP ALL CASH ON YOU at ALL TIMES. The challenge is that musical venues willing to book an out-of-town band on its debut tour tend to be located in areas with lots of street crime. Bleach advises:

“You want to make sure the money is carried by either the biggest guy in the band, or the dumbest, preferably a guy who is both, And, just in case anyone stupidly thinks they should carry a gun, remember that guns don’t kill people — people with guns kill other people who show they also have a gun.”

If you were planning on getting paid for your performances whatever number you imagine, or heard, or even see on a piece of paper will not be the final number. says my ex-girlfriend TaKeeLA, who handled all the negotiations for her band, “Bankruption.” She warns:

“Yeah, newbies get this thrill when a club or bar tells them they pay 500 bucks a performance but no one reads the fine print, which, often, isn’t even printed. You have to be aware of what are called NAACPV chargeback fees. The NAACPV has nothing to do with the civil rights organization, and stands for the North American Association of Concert-like Performance Venues. The fees will have gobbledegook names you will ignore, like non-waiverable management services, utility surcharges and non-union overages. After you do the math your gig will net you negative-100 to negative-500 dollars, meaning you’ll owe money to the club that hired you.”

I asked TaKeeLA how she and her band managed their first-tour’s negative cash flow:

“First time, we pawned some jewelry. Then we heard if you play at places that serve food you can work it off washing dishes. That lasted for a few towns. Then it didn’t matter because our bass player got thrown in jail for spitting on the sidewalk, which to get him out we needed to pay a $300 fine, and while we were in a pawn shop selling his bass to pay the fine our van got stolen with the rest of the equipment inside it. We had no choice but to hitchhike back home to North Carolina from St. Louis, all of us. Except our bass player. When he found out we sold his bass to spring him out of jail he said he was going to stay until he earned enough money to buy it back. I think he’s still in St. Louis. That was ten years ago. I heard he had to get married.”

So, there it is, Razor — the wisdom of experience, although, like I said, not my experience.

Now, don’t get thrown off by reality, which is highly overrated by its fans, who love to argue that reality is a narrow, one-way street used by over-sized trucks traveling at high speed. These people do not understand the nature of the creative spirit or the machinery that operates the mind of the artist, where Common Sense, Self-Preservation and Intellect all sit in the back seat while Flights of Fancy and Hope are up front, looking out the side windows, steering with their elbows and keeping that gas pedal mashed to the floor even after there’s no gas left in the tank.

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that is highly relevant:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.

—Emily Dickinson (copyright estate of Emily Dickinson)

I’m not sure what the “crumb” part at the end is all about, but the first verse is as clear as poetry gets. “Hope is the thing with feathers” is a perfect description of creative ambition and passion in the artist-type. Ambition and Passion are our wings, enabling us to fly, and, like the bird in the poem, just refuse to shut the hell up.

Hope really is the thing with feathers, Razor. Hope — Birds.They’re the same thing according to Emily Dickinson. What people overlook is that Emily Dickinson never mentions what specific bird she had in mind. It matters, I think. Seagulls, for example, are birds that love to fly over garbage dumps looking for their next meal. Alfred Hitchcock directed a movie where birds poke people’s eyes out. Pigeons are birds. Pigeons are the only bird species that chose to live in New York City which is a stupid place for a bird, especially one that hops instead of actually flying. Are any of these birds good role models? Doesn’t sound like it. Except: these are the dinosaurs who lived. There’s a trick to living when all you have is garbage, eyeballs, and the sidewalks of New York City at your disposal. On your very first tour as a traveling band those are, basically, your resources.

My oldest friend, Picknuckle told me it all boils down to this:

“The key is to get gigs at the worst venues you can find in the best towns you can easily get to. You want to start with venues that have a very small — or no — audience and then ramp up to venues that cater to audiences who tend to black out and won’t remember anything, because you are going to sound like crap on your first tour. I spent each and every performance on mine thinking back to our worst practice session, ever, and wishing we could fall into that groove instead of what we had coming out of the monitors.”

Here’s the tour I propose:

  1. Bronxville Elementary Multipurpose Room
  2. Westchester County Reservoir No. 3 Storage Yard No. 2
  3. Starbucks Parking Lot Bronx River Parkway
  4. Stables at Yonkers Raceway Diner
  5. Cross County Shopping Center Loading Dock
  6. Oakland Cemetery off Saw Mill Parkway
  7. Veteran’s Hall Coat Check Room, Tuckahoe NY
  8. Metro North Drop-Off Lot, Scarsdale NY
  9. Pace University Theater No. 2, White Plains, NY
  10. Intramural Field No. 4 SUNY, Purchase, NY
  11. Employee Break Room at the Tappan-Zee Bridge Toll Plaza
  12. Tumbler’s Drain Lounge, Nyack NY
  13. The Sign’s Out Bar, Upper Nyack NY
  14. Lulu’s Lo-Ball Lounge, South Nyack NY
  15. The Bullet Box, Montvale NJ
  16. The Glass Eye Saloon, Ho-ho-kus NJ
  17. Stolen Moments, Paterson NJ
  18. Tavern on the Scream, Morristown NJ
  19. St. Ale Beer Garden, Short Hills NJ
  20. The Bathwater Roadhouse, West Orange NJ
  21. Tears and Beers, Orange NJ
  22. Tap Tart Lounge, East Orange NJ
  23. Bee’s Underwater Bistro, Metuchen NJ
  24. Kill Van Skull Saloon,  Staten Island, NY
  25. The Lunchroom in Dad’s Office, Midtown Manhattan
  26. Jack and Jilt’s,  Mt. Vernon NY
  27. Skivvies Cocktails, New Rochelle NY
  28. Lurker’s Pub, Larchmont NY
  29. The Can’teen, Mamaroneck NY
  30. Sinkers By-The-Shore, Port Chester NY
  31. Cheater’s, Greenwich CT
  32. Three Chords Winery, Stamford CT
  33. Sue’s Cider Hangout, Danbury CT
  34. The Clap-Clap Club, Mt. Kisco NY
  35. Slattern’s Tavern, Chappaqua NY
  36. Cliffbottom Lounge, Armonk NY
  37. The Tar and Feather, Tarrytown NY
  38. Emetica Supper Club, Dobbs Ferry NY
  39. Paper Bag Publick House, White Plains NY
  40. The Spilling Station, Yonkers NY
  41. Your Parents’ Driveway (Optional add-on, end-of-the-tour, Band Benefit Concert)

The face-saving brilliance of this is you can still call it a “40-city North American Tour”. Technically you could play only in your parents’ driveway and rightfully claim it to be a “North American Tour”. And, although “City” has a specific meaning you cannot really fudge, no one will hold you to a strict definition as long as you list 40 separate locations on the back of the t-shirt. From what I hear, t-shirts are the only profit center of rock and roll tours, so if you can scare up any pre-tour capital, spend it all on t-shirts.

This tour doable, and, as you can see in the map above, if you keep the sets short and are willing to set up twice a night you could knock it out in less than three weeks, with zero hotel costs, since, you could all, like, crash at your parents’ houses. Just don’t get lazy and leave the equipment in the van overnight. Musical instruments don’t like to be left alone, and will ask anyone who walks by to take them, even in the best of neighborhoods.

Your family friend, and fan, from a distance,


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