The Mythos and Pathos of Rock Stardom: An Expose of the Indie Rock Underworld
Part 2 of 3
It ain't all gravy being in a rock band – our schedule is fairly relentless for a band that no one's ever heard of. We rehearse three to five times a week and try to play at least once a week – occasionally playing closer to four or five times a week (substituting a rehearsal then for the show). Still, with such a rigorous and demanding schedule, you'd think we could at least break even with our costs. Sadly, we are consistently in the giant red hole of debt between the cost of our space, equipment, and the band transportation vehicle (an '87 Chevy van that has most recently acquired a rather unfortunate mephitic funk), the degree of financial compensation from our shows is negligible at best. A recent show at The Elbow Room brought in close to sixty people (a bigger than average crowd for any group at our level). The club charges $7/head, so the total pull comes close to $400. What do we get? Half. Not altogether horrible but fairly meager earnings all things considered.
With The Elbow Room, we have a decent relationship with the owner and booker – a cantankerous old curmudgeon named Barry. On the flipside, there's a club we occasionally play called The Continental which has hosted a myriad of popular has-beens like Iggy Pop, Blondie and The Dead Milkmen. They boastfully host a collection of handsome B&W blow-ups of their famed performers upon their wall of lame. It's not a bad sounding club and it's in a prime spot in the heart of the east village. Just down the street is the rival club that they've always had to accept the 2nd place prize from: CBGB's. There's a big BUT that comes with playing a show at Continental, however, and that BUT is the ASSHOLE of a human in the owner of the club, Trigger. The most amazing aspect about Trigger is the remarkable degree that a single human can host hatred and disdain. I have yet to see him smile, even vaguely or in a smirking capacity, and his motto, prominently displayed on the wall of his club is, "The customer is always WRONG! – Trigger."
Trigger's a fairly formidably sized guy – he's nearly 6'4" and his visage is weathered and scarred. While he's at the club, he will work the door to ensure that underage kids and anyone else that he doesn't like the looks of does not get passed him. One night we were playing a show there and one of our fellow NYC bands called Jane Jensen & The Dolls came by to show their support. Jane Jensen, herself, is a knockout in a small package (she starred in "Romeo and Juliet") and she came to the club that night in some inebriated capacity. Trigger proceeded to forbid her and her friends from coming in. The argument got heated and he ended up throwing her ass to the sidewalk. After our show, as we were leaving, Trigger started yelling at us to "get them out of here!" since they had been yelling at each other for nearly 20 minutes and had no interest in discussing this on any level. It was a might bit fucked up and ugly at best. Collecting door money from Trigger that night was a rather uncomfortable task that was approached with a delicate touch. Conclusion: it ain't worth it.
It's no surprise that money doesn't come so easy for rock bands in NYC. The club-owners know that your band is a mere turd in the sewage pipeline to Jersey, and they are eager to take advantage. Making money as an unknown band in this city is next to impossible. We are often better served by leaving the city where some of the bar owners will give you a guarantee regardless of how many folks show up. Playing outside this city is logical as well, as it is inevitably necessary to expand the fan base on a regional level. It makes perfect sense! Let's do it! Let's play Podunk, NY!
And Podunk, NY, we've played. Just last night we drove out to a sports bar called "The End Zone," as if the name alone wasn't telling enough. We actually had lined up this show from an email that we got sent from another band announcing their show there. The owner said, "Oh yeah, Friday night's a good night – all the kids come in to check out the live music – this place is hopping." We arrived after driving through nearly an hour of trees and backwoods with little to no signs of civilization. As we were loading in our gear, we had to interrupt an intense game of darts. One of the dart players turned towards me and said, "You guys don't have to set up for a while, right? 'Cause we wanna finish this game."
We were told before we played this show that we'd be expected to play more covers than originals. Three songs into it, it became very clear why this was expected: we were hired as a veritable live jukebox so that the local yucks could shoot pool and occasionally bop their head to a Randy Rhodes-styled solo. We played a fairly short first set and then went out to our van to consult our "top-secret green folder" for inspiration. Some drunk fudderbudder prided himself on giving honest opinions, which he repeated without variation at least six times: "Man, you guys can totally fucking rock when you're doing that rap shit, but whenever you started playing that 'college shit,' it sounds like… stale beer." In spite of his repeated and versatile efforts to communicate this, I still don't know what he meant.
The second set became an endurance contest as some of the kids in the audience became very adamant in requesting songs that they wanted to hear that we didn't know. Even the local critic had to approach us between songs: "C'mon guys, you can play something we all know here without playing that college music crap!" We jammed a lot, fudged through songs we'd never played before, fudged through songs that we supposedly knew well, and in our inebriated and otherwise altered state, put on a GODawful show. I likened the experience to a cultural schism in a petri dish. GOD loves NYC.
It has become an ongoing joke in the band whenever we play a show out of town that the following explanation come from the club-owner after the show… "I don't know what happened, this place is almost always packed on the weekends… Maybe it's that beer-tasting contest they're having across the river." With little to no variation, this has become both sadly and frighteningly status quo for GOD the band.
So, it's inevitable that we come back where we started: the city of dreams – New York Fuckin' City. We continue to try new marketing strategies (flyering as a mute), new press strategies (postering the street outside the Village Voice and Time Out NY), and new clubs (next weekend we tap the lesbian contingency at Meow Mix). There seems to be an endless font of potential and opportunities to continue to seek here, and the doors continue to somehow open. GOD is surviving (albeit by a small thread) in this metropolis city. But survival comes with no small price in the guise of embracing resourcefulness. Since there is definite cost involved in maintaining an artistic endeavor that doesn't pay for itself, "by-whatever-means" has become the norm for GOD the band and most other bands in this city. Once the well dries up and the attendance of friends and so-called "fans" begins to dwindle, it's pretty tempting to call it quits. Persevering to the next stage requires a fearless outlook, a blinding idealistic optimism, and balls of steel. When any of these things are missing and negativity begins to fuse itself to your soul, you are ceasing to have fun. And once you're not having fun any longer, then you know – it's time to quit.
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