Sunday, 7 February 2010

The others

There are others out there. You start to notice recurring names on the club's listings. The same posters. They're mostly Americans. They come over to Europe and do as many countries as possible. It's exotic to them and they're exotic to the bars. And distances and boundries mean less to them. Europeans on the other hand rarely venture outside their own stomping ground.

They play in front of the same crowds. Sleep in the same bed. Have dinner with the same host. Get asked the same questions. You think you're unique but you're just another night.

I contacted a few of them when I started out, imagining there would be a cult of camaraderie among the troubadours, sharing stories about the best nights and the worst ones. But none responded. I'm sure they check my website just I check their's, harvesting the names of clubs and adding them to my lists. One for each country. It's all about the lists. Your tours are only going to be as good as your lists.

It takes hundreds of hours to build up and maintain each list. You google the name and town of a club you've found on someone's gig page, find the email address of the booker from the website, and add it to the list. Then between three months and a year before you want to tour there, you contact all the people in your list. Techniques differ from act to act. Some prefer the sniper approach, calling up and speaking to to the booker directly, but when you're playing a lot of shows there really isn't time. I use the shotgun approach. Spraying out thousands of emails every month and seeing who responds with an offer. The replies refine the list, and once you've played a place you make further notes about it. Each time it's less work, you play the better clubs and avoid the bad ones, and your list gets better and better. You keep your list to yourself.

It's business and we're competitors. Self-employed entrepreneurs providing a slightly different product to the same limited market. There are only so many clubs and only so many nights to play. If up-to-date lists were freely available the clubs would be flooded with people wanting to play. It would be much harder to get a show and the fees would fall to nothing, like they have in England and America. We'd be out of a job.

There is a bigger secret though. Bigger than the lists. It's the knowledge that really anyone could do it. Anyone with a half descent set of songs and some experience. The bookers are really not that demanding, and provided you have some nice recordings, and good picture and a poster they will book you, especially if you're exotic. Most of those in the scene back home, who are so excited to hear about your travels and ask for advice about how they can do it, if they put down their guitar and picked up their laptop, they could do it as well. But there's the nub of it. We all have this vision of ourselves as musicians, not as a booker. We all want to have our genius discovered. And we all secretly feel the need for some kind of approval before we go.

None of the greats started out booking themselves. In none of your idols biographies do you read... "Dear sir, I will be on tour in your area in the first week of May and would love to play your club. I am a social songwriter playing topical folk songs. I also have a large repertoire of Woody Guthrie songs if you would prefer to hear covers. I look forward to hearing from you, Bobby Dylan." Would Dylan have spent days stuffing envelopes and licking stamps? Woody? Would he fuck. And if his typewriter had hummed out letters rather than lyrics we wouldn't have all those great songs.

It would seem like a Catch 22. A system doomed to stop you improving. To be successful you have to devote all your time to promoting yourself, but if you're doing that you don't have time to work on your art. You only need your first 45 minutes of material and then you don't have time to write anymore. You're playing to different people every night and when you do come back to the same clubs a year later it's usually a different audience. And even if it is all the same people, people want to hear the songs they've heard before. Live music is a strange and unique art form in that respect.

But full-time touring has its inevitable positive effects. So you start playing for yourself. You get much better at playing live. And secondly you become so bored of your own songs that you have to write new ones just to stay sane.

The traditional boiling pots are still there - New York and London. You can still go and sweat it out all with the other rats. . Pissing and shitting on each other. The raw ambition. The naked greed. The hierarchies and name dropping. The fake respect. The army of next big things.

You think the internet would be the perfect system. Completely accessible and democratic. The cream rising to the top. Unfortunately there is more music than God himself has time to listen to and 99.99% is utter shit. The jar is overflowing and the cream slips down the side.

So those of us who have wised up to all of this hit the road.

Slovenia really isn't that far.

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