My compulsion to write this article pushed me recall a moment from high school, in which a teacher attempted to explain the entirety of Judaism as a single concept to an unruly freshman class. He paraphrased an ancient Talmudic tale as, “Treat everyone the way you want to be treated; the rest is explanation.” Woah…heavy stuff. But really? That’s all?
In my performing life, I’ve played shows on many stages around the country. From seedy basement-level punk bars in New York City, to glamorous stages in Nashville, I’ve experienced quite a slab of life. This continuing journey has allowed me to meet a multitude of club owners, sound engineers, journalists, bartenders, and restaurant managers, among others. And I wanted all of these people to like me. Why? Human nature? I suppose there’s an innate sense of community, a desire to connect with like-minded souls, or, like many musicians, I was certain that this person would somehow be the catalyst for that lucrative recording deal, catapulting me to stardom.
In the last couple of years of performing way more frequently, I’m still amazed by how terribly low we (performers) have set others’ expectations of our thoughtfulness and civility. I don’t understand it. With unnerving consistency I am consistently reminded of this when I show up to a venue on-time or early, set up quickly, and then help the engineer move through an expedient pre-show sound check. Almost every time, at least one person that I encounter will go out of his/her way to mention how “cool” it is that we showed up on-time, that our equipment was in good shape, or simply that we were polite. Don’t misunderstand me here – I love hearing about how wonderful I am… But, that people consistently spell this out for me is a big sign that this isn’t the way things usually happen. And I think that’s truly pathetic.
I am actively involved with a number of organizations that, among other things, promote fair compensation and treatment for performing artists; to that, I strongly agree that much of the personnel from venues currently booking shows have a long road of improvement ahead. But, they’re not alone; I hold firm that we (performing artists) also have an opportunity for improvement.
For example, consider the typical work of a venue’s sound engineer; it becomes abundantly clear that we’re all in this together… He/she often catches the brunt from surly venue managers, inebriated patrons, and all without assistance. Add the late arriving band, already on the road to “drunkytown”, missing equipment, gear in various states of disrepair, without consideration for anyone else. Both the sound engineer and the venue manager want you to sound amazing, (even though they don’t always make this clear), as does the wait-staff (the other folks that work as hard for as little compensation as performers). The better you sound, the more patrons stay – to listen, eat, and drink – and the more likely you’ll be invited back. Sounds like a no-brainer to me… Yet, this is the outlier, not status-quo; and that leaves me frustratingly confused.
I recall a show I played over the past year; my band was playing with another whom invited us to open. The engineer ran late – very late. He eventually arrived, then sat to slowly eat his dinner, and make several phone calls – as the musicians silently seethed. We were all exasperated, but somehow kept it to ourselves. When he finally began to mic the stage, he was simultaneously watching a hockey game on his phone. Now I know little about most sports, and hockey less so. Maybe to defuse tensions, I blurted out something about how in middle school I begged my dad to buy me a New York Islanders team jersey with the player’s name ‘Trottier’ emblazoned on the back. Though that exhausted the of my hockey knowledge, this guy made actual eye-contact with me, proceeding to explain why the “Caps suck”, and detailed improvements for the team. I nodded and agreed with everything he said (what the hell did I know?) When it came time to sound check, he was really focused on us, really interacting, making sure we were satisfied. Later, packing up, my new buddy informed me “the freakin’ Caps blew another one”, and I shook my head to commiserate. While loading my car, I reflected on that disorganized, selfish, goofy, hockey-obsessed guy…who made my band’s performance sound amazing.
I offer this anecdote to point out how easy it is to just be nice. We’re entertainers…our goal is to (hopefully) have others enjoy our art. It’s far easier, and more fun, to get on stage and kick ass when you’re not burdened with having the attitude of an asshole.
The career of blues legend, B.B. King, who died earlier this year, was the focus of the February 2015 issue of Premier Guitar. It contained an article penned by editor-in-chief, Shawn Hammond, relating an interview with Coco Montoya (known best as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and later in the 1970s, as a drummer to the also legendary Texas blues guitarist, Albert Collins.) This is an excerpt from that article:
…Montoya recalled how Collins once asked B.B. King to offer him some advice on how to deal with feelings of inadequacy on-stage. “My son’s having a little nerve problem,” Collins explained to the Mississippi bluesman. King responded, “Listen to what I’ve got to say: You go up there like you’re the baddest motherfucker on the stage — ain’t nobody better. But do yourself a favor: When you come down off the stage, leave that up there. It’ll always be there when you come back.”
Montoya concluded, “What he was telling me,” Montoya said, “was the magic of being a musician … If you walk off the stage humble, you’ve just magnified what you played a hundred times.”
-Shawn Hammond, Premier Guitar
When my wife and I saw Allen Toussaint perform last year, he truly embodied this concept. Humbly sitting down at his piano, he locked eyes with each band member, each many years his junior, with a look that said, “get ready to keep up with me,‘cause I’m gonna make you work for it tonight!” Nearly 2 hours later, it took Toussaint 30 minutes to make the journey from stage to dressing room. He stopped for every extended hand, every request for a photo-opp, every person who wanted to ask a question, offer a kudos, or a simple thank you. And everyone was treated with equal and genuine consideration. His band kept on playing until he finally left the theater. He was the “gentleman’s gentleman.” Truly legendary.
I might invite a backlash for making this statement, but… Being a musician is equal parts art and business. If one wants to perform, one must make income to survive, and profit to move forward. To be truly artistically and financially successful, one looks for ways to keep clients (fans) happy, and to find new clients. No business can be truly successful while treating clients and/or business partners (sound engineers, club managers, etc.) inconsiderately.
In closing, I’ll add one more idea: the musician about whom B.B. King spoke should show up to the venue as humble and gracious as when he/she leaves the stage. Just like one’s instrument, keep the “baddest motherf*cker” in it’s case right up until showtime; then, unleash that beast! After your final bow, pack it up, along with the other gear; then, go out of your way to shake every offered hand, genuinely thank every compliment-bearing person, exiting as graciously as you arrived. This is what catapults one from simply great to truly legendary.