The music business, like the human condition, is complex, ambiguous, and frequently arbitrary – curiously-suited to a risk-averse individual like me. Yet here I am, fifteen years into what at this point can only be called a career.
In the beginning, I brandished a stringent list of performance absolutes in the hopes that adhering to them would assure success. I’d also read so many musicians’ biographies in high school and college that I had language ready for my own narrative, overlooking the fact that such a straight-to-Behind-the-Music (or American Idol, if you prefer) approach would deprive one of the experiences of creating, interacting, and growing in real time. We all learn things along the way.
It boils down to control, or as ‘Crystal’ Beth Fleenor explained during her introduction to a Bushwick song inspired by The Book of Leviticus*, our “deep, honest, desperate need as humans to try to have some kind of answer to the whole situation.” I advocate both forgiving ourselves this and concurrently reaching beyond it. I know and accept why I clung to my list, and I am grateful for those individuals and experiences that taught me (slowly) to let go of it. I wanted assurance it would be okay; instead I got a community and growing body of work that walks with me through the okay and the not. These days, I’ll take it.
(*Watch Beth’s brilliant and moving – if NSFW – performance below, starting at 18:18.)
But I’ll also reminisce (and daydream, and occasionally mutter). Here’s what I can recall of the list – Four Performance Rules I’m Happy to Bend (and the One I Won’t):
Don’t Drink When You Play
It’s easy to see where this one originated: in the acoustic-music world, sloppy-drunk performances rarely get callbacks or sell much merch. (Plus, it sounds so noble to assert one’s principles so!) But some four-set nights are long and noisy, and some rooms need ice-breaking. I won’t overdo it (or even come close), but some gigs I might sip a brew or two over the course of the six hours from load-in till tear-down.
Always Write Out Your Set Ahead of Time
This came from deserved feedback that my sets could be tighter and use more direction, but then sometimes catharsis greets you in the room and
the way to engage is to go off-book. I’m quite comfortable doing this, though I know many peers who aren’t. What I love about live performance, and what I bring to the stage when I’m performing, is a desire to share a unique interaction with whoever’s there in that moment. Sometimes this comes from delivering a tightly-planned set, and sometimes it comes from chasing a thread (though it helps to have start- and end-points sketched, if not solidly-mapped).
Just Be Yourself Completely On-Stage, Man!
Look, no one likes phonies, but performing in front of an audience necessarily involves said audience projecting something onto you, and that makes it complicated. On-Stage Me and Off-Stage Me are both part of Me, but they’re different – like Monday-Morning You vs. Friday-Night You. If there’s something I do (and enjoy) while performing that engages attendees and moves the show along, but it’s something I wouldn’t routinely do or say in my pajamas at home, should I withhold it? Of course not!
Always Mic Your Guitar When You Have the Option
If it’s a pin-drop silent listening room and I trust the sound-tech and the gear, I’ll still ask for a mic – in these settings it will sound better. But I put good money into that pickup for more than just outdoor festival gigs, and I’ve dialed it in over the years. Now if I need control, I’m plugging in – and everybody’s happier.
And the One to which I still hold fast:
Don’t Wear Shorts to the Gig
I don’t care if it’s 105-degrees, shorts-on-stage looks amateur and terrible. If American Civil Rights marchers could handle Alabama summers in wool suits, you can wear jeans for your 45-minute set. LA Weekly even created this handy flow-chart for ongoing reference.
T-shirts? Fine (not my usual, but if it works for you…). I’ll accept sandals, flip-flops, even no-shoes-whatsoever – but you gotta wear pants. (When I’ve had occasion to perform house concerts in Canada – where folk customarily take their shoes off in their homes – I’ve played in sock-feet…and felt really sheepish about it.)
It’s still a complex, ambiguous, and arbitrary world out there, but I’m a lot more willing to roll with it rather than legislate.