Apr 24, 2013

TWO HUNDRED posts. ONE thank you.

Greetings - 
You're currently reading the 200th post here on Ask A Punk. I don't know what percentage of small, one-person blogs chug all the way to 200 posts, but I'm guessing it is a fairly low number.

Obviously, I would have hit this number sooner if I hadn't taken that longer-than-expected hiatus, but the truth is, I really needed to take it when I did. Even though I knew I had done nearly zero in terms of promoting the website and getting it "linked up" in as many places as possible, I still had to admit that I was sometimes, in the dark quiet nights, disappointed that the blog wasn't reaching more people, wasn't connecting with a bigger audience etc.  I think I had reached a point with this blog where I was more concerned with 'outcome' than with 'process,' and that is never a good thing for any creative endeavor. During my time off I had to re-ask myself some key questions:

Q: Why are you writing this blog, really?
A: To have a forced, weekly deadline that'll have me writing on subjects I couldn't have come up with on my own. To (admittedly) reach a larger audience. To, as they say: "Become the expert."

The last part of that answer might sound a little odd coming from me and a little too much like marketing-speak, but that was the real catalyst. Here is how it happened:

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to pitch a "Punk Rock for Dummies"-style book to a literary agent. I spent a couple weeks writing up a very detailed chapter outline that was equal parts a 'history' and a real hands-on 'how-to' about the basics of playing instruments, writing songs and putting together a band on a zero budget. I thought it was a pretty good outline. When the agent rejected my proposal the reason she gave was: "I can't sell this, because I can't sell YOU... no one knows who you are."  ...this was a bit of odd logic. I looked at my bookshelf because in the past I have purchased about a half-dozen "for dummies" and "complete idiot's guide to ______" books - all on various topics that I needed to learn a lot about in a short amount of time... I didn't recognize the names of any of the authors of these books. All that mattered was the useful content, so why should it matter than no one had heard of me if they wanted a 'how to' on punk rock? ...as I said, the agent didn't tell me the idea or the outline wasn't sell-able, just that I wasn't. This point was later proven when I found out that she was actually pedaling my outline to better-known punk rock semi-luminaries, like the typical Hollywood weasel that she was. 

While I was telling a book business-savvy friend about this whole ugly scene, she had one piece of advice. She said: "So? Then become the expert yourself. Create some kind of a website and then in a few years maybe you will be well-enough known to get that book deal or something." It made sense, but at first I was stumped about coming up with something a bit apart from the typical record review/concert review/scene report kind of music website because there are already 1000's of those and, let's face it: I don't have the time, money or energy to start collecting records and handstamps again. Then I realized that I had spent my life reading advice columns: 'Dear Abby' and 'Ann Landers' as a kid, then 'Doctor Ruth' in print and on the radio, which also led to listening to 'Loveline' on the radio. I have also long read Dan Savage's Savage Love column, the LA Weekly's 'Ask A Mexican,' and the long-running advice columns on salon.com.  Suddenly the answer was obvious and that's when/how 'Ask A Punk' was born. 

So, five years, and 200 posts later, am I now the known expert? Probably not, but I have experienced some unexpected benefits. Being presented with a new question/issue every week, I really have had to decide where I stand on some issues that I otherwise probably wouldn't have given much thought to. That was another big draw for me: By soliciting questions from you folks, I haven't had to dream up a new 'topic' every week... which was a relief because I don't think what is generally ping-ponging around in my head on a typical day is stuff I "simply must share with my readers." Trust me - it would be tedious for us both.

I've had a lot of conversations with other people who are regular online creator/contributors - people who've got blogs, or a web series on youtube, or a twitter feed they've put a lot of effort into and I've noticed something: Everyone, even people I wouldn't expect it from, gets really cagey when asked about their traffic and analytics numbers. The "fake it 'til you make it" mentality is alive and well on the web... Everyone wants you to believe that their website is a major destination, their traffic is ever-increasing and they have a klout score surpassed only by the likes of Lady Gaga. I'll call some bullshit on that - here are the numbers for Ask A Punk.

AAP is currently averaging about 1000-1200 visitors per month. Major traffic sources lately have included stumbleupon.com (a site I really should visit and figure out, but haven't had the time,) google search results and links from a press release I put out a few months ago. 

While I have had paid ads on my site since day one, I have yet to receive a single check from google because my total accumulated "ad revenue" is still well-below the minimum $100 threshold required for them to cut me a check. Heck, I think it is still below $50. In the meantime, over the past 5+ years I have spent probably $200 (at least) for domain registration fees, that press release (which I don' think was worth the money) and other misc. expenses. So this hasn't been a money-making proposition, to say the least.

What I have gotten is a small, but steady audience of readers - for whom I am very grateful and, as I mentioned earlier, I've had the enjoyable challenge of figuring out where I stand on a lot of issues. I have also enjoyed cranking out nearly a half-million words on these various subjects, learned how to create an ebook and had my faith (and hope) in the punk rock ethos validated again and again by what my readers have contributed to the site. 

As I look ahead to the next 200 posts what am I hoping for? Some things are obvious:

I want my readers to be more involved and to leave more comments: I was hoping that the revamped site would make it easier for readers to find the 'comments' section and thus be more likely to contribute, but the limited customization options of Blogger weren't much help. 

I would like more people to buy the ebook of the first year's posts. I have gotten some good reviews and feedback on it and I gave away a ton of copies, but I won't be able to make a 'volume 2' until volume 1 sells enough copies to at least cover the costs of making it (which I measure in my time, since I did DIYed the whole thing myself anyway.) 

I also hope to attract more readers of course. I realize this is something I have to figure out how to do better myself - more links, more outreach to helpful websites (like stumbleupon) and that sort of thing. ...but also, I want to put it to my readers as well. If you've read THIS FAR into this typically long-winded post of mine, then I'm guessing you're a regular reader and used to me by now. I'm going to ask you to actively spread the word. If you can think of ten or four or even ONE person/friend of yours who would enjoy reading this site every week, now is the time to tell them about it. Shoot out an email. Post on your Facebook. Send out a tweet (I DO have an @askapunk twitter feed that I haven't been at all active with, and there is also my personal @planetoconnor twitter as well.) If any of you are familiar with the workings of stumbleupon or reddit or  goodreads or any similar 'discovery' pages,  I would be happy to hear your insights & advice. 

I'll be back next week with a regular question & answer column. See you Wednesday morning.

Good luck and thanks again for your continuing interest in Ask A Punk.

Apr 17, 2013

The Few. The Plowed.

We here at AAP are pretty proud of the fact that we've never missed our Wednesday morning deadline. We've achieved this perfect record because we always try to stay at least a few weeks ahead on the posts, and then "schedule" them to publish on Wednesday morning.  Of course by "we" I mean "I" and "me" but still, it is a  point of pride. There are at least a few of you out there who, every Wednesday, check in and read the latest post, and I feel a certain responsibility to you all... True, I wish more of you would leave comments, but that is another issue. Today isn't about scolding. 

Today's question arrived a few weeks ago and I actually wrote my reply last week and then "scheduled" the post to run, well, today, since you're now reading this... but the world has changed somewhat (and again) since I wrote my response, and so now I'm writing a new intro... but I am not changing a word of my original answer below.

As I write this, sitting in a small coffeeshop in Southern California, the smoke still hasn't cleared from the "Marathon" explosions on Boylston Street in Boston. Regular readers already know that I'm originally a Massachusetts boy. I grew up in Western Mass, and then, like everyone else, moved to Boston after college. I spent the next seven years making Boston/Cambridge and the surrounding towns my own. To paraphrase someone much more clever than myself: "I was born & raised elsewhere, but Boston is my hometown." 

As I write this, the internet and the media in general is gearing up for their usual f#ckfest of name-calling, conclusion-jumping and  half-assed "reporting," not to mention a new parade of rumors, falsehoods, innuendo and politically-driven "spin." I fear, or more accurately: expect, that the noise level will increase, bullshit meters will malfunction and the paranoia level will increase while the rhetoric gets ever louder and more awful while the truth and the humanity of the situation gets treated as an afterthought, if at all. The only thing that makes me sadder than the horrible event itself is my (low) expectations of what the aftermath is likely to be. I doubt many "public" people are going to be making themselves proud in the weeks and months to come and, sadly, I doubt much is going to change with the overwhelming majority of us rank-and-filers -- There will be a lot of shouting. A lot of horrible and not-quite-thought-through things are going to be said. A lot of even more horrible things are going to be done and we're not going to get much/at all closer to solving the issues that cause these things to happen in the first place.

As I type this, the simple TRUTH is: No one really knows who or what was behind this attack yet, but that won't stop people from taking advantage of the situation, of wading into the lack-of-information and grinding their own axes and making all the noise they can. Noise. That is all it is. We humans are pattern-recognition machines, and when something unexpected happens, we look for answers, patterns, ANYthing to lessen the horrible feelings of confusion, fear and anxiety - and if the handy "answer" fits in with our already closely-held dogma then hey - so much the better. The loudest voices will cling to the simplest answers - even if they're never quite accurate. The quiet voices will be too paralyzed by the complexities they see to take action. The world will keep turning and we'll all wobble closer and closer to the next horrible thing.

I have some definite opinions on all of this - some that you could probably guess, and some that are likely surprise you... but I'm not going to get into them now. Maybe I will later after the facts are in, or maybe not. In the meantime I'll leave the grandstanding, prognostications and bloviating to those more qualified to look/act/sound like buffoons. 

Now for this week's question and unaltered answer.

Dear Ask A Punk-
I'm in my early 20s and I have lived my whole life in a city/town that is best known to the world because of the huuuuuge military base that is nearby. It is a "military" town in every sense of the word. How my artsy family ended up here, I'll never know, but my parents moved here when they got married and have stayed even though neither of them was ever in the military. I have grown up here and it hasn't been easy to be a punkrock kind of kid. Growing up it was tough. Military parents wouldn't let their kids hang out with us "weirdos" ...it was like we didn't just have to deal with the jocks at our school, but also every 17-19 year old ex-jock who had to stop terrorizing the misfits in their home towns so they could move here and learn how to actually kill people, instead of just beating them up. I expected that by now, now that I'm somewhat older than most of the newbies I would be able to deal with them better or they at least wouldn't feel automatically allowed to fuck with me, but that hasn't been the case. 

Like I said, I've been here my whole life so I feel like I am qualified to say this: The types of people joining the service now are the sort who would have been rejected ten, or even five years ago. We have been at war(s) for so long that pretty much anyone who wants to sign up is taken... who cares if they're convicted felons or gangbangers or even old... and these people come into town and act worse than any of the new recruits I remember running from when I was a kid. As with any military town, there are a few blocks of bars and nightclubs that are always packed with servicemen. These places have always been full of testosterone-soaked drunken dipshits who are itching to try out their new hand-to-hand techniques on innocent bystanders - that is nothing new - but the level of violence, drinking and yeah - drugs is heavier than it ever was before. If I want to have a beer with some friends, we're much safer driving 25-30 miles to the next town. I'm saying that things are getting worse here, so I assume they're getting worse everywhere.

I have been playing in punk bands and booking shows since I was 14  years old. It used to be there would be a couple of strangers at gigs with shaved heads and you knew they were punks from somewhere else who joined the military. Sometimes they were cool, sometimes they were nazi-punks who would then try to FSU our shows because, since we weren't racist dipshits, were clearly "not punk enough" ....but now? I don't know what to make of these people at all. I can almost picture the recruiters trolling through jails looking for willing "volunteers" for the army and marines. The whole town feels darker, scarier and more menacing than it did when I was a kid. I never would have expected that. Of course I want to move, but I also grew up here and a hometown is a hometown, even if  you probably wouldn't have picked it for yourself. 

I still haven't gotten to my question sorry. I guess my point is that my town isn't what it used to be and is getting worse. So, how do I know when it is time to say fuck it, and find a better place to live? - WTF?

 Dear WTF -
We are a country that has been at war for a decade, that has to take a toll on ANY armed force. The Joint Chiefs of Staff themselves will be the first to tell you that our military readiness is teetering on the brink of being non-ready. Even though we, as a country, spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined (and all but 1 or 2 of those countries are allies) there is one resource that the military can't just buy more of: actual soldiers. What they can do is lower their entrance standards while also privatizing and outsourcing as much of the non-combat stuff as possible, freeing up more of those sub-optimum soldiers for trigger duty. This privatization has been a boon for the companies that supply such things & people to the government. These companies have gotten very very rich in the past 10 years, all in the name of "keeping us safe" while strongly promoting our particular brand of democracy/freedom. though, right? There is much that can be debated there, but that is beyond the scope of today's question, so I'll try not to drift too far afield, for a change. I'll just mention a few simple facts we, as citizens, have to keep in mind: We're now a country that tortures prisoners, hires non-government "military contractors" (who, in an earlier epoch were called: "mercenaries") to fight/kill in our name, all while bankrupting our future and abandoning the most basic promises our government has always made to us in the past... all to fund far flung wars that were started dubiously and have no clear end-game.

As I said... sticking to the topic:

So how do you decide when it is time to leave your hometown? How do you know when "increasingly shitty" becomes "downright intolerable?"  It is a subjective thing of course. First of all, whether it is our actual hometown or not, what keeps us rooted to our current location? It is a combination of factors: job, family, friends, scene. You didn't really give me much to go on about all these aspects of your life, except for the 'scene' part, so let's start there.

You said you've been playing in bands and booking shows there forever, so I'm guessing that makes you something of a known figure in your hometown music scene. It can be very tough to give that sort of situation up, I know, but it can be done. If you have some musical chops and you're not a total douchebag, you could roll into almost any medium-sized town/city, figure out the main places and players involved, and quickly make a name for yourself by doing what you've always done: participated and, I'm guessing, given back more to your scene than you've taken. Find some new bands that could use some of your help and expertise and GIVE it to them. You would be surprised how quickly you can fit in in a new place if you're willing to help people and, as I mentioned earlier - if you know how to not be a douchebag. 

I wish you'd told me more about your family, friend and work situations. It sounds like you get along with your family - so you probably wouldn't want to be thousands of miles away from them but maybe a few hundred miles would be doable? Pull out a map and find your hometown on it. Now draw a circle say, 300 miles in every direction and see if there are any suitable cities or towns inside that circle. 300 miles is a one-day drive, and slightly less than a full tank of gas for most cars. Doable for holidays, birthdays, emergencies or even just a long weekend that you'd like to spend with the folks. Surely somewhere within that six hundred mile diameter circle there is a non-military city or town... or better yet, a college town. While college towns often have their own rotating cast of jocks and knuckleheads, overall you're more likely to find kindred spirits and a populace that is generally more tolerant of "artsy" people.  ... and the music scene is likely to be lively, but with lots of turnover.

Work is always an issue, but since you didn't mention a specific job or area of expertise, I'm going to assume you're not holding down some heavy career-track kind of job at the moment. What transferable skills do you have that are likely to be useful ANYwhere you might happen to land? Figure out what kind of work you might be able to do/find at a new location and let that help you decide on the location. 

Friends?  I'm guessing that, as a dedicated scenester, you have a wide wide circle of friends. I'm sure some are, at best, acquaintances, but others are true friends. What do they think about all this? Are any of them also itching to move away? ...if so, moving with a friend often eases a geographical transition. Or if none of them want to move, do they have any friends in other towns who might need a roommate or who might have some job leads? Yes, I'm telling you to utilize your network... I'm just trying to not sound like the kind of guy who would use a phrase like "utilize your network." 

To tell you the truth, it sounds like you're halfway gone already. It is OK, especially in your mid-twenties, to feel like you're done with your hometown, at least for a while. Also, here is a little secret you're keeping from yourself: Moving out of your hometown is just the first step on a journey you're still trying to give a name to. There are few thrills quite like making a major life move and surviving it. It makes you braver the next time you face a jump-or-don't-jump situation. You'll realize that the unknown is something to be explored, not feared.

Apr 10, 2013

Kick out the Jammies

Dear Ask A Punk:
One of the members of my band had a kid last Fall. We're all thrilled for her and it is all wonderful and all of that, but here is the problem: We're all in our mid-to-late 20s. We were all taking this band very seriously, to the point were people, including me, have turned down offers for "real jobs" and other opportunities, all the kinds of things  you can't do when "the band comes first." Last summer we were finally at the point where we were able to play out of town and do some short "van tours" for a 10 days to 2 weeks at a time. So we are, or at least were, all on the same page of building something that might, we hope, get pretty big, not super huge, but at least a real, recognizable band, with fans in other places and maybe some records out, beyond the stuff we put on Soundcloud and on our band pages. We've been working toward all this, together, for a couple of years and 2013 was supposed to be a year that we were going to spend as much time on the road as possible, playing in as many new towns as possible and all that. Like I said - we are serious about this.

So you obviously know what the issue is now. The new mom can't quite commit to any of the usual band requirements. We can understand her not being able to hang out, and go to shows, and be as super active in the "scene" and all that, but she is also missing rehearsals and when we try to talk about our out-of-town scheduling in the future she sort of dodges it by saying things like "It is too soon to be worried about all that stuff" or things like that. I knew her priorities would change, and I am trying to empathize because I'm a girl too, and I hope to have kids of my own someday, but not right now. The truth is, I'm pissed off. I feel like the whole band is being held hostage over this. She won't quit. We don't want to throw her out. But in the meantime nothing is happening for us, and we're probably losing ground, because she isn't as committed as she used to be. As you can imagine, the guys in the band have even less patience, but we are all old friends and stuff so there is a lot of history and it is like no one wants to be "the jerk", or, in my case "the bitch" by bringing up the obvious which is: Her choice to keep/have a kid was hers to make, but now she is expecting us all to alter our lives, and plans, and ambitions because SHE has a kid now. It doesn't seem fair, and we just don't know how to get past all this. Any ideas? - Rock Now. Mom Later.

Dear RN.ML-
If you weren't all such great "old friends," if she was some random musician you met on craigslist and added to your band, how difficult would it be to hash all this out with her and come to a decision? I'm guessing not all that hard... but when real friendship is involved, things get complicated. 

My short, quick answer is to suck it up and have a full-band sit-down for the sole purpose of airing all this out, once and for all, with all interested parties in attendance. It will more-than-likely suck, but it has to be done, otherwise everyone is going to remain polite while internally the seething will only build and build until it turns into some kind of ugly shouting match. 

I'm willing to bet that this is one of those elephant in the room situations where everyone is just dying for someone else to bring it up and start the ball rolling, so it might as well be you. I think you have every right to tell ANY band member that they can't miss rehearsals etc, and if they can't maintain the level of commitment they previously had or the project, for any reason, then the other people involved, who are still fully committed have the right to protect and nurture the thing they've created, ie: The Band. 

Chances are your friend probably harbored some fantasy that she would be able to make motherhood and full-time rock-and-rolling "work," but by now the reality of the situation is likely setting in for her as much as it is for you. Don't get me wrong, it HAS been done, but it does add another layer of difficulty to the already difficult-as-f*ck process of being a successful, real band... and it requires more commitment from her and from all the other band members.

...so you have have to decide, friendship aside, how difficult it would be to replace her. As usual I wish I had more information. Is she a major creative force in the band? Does she write a lot of the songs, and/or sing them? You didn't even say what she plays. Does she have a major impact on the band's overall sound/image/creativity?  If no, then she's replaceable. If yes, well then you've got some serious thinking to do.

Playing in bands can be fun, or it can be worse than dental surgery, and that has less to do with "success" than it has to do with the personalities involved. You said you're all old friends - that usually means that you initially got together out of a combination of convenience and joy at just making some music together. For some people that is enough. For others (like your band) it is just the starting point for more ambitious and professional goals. Those are not dirty words. You're entitled to have and pursue your dreams, just as she was entitled to become the mom she wanted to be... but we all have to face some unpleasant facts as the years stack up and that is this: You can't really "have it all." That hack old saying about "when one door closes, another opens" should be re-written to also include the fact that, sometimes when you open an new door, other doors get slammed shut. That's the reality. 

I want to say again, in an effort to head off a bunch of angry comments & mail: Yes, women and moms can be ferocious, bigger-than-life rock stars... but it isn't easy. I'm sure music still means a lot to her, and I'm sure she would be crushed to be cut loose from the band, but if she is a real friend to all of you then she must know that the changes in her life are negatively effecting all of you. I think that is the unspoken resentment in your email to me: Why the hell won't she just quit so you don't have to be the heavy? A good question. I would like to know the answer to that as well. 

Priorities do have a way of shifting once you have kids. Did you all talk about ANY of this while she was still pregnant? Maybe she's starting to think more pragmatically about how she is going to support and care for her child (ie: where's the $$ going to come from?) You didn't mention anything about her having a partner in all of this either. IF she still cares about music as much as she used to, she'll figure out a way to make it work so she can stay in the band... or she can do the right thing and let you guys find a replacement so all of you can move forward. IF music is still important to her, she'll find other outlets for it - like maybe while you're all on-the-road, sleeping in the van, she'll be at home crafting a mind-blowing solo album on her laptop in between diaper changes.

She made a choice to be a mom. You have to make the next choice.

Apr 3, 2013

With Friends like These. And an Update.

Greetings. Before we get started with this week's question & answer, we have an all-too-rare occurrence here on AAP... an actual Follow-Up. 

Regular readers might recall one of the first new posts after the rebooting of the site. I'm talking about this post here. It was a pretty harrowing tale about a person very near the end of their rope and I was afraid that so much time had lapsed since the question had come in that any answer I might give would be too late to do any good. I have recently heard from the person who originally sent in that question, and I'm happy to report that things have improved and that long-term sobriety is being achieved. I'm still guessing that my response probably had little to do with the upturn, but that doesn't matter. The important part is that somebody is getting better instead of worse. There is always hope for a turnaround. 

Now on to this week's question.

Dear Ask A Punk
I know money is tight and all, but when is it "too old" to still be living with your parents? I'm not making a ton of money but I figure that every dollar I pay in rent for my own place, away from my family, is a dollar I won't have to spend on therapy or medications. Even when I was a kid my only goal was to, as soon as possible, "not live here" no matter what that took. So I did it. I have a decent apartment and a decent low-budget life that I'm trying to do things with. I mean it is still doable, right? Even if I'm in my mid-twenties and already know I'll probably never be able to buy a place, at least I can rent, right? So obviously I'm asking because a friend of mine is still living with his parents. He's about 26 now, but I'm not exactly sure. He lived on his own for a little while but moved back even when he still had a real job. Since then he has lost his real job just like everyone else, so he almost has a reason to still be living at home, but at least he has A job again - and we live in the sort of small city where you can always find an apartment... So why isn't he? What's his problem?

We're only friends, if that's what you're thinking, and I have plenty of friends who are true deadbeats, so I know the type. I just can't understand his lack of motivation, or at least a desire to have his own place in case he wants a girlfriend or something.  - Solo Dweller.

Dear SD-
While I understand the precise question you asked, I don't quite understand your issue. Sure, there used to be some culturally derived age where an able-bodied child should be "out of the house" either through work or marriage. That age has varied over time as well as cultural and economic circumstance. Now, given the current and continuing economic malaise, I think there is no longer a cutoff age for this sort of thing. At least for economic reasons.

There might indeed be other, deeper and unexamined reasons why he doesn't want to leave the nest, but the real deeper and unexamined things worth exploring are why this all matters so much to YOU.

You made the point of saying you two are "just friends" but that whole last paragraph seems to be screaming "subtext!" at me. If you're really just friends then you have to decide if you can be friends with someone who isn't as independent as you are. Is that what's bothering you? It sounds like you had a shitty childhood in a bad family situation - a perfectly valid reason to flee as soon as possible - but you have to realize that some families actually do get along and like each other. I know that sounds impossible to believe but some blood relatives actually enjoy each other's company, so much so that they enjoy living under the same roof. It does happen. You didn't describe his family situation at all really, so I'm guessing you don't really know if it is a healthy/close family or an unhealthy/close family. 

Do you judge your female friends the same way? Are any of them still living at home? And why so judgemental of your friend's choice in the first place? You said he's not a deadbeat (just before you threw your 'true' deadbeat friends under the bus) so what's the harm? As I said, there is some subtext here... It sounds like you would date him if wasn't living at home. Is that an option? Did he ask you out? Are you wondering why he hasn't? I wish I knew what this was really about.

Final answer: We all have to decide how judgmental we're going to be about our "friends" and then we have to live with those decisions... oh, and ask yourself if you would want to be judged so harshly.