Aug 28, 2013

Enraged by the Bell

Dear Ask A Punk -
The Summer is over already and I can't believe in a few days I have to go back to school. It is just miserable. My school sucks. and not just in the usual ways that public schools suck. It is cold all winter - like theres no heat at all and the food is probably better in prison. The teachers most of them you can tell they don't want to be there either, just get their paychecks and no one gives a shit - unless you ANYthing even slightly out of the ordinary from the other sheep and then suddenly everyone gives a shit, about meaningless bullshit. I'm starting my junior year too, so there's TWO MORE YEARS of this shit I have to get through. I can't stand it. How does anyone with any integrity survive this stuff? - punk HS.

Dear pHS -
 I'm guessing that a transfer out of your current school and into a different one (public, private or 'charter') is not a possibility? If not, at least you have one light at the end of the tunnel: Graduation Day. I know that probably doesn't sound like much of a silver lining, but it is more than your teachers can say. 

Full Disclosure: Both of my parents were teachers in public elementary schools so, if I have a little bit more compassion for your teachers than you think is deserved, my apologies. I can tell you one thing I know for sure - No teacher, not even the most burned-out, apathetic, doesn't-give-a-shit teacher started out that way. We're told we are still, in spite of ourselves, the "richest country in the world" if that is really true, then the condition of our public school system is a national disgrace. I grew up in a small town with decent enough schools and even its own High School... I graduated a loooong time ago... when I go back to my hometown and see how far they've declined is breaks my heart and enrages me. 

And that's just the tangible stuff...  The perception that no one else cares, and that things aren't going to get any better, well that weighs on the people who are there year in and year out, in ways that you can't imagine. Your teachers probably all remember better times for your school system. I'm almost willing to bet that the angriest douchebag of a teacher in your school is probably the one who, at some point, long ago, cared the most. 

And yes, I know NONE of that is your fault. I'm just saying try to have a little empathy. In the meantime, since I'm still assuming that transferring to a new school isn't an option, I have some other possible options.

First of all, what is your plan for after High School. Are you thinking about college? Specialized training? Joining the military? Working in the family business? What? How you answer that question matters.

If you're dreaming of escaping to college, then you had better do everything you can to get the best grades possible and find a few ways to get "involved" in your school that will look good on your college application, whether you enjoy doing any of it or not. Is it cynical to think that way? Yes it is, but if you want to go that route, you'll have to play that game. 

If you have other things in mind for that long stretch of years after high school, why not look into getting your GED? I know the laws vary from state to state, but at some point, you should be allowed to try passing the GED and escaping your living nightmare ahead of schedule. 

In the meantime: Endure.

Sorry if this answer is a bit generic, but really, the question is pretty generic and didn't tell me much about your personal situation. 

Aug 21, 2013

This album isn't big enough for the three of us.

Dear AAP-
Here is a really specific situation. I'm in a band. There are four of us: Drums, Bass and two guitars. Not exactly unique I know but we do get the job done. Three of us write songs for the band - obviously the drummer doesn't. Now we think we're ready to do some recording and we all agree we want a tight little collection of eight or at the most ten songs. The problem is we currently have about 20 original songs and trying to figure out which songs to include is starting to cause a lot of bad blood between us, which is rare because we're all friends and get along just fine most of the time but in this case everyone thinks their songs are the best ones and when we try to "vote" on each song, everyone votes for their own songs first and the drummer is feeling like he is being forced to make the decisions, and even when he does he gets accused of picking the songs he has the best drum parts in. I'm sure every band runs into this sort of thing but we're out of ideas and it isn't like I'm saying the rest of the band is the problem. The truth is I think most of my songs are the best ones too, so I know I'm guilty of the same behavior. What should we do? -- Songwriter

Dear Songwriter -
Clearly, the easiest solution is to write better drum parts into your songs. 

I'm kidding.

You've got a high-class problem here because, contrary to what you say in your letter, most bands have the opposite problem, at least at first: Not enough song writing ideas and talent... then, later, when the rest of the band sees that the actual writer of the songs makes more money then they all suddenly decide they want to write some songs too (and thusly get some royalty checks.) ...but you do have a real issue here, because it sounds like, even though you (of course) think your songs are the best, you clearly think the other songs are pretty good too. 

Some bands actually get better - way better - thanks to this competitive dynamic. Having more than one person writing the songs for the band can push everyone involved to write better and better songs. The tricky part is that everyone involved has to then put their personal egos aside and just judge the songs on their own merits. Can you admit that at least some of the other songs are better than some of yours? Can they likewise see that some of yours are better? If not, if this has become a real battle of egos, then you've got some trouble on your hands. Also, you definitely have to take the pressure off your drummer. As I am sure you are aware, decent drummers are hard to come by so you don't want to lose him/her especially over these kinds of squabbles. 

Since no one actually IN the band is capable of enough objectivity, you'll have to let more people "vote" on this issue. I'm assuming that, since you think you're now "ready" to put out a recording, that you're an actual working band with at least semi-regular gigs, an online presence, and some real fans that go beyond the circle of friends you had before you were a band. Make a serious effort to see what songs work best, and get the strongest audience reaction when you play them LIVE for an audience. The songs that get the crowd on their feet the fastest should probably be the first songs you attempt to record, because you know that your fans like, and expect to hear them. You can also put it to your fans directly online "Which of our songs would you most like to see on our first album?" ...or list all of your original songs and have your fans rank their favorites.

Is this pandering? ... I don't think so. What you're doing is getting an objective opinion on what songs really "work" for other people - and really, isn't that the point? To reach an audience? Once you get an even slightly narrowed down list you can then fine tune it based on which of those songs you think best represents your band's sound, tone and overall "mission." One of the difficulties of having multiple songwriters in the same band can occur when they are writing in very different styles and/or from very different points-of-view. If one of you wants to write dance/pop party music and the other wants to do neo-protest political music, you're likely not going to remain in the same band for long. Best to find out now. 

So that is my answer: Play all of the songs live, a bunch of times, and see which ones really get the best response from your audience. Then you can do rough recordings of most (or all) of them - because I am assuming you are planning on doing your own recording and mixing on your own computer(s) - post them on your website and see which ones get the most plays and positive comments. 

And finally, think about this: IF you're really all songwriters and all concerned with getting equal credit for the work, why not just give everyone (including the drummer) official songwriting credit on EVERY song? I'm willing to bet that everyone didn't bring in each of their songs fully formed. Surely each individual added a riff here, a walking bass line there or a drum fill somewhere else to songs that weren't officially theirs. Why not share the credit on everything? That way no one is going to feel shortchanged, and the money - if there ever is any (and let's face it, there probably won't be) will get divided evenly. And finally, as a bonus - it really reinforces the idea that all four of you are equal partners in this battle for the hearts and minds of the listening public. 

Have at it.

Aug 14, 2013

It starts, and ends, with you.

Dear Ask A Punk -
You're always talking about how people should DIY things, but you never seem to get specific about how to do certain things, like I read where you told someone to start making their own shows if there are no punk clubs in their town. You make it sound like it is easy to just do that, and anyone can tell it isn't. So how does someone really really do that? - Wondering.

Dear W-
hmmm, I don't recall ever saying it was "easy" to put on your own shows and create your own scene, just that it is doable and worthwhile. Truth be told, most things that are doable and worthwhile actually are NOT easy. That is the difference between the talkers/complainers and the do-ers. Which are you?

OK, so you want some specifics. Here are a few ideas.

First, how big (or small) is your town? Is there any sort of pre-existing music scene? A metal scene? or a polka scene?  Are there a lot of bars/clubs and places for bands to play original material? ...or are you living in a land of cover bands etc? If you want to see a punk rock show on a random weekend evening, how far do you usually have to drive?  I know I promised you ideas, not more questions, but the first order of business is to see where you're at and what might already be in place that could help (or hinder) your establishing of a punk rock / original music scene in your home town.

I said "punk rock / original music" because you would be smart to include almost anyone who is open-minded and interested in creating new music - in all kinds of forms. It will also help you figure out your potential audience. Do you have a lot of punk rock friends who are always complaining that there is no place to see a show? Do you know people with bands who are always complaining that they don't have a venue to play at? -- if the answers to those questions are both 'yes' then a lot of your work is already done. If not, then you have to go out and find both your audience and your entertainers. 

I am going to assume you are connected to whatever punk rock scene there is in your town... no matter how small and scattered it might be. So here is the first concrete thing you should do: Imagine you ARE booking a show for a venue in your town, at the moment it doesn't matter when or where, all that matters is the WHO. Make a list of every local band you can think of. Are there any? Sure it would be easy to make a list of big-time headline bands you'd like to see, but those kinds of bands aren't what you need to create a scene... you need locals.

Make a list of every local band you can think of, and by 'local' I mean any band within say, a 50 or 100 mile radius of where you're at. You're looking for any band that is within an hour or two drive of you... anything further and it wouldn't be worth that band's while to drive in to play a set for (probably) no money. 

Once you've made your list, research every band on it. I am sure they'll all have a website or twitter feed or soundcloud account (or probably all three.) Next: contact every band on your list. Be honest with them - tell them what you're trying to accomplish and just ask them, in a general way, what it would take to make it worth their while to come to your town and play a gig. You might be surprised by the answers you get as well as unexpected and useful advice. Most new, local and struggling bands are just dying to find new places to play and new people to play for. Sure, you're bound to run into a few jerks and egomaniacs, but you'll also end up connecting with a lot of good/decent people who just want to rock. But like I said - be honest - don't pretend you're some big-time promoter, just let them know you're a beginner, but serious. 

Before getting them to commit to anything, it would be wise to show some good faith. Why not interview/profile the band(s) on your website? maybe review their latest songs etc. Oh, did I not mention your website? If you're going to 'create' your own scene, you also have to chronicle it. You have to write about what is happening, so people will know what they are missing and want to join in. In the olden days this would have meant spending a lot of time at Kinkos printing and hand-stapling issues of a local 'zine you would be creating on a monthly basis... but here in 2013 we do these things online. Ask the bands you talk to for promo materials (pictures, video and audio clips etc) and permission to use them. A little effort on your part to help them will go a long way towards them helping you.

OK, so now you have a list of bands who you know personally, as well as a simple website that you're going to fill with show reviews and scene gossip etc... but you still don't have anyplace for this scene to happen. So what next?

You have to find venues. You also have to be willing to think realistically (ie: small) at first and be patient with the build-out process. I asked earlier if there were ANY places that already have some punk rock music nights and if there was already a built-in local audience that just needs a couple of places to call their own. Which is it?

To find a venue you can start, obviously, with bars and rock clubs. If you're in a biggish town, these might be difficult to crack - big clubs have professional bookers and not a lot of lee-way in their programming. A metal club is a metal club, a Top 40 club is a Top 40 club etc. ...but approach them anyway because, much like the conversations with the bands, you never know where the conversation might go... If you're focused and not a douchebag, you'll be surprised at how helpful people can be... even if they can't directly help you, they might "know someone" you should talk to etc. Follow up all these suggestions and - and I can't stress this enough - thank people for their time and advice. I know that doesn't sound punk rock, but I'm convinced that a little human decency is always possible.

If there are no big rock club bars, what do you do? -- approach smaller bars/clubs, even (perhaps especially) the dives and the UN-popular clubs. Why? Because ideally what you need to find is a place willing to take a chance, a place with nothing to lose. Which is why, in starting small, you should also think about pitching your idea to these kinds of places as a weeknight thing - Any bar, even a dive, that can stay in business, usually does so because it makes enough money on the weekends... but some of those week nights can be deathly slow. Give the owner something that might draw a bigger-than-normal crowd on a dead Monday or Tuesday night and you'll have created a new ally for your 'scene.' 

Think wider too. What other possible venues are there to put up shows? Independent coffee shops? Art galleries? IS there an "arts district" anywhere in your local town? If so, there'll be unique spaces and possibilities there, surely. Walk around. Ask around. Be visible. 

Some people are undoubtedly thinking that I'm being too by-the-book with all this. Yes, you could also just as easily start your 'scene' literally in your own backyard. You could invite some bands over, tell a few hundred of your closest friends to come by, warn the and then put on your show - and wait for the cops to show up. This plan works best in large cities or in very rural environments. You either have to be surrounded by neighbors who are used to chaos and noise or you have to have no neighbors. ...but if you're in the suburbs, you're going to get shut down for sure. 

As I said, none of this is necessarily easy, but it is worthwhile. So there is your plan:

Step 1: List and contact every band in your area that needs a place to play. Befriend them and try to help promote their work.

Step 2: Create a web presence that explains your local scene, the bands and the (hopefully expanding list of) venues where those bands can be seen locally.

Step 3: Start creating places/nights for those bands to play. Start as small as necessary - maybe just one monthly "First Tuesday of the Month" punk rock show at the local dive bar/coffeeshop/art gallery to start with, and then go from there.

Local 'scenes' have a way of growing and expanding, seemingly spontaneously, as if everyone had the same idea at the same time and then *poof* you've suddenly got a happening town with tons of great local bands. etc. It all feeds on itself and it seems like some kind of miracle of the local collective creative unconscious, but the truth is: someone has to chum the waters first to get things started. Someone has to get the ball rolling... and then the critical mass of like-minded but not-quite-as-motivated punks/musicians/artists and scenesters will join in. 

So are you one of the people waiting to 'join in' after someone else does the heavy-lifting? Or are you a catalyst of awesomeness ?

Aug 7, 2013

Have a lucky day...

Dear AAP-
I'm another pissed off young punk forced to still live in a home with a junkie. My problem is my mother who only cares about feeding her habit. The weird part is that the habit is the lottery. Right now some big lottery is getting bigger and my mom is going apeshit, buying more tickets the higher it gets. She's telling me that I should give her the money I've saved up so that she can buy more tickets for the family.  This is extreme, but every day there is some big jackpot or new scratch card or something and more money vanishes.  Maybe it would be worse in some ways if she was a drunk or something but this shit is crazy and makes my parents fight and gets things like cars repossessed because they couldn't pay the monthly bill. This is no joke letter. What can be done? - Punk bet

Dear Pb -
I believe your letter is no joke. Gambling addiction is as real and as deadly (in it's way) as coke or heroin. In fact, in many cases the downward spiral of gambling addiction is faster and more ruinous than most chemical addictions, which have a way of maintaining themselves for long periods of time.

Obviously your mom needs help, maybe even a full-on intervention. At the very least you have to make sure that she and your dad know that you know what is going on. It is stunning sometimes what parents think their kids aren't picking up on. Maybe approach your dad first, quietly, and level with him, and see if he has any ideas on how you could help him with the situation. Know in advance that directly confronting your mom about it will probably get ugly pretty fast (another good reason to talk to dad first.) So know that going in. 

I think you already know that you'll have to invest in a locking safe for your own money, otherwise your mom is going to weasel it out of you, or just steal it. Looking at the bigger picture, you'll have to start thinking for yourself financially sooner rather than later. I can't imagine there is going to be much 'college money' stashed away for you with a gambling junky in the house. It sucks, but you're probably going to have to fend for yourself more than some of your friends will. Try to prepare for that as well. 

A friend of mine used to say that the Lottery was "...a tax on people too stupid to do the math." Which is clearly true in it's way, but the thing that sticks in my ear is that here is a potentially damaging/addicting activity... That WAS illegal for those very reasons... Until 'The State' decided that it needed the revenue... so suddenly lotteries were wholesome family fun, as seen on TV and they were no longer a product of the shady, mobby world of bookies and "numbers runners."

That said, I'll confess that I probably spend $20 a year on the lottery. IF the jackpot is in the 100s of millions and if I happen to be getting a coffee, I'll get one ticket. One. Because here's the math thing my friend was referring to: Your one ticket has more-or-less the same (low) chance of winning as any other 10,000 numbers. So the people who spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars trying to "increase their odds" aren't even making a dent in those odds, and are instead sacrificing money to the the gambling gods.  But one dollar? Not a bad roll of the dice. 

But understand that an "addict mind" simply can't stop at "one," can't just have a little taste of what lights up those cranial pleasure centers, so have some compassion for your mom. She doesn't want to mortgage your future (literally and figuratively) but she can't help herself. So help her has much as you can. But do protect yourself.