Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tonight's the Night

If you're in a band in Austin, how do you measure success? Is it about how many paying customers you can draw to a show? Do you go by press clippings, in town or otherwise? For many it's being able to make enough money to not have to work a day job, although by that standard just about everybody who plays original music here is a failure. For the most dedicated, being able to tour a few times a year, not bankrupt themselves, and still have a job and a home to return to is as good as it gets. Though a disturbingly high number of well-intentioned folks seem to feel as if the value of their music is directly connected to how much money they spend on it. I shudder to imagine a music scene where the only bands that get access to a larger audience are the ones who can afford hundreds of hours of Professional Studio Time (or to build their own studios), the services of mercenary PR spammers, or to rent lasers and smoke machines to make up for the lack of internal interesting things to look at during their concerts. On my bad days I suspect we are already more than halfway there.

I try to speak to as many local musicians as I possibly can. It doesn't surprise me any more, but it might be counterintuitive to some that the level of fulfillment people feel coming from their bands has little if any relation to their material success. Some guys in touring bands with big draws are miserable, ungrateful, and hostile (but not all of them). Some bands playing for five people at the Carousel Lounge are deliriously happy to just be making noise with their friends. Universally would-be Austin rock stars are a persecuted class -- recognition commensurate to the degree of passion and effort put in is a distant lottery-ticket dream, and hardly anybody this side of Kanye West ever becomes as famous as they believe they deserve to be. But like Kanye, we all shape our own reality. Whether your band's accomplishments fill you with the swell of pride or the rising bile of bitterness is entirely in your own hands. If you set goals for yourself that you can reasonably achieve, pursue them with gusto, and return your e-mails in a relatively timely fashion, you have every right to feel great about your band even if nobody else likes it.

Which brings us to The Midgetmen. If nothing else in eight-plus years of life the disheveled guitar rock quartet has given the rest of us in Austin with neither trust funds nor the burning desire to spend months at a time in our lives sleeping on strangers' floors a sturdy template for defining and achieving success on our own terms. The single hardest thing for a band to do is simply keep existing, and improbably the Midgetmen have soldiered on for more than eight years -- practically a decade -- with the same lineup. Their commitment to continue making records and playing shows through all this time while untold thousands of other bands formed, squabbled, and acrimoniously dissolved in Austin is extraordinary. It's something you can't take away from them, and it's something you've got to admire no matter what you might think of their music.

A big element of the Midgetmen's longevity is their sincere engagement with Austin's local music scene, spearheaded by bassist/charmer Marc Perlman. "Marc is a persuasive man," Dave from The Gary writes me. "I'm still trying to figure out how he got us to agree to play that Neil Young tribute this weekend." This particular event, which gathers together eleven significant Austin acts at the Parish to pay homage to the Canadian master, is only the latest in a long-running series of creative efforts on the part of Marc and the Midgetmen to make their shows stand out in a music environment that is choked with alternatives.

"We discovered after the first couple of years that the novelty wears out," Marc says. "Our friends like the Midgetmen because they're our friends. [Booking] bands that we like that don't sound like us made our friends happy." I've been operating this blog since day one on the theory that the best way to improve your own band's situation is by paying as much attention as you can to other local bands. The Midgetmen have been putting this theory into practice for years before I even hit town! "I'm shocked that more bands don't network," Marc says. We both lament the antisocial (yet widespread) behavior of bands in Austin who book shows, arrive right before their set time, pack in, play, pack out, and leave without listening to or even talking to any of the other musicians on the bill. "Get there before all the bands play" and watch everybody.

Finding a stream of other interesting local bands kept the Midgetmen's fan base entertained for a few years, but not forever. After returns from the strategy began to diminish, Marc and the band "started looking for new projects." But this NY night isn't just a device to give established listeners a reason to come see the band again. It's also another step in the Midgetmen's continuing effort to get themselves and some of their favorite other Austin bands notice from area music fans who might not normally pay attention to any of them, or local music in general. The lineup, and the venue, have been worked out carefully to appeal to both younger fans who are followers of the Austin scene and older listeners who will be attending due to their devotion to Neil Young. "It was originally going to be four or five bands," Marc explains, but after rounding up some of the more obvious choices "we decided to reach out to really weird bands. Not obvious bar rock, bands that no one would expect to cover Neil Young." Of the eleven-strong roster, the bands that have me most curious to hear their Young interpretations are The Sour Notes, La Snacks, and The Distant Seconds... younger bands who are two or three degrees of influence removed from Neil and could take his songs in unexpected directions. When in Rome are an all-star collection of hardened vets who have formed especially for this show. "Trey from The Gary insisted on being involved because he loves 'Powderfinger'," Marc says. (Well, that answers Dave's question.)

For the Midgetmen, the experience of learning their songs for the show was enlightening. Music lovers for generations have marveled at Neil Young's ability to create songs that are unmistakably his own using the simplest chord changes imaginable, "the four chords that have been used forever" in Marc's words. "It will be interesting to find out from the other bands whether they've had the same experience. Having to learn a few Neil Young songs forced everyone in the band to learn how those things translate."

Marc and I hang out, drink beer, and chat for some time about the music press in Austin; most of what we have to say even I'm not brave enough to share for public consumption. Suffice it to say that neither of us thinks the quantity and quality of coverage granted to local music measures up to the talent on display here. When the papers here catch up to a band, it's usually six months after everyone else. For the Neil Young show, Marc says quite pointedly that he tried to get bands "outside of mainstream attention. That was calculated.... There are plenty of bands that the Chronicle hates that I love." He feels, as I do, that the problem for local bands in Austin is not the fans. "People want to see local bands, but they are busy;" they don't have time to do all the legwork and research it takes to find the best local acts and the newspapers and radio stations aren't presenting them with the best options. A regular contributor to the local music review site Austin Sound, Marc takes music journalism almost as seriously as I do. We're not optimistic about the state of the art form. "Every year there's 'Top 20 albums' lists on every blog, and 15 of them are the same!"

The Neil Young tribute curated and hosted by the Midgetmen takes place this Friday, 12/3, at the Parish. The full lineup from first to last: The Distant Seconds, Blue Kabuki, Through the Trees, When in Rome, Whiskey Priest, The Pons, The Sour Notes, The Midgetmen, The Gary, La Snacks, Smoke & Feathers. Seven bucks will get you in and doors are at 8.

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