Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
I have a problem with momentum. I played, wrote and lived in Brooklyn for three years, made an $8,000 Kickstarter record there. Then I got frustrated and moved to Nashville last year, ended up second place in their local radio competition a few months ago, and got lots of radio play. Now what? With my career I always seem to be able to get momentum going, but then it fizzles. How do I keep momentum? How do I get to the next level? What should my next level be? I’m SO broke all the time I can’t afford much more than DIY fixes. I have SO many questions! I haven’t toured yet, should I? Should I make a new album? Should I seek out A&R people? There are so many directions to go but which ones actually work? I’ve been doing this since 2007 and feel like I’m doing something wrong. Help me, Fan Landers!
New Lady in Nashville
Dear Lady of Nashville,
There is some part of this that doesn’t make sense. As much as success is sometimes dumb luck, it’s at least 47-percent is due to one’s ability to hustle (other factors that may help: good songs, being hot, being a well-connected white man). You obviously have some real hustle if you can drum up eight large via Kickstarter for a debut. You have a lovely voice and are a fine songwriter, I can understand why people pay attention to you–and maybe that is just what’s happening–but to me it sounds like you have a ton of ambition and hustle and that maybe the issue is not so much “what next?” but the idea that the next thing is going to give you a permanent career fix.
There may only be one big thing that happens for you every once in a while. The rest is the hustle, hassle and joy of what I imagine you are doing: playing shows, trying to promote them, trying to connect with other musicians. You are new in a town where everyone is trying to make it, where there is a decent amount of pay to play action, and plenty of been-around-forever, by-the-book industry guys who will insist that if you do X, Y, or Z everything will fall into place–it’s easy to be a little crushed or even consumed by the idea of the next right move and a traditional career trajectory that forever ascends. But very rarely is that the case.
I am glad you are looking for DIY fixes, rather than asking how to find a manager to fix things. There are some things you can do to make sure that you are paving the way for opportunities to find you, and for you to create something like momentum: Play a few shows a month, ingratiate yourself into the scene wherever you find it, find your peers in the DIY country scene and network with them, do showcases and basement shows, get on an in-store at Grimeys, start a tumblr where you profile other songwriters in town so you have a chance to talk to people about the city, career and craft (free advice for yourself and other musicians). If that’s too involved, maybe just ask people who’s career model you admire if you can buy them a drink sometime and pick their brain; sponge up some mentorship, ask them some big picture questions about how they got to where they are, their philosophy about it. Maybe you can rope in a few cameos later on when it’s time to make your next record.
Make sure everyone who covers music in print and online in Nashville has a link to your Bandcamp album and website and that you are giving them a heads up a few weeks before any show you have at a decent venue. Cover the bases and at least that way you can feel assured that you are not hard to find, and find a way to be contributing to a scene and putting in good work rather than being entirely focused on making it happen for your career. Because that myopia is lonely and can make for a bad me-me-me vibe. Honor your small achievements. You are in an unsteady place of angst and yearning–start working on writing songs for your next record now, perhaps.
Touring should be less of a priority than really getting established within a network of your peers in the city you live. Save the tour for your next album. You could seek out A&R people, sure, if that’s what kind of a path you are interested in. You could also seek out smaller local labels who might be more accessible to you. Perhaps trying to find management should be your focus if you feel like you have exhausted your ideas and resources. What you want your next level to be is up to you–what kind of a career model is appealing to you? You are obviously really DIY capable–do you have the energy, time or interest in being your own label? Do you want to hand you ambition over to someone, or do you want to reign it yourself is maybe the bigger question at hand.
Lastly, I recommend a little study. Hit the library for some memoirs of people who have had long careers, music or other wise–Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up is particularly salient vis a vis honing a craft slowly for decades. Rarely are creative careers a matter of constant ascension and activity. There are ups and downs, obviously, but also, fallow periods and times when it’s a total slog, where you regroup and find new inspiration and question everything you are doing. Be in your now with all that unsure feeling, the inertia and frustration and stop whipping yourself with the future and what-ifs. All this stuff is just as essential to the creative life as the achievement and accolades, so pay attention to it rather than trying to climb away from it. Professionally and creatively, all of this will help you figure out who you are as an artist.