Steve Writes A Blog

They Hear What You Say Before They Hear What You Play 

Last week I talked about Nashville being a small town and the importance of always doing your best to leave a good impression - specifically not giving up mid-song and and walking off the stage at an open mic because the EQ in your monitor isn't what you want it to be. If you ask me, that's pretty solid advice, and I think there are a lot of other people who would back me up on it. But making a good impression is more than just playing your song through to the end - it's also about presenting your song in a favorable way. Let me esplain. No, there is too much; let me sum up.

The other week on a very rainy night I took my first trip to Belcourt Taps in Hillsboro Village to see a songwriter I'm acquainted with perform in a round. It turned out that she wasn't actually playing, but I chose to stick around anyway, enjoy my first Sam Adams Winter Lager of the season, and listen to the writers who were. There were three of them, but one in particular that I want to talk about.

Prior to his last song, this writer gave an introduction where he talked about how it had been his first cut - a track on the second album of the band Train a band that you most definitely know. The album was the band's first smash success, went something like triple platinum, and included a #1 song that to this day I really dislike. So how did he get a cut on this album and reap the mechanical royalty benefits? Well, it turns out that at the time he was living on the couch of the band's drummer. That's a great story! And then right before he played the song he said that it had been a bit of a "filler song" on the album.



See the problem? Why would you ever describe a song you're about to play in a round as "filler"? Why would you ever play a song in a round that you might think of as "filler"? Why do I want to hear a song performed in a round that the songwriter believes is "filler"? I understand what he was saying, but that's not how he should've said it. That word makes me think, Oh, OK, this isn't something I need to listen to, and that's not the vibe you want to be sending to your audience. There was no further intro needed, but if he had to he should've said something like, "Unfortunately, it was never released as a single, but it's a great song and I'm still proud of it."

Remember: they hear what you say before they hear what you play. The listener's opinion of your song will always be influenced by your opinion of your song, even if you don't realize it. So make it a good one.

Nashville Is A Small Town 

With a population over 600,000, you might not think Nashville is a small town, but it is. And in terms of the music industry, I've been told and I'm learning that it's very much a company town. Everybody talks to everybody. Reputations travel fast, and you never know who you might be talking to or who they might talk to. This person is friends with Eric Paslay, or that person used to live with Taylor Swift's bass player, or the table in the house that you live in used to belong to Alison Krauss. Nashville truly is a music community with ties running deep and wide, so be cool. Be positive. Be easy to work with. Be open to ideas. Be a generally good person to be around. These things - sometimes more than your talent and skill level - can honestly be the difference between watching that next door open or not.

As a new songwriter in town I try to go out to at least 3-5 open mics a week. They're good opportunities to try out new material and expose your music to other musicians and songwriters, as well as hear theirs. These people are your peers, colleagues, and potential collaborators, and even if you don't end up working with them you might work with someone connected through them. Yes, as I've written before open mics in Nashville are very much the same as open mics anywhere else, but where they differ is that we've all chosen this city and are all kinda in the same boat. I've met people and had some great conversations while just standing around, drinking a beer, waiting for our slots to come up on the list.

The other night I was out at a particular open mic, listening to a songwriter that I have heard and met before (we're not really friends, but we're acquaintances because if you go to enough open mics you start to see a lot of the same people and faces get familiar). He's a talented guy and a regular at this open mic and others, but about a minute into his intimate second song of the night he abruptly stopped and said with some frustration that the boomy bass EQ on his guitar through his on-stage monitor was too distracting for him to continue. It was a jarring moment when juxtaposed with the apparent quiet tenderness of the song and the usually lighthearted nature of these events (sure, your songs may be serious, but everyone is out to have a good time). He borrowed another musician's guitar and tried again, but encountered the same problem. And seemingly before I realized what was happening he was off the stage putting his guitar away directly in front of me, his aggravation showing through the way he was packing up. It caused me to stop for a second and say to myself, "What the hell just happened?" And I could hear the surprise in the voice of the host as she thanked the performers and introduced the next ones.

Two things: first, it has been my experience that open mics in Nashville have better sound quality than most if not all others that I've played at. Venues around here have on-stage monitors, and time is usually taken to get the levels and EQs right for each performer - a practice that is decidedly unusual in other places. Yes, there were some technical issues going on with the PA throughout the night, but even though that's the case this was still an open mic. Of course everyone wants to sound their best, but you can't expect things to be perfect. When he stopped playing it was abrupt and a little startling, particularly because the crowd was hearing none of the problem that he was apparently dealing with. As a professional, sometimes you have to work through conditions that are less than optimal.

Second, I've seen this guy play before. I know he's talented, my interactions with him have always been friendly, and for whatever reason he was obviously having a bad night. We all have them, and I wouldn't be surprised if he felt or feels bad about how he acted. It's not my intention to call him out, but rather to use the story to illustrate a point we should all keep in mind: what about the person there that night who hadn't seen him before? What were they thinking about the songwriter complaining and then leaving the stage because his monitor mix wasn't what he wanted it to be? First impressions are often the most important, everyone's trying to get it right the first time, and whenever you're playing an open mic you have to assume you're making a first impression on at least someone, if not a very important someone. And no matter how poorly you think you've played or the difficulties you had to deal with, you have to ask yourself: what kind of impression do you want to leave?

Nashville is a small town, and it's important to act like it.

The Walking Dead Sucks And You Know It 

I realize The Walking Dead is the most massively popular TV show in the world at the moment, but it's time to face facts and acknowledge reality: The Waking Dead sucks and you know it.

Full disclosure: I used to love The Walking Dead. Even fuller disclosure: I stopped watching during the second half of last season due to the reasons you will read below, but caught up on it when I first got to Nashville and had nothing better to do, and I've continued watching the new episodes this season. Why? Well, I guess I'm just waiting around for it to get good again. Every week I tune in hoping that my loyalty will be rewarded with an exciting, compelling, fulfilling, satisfying episode, and every week I am disappointed. And be honest - you are, too.

Like many others I discovered and binge watched the first two seasons on Netflix, and season 2 especially had me hooked with what seemed like one "HOLY SHIT!" moment after another ending each episode: Carl getting shot, the search for Sophia, the conflict with Shane, the internal power struggles within the group. Sure, some people didn't like that they were at the farmhouse the whole season, but that didn't bother me. Honestly, I felt like the attachment to the farm was an important part in making the burning of it in the season finale so powerful and emotional. And then a lot of season 3 with the Governor, Woodbury, the return and final fate of Merle, and of course bidding farewell to Lori? Perfect.

But something started to go wrong. Things were starting to have a tendency to get...well, boring. I'm sure lots of people would point to the revolving door of showrunners that TWD has had as to why this monotony began to creep in, and I'd be willing to bet that that fact ties directly into what I think is the show's biggest problem: trying to stretch the plot arcs into too many episodes, most likely to milk as much out of the surprising mega-hit franchise. Remember the season 3 episode when Rick and the Governor sit down face to face to talk about their conflict? It was called "Arrow on the Doorpost." It should've been called "Filler." My favorite show of all time is The West Wing (specifically seasons 1-4), and it basically consists of what that episode was: people talking in a room. But in The West Wing at least things happened. Plots were developed. Characters were fleshed out. In season 3 of TWD we knew that a huge confrontation was coming between the residents of the prison and the residents of Woodbury, and as a result everything up until that moment became just a way to draw out the process and produce more episodes. Would the meeting between the two of them change that inevitable fate? No, so let's get to it.

Then we get to season 4, and I found myself watching episodes while thinking more and more, "What does this matter?" and "Why do I care?" So many original characters had been killed off in an attempt to keep the viewers wondering who would be next to bite it (Amy, Jim, Sophia, Dale, Shane, Lori, T-Dog, Andrea) that the show began to suffer from a real and continuing problem: a lack of connection to the current characters. Who are these new people? Why am I supposed to care about them? Because I don't. I really didn't care who got the flu and who died. Glenn survived! But honestly if he hadn't I may have been too jaded at that point to even let it bother me. Plus the whole flu plot was just another way to do what? That's right - to stretch the money machine out. We were all waiting for the Governor to return, and everything until then just wasn't important. But then he did return, and TWD started doing the one thing that has really brought the plot and the excitement of the show to a screeching halt: they began producing whole episodes revolving around one, two, or three characters.

When the Governor finally came back into the picture, we were treated to two glorious episodes of...well, just him. Following him around in a protracted attempt to show a defeated, multilayered human being building himself back up and back into a controlling madman. All the excitement that had been amassed waiting for his return quickly turned into a collective groan when we all realized it would be more than two episodes before it would at all, and this painful production tactic continues to this day. And with the death of the Governor and Hershel we were further disconnected from the characters, which exacerbated the problem I mentioned above.

The second half of season 4 is dedicated to everyone's trek to Terminus (i.e. let's all just walk around for eight episodes), and it was here that the producers perfected their "let's make everyone suffer through the boring and the pointless in order to reach the last two minutes that contain the only significant event" approach to each episode. Carl eats pudding until Michonne shows up. Maggie gets all Rambo-ed up in the search for Glenn until she finds him. Daryl and Beth hang out in a funeral home until Beth is taken. Abraham wants to get to D.C. Carol tells a girl to "look at the flowers" (something I often wish someone would tell me to do while I'm suffering through an episode). I realize many would argue that those eight episodes were all about "character development" or something like that, but let's get real - that's just someone's way of trying to sound more sophisticated by saying they're "get it." They don't "get it." No one "gets it."

And then when the group finally gets to Terminus - oops, guess what?! It falls within the first episode of season 5, and all that build-up - half a season! - was all just a waste of our time and the producers jerking us around. Are you surprised? You shouldn't be at this point. So far this season we've dealt with a random priest with a past; Bob inconsequentially getting his leg cut off and eaten even though he was already going to die; Daryl coming out of the woods with an undisclosed friend that we had to wait three episodes to discover the identity of; Beth killing time in a tyrannical hospital until Carol is wheeled in on a stretcher; and Daryl and Carol walking through Atlanta until Carol gets hit by a car. I'm not going to lie and say that Beth's death in the mid-season finale didn't affect me - it did. It was unexpected, shocking, and she was a sweet, innocent character that we first connected with when the show was good. But setting aside the fact that it's basically her own fault she was killed, it's important to see that her death and the way the series led up to it is the only play that the current producers seem to know how to make: a tiresome, tedious, drawn-out building toward one seemingly important event that as a whole is neither entertaining nor satisfying. It's a formula that they've used within episodes and over multiple episodes, but in the long run it's causing the show to lose the fire, energy, and excitement that we all got into it for in the first place.

The beauty of the title of the show is it's double meaning - referring not only to the zombies themselves but also to the living who are left dead inside by the terrible things they've had to do and endure in order to survive. But in truth it really refers to the viewer who mindlessly and numbingly keeps watching a show that has stopped being enjoyable. And that would be all of us. I'm sure the ratings will be high when it returns in February, but when that happens I urge you to not delude yourself into thinking you keep watching because it's good. You're really tuning in with a futile hope that one day it might be good again. And because truthfully you've got nothing better to do on a Sunday night.

Because The Walking Dead sucks and you know it.

MNF (And The Joys of Walking Distance) 

It had been years (probably around 20) since I attended my first and only NFL game - until Monday night, of course. And that 20-year mark is very appropriate, considering that 20 degrees was pretty much the temperature outside. Oh, yes, we were bundled up tight.

Why did I go? Obviously because the tickets were free! My one housemate's nephew works for ESPN so he got us tickets specifically for the Steelers vs. Titans game because my other housemate is a big Steelers fan. And I could give a damn. But if it's free, it's for me, so off we went kept warm by the layers of clothes, the hot chocolate, and the Jim Beam!

I actually had a pretty good time. I don't like watching football and don't root for a team (despite the large amount of Bills and Giants fans amongst my family and friends), but seeing it live was a lot of fun. The game goes a lot faster in person than on TV, and being in the thick of it with the fans was exciting. And since there really are very few Titans fans and Pittsburgh is only about 9 hours from Nashville, the place was filled with lots of Steelers fans. I'd have to say at least half the crowd was rooting for the Steelers, myself included because of my housemate (my allegiances are up for grabs).

And the best part? Aside from the Steelers winning, the good seats, the boisterous company, and the smuggled-in bourbon, we we were able to take Lyft there and then walk back. No fighting with traffic, no jacked up parking fees, and no having to drive, and that's the larger point of this post: everything is so close in Nashville, especially to where I live right now. Despite the cold, us walking home from LP Field was an easy 1.6 mile trip. When I went to the CMAs last week? We walked home. When I hit Rock Bottom a few days after that? Yeah, we walked both ways. If I want to catch a show at the Ryman Auditorium I can watch tickets online right up until showtime, buy tickets last minute, walk to the venue, and still make it on time. Back in Poughkeepsie the closest arena is in Manhattan, Albany, Long Island, or Hartford - trips that take a little planning and maybe even more driving. But not here. It's very convenient.

And then later on we went to the Hermitage Cafe for late night breakfast.

If You Watch Football on Thanksgiving, You're Part of the Problem (Updated) 

Last November, self-righteous, condescending, and professional internet troll blogger Matt Walsh posted this article entitled, "If You Shop on Thanksgiving, You Are Part of the Problem," and after being picked up by Huffington Post it quickly began making the rounds on Facebook. It's a post decrying the bloated growth of Black Friday to the point where our national day of Thanksgiving could now more accurately be called Black Thanksgiving (coincidentally also the name of my unwritten holiday-themed horror movie), as well as assigning the blame for the moral crumbling of a great American tradition to shoppers looking for a deal. And his views haven't changed given this recent tweet:
We live in a country that has a nasty problem with consumerism and debt, and stores being open for big sales on Thanksgiving is really all the evidence you need that the problem is getting worse. But now that we're well into another November, faux concern and anger over this practice is again spreading online, and I can't help but try to illuminate Matt and those who feel the same way he so surely does to the bigger picture that they are clearly missing (or simply choosing not to see). Just because you don't go shopping doesn't mean you're not a part of the same problem you're so seemingly miffed at.

Matt writes:
Capitalism is great, but some things are greater. Family is greater. Yes, these folks choose to work at these stores. Yes, they likely knew when they signed up that they'd be sacrificing their Thanksgivings. Yes, at least they have jobs. Yes, sure, and so what? If that's enough in your mind to justify participating in the destruction of a great American tradition -- good for you. But you COULD wait until Friday, couldn't you? And if you did wait until Friday, and if everyone waited until Friday, no store would ever open on Thanksgiving again, right? So you COULD take steps to protect Thanksgiving from the decay of materialism and consumerism, and, while you're at it, give this wonderful holiday back to the customer service representatives who have been forced to abandon it and cater to the stampeding throngs, right?
An interesting point there, and in light of it I would like to ask Matt, and everyone else who is outraged over stores being open on Thanksgiving, a few questions.

To start: do you watch football on Thanksgiving? Have you ever spent your holiday going to a game? If so, have you ever thought about all the people who have to work to make the game and the broadcast happen? The last game was less than 3 days ago on Monday night - can't you wait until Sunday for another? And if you did wait until Sunday, and if everyone waited til Sunday, no football game would ever be played on Thanksgiving again, right? From parking attendants, to ushers, to security, to food service workers, I'm sure they're all more than happy to give up their Thanksgivings so that you can sit home or in the stadium and enjoy yours more. But it's OK, because football makes the day more bearable and it's tradition, right?

Have you ever been to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or watched it on TV? Have you ever thought of the number of extra cops who have to work because of that 4-hour commercial which, by the way, has become a glowing symbol of the very consumerism you have such a problem with? What about all the workers who have to staff the businesses along the parade route? I went to the parade when I was in 7th grade. We took a  Metro-North train into the city, had lunch at McDonald's in Times Square, and froze our asses off. But it's OK, because it's tradition, right?

One of my biggest pet peeves with holidays in general is that once 8PM rolls around, most everything is done with and there's really nothing to do...but you can always go to the movies. Have you ever gone to the movies on Thanksgiving? Do you think the people who sell you your ticket, sell you your snacks, run the projectors, and then clean the theaters are simply not interested in spending time with family and friends? I don't know, but regardless it's OK, because after all nothing says "giving thanks" like catching one of the probably 17 Thanksgiving Day showings of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 at your local Regal, right?

Lots of people consider it a holiday to not have to cook on Thanksgiving. Have you ever eaten at a restaurant on Thanksgiving? Maybe a Denny's. What about gotten coffee at a diner or a drink at a bar with some friends that you don't see very often? Do you think the wait staff and cooks have an aversion to being in close quarters with loved ones, and therefore are cool with working? Maybe it's a family establishment and so it's all good because they're all in it together. I really don't know.

If you are cooking, are you doing it all by candlelight over a campfire in your backyard? I doubt it, which means you're going to be using plenty of electricity and possibly gas, and you must realize that those services simply don't run themselves. Someone has to be manning the system, and someone has to be ready to go into the field to deal with emergencies and outages.

Occasionally when you're in the midst of cooking a meal you realize we forgot to buy something, and Thanksgiving is no different. So what do you do? Go out to the supermarket to grab it? If you couldn't remember the cranberries before the big day can't you just go with out them on the big day? Think of those people working the checkout register.

If you were to call 911, would you expect someone to answer and help to be sent your way? Probably. I have a paramedic friend who has worked Thanksgiving for years, and not because he doesn't like turkey.

What happens when you're on the way to grandma's and you realize your car is running is on empty?

Now of course I'm embellishing the point to drive it home - unfortunately that's what you have to do to compete in the bullshit hyperbolic, absolute "truth teller" world that an internet arbiter like Matt Walsh thrives in. Nuance is for lesser thinkers. This Thanksgiving I might watch football (though I'm not a huge fan), may watch the parade (though I find it kinda boring), and might hit a diner, grab a drink, or see a movie (though probably not The Hunger Games). I doubt I'll call 911, but who the hell knows? I won't be doing any shopping, but I also won't be under the delusion that nothing I do this holiday will have a negative impact on other people. Companies like Wal*Mart who employ workers at low wages and use shady compensation tactics to prevent them from truly making holiday pay should of course be ashamed of themselves, but the emergence of more "open for business" signs on Thanksgiving is merely an extension of a problem in America that has been building for years and years: those who can afford it will have good holidays, and those who cannot will work.

And just like you're so upset about Thanksgiving Day sales, I guarantee that in 10 years you will be flipping a shit if they decided to end them.

Because by that time it would be tradition, right?
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