Today, we vote with our heads and our hearts. Tomorrow, we vote with our wallets. Today, we’re Americans, tomorrow, consumers. Today, we stand for all kinds of historic, patriotic, civic-minded, even warm-fuzzy ideals. Tomorrow, we get back to the business that today has spent months distracted us from doing.
So tomorrow, I’ll buy another book, from an independent bookseller. I’ll throw myself earnestly into work at the business my wife and I started 16 years ago, a small concert venue that’s not owned by any major conglomeration -- just the bailed-out banks to whom we owe mortgages, notes and all kinds of other monies. And I’ll get back to the business of writing, which I’ve been easing back into because I’ve learned that writing To Get Published is about as entertaining as all the negative political attack ads that have assaulted us these last several weeks (months?). Writing for the sake of writing is amusing enough -- some say they Have To Write. I used to be that way. Writing for the sake of Publishing is . . .
You see, I’m sort of on the other side of publishing, in a way. My wife pretty much runs our concert hall these days. She says that’s because I suck as a manager. She’s right, of course. I am, after all, an Artist. But I also have one of the sexiest jobs in town -- I’m the Talent Buyer, the promoter, the guy who gets to book the bands. I’ve been fortunate enough, blessed aplenty and been given the opportunity to book in our room such jaw-dropping talent as Joan Baez, John Mayer (twice - before anybody knew who he was), Sugarland (they still owe us money), Zac Brown Band (a bunch of times, before he hit it huge), and dozens more. We even had The Roots play our room. The amazing thing about that show was that somebody with an enormous amount of money paid for them to perform at his birthday party. Then I watched them play in front of some 200,000 people (or was it 6 billion?) for the Jon Stewart / Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” That’s one gratifying experience.
It must be sort of what an agent or publisher must feel long after they’ve taken up a manuscript (I love that jargon!) and watch their Artist skyrocket up the bestseller charts. That doesn’t happen often obviously, but when it does, it’s a great day. And it’s a bit bittersweet, too, because here we are, still selling Pabst Blue Ribbon to wobbly customers, while some of our freshly minted stars appear on the cover of People magazine or Rolling Stone.
The bottom line, after all, still remains the bottom line. It’s Art versus Commerce. Always has been, always will be.
After 16 years in business, we now receive around 4,000 queries to play our venue. That’s from emails, music-agents’ and band calls, snail-mailed press kits, even walk-ins from bands down the street who’ve never once been into our room as live-music fans. We have around 300 slots to fill each year, including the headliner and opening-band slots. We try to pick the bands that will put the most bodies in the building. We have booze to sell, and that pays the bills.
At the end of the day, though, the odds don’t work so well for those up-and-comers, the new and developing bands who just want a shot at rocking a stage that has played host to some pretty famous people: Maynard Ferguson, Bela Fleck, John Hartford, David Sanborn, Pat Metheny and many more.
Too many young (perhaps even talented) bands make the same mistakes. “To: Talent Buyer.” “To Whom It May Concern.” “Yo, buddy!” “Dude:” “Dear __________” Those have all come across the transom, even though our Website, just like those of literary agents and publishers, gives a pretty good idea about how to go about seeking a slot on our stage. Of course, you get the fun ones, too: Midget wrestling! Imperial Circus of China! All-male revue! Local bands will even call:
“How big’s your room?” band guy says without introducing himself or even engaging in pleasantries.
“Who’s this?” our office assistant will ask, because our office assistants have become adept at slam-dunking these phone calls for me.
“We’re from E_____, and we can pack out your room.”
Long pause. “We hold five hundred people.”
“That’s a little small,” band guy says.
Long pause. “Have you ever been here before?”
“No, but …”
“How long has your band been playing?”
“Since last August.”
“How many visitors do you have on your Myspace page?”
“A few hundred, but we know they’d all blow your room UP.”
“What does your band sound like?” our long-suffering but enormously patient office assistant asks, just seconds away from hanging up on the band guy.
“Sound like? Like nothin’ you’ve ever heard. We rawwwwwk!”
“Okay, it might be a good idea for you to come in, maybe take a look around the place, visit our Website, see who we book and how we book the room, then you can send us an email.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Since getting published last year by a major national/international publishing house, I’ve thrown out a few queries. (I sold my book without an agent, and still don’t have one.) I don’t address them to “Dear ________” or “To Whom It May Concern.” I visit the Websites to see what kind of books the agent represents or has recently sold. Depending on whether it’s quirky, literary fiction or a testosterone-y international political thriller, I’ll even get a little sexist. My queries are, I have to believe, rock-solid enough to have gotten the initial response in the first place. And while I’m no John Franzen or Frederick Forsyth, I have to suppose that I have just enough talent to have gotten published in the first place. (Though I do have to admit that I sorely disappointed my publisher.)
In any case, the responses to my material are far less amusing than the ones our beloved office assistant shows to so many of these young musicians. The responses come back as brief, jargon-laced emails: “I couldn’t connect with the manuscript.” Whatever that means. “I’m not suited to represent this work.” Ditto. Or no response at all.
Which is primarily what I do with the vast majority of the bands that query me; I hit the Delete button.
I find no more gratification in telling an agent to go shit in his hat or a young Artist to jump on the Clue Train than I do in getting a rejection from a literary agent.
After all, I just got a contract for a nonfiction book about my concert hall. It’s the story of a painfully naïve recovering journalist whose dream is to become a Writer, but who instead opens a concert hall with his wife and brother and earns a nervous breakdown in the process.
Anymore, frankly, It’s just so much easier to go out and buy a book and wallow in the mysterious genius of Artists who are Real Artists . . . or get the latest CD from one of the killer new bands I’ve booked (bands that nobody’s heard of -- yet -- and bands that many people likely will avoid in droves -- though, six months later, those same people will ask if we’d ever had that same band play our room).
Today, I’ll vote for the sake of my sanity and, hopefully, the sanity of a country that affords me the right and the opportunity to put on great music.
Tomorrow, I’ll get back to the insanity of trying to squeeze Art into Commerce.
John Jeter is author of THE PLUNDER ROOM (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books) and co-owner of The Handlebar, a concert hall in Greenville, South Carolina.