Music

How We Got Here (Part 14): Career and Vocation and let’s get real.

They say “find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life”. What a sweet sentiment. A sentiment, that for the vast majority of us, is just a pipe dream. Some people never figure out what it is they want to do. They never find that one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. They research and wonder, waiting on some spark of passion to hit them, but it never does. They graduate high school and go to community college, unable to decide on a major, until they eventually drop out to pursue upper management at the retail store or restaurant they’ve been working at to pay for their classes. Some people are content to skip college entirely, get a local blue collar job, put in their time for years and years, until they’re financially stable and flexible, and are able to retire. Some people have a knack for making money. They see an opportunity in the form of a need, and fill it. Be it a specialized job, or starting a company, they put in the work and find ways to make more money than the rest of us. There are people who feel called to serve their country, in whatever capacity is needed. All of these things can be noble pursuits. We all know people in each of these scenarios, and the pathway to their career isn’t a window to their character. It’s just circumstances, life. Lots of hard work, and a little bit of luck. This is a career.

You see your “vocation” is different than your career. Vocation is that thing you can’t shake. You can’t stop doing it, whether or not it pays the bills.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be because you think it’s “fun” (although it can be), but because it’s important.  Teachers are often this way. They feel so moved to shape young lives, that they are willing to be vastly underpaid for their work. The same can be said for many men and women working or volunteering in humanitarian work, through charities or churches, serving in government or military capacities, helping people and working in people’s lives, giving of themselves to make the world a better place, often for little or no money. It can literally be anything. Then there are a select few of us who hit the lottery. Not the literal lottery (although that would be awesome), but the vocational lottery. That thing where you find a passion, pursue it, fall in love with it, and figure out how to make it pay your bills. Vocation is this thing that is part of your being, part of who you are, and your career is how you pay your bills. Some people figure out how to make their career pay for their vocation. The luckiest of us make their vocation their career. Then there are artists.

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I believe art can change the world. That’s a big statement, but it’s true. Music, specifically, is being consumed at a higher rate than ever in history. But it’s also generating less income for the creators and curators than it ever has. I’ve been chasing my dream of being a music creator since I was 16. I’m 31 now. Let’s get real for a second, it’s been a disaster. I have never in my professional life been able to support myself or my family as a creator of music. I have always had another job. For most of that time the other job is really my primary job. I’m constantly trying to convince myself that creating music isn’t what I really want to do. Maybe I can find a career that I can be happy with, put in my time and make a life for myself and my wife. But that endeavor has not been successful either. Music is on my mind all day. It’s playing in the back of my head at all times. During conversations with other people I selfishly look for something in their personality or words to inspire the next song. I’m often distracted and forgetful. I get fidgety and restless if I go too long without playing an instrument. It’s basically an addiction that I don’t want to be rid of. It’s part of me.

Over the years I’ve done my best to cultivate my addiction to enhance my life and the lives of others, rather than have it be harmful. I truly, truly, want to put some good into the world. Money and fame don’t interest me. But deep in my soul there’s this longing, this calling you could say, to create. I am a musician. I am an artist. But the reality is, I’ve also been a Nascar collectibles salesman, a lawn care specialist, a grunt worker in a home appliance warehouse, a shipper of copious amounts of pet food, a terrible barista, a cook, a barbecue food truck operator, a worship leader, and currently a secretary/shipper at a machine shop and a pizza delivery driver. Each and every one of these jobs has made me who I am, and inspired many of the songs I’ve written. I’ve met some amazing people who find meaning and purpose in these jobs, who are inspirations to me and many in their communities. But these jobs have all also put a pit in my stomach when I wake up on a Monday morning before a week of work, or when I think about still doing them in 2 years. I don’t feel above them or too good for them, just that my mind and passions are somewhere else, often leaving me feeling like I’m doing a disservice to my current employer. After 15 years of searching, I had to be honest with myself. What I want to do, what I’m compelled to do, is make music. That doesn’t mean I’m not thankful for the jobs I’ve been given, or that I didn’t do my best at them, it just means that someday, somehow, I’d like to make my vocation my career.

But that’ll probably never happen. It probably won’t happen for most of us. The music industry is a complete disaster and it will probably never recover. Making a living is pretty much a fairy tale. I know people who have made a great living doing it for a long time who are getting out of it completely. The glory days are over, and I showed up late to the party.

Life is hard sometimes. Sometimes you work 50 or 60 hour weeks, have kids to keep up with, a house, a yard to mow, and you don’t pick up a guitar for a month. You’re exhausted and cranky. You start to lose sense of who you are and why you’re here. I know. I’m there, right now. I haven’t written a decent song in 2 months and haven’t played a show in over a year. But don’t lose hope. Do your best to throw yourself into whatever endeavor you’re forced to pursue. Be thankful and grateful for having your basic provisions met. Be honest with the ones closest to you, and love the people around you. Embrace the internal struggle you’re going through and cherish it. Let it teach you. Let it give you wisdom and patience. Let it help you appreciate things and experiences you have. Maybe we never get to live out our dreams, but maybe we can put a little love and kindness into the world, and that’s the most noble pursuit of all.

 

 

 

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How We Got Here (Part 13):The Beginning

So here I am. 2013, and my band, which had been a near full time job for 8 years at least, was just over. No more evening practices 3-4 nights a week, no more traveling, no more shows. Just quiet. There were many moments of searching, and there still are. There’s part of me that’s still in that band, with my brothers. In an alternate universe somewhere none of the label disaster happened, our songs actually hit radio, were decent hits, and allowed us to make records 2, 3, and 4. In this universe the economy didn’t collapse right after we signed our record deal. In this universe we saw the world. We got to tour every continent. We got to meet amazing people. We sold records and made a decent living. We weren’t the biggest band, we didn’t make millions, but we got to live out our dreams.

The problem with that universe though, is that it isn’t this one. In our universe we were able to experience heartbreak. We were able to live through disappointment. We were able to struggle. We were able to disappear from the public eye, when we didn’t want to. We were able to create art that we knew would probably never be discovered. We were able to suffer.

There are tales of Tibetan Monks who pray for suffering. I don’t think I go that far, but now am able to see how suffering brings a depth and richness to life. We were also able to recognize the true depth of the suffering of others without undermining our own suffering. We were able to generate empathy for those around us. We were able to develop the courage to overcome our egos. We were able to love and appreciate those around us better, because we had nothing to give back to them other than love and appreciation.  We gained perspective. The end of the Undeserving was not the end of our lives, or even our musical careers. It was the catapult for us to make better, richer, deeper, and more meaningful art. It allowed me to love my family and friends with a greater understanding. It allowed me to see every moment as a gift. And a beautiful, wonderful, mysterious gift it is.

You see, now my dreams have changed. I’m still chasing a dollar, trying to figure out how to pay for the next single, and trying to decide what to do with the songs I’ve been writing the last 4 years. But my heart and dreams are here, in this little house in the country with my beautiful wife and 2 boys. It’s in the toys that clutter the play room that used to be my music room. It’s in my out of tune pianos and guitars on the wall. It’s in the land my house sits on. It’s in my overgrown garden. It’s in my backyard race track. It’s in my friends and extended family. It’s in my church. It’s in the trees, the grass, the sky, the seasons, and the stars above. It’s here. What happened to us was not some cruel trick played by the universe, it was just life. And I am so thankful for every second of it, and wouldn’t change a thing. This is just the beginning.

If you want to keep up with what we’ve been doing you can follow us on our websites:

https://www.facebook.com/ClayKmusic/

https://www.facebook.com/RileyWildmen/

http://www.ohiorecordingcompany.com

As for The Undeserving, there’s still a few lost tunes floating around. Anyone wanna hear them?

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How We Got Here (Part 12): “The End”

There’s a certain stress that is gone when you let go of your expectations. By mid 2012 our only goal was to have a great time. We knew the clock was ticking and unless something really amazing happened, we’d eventually have to close up shop. Our last hope was in one of the songs that we had recorded in early 2011 with our producer Allen Salmon. “Baby Run Away” was as charismatic and catchy a pop/rock song we’d ever written. We thought it was our last best chance to get the ball rolling one more time.

We decided that we would go all out for this one. We’d shoot a music video, promote it like crazy, do a bunch of shows, pitch to radio,  and hope for the best. Even another TV placement with this song could give us the momentum we needed to make some more noise, literally. Through all of this, though, our spirits were high. We all came to a point where we truly cherished what we were able to do, even if we weren’t making money doing it. We became more and more thankful for the experiences in our past, and didn’t try to use them as excuses for anything. We just had decided to enjoy it, because we didn’t know how long we’d be able to.

We landed a corporate gig to help pay for the expenses of the single, and even entered into a local battle of the bands where we were pretty sure we’d win, just so we could make some cash. We won, and I’ve never felt so bad about accepting a thousand dollars. Battle of the bands is something we said we’d never do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. We took the money and put it all into the video and the song, and began to lay the groundwork for release. We needed to make enough money from Baby Run Away to pay for the next single that we had already recorded.

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Now, based on previous blogs, you’re probably bracing for me to tell you story of another failure, disappointment, or series of circumstances out of our control that wrecked our plans. The truth is, we were forced to drop all of those terms. “Failure” was not possible because we had nothing left to lose. For the first time in a few years, we just wanted to make something. We knew we were limited in our experience and abilities and majorly limited in our budget, but we didn’t care. It was all about the creation of something. We realized that art in and of itself was a noble cause. We realized the idea of failure was an idea imposed by our society, and we had to let it go, as hard as it was. Now you may think that sounds like a cop out, and maybe it is. But when your dreams are on the line, you have to rationalize it somehow. We had to change our measure of success from financial to creative. September rolled around and we released the song and video. We did our best, but it hit the internet with little fanfare. The youtube video filled with comments like “why is this not more popular?”, a common theme with our songs. In October we made a run to Florida to help promote the single. We were having a great time, no stress, lots of laughs, but the song only made us a few hundred dollars, if that, and we knew that soon it would be time. Our hands were tied, more songs done, but not paid for, and the task of paying for them, even just a few thousand dollars, seemed a mountain too high to climb.

Bands break up for all sorts of reasons. Often they can no longer stand each other, or maybe they’re tired from years on the road, or the work has taken it’s toll on their families and they just want some quiet. None of these things happened to us. We were family, we weren’t road dogs, and our families were supportive. We just, ran out of money. We realized that to get back in the game would take not only extraordinary work and commitment, but extraordinary luck as well. The game had changed and success was found more easily through a retweet from Taylor Swift than actual hard work and great product. I had a one year old at home, and mounting debt from never holding a full time job so I could be in the band. Jim, Kyle, and Matt were still single and wanted to hit the road full time and see parts of the country we were never able to, and I didn’t blame them. At that point, I was holding them back.

How do you end something that has been your life for such a long time? This is what I wanted to do since I was 13. This was my dream. I had my chance, and it just didn’t work out. Whether I was a victim of circumstances, didn’t work hard enough, wasn’t good enough, or something else, it didn’t matter. It was time to move on, for the sake of our well being, and to what I didn’t know. I still don’t know. This was putting an end to a chapter of my life that had changed it forever.

December 2012 I was in charge of putting on a Christmas show at our home church. I booked Jars of Clay to come play, and our church was kind enough to let us open the show. This felt like the right time. The guys had a big tour planned for the new year, and we decided together that this would be the last show. For me, the day itself was incredibly busy. I was in charge of the entire event. All of the logistics, load ins, catering, and sound checks that go into this sort of thing ate up my entire day. The Jars of Clay guys were completely gracious and easy to work with, but no one really knew that this was it for us, and the emotions I was dealing with. We decided to not promote it as our last show because we were just the opener, and didn’t want to take focus off Jars of Clay and the Christmas spirit. We played 6 songs I believe, most of which is a blur to me now. Before the last song I said something to the effect of “this is our last song, I mean, our actual last song.” Before we knew it it was over. We shared a hug in the green room afterwards, but I was needed somewhere else because I was the promoter. After the show I was able to drive the guys in Jars of Clay back to their hotel in Cleveland where we had some great conversation. I shared with them briefly of what the night meant to me, and they were sympathetic. I remember getting back in the van after dropping them off, and driving home in silence. That was it. No big goodbyes, no party. No fanfare. It was over, just like that. Roughly 9 years we poured into it, and I would be lying if I said this ending was bittersweet. It was bitter. Like so many moments before, filled with disappointment and letdown. My identity was wrapped up in this band. I was not just Clay Kirchenbauer, I was Clay Kirchenbauer, lead singer of the Warner Brothers recording artist, The Undeserving. It was who I was, and almost more importantly, who I wanted to be. What was I going to do now? Who was I going to be? Truth is, these are questions I’m still figuring out, 4 years later. But I have figured a few things out.

To be continued (one more time)….

How We Got Here (Part 13):The Beginning

Here’s the video we released in 2012 after our last show.

 

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

 

How We Got Here: (Part 11): “We Fought the Law and the Law Won”

I remember driving home from Little Rock. It was quiet for a while, as we tried to process yet another disastrous end of a tour. Then we covered up our stress with lots of jokes and laughter. We were always good at laughing, no matter what we were going through. Part of our name, “The Undeserving” come from the acknowledgement that what we got to do was a gift. We didn’t do anything to deserve to travel the country and play music, and we always remembered that. The truth is the wind had left our sails. The last few months had been a complete roller coaster. We had finally released our record, but had lost a lot of money, and missed a lot of work in the process. At this point there wasn’t a lot of direction. We were constantly sending our record to music magazines and publications hoping for a spark. The idea of recording more songs was pretty much a pipe dream, we still hadn’t paid for the songs we recorded in 2011. Internally we were struggling. All of the stress and what started to look like failure had taken it’s toll. We were tired, and stressed, and searching for direction. All we knew how to do was plug away and play as many shows as we could. We were trying to stay united while our career was crumbling.

January 2012 rolled around and Brennan told us he was leaving the band to pursue his own recording business. Brennan and I had founded this band together 6 years prior, and it was emotional. It was in some senses the end of an era. We wished him the best in his new endeavor, played an uneventful but sad final show, and were faced with a decision. Keep going, or hang it up? Kyle, Jim, and our longtime sound man/tech Matt Grabowski had a side project started that eventually developed into Last of the Wildmen, and were even playing shows and did a small tour. They were all single, and had flexibility and wanted a fresh start. I was working and had a 6 month old, and couldn’t give the band the constant attention it deserved.

But the idea of some fresh chemistry was intriguing to us. We still wanted to release the songs we had recorded a year earlier, and the only prospect to do that was to keep going. We also had some very talented friends join our group. Phil Tabor had started to do some video work for us and although he was young, we all knew he was extremely talented, and a good guy too. We had made friends with some guys from Australia, Alex Malcolm and Glen Hanbury had been helping us out. Alex even came over and stayed with us for several weeks and went on the Mike Mains tour with us. They wanted to help us out and were in the early stages of setting up an indie record label. At the time I was working part time at my church, and the opportunity for a good paying full time job was a possibility. If we were to keep going as a band it meant pulling my name out of the running for the job. So this decision wasn’t just about keeping something alive and making it a hobby, it had to be for real. We had to give it our all one more time and make it worth while. We wanted to explore new territory and see what we could be creatively. We wanted to get in front of new crowds, and most of all, we wanted to have fun. Our friend Matt Grabowski moved from our tech man to our new guitar player, and we were off.

The first step was figuring out new ways to be seen and heard. We had never made a music video before, and Phil and I had an idea for a video for one of our most popular songs, “There For You”. We started putting a storyboard together and before too long we were ready to shoot. We talked my wife into being the pretty girl in the video, but we needed a beach and a pier to pull off what we had in mind. There’s a local state park near us in Ohio, and we knew to film we had to acquire permits. We called the offices, and told them our story and what we intended, and they granted us permission to film for a day on the beach and pier. We got assurance from them that permits wouldn’t be an issue and we were good to go. So we loaded up several vehicles of people, camera and light rigs, a generator, and all of our gear and headed for the beach. This particular beach was pretty secluded, and you had to use a small trail to get there. It took us about 2 hours to set up, because we could only get so close to the beach with our vehicles, so we had to carry our amps, instruments, and that god awful generator through a small line of woods, through the sandy uneven ground, and onto the beach. We had gotten our instruments plugged in and were about to start shooting the band shots when the police pulled up. And they WERE. NOT. HAPPY.

We explained the situation to them, but they weren’t hearing it. To them, we were trespassing and were all going to be cited, and they were serious. We told them we had permission from the local offices, and they said something to the effect that the local offices can’t give that permission. One of the guys on our crew came up to see what was going on. He happened to know one of the officers, and was able to calm the situation a bit. They forced us to tear down, and go home, and waited there for 2 hours while we did. Not only were we again discouraged, but now totally embarrassed for the people that came with us to help. There were probably ten of them who gave an entire day to make this happen. People that believed in us after all that we had gone through, and here we were, about to get them arrested because of our own irresponsibility. We were relieved that we weren’t in more trouble, but again sent home, tails between our legs. Phil quickly put together a storyboard for “Cheer Up”, and it became our backup plan. We filmed it in a day, and even then were told to move our stuff after we had it all set up, but that story is less interesting. We got it filmed, knowing it was really an experiment for what was to come.

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Sometime in early summer we landed a corporate gig that paid well (compared to what we normally made). We all decided that instead of splitting the money we would buy one of the songs that we had recorded a year earlier. “Baby Run Away” was a power pop anthem written by mostly Kyle, and it was the most radio friendly hook fest of a song we had ever written. We were going to put all our eggs in that basket, and hope for the best, one more time.

To be continued….

How We Got Here (Part 12): “The End”

How We Got Here: (Part 10) “One Paying Customer”

How We Got Here: (Part 9): “Finally”

How We Got Here: (Part 9): “Finally”

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FINALLY. What else was there to say? 3 years earlier we stood on this stage in our home church and told them we were signing with Warner, having already finished recording half our record. Now here we were, finally releasing that record, finally free of Warner, and finally free to make what we want out of our future. I’ve spent a lot of time in this blog series telling you about how hard it was. Telling you about all the things that went wrong. Telling you how devastated and hopeless we felt. September 6, 2011 was not one of those nights.

We had just arrived home from a completely disastrous trip to Kansas City. We needed this release show to help pay back our cd production costs, but most of all, we needed a morale boost. We weren’t really sure how many people would come see us. The room seated about 800, and we didn’t expect to sell out, but we were hoping to at least make it look full. About 500 people showed up and I was moved to tears seeing the line of people outside the building. Up to that point we always wondered where we stood in our local community. We felt like we had support, and our social media sites drew more visitors than any other local band, even in the Toledo area, but we had never drawn 500 people in a hometown show before. Not where we were the headliner. This felt like validation to us. It made us feel like we were legit. A legit rock band who was good enough. And we felt like our little town showed up to support us. At the time, few people knew what we had been through. It was hard telling people that no, our record wouldn’t be available in Walmart and Best Buy. If their grandma in Kansas wanted a hard copy, they’d have to order on our website. In that moment, though, it didn’t matter to us.

You see, artists are inherently narcissists. We make things to prove to ourselves that we can do it, but also need validation from others before we are fulfilled, and then the cycle repeats. We had been forced without that validation our entire career. Having people show up to our release show helped us realize that the validation was far more meaningful coming from our local community, friends, and family than it was coming from any high level record executive. We had had that validation before, and it really only led to frustration. This was real, and tangible. What a feeling. Something I really haven’t felt since, at least to that extent. The show ended, there were cheers and appreciation. We signed autographs and spent time with our fans, friends and family. We were exhausted, but fulfilled. This was a long time coming and we enjoyed the heck out of it.

The truth was, this was a mountain that would be incredibly difficult to reach again, and we knew it. It’s part of why we enjoyed it so much. While glad to be free from Warner, we now were a bit directionless. We had recorded 4 new songs in the spring of 2011, but hadn’t paid for them yet, and didn’t know how we would. The best we could do was hit the road again, this time with an actual product to sell, and see if we could build this thing. This would be the ultimate test. Not just on us, but our wives and families. Everyone was still rooting for us, but the clock was ticking. It was all on us. If this was going to be our career, we needed to make it one, and fast.

https://theundeserving.bandcamp.com/album/almost-alive

(To Be Continued)

How We Got Here: (Part 10) “One Paying Customer”

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How We Got Here: (Part 8): Free at Last

How We Got Here: (Part 7): It’s Yours, But it’s Not

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

How We Got Here (Part 4): “Small Town Boys in a Big City”

How We Got Here (Part 3): “Cause for Alarm”

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

 

 

 

 

How We Got Here: (Part 8): Free at Last

Tom Petty once said “The waiting is the hardest part”. Well, in the course of our career, we didn’t get really good at much, but we got really good at waiting. Everything we had done to this point had taken enormously more time than we predicted. Everything from making our record, negotiating our deal, signing our deal, and now getting released from our deal and putting our record out. It was Summer 2011, and we were fighting for a record that we had finished 2 years earlier.

This is the point where I give credit where it’s due. Jon Sparks, our longtime manager, went through hell for us. I’m sure I don’t even know the amount of emails he sent and phone calls he was on to get us free of our deal. We hadn’t paid him in 3 years, but he refused to give up on us or leave us stranded. When we found out in December of 2010 that Warner wasn’t going to let us have our record, he fought tooth and nail to get it back for us. I don’t know how that all went down, and I don’t know what the legal ramifications were, and I don’t know all the hoops he jumped through, but in July of 2011, we were free.

IMG_4585Signing release papers was so very bittersweet. I think for the other guys in the band it was more sweet. But for me, it represented some form of failure. I had to come to grips with the fact that our story wasn’t going to play out like I thought. Whatever last bit of hope for reconciliation I had was stomped out. The reality of making a living creating music that we were oh so close to realizing, started to slip away, little by little. My wife and I had a newborn and the weight of supporting a family grew heavier, as it should.

“Free” is a funny word. We were free in the sense that we now owned our record. We could do with it what we please, except use the publishing. That means that if there were any more TV placements to be had, it would have to be through Warner. This still stands today. We were free to release the record how we pleased, tour, make money from record sales. Free to try to rebuild our career on the whatever momentum was left.

But we were broke. 3 years on the label had left us with nothing. We all were working jobs and scraping by. There was no money to get CD’s pressed, get merch, and properly promote a record. The last few TV placements were airing, but whatever money we would see from that was at least a year away. Brennan’s parents loaned us a few thousand dollars for CD production. My parents and Jim’s parents pitched in for some merch and artwork. We would release in September, work our butts off, and hope for the best.

1200x630bfNow we needed a boost. Something to gain some cash and get the snowball rolling. Jon presented us with an opportunity. There was a big Christian music festival in Kansas City that usually drew about 10,000 people. They had a pay to play slot available between the headliners. Jon had offered to pay the fee if we could pay to get out there and play it. The idea being, we sell a couple hundred discs, recoup the fee to play, and get our music in front of ten thousand new faces. It was a couple weeks before our actual record release, but we got the discs in and would try to make back the money.

Now, playing Christian gigs was something we did only occasionally and we had never paid to play anywhere. We often joked that we weren’t Christian enough for the Christians, and too Christian for the mainstream market. We were always trying to figure out how to fit in. This was just one show though, and it was a lot of people. If we made the most of it, it would be well worth it.

We drove to KC, had some fantastic BBQ, and got to the festival.  The first thing we noticed was there was less people than we were told. maybe 2500. Our rule as a band was to always expect 10% of the crowd that the promoter tells you. So, at 25% we weren’t devastated. We were playing right before Steven Curtis Chapman. We had a 20 minute set, and I thought we nailed it. Everything went off without a hitch, the crowd was into it, and we had a blast. We would head back to the merch tent and wait. A few people came back, but this was a festival. It was outdoors and dark, and leaving your spot in the middle of the set meant probably having a hard time getting back to it. SCC played, then Jeremy Camp. We were set up between their merch tables. Prime spot. We just had to wait for the show to be over then cash in.

What happened next was a microcosm of our career. About halfway through the set the wind picked up. It got drafty. Sprinkles turned to sideways rain and there was lightning. Tornado sirens in the distance. Jeremy Camp wrapped up and the crowds exited. I mean it was a mass exodus. Straight for the parking lot. People were running. Dads had their camping chairs in one hand and small children in the other. No one, I mean no one, was heading to the merch tent to support their favorite artist. There we were, sitting in the tent, watching as our bank account literally drained, and we couldn’t stop it. Helpless. Forget about paying Jon back for paying for the slot, we weren’t even going to recoup our own travel expenses. We basically drew straws for who would call Jon. I dialed, heart pounding and pit in my stomach. “How much did you make?” he asked. “About $40”.

Silence.

At this point I think I blacked out, but I can assure you Jon was gracious. Now we had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps again, and get home from KC on $40 and officially release our record.

To Be Continued

How We Got Here: (Part 9): “Finally”

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How We Got Here: (Part 7): It’s Yours, But it’s Not

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

How We Got Here (Part 4): “Small Town Boys in a Big City”

How We Got Here (Part 3): “Cause for Alarm”

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

I’ll never forget that flight to LA. It was a 5 hour flight that felt like 20. I had never been to California, never seen the Pacific. A performance more important than any performance in my life awaited me. At last we landed, took a Taxi to our hotel, from which we could see the Hollywood sign from our window. I don’t ever remember feeling like a “big star”. We had too many people in our life keeping our egos in check, and too much uncertainty for that. But this, this was as close as I ever felt.downsized_0921091819.jpg

We headed over to the Warner Brothers building to meet the staff and to meet with Tom Whalley, the CEO. We arrived at the beautiful WB headquarters, which I thought resembled a ski lodge. It was beautiful. I remember seeing a giant Muse banner as we walked in. A lady met us in the offices and gave us a tour. There were multiple floors, a whole area for merchandise design and production, and lots of employees. We had signed our deal with Warner in June of 2008. It was September of 2009, and it had been 8 months since our separation from Cause for Alarm. We had been a Warner Brothers artist for minimum of 8 months, 14 if you count the time with CFA. We were never assigned an A&R person. (A&R is your liaison between the artist and the label), so our only contact with the label was through our manager Jon talking with Tom Whalley.  We met all sorts of staff, many were friendly, but no one, and I mean no one, knew who we were. They were generally shocked when we told them we’d been on the label for 14 months. We were kind of shocked too but we shrugged it off though because we had a meeting with Tom, and if the CEO knew who we were then we’d get through this no problem.

We walked into Tom’s office. It was beautiful. It was large and had artwork and memorabilia from Warner artists. There was a black baby grand piano. Tom was confident, and slightly intimidating. Maybe he wasn’t, I was just intimidated by the weight of the meeting. You see, when you hear the term “big wigs”, this guy is who that is referring to. Except, this was the biggest of all the big wigs. The guy with the most power. The guy with all the superstar’s numbers in his phone. The guy who just sold his house for 18 million and is managing Tupac’s estate. This guy could put us in the best position possible to be a huge success, or failure.

I remember Tom telling us he loved our record. That in and of itself was huge, and gave us some confidence. He told us we had some work to do to get better, but we knew that. He apologized for the delay in our progression with the label and said he’d do everything in his power to make it right. He was genuinely friendly and we left that meeting with a good feeling. That was the first good feeling we had had in a long time. All there was left to do now was play the showcase and get out of there.

We arrived at Center Staging in Burbank and began our setup. These places have multiple small rooms for rehearsals and showcases like this one. Someone told me that one of the guys from New Kids On The Block had just walked by me. The room was similar to the one we had played at in New York, and they even went out of their way to get me a Yamaha CP-70 piano, very similar to the one I owned. We got comfortable and headed out for lunch (where I had some unforgettable mahi tacos). As we pulled back in to the studio, in the parking lot, cigarette in hand, was Dave Grohl. I have a ton of respect for Dave Grohl, but for Jim, Brennan, and Kyle, this was like seeing one of their musical heroes. Dave was at the studio rehearsing for his Them Crooked Vultures project, and Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme was in the parking lot with him. IMG_0962.JPGNone of us recognized him. We could hear John Paul Jones’ bass riffs from the parking lot. We got up the courage to walk up and say hello. Dave asked what we were doing there. “Showcasing for Warner Brothers” we said. “Who you playing for? Tom? Tom freaking Whalley”. “Who’s your A&R guy?” he said. “You know what A&R stands for right? Alcohol and restaurants.
You get as much out of them as you can”. Dave was completely authentic and kind, and had a certain vigor for putting down record labels. “Always remember, they need you way more than you need them.” He wished us good luck, posed for a picture, which Josh Homme begrudgingly snapped for us, “I should just do this for a living” he said. Then we went on our way, completely starstruck and amazed at the interaction.

Dave’s words were prophetic. If only we knew then what we know now.

Showcase time arrived, and the room filled up. This was more people than we had playedIMG_0963 for at our previous showcases. There were roughly 30 people there, some of which I recognized from headquarters, others I didn’t. Muscle memory kicked in, and we ran our set, just like we did a thousand times before,
and it went off without a hitch. No messed up lyrics, no tech problems. Nothing. We all felt like we gave a really solid, energetic performance and we were proud of it. Jon gave us a nod of approval. We did our job. Afterwards everyone was really gracious and friendly. Tom Whalley came up to me, told me great job, he enjoyed it and would be in touch. We were on top of the world. Time to go home and get back to working on our craft. For the first time in 14 months we had a path and a purpose, and we were not going to let it slip away.

2 months later we were on our way home from Nashville when Jon called. “Check your emails. Idol is using ‘Something to Hope For’ in their ad campaign for their new season” “Idol as in ‘American Idol?'” “Yes. Buckle up boys.”

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

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How We Got Here (Part 4): Small Town Boys in a Big City

How We Got Here (Part 3): Cause for Alarm

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here: (Part 7): It’s Yours, But it’s Not

There’s a strange injustice in the music business. It is a cruel temptress. It doesn’t just break your heart, it builds you up. It gives you a false sense of security. It lets you think that you actually have a shot at being something. It makes you confident, and it feeds your identity. Dangles the carrot until you are starving. Just when you think you can finally take that bite..

It crushes you.

It pulls the rug from under you. It makes you realize how powerless you are. Just a number. A pawn in a game to fill other people’s wallets. You worked and worked and are as good as you can be in that moment, and it’s not enough. Your life’s work. All of your experiences, thoughts, emotions, victories and failures up to that point are put into a project, and instead of being shared with the world, it’s damned to obscurity.

From roughly August 2010 to December 2010 we didn’t know our fate. We had no idea what was happening with us and our label. Honestly, we wanted out, but didn’t know what that meant. It had been 2 1/2 years of struggle and no progress. Writing new material was our solace, but it was difficult knowing it could be years before we could put it out. Then a few days after Christmas we got word. The new CEO had decided to cut ties with The Undeserving. At that point, it was a hallelujah.

Now there are things I understand about the business and how it related to our band. I understand that we weren’t the best thing ever. I understand that our record as a whole was probably only slightly better than average. I understand that the people who signed us and were passionate about us originally were gone and we were somewhat of a redheaded stepchild on the label. I understand those things. What I do not understand now, nor will I ever, is how a CEO, or whoever, can look at the amount of money that we brought back to the label, and think we weren’t at least a viable product. The record label spent roughly $150,000 on The Undeserving. We PAID IT BACK. We never released a record, or went on a big tour. We never played live on national tv. Never once did our songs get national radio play. But thanks to songs that lent themselves to TV placements, and one person at the label who knew what to do with them, we had enough income from roughly 15 TV placements that we paid back $150,000 of advance money. I don’t know this for sure, but it’s an educated guess that what we did is EXTREMELY rare. We recouped a 6 figure deal without ever putting out a product.

Now note the key words there. We “paid it back”. Record deals are not personal debt. But the way they are structured now the artist doesn’t make money until that advance money is paid back. That’s why it’s important to tour and generate income in other areas, which we had great difficulty doing without a record.  So while all this was going on, we never had a steady income, other than our part time jobs. We’d make money at shows every now and then, but the band had expenses. Our van, insurance, investing in merch, saving for more recordings, the list goes on. Paying ourselves was the occasional $50-$100. We were working essentially a near full time job for no money. This took a toll on us and our families. My wife Crystal sacrificed far more than I ever did. She was at home working a full time job and extra jobs on the side while I was galavanting around the US for no money. But she believed in us and our mission.

But now, we were off our label. The chances of us getting another deal was slim to none. There aren’t many second chances in this industry. Warner owned the rights to our record, and wasn’t about to give them up . We got a nice apology email from Kevin Law. It was over, so we thought.  We would put this experience behind us,  We would put the record out on our own and see what we could build. Sometime in March or April of 2011 Jon calls us. “Warner is keeping the record. I’m gonna fight like hell but at this point, it’s theirs, and you can’t legally release it”. I asked Jon about getting our lawyer on the phone to see if he could help in any way. “We can get him on the phone, for about $600”.

.

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We had no money. No resources. Our friends and family had already bent over backwards to help us. This was our nightmare. We had heard these stories before we signed our deal, and we signed with Warner so what happened wouldn’t happen. I’ll never forget the feeling of despair at a band meeting. We were devastated, helpless, and out of options. I skipped college for this. This.. This was the music business. Not the glitz and glamour, tour busses and catering, private planes and tv performances. Those things were for the select few. This was real, and it was terrible.

To Be continued….

 

How We Got Here: (Part 8): Free at Last

 

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

The phone rang. It was our manager Jon. “Just heard from Virgin and Atlantic. They’re both interested. You had better get better, and fast.” Panic set in. We were not ready for this. Our songs were not ready. Our relationships were not ready. Our live show was sure as heck not ready. Jon was/is not one to mince words. “You better get your ass in gear” he said. More on that while I take you a few steps backwards in time.

At age 16 I met Brennan Willis. Brennan was in college and I was taking post secondary classes, so we met there. Brennan was starting to work on his production capabilities, and somewhere around age 18 or 19 we set out to record a little EP of some songs I wrote. Brennan was in another band where he had met producer Allen Salmon in Nashville. He sent Allen my tunes, and we set up a way for me to come record, we just needed the cash. I had a man I did not know come up to me after church one morning and ask me how much I needed to record. I said $3,000. He wrote me a check, and away we went. We went to Nashville and had a spot at Blackbird studios. I wore my yellow “Nashville” tee shirt and sat down at a piano that Vince Guaraldi had played the week before. I barely knew how to play the piano, but I banged out my chords, and we finished the 3 songs.

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Most bands start out playing cover tunes at bars. Then they write a little. They hone their live show, and their songwriting, and over a period of time they become prepared for some amount of success or notoriety. We did it backwards. Brennan and I had played about 3 coffee house acoustic sets together when record labels started calling. One of the songs that we had recorded, “There for You”, had major pop/radio hit potential, and labels wanted in. At first it was Word records, a subsidiary of Warner on the Christian side. One of their higher ups flew up to Ohio to see us play. We were in so far over our heads, and had no idea. We had no business playing for any record label, let alone one as big as Word. We went out to Applebee’s after the show, and talked about a developmental deal and a few other options. I got the hint. We weren’t ready. So Brennan and I set out to complete our lineup. We added my brother Kyle on drums, and a few months later Jim stepped in on bass.

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The Undeserving at The Underground in Cincinnati November 2005 (Kyle’s first show)

We went to Nashville as a complete lineup for the first time sometime in 2006. We were scheduled to meet with Jon, the man who was kind of evolving into our manager, although we hadn’t officially met in person yet. At the time, he was just giving us some advice, but he was managing some other successful acts and we knew we were gonna need help navigating our way through the business. Jon is one of my favorite people, but your first impression of him can be intimidating, especially at the time. His strong, 6’4″ frame walked in wearing some sort of designer jeans, a dress shirt with sport coat, haircut and beard that looked like Sawyer’s from LOST, and some good old fashioned Nashville boots, specifically designed to leave their imprints on the butts of musicians. We sat down to eat and the fun began. “I usually tell bands that there is someone who is better than you at what you do within a hundred mile radius, but hell, we’re in Nashville, there’s probably several people in this restaurant who are better than you at what you do”. The fun continued: “You have to fake it till you make it. Look the part. Look like a band. Jim over here looks like he is wearing a tablecloth.” It sounds harsh, but at the time I was smart enough to know that it was exactly what we needed. This was our guy. He would make us better.

We went home and we practiced. Practiced. And then practiced some more. Virgin and Atlantic called. Our lives were consumed by the band. Our family was understanding because we had what looked like a clear path to success. So for a year or so our life was 3-4 band practices a week. We’d run our full set, watch the tape, and then run it again. 3-4 hours a night, then basketball to stay in shape, after we’d been at work all day. We started recording more songs with Allen, and our first album started to take shape. Looking back, I don’t know how we functioned through that. Brennan and I were both about to get married, and the workload was really heavy, but we were young. We played as many shows as we could afford to play. If we got paid, that was a bonus.

Then in 2007 it was time. Time to see if we had it in us. Time to do some record label showcases, and start learning some hard lessons. We drove our van to New York city to play at a little venue called Pianos. We paid for the trip out of our pocket, and did our best to cut costs wherever we could. There were some folks from Glassnote records supposed to be there. We set up our gear and were ready to roll. Sound checks are a foreign phenomenon at clubs like this. You show up. Wait your turn. Get your stuff on stage and play. That was cool and all, but apparently the sound man had never worked with backing tracks. Most bands today use backing tracks for everything. You can’t always have a 20 piece orchestra with you on a stage the size of a kitchen table. The sound man could not quite figure out how to get the click track to my in ears and out of the house. Jon had flown in for this and he was fired up. You could cut the tension with a knife. We were standing on stage and we felt naked. Just waiting. After what felt like an hour but was probably more like 20 minutes, we played our set sans in ears and tracks. We played our hearts out, and hoped for the best.

The next day we got an email from the Glassnote people. They had sent a lower level staffer, and he didn’t stay for our set.

Welcome to the music business. Get ready for more.

 

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The Undeserving at Pianos November 2007

 

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here (Part 3): Cause for Alarm