Thursday, February 2, 2012

Art vs. Commerce

A couple of years ago, the fine people at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville invited me to their fine weekend-long big-time book event because St. Martin's Press had published my first novel, THE PLUNDER ROOM. I was excited, not just because I got a chance to talk about my debut dream-come-true in public, but because I got the chance to go to Nashville. Music City.

It's not that I'm a fan or anything and that Nashville's a big Mecca for me. In fact, I am a fan, a major fan, and it has cost me millions and not a little stress and personal destruction. See, I'm a music-industry professional. I've been buying talent and promoting shows for 17 years at the concert hall that I opened with my wife and brother here in Greenville, SC.

In my role in my company in the concert-touring business, I have worked with tons of talent agents who represent some of the finest musicians in the land. We've played host to and have paid more than 3,000 artists over the years.

Going to Nashville, then, was a fun thing for the book, but it also gave me another chance to meet up with agents, people with whom I had done business and had (presumably) built relationships through so many years. Many of them hard years.

Of course, I was thinking: How cool. Me and my company pay around a half-million dollars a year to artists, many of them in and from Nashville. And, from that, talent agencies get their 10 percent commission. Multiply that annual outlay by, say, 10 years, and that's some serious cheddar.

With my book-festival invitation in hand, I send out the call that I'm going to be in town for a long weekend. Stop by, guys (most of them are men). It's downtown. Easy to get to. It'll be fun. Spend a minute, even two minutes! Hey, you might could pop for $25 to buy my first novel - my own attempt at art! Heck, that's nothing compared with the thousands of dollars I send to you fellas every year buy your artists.

Then I trundle off to Music City. It's fun. It's nice. I sell a book here and there.

Wanna know how many agents show up to wish me well? Pick up a copy? Spend a few minutes with me and my own art?

None. Not one. Nobody.

Guess that pretty much hammers home the whole Art vs. Commerce thing. At least, it does to me.

Now, my next book, a nonfiction project about The Handlebar, ROCKIN' A HARD PLACE, comes out later this year.
Its thematic essence revolves around, you guessed it, Art vs. Commerce - what it's like to try and squeeze the toothpaste of art into the tube of commerce. You can't. But the music industry works to do it every day.

No tickee, no laundry, as they say.

Seems to me that agents are saying: If you're not writing a check to my agent for one of my artists, I could really give a crap about you or your venue. There are a world full of gullible, guileless and idiotic mopes, some with even bigger checkbooks, who will pay my artists to play in their venue.

And, yet, this whole thing, so I'm told and my wife reminds me, is all about relationships.
Hmm. Okay.

Part II:
My editor for my Handlebar book recently asked me to get a few back-cover blurbs - y'know, a sentence or two or three that says: "I got this book. It's good. Buy it"? She wants big-name artists who have played our room in the last 17 years. The bigger the name, the better the blurb, so the conventional literary thinking goes, the more the book sales.

Like I said, we've had tons of artists. Many of them have gone on to superstardom: John Mayer, Sugarland, Zac Brown Band, the list goes on. We paid them pretty good money. Lost some money on a few of them. Took risks on all of them.

Now I return to their agents and managers ask for a tiny favor from their artists: How 'bout a quickie blurb. Shouldn't take long.

I've done several blurbs myself for other books. They're kind of fun. You read a few pages of a book and a draft of the dust-jacket copy - the same way that Jon Stewart in no way reads a book every night to do a killer interview with the author. You get a flavor for the writing, a feel for what's inside the pages. Then you toss of a blurb: "Great book. Buy a copy." And you attach your name and your bona fides. Takes all of about fifteen minutes. (I generally take a longer, but, hey, I'm not a writer, not a musician, so I just spend my days goofing off.)

Per my editor's request, I send out feelers to a bunch of agents with whom I've had relationships and have paid a lot of money to over the years. I ask if I can get one of their rock stars to fire off a quickie blurb.

Wanna know what I get? Nothing. Either no response. Or "she's too busy." Or "they're focused." Or the artists have no time. Or the agents can't be bothered. Or ...

But, y'know, before they got to be big-name artists, I had time to open my wallet and my risk and my room and my staff and my kitchen to them. I had time to promote their shows and the start of their careers. I even made time at the end of the night to pay them.

But now they don't have all of about 15 minutes to return a token artistic favor.

I'm not bitter.

A bunch of this stuff's in the book.

But for some idiotic and insane reason (we all know the definition of insanity), I am still a fan, especially a fan of live music.
But a fan of the business? Of this whole Art vs. Commerce clusterfuck?

Sorry, I cry Uncle. Commerce wins. All the time.

After 17 years of banging my head against the wall and buying talent as a fan and as one of the last true heartfelt believers in the art of it all, it has FINALLY dawned on me that it's just silly and even dangerous for me to keep operating that way.

Heretofore, then, when I get up in the morning and write and do art stuff, it's Art. But when I turn my attention and energy to Handlebar and music work, it's commerce. It's business.

Want something from me? Sure, it's all about money. You may get it, if I see a solid return on my investment. And if I'm a fan and just can't afford the show or can't fit the show into our Calendar or don't WANT to do the show, y'know what? I'm not sorry at all, not the way I have been for 17 years when I can't "make a show work."

I'm not sorry anymore. Nobody's sorry in business. It's business. No room for art here.

No tickee, no laundry.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

RUSH to Judgment

To watch three artists as technically proficient and talented as Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee -- collectively known since 1974 as RUSH -- is to witness art, specifically music, even more specifically live music, in its truest, most urgent, finest form.



And because RUSH plays with such expansive courage and sophisticated precision, the band accomplishes what few artists -- and that includes artists of pretty much any genre -- can do these days: Make you think.



Perhaps that’s why the Bi-Lo Center wasn’t sold out at the Canadian trio’s June 8 show in Greenville, SC. After all, we live in a society of fast food, fast Internet connections with fast relationships (see: Weiner et al) . . . fast consumption. Even a long, lingering, costly meal at a $65-a-plate high-end restaurant likely doesn’t last much more than an hour or so. And these guys rocked for more than two and a half hours.



But RUSH made you think. At least, made ME think. During the show, I thought more than once about art, the process and creation of art, the dedication and (HATE this word at it applies to art, but it seems certainly to apply to RUSH) discipline of art.



It was as if, watching Alex Lifeson coax, manhandle and otherwise reshape his guitar(s) to make it do what he wanted to do and to watch Neil Peart do things on that massive drum kit what so few drummers can do . . . I thought, naturally, about writing. And about how art’s made.



To digress: Nearly every time I meet one of the writers I worship, who happens to live in my neighborhood and was the youngest winner of a major international literary prize, she asks: “So. What are you reading?” I have an answer. (I love to read. Just finished THE THREE MUSKETEERS, but be sure to get Lowell Bair’s translation. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.) But a few years ago, I was talking with a friend who fancied himself The Writer. I asked him: “So. What are you reading?” “Me?” he responded, as if thrown a trick question. “I’m not much of a reader.”



Among the zillions of frustrations I have in my day job, which is buying the talent for our live-music venue, are the bands. Which is kind of akin to a grocery store manager saying he gets annoyed at . . . all those groceries. But here’s the point, really: We get somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 requests (let’s call them “queries”) from bands, artists, musicians, agents/agencies, to perform on our stage at The Handlebar. Each year, we have to fill around 400 or so slots. That’s 150 shows a year times three or four bands per show, including the headliner and opening bands.



Here’s what often happens: We’ll post a show on our Website, a big show, a brand-name artist who likely will a bunch of tickets. Sometimes within minutes, we’ll get several requests from area bands and some even farther afield asking if they can open for that band. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but here’s where the irksomeness comes in.



If we were to get as much interest from fans to see the show as quickly and as hopefully as some of these bands want to open for these shows, we’d sell out more frequently and more quickly -- and make more money to afford to develop younger and, let’s face it, less talented bands who are seeking broader exposure.



But then things get muddy. Oftentimes, a big, national, brand-name touring band will bring its own “support,” bringing along with them their own opening bands. The reasons for this are so numerous, mystical, weird and political that it may require another blog . . . or maybe not.



The bottom line thus becomes: Okay, local/regional band guys, you didn’t get the opening slot for Such-and-Such Big-Name Band, but . . .



You also didn’t come to the show.



More often than not, when I walk into a half-filled or even packed-out show in my venue, I don’t see a lot of musicians or would-be musicians. The excuses I’m given -- on the rare occasions I care to ask -- include: We had practice, man. I was gonna, but I don’t have the cash. I had to babysit my stepsister’s little half-brother because . . . We had a gig at the Barbed Wire Grille.



Okay. Sure. I get it. My writer friend’s not much of a reader, either.



And that’s the point. To bring RUSH and their prowess, passion, dedication and--let’s just say it, perfection--back to the business of art, more specifically writing: Watching Neil, Alex and Geddy perform was, for me, something like being able to sit inside Jonathan Franzen’s or Jennifer Egan’s brain and watching them work for a couple of hours.



If I could be one of Isaac Asimov’s characters from “Fantastic Voyage” (the guy who got to pluck the bacteria off Sophia Loren’s chest, for instance . . . uh, sorry), I would inject myself into their heads and see how it is, exactly, they are capable of the pyrotechnics that make them so . . . fucking good.



If I were a musician (and I can barely play the radio), I would RUSH (again, sorry) to plunk down more than the price of a book (especially one on Kindle or used or . . .) and do anything I could to see a band of such powerful mastery perform.



Which leads to the second point. As I was walking back to The Handlebar from the Bi-Lo Center arena, it occurred to me: Creativity inspires creativity. Hence this blog post: RUSH inspired me to at least SAY something -- never mind that it’s not nearly as proficient as the music that inspired it.



So today comes a story on MSNBC: http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/06/08/6813381-watching-jon-stewart-might-make-you-more-creative The gist of the piece is that a performer/artist as brilliant as Jon Stewart makes you THINK, which, then, makes you more creative. So, while the government shreds arts funding and chops away at education, including and especially targeting arts education, we’re left with some hefty personal decisions.



Open the book and read. Get out of the garage where you practice. Witness the work of an artist who/that will make you THINK, expand your worldview, your vision, recalibrate your sense of who you are and what you have to contribute to the world, regardless of how much it costs in time or treasure.



Then, in the sweet, spare space, get into it and get good at it.



Friday, April 1, 2011

South Carolina Book Festival In a PLUNDERed World

It's a bit strange receiving an email more than a year after your first novel's been published, from the publishing house that granted you the Biggest Dream Of Your Life. The house has forwarded yet another email that's an invitation to the South Carolina Book Festival. I think I was supposed to have attended last year. But, well, oops. THE PLUNDER, my debut, was published on Inauguration Day, 2010. Inauguration Day was a Big News Day. The nation's First African-American President getting sworn in -- and getting more coverage than baseball's opening day -- likely explains why THE PLUNDER ROOM didn't lead the nightly news on the three major networks (and FOX). It's just something you deal with.

More than a year has passed, then, since The Miracle occurred. Yes, I had dreamed of getting published for about as long as Moses wandered around looking for a place to hunker down with his peeps. The incredible Ruth Cavin bought THE PLUNDER ROOM from me, without an agent. She was gracious, kind, generous and 90 years old at the time. We never met. I had gone to Manhattan to visit her several years ago. She called in sick that day. Hell, at 90, I would have called in debauched from a Caribbean island resort, indulging in everything you'd indulge in if the doctor told you you had only two more years to live. Ruth died in January 2011, two weeks shy of the year anniversary since she had gifted me with my lifelong dream and allowed me stop beating my long-since-bloodied head against the wall.


To her and everyone at the house, I am forever grateful.


So now two years go by, and I'm a bit perplexed. Here's why: I'm invited to the 2011 South Carolina Book Festival AND I can't read my royalty statements.


Royalty statements are about as simple to understand as Hadron Collider physics, which must be similar to post-tsunami spreadsheets prepared by Japanese-radiation experts, or as accessible and understandable as my wife's mind. The point here is that -- and permit me here please a loose translation of my most recent royalty statement -- I think I "earned out." Or probably came bloody damn close. That is, I think I got as close to selling the "break-even" number of 5,000 copies as I could get to, say, President Obama. (Which, incidentally, is where one copy happened to go; a friend at the White House gave him one of those 5,000.)


Folks who know such things say that 5,000 copies (give or take, say, 20) tell me that 5,000 is a respectable-enough number. A more respectable number would have been, let's say, 50,000 copies. But I dreamed for more than 20 years that I'd get a book published, too.


At any rate, the email from the publishing house that forwarded the invitation to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival this year -- that is, 2011 -- came as a surprise because I thought I had failed them. I thought I had eternally pissed them off for being unable to sell all 15,000 hardbacks that they'd printed. Despite every effort in the world -- and all of my advance money -- I still think selling 5,000 copies, as my friends in the know say, sounds pretty respectable-enough. As for the other 10,000, well, sadly, they were remaindered. That's industry jargon for what happens to your beloved book when it's no longer for sale anywhere, it's euthanized and buried in some mass pauper's grave with no ceremony or anything.


Okay then. I'm still grieving over the loss of our 17-year-old cat, too, but life must go on. After all, Dream One was fulfilled. I sold some books. The entire program turned out to be the Experience of a Lifetime. I am blessed. And still it's pretty cool that I'm invited to the South Carolina Book Festival, because more than 90 other authors (real ones, I can assure you) and 100 or so vendors (food?!) will be there, too. Sounds like a cluster to me. A cluster that says books aren't dying.

Not even for us straight, white, somewhat-middle-class American men. Oh, no. In fact, as tens of billions of books are tapped out on laptops, iPhones and even cellphones (the Japanese do that, seriously -- at least, before the earthquake/tsunami), manuscripts continue to find life in digital and other forms by the dozens of millions. And yet, I continue . . . writing. That pursuit seems about as Quixotic (which rhymes, incidentally, with idiotic) as sending your novel to the White House in hopes that maybe just Bo the Newfoundland Water Dog would read it. I mean, even Henry Miller called one of his books "a gob of spit in the face of God." (That possibly brings up more unfortunate and tasteless tsunami metaphors.)


Nevertheless, as they say in the trades, it's all good.


A friend and I just finished collaborating on an international political thriller. Because it was my idea, but he did most of the work, I can be, at this point, pretty objective about the completed project. It's so good it makes my palms sweat, makes me wet my pants, gets me more excited than splurging on an artery-banger from Wendy's. AND, I am working -- really hard, in fact -- on a book that's also, in my opinion, going to be pretty good, if only because it's taking so freaking long to write. This second book is about The Handlebar, the small concert venue that my wife and I opened in 1994 here in Greenville, SC. The tentative title is ROCKIN' A HARD PLACE, and it's due out in Spring 2012 on the mind-blowing Hub City Press.


Here's an interesting tidbit about those two latest books. Despite having been published, it's as hard, if not harder, find an agent as it is to find anyone who knows whether "grits" is plural or singular. As I said, I had sold my first novel to the dear, incredible Ruth Cavin without an agent, and didn't need an agent to sell the nonfiction project to Hub City Press. (Agents told me that my proposed book about the $3-billion-plus global music industry, as seen from one of the little Petri dishes that actually starts LIFE in the international music business, was "too regional.")


As for the thriller, we're looking at an agent now. We met a couple of years ago at what now counts among my top favorite bards in the world. I also happen think the world of this guy. Now, all's we have to do is polish the manuscript to such a fine and gorgeous sheen, it'll blind him.


So by May 13, a Friday (natch), when I am to spend a weekend with gaboozles of writers, vendors (food?!) and, one would hope, book-purchasing readers, I would love to be packed with breaking news: Yes! We got an agent for our thriller. Yes! I'm well on my way to doing a better-than-mediocre job on my book about the near-universal multi-zillion-dollar music biz. And maybe even! That the email that I orginally received inviting me to Columbia, SC, for the weekend means meant, perhaps, that the publishing house may not be all that pissed off at me after all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Weathers Creek Writers' Series

A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL

Few writers workshops top the experience at Weathers Creek, a North Carolina farm whose owners - a delightful family of sisters and their mom - have dedicated their gorgeous, rustic cabin to writing and writers, learning and sharing ... and eating. From fresh-out-of-the-oven homegrown fig Danishes in the morning to homemade lunch (with garden-grown veggies) to the, oh, yeah, writing and talking about writing, the Weathers Creek Writers Series stands as one of the, if not THE, finest workshops around.


Okay, never mind that I was the instructor. The students were dedicated, engaged, involved, interested and talented, the owners caring and nurturing and determined to ensure everyone's happiness - artistically and gastronomically. To sit in overstuffed living-room chairs or to pace on a hardwood floor splashed with light from ample windows, all around a hand-built rock fireplace in a cabin of rich history and modern convenience ... and to share WRITING ... is just this side of paradise.

The series draws top-flight writers in an intmate, safe (all levels of litarary artists attend) and art-drenched setting, where art and emotion run free. How much more energized can one get?

All workshops begin at 10 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, with two hour-and-a-half sessions sandwiching a lunch that, alone, is worth the price of admission. To anyone anywhere near North Carolina (or not), DO NOT miss this most extraordinary of opportunities. Here's a handy .pdf link for registration. Space is limited (often; the room is intimate!), so join early. And often.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Reader From Australia

Here's the PERFECT REVIEW from a reader - not a reviewer, not a critic, but an ACTUAL READER - from Australia, who posts his reaction to THE PLUNDER ROOM on Goodreads. As I writer, if I've touched one soul, I've done my job. Hallalujah, and thank you, dear readers!

This isn't what I'd usually read, and Im not sure if I'd have picked it up if I didnt win it from Goodreads, but I ended up quite liking it :) It took me ages to read this, but not because it was bad - I just havent had time, which sucks because I really loved the characters.
The description is so rich and the characters are so strong, and you really get a sense of their personality and quirks. I initially thought this was just going to be a book about a Southern family coming to terms with loss, and that there'd be a lot of mysteries and sinister stuff in the Plunder Room, but it was a lot different than I expected.
It is about family and legacy, but it's much deeper, darker and more complex than that. Each character has their own struggles, and some characters have more than a few skeletons in the closet. It's about family dynamics, and how you can be related to someone yet know so little about them. And of course, it shows how honour is so unimportant to people these days, as all the characters in the book are continually compared to the late and great Edward Randol Duncan.
Without spoiling it, there's a really sinister subplot involving Annie Harkin, and although I kinda guessed what she might have been up to, I didn't want to believe it : it's interesting, because while she seems initially innocent and gorgeous, she turns out to be quite despicable - while Jupe and Jerod seem seedy from the outset, but their story was not as worrying as I initially thought, and they redeemed themselves in the end.
It's really nice to see the whole family come together in the end, and this book is just a really great character study. There's no sugarcoating it - at times these family members hate each other, and they don't hold back in showing it, but injuries, loss and shady dealings bring them all back together in the end, and they sort of learn to love each other without it being at all cheesy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Trailer, Book Clubs and more

video
If you haven't seen the Book Trailer yet, check this out.
(Produced by David Martin and Glen Craney)

TIME MAGAZINE: Check out TIME magazine online. I'm quoted, along with a mention of THE PLUNDER ROOM, weighing in on Gov. Sanford's affair.

BOOK CLUBS: They've all been way much fun. Most recently, a Book Club spent TWO hours with me at The Handlebar dissecting THE PLUNDER ROOM and its multiple layers and archetypes. Great entertainment, all FREE (except for the meals and beverages, of course) ... Call The Handlebar at 864 233 6173 or email handlebar@handlebar-online.com to book your Book Club!

NASHVILLE TENNESSEAN devotes nearly a full page. Peter happens to be the Music City's music critic - that alone makes him world class - AND he's one HELL of a great songwriter himself AND he writes beautiful prose. PLUS! Peter and I shared the pages of MAKING NOTES: MUSIC OF THE CAROLINAS. His new CD with Eric Brace, "You Don't Have To Like Them Both," is enchanting, filled with listenable gems, a critical darling and acclaimed all over the national press.


MAKING NOTES: If you haven't picked up your copy of the nonfiction collection of essays, MAKING NOTES: MUSIC OF THE CAROLINAS, the book is a Must-Shelf. Edited by the sublimely talented and generous Ann Wicker and published by Novello in Charlotte, NC, the handsome paperback tells you everything you need to know to stay in tune with . . . the music of the Carolinas.

MINDY FRIDDLE FANS. Her new release, SECRET KEEPERS, is out, and it's better than Publishers Weekly says it is. From the first get-you-chuckling line to the story that wraps you into the world of her widow, Mindy knows not only how to involve you in her people, but she knows how to involve you in the full range of human emotion and the human condition, as well. Her blog's a blast, too.

COOL New Website: Despina Yeargin, longtime Handlebar fan and fellow writer, has a magnificent new Website, filled with inspiration and a fabulous new publication model for stories and poetry. PLEASE check out her Alpha Publishing & Communications. Born in Greece, Despina is one of those women who delights and enchants, enthralls and inspires. One stop at her Website, and you'll get the picture.

Random thoughts: Coming up! July 24 marks the 25th anniversary of my kidney transplant. My brother, Stephen, gave me this quarter of a century of life. Without him, no Handlebar, no PLUNDER ROOM, no Whole Lot of Things; he's the Clarence to my George Bailey - it's a wonderful life. And ... my love to Kathy, always.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tampa Tribune gets all sunny

Marvelous piece in Sunday's
Tampa Tribune
by Michelle Bearden