Monday, April 23, 2018

Two Musicians Sat Down at the Airport...

Some Thoughts on Marketing -- Engaging the Private Sector

At the beginning of this month I launched a project on my website, the US 2019 Tour Initiative.  In a nutshell, the idea is that once I sell 50 tickets in a given US state (at $10 per ticket), I then will plan on including that state in my 2019 US Tour plans, and anybody who bought a ticket gets in to any show of their choice for free.

Let me be very clear:  the reason I launched this campaign is out of sheer desperation.  It's not that I wanted to do it this way.  I'd rather tour the US like I used to, kind of like the way I still tour Europe today (where I am now, on tour until July 5th).  That is, relying on a combination of institutions (student groups, unions, political parties, arts councils, music venues), activist groups (in my case that has meant groups opposing war, militarism, sweatshops, "free trade," or groups supporting things like human rights, socialism, anarchism, the environment, Palestinians, and other struggles), and certain individuals to organize each gig.  My job when booking a tour was just to connect the dots -- figure out how to schedule the gigs people were offering to organize so that the tour made geographical sense (or at least so that it was geographically possible).

OK, but enter 2018:  I don't hear from any of those activist groups or institutions in the US anymore.  I almost only hear from individuals now, who say things like "if you play somewhere near where I live, I can't wait to go to the show."  But nobody makes a serious offer to organize a gig, of the sort that would make it practical to leave home and go to another state (which by definition means going somewhere far away, if it's not in Oregon or Washington).

Why do these groups not contact me anymore?  As best as I can figure, here's the rub.  The student groups don't have funding anymore.  The music venues can't operate the way they used to because they're too busy trying to pay exorbitant rents.  The activist groups that I used to be plugged in to basically don't exist anymore in the US -- by which I mean the groups that used to organize most of my non-college gigs, that were part of the antiwar or anticapitalist movements, among others.

Absent institutions and activist groups, what I've been left with is individuals.  Certain people who can afford to buy me a plane ticket and pay me something so I can come do a gig that might or might not break even.  So I end up doing a few gigs a year like that in different parts of the US -- most recently in California and Texas.

These few gigs represent a tiny fraction of the number of gigs that I used to do in the US.  But when they happen, they're usually great gigs.  In the past few days I had a couple of experiences that made me think perhaps I just need to explore this idea further.

Sitting at the Gate at Newark International

On my way to Europe several days ago I was waiting to board the flight to Oslo at Newark airport, when a young woman with a cello on her back sat down a couple seats away from me.  I then did what I admittedly usually do when someone near me has a musical instrument, and I asked her if she had a gig somewhere.

We struck up a lively conversation about being professional musicians.  She played classical music.  She was from the US, but she moved to Berlin because of the great music scene and the plentiful paying gigs just in that great city alone.  She had flown to New York City for a gig.  We talked about the differences between playing in Europe as opposed to playing in the US, and our experiences were identical.

She was much younger than me, and didn't know from her own experience that it used to be so different in the US.  She was too young to even know that merch sales used to represent a very significant percentage of many performers' earnings.  She was too young to even have had the experience of getting gigs at universities in the US, which used to be so plentiful for musicians of all kinds.

What she told me was that gigs in the US, on the rare occasion they happen for her, are funded by private donors.  Hmm, I thought.  My experience as well, I realized -- at least in the past few years.

And Then Tennessee Turned Red

Bleary-eyed from jet lag, missing my luggage, smelling like a combination of sweat and all the joints smoked by a packed room full of Norwegian squatters that had completely permeated every fibre of my hoodie the night before, I saw a PayPal notification on my phone a day after the conversation with the cellist.  Robert Dalton, a lovely lawyer in Tennessee who organized a couple nice gigs for me there years earlier, had bought 50 tickets.

Since I started the 2019 US Tour campaign I have sold a handful of tickets in several states, but Robert's purchase of 50 tickets in Tennessee made that state the first one to turn red on the map -- meaning it's the first state that I will now be able to make part of my 2019 US Tour plans.

It then hit me that perhaps in the absence of activist groups or institutions, I need to work on nailing down what we indy musicians sometimes refer to as those "anchor gigs" by putting more effort into networking with individuals of means.

Important Historical Footnote

Let me just take a moment to bring you back in time to the 1930's.  In the 1930's, the working class in the US was organized like never before, and workers were unionizing workplaces throughout the country at an unprecedented rate, both despite and because of the Great Depression.  Many of the best union organizers were also members of the Communist Party, which had become a vibrant, massively popular organization.

For all its many flaws, the US Communist Party of that period accomplished many great things.  My late friend Bob Steck was one of many people I knew when I was younger (when they were alive), who was deeply involved with what was generally referred to as "The Party" of this period (much as someone in Connecticut would refer New York City as "The City").

Bob always emphasized to me how much the Communist Party of his youth invested time, energy and money in cultural activities.  The Party helped fund and run summer camps, theaters, theatrical productions and musical productions not just in New York and San Francisco, but all over the United States.

Other institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts amplified the efforts of the Communist Party by funding many of the same cultural endeavors.  Before the NEA, most theatrical productions in the US occurred in either New York or California.  During the NEA's heyday, New York and California together represented only a portion of national theatrical productions that was roughly equal to their portion of the country's population.

Calling on the 17%

Over many decades of touring I have noticed that my audience is as varied as society as a whole in terms of economics.  I have stayed with thousands of people in 48 states, and I can say definitively that among those who I might call my fans -- among those on my email list and those who read my blog -- there are people who are homeless, and there are people who live in what I would call mansions.  There are people who own no homes and people who own multiple homes.

17% of households in the US have a six-figure income or higher, and I'm pretty sure that statistic applies about equally to people in the US who are reading this.  While it's very expensive to live in many cities these days and there are many, many other things people can spend their hard-earned money on that can easily eat up all available cash, regardless of how much there is of it, I would deign to surmise that I can at least in most cases assume that most households bringing in six figures are in a position to host a house concert if they really want to, by buying 50 tickets in my 2019 US Tour campaign in one go, all by themselves.

But why would a person want to blow so much money like that?  Simple -- because no one else appears likely to do it, as they are too busy keeping their heads above water, or they're not really organized and they don't have any idea what's involved with putting on a gig that actually works from a financial standpoint.  So if it's going to happen, it's probably up to you who are reading this who are members of the (approximately) 17% of US society who can afford to do this sort of thing.

If you think the idea of a musician like me being able to tour throughout the US now and then is a good idea -- if you think that the message I bring when I tour, and the ability touring gives me to plug in to local social movements and sing at protests, etc. is a good thing, that this is worthwhile, then you have the ability to turn your state red, and put it on the map.

Of course, I still encourage folks of lesser means to buy a ticket or two if they can, in the hope that eventually there will be enough to put that state on the map.  But I think people will be more likely to buy one or two tickets once they know that I'll definitely be coming to their state.  And if I'm wrong about that assumption, it doesn't really matter -- if you turn the state red, I'll be there in 2019.

Now show me that there are people out there who make a lot more money than I do who think I'm making sense.  (Or not.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Corporate Thought Police

I remember the time back in the early 90's when I had a show on a local college radio station.  After coming home from having just done a show consisting of a string of especially unpatriotic musical selections, I picked up my land line (which back then was referred to as "the phone") and rather than hearing the familiar dial tone, I heard three beeps followed by a recorded message:
Because you have violated community standards, your phone line has been disconnected for thirty days.
And then they gave me a toll-free number to call if I felt I "had received this message in error."  I couldn't call the number from my disconnected phone, of course, but when I went to a friend's place to use their phone, I was disconnected every time after being on hold for two hours, and never got to talk to a representative of the phone company.

Did this ever happen to you?  If so, I'd love to hear about it.  But it never happened to me.  I just made that up.  What did just happen to me is in every way identical, except that Facebook is an unregulated monopolistic corporation, rather than anything classified as a public utility like phone, broadband, or electricity.

What I woke up to two days after my 51st birthday, four days before I'm flying across the Atlantic to start a tour of Europe, was yet another message from Facebook that I was banned from the platform for a post from years ago that no one will ever come across sharing a song by the satirical London-based band, the Commie Faggots.  After the last ban a couple weeks ago I tried to delete all posts related to the band, but apparently I failed, and one came up and randomly got me banned again, this time for 30 days.

Whether satirical band names should be flagged as hate speech is one question.  Whether such posts should get you banned from publicly posting to the platform is also a question.  But I think it's important for people out there to understand that when someone gets banned from Facebook, they are not only banned from making public posts, but they also can't reply to private messages.

There have been a variety of questions that have come up in the recent Congressional questioning of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.  One of them was related to whether Facebook was capable of policing its own content, whether Facebook was capable, for example, of telling the difference between satire and hate speech.  The answer, clearly, is no.

Another question that's perhaps far more relevant that came up is the question of whether Facebook is a monopoly.  I suppose the answer depends on how strictly the term is defined, but if we go with the definition of a corporation that is singularly dominant in one or more major forms of public and private communication, then Facebook is clearly a monopoly.

Many people who are not professional journalists or professional artists may not realize that when Facebook changes their algorithms this can (and often does) have a clear, measurable impact on how many people are likely to see different kinds of posts.  Years ago, Facebook devastated musicians around the world when they changed their algorithms so that all of a sudden posts related to gigs or tours would hardly be seen unless you paid to boost them.  More recently, Facebook changed their algorithms again, supposedly to deal with the problem of fake news.  With their new algorithm, progressive websites such as Counterpunch and Alternet suddenly started getting far less traffic, and with that, fewer donations.

Facebook is like other massive, profit-driven, predatory corporations, but far bigger, and they buy up or mimic the competition, swallowing much of it up, becoming so dominant that if you want to communicate with many people privately or spread the word publicly about gigs, tours, albums, protests, or whatever else, you can do this without Facebook, but you won't reach or stay in touch with nearly as many people.

My own numbers seem to be typical as far as indy artists go, and they clearly show what a dominant platform Facebook is.  Notwithstanding the fact that there is of course some overlap between platforms, the numbers are still revealing.  I wrote a post last week where I listed ten good alternatives to Facebook -- that is, ten platforms that do the same things Facebook does, or better.  Which is great for people who want to live without Facebook for one good reason or another.  And it's great in terms of the quality of these alternative platforms in terms of user-friendliness.  But in terms of scope there is no competition.  Between "friends" and "followers" on Facebook there are around 15,000 people.  If you combine everyone who's on my email list with everyone who follows me on all of the other platforms I mention in last week's post, only when you add them all together do you approach the number from Facebook alone.

I wonder how many people out there who aren't artists realize that when you post a link to a video on another platform such as YouTube on Facebook it will get far less attention than if you post the video using Facebook's video-posting application.  Post it directly and it gets the eyeballs, at least comparatively speaking -- even if you don't pay to boost it, unlike announcements related to gigs, tours or albums.  For example, I posted a song on April 8th about the most recent Land Day massacres of children in Gaza by Israeli soldiers.  After uploading "Land Day" to YouTube and posting about that on Facebook and other platforms, the song on YouTube has so far been viewed 360 times.  Since uploading the song on Facebook the same day, without sharing the fact that the song had been posted to Facebook on any other platform, it got several times as many views -- 1,600 so far.

Because two billion other people are on the platform, including most of the people I know, Facebook is extremely useful.  But the algorithms they use are very destructive in many ways.  The fact that billions of dollars are invested in thousands of brilliant people who spend all their time figuring out how to make the platform more addictive and thus more profitable results in a platform that seems to cause as many problems as it solves.  In a weird way, I have found this phenomenon to play out directly in the numbers.  I only just realized that although I did successfully use boosted posts on Facebook to slightly increase attendance at gigs to the extent that I made around $2,000 more last year than I made the year before, I spent over $3,000 in Facebook advertising.  Maybe I'm just bad at advertising, but it had become clear that non-boosted posts about gigs were not being seen.  I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the folks at Facebook have figured out how to make their post-boosting function just barely useful enough to keep people doing it regularly.

It is very obviously a tragic thing that we have gotten to this stage, where what could have been (and what briefly was) a free internet became such a destructively corporate-dominated space.  We clearly need to either strictly regulate Facebook and social media in general so that it behaves in the public interest as the public utility that it has become, or we need to leave the platform en mass.  While I can't effect either of these developments myself, I'm going to experiment with deactivating my Facebook account at least while I'm banned from posting, commenting or messaging on the network.  While I'm banned from doing these things, it seems like the most sensible move, since I don't want people thinking I'm ignoring them for a month when I don't respond to their comments or messages.  My hope is people who want to find me will have the wherewithal to look me up on the web.  Realistically, with people being as they are, some will and some won't.

While I am absent from Facebook, please rest assured that although I'll miss some of the comments and conversations, I'll overall be happier with less noise, and I can easily be found by anyone who wants to find me, which I hope will be more than a handful of people out there who manage to notice through all the noise that I'm not there anymore.

A brief rundown of ways to keep in touch with me that are also dynamic and interactive like Facebook is:

  • Go to, where you will find links to all of the platforms listed below, and where you can also get on my email list -- email lists are great!
  • Follow me on Twitter @drovics --
  • If you follow me on YouTube, that's where I post songs I just wrote --
  • Most of those phone-made broadsides also end up in audio form at
  • Whenever I put out a new album, it first appears on Bandcamp --
  • At you can follow artists you like, and hear about when we do gigs near you
  • Whether I'm home or on tour, hanging out with my kids or at a protest, I post a lot of pictures at (I know, it's owned by Facebook)
  • My phone number is +1 503 863 1177 and I can be called or texted directly or via WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and other messaging platforms
  • There is a David Rovics app you can get for your phone or tablet on the Google and Apple app stores, which allows me to send you relevant, occasional push notifications
  • I blog at
If you want me and other indy musicians to be able to keep making music, don't ever say "I'll look out for you on Facebook."  In recent years, if you saw a post of mine in your feed on Facebook it's probably because I paid to boost it.  This is not how Facebook used to work, when it first wormed its way into everybody's frontal lobes, and it's a far cry from the great possibilities that the internet still offers -- potentially -- for us humans to interact and learn about each other and the world we live in.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Visiting Marius in Prison (During My Family Vacation)

To read more about Marius Mason please go to  The painting is a self-portrait by Marius.

Marius Mason is at this point among those who could be called my old friends.  We first met when he organized a show for me in Detroit over two decades ago.  When I first learned that this friend and long-time organizer had also been involved with Earth Liberation Front actions entailing the destruction of corporate property and was facing an extremely lengthy prison sentence, I thought at least one of his friends would be able to visit him in prison on some kind of regular basis -- since, I reasoned, I was a touring musician with regular gigs in Texas.

I mention this because, for one thing, I knew that part of the reason Marius was being moved from Michigan to Texas was because certain (particularly political) prisoners are often selected for this kind of treatment in order to try to completely sever them from friends and family.  So I always figured Marius wouldn't have enough visitors there in Texas, and I made a mental note to schedule time for a prison visit whenever I was gigging in the state.

I also mention it because it's interesting, at least for me, to note how unexpectedly things can change.  When Marius first began serving his time in the federal prison FMC Carswell in Ft Worth I was still touring all over the United States at least once a year.  That stopped being the case years ago, and nowadays I'm very lucky that one of the very few places in the country where I can still plan on usually having one good gig a year is Houston, a city where I more or less lived in for several years, from just before former Texas governor Bush's invasion of Iraq to just after Camp Casey in Crawford.

When I put out the call to see who might be up for organizing gigs for me in 2018, I ended up with over forty gigs in Europe, and four in the US, of the sort that make it worth traveling to do without returning home broker than when you left.  Those four good gigs included two in California and two in Texas.  The Dallas/Ft Worth area was not among those two, but I made sure to work Ft Worth into the plan, in order to visit Marius.

These four gigs represented the most consecutive, good gigs I've done in the US in at least a couple of years.  This is by no means a reason to be optimistic -- not nearly enough to indicate that things are on the upswing at all.  But it was enough to make a plan to take a little family vacation, with my wife and one of our children, the baby, who still just barely could fly for free, since he doesn't turn two until a few days from now.

Because Reiko and Yuta were coming with me, we tried to get permission to add them to the list of approved visitors, but we were never able to get the prison authorities to mail us the necessary form.  In the macabre manner of these things, on the Bureau of Prisons website it explains that an inmate has to initiate the process of getting a new visitor approved by having the form mailed to the prospective visitor.  He tried to get the form mailed to us, but due to some bureaucratic morass, it never was sent.  Marius was under the impression that there was some way for me to initiate that process on the BOP website without him, but the last time he was allowed to have internet access was many years ago, so what's on the BOP website these days is completely theoretical for him.

Reiko and Marius remembered meeting each other, when Marius put together one of the last gigs he was able to organize for me before his arrest, when I was in Detroit with Attila the Stockbroker over a decade ago.  Marius can only have visitors who knew him before his arrest -- no fans who learned of him afterwards, or anyone else.  This includes me, and it should have included Reiko.  Anyone under the age of sixteen is exempted from this requirement, so the children of a visitor can also visit.

One of Marius's other approved visitors is radio programmer and anarchist newspaper editor Peter Werbe, who also makes a point of making a pilgrimage from his home in Michigan to Texas periodically to visit Marius -- and in recent years to visit me at the same time, as well.  I think this was our third rendezvous in Texas together to visit Marius and see the sights.  Last time the sights included adult activities like a visit to Daley Plaza, where JFK was assassinated.  This time, with my baby in tow, activities outside of the prison visit were more limited to the nearest park, and the old tractor in the backyard of our kind hosts in the suburb of Flower Mound.

As I mentioned, before going to Texas we were in California -- Berkeley and Topanga, specifically.  We drove down the coast between the two gigs, with a free day to see the sights.  This is just to say that we saw the LA area -- we drove into it, through it, to the airport the next day, and flew to Dallas.  But even coming from the megalopolis of LA, there is no way to be fully prepared for Dallas.  The whole way that Dallas is structured seems designed to make humans feel small.  Walking down the road you're constantly taking your life into your hands, since there are no sidewalks.  Walking at night without reflective clothing and a bright flashlight is basically suicidal.  People don't generally walk.

In some neighborhoods people don't even seem to drive, either.  Walking around Flower Mound felt like being on the set of A Wrinkle in Time, when the kids are transported to the planet that's been sucked in by the black cloud.  These rows of nice houses with no one apparently in them, no cars parked in front of them, all lining roads that are often four lanes wide with a big median in between -- with no cars driving on them.

On the "state roads" of Dallas -- these are not the interstate highways, but just the state highways -- there are cars, but the traffic isn't bad.  Dallas seems to be, to some extent, a refutation of all the environmentalists and European urban planners in the world who say you can't just build yourself out of the problem, you need intelligent regulations and mass transit and stuff like that.  Well, says Dallas, what if your state roads are sixteen lanes, and your interstate highways are basically 32 lanes?  (I'm not exaggerating -- if you include all the "frontage roads" it really is 32 lanes at times, at least as I would measure it.)  What then?  Then, it seems, you end up with a city that looks more like the moon than like a place made for people, but at least you don't have much traffic congestion.

We all flew in from California and Michigan on a Saturday night a couple weeks ago.  The next morning, Peter and I left Flower Mound and drove the fifty-minute drive from there to the prison in Ft Worth.  We stopped on the way at a Starbucks.  I mention this because it's true, and so mentioning it adds a little realism to the story.  But to that person who is going to ask why didn't we stop at an independent cafe instead, let me just say (a) you've obviously never been to the suburbs of Dallas, and (b) you're a better anarchist than me.  (And we flew to Dallas on corporate airlines and were driving around in a corporate rental car and filling it with corporate gas, and none of that really matters because lifestylism will not save you, but smashing capitalism might.)

I also mention this for all those of you rabid readers of the Fifth Estate these past 53 years who might at some point have wondered, Peter Werbe drinks drip coffee.  And he may be a brilliant intellectual and a very nice guy, but he doesn't know shit about espresso.  Which is probably best, because if he were an espresso snob like me he might not be taken seriously by anyone in Detroit outside of upper management.

So two anarchists were driving across Texas drinking Starbucks coffee.  What did they talk about?  The social alienation of hearing loss, the obsession with air conditioning in Texas, the central role of slavery in the economic development of the United States, and, of course, the Spanish Civil War.

Peter suggested I should write a letter to the Fifth Estate in response to a reference made to one of my songs in an article about anarchists guilty of romanticizing the International Brigades that fought in Spain in the 1930's.  I'm not sure about everything else in the article, but as for the reference to my song and my guilt in romanticizing the Fifteenth Brigade, yes, guilty as charged.  I completely agree with everything the person wrote in the article, and I have no defense that I care to offer for the line in which I say "they all stood side by side," because this line is bullshit, actually.  I didn't want to bother writing a letter to the editor that just said, "you're right," but in case anyone's interested, there it is.

In my defense, I also am guilty of romanticizing the peasant hordes that looted and burned the cities of Europe in 1848, religious fanatics like John Brown, and the wealthy, land-stealing British military officer who burned down the White House in 1814.  I am even guilty of romanticizing Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee as well as Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, and I probably shouldn't be allowed to call myself an anarchist.

The Prison

While most people reading this probably know exactly what it's like to go to a Starbucks, far fewer know what it's like to visit a high-security prison in Texas, so I'll try to remember details.

Once we got off the 16-lane highway and into the neighborhood in Ft Worth that surrounds the sprawling military base and attached prison there, the infrastructure spending represented by the massive highway was no longer evident at all.  Like so many blighted urban neighborhoods in the United States, the scene is far more reminiscent of a poor outskirts of a South American city, except without the people.  Most of the houses are old, one-story, falling apart, and instead of nice people making street food, there are unfriendly pawn shops and convenience stores, preying on the suffering people of the city.

At the prison there are many layers within layers of security, and a variety of different people in there, both in terms of workers and inmates.  It feels a little reminiscent of what I've read about US army bases in war zones like Afghanistan or Iraq.  First there's the disposable local guy, a lone guy in a flimsy little hut.  (When the suicide truck bomber arrives, this guy dies first.)

Most of the prison workers are people of color, and they are somewhere between civil and friendly.  Most have the air of someone who has served in the military and learned military discipline.  At the gate is a civil African-American man with a clipboard.  He looks at our IDs and gives us a piece of paper to put on our dashboard.

We drive in, then a hundred yards down we take a right, through a big fence, into the area where the actual prison is.  There are then more fences, around thirty feet high with NATO wire on top.  There are guard towers above them, and guards in new, white pickup trucks driving around a road that snakes its way around the tall fences.

The road looks like a walkway, just a bit wider.  Peter and I are, thus, walking on it.  A white man in a white pickup truck with an orange beard and a mean look on his face snaps at us.

"Get out of the road!"

He glared at us as he drove off, as if we were clearly rebels who had purposefully challenged his absolute authority.

Past the perimeter road, inside the fortress, there is a woman behind a tall desk, an athletic-looking African-American woman with a big, beautiful smile and shining white teeth.

After waiting for some time, Peter and I and a group of other visitors were led through a gate, if that's the appropriate term.  We were led past an entryway, where a steel wall several inches thick slowly closed behind us.  After each of us had had glow-in-the-dark ink of some kind stamped onto our wrists and checked in some kind of red lighting to make sure the ink was there, another massive steel gate slowly opened.  We were all then led along a walkway and into a big room filled with prisoners and visitors.

In past years, Marius has been kept in a prison within the prison, in a cell block of twenty that's kept separate from the rest.  More recently he's been allowed to live in the general population, which means sharing a tiny cell with three other cellmates, rather than having his own solitary cell, where the closest thing to a cellmate is what is known as a "vent mate" -- someone who can hear you on the other side of the vent in the wall, with whom you can have conversations, when everything else is quiet.


Peter spotted Marius before I did.  He knew what to look for -- he had told me there would be something different about him.  There was, and it was something easy to spot from a fair distance -- Marius was wearing a big white yarmulke.

I hadn't known about this development, but it didn't really come as a surprise to me.  Like Peter, I'm a born-again atheist, but I know many people who find many positive things from religious practices --meditating on and discussing ideas, finding community with other people, it can all be very centering and helpful, clearly.

Talking about Marius's newfound religious interest was a fairly obvious early conversation subject during the visit.  While Marius is studying Hebrew and the Torah and is very genuinely really into Judaism these days, the wearing of the yarmulke presents an additional challenge to the powers-that-be to deal with.  As people familiar with Marius's history are aware, Marius used to be Marie, and he is in a women's prison.  Only Jewish men wear yarmulkes, traditionally, not women.  But in prisons in the US, respecting the religious beliefs and practices of prisoners is a legal right.  (To whatever extent the right is enforced is another matter, of course.)

During the Obama years, Marius began to receive the hormone treatment that he had been seeking.  He is believed to be the first female-to-male trans prisoner to receive hormone treatment in a federal prison.  Now that Trump is president it's unclear how long the treatment will last.

Peter is involved with the Marius Mason support group, whereas I mainly just visit now and then and send the occasional book.  As with our previous visits, Peter has a mental list of questions he wants to ask Marius related to support work -- Marius's efforts to continue to receive hormone treatment and his desire to move to a men's prison in his home state of Michigan, rather than Texas, and other things.  The conversation moves a bit jaggedly between those kinds of topics and then to global politics or an appreciation from Marius about the plant and insect species that live within ten feet of where we're standing.

When your "natural world" is limited to a small patch of grass, it seems that the patch of grass gets a lot bigger in your mind.  In any case, Marius demonstrated a deep knowledge of each local weed and ant species.

I forgot to mention we had moved from the big, loud room filled with prisoners and their visitors to the fenced-in yard behind the building where there were a few shaded picnic tables and a patch of grass about the size of a badminton court.  Marius had been in the prison-within-a-prison for years, during which time he had never touched grass.  Just being able to stand in the yard still felt like a special privilege to Marius, it seemed.

For years, I had always been impressed with how well he seemed to remember what life was like before he began doing time in this place.  When I talked about doing things that he had not had the chance to do for years -- taking a walk in the woods, having a pointless discussion on Facebook, going to a protest, or any number of things -- it felt like I was talking with someone who had also just been doing such things as well.  On this visit, the fact that Marius had been in prison for so many years now felt like it was finally starting to set in -- mainly just in the moment when Peter took his sweater off.

In previous years, in the air-tight, air-conditioned, cement-walled room where visits with Marius used to transpire, the sweater was necessary for Peter to avoid catching a cold as a result of the visit.  Now we were outside.  The Texas sun can be very hot in March.  It was well into the 80's, and if you were standing on the grass there was no shade.  As Peter took his sweater off, it pulled his t-shirt up as well, so he was mostly topless for about half a second before he pulled his t-shirt back down.  

Marius flinched as if he had just been slapped.  This was clearly more flesh than he or many of the other prisoners had seen in a long time.  I'm sure other people noticed, but they tried to pretend they hadn't.  Marius explained that prisoners are expected to go into the bathroom just to do something like remove their sweater, lest they do exactly what Peter had just done, and inadvertently show some flesh for a moment.  Furthermore, the prisoners may never touch each other under any circumstances.  One of your parents just died while you were incarcerated and you could use a hug from a friend?  Too bad.

All of the prisoners are permanently clad in baggy blue or grey uniforms that seem to have been designed to make sure that no matter what the wearer looks like when dressed in anything else, they won't look good in these uniforms.  The uniforms the guards are stuck with are only slightly better.  This all contrasts markedly with the visitors there on visitor days (which is any weekend when the prison isn't on lockdown, in which case visitation hours can be canceled for the day).  The visitors are wearing the usual variety of clothing people wear when they're not in prison.  A large number of the visitors are children, from toddlers to teenagers, visiting their mothers.

On visitation days the prisoners basically have to go without lunch.  Any prisoner with visitors isn't in their cell, so they don't get lunch.  Instead, prisoners and visitors alike are stuck with the vending machines, if any of them want to eat all day.  Visitors can't bring anything in other than a bit of money and their car keys -- no food, notepad, recording devices, musical instruments, whatever, nothing else.  In the big noisy room where most people hang out during visitation hours there are several vending machines.

So just picture for a moment, visitors have often driven for many hours to come to the prison.  Many of them have camped out across the street from the prison entrance, where there is a campground, which is clearly there for poor visitors of poor prisoners who don't know anyone in Texas to stay with, who can't afford a motel.  There are many Oklahoma license plates among the visitors.  They get up in the morning and come to visit their relatives in prison, and the one place they can get anything to eat all day are these vending machines -- and at least on that day, one of them was just eating money and providing nothing in return.  Me and another visitor laughed together, seeing the obvious absurdity of the situation.

Marius is a vegan, which means just about the only thing in the vending machines he can eat is the popcorn with artificial butter flavoring.  He and Peter ate popcorn, I ate a granola bar, all of us wishing we could be sitting in a cafe somewhere eating real food, as I also wondered whether Marius even really remembers what it tasted like.

Every time I visit I wonder how we'll possibly fill the time, with about four hours to sit and talk, with no other distractions aside from other people sitting and talking.  One noticeable absence was anybody looking down at their phones, since no one was allowed to have one in there.  All the mothers are genuinely playing with their children -- none of them are watching videos or playing video games.

Taking a walk or playing music isn't an option.  But the four hours are always over before I'm nearly ready, just as we all seem to be thinking of five topics of conversation we hadn't had a chance to get to yet.

After we were led out of the prison one gate at a time, they checked the glow-in-the-dark ink on our wrists and gave us our IDs back, Peter and I really wanted to take a photo of ourselves with the prison in the background.  We went back to the rental car, grabbed our phones and walked back towards the prison, making sure to stay off the road we had been chased off of that morning.

"If you take a picture, we can take your phones," the man who had just driven up to us in his white pickup truck said.

I wondered if he was going to follow through with that threat, or whether he had not noticed that he had given us this warning too late.

"Are you going to write something about this visit in your blog?" Peter asked me before we drove off.  "I never know what to say."

"Sure, I can do that," I said.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Crunching the Numbers

DIY Touring in 2018

I suddenly feel compelled to do some public number-crunching, in case it interests anybody.  It's mainly for self-therapy.  Also, things are constantly changing in the indy music biz, such as it is, and I haven't done a public number-crunching in a while.

Yes, I did have an experience which led me to feel compelled to write this post, which was someone in England asking me if I could do a benefit concert for £100 ($140).  For an emotionally stable person, receiving an email asking if you can do a benefit concert shouldn't be so stressful.  Which probably is an indication that I'm not emotionally stable, because I was thrown into a morning-long wave of panicked thoughts.  Which then made me think, that's weird, maybe there's something wrong with me.  In any case, I thought, I need to explore these thoughts and feelings a bit further by writing about them.

The triggery thing about this particular email, unbeknownst to the nice man in England, is that it is exactly this sort of email that started becoming the norm in the United States for me years ago, which is basically what led to me not touring in the US anymore.  I replaced US tours with more Europe tours, and this has worked out fine for me so far.  But if things go in Europe the way they did in the US with regards to my concert tours paying the bills for me and my family, then I'll have to get a job doing something other than playing music.  (Which is a cause for panic, evidently.)

My initial response to the email was to say something along the lines of "are you kidding?"  Which then made me think, wow, that sounds a bit arrogant on my part.  Maybe rather than "are you kidding," some more well-thought-out response could be helpful, at least for someone out there.  (I always figure if there's one person vocalizing a thought like "can you do this benefit concert for £100," there are probably a thousand other people thinking it without expressing it in an email to me.)

Attempting to understand the orientation of the person posing this question to me, I thought, one thing that can sometimes be hard for a regular hourly or salaried worker to understand is the overhead involved with touring, and with being a self-employed contractor kind of worker instead of the sort who receives a paycheck on some kind of predictable basis.  If someone is thinking £10 an hour is a living wage in England today (at least theoretically, outside of the major cities) and so £100 seems like a generous amount of money for someone to sing for a couple of hours, then this might be understandable.  (Even though it's completely wrong.)

Another way to understand the person posing the £100 benefit question is that they assume I'm independently wealthy, or that I make so much money from other gigs that I can afford to play benefit gigs for £100 now and then.  While I'm not independently wealthy, a fair number of people out there are, but I wouldn't tend to assume they are, and probably this guy wasn't doing that, either.  The idea that I have enough wiggle room to do the occasional lower-paying gig is actually true, or at least I like to fantasize that it is, and I do gigs like that regularly in the US.  For reasons that I usually hope are obvious, I don't tend to do that much when I'm on the other side of the Atlantic.

But what really compelled me to write this now is that this is the Ballad of a Wobbly World Tour, and I would especially like to be completely upfront with all the IWW folks out there who are organizing shows for me on this tour.  Contract work is different from the kind of work most of us do, and I want to be very clear about the fact that all I'm doing is making a living wage -- nothing more.  (If I made more, the first thing I'd do is move into a bigger place -- not that I'm complaining.)  So what this is is a breakdown of what it looks like to make a living wage as a touring musician -- not more, not less.  At least one or two aspiring accountants out there might find this interesting, along with aspiring musicians...

And Now the Numbers

Our hypothetical working musician tours a total of half of a typical year.  During the other half of the year he's with his family, hanging out with the kids, booking the next tour, writing songs, making recordings, etc.

During that six months out of the year that he is touring, each month he is playing gigs every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.  On many weeks he's also got one or two gigs on the other nights of a given week, but for realism purposes let's say he does gigs around 4 out of every 7 nights, or between 16 to 20 gigs in a month of touring.

OK, so say he's doing a one-month tour of Europe, half of which is in continental Europe, and the other half in the British Isles.  Between the flight from Oregon to Amsterdam and the flights between continental Europe and the islands, he'll spend $1,200 on flights.  (He's got heavy, expensive suitcases, too.)  He gets a great deal on renting a car to travel with for a total of $600 a month.  (The credit card comes with insurance, so he doesn't spend extra money on that, of course.)  During the course of a month of driving around Europe he'll easily spend $400 on fuel, tolls, and parking.  Eating frugally but eating out, the musician will spend an average of $30 a day on food and drink, totaling $900 in a month.

That's $3,100 he needs to make, just in order to cover the expenses involved with leaving home.  If the musician does gigs every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the month -- 16 gigs -- then each gig needs to pay at least $193 in order for him to break even.  So presumably when someone says "what are your traveling costs," we can in this case say $193 per gig are the "traveling costs" -- the cost of leaving home.

But wait!  The musician has rent to pay back home, and a month of touring needs to pay for another month of not touring, plus he's got two kids.  So, adding the cost of rent back at home -- let's say his rent is my rent, $1,100 for a two-bedroom apartment for a family of four -- that's another $2,200 he needs to make to break even, if breaking even includes not returning home without one.

And then the family needs to eat.  Add another $600 a month (they're very frugal and never eat out), or $1,200 for two months.  Now, in order to cover food and rent back home plus traveling expenses for this hypothetical tour, we need to make $6,500.  If the musician does 20 gigs rather than 16, each gig needs to pay an average of $325.  Add in other monthly expenses like car insurance, cell phone, internet access back home, clothing that needs to be bought occasionally, and we're easily up to $7,700 that the tour needs to cover.  With 20 gigs, that's $385 per gig.

There are some ways to lower those costs, such as doing two-month tours of Europe instead of one-month, thus lessening the costs involved with air travel.  There are also frequent flier miles, so every couple of years I'm able to lower that expense significantly that way.  And of course all of this math assumes the musician is never staying in hotels.  If he were, that would add enormously to cost per gig to make it work.  And maybe this hypothetical musician also has to cover costs like health insurance or student loans.  As a college dropout I never had the student loan problem, and in Oregon my family gets free health care because we're just poor enough to qualify for it.  (So I can thank the taxpayers of Oregon that I only need to average $385 per gig.)

As you may have already guessed, even in Europe, many of my gigs pay significantly less than $385.  This is why even though touring in the US is impossible under the traditional indy model I use in Europe (I'm trying a new, from-the-tickets-up model for what I hope will be a significant US tour in 2019), the model also just barely works in Europe, even with all well-organized left groups, unions, squatters and others putting on the gigs.

Enter 2018 -- Digitization, Atomization

One of the various collection of seismic differences between touring a decade ago and touring now is merch sales.  That is, there aren't any anymore.

Pausing for a moment to look at the numbers above, and how in most cases making this happen means local organizers working their asses off night after night in town after town, on a volunteer basis, in order to get 40 or 50 people to pack into a venue that is usually just barely big enough to seat that many people, so that I can do a concert for them, it seems easy to imagine (at least to me, having lived it) that it doesn't often work out as hoped.  Crowds are fairly often not what had been hoped for, and other things can happen, too.

If you can imagine how things might not always work out so well when you're relying almost entirely on volunteers to organize almost all your gigs, and very few people have ever heard of you in the first place, then you can imagine how selling merch was the difference between survival and not-survival.  Which is the main reason why so many artists that were touring a decade ago are not touring now.

I used to sell an average of $200 worth of CDs (and other merch, but mostly CDs) at a typical concert.  That still happens every once in a while, but it's far more typical now that I'll sell more like $40 in merch on a typical night -- often less.  I sell t-shirts, but from my experience, very few people want to buy them.  People are on tight budgets most of the time, and if they can pay for a night out to hear a concert, that doesn't mean they can easily pay for a CD -- not when they can listen to everything for free on Spotify.

The new digital world is one thing to deal with -- which for me and many people at my level in the game has meant making $100 a month from streaming services instead of $200 per gig from CD sales.  You don't even need to do the math to understand what a profound difference this is in the life of a self-employed person who is engaged in what was a marginal profession in the first place.  I have personally managed to cope at least to a significant degree with the loss in merch sales through starting a Community-Supported Art program.  Unfortunately many other musicians haven't managed to make this transition, essentially from selling to begging, or they don't want to try.

Enter atomization.  The day before I got the "can you do this benefit gig for £100" email, I got a message from someone in another European country who said the local IWW chapter had not had a physical meeting since January.

This is a phenomenon that has become rife in the United States, and, it seems, it is spreading across the ocean and infecting who knows where else in the world.  That is the phenomenon of organizations essentially existing in name only, or at least on Facebook only.  They have "meetings" via social media group chat, and they get nothing done.  

Real organizing needs to happen with real meetings, which happen in real rooms with real people in them, looking at each other and talking to each other and taking notes and making concrete plans.  Or at least that's my impression, since these Facebook-only organizations never organize gigs for me, and don't seem to organize much else in the real world either.  The ones who have real meetings do.  Which, til now, has included pretty much all of the groups in Europe I work with.  I hope that continues to be the case.

I can't predict the future, but there's a little snapshot of what it looks like to be a DIY touring musician in the present day, anyhow.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Life After Facebook -- Ten Suggestions

A lot of people lately are more fully realizing the many down sides to Facebook.  Yes, it's only one of many massive corporations dominating much of the globe's online communications, but it's an especially problematic one on many levels.  With billions of users, it's so dominant it's almost impossible to ignore, especially for certain people, such as artists who need to be able to communicate with their audiences.

I'm not going to announce here that I'm joining the #deletefacebook movement.  It might be good for my mental health if I did so, but I'm not sure if my career would be able to take the hit.  And I say that despite the fact that in order for any significant number of people on the platform to hear about things like my tour plans or upcoming gigs, I and other artists like me more often than not have to pay to boost the post, since Facebook changed their News Feed algorithms years ago.  Ma Bell also really sucked, but deleting my Facebook account today seems a lot like living life without a phone line in 1980.

However, I've spent most of the past couple weeks being banned by Facebook for old posts related to a satirical London band called the Commie Faggots (mentioning their name is considered hate speech on Facebook, where satire is allowed but unrecognizable by whoever or whatever decides who gets banned on the platform).  It's been nice listening to the crickets, though more than a little inconvenient to be unable to respond to Facebook messages, less than two weeks before I embark on a tour of Europe.  And the experience has got me thinking about all those folks out there who have just deleted their Facebook accounts and may be wondering how to proceed now.

Mainly to all who have left Zuckerberg's corporation behind I say, take heart.  You may lose touch with a lot of people you probably didn't want to be in touch with so much in the first place, since so many people never leave Facebook, but you don't have to be like that.  And most of the things that Facebook was actually useful for are done better elsewhere on the web.  Rather than being a passive recipient of how Facebook's latest redesign or change in algorithms affects your life -- what you read, who you communicate with, what you hear about -- you can spend a little bit of time figuring out what you want to keep track of in life, and do it all without Facebook.

Here are 10 alternative ways to do some of the things you you might have been doing on Facebook, but better:

  • Songkick -- among touring independent artists, this platform is very well-known and well-used.  You sign up to follow artists you like, and then when they are doing a gig near where you live, you'll be notified by email and with notifications on your phone and/or on your Google calendar if you have one.  Artists and labels also generally sync their Songkick gig listings with Bandcamp, Spotify, and other platforms, so people can see where their upcoming gigs are when they're listening to their music.  There is no need to hope you'll notice a Facebook Event invitation, at least when it comes to following artists who list their gigs on Songkick.
  • YouTube -- yes, I know it's owned by Google.  The point for now is it's not Facebook.  When it comes to following independent artists of any kind, they may be posting videos and other content directly to Facebook, but they do that because it's more likely to be seen that way than if they post a YouTube link.  They are probably also posting all that stuff on their YouTube channel, where they may also be doing live broadcasts just like on Facebook Live.  You can follow channels on YouTube so you'll receive a notification by email or on your phone when artists you follow have just uploaded a new song or are doing a live broadcast.
  • Bandcamp -- when most artists that I know of make a new album, they release it on Bandcamp.  It's another for-profit corporation to be sure, but it's a popular platform nonetheless, and if you follow particular artists on Bandcamp you're unlikely to miss any new releases from them.  You can also Subscribe to artists on Bandcamp, and automatically receive all of their new releases on the platform while financially supporting artists.
  • Soundcloud -- this German company isn't nearly as well-known as Facebook, but among artists it's a household name.  Most artists that I know of who put songs up on Facebook and YouTube also put them up in some form on Soundcloud.
  • Twitter -- it's more than just a big social media platform that isn't Facebook.  It's also used by pretty much every journalist and artist on the planet (in countries where the platform is not banned), so if you're into following journalism or music, it's at least as good as Facebook.  Plus, it seems to lend itself much less to endless debates that don't go anywhere.  Either that or I haven't figured out how to notice the ones that may be happening.
  • Instagram -- yes, it's owned by Facebook, but if you don't link your Instagram account with Facebook, at least you won't be banned from Instagram when you get banned from Facebook, I've discovered.  Also with the editing tools, the photos look better.  And many of the people you might be wanting to keep in touch with are quite likely on the platform (including me).
  • Blog -- one of the things about Facebook that tends to cause depression among users is the phenomenon of scrolling through one's News Feed.  But many of the people posting truncated, Facebook-friendly stuff are writing much better and more interesting things in their blog.  Find out what platform they're using, and follow.  Of course you can still miss posts when you're overwhelmed by TMI and don't see emails notifying you about new stuff, but at least you're exerting some control over what comes in to your new, self-made feed.
  • Mobile Apps -- many artists, news outlets and other entities have mobile apps (including me).  Downloading their app can be the best way to reliably see notifications about breaking news (in the case of apps like the Guardian or AP) as well as for announcements from artists about gigs, new songs, etc.  With mobile apps it's also often possible to only receive notifications relevant to your geographical area.  This sort of feature is very handy in the age of TMI, you may find.
  • Email List -- At the bottom right on my website, as on many other websites, you can sign up for my email list.  Even in the age of social media, marketing professionals still talk about how email lists are the most effective communication tool.  Not everyone you want to keep track of maintains an email list, to be sure, but many people still do.  Since Google divided the Gmail inbox into three categories people often don't notice emails from people like me that get relegated to the Promotions folder.  But if you click the little box to the left of the sender's name indicating emails from this sender are Important, those emails should in future arrive in your Primary inbox.
  • Websites -- yes, many websites of many artists and organizations have become disused or disappeared altogether, as we all have probably noticed at some point.  Others, however, are still there, and regularly updated, often very nicely, as more and more people learn the ins and outs of Wordpress and realize the importance of taking more control of their online presence and being more independent from Facebook.  There's all kinds of cool stuff on my website that don't exist on any other platform, much of which I put a lot of work into and put up there recently, such as my Musical History section.  And I'm not alone like that.  You won't have probably seen anything about it on Facebook, unless you happened to see a post about it on the day I posted it.  And if you did see that post, it's because I paid to boost it.