Failure Reframed

I guess you could call last night's show a failure. For the first 20 minutes I was literally playing to an empty room. A friend here in Bloomington came in first. 45 minutes later a table of 8 sat down in a nearly separate room, visible through a glassless window. 

I drove 4 hours to play a two hour set to an empty room. To make it worse, telling stories about songs to a mostly empty and not listening room makes you look a little off, which means that I have to play even more songs to fill the two hours (all of which I do from memory). It was brutal, and since my pay was a percentage of drinks, I got $20. I think the owner felt bad and paid me more than 10%; they did not sell $200 in drinks.

A show like this might have destroyed me a couple of years ago. But thankfully I've had some good creative role models to help me see that shows like this might be short term failure. But long term, they are the way forward. 

Because tough rooms tell you something. When the environment is not primed for success, when the sound is bad, or people think of you as background music, or there is a lot of banter in the room, your songs have to work harder—so only the really good ones survive. I got this mindset from the comedian Louis C.K. (below is some of his cleaner material), who is now famous enough that people will laugh at whatever he says. So in order to try out new material, to see what is really funny, he would spend 5 minutes heckling the crowd. After he made them mad, then he would tell a joke. If they still laughed, then it means they actually liked the joke. He made the room harder on purpose. 


Psychologist Viktor Frankl said that when you find a purpose for suffering, it ceases to be suffering. And in case you are tempted to say he doesn't understand your particular suffering, you should know that Frankl was saying this about his time at Auschwitz. He lost a brother, his mother and his wife to the Nazi's. So I think it might apply to a failed show in southern Indiana.

And this show made me better. 10 minutes before the start when I realized that I'd be playing for a while to an empty room, I plugged in my looper pedal which I have practiced with for a total 15 minutes. Trying it out with the pressure of a show, but without people present, showed me what sorts of challenges it would bring in a live setting. I also had my harmonicas along with me, which showed me that under pressure I was still not yet intuitive on those. Even as the show was going, and a few people came in, I realized the purpose for this failure. I knew that I would be picking up my guitar more in the coming weeks, and that I would be making a long list of songs to review every other week to keep them fresh for longer sets like this one. There was a purpose for my suffering. So while it was hard, it felt hard like doing a hundred emotional sit-ups rather than getting punched in the gut. And afterward, I got the usual post show tired-high and moved on into a great evening with some friends.

I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture here, there were still those moments of "What the heck am I doing here?" But those moments lose their controlling power and instead of breaking you down become fuel for the future. I know what sort of preparation and execution could have made that back table engage the music. In the best moments of the show I saw them start paying attention, I just didn't have the chops (yet) to keep them there or to pull them over the line to tipping. Knowing what is not working gets you closer to what does if you'll let it. 

Finally, a little promotion here. Jonathan Reuel and I are hosting a Celebration of Failure show in Goshen on December 16th. We're going to play music from our new album "Past, Future, Present" which is about how to mourn the loss of people, places, and dreams. But we're also going to be selling art that we consider a failure in some way. But there's a twist, you get to write on a piece of paper what that piece of art is worth to you in that moment (even if it's just 50 cents), at the end of the night, the person who it is worth the most to will be able to buy it for that price (again, even if it's just 50 cents). We'll also be hanging pictures of works by other artists that were either failures that helped them move forward, or failed processes that produced something great. Basically we just want to tell a lot of stories about failure (and to give you opportunities to do so) in order to weaken failure's hold on all of us. We hope you can join us.