In support of his latest album, Napalm and Nitrogen, and the World Bicycle Relief, Aaron Scott has taken to touring the East Coast of America on the "Ditch the Van" tour. Scott has been keeping Punknews updated with a series of Dispatches, the latest of which focuses on what can make or break a show, the unifying art of the cover song and the real value of a dollar.
The worst show I can remember was in Chicago on my first tour with De La Hoya. It was January in the Midwest, and it was the kind of cold that makes a person question if earth is truly inhabitable for humans. A major blizzard occupied Northeastern Illinois and our long drive into Chi-town looked like the inside of a freshly shaken snow globe. Despite the foot of snow that had already fallen, the venue wanted to proceed with the show. Four kids showed up together and, tragically, they had come to see the one band that decided to cancel due to the conditions. It seems bizarre now, but we and our tourmates played that night for those four kids, who seemed just as disinterested at the end as they were at the beginning.
This is what I like to call "a bad show." I think every smalltime touring band has played at least one show like this, and unless they're really lucky, probably a bunch. Every band has its own sense of what makes a show bad, but itâs usually some combination of the following factors:
- The kids werenât into it.
- There were no kids.
- The people who ran the show space were jerks.
- The PA didnât work very well. Or worse, it didnât work. Still worse, there was no PA.
- We played terribly, and not in an endearing or fun way.
- We didnât make much door money. Worse, a zillion kids showed up and we didnât make much door money.
- We sold no merch. Worse, a zillion kids showed up and we sold no merch.
Now, money is never the sole reason a show is good or bad. Iâve been paid well at terrible shows and poorly at great shows. But every time I quit my job to play shows and continue paying for food, rent, cell phone and student loans, itâs nearly impossible not to attach money concerns to my show experiences. And in the middle of a tour when everyone is broke, Iâm putting hundreds of dollars in gas and van repairs on credit cards, and the shows arenât paying at all, it often leads me to a musical existential crisis. Why am I crashing couches and going broke instead of playing Jimmy Buffett covers at a boardwalk cafÃ© in Key West? Sometimes itâs hard to remember.
I'm bringing this up because we've had a couple shows that would, under normal circumstances, qualify as "bad shows." At one show, only two people showed up, even though Iâve played that show space over ten times in my life. That would usually be a bit of a bummer, but bike tour is different. I was happy at this "bad show" to hang out with my buddy who set it up, watch a good band I had never heard of, meet a couple new people, then bike through the city to crash with old friends. Typically, I would allow money concerns to overshadow this rather pleasant experience. But money doesn't matter on bike tour because we can't make any money for ourselves or for our expenses. All the door money goes to World Bicycle Relief and we donât sell merch because we canât realistically carry any on our bikes.
I know that this all may seem a bit impractical. As if biking for 10 weeks and playing shows at the same time isnât outrageous enough, weâre giving the money away. When we pulled in hundreds of dollars from two shows in New York, it felt a little crazy to be donating it all when weâre blowing cash daily on campsites, food, guitar strings and bike parts. But we have money saved up to cover expenses, so all the conventional stress of money matters has disappeared. It allows me to embrace each show with an open mind and get stoked on playing to just two people. It helps bring me back to ten years ago, when I felt excited and lucky that two people would actually want to see me play.
It has also forced me to try something that I never thought would work: giving away my music for free. I decided to forgo pressing my new album and instead offered it online for donation. The donations have been surprisingly generous, considering the unstable nature of the industry. I truly didnât know what to expect, and Iâve been pleased that I have already covered my expenses for the record. Records rarely recoup so quickly because most have much higher recording, pressing, publicity, shipping and distribution costs. Those costs drop significantly when everything can be replicated and transported in cyberspace for free.
Surely this model canât work for everyone. If youâre as big as Trent Reznor or as small as Attica! Attica!, it seems to work well. If youâre in the middle, living off your music (but barely), I donât know what to tell you. You could even argue that this model hasnât worked for me either, since it has not come close to covering my expenses for the bike tour. Regardless, I think we need to stop clinging to the CD and stop hoping that vinyl will save us from having to make any real changes to our approach. I appreciate the heartfelt appeals from musicians who want to keep getting paid for their records. But as someone who never made any royalties on any of my albums, it is notable that the technology that is destroying the industry has started turning a profit for my record. Itâs a minor success story, I know, but success just the same. Itâs satisfying that there are still people out there who want to financially support independent musicians. Iâm also pleased by the reality that, once I removed a price tag for my music, a lot more people heard it. When I started recording music, all I wanted was for anyone who was interested to be able to hear it. Now that we have that technology, Iâm glad Iâm not squandering the opportunity.
The most significant change of touring without merch is that I am no longer tempted to use sales as a gauge of how well the show went. Even though I always knew merch was a lousy barometer for a bandâs performance, I often indulged the idea that no CD sales meant that nobody liked our set. When the band fund was low, I believed this preposterous notion even more. On bike tour, I can depend on more useful indicators of how the show went, like whether I had a good time. Itâs no coincidence that every show so far has been just that.
Following the string of "bad shows" that were actually good, we headed towards Richmond. We arrived at the house early and sat around their kitchen table and talked about bikes and zombies. One of the residents, Eleanor, offhandedly told us that she almost bought a coffee that morning with the dollar in her pocket but then remembered where it was from. She originally found the dollar in her bag when she was traveling in England and carried the useless bill for months until she returned to the U.S. She realized that it would be a waste to spend such a well-traveled dollar on coffee and she needed to find something really special to do with it. I smiled because I do the same thing frequently, giving sentimental objects enhanced meaning to help reflect on my experiences.
The show was a cozy evening in the living room with all acoustic acts. The first performer was a local guy who was pretty drunk and ended his set with an odd and hilarious cover of "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong." I wondered in that moment why Iâve never gotten into playing cover songs. A well-known song becomes our common language, and itâs so awesome to sing together with people I donât know who have found solace in the same subculture. The reason 30-somethings love 90âs cover bands is the same reason punk kids love making the neighborhood shake by singing the words, "And just like James, Iâll be drinkinâ Irish tonight!" The next performer, Harris, played a slow and creepy version of The Misfitsâ "Skulls," and it was really, really cool to hear everyone quietly singing, "I want your skuuuuu-uuuullls, I need your skuuuu-uuuulllls."
During my set, I gave my usual sales pitch about World Bicycle Relief to encourage more donations to the cause. Afterwards, Eleanor came up to me and said, "Now I know what to do with that dollar." She handed me the one dollar bill. The symbolic nature of her donation was special to me in a way that it never could be on a conventional tour. One dollar is less than one gallon of gas, which means less than ten miles. Thatâs how years of touring have ruined me. This tour is redemptive in that sense because I donât think of money in terms of how much it can do for me. I think of it in terms of how much a person is giving. And honestly most of the people who have donated at the shows donât have a whole lot of money to throw around. To that end, itâs amazing to me that weâve already raised $2,000.
The last band that night was Pedals On Our Pirate Ships. They are a trio of great people who play energetic folk punk. I liked the idea of playing with that band because of their bikey name, but upon further consideration I realized the name doesnât really apply to Blake, Jon and me. Weâre not very swashbuckling, menacing or thieving. Weâre just three guys on bikes, trying to have a good time and spread the word that people (and bikes) can do great things. And thatâs the real reason why weâre doing this. When I think about it, those are the same reasons I started playing music in the first place.