You Gotta Say NO!

Fancy being in a position when you have to say “no”! When you’re at the bottom of the pile, “yes” feels like the only response required so you can move up. Well, you’ve gotta learn to say “no”.

You’ll learn about the importance of sometimes saying “no” in this episode and you’ll also hear about the destruction of drugs. 

Yes, I mean “no” is sometimes the answer.  John Lennon once wrote in his 1973 classic Mind Games, “Yes is the answer – you know that for sure”.  And to that I agree … with most things. 

But when you’re in a position where your solo career or band is in high demand, it’s really difficult to say “no” to opportunities.

They’re coming at you thick and fast, and some of those opportunities can ultimately destroy you.

Yes, is does seem quite a ridiculous concept, but great acts have this well and truly sorted out before they blow up. Becoming a ‘yes’ band for whatever reason will slowly drag you in by the ankles because you need to be selective about what you do, and when you do it.

Accepting everything is fine in the beginning but you will quickly learn that saying “no”, is paramount.

Being selective is an art form, one that took me years to get a handle on.

Want a gig?

One of my bands, Prettymess was in that situation in 2004. Prettymess was the most successful act I had been in since my humble beginnings.

It was really difficult for me to say “no” because I didn’t want to disappoint people and miss any potentially good opportunities. After years of struggling to get to this privileged position, saying “no” was a difficult concept to manage.

We had debut EP called Surface Glow, which was in the Australian top 20 with Shock Records giving it a push. Our booking agent Premier Harbour, were across it, throwing shows and tours galore at us. The phone was ringing continuously.

It sounds like a really envious position to be in, right?

Foolishly, we accepted nearly everything that came our way. At this point, we were playing most nights of the week and supporting top bands at top venues across the country. On other nights, we were playing to three people in tiny bars.

One night, we did a show in the regional town of Shepparton with one person in attendance – the mixer! The next night we were at the HiFi playing to 1100 people!

It did my head in. As the singer, I felt used and abused. I couldn’t really make any sense of what we were doing, nor where this kind of schedule was taking us.

We were getting tired and not writing new music.  Eventually, the wheels gradually started coming off. 

Furthermore, we started having drummer issues. Let me be frank here.  A band with drummer problems is in real trouble. We had a couple of poorly rehearsed fill-in drummers, which only compounded our difficulties.

At our rehearsals, which were becoming few and far between, there would be blow-ups between band members due to the frustration of being in this continual loop. And it only got worse.

Wasted

On some of our regular Tasmanian tours, we’d all deliberately get totally wasted on anything we could get our hands on. One time, I even got taken to the hospital when we had a record shop in-store appearance in Hobart because I’d lost my voice from being up all night partying. 

We’d come home on the plane from these tours sweaty, bloated, and hungover, not remembering anything we did. I tell you all of this because we were unhappy.

We felt pressured by the relentless playing and backed into a corner, and we weren’t moving forward as we had expected.

Once we even said “yes” to sitting in the back bar of a suburban pub for months on end.  We were singing to a few stragglers and bar staff! That was a soul-destroying experience.

You can only imagine how band members were beginning to feel when they had absolutely no say in these decisions.

I felt that by saying, “no” to our agent, and managers who wanted us on their bill, I would somehow lose standing, and perhaps not be offered any more shows.

After fifteen years of hard slog to get to this point in my career, it’s no wonder really.

In hindsight, I can see it more clearly. I wish we had controlled our momentum, and planned our live exposure in a way that would have allowed the band to grow – and not fall apart.

Over exposure due to saying “yes” too many times, unfortunately did us more harm than good.

Separate the chores

Having a sensible level head in the band, or a smart and controlled manager, is what you need when the pressure’s on! You will likely only get one shot and you need to get it right. Take it from me, say “no” when you need to, and accept only offers that will improve your standing and move you forward.

I noticed a lot of the bands we toured with were able to go out and do a run of well-planned shows, then head back to the studio and work on new material.

However, there was always a prevailing Australian rock ethic that you must play continually to win over the fans and grow into superstars like our very famous forefathers AC/DC did in the 1970’s.

Looking back over your career, it’s always glaringly obvious, but being able to negate these kinds of issues when you’re dancing on hot coals is super difficult.

I would suggest that if you’re not working with a manager, a trusted and level headed person in the band should be appointed as tour manager. If not someone in the band, someone who is closely associated with your band, who can be trusted and is honest.

This person will need to look at your schedule and your recording and release planner.  Then they can make some calculated decisions for when your band needs to go on the road. Big support shows and high paying shows should almost always be accepted.

The little token gigs and shows that have no particular advantage for the band should be rejected. 

When your agent calls you need to tell them you’ll be back to them within the hour. Then you have time to discuss it with your delegated tour manager. If it makes no sense – it’s a definite NO. It’s just not worth it. You’re better off spending that time writing music and preparing a new release.

Manage It

If you do have a good manager, this will be his or her job of course, but beware, there are managers out there who just want their pay cheque for the week.

They will book you into the Creswick puppet show if you’re not careful. That may be fair, after all we all need to pay the bills, right?

Just don’t forget that booking agents and managers are about the economics, so keep a close eye on him or her too.

I’ve seen so many bands have disputes with their management team over the years. It’s almost inevitable there will be some kind of disagreement when so many emotional heads are involved.

You just need to stay calm and focused. Keep your business hat on and find solutions that work for everyone.

I’d like to just remind you that having people on your side, like a manger, booking agent, and label A&R is a gift and a blessing. It indicates you’ve got to a point in your career where people are genuinely interested in you as artists and believe you have the talent to take it further.

So enjoy and make the most of it, but keep your eyes open at all times.

No-one gets out alive

And of course, there’s the other “no”. If we’re going to be completely honest and upfront in our discussions of being a career musician, we need to discuss this. Drugs.

Drugs, for whatever reason, seem to be one sinister constant in music. They have always been there in one form or other, just lurking in the background of bands and musicians.

It can be anything from alcohol and dope to the other end of the spectrum, heroin. All are as menacing and destructive as each other.

It appeared to me that the high from playing music always needed to be reinforced and heightened by some kind of illegal substance.

It was quite puzzling to me, but the post-show low some musicians experienced was almost too difficult for them to manage in their careers. 

Yeah, I drank a lot and smoked the occasional joint but I never fell into to hard drugs.  It just didn’t do it for me. But drugs were always around me in their various forms.

Sitting on a couch in a smoke-hazed backroom with colleagues shooting up next to me actually came to feel reasonably normal at times. 

There were a few that required that extra boost or cushion if you will, and were always in search of something more. Their lives were devoid of love and support, and they filled that void with junk. 

Music always gave me the colossal high I needed so I found it very easy to say “no”, which I had to do – quite a lot, I might add.

Sometimes there will be people around you and you won’t even know they are smacked out. It can be very insidious, and it’s a lethal poison you must do all you can to avoid. 

Baked

We were doing a lot of shows with another Melbourne band in mid 1993. We used to rehearse in the room adjacent to them upstairs at Bakehouse Studios in Fitzroy and we all got to know each other. Both bands had female singers, so it kind of united us.

The band took us under their wing and I suppose they were mentoring us, throwing us gigs, which we were very flattered about.

They always had lots of fans, which often helped our plight somewhat as the newbies on the scene. But there was always something a little strange about them that I couldn’t put my finger on.  It was just a “rock thing”, I thought.

They always looked gaunt, thin and a little pale which seemed kind of cool. I was still quite naive back then and simply assumed that was their hippy folk look.

It wasn’t until much later that we found out they were all junkies. The guitarist, who was at the epicentre of it all, seemed a lovely chap but also slightly shady, which always made me feel uncomfortable. He was eventually busted by the cops for selling smack.

Again, I was dumbfounded why such a great band took this road of darkness that eventually ended up taking their careers. Such a waste.

Destruction

Over the years I’ve seen such a huge amount of death and destruction from drugs. This is the dark underbelly of the music business.

The singer of my very first band overdosed and died as he lay next to his girlfriend on his parents’ lounge room floor. See the episode on mental health.

A friend jumped to his death from the top of a hospital block because the heroin withdrawals he had been admitted for were too extreme to deal with. 

Even one of our front of house mixers was found dead in the toilets from a heroin overdose at a pub in Richmond. The needle was still in his arm. It’s a sad and deplorable way to end your life. Just say, “NO”, and do something amazing with your limited time.

There is a happy ending to this episode. You’re listening to this podcast because you’re willing to learn, and be the best you can in this challenging music game. Yeah, it’s not always easy and there are some nasties hiding behind each corner. 

However, it can be a positive and uplifting experience that will touch people and improve their lives, and yours too. Keep at it!

I’m really keen to hear your stories about this. Learning to say “no” is a biggie for all of us, so please head over to indieconfidential.com and leave your comments and any questions you have there.

You can also follow me on Instagram@indieconfidential and this blog can also be listened to via my podcast here.

The next episode of Indie Confidential will be all about saying “yes”. Yep, the flip side of saying “no” is when you just gotta say “yes”, and it can be a tough call sometimes.  So tune in next time.

I’ll catch you soon.

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