Secret of My Success

Indie rock demands different standards of measurement.

There is, of course, a lot of competition between bands. It’s an obvious thing to say—like saying there are a lot of Skoal Bandits at a Kenny Chesney show. But the competition between bands seldom looks like the clichéd Blur vs. Oasis or Brian Jonestown Massacre vs. the Dandy Warhols pissing matches, where louche twits with shag haircuts deliver unintelligible insults like “‘Ere, them’s a bit all porgy, innit?”

No, the competition I’m referring to, the kind I feel, is altogether more quiet, and mostly friendly. When you’ve been playing music for a few years, it comes to seem like the only people to whom you relate are other people in bands. Musicians become your whole social network, they’re your peers and your close friends, but despite what you have in common, you’re not really having a shared experience. You play your shows and I play mine; your bandmates drink cheap gin and cry listening to Bright Eyes, my bandmates can’t stop to tie their shoes without setting up a wireless network and talk about their most closely guarded secrets using Rush lyrics. You end up in a situation in which the only people who can even begin to appreciate what your life looks like are people you only see twice a year, backstage at some festival between their set and yours, and they don’t actually have anything in common with you at all.

Two bands are almost never in a position where they’re competing for the exact same audience or gig, and it’s very rare that two bands are at the same level for long, so the things you’re vying for are more intangible. Success is very hard to measure in music. Everyone can see the difference between a sold-out show and a half-empty one, but quite often the band with the sold-out show ends up breaking up within the year and all working at Circuit City, whereas the band with a half-full show makes 12 albums and tours for 20 years. You’re competing with other bands for “success,” which everyone measures differently. Once a band starts selling records, those sales are taken as a rough measurement of their success, but the streets of Silverlake and Echo Park are littered with the remains of bands that sold two or three HUNDRED THOUSAND records, but no one ever heard of them and they never made a dime. And they sucked. Likewise, there are bands that reliably sell 15,000 records every other year and are, at least in music circles, household names. Which version of success do you prefer?

So there’s competition, but it’s often unclear who you’re competing with and what you’re competing for. Once, when the Long Winters were in our first year, we were casting about for an opener for our first big Friday night at the Croc and we called another young band, Minus the Bear, to ask them if they wanted to play with us. They said that they also had a show coming up on a weekend at the Croc, and had been thinking of calling us to see if we wanted to open for them. We both demurred, in a friendly way, and never played together until five years later, when we each contributed a song to the Seattle edition of Burn to Shine. For my part, I’ve watched Minus the Bear grow in popularity, in a completely separate world, and measured my band’s progress by my perception of theirs. Are they playing the Block Party? Are we? Do they have a bus? Do we? Their fan base hardly overlaps ours at all, and we don’t really know each other, but the fact that we came up about the same time and had similar resources makes them our peers. I feel a friendly rivalry with them even though I don’t know them at all.

This has gotten me in trouble over the years. Our first record was released around the same time as the Decemberists’ first record, and for the first two years our bands were working in similar venues and our audiences were many of the same people. We were both in the rough category of “lit-rock” (meaning we never had suntans and we sometimes used the word “whom”), we were from the same region, and we were mutual admirers. From the Long Winters’ early years I measured our progress against the Decemberists, and the fact that they always seemed a step or two ahead gave me something to shoot for. They played the Double Door in Chicago, then we played the Double Door in Chicago. Things were going well. But after a while the Decemberists surged in popularity. They became synonymous with “lit-rock,” so that if you used the word “whom,” you were described as “Decemberisty.” It was a period of great disappointment and readjustment for me as I realized that we weren’t necessarily going to catch up. We weren’t two regional bands working the same circuit anymore, and I had to quit measuring my own milestones against theirs.

By the same token, we’ve taken a number of newer bands on tour, and in some cases it was obvious that, although they admired us, they thought they were just “paying their dues” opening for us, and were expecting to become big rock stars as soon as they’d given America a taste of their greatness. You could register their disappointment when only a couple hundred people showed up in Toronto. The crowd seemed so small! Didn’t people read the glowing review in the local alternative weekly? Over a late-night dinner, I would try to explain that 200 people in Toronto had taken us five years to build and that it was no small achievement, but it was like trying to explain that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to a kid in a sleeveless Ozzy T-shirt. Most of the time they would come to me six months later and say, “We had no idea how hard it was to build an audience. After our tour with you, we went back out expecting to have twice as many fans, and instead we had a tenth as many.”

It’s true for almost all of us. By the time your band has any draw at all in Lexington, Kentucky, you can’t help but feel like you’re on your way. After all, you got big enough in your hometown that you made it this far, and surely after a show or two in Lexington, you’ll be just as popular there. But the good people of Lexington, or Sacramento, or Tucson, or Chapel Hill, are not so easily impressed. You can flog them with your brilliance for years and never penetrate, which makes 200 people in Toronto feel like a major accomplishment.

But the funny thing is, it’s a relative accomplishment. There are bands who, whether due to MySpace “buzz” or major-label publicity or a single decent Pitchfork review (or, less likely, good music), are selling out their first-ever show in Lexington or Toronto, and in many cases they’ll have an indie-rock career in reverse. Their first tour was off the hook, and they strutted around for a year like Owen Wilson in Zoolander, but then they spent the next four years playing smaller and smaller shows until they were only hoping to draw their parents to their own 30th-birthday parties.

Likewise, there are bands at our level who have forgotten more about rock music than we’ll ever know. Centro-Matic, from Denton, Texas, has been a role model of ours for almost as long as we’ve been a band. They have a cottage industry going, they tour the States and Europe every year like an old-school punk-rock band, their fans are a devoted legion who revere them, and their rock shows are of the highest order. One can be tempted to feel it’s an injustice when a freshly minted, hip band of 20-year-olds in too-tight shirts attracts all the notice. Who the hell are these kids? They’ve never known the feeling of playing to an empty room in New Orleans, they’ve never slept five in a van on a roadside in Vermont, they’ve never visited “The Thing?” in Arizona—why the hell are they so damn popular? Why not Centro-Matic instead? They’re twice the band! But you get used to it after a while, and the feeling of injustice is blunted by the reality of the work that lies ahead. Who cares about those young kids in the theater down the street? There are 200 fans here tonight to see us, which is 25 more than the last time we played here. There’s no injustice, it’s just the natural order of things.

At the end of the day, the musicians I know all share some of the same ideas of success. Everyone has their own little unique peccadilloes, of course. In my case, I hope to become rich enough to have several fake passports and to live in Yemen trading AK-47s and plastic explosives for heroin and young girls, but everyone’s different. Most musicians can tell a good song from a poor one, and all of us are trying to write a great one. This is an endeavor that transcends the other more material forms of success, and it allows musicians at greatly different levels of rock achievement to become good friends and peers. Because when you recognize that someone is working on songs you can admire, it’s almost as though you’re both tackling different sides of the same project. The real competition is there, in the music, and it’s almost always friendly. How can you hate someone who writes a great song?