Update: the video for this talk was posted on the WMC blog, which means you can go watch it now.
Last Sunday, I got to give a talk at WMC Fest in Cleveland. Maybe some of you were there. Due to my inability to STOP TALKING OMG YOU’RE STILL TALKING, I didn’t quite get to the end of it. Probably my favorite thing anyone said about the matter was this:
CPT’s stage isn’t the first place I’ve been kicked out of, but it’s certainly the nicest. This is my unedited, notes I wrote to myself for the thing. I figured if I started trying to clean it up, it would never get posted. Thanks to those of you that made it out, thanks to anyone that said they enjoyed it or got something out of it, and thanks to the WMC Fest crew for letting me get up there in the first place.
There’s a rather small link just under the main slide, that’ll take you to the whole text. It’s a long one.
If you don’t know where that is, just pretend I said Pittsburgh.
So just, round of applause I guess, how many punk kids do we have here? It’s cool if you’re not. The point of this talk is that I spent my youth in dingy basements and VFW halls listening to 3-chord punk songs so you didn’t have to. You’re welcome.
So despite what some of my family members and high school teachers might have thought, I learned a lot of really helpful business advice from going to punk shows. But probably the biggest, the TL;DR of my talk, is the mindset. It’s an attitude that they have, that I have, and a certain perspective on how the world works. You learn how get things done, quickly, you learn how to connect to people, how to be creative in a lot of things – not just in making the thing, but in getting it out there. A lot of people hit an obstacle in their plan, and it’s “Ah, well I guess we can’t do that then.” Entrepreneurs, and punk kids, apparently, they don’t jump straight to “no.”
I grew up around people who… like I didn’t even think of it as ‘starting a business’ it was a thing that I wanted to do, and I had some skill at it, and I had some equipment so you know, let’s do this. I had friends that wanted to start a band, so they did. If they wanted to go on tour, they just went. No one will publish your zine? Of course they won’t, but you can Xerox a bunch at Kinko’s yourself. Now you’re an author and a publisher, look at you! It’s not “why we can’t do this,” it’s “what do we have to do to get this done?”
Operation Ivy wanted to go on tour, but they didn’t have a van. That’s a fairly big obstacle toward going on tour. So they looked at what they did have, which happened to be a ’69 Newport, which is just a 4-door car, and they packed that car full of people, and gear, and merch, and they went on tour for 6 weeks. Now, if you’re thinking that’s not so bad, I mean a vehicle’s a vehicle, you’ve never been on tour. But remember when you’d go on a road trip in high school and everyone was broke as hell, so you’d pack people in like it was a clown car to save on gas money? And by the time you get to wherever you’re going, you’re sweaty and stiff and you hate every single person in that car? That, but for 6 weeks. It would have been really easy for them to say, “Hey, we don’t have a van, we can’t do a tour.” Nobody would have blamed them. But they didn’t.
World’s Scariest Police Chases, they played here last year, they did a tour with almost no equipment. They’ve got more members in their band than Wu-Tang, so by the time they packed everyone in, there wasn’t any room left in the van for amps and PAs and whatnot. So they relied on friends in other bands in other towns to have their back. They could have just stayed home, but they found a workaround, and they made it happen.
There’s always someone that has it rougher than you, that’s doing it anyway. And there are people WAY more hardcore than me, in this regard, but you get my story because I’m the one with the microphone here.
I have Lyme Disease, which has ranged from nearly debilitating to kind of a bummer, and it’s toward the bummer end of the spectrum now. But last year, they had to put me on IV meds, which meant I had to get something called a PICC line. And it’s basically like, a tube that they stick in around your bicep, and it feeds up through your artery, and then ends right above your heart, so you can just shoot medicine straight into your heart. And the list of stuff they give you as warnings, every single one ends with “and die” like… if you get air in the line, you can have an embolism and die, if you get an infection you can get sepsis and die, if there’s trauma you can throw a clot and die. They’re real downers about it. All of my pictures of it are really… like, medical-y, so it kind of looks like this.
Anyway, last year, I had to get this line put in about 4 days before WMC Fest. Which, I’d already agreed to organize the photo volunteers, and I’d already agreed to shoot as much as I could of the weekend. So I’m not gonna… not do that. I got a cooler, and some ice, and filled it with like… drugs and snacks.
LEGAL drugs and snacks, guys, come on. And I drove to Cleveland. I’d shoot all day, and then I’d drive like half an hour out to the Mo’ 6 in Middleburg Heights, and I’d have to set up my little IV thing. Hang it off a floor lamp, and sit for an hour while that ran, and then I got to go to sleep and do it again the next day. Except one of those days ran super late, so I ended up having to run it in the basement over at Saigon Plaza, which is only like the… third weirdest place I’ve run an infusion. (Ed. I was asked a few times, the weirdest places I’ve run one are in a moving car, and in an airport bathroom in Madrid).
I shot two more festivals that summer, with that line in, and on my way to one, I met up with my dad for lunch. And he said, “you know, most people in your situation just wouldn’t work.” He didn’t say it in like a, concerned father, “this is a really bad idea” sort of tone though, it was more like this kind of thing.
My parents are very supportive of my shenanigans. So you can sub out “your situation” for all kinds of things that are maybe more applicable to you. Most people with kids wouldn’t go freelance, most people wouldn’t start a business when they have a perfectly good day job, most people wouldn’t sell their car to get a record pressed, most people wouldn’t. And most people would say that they can’t, but that’s not the truth. There’s a cost to everything – maybe it’s money, or it’s time, or it’s having your parents continually ask when you’re going to get a real job and telling all of their friends that you’re “in computers” – and you should know what your plan’s gonna cost you. Because you have to commit to that. Maybe it turns out you don’t want it that badly, and that’s fine. You’re allowed to not want it that much, but don’t tell me you can’t.
There’s really nothing stopping you, except that opportunity cost. I hear a lot of “oh, I’d love to make posters” or “I’d love to do t-shirts” and I’ve said that kind of thing myself, but there’s this idea in your head that if a client doesn’t hire you for it then you just can’t do that.
Winston Smith used to make posters for bands that didn’t exist. You know how you’ll say a weird phrase and think, “that’d be a good name for a band,” well he’d make flyers out of them. It’d just say “Friday” on it and have an address that didn’t exist. If you want to draw posters, draw some posters. Nobody’s stopping you.
I learned how important it is to build a network. This is a pretty big deal for touring bands, because you’re relying on these people you meet to bail you out, to give you a place to stay, or a show to play on. They’re your people. And it’s other bands, it’s publicity like photographers and designers, it’s promoters, it’s people that will let you crash on their floor, it’s all the many things that you keep you going.
So maybe you’re putting a touring band on your bill, and maybe he’s got a buddy who’s a promoter out in Montana and for some reason you’re touring in Montana, so he hooks you up, and then oh these guys are gonna be in town soon can they stay with you, and as Henry Rollins put it “next thing you know, some guy named Joey Shithead’s sleeping on your floor.”
You find your people, and you take care of each other.
There was this annual booklet that Maximum Rock n Roll put out, called Book Your Own Fucking Life. And I told my mom I’d try to keep the F-bomb count down, but that’s the name of it, so that one’s not my fault. So Book Your Own Fucking Life was like, a cheat sheet to planning a tour, before emailing was a thing and venues didn’t have websites, and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It had sections for promoters, for other bands in that area, and for places that would let you play. All broken down by region. And the thing that made that work, was that people would share the connections they were making. Oh, we were just through Indiana, this one’s not open anymore or yeah, there’s this new place that just opened in Ohio, or these guys broke up or whatever. You’re helping to make that resource better, because other people have done the same for you.
Pretty much every good thing that’s happened to me, business or otherwise, has been because of relationships with people. That’s all networking is. It’s not an elevator pitch, and here’s my business card, you’re building relationships with people. Being nice is a pretty amazing force when it comes to getting things made. And being interested is an amazing force, so many of my professional relationships have sprung out of me getting in touch with someone, just to tell them that I think what they’re doing is cool. So maybe I get in touch with a band, because I like what they’re doing, and I end up taking photos for them, and they tell some of their friends, who are in another cool band, and I just get to be the person that they know for photos. And I have a ton of friends that shoot different styles and subjects than I do, through the same kind of networking, so now I’m also a great referral system for them, I’m helping them out by sharing my resources.
You build a community that way. This is your community, this, right here. You should care enough to make that community better, to help people out in your own industry. To call out people when they deserve it, and to promote people when they deserve that. It’s why I’m here. I got involved with WMC Fest because I really believe in what they’re doing – they care about their industry, about the kind of people they choose to represent it, about the kind of message they’re sending, they care. If you think GoMedia started this just to make some cash, you haven’t seen their budget sheets for this thing. They’re not Scrooge McDuck-ing around in their piles of money when y’all go home. When you’re sincere, and you care about a thing, and you pour your heart into it, good things come out of it.
I know, it’s true though. I started volunteering for WMC Fest the second year they held it, I just asked Jeff if they had any need for a photographer, and they were happy to have the help. So the next year, I volunteered again, but Jeff also wanted me to organize the photo volunteers, to make sure we had everything covered. This year, I volunteered again, and I organized the photo squad again, but I also had an idea, for this talk. And I think they might just be trying to see how much I can actually do in one weekend, but the thing is, I’ve had some absolutely amazing experiences thanks to wanting to volunteer, to get involved with a community.
It’s not just the people in your town, and I know we have people at this thing that aren’t from Cleveland, I’m not from Cleveland. There are people all over the world that care about the same things you do, that share your ideals, maybe have the same defects that you do. You can use the skills that you have to make your community better. Bands put on benefit shows, a lot of artists got behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, designers do pro-bono work for causes they they care about, Jello from the Dead Kennedys ran for mayor of San Francisco.
That’s a real thing that happened. You use what you know. The world, or at least small sections of it, have been changed by lesser things than a punk band or an art project. When people in your community are doing something good, that you feel is important, support that. You have a responsibility to your community, to consider the impact that your employees, your projects, your client choices have. Punk rock taught me to stand for something.
People can get really squirmy about promoting. Now, bands are great at this, because when they have a show, they won’t shut the hell up about it. Don’t even act like you didn’t know that show was coming up, because they mentioned it like 4 times in the past week. So why is it when I make something, I’m thinking “ah geez, I don’t want to bug people.” Bug people.
Promote yourselves, promote your friends. When your friends do something cool, tell everybody. Because if you can’t get excited about your friends doing cool shit, then what the hell’s the point?
What a lot of promoting and getting your work out there comes down to is, whose audience would also appreciate your work? One of the best ways that I found new music as a kid was through splits and compilation albums. Splits were just… two bands would split a 7” record, which also helps defray the cost of making the thing, but the idea was that… so I’ll use a local example.
Speaking of my friends doing cool shit, if you haven’t bought this thing yet, go get it. If you missed these guys playing yesterday, I’m sorry that you make such terrible life choices. They were really good. Anyway, Signals Midwest and Worship This! put out a split not too long ago. So fans of Signals Midwest will buy it, and hear Worship This!, and vice versa, and the idea is that you’re getting your work out to a new fan base.
And you might say, well that’s super for bands, but I don’t see how that applies to me. Designers don’t make records. But designers DO make collaborative projects that work the same way. Projects like what Troy DeShano’s doing, Ferocious Quarterly, Dan Cassaro’s 50/50 project, efforts where an artist has an existing audience, and is asking other collaborators to be involved and is putting those people in front of their audience. It’s saying hey, I thought these people were pretty cool, and maybe you will too.
Sometimes it’s obvious connections, but sometimes you get some really interesting cross-promotion. This was something that kind of happened out of necessity for our tiny little scene, because there just weren’t that many bands. My husband played in a band when I met him, and they did kind of a hardcore punk thing.
He’s gonna be so thrilled I put that in here.
Anyway, they kind of played hardcore punk, but some of their friends played in a metal band. And some of their other friends played in a funny pop-punk band, and some were in a really political crusty band, and some of them were in this really awful grindcore band. Oh, and DBI was like a… I don’t know, rap funk? I’m not even sure what that was, but I loved those guys. Anyway. So we live in this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, that’s a good chunk of the bands that existed in the area, so they just played shows with each other all the time. And this wasn’t a conscious decision that the bands made, to widen their fanbase. It’s just people that they all liked each other, and they liked each others’ bands, so they put them together. The thing was, there wasn’t really an obvious thread that held all of those bands together, but the crowd was actually really into it. It worked.
So a lot of what I shoot is brides and bands. That’s not 100% accurate, but I like the alliteration. And I used to keep those separate in my marketing, because I figured one group really wasn’t going to care about the other group. There wasn’t an obvious connection to me between those two sets of people. As it turns out, I was wrong. A lot of the couples that booked me were pretty into music, and often into the same kind of music I was covering. When you’re looking at strangers on the internet, common ground can be a deciding factor in whether you’re going to meet up or maybe hire them. Bands didn’t seem to care that I was shooting weddings, but they weren’t not hiring me because of it, and some of them had friends who were getting married. So because I allowed for the possibility that those two worlds might have a little overlap in their Venn diagram, I have a larger audience.
That sounds kind of scary, to some people, I know there’s a lot of arguments I’m sort of tired of hearing, like that kids these days with their giving clients digital photos instead of prints, and we used to make all of our money off of prints. Well yeah, you used to. And now you don’t. So what are you going to do now? And don’t say “cry about it,” crying about it is not a viable business model. It’s kind of like being a phonograph salesman, and railing against the iPod for being wrong because it displaced your business model. It’s non productive. The nature of distribution has changed, it is changing. You can see that as a scary threatening thing, or you can see it as a liberating opportunity.
You can be whatever you wanna do. You don’t have to wait for someone to give you a job, or for a client to hire you, to start making something that you think is good. And you don’t need permission to put your work out there. People willing to be clever, to figure out how to do more with less, to work around obstacles, those people are doing okay.
One thing I’ve picked up from our scene, is the idea of being prolific, although that’s probably not the word they’d use. Friends weren’t just in one band, they were in a bunch of different bands. And they’d collaborate, they’d do backing vocals for another band’s album, or they’d fill in on guitar for a show. Don’t be too precious about one project, do a bunch. Do a hundred. Mikey Erg is in everybody’s band, be more like Mikey Erg.
I know, there’s only so much time in a day and you’d like to fill some of that with eating, or sleeping, or quality time with loved ones, so sure, you can’t do every single cool project that comes your way. But you can do a surprising amount of them, and at the very least, don’t tie all of your hopes on to one. I’ve had a lot of great projects come out of personal work, and I’ve had a lot of great projects come out of other, technically sort of failed projects.
One of these is this Bobby Joe Ebola songbook project. Here’s the long and winding road that ended up with me doing illustrations for this book.
Last year, this guy named Tony gets in touch with me about doing a poster for this weekend festival he’s doing in London. So I drew this poster and one of the bands in the big font up there is Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children Macnuggits.
Fast forward some to Insub Fest, and Bobby Joe Ebola’s playing. So I shot their set, and I went up to Dan after to shake hands and tell him I liked their set. And we were talking a bit, eventually we talked about this festival, and he says “oh I saw that, that was cool.” And I mentioned to him, and to Corbett that hey, if you guys ever need any artwork done, look me up.
So then… early this year, I think, Corbett gets in touch with me, and they need a book cover. They’re doing this songbook project, it’s a bunch of their songs with the lyrics and chords, and then all of these illustrations, and some little stories about touring and whatnot. They were meeting with the publisher, and they needed a book cover, and they needed it in like 3 or 4 days. And his art direction was “can you draw me a rabbit smoking a cigarette.” So we ended up with this.
And Corbett was into it, but if you’re paying attention, you might notice that’s not the cover I showed earlier. The publisher hated it. They were going to have Jason Chandler do the cover and art direct the interior stuff (which ended up working out great). And Corbett felt super bad, but I told him it’s business, and no hard feelings, and I hope you guys sell a million copies of the thing. And I meant it. They’re nice dudes, and I like to see nice people do well.
*coughcough Buy it coughcough*
So a few months later, Corbett emails me again. I know that cover thing didn’t work out, but we’d really love it if you could do some of the interior illustrations. And I said sure, I’d love to. So that’s how I went from doing a poster for a festival in London, to having some of my work in the same book as Winston Smith, and Jason from Horrible Comics, and Mitch Clem, and a ton of people that are way more talented than me.
It’s kind of a long story, how I ended up getting that gig, but I learned from the bands that were making things happen that it took a lot of work to make those things happen. And when you just see the end result you think, “oh they’re so lucky,” but really, they’ve been working their asses off.
People tend to compare where they are in their career, now, and somebody else’s career who’s been doing it for 10, 20 years longer. You take someone like the Ramones – even if you’re not into that genre of music, you’ve heard of these guys. You’ve seen their logo. You’ve probably heard several terrible covers of Blitzkreig Bop. And the reaction is, “well, I mean it’s easy for them, they’re the Ramones.” But they used to just be a couple of dudes playing basement shows for no money. They didn’t just wake up one day and think “We shall be a very famous band today.” There’s not some governing body that awards you a fanbase.
Embrace where you are in your particular career. I have friends in bands that are having an absolute blast doing things that they wouldn’t be able to get away with if they were a huge band with tour buses and managers and bodyguards. Use the advantages being small gives you. If you follow the Commonwealth Press guys on twitter, and you should, a lot of times I’ll see tweets from them like this.
That’s not a thing that like, Microsoft can do. “First guy to bring Bill Gates a sandwich gets a copy of Windows 8.” But when you’re small, you can do things like that. And you may not always be small, so take advantage of that opportunity, and build a reputation with your customers.
Eventually, work begets work.
Yeah, you heard me. Here’s a bonus, non-business thing I learned from punk. I credit most of my verbal SAT score to listening to Bad Religion. You want to expand your vocabulary, listen to more Bad Religion.
Anyway. You start with this thing that feels like a boulder you’re pushing. And you’re putting in all this work, and you’re not getting much back, and you’re fighting to make some headway. But eventually, people see these things you’re putting out. And maybe they see a second thing you made, and a third, and maybe they hire you, and maybe they tell their friends and now you’ve got this thing that has its own momentum.
To get your work out there, you sometimes have to be a little clever. One thing punk kids are pretty creative about is making a space for themselves. A lot of shows that I’d go to were in basements and garages, but some of them were in even less traditional places than that.
Our friends wanted to have a little one day, battle of the bands type of thing. But I live in Brownsville, where there’s basically nothing, and we had a little basement venue in Uniontown, but there was no way we could fit that many people and bands and all in there for a whole day. So there really just wasn’t any venue to have one. Pretty big obstacle to having a show. But one of my friends happened to work at the Taco Bell in Uniontown, and somehow – I still have no idea how they got someone to sign off on this – but they said he could have it in the parking lot. Of the Taco Bell. So he got a flatbed out in the parking lot, made flyers, scheduled all the bands, set up the voting, there was like a dunk-tank there I think? He really set it up, this little fest in the Taco Bell parking lot. And there’s kids EVERYWHERE just loitering around, on the hillside climbing up to the Wal-Mart, and they still had the drive-thru open so these poor old folks are screaming their orders over these terrible grindcore bands. They just want a damn burrito. But it went great, and was pretty well organized for some high school kid, and in fact it went so well that they let him do it again the next year. So before you think you can’t ask someone for some crazy thing that you want, ask yourself, is it weirder than having a concert in a Taco Bell parking lot? It’s probably not. Never hurts to ask.
It’s just a bit of working outside the system – does a show have to be in a club? Does art have to be in a gallery? Commonwealth Press did this t-shirt gallery show, where they just hung clothesline up in their warehouse, and then had designers bring shirts up, and clothespinned them up. Boom. Gallery.
I promised Juggaloes, so we’re gonna talk about Insane Clown Posse. Now, I don’t want to get into who is or isn’t punk, because I think that’s super boring. But they are suing the FBI. I mean… that’s pretty punk rock. So why are we talking about these dudes? Because they know their audience. I know, they don’t even know how magnets work, but they’re marketing geniuses. The thing is, you might think that they’re the worst band you’ve ever heard. I’m sort of hard-pressed to come up with a worse one. Maybe Flipper. You might think their band is terrible, and ridiculous, and stupid, and you know who doesn’t care? These dudes.
Sorry, that’s a Saturday Night Live Skit. These dudes.
We had this local band, called the Sarcastics, and they had a song that went like, “we don’t care if your mother likes us, we don’t care if your brother likes us” and they don’t. They shouldn’t. They’re not for everybody, and hey, these clowns get that.
But some people don’t just like this group, they are rabid, loyal fans. These guys got grown adults to wear clown makeup, and JNCO jorts, and spray faygo pop at each other. That’s how much people love them.
Some people will think your work is terrible, and stupid, and these are not your people. What you need to do is find your Juggaloes – those people that are just nuts about what you do, that’ll tell their friends how great you are, that come to your shows or buy your prints or whatever – find those people, and get your work in front of them. You can’t cater to every demographic, so just cater to the people that love what you do.
I had some trouble with this when I first started in wedding photography. A lot of people seem to know me for taking photos of bands, or for drawing nonsense, but I spend a lot of my time shooting weddings, which I also love doing. I read a lot of major wedding blogs when I started out, and most of them had the same kind of tone.
Very gushy, very flowers and rainbows, and that’s not how I talk. Obiously. I’ve never said “eyegasm” in my whole life, until just now, I have no business typing it either. But I felt like, well that’s what wedding photographers are supposed to sound like. So when I started my blog up, that was how I wrote – in my posts, in my policy pages – I wrote how I thought a wedding photographer was supposed to, instead of writing like me. And I did okay, I had some great clients, and some okay clients, and some clients that were probably a bad fit. But I felt like I was being disingenuous. People would read my blog, and get a certain impression, and then we’d set up a meeting and I’d show up. And maybe I’m not what they were expecting, and that was completely on me. Plus, one of the things I tell people when I meet with them is that you should really book a photographer that you like, and that you get along with because they’re the only vendor you’re stuck with all day. If you think your florist is a jerk, well, you just have pick up flowers and then you don’t have to talk to that dude again, but you’re stuck with me for like, 12 hours. So I’m preaching this, that you should get to know your photographer and find one you get on with, and then all this stuff I’m posting is in no way helping them to do that. So I dropped it.
I rewrote my policies, my contracts, and going forward I was authentic in my blog posts about my shoots. And now, I get awesome clients. I get the type of people that I want to work with, and they get the type of photographer they want. So that’s what I learned from the Insane Clown Posse, be authentically you, even if you’re kind of weird and mouthy and swear too much.
The thing is, even though I’m not super flowery about it, I love shooting weddings. I have such cool people contact me, and now they’re going to go and be a little family of cool people together, it’s the best. I read somewhere that if you want to make something that sticks with people, to make something that sticks with you. Because part of your job, whatever you’re doing, is to convince people to hire you to do that thing. This is known as hustlin’. You want them to book your band, or publish your novel, or hire you to design their logo. People can tell if you’re phoning it in. Authenticity matters, even to people in clown makeup.