They say you can’t go home again…in the case of the dedicated patrons of the long-shuttered Columbia music scene landmark Rockafellas, that has been true, up until now.
Closed in 1998, the tiny venue hosted a staggering number of touring acts during its decade-and-a-half run, everyone from Roger McGuinn of the Byrds to The Flaming Lips, shock rockers Impotent Sea Snakes to Aussie college radio faves Hoodoo Gurus, hardcore from G.B.H., Stretch Armstrong, and more, a lot more. Rockafellas was also a breeding ground and training facility for local bands, which brings us to this month’s Rockafellas Reunion event on Saturday, October 26th. The show will feature a slate of local acts that once called the club home, including Isabelle’s Gift, Kindread Soul, Danielle Howle and her current band Firework Show, and Myrtle Beach band Dead Cut Tree.
Chris Sutton of Isabelle’s Gift was instrumental in organizing this year’s event, the third such ‘Reunion’ but the first to be staged inside the walls of the original club, now open as Jake’s Bar & Grill.
“My idea was pretty simple. I wanted to put together a gig comprised solely of local bands who not only played at Rockafellas on a regular basis, but bands who’d put in their time there. I wanted the bands who stood the test of time and earned their spot the hard way. It builds a different type of appreciation and I only wanted groups who, at least at their core, would look back down that bar one last time as they were performing and feel MOVED.”
So, they say you can’t go home again…on the 26th, we’ll just have to see about that.
The show is on Saturday October 26th. Tickets are $15 and are available at Brown Paper Tickets, here, and Jake’s. It’s an early gig and the doors open at 6:00pm. The show starts at 6:45 and will be over at 11:00pm. The order of bands is Dead Cut Tree, Kindread Soul, Danielle Howle + Firework Show, Isabelle’s Gift. There will be a costume contest and DJ Scott Padgett will be out on the deck. There’s also an after party at The Art Bar for anyone who is interested.
For more on why Rockafellas was such a big deal, see my previous posts from last year’s BOA reunion at the Jam Room Festival and the series of memories I posted in 2007 on the occasion of the first Rockafellas Reunion shows by clicking here. (keep scrolling to read the older posts, and click “Older” at the bottom for a few more.)
Danielle Howle is a well known commodity in these parts, but her frequent musical partner Bret Mosley is less known. Today’s clip is from a recent show together, with Mosley singing and playing some wicked lap steel; Howle provides a bit of percussion and backing vocals. Separately they’re both tremendous performers, together even more so.
Two local South Carolina projects I received notice of this week illustrate a question I’ve been trying to ask, and perhaps provide the answer, about what goals a musical artist ought to have in today’s version of the music business. The first is a new song and video from Fat Rat Da Czar, “Tryin’ To Make It,” from his forthcoming album Cold War 3; the second is a new album from Danielle Howle, New Year Revolutions, recorded entirely on Garageband at her Awendaw cottage.
The question is why anyone’s first impulse or desire as a musician these days should be to ‘make it’ in the sense of signing that mythical record deal instead of doing it all themselves? With all of the tools out there to direct one’s own career at whatever level or ability, what’s the point of handing over control to a corporation that returns so little back?
I can point to several South Carolina based artists in the recent past and present who have taken the bait and come out of the major label water with little more than the hooks in their back to show for it, either self-destructing from the experience or simply returning to playing the same restaurants and bars where they played before their stab at the big time. I-Nine and Eddie Bush (With the country group One Flew South) at least released albums; Boxing Day‘s never officially came out and I’m probably not the only one wondering if Weaving the Fate‘s will suffer the same fate.
Fat Rat and Howle are not the point/counterpoint of this argument, for each has been doing it themselves in their own way. “Tryin’ To Make It” isn’t really saying he wants to get that major label contract, though hip-hop may be one of the last places it would almost make sense. Instead, he’s pointing out to his friends and fellow rappers that he’s working hard toward his own version of making it in music.
Howle’s new album is a perfect example of how the new music business model can work to an artist’s advantage. With no label to tell her she can’t do it, Howle took the new backing band she started touring with last year, Firework Show, into her two-room cottage in Awendaw, South Carolina and within two days they had a full length album’s worth of recordings. Some of the songs are older ones re-arranged with the current ensemble in mind, some are entirely new tunes, and one, “Being Poor” is a cover of the late SC musician Chris Conner‘s band The South which Howle has been opening her live shows with for a while.
The amazing thing is how there isn’t much difference between this computerized home recording and the bigger studio productions Howle has released on various indie labels in the past, sound quality-wise. The barriers to entry within the recording process have fallen so low that a no-budget project like this one can easily suffice for a truly independent artist such as Howle, who plays constantly and thus needs a more frequent way to provide some new take-home music to her fans. I’m not even going to get into the argument about whether you charge for the music or give it away free, because that’s not the point here—the point is that if you’re in control that decision is yours to make or not make.
I’m not an independent musical artist like Fat Rat, Danielle Howle, or any others you might be a fan of, but if I were here is a very simplified version of what I would be doing instead of signing with a label (Assuming I had the talent and ability to produce music that others might like and want to hear/have):
1.Give away the music digitally via Bandcamp or other online means that allows for ‘name-your-price’ distribution.
2.Do small production runs and sell physical copies at gigs, they’re not much more than souvenirs or coasters these days anyway.
3.Offer package deals to fans with added perks for more money either prior to the release to help with production and distribution costs, or after the fact just as a thank-you. See Graham Colton and Amanda Palmer for excellent examples of this kind of promotion.
4.Concentrate on playing live shows as much as possible, and get paid for them as often as possible—learn to book yourself and promote yourself until you get to the point where you need professional help, then and only then should you worry about a booking agent or manager relationship.
5.Create a presence online through various channels—not just Facebook, though that’s the obvious one. Twitter’s a great place for relationship building if you put the time and effort into using it regularly and interacting constantly. Your website isn’t as important as it once was, but you still need a presence out there with your name on it. Are your fans posting video of your live shows on Youtube? Share those clips with your mailing list, Facebook friends, on Twitter, etc., especially if they’re good quality—you’ll gain a loyal fan in the videographer by getting them hits on their Youtube channel and you’ll encourage others to share the clips amongst their own friends. Make your own videos (Like Fat Rat and others locally have already begun to do) and promote them the same way.
6.Try new and different things—work with filmmakers, visual artists, writers, and other creative types because you never know what kind of ideas and opportunities might come out of it.
The bottom line isn’t the bottom line anymore, in other words it isn’t about how much money you can make this year or with this album or even this tour. It’s about how you can build your brand and your career by expanding your fan base gradually with people who genuinely want to help you and who will spread the word about your music for you. That kind of exponential growth comes not from limiting your fans but by enabling them to share what they know and love about you. How you do that is up for grabs, just know that you are the one who has to do it.
I contributed an opinion piece to the Free Times cover story that acknowledged the band has done plenty to deserve the honors they’re getting, even if the monument seems to be about ten years too late to really mean anything, but I didn’t really have the space to expand upon the relative importance of Hootie vs. others who came from their home state. Massive sales figures are great for the bank account but a lasting legacy of musical innovation and influence is not something that even Hootie’s members would lay claim to, surely. With that in mind, here are ten South Carolina acts who ought to have legacies that stand up to and perhaps outstrip their more famous ‘neighbors’ (though even they have some solid connections to Hootie themselves.)
1. Lay Quiet Awhile–the alt-rock of this late 80’s, early 90’s quartet could be artfully spare or a sonic sledgehammer, depending on the song. Their legacy? Singer Danielle Howle went on to a critically-lauded solo career of her own and bassist Dan Cook released two albums with Verna Cannon, served as music editor and now overall editor at the Columbia Free Times alt-weekly. Hootie connection: Cook played violin on the “MTV Unplugged” Hootie special taped on the USC campus.
2. Danielle Howle–Yes, she gets two spots technically since she was a member of #1, above. But her solo output has been even more lauded, appearing on several different indie labels over the past fifteen years. Hootie connection: Howle’s Thank You Mark album was produced by Hootie’s Mark Bryan, and she sang a duet with him on his most recent solo disc.
3. Isabelle’s Gift–one could say that these guys are here due to longevity, as they’re still out there plugging away. I’d argue that their length of service is a deciding factor only because their redneck punk/metal hybrid was ahead of its time when they started and now it would seem almost quaint, if it weren’t for the bulldozing intensity of their best material. Ask anybody in a hard rock band in Columbia what inspired them to play and I guarantee this band’s name will be on the list somewhere, if not at the top.
4. Treadmill Trackstar–Would Angelo Gianni and friends have conquered the world in the 1990’s if they hadn’t signed a dead-end deal with the Hootie-run label Breaking Records back then? We’ll never know, but for a couple of years you could hear “Shouldn’t I Take” on mainstream radio around here in regular rotation, and Gianni’s buzzsaw pop was in line with the then-popular Smashing Pumpkins‘ sound. Their indie release Excessive Use of the Passive Voice remains a favorite locally released album, and while the band’s recent resurrection and new music may not gain them the world, it certainly proves that there’s a lot more artistic output to come from them.
5. In/Humanity, Guyana Punchline, Anakrid--One cannot talk about Columbia’s music scene without mentioning Chris Bickel, and his bands have always had both the attitude and the aptitude to capture whatever punk-inspired zeitgeist was on his mind at the time of their many recordings–tapes, seven-inch records, albums, Bickel has released enough stuff over his career to easily fill up one of those old Peaches record crates.
6. Bedlam Hour–The first Columbia band I can remember signed to a national record label contract (Positive Force Records released the band’s epic Rock The Cradle), the fast and furious yet overwhelmingly positive punk rock that Chuck Walker and company played was a huge influence on a generation of young punks in Columbia and beyond, and “Grey Sweater” is one of the best songs ever to come from Columbia’s music scene. Hootie connection: Hootie’s Mark Bryan and BH’s Walker and bassist John Leroy (as well as second bassist Adam Kolesar) were all student DJ’s together at WUSC in the 1980s.
7. From Safety To Where/Bolt/Death Becomes Even The Maiden–a mutiple band listing that acknowledges the interrelated lineups of these groups, all three of which play some sort of hyphenated post-punk rock amalgam that was (and is, in the case of the ongoing DBETM) light years ahead of their local and national peers. If Columbia were a hipper town in the national music press, Eric Greenwood would be referred to as our Roger Miller (Mission of Burma and No Man founder, not the country songwriter).
8. The Rob Crosby Group–The token 70’s band on this list, to be sure, but Sumter’s Rob Crosby was one of the most popular southern rock acts in the state in his day, and members of his band have gone on to play in other groups and combinations ever since. Crosby ended up a songwriter in Nashville with a string of hit songs, a couple of which he took to the country charts himself.
9. Toro Y Moi–As much as I enjoy Chaz Bundick’s other band I’m not even going to mention them here because this bedroom side project has meant much more to his career (and Columbia’s currency on the international music scene, if it has any). Causers Of This, released back in the beginning of 2010, has immediately secured a spot on my list of the best albums ever by a Columbia act, and one that’s bound to inspire countless kids in bedrooms across not just South Carolina, but the world.
10. Jack Williams–Okay, he doesn’t live in Columbia or even South Carolina any more but there’s no songwriter alive whose music is more intricately entwined in our state’s history, topography, and culture. Since 1997’s Across The Winterline Williams has been releasing album after album of captivating, folksy observations on southern life, and life in general, and touring all over the country.