Musicians Could Learn A Lot From Louis C.K.

AKA THE JOYS OF PRODUCT INNOVATION, THINKING LATERALLY & TIME PRESSURE

I love Louis C.K. A lot of people do at the moment. He’s worked hard, his time is now and he not wasting it: In the coming months HBO will finish airing the third season of his TV show Louie, he’ll complete a self-booked tour of theatres doing stand-up and he’s set to appear in the new Woody Allen movie.

He’s doing this at 45.

And he’s a joint-custody single parent.

And he writes the show and he writes a new live set every calendar year.

Louie knows a lot about how to get things done. 

And I think he also knows a lot about what not to waste time on.

One quick example: Louie has 1.3 million twitter followers and is following 0 of them back.

What I want to do here is look at an interview Louie did with The Onion AV last week. It’s incredible (and wrong, and funny). I think if we pull apart some of what’s discussed, you can see some of the underlying principles at work.

STAYING ON TOPIC:

AVC: How can you not be in a perpetual state of complete exhaustion?

LCK: You know what? That’s the central question of my life—how to manage all of that. There’s a woman I see who’s not my therapist, but she’s like an old friend who’s a therapist in profession. She lets me talk to her like a therapist once in a while, and she does a great thing. Whenever I have a big dilemma, like this is a big problem in my life, she always says, “Wow, you’re going to have to figure that out.” [Laughs.] That’s all she says. And so I had to figure it out. I had to put some time and effort into figuring out how to manage energy and time and brain effort and all that stuff. I’ve got a bunch of different things I do. I learned that sharks sleep parts of their brain, like rolling blackouts; they can’t fall asleep because they can’t stop moving or they’ll suffocate. So they sleep sections of their brain at a time. So I do kind of a version of that, where I shut down brain centers. I literally tell myself, “Don’t logistically problem-solve for the next three hours, but you can talk to folks. Driving my kid home from school—don’t think about all the professional things you have to do.

How many times have you been standing around outside the practice room (or inside) and the conversation turns to:

(A) Money and success

(B) Aspects of the commercial music industry

(C) Terrible bands who have succeeded in the commercial music industry

(D) The media who prop up the terrible bands who have succeeded in the commercial music industry

(E) People in the music scene you hate or who hate you

(F) Some or all of the above

Every band ever invented talks about this stuff. But maybe it’s better to keep all that external junk away from the songs. I think Louie’s rolling black-outs are a really simple and efficient idea. When he’s doing one thing, he’s cautious not to let some other thing muddy the waters. 

In the past, I’ve messed this up a million times but now my current band is pretty onto this.

We never ever talk shop before or during practice.

And we rarely email each other about band related things.

(We worked out that we’re terrible at emailing each other so we just stopped doing it as much as possible.)

In fact, we try to have as few meetings/discussions as humanly possible. You can grind all the fun out of a band by talking about it and thinking about it. So we tried to put a cap on it.

Plus now when I’m doing email, I’m not doing my band, end of story. And when I’m in the practice room, I’m not doing the band, I’m just playing music and trying to have a nice time. Most weeks, I walk up the stairs to where we practice and that’s first I’ve thought of the band all day. As such, I’m usually really happy to see everyone.

STAYING PRODUCTIVE:

AVC: How can you do all this without also cracking from pressure? 

LCK: I like pressure. Pressure doesn’t make me crack. It’s enabling. I eat pressure, and there might be times when I get a bad feeling in my gut that this might be too much, but you feel pressure when you’re not doing something, you know? When you’re getting ready for something, you feel pressure—when you’re anticipating. But when you’re constantly in activity, there’s no time for pressure to just sit there and make you crack.

I want to tattoo this onto some of my friend’s bodies.

I absolutely don’t have all the answers.

Not many people buy my records (about 200-250).

Not many people come to my shows (About 80-200, less interstate).

And we don’t get written up all that often. What little press my work gets is undoubtably because I’m a freelance music writer and I know the approach and because one of the other guys in the band is especially interested in this stuff. If we didn’t hustle, we’d probably never get covered. No one else is coming to meet us halfway.

But I do know that what Louie says up there works for us and I think it would work for a lot of other musicians too.

Forget making a perfect statement or a classic album or a smash hit. You can starve off the pressure/anxiety of just about anything by keeping productive. Making a record or playing a show is more exciting than being in a magazine or on a website. So try to do it more often.

Do it more often because being a musician is about that creative stuff more than it’s about the other stuff.

Case in point: I write for Mess&Noise. They recently did their 2012 mid-year best-of report. Have a look. You won’t see No Anchor’s seven inch EP in there. Why? Maybe it sucks. Maybe. More likely it was excluded because I forgot to send it in for review, to the website that has covered us frequently in the past, and for whom I write every month.

That’s how far down my list of priorities getting reviewed is. Instead the band was much more stoked on and distracted by doing this stuff in the last five months:

  • Writing, recording and mixing a new full-length album
  • Writing, recording and mixing three new tracks for three different split seven inches
  • Compiling a cassette of live material, unreleased tracks and remixes

Whoops.

That said, don’t be jerks quite to same extent as us. Sending your records out for review is a good idea. Do as I say, not as I do and all that…

(No, I mean it. Send you stuff in for review so I can keep getting paid.)

TINY STEPS:

LCK: In show business, when you really have a career that takes a while, you don’t get those big moments. You don’t get those “Oh my God, it’s me” things. You get the call—“You’re playing Carnegie Hall”—and then you go, “Yeah, well, what are they paying me?” Because how you get to Carnegie Hall is you sell out Town Hall twice in a year, and now you sell enough tickets to do a show at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall is a shitty deal: They have a high-paid crew, and the rent is high, and you don’t make that much money. So that moment that you think is going to be a guy in a tuxedo bringing you a pearly telephone and saying, “You’re playing Carnegie Hall”—it doesn’t happen. You have worked your way there in tiny steps, so by the time you get to Carnegie Hall, it’s as natural as playing anywhere else. [Laughs.] I’ve had a few times where I’ve been told, “You might be getting this thing that’s going to make you feel amazing,” and then it doesn’t happen that way, usually. You work in little steps.

I love it. I’ve got nothing to add really. Of course that’s how it is! I suppose this speaks a little to what I was talking about last week. By the time you’re up there doing the support slot in a fancy club, you’re not telling yourself how wonderful it is because (unless you were lucky) there’s been dozens of tiny steps along the way. And to all the readers who were bummed about that last post: SEE! EVEN CARNEGIE HALL CAN BE A SHIT GIG! The end.

A KILLER PRODUCT OFFERING:

AVC: How did both those things come about, putting up the special by yourself, and also handling the tickets for this tour? 

LCK: Yeah, well, I like to try stuff. I like to try to see if something can work. It’s really satisfying to figure out, “What if we try it this way? What if we made it way more pleasurable and cheaper to come see me? Or to watch my show online? And if we do this right, how much benefit were we getting from the giant companies?”

…Same thing with the [Live At TheBeacon special: I didn’t have a great, satisfactory way to put the special out. I didn’t love the idea of it being on Showtime, where it’s not really a comedy place. I didn’t want it to be on Comedy Central with commercials and bleeping. So I thought of some options, and the least predictable and funnest way to do it was to try to do something totally new. It’s so fun to be on the front row of a thing that’s changing. It’s a really fun thing. And the feeling you get when you try to set the values and parameters on a product or a thing that you’re putting out to a certain place and try to feel what people will want and have some empathy for them…

Pretty foundational stuff: it can be better to experiment and risk failure than to just blindly take what is handed to you. But more to the point, this is a guy who obviously thinks a lot about his audience. The ability to step completely into the shoes of your customers, in the planning stage, is one of the key drivers of success in the the business world. The business heads even have a name for it: ‘the product offering’. If you get it right, you can win all the money.

What is music’s live product offering?

I’ve scratched my head about this. We all have, I imagine. It seems a bit unfair that the world is so happy to spend $15-25 on a movie but not the perennially fixed $10 on a small rock show.

But here’s the glitch, it costs a lot more than $10.

Most rock shows cost $10 entry + $30 on drinks + $30 on transport there and back (because shows are late-night activities) and then the bands might suck. And then we’re all, ‘We have some merch for sale!’ and we wonder why no one is buying it.

THE PROCESS:

Then there’s Louie. If you read the whole article you really get a sense of how enjoyable he finds the  process of working out these product offerings. I think you’ve got to be a bit like that these days. To have even a smidgen of success you have to have someone in your band (or around your band) who just thinks the process is really fun and interesting in and of itself.

Here’s the important bits…

What I really got from Louie is a sense that actually doing his work was the actual reward, not the celebrity or the epic pay cheques. We live in a world where a lot of people talk that line but they don’t walk it. Look at our most reputable actors and musicians. They’re not half as productive as Louis C.K. nor spread across so many different platforms and ideas. He doesn’t spurn wealth or celebrity. Sometimes he embraces it if it suits him. It’s just not the focus, at all.

His work is almost always unique in either distribution or content. And he pays careful attention to both sides.

He’s not always audience focused but he does think about his audience as more than brainless consumers. There is a service component to the way he thinks. That service attitude also seems to stem more from an artistic/creative place than a financial one. He still thinks like this and he’s loaded.

He has a set of routines and processes with which he can efficiently produce a large body of work annually.

And finally, maybe crucially, there is always a possible story about his work, not just how good it is.

Because there are lots and lots and lots of creative people in the world.

And not all of them are interesting.

Fewer still are successful.

But he gets it done. And it is exactly what he wants out there in the world.

Sound familiar? Isn’t this what punk and independent music have always strived for? Unique success on your own terms?

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3 thoughts on “Musicians Could Learn A Lot From Louis C.K.

  1. Fantastic as usual

    I am having arguments with my friends about what bands should do with their digital material. I think it’s at least possible that small bands should be giving all their music away to get people to gigs and sell other stuff (Vinyl, t’shirts, other merch). Or even giving away a digital download code at shows with entrance. Case and point in No Anchor. I love you guys, but I listen to the album/ep on bandcamp and only then when get prompted. I don’t know why I baulk at buying it but I do.

    If I had it digitally, I’d be even more likely to come to your shows… and when I do if I’d be more likely to pick up any vinyl you have on offer. I am already in money spending mode with beers and cabs etc. Once you feel you have enough of a following you can do a Louie or OFWGKTA and ask for money for a digital download.

    Maybe I am just just justifying my behaviour… but surely it’s a line of argument. It’s even translating to mainstream major artists:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/01/20/145538772/the-friday-podcast-katy-perrys-perfect-year

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