An effort to be “back”

Is this thing on?

I guess I should begin with the expectation that very few people will read this. As a band, we have been fairly inactive and off the grid for around 10 years now. Our last release, “Golden Silence” (the record I am honestly most proud of to this day!) was released in 2016, though we actually recorded that album in 2012.

This delayed release is actually a microcosm of a larger symptom of issues that started not long after our 2011 tour with Eisley, the last tour we had together.

I’d like to use this post to accomplish a couple of different goals:

  1. Give some context around what happened to us and why we stopped making music.
  2. Talk about how we plan / hope to make music in the future.

Knowing me, this will be long, so grab your beverage of choice, put your phone face down, and cozy up with your favorite blanket.

What happened to The Narrative?

This is an arduous question to answer and at least part of the explanation I think Suzie & I would have differing perspectives on. I’m going to try to give some objective details and explain why I think our momentum ultimately died out.

I would like to start by saying we had an amazing group of people supporting us while we were active, from fans to folks on the business side, and were incredibly lucky to have the kind of attention we did at an early stage after we released Just Say Yes. I don’t want any of this to take away from that support, as I know for the most part we had some very well intentioned folks surrounding us who only wanted the best for our band and music.

So, that being said, let’s get into it — and note these issues are in no particular order:

We lost our booking agent

This was a big one. After having some great success with Warped Tour (which frankly was a very strange tour for us for many reasons, a post for another time) & the tour with Eisley, our booking agent dropped us.

Our booking agent and her team (special shout out to Alexa!) were great people and to this day I’m still not 100% sure what happened. Regardless, we never had a super official “team” and our booking agency was probably the only part of our team that had real tie-ins to the industry and were a huge part of our continued traction. This brings me to my next issue.

No real management / label / etc.

Having a team in the music industry is a huge deal. Usually this looks like a manager, a booking agent, a record label, a publishing/licensing agent, and if you’re successful all kinds of other things. Maybe it was a bigger deal back in the first decade of the 2000’s than it is now, and it was certainly vital to any survival prior to the Myspace era, but I’m sure most highly successful artists still have fantastic teams surrounding them.

Having people who can help source new opportunities for you and leave you to focus on making music and playing shows goes a long way in building a band as a “business”, and for better or worse a band is a business — no money, no music (we’ll get to that later).

While again we had some fantastic individuals trying to do their part here (will call out Mike Dubin & Will Noon here who at different stages both tried to take on some managerial duties for nothing in return), we never really were able to build that team out completely & thus never had the benefits that come along with that.

While we had several talks with labels from super tiny ones to big ones like Atlantic Records, nothing ever materialized. In some cases, we were simply offered awful deals that we weren’t willing to accept.

Bad actors

Despite all the great people involved, we also suffered our share of “bad actors”. There are a lot of people/entities in the industry who mostly have dollar signs in their eyes, or just enjoy being attached to the “celebrity” aspect of the music industry.

While I think a lot of these people who got involved with us genuinely liked our music, I think their core motivations were wrong. We actually did wind up working with some of these folks, largely out of desperation (no one else was reaching out) or a sort of “it’s better than nothing” mentality.

Reflecting back, this probably did more harm than good as we wasted emotional energy and resources on these people/businesses to get nothing in return — energy & resources that could have gone to simply making music, or finding better people to work with.

If I believed in choice (I don’t, but that’s for another time!) I’d really blame us for this. These were our decisions to make, and though at the time they seemed like the right thing to do, we were short-sighted.

Money, money, money!

There was none. Most of our shows we got paid $50–100 for. The Eisley tour we did for free because they were specifically looking for an opening act they didn’t have to pay (again — “it’s this or nothing”).

Warped Tour was our biggest consistent pay at $300/day. We did decent with merch on that tour, but our daily expenses were more than $300/day — our bus alone was $500/day for beds for 3 people. We actually did the first 2 weeks in a van to save some cost, but it was highly impractical to do the latter 2 weeks because of the distance between locations.

Just kind of an amusing anecdote here: The only band we know who did those legs in a van ALSO had a band member who would pee into his own mouth, publicly, in front of their tent. That’s the kind of person I think you’d need to be to do that whole tour driving your own van.

Money really always just went right back into fueling the band, whether that was gas, recording costs, merch, % cuts taken out by other team members, etc. In all of our active years we never paid ourselves once, ever.

We slept in a van most tours, often in Walmart and Steak ‘n Shake(mmm.. Steak ‘n Shake) parking lots. I lived with my parents well into my 20’s (love them so much but let’s just say I was glad to leave on tour for weeks whenever I got the chance). For a while this was all fine, but as we started to get a little older and wanted more for ourselves as humans, it became harder and harder to justify doing crazy drives to get $100 and be unsure if we were going to play in front of 3 people or 300. Additionally, we worked part time jobs whenever we were home which of course took away from our ability to focus on music, and that certainly had its own negative impact on momentum.

Charlie, our first drummer and to this day one of my closest friends (though we had a period after he left where we didn’t speak for years), left our band pretty much entirely because he was just tired of not being able to feel like an adult.

Interpersonal relationship stress

Being in a band is hard for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that you spend so much time with your bandmates. Spending that much time with anyone can get unhealthy, especially when you’re struggling with all of your personal “what ifs” and are simultaneously dealing with all of the normal “band problems”.

Suzie & I have never dated, we are not brother and sister (though she is like a sister to me in so many ways). We are best friends but we are very different people and our greatest connection is music and just that we’ve known each other and been so close for so long.

For all the great times we had together (and we had a TON), we also drove each other absolutely batshit sometimes. If things were always going well with the band in general, I think we would have moved beyond those internal struggles, but the more negative things that happened to our band & the harder it became to continue, the more those interpersonal friction became a burden.

There was one isolated incident where we had someone potentially interested in managing us who would have probably been great for the band. We sat down and had a meeting with them over lunch.

By that point I was pretty skeptical of people wanting to help us already (a result of the “bad actors” problem) and I wasn’t particularly warm during our meeting. The person wound up not wanting to work with us on the strict grounds that they didn’t like me.

I remember us finding out at my parents house during band practice (we practiced in my parents’ basement for years), and Suzie was really upset. I called the would-be manager to try to smooth things out, apologized and tried to rationalize my behavior, but to no avail. We thought we needed this as a “win”, and so it hurt to blow it.

After I told Suzie it was a no-go, she walked across the street and sat down on the sidewalk and cried. I personally wasn’t that mad about losing the manager, but I realized then how much this meant to her and felt terrible letting her down.

Ultimately, a lack of momentum and uncertainty coupled with having to deal with the normal relationship stress many bands deal with made it an easy choice to each “take a break” in our own ways. I became less invested in trying to push through the business problems we were having, Suzie had an offer to start touring with another band and jumped on it. That’s probably about where the momentum died altogether, and shortly after that Suzie moved to Nashville.

What happened next?

There’s a lot more to this story but as of now I’m writing to nobody, so I’m going to catch you up with a very succinct version.

I wound up moving to Nashville as well for a few reasons, a major one being trying to get back into making music with Suzie.

She got pregnant, mom life is hard & time consuming. My wife got pregnant not long after. Dad life is hard & time consuming. We both work full time jobs to support our families, and music became way harder to spend any time on.

After enough time, both of us started to feel the burden of not making music, ultimately realizing that it’s something that is core to our identity, and so we’re trying to get back at it as much as we can.

I actually have about a dozen or so songs I’ve written over the last few years (most of them the year right before my daughter was born), and Suzie & I fleshed one of those out recently and plan to release it soon. We also started working on a few other things and are trying to find our way towards a cadence of consistent new music creation.

And so. We’re back. We think…

We know it’ll be hard to continuously put out quality music, and we’re still working through exactly what that’s going to look like. Our initial attempts were overly ambitious and so we’ve had to dial things down a couple of notches. COVID obviously makes everything weirder and more difficult. But, we’re trying to find a way.

We sat down and had a few conversations to try to determine goals & the feasibility of these goals. Ultimately, while we’d love to achieve a “full time musician” status, that’s a lofty goal even when you’re 20 and living in a van, so we centered our goals around creation — simply trying to hold ourselves accountable for actually writing and recording new music.

The initial concept was we’d write and record one song per month. We started off with a band and put together a bunch of pretty decent (we think) instrumental tracks, worked through the first concept about 80% of the way in about 2 weeks, and then real life happened again. A month later we’re just now at the point where we’re hopefully going to step in to record this within the next couple of weeks. I think we can get quicker, but a song every 2–3 months is better than none! I’d like to keep our 1 song/month goal and see how we can get better at meeting that.

We do have the one song we already recorded, which I’m really excited about. So why haven’t we released it yet? This really brings up a host of questions we’re circling around.

What is “quality”?

Trying not to pat myself on the back too much, I think we’re pretty decent song writers. But we’re obsessive about our production & recording. What’s the right setting here? Do we dial back that obsession in favor of just getting more things out the door? Does the obsession even matter? Do we write songs we think will gain more financial traction over songs we’re more artistically inclined towards, or record a bunch of cheesy covers and post them on Youtube?

We know we don’t want to put out music we’re not proud of, so ultimately came to the conclusion that we’re going to try to save time where we don’t think it’ll be of major detriment to the music. One of these time saving choices, at least for now, is that we’ve started working on heavily electronic tracks. By utilizing software instruments we can save a lot of time vs. our previous process of getting in a room with people trying to flesh out a song, and also save time in the studio as you don’t have to record software instruments! It’s not that the organic instruments will disappear completely, but we’re starting with different roots.

Outside of that we made the decision that we want to keep making music that feels genuine. We’re not going to release anything we’re not actually proud of for one reason or another.

What are we doing with these songs / what will they become?

Are we trying to make an album that’s cohesive? If so, how many songs is it? Are we just going to not care about whether the songs sound anything like each other (we’re pretty prolific in style & genre) and just going to put out one song at a time as isolated creations?

I think we’ll likely lean towards the latter concept of just releasing songs as they come. Maybe some of these will jive well together and eventually become albums, but keeping the goal of mere creation seems like our best bet to actually producing material and getting it out in the world.

How do we release them?

Releasing a song to the world with no fanfare behind it isn’t that exciting. These are our babies and we want them to have the life they deserve. I can tell you first hand from the solo stuff I released in 2014 that releasing songs and doing nothing surrounding promotion of them or trying to connect to fans with them results in those songs not ever really being heard, and I don’t think that’s the path we want to wind up going down.

We’ve talked about a couple of things:

Crawling out of the shadows

Just being more active / present on social media and giving people the means and want to connect with us, so that as we release music it’s not just the music that you’re getting but you’re getting that connection to the artists as well. Not that we’re particularly special people (Spoiler: Sucks for you! We’re awful), but we’re hoping people can form deeper connections with our music by forming deeper connections with us.

Unique release concepts

Namely we’ve been circling around NFTs or blockchain oriented ideas that allow us to “transact” with fans directly and create greater value which they’re excited about… but we’re actively exploring different ideas.

I know NFTs are hot right now, and so it feels a little icky writing this because the last thing I want is to jump on a bandwagon a lot of people still don’t understand, but please trust me when I say we’ve been discussing the NFT concept since before it blew up. I’ve been active in blockchain for years now (a post for another time!) and a lot of things I wish existed a couple of years ago that I believed blockchain would solve for re: artist struggles are now coming to fruition. It opens up a huge opportunity for artists to be able to self-fund and avoid many of the pitfalls The Narrative found itself in, and that’s really exciting for me.

There’s a caveat here which is that I really dislike the cash grabs I see happening right now. Be that half baked music attached to digital art (looking at you, Deadmau5) or the most novel idea you can come up with being selling a B-tier at best CGI art piece with your song playing over it…

If we do something like this I want it to mean something to you. We’ve circled around things like attaching NFTs (which if you don’t know much about, you can simply understand as a tamperproof certificate of authenticity or signature) to physical items like handwritten lyric sheets, all the way to selling a % of our royalties/sales on a song so that fans have a real, vested financial stake in our success and are a part of our business — in a way, you can replace the labels and all of those other people who we never quite find the right fit for, and for me that’s really ground breaking.

This is one area I’d love some feedback. What would make you excited to receive? How can we create exclusive content that truly rewards you being an “early adopter” of our music?

Leaning into the financial incentive side of things, I’m going to throw this out there as a pie in the sky concept:

In a very simple idealistic world, Suzie & I would perfectly happy to continuously sell ownership in our music in exchange for enough to keep us making music full time, and we’d do our very best to make that investment pay off for those who allowed it to happen. Of course, like any investment, we’d be a risk, and that’s where it starts to feel bad!

What if we can’t bring the value required to make the investment worthwhile for people? If we were simply asking people to pay for a % of our current value, it’d likely be way less than we need to continue to put food on our plates. In the spirit of transparency, our band doesn’t currently make a lot of money. In this scenario, you’d be making a speculative bet, and I think we’d feel awful if that speculation didn’t pay off.

But, is this idea even exciting to you? Maybe not, but I envision a future where artists have the ability to fund themselves directly through fans, and fans have the opportunity to profit from that not just by having access to unique content & engagement, but also sharing the in the financial journey and hopefully success.

In any case

These are just musings. We’ll hopefully hash it out soon and have a song out there in some form or another, and will do our best to keep the train moving.

If there are people reading this, and you have actually gotten this far, feel free to drop comments about your thoughts, or tweet at us, or just email us at thenarrativemusic@gmail.com.

Thanks for entertaining this obnoxiously long first post!

Jesse

The Narrative is a band formed in 2006 by Jesse Gabriel & Suzie Zeldin. We are on an epic music journey together, forever.