With a big thank you to Katy Sansbury for putting my organisation and research into words.
In an industry that has always had to walk a line between valuing creativity and turning a profit, the journey of the independent artist of today seems just as full of both opportunities and difficulties as ever. The swallowing up of independent labels by the behemoths of the industry, the advent of the internet and online social networking, and even shifting economies, have changed the landscape of the music business, affecting the consumer, the labels, and the artists alike. Amidst any and all of these changes, new, up-and-coming and independent artists still fight the age-old fight: to get their music heard, and support their careers as musicians.
One place many artists have been drawn to over the years is the Hotel Café. Starting out as a small L.A. coffeehouse, it has grown in physical size as well as artistic significance since its modest beginnings in 2000. Tucked away on the Cahuenga strip in the heart of Hollywood, its intimate feel and familial atmosphere has attracted and created a veritable community of musical talent, including artists such as Gary Jules, Matt Costa, Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, Joshua Radin and Jason Mraz. Known for impressive acoustic sets, unexpected and spontaneous collaborations and a general sense of community and love of music, the Hotel Café have been sharing their unique take on live music with the world since the birth of the Hotel Café Tour in 2005. Three years later, with the 2008 tour in full swing, Room Thirteen was excited to experience what so many people have been talking about for so long.
Brighton was one of the spots lucky enough to be visited by the Tour, and on May 29th, the Concorde 2 played host to Tom Mcrae, Cary Brothers, Jim Bianco, Greg Laswell, Catherine Feeny and Brian Wright. Room Thirteen had the pleasure of having a chat with each of the artists before the show, and we were interested to hear their opinions on the state of the industry, and their own experiences as independent artists.
All of them were enthusiastic about what the Hotel Café Tour has done for them personally. Jim Bianco, a local and long-term friend of the Hotel Café, explained, “It‘s a giant opportunity for me to come over here a play for 300-plus people every night. This is the way you build something, I think; it’s a really long-winded way, maybe,” he laughs, “But it really is a giant opportunity.”
To Tom Mcrae, who has helped in putting the Tour itself together, the Hotel Café is clearly close to his heart. “You know what? It’s a pleasure. It’s a fun thing to do. It’s a lot of time and effort to organise, and I swear I’ll never do it again, but the minute I get on the road, I think, ‘I get to listen to these people every night, and call them friends.’” Maybe it’s killing touring for him, then? Can anything compare to it? “Honestly, my own tours are easier; playing an hour and a half of my own songs is easier than organising this bunch of layabouts,” he jokes. “But it does mean I have a lot of fun. And I hope we are raising the bar for the audience; I hope the audience goes away thinking, ‘Well the next guy I see play at the Concorde better be good, or I’ll be disappointed!’”
Greg Laswell, who made the move from producer to artist in 2003, said, “I started playing there about two and a half years ago now, and it really allowed me to build up a following, which I think is important to an artist. It also gave me a support group with the people I’m on tour with now, and vice versa: it’s a really unique relationship that the artists have, with the Hotel Café. It’s almost like a team of people who are all trying to help and celebrate each other, and we’re all really proud of each other, so it’s done a lot for me in that way. The Hotel Café is also like a home base for me, where I can work out new songs; it’s somewhere I can take risks, which I think I wouldn’t otherwise take.”
With more and more artists having to prove their popularity before a label will take a chance on them, we asked how easy or difficult it is for self-promoting artists to build a fan base. “I think there’s a lot of luck involved,” mused Bianco. “It’s not to take anything away from any artist; everyone tries really hard… Well, some people don’t try at all,” he laughs, “But it’s usually about the amount of work you put into it.” Is any of it down to having the right connections? “There is a lot of that, and that’s just life, too. People do things for friends… I, unfortunately, don’t know any of those people,” he adds jokingly, “So I live in a one-bedroom apartment in the ghetto of Hollywood.”
Brian Wright, soloing on the Tour without his band, the Waco Tragedies, smiles modestly and says, “I don’t know… Ask me when I have a fan base!” Laughing, he continues, “I think certainly there’s a lot of work involved, but then it’s luck. It really is being in the right place at the right time, and meeting like-minded people. There really is strength in numbers, and I think that’s what’s working about this (the Hotel Café Tour): we all are relative unknowns, some more than others, and we are all from different worlds, but when we go out together and put on a show like this, it gives everyone equal exposure, and maybe people who came to see one of us gets turned on one of the others too.”
The increasing power of the internet in the worlds of communication, sales and promotion is certainly having an effect on the music industry. How is it changing life for independent artists? Is it putting more pressure on them to be able to build websites and manage networking pages as well as create good music? Cary Brothers, who initially conceived the idea of the Hotel Café Tour, is very decided on his view of the internet as a tool for artists. “Well, you’re an artist, you’re supposed to be a person of your time. The time right now is the internet, and it’s knowing how to use those things that will help, so if you don’t know how to then it’s like ‘Fuck you, you’re an idiot- you should!’ All these things are out there now, they’re there for you to use, and they’re easy and free.
“So much exists that we hadn’t had earlier on. You know, sitting on MySpace all day long, before they had those little spambot friend request things, and e-mailing individual messages to people, just because it’s there, and it’s free- I can do it in my underwear in my bedroom!” Does he ever resent having had to do all that extra work? “No, ‘cause it was there so I did it, because I do the work. It’s the same as when you tour, or when you force yourself to sit and finish a song… It’s work. Work is work. If that allows me to not have to take money from someone else to promote me, and I can just do it myself for free, then I want to do that. Anyone who says they don’t want to do that, you’re an idiot, and you’re gonna fall by the wayside.”
With the internet, it seems more possible than ever before for any artist to reach out and create fans all over the world. Catherine Feeny, who herself recently relocated from the US to the UK, explained that for her, it’s more about having a good number of supportive fans, than their location. “It depends what you mean by local. People say you need a thousand true fans to make a living. I don’t know- maybe, maybe not. If you mean England, by ‘locally’, then yes, you could have success here. But yeah, it’s practical to start locally, and build from there.”
Greg Laswell seems quite balanced on it. “I think probably a little bit of both is good. I certainly did the US thing first, and built it up from going out on tour over and over again for a while. That’s the route that I chose. And now I’m getting over here (the UK), so that’s great.”
Is the industry more cutthroat these days? “It’s always the same thing,” Tom Mcrae says. “You’re always having to persuade someone to give you enough money to reach a huge audience. If you make the sort of music where someone says, ‘Yes, you’ll be able to get on radio and TV,’ then you’re fine for money, but if you don’t get that, then how do you persuade someone with lots of money to help you do that? But there are ways. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to work, and you’ve got to believe in your music.”
Brothers believes that the artists can take back the industry. “I think the industry is falling apart, and they have no idea what they’re doing. It’s a sad time to be a major label person. But you know, I think, ‘I’m still here.’ When I first started having whatever success I had some years ago, all the labels came calling, and I said no.
“Garden State happened, and everyone heard ‘Blue Eyes’, and they were like, ‘We want you to be the ‘Blue Eyes’ guy. We want you to sing a bunch of big sweeping ballads.’ And while I’m proud of that song, it’s not everything that I am, and they would have made me be that guy. I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted to do, instead of what they told me to do.”
All six certainly have confidence in their music, with fresh and organic styles and sounds. With a group of such individual and talented artists on the road together, the performance was bound to be interesting, and it was certainly a unique kind of gig. Tom Mcrae acted as master of ceremonies, introducing each artist throughout the night, and finding ways to make the audience laugh between performances. Divided into two halves, each artist contributed two or three songs to each half, which kept things varied and well-paced, making the three-hour show fly by. In addition to the changing song styles and lead vocalists, there was no predicting at any time who exactly would be on the stage. With the tour band providing drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and brass backup, the artists themselves seemed to flow constantly on and off stage, providing additional vocals and instruments (Brian Wright definitely knows how to rock a tambourine).
With such a variety of styles and sounds, and the constant collaborations that are the hallmark of the Tour, the overall tone of the evening was informal and, at the start at least, chilled out. Cary Brothers had told us beforehand that he was planning to turn the atmosphere on its head when it got to his turn, and as soon as he got to the stage, he announced, “I know we’re meant to be sentimental songwriters, but I don’t give a fuck!” and launched into the upbeat and energetic ‘Who You Are’. The crowd seemed to enjoy being taken by surprise, though it definitely seemed that they were on a low burn most the night, strange when it was at such odds from the energy and enthusiasm that poured from the stage. The artists themselves were pretty unfazed, and Tour guitarist Jason Kanakis told us afterwards that they’d all started challenging each other backstage to see who could get the crowd going the most. Kanakis himself was the first one to get the whole crowd to their feet (there had been an area of tables and chairs arranged in front of the stage for some of the audience to use), when he led a bit of arm-swinging, hand-clapping and general laughter between songs.
A standout moment in the set list was towards the end of the night, when all six took to the stage for a fantastic rendition of Cary Brothers’ ‘Blue Eyes’; their connection and mutual enthusiasm was constantly evident in how they smiled and laughed with each other throughout the performance, and that enjoyment finally infected the crowd, who sang along with mirroring smiles on their faces. Another highlight of the night was when all six came down into the crowd, sans microphones and leads, and with only a guitar, accordion, and their combined voices, performed Jim Bianco’s grin-inducing anthem, ‘Sing’, getting the audience to join in with the chorus line, which tapped in perfectly to the energetic, friendly, eclectic tone of the night.
“It’s not business, at the end of the day; it’s about community,” Brothers told us, and the truth of that resounded throughout the whole performance. Every person involved knew all the songs that were played, and they all took obvious pleasure from sharing their performances with each other, lending support and enjoying themselves. Tom Mcrae explained, “We can never control how it goes,” adding jokingly, “It barely sounds like music most nights.” Music or not, it’s a distinctive style; clearly the style of the Hotel Café. Bringing artists and audiences together- giving both sides equally needed introductions to each other- what is essentially a group of friends helping each other out and playing music together has obviously grown into a foundation for careers, as well as artistic creativity.
It seems inevitable that the template will be copied by others at some point down the line. Brothers was also aware of that possibility. “I’m sure if this is a big success, then someone will make another version of it,” he commented. “Someone’s always looking to profit. But that’s the thing; I’ve been running this tour for 3 years now, and I’ve not made a single dime off it. ‘Cause its not that. It’s the enjoyment.”
It’s something that artists say time and time again; that the music should come first, and the business comes after. The Hotel Café Tour does seem to be proving that a truism. Without reliance on major labels, but instead through the use of sponsors, and the help of a mutually supportive network of musicians and friends, the Hotel Café and its associated artists has already achieved an impressive degree of success, and created great opportunities for the new and independent musicians in their midst. Hopefully other artists and music enthusiasts will find ways to achieve similar success; until then, the Hotel Café is certainly one to watch for one-of-a-kind performances, and exciting new talent.
With a big thank you to Katy Sansbury for putting my organisation and research into words.