[Mike Null returns to China and blogs his experiences on The Killing Floor]
Special to The Killing Floor
As I've said in previous blog posts, there is life before Shanghai, life in Shanghai, and life after Shanghai.
Before I came to China I was in Boston plugging along as a side guy, playing with whoever would have me. In the nine years I've been there I've experienced a lot by playing with cover bands, Berklee faculty, blues outfits and singer-songwriters alike. Some bands were good, some were mediocre, and some were just bad.
One thing I've noticed through all of this is that in being successful it often doesn't matter how good the band is (this is especially true with cover bands). For instance, any cover band can play the first few lines of "Brown Eyed Girl" and people will say, "Whooo! I love this song!" Similarly, anybody can sing the first few lines of "I Will Survive" and a gang of women will get up and rush the dance floor.
This doesn't happen because the band is good (though it may be), but because the band is tapping into people's associations of artist, genre and recording. Even bad cover bands do well because they play the right songs.
I may offend some people by saying this, but a blues band in its essence is a cover band. Many will want to say, "But wait...No, what we're doing is keeping a tradition alive and..." Nope. Unless you're writing original music, you're a cover band.
It may be a hard truth for a lot of blues bands to accept, but just because you take solos doesn't mean you're not a cover band. You are still tapping into people's associations of artist, genre and recording. You are still playing the right songs.
By tapping in bands are becoming successful by finding their place in the huge music machine we have in the United States. This machine has been around for a long time and it's extremely powerful.
When a band gets signed and they produce a "hit", that hit is played to the point of saturation all over media. It's on TV, on the radio, at McDonald's, on your buddy's ipod; it's everywhere. Even if you don't like a song you've heard, chances are you could say who made it famous and could probably sing some of the super repetitive chorus. The machine is that good.
In China, people don't have these built in associations for a lot of the music we play. There is definitely a music industry here, but the average person probably has no idea who Muddy Waters was or what blues music is at all. Therefore, we can't rely on anything other than our own performances to get people into the blues. They are literally hearing new music in the moment and if they aren't affected by what they hear they move on.
In my opinion, the goal of any serious band is to affect people. I'm not trying to say that my band is better than others. I'm just trying to say that is what we are aspiring to do. I want people to leave our show remembering our name, remembering how we made them feel, leaving the show so into the band that they actually tell other people about us or even decide to support us financially by buying a CD or tickets to other shows.
Some things China has taught me about performance:
1. I have to feel it first. If I'm not liking what I'm hearing, or if I'm coming from a place of insecurity, the audience will pick up on that and not get into what we're doing. I try to make sure I set up the situation (i.e. sound, make sure we're all fed, etc.) for us to not only play well, but to actually feel it. In short, I have to take care of myself and do my homework so that when I walk up on stage the only things I have to worry about are listening, feeling and reading the room.I love the Blues. I feel it deeply, I've dedicated my life to it and I want it to survive. I feel that the global blues community is suffering in part because people don't take it seriously. I believe it is a deep art form that should be respected on the level of any other genre of music, if not more so because it is often the root of most other genres. I can't expect any audience members or listeners to take it seriously if I don't first. In short, to really affect people I've found that I have to actually perform. Not just talk about performing, or talk about people who do, but actually perform myself.
2. I have to look good. There is a common misconception that people that dress up are making up for the fact that they are lacking in some other area. That may be true for some bands, but I think this is a cop out. I want people to be able to make the immediate distinction of who is in the band and who is not the second we walk through the door just based on how we look.
3. I have to move. Part of looking good is being a band that is visually dynamic. Musicians are a different breed of people when it comes to checking out a live show. Most non-musicians go out to see and feel live music, not just hear it. In addition to being dressed up, I have to move. I try to get drunk on the music. I find I get the best results when I show people how I feel on the inside when I am doing what I love. If I am feeling it first, this comes easily.