Those wanting to hear a new rock band these days probably won’t buy an album or spin through a radio dial. They’ll go online, where there are thousands of bands making music they’ve never heard before. With so much competition, how does a band get its sound to new listeners?
“You can have Facebook and social media, but you’ve got to play shows, get to know people in your town, then go out of your town,” says Daniel Riehl, drummer and vocalist for the Kalamazoo punk band The Reptilian (which sounds a little bit like the 1970s bands The Ramones and The Clash).
Online tools make it easier for bands to get their songs in front of an audience now than in past decades. Instead of paying a studio for recording time, artists can record a song in their bedroom, post it on a site like YouTube and let the word of mouth spread. That’s part of The Reptilian’s plan, Riehl says. His band’s newest music is posted online for download on the music sales site Bandcamp (thereptilianband.bandcamp.com). Listeners can even download The Reptilian’s music for free, although Bandcamp suggests users pay about $1 per song. Bands can also sell their albums in CD or LP format on the site.
Having an online home for their music allows bands to provide listeners with constant access. If a friend recommends a band, you can listen to a song by the band immediately and buy the group’s album on the spot. Or maybe a music journalist will find a band’s song through an Internet search and promote it on a blog or in a magazine.
Clubs and house shows
While online promotion is important, musicians say the best way to attract an audience to is to play live, Riehl says. The Reptilian is working on a new album, so the band has scaled back its performances to about one a month. When in “tour mode,” however, the band travels across the country for two to three weeks at a time. The members rely on a network of friends — and messages on sites like Facebook — to help set up concert dates and procure places to sleep after a show. Riehl estimates The Reptilian has played about 1,000 shows since forming in late 2007.
Another Kalamazoo band, indie rock group Bike Tuff, plays about 40 shows a year, mostly in West Michigan. Bike Tuff’s sound is akin to that of the White Stripes and Arcade Fire. Singer Nathan Richards says that, since forming in 2009, the band has tried online promotion and paying marketing professionals to push a new album.
“Playing live shows is the more effective way” to promote a band, Richards says. “You get in front of a captive audience, it gives you a chance to get your message out.”
Both Riehl’s and Richards’ promotion of music goes beyond their own bands — they book live shows for bands from Southwest Michigan and sometimes bands from Chicago, Detroit and other regions. Even in the music scene the old cliché is true: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Booking involves connecting local bands or bands that are touring through West Michigan with local venues — finding a bar, club or other facility that has available performance space — and scheduling a show. Often bands try to team up for a show so they can all get in front of an audience on the same night. Bands will also take turns booking and hosting shows for out-of-town bands they know and then relying on those same friends when they go on tour.
Booking a show extends beyond just the concert, Riehl says. He’s helped bands find a place to sleep after a show. Sometimes bands can even wash clothes or eat a home-cooked meal if the booking agent is able to arrange it.
“Anyone who does that little extra is really appreciated,” Riehl says.
Bands discover one another online, and Riehl says he tries to check out anyone who emails him asking to “hop on” a Reptilian performance.
Venues also look for artists. Charley Lavelle is a booking agent at Shakespeare’s Pub, on East Kalamazoo Avenue. In addition to booking bands for Shakespeare’s, Lavelle organizes the annual Fat Guy Fest in August, a concert marathon of local and other bands. The festival debuted in 2014 and the response was so positive that Fat Guy Fest was expanded from three nights to four nights of performances in its second year. Fat Guy Fest 2, held in August 2015, featured The Reptilian, Bike Tuff and more than 40 other bands, most from the greater Kalamazoo area. Lavelle says he’s considering bringing national acts to this year’s Fat Guy Fest.
Musicians say Kalamazoo clubs like Shakespeare’s Pub, Louie’s Trophy House Grill, Bell’s Eccentric Café and the clubs in the downtown Entertainment District are popular venues for local bands.
Booking agents also book bands for house shows, literally arranging a concert in someone’s living room or basement. Shows are announced on Facebook or through fliers distributed in retail locations around Kalamazoo.
Riehl says one house, called “Milhouse,” just hosted its 100th show. His own home is dubbed “Casa Mona,” and Lavelle says the Fat Guy Fest is named after another area house party locale, “Fat Guy House.”
Riehl suggests some cautionary measures to take if you host a house show. “You block off the living room and emphasize that it’s not a party,” he says. “You definitely have to talk to your neighbors. I try to shut it down at midnight. I’ve never really had problems with the cops.”
Money for ‘merch’
If bands like The Reptilian and Bike Tuff are playing house parties and sleeping on audience members’ couches, are they making any money from their music?
They don’t, Riehl says. At a house party, bands collect suggested donations of $3 to $5 per person. Venues may charge a little more, but most of that money goes to pay the club’s expenses for hosting a concert. The little revenue that does come in is put right back into the band, he says.
“It’s all going to the band for gas money or ‘merch,’” Richards says. The merchandise includes T-shirts, bumper stickers and maybe CDs with homemade art for a cover. At many shows, a small table displaying the merchandise is set up near the stage, with a friend of the band taking care of sales.
Bike Tuff’s merchandise has gone beyond the standard: The band created a small video game, Bomb the Hill, that’s available online (nathanrichards48.wix.com/bomb-the-hill). Players control the band members riding bicycles as they pick up beer and burritos while avoiding cars and potholes. Bike Tuff songs play in the background during the game. Bomb the Hill is free to play, and Richards says the game is simply another opportunity to promote the band.
The Reptilian has released “splits,” discs with two songs, one from The Reptilian and the other from another band the group wants to support. Riehl says the other bands on the splits are “friends we met on tour.” More than making a lot of money from their music, bands want to play songs and get to know fans and other bands,
“You’re always meeting people and making friends,” he says.
Boosting the local scene
A unique part of the Kalamazoo music scene is the “loose collective” DITKalamazoo, which has a website at ditkalamazoo.com. DIT stands for “Do It Together,” and the individuals in DITKalamazoo seek to help the local music scene thrive and grow, according to the website. Since 2009, the website has been a place for bands to connect online and discuss ways they can promote one another. The site’s activity has quieted down recently, but its concert calendar remains up-to-date, with multi-band shows somewhere in the greater Kalamazoo area two or three days every week.
While it’s always possible a local band could be spotted by a big-time record producer and suddenly go on tour around the world, Riehl and Richards say they’re OK with just sharing the bill with friends on a Saturday night in a Kalamazoo club. They both have day jobs — Richards works at Kalamazoo marketing company Newhall Klein, while Riehl just starting working at the People’s Food Co-op. Before that, he was a shift manager for several years at Menna’s Joint, a restaurant on Stadium Drive.
“I stayed there because I could go out on tour and always come back to a job,” Riehl says.