An Open Letter to Columbus Musicians - by Pete Vogel

Five years ago this month I began work on a documentary film about the Columbus music scene.  The film – “Indie” – took six months to shoot and it was screened in various theaters in 2011.   I’d been reintroduced to the original music scene in 2009 – after taking a few years off to recharge my batteries – and was blown away by what I saw and heard.  I felt it was time for somebody to capture this magic and thought I might possess the skill-set to actually pull it off.  

I focused the documentary on two businesses – Guitar House Workshop and Espresso Yourself Music Café – as well as ten singer/songwriters and their respective bands.  The film was intended to be a great big “group hug” for the Columbus music scene, and it’s been my proudest contribution to local arts.

A lot has changed since 2010 - some for better, some for worse.  Since I’m probably considered an “elder statesman” at this stage in the game – I’m going to be 51 in November – I think it’s time for an honest assessment of the state of our scene and what is great – and not so great – about it.

First and foremost, I want to say how impressed I am with the singers, songwriters, musicians, venues and performances of this esteemed city.  We are all extremely lucky to be part of this wonderful scene at this wonderful time in history.  There is a plethora of talent in every genre and every age group.  I’m constantly blown away by the musical abilities of my peers and colleagues.  Technology has made it possible for anyone with talent to get their music to the masses - we are no longer at the mercy of recording companies, agents, A&R reps and stifling bureaucracies.  We can write and play what we want and there’s no one to tell us what we can and cannot do.  This is a wonderful time for the arts, and I’m glad I’ve gotten a chance to be a part of this movement.

Since the field has been leveled, and there are more and more creative types getting into the scene, we are sharing stages with an increasing number of artists every single month.  And every artist is looking for the same thing: an audience.  We have a choice to make on how we’re going to regard our “competition.”  We could wage war against them and try and outflank them by coming up with creative ways to exploit the system in our favor.  I’ve seen this done time and time again and there are many who are quite good at it.  But what happens is audiences (and fellow artists) eventually catch wind of this manipulation and interest level fades.  I see this constantly: talented performers try and manipulate their audiences (and/or fellow performers) and eventually destroy their credibility in the process.

The other option we have is to welcome this “competition” as a community and work to collaborate within it.  I’ve seen this done time and time again and I think the benefits outweigh the costs.  Of course it takes time, energy and initiative to build a community but the outcome is almost always “win-win.”  Everybody benefits from collaboration.  Let me give an example.

For the past three years Billy Zenn has hosted an Open Mic at King Avenue 5 on Thursday nights.  It was pretty slow going at first, but over time this weekly event snowballed into one of the finest musical communities this town has ever produced.  Under the quiet tutelage of Mr. Zenn, he’s created a warm, open atmosphere of collaboration, cooperation, community and friendship that I’ve ever experienced in the local scene.  I’ve attended this Open Mic for nearly two years and can’t tell you the number of contacts – and friendships – I’ve made during this time.  I’ve seen a whole network of artists meet one another, work together, form bands, make CD's, create videos, do photo shoots, perform live - and all from attending this Open Mic.  A prime example is the band Ghost Town Railroad.  Four of its five members are songwriters who met at Open Mic - they eventually formed a band, perform around town and are in the process of recording their debut album.  What’s amazing is that all four songwriters contribute songs to the band: they collaborate on each others’ songs, find the “Ghost Town Sound” and share the songwriting duties between themselves.  It’s a perfect example of how a community can be created through collaboration and cooperation, rather than self-serving manipulation.
I’ve seen the selfish, exploitative side long enough to know it doesn’t work.  It works for a while, but in time resentments build and bitter breakups ensue.  If I have any wisdom to impart it’s this:  I’ve been in dozens of bands since high school, and some were exceptional, but all failed due to the exploitative nature of at least one of its band members.  Until egos are sublimated for the greater good, bands will always fail.  We don’t live in an era of managers, lackeys and tour managers, whose main responsibility is to keep egos in check.  The DIY cause requires that we do that work ourselves.  And if that work is ignored, small fissures become large cracks and the vision is destroyed.  

I used to play in a power trio – guitar, bass and drums – about fifteen years ago and we were really good.  Our guitarist was the principal songwriter, but he was only coming up with guitar parts and lyrics.  He’d present an idea to us and we’d finish the song as a band: we’d contribute bass lines, drum hooks, backing vocals and counter melodies to the original ideas.  Sometimes the songs would change dramatically when all the pieces fit together - sometimes they barely changed at all.  But when it came time to record the album, the guitarist wanted full credit for writing the songs, even though we finished them as a trio.  He was unwilling to share the writing credits with his bandmates and the band dissolved shortly after the album was completed.  Lose-lose.     

This kind of “me first” mentality is especially damaging in the creative world because it’s an illusion.  The energy within a band is symbiotic - the sum is always greater than its parts.  It’s the chemistry and/or imagination nurtured between musicians that makes a band so special.  This notion of “looking out for number one” is a recipe for disaster every time - I’ve seen this countless times in my career and it’s usually the reason why most bands fail.

Another dark shadow on the scene is the double standard of people wanting you to attend their shows but won’t return the favor.  This happens all the time.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve attended the show of a colleague only to have them blow me off when I invited them to one of my own.  In fact, one former bandmate even said to me: “Take me off your list…I have no interest in seeing your band.”  

Guess what?  I don’t attend his shows anymore.  Lose-lose.

This lack of civility hurts us all, and is especially damaging since we’re all essentially in the same boat.  Many of us sabotage our own careers – and our relationships with fellow musicians – because we won’t participate in the give-and-take that is part-and-parcel of the music scene.  Many people complain that nobody comes to their shows, yet I’m thinking: “I don’t see YOU at THEIR shows either, so why are you surprised?”  When it comes to karma, we’re all feeding at the same trough.

[Of course, I’m not immune to this either—there are many musicians who’ve attended my performances and I’ve not taken time to see theirs.  I’m just as guilty as the rest of them.  I imagine there are a few dozen performers who’d love an 8x10 of my portrait to throw darts at, and I don’t blame them.  I’m at fault as well and want to take this opportunity to apologize to those I’ve ignored over the years.  I promise to do better in the future.] 

Since we’re all in the same boat it’s time we adopt the same standards.  If you want people to attend your shows, attend theirs.  If you want people to buy your CDs, buy theirs.  If you want people to listen to your songs, read your posts, like your videos, buy your merch and treat you with respect, then do the same in return.   

We could all learn a valuable lesson from emerging talent Kelly Vaughn.  She’s only been playing in town for about two years, but during this short stint she’s quit her day job and has been a full-time musician for over a year.  After her one-year anniversary of releasing her debut album, she hosted a party at her house, paid for all the food and drinks, and invited forty of her fans/colleagues to celebrate her first year of being a full-time musician.  That’s right: she threw a party to show her gratitude to those who supported her.  And she paid for it.  It’s no surprise she’s already made TV appearances and has opened up for some national acts in town.  She’s had more success in one year than I’ve had in twenty.  She’s truly figured it out.  

I hope that all musicians in town – and elsewhere – will take time to assist others in rising to the top.  There is plenty of work to go around.  And we have enough of the opposite: Facebook is littered with self-serving artists trying to woo fans to their shows.  It’s boring.  And predictable.  It’s so much better if we take time to lift up other artists, and perhaps some day they’ll return the favor.  [I find that most are so grateful that they’re happy to return the favor.]  If we can learn to treat our fellow musicians as colleagues rather than competitors, we will all benefit.  The waters will rise for all of us.  


                              Pete Vogel    October 6, 2015