How to Survive Life on the Road? We Talked to Rockers Who Played More Than 100 Gigs a Year
Sound & Shape are a Rock act that can easily slip past you, but they're also one of those rare gems that makes you ask yourself, why haven’t I heard this before? They come from Nashville and have released three critically acclaimed albums and four EPs since forming in 2005. Not many people have heard of them outside of the USA, but they're a band every true Rock fan should know. We talked to founding member, guitarist and vocalist Ryan Caudle, and were inspired to use his story to give all the young Rock bands out there some good advice.
We could argue that all musicians first fall in love with music because they hear a band or singer that inspires them. It was no different with Ryan. “My dad was a singer and keyboard player in bands while I was growing up, so I was always around music. The real Big Bang for me, though, came when I heard The Beatles for the first time. I was in first grade and they just blew my mind, and that made me really want to be a musician,” the Sound & Shape singer tells us.
“There have been a few times we’ve been screwed over, most recently through a pretty worthless publishing deal. Mostly it's empty promises and relying on people I shouldn't have.”
He found a couple of like-minded individuals and formed a band, but they're far from being a copy of The Beatles. Their Technical Rock is full of surprises, their riffs are powerful, in your face, and keep you focused till the end of each song. “This particular band came about from the dissolution of a previous band, and we've gone through several member changes since, with me being the only original member,” he explains.
Life on the road
Live performances are maybe more important for Rock bands than any other act out there, and Sound & Shape were just tearing it up. At one point, they had over 400 shows in about three years, an almost unimaginable number. Ryan speaks about how hard that was and why they don’t do that anymore: “Well, it's been a few years since we were touring that much, but it was definitely exhausting and that's why it's much more streamlined these days. We used to go out for weeks on end before we had an agent or management or anything, and it was almost counterproductive. I think the best thing that it did was prepare me and us for any situation that may arise, because a lot of the time, if something could go wrong, it did. Luckily, we haven't had to sleep in the van or gotten stiffed in a very long time.” From speaking with him, we learn that having tons of concerts isn’t necessarily getting you more fans. It’s better to be selective and book the gigs that are meaningful.
When most bands start touring, they’re usually on their own. It was the same with Sound & Shape, as Ryan recalls. “When we first started, our old drummer and I would email and call venues along the route we wanted, and once he left, it all fell on me. It's very tough booking your tours, and you really have to want it. It takes a tremendous amount of work. Sometimes you're lucky and you book a really great run of shows, and then other times it's a total disaster. I'm glad we had our years of DIY touring, because it makes me appreciate every little bit now.”
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But being on the road isn’t just about getting fans and becoming famous. It’s an adventure. You might end up sleeping in your van, freezing half to death, or spending the night in some fan’s house, having the time of your life. Then there’s playing live. It’s what it's all about – making music and showing your skills to people. “One personal highlight was playing the Bowery Ballroom in New York opening up for Sparta. Our whole team was there (agent, manager, lawyer), my uncle was there, and it was a really great show all around. The venue itself is legendary, so getting to play there was terrific. The worst experience, on the other hand, would be any time we have van trouble, and just generally being away from my wife and son,” said Ryan.
“We're actually trying to update the way we do things promotionally, because there's just so much you can do online and with social media.”
Rock used to be the biggest genre out there, but now it feels trapped between Pop and Metal. It’s like there are plenty of fans on both sides, but few in between. As a consequence, Rock bands often lean toward one or the other side, but Sound & Shape have stayed the course, crafting solid Rock all these years. Still, we just had to ask Ryan if he's ever felt that they had to “go somewhere else” with their music. “We've definitely been pressured to 'pick a lane', as they say. I'm much more interested in forging our path, as opposed to one that's already been laid out. It might take us longer to get where we want to go, but ultimately, we're in this for our artistic satisfaction. Being lumped in stylistically wouldn't feel right, and any success that came from it wouldn't feel as valid to me, as pretentious as that might sound, haha.”
There are thousands of examples of bands changing direction, usually going from underground to more mainstream, and though it works for many of them, it doesn’t for all of them. When we interviewed the young rapper JameirKGolden, he said it best when he emphasized that a great deal of musicians make a mistake when they turn from their original work, after they get signed to a label, to do what’s popular at that moment. In many cases, the result leads to a bigger fanbase, but the effect can often be the opposite and the artist might even lose the fans that supported him or her from the beginning. One such example is Liz Phair, who was considered the queen of Alternative Rock, but then released a Pop album. Her fans were pretty upset about it, even calling her a sell-out, but to be fair, her song “Why Can’t I” was still a big hit.
What about covers and collabs?
A popular way of creating buzz is by doing collabs, preferably with a famous musician. A great example is the song “Zombie” by Bad Wolves. The American Metal band did a cover of the famous Cranberries song and planned to do a collab with Cranberries' singer Dolores O'Riordan, but she sadly died before that happened. The cover has gotten over 280M views on YouTube since its release. Usually, Bad Wolves videos get between 1M and 10M views, which are great numbers, but “Zombie” went through the roof. Still, such actions can affect the musical integrity of a band, and as Ryan puts it: “A collaboration would depend on the situation and the overall goal. I feel like the band needs to be the band because I/we have a pretty clear point on the horizon that we're shooting for artistically, and bringing anyone in would sort of dilute that. If it's a one-off or a special project, it's something I might be interested in.”
A problem can arise when “old” fans turn from the band for “being too commercial,” while new fans only know the band by their cover or collaboration, which might not represent the genre the band is in, and they might not like what they do “normally”.
“There have been a few times we’ve been screwed over, most recently through a pretty worthless publishing deal. Mostly it's empty promises and relying on people I shouldn't have,” says Ryan about bad experiences with people in the business. Every road has its dangers. In music, that’s scammers trying to exploit the band, and they can be pretty hard to spot. Let’s give you an example. A young artist, who didn’t want to be named because he’s ashamed that he fell for it, hired a “music promotion expert” who was following him on Twitter. After checking him out (the man had over 100,000 followers and everything seemed legit), he paid him about 120€ to promote his new album on social media and streaming services. He even talked to him on the phone, and the fraudster was offering exactly the promotion he was looking for. Long story short, after sending the money, he never heard from him again. He later found out that the conman has scammed at least a dozen other musicians.
Remember, if you get an offer from an unknown source that seems too good to be true, it usually is. You have to be careful who you trust. Another common problem is when a venue owner refuses to pay, most often because the revenue isn’t large enough. In this case, it’s best to come to a compromise, but try to work out the details of what happens in such case before the gig.
Be willing to play as much as possible, but also be selective. Also, always make sure to work out details beforehand – payment, other bands on the roster, load your gear in time, learn if you're getting fed, etc. etc.”
It’s all about the music
For those who have never heard of Sound & Shape, they play a unique blend of Technical Rock, Blues and a dash of other genres. The first thing that sticks out is the contrast between relatively gentle vocals and almost violent guitar riffs. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s something unique in the music world, and we asked Ryan how the songs are written. “I do all the writing and usually, it just starts with me noodling around on the guitar. I'll play something that catches my ear, so then I'll build on that. Once I get a part or two together, I usually finish the rest of it pretty quickly. Lyrics usually come much later, sometimes after we've already demoed the music for it. After the music is made, I'll take it to the guys and teach them the changes, then they'll come up with their parts and we usually do just a quick rehearsal recording, then, later on, do a full-on multitrack demo.”
We’ve been talking about the band like they've just come to the end of the road, just sharing their wisdom, but the truth is far from it. They'll release a new album in 2020. “We've started official album rehearsals at the end of January. We hope to be done tracking by the time we do some more US dates in April, and hope to release the album in the fall. We've just released a new single on 7 February, called 'When the Night Speaks'," they say.
In the end, what would Ryan’s top advice for all the young Rock acts out there be? “I would advise quality shows over quantity. Be willing to play as much as possible, but also be selective. Also, always make sure to work out details beforehand – payment, other bands on the roster, load your gear in time, learn if you're getting fed, etc. etc.”
Cover source: Artist’s archive
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