Why I Largely Stopped Playing Left-Wing Freebie Shows

First of all I never intended to be a band leader, a folk singer, a songwriter or anything like that.  It all began back in the summer of 2001 when I decided to drop out of University and moved back north of Madoc to live in the old Dudgeon farmhouse.  I had already had a lot of experience in music up to that 21st year of my life.  I had played bass in punk metal bands like the Persecuted, Fart Bomb Appartment and Notwithstanding AE.  I was the music pastor of a small church in Hamilton Ontario for the better part of two years while in University but mostly played drums come service time.  I had experience singing and I was fine with doing it, let’s just say it wasn’t something I felt like I was real strong at despite having vocal control.  I had been the singer in my high school jazz band, did some guest appearances with Clifton David (Kirk Broadbridge) in Belleville and was the singer of a punk band for two years called Bloodthirst.

Despite all that, my heart and soul yearned to start another punk band so I could play bass.  However north of Hwy 7 sittin at the old farmhouse it became apparent I would be waiting a lot of years to get a fully operational band together again.  It also dawned on me that once civilization collapsed and the lights went out there would be no metal bands.  The lure of the acoustic called me once again and I started writing my own punky style of folk and country music believing someday I could tell those stories anywhere and anytime there were six strings on my guitar.

That whole summer of 2001 I had no job.  I made all my money by busking in Belleville.  As it was a 75km hitch hike to get there my chosen method to busk was to yell poetry at people on the street.  Belleville had never seen this before and I raked it in alright every week, taking time away to go back to the farmhouse or to go camping on some epic adventure in Algonquin Park.

When I decided to come west my identity was Joey Streetpoet.  I played and sang some but my inclination was that no one was gonna like my songs in and of themselves, that the songs had to have a purpose.  As a young politically motivated anarchist I sang ‘radical folk’ songs.  It was October 2002 when I finally landed in Vancouver and got the nickname Joey Only because of a misunderstanding with a reporter who liked my speech at the Woodwards Squat.  Soon I was playing the odd show as Joey Only and I became known as ‘the radical folk singer’.

So there I was in Vancouver, busking to get by every day.  Not because I thought I was gonna be a star but because I was poor and the idea of sitting in my 45square foot appartment playing my songs to myself disturbed me greatly.  I didn’t see myself properly yet.  I had no confidence in my material.  I truly believed nobody wanted to hear a song that was about ME, so I sang political ditties and old fashioned folk-country tunes.  I would go to the Drive and make $30, buy a gram of weed, buy a chocolate soy milk and sit alone at night with few friends to talk to.  Truly 2003 were dark times for Joey Only as a stage persona was yet but a newborn.

I used these talents and these old songs to bolster picket lines, play legal defence benefits and chime in at protests.  Pretty soon 2004 came about and David Parsons set me up to make my first album ‘Radical Folk of the Great North’.  I should add that before I had a recording my show had next to no value, the album was the first thing that made my show worth something.  For a little while sales were good while lots of opportunity presented itself and I used whatever money I made to fight a series of criminal charges I was facing.  It was May 15th of that year I found myself in a Montreal jail cell for what would be the start of a two year court battle.

In that way the government truly borned Joey Only for good…for until that legal battle in Montreal came up I never put much effort into getting paying gigs.  This was when I began to tour Canada just to afford to get to court.

It was also around this time though that I started getting disillusioned with my role in the community.  For the first while I was bitter at the Montreal organizers of the Westmount protest, I wrongly felt like I had been hung out to dry.  This began a time of travelling back and forth to Montreal, a time where I had to ask for some money to play my show just so I could get east and defend myself in court.  At this same time I started feeling like I wasn’t being appreciated properly in Vancouver as well.  I was getting disillusioned by the left on the whole due to infighting and inner struggles within the Vancouver protest scene.

Over the course of the next two years there were many times I was asked to come play at events put on by the Vancouver left.  However many times I felt like I came and did what was expected of me but wasn’t even thanked or paid…or in some cases offered a free beer for my services.  I got the impression the left wing community was willing to use my talents but didn’t take them all that seriously.  I remember after one show at the Alf House feeling very disturbed by how selfish the other acts were, I ended up leaving without playing a note or recieving any appreciation whatsoever.  I was bitter.  I felt like quitting that night forever.  I knew how depressed moments like that made me and I was scared that I couldn’t take that sort of humiliation.  I was pretty crazy at the time and I struggled to have meaningful friendships.

There were small examples of this dynamic not being true as the Palestinian refugee’s loved my song No One Is Illegal.  They had me play at a number of events where I was the only white guy, they treated me with dignity and respect.  But many times I played for the protest crowds and did not feel so warm afterward.

Still, time passed.  I felt like it was important to turn down more and more shows that didn’t pay to protect myself from depression.  At first it wasn’t about the money although I needed that.  It was more about the appreciation and I realized that if asked for a price, they might say no, and that would be fine cause they I didn’t really want me anyway.

Then in Dec 2005-Jan 2006 I landed in Whitehorse.  Soon the local musicians gave me shit for not charging the bars enough.  They explained politely how in doing so I was driving the wages down for all the local musicians in town.  I accepted this though when I made my own band still found it very difficult to set a price.  But we got better and better and more in demand and the price became a mechanism to turn down shows that would deplete my energy and my bands morale.

In creating the Outlaw Band in the spring of 2006 there was a noticeable change in my material and my show.  The show became less political and less directed to the left wing.  The concept of the Outlaw Band was to use wild western imagery to speak to the idea of freedom and revolution is our own era.  However I didn’t try to blatantly promote the revolution in the way I had before.  The Outlaw Band was not going to play coffee-houses, talent nights, protests or anything like that…we were gonna become a working band and we were gonna make bar owners want us.

I also knew by this time that left wing folk singers have an uphill battle to survive.  When professional political folk singer David Rovics asked for $500 for a show we did in Ottawa people were incensed, even though David was American and had a fairly arduous travel schedule just to attend the show.  They interpretted that as David not being for the cause, that he was in some way a representation of capitalism for having a bottom dollar.  Personally I had done alright playing union events but after I was blacklisted by Jim Sinclair and the BC Fed I only got the odd union gig for CUPW in places like Halifax or Calgary.  Playing the political folk music was not a good career choice if I couldn’t do it in my own province.

Part of this was my disillusionment with my role in the left and part of it was my desire to make music my living.  But another part of my changing was  a desire to speak to the working class of Canada on a greater level and not be some left wing freak show preaching to the already converted.  By speaking the common language I believed someday they would have a better understanding of why I am an anarchist and that my far flung ideas could be indeed normalized through tireless performances.  It largely worked.  I sang cowboy songs to the Albertans until they liked me and then by the nights end I sang a few tunes such as “Stephen Harper is a Nazi Douchebag and I Hate Him So Much” and the Albertans laughed and laughed at me.  It didn’t matter if they agreed with my politics, they liked me because I was one of them.  I liked them because they paid better than BC did.

I got better at setting a bottom dollar..however I wasn’t good enough.  Truly one of the main things that costed my that first Outlaw Band lineup of members, who did 200-450 shows with me, was how far and how long we travelled for how little we got in return sometimes.  There were blow ups on the road regarding money when band members found themselves too broke to eat properly or pay their rent once we got home.  Eventually a few of my members were picked off by Fred Eaglesmith, a professional, who could afford to pay them a gaurantee every night of the week.

The one thing that became apparent over the course of those 450 shows was that when we kicked it into high gear the bars sold a lot of beers.  Routinely we would outsell other bands, even if we played on a Wednesday.  Selling more than $3000 in beer was becoming common and we knew that the bars were raking it on off of our backs.  Still at that time we were struggling to build an audience and build our connections, we would play for less before we’d risk losing a show.  We demanded better and slowly starting getting it more and more often.  We were living in poverty despite playing so many amazing shows, we couldn’t do it like that forever.

When a promoter once told me that playing his show would be good for exposure I retorted, ‘I’m dying from exposure!’

Soon I quit music due to personal disillusionment, moved to Wells took it easy, started a family and soon got a brand new ass kicking band together.  Each member of the band now is a family person.  It can be very inconvenient for us to all get together.  Nowadays we require a lot more than I did 10 years when I was just getting started.  But the product we have to offer is a lot better now too.  I am 10 years more experienced as a band leader and when we come we come to rock it.  With families and things to do in life it is a lot of work for us to put on the show we do for you.

But now you know.  It’s often our job to sell beer and we know what that’s worth.  We know now that it’s okay to say NO to shows that will stretch your bands morale or make life harder for my players and their families.  Now I know that I don’t have to play every small town bar for next to nothing because we laid the ground work out.  Now I know that if it’s a fundraiser, or a show for a good cause, it has to be well promoted and we must be well appreciated for giving our time and energy.

The one thing I never want to feel again is anger leaving a show…or that feeling of despair because I tried so hard but people really didn’t seem to get it.  Now I know that low paying and poorly organized shows can tear a band apart quicker than any personal dynamic can.  Now I know that when bands play for next to nothing they drive wages for artists down across the board.  Artists need to be appreciated and they need to be treated nicely because most of what we do to prepare for our performance pays nothing.  So many amazing performers ran out of steam and quit altogether because it was not worth it for them to keep going.  Think of the talent we’ve lost simple because musicians were sick of being taken advantage of, sick of the futility of going nowhere and getting nothing in return.

I beg of you…if you have a band and you are willing to play for less than $100 a person, all you are doing is making it harder for professional quality bands to get what we deserve.  You are stealing our work like scabs and making it harder for us to survive.  We put in our time, we paid our dues…don’t undermine us.  Don’t allow venue owners to pocket thousands off of our backs, the relationship needs to go both ways.  Also, if your band isn’t ready to play a bar for a night keep practicing, put on house shows, get hot before you come play for free.  We put that effort in so we want you to do that as well.  Don’t drive down the quality of performance out there, when a crowd goes and sees a poorly rehearsed and shitty band they are less likely to take a chance on seeing us the next weekend…much less pay for it.

See yourselves as having value for the countless hours of writing, practicing, planning, travelling, setting up, playing, tearing down and travelling home.  That is what professionalism looks like.

I’d like to finish by saying that my disillusionment with the left and with my former role as ‘the radical folk singer’ is no one’s fault.  Although there are real critiques I could make of situations that affected my withdrawal from that role part of it was also a personal battle to find value in myself.  It’s taken me that long to truly love myself, believe in what I bring to the table and to see my role in the community for what it really is.

I demand more now so I play less.  But I get better gigs than I ever did before.  I created value for myself.  I try to balance that by behaving professionally, working hard, having a good attitude and giving what I can of myself without selling my players out.  If it only lasts a few years I’ll enjoy it, I’m in my hayday right now.

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About joeyonly

Dr.Joey Only will knock you out...and do it with country music!!! HIYAAAAAA!! View all posts by joeyonly

3 responses to “Why I Largely Stopped Playing Left-Wing Freebie Shows

  • Andy Mason

    yup. I was there for some of that, Joey, and I get it…I went through some similar things way back. I played in Bc for ten years, for almost no money. I had to busk and have sometimes two jobs to survive, and call myself a musician. I played many of the instruments on your first CD. i can attest to what you’ve been through, having been there for some of the early parts n Van.

    Many years ago, I had an acquaintance who had a five piece band, and were playing some of the same venues my band played in Ottawa. He as willing to play for 150 a night, and we were charging a minimum of 400…it got so we had a hard time booking in that town, cu owners would say, ‘hey we’re just selling beer, if these guys bring their drinking buddies and want to play for 150, why should we hire you guys for 400? ‘ Even though we had a huge following, we sold out almost every show, etc etc.. we sold out the larger venues in Ottawa; Barrymores, the Penguin, the Glue Pot, Roxannes, etc. Plus, we set bar sales records at the Glue Pot time and time again.

    I,too, went through the ‘over exposure’ thing…my bassist, David Finkle himself an Aboriginal music award co-winner, said that when someone tells you that your show would be great exposure, it means you aren’t getting paid. I did my share of freebies, as well. I didn’t mind doing them, for awhile. Now, if I am gonna do a show for a benefit, very often, I will ask that my band’s expenses be covered, i.e. gas, food, even lodging. sometimes they even do that! I learned these lessons way back in the early 90s…if they really want you, they will do what they can, to get you. though I LOVE to play for people, they have to LOVE to have ME play…
    anyway, you brought up good points, and I hope that anyone reading them, gets it, like we do, bro.

  • Marc Butler

    Great story! I have a pretty cool grass roots festival in Saskatchewan. I would be curious to hear your tunes and get a price from you. We pay our performers and take care of them… We are a small festival and are trying toake a positive change by simply being kind and accepting. We don’t protest anything. We are also filming a 3 year documentary on the building of the festival and societal issues. (I am also an old punk rock kid from the 80’s and 90’s)
    Marc

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