Music News & Reviews


The Northstar Session
The Northstar Session COURTESY PHOTO

N o matter what city she travels to, Laura Meyer makes sure her Subaru Forrester is packed with a yoga mat and a rice cooker.

“I don’t think I could go on tour without either of those,” said the 26-year-old singer-songwriter.

And ear plugs. Because when her gig is over and she finds a place to crash — sometimes at a newly-made friend’s house — she needs silence in order to catch precious shuteye.

“Between e-mails and driving, there’s not a lot of sleep time,” she said.

While national tours were once primarily the domain of label-backed groups, the Internet has made it possible for independent musicians to post songs, book small-venue gigs and promote shows.

As a result, the highways are jammed with wandering, unknown singers who pack their cars with guitars, clothes, copies of CDs and the few things they’ve carried over from their once stationary lives.

“When I was in my 20s, this world didn’t exist,” said Dorian Michael, a 60-year-old fingerpicking guitarist from Templeton. “Traveling people were Bob Dylan. Now there’s a do-it-yourself world of traveling musicians.”

For most of his professional career, Michael primarily played local gigs. But 12 years ago, he decided to tour the country in search of venues that appreciated

original music.

“I didn’t want to play hits from the ’70s with bar bands,” said Michael, who recently returned from a trip that took him as far as Florida.

When he was younger, acts didn’t record their own music. And there wasn’t an easy way to find venues to play.

“We live in an age where it’s totally easy to do it on your own,” said Pamela Means, a jazzy vocalist and guitarist from Milwaukee, who will perform at Senor Sanchos in Paso Robles and the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo next month.

Changing industry

While songwriters haven’t completely given up the goal of scoring a huge record deal, they’re also aware that the music industry has changed. Sagging sales have weakened record labels, which are no longer as gracious— or frequent—with big signings. So the realistic musician who wants to make a living singing songs has to surrender dreams of limo rides and Rolling Stone covers in favor of playing in small bars, coffee shops and libraries that can offer a few people and a tip jar.

“I really wanted to do music full-time, and the only way to do that, really, is to tour,” said Meyer, a New York-based singer, who performs at The Porch in Santa Margarita tonight.

Every night in San Luis Obispo County you can find some touring act you’ve never heard of, trying to spread its fan base, not with slick ads or music videos, but with its most grassroots promo tool — the live performance.

When The Northstar Session became serious about making a living in the music business, the retro rockers moved to Los Angeles. But the band soon realized that success would entail more than being in the hub of the music industry.

“L. A. is a good town for the business,” said guitarist Matt Szlachetka. “But it’s not a great place for building a fan base.”

His band is currently touring the West Coast, which includes three stops here — Last Stage West in Atascadero and three gigs in San Luis Obispo (Steynberg Gallery, Boo Boo Records, Backstage Pizza).

It’s hard on the road

Stacking multiple gigs in one area is a plus for acts hoping to maximize each stop — particularly when gas is so expensive. But lining up gigs takes considerable effort — finding the right venues, sending e-mail pitches to them and promoting gigs.

“You have to treat it like you’re a door-to-door salesman,” Szlachetka said.

Then there’s the many long road trips, taking musicians to places they’ve never — purposely, in some cases—dreamed of.

“I think you have to have the right personality for it,” said Means, who usually travels alone. “I’m very content with solitude.”

Being alone in a car gives her time to write songs in her head. But it doesn’t necessarily help with relationships.

“Nearly all my relationships have suffered,” said Means, who has toured for 12 years. “Everybody wants their partner to be around.”

Being a veteran of the road, Means is familiar with many of the venues she performs in—be it the Tipsy Teapot in Greenville, N.C., or the WOW Hall in Eugene, Ore. But life on the road can lead to unpleasant surprises, particularly when going to unfamiliar venues.

“It’s totally like a blind date,” Meyer said.

One venue owner in San Diego tried to stiff Means on pay. Meyer, meanwhile, remembers a bad experience during a gig in Cincinnati.

“The owner of the venue started sexually harassing me,” she said.

Unlike famous musicians, whose tours rake in big bucks, unsigned or small-label acts often get a share of the door, which means if there’s no crowd, there’s no money. And because venues don’t usually put musicians up for the night, acts often rely on the kindness of strangers to provide sleeping arrangements.

“I used to be shy and avoided that,” said Means, who will be staying with a stranger while in San Luis Obispo. “But I got over that.”

Persistence is key

While in theory just about anyone can tour nationally, the competition isn’t overwhelming. After all, it takes persistence.

“That weeds out a lot of people over time,” Means said.

Considering the hard work, low pay and time away, touring is usually best for single musicians. Which is why Michael Gaither isn’t willing to give up his day job in corporate communications and technical writing.

“In your 20s, you’re not married, you don’t have kids or a mortgage,” said the Watsonville resident, who will perform at Senor Sanchos in Paso Robles on Monday. “I think you’ve got a little more flexibility when you’re younger.”

Gaither, who travels to gigs with his wife, tries to stay within the state, playing venues that are receptive to his brand of Americana story songs.

“A good-sized coffee house with 40-plus is really great,” he said.

Most of the acts Michael hears about are younger musicians, who play solo or in smaller bands to maximize their monetary intake.

“There is a trendy, 25- to 30-year-old group of people that are making yet another folk revival,” said Michael, who will perform at the Haven Wine Bar in Atascadero Saturday and the Cambria Pines Lodge Monday. “And it’s based on neo-Bob Dylans, neo-Ani DiFrancos and neo-old timey music.”

While that has changed the musical landscape, Michael thinks low pay, the resulting burnout factor and family obligations will eventually force 95 percent of those acts off the road in five years or less.

Living on the road can certainly be challenging. When this leg of her tour ends, Meyer says she’s relying on divine intervention to help her find a place to stay. But it’s all worth it, the NYU grad said, to do what she loves.

“I want to be a rock star,” she said. “I always have wanted that.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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