The Blog

My 2018 in live music

2018 was, as they tend to be now, a … difficult year. Fortunately, I live in a city where we want for little when it comes to top-quality live music options. And since going to a show is one of the ways I like to forget about my (and the world’s) troubles, you better believe I saw a few.

Though the year is technically not over, and I do have tickets to one more show—Lee Fields & the Expressions at The Chapel, which is a New Year’s Eve show that will not end until 2019, and so I will include it in next year’s wrap-up—I nevertheless present you with a list of all the shows I saw in 2018, in descending order of awesomeness.

All venues are in either San Francisco or Berkeley unless otherwise indicated:

  1. X and Los Lobos (The Fillmore)
  2. Fleet Foxes (The Greek)
  3. Calexico (Great American Music Hall)
  4. Southern Culture on the Skids (Slim’s)
  5. Mipso (Freight & Salvage)
  6. Bombino (The Independent)
  7. Elvis Costello (The Masonic)
  8. George Clinton & P-Funk (The Independent)
  9. Yukon Blonde (Hotel Utah Saloon)
  10. Mipso (Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh NC)
  11. The Pretenders (The Masonic)
  12. Rodriguez (The Warfield)
  13. Robyn Hitchcock (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival)
  14. Toots & the Maytalls (The Fillmore)

With the exception of the very last entry, this list wasn’t easy to put together. That’s because that Toots & the Maytalls show was the only actively bad show I saw all year. The gap between, say, #12 / #13 and #14 is pretty wide, because Rodriguez put on a very low-key but still highly engaging performance. In a different year, he would have ranked much higher. But unfortunately for him (and the Pretenders, for that matter), I caught a lot of great live music in 2018.

By contrast, the selection of best show of the year wasn’t nearly as easy. It was always between X / Los Lobos and Fleet Foxes, but the fact that X has long been one of my favorite bands AND they brought Los Lobos—a hugely fun band that is still more than capable of headlining on their own—along with them are the two factors that tipped the scales.

Still, that Fleet Foxes show was pretty incredible. Here is a short video clip I shot; my old iPhone SE had a shitty low-light camera so the image is terrible, but the sound is what’s important here anyway:

There is something about the simplicity and haunting honesty of their performance that just hit me square in the heart.

Seven of the bands on this list are acts I had seen before; in fact, it was my third time seeing both Elvis Costello and George Clinton & P-Funk, and my fourth seeing Robyn Hitchcock. Elvis was as solid as he always is, and he did a full three-hour set with no opening act; considering how he almost died (apparently) earlier in the year, that’s pretty impressive. George gets points for his outrageous stage show and for the fact that his classic cuts are still so strong, but his set itself wasn’t as tight as I would have preferred. Still, it was a much better performance than when I saw him at Stern Grove a couple years ago, in an outdoor amphitheater at two o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

I doubt I will be able to top this list next year, but you never know. The 2019 slate starts, as I mentioned above, with Lee Fields & the Expressions, and will also likely include Richard Thompson and Judas Priest (though not on the same night).

What standout shows—good or bad— did you see in 2018? Tell me about them in the comments!

This popular saying is one of the worst things you can say to a person with depression

(Note: The headline of this post is an experiment in writing clickbait. Let me know if it worked on you! #ScientificMethod)

I had been thinking about writing this post for at least a couple of weeks but kept putting it off, in keeping with my usual approach to blogging. But with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this past week, it seemed like it would never be more appropriate, or at least not until the next (and there always does seem to be a next, doesn’t there?) cluster of depression-driven celebrity suicides.

Though this post is not about them. It’s about me.

So. I’ve been suffering from depression for about as long as I can remember. Most of my Continue reading “This popular saying is one of the worst things you can say to a person with depression”

Holiday in Cambodia (and other places)

In a few hours, I will cross the Pacific Ocean for the first time, on my way to a two-week vacation in Southeast Asia.

In this household, we travel with hats. But my hat game is apparently the weaker of the two.
In this household, we travel with hats. But my hat game is apparently the weaker of the two.

I enjoy traveling, except for the part about being in between home and where I’m going: for me, getting there is never even close to half the fun. Anyway, J and I both prepare for travel by reading, of course, but we don’t read the same things. She, being sensible and logical, read the Fodor’s guide for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to get ready for this trip. I took a different path and read The Sympathizer. Last year, for our trip to Italy, she didn’t read anything because she’s been there so many times before. And while there were plenty of traditional travel guidebooks available to me, I read The Dark Heart of Italy instead. (I highly recommend both books, by the way.)

This way, she knows all the actual sights to see and places to go, and I feel like I have an understanding – or maybe the beginning of an understanding, since you can’t get much more than that from a book – of the place based on who its people are.

At least, that’s how it worked last year. We’ll see if it works that way this time. I’ll just read the Fodor’s guide when I can’t sleep on the plane, just in case.

Why I self-published my first novel, and why I hope to never do it again

TL;DR – self-publishing is both democratizing and hard AF. It is not a shortcut, and it comes with a few major drawbacks that you should consider if you’re thinking about putting out a book the way I did.

If you have a copy of How I’m Spending My Afterlife sitting on your bookshelf, you might have noticed that the spine carries an imprint: that of Mind Balm Press. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to tell you now that Mind Balm Press does not exist. It is not a real publishing house, and the only reason those three words are on the spine at all is so that the book looks like all the other books on your shelf. I mean, they all have their own imprints on the spine, right?

So if Mind Balm Press didn’t publish the damn thing, who did? Well, I did. Self-publishing is easier and more accepted now than it ever has been before. It’s a legitimate, viable way to push your work out to your audience, and there are a lot of talented authors out there who self-publish high-quality books and do quite well for themselves.

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The big payoff: How I’m Spending My Afterlife on the shelf at the Books, Inc. store on Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA

It certainly wasn’t the route I set out to take, though. Back in 2016, I was dragging my manuscript through all the traditional publishing channels and getting basically nowhere with it. I spent about a year or so sending out queries to agents and trying to get in front of them at the handful of writers’ conferences I was able to squeeze into my schedule and budget. I had some nibbles, got a few requests for the full manuscript, and while all the agents who read HISMA told me they enjoyed it and thought it was well-written, none of them fell in love with it, which seems to be a prerequisite for an agent to spend a year or more of their professional life trying to find a home for a manuscript.

Maybe my queries were weak. I did use the same basic structure for all my queries, but I tried to change things up on the regular, always testing new approaches to the copy. But since nobody ever gave me any specific feedback on why my query didn’t grab their attention, it was a bit like playing shuffleboard while blind.

After a while of that, I had a decision to make. I could keep on grinding it out, finding new agents to query and sending them a letter and the first chapter or two of the book and waiting up to four months before getting a response, or I could start trying the independent presses that accept submissions directly from authors and wait as long as a year to hear back on those

… or I could also just put it in a desk drawer and start the next project. That’s a valid choice. Lots of people write several novels before they manage to sell one to a publisher. There is no shame in that, and it’s not like I had any lack of ideas for more novels.

But I felt pretty strongly that HISMA was a good book, one that could go toe-to-toe with anything the big publishing houses were putting out, one that could find its audience and resonate with them. Turning HISMA into a vault novel would, I was pretty sure, be doing myself—and possibly other people too—a disservice.

And yes, I know how that sounds. But I’m telling a story here, and there’s no point in sugar-coating things now, is there?

So that left self-publishing. I’d been keeping it in the back of my mind as a last-resort option for a while, but I was still reluctant to commit to going down that road. See, I used to have this uncle who wrote a novel once, maybe fifteen years ago. His schtick was that he ended every chapter with a different character uttering the same line. It was … not great, and he ended up bringing it out himself on a vanity press, which is basically what most self-publishing was back then. He wound up with a garage full of copies he couldn’t sell.

But my book would be different. For one thing, I can write decently well. For another, I have a background and a network that might actually help me do this right. I spent a lot of years working in both marketing and in various aspects of media, and during that time I had countless graphic designers and editors and so forth fall into my orbit. My father spent his career in advertising, and he taught me how to flow text into page layout software when I was 14 years old (I think it was Adobe PageMaker, which I don’t think even exists anymore). I once owned a record label—Mind Balm Records, natch—and I figured that a lot of that knowledge would transfer over.

I also have a certain amount of self-awareness when it comes to my own assessment of my abilities, so I was confident I’d have no problem hiring professionals to double-check even the things I felt I could do well enough on my own. This included hiring a professional editor, and the one I ended up hiring had a resume that included some of Neil Gaiman’s books as well as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I enjoyed.

And when I thought about it a little more, the whole enterprise became more and more appealing. The idea of having total control over every aspect of the project was a plus, I had to admit. It wasn’t my biggest driver—that was just getting the book in front of people—but certainly seemed like something I could work to my advantage. After all, I was trying to use this book to launch a career as an author, and having complete control meant I’d be able to manage how I and my work were presented to the world from the very beginning.

The potential for higher royalties certainly didn’t hurt either. When you self-publish an e-book through Amazon, you can grab 70% of the sale price for yourself, as long as you have it priced between $2.99 and $9.99. The numbers are different for physical copies printed with CreateSpace, but they’re still better than you’ll get on a traditional publishing deal.

So I went for it. I hired that editor. I bought a batch of ISBNs. I got the art director from one of my old jobs to put together a cover for me. I tweaked and re-tweaked the interior. I got professional author photos taken. I cooked up a marketing plan. I set a publication date. I scheduled a release party. I got the word out.

And just like that, on October 3rd, 2017, I was a published author. Self-published, to be exact, but published nonetheless.

I’m glad I did it, if only because self-publishing was probably the only way I was going to get HISMA out into the world just then, and I needed to be done with that book. I was having difficulty moving on to the next project, and while I’m only getting started in my authorial career, I do already know that the only thing that matters is what’s next.

But all that control and self-determination (or is this more self-actualization? I can never keep those straight) comes with strings attached. Whether those strings are tight enough and strong enough to cancel out the advantages will depend on the author and his or her specific situation; for me, they were enough of a hindrance to convince me that I never want to self-publish again if I can help it:

1. For one thing, you are completely on your own when you self-publish. There is no institutional support, whether we’re talking financial or moral. If something has to get done, you’re the one who has to do it. And doing everything by yourself is hard. Of course, I knew it would be that way before I even got started, but expecting it and experiencing it for yourself are two very different things.

2. It’s not just slogging through the long list of things you have to do that’s difficult, either. Many of the individual items on that list are hard, in and of themselves, to accomplish without either a track record or institutional backing. Like getting reviews, for example. Reviews are the lifeblood of any successful indie book launch these days. But reviewers with a platform get countless requests each and every year, and they can only work through a tiny fraction of those. If you are persistent enough, you can shake free a few stray reviews through sheer force of will, but it’s incredibly time-consuming to do this.

(And speaking of reviews, if you’ve read How I’m Spending My Afterlife, I would really love it if you could take a moment and leave a short review of it on Amazon for me. Thanks so much!)

The hard truth is that nobody cares about you or your book. You have to make them care, and this is probably a lot easier (though by no means objectively easy) to do when you have a publisher helping you out.

3. This won’t be a problem for those who are a bit less introverted than I am, but I’m extremely uncomfortable talking about how great I am or how great my work is. I’ve always hated self-promotion, and as a result I’m terrible at it. This is something that a publisher’s marketing  department would do for you, but if you don’t have one, you have to do it yourself (see point 1).

4. There’s still a stigma attached to self-publishing, even if it is only a shadow of what it once was. A lot of bookstores won’t carry self-published books, even if you do use Ingram instead of Amazon-owned CreateSpace for distribution (indie stores hate authors who use CreateSpace, and I can’t say that I blame them). Some will, but only on consignment—and even if they do take your book, you still have to reach out to or visit each store individually to make the sale. Many reviewers won’t touch them either. And while this is dispiriting and frustrating, I do kind of get it. There’s still a lot of crap floating around out there in the self-published world, even if it is better than it used to be in the aggregate.

5. Self-published books are often not eligible for literary prizes and awards. No, I never would have expected HISMA to win the Man Booker Prize or anything like that, even in my feveriest fever dream. But it makes sense to set yourself up to take advantage of as many promotional opportunities (and winning a major prize is definitely an example) as you can.

6. Finally, self-publishing can be wicked expensive. In 2017, I spent about $5,000, all told, on getting my novel to market and getting the word out about it (a big chunk of that was just for the editor, which I will always consider money well spent). It’ll be a while before I earn that sum back, even with those more generous Amazon royalties—but that’s fine. I have a day job, and I didn’t do this for the money.

To be fair, some of these drawbacks won’t be as applicable to writers who work in certain self-publishing-friendly genres. If I were a sci-fi or fantasy writer, I’d probably have had a different experience with it.

I went with self-publishing because it seemed like the only option available to me at that time, and I didn’t want to set HISMA aside for a year or three on the off chance that the situation might improve in that time. I certainly learned a lot from the experience, but I do not want to do it again. Next time, I’m hoping to land a traditional publishing deal, and I’m working to make that happen.

But if my choices are self-publish or don’t publish at all? In that case, I’ll self-publish every time.