“GIVING UP SELF”, A Conversation with Seth Kauffman of Floating Action, Jim James, Lana Del Rey and Others.
Seth Kauffman is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalit from Black Mountain, North Carolina. For the past 6 years (and counting) he’s been found in the studio and on tour playing various instruments for artists like Angel Olsen, Michael Nau, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Ray Lamontagne, Dan Auerbach, Lana Del Rea. His band, Floating Action, has toured extensively since 2005 and released 10 cult-classic albums.
We sat down with Seth to chat about his experiences touring and trying to “make it” professionally as a musician.
I'm of course not bitter about this, or wanting to cast stones or anything - it's just interesting to stand back now and see how it happened to you, and watch it continue to happen to new younger artists.. Way too much to actually list, but i can describe the overall bigger concept.. It's all tied in to an artist's 'hunger' or 'drive' for success and or money. So I originally got signed to a reputable blues label in 2006, I knew nothing about how the music business worked, except that you were supposed to tour as much as possible, in order to get huge....that was the 'goal'.
You trust that the label knows how it works, so they blindly send you out on a tour, that didn't get put together well, so most of the dates don't actually happen..
but you're like 'oh well, nbd, i gotta get out there, to be heard, so it's cool if i just max out my credit card of money i don't have, to make this tour happen. Then, the shows don't get promoted at all, the whole machine that makes this work, never got anything to work out - so it ends up you take the hit - drive across the country, sleeping on floors, driving all day, play shows to no one, don't get paid.. hemorrhaging money.
But you keep doing it, because that's "how it works" - I did this for years and years, marriage somehow has barely survived, you go into extreme debt - with the idea that "you've got to spend money to make money", so meanwhile you're just going into more and more debt, all while not making any money at all.
I was on a different label later, that would never pay royalties - even after your album sales are in the black - they kind of went under, still owe me money.
They once set up a cross country tour for us - all shitty gigs across the county that didn't pay, but it was ok because there was this one huge money gig in LA for Scion cars, some corporate gig that would pay enough to make the whole tour worthwhile. You've got your band, taking them all away from their families and money-making jobs for a whole month - we get out to LA and the label is like 'um well, nah there is no Scion gig, didn't really work out.' No sweat off their backs, but it's a crusher for us!
That was basically every Floating Action tour - this great routing, but as it gets closer, only about 20% of the shows get actually confirmed, so you lose tons of money... and the 1 or 2 decent money ones that are 'going to make it all make sense' don't pan out.
A few years ago, on a different label - the album release date was approaching - I was like 'what publicist should we get?' They said “nah, we have an in-house guy we're gonna use, he's great.” “OK cool, I trust you, you're the industry professional.”
Album release happens - no press - weeks, months go by, literally zero press. I try not to be aggro and bug them about it..
When I finally asked ”what's up with the publicity?” they literally told me “well, he said he emailed Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, but didn't hear back, so.......that's it.”
For that album's tour, they also had an in-house guy that was young and hungry and was going to book us a west coast tour. But this label actually has money, so they generously flew us all out, got us a rental van, paid for hotels, gas, etc, even gear rental, for like a two week tour. We get out there, and only about 10% of the promised tour had actually been booked. Same thing. No real shows, only a couple un-promoted in-stores, and gigs in 20 capacity bars that don't normally have bands & you get kicked out immediately afterwards for disco dance DJ party. So it was incredibly nice of them to pay for that tour - but part of the machine, booking the actual tour, didn't happen - which negates the entire operation - all that money was wasted!
Here's one random tour story - on a 2-month tour that starts with SXSW (for which you don't get paid), we head into the midwest, playing for nobody - we're completely broke, all credit cards maxed out, we make it to our St. Louis show, where the big part of the club's deal was bands get a free pizza from the bar. So we'd been talking it up for days in the van, the pizza was gonna turn things around, on every level! We strut into the club, tell the bartender “Hi, we're here for our free pizza!” She goes “oh.....do you have a poster up?” we have a poster area over there & our deal is you only get the pizza if you already have a poster up.” No sweat - our label had said they mailed out posters to all the venues; we're golden. So we strut over to the poster glass case to verify our poster.... no poster.
Text the label “did you send posters?”
“oh.....no.” So we got denied our life-saving pizzas!
We ate subs instead next door at a Jimmy John's, I'll never forget the ice chunks still in that iceberg lettuce on my sub. There was literally no way we could finish the tour and we were at a point geographically where if we drove home and bailed on the rest of the tour - that was our only choice. So we pulled the other band we were on tour with aside and said “look...we gotta peace out...we're completely out of money...no way we can continue losing money for another month.”
Turns out booking agencies don't like it when you bail on a tour.. I still think to this day, Floating Action is a bit blacklisted in the booking agency world, because of that. Our agency then was two guys, who got bought up by a larger agency, who then got bought out by an even larger agency. So thru the years when Floating Action has tried to get a booking agent - they're almost all connected to these two guys - who I'm sure are like “Don't work with Floating Action.”
I always paid them their percentages, and always on time. They had initially wowed me with promises of “we can get you college and corporate gigs and high paying opening slots all day long..if that's what you want to do.” It had been two years since they booked anything - so I emailed, very nicely, just to say “I want to do those well paying gigs now.”
I said “Hey just checking in, I noticed you haven't booked anything for us in a while, & I'd love to start doing some of those corporate/college type gigs now.”
They emailed back simply: “We're done here.” I bet I'm right about the blacklisting - haha!
Quick side note about sxsw, as if it's not already been ripped to shreds.. (but bands still go?).
It's disgusting - once they started letting any label or whoever, have their own showcases - bands will drive across country, lose thousands of dollars, all for the promise of some “industry executive is gonna try to come to your 15 minute showcase”. You've been emailing & texting with managers and agents, etc. for months in advance “we have to see you play, in order to start working with you.. we'll come to your sxsw showcase. So bands play like 10x in 4 days, pushing through crowds of drunk people in the street, carrying their gear by hand, pull off the most amazing impossible surge to make it to the next showcase in time, that the industry guy you've been emailing with for months is going to come to.
You're texting him, “we're setting up, are you here?”
“I'm on my way, a block away, shit's crazy.”
Play the show, they never came.. “Sorry, I just couldn't get there in time.”
This exact thing happened to Floating Action at least 20x over the years. The dudes never even make it to your show. You just drove all the way there literally just for them to see you, and they don't make it.
Anyway - it's definitely not the 'next big thing' industry cool thing it started out as. Now there's bands who are already huge, or already big buzz bands - & that's all the industry people go and see anyway.
So in conclusion - I've toured A LOT in the worst possible soul-killing morale-killing bank account-killing scenarios over the years. Thinking “this is what you have to do to 'make it’''. Thinking labels & managers know what they're doing, so you should just do whatever they advise.
But my trail-wisdom at this late point in life is this; they DON'T know what they're doing. They're just blindly, randomly playing the odds, doing what worked for some band 15 years ago, following that formula. But it's always different, with every different artist. They're scared, they're not going to take a big risk on a new artist that doesn't sound like other artists that ARE successful. They've got to play it safe, because the industry is fragile nowadays.
What turned it around for me, was finally standing up to that and saying “fuck it, I'm just gonna make records and release them, not wait 2 years til the time is right or whatever (labels always make you do that, wait over a year, but all that means is there's crickets out there for it, no buzz, so they're already blindly scrambling to throw a Hail Mary with your record...or shelve it indefinitely.).
I stopped caring about “making it” or being famous or “recognized for my artistry” ha. I just released records myself, put it on cdbaby.com, and now i actually get money for digital sales. Every label I've been on, they spend so much money promoting it, paying publicists thousands of dollars, that you'll either never see any return - always in the red - or they cheat with their books, and just never pay you when you're in the black.
I also started only making like 3-500 vinyls of my albums - & am able to sell them out, make some money.. not be in the hole.
I also stopped touring Floating Action, and it saves me thousands and thousands of dollars, ha! I only go do gigs that actually make financial sense. And weirdly make more fans by NOT touring...if that makes sense?
Once I abandoned the sinking ship of trying to make Floating Action a successful band - I started getting asked to play on cool recording sessions by cool producers who are fans of Floating Action albums.. Dan Auerbach, Jim James - and through that got to work on recording other peoples' stuff, which has led to touring in successful bands, in buses, playing sold out shows at all the legendary venues that signify that you 'made it', Red Rocks, Fillmore(s), all that shit.
But the thing is - and here's what ties in the two ways I've come to believe you can be, as a musician:
Now I realize it's all not a big deal. All the milestones of success you thought you needed to achieve, back in the day - are meaningless. It's all meaningless. The second you start to think it's not meaningless, you're screwed. I'm incredibly thankful to be able to do it, to get paid to do it, but it's purely about helping your friends out, that you play with - playing good music and connecting with your friends, getting to that out of body place that no one quite understands....it's why people go see shows and care and listen to music.
So you're either like that.. you do it only for the goodness and purity of music itself... That way can be satisfied also by recording music by yourself in your basement...you can still get to that ultimate pure experience.. so it doesn't leave you especially hungry to tour relentlessly..
Or the other type: you're by nature hungry for fame and/or attention. This can drive people to push themselves amazingly hard, to achieve fame/money/attention. I admit I had some of this when I started out - you don't even realize it.
Now I'm like “Why did I even think I HAD to play that one show that was going to make me famous?” I'm only writing about this because it's kind of an important, huge epiphany of life. Similar how if you committed a murder and were keeping it a secret - it eventually drives you nuts & you can't live with yourself. People caught up in the fame game will never be happy - so your life will be way better if you give up SELF. It's all about NOT SELF. Now I firmly believe that denying fame (even the concept itself) is where it's at. Actively shunning it.
The only catch is - it's the opposite of what it takes to “make it” in show business. That's what i've also slowly learned - is that music industry people look for that “fame drive”, and if you have seen the light and are beyond that, they realize there's nothing they can do for you -- if you don't have that hunger to be famous.