A Phoenix Christmas Carol: a Conversation with Gabe Kubanda

It was the Sunday before New Year’s and I was driving into Tempe for a meeting. It could very well be the meeting that would define my 2020. I was nervous, and excited. And I was being haunted by ghosts.

Marc Norman 2020

The Ghosts of Phoenix Past: Months ago, sitting on the back patio of Tempe Tavern as we are often likely to do, Marc Norman and I were talking about his upcoming candidacy, talking points, and, or course, music. At some point in the conversation, between talking about the insane wealth of talent in Phoenix and the state of the music industry, Marc lamented, “you know, this is the worst time ever to be a musician.” To which I responded, “Yeah, a writer too.” Now, not to be to melancholic, but it certainly does seem to be true. Streaming has turned what record and book labels did for their artists completely upside down, artists stay independent longer than ever (or somehow get magically discovered in youth and explode), and the ability to make money at a live event venue is compromised by the cost it takes to get to and prepare for said event. It is a complicated time. We got talking about Fervor Records, and their ability to land a local song on a Netflix show (like they did for Gentlemen After Dark down in Tucson by getting Open Door on Stranger Things and more recently with “I’m Concerned” by Pistoleros on the Hulu show Reprisal). “Seems like with the addition of streaming in television media, and the wealth of new original programming, that there are new markets all the time,” I was saying. “Sure”, Marc answered, “but that market used to be open, something as an artist you could pursue yourself, like when Ghetto Cowgirl got Excuses for Losers and Rock Pig in that Charlie Sheen movie.” I did some digging and turns out, this conversation had come up before, with the East Valley Tribune, in 2005. Way before streaming as we know it today. Turns out Marc was onto something.

“The major labels used to charge up the ass to use their songs,” Norman says. “So I got Ghetto Cowgirl songs in there, but now the majors are practically giving their stuff away, so you really have to catch a show on the way up. I don’t think I could get Ghetto Cowgirl into One Tree Hill now – it’s too popular.”

East Valley Tribune 2005

And now local bands like Fairy Bones join outside marketing firms, like Media Horse, that are not record labels, just to try to place their songs. And those middle men now take the profits that have been providing Marc Norman royalties for years. Enter Fervor Records.

Enter the second haunting voice. My wife went up to Portland at the beginning of December, to visit her sister, Sarah who works as a project manager, and Luke, her brother-in-law who works in music. And doesn’t have a day job. Let me say that into your good ear. My brother-in-law works in the music industry, in 2020, and does not have a day job. I asked my wife about it what she got home, and she answered relatively simply, “Luke has figured out a way to monetize his skill set.” I have not been able to get that sentence out of my mind all month. I take pictures. I write about music. I get recognized by local media. Things are good. Right? I work at what I love for free, but I work at Costco. It is the number 1 company in the country. I should be thrilled to stock the boxes on the gray concrete floors. This is as good as it gets!

The Ghost of Phoenix Present: Gabe Kubanda and I were sitting in the lounge area at Valley Bar waiting for The Runner Up and Celebration Guns to open things up for Paper Foxes. Gabe and I had been trying to connect for a bit, as things were getting ready to get very busy for the Phoenix singer. Gabe not only writes and sings his own songs, but he also has two side projects, the Epic Proportions Tour and EduMusication. As is often the case with my conversations, I was not exactly sure where this interview was headed, but I had been thinking about “monetizing my skill set” all month, and Gabe was certainly someone who had figured out how to work for himself in the industry that he loved. Many times, during these interviews, it is not as much about instructing my readers as much as it is about educating myself.

As I mentioned in the Humdinger series last spring, my step-daughter knew about Epic Proportions before I did. She had seen one of the events at Red Mountain High School. When she told me about it, she was really excited about bands coming to play her high school. At the time, I was not sure exactly what she was talking about, but when she recognized Gabe at Mesa Amphitheater, I realized that he was onto something.

“Speaking of the Humdinger”, I said, “You know, in my era that place would have been packed. Every under age kid in town would have been at that venue to see those shows. But, now, most of my daughter’s friends, in Mesa, didn’t even know about it. I see this as a major struggle within music. Every kid in the world is plugged in, but plugged in to what, is the question, and how do we tap into that? I see Epic Proportions as one of the music industry models that is trying to deal with that dilemma. I mean there are only so many all ages shows, right?”

The concept of Epic Proportions is to build fun live music shows, and then take those shows to where the youthful listeners are at. The tour itself is built along legs that cater to schools, both high schools and universities, that are looking to bring in live entertainment for their events. For example, Gabe was asked to provide entertainment for the United States Air Force Academy Graduation Tail Gate Party, so these shows are usually not in music venues. “The entire concept is to take the music to where the people already are at”, Gabe explains. “When we toured Europe last fall, we spent a whole week in northern England touring and presenting in area high schools, and at those shows we pulled in top student performers, who at the end of the week opened up for us at The Cavern Club in Liverpool.” Most of the time, a band tours with the tour for the duration of the tour, much as People Who Can Fly did with one of the last tours, and then Gabe and his team reach other to other local acts along the tour to fill in the spots on the roster.

Yeah…. that Cavern Club

Not only does this tour fill a need in terms of promoters and event organizers being able to find and provide entertainment for their event, but it also provides a service to local bands looking to grow and branch into new markets. “If you are just starting out, and wanting to branch out to other cities where perhaps your band knows very few people and hasn’t had much of an opportunity to build a fanbase, what are the ways to do it? You either need to open up for a bigger band, or perhaps trade some favors to get yourself a foothold.” The Epic Proportions Tour allows a band to go into a new market with a bit of a safety net and build up the fans in that particular location, or in the case of the England example, it uses the contacts it makes from EduMusication to pull local performers in to provide that local support to the rest of the tour.

Rock tours, as you can imagine, are not cheap. So, most of us are aware of the model. A band comes to town, stadium tickets are announced, and we all gouge our eyes out with the cost of those tickets. Things are expensive. Venues are expensive. Concert shirts, tickets, food and beverages. We are all used to the insane ways the venues and promoters try to get their money back. But here is this guy from Phoenix taking bands hardly anyone knows to Europe!

Is it really the worst time ever to be in music? Or is it simply no longer possible to define the music industry the same way? In Gabe’s case, Epic Proportions has figured out a model that brings funding for their art from outside normal circles. In other words, what if a tour is not funded by tickets, but is instead funded by Organizational Entertainment Budgets and Sponsorships? A venue is a place, that requires rent, and those has to sell its space. But if an ASU organization, or the Air Force Academy, or a high school dance sponsor has an entertainment budget on which to draw for these funds.

It really then should surprise no one, that Gabe Kubanda is presenting his EduMusication program at NAMM 2020 in Anaheim, CA. Nor that he is taking part in two panels: Smart Touring and Brand Partnerships. NAMM is the music industry standard in terms of its up and coming convention. It is like ComiCon…. for Gibson and Fender instead of DC and Marvel. In addition, Gabe will also join Harper & the Moths, Promise to My Self, and other local Phoenix acts in performing at various locations throughout the convention.

Perhaps…. it is the most exciting time ever to try to figure out a way to make a living in the arts, it is just that every model of the last century that may have once worked is in the process of being completely redefined. Or perhaps the world has gotten to a place where there is simply no reason left NOT to roll the dice.

The Ghost of Phoenix Future: December 27th comes, and MPRNews drops an article by Dan Kraker called “Indie Booksellers Create Community to Survive the Age of Amazon.” The entire article is about the bottoming out of the Independent Booksellers in 2009, and now, days before the dawn of 2020, they are staging a comeback. How?

Kraker tells the story of the Dobrows, young idealistic lovers, readers, newly weds, who one day dreamed of owning a little bookstore. Then marriage, kids, jobs, and it wasn’t until after retiring from something that wasn’t their dream that the couple was able to revisit it. “One of our great fears was that bookstores would go away, so I feel almost a moral obligation to be in bookstores. There is growing resurgence of shopping and supporting local, and people don’t mind paying a little more when they know they are doing so. Bob Dobrow adds, “My wife has this saying which we repeat a lot, which is, nobody’s getting rich but the bills are getting paid”, he said laughing.

The Horror: What if the new American Dream is just getting by?

It was cold on the US 60 on that last Sunday of 2019. I was layered and leathered, and thinking of ghosts all the way into Tempe. “It is the worst time ever to go into the music business“. Epic Proportions touring Europe and Gabe Kabanda presenting at NAMM 2020. The 20th Century American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can be anything. The 21st Century Dream: Cross your fingers and hope to get by. But Bob Dobrow, in an article about indie books, answered the question. “Booksellers are deeply embedded in helping to define this notion of why the consumer should shop local.”

I parked my motorcycle and started stripping layers. My future partners were waiting in the neighborhood Native, where we were meeting to discuss, among other things…. starting a Phoenix based, music industry business, in 2020. And I realized the Ghosts of December had not been teaching a horror lesson after all. They had been cutting the chains that held me: the chains of fear, and supposed to, and think too much. The Ghosts of December had combined, and taught me that ….. perhaps…. in a changing world where it seems that more and more of us are just getting by…..

The secret is to not make it about ourselves. Not make it about our own needs. Not make it about our own desire to monetize our skill sets. The secret is to find a place in your community where your skills are needed. And plug into that community. And realize…. that if everybody is just getting by, you can get by doing something that you love and help other people or get by just as easily as doing something you despise and helping nobody.

In the end….. it is about creating the world you want to live in. A world filled with bookstores. Bistros. Mom and Pop shops. And music. And not caring if you ever get rich as long as the bills are paid…..

And you are still dreamin.

Keep the Greasy Side Down, Amigos

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