Local rockers Cowboy Indian Bear take on the state of local music

Quick, describe the state of the Lawrence music scene.

From the local-band-packed Middle of the Map fest in Kansas City, Mo., Lawrence musicians Marty Hillard and C.J. Calhoun laugh that they've just spent a good thirty minutes trying to decide. "I don't think we came to any conclusions," Calhoun says.

Still, it's something they're thinking about often. As half of four-piece Cowboy Indian Bear, they're a working band, having been on tour throughout most of the Midwest and are currently "about one recording session away" from finishing their second album with Kansas City label The Record Machine.

After a reunion set by fellow locals The Billions at the Record Bar, they sat down with Lawrence.com to hash out their thoughts on a packed touring schedule's unintended consequences for up-and-coming acts, the difficulties of self-promotion and more.

C.J. Calhoun: I think there are some really good bands in Lawrence but I think there are less, in quantity. I wish there were more. It just seems like there aren’t as many as there used to be. I know when we try to think of playing in Lawrence and who we’d play with, it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to switch it up and not just be playing with the same Lawrence bill every time. But the bands are still really good.

Marty Hillard: Admittedly, there’s a lot of great musicians and bands that are under the radar at this point, whether they’re veteran musicians or younger bands just kind of getting their feet wet. There’s a lot of stuff we’re just not privy to, mostly because how busy we’ve been as a band for the last couple of years, touring and being out of town. That’s something we’re trying to get accustomed to as a band and also as a part of the Lawrence community. It’s something that we feel that there’s something left to be desired. I feel personally that there’s a lot of great music that goes under-promoted for a lot of different reasons, whether it’s the fault of the bands not having enough confidence to broadcast that or venues not having the budget to properly reinforce what’s happening in the clubs or local publications as well. Either not having access to the information or what.


Cowboy Indian Bear play at the Beaumont Club, 4050 Penn. Ave in Kansas City, Mo., on April 6, 2012, the second day of the Middle of the Map music festival. From right are Caitlyn Conroy on keyboard and vocals, C.J. Calhoun on guitar and vocals, Beau Bruns on drums and backing vocals and Marty Hillard on vocals, guitar and bass.

Alex Garrison: Do you feel a little out of the loop?

CC: I feel like I’ve spent the last couple months since we’ve been in town more to reconnect with the Lawrence music scene because we played so many shows last year and I’m sure other bands did, too. To come home and have to work enough to pay your bills and see your girlfriend and your family and stuff, it’s just hard to be like, ‘Oh, I just spent two weeks in a bar but now I’m gonna go spend some more time in a bar here and see what’s going on here.’ I’m trying to find a way to balance, to work and to know what’s going on with other bands.

MH: It’s the downside to being an active band and touring. The further you try to make your community bigger, the further you broaden out, it’s like a Petri dish, or maybe like constellations – the closer you get to them, the further it seems like you are. As you’re reaching out for all these different points, that puts you further away from another distant point.

AG: How hard is it to get started as a band in Lawrence, and is hard it to progress into a band ‘big enough’ to ‘make it out’ of Lawrence?

MH: In some ways yes and in some ways no, just like a lot of other places. A special thing about Lawrence, and we talk a lot about this with people who aren’t from Lawrence, is that there’s a lot of historical reference, especially in the last 15 years, with bands like the Get Up Kids, with bands like the Anniversary, the Appleseed Cast, Mates of State, bands that have toured internationally and gone on to do really great things and had some prominence. These are things that people correlate to our city, which is ultimately a wonderful thing. But yet, there’s a disparity between how people imagine Lawrence and its reality because of all those factors even just 10 years ago and what it is now.

CC: The good thing is, Lawrence has a good perception nationally about what it is we do here. And we’ve got so many venues for such a small town – that’s really beneficial for bands trying to get shows and build up a fanbase.

MH: Totally. There’s advantages; the infrastructure is there.

CC: KJHK is great for bands.

MH: Totally. They make huge investments in local music.

CC: Jacki Becker with Eleven Productions is great, too. They try their hardest. It’s hard because they bring great shows all the time – they bring really wonderful national acts and maybe not even a decade ago but five years ago, it was pretty standard that there would be a local opener for those kind of shows but that just doesn’t seem to happen anymore, just because the way package tours are formulated. That’s not just Lawrence, I think that’s felt nationally, that local acts everywhere are hurt by not being able to get in front of audiences that big. I know Up to Eleven tries to get local support for headlining bands, though.


Cowboy Indian Bear's "Saline"

MH: Even for headlining bands, maybe it’s something that, living out here in the Midwest we don’t have a gauge on, but maybe there’s a reason that bands that are touring across the nation bring these bands that nobody knows. Maybe there’s a benefit to that we just don’t know, but from our perspective, it definitely hurts the local acts. It makes more sense to me to have strong local acts, just to get even a few more people through the door for this other band that draws a more general crowd. It’s the best of both worlds. I don’t understand why it’s not done more.

CC: From some different articles that I’ve read about it, it seems to stem from the lack of – the dip in record sales in the last few years has essentially caused an over-crowded touring market.

MH: Everyone tours a lot more now.

AG: So there’s almost a scarcity of shows? I could see that.

CC: Yeah, so let’s say there’s a booking agent who books twenty bands. It used to be that seven to 10 maybe would be on tour at the same time but now all of his bands are on tour, all year long.

MH: Everybody wants dates.

CC: You put those bands together and that’s the tour right there, as opposed to maybe one band or two bands that go out and the Up to Elevens of other cities find good locals to open, all the bands touring from one company are touring together, edging them out. There’s so many national bands touring, it just doesn’t work like that anymore.

MH: It makes sense. Everything’s different now, it’s not just Lawrence.

AG: Yeah, I feel like I’ve seen that trend, but I’m not living it like you are, so it’s interesting to hear from you.

CC: It doesn’t make anything impossible for us, just challenging. I know for a long time, we were holding out for hopefully getting on bills on these bigger shows but once we sort of realized it wasn’t working like that –

MH: We just toured, too.

CC: Yeah! 'Alright, we’ll just start touring, too.'

MH: I’ll tell you one thing that’s been a real blessing is that we’ve had to learn how to headline shows, which probably wouldn’t have happened nearly as fast had we not had our own headlining shows out on the road, which, honestly, you develop a different kind of fortitude for that, you have to put a lot of foresight into that. You just have watch your ass a bit more; I dunno a good way to say it except that it just makes everybody just step up and step into that headlining role to the point where we’re now comfortable doing that when we’re asked, which is really good. That would have taken a lot longer to happen if this had been five or six years ago, for sure.


DickMoney 11 years, 1 month ago

People need to discuss the elephant in the room more, piracy. It's sad what it has done to music scenes like Lawrence over the past 10-12 years. Notice the "historical reference" bands they mention all had there start over 12 years ago (pre-piracy). Don't think a Lawrence band has made it "big" outside of Lawrence since. Sure there are other factors but piracy is one factor no one wants to discuss. Lars effect maybe?

We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not discussing piracy. If you pirate music you are a thief! Support artists don't rob them!

jhawkjohnbrown 11 years, 1 month ago

Piracy? Really?! How far off base are you to think that the piracy situation would affect a local band? It's the lack of quality local music, if anything. In all honesty, it would be smart for a local band to give some tracks away, so they could get their name out there. Piracy is not the issue here, Lars.

DickMoney 11 years, 1 month ago

Got to think bigger then just this specific band. To me this band seems to the point they have grown outside of Lawrence (regionally) or at least would want to. So what's next? That is the issue, no real place to go. Labels are dead or limping (indies and majors), don't have money to to take risks and are signing or developing less and less. There has always been a glass ceiling in the music scene in Lawrence, just that ceiling is at knee level now.

So yes you are right if the initial goal is to play locally, piracy is not an issue. But what about after that, how do you sustain a band when there is nothing in sight for the future that can allow to keep playing and just getting by. Hard for a band to develop much, when they can not support themselves long term.

Not to say it use to be perfectly golden, but at least in the past if you got lucky and were good you could make a little money and live in a town like Lawrence. The band above even mentions how much they have to play live, why is that? No other income these days.

Music is hurting everywhere just not Lawrence and sometimes you have to think a little bigger to find the issue. Why is it then a band hasn't been able to break and sustain outside of Lawrence, just to make a living in about 12 years? You saying there hasn't been a good band in Lawrence for 12 years?

Lars? Thanks for the insult try. Lars effect is dying sorry, artists are waking up. Check out artists at Music Matters, it is no longer just Lars. Let me guess labels are the big evil companies and Google is a saint in your mind? You familiar how sleazy guys actually make money from piracy sites? You on their side?

Cowboy Indian Bear - So sorry to take this discussion away from you. Good interview and good music! Keep up the hard work and so sorry for the off topic discussion. Just an important topic to me. Felt bad about taking it off topic, guess you can't delete comments around here.

Darrell Lea 11 years, 1 month ago

Piracy is a big issue that affects any band that wishes to earn a living by selling their music. However, in this case I have to agree with jhawkjohnbrown.

I don't think any band currently residing in Lawrence has much to complain about regarding piracy. At this level a musician simply wishes that their music is good enough and has been heard enough that someone would want to steal it. Get a little further out into the big bad world and then maybe you might have a problem.

DickMoney 11 years, 1 month ago

Hmm, mid 30's. Curious to see if you think I am too old and out of touch or thought I was a young kid with no experience. Guessing old and out of touch Which ever let the misguided insult come.

While we are asking questions how old are you? :)

Lived in Lawrence 5 years 97-02 and for past decade have worked in Los Angeles in a music related field. Sorry if you disagree, and know I am not the best at getting my opinion down in written form. Either way as someone that is affected by piracy and have seen what it has done to indie labels over the years, this subject can get me worked up. :)

Martinez Hillard 11 years, 1 month ago

I'm glad to see that this article has generated a healthy dialogue both online and in the Lawrence music community. A good number of our contemporaries across a few genres have approached me about it in the last couple weeks.

As far as piracy goes, I feel like it's a much less black-&-white than most people might like it to be. Yes, it affects all musicians at all levels. Whether that's positively or negatively depends on a band or artist's interaction with their potential fanbase. In either case it's important that whatever precedent you set stays consistent as you, your music and your audience grow.

In my opinion if you work really hard and create quality music you shouldn't automatically be expected to give it away. Especially if it's good! There's no other transaction-based industry where those are acceptable terms.

HOWEVER, I can't tell you how many CDs I've been happy to give away to new friends we've made on tour. I feel like if someone has paid admission to see you play, paid attention to your performance and shared some kind words with you afterward, that's a valid transaction. It's much harder to gauge what kind of impact your music is having on an mp3 aggregator pumping out of low-grade computer speakers.

HOWEVER, I've discovered some of my favorite bands under just those circumstances. If it gives someone an opportunity to get a glimpse into my work then what's so wrong with that? Why not?

Ultimately, the worst effect that piracy has had on a band like Cowboy Indian Bear is the threshold you must reach to grab the attention of labels, independent or mainstream, is unreal at this point. In 2002, if you moved 1,000-5,000 units in a calendar year independently you could entertain the possibility of a decent-size indie at least having a conversation with you when you came to their city. Now you'd be lucky to get a form letter e-mail reply.

Not that signing to a label in 2012-13 is going to be the best solution for every band but it nevertheless is a model that PR & media still base their industries around. People mistakenly think that "staying indie" is easier than it ever was but with no financial backing, valid press outlets or consistent revenue stream (unless you have a REALLY great relationship with your audience, digital service is not going to make you money. Your music is largely getting pirated no matter what) it's harder than ever before. Granted, there are lots of exceptions but no working model for one artist ever translates fool-proof to another, not these days.

DickMoney 11 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for posting your thoughts on the subject! Glad to hear people are discussing piracy, personally find this very important.

Completely agree sometimes it can be a benefit or nice thing to do, giving away music that is. Also beneficial to bands, but bands have always had this option. Where I have an issue with piracy is when the right of the artist to choose what happens to their music is taken away. Piracy also is no longer "kids just sharing files." It is a big business on it's own, look up Kim Dotcom. Now that what sickens me, fat bastards like him making millions by stealing property from artists and giving it away. Also minus well put google in that category also. Google sells ad space on pirate sites also and will generally point you directly to it also. They have stake in having free content, but not necessarily to the benefit of the artist.

Ohh well I'll stop rambling. Keep up the hard work! Looking forward to the new album, which I will purchase once completed :).

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