Bass Solo Web Series: Interview with creators John Sutton and Heather Mingo
John Sutton and Heather Mingo, the creators of the Bass Solo web series, are good friends of mine who are taking a risk and are in the process of doing something amazing. In what will eventually be a 10-episode web tv series, Bass Solo follows the character of Leo, a jazz bass player played by John Sutton, who moves to Chicago to try to make it as a jazz musician and runs into all the problems and ironies that plague all artists, but especially musicians who insist on playing a no-longer popular style in a world that prefers to move on to the Next Big Thing. Heather’s character, Brie, is hosting freeloading Leo in her apartment, looking for a way to be supportive of a new friend while also collecting his share of the rent she is owed. Beyond just making a funny and smart show that comments directly on the situation of most every artist in our culture, they are showing a great model for community-supported artistic work that calls on local businesses, artists, technicians, and fans for their support of a unique project. For anyone that wants to build an audience and become a vital fixture of his or her community, John and Heather are providing a great model, and I recommend paying serious attention to their work. Please consider giving some money to their Indiegogo campaign, (I can’t wait for my coffee bag pillow!) and of course, watching their pilot episode that I’ve embedded below.
Douglas Detrick: Could you both introduce yourselves to readers who don’t know you?
Heather Mingo: I’m an actor and I was unhappy with the types of roles that I was being put up for and the opportunities that were available to actors in my age range. John knew this and suggested that I start writing something for myself. I thought it was a great idea and started a project with another colleague that, unfortunately, went sour. Later, John and I had the idea for Bass Solo and had been just sitting on it for a while. Initially it was a collection of one-off, runny-funny vignettes, but we eventually decided that the show should have a cohesive narrative that would allow us to create characters that we liked.
John Sutton: My background is in music, so I came to the idea in a similar way. After I moved back to Chicago from New York I wasn’t really interested in doing the same hustle of trying to get jobs in crappy bars and such. I still want to play music every day, but I was tired of that format for how a musician is supposed to work. I was looking for ways to challenge myself as a musician, to broaden my skill set. With Heather being an actor, I was exposed to this way of thinking, about independently produced web tv. We both wanted to do something different than what people our age were expected to do in pursuing work in our fields.
DD: Could you give an outline of Bass Solo?
JS: The premise of the show, in a single sentence, would be: “How do you go about pursuing the thing that you are passionate about in a world where the person who tweets about your show gets more attention than the person making the art?” In a world that’s not really interested in an honest attempt at something, how do you make an honest attempt? How do you make an honest presentation of something? And how do you interact with this world? So we aren’t trying to answer the question so much as we’re trying to present the problem in a comedic light. There’s this guy, Leo, who is a jazz bass player and he’s really passionate about what he does, and he wants to be a jazz musician but the world just doesn’t have any room for him.
HM: But in a way, we are answering the question by making the show. There’s no direct answer in the script, but the show itself is an answer.
DD: The character of Leo is stuck in this world that he doesn’t quite understand. He is in a weird position as a passionate person who just isn’t really needed or wanted by the broader culture.
JS: Right, we began with our own experience, our own despair and failure. I’ll be honest about feeling browbeaten by New York when I moved away, not because I was failing in New York—actually I think I was doing pretty well compared to a lot of my peers—but because gigs were getting even more sparse. The show was a way to reflect on the difficulty of that experience. It was a way to process some of the hilarious experiences I had as a musician, a lot of the plot elements are drawn from real experiences. Then the other parts are just riffing on this situation that is very intense and cutthroat.
Leo isn’t bad at what he does. In fact, he’s pretty good, its just that the world doesn’t really care about what he is good at. The show gives voice to the fact that there are so many people like Leo, and this is true throughout the arts community.
DD: Heather, is this true in your field as well? A lot of actors, most actors probably, struggle just as much as musicians do. The big difference is that there are some actors that are big stars that all of us know, and that just isn’t the case with jazz musicians.
HM: That situation actually muddles the idea of what it is to be an actor because there are many people who enter the field who’s primary goal is to become a celebrity, rather than to practice the craft. Actors are lazy! [laughs] I’m not excluding myself there. In other fields artists are doing work every day to work on their craft, but an actor can just take it easy and say “I’m just taking in life” and think that that will make them a better actor. There are lots of people who want to be famous and make money, and think that acting will be a good way to do that.
JS: Jenna Fischer put out a really interesting open letter to actors that really says a lot about this. She basically says there are lots of really talented actors working in restaurants who are waiting to win the lottery, and not everyone wins the lottery, even if they are doing all the right things. In some ways it’s actually a benefit to jazz musicians that we don’t have that dream of widespread fame hanging over our heads! The people who play the music care about the art, because there’s no hope of becoming famous.
DD: Leo is surrounded by people of his generation who don’t seem to have a traditional job, or in the case of Brie, seemingly no job at all at this point in the series, but yet they seem to be doing all right by some traditional measures. Leo sees this contradiction, so is he trying to answer this question for himself?
JS: Leo is going to explore a lot of different avenues for success over the course of the season. The next episode starts with Leo earning a hundred dollars, and the episode is him spending that hundred dollars. At one point Brie sees him having a drink at one of Chaz’s parties, and confronts him about spending money on a drink when he owes her so much money in rent. So Leo says “Good news! I only made a hundred dollars!” Its so much less money than he owes her that it just made sense to him to spend it rather than give it to Brie. And Brie is not happy about that. And that’s just one way that he tries, unsuccessfully, to solve his problem.
We’re going to see him trying to be ingenious, trying different ways to play and to make an honest attempt to practice his craft. He’ll try to create situations to play that may or may not look ridiculous to everyone around him. We’ll see him look to others for help—we’re probably going to have a sugar momma at some point. The thing we really want to drive home about Leo is the line from Chaz: “The kid’s got luck. Right now he’s in a dry spell, but I’ve seen him pull through in all kinds of crazy shit.” That’s something that comes directly out of both of our lives. We realize that we’ve gotten away with some absurd things that we shouldn’t have. There were plenty of months where we didn’t know how we would pay our rent, but we came out okay in the end. Leo will get himself in some funny situations, but he’ll always land on his feet. It will be absurd and fun, but it will also very true to how we’ve seen the world in the last few years as freelancers.
DD: All the musicians appearing in the show are all Chicago players, is that right?
JS: That’s right. I’d like the show to highlight some of the jazz musicians that I respect who I don’t think get enough credit. We want to show a wide age range. There is a huge pool of older players that I have loved since I was a kid who don’t have many places to play now that the Velvet Lounge, Hot House, and Von Freeman’s New Apartment Lounge are all closed down. Those were the places that I went to go see those guys, and now they are being ignored just as much as the younger players. The AACM crowd and the Art Ensemble of Chicago represent the legacy of Chicago jazz that is being swept under the rug right now. So I want to tip my hat to them. There will be situations for Leo to play with them, but also for them to just be presented just doing what they do. We want for the musicians to play a role that’s bigger than just a cameo appearance, like on the Cosby Show, and we also want to challenge the musicians. We want them to show the best of their music, but we also want them to act, and to really take a risk.
HM: Its a new medium, and it has the potential to expose their work to new audiences. It isn’t just jazz nerds who are watching the show! A lot of people have already watched, and we hope that even more will as the season progresses.
JS: I have fantasies about people that I’d love to bring onto the show, and have all kinds of crazy ideas for what they could do. But of course we’ll have to work it out so the show is funny but still honors these great musicians.
DD: How about the other actors in the show?
HM: All the actors in the show are Chicago-based. We didn’t hold auditions for the pilot episode, but we will open up the rest of the season for auditions. We’ve gotten a bit of a buzz about the episode, and people are already asking us about working on the show, or even suggesting a character that they could play. We wanted to focus on Chicago actors as well as musicians because there is tremendous talent here and we want more people to know it.
DD: This blog is focused on the business issues of the arts as well as the art itself, and so I wanted to ask you about how you’ve built this show around the Chicago community, and, in a really profound way, you are counting on Chicago itself to make this show successful.
HM: That’s very true. We are looking for local sponsorship. We want to shoot in iconic locations and local businesses, as well as newer businesses, like our friends Carlos and Sarah of the vintage resale store Surplus of Options. So I don’t think we’ll have a problem building those partnerships, because we are thinking small and local, we’re not looking for big corporate sponsors. The thing about people from Chicago is that they fucking love Chicago! No matter where you are if you meet someone from Chicago, even if they’ve moved away they’ll tell you how much they miss it. So, we’re really banking on that. We think if we are clear about the show being rooted in Chicago it will be our best bet.
JS: Chicago will support Chicago. Also, our business model right now relies heavily on volunteered time. We have a lot of people working with us right now that are incredibly talented, but are working for free. We did ask people to invoice us so that we know what it would have cost, and we did it for about 5% of what it would have cost if we had paid people a more professional rate. We don’t want that always to be the case, of course. But right now we are launching our Indie Go Go campaign and asking for $30,000, and that’s really only about 10% of what it would cost to produce a ten-episode season of a tv show at the budget of just the first episode. So that means that even if we hit our mark at $30,000 that most everyone will be working for free. Except for the musicians.
HM: And the union actors.
JS: We couldn’t very well make a show about how you can’t make a living as a musician and then not pay the musicians!
HM: We produced this show using the SAG New Media contract…
DD: Could you tell me more about that?
HM: SAG has created a couple of new types of contracts that allow for union actors to be involved in short film and (new media) internet projects with very small budgets. And you can hire non-union actors and Taft-Hartley them. This allows non-union actors the opportunity to join SAG should they want to and if their career is at that point.
DD: What is “Taft-Hartley?”
HM: A Taft-Hartley, as it relates to the union, is basically a voucher to join. Once you have three of them, then you have to join, but up to that point you don’t have to pay dues. So these new contracts are actually a very good thing. They have helped to legitimize the show to actors.
DD: In addition to the community-minded production process you’re also doing a lot of social media promotion.
JS: Yes, and its one of the deep ironies of the show. I was a bit like Leo, who doesn’t know about Twitter, or how to blog, and now we have created a blog and I’ve created my very first twitter account. I’ve also had to launch my own website because people have been looking for me but I didn’t have a website. So in a lot of ways, its forcing me to not be Leo! As I create Leo, I destroy Leo. [Laughs]
DD: I work with a lot of people in the same situation. This is just the way that people are looking for you, so you can either create the message yourself, or be invisible. But you’re promoting something that’s really happening. The thing about social media is that it can lose impact when there’s no work actually being done in the real world.
JS: Right. We’ve also been active on some bass forums. We’ve gotten some adorable responses from bass players who say “What’s going to happen to Leo? Will he take that Mariachi gig?” and they notice that I’m actually playing the bass in the show and that I play gut strings. AllAboutJazz.com has been great as well. [From Doug: Check out this link to a comment thread started by John. A reader suggests the irony of paying a tv series to “make fun” of struggling jazz musicians. John’s response is thoughtful and illuminating.]
HM: That we have real musicians on the show is actually standing out to a lot of people.
JS: And that will grow a lot. We actually lost a portion of the footage we shot of the musicians playing in the pilot episode. We shot a full day of just music, and unfortunately couldn’t use it. There was supposed to be much more music in the pilot, but there will be in future episodes.
HM: Chaz’s character is a culture blogger, so we will also be featuring some other arts events where Leo attends a fashion show, an art opening or a dance performance. Leo may not plan to collaborate with any of these other artists, but he probably will accidentally sponge some things off them! The point is not for Leo to interact with them necessarily, but to just present the artists doing what they do in a positive way.
DD: Anything else about the show that you want to say?
JS: The whole thing has been very fun and rewarding. But, a big thing is that it has also been exhausting.
HM: Its been like another full-time job.
JS: Yes, I agree. That’s really the truth of it. There is a reason people hire a marketing person. Its not because its necessarily hard, but because its a full-time job. To do all that work and still write episodes, be creative and sort of still have a life is very challenging.
HM: We’ve had to turn down a lot of social time with friends because we either have to work on the show or we are just too tired after working our regular jobs and doing the show. We’ll spend hours and hours marketing on facebook and twitter, and then we look at each other and say “So, should we write now?” and just laugh.