Tales Of A Hitless Wonder: A Band, A Van & 20 Years In Music’s Minor League

Brick-and-mortarI just finished reading Joe Oestereich’s “Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll” and I’m not sure what to think about it. It covers 20 plus years in the life of Watershed, a band from Columbus, Ohio with which I was previously unfamiliar, and though it ends a year or two ago it exists in a world where the Web provides email and occasional bits of information but is otherwise absent from the narrative. Really, even though they started getting serious about their band towards the end of the 80’s, it felt pretty much like the 80’s the whole way through.

Given that I know a lot of musicians in their 40’s and 50’s who are finding ways to continue playing music for live audiences, whether as an avocation or vocation, I really should have been more sympathetic to Hitless Wonder.  Joe Oestreich’s tale of a bunch of underdogs who had a deal with Epic, then got dropped, kept thinking they were close to other deals without getting them and kept hitting the road when others would stop is a tale of a band that won’t quit cause they love what they do.

Watershed Play New Single “Little Mistakes” At Album/Book Release Party

The basic concept is that Watershed is back on tour, against the wishes of at least one spouse, and as Joe and fellow performers, including the other cofounder Colin Gawel, go from town to town he remembers earlier trips to these places and relates the story of the band from teenage beginning to a recent tour.

The narrative shifts from the current tour (current in the frame of the memoir) to stories about the past. But often the tales of the tour are also explained with stories from the past. Though it’s easy to sort them out when the focus is on Epic at the peak of commercial interest in the band, since that period contrasts so strongly with the present, it all got a bit muddled for me when they shifted from playing a local joint in the present to playing a local joint in the past.

Joe, who I’ll call Joe cause I do feel I got to know him, also recreates dialogue as if it was yesterday. So there’s a fictional element to the book that didn’t really strike me till a little over 2/3’s of the way through. Since I feel that at 287 pages he should have cut at least 90, I might not have realized that otherwise obvious fact which kind of undermines it for me.

But most people would probably appreciate the dialogue, it helps carry the story along and seems pretty believable. And it’s gottten great reviews.  In fact, if you really want to get a sense of the book, their Kickstarter campaign for their recent tour is a great place to go. It communicates some of the spirit of Watershed that I got from Hitless Wonder.

To some degree I was hoping that the music industry stories would be something I could share that might give some insight into making it as a band. Other than not doing showcases for A&R’s when you’ve just had surgery on your vocal cords a few weeks earlier, I got nothing for you on that end.  If you’ve read much about the rock game or have friends who’ve toured in a van, gotten signed, had problems with labels and moved on, then you’ve heard all these stories.

While the book is getting lots of good reviews and giving the band a broader profile in the media, for example the NPR piece that alerted me to the book, there are some odd gaps in their social media marketing that, picky f*ck that I am, I’m now going to discuss.

The book has given the band a new profile but it came out June 5th as did their new album Brick & Mortar.  They started their most recent tour June 7th and the NPR piece didn’t happen till July 1st. Other media I’m finding happened towards the end of the tour. It would have been nice to have things in place before the tour and get some kind of buildup so that people interested in the book could check them out but, based on Hitless Wonder, that’s not the Watershed way. They just do things and hope for the best and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t.

The physical book itself offered a promo opp. The last page has Joe’s bio and it includes a link to his site. The inside back cover has a link to a special section on the band’s website which is printed in white type on orange and I originally thought it was an ad for something else until I looked closely at the book for such features. The page it leads you to is still “Under Construction” with a Bruce Springsteen video off YouTube.

The sidebar links to “Weblogs” take you to the sites of Colin Gawel and Joe Oestreich where they’ve been posting about all the stuff you’d expect to find back on the special section on the band’s site. As anybody who’s paid serious attention to what happens on the Web knows, every barrier to what someone’s looking for, every additional link to another site, everything that’s not what the viewer is expecting loses people at every turn. But maybe that’s the Watershed way as manifest on the web.

There is another link to a Facebook page for Joe Peppercorn which reads as “Content Not Found” if you’re not logged into Facebook. I’m thinking that’s a privacy setting cause when you log in you do see this individual’s page.  But there are no references to Watershed or anything related to the band. Joe Peppercorn is listed as a member of the band on Wikipedia but this could be another Joe Peppercorn for all I know.

Watershed also has a Twitter account where they seem to be employing the “follow lots of people in hopes they follow back approach” based on the numbers. I could go on but you get the idea.

I’m tempted to say that the haphazard web marketing indicates something of why they didn’t make it but I know I can’t really say that. The 80’s vibe of a book written about the 90’s and Oughts (or whatever that decade was called) is a reminder that for older bands you can’t really gauge much about their following from what’s happening with social media. Ginger Wildheart’s wildly successful Pledge Music campaign could not have been predicted based on his social media presence. That’s rarely true for younger acts but they approach things so differently it’s really hard to compare.

But maybe I’m missing the point entirely. These guys did their best to make great music and, in the end, they’re convinced they did and so are a lot of other people. And just like a lot of great bands, they didn’t do well with major labels but that’s no indicator of their work. I was surprised that they couldn’t build a stronger following outside of Columbus, Ohio and that seemed to be a fact that weighed on them as it came up in Hitless Wonder more than once.

That inability to find a fanbase beyond their hometown is why they’re also not part of the New Musical Middle Class or, for that matter, the Old Musical Middle Class. Lots of bands turned brief appearances on major labels into careers but, then again, Hitless Wonder never had a hit.

But they’re what some people say it’s all about, musicians who love music, love playing together and love hitting the road. And if that’s your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy reading Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll.

More: Brick & Mortar

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) maintains a business writing hub at Flux Research and blogs at Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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1 Comment

  1. They aren’t a bad band, but I see nothing that separates them from about 10,000 other bands out there. They lack something unique, and seem fairly generic to me.

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