By James H-Y
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
More often than not, being a musician has barely anything to do with music.
A lot of the time, being a musician means coaxing, cajoling, and hassling people — day after day, year after year — irritating everyone you know with social media spam and its physical equivalent: stacks upon stacks of fliers, most of which land on the floor or in the trash as fast as you hand them out.
It means lot of money spent and little earned, and boxes of your LPs and “merch” gathering dust in a basement, closet, or attic.
It means months of messaging back and forth with various unreliable and self-absorbed people who seem incapable of answering the simplest of questions, wondering if your show is even going to happen, worrying that you requested time off from work for nothing.
And if the show does happen, it’s generally just an evening in a dank, dark room, waiting your turn to play for 20 minutes in front of 20 other musicians who have little to offer each other beyond a halfhearted “Good set, man.”
For the most part, being a musician means doubting every choice you’ve ever made, wondering (or worse: knowing) why you’re working a shitty job and living in a hellhole. You spend a lot of time wondering if your music is worth the trouble.
Ultimately, like a drug addict who devotes more time to getting drugs than to actually doing drugs, you squander much more of your existence on all the rigmarole than on actually playing music.
For most musicians, most of the time, that is what it really means to be a musician.
Yes, this includes me. No, I’m not bitter. I don’t regret devoting prime years of my life to bands that didn’t get very far. If you love playing – and I do – then those hours spent hunched over a guitar and a notebook and bashing it out in a dingy practice room are some of the best times.
If your heart’s in it, the music is its own reward.
If there’s anything I regret, it’s the time I’ve spent in the audience.
From the basements to the clubs, most shows go down pretty much the same way.
People mill around awkwardly, sublimating their anxiety with their phones or cheap beer while the bands arrange their gear onstage at a leisurely pace. You might run into somebody you know and try your best to engage them in a conversation. These halting chats tend to abruptly terminate when you or the other person spot someone more familiar, useful, or impressive.
Everyone is relieved when the band starts.
Most bands vie for acceptance more than anything else, so they avoid risks of any kind. They carefully conform to the musical and aesthetic norms of whatever narrow niche they are trying to fit. Their performances are smooth, contained, and purposefully devoid of spontaneity. Bands that aren’t metal or hardcore play through sensible amps at sensible volumes; bands that are metal or hardcore play through insensible amps at insensible volumes. The guitarists check their tuning pedals compulsively, and the audience checks their phones. The band or the crowd might move around or strike poses to show how excited they are.
Just about every band at every show says the exact same things between songs, with only a few details changed. It’s like a Mad Lib.
“How are you guys doing? Can you hear everything okay? We’d like to thank [promoter] for setting up the show. We’re so stoked to be playing with [other bands]. This next song’s about [unnecessarily long explanation] [possibly some reductive social commentary]. We have stuff for sale in the back.”
It’s about as meaningful as an arena-rock act yelling, “Hello, [insert town here]!”
When the band utters its final “thank you” and exits the stage, there is rarely anything to take away from their set.
Maybe they’re good musicians, maybe they were fun to watch, maybe they had some cool riffs, but very rarely do they make me want to come back for more.
Usually, when the set’s over, I just don’t feel anything — and, as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else in the crowd.
The set wasn’t good for anything but a little bit of entertainment. It was a reason to get out of the house for a couple of hours. Maybe it was a way to see a couple of pals or a way to talk to some cool people before they spotted someone more interesting. Maybe it was fodder for an Instagram story.
The music halts and the audience members go back to scrolling their phones, sipping their beers, trying not to feel (or, more importantly, look) too awkward, waiting for something or someone to give them a reason to get out of their own heads.
There are standouts, though.
Once in a while, you stumble upon a band that has substance, vision, and well-crafted songs performed with conviction, and the crowd responds accordingly, feeding off the music and filling the room with a transcendent current — a kind of spiritual voltage that you remember for years or decades to come.
If you’re a fortunate and committed show-goer, you might see two or three shows like this a year.
The ability to create something that resonates on that level is a rare gift. It’s not something that can be affected, and it has little relationship to practice or skill.
Practice improves performance, but practice doesn’t instill the courage to be open-hearted.
Courage — not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome one’s fears — is something very few people have, in music or anything else.
More than anything else, it’s courage that separates the few who burn bright from the masses who fail to make a mark.
When someone brings an undaunted spirit to the stage and it radiates out into the crowd, there’s a chance that their performance will override the many concerns piled up in the back of our minds.
Those are the shows we recall in awe.
Those are the artists whose efforts make us feel that our own lives mean more.
Those are the exceptions.
For every one band that hits you square in your chest, hundreds more are hard to remember.
There’s always a slew of bands, more than anybody can keep track of, and anyone with more than a passing interest in subterranean music is bombarded by them daily. At least ninety-five percent of the bands seeking our attention are simply doing things that have been done many times before — often by more talented and interesting people.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to sift through all the mimics who can’t create a memorable song or muster up more passion than a paper bag. Trust me, for I have sifted. In one ear, out the other, down the drain, gone forever.
People parse the set times before a show and arrive just in time for the one band they know, then leave the venue the moment that band finishes up. Reunion shows pack the house, yet talented current bands struggle to gain a modest following.
We’d rather stick with something tried and true than slog through the overwhelming excess of upstart bands, persistent as water from a busted faucet — so even the good ones, the true ones, the ones who have something that we could really use in our lives, are drowned out, too.
Music is like so many other things: the more of it we have, the less valuable it is to us.
The quantity of available music steadily grows, but the number of listeners does not; and the promoters, labels, and others who could help you push through get spread thinner and thinner, chronically overworked and underpaid (if they’re paid at all), to the point that many are forced to scale back, or get out of the game altogether, to prevent themselves from going under financially, or psychologically.
As a listener, can you imagine giving even a cursory listen to half the bands that your friends want you to “support,” whose names you see plastered around town, or that pop up on your social media?
What is music worth when you can reach into your pocket and play damn-near every single piece of music ever recorded?
What is music worth when you can record and release an album without getting out of bed?
I spent 20 years looking for my elusive place, subjecting myself to the dispiriting tedium outlined above.
I endured frustration and humiliation that felt unbearable at times. I cried. I nearly pulled my hair out. I came close to pawning my guitars and walking away.
I’m glad I didn’t.
I can probably count all of my “true fans” on my fingers and toes, but that’s OK, because I made those fans by playing the music I wanted to play, exactly how I wanted to play it, whether anybody else appreciated it or not.
“A rock and roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin. You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat.” — Paul Westerberg
When I was first starting out, I thought underground music was supposed to be a refuge from, and antidote to, society’s banality and superficiality. I thought we were signing up to enlist in a little tribe of adventurous weirdos and conscientious rejectors — a tribe in which we could unabashedly, unapologetically be ourselves, freed from the go-along-to-get-along lifestyle.
Punk and indie arose as reactions against the cold-hearted slickness of mainstream entertainment and the values (or lack thereof) it embodied.
But, truth be told, underground artists — the ones who have nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up — are often just as canned and contrived as the acts you’d pay $150 to watch on a Jumbotron. And when that’s the case, they’re squandering their freedom.
I’ve seen a lot of bands try to convince us that they don’t care. I’d pay a lot to see a band that actually doesn’t. Please, please, please be that band!
Don’t worry too much. Play some wrong notes, say something that might piss somebody off, break something. Be yourself. Engage with the crowd like a human being, not a machine. Don’t constantly kill the momentum of your performance just to make sure you’re not slightly out of tune. Don’t feel obligated to provide polite banter nobody finds interesting. Say what you mean. Act how you feel.
As for the audience: Dance your heart out, or don’t, if you don’t want to. Cheer wildly. Boo callously. Shower the band with love, or throw your beers at them. Be a goofball or be a wallflower, if that’s how you’re feeling that day.
Be as real as you want the bands to be with you.
Don’t worry about looking the part, wearing the right clothes, affecting the right attitude, reciting the right buzzwords. Just let go and enjoy the music the way you want to — just like the best musicians do.
Bob Dylan is an abstruse contrarian smart-ass and he is also probably the most important and influential songwriter in the history of rock and roll. Meanwhile, millions of songwriters with pleasant voices, logical lyrics, and likable personas have made no impact whatsoever.
The Replacements were a gang of alcoholic malcontents hell-bent on irritating and alienating everyone in their path and they are adored by generations of fans and ripped off by generations of bands. Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of bands bend over backwards to fit in and be liked, and they have nothing to show for it.
The artists who stick with us, who mean the most to us, are the ones who aren’t afraid to show us their truest selves, no matter the consequences.
It is better to be awful than mediocre, better to be out of tune than to be boring, better to leave an audience uncomfortable than unmoved.
So fucking go for it. Make a record you’d be excited to own. Put on a show you’d want to see. Try your best to get past your fear and tell us the truth.
Over the years I spent playing in bands, helping out my promoter friends, and working at a nationally known venue, I lost count of how many musicians asked me the same question: Why do a few bands get the recognition they crave while most are destined to be forgotten?
It’s a question I’m sure every musician has struggled with at some point, and one I never knew how to answer.
You could work your ass off non-stop and never find yourself in the right place at the right time, or you could catch a lucky break. You might enjoy a slow and steady rise in popularity, or you might catch 15 minutes in the limelight and then recede back into the shadows.
I’ve seen musicians from the most underground scenes grow bitter, and I’ve watched world-famous acts throw fits. I’ve known brilliant artists who never got themselves out there because they were insecure or undisciplined. I’ve seen disingenuous sleazebags make a name for themselves because they were willing to do whatever it takes.
And, here and there, I meet people who are indeed whole, happily doing what they want, playing music they believe in, and getting what they give: Their honesty and openness brings out the audience’s honesty and openness. Maybe, through a mysterious mix of willpower, heart, and luck, they’ve found success of some kind, but whether they’ve reached a few people or many, the connections they’ve made come from a pure place.
Those connections are what make the insane and inane ups and downs of the musician’s life worthwhile.
It took me 20 years, but I finally found the answer to the above-mentioned question. The answer, my friend, is that it’s the wrong question.
Forget about the world.
Then forget about the scene.
What’s it all about for you?
Are you making music because you feel inspired, driven to express and communicate thoughts that well up from a subconscious current, and feelings so honest they’re frightening?
Or are you after attention, accolades, and social currency? (If so, quit while you’re ahead. Few things in this world are worse for a fragile ego than being a musician.)
When it’s all said and done, what do you want to feel when you look back on your music?
What legacy do you want to leave for yourself?
In this illogical business, those are the only things you really have any control over.
Don’t wait for that control, for that freedom, to come to you.
It’s there for you already — if you will dare.