Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.
This edition’s topic: Why Do We Do This?
As musicians, we’ve all asked ourselves this. It’s a pragmatic and valid
question. Let’s start with a few negatives that theoretically should stop us
before we even entertain any aspirations of playing music professionally: The
odds of actually earning a living as musicians are stacked overwhelmingly
against us. The music business in general has scaled down to roughly one third
of what it used to be only a decade ago and shows no sign of fully recuperating.
The overhead cost of performing and touring is soaring due to high fuel costs
and a troubled economy. Even devoting the time to hone your skills is a
never-ending challenge, unless you are independently wealthy or you have no
other life at all. – I’ve been in the latter category a few times and admit so
We know the odds, yet still we gather in someone’s garage or cramped
rehearsal space to forge ahead with our goals to “make it.” Every year a handful
of bands do just that. They somehow acquire decent instruments, write, rehearse
and play their collective asses off. They earn a fan base, get the attention of
one of the remaining record labels, and manage to get a deal. From the point of
view of someone who has been through that music biz gristmill several times…if
you really believe in yourself and feel you have something to offer to the music
fans of the world, never give up. There were several times in my life when I put
my guitar down in frustration and went back to “regular” jobs after yet another
failed attempt or dead end. Each time I was miserable, until I got back in the
game at least on some level. I know that someday, I will likely opt out again.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing it will all end, but it’s reality. The
average life span of a band is six years. We’ve gone eighteen with Cracker.
Nonstop. The odds are stacked against any one band making it AND especially,
against that success lasting. So why do I do this? Why do any of us do this?
I remember reading a quote from a musician long ago that went something like
this: “Anyone who says they did not start a band to get laid is lying.” Although
it may hold some truth, that’s a rather presumptuous take. I can honestly say
that I started playing the guitar and hanging out with musicians when I was
“pre-pubescent,” and it was as a direct result of what I heard on the radio. I
knew I wanted to make those sounds. I was only seven when I first picked up a
guitar. It wasn’t until I was around thirteen or fourteen that I had the first
inklings of understanding that music-carnal connection. I was playing with
eighteen and nineteen-year-old guys who made me stand in the back because they
were a little embarrassed by the “kid”. Pretty girls swarmed them after we
played, as my dad came to pick me up in the family station wagon. I remember
Dad’s knowing look as he scoped out the scene and his words of concern as we
drove away, all of it ignored as the music in my head cranked and my thoughts
drifted to ways to look a little older and cooler NEXT gig.
What it all boils down to is this. If you were meant to make music in your
life, then you will. There simply is no other choice. You will suffer all manner
of hardship, indignity, confusion, broken relationships, and frustration. This
goes for the successful and unsuccessful among us. It’s a mysterious and bumpy
elevator ride and you will hit every floor. Learn from what’s there or get out
and slink back down the stairwell with your tail between your legs. Remember
this: John Lennon was raised by his aunt Mimi who told him, “Music is a
wonderful thing but it will never make you a living.” He lived in squalor with
his mates, and ate beans on toast every day until he “made it.” He eventually
framed his aunt’s words and hung them on the wall of one of his splendid homes.
When my own father, a.k.a. “The Colonel,” tried to encourage me to join the
military for the hundredth time, my humble response paraphrased another adage,
“If I have something to fall back on, I just might.” After that Dad slowly began
supporting my musical aspirations wholeheartedly. Now, I admit, I might advise
that my own sons and nephews actually have something to fall back on. Given
those pesky odds, I know that even with sheer determination, talent, and a huge
dose of timing and luck, it won’t always work out. But, if music is not your
primary passion, forget it. And while I don’t have my youthful, hubris-stoked
statement framed on my wall, I do have it echoing in the back of my mind when I
contemplate the realities of the precarious life I have chosen. I take it one
day and one step at a time. So far so good.
Uncle Johnny, over and out.